Count Daniel Dennett among the neodarwinists who preach the meaninglessness of life but tiptoe away from the moral nihilism this implies.
Dennett’s best-known book is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in which he argues that random variation and natural selection explain the design of the universe not only in biology but “all the way down” to physics and microphysics. Purpose and meaning are out. Evolution is a “universal acid” dissolving the illusion of purposeful behavior.
It should follow that morality is equally an illusion, yet according to this interesting paper Dennett rejects the implication, and desperately attempts to reconcile the bleak Darwinist worldview with a validation of morality.
The paper, authored by Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, is titled “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life.” The theories Dennett and the neodarwinists propound, the authors claim, lead them inexorably to metaphysical nihilism, and “should have made them into ethical nihilists too.” However, “the leading Darwinian philosophers have shied away from this implication and have embraced ethical naturalism.”
“Ethical naturalism” is the belief that morality can be found objectively in nature, either as a set of natural facts or as a relation among facts that provide necessary moral reasons. Moral inquiry, to the naturalist, resembles the mathematician’s search for the area of a square: it’s a question of finding the right formulas. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett labors to justify moral beliefs in terms of evolutionary theory.
To achieve this, he faces two daunting obstacles. The first is Hume’s observation that it is impossible to get an ought from an is. Dennett acknowledges the fallacy, yet bogs down in various attempts to circle around it. “From what can an ought be derived?” he asks. “The most compelling answer is this: ethics must somehow be based on an appreciation of human nature. . .” But appreciation of human nature in no way validates morality. Nor does satisfying Dennet’s demand that we “unify our world-view so that our ethical principles don’t clash with the way the world is.”
Proving the compatibility of evolution and morality, the authors observe, proves nothing. “Darwinism must do more than merely reconcile morality and natural selection,” they write. “Darwinism must underwrite morality and work to justify its claims.” An appreciation of human nature, after all, is perfectly compatible with gross immorality, yet does nothing to justify immoral claims.
The second obstacle has stopped so many wishful arguments, it should be viewed as the La Brea Tar Pit of neodarwinist moral reasoning. Instrumentality doesn’t justify moral judgment. To say that morality is useful is not to validate morality. That is true in general and individually. If I only abstain from murder because (say) the consequences would be dire for me, I may still approve of murder in theory, and perpetrate it when I think the consequences will not be in force.
Moral judgments and beliefs, the authors state, must be “intrinsically” valid. They must be categorical. Regardless of consequences, murder is immoral and must be punished.
Yet instrumentality is central to neodarwinist theory. Its underlying — and scientifically sound — principle is that any organic or behavioral feature that has endured must have benefited its owner’s ancestors in some way. Thus Dennett plausibly suggests moral judgments are “conversation-stoppers,” designed to avoid endless argumentation and promote a rapid consensus on right actions. While interesting, this theory leads nowhere. Even if morality was somehow proved to be necessary to human survival, that would demonstrate its usefulness, not its validity.
I believe the neodarwinists’ tendency to instrumentalize behavior ultimately confuses them about what morality is. William James noted long ago that morality is essentially tragic: at the cost of great pain and frustration, every individual must sacrifice powerful cravings, and many claims on the world, to lead a moral life. Self-rule and community-mindedness stand at the foundation of individual morality. Virtue, in a sense, is the successful struggle against instrumental temptations.
The neodarwinists have trouble with all this. In response, some assume an air of superior wisdom, like the Marxists and Freudians of old, and seek to explain unselfish behaviors in terms of hidden benefits. Others, like Richard Dawkins, savagely attack the traditions of self-denial on which morality must depend. But the fact remains that a neodarwinist account has yet to be crafted which explains the actions of (say) the 9/11 firefighters or our soldiers in Iraq, who sacrificed their lives on behalf of unrelated strangers.
The dilemma has a strategic and an emotional dimension. Whether they admit it or not, evolutionary thinkers like Dennett have staked the justification of morality on instrumental reasons. That leaves them a bridge too far from their objective. To their credit, however, the neodarwinists — all of them liberals, most of them academics — feel very strongly the need to affirm a humanist worldview. So they continue to struggle in the logical cage of their own theories, in the hope that their moral and political predilections might somehow escape.
Dennett is a man of liberal views. He’s a lifelong academic — a professor of philosophy at Tufts — and quite active in a weird atheist sect called the Brights. He holds moral and political beliefs no less eccentric than those of the ordinary guy in the street — but unlike the ordinary guy, he also believes Darwinian evolution is the algorithm that explains everything, and he doesn’t want this universal acid to destroy his cherished ideals. He doesn’t want to consider the possibility that his philosophical position may justify, not just witty anti-religious arguments from the comfort of academe, but the life of Genghis Khan.
The project to Darwinize morality is probably hopeless. One can’t get to ought from is. Dennett understandably switches gears, and reflects on the many things we value that have been produced by the random designs of the universal algorithm. Bach is one. He is “precious not because he had inside his brain a pearl of genius-stuff,” but because he was the output of a remote, mindless process. After also endorsing the value of “whole cultures,” “several thousand languages,” species, even religious traditions, Dennett concludes Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with a paean to the humanist worldview:
Darwin offers us an explanation of how God is distributed in the whole of nature: it is in the distribution of Design throught nature, creating in the tree of life, an utterly unique and irreplaceable creation, an actual pattern in the immeasurable reaches of design space that could never be exactly duplicated in its many details. Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? . . . Is it something sacred? Yes, I say with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it. But I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. The world is sacred.
“The prose,” Sommers and Rosenberg deadpan, “is moving and sincere. But in the cold light of philosophical scrutiny, it won’t wash.” Random creation imposes no intrinsic value on things, no matter how unique they are. Dennett’s theories lead to conclusions very distant from his. “What he has produced are strong arguments for thinking that everything of importance to us, including (indeed especially) our ethical beliefs, is just a product of mindless, purposeless forces.” In the attempt to justify morality, Dennett has explained it away.
Sommers and Rosenberg maintain that the kind of nihilism implied by Darwinist theory is a “nice nihilism.” “Embracing Nihilism,” they write, “is not, as is commonly believed, a prescription for amorality or immorality. Nihilism is not a prescription or proscription for any conduct.” That’s true in theory. The practical reality is that we have only one shared moral standard. To the extent that nihilism has an effect in the world, it undermines that standard, and thus justifies or at least excuses “any conduct,” including amorality and immorality.
As for the neodarwinists, they are scarcely dispassionate or neutral about traditional morality. Dennett himself holds evolutionary theory to be a universal acid, and appears content for it to dissolve our moral traditions — if only the humanist affirmation of the world is spared. Nice nihilism can only mean ineffective nihilism. One can hope this is indeed the case, but neither Dennett nor Sommers and Rosenberg have provided the evidence to nourish such a hope.