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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Morality: Furry tales for conservatives?

Some argue that Christians and conservatives should embrace Darwinism:
Much of Christian morality has to do with human relationships, most notably truth telling and marital fidelity, because the violation of these principles causes a severe breakdown in trust, which is the foundation of family and community. Evolution describes how we developed into pair-bonded primates and how adultery violates trust. Likewise, truth telling is vital for trust in our society, so lying is a sin. - Michael Shermer, author of Why Darwin Matters , writing in Scientific American, October 2006

and others argue that they shouldn't:
Contrary to claims by Darwin’s conservatives, Darwinian evolution promotes relativism rather than traditional morality, it fosters utopianism rather than limited government, and it is corrosive, rather than supportive, of free will and religious belief. Finally, and most importantly, Darwinian evolution is in tension with the scientific evidence. (Discovery Institute's John West, Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest)

I haven't read either book yet, so I won't comment on them. But I must say, I was intrigued by Shermer's account of ethics. He seems to think that the only problems that sleeping around and lying cause are a "breakdown in trust." Presumably, then, if you snuck around and then lied successfully and were satisfied with yourself, you would have no real problems. He also thinks lying is a "sin" because it breaks down trust in society. (So if you could lie without breaking down the trust of your unsuspecting dupes, then it wouldn't be a sin?)

When I read comments like his, I find myself saying, "No wonder there is a controversy over the reality of the mind." Shermer's account offers no mention of the effect of ethical breaches on the mind and character of the individual who commits the offence, which have generally been regarded as by far their most serious effect.*

It is not hard to see why Shermer makes no mention of that: He traces the origin of morality to the habits of "pair-bonded primates," not to human minds who are aware of each other. Thus, he must account for morality by its alleged affect on society, with society seen as something like a troupe of chimpanzees.

For what it is worth, polygamous, monogamous, promiscuous, cannibalistic, and asocial primates have all been successful in evolutionary terms. We have no real way of knowing how our own primate ancestors behaved, if indeed there was only one successful pattern. Consciousness and the ability to make moral choices, however they happened, mark the beginning of the human race, and the search for wisdom from the apes is futile. They cannot give what they do not have.

Another curious comment from Shermer concerns the support that Darwin's theory might offer the idea, dear to a conservative's heart, of free markets:
Charles Darwin's "natural selection" is precisely parallel to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of competition among individual organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of competition among individual people. Nature's economy mirrors society's economy. Both are designed from the bottom up, not the top down.

Notice the staggering underlying assumption Shermer makes about markets: That the individual human consciousness is a sort of "bottom," like an electron or a quark.

But precisely the opposite is the case. The individual human consciousness which enters the market is far, far more complex than the simple relationships when, for example, one person is trying to buy a car and the other is trying to sell one.

Indeed, the primary effect of free markets is that they cut out a number of individuals (bureaucrats, politicians, union leaders, religious leaders, environment activists) who might greatly complicate the transaction. So a free market is a simplification, not a complexification - quite the opposite of building up an object or a life form from atoms.

And that said, free markets have sometimes led to national wealth and social harmony - and sometimes to civil war, revolution, and environment destruction. I wonder whether Shermer believes his own argument here?
*Traditional Christians consider the individual immortal, and society as an institution only transient. So the effect of wrong-doing on the wrong-doer may be eternal, but the effect on the society only short-lived.
My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, which keeps tabs on the intelligent design controversy.

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