Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Evolution of Natural Law

Amy Welborn notes that The New York Times reports that Marc D. Hauser, previously mentioned here for his research on ethics and neuroscience, has just released his new book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
The moral grammar too, in Dr. Hauser's view, is a system for generating moral behavior and not a list of specific rules. It constrains human behavior so tightly that many rules are in fact the same or very similar in every society ? do as you would be done by; care for children and the weak; don?t kill; avoid adultery and incest; don?t cheat, steal or lie.

Like Dr. Hauser, I see potential for a fruitful dialogue between the biological sciences and ethics, especially natural law ethics.

However, I am unsure how science can reclaim such discoveries as authoritative. The NYTimes summarizes: "The moral grammar evolved, he believes, because restraints on behavior are required for social living and have been favored by natural selection because of their survival value."

If we grant that our moral sense is the accumulated, accidental, and unplanned result of the evolution of our ancestors, can a Darwinian natural law ethics be particularly binding? It's like an ad populum appeal to a population spread out across millions of years. The anti-traditional default position of modern liberalism discourages people from holding fast to the fixed customs handed down by their parents. Why should they adhere to the fixed urgings passed down from their ancestors' biology?

Besides such philosophical questions, there is also the danger that such valuable work will be compromised by the "anti-speciesist" stands now found among many academics. Take this introductory paragraph from the NYTimes:
Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals? feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality.

Such forms can be hitched to an anti-humanist ideology, deriding the special consideration for humans. Some of these thinkers allege that if a moral sense is found among the "dumb beasts," that's just one more blow against humans' putatively prideful place at the center of their universe.

First, this ignores the group-selection claims of Professor Hauser. As chimps privilege chimpkind, humans treat their own better than another species.

But second, I wish to attack the idea that the discovery of a moral sense among animals somehow cuts down mankind.

Certain forms of Cartesianism, especially pop-Cartesianism, are hostile to any implication that there is a physical basis for mental actions. They treat animals as mere res extensa, lacking the capacity for thought. One story goes that Descartes, while deriding the state of animals, kicked a goat to drive home his point.

This Cartesian sensibility has quite influenced modernity, and has perhaps aggrandized mankind by treating the human species as angels incarnate rather than glorified mud. It is to God and to his chosen saints, rather than nature, that contains Cartesians' moral exemplars.

I suggest that the place of animals throughout Christian and even pagan lore frees us from thinking, like pop-Cartesians, that any kind word for animal ethics thereby enables the anti-humanist crowd.

Think Aesop, the ant and the grasshopper, the fox and the grapes. Ancient and medieval writers had few qualms about treating animals as moral exemplars, sometimes even their moral superiors. One of the Desert Fathers even said: "A dog is better than I am, for he loves and does not judge."

Also recall the imagery of the pelican, who in past times was believed to rend its own flesh to feed its children. This was taken not even as a mere moral exemplar, but as a symbol of Christ's crucifixion and the Eucharist. Because of the sacramental nature of creation, even an ethics that includes ancient primates for its early models can be redeemed.

1 comment:

William Luse said...

But second, I wish to attack the idea that the discovery of a moral sense among animals somehow cuts down mankind.
Amen. Here's a review by Ed Feser in which that Cartesianism is contended against.