If you are a Platonist, yes. If you are not a Platonist, no.
Most Platonists today are disappointed Platonists--people with Platonic expectations that are unfulfilled, because they accept Darwinian evolution as true, and therefore since all living forms have evolved, they cannot be eternal as conforming to Plato's intelligible realm of eternal Ideas. Moreover, if everything has evolved, this must include moral and political order, and thus there is no eternally unchanging Idea of the Good by which we can see absolute standards of right and wrong. Consequently, there are no moral absolutes, and we must accept moral relativism or nihilism. Darwinism is "true but deadly" (as Nietzsche said). And thus these disappointed Platonists become nihilists.
But if you do not have Platonic expectations, you will not be disappointed by the Darwinian conclusion that everything has evolved, and therefore human beings have evolved. Without the Platonic assumption that morality must be grounded in a moral cosmology, you will be satisfied with a Darwinian explanation of morality as grounded in a moral anthropology. Even if morality has no eternal grounding in a cosmic God, a cosmic Nature, or a cosmic Reason, human morality can still have an evolutionary grounding in human nature, human culture, and human judgment. And thus in contrast to the disappointed Platonists, the satisfied Darwinians are not nihilists.
That's my response to Steven Forde's claim that "Darwinism is nihilism." Forde (a political theorist at the University of North Texas) argues for that claim in his paper on "Darwin and Political Theory" for the 2013 conference of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago. He and I will be on the same panel, where my paper is on "Nietzsche's Darwinian Liberalism." Both of our papers can be found on the website of the MPSA.
In considering the implications of Darwinian science for political theory, Forde says that his primary concern is how to answer Glaucon's question in Plato's Republic--Why should I be moral? If I can cheat successfully--serving my own selfish interests while exploiting others, but always appearing to be perfectly just--why shouldn't I? Can Socrates give me any reason for a moral obligation not to cheat?
Forde agrees that "evolution is the truth," that human beings have evolved from simpler forms of life, and that human morality is a product of human evolutionary history. Therefore, "morality is hard wired into us" (1). The good news is that this shows that we will remain moral for as long as our evolved human nature endures. But the bad news, he worries, is that "this morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought," because "it is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage." Forde says this is the conclusion that he has "dreaded" during the years that he avoided the study of Darwinian science, because what this means is that Darwinism dictates nihilism, and if Darwinism is true, as it surely is, then we must accept the truth of nihilism.
Darwinism gives no good answer to Glaucon's question, Forde insists, and therefore, we might infer, Glaucon might as well put on the ring of Gyges and live a vicious human life, and even become a tyrant, while appearing to be good. Forde is silent about whether Plato or Plato's Socrates gives a convincing answer to Glaucon's question, which leaves us with the suspicion that Forde believes there is no convincing answer at all, and so we are left with the nihilism as confirmed by Darwinism that he had always "dreaded."
Of course, Socrates in the Republic does answer Glaucon's question, but Forde's silence suggests that he does not believe that Socrates' answer is convincing. Socrates teaches us that to know what is truly good, we must transcend the visible realm of Becoming in ascending to the invisible realm of Being, and finally ascending to the Idea of the Good. But it's not clear that this answer is fully convincing or satisfying. Socrates concludes the Republic with the myth of Er--a mythic story about eternal rewards and punishment in the afterlife. The problem with this myth is that it's only a myth, and so it's not clear why we should believe it. But the earlier answer--the Idea of the Good--is so incomprehensible that it's not clear why we should believe it either.
So what kind of "grounding" for morality is Forde (or Glaucon) seeking? Forde refers repeatedly to the "true or normative sense" of morality (7, 12, 14, 22, 31-32). But he never defines, explains, or defends this "true or normative sense" of morality. Although he does not explicitly say so, Forde's references to Plato's Republic suggest that he assumes that Plato was right to think that the "true or normative sense" of morality required a transcendent, cosmic standard--the Idea of the Good. But now that Darwinian science has refuted that belief in eternal Ideas in a divinely designed cosmos, Forde suggests, we must conclude that morality in the "true or normative sense" does not exist, and therefore the nihilists are right in their claim that morality rests on . . . nothing. That's how the disappointed Platonist becomes a nihilist.
Identifying me (along with Hans Jonas and Leon Kass) as a Darwinian "teleologist," Forde identifies my "initial philosophic premise, that what is good for an organic being is 'good' for it in a normative sense." Forde insists that this won't work:
"As we saw earlier, he applies this principle not only to human beings, but to animals. Is it morally good then, and not simply adaptive, for the queen bee to kill her sisters, and the newly-dominant male lion to kill all the offspring of his predecessor? Arnhart is correct to say that biology itself incorporates teleological thinking by speaking of the 'purpose' or 'function' of an eye or heart. But this kind of 'teleology' is not what is meant when we speak philosophically of teleology. One is normative, while the other is not. We might speak scientifically of ways of life that are more successful in terms of survival--serving the Darwinian telos--or even happier, but can we say that these are normatively better? A further argument, and a different kind of argument, would be required than the one Arnhart gives us, I believe, to establish this" (31).Forde's reference to queen bees killing their sisters is mistaken. What he meant to say is that queen bees can kill their fertile daughters to keep them from competing with her in reproduction. Here Forde is referring to a passage in Darwin's Descent of Man where Darwin says that if some nonhuman species had a moral sense, it would not necessarily be the same moral sense as ours, because it would be adapted to the conditions of their life, which might be quite different from the conditions of human life. In her review of Darwin's book, Frances Cobbe was shocked by this, because it denied the Platonic and Kantian idea that morality is grounded in a cosmic order of rational imperatives that are the same for all rational beings in the universe, and therefore a rational bee would have the same morality as a rational human being. To reject this moral cosmology, Cobbe insisted, is to reject all morality and to promote moral relativism or nihilism. Clearly, Forde agrees with her.
But why does one have to take for granted the Platonic or Kantian assumption that morality cannot have a true grounding if it is not grounded in a moral cosmology? Why can't morality be grounded in moral anthropology--in the human sources of moral order, in human nature, human culture, and human judgment? This might not give us categorical imperatives, but it can give us hypothetical imperatives: if you wish to live a flourishing, happy human life, then some ways of life are better suited for this than others. For Forde the appeal to human happiness or flourishing has no "normativity," because it is not woven into the fabric of the cosmos, because while it might be part of the enduring nature of the evolved human species, it is not eternal.
Against Forde's Platonic moral cosmology, I see no reason why we can't be satisfied with a moral anthropology in which the human good is as objectively real as any trait of our evolved human species. Someday, our human species will go extinct, and then the human good will no longer exist. But we could still say, it was good while it lasted.
As suggested by my paper on Nietzsche, Forde's disappointed Platonism and his ambivalence about Darwinian evolution are similar to what one sees in the writings of Nietzsche. In his early writings, Nietzsche worried about Darwinism as "true but deadly" in its denial of any Platonic or religious conception of moral cosmology. In his middle writings, he accepted Darwinian moral anthropology as supporting an aristocratic liberalism. But in his later writings, he turned away from this and rejected Darwinism as he embraced an aristocratic radicalism based on a mythopoetic Dionysianism that would give human life "the imprint of eternity." Thus, in his early and late writings, Nietzsche showed the contradictions of a disappointed Platonist, which I also see in Forde's paper. By contrast, the Nietzsche of the middle period accepts the evolution of human nature as a grounding for human moral and intellectual excellence, as having no eternal grounding but as human, all too human.
My conclusion is that it is better to be a satisfied Darwinian than a disappointed Platonist.
I have developed these points in some other posts that can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.