Sunday, May 11, 2008

MacIntyre and Darwinian Natural Right: A Reply to Christopher Toner

I believe that the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition of ethical naturalism is rooted in a biological understanding of human nature that is confirmed by modern Darwinian science. I have elaborated my reasoning for this conclusion in Darwnian Natural Right, Darwinian Conservatism, and "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right" (published in Natural Law and Modern Moral Philosophy, edited by E. F. Paul, F. D. Miller, and J. Paul, Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Alasdair MacIntyre has recently taken a similar position despite his earlier disagreement. In his remarkably influential book After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre tried to defend an Aristotelian and Thomistic view of ethics as founded on the moral and intellectual virtues, but he wanted his ethical view to be independent of Aristotle's "metaphysical biology" (56, 139, 152, 166-67, 183, 220). Almost twenty years later, however, in Dependent Rational Animals, he conceded that "I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible" (x). He generously cited my work as helping to persuade him that the Aristotelian and Thomistic understanding of the animal nature of human thought and action is confirmed by modern Darwinian biology (5-6, 11-12).

And yet in a recent article in Metaphilosophy (vol. 39, no. 2, April 2008)--"Sorts of Naturalism: Requirements for a Successful Theory"--Christopher Toner criticizes my Darwinian naturalism as a foundation for virtue ethics and argues that MacIntyre's approach is superior, because it recognizes how our "first nature" of natural desires needs the moral development that comes through the "second nature" of practical reasoning and cultural learning. In reply to Toner, I would point out that what he attributes to MacIntyre is fully compatible with my position.

Following John McDowell, Toner argues that the most defensible sort of moral naturalism is a "second-naturalism" that recognizes the importance of practical reasoning and human culture as the "second nature" for human moral development. This "second-naturalism" satisfies what Toner takes to be the four criteria for a good moral naturalism:

"1. Natural norms must be intrinsically able to motivate the bearer of the nature.

"2. Natural norms must be intrinsically able to justify themselves to the bearer of the nature.

"3. Natural norms must be anchored in and express universal human nature.

"4. First and second nature must be related so that the second is a natural outgrowth of the first, and so that that in our given makeup, it is (first) natural which does tend toward an ethically mature second nature."

Toner argues that while McDowell tends to sharply separate our second nature from our first nature, which suggests cultural relativism, MacIntyre is more successful in his moral naturalism because he sees our second nature as a natural outgrowth of our first nature.

According to Toner, MacIntyre's approach "steers clear of the trouble invited by Arnhart's reliance on brutely given natural desires. In their place it puts, as natural norms, the requirements of the virtues that are integral to human flourishing, where the virtues are seen as acquired traits that fit human beings for the exercise of practical rationality toward which their shared nature directs them" (243).

But in thus trying to separate MacIntyre's position from mine, Toner distorts both positions. He fails to see that MacIntyre's view of our second nature as the natural outgrowth of our first nature depends on the claim that our uniquely human capacities for reason, language, and culture are actually extensions of capacities found in some form in other animals, so that our second nature is rooted in our biological first nature as a product of Darwinian evolution (see Dependent Rational Animals, 53-64).

Here MacIntyre is agreeing with what I say about the need for "nurturing nature." While we commonly separate nature and nurture or nature and art, animal nature--including human nature--must be nurtured if it is to reach its natural completion. Not just human beings but other primates as well are by nature such intensely social animals that their natural development depends on social learning and cultural traditions. Human beings have natural desires for practical habituation and practical reasoning that are fulfilled through cultural learning and deliberative reasoning. That's why I argue that explaining the human nature of social and moral order requires three levels of order--nature, custom, and reason--so that our natural inclinations constrain but do not exactly determine our cultural traditions and our rational choices. (See Darwinian Natural Right, 35-49, and Darwinian Conservatism, 14-45.)

The crucial point here is that the opposition to Darwinian natural right rests on a series of antithetical dichotomies posed by Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant: biology versus culture, nature versus nurture, instinct versus learning, emotion versus reason, and facts versus values. Underlying all of these is the fundamental dichotomy between animality and humanity. Human beings, Hobbes and Kant argue, transcend their animal nature by using their unique rationality to construct a cultural world of moral values based on social learning; this world suppresses the biological emotions that would otherwise render human life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I reject all of these dichotomies. I acknowledge the uniqueness of human beings as rational moral agents, but I believe that even in their uniqueness, human beings are fully integrated within the natural world. Given this, I see the moral nature of human beings as rooted in their animal nature. In its account of that animal nature of morality, Darwinian biological reasoning supports the tradition of ethical naturalism begun by Aristotle and continued by Aquinas and MacIntyre.

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