Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Genuine Morality & the Teleologists
I have spent some time now with Steven Forde’s conference paper “Darwin and Political Theory”. As I said in an earlier post, this is a very good survey of Darwinian scholarship in moral research and political theory. Forbes has done a good job of covering the relevant work with honest care and sympathy. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a quick idea of what Darwinists have to say about morality.
It seems to me that there are two key ideas in the paper that lead logically to a very dismal conclusion. One is that Darwinism is nihilism. Evolutionary thought cannot support any genuine morality. The other is that Darwinism is true. Taken together, this means that genuine morality is, shall we say, history. I gather that Forde is not happy with this conclusion and I am pretty sure that very few people will be.
I will confine my comments to the last section of his paper, which addresses those he calls the teleologists.
A completely different approach to the problem of reconstructing moral theory within the confines of Darwinism is found in thinkers we may dub the teleologists. This strain of thought is far from new; virtually from the moment Darwin’s theories became public, attempts were made to combine it with some form of teleology, to rescue Darwinism from its apparently amoral and nihilistic implications by finding some grand design or higher purpose at work in natural selection. In the late nineteenth century, this burgeoned into a veritable cottage industry.73 The approach has been revived in recent times, in different ways, by Hans Jonas, Leon Kass and Larry Arnhart.
That certainly includes yours truly as Jonas and Arnhart, and to a lesser degree Kass, have been my teachers on these matters.
Forde makes two general arguments against the teleological (Aristotelian) approach toward a Darwinian account of morality. The first is indicated in the passage above. This strain of thought finds “some grand design or higher purpose at work in natural selection.” In other words, evolution is goal directed, driving toward better and higher forms of being. Forde thinks this is implausible and he is right. The second argument is that the teleologists suppose that a coherent moral order is possible given the nature of human beings as it has emerged in the history of our species. Forde thinks that Darwinism tells against this and he is wrong.
To begin with the first argument, it is true that we teleologists recognize a distinction between higher and lower forms of life. Hans Jonas is the best guide here. He recognized that living organisms are fundamentally distinct from inorganic matter and he supposed that this told us something important about the Kosmos: it had within it, from the very beginning, the potential for producing life and consciousness. He did not, however, argue that there was some progressive force in evolution driving toward the emergence of human souls. It is rather something like this: just as the sun presents the nature of hydrogen in the context of solar history, so living organisms present the potential for life in the context of earthly history. The evolution of life continues to present new and increasingly complex possibilities for organic and spiritual development. I don’t think that his commits the teleologists to any progressive few of evolution. Natural selection selects only for reproductive success. That process has resulted both in viruses and virtuous heroes without favoring the one or the other.
In order to explain the genuinely moral, we teleologists make a distinction between the natural forces that generate life and govern its evolution and the natural ends that various creatures and especially human beings pursue. This is Aristotle’s distinction between reason the political community comes to be (mere life) and the reason its existence is justified (the good life).
Allow me to employ an analogy. How does the art of cooking come to be? Human beings need to eat and they eventual discover in their environments which foods will nourish them. Cooking makes it possible to digest many foods more efficiently, which may have been a driving force in human evolution. If that is how the art of cooking comes to be, what makes it beautiful is that it was also guided by the desire to live well. A good French meal (or Indian, Mexican, Chinese, etc.) aims not at what is merely nutritious but at what is exquisitely gratifying. In doing so, it does not act against nature. Nature has fashioned us to enjoy fat, spices, and protein. A great cuisine fashions its table from the natural pallet, with an eye to satisfying natural appetites. The grand meal is not a product of evolution. There was no driving force in our evolutionary history that aimed at the Gumbo Ya Ya that you can get at Mr. B’s in New Orleans. That perfect stew is the result of human chefs aiming to satisfy natural appetites.
Likewise, politics and ethics are not products of natural selection. They are the products of human beings creatively working to create a satisfying life. Morality cannot work against natural selection, as Forde often says. That would put us out of business in short order. It aims to sustain the best human life.
As for Forde’s argument that no coherent moral order is possible, given the chaotic mix of desires and inclinations that natural selection has bequeathed to us, that flies in the face of the most obvious facts. If it were true, then no political communities would ever have arisen nor would any moral principles ever have been discovered or asserted. That politics, religion, and moral codes exist is proof that moral coherence is good enough for government work. The point of political theory and ethics is to figure out which kinds of regime and which kinds of moral orders best support human flourishing.
I do not share Stephen Forde’s pessimism. The Darwinian account of life’s history is doubtless true. This cannot result in nihilism if it recognizes the value of genuine morality as human beings have always recognized it. That it does.