Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Freiburg Workshop (5): Ruse on Darwin's "Terrifying" Liberal Theory of Morality

Michael Ruse is the most important philosopher and historian of evolutionary thought of the past fifty years.  I remember well how instructive it was for me to read his Darwinian Revolution in 1979, when I was starting to think about the implications of Darwinian evolutionary science for political philosophy.  Since then, he has written a shelf of books that have made a profound contribution to our understanding of the moral, political, theological, and epistemological ramifications of evolutionary thinking.

At the Freiburg workshop, Ruse presented a paper on "Darwin and Liberalism: Adam Smith and John Rawls."  He argued that Darwin's thought was decisively shaped by the liberalism of his family and by liberal English and Scottish thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith.  He also argued that while John Rawls could accept Darwin's liberal theory of morality as explaining the origin of morality, he could not accept it as explaining the justification of morality, because he agreed with Kant that the justification of morality required morality to be rooted in the necessary conditions for rational beings in society.

Despite my fundamental agreement with Ruse, I disagree with some of the ways that he describes the Darwinian approach to morality.  For example, he says that Darwin’s evolutionary theory of morality is “terrifying,” and that it shows “total skepticism about the foundations of morality,” because “being good is just a matter of a fancy kind of emotion.”

This reminds me of a remark by Ruse and E. O. Wilson in a 1985 article, in which they said: “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate (so that human genes survive). . . . Furthermore, the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.”  This remark has been made famous (if not infamous) by creationists and intelligent design theorists who repeatedly quote it to show the immoralism or nihilism of any Darwinian account of morality.

I think that Ruse’s point here is the same as my point in my paper for the workshop about liberal evolutionary morality being rooted in a moral anthropology but not in a moral cosmology.  That is to say, human morality is rooted in human nature, human culture, and human judgment, but not in a cosmic Nature, a cosmic God, or a cosmic Reason. 

But I see no warrant for describing this as a “terrifying” teaching that morality is an “illusion.”  Ruse seems to assume a Platonic or Kantian view that the truth of morality would require that it be written into the eternal order of the cosmos, and so if it isn’t, then morality is an illusion. 

But surely the fact that we humans have evolved to be moral animals is an objective truth about us that will remain true for as long as we endure as the kind of animals that we are.

Darwin agreed with me about this, as indicated by his response to Frances Cobbe, who was like Ruse in finding Darwin's teaching "terrifying," because it denied her Kantian belief that only a cosmic morality could be an objectively true morality.  Like most moral and political philosophers today, Ruse takes the side of Cobbe against Darwin.

Some of my posts on this point can be found here, here., here, and here.

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