Friday, August 20, 2010

20 Natural Desires--Useful or Agreeable to One's Self or to Others

A central claim for my conception of Darwinian natural right is that the good is the desirable, and that the generic goods of human life are constituted by 20 natural desires that are universal to human societies because they are rooted in evolved human nature. The proper ranking and organization of those desires varies according to the circumstances of different cultures and individuals, and that's why prudence or practical judgment is required for judging what is desirable for particular individuals in particular social circumstances. But we can still judge these 20 natural desires as setting the natural norm for the generic goods of human life. Those 20 natural desires are desires for the following goods-- 1. a complete life 2. parental care 3. sexual identity 4. sexual mating 5. familial bonding 6. friendship 7. social ranking 8. justice as reciprocity 9. political rule 10. courage in war 11. health 12. beauty 13. property 14. speech 15. practical habituation 16. practical reasoning 17. practical arts 18. aesthetic pleasure 19. religious understanding 20. intellectual understanding Some elaboration of what I mean by each of these can be found in Darwinian Natural Right (29-36) and Darwinian Conservatism (26-34).

This list has provoked a lot of criticisms, and I have responded to many of them in various posts. But I haven't said enough in response to the criticism that my list is naive in that it includes the "positive" desires but not the "negative" ones. For example, why not include cruelty and exploitation as natural human desires? The suggestion is that I haven't offered any justification for including only the "nice" desires on my list. Actually, there can be a dark side to most if not all of these natural desires. Obviously, cruelty and exploitation often arise from the natural desires for social ranking and war. And, in fact, many of my critics have criticized me for including war on my list of natural desires. 

But there is also a criterion of selection implicit in my account of these 20 natural desires that I need to make explicit. My implicit criterion was perhaps best stated by David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. He argued that "PERSONAL MERIT consists altogether in the possession of mental qualities, useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others" (9.1). Virtues are mental qualities that produce pleasure in impartial observers; and this pleasure produces social esteem for those mental qualities. Qualities of mind that are useful or agreeable--either to those with those qualities or to others--induces a pleasure in impartial spectators that leads to these qualities being esteemed as virtues. Hume can then catalogue the virtues according to four categories: qualities useful to others (such as friendliness and justice), qualities useful to ourselves (such as prudence and temperance), qualities immediately agreeable to others (such as wit and affability), and qualities immediately agreeable to ourselves (such as pride and greatness of mind). I think that all of these qualities esteemed as virtues could be classified as related to the natural desires on my list. We recognize the generic goods of life as truly desirable because they satisfy those natural desires that are either useful or agreeable to ourselves or to others.

In other words, my list of 20 natural desires generally excludes those desires that are undesirable because they are harmful or disagreeable to oneself or others. 

Darwin extended this Humean view of the virtues and the desires by showing how our natural desires could be explained as products of natural human evolution.


Anonymous said...

If you had to start reading Hume, with what book would you recommend to begin? And, from there?

Larry Arnhart said...