Friday, April 05, 2013

Nihilism as Disappointed Platonism

Is Darwinism nihilism?

If you are a Platonist, yes.  If you are not a Platonist, no.

Most Platonists today are disappointed Platonists--people with Platonic expectations that are unfulfilled, because they accept Darwinian evolution as true, and therefore since all living forms have evolved, they cannot be eternal as conforming to Plato's intelligible realm of eternal Ideas.  Moreover, if everything has evolved, this must include moral and political order, and thus there is no eternally unchanging Idea of the Good by which we can see absolute standards of right and wrong.  Consequently, there are no moral absolutes, and we must accept moral relativism or nihilism.  Darwinism is "true but deadly" (as Nietzsche said).  And thus these disappointed Platonists become nihilists.

But if you do not have Platonic expectations, you will not be disappointed by the Darwinian conclusion that everything has evolved, and therefore human beings have evolved.  Without the Platonic assumption that morality must be grounded in a moral cosmology, you will be satisfied with a Darwinian explanation of morality as grounded in a moral anthropology.  Even if morality has no eternal grounding in a cosmic God, a cosmic Nature, or a cosmic Reason, human morality can still have an evolutionary grounding in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  And thus in contrast to the disappointed Platonists, the satisfied Darwinians are not nihilists.

That's my response to Steven Forde's claim that "Darwinism is nihilism."  Forde (a political theorist at the University of North Texas) argues for that claim in his paper on "Darwin and Political Theory" for the 2013 conference of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago.  He and I will be on the same panel, where my paper is on "Nietzsche's Darwinian Liberalism."  Both of our papers can be found on the website of the MPSA.

In considering the implications of Darwinian science for political theory, Forde says that his primary concern is how to answer Glaucon's question in Plato's Republic--Why should I be moral?  If I can cheat successfully--serving my own selfish interests while exploiting others, but always appearing to be perfectly just--why shouldn't I?  Can Socrates give me any reason for a moral obligation not to cheat?

Forde agrees that "evolution is the truth," that human beings have evolved from simpler forms of life, and that human morality is a product of human evolutionary history.  Therefore, "morality is hard wired into us" (1).  The good news is that this shows that we will remain moral for as long as our evolved human nature endures.  But the bad news, he worries, is that "this morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought," because "it is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage."  Forde says this is the conclusion that he has "dreaded" during the years that he avoided the study of Darwinian science, because what this means is that Darwinism dictates nihilism, and if Darwinism is true, as it surely is, then we must accept the truth of nihilism.

Darwinism gives no good answer to Glaucon's question, Forde insists, and therefore, we might infer, Glaucon might as well put on the ring of Gyges and live a vicious human life, and even become a tyrant, while appearing to be good.  Forde is silent about whether Plato or Plato's Socrates gives a convincing answer to Glaucon's question, which leaves us with the suspicion that Forde believes there is no convincing answer at all, and so we are left with the nihilism as confirmed by Darwinism that he had always "dreaded."

Of course, Socrates in the Republic does answer Glaucon's question, but Forde's silence suggests that he does not believe that Socrates' answer is convincing.  Socrates teaches us that to know what is truly good, we must transcend the visible realm of Becoming in ascending to the invisible realm of Being, and finally ascending to the Idea of the Good.  But it's not clear that this answer is fully convincing or satisfying.  Socrates concludes the Republic with the myth of Er--a mythic story about eternal rewards and punishment in the afterlife.  The problem with this myth is that it's only a myth, and so it's not clear why we should believe it.  But the earlier answer--the Idea of the Good--is so incomprehensible that it's not clear why we should believe it either.

So what kind of "grounding" for morality is Forde (or Glaucon) seeking?  Forde refers repeatedly to the "true or normative sense" of morality (7, 12, 14, 22, 31-32).  But he never defines, explains, or defends this "true or normative sense" of morality.  Although he does not explicitly say so, Forde's references to Plato's Republic suggest that he assumes that Plato was right to think that the "true or normative sense" of morality required a transcendent, cosmic standard--the Idea of the Good.  But now that Darwinian science has refuted that belief in eternal Ideas in a divinely designed cosmos, Forde suggests, we must conclude that morality in the "true or normative sense" does not exist, and therefore the nihilists are right in their claim that morality rests on . . . nothing.  That's how the disappointed Platonist becomes a nihilist.

Identifying me (along with Hans Jonas and Leon Kass) as a Darwinian "teleologist," Forde identifies my "initial philosophic premise, that what is good for an organic being is 'good' for it in a normative sense."  Forde insists that this won't work:
"As we saw earlier, he applies this principle not only to human beings, but to animals.  Is it morally good then, and not simply adaptive, for the queen bee to kill her sisters, and the newly-dominant male lion to kill all the offspring of his predecessor?  Arnhart is correct to say that biology itself incorporates teleological thinking by speaking of the 'purpose' or 'function' of an eye or heart.  But this kind of 'teleology' is not what is meant when we speak philosophically of teleology.  One is normative, while the other is not.  We might speak scientifically of ways of life that are more successful in terms of survival--serving the Darwinian telos--or even happier, but can we say that these are normatively better?  A further argument, and a different kind of argument, would be required than the one Arnhart gives us, I believe, to establish this" (31).
Forde's reference to queen bees killing their sisters is mistaken.  What he meant to say is that queen bees can kill their fertile daughters to keep them from competing with her in reproductionHere Forde is referring to a passage in Darwin's Descent of Man where Darwin says that if some nonhuman species had a moral sense, it would not necessarily be the same moral sense as ours, because it would be adapted to the conditions of their life, which might be quite different from the conditions of human life.  In her review of Darwin's book, Frances Cobbe was shocked by this, because it denied the Platonic and Kantian idea that morality is grounded in a cosmic order of rational imperatives that are the same for all rational beings in the universe, and therefore a rational bee would have the same morality as a rational human being.  To reject this moral cosmology, Cobbe insisted, is to reject all morality and to promote moral relativism or nihilism.  Clearly, Forde agrees with her.

But why does one have to take for granted the Platonic or Kantian assumption that morality cannot have a true grounding if it is not grounded in a moral cosmology?  Why can't morality be grounded in moral anthropology--in the human sources of moral order, in human nature, human culture, and human judgment?  This might not give us categorical imperatives, but it can give us hypothetical imperatives: if you wish to live a flourishing, happy human life, then some ways of life are better suited for this than others.  For Forde the appeal to human happiness or flourishing has no "normativity," because it is not woven into the fabric of the cosmos, because while it might be part of the enduring nature of the evolved human species, it is not eternal.

Against Forde's Platonic moral cosmology, I see no reason why we can't be satisfied with a moral anthropology in which the human good is as objectively real as any trait of our evolved human species.  Someday, our human species will go extinct, and then the human good will no longer exist.  But we could still say, it was good while it lasted.

As suggested by my paper on Nietzsche, Forde's disappointed Platonism and his ambivalence about Darwinian evolution are similar to what one sees in the writings of Nietzsche.  In his early writings, Nietzsche worried about Darwinism as "true but deadly" in its denial of any Platonic or religious conception of moral cosmology.  In his middle writings, he accepted Darwinian moral anthropology as supporting an aristocratic liberalism.  But in his later writings, he turned away from this and rejected Darwinism as he embraced an aristocratic radicalism based on a mythopoetic Dionysianism that would give human life "the imprint of eternity."  Thus, in his early and late writings, Nietzsche showed the contradictions of a disappointed Platonist, which I also see in Forde's paper.  By contrast, the Nietzsche of the middle period accepts the evolution of human nature as a grounding for human moral and intellectual excellence, as having no eternal grounding but as human, all too human.

My conclusion is that it is better to be a satisfied Darwinian than a disappointed Platonist.

I have developed these points in some other posts that can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post and mostly persuasive, but you don't answer Glaucon's question.

Larry Arnhart said...

My answer is clear:

"if you wish to live a flourishing, happy human life, then some ways of life are better suited for this than others."

Given our evolved human nature, which includes twenty natural desires, the fullest satisfaction of those desires over a whole human life is the standard for human happiness.

This is a human standard, not the cosmological standard sought by Forde.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that we are missing something in Socrates' response/Plato's account as to why we shouldn't be tyrants. Isn't it because the tyrannical life/soul is a miserable one? Isn't that a more anthropological (or at least anthropocentric) account, even if combined with a cosmological teaching?

Anonymous said...

Plato held that the soul had 3 parts and that reason should be the part that rules. That seems like he's grounding it in human anthropology. You could put this in Darwinian terms by saying that human reason gave reproductive advantage to those whose reason kept the appetites from engaging in disadvantageous behaviors. That controlling the appetites and passions was one of the things reason has been selected for.

sykes.1 said...

The only thing natural selection selects is enhanced reproduction. Any character that results in more offspring becomes more common in the succeeding generations. For a social animal like humans this includes both moral and immoral behaviors. In fact, modern game theory has shown that apurly altruistic, moral population is impossible because anyone with a gene for selfishness will thrive. The only stable equilibrium must be a mix of altruistic/moral people and selfish/immoral people. So Nietsche is right.

Larry Arnhart said...

At the end of my post, I have linked to some other posts on Plato, where I agree with Catherine Zuckert and Joe Cropsey that one can interpret many of the Platonic dialogues as casting doubt on moral cosmology and favoring a moral anthropology.

Forde is not clear about this. But when he suggests that what is "good for an organic being" is not good "in a normative sense" (31), he seems to be assuming a transcendent moral cosmology. What is good "in the true or normative sense" (7) transcends human experience.

Unknown said...

First, thank you for attending so closely to my paper, and posting your reactions. Here are a few thoughts or questions in return.

I may or may not be a disappointed Platonist, but I would be perfectly satisfied with your (and Aristotle’s) “immanent teleology” of nature, if I could be persuaded that a relevant form of it survives Darwinism. Everyone acknowledges that there is “immanent teleology” in nature, in the sense that the “purpose” of the heart is to pump blood, of the eye to see. But that’s not what anyone means by “moral,” I imagine. Failing eyes are not wicked, they are merely not living up to their natural purpose.

Similarly, one could say the purpose of a human being is to survive or reproduce, to be happy, or to “flourish” (a word fully as nebulous as “moral,” I think), without that having any moral significance. As to how we define “the moral,” I don’t have a handy answer, as you noticed. But it does seem to me that when a person makes a bad investment that will hurt his flourishing, we don’t say it’s morally wrong, but if they steal to make up for it, that is. What is that difference? Whatever it is, I think we all feel it as a real, and a qualitative difference. Can we support this feeling on Darwinian terms?

Unknown said...

Standard Darwinian theory will support the first two of my proposed human purposes (survival, reproduction), but it’s not clear that it supports the other two (or any purposes beyond those two). To support them, it seems we would have to say that nature has assigned us the additional purposes of being happy and flourishing. This seems to me extremely difficult to maintain. If making me miserable in some way spurs my survival and reproduction, Darwinian nature will do everything to make me miserable. The genes of people who pursue happiness instead will not survive into the future.

Even if we were to establish happiness or “flourishing” as additional purposes assigned to me by nature, it seems to me we haven’t established that this has any moral significance. If a wolf takes a wrong turn in the forest, gets separated from the pack and perishes, its fails to live up to its purposes of survival and reproduction, but is there anything moral or immoral in it? If not, we need to assign human purposes some special status in order to bring morality into the equation.

Now, perhaps I misunderstand your position, Larry, but you didn’t challenge this in your post, so it appears you argue that moral purposes suffuse nature, such that every creature’s purpose, its good, has a moral significance. What is good for every creature is good not just in terms of survival, but as a purpose in some loftier sense. I suppose I could ask you at this point what is the “loftiness” you have in mind, for it might turn out to be parallel to my squishy definition of “the moral.” In any case, your view seems to be not that humans have any special status in nature, but that all of nature shares the human trait of moral purposiveness. I won’t quibble over whether this involves something of the “cosmic.” If conventional Darwinians reduce mankind to brute nature, while you humanize all of nature. If this is your argument, I have difficulty squaring it with phenomena like the queen bee’s treatment of her daughters, or countless other brutalities of nature. If nature has decreed that the survival of one creature frequently requires the death of others, it would seem that nature has created an incoherent moral realm.

If one does not want to anthropomorphize nature this way, it seems to me the alternative is argue that something distinctive in humanity gives us purposes of a type that do not exist elsewhere in nature. I would like to hear a good argument that this is the case, because I think it might be a promising avenue. But given the fact that we arose out of that nature by a blind (and brutal) process, that nature seems to have done nothing to insure that any creatures like us would arise at all (and that, as you point out, that our race will disappear, without nature batting an eye), I think the bar for such an argument is pretty high.

Unknown said...

My appeal to the Glaucon case was meant to highlight this. I have an incentive not to make bad investments, but what’s my incentive not to steal? In Darwinian terms, if theft provides survival or reproduction advantages, what does nature urge me to do? You are correct to claim that flourishing by and large requires a life of conventional virtue, but there might be exceptions—what is my duty then? I take it you don’t hold that we have an independent duty to sacrifice for the common good. You are right that it is not clear Socrates answers this question, at least in the way Glaucon wants (sorry I didn’t provide a full interpretation of the Republic). But Socrates does at least maintain that there is a higher and a lower by nature, in a way that lends support to morality. This is the kind of thing that I find difficult to maintain in the face of Darwin, for all the reasons given above (and others in my paper).

In any case, I am looking forward to our exchange in Chicago this weekend.

For anyone interested in seeing our panel, we’ll be at the Midwest Political Science Association convention at the Palmer House in the loop. Fair warning though: it’s Sunday morning (April 14) at 8:30 am, room TBA. Survival of the fittest!

Anonymous said...

"Failing eyes are not wicked, they are merely not living up to their natural purpose."

I highly recommend John Post's "From Nature to Norm" which discusses cases like this.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I will definitely check that out.

Larry Arnhart said...

"Failing eyes are not wicked"?

Well, if the good is the desirable, as I maintain, and if health is a natural human desire, then well-functioning eyes might be part of the human good.

Isn't bodily health a concern of prudence, a moral and intellectual virtue?

I think Forde would say that this cannot be a "moral" concern unless it is grounded in some cosmic normativity--some eternal standard of right and wrong--coming from a cosmic God, cosmic Reason, or cosmic Nature.

By contrast, I see morality as grounded in moral anthropology, so what whatever is good for human beings is a moral concern. But if so, then morality is contingent upon evolved human experience--the genetic evolution of the human species, the cultural evolution of human societies, and individual judgment and temperament.

Troy Camplin said...

"Happiness" is the brain rewarding itself for doing something it ought to be doing. One should be able to see the selective advantage to this.

There is pretty good evidence that "survival of the fittest" is quite often "survival of the most cooperative" -- given the extremely large number of social species. Humans are one of those social species. That means we have to maintain relationships, or social bonds. The more complex our social networks, the more likely we are to have the safety nets needed for survival and reproduction. Thus, actions that complexify our social environment are moral, while actions that simplify our social environment (by irreparable bond-breaking and the removal of "nodes" -- fellow humans, which are themselves complex) are immoral. It is just to remove decomplexifiers from our midst.

All of this suggests that if you are doing things that increase psychological complexity in yourself or others, or if through your actions you are increasing overall social complexity, you are acting morally. Our brains reward us for such behavior, in fact. Further, if you are doing things that decrease yourself or others (if you torture someone until they are reduced to animal psychology, for example; at an extreme, if you kill someone, you are reducing them from living to a pile of molecules), or if through your actions you are decreasing social complexity by irreparably breaking bonds, then you are acting immorally.

All put together, this seems like a more than sufficient defense of a purely Darwinian foundation for morality. Morality increases social (collectivism is not social, but deeply anti-social and anti-complex) and psychological complexity.

Anonymous said...

Troy, is it your view that we ought to cooperate, even if it is not in our individual best interest? If not, does the principle just reduce to, do what is in your best interest? Also, ought we cooperate where the group is doing something harmful? If not, and we only ought to cooperate in moral actions by the group, then isn't morality prior to cooperation, and not defined by it?

Troy Camplin said...

You are being ambiguous about "the group." Which group? Of what size?

We are social mammals; therefore, we have to live in a social milieu. That requires cooperative behavior. Not all cooperation is good -- once can cooperate to do bad things, which reduces trust, breaks social bonds, and reduces overall social cooperation.

However, I will note that nowhere in my posting do I even use the term "cooperation." There are a variety of social bonds that do not involve co-operation. Social competition may or may not involve cooperation (though it often does require some cooperation among a subset), but strengthens bonds and results in complexity (especially in its paradoxical tensions with cooperation).

In the end, humans are social mammals -- particularly, social primates -- and as a result, our moral system is going to reflect that. Our moral code is going to be specific to that species-specific reality, and not to ants nor ichneumon wasps (were such able to formulate a moral understanding of their actions). Thus, our morals co-evolved with our sociality and is founded in our evolved behaviors, from territoriality to the extension of our definition of those who are people to an increasing number, thus increasing our moral sphere through our xenophilia (underming our xenophobia).

Unknown said...

Larry and Troy,
I have no problem with an argument about what is most beneficial to the individual or to the species. What I don't get is the jump from that to "moral." Are ants who don't properly play their part in the colony immoral? If not, where does the moral element come from? Larry, you seem to be arguing that that ant is immoral, inasmuch as it is detracting from the good of its colony. Or am I wrong?

Anonymous, I think you raise a good point: our sociability is tribal, which can lead to some group behavior that is very deleterious to the larger group of mankind as a whole. Am I to be a good Nazi soldier? I think this points to a larger problem. Our individual makeup is also a mix of social and selfish impulses that make human society unusually difficult to maintain. What do I do when the two types of impulses conflict, or when my good is contrary to the general good?

Larry Arnhart said...


Are you asking for a set of algorithmic rules to decide all moral questions? As far as I can determine, there are no such rules.

If you think there are such rules, can you propose some?

Deciding what to do in particular cases is a matter of prudence or practical judgment. In my writing (including this blog), I have commented on a large variety of case studies that illustrate the exercise of such prudence--for example, the debates over slavery, female circumcision, Chinese foot-binding, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the abolition of the family, private property, etc.

The variability in individual and social circumstances make it impossible to devise a set of absolute rules to resolve every particular case.

For example, we can analyze Lincoln's decision to restrict the spread of slavery but without becoming an abolitionist, and then consider his reasoning for signing the Emancipation Proclamation. I think he exercised good judgment, but this exercise of judgment is open to dispute, and there are no absolute rules to determine that his decision was the only correct one.

What we can say from a Darwinian view is how the debate over slavery illustrates the tragic conflicts in making particular decisions thast require weighing alternatives and considering the complexity of practical circumstances. Since there is no group of human beings naturally adapted for being enslaved, slavery will always provoke resistance and conflict. But deciding when, where, and how a slave system should be abolished is a matter of practical judgment.

Similarly, I have written extensively about the efforts to reform female circumcision and eventually abolish it. But this will require practical reform proposals comparable to those that occurred in the abolition of Chinese foot-binding.

Where would you say that I have gone wrong in laying out such case studies in moral judgment?

Troy Camplin said...


Certainly our morality is tribal. One could point out that the more people you consider to be in your tribe, the more moral you are. Thus, one's morality expands.

Also, institutions matter. There are institutions that can channel our selfish impulses into creating good social outcomes and institutions that simply subvert our self-interest and institutions that subvert society to individual selfishness. Those institutions which make the social individual and make the individual social, that can transform self-interested actions into social benefit, are those institutions which increase social complexity. We cannot talk about these things without discussing the institutions at play.

Our moral theories emerge out of our social networks of people actually acting. Our moral actions emerge out of our interactions -- thus morality is a result of human action and not of human design. This means it's a bottom-up process, and institutions matter. We are very much theorizing after the fact -- engaging in a little eminent criticism.