Reflections on Darwin and Holmes

I’ve been reading a weird variety of books lately, two of which are The Cambridge Companion to Charles Darwin and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (actually, re-reading this one).

Several of the essays in the Darwin book concern Darwinism and ethics. I think a reasonable view of the connection between the two is as follows. There is, no doubt, some evolutionary account to be given of why human beings have ended up with a certain range of moral emotions, including fear, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness, disgust, and contempt. Having these emotions, and sharing roughly the same responses to the same things, helps foster coordination and cooperation, which seem to be a good thing for the survival of individuals.

Some people might raise Moore’s objection: but so what if caring about other people has evolutionary advantages? What is the link between such advantages and morality? What makes it good? I’m not much interested in this objection, since it makes sense only if you assume there is some pure form of morality. Seems unlikely to me.

But here’s a more interesting objection: are we beholden in any way to continue caring about others, or to continue to foster coordination and cooperation? Well, no, I would say — except for the fact that all or most of us actually do have an interest in living in a stable society, counting on sympathy from others, etc. It’s only our actual interests that give us any reason to further promote the “virtues” that evolution has coached us toward promoting. And if our interests change, so too will our virtues. But it’s hard, at least right now, to see the advantages of coordination and cooperation fading away. (Unless I get that Iron Man suit.)

This general approach ties in well with what I’ve been reading about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Menand’s book. The Civil War taught Holmes that certainty leads to violence, and so he became skeptical of ideologies, moral certainties, and all isms — except, I guess, for his own certainty that war is unspeakably horrible. You might see connections to Vonnegut here; but actually Holmes ends up far colder. He must have seen the job of gov’t, and law, as trying to stave off violence that inevitably comes about, since people can’t help feeling certain. It’s sort of the job of a herd manager: these animals will end up wanting to kill each other, so try to sort things out ahead of time to keep carnage to a minimum. What the animals believe is almost beside the point; they’ll all end up adopting the beliefs of the less-losing side anyway, eventually. His opinions on social issues brought before the Supreme Court weren’t determined by any high ideals, but from a colder, distant, managerial perspective. He famously agreed with a state claiming the right to sterilize mentally-deficient adults, saying that three generations of idiots were enough.

And, of course, I hear Nietzsche in the background. The task is to legislate our moral ends, in full cognizance of our evolutionary past and the constraints of the present. But the Darwinian/Holmesian thinking lacks the Nzean end of producing some sort of heroic individual. We have to get not only beyond good and evil, but also Prussian “Big-Man”-ism.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to Reflections on Darwin and Holmes

  1. Rob says:

    His opinions on social issues brought before the Supreme Court weren’t determined by any high ideals, but from a colder, distant, managerial perspective. He famously agreed with a state claiming the right to sterilize mentally-deficient adults, saying that three generations of idiots were enough.

    One of the problems I have with those — like Leon Kass or, perhaps, Kleiner — who argue against, say, cloning or utilization of cell stems, etc. — is that they seem to make (at least a significant portion of) their case on the grounds of those technologies’ (in their eyes) abhorrent expressive efficacy (e.g. “what it says about the value of human life” that or “about how we value human life” and a supposed slippery slope activated thereby) which I suspect assumes a highly inflated view of such efficacy, and an oversimplified picture of how socio-moral psychology works.

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  2. “But the Darwinian/Holmesian thinking lacks the Nzean end of producing some sort of heroic individual.”

    Yes, Holmesian eugenics is negative and paternalistic. I am for positive, individual eugenics. I value qualities that invite Yes-saying – qualities like intelligence, creativity, humor and hotness. Thus, I made a highly “eugenic” move when I selected an uncommonly enchanting woman from among many competing potential mates to be mine. (She, on the other hand…)

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  3. Rob says:

    The latest Philosophy Zone podcast interview, with Stephen Clarke basically summarizing Haidt’s work on the clashing moral psychologies of liberals and conservatives, invokes Kass:

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2009/2631260.htm

    morality of custom = conservative permutation of the five foundations
    “modern ideas” = narrower, liberal permutation

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