Saturday, May 1, 2010

Naturalistic Ethics (1 May 2010)

“Every individual has the potential to find their own eudaimonia, the natural end of being a fully functioning human.” (34)
 -    Charles Freeman
The Closing of the Western Mind (2003)

Recently, while savoring the last chapter of Jerry Coyne’s excellent book, Why Evolution is True (2009), I found myself staring at the following text from conservative philosopher Nancy Pearcey, who is quoted as saying:

“Why does the public care so passionately about a theory of biology [i.e., evolution]?  Because people sense intuitively that there’s much more at stake than a scientific theory.  They know that when naturalistic evolution is taught in the science classroom, then a naturalistic view of ethics will be taught down the hallway in the history classroom, the sociology classroom, the family life classroom, and in all areas of the curriculum.”  (from “Darwin Meets the Berenstain Bears: Evolution as a Total Worldview” pp. 53-74 in W. A. Dembski’s Uncommon Dissent, 2004)

I went to the woods, to clear my mind and reflect on what I had been reading, and while walking in the greening vistas at Old Beltaine, I realized that I'd been ‘staring’ at that quote for a number of reasons.

First, what other view could there possibly be than a naturalistic view of history and sociology?  Is anyone really teaching ‘pious’ history anymore, except perhaps in the most backward of religious schools?  [That was rhetorical; of course, I know that, in America, piety is still sadly strong!]  Second, what is “the family life classroom?”  That must be some artifact of conservative Christian schools, right?  _Sounds like it could certainly work out into a dreadful form of social indoctrination!

But ultimately, however, I realized that I'd been staring at the phrases juxtaposed at the beginning of the third sentence: i.e., “when naturalistic evolution is taught in the science classroom, then a naturalistic view of ethics will be taught down the hallway … .”  At first I thought, 'well, at least she acknowledges that there is a naturalistic view of ethics; unlike other conservatives who think (is that really what they call it?) that without God and religion there can be no ethics at all!  But then I shook myself, and affirmed that the move from teaching evolution to teaching a naturalistic ethics; from embracing evolution as a fact to embracing a naturalistic grounding for ethics, is a completely sane and necessary move.  Why should it be feared, I wondered?
A host of answers came rushing into my head!
One reason people fear this move is because they understand (even if they can't admit it to themselves) that Nature is capricious and doesn’t ‘care’ about us in the least.  As we mature and grow older, we are driven to accept that horrendous things can happen to anyone, despite whether you are 'good' or 'bad.'  Natural disasters and disease strike, irrespective of the perceived 'worth' of the people who are affected by them.  'Saints' and 'sinners' die in plane crashes and car wrecks every day around the planet.  Being a 'good' person does not free one of the pain and suffering that is the lot of mortal beings.  So how can we ground ethics in Nature?
 It is worth grappling with this objection, as it discloses a fact: i.e., that it is much harder to ground ethics in a naturalistic understanding of ourselves than it is to simply 'receive' a moral system from some imagined god or other via a human tradition that perpetuates it.   Why is it harder?  Because we have to work at it; instead of it being handed to us on a golden platter (or a couple of old stone tablets).  We have to reflect on our own nature, our place in the natural world, and how it is that we have evolved to be ethical beings.
 Yes, that's what I said!   We have evolved to be ethical beings. 
 We have evolved to be the beings that we are via natural processes.  And one of the wondrous things evolution – and Nature by extension – has 'gifted' us with (though Nature is not a 'person;' nor is evolution) is consciousness, and through our consciousness, we have developed culture, which is what makes ethics possible; and not only possible, but necessary.
 I don’t know how many ways I have said this before, but part of our being ‘products’ of Nature is that we are conscious of ourselves as beings with the power to make decisions, choose one path or opportunity over another, and elect to do one thing rather than another.  Nature has equipped us with an ability to create a ‘toolkit’ of ideas and behaviors that we can then use to survive better, improve our lot, and excel at living life well; not merely surviving at the whim of Nature.  We are Nature, but we are also Nature that has become conscious of itself!

Ethical choice is just one tool in our cultural kit.  Nature has ‘molded’ us as ethical creatures; that is—decision-making about behaviors that are either appropriate or not appropriate is part of our biological package.  We are the 'ethical animal.'  Ethics evolves in a culture based on what decisions benefit not only the individual but also the group; making survival more likely and making life livable over longer periods of time for a greater number of individuals.  Choices that undermine survival usually get demonized as 'bad' – as 'immoral,' while choices that improve the common lot as well as the existence of the individuals that make up the group usually get positively sanctioned as 'good.'  As environments change and people’s needs get rearranged and re-prioritized, the choices that are sanctioned as 'good' and 'bad' also change over time; though ethical values often change slower than our environments.   Beyond the immediacy and pragmatism of this level of ethical choice, there are also universal human values – like the sanction against murdering members of our own species – that have persisted and grown clearer down across the centuries and millennia and we continue to come to terms with our own nature and our naturalistic context.
The ethical ‘faculty’ – for lack of a better term – is deeply tied to our survival, and thus part of our 'human nature.'  It is also linked to what the Greek philosophers called eudaimonia (i.e., “flourishment”).

Where does religion fit into ethics?
What is good has generally been sanctioned by deities, and what is considered immoral from a naturalistic perspective has often been disapproved of and given negative sanctions by the deity or deities of a culture.  While this is a simplistic summary, it speaks to the heart of the issue.  Ethics is a complex social and existential phenomenon, and considerations beyond mere survival always play into what a culture considers ethical and unethical.  Yet, all ethics are at base naturalistic.

Those systems of morality espoused by the plethora of religious traditions around the world – including Christianity, Judaism and Islam – are first and foremost ways of living life successfully that are more or less anchored in our naturalistic environment and that gave the cultures in which they emerged a closer ‘fit’ to their environments than earlier codes of behavior had done.  Before they are embraced by and encoded into a religious tradition, an ethical choice will have to pan-out in positive consequences for individuals as well as the group of which those individuals are members.  Gods come and go, but the need for ethics always remains, because of how we have evolved; because of the particular kind of animal that we are. 
All religious ethics are tethered – sometimes rather tenuously; other times more strongly – to our situation in Nature as animals who have evolved with the gifts of consciousness and culture.  If Nature-fearing conservatives and liberals could reach a basic understanding of this, much of their objection to the fact of our evolution might well be alleviated.  We can hope that the day will come ...