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A Further Response to Larry Arnhart, pt. 1: Darwinism and Traditional Morality

Political science professor Larry Arnhart, author of the book Darwinian Conservatism, is probably the most thoughtful and articulate proponent of Darwinism as a support for conservatism. My recent book Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest is largely framed as a response to Arnhart’s arguments. I appreciate how seriously Arnhart takes the debate over the implications of Darwin’s theory, and also how committed he is to a civil discussion. Arnhart has now responded to my book in two posts (here and here) on his Darwinian Conservatism blog, and in a four-part series over the next several days I will be offering my response to his comments. After some initial clarifications, today’s post will focus on the issue of Darwinism and traditional morality.

Unfortunately, Arnhart starts his analysis of my book by mischaracterizing my position. He states that I reject “evolutionary science as totally false.” But that claim is incorrect. It is true I am deeply skeptical of the neo-Darwinian claim that all of the highly intricate features observed in nature are the products of an unguided material process of natural selection acting on random mutations. The scientific evidence, in my view, does not substantiate such a claim. But this does not mean that “evolutionary science” is “totally false.” Certainly evolutionary theory offers interesting insights into a wide array of microevolutionary changes, such as the development of antibiotic resistance or changes in the size of finch beaks. Evolutionary science also seems to offer at least a plausible hypothesis about the role of common ancestors in biology, although some of the reasoning used to support common ancestry seems circular and the evidence for universal common ancestry seems lacking. One reason I prefer to use the limiting term “Darwinian” or “neo-Darwinian” when

I talk about “evolution” is to make clear that I do not rule out or reject all types of evolutionary explanations.
In the past, Arnhart has also mischaracterized my views about morality and religion, claiming that I “insist that Biblical religion is the only reliable source of moral norms,” and suggesting that I reject the idea of a “natural moral sense.” Yet as I explained at the session in which we both participated at the American Political Science Association in August 2006, I embrace the natural law tradition and believe that human beings have access to morality not only through revelation (e.g., the Bible), but through reason and conscience—the moral law “written on our hearts.” My acceptance of the idea of natural law has been a consistent theme in my writings, including my work on C.S. Lewis (Public Life in the Shadowlands and The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia) and my work on religion and politics, including The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation and the introductory essay to The Encyclopedia of Religion and American Politics.

Arnhart is right about one point: Just because I am skeptical of Darwinism doesn’t mean I reject a biological grounding for certain human behaviors and traits. He is correct that I am open to some of the ideas he offers about a “biological conservatism.” I just do not think that Darwinism provides a convincing or helpful explanation for how most biological traits developed.

Following is my response to Arnhart’s continued effort to enlist Darwinism to support traditional morality.

1. Darwinism and Traditional Morality

In my book, I challenge the attempt to locate a non-relative justification for morality in Darwinism. According to a Darwinian conception of ethics, every behavior regularly practiced by at least some subpopulation of human beings is ultimately a product of natural selection. Thus, while the maternal instinct is “natural” according to Darwinism, so is infanticide. While monogamy is “natural,” so are polygamy and adultery. Because of this uncomfortable truth, even some noted Darwinists such as Thomas Huxley have recognized the difficulty of grounding ethics in a Darwinian understanding of nature. If all human behavior patterns are equally justified by natural selection, then there is no way to use Darwinism itself to classify any particular behavior as intrinsically right or wrong. For example, if natural selection is a complete explanation for pedophilia on the part of certain males, how can we say that such behavior is intrinsically wrong in Darwinian terms? Pedophilia must persist in a certain subpopulation of males because it offers a survival advantage selected for by natural selection. Thus, in Darwinian terms, the behavior of pedophiles is just as defensible as the behavior of non-pedophiles. Of course, if we believe in a moral standard that exists outside of the Darwinian process of natural selection, we can judge pedophilia according to that standard and declare it to be wrong. But according to Arnhart, no such standard exists. The most significant problem with Darwinism is not that it encourages amoral behavior but that its purported account of morality undermines the ability to make objective and non-relative distinctions between what is moral and what is immoral.

Rather than respond directly to my analysis of Darwinism as an insufficient grounding for the principles of morality, Arnhart tries to shift the focus to the presumed insufficiencies of the Bible as a guide to morality. Before responding any further I need to make something clear: Even if Arnhart’s critique of Biblical morality happens to be correct, it does not absolve Darwinism from the charge of fostering moral relativism. Darwinian morality needs to be defended on its own terms, not merely by pointing out perceived weaknesses of a Biblical understanding of morality. Arnhart’s critique of Biblical morality essentially dodges the central question of whether Darwinism itself is capable of justifying permanent moral standards. (As a secondary matter, it should be mentioned that Biblical morality is not the only alternative to Darwinian morality. The natural law/natural justice tradition provides another way of understanding moral universals. Thus, even if Arnhart shows that the Biblical account of morality suffers from the same problems as Darwinism, that does not mean that all other systems of morality are equally problematic.)

While I believe Arnhart’s critique of Biblical morality to be a diversion from the main question, I am willing to respond to it because I think his critique is largely wrong. I say “largely” not “wholly” because Arnhart is right to point out the challenges of applying moral truths to real life. Deciding how to apply an abstract principle of morality to any particular situation can be difficult and requires the ability to engage in prudential reasoning. This is a challenge for any system of ethics, whether Biblical or Darwinian. But logically prior to the determination of how to apply a moral principle in practice is the question of whether a moral principle is authoritative in the first place. The problem with Darwinian explanations of morality is that they provide no adequate way to distinguish “moral” behaviors from “immoral” behaviors because (by definition) all behaviors that exist must exist because they somehow promoted survival and were selected for by natural selection. Thus, in Darwinian terms, men who commit adultery are just as biologically “justified” as men who remain faithful to their spouses.

By contrast, in older systems of ethics such as Biblical morality or Greek idealism or the natural law tradition, at the foundation of moral reasoning were certain virtues and vices that were regarded as intrinsically right or wrong. This was true even for Aristotle, a thinker Arnhart prizes. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that

[t]here are some [vices] whose very name implies wickedness, as e.g. malice, shamelessness, and envy, among emotions, or adultery, theft, and murder, among actions. All these, and others like them, are censured as being intrinsically wicked, not merely the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is never possible then to be right in respect of them; they are always sinful. Right or wrong in such actions as adultery does not depend on our committing them with the right person, at the right time or in the right manner; on the contrary it is sinful to do anything of the kind at all…. [Nicomachean Ethics, Bk VII, chapter 6, trans. by J.E.C. Weldon]

Unlike Aristotle—or Biblical morality or the natural law tradition—Darwinism does not supply a basis for categorically declaring any traits to be permanent virtues or vices across time and culture.

Arnhart’s main response to this objection seems to be a claim that the precepts of Biblical morality are just as prone to relativism as Darwinian morality, and he cites the practices of polygamy, infanticide, slavery to prove his point. These practices are typically cited by critics of Darwinian ethics to show the inability of Darwinism to defend such concepts as monogamy, the sacredness of human life, and human equality. But according to Arnhart, the Bible has espoused a view of these practices that is very similar to the Darwinian understanding. As I noted previously, even if Arnhart has correctly identified flaws in the Biblical approach to morality, it would not absolve Darwinism from its own inability to justify moral universals. However, I think Arnhart’s exposition of Biblical teaching is strained and unpersuasive.

(a) Polygamy and the Bible.

Consider Arnhart’s claim that “polygamy is endorsed in the Old Testament.” Really? In the Bible’s account of the institution of human marriage in Genesis 2:21-24, monogamy is clearly upheld as the original pattern for the human family: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In the Biblical account, the marriage of Adam and Eve before the Fall sets the marital ideal as monogamy, not polygamy. In the rest of the Old Testament, polygamy is tolerated and occasionally regulated, but only the most superficial reading would claim that it is “endorsed.” To the contrary, an underlying theme of Old Testament accounts of polygamy seems to be the tragic consequences of departing from God’s original ideal of monogamy. In the Old Testament, polygamy almost invariably produced family and ethnic discord (e.g., the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Gen. 16 and 21; the story of Leah and Rachel in Gen. 29-30; the conflict between Joseph and his brothers in Gen. 37). Polygamy also encouraged idol worship and unfaithfulness to the true God (see the account of King Solomon in 1 Kings 11). In sum, the Biblical ideal in marriage was monogamy from the very start, and departures from that ideal were shown to be harmful to relationships between human beings and between man and God. Just because polygamy is not explicitly prohibited in the Old Testament does not mean the Bible is neutral toward the practice. As Aquinas wisely pointed out, one cannot legally prohibit every violation of Biblical morality in a sinful world. Nevertheless, the Biblical ideal of monogamy as the original form of human marriage provides a basis for discouraging other types of conjugal relationships as inferior. In the Darwinian account, by contrast, there can be no ideal form of marriage to appeal to across time and culture. Mating practices continue to evolve according to needs for survival of each period of time, and presumably each mating practice that persists has been preserved by natural selection because it somehow promotes survival.

(b) Slavery and the Bible.

Arnhart likewise insists that “the Bible endorses slavery. In fact, the Biblical basis for slavery is so explicit that the proslavery Christians in the American South were adamant in defending slavery as Biblically justified.” But in the Biblical story of creation—unlike in the Hindu creation account of the Laws of Manu—human beings were originally created equal in the image of God. Because of this, slavery cannot be considered God’s original ideal for human relationships. Instead, as Augustine explained in the City of God (Book XIX.15), slavery should be regarded as a consequence of sin, not as part of God’s original plan. Far from encouraging slavery, the Bible sought to circumscribe its practice and articulated a clear vision of human equality before God that made slavery increasingly indefensible over time. In the Old Testament, the Jews’ exodus from Egypt celebrated the movement from slavery to freedom that is central to both Jewish and Christian theology. Jews were forbidden to enslave their fellow Israelites (Lev. 25:42-43), and anyone “caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites” into slavery was given the death penalty. (Deut 24:7) Jews were allowed to become temporary indentured servants, but they had to be released after six years of service or at the next year of jubilee (Ex. 21:2, Lev. 25:39-41). Only foreigners were allowed to be purchased as permanent slaves (Lev. 25:44-46). In the New Testament, “slave traders” were put on the list of the “ungodly” (1 Tim. 1:20), Christians were urged not to sell themselves into slavery (1 Cor. 7:23), and Christians already enslaved were encouraged to gain their freedom if they were able (1 Cor. 7:21). Most important of all, the New Testament taught unambiguously the equality of slaves and masters before God, because in Christ “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female… all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Thus, a Christian slave was to remember that he was now “the Lord’s freedman,” while a Christian slave-owner was to remember that he was “Christ’s slave.” (1 Cor. 7: 22) While slaves were encouraged to serve their masters “wholeheartedly” as if they “were serving the Lord, not men,” masters were urged to “treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.” (Eph. 6:7-9, emphasis added) Like many practices resulting from human evil, slavery has been difficult to completely eradicate. But the Biblical recognition that human beings were originally created in God’s image inspired countless people throughout history to work for slavery’s amelioration and eventual abolition. The Bible’s emphasis on equality before God provides a clear basis for preferring freedom over slavery. The Darwinian account of morality, by contrast, provides no such guidance. As Carson Holloway perceptively points out in his recent book The Right Darwin:

at best Darwinism can only report our natural ambivalence with regard to slavery without giving us any compelling reason to either choose or reject it… in light of the ambivalence of our natural desires, both slavery and freedom are in some sense natural…. A moral theory that cannot persuasively condemn slavery cannot, of course, repudiate any less extreme forms of injustice or tyranny, whether perpetrated by majorities, minorities, or individual despotic rulers. [p. 95]

(c) Infanticide and the Bible.

Arnhart tries in vain to find a general endorsement of infanticide in the Bible. Most of the passages he cites do not even deal with infants, let alone infanticide. The two that do mention infants in passing deal with killing civilians during the conquest by Israel of Canaan. While the question of killing civilians during wartime is an important moral issue, it has nothing to do with the debate over whether parents should be allowed to put to death their recently born children. Incredibly, Arnhart tries to cite the story of Abraham and Isaac in Gen. 22 as an endorsement of infanticide. Let alone the fact that Isaac was hardly an infant in this story, reading the story as an endorsement of child killing is absurd. Child sacrifice is treated with abhorrence throughout the Old Testament and perpetrators were subject to the death penalty under the Mosaic law (see Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5, and Jer. 32:35). Ancient Israelites hearing or reading the story of Abraham and Isaac clearly would have understood that God was asking Abraham to do something that in the normal course of affairs would be immoral. The main point of the account is to show Abraham’s absolute trust in God, not to justify child killing. It also should be noted that Isaac is not killed in the story, because God brings a ram for the sacrifice. If anything, the message communicated by the story is that unlike the gods of ancient Canaan that did demand the sacrifice of children, the God of Israel does not desire human sacrifice. (In Christian theology, of course, the story of Abraham and Isaac prefigures the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.) In any case, in no way does the story endorse either infanticide or the killing of children.

To reiterate, even if Arnhart’s interpretations of Biblical teaching happened to be correct (and I don’t think they are), they would not rescue Darwinism from its own inability to provide a coherent basis for moral universals.

In future posts, I will respond to Arnhart’s comments about my book’s treatment of free will, economic liberty, limited government, religion, and intelligent design.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.