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Larry Arnhart: Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 332. $74.50. $24.95, paper.)

There are different ways to apply Darwin's ideas to topics having to do with morality. One is to treat morality as a psychological-cultural phenomenon and then account for its development over time in terms of forces analogous to Darwinian spontaneous variation and natural selection. This is the way of the pragmatists, William James and, more recently, Richard Rorty. Another is to treat morality as a fundamentally biological phenomenon, the key features of which are explicable in terms of exactly the same Darwinian forces that account for the evolution of typically human organic and behavioral characteristics. This is the way of the sociobiologists, among others.

Arnhart's contribution to the SUNY series in Philosophy and Biology is an example of the latter approach. The unique feature of this book is that, according to Arnhart, biological evolution has produced in us more or less the sort of morality described by Aristotle. There are, Arnhart claims, things that humans desire by nature, twenty-some odd such things to be exact. These natural desires are the bases for natural rights, universal moral standards in terms of which to judge how well or how poorly different societies satisfy them. Since the human beings who desire these things are products of biological evolution, these goods and the rights they support are grounded in the biological nature of human beings. The rights to have these desires satisfied therefore are Darwinian natural rights. These biologically based desires and the rights to have them satisfied provide the universal element of morality, the portion that is amenable to theoretical knowledge. The remainder of morality, the application of these g eneral principles in particular cases, is variable and a matter of practical judgment.

Arnhart lays out his Darwinization of Aristotle in chapter one. In chapter two he presents his account of natural desires. In chapter 3 he argues against the Hobbesian dichotomy between biology and culture and in chapter four against the dichotomy between moral freedom and the natural world. In the next three chapters he uses his Darwinian natural rights theory to distinguish between social relationships that are according to nature, familial bonding (chapter five) and conjugal bonding (chapter six), and ones that are contrary to nature, slavery (chapter seven). In chapter eight Arnhart discusses psychopaths as examples of individuals who lack the natural moral sense common to normal humans. He argues in chapter eight that Darwinian biology treats species as noneternal natural kinds and recognizes that living organisms have natural ends. In chapter ten, he contends that the naturalistic morality he has described in this book does not require religious support although the latter can reinforce what the former already prescribes.

Despite his invocation of Aristotle, there is something profoundly unAristotelian about Arnhart's Darwinian natural rights position. This is most obvious when he says, "I regard ethics as a natural science, because it is a science of factual judgments about human nature" (p. 158). For Aristotle, practical wisdom, being good at finding the middle ground between extremes of emotion and action, is not the same thing as having theoretical insight into the biology of human beings or anything else for that matter. The things that have to be molded by practical thinking are biological products. The thinking and habituation that molds them are not. The latter are functions of socialization, second natures rather than firsts. In this respect, the pragmatists' treatment of morality as a psychological-cultural matter that has no specific expression in our biological make-up is closer to Aristotle's position than Arnhart's is.

One of the unfortunate features of a position like Arnhart's is its dismissiveness of moral visionaries. This is evident is his distinction between Darwin's moral realism and moral utopianism and Arnhart's writing off of the latter as a kind of effete idealistic yearning (pp. 143-49). Darwin's belief that our moral feelings are first of all for our own kin is realistic, according to Arnhart, because it accords with his own evolutionary biology. His belief that humans are capable of a disinterested love for all people and even all creatures is utopian, because it does not. In the latter case, Darwin exhibits a "utopian yearning for an ideal moral realm that transcends nature" (p. 146f.). The thing that is misguided in this case is not Darwin's humanitarianism. It is, instead, his belief that he needed to find a biological basis for it, in female as opposed to male biology for example, in order to validate it morally.

Arnhart's biologism reinforces this misguided belief. He makes Darwin, the humanitarian, out to be a morally irrelevant dreamer. Moral visionaries generally are ineffectual, in Arnhart's account. They create and call us to higher standards than we are used to without regard for whether these are written into our biological nature.

But it surely is not the case that people like Moses, Jesus, Thomas Jefferson, Ghandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King are morally ineffectual because they are either ignorant of or unwilling to face up to the biological facts on which morality are based. These moral visionaries are to morality what Newton and Einstein are to science. Innovators like these have made us what we are, morally and scientifically speaking. We have the morality that we have today because Moses, Jesus, and the rest spoke and acted as they did in our past. We need no more than that, along with continuing development of our moral practices by once and future visionaries, to determine that slavery is wrong or that clitoridectomy is an abominable practice. The idea that these moral judgments are unstable unless they can be shown to be adequate expressions of something in our biological nature is as misguided as the idea that contemporary physics is unstable unless its theories can be shown to be adequate expressions of something in physical nature.

J. WESLEY ROBBINS is Professor of Philosophy in Indiana University at South Bend.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Robbins, J. Wesley
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000

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