Saturday, September 16, 2006

Darwinian Conservatism and Divine Command Theory

In the The American Conservative, Heather Mac Donald has expressed the frustrations of a "skeptical conservative" who cannot understand why so many American conservatives assume that morality and good citizenship require religious belief. Catholic conservative Michael Novak has written a response. This opens up a fundamental issue for conservatives.

In defense of Darwinian conservatism, I have argued that although religious belief can be helpful in reinforcing morality, it is not absolutely necessary, because ultimately our morality depends on a natural moral sense rooted in our evolved human nature. Religious conservatives like Carson Holloway and Peter Augustine Lawler have criticized me for not seeing how morality depends on religious belief.

I have defended my position as a Darwinian version of traditional natural law reasoning. Human moral experience is natural insofar as it arises from those natural inclinations that we can know by reason alone. Of course, that natural moral law can be taught by religion, but it can stand on its own natural ground even without religion. Darwin shows how that natural moral law could have arisen by natural evolution.

Michael Novak seems to agree with my view of natural law when he says it is "the law discovered by reason alone, without revelation," although revelation provides a helpful "short cut" to this natural law. Here then would seem to be common ground for all conservatives: morality can be known by natural experience alone because it is rooted in the natural moral sense, but religion can reinforce this moral law for believers.

And yet there is still a strong inclination among religious conservatives to a divine command theory of morality that drives much of the criticism of my Darwinian conservatism. The assumption of divine command reasoning is that moral obligation must be grounded in the commands of a good and loving God. If God did not exist, there could be no moral obligations.

One of the best statements of this divine command theory of morality is C. Stephen Evans' book Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (Oxford University Press, 2004). (A paperback edition of this book is being published this month.). Evans has a chapter criticizing my reasoning in Darwinian Natural Right as an example of "evolutionary naturalism." Evans endorses what he takes to be Kierkegaard's divine command morality as founded on the command of Jesus to love our neighbors, understood as a universal and disinterested love of all human beings equally. Evans then criticizes my reasoning as flawed insofar as I don't acknowledge that all morality must be rooted in such a divine command.

Darwin sees a natural tribalism in human morality. We are inclined to be more cooperative with those close to us--relatives, friends, and fellow citizens--than to those far away. Human beings are naturally inclined to cooperate within groups so as to compete successfully with other groups. Darwin thinks a universal sympathy for humanity is possible, but only as an extension of social emotions cultivated first in small groups. He assumes that as we expand our social sympathies to embrace all of humanity, these sympathies become weaker as we move farther away from our inner circle of family, friends, and fellow citizens. And yet this extension of sympathy to embrace all of humanity is strong enough to support the Golden Rule as the foundation of morality. Still, the tribalism of morality can never be eliminated. Charity starts at home. And in war, we properly celebrate the virtuous courage of soldiers in killing the enemy.

Although Evans does not draw out the full implications of his view of universal love as a divine command, he suggests that this requires absolutely disinterested love for all human beings equally, which would require absolute pacifism (see pp. 319, 328 in his book). To favor our friends, relatives, and fellow citizens over strangers would violate this universal love commandment. To use violence against evil individuals would violate it. And to fight in war would certainly violate it. Such universal love might even require the abolition of private property and family life. Some kind of pacifist socialism would seem to be required. It is hard to see that many human beings could embrace this as morally acceptable.

Evans finds Gods commands in the Bible. But it is not clear that the Bible provides the clear moral teaching of universal love that Evans wants. God commanded Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans says that while God might have commanded human sacrifice in the past, we know that God cannot command that "today." He seems to assume that the love command of Jesus in the New Testament overrides the bloody commands of the God of the Old Testament. (The brutal commands of the Old Testament God include orders to slaughter innocent women and children as part of God's conquest of Canaan.) But even the New Testament concludes with the bloodiest book of the Bible--the Bible of Revelation with its vision of the apocalyptic battle of the saints against Satan at the end of history.

Evans criticizes my Darwinian arguments for the abolition of slavery and insists that the immorality of slavery arises only from its violating God's love command. But Evans says nothing about the fact that all the passages in the Bible on slavery endorse it, and thus the antebellum Christians in the American South were justified in believing that slavery was biblically sanctioned. (The recent book by Mark Noll on the theological debates surrounding the civil war tells this story well.)

As I have argued previously on this blog, the Bible lacks the authority, clarity, and reliability necessary for being a source of moral guidance. If the Bible reinforces morality, it is only because we pass it through our natural moral sense. We know that the biblical account of God ordering Abraham to kill his son must be somehow mistaken, because we know by natural moral experience that this is wrong. We know that the Bible's endorsement of slavery is mistaken, because, again, our natural moral sense condemns it. If we elevate the Golden Rule over other teachings in the Bible, its because we have arrived at the rule through natural experience. That experience also teaches us, however, that disinterested, universal love cannot be absolutely observed because we must favor family, friends, and fellow citizens over strangers. The Christian tradition of "just war" reasoning shows how our natural moral sense corrects the dangerous utopianism of a universal love ethic.

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