The longest chapter in my book Darwinian Natural Right is on slavery, because the history of the debate over slavery illustrates how a Darwinian understanding of evolved human nature supports moral judgment. We can see that slavery is wrong because it violates a natural moral sense rooted in human biology.
Part of my argument in that chapter concerns Darwin's moral condemnation of slavery and how he saw his science of the biological unity of the human races as subverting scientific racism. The evidence for that interpretation of Darwin is now strengthened by a new book--Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution (2009). Desmond and Moore show how Darwin's life-long opposition to slavery influenced his science, and in particular, how his evolutionary science of Homo sapiens as one species refuted the scientific racism of those who claimed that the human races were actually separate species, and that the inferior races were naturally adapted for slavery.
And yet there's an ambiguity in the message of the Desmond and Moore book. On the one hand, their dominant theme is how Darwin's opposition to slavery manifested his humanitarian morality. On the other hand, they occasionally suggest that Darwin's theory of evolution could be interpreted as a "biologizing of genocide" (147-55, 318, 326, 337, 344). The problem is indicated in the full title of Darwin's most famous book--The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Does this mean that the extinction of the "lower races" by the more "favoured races" must be accepted as part of nature's evolutionary "struggle for life"? If so, then was Adolf Hitler correct to see this as scientific support for his Nazi ideology as based on the the triumph of the Master Race in the struggle against inferior races? Would this confirm Richard Weikart's "Darwin-to-Hitler" thesis?
During his trip on the Beagle, Darwin saw the brutality of European colonists in enslaving others and extinguishing aboriginal peoples in warfare. Near the end of his Voyage of the Beagle (Doubleday, 1962), Darwin recounts that every time he hears a "distant scream," he is reminded of his painful feelings from hearing slaves being tortured in Brazil. He describes in vivid language some of the "heart-sickening atrocities" he observed, and he concludes:
"Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;--what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children--those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own--being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbors as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendents, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin" (496-98).
Darwin's reference at the end--to British efforts "to expiate our sin"--is to the acts of the British Parliament in outlawing the slave trade in 1807 and abolishing slavery in the British colonies in 1833. Most importantly, the outlawing of the slave trade was enforced by the Royal Navy sailing the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas capturing slave ships and liberating their human cargo. This anti-slavery policy was induced through an extended campaign by anti-slavery societies that wrote up reports with detailed descriptions of the cruelty of slavery, reports that were widely published to provoke moral emotions of revulsion. Thus, these groups employed the same rhetorical tactics as are used today by human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Darwin's writings contributed to the moral rhetoric of abolitionism in three ways. The first way is by expressing his own moral outrage at the atrocities of slavery, which he did in his Voyage of the Beagle book and elsewhere. Desmond and Moore stress this.
But they don't recognize a second way in which he supported abolitionist morality. From the notebooks that he began after returning from his voyage, we can see that in explaining the evolution of morality, he relied on those theories of morality promoted by David Hume and Adam Smith that emphasized moral emotions or moral sentiments based on sympathy or fellow feeling. By extending ourselves imaginatively into the lives of others, we mirror their emotional experiences, and thus feel disapproval when they are unfairly harmed by others. In the Descent of Man, Darwin elaborated his theory of how this natural moral sense could have evolved. He thus supported the moral rhetoric of abolitionism by showing that the abolitionist appeal to moral emotions of repugnance towards slavery based on our sympathy for the slaves expresses the emotional roots of moral experience. Later, Edward Westermarck elaborated this theory of morality as founded on moral emotions. And, most recently, biological research on the emotional character of morality--including the neural bases of moral emotions--has deepened the science of Darwin's theory. Desmond and Moore don't see the importance of this Darwinian account of morality in sustaining the moral case against slavery.
Desmond and Moore stress the third way in which Darwin's writing supported abolitionism--his argument for the unity of the human races. Through much of the nineteenth century, there was an intense scientific debate between the polygenists who argued that the human races were actually separate species and the monogenists who argued that the races were varieties of the same human species. The polygenists provided scientific support for the proslavery claim that black slaves belonged to an inferior species, while the monogenists sustained a scientific basis for the unity of the human species as one human family. As Desmond and Moore show, the leaders of the Confederacy in the American Civil War understood the moral and political implications of this scientific debate, because they sent paid Confederate agents to England to support the Anthropological Society of London, founded in 1863, which sponsored the pro-slavery arguments for polygenism.
But then Desmond and Moore admit that their story of Darwin as the humanitarian opponent of slavery and racial bigotry is apparently undermined in two ways. First, in the Origin of Species, Darwin devotes a long passage to his study of the "slave-making instinct" in some ants, which was interpreted by some readers as suggesting that slavery could be justified as natural. In fact, as Desmond and Moore indicate, the discovery of ant slavery by Pierre Huber early in the nineteenth century was cited by pro-slavery authors as a clear example of natural slavery. Desmond and Moore worry that Darwin was "naturalizing the slave-making instinct" (302). But they are reassured that Darwin refers to this as "so extraordinary and odious an instinct." They don't acknowledge, however, that in later editions of the Origin, Darwin dropped the words "and odious." Did Darwin decide that it is not appropriate to morally condemn the behavior of animals that have no moral sense? Desmond and Moore suggest this when they argue that only humans are "reasoning moral beings" who can be held morally responsible for their behavior, and therefore there is no moral analogy between ant slavery and human slavery (303-304). They might have reinforced this point if they had referred to a passage in the Descent where Darwin speculates on how bees might have developed a different moral sense from that of humans if the bees had developed intellectual faculties comparable to those of humans, which suggests that without such intellectual capabilities, there is no moral experience.
In DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, I have a long section on ant slavery. I argue that considering the similarities and differences between ant slavery and human slavery illuminates the biological nature of slavery. The similarities suggest that slavery among ants and humans is rooted in a natural inclination to exploitation. The differences suggest that the uniquely human opposition to slavery is rooted in a natural moral sense that resists exploitation.
There's a second, and more pervasive, way in which Darwin's writing seems to weaken the story of his humanitarianism. Although in his early notebooks, he wrote a note resolving never to use the words "higher" and "lower," he did often distinguish the "civilized races" from the "lower races." He also described the military success of the "civilized races" in extinguishing the "lower races," which he presented as crucial for moral evolution, because those groups that were more loyal and courageous in fighting for their group would be favored by natural selection in defeating those groups that were less loyal and courageous. Desmond and Moore attribute this to the influence on Darwin of Thomas Malthus's depiction of how human beings are driven to compete for scarce resources, and they worry that this pushed Darwin towards "rationalizing the darker side of tribal contacts" (147).
In his Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin writes:
"Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look to the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia, and we find the same result. Nor is it the white man alone that thus acts the destroyer; the Polynesian of Malay extraction has in parts of the East Indian archipelago, thus driven before him the dark-coloured native. The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals--the stronger always extirpating the weaker. It was melancholy at New Zealand to hear the fine energetic natives saying, that they knew the land was doomed to pass from their children" (433-34).
He describes in gruesome detail the war he observed in Argentina as General Juan Manual Rosas tried to exterminate the Indians.
". . . This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood! When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman, he answered, 'Why, what can be done? they breed so!'
"Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilized country?" (102-103).
In his Beagle Diary (ed. R. D. Keynes), Darwin wrote:
"If this warfare is successful, that is if all the Indians are butchered, a grand extent of country will be gained for the production of cattle: & the vallies of the R. Negro, Colorado, Sauce will be most productive in corn. The country will be in the hands of white Gaucho savages instead of copper-coloured Indians. The former being a little superior in civilization, as they are inferior in every moral virtue" (181).
Should we worry, as Desmond and Moore do, that this shows Darwin "biologizing colonial eradication" (149)? Is it immoral to teach that the natural history of humanity shows "the stronger always extirpating the weaker"?
But notice, first of all, how Darwin's language conveys a sense of moral tragedy and revulsion--"melancholy," "a dark picture," "shocking," "inhuman," "atrocities," "butchered." Because their advanced agrarian society based on farming and herding gives them economic superiority over aboriginal peoples, those "a little superior in civilization" are also superior in military power although "inferior in every moral virtue."
We might read Darwin as pointing to a problem clearly captured in Pascal's Pensees (fr. 192):
"It is just that what is just should be followed; it is necessary that what is stronger should be followed. Justice without force is impotent, force without justice is tyrannical. . . . We must therefore combine justice and force; and to do this, what is just should be strong, or what is strong should be just."
We might be reminded of Thucydides' famous account of the Melian dialogue, where the Athenian envoys tell the Melian envoys: "you know as well as we do that justice in human arguments is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (5.89). They go on to declare: "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessity of their nature, they rule wherever they can" (5.105).
We miss the deep lesson in the Melian dialogue, however, if we see it simply as the triumph of the strong over the weak. The Athenians failed in their attempt to persuade the Melians to surrender without a fight. The Melians fought to the death, forcing the Athenians to suffer casualties during a long siege. So even though the Melians were defeated, their just resistance to unjust aggression inflicted great harm on the Athenians.
Nietzsche presents this lesson in his Darwinian account of morality in Human, All Too Human (92-93). Justice originates as reciprocity between approximately equal powers. But there can also be a "right of the weaker." "If one party, a city under siege, for example, submits under certain conditions to a greater power, its reciprocal condition is that this first party can destroy itself, burn the city, and thus make the power suffer a great loss. Thus there is a kind of equalization, on the basis of which rights can be established. Preservation is to the enemy's advantage."
The natural propensity to take vengeance against injustice through physical violence is a powerful check on injustice. This is conveyed in one of the first moral laws of the Bible: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). The natural human propensity to murder is countered by the natural human propensity to kill murderers. The sense of justice is most clearly manifested in the sense of injustice--the desire to right a wrong by taking vengeance on the wrong doer.
It's an uncomfortable truth that moral history is often decided by acts of violence and war. That's particularly true in the modern history of the debate over moral rights. John Locke's teaching about natural rights begins with his assertion of the natural human right to use force and violence to protect one's life and property. A just government is to secure rights. But when justice is perverted, the people have "no appeal but to Heaven," as in the Old Testament case of Jephtha and the Ammonites, and that means war. The ultimate check on an unjust government is the threat of revolutionary violence.
Similarly, we think of the American Declaration of Independence as a noble expression of the moral principles of rights. But, of course, this was a declaration of war in which the moral and legal debate over rights would be settled by force of arms.
Likewise, when the debate over slavery in the United States reached an impasse, the Civil War resolved the issue by military force. Abraham Lincoln concluded his Cooper Union speech in 1860 by declaring: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." Then, in 1863, in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of the U.S. as "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." But then he immediately warned that "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Lincoln must hope that the moral superiority of freedom over slavery can be expressed as military superiority--this is his "faith that right makes might."
Some religious believers say that the only conclusive way to resolve great moral disputes is by appealing to God's moral law as revealed in the Bible. But we should note that the Bible itself is a remarkably bloody book: from the Old Testament to the last book of the New Testament (Revelations), God leads His people in war. Moreover, the Bible didn't resolve the debate over slavery because biblical believers couldn't agree as to whether the Bible supported or condemned slavery. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln observed that in the division between North and South: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."
In fact, as Mark Noll has observed, the Civil War became a theological crisis for biblical believers who could not find in the Bible clear resolution of the moral question of slavery. Noll writes:
". . . The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. . . . it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant."
And, in fact, we now know, as a result of the Civil War, that the Bible must condemn slavery as immoral.
This combination of justice and force--so that "right makes might"--continues in the modern history of human rights. The brutal power of Nazism seemed to show the same dark power in human history that Darwin had seen--"the stronger always extirpating the weaker." But ultimately the Nazis were defeated not by force of moral argument but by force of military arms. And then, the moral revulsion against Nazism and the Holocaust led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declared that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." Here, then, are the instinctive moral emotions of repugnance against injustice that Darwin and Westermarck saw at the base of all moral experience. Our revulsion against great "wrongs" leads us to assert the "rights" that we want to defend.
The Universal Declaration also states: "it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law." There was a long discussion among the drafters of the Universal Declaration as to whether they should declare a human right to revolution. Some of them were nervous about openly endorsing such a right as encouraging anarchy and subversion of legal government. But they finally agreed that this statement should clearly acknowledge "rebellion against tyranny and opppression" as as "last resort." This statement also implies that we can identify human rights as those conditions for human life that cannot be tyrannically denied without eventually provoking violent rebellion.
We can say, then, that human rights are natural rights in so far as they are enforced by the natural human propensity to take vengeance against, and feel revulsion towards, great injustices.
If this is so, then right does make might.
A few of the many posts that take up related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here, here., here, here, here, here, and here.
I am fond of the argument you are making to the extent that it is prudent to employ science on behalf of morality, but I do not honestly see anything in evolutionary theory, as understood from a scientific point of view, that makes any understanding which includes natural right, or natural law, or even morality, as traditionally understood, necessary with respect to our choices or beliefs by way of evolution.
Let me be perfectly clear here, one can certainly understand Darwinism or evolutionary theory in such a way that natural right might find a place in the world if humans evolve; however one might also note that lying, adultery, rape, murder, and even genocide, along with all other vice and human evil, are just as much products of evolution as the indignation we express and feel in the face of such phenomena. That having been said, one could argue for such things on evolutionary ground; that is, one could argue that all human behavior, even the behavior we disapprove of, are natural products of evolution and necessary to the end of survival. To the extent that we argue against that which we oppose on moral ground, or for natural right, etc., we use a standard and criteria which is foreign to evolutionary theory; that is, a concept of the good which is something more than just survival.
Timothy E. Kennelly
Darwin lays out his reasoning for the evolution of the moral sense most fully in THE DESCENT OF MAN.
Where exactly do you think he went wrong? He argued that morality is natural for human beings because they are naturally inclined to suppress their short-term selfish desires in favor of natural desires for parental care, mutuality, reciprocity, social approval, and so on. Where did he make his big mistake in reaching such conclusions?
Your position seems to be a restatement of T. H. Huxley's argument in "Evolution and Ethics," which rejected Darwin's reasoning for the moral sense. Are you saying that Huxley understood Darwinian evolution better than Darwin?
Darwin speaks of morality as a joint product of moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments. If you reject this, what is your alternative explanation for moral experience?
I would be interested in why you have concluded that all of the scientific research on the evolutionary origins of morality is false.
For example, I have written about the extensive research in neuroscience on the neural basis of moral experience as shaped by evolutionary history--as in the surveys by people like Marc Hauser and Jonathan Haidt. Apparently, you have studied this research and detected fundamental mistakes. What mistakes have you identified?
Similarly, I have written often about the studies of the Darwinian/Westermarckian theory of the incest taboo. Research in anthropology, genetics, and primatology seems to support this as a well developed example of evolutionary ethics.
But from your study of this research, you have concluded that there is no basis for this research. Could you explain your reasoning for this conclusion?
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