Friday, September 12, 2008

Metaphysical Conservatism Versus Evolutionary Conservatism

In thinking about why many conservatives resist Darwinian conservatism, I have begun to suspect that there is a fundamental conflict here between metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism. (Reading Donald Livingston's HUME'S PHILOSOPHY OF COMMON LIFE has helped me to think about this.)

Beginning with David Hume's criticism of the English Puritan Revolution and Edmund Burke's criticism of the French Revolution, conservatives have rejected the rationalistic metaphysics of political revolutionaries as a dangerous attack on social and political order as rooted in historical tradition. Conservatives like Hume and Burke have recognized the need for reforming the traditional orders of society. But they have argued that such reform is best understood as a gradual, evolutionary process within concrete traditions. By contrast, the metaphysical rebellion of revolutionaries attempts a total restructuring of society to conform to some abstract blueprint of rational perfection. The ideological fanaticism of the past two centuries--Marxism, socialism, fascism, Nazism, and so on--manifests the danger coming from such total revolutions of common life by metaphysical thinking.

Darwinian conservatism continues in the tradition of Hume and Burke by explaining the history of moral and political order as arising from a complex interaction of natural evolution, cultural evolution, and prudential judgments. The Darwinian science of morality and politics is a historical science of human social order in all of its concrete historicity. Any presumed total transformation of social life by reference to some abstract, metaphysical conception of perfect order is rejected as an incoherent and destructive form of utopian perfectibility, which disregards the imperfectibility of human life in its evolving historical contingency and particularity.

But there has been a tendency for some conservatives to challenge the metaphysical revolutionaries by appealing to a conservative metaphysics of sacred order. For example, Richard Weaver contended in his Ideas Have Consequences that any healthy cultural order requires a "metaphysical dream"--a set of transcendent standards for moral order. In his VISIONS OF ORDER, Weaver criticized the Darwinian idea of human evolution for promoting moral degradation by subverting the metaphysical image of human beings as standing at the peak of the divine cosmic order.

In THE CONSERVATIVE MIND, Russell Kirk showed this same metaphysical conservatism when he affirmed "belief in a transcendent order" as the first canon of conservative thought and warned against Darwinian science as undermining conservative principles of transcendent order. By contrast, Frederick Hayek criticized conservatives like Kirk for rejecting the theory of evolution: "I have little patience with those who oppose . . . the theory of evolution or what are called 'mechanistic' explanations of the phenomena of life simply because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irreverent or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his position." This was one reason that Hayek was reluctant to call himself a "conservative." And yet he identified himself as a Burkean Whig. He might rightly be called an evolutionary conservative.

In the recent collection of articles from the
Intercollegiate Review--Arguing Conservatism--published by ISI Books, the lead article serving as a Prologue is Will Herberg's "What Is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?" According to Herberg, our moral crisis is not the failure to live up to our shared moral standards but rather our loss of any moral standards at all. This "loss of a moral sense" is "a metaphysical and religious crisis." To restore our moral standards, we need some transcendent, metaphysical law that is "binding on man because it is grounded in what is beyond man," and that requires the transcendent standards of religion.

In the same collection, Robert Kraynak has an article warning that although Darwinian evolution is supported by lots of evidence, conservatives should look to "intelligent design theory" as an alternative to Darwinism, because Darwinian science provides no account of "the ultimate purpose of the universe." Like Herberg, Kraynak assumes that moral order is impossible without invoking a metaphysical standard of cosmic purposefulness.

Carson Holloway, John West, and other critics of my Darwinian conservatism show the same appeal to metaphysical standards of moral order. Holloway says that my Darwinian account of the moral sense as rooted in natural moral sentiments, customary moral traditions, and deliberate moral judgments cannot provide the proper ground for morality, because morality is impossible without some "religiously-informed cosmic teleology." Similarly, West insists that moral order requires some "transcendent standard of morality," a "permanent foundation for ethics," or some source for morality in "irreducible and unchanging truths." West never explains exactly what these "unchanging truths" are. He does often refer to "the Judeo-Christian tradition." But he never specifies precisely what he has in mind. Both Holloway and West speak of the biblical doctrine of human beings as created in the image of God as supporting a universal, transcendent standard of the equal moral dignity of all human beings.

I cannot see how the metaphysical equality of all human beings could be applied in practice as the transcendent standard for all social order. I understand, of course, the importance of the "self-evident truth" of human equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. But even Abraham Lincoln conceded that "perfect social and political equality" was impossible, and that Americans needed to translate this into a "practical equality" compatible with American legal and political traditions. Strictly speaking, universal human equality and liberty would dictate socialist pacifism. And that's why Lincoln and others have had to reformulate the idea of equality to make it consistent with the concrete conditions of particular moral orders.

Did the resolution of the slavery debate in the United States depend on biblical metaphysics? As I have often noted on this blog, many Christians thought the Bible supported slavery and that abolitionism was atheism. How does biblical metaphysics resolve moral debates if we can't agree on the practical moral teaching of the Bible? While Lincoln thought slavery was morally wrong, he also thought it would be imprudent to abolish slavery immediately if that meant violating the Constitution. How do we weigh moral right against the rule of law? Should we say, as some abolitionists did, that the "higher law" must prevail against human law, no matter what the consequences? Shouldn't we worry about the fanaticism of people like John Brown who think they are acting by divine command in cleansing society of evil?

Religious conservatives like Holloway and West believe that morality is impossible without the cosmic purposefulness of "the Judeo-Christian tradition." But which "tradition" is this--Judaism, Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, Mormonism? Are they referring specifically to the Bible as the source of moral and political order? The English Puritan revolutionaries of the 17th century invoked biblical law in their attempt to establish the "kingdom of the saints," and their metaphysical fanaticism had disastrous consequences. I assume that Holloway and West would reject this. But why? Doesn't this show how dangerous it is to look to religious metaphysics for cosmic standards to revolutionize society?

If we want moral and political order guided by "religiously-informed cosmic teleology," how do we avoid theocratic extremism? Not long ago, the Intercollegiate Review published an article by Remi Brague with the title "Are Non-Theocratic Regimes Possible?" His answer to the question was, No. His reasoning was that in the history of the West, the ultimate standard for order was the law of God, and even in modern liberal democracies, the appeal to individual "conscience" implies that this is somehow the voice of God implanted in human beings. He suggests that moral and political order is impossible without the theocratic appeal to the law of God as the cosmic standard for all human behavior.

For such conservatives who invoke the metaphysics of theocracy as the only ground of moral order, a Darwinian conservatism that roots moral order in natural sentiments, cultural traditions, and deliberate judgments must be rejected as insufficient. But shouldn't conservatives be suspicious of such theocratic metaphysics as fostering a dangerous fanaticism?

And if we were to rely on a theocratic metaphysics as the source of order, how exactly would we determine the moral content of that metaphysics? Conservatives like West say that we should look to intelligent design theory. But how do we know that the intelligent designer is a reliable source of moral law? And how to we discern that moral law of the intelligent designer? Actually, West and other proponents of intelligent design insist that, in fact, we cannot know anything about the moral character of the intelligent designer. Certainly, intelligent design theory cannot tell us whether the intelligent designer is the God of the Bible who gives a moral law. So it seems that access to the moral law of "the Judeo-Christian tradition" requires faith in certain traditions of revelation rather than reasoning from common human experience. Does this mean that moral and political order is possible only within religious communities that share the same faith tradition? Is this what Brague means by arguing for the necessity for theocracy?

I agree that religious belief is often important for morality. But this does not require that we appeal to theocratic metaphysics as the only source of moral order. We can see religious morality as emerging through the evolved moral order of human life as shaped by the moral sentiments of human nature, the moral traditions of human culture, and the moral judgments of human deliberation. Evolutionary conservatism can support such a moral order, while avoiding the confusion and fanaticism that come from the "metaphysical dreams" of theocratic conservatism.

This post is related to my post from a few weeks ago on "Religious Transcendence and Natural Evolution."


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent set of observations.

Let me argue that Darwinian natural right is also superior to theocratic metaphysics because it shares the same error-correcting machinery as science.

Faith-based claims have no error-correcting function. If a claim is made via faith, there is no standard of truth or falsity to appeal to other than the shifting sands of various textual interpretations. If, for example, a Jewish person makes a metaphysical claim through interpretation of the Torah, a Christian may disagree on grounds that the claim is inconsistent with the New Testament. There is no inherent standard by which the two opposing views may appeal. The two competing faith-based belief systems simply clash -- sometimes violently -- without a standard for resolving the truth.

But Darwinian natural right, like science, always allows for various claims to be evaluated in light of evidence garnered by reason. If new evidence about human nature arises that contradicts earlier understanding, Darwinian natural right can adjust because rational appeals are part of its inherent foundational structure. Two adherents who disagree therefore have a shared standard of appeal, unlike their theocratic counterparts.

In this way, Darwinian Natural Right shares the same built-in error-correcting machinery as science. This is a necessary mechanism in a world where humans make mistakes, information is limited, and new evidence and knowledge constantly comes into light. Faith as a standard of appeal fails to account for such contingencies. Darwinian natural right, however, recognizes and accounts for the limits of human knowing by allowing itself to be corrected.

Larry Arnhart said...


Thanks for your good statement. I agree with what you say about the need for error-correcting mechanisms in response the uncertainty and fallibility of human judgment of experience.