Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Darwinian Lessons from the Earthquake in Japan

There are at least two Darwinian lessons from the earthquake in Japan.

The first lesson is that the universe is not moral. There is no good reason to believe that the victims of earthquakes are being punished for their bad conduct. We can try to explain how earthquakes happen. But we can never explain why they happen. Because earthquakes don't have purposes. They don't arise from the intentional action of a mind. And they certainly don't arise as a manifestation of a cosmic moral law. The natural universe does not care about us or for us.

Of course, those who believe in God as the providential Creator of the universe might believe that everything in the universe--including earthquakes--shows God's cosmic moral law at work. But this belief requires a faith in revelation that goes beyond ordinary natural experience.

Many of my critics have argued that Darwinian natural right cannot support human morality, because moral order requires a cosmic teleology so that human morality can be judged by its conformity to a cosmic moral law. But my response to this is to point out that a cosmic teleology requires belief in a cosmic God, or cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason that manifests cosmic purposefulness. Such a belief cannot be sustained by natural human experience--by experience with earthquakes and other natural disasters that show that the natural world is not guided by any kind of moral teleology.

The second lesson from the earthquake in Japan is that human morality can be rooted in human biology without the support of a moral cosmology. The human suffering in Japan has aroused sympathy from human beings around the world, which will lead us to want to help in the relief of that suffering. The universe does not care about what happens to us. But we care about what happens to us. Even without a cosmic teleology, we can see how moral order manifests the immanent teleology of human nature that inclines human beings to care about human welfare. This moral teleology is rooted not in a cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason, but in human nature, human culture, and human judgments.

Contrary to the Platonic and Kantian rationalists, this human morality is not a dictate of pure reason, because reason without desire or emotion does not move us to action. If we care about human suffering in Japan, it is not because of our reasoning from a priori principles but because of our moral sentiments as expressions of our fellow-feeling for other human beings. As Hume observed, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."

Of course, our moral sentiments are not absolutely indiscriminate or impartial. Those of us who are far away from Japan and who have no family or friends there will support the relief efforts--perhaps by contributing a little money--but we won't make great sacrifices. Our moral sentiments are not selfless but self-centered. We are naturally social animals. But that natural sociality shows a structure in which we care more for those attached to us--our family members, our friends, our fellow citizens--than we do for distant strangers. We can extend our sympathy to wider and wider circles of humanity--and even out to nonhuman animals--but typically our sympathy for those near the center of the circle will be stronger than for those on the edge of the circle. Our natural morality--the morality of our evolved human nature--does not incline us to universal love (like that taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount).

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

Even the teleologists always seem to forget about the Book of Job. Even if you believe in the Abrahamic God, you cannot say that there was a reason for the earthquake and tsunami. That is the lesson of Job.