Friday, September 27, 2013

The Enduring Things: Remarks for The Philadelphia Society

The Philadelphia Society will be meeting next week, October 4-5, in Atlanta for a conference on "The Permanent Things," which celebrates the 60th anniversary of the publication of Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.  I will be on a panel on "Human Nature and the Permanent Things." 

Here's the text of my remarks, which consist largely of excerpts from my article in the Fall 2010 issue of The Intercollegiate Review.

If we accept evolutionary science, then human nature is not one of the permanent things.  But it is one of the enduring things.  And that’s enough.

An evolved human nature that is enduring but not permanent is enough to support an evolutionary conservatism rooted in an evolutionary moral anthropology of natural desires, customary traditions, and individual judgments.

That’s not enough, however, for a metaphysical conservatism that appeals to a transcendent moral cosmology of eternal order as intelligently designed by the Creator.

This contrast between evolutionary conservatism and metaphysical conservatism was displayed in the debate between Friedrich Hayek and Russell Kirk at the 1957 meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. 

Kirk had stated his metaphysical and religious conservatism in 1953 in The Conservative Mind.  The first canon of conservative thought, he declared, was “belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.”  Consequently, “politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature.”  Kirk spoke of the conservative belief in “a transcendent moral order,” and in Edmund Burke’s “description of the state as a divinely ordained moral essence, a spiritual union of the dead, the living, and those yet unborn,” and Kirk also spoke of Burke’s view of history as “the unfolding of Design.”  Kirk warned against Darwinian evolutionary science as undermining this metaphysical conservatism because it denies the religious belief in a transcendent moral order of intelligent design.

In this same tradition of metaphysical conservatism, Richard Weaver insisted that a healthy cultural order required a “metaphysical dream of the world,” so that people could imagine their cultural life as a “metaphysical community” fulfilling a cosmic purpose.  Like Kirk, Weaver worried that Darwin’s theory of evolution denied this “metaphysical dream” of cosmic order by explaining human beings as products of a natural evolutionary process governed by material causes that were not directed to any cosmic purposes.  Consequently, in the Darwinian view, human cultural order was deprived of any transcendent meaning because it could not be seen as serving the cosmic order of the Creator’s intelligently designed universe.

Since Hayek accepted Darwinian science but doubted the existence of God, he disagreed with Kirk’s metaphysical conservatism.  This led Hayek to insist—at the 1957 meeting—that he was not really a “conservative” at all, but a “liberal” in the classical tradition of Burke and the Old Whigs.  He objected to the “obscurantism” of a conservative attitude that rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution as morally corrupting.  He elaborated his view of Burkean liberalism as belonging to a British empiricist evolutionary tradition contrasted with a French rationalistic design tradition.  In the evolutionary tradition of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Burke, Hayek explained, “it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher, supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility—the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution.”  He then suggested that Darwin’s theory of biological evolution was derived from the theories of social evolution developed by the Scottish philosophers.

That both Kirk and Hayek appealed to Burke suggests that they were both Burkean liberal conservatives.  But their disagreement reflects a tension within Burke’s political thought, with Kirk embracing the metaphysical side of Burke’s conservatism, and Hayek embracing the evolutionary side.

The evolutionary tradition of social thought was deepened by Charles Darwin, particularly in his Descent of Man, in his explanation of moral order as rooted in a moral sense that is part of the evolved nature of human beings.  He saw moral progress in human history as a product of the complex evolutionary interaction of innate sociality, cultural learning, and deliberate judgment.  “Ultimately,” he concluded, “our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment—originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.”  Darwin observed that this moral sense “perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals.”

In recent years, new research in evolutionary social psychology and Darwinian anthropology has renewed interest in how evolutionary science might support classical liberalism or traditionalist conservatism.  One sign of this was the special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society last summer in the Galapagos Islands exploring the topic of “Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty.”

Any renewal of evolutionary conservatism will provoke criticisms from the metaphysical conservatives.  From my experience in defending Darwinian conservatism, the most common criticism is that the naturalist morality of Darwinian science must fail, because a healthy moral order depends necessarily on religion, and particularly on the biblical doctrine that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus endowed by their Creator with equal moral dignity. 

For example, my critics have argued, the moral condemnation of slavery arose from a religious metaphysics that saw slavery as contrary to God’s law.  A purely naturalistic Darwinian morality would not have taught us that slavery is absolutely wrong.

But is this true?  Darwin was a fervent opponent of slavery.  Like Hume and Smith, he saw slavery as a violation of the moral sentiments—particularly, those sentiments that enforce justice as reciprocity. 

From an evolutionary perspective, slavery is a form of social parasitism.  And since human slaves are not naturally adapted to their enslavement, they will resist exploitation, and slaveholders will have to impose their rule over their slaves by force and fraud. 

In the effort to justify slavery, American slaveholders espoused a fraudulent ideology of paternalism that claimed that the slaves were naturally benefited by their enslavement.  The proslavery ideology in the American South asserted that black slaves were physically, morally, and intellectually inferior to whites in their biological nature, and so these black slaves were happier when they were serving white masters.

One of the primary motivations for Darwin’s writing of The Descent of Man was to refute this ideology of scientific racism by showing that all the human races were members of the same human species with the same moral sense that condemned slavery as exploitation.

American Southern conservatives defended slavery as a conservative Christian institution supported by the Bible.  In writing about Southern conservatism, in The Conservative Mind, Kirk warned that “human slavery is bad ground for conservatives to make a stand upon.”  But he never answered the arguments of the Southern Christian conservatives that slavery was biblically sanctioned as part of God’s law.

Richard Weaver admired the “older religiousness” in the American South before the Civil War, and he recognized that part of the Southern religion was faith in the Bible as supporting slavery.  Weaver explained that slavery “is well recognized in the Old Testament, and it is not without endorsement in the New; indeed, a strict constructionist interpretation almost requires its defense.”   So it seems that the “metaphysical dream of the world” in the Old South sanctioned slavery as part of God’s transcendent moral order.

The dispute over the Bible’s handling of the slavery issue divided the Christian churches in America before and during the Civil War.  Americans had looked to the Bible as the revelation of the sacred order of the universe that would resolve all moral disputes by the cosmic authority of God’s law.  But in this greatest moral crisis in American history, the Bible failed to provide any satisfactory answer in the dispute over slavery between North and South.  As Abraham Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

In such a situation, human beings must appeal to some natural moral sense like that espoused by Hume, Smith, and Darwin.  Darwinian conservatives can explain this moral sense as rooted in evolved human nature.  Unlike the metaphysical conservatives, who claim that all social order must conform to some supernatural order of intelligent design or divine creation, evolutionary conservatives see social order as the product of ordinary human experience as guided by nature, custom, and prudence.

So as we celebrate the permanent things, let’s not forget the enduring things, which include the enduring human structure of instinctive evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment that gives us an enduring standard of natural right.

For those of us who are Darwinian conservatives, that’s enough.


Anonymous said...

Seems like the best option for a Darwinian is to become like a Ghengis Khan. Then you don't have to worry about justifying slavery, you just do it. The Old South were Christians, so they felt they had to justify their behavior. The Darwinian thing to do would be to get rid of the moral theory that feels you need to justify your behavior in light of your religion and just go barbaric. Ghandi wouldn't have succeeded against Ghengis Khan, Khan would have just killed them all, but he went against the British who professed to subscribe to a morality. Or see how the various factions of the Pelopennesian war treated their foes.

Larry Arnhart said...

In a famous Southern court case--State v. Mann (North Carolina Supreme Court, 1829)--Judge Thomas Ruffin ruled that a master could not be charged with "a cruel and reasonable battery" upon his slave. He explained that since there was no moral justification for slavery, it necessarily originated in and was maintained by brute force alone.

Anonymous said...

There is no moral sense. Everywhere morality requires extensive education and social pressure because it is so unnatural.

CJColucci said...

Seems like the best option for a Darwinian is to become like a Ghengis Khan.

So one might think, but, from a purely Darwinian perspective, few of us will have the necessary strength, talent, and drive to succeed with this strategy. I know I don't, and I doubt you're much different. So we evolve strategies that work for most of us as we actually are, not how we might see ourselves in adolescent fantasies.