Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Morality and Unguided Processes of Evolution: Incompatible?

From the blog Sailing Through Moonlight comes a very interesting response to this post from the equally interesting and amusingly named blog The Constructive Curmudgeon .

My two cents, included as italicized commentary interspersed within the body of the argument (with apologies for the varying font sizes. I cannot seem to get rid of that. Freaking Blogger.):

A Moral Argument Against Darwinism

1.  If Darwinism is an adequate account of the biosphere, then human beings have no essential nature, since they evolved without design into their present forms.

Does it follow from the fact that something comes about by unguided processes that it does not have an “essential nature?” This does depend on what exactly we mean by that latter phrase. In the following I think there are two senses of that phrase being used. In neither sense do I think (1) succeeds. Sense number 1:

 Consider a trivial example. 

A natural process brings about a triangular arrangement of some natural objects.  Insofar as the arrangement is triangular it meets and satisfies the conditions, the necessary conditions for triangularity (certain Platonic objections aside). So, at least in that regard it has or exemplifies something we can label as an “essential nature.”

A second silly example; natural process inside stars bring about the elements heavier than hydrogen. Pick one. Calcium will do. It obviously has an essential nature that makes it the case that calcium is calcium. If this was brought about by what is ultimately an unguided natural process, it is beside the point. Any chunk of calcium exemplifies an essential nature because it has the atomic structure and properties summarized here.

By similar reasoning, these things, if designed and created by an intellect, also would instantiate the essences involved. Otherwise they could not be the sorts of things they are. So, whether or not these things come about by unguided processes has no obvious bearing on whether they have essential natures. Can something like this not also be said for more complex things like human beings or other living things? This gets us to sense #2 of the phrase “essential nature.” To see how, let’s move on.

2. If (1), then various races of humans may be more evolved (that is, more adaptively successful) than other races. Darwin himself states this in The Descent of Man.

I’m assuming here that the portion of (1) he is dealing with is the claim that humans evolved. If so, then 2 would seem to follow, and there is paleontological evidence that it is true, given Homo Sapiens superior adaptability as compared with Neanderthal. Now, on to that second sense of “essential nature.”


3. If (2), there is nothing intrinsically valuable about the human race as a whole. That is, some races may prevail upon other races given their selective advantages due to their unique evolutionary path.

This statement has two parts. The first statement I believe commits the same mistake that the first did. Even if it is true that various races of humans are or were at various levels of adaptation to their environments, it does not seem to follow that there is no intrinsic value they all possess. What does he mean by ‘intrinsic value?’  I think he means to oppose it to something we can call ‘instrumental value?’  An Intrinsic V is something that, quite apart from how others use it or perceive it, is of value simply because it exists.  I would contend that insofar as human beings are persons, that is, creatures endowed with reason, curiosity, and a drive to innovate and share in a social and moral setting, they are valuable, simply because the universe is a richer place for having them than it would be sans humanity.

Now, that aside, we still have the latter statement to cypher.  It just seems true, once again, when we consider the historical fact of Homo Sapiens success vis Neanderthals.  However, there is an ambiguity here in the word “may.”  There is a sense of the word that is something like this: may = likely to occur, given the nature of things.  That sense is the one I have just used. However, there is another sense of that word: may = morally allowed or permitted to do x. In that sense of the word, I believe the claim does not logically follow, IF essential natures can involve moral status AND things can come to have such essential natures and moral status by unguided processes generating the things and their properties.  As I’ve tried to point out above with the examples in (1), it seems this can happen. So, further argumentation would have to be generated that would show that moral properties, and moral status cannot exist in a world “run” by unguided processes.  I simply don’t see that argument so far.  Ceteris paribus, I reiterate that a created world can very well have things within it that have moral status as essential parts of them, but they would have this status not so much by dent of their having been created and designed, but by dent of their intrinsic natures.  To fall back on the silly example again. A created triangle, once in existence is a triangle only because it is a closed three sided figure, NOT because its creator created it. Once created its essence is independent. Something similar can be said for persons and moral status.


4. If (3), then there is no philosophical basis for the claim that humans qua humans have objective and universal human rights.

Once again, this does not seem to follow if human beings have intrinsic value for the reasons cited above.

5. But (4) is false. Our moral intuitions and the history of Western law treat every human being, irrespective of race, as possessing intrinsic human dignity and must be treated as such. The United Nation’s statement on human rights affirms this, for example, as does The United States Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.”

If (4) falls because its predecessors do not establish it, (5) simply confirms that we do indeed have cognizance of the universal intrinsic value of persons. The modus tollens argument fleshed out in the remainder of the argument collapses.

6.  Further, if (4) is true, then we have no objective basis to morally condemn the enslavement or even eradication of the “less favored races” (Darwin’s term).

Once again, (6) is false because it does not follow from the alleged fact that unguided process brought about persons that persons do not or cannot have intrinsic value.

7.  But (4) is false, because of (5).

8.  Therefore (6) is false because of (5)

9.  Therefore, (1)—Darwinism—is false. This is by modus tollens, which in this case is a reductio ad absurdum (reduce the claim to absurdity).
That's it for the commentary. Do read the original posts by S & S and CC! Very interesting stuff, the ongoing argument concerning teleology and its connection with moral status. Been raging for centuries.  What Would Aristotle Say eh?