Monday, February 07, 2011

The Moral Realism of Darwin, Lincoln, and Obama

February 12th will be the anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809.

Two years ago was the bicentennial celebration of their births. Only a few weeks after his inauguration as President, Barack Obama contributed to this celebration by delivering a speech to the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield, Illinois. In the central paragraph of his speech, he recognized the link between Lincoln and Darwin:

Only a union could speed our expansion and connect our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, and so, even in the midst of civil war, he built one. he fueled new enterprises with a national currency, spurred innovation, and ignited America's imagination with a national academy of sciences, believing we must, as he put it, add "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery . . . of new and useful things." And on this day, that is also the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, let us renew that commitment to science and innovation once more.

Here Obama quotes from Lincoln's "Lecture on Discovery and Inventions," which is the clearest expression of Lincoln's Darwinian view of human evolution and technology. In a previous post, I have commented on Obama's rhetorical debt to Lincoln and his acceptance of Darwin's science.

Beginning in the 1980s, I have written about the intellectual links between Lincoln and Darwin in various articles and books--for example, in the chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right. But I have learned a lot from some of the recent scholarship related to the Lincoln/Darwin bicentennial. Three books are especially good: Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, and James Lander, Lincoln & Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion. Some of my previous posts on some of this scholarship can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

I see at least six points of similarity between Darwin and Lincoln. (1) Both saw the universe as governed by natural laws, which included the natural laws for the evolution of life. (2) Both were accused of denying the Biblical doctrine of Creation. (3) Both spoke of God as First Cause. (4) Both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching, even as they also appealed to a natural moral sense independent of Biblical religion. (5) Both abhorred slavery as immoral. (6) Both were moral realists.

As I have indicated in previous posts, there is debate about each of these points. But I find that what is most difficult for many people to understand is the last point--their moral realism. Previously, I have taken up this point in my response to Desmond and Moore in my post "Did Darwin Naturalize Genocide?--Or Does Right Make Might?" My reading of Lander's book has stirred me to think more about this.

Here's how I interpret the moral realism of Lincoln and Darwin. Because they see moral and political order as rooted in evolved human nature, they see moral progress as both possible and imperfect. Moral progress is always possible, because human beings can learn how to extend social cooperation and sympathetic concern to ever wider circles of humanity. But moral progress is always imperfect, because human beings will always face tragic conflicts of interest that arise from their complex nature as animals who are both selfish and social, both competitive and cooperative. Consequently, a world of perpetual peace and universal cooperation is impossible. Moral and political history often coincides with military history.

Lincoln showed his moral realism in his handling of the slavery issue. Lincoln always recognized the immorality of slavery, and therefore he disagreed with the proslavery extremists (like John C. Calhoun) who defended slavery as a "positive good." But Lincoln also recognized the imprudence in trying to immediately abolish slavery, and therefore he disagreed with the abolitionist extremists like William Lloyd Garrison who were willing to overturn the Constitutional compromises with slavery.

Lincoln looked for a practical compromise that would allow for the gradual extinction of slavery. He hoped that slaveholders could be compensated for liberating their slaves, while the freed slaves would move to a colony in Africa. He thought this would strike a balance between self-interest and moral concern. To many people today, his colonization plan looks like evidence of racist bigotry. But for Lincoln, this arose from a tough-minded recognition that racial prejudice would make it hard for blacks and whites to live together peacefully. If the freed slaves remained in America, Lincoln predicted, there would be at least 100 years of racial conflict before racial equality could be achieved. For example, Lincoln saw the natural disgust with racial intermarriage as a sign of the natural human disposition to in-group/out-group conflict.

When the proslavery extremists in the American South refused Lincoln's offers of practical compromise and then launched a war of secession, Lincoln was forced to wage war to save the Union as a condition for the ultimate extinction of slavery. Here, again, we see his moral realism. (Let's remember that this year is the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, which will stir new debate about the decisions that led to the war, by far the bloodiest war in American history and one of the bloodiest wars in all of human history.)

We hope to settle moral conflict through persuasion. But when persuasion fails, we must sometimes appeal to force of arms to settle the disagreement. As Pascal observed, we look for the union of force and justice, so that what is just must be strong, or what is strong must be just.

Many American religious believers thought that the Bible should settle such moral disagreements. But as Lincoln noted, the Bible was unclear about the morality of slavery. And so in the Civil War, "both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." This theological dispute was resolved by the military victory of the North.

We see this same moral realism in Darwin's thought. Darwin believed that one crucial element in the evolution of morality was group selection through tribal warfare, because those tribal groups with the moral virtues of courage and patriotism would tend to prevail in war against those groups whose members lacked those virtues. In The Descent of Man (Penguin ed.), he writes:

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. . . . Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world. (155)

This competition in war continues today. "At the present day civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect" (153). And we can expect this to continue into the future. "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world" (183).

This last passage is often quoted by Darwin's critics--people like Richard Weikart and Gertrude Himmelfarb--to support their claim that Darwin promoted the militaristic Social Darwinism that led to Adolf Hitler.

But the intellectual shallowness of people like Weikart and Himmelfarb make it impossible for them to think through the complexity of Darwinian moral realism. We can recognize the evil of Hitler's Nazism, while still recognizing the historical truth that "civilized races" have prevailed in war with "savage races," because the advantages of "civilized" social organization create military superiority. Desmond and Moore show a similar shallowness when they criticize Darwin for his "rationalizing the darker side of tribal conflicts" or "biologizing of genocide."

In his Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin described the revulsion he felt towards the atrocities committed by the European races against the native people of South America, Tasmania, and New Zealand. He lamented: "Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal." Describing how "all the Indians are butchered" by the Europeans in Argentina, he observed that those "a little superior in civilization" are also superior in military power, although "inferior in every moral virtue."

And yet while feeling sympathy for the suffering of the "savage races," Darwin also recognized the barbarism in the life of "a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practises infanticide without remorse, treats his wives life slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions" (Descent, 689).

Darwin looked forward to the moral progress that would come with the extension of moral sympathy to all of humanity:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would teach each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and ages.
(Descent, 147)

But Darwin suggests that this humanitarian sympathy will generally be weaker than the love for one's own--for one's own family, friends, and fellow citizens. Consequently, there will always be tragic conflicts between human groups, and when those conflicts become severe, human beings will go to war.

A similar moral realism was expressed by President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in 2009. Obama acknowledged the awkwardness in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while acting as Commander-in-Chief in two major wars. He stated his admiration for the pacifist morality of Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. But he recognized that their pacifist morality was unrealistic. He explained: "As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism--it is a recognition of history: the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

Obama defended the tradition of "just war," the moral tradition that tries to combine justice and force by specifying the moral criteria for the justice of going to war and the just conduct of war. Even if one disagrees--as I do--with Obama's claim that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just, one can agree with the moral realism of the just war tradition.

Obama saw the tragic character of war:

"So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another--that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such."

"So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths--that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly."

Moral progress is possible in matters of war to the extent that we can enforce standards of just war, but even just war manifests the moral tragedy of the human condition, a tragedy rooted in our evolved human nature.

Of course, Obama's election as President is another example of moral progress. Just as Lincoln predicted, it took America over 100 years of racial conflict before the country could begin moving towards racial equality. The moral progress manifest in Obama's election is especially dramatic because of Obama being the child of a racially mixed couple.

Not long ago, Obama joked that his family dog was a "mongrel" just like him! This seems to be part of a general social change in which racial intermarriage does not provoke as much disgust as it once did. There is no reason to believe that racial conflict will ever be totally abolished. But, at least, we can see this as another example of how moral progress is possible, even if imperfect.


Anonymous said...

Your essay is very good, but I do get confused when I try to fuse Darwinism and morality.

I kind of understand Darwinism, but morality is a whole different thing. From my Darwinian perspective, morality would be any kind of behavior that increases the fitness of you, your kin or your tribe (i.e., kin or group selection). Any kind of altruistic behavior that doesn't increase fitness is doomed to extinction.

When I was first introduced to this site, as a reluctant atheist and Darwinist, my initial reaction was to dismiss your assertion of innate morality, believing that Darwinism was incompatible with the concept of morality. But I now believe that our sense of morality (as you assert) is indeed deeply rooted in our genes, but (now the bad news) that morality is also very specifically applied, with great discrimination and contradiction.

Man is very ethnocentric by nature, and his natural sense of morality is not as "moral" as he/she would like to believe. In fact, we are particularly good at deceiving ourself about our sense of virtue (most notably liberals) but would be better off if we (as Clint Eastwood might say) admitted our limitations.

We live in an immensely prosperous and peaceful time. The climate has been good for crops, food is generally available for most people, disease has been restrained to a great degree and technology has made out lives much easier. When all of these things disappear, when the lights go out, the trucks stop hauling, food becomes scarce, and our institutions fail, crime and anarchy run rampant, then let's talk about morality.

TeeJaw said...

Another book on Lincoln and Darwin is “Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin,” by David Contosta

Anonymous said...

Well, to count interracial marriage as a form of "moral progress" is biologically absurd and philosophically a progressist teleologism. Biologically is a form a "lesser evil": "it's better to suffer the loss of parental kinship associated with that extreme kind of out-group parenting, than to not reproduce at all". Philosophically is an absurd teleologism: interracial marriage would drive us to "racial equality" (which is also a false believing: historically it turns societies into systems of castes -Mexico, Brazil-) which is a moral good "a priori", no one knows why, because it diminishes diversity and, as a consequence, the resilience of the human species as a whole. Racial equality is, by the way, impossible: if there are real biological races, there can't be equality. If there's real equality, then differences are so negligent than it has no sense to talk about races (=sub-species).

"Racial equality" is a radical form of Egalitarianism and thus an extreme type of Leftism. Nowadays it is not regarded like that only because its wide acceptance, very much in the same way that social ortodoxy in Russia in 1950 didn't consider the social organization of Soviet Russia especially "extreme".

As a side note: today interracial marriage keeps producing the same disgust as ever, but that disgust gets repressed stronger than never in History, that's all.

Larry Arnhart said...


So you think "today interracial marriage keeps producing the same disgust as ever"?

I have one answer for you--Halle Berry!

Empedocles said...

You might be interested in a book called "Nature to Norm: An Essay in the Metaphysics of Morals" by John Post that uses Millikan style Darwinian teleology to argue for moral realism.

Empedocles said...

I do have a question for you. You mention that those groups that have patriotism will continue to exist because they will be more likely to cooperate to fight for their survival. But isn't patriotism for ones race called "racism"? Is racism an evolutionary strategy to keep your race in existence? So is there good patriotism and bad patriotism? If so, this would have to be based on something beyond the view of patriotism as an evolutionary strategy; are there moral and immoral evolutionary strategies? But what standard could be used to judge them so? Wouldn't we have to appeal to something abstract and universal, and, I guess, a priori and beyond Darwinian analysis?

Larry Arnhart said...


Darwin's evolutionary science of morality predicts--accurately, I think--that racially mixed societies will face tragic moral conflicts, because of the natural disposition of people to favor their race over others. (The same can be said for religious differences or any differences that are salient for group identity.)

We can overcome racism only to the extent that we can extend our fellow-feeling to ever wider groups and discover that the extended order of social cooperation is advantageous for us. Economists recognize this as "the gains from trade." Robert Wright--in NONZERO--wrote an entire history of humanity as the history of extending nonzero-sum cooperation.

Lincoln provides a good statement of this problem in his first debate with Douglas. He indicates that he does not think perfect "political and social equality between the white and black races" is achievable anytime soon. That's why he recommended colonization of the freed blacks, so that they could establish their own black republics.

Lincoln added: "inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position."

That is to say, if there must be a "superior position" for one race over another, because racial prejudice makes perfect equality impossible, then all of us would prefer that our race have the "superior position."

Lincoln predicted that if racial equality were achieved in America, it would take at least a 100 years, and even then, it would not be perfectly achieved.

Darwinian science confirms this, which we should know by common-sense experience, that we are by nature both selfish and social animals, and our sociality is constrained by xenophobic attachments to our own groups.

What do you have in mind when you refer to "something abstract and universal . . . a priori and beyond Darwinian analysis"?

If you're referring to some kind of Immanuel Kant/Peter Singer impartial concern for the interests of all sentient creatures, then I'm skeptical that this can work.

After all, even the most devout Christians have never been able to live by the universal love teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, as indicated by the bloody warfare depicted in the book of Revelation.

But, still, we can see some amazing moral progress--particularly, in liberal democratic societies--towards extended social cooperation based on tolerance, sympathy, and reciprocity.

Empedocles said...

I guess what I have in mind is this. You say that "the extended order of social cooperation is advantageous for us." I assume you mean that it is advantageous in a Darwinian sense, as in increasing probability of passing on ones genes. You also say that patriotism is good in a Darwinian sense because it increases the chances of surviving to pass on ones genes. So isn't the conclusion then that racism is good because it increases the chances of continuing the existence of ones racial genetic material? If not, then "good" means something other than is a effective Darwinian strategy for passing on ones genes. But this goes against your project to use Darwinism to promote a form of moral realism. "Good" would mean something like Kantian universalism, or maybe utilitarian impartiality and the like; in other words, theories of moral realism that have nothing to do with Darwinism, or are even anti-Darwinist if they forbid partiality in favor of those sharing genetic character, even if this partiality ("patriotism") is a good evolutionary survival strategy.

Larry Arnhart said...


A Darwinian view of morality does not require genetic reductionism, as you suggest.

The tradition of Darwinian ethics--from Darwin and Westermarck to E. O. Wilson and Jon Haidt--supports a view of ethics as rooted in a complex combination of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment. The ultimate standard of the human good is what promotes human flourishing or welfare.

The human capacities for moral experience--social instincts, language, cultural learning, intellectual judgment--must ultimately have been compatible with survival and reproduction in evolutionary history. But that does not mean that all of our moral concerns must be reducible to passing on our genes.

Our moral life is organized around the 20 natural desires that constitute human nature. Those natural desires are not directly reducible to genetic interests.

"Kantian universalism, or maybe utilitarian impartiality" doesn't work, because if we were utterly impartial, we wouldn't have any moral emotions to motivate us to care about anyone or anything. The recent talk among Kantian philosophers about the need for "impure ethics" concedes this point.