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Best Schools blog: If moral relativism is a disease, Darwinism isn’t the cure

In “A Cure Worse Than the Disease—Darwinism vs. Relativism I: Denis Dutton” (The Best Schools , January 30, 2012), James Barham talks about Arts and Letters Daily founder, the late Denis Dutton, who chose Darwin over Derrida:

This is a worrisome trend that we all need to think about carefully. Cultural relativism is highly detrimental, because it undermines all sense of objective right and wrong. But Darwinian reductionism is also very dangerous, because it undercuts, not just morality, but everything that is valuable about us as human beings.

What reader of Arts and Letters Daily , “a sort of high-brow Reader’s Digest for the digital age,” didn’t know about its founder’s affection for any and every crackpot theory of psychology based on Darwinism? Half the time, it was hard to tell that the stuff wasn’t a hoax. The other half, you had to hope it was, so you could praise the hoaxer for turning a good trick.

So, there is a great danger that the Darwinian-reductionist cure may turn out to be worse than the relativist disease.

After watching a TED lecture Dutton gave in 2010, entitled “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty”, which summarizes the argument of his book, I have come to the conclusion that Dutton was more sinned against than sinning. It is not so much that he was predisposed to reductionism as that he hated relativism. The trouble is, the intellectual climate he lived in misled him into believing that rejecting relativism meant embracing Darwinism.

So, let’s take a look at Dutton’s TED lecture, to see exactly where he goes wrong. More.

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25 Responses to Best Schools blog: If moral relativism is a disease, Darwinism isn’t the cure

  1. Darwinism is a scientific theory not a philosophy of life.

    I do wish people would stop making that mistake.

  2. Origin of man now proved. –Metaphysics must flourish. –He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke. ~ Charles Darwin

    There is grandeur in this view of life ~ Charles Darwin

    All too often, there is a slide from science to something more, and this slide goes unmentioned — unrealized even. For pointing this out we should be grateful for the opponents of evolution. ~ Michael Ruse

    Almost no one is indifferent to Darwin, and no one should be. The Darwinian theory is a scientific theory, and a great one, but that is not all it is. The creationists who oppose it so bitterly are right about one thing: Darwin’s dangerous idea cuts much deeper into the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs than many of its sophisticated apologists have yet admitted, even to themselves. ~ Daniel Dennett

  3. Elizabeth,

    You told me in another thread that you were a believer in God until you “had an epiphany” and realized (incorrectly in my view, but that is another discussion) that what you had believed required a “religious” perspective to explain could in fact be explained by the workings of a material brain.

    Science has always been grounded in metaphysical assumptions and has always had metaphysical implications. You really can’t separate them.

  4. You can certainly separate science from ethics, and should. That is not to say that science should not be ethical, but it is to say that you can’t derive ethics from science.

    Science can inform ethics of course (it can tell us, for example, whether a practice causes harm) but it cannot be the foundation for an ethical system. Whether Darwin was right or not has absolutely nothing, for example, to do with whether eugenics is right or not.

    And whether neuroscience is right or not has nothing to do with whether people have moral responsibility or not.

  5. But, Elizabeth, “Whether Darwin was right or not has absolutely nothing, for example, to do with whether eugenics is right or not” might be the case; however, you cannot deny that Darwinian evolution and its emphasis on ‘survival of the fittest’ led to the development of eugenics.

  6. Darwinism is a scientific theory…

    That is void of science.

    However if darwinism is true then it would be a way of life.

  7. A couple of bald assertions there, I think Joe :)

  8. That is your opinion, but it is an only an opinion.

    You have proven Garwinism is void of science.

  9. I’m not at all sure of that, Barb, but it is true that eugenics is the application of artificial selection to human beings, and that the term “natural selection” was coined by Darwin in analogy with the “artificial” selection carried out by breeders of animals and plants.

    And of course it is also true that artificial selection works to produce organisms that serve our purposes. Sometimes this verges on the unethical, as with the breeding of dogs with traits that make them miserable.

    The fact that artificial selection is possible does not make it right, whether applied to other organisms or to ourselves.

    Nor does the observation that those with the traits that best fit them for their environment will also be those that are most likely to pass those traits on to the next generation mean that the unfit should be culled, any more than the observation that smashing an atom releases a large amount of energy mean that atomic weapons should be dropped on Japan.

  10. Yeah, it probably is.

  11. We are artificially keeping people alive who would otherwise be dead. Eugenics was supposed to put a stop to that.

  12. Yes it is void of science

  13. But it was foiled by the might Garwinists!

    Joe, I think you need a nap :)

  14. Nope, I just need to turn on the light in the computer room

  15. Can someone give me a link for information on “Garwinism”?, please.
    If it’s truly devoid of science, it’s probably easier to understand than evolutionary theory

  16. Joe,

    You don’t have a monitor??

    (Aside to BA77 — My two question marks here denote incredulity. What do three or four consecutive commas denote in your posts?)

  17. Yes, I do. I was just too quick on the reply and too slow on the proof-reading.

    Or maybe some random mutation occurred in the ASCII bit stream D = 68 = 0110 1000 G = 71 = 0111 0001 so a point mutation would get us a 0111 from a 0110 and an inversion would get us 0001 from a 1000

  18. Then what does the light in the computer room have to do with it?

  19. Lizzy,

    Well, if that’s what you meant by “Darwinism is a scientific theory not a philosophy of life,” then I agree with you.

    However, the effects on one’s ethics of a particular scientific theory can be more complex than simply informing us what causes harm. If one has as an ethical principle that humanity should act to preserve the human race, for example, then a Darwinian perspective will almost inevitably lead to some version of eugenics, since if “genetically inferior” people (however that is defined) are allowed to breed, clearly the race will deteriorate over time.

    Cheers,
    Bruce

  20. Sure, but that “if” is the moral principle you bring to the science, not what the science tells you should be your moral principle.

    Just as, if your moral principle was “do not cause suffering”, a scientist might tell you, for instance, whether a carrot suffered when it was pulled out of the ground, or the kind of pain receptors a fish might have in its mouth.

    That’s my point really – that your moral principles are orthogonal to the science. Science can tell you what the implications of your moral principles are for ethics, given scientific knowledge, but it can’t tell you what those moral principles should be.

    We work those out, I’d say, though our social interactions and our collective efforts to build societies in which we can thrive.

  21. Lizzy,

    We’re basically in agreement on this one.

    Bruce

  22. Darwinism is an ideology, full stop.

    So is Marxism, so is pragmatism, so is reductionism.

    Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory, for better or worse.

    I do wish Elizabeth would stop making the mistake of trying to turn (an) ideology into (a) science.

  23. :)

  24. Because of the lack of light I had my hands in the wrong position on the keyboard which led to the typo.

  25. f/n: Let us never forget the logo used by the eugenicists, and their theme: Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution. A read of Chesterton on the subject while it was the reigning orthodoxy will prove illuminating. KF

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