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?

No comments: