Saturday, January 31, 2009

Evolutionary Psychology's Slow Acceptance of Darwinian Morality

One sign of the radical character of Charles Darwin's ideas is that even some of his strongest supporters have rejected much of his thinking. This is clear in the case of Darwin's evolutionary account of morality.

When Darwin first published his naturalistic account of the moral sense in 1871 in The Descent of Man, his friend Thomas Huxley defended it against Darwin's Kantian critics--like Frances Cobbe and 
S. George Mivart--who insisted that morality required a supernatural transcendence of nature.  But later Huxley joined the critics, particularly in his famous 1893 lecture on "Evolution and Ethics." In this lecture, he adopted the Hobbesian-Kantian view of ethics, in which the moral improvement of humanity requires a self-abnegating denial of human nature, because human beings in their natural state are selfish and asocial. Huxley adopted the Kantian concept of culture as a uniquely human realm of activity that transcends biology. He interpreted Darwin's "struggle for existence" as a Hobbesian war of all against all. Because of the "moral indifference of nature," he declared, one could never derive moral values from natural facts. He concluded "that the ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it," and thus building "an artificial world within the cosmos."

For over a century after Huxley, many of the strongest proponents of Darwinian science have followed Huxley's lead in rejecting Darwin's explanation of morality as rooted in evolved human nature, because they have assumed that human morality belongs to a transcendent realm of cultural artifice and free will that is beyond the natural realm of causal forces open to scientific study.

The publication in 1975 of Edward O. Wilson's book Sociobiology provoked a great controversy, because on the first page of the book, he claimed that ethics was rooted in human biology. He asserted that our deepest intuitions of right and wrong are guided by the emotional control centers of the brain, which evolved through natural selection to help the human animal exploit opportunities and avoid threats in the natural environment.

This attempt to revive Darwin's biological study of morality was rejected by some of the leading theorists of Darwinian science. For example, evolutionary biologist George Williams adopted Huxley's Kantian claim that ethics cannot be rooted in human nature because of the unbridgeable gulf between the selfishness of our natural inclinations and the selflessness of our moral duties. As the only rational and cultural animals, human beings can suppress their natural desires and enter a transcendental realm of pure moral duty.

Richard Dawkins took the same position. When his book The Selfish Gene was published in 1976, most commentators saw it as generally agreeing with Wilson's Sociobiology. But they did not notice that the last paragraph of Dawkin's book asserted a Kantian dualism that implicitly rejected Wilson's sociobiological ethics. Dawkins proclaimed that human beings were unique in their capacity for "deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism--something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world." "We alone on earth," Dawkins concluded, "can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." In a 1997 interview, Dawkins explained: "What I am saying, along with many other people, among them T. H. Huxley, is that in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don't want to live in a Darwinian world. We may want to live in, say, a socialist world that is very un-Darwinian."

Like Thomas Huxley, Williams, Dawkins, and many other theorists of evolutionary psychology have rejected Wilson's sociobiological ethics because they think that ethics requires a transcendence of human biology through culture and reason. Unlike Wilson and Darwin, therefore, the proponents of evolutionary psychology have generally rejected the idea that biological science can account for the moral conduct of human beings.

In 1996, Wilson gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) in Evanston, Illinois. This is one of the leading organizations in the world for academic researchers who apply Darwinian theories of human nature to the study of human behavior. It might seem, then, that they should accept Wilson's "sociobiology," which he had defined in the first chapter of Sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." And yet the members of this organization had decided to use the term "evolutionary psychology" as the label for their intellectual project, while avoiding the term "sociobiology." Wilson's speech in 1996 and their reaction to it made clear that the reason for their uneasiness with Wilson's "sociobiology" was their rejection of his biological account of ethics.

Wilson's speech was entitled "The Unity of Science." He argued that the ultimate aim of human understanding of the world was to achieve a unity of knowledge in which the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities would be brought together into one science. As a crucial part of that unification, ethics would be fully explained in biological terms as rooted in human nature, in the moral emotions or sentiments of the human animal. In 1975, in the very first paragraph of Sociobiology, Wilson has declared that he wanted to explain ethics as ultimately rooted in "the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain," which had been shaped by an evolutionary history of natural selection. In 1996, he was elaborating this idea for his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which would be published in 1998.

The audience at the HBES convention was shocked by Wilson's speech, because they were disturbed by his suggestion that a science of natural facts could explain the ethics of moral values. After all, isn't there a radical dichotomy between science and ethics, facts and values, is and ought? Isn't it a "naturalistic fallacy" to think that one can infer a moral ought from a natural is? John Beckstrom, the local organizer for the HBES convention, wrote a letter to Wilson after the convention condemning Wilson's speech. Beckstrom insisted on the is/ought dichotomy as enforcing a total separation between natural science and normative ethics. "You seemed to be advocating normative uses of sociobiology," he explained. "If you were, I would have to oppose vigorously your position, and I expect many in attendance with whom I later discussed your speech, would do likewise."

Until recently, most of the leading thinkers in evolutionary psychology have adopted Beckstrom's position, which falls into the tradition of Huxley in rejecting Darwin's biological science of morality. It is notable, therefore, that in recent years, the rapidly accumulating research on the biological bases of morality has become so impressive that some evolutionary psychologists are beginning to concede that Darwin was right, and Huxley was wrong.

One sign of this is how the textbooks in evolutionary psychology are being revised. In the first edition of David Buss's Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, published in 1999, there was nothing said about morality. But beginning with the second edition, published in 2004, Buss added a short section on "The Evolution of Moral Emotions." In the first edition of John Cartwright's Evolution and Human Behavior, published in 2000, there was nothing on morality. But in the second edition, published in 2008, Cartwright added a whole chapter on ethics.

In the Preface to this new edition, Cartwright writes: "It was with some trepidation that I ventured to write a chapter on ethics, but if, as part of the paradigm of naturalism, evolutionary psychology offers to provide a scientific account of the mind in all its manifestations, then it should be able to illuminate the nature of moral reasoning and help to clarify the source of our strong moral passions. After all, it is not scientifically credible that the origin of our moral convictions should lie outside the plane of human nature."

I agree. And I am pleased that some of the leaders in evolutionary psychology are beginning to come around to what some of us recognized long ago--that Darwin was right to see that a complete evolutionary science of nature and human nature must include a naturalistic explanation of morality.

A couple of my recent posts on evolutionary morality can be found
here and here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Evolution and Thomistic Natural Law: A Reply to Stephen Pope

I have often argued that a Darwinian view of evolved human nature supports traditional natural law reasoning, particularly as developed by Thomas Aquinas. I have laid out my arguments in many posts, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here. and here.

My position has been challenged by Stephen Pope in his book Human Evolution and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Pope's general argument is that "our growing knowledge of human evolution is compatible with Christian faith and morality, provided that the former is not interpreted reductionistically and the latter is not interpreted in fundamentalist ways." He also argues that the tradition of Thomistic natural law can be brought into harmony with Darwinian science. I agree with all of this.

Considering our fundamental agreement, I am confused by Pope's criticisms of my position in Chapter 11 of his book, where I am considered along with Alasdair MacIntyre, Jean Porter, and Lisa Sowle Cahill, under the title "Natural Law in an Evolutionary Context."

He offers at least five criticisms. First, he seems to agree with John Hare that "if every satisfaction of a natural human desire is good, . . . then Arnhart is not entitled to render a moral condemnation of slavery because it is produced by what he calls our natural human desire for dominance" (274). But I never say that every satisfaction of a natural human desire is good. In fact, much of my writing in Darwinian Natural Right is about how conflicts in our desires lead us to see that what we happen to desire at any one time is not necessarily truly desirable for us over a whole lifetime. Moreover, I devoted a long chapter in Darwinian Natural Right on slavery as showing a tragic conflict of desires that can only be resolved by prudence and the recognition that slavery violates our natural moral sense. Pope does not explain what he thinks is wrong with this reasoning.

Pope's second criticism is that I ignore the importance of history and variation in the moral codes of different cultures (276-77). But, again, in Darwinian Natural Right, I offer elaborate studies of cultural diversity in the handling of moral issues surrounding slavery, infanticide, female circumcision, marriage, and other topics. And, again, I emphasize the importance of prudence in deciding what is best for particular individuals in particular cultural circumstances.

His third criticism is that "acting 'according to nature' in an evolutionary sense may be immoral from a human standpoint" (277). But this ignores my Darwinian account of how the emergence of the human capacity for moral deliberation allows us to reflect on our natural desires and decide how best to manage those desires to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived.

His fourth criticism is that I am a biological reductionist, because I say that "biological goods" are the only goods, and thus I depart from Aquinas, who sees the "rational goods" as superior. But Pope does not cite any passages where I dismiss the "rational goods" of life. In fact, I include "practical reasoning," "intellectual understanding," and "religious understanding" as natural human desires.

His final criticism is that "Arnhart's 'naturalization' of ethics ignores completely the Thomistic view of human life as a journey to God" (278). But this ignores the fact that in Darwinian Natural Right (265-66) and elsewhere, I have recognized that Aquinas sees the highest ends of human beings as directed to eternal happiness with God. My point here is that such supernatural happiness belongs to divine law rather than natural law, and thus it depends on revelation that goes beyond natural experience. Pope seems to agree: "Natural law is necessary but not sufficient for Christian ethics. The good calls for the transformation of our motivations, attitudes, and intentions, and in a way and to a degree that surpasses our natural human capacities" (296). If Pope agrees with me about this Thomistic separation of natural law directed to natural ends and divine law directed to supernatural ends, then I don't understand what he is criticizing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Another Response from John Lemos

John Lemos has sent me the following response to my last blog post on his comments.

"When I say that I have no special interest in defining goodness or the good, and then I go on to say that when things do their characteristic activity well they are good, this is not problematic. If I say 'when things do their characteristic activity well they are good,' I am not thereby defining goodness, rather I am predicating goodness of such things. I want to say that this is a common way in which many things are good. This is how watches, hearts, cars, and lungs are good. And I want to suggest that human beings are good in a similar way. this is not a definition of good.

"I am open to there being other things which are good and that these other things may be good for different reasons, reasons other than the successful performance of their defining activity. Perhaps, pleasure and beauty are good but for different reasons.

"Additionally, I am open to the possibility that goodness is a nonnatural property. You ask for an explanation of what a nonnatural property is. In response, and waxing Moorean on this, I would say a nonnatural property is a simple property that is incapable of definition in terms of any natural properties. Moore, himself, held this view about goodness and some other properties, such as redness and greenness, as well as other colors. Further, the presence of such nonnatural goodness may supervene on the occurrence of certain natural properties, such as the well functioning of a thing, while not being identical with such. Redness seems to work this way too. It's occurrence supervenes on the occurrence of certain wavelengths of light, but redness is not identical with those wavelengths of light.

"These are some of my initial thoughts about your latest post. I have not responded in full here. Let me think about the rest.

"BTW, I recently studied a piece you wrote some while ago, 'Conservatives, Darwin, and Design: An Exchange,' which appeared in First Things. Comments from Behe and Dembski are provided along with your replies. In enjoyed this piece quite a lot, and I am in much agreement with things you say there. I think your take on the relationship between the truth of the Darwinian theory of evolution and religion is probably quite similar to mine, and this is probably reflected in the later chapters of my book, especially the first half of Ch. 5 of my book, where I discuss evolution and the rationality of religious belief."

Barack Obama Is No Abraham Lincoln

For a couple of months now, we have been told that Barack Obama's First Inaugural Address was going to be comparable to Abraham Lincoln's inaugural addresses. After all, Obama himself has built his political career on comparing himself with Lincoln. Obama has obviously thought a lot about this. And I have written posts about the Obama-Lincoln connection.

But today--with Obama's inaugural address--we see that Obama is no Lincoln. Obama's speech was utterly flat. He said nothing that will be remembered by anyone.

He did, however, set a somber tone by suggesting that the current economic crisis will not be overcome in a short time. Is he lowering expectations, because he knows how bad the situation is?

I remind you that last September and October, when so many people were saying we needed federal bailouts to pull us out of the financial crisis, I said that if we followed the path set by Bush, McCain, and Obama in going for federal bailouts, that we would prolong the economic crisis. I predicted that rather than an economic adjustment of one or two years, the rush to federal bailouts and other federal interventions in the economy would prolong the recession into a depression of five to ten years.

Well, I must say, sadly, that I see nothing to contradict my prediction. Isn't it clear that with the federal bailouts, we have now entered a long period of economic depression to rival the Great Depression of the 1930s?

I predicted that the Congress's unconstitutional delegation of unlimited power to the executive branch (the Treasury Department) to spend the bailout money as they wished would lead to corruption. Anyone understanding the imperfections in human nature--in knowledge and virtue--would predict that Paulson and others in the Treasury Department would use their power to reward their friends on Wall Street. Now the Congress is complaining about how no one really knows where the bailout money has gone. But wasn't this easily predictable?

I suspect that Obama is preparing us for this new depression. He knows that expanding the federal deficit to bailout one economic interest after another is not going to resolve the economic crisis. On the contrary, it will make it worse. But he has to appear to be doing something. His job, then, is to prepare us for five to ten years of depression--comparable to FDR's depression--by claiming that it's not his fault.

Get ready for a very rough ride.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Another Reply to Lemos

I have posted John Lemos' response to my earlier comments on his book Commonsense Darwinism. In reading his response, a few thoughts come to mind.

Lemos writes: "I have no special interest in defining good or the good, but I do think that things are good when they do their characteristic activity well." That's a confusing sentence. He begins by saying he has no interest in defining good, and then he defines good as a thing's performing its characteristic activity well!

He suggests that he might agree with G. E. Moore that goodness is a "nonnatural property." It would help me a lot if he could explain what this "nonnatural property" is.

He says that he departs from my position in that he defines the human good as doing well at practical reasoning. I am not sure why he thinks I disagree with this. My list of twenty natural desires includes "practical reasoning," and I give a lot of attention to the need for prudence.

Perhaps he would say that he disagrees because for him "practical reasoning" is not a desire or dependent on desire. But then I would ask, what makes practical reasoning practical, if not desire? He appeals to Aristotle. But doesn't Aristotle insist that "thought by itself moves nothing," because practical thought is always tied to desire? Doesn't Aristotle say that deliberate choice is either "desiring thought" or "thoughtful desire," because practical reasoning requires the union of reason and desire?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

John Lemos on the Good Human Life

Recently, I wrote a blog post responding to John Lemos' new book Commonsense Darwinism. He has written a reply, and he has given me permission to post it here as follows--

"I enjoyed reading your blog post regarding my recently published book. I can understand your puzzlement concerning my critique of your view, because our views are similar. However, I do believe there are some differences in our positions that may be significant, and, naturally, I think that my view is better because of these differences. In what follows, I will try to clarify some of these differences. My comments will be brief, perhaps, overly brief, but they may still be of some use to me and you.

"I see the difference between your view and mine as follows: you view the good as what is truly desirable and what is truly desirable is that which promotes the fullest satisfaction of desire over a complete life. In contrast, I have so special interest in defining 'the good.' (See p. 67 of my book.) But I do have a conception of what a good human being is. A good human being, like other good things, does well in the performance of its defining activity. Thus, since practical rationality is distinctive of human beings, good human beings do well at practical reasoning; and to do well at this requires the possession of the virtues.

"Now, while practical reason aims at the attainment of happiness, the human good (doing well at practical reasoning) is not identical with whatever promotes the fullest satisfaction of desires over a complete life. Consider that one can make irrational decisions that promote the fullest satisfaction of desire over a complete life, but this would not be doing well at practical reasoning, and so it would not be consistent with human goodness. As an example of a decision that might promote the fullest satisfaction of desire over a complete life but is irrational, consider a situation where I agree to marry a woman that I do not know in the least, and I end up being quite happy with her for the rest of my life. The decision is irrational (and, hence, not consistent with human goodness), but it ends up promoting the fullest satisfaction of my desires over a complete life. Many other cases of such irrational decisions leading to the fullest satisfaction of desires could be given.

"Additionally, on my view one can attain the human good (do well at practical reasoning) and still be very unsatisfied due to various misfortunes. Living virtuously in the prudent pursuit of happiness is to live a good life, but it is not necessarily to be satisfied. Many of our rational decisions have to do with making decisions that are most likely to promote our welfare, but sometimes what what most likely to occur does not, and we are harmed by the less likely consequence of our decision.

"Also, having the fullest satisfaction of desire over a complete life is not equivalent to having lived a good human life. Aristotle, himself, is quite skeptical of this. (See Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, where he criticizes Eudoxus' hedonistic conception of the good life.) One can desire bad things and have the power to acquire them and have little conscience and in this way achieve the fullest satisfaction of desire over a complete life. Or, as Aristotle notes, you might be a fully contented idiot and yet not be living a good human life.

"My view of human goodness must acknowledge a connection between human goodness and the satisfaction of desire since good practical reasoning aims at happiness. But, on my view, they are distinct. Goodness is the prudent pursuit of a happy life involving the virtues--since virtuous choice and action are the best means to such a happy life. But they (virtuous choice and action) are no guarantee of a happy life. So, goodness again is not simply what promotes the fullest satisfaction of desire over a complete life.

"Finally, my approach links human goodness to the defining activity of human beings in a way that allows for the kinds of rationally warranted conclusions about goodness that we make regarding other natural objects and artifacts. We say clocks are good when they tell time well, and hearts are good when they pump blood well. So, too, humans are good when they do well at their characteristic activity, rational activity. My conception of the good human being allows a way to bridge the gap between facts and values in a way that is consistent with common intuitions about the goodness of many other things, like clocks, cars, hearts, lungs, etc.

"In contrast to my approach, I feel that you try to bridge the is/ought gap with a naturalistic definition of the good as what promotes the fullest satisfaction of desire over a complete life, and I worry that this falls prey to Moore's critique of naturalism. In contrast, as I said earlier, I have no special interest in defining good or the good, but I do think that things are good when they do their characteristic activity well. This is a way for things to be good. My own approach is open to the possibility that goodness may be a nonnatural property, as Moore maintains, that supervenes on certain natural properties, one of which is the successful performance of the characteristic activity of a thing."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Is Human Nature a Superstition? A Response to David Buller

Over the past twenty years, evolutionary psychology has become remarkably influential, particularly among psychologists and anthropologists. It has also won lots of journalistic coverage. Simply stated, evolutionary psychology strives to develop a Darwinian science of human nature founded on a study of the human mind as shaped by evolutionary history. The leading proponents of evolutionary psychology include Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, David Buss, Margo Wilson, Martin Daly, and Steven Pinker.

Although I have not embraced all of the ideas associated with evolutionary psychology, my appeal to a Darwinian science of human nature, including the twenty natural desires that characterize the evolved psychology of human beings, has a lot of common ground with the intellectual program of evolutionary psychology.

One of the best critics of evolutionary psychology is David Buller, a philosophy professor who is a colleague of mine at Northern Illinois University. His criticisms are laid out in his book Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (MIT Press, 2005). A very brief summary of his criticisms appeared recently in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. The best short summary of his book is his chapter on evolutionary psychology in the third edition of Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology (MIT Press, 2006), edited by Elliott Sober. Some of the reviews of Buller's book and his replies to critics can found at his home page.

Some of the proponents of evolutionary psychology have written responses to Buller. Some of these can be found at the website for the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. One of the best responses to Buller is the essay-review by Edouard Machery and H. Clark Barrett in the journal PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE.

I think that in general these proponents of evolutionary psychology have persuasively answered Buller's criticisms. But I also agree with some of Buller's criticisms. I agree with him that the evolutionary psychologists sometimes stress the uniformity of human nature in such a way as to ignore the individual diversity that manifests the psychological polymorphism that has emerged from human evolutionary history. I also agree with him that in claiming that we all today have a "Stone Age mind" adapted to the environment of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, the evolutionary psychologists mistakenly assume that there has been no human evolution over the past 10,000 years.

But on the most crucial point--the very idea of human nature--I am on the side of the evolutionary psychologists. In the last chapter of his book, Buller argues that there is no human nature, and that, as Michael Ghiselin has said, "human nature is a superstition" (419-20, 480).

If one defines human nature in a silly way (as Buller does), then human nature does not exist. But if one defines human nature in a sensible way, then human nature surely does exist.

Buller's silly definition of human nature is that it would have to consist only of traits that satisfy three conditions--first, they must be unique to human beings and thus not shared with any other animals; second, they must be invariably and exactly the same for all human individuals everywhere; and, third, they must be eternal essences that are not historically contingent.

It is easy for Buller to argue that human evolution has not produced a human species with such traits. What we take to be typically human traits are shared with other animals. These traits are highly variable across individuals because no two individuals are ever exactly the same. And as a legacy of the unending process of evolution, these traits are historically contingent in that human traits always differ across evolutionary time.

But a sensible definition of human nature does not require these conditions. We could define human nature as constituted by regularities in that suite of generally recurrent anatomical, physiological, and psychological traits that characterize the human species.

Many if not most of these traits are shared with other animals, which is exactly what one would expect from the evolution of species from ancestral species. But the fact that human beings share many traits with other mammals, for example, does not deny the importance of mammalian traits as part of the human suite of traits.

Although this suite of traits is generally recurrent across the human species, every human individual is unique, just as every animal individual is unique, and so there will be great variation across individuals. But, for example, the fact that some individuals will be born without legs does not deny the importance of a bipedal gait as part of the human suite of traits.

This species-typical suite of traits does not have to be eternal to be real for as long as it exists. The human species with its present suite of traits evolved from ancestors that did not have this suite of traits. And we can imagine that in the evolutionary future, the human species could go extinct or could evolve in some radically new direction. But the fact of evolutionary change does not deny the reality of the evolved human nature as we know it today and in recent evolutionary history. As Aristotle said in criticizing Plato's doctrine of the Ideas, "a white thing that lasts for a long time is not whiter than a white thing that lasts for a day."

Implicitly, Buller concedes the sensible definition of human nature, because he speaks of human anatomy, human physiology, and human psychology as realities that can be scientifically studied. But human anatomy, human physiology, and human psychology are all facets of human nature; and thus Buller implicitly affirms the reality of such a human nature as sensibly defined.

As Buller indicates, Cosmides and Tooby have compared their evolutionary science of psychology to the science of human anatomy. Just as one can look at Gray's Anatomy and see the anatomical adaptations that generally characterize the human species, so one should eventually be able to study human evolutionary psychology and see the psychological adaptations that generally characterize the human species. Buller speaks of this as an "analogy" between human anatomy and human nature. But, actually, it's more than an analogy, because human anatomy and human psychology are both facets of human nature, although Cosmides and Tooby choose to concentrate on the psychological facets of human nature.

Buller complains that Gray's Anatomy shows similarities among human beings "at a relatively coarse scale." But "at finer scales," human beings differ in their anatomy. No two human beings are anatomically identical. And he argues this is also true for human psychology. To speak of human psychological universals, we must "appeal to very coarse-scale common characteristics" (426).

Well, yes, but what's wrong with that? Buller says that "psychology may one day provide us with descriptions of some very widespread regularities among the minds of our conspecifics" (456). I would say that this is exactly what we mean by the psychology of human nature. Human anatomy is real, and the science of human anatomy is a real science, even though human anatomy is individually variable and a contingent product of human evolution. Likewise, human psychology is real, and the science of human psychology is a real science, even though human psychology is individually variable and a contingent product of human evolution.

So if we define human nature as constituted by "very widespread regularities" among human beings in their minds and bodies, then human nature exists. Among those "very widespread regularities," I would include the twenty natural desires that constitute the motivational basis for moral psychology. Because of the variability in those desires and in the circumstances of action across individuals and across societies, we need prudence or practical judgment in deciding what is best for particular individuals in particular circumstances. But the regularity in the human nature of those desires sets some general standards--even if "at a relatively coarse scale"--for moral thought and action.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Darwinian Support for Aristotelian Ethics: A Reply to John Lemos

I have argued that Darwinian evolutionary biology provides an account of human nature and the natural moral sense that supports Aristotelian ethics. In recent years, a growing number of moral philosophers have been coming around to this position. One can see this, for example, in Alasdair MacIntyre's book Dependent Rational Animals (Open Court, 1999) and William Casebeer's book Natural Ethical Facts (MIT Press, 2003). Now, we have a new book by John Lemos--Commonsense Darwinism: Evolution, Morality, and the Human Condition (Open Court, 2008)--that belongs to this intellectual movement.

Lemos is a professor of philosophy at Coe College. In defense of what he calls "commonsense Darwinism," Lemos argues that Darwinian science supports traditional conceptions of morality and moral freedom that are compatible with an Aristotelian understanding of morality as rooted in human nature. Unless I am missing something, I fundamentally agree with what he says. For that reason, it is hard for me to understand his attempts at criticizing my position.

Apparently, Lemos thinks I have not properly answered G. E. Moore's charge that any evolutionary ethics commits the "naturalistic fallacy." I have often stated my handling of the issues associated with the "naturalistic fallacy" and the "is/ought" gap. Some of my posts on this can be found here, here, and here. Although Lemos seems unsatisfied by my approach to these issues, I cannot understand exactly what he has in mind.

In his explanation of my reasoning, Lemos writes: "Arnhart believes that there is no gap between facts and values because the good is the desirable and what is desirable is a matter of fact. Here he would have us understand that 'the desirable' is not simply whatever can be desired. Rather it is what is truly to be desired in the sense of promoting human flourishing, which Arnhart regards as promoting the fullest satisfaction of desires over a complete life" (44).

He goes on to insist that this kind of reasoning does not answer Moore's argument. "For Moore might still say that something is good only if it is acceptable to desire or pursue it, and the mere fact that something promotes the fullest satisfaction of desires in a complete life does not mean that it is acceptable to desire it or pursue it and thus does not mean that it is a good. Arnhart overlooks the fact that some things which promote the fullest satisfaction of desire in a complete life are things that are bad and ought not to be pursued. . . . I love my job, my wife, and my children very much. They are some of the most cherished things in my life. It is quite conceivable that circumstances could arise in which to preserve these things for myself I might need, and therefore desire, to do any number of unjust deeds. Desiring such things might well promote the fullest satisfaction of my desires over a complete life, but would such things be good? Moore's criticism still holds against Arnhart's revised definition of the good" (45-46).

But under what conditions would doing the most unjust deeds truly "promote the fullest satisfaction of my desires over a complete life"? Lemos provides no specific examples to clarify what he's saying here.

Later in his book, Lemos says that in contrast to my conception of the good as the desirable, he adopts Aristotle's conception of the good as what fulfills the distinctively human function and thereby promotes human flourishing or happiness. And he claims that this Aristotelian conception escapes Moore's argument in a way that my conception does not (67-68).

But this is confusing, because Lemos indicates that Aristotle's conception of flourishing or happiness conforms to what is "best suited to the satisfaction of one's own long term self-interest." It's hard to see how this differs from my conception of happiness as the fullest satisfaction of desires over a complete life. Moreover, while Lemos had earlier indicated that my conception of ethics could not handle those cases where acting justly is undesirable, he says here that an Aristotelian would insist that acting justly is ultimately desirable: "It might be wondered how living as a virtuous person best serves one's self-interest. Don't unjust deeds often profit the person who commits them? The best Aristotelian reply to this question would admit that unjust deeds deeds can sometimes profit a man, but a life lived in accordance with injustice rarely does so. Rather, in contemplating lives lived in accordance with justice and injustice, we see that the life of the just person is more likely to lead to happiness, since a life of injustice is more likely to lead to loss of friends, social ostracism, and retribution, whereas a just life is more likely to lead to the preservation of friendships, social acceptance, and other benefits." So it makes sense in Aristotelian ethics that "the focus is on what traits of character possessed over a lifetime would best serve one's interest" (65).

I might be missing something here. When Lemos says that the life of the just person is "more likely" to promote long term self-interest or happiness, is he suggesting that in rare cases, the just person would have to sacrifice his happiness? If so, then Lemos is implicitly pointing to what I identify in Darwinian Natural Right as tragic conflicts of interest. As I suggested in my chapter on slavery, the debate over slavery in the United States might be an example of how tragic conflicts create moral dilemmas with no clear resolution. Abraham Lincoln recognized that slavery was wrong. But he also recognized that slavery could not be immediately abolished without disastrous consequences. Is something like this what Lemos has in mind when he says that on "rare occasions" acting to promote one's flourishing might require unjust deeds?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Darwinian Human Nature in Victorian Novels

Previously, I have written about the possibility of a Darwinian literary theory. Recently, the online journal Evolutionary Psychology has published an article that illustrates how this might be done.

The authors adopt Chris Boehm's theory of how human nature evolved in egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups in which the natural desire of the few for dominance was checked by the natural desire of the many to resist exploitative dominance. If this has become part of our universal human nature, then, we might expect this would influence how literature depicts the conflicting motivations of protagonists and antagonists in literature and how readers will react to these literary depictions. We could predict that readers will like the cooperative behavior of protagonists and dislike the dominance behavior of antagonists. The authors of this article confirm this prediction through an empirical study of how 519 respondents assessed the behavior of characters in over 200 British Victorian novels. The authors conclude: "If dispositions for suppressing dominance fulfill an adaptive social function, and if agonistic structure in the novels and reinforces dispositions for suppressing dominance, the current research would lend support to the hypothesis that literature fulfills an adaptive function."

I welcome this kind of research as contributing to what I have called "Darwinian liberal education." Against the fragmentation of knowledge that dominates higher education today, liberal education should strive for a unification of knowledge that brings together the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities into a common intellectual quest to understand human life in the natural order of the whole. This is what Edward O. Wilson calls "consilience." And as Wilson indicates, evolutionary biology is crucial in providing the common ground for uniting all the disciplines through a biological understanding of human nature.

Most scholars in literature and the arts resist this unification of knowledge through Darwinian science, because they assume this means a crude reductionism that cannot account for the complex mental experience of symbolic meaning that comes through the artistic imagination. In fact, people like Wilson do sometimes endorse a strong reductionism that assumes that everything should ultimately be reducible to physics and chemistry. But a more plausible view of consilience recognizes the emergent complexity of human experience so that higher levels of complexity are constrained by, but not reducible to, the laws of physics and chemistry. Some of my posts on consilience as emergent complexity can be found here, here, and here.

This article escapes the pitfalls of strong reductionism and implicitly endorses emergent complexity, because the authors employ a theory of gene-culture coevolution in which human nature emerges not from genes alone or culture alone but from the complex interaction of genes and culture over human evolutionary history. Victorian novels are products of a unique cultural history, but they also manifest an enduring human nature shaped in human evolutionary history.

Although I generally agree with the claims of this article. There are some points where I would like some clarification. Like most proponents of evolutionary psychology--particularly, those under the influence of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby--the authors of this article assume that human nature was shaped during the hunting-gathering history of the human species during the Paleolithic era. But as many critics have noted--for example, David Buller--this assumption that the genetic evolution of the human species was fixed in the hunting-gathering past and has never changed much since then is highly dubious. Studies of recent human evolution over the past 10,000 years throw into question the claim that human psychology shows a "stone age mind" that has not evolved since the invention of agriculture and the settlement of cities and state societies.

I also question the authors' assumption that human beings by nature always feel aversion towards the desire for social dominance. I have argued that the desire for dominance or status is one of the twenty natural desires in the profile of human nature. Human beings generally desire social status through comparative social ranking. Their esteem for themselves requires that they be esteemed by others whose judgments they respect. Human beings attain high social status through prestige, fame, or honor within the groups to which they belong. Although some societies are much less hierarchical than others, all societies rank individuals as higher or lower based on age, sex, kinship, wealth, power, and other forms of ascribed and achieved statuses. Individuals become dominant through any trait or activity that produces deference in others. A few charismatic individuals become heroic leaders because of their extraordinary power to win the respect of the people around them. Men generally have a stronger desire for dominance in social hierarchies than do women. Men compete for mating opportunities, and dominant men are generally more attractive to potential mates.

I agree with Boehm that the natural desire for dominance is checked by the natural desire of subordinates to be free from exploitative dominance. But this does not mean that dominance behavior is always bad. After all, the whole point of seeking the honor or glory of high status is that this means being admired by others.

In fact, the authors of this article report as an "anomalous finding" that male protagonists who do not seek dominance are scored by readers as low on "interest." "They are not intent on acquiring wealth and power, and they are thoroughly domesticated within the forms of conventional propriety. They serve admirably to exemplify normative values of cooperative behavior, but in serving this function they seem to be diminished in some vital component of fascination, some element of charisma. They lack specifically male qualities of aggressive assertion; they lack power, and in lacking power, they seem also to lack some quality that excites intensity of interest in emotional response." Doesn't this suggest that there is something in human nature that can make male dominance behavior powerfully attractive?

One of the authors of this article--Jonathan Gottschall--has elsewhere applied Darwinian reasoning to the study of Homer's heroes. A comparative study of the Greek culture of male honor and dominance and the Victorian culture of bourgeois values might illuminate our natural ambivalence about male dominance behavior in that we admire it and fear it at the same time.

Friday, January 02, 2009

David Hume and the Secular Right

A couple of years ago, Heather MacDonald of The City Journal provoked a controversy among conservatives when she identified herself as a "skeptical conservative" who was frustrated with the assumption of religious conservatives that conservatism was impossible without religious belief. In my post on this controversy, I expressed my agreement with her claim that a conservative view of morality and social order does not require religious belief, although religion can reinforce natural morality.

Now, MacDonald and some others have started a new blog called "Secular Right." They identify themselves as belonging to the conservative tradition of David Hume. They have posted a good statement from Jerry Muller that separates the evolutionary conservatism of people like Hume from the metaphysical orthodoxy of people like Russell Kirk. This corresponds to my distinction between Darwinian conservatism and metaphysical conservatism.

Hume's conservatism is certainly "secular" in the sense that it bases moral and social order on human nature and common life rather than some supernatural standard of metaphysical order. But the common assumption that Hume was an atheist is, I think, mistaken. While criticizing "false religion," Hume defended the "true religion" of "philosophical theism." Although he criticized many of the extravagant claims made for the argument from design--the same argument that is today made for "intelligent design theory"--Hume did accept a qualified version of the design argument.

Near the end of his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote: "The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind; that is, a mind whose will is constantly attended with the obedience of every creature and being. Nothing more is requisite to give a foundation to all the articles of religion, nor is it necessary we should form a distinct idea of the force and energy of the supreme Being."

At the end of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume sketches his philosophical theism in the language of his character Philo: "If the whole of Natural Theology, as some people seem to maintain, resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, at least undefined proposition, That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence: If this proposition be not capable of extension, variation, or more particular explication: If it affords no inference that affects human life, or can be the source of any action or forbearance: And if the analogy, imperfect as it is, can be carried no farther than to the human intelligence; and cannot be transferred, with any appearance of probability, to the qualities of the mind: If this really be the case, what can the most inquisitive, contemplative, and religious man do more than give a plain, philosophical assent to the proposition, as often as it occurs; and believe that the arguments, on which it is established, exceed the objections, which lie against it?"

Hume's philosophical theist believes in God as the supreme Mind or ultimate principle of intelligibility behind the lawful order of the universe as studied by science or philosophy. Darwinian science can affirm such theism as supporting the intelligible order of the universe as the fundamental presupposition of modern science.

Some of my other posts on Humean themes can be found here, here, and here.