Saturday, December 29, 2007

Beckwith on Abortion

Francis Beckwith's new book--Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press)--is perhaps the best single survey of all the philosophic arguments for the immorality of abortion. Against the claim that the pro-life position depends purely on religious belief, Beckwith tries to show that the pro-life stance is superior to the abortion choice stance on purely philosophical grounds.

He states his basic argument in four steps:
"1. The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community.
"2. It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community.
"3. Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community.
"4. Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong."

Despite the rigor of his argumentation, I am not fully persuaded because he follows the lead of people like Hadley Arkes and Robert George in adopting a Kantian rationalism that assumes that moral judgment is a matter of pure logic separated from moral emotions. As I have indicated in a previous post, the debate over the moral status of prenatal human life--like all moral debate--cannot be resolved by pure reason alone. Rather, we need a combination of reason and emotion. Thought by itself moves nothing without the motive power of emotion or desire. Normally, we don't feel the same moral concern for a human zygote, embryo, or fetus that we feel for a human infant, child, or adult.

Although Beckwith tries to present his argumentation as a pure logic of morals, he must ultimately appeal implicitly to moral emotions. Thus, for example, his reasoning about "intrinsic value" must assume some "intuition" that depends on moral emotion. For instance, he must assume that his "substance view of persons" conforms to our moral emotions of approbation and disapprobation (p. 140).

And yet he tries to reject "human sentiment" as a basis for moral judgment. He writes: "One usually feels a greater sense of loss at the sudden death of a healthy parent than one feels for the hundreds who die daily of starvation in underdeveloped countries. Does this mean that the latter are less human than one's parent? Certainly not" (p. 153). But surely Beckwith is not saying that it is immoral to feel more concern for one's parents than for strangers (even if one acknowledges their shared humanity). We can feel some concern for suffering strangers, but normally we will feel more concern for those close to us because of the nature of our moral emotions.

Consider also the following passage (pp. 169-170):

"An anonymous reviewer raises an important counterexample to my case: 'Suppose that in an IVF clinic, an earthquake cause (1) a couple of glass dishes to break resulting in ten eggs being accidentally fertilized and (2) a fire in a room in which five patients are trapped. I can either save the fertilized eggs . . . or the patients. Most of us believe that I should save the patients but it is not clear that the sort of substance dualism espoused by the author is compatible with this claim.'
"These types of stories can, of course, always be adjusted to make an entirely different point. For example, suppose the five patients are aging Nazi war criminals and the 10 embryos are one's own offspring. It's pretty clear which group one would save. However, the sort of fictional scenario offered by this referee has been responded to by a number of others. I will offer one reply put forth by Scott B. Rae, who argues that this sort of story confuses epistemology with ontology, that is, it confuses what things appear to us with what things actually are. As Rae writes: 'The surface appearance of an embryo seems too distant and impersonal. But surface appearances and the emotions they engender are, by themselves, inadequate guides for moral reflection. To a lesser degree, this same sort of 'argument' could be used to justify racism, an unjustified preference for individuals who share many of one's own surface features. Since the presence or absence of surface features may be the real basis for the intuitions in this argument, we do not consider it has the force its advocates claim it has.'"

Here we see that both reason and emotion have roles to play in moral judgment. But reason can only elicit the emotions as the ground of moral intuition. So generally we don't feel the same moral concern for human embryos that we feel for human adults, even though intellectually we might be persuaded that the embryos are equally human with the adults. But we might feel more moral concern for 10 embryos that are our own offspring than we would for the 5 Nazi war criminals. Notice that Beckwith must implicitly appeal to our moral emotions. He denigrates the appeal to "surface appearances," but he himself must acknowledge the moral relevance of those "surface appearances."

There is another problem with Beckwith's argument.  As indicated in the first comment on this post (by RBH), "full-fledged member of the human community" is a fallacious metaphor.  Birds have fledged when their feathers and wing muscles have developed to the point that they can fly, which increases the chances that they can survive on their own.  By contrast, a human zygote has no chance of surviving on its own.

I have written another post on the related issue of stem-cell research.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's Ambition

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto brings to an end a remarkable example of female political ambition.

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I identified her as an illustration of how some high-testosterone women can display the same driving ambition for political dominance that is more commonly displayed in politically ambitious men. Because the propensity to dominance tends to be stronger in men than women, the highest positions of political rule tend to be filled mostly by men. Nevertheless, some women--like Benazir Bhutto--display a manly ambition for dominance. The need to channel and check that dominance drive justifies limited government, because even those who claim to be purely democratic leaders will be inclined to abuse their power to satisfy their ambition.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Questions and Answers for John West

In a recent blog post, John West claims that in our debates, I have refused to answer his four major questions for me. Here I will briefly summarize my answers to those questions and then pose some questions for West.

West's first question: "If Darwinism provides the standard for determining what is moral or immoral (as Arnhart claims), how can we condemn any activity that persists over time among even a subpopulation of human beings or animals?" Since Darwin indicates that practices such as infanticide, rape, and polygamy have been common in human history and thus "natural," doesn't this imply that Darwinism would endorse such practices?

The answer to this question is to be found in Darwin's account of the moral sense. Although natural selection through the "struggle for existence" shapes the social instincts of human beings and their capacities for reason, speech, and social learning, "the highest part of man's nature," Darwin indicates, comes from the moral development that arises more from habit, reason, instruction, and religion than through natural selection (Descent of Man, Penguin Classics, 163, 681-82, 688-89). So, for example, we can understand that in primitive societies, people felt compelled to kill their offspring when it was difficult or impossible to successfully rear all the infants that were born (65, 659-60). But modern conditions of life allow us to preserve our offspring without threatening the lives of others. We can also understand why polygyny (one husband with many wives) has been common in human history, while polyandry (one wife with many husbands) has been rare (655-63). Men of high status and wealth will be inclined to seek multiple mates, and polygyny has worked in many societies. But the sexual jealousy among the co-wives will always create conflicts. And while an extreme scarcity of women might make polyandry necessary, the intense sexual jealousy of males will make this almost impossible to sustain. Thus, through moral experience and moral reasoning, we can see the advantages of monogamy in securing the peaceful management of the natural desires for sexual mating. This kind of reasoning led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that while monogamy was fully natural, polygyny was partly natural and partly unnatural, and polyandry was completely unnatural.

West's second question is: "If Darwinism is so friendly toward Biblical theism (as Arnhart insists), why do the vast majority of leading Darwinists identify themselves as atheists or agnostics? Are they all stupid?"

Well, are Darwinian scientists like Francis Collins stupid for believing that theism and evolution are compatible? Was Darwin stupid for concluding The Origin of Species by describing the "grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one"? Was Pope John Paul II stupid in asserting that there was no necessary conflict between evolution and religion? I don't think so. Fanatical atheists like Richard Dawkins might not be stupid. But they are certainly remarkably shallow thinkers who refuse to ponder the mystery of the First Cause of nature, which leaves a big opening for God as the Creator.

West's third question is: "If Darwinism is so friendly toward limited government (as Arnhart also claims), why did most of the leading Darwinian biologists in the first several decades of the twentieth century champion state-sanctioned eugenics, the effort to breed a better race applying Darwinian principles? Moreover, why did these evolutionary biologists insist that eugenics was a logical corollary to Darwin's theory? Were they all stupid as well? Why and in what way?"

If grossly ignorant utopianism is stupidity, then they were stupid. The eugenicists followed in the utopian tradition of Plato's Republic, which assumed that philosopher-kings could breed human beings to improve their moral and intellectual capacities. Francis Galton openly claimed that his proposed eugenics would fulfill the dreams of utopian philosophers. This eugenics was utopian because it assumed human perfectibility in knowledge, power, and virtue. It assumed that human beings could fully understand and precisely control the mechanisms of biological inheritance so as to shape a new human race superior in physical and mental traits. This is unrealistic because complex behavioral traits are almost always shaped by the joint action of many genes interacting with the social and physical environment of the individual in ways that cannot be perfectly understood or controlled. Galton's eugenics also assumed that those people who would manage his selective breeding programs could be trusted to exercise their power for the common good without being corrupted by tyrannical interests like those of the Nazis.

West's fourth question is: "If Darwin himself only supported what Arnhart describes as 'good eugenics' such as preventing incestuous marriages, how does Arnhart explain the remarkable passage in Darwin's Descent of Man where Darwin warns of the dangers to the human race of helping the poor, caring for the mentally ill, saving the sick, and even inoculating people against smallpox? In Darwin's own words, 'no one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man . . . excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.'"

Isn't Darwin right in seeing that insofar as modern civilization promotes the propagation of inherited defects, this is "highly injurious to the race of man"? Don't we know today of many genetic disorders that parents pass on to their offspring? Wouldn't it be desirable if we could eliminate or at least minimize the propagation of such disorders? So, for example, isn't it good that Ashkenazi Jews are using genetic testing to identify the carriers of Tay-Sachs and to discourage them from passing on that genetic trait to the next generation? But isn't it also right that our desire to eliminate these genetic disorders must be combined, as Darwin insisted, with a desire to aid the weak as an expression of that moral sympathy that constitutes "the noblest part of our nature" (Descent of Man, 159)?

Now let me address four questions of my own to West--questions that he has refused to clearly answer in our debates.

1. What does West mean in his book Darwin's Conservatives when he says that the alternative to a Darwinian morality of the natural moral sense is a morality grounded on a "transcendent standard of morality" (21), a "permanent foundation for ethics" (22), or "moral truth" (40)? What is the source of that "transcendent standard"? When people disagree about the meaning of that "transcendent standard," are they just stupid?

2. What does West mean when he refers to "traditional Judeo-Christian morality" (21)? Does this refer to Biblical morality--the moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments--which would include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (69-71, 143)? If so, then how exactly does the Bible provide a clear and reliable moral teaching contrary to the Darwinian moral sense? When the Bible teaches the "curse of destruction" that requires killing innocent women and children (Numbers 31:1-20; Deuteronomy 20:10-20), and when the book of Revelation teaches that history is moving towards a bloody battle for extinguishing the armies of Satan, is this "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? When radical Islamists appeal to the Biblical tradition of holy war, is this also part of "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? When the Bible endorses infanticide (Genesis 22; Numbers 31; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Judges 11:29-40) and slavery (Exodus 21:20; Leviticus 25:44-46; Ephesians 6:5), must we accept this as "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? How do we judge the moral reliability of such Biblical teachings without appealing to some natural moral sense beyond biblical revelation?

3. What exactly does West mean when he speaks of biological desires as normative? He writes: "I am not quarreling with Arnhart's attempt to enlist biology to support traditional morality. I actually agree with him that showing a biological basis for certian moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality--but only if we have reason to assume that those biological desires are somehow normative. . . . If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or even that they represent irreducible and unchanging truths inherent in the universe, it would be rational to accept those desires as a grounding for a universal code of morality" (22-23). So does this mean that we are morally obligated to follow all of our natural desires if we believe they are the product of intelligent design or an unchanging nature? How exactly would that work? How can we judge that the intelligent designer or unchanging nature is good if we do not already have some independent standard of goodness? Is it possible that the intelligent designer used the evolutionary process to create the human species--as suggested by Michael Behe? If so, would that make our biological desires as shaped by evolution normative for us?

4. If "intelligent design theory" is a purely scientific theory that does not depend on religious belief, then why do the majority of scientists deny this? Are they stupid? And why is it that so many Biblical creationists--like those involved in the Dover school case--see the teaching of "intelligent design" as a way of teaching creationism as science?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Recent Human Evolution--Including the High-IQ Ashkenazi Jews

Until the emergence of agriculture 5,000 to 11,000 years ago, human ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers or foragers. Proponents of "evolutionary psychology" assume that most of our genetic evolution occurred before the transition to agriculture. Since then, there has been much cultural change but almost no genetic change. But there are some good examples of how cultural changes over the past 10,000 years have brought about genetic evolution. One example is how human populations in dairying cultures have evolved genetically so that adults can digest fresh milk, because their bodies produce the lactose-digesting enzyme lactase. In China and most of Africa, most people cannot digest milk in adulthood because their ancestors did not belong to dairying societies. Now, new research suggests that rapid genetic evolution over the past 10,000 years--like the evolution of lactose tolerance--might be much more common than was previously thought. An article in THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (December 26, 2007) surveys the evidence from genetic differences across human populations that indicate rapid genetic evolution over the past 10,000 years. The authors argue that rapid increasses in human population over this period combined with great changes in cultural and ecological conditions created the circumstances for rapid evolutionary adaptation. This paper has received wide publicity. Two of the authors of this paper--Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending--are the authors of a paper published in 2005 on the "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence", published in the JOURNAL OF BIOSOCIAL SCIENCE, 38 (2006): 659-693. The Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group. Cochran and Harpending argue that this arises from a history of genetic evolution shaped by the demography and social conditions of Ashkenazi Jews in Medieval Europe. The Medieval Ashkenazim were forced into financial and managerial occupations that demand high intelligence. They also showed intense reproductive isolation, because they rarely married outside their group. These two factors created the conditions for rapid genetic evolution favoring high intelligence. Moreover, the high rate of certain genetic disorders (such as Tay-Sachs) among the Ashkenazim suggest that the genetic propensities favoring high intelligence have costly side-effects. All of this research is highly controversial. But at the very least, it forces us to question the nature/nurture dichotomy, because it suggests that cultural evolution can create the conditions for rapid genetic evolution. As Edward Wilson indicated years ago, human nature cannot properly be understood as predominately genetic or cultural, because it should rather be seen as arising from the complex interaction of genes and culture. Understanding gene-culture coevolution is the final goal for the new Darwinian science of human nature. Another example of reseach on recent human evolution is Gregory Clark's evolutionary explanation for the industrial revolution in Great Britain in his book A Farewell to Alms. My post on this can be found here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Icon of ID: Jonathan Wells and the Peppered Moths

Of the books attacking Darwinian science, one of the most popular has been Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution. Sponsored by the Discovery Institute as part of its "wedge strategy" for promoting "intelligent design theory," Wells' book argues that some of the best-known examples of evolutionary explanation are actually untrue.

For instance, the evolution of peppered moths in England is often presented in biology textbooks as a clear case of evolution in action. Hundreds of years ago, the typical form of the peppered moth was mostly light gray with some black spots. But during the industrial revolution, pollution turned many tree trunks black. As a result, black "melanic" forms of the moths increased in number, because the lighter colored moths were more easily visible against the black tree trunks and thus most exposed to predation by birds. In the late 1950s, however, legislation that reduced pollution levels allowed trees to return to lighter colored trunks, which favored the return of the lighter colored moths, because now the darker moths were more visible to bird predators. In the 1950s, Bernard Kettlewell became famous for conducting experiments with these moths in the woodlands of England to confirm this Darwinian theory of the evolution of melanic moths.

But then in the 1980s, some researchers began to doubt Kettlewell's reports. The textbooks show Kettlewell's pictures of moths on tree trunks. But some researchers suggested that peppered moths do not rest on tree trunks, but rather they generally hide under horizontal branches. It seemed that the pictures of moths on trees appearing in biology textbooks had actually been staged by researchers who had glued dead specimens onto the trees. Wells could then proclaim this to be an example of scientific fraud. Many critics of Darwinian science have cited this in presentations to public school boards to support their claim that biology textbooks are using fraudulent evidence to advance Darwinian evolutionary theory.

And yet, Wells' presentation of this story is itself fraudulent. The debate over Kettlewell's research was surveyed in Michael Majerus' 1998 book Melanism: Evolution in Action, which Wells cites. But Wells does not accurately present the story in Majerus's book. For example, Wells asserts that "peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks" (148). But this ignores Majerus's reports of peppered moths in the wild found resting on tree trunks (see p. 123 of Majerus's book). Wells asserts that "pictures of peppered moths on tree trunks must be staged" (150). But Majerus' book has unstaged photographs that look no different from staged photographs (146-147).

Since 1998, Majerus has continued to conduct experimental research on peppered moths in England to see if Kettlewell's original claims could be defended against the critics. In recent years, Majerus has published his research confirming that Kettlewell was right after all. For example, in his research, he has shown that a significant proportion of moths (37%) do rest on tree trunks. Moreover, he generally concludes that differential bird predation has been a major factor in determining the common forms of moths, and thus this is a good example of Darwinian evolution in action.

Majerus's research is presented in a book chapter--"The Peppered Moth: Decline of a Darwinian Disciple"--in Insect Evolutionary Ecology, edited by Mark Fellowes et al. The notes for one of Majerus's power point presentations on this research can be found here.

Here then is an example of the experimental testing of Darwinian science. By contrast, as Majerus indicates, creationism and intelligent design are not open to such experimental testing.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Anastaplo on Physics and Religion

George Anastaplo is a remarkable human being--and perhaps the best teacher I had at the University of Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School at the the top of his class in 1951. But he was refused admission to the Illinois Bar because he refused to answer questions about whether he was a communist. Eventually, he argued his case before the U.S. Supreme Court and lost in a 5-to-4 decision (In re Anastaplo). He became a student of Leo Strauss. In fact, I believe he attended more of the classes Strauss taught during his years at the University of Chicago than anyone else. Since he was prohibited from practicing law, he earned a Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and became a political science professor at Rosary College (later renamed Dominican University). He also taught--and continues to teach--in the Basic Program in the Liberal Arts of the University of Chicago, a "great books" program for adults that was originally founded by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler in 1946. He retired from Dominican and joined the faculty at the Loyola University of Chicago Law School, where he still teaches.

I am bringing up Anastaplo's name only to recommend a short paper he has written on "Yearnings for the Divine and the Natural Animation of Matter," which can be found here.

Anastaplo has noticed that physicists speaking at the University of Chicago--at the weekly Physics Colloquia--have a tendency to use language suggesting that matter has a natural tendency to animation that implies a divine purposiveness. Of course, most of these physicists would surely say that this is only metaphorical language that should not be taken literally. But Anastaplo rightly raises the question of whether this indicates something about the tendency of the human mind to intuit some divine purpose in the order of nature.

Anastaplo also wonders whether physicists really understand what they are looking for. In their search for the smallest and most elementary particles of matter, aren't they looking for the ultron--i.e., the ultimate particle (or principle) underlying all material order? Do they really understand what it means to search for whatever it is that allows the universe to be and to be intelligible?

Anastaplo's questions bear upon the issue of ultimate explanation that has often come up on this blog. In the search for ultimate explanation, we seem to assume some ultimate ground of explanation that itself cannot be explained but only intuited. Religious believers would say this ultimate ground is God as the uncaused cause of nature. Scientific naturalists would say that nature itself must be accepted as a self-contained order that we know as a brute fact of our experience.

The ultimate cause of life--including the life of self-conscious, thinking beings--seems particularly mysterious. Religious believers would say that without assuming a Divine Mind behind the order of nature, scientists could not explain their own capacity for--and longing for--a rational explanation of natural order. Skeptical naturalists would suggest that whatever thoughtful purposefulness there is in the universe is a contingent outcome of evolutionary processes of emergent order that are not themselves thoughtful or purposeful.

Darwinian science must leave these questions open to thoughtful inquiry, because, as Darwin said, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

Friday, December 07, 2007

Mitt Romney on Religious Liberty

Questions about religion and evolution continue to come up in the debates between the Republican candidates for the presidency. Mike Huckabee has said that he rejects the Darwinian theory of evolution as contrary to his belief in the Biblical account of creation. But in a recent response to a question, Huckabee said that he does not know how God carried out his creative plan. He adds some dismissive remarks about people who believe they are descended from primates. In contrast to Huckabee, Mitt Romney has defended theistic evolution--the idea that there is no necessary conflict between Biblcial creation and the theory of evolution. In a previous post, I commented on Romney's endorsement of theistic evolution.

Evangelical Christians are uneasy with Romney's Mormonism. Romney's recent speech at Texas A & M University was his attempt to lay out his position on the political role of religion. It is a remarkably reasonable statement on the American tradition of religious liberty. He endorses Abraham Lincoln's declaration in his Lyceum speech that obedience to law and the Constitution is the "political religion" of the nation. Romney goes on to argue that the Constitution's provision for "no religious test" for public office shows that there must be no political imposition of any particular religious beliefs.

Romney rightly embraces the understanding of the constitutional founders that differences in theology could be tolerated as long as all religions share a common understanding of morality. This conforms to what I have argued as to the need for a natural moral sense (such as Darwin stresses) that stands on its own natural ground regardless of differing religious beliefs.

Romney correctly observes that the separation of church and state should not be interpreted to mean an establishment of "the religion of secularism." Religious belief is important for American public life insofar as it reinforces the principles of the Declaration of Independence--the self-evident principles of human equality under God. Here, again, Romney follows Lincoln.

In the tradition of John Locke's argument for religious toleration, Romney understands that there can be no toleration for "theocratic tyranny" such as that threatened by "radical Islamists." Like the American founders, Romney rejects any theocratic interpretation of Biblical religion, and here he follows in the tradition of Locke and Roger Williams that treats religious belief as a matter of individual liberty of conscience that cannot properly be enforced by law or coercion.

To mandate by law that a literal reading of the Biblical account of creation should be taught in public schools as science would be an exercise in theocracy. If we wish to defend religious liberty against theocracy, we must agree with decisions like that rendered by Judge Jones in the Dover school case that would forbid public schools from teaching Biblical creationism (even under the guise of "intelligent design theory") as science.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Phil Gasper and Socialist Utopianism

Last summer, I wrote a post responding to an article by Phil Gasper in the International Socialist Review. Now, my post has been reprinted in that journal along with a response from Mr. Gasper, which can be found here.

Gasper's response is reasonable, and it clarifies the points at issue. He seems to agree with me that human nature does put limits on what we can do, but he stresses the malleablility of human behavior within those limits. I agree that cultural evolution and individual judgment allows for great variability in human behavior. But I would stress that cultural evolution and individual judgment are constrained by human nature.

So, for example, I say that the drive for power and status is so natural to human beings that we can assume that power-seeking or the desire to dominate others will be a problem in any society. Some societies are more hierarchical than others, but none are completely egalitarian in the sense that no one has more power or status than any other. Primitive hunting-gathering or foraging societies are probably the least hierarchical of any societies, and yet they still show a striving for power that has to be constantly checked. The anthropologist Richard Lee was a Marxist, and so he looked for completely egalitarian relationships in the !Kung San communities. And yet he had to admit that they did show patterns of leadership, and that the !Kung had to be constantly vigilant against informal leaders who might become too arrogant.

By contrast, Gasper insists--like Marx--that foraging societies show a completely egalitarian society where no one has more power than anyone else, and this shows what a socialist society could achieve today by reviving primitive communism. To me this illustrates the utopianism of the Left based on the myth of the Noble Savage in a Golden Age.

When someone like Hugo Chavez arises to lead Venezuela to a "21st century socialism," I see a glory-seeking politician with Napoleonic ambitions, and I predict that he will strive to concentrate dispotic power in his hands. But socialists like Gasper are excited by the prospect for finally achieving socialist utopia. Gasper remarks: "Arnhart's characterization of what is taking place as no more than a power trip by Chavez is hardly a serious analysis." But isn't the history of socialism--from Marx, Lenin, and Stalin to Mao, Castro, and Pol Pot a history of power trips?

Roger Cohen has just written a similar assessment of Chavez for the New York Times, which can be found here. But viewed through the utopian vision of the Left, this will will be easily dismissed as "hardly a serious analysis."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Vogel on Kass's "Natural Law Judaism"

In some previous posts, I have questioned Leon Kass's view of modern science as promoting a materialist reductionism. I have argued that Kass makes the unwarranted assumption that Descartes is the authoritative exponent for all of modern science, and that Kass ignores the ways in which Darwinian biology refutes Cartesian dualism. These posts can be found here and here.

The best study of Kass's bioethics that I have ever read is Lawrence Vogel's "Natural Law Judaism? The Genesis of Bioethics in Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Leon Kass," in Hastings Center Report (May-June 2006).

I agree with the way Vogel explains Kass's bioethics as influenced by his two most important teachers--Jonas and Strauss. From Jonas, Kass derived an "existential interpretation of biological facts" that would support the lived experience of human dignity against the dehumanizing effects of modern materialism and nihilism. From Strauss, Kass derived a deep suspicion of modernity as morally corrupting and ultimately directed to nihilism. From both Jonas and Strauss, Kass derived the thought that the alternative to modernity was to be found in antiquity--either the ancient philosophic tradition of Athens or the ancient religious tradition of Jerusalem.

But as Vogel rightly points out, Kass often seems to rely more on biblical revelation than is the case for either Jonas or Strauss. Although both Jonas and Strauss invoked the wisdom of the Judaic biblical tradition, they both suggested that we could find sufficient moral guidance by a purely rational grasp of natural order. By contrast, Kass sometimes suggests that natural reason is insufficient without the aid of revealed religion. And yet, Kass is not completely clear about this, because it often appears that his reading of the Bible (and particularly Genesis) is actually guided by a philosophic understanding that distorts his reading of the scriptural text. In any case, his warnings about the dangers of biotechnology go against much of the Jewish tradition that understands human beings as "co-creators" who properly use medical technology for the service of human health and happiness. I agree with Vogel that Kass often seems to be projecting his own neoconservative bioethics onto nature and onto scripture.

I would stress one point that doesn't come up in Vogel's article. Jonas argued that modern Darwinian science denied the Cartesian separation of matter and mind and thus the materialism that comes from such a separation, because a Darwinian view of nature sees mind as an emergent phenomenon within nature. As Vogel writes, this led Jonas to conclude: "Though nature may be God's creation, there is no need to ground ontology in theology, for nature is purposive even if there is no 'purposer.' The goodness of life must speak for itself." Although Kass seemed to accept this Darwinian view of natural teleology and emergence in his book Towards a More Natural Science, he has clearly rejected this view in recent years. This explains, I think, why he is so ambiguous about whether or not biblical revelation is absolutely necessary for morality. He is not himself a pious religious believer. And yet he fears that nature as accessible to human reason (science or philosophy) cannot provide sufficient moral guidance without belief in a divinely revealed law. At times, he seems to accept Strauss's view of religion as a "noble lie" to support a morality that philosophers or scientists can know by reason alone. But at other times, he seems to yearn for a true revelation of divine will to save humanity from the nihilism that follows from a purely rational study of nature.

As I have argued on this blog, Darwinian science really does support a natural morality based on human nature and the natural moral sense. Religion can reinforce that natural morality, but religion is not absolutely required, because morality can stand on its own natural ground.