A few months ago, I wrote a piece arguing that “natural law” arguments didn’t make sense to me because they depended on a concept of “nature” rooted in Aristotle, who thought he was doing science, but advocates of such arguments today don’t try to rest them on a scientific understanding of human nature (or natures) but on a dogmatic interpretation of Aristotle. If you want to rescue natural law reasoning, I argued, you’d have to find a way to base your ethics in contemporary scientific understandings of human nature, which probably means evolutionary psychology.

Now, via Andrew Sullivan, I am directed to a piece by Thomas de Zengotita arguing that this won’t work. This is probably a mistake on my part, since I’m not a trained philosopher (“kids, don’t try this at home”), but I guess I can’t help going another round.

In a nutshell, Zengotita argues that the problem is that Darwinian evolution is purposeless; our natures are the result not of design but of a series of accidents. And it’s impossible (he argues) to root an ethical system in a nature that originates in accident:

No matter how advanced the natural science—the naturalistic fallacy—the assumption that something is morally good because it is natural—is philosophically secure. . . . More broadly, given the claim that “Action X is good because the genetic program that triggers it, and our approval of it, was naturally selected for,” one can still ask whether it is good to do what we are genetically inclined to do. That is, asking that question still makes sense because—even using examples favored by evolutionary psychologists—the answer would appear to be: sometimes yes (help a friend) and sometimes no (kill the “other”).

It comes down to this: we cannot find truly ethical guidance in a nature shaped by evolution. Natural selection is random—random as to the mutations that produce variation, random as to the accidents of circumstance that make one variant adaptive and another fatal. Natural selection may indeed be responsible for something like a “mother instinct” that inspires tender mammalian behaviors of which we all approve. But natural selection may also be responsible for our instinctive tendency to fear what is strange and attack what is feared, thus contributing to the pageant of slaughter that has been human history. Ethical thought must take into account what Darwinian nature has made of us, and political provision must be made for that. But nothing ethical per se—nothing good or bad or even meaningful is to be found there.

Sullivan interprets him to be saying that you can’t derive an “ought” – an ethical system – from an “is” – an explanation for why we act the way we do. But that’s not what Zengotita is saying, because his preferred ethical approach is phenomenological – rooted in the experience of psychology rather than a genealogy thereof. And this, it seems to me, also involves deriving an “ought” from an “is” – it’s just a different “is” that we care about.

(Actually, I’ve never understood what you are supposed to derive “ought” from if not “is.” What, apart from “is,” is there to derive from? Deriving “ought” from “should be” without any reference to “is” amounts to making “ought” axiomatic. Why that is better than deriving “ought” from “is” escapes me.)

The “is” that Zengotita cares about is the experience of consciousness. That is to say, he wants to derive ethical “oughts” from how people actually experience their own actions and the actions of others. But this activity itself presumes capacities that not all humans possess. Autistic individuals are often described as not being able “properly” to model other minds. In a very different way, neither are sociopaths. But both autistic people and sociopaths are conscious. So Zengotita’s phenomenology is really a phenomenology of “normal” minds – which is right and proper, but brings us back to the question of what makes such minds “normal.” And the answer to that has to be something like “working the way they were supposed to work” – which, if you drop the idea of an intelligent designer, brings us back, ultimately, to Darwinian genealogies of function.

But so what? Why is that a problem?

Zengotita describes the early modern outlook that Darwin overthrew as follows:

What early moderns saw in nature was purpose—rational purpose, divine purpose. When they looked at an equation in classical mechanics, they saw a “law” in the full sense of the word, and when they looked at the relevant experimental results, they saw something like obedience to that law. “Let there be light” made for beautiful poetry, but F = MA was the word of God. When they looked at a healthy body, early moderns also saw conformity to a designer’s intentions. But, in this realm, one also encountered mortality and disease. Here, for some reason, a sort of disobedience came to pass, a malfunctioning. Why that should be so was the subject of debate, but almost no one questioned the framework of interpretation. Modern medicine was founded on the metaphor of repairing malfunctions of bodily mechanisms.

And so it was, and all the more so, when early moderns looked upon human history—the carnage, the absurd superstitions, the institutionalized barbarities. The conclusion was inevitable. Here was disease of another order, a malfunctioning of another kind. Again, there was much debate over why this should be, but the basic framework of interpretation remained. The question became: what were the Maker’s designs for His human creatures as social beings, what were those natural laws and how could His creatures cure the diseases of history in accordance with them? Modern political and ethical thought took shape on that foundation, dependent on the idea that nature was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “the art whereby God hath made and governs the world.”

He then asserts that the recognition that so much order arose spontaneously out of chaos makes it impossible to think in this manner anymore. But why? Our bodies are designed to function in certain ways – designed as the result of a spontaneous process, yes, but designed nonetheless. I don’t think there’s a lot of controversy about how our lungs, say, are supposed to work, or what constitutes poor lung functionality. Why does it matter whether the lung was designed by intelligence or whether it is an orderly arrangement that emerged from chaos according to the operation of simple rules on a diverse array of molecules? The lung’s job, with respect to the human organism, remains the same, either way.

As does the role of the physician. Whether you posit a designing intelligence with a transcendent purpose for humanity or you don’t, a pulmonary surgeon will face the question of whether surgery is “worth it” in a particular case of lung disease. Factors will include the likelihood of a cure, the likelihood of complications, the life expectancy of the patient, the expense (and how that expense will be reimbursed, if at all), etc. None of those factors go away if you say that God has a transcendent purpose for the patient, as He does for every human being. Nor do they go away if you do not posit any such purpose from outside the universe. You can still tell whether an organism is functioning well or poorly even if its only “purpose” is to function well.

You may be noticing that, under the surface, I’m pretty skeptical of deontological approaches to ethics. And yes, I think Darwin’s theory makes such approaches less-credible-sounding. But not all ethics are deontological, and I don’t think deontological approaches to ethics are ultimately that much more credible even if you posit a rational agent that designed the universe, including human nature.

Aristotle understood man to be a social animal, who can only flourish within the context of a community. His ethical concern was therefore the operation of that community such that it contributes to human flourishing. That approach strikes me as entirely compatible with an understanding of human nature updated to reflect the (still infant) science of evolutionary psychology.

As, indeed, is Zengotita’s preferred phenomenological approach to psychology, and whatever ethics may be derived therefrom. Zengotita, in the last part of his essay, outlines such an approach by boiling down Jonathan Haidt’s five moral foundations “to see if there is an aspect of the phenomena that might bring ethical unity to the modules—an aspect that would not need explaining, an aspect we simply understand as the rightness or wrongness in them all.” Which sounds like a fine idea – I like starting with phenomenology just fine, even if I don’t think it’s any more “grounded” than anything else.

Here’s what he comes up with:

The regions of being-in-the-world in which “my” is justly placed are vast and varied and caught up in constant improvisation as well—for they follow the contingent logic of Wittgenstein’s language games; they are as historical as we are. People are not poeticizing, still less are they mistaken, when they speak of “my neighborhood” or “our song” or “her mother.” In all those cases, beyond the merely legal, we are talking about ways of being in the world that have property dimensions, as it were—an ethical aspect that subsists in all embodiments of mind.

This continuum highlights the aspect of human deeds and situations that we recognize as essentially ethical, and irreducibly so. In those violations, we understand wrongness immediately, and in their complements, we apprehend a rightness in the arrangement of things. The ethical aspect of the human condition emerges with consciousness itself, constitutive of Being-in-the-world and the human form of life. And where consciousness is not—in brain modules, for example—there is no ethics either.

Back to Haidt’s moral taste buds . . . it is impossible to miss what these responses have in common—and that is what actually makes them wrong. They are all violations of embodiment, of an arrangement of things “possessed” in various ways and to various degrees by the sources of the intentions that constitute them, by the agents embodied in them.

Right: that’s why arranged marriage, according to which a woman is prepared by her parents for bodily penetration by a man she just met, is wrong, while the hookup culture, according to which a woman is prepared by her classmates for bodily penetration by a man she just met, is right. Or, possibly, the other way around. Or possibly either is right, or wrong, depending on the woman’s expectations going into the encounter. Which would reduce our ethical insight to “violating someone’s understanding of what is right is wrong.” Not even “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” but “don’t make any sudden moves.” That’s not a bad ethical insight, as it happens, but I don’t think it gets us terribly far.

A naive, bloggy evol-psych approach to the same question would ask, “how have men and women evolved different strategies for sexual success?” and would look at the question, “what social arrangements will contribute to human happiness?” through the lens of the (inevitably tentative) answer to the prior question. A less-naive, more-scientific-than-bloggy approach would not jump directly from hypothesis to prescription, but would use the hypothesis as the basis for a research program. The plasticity of human nature, including our sexual nature, is neither infinite nor zero, and mapping the contours of that plasticity will help us understand the practical limits of any program to “reform” our ethics, whatever philosophical stream that program originates in.

Personally, I view much of Aristotle’s approach to ethics as relatively easy to rescue from the “death of God” – that is to say, from dropping the assumption of a single intelligence that serves as the ground of Being. For that matter, I view much of Hegel’s approach as relatively easy to rescue from the residue of eschatology implied by an “end state” to history. Most of my conversations never end (or threaten not to, anyway); why should the dialectic of history be any different? Meanwhile, a scientific study of human nature, based, as any study of biological entities must be, in an appreciation of natural selection, strikes me as not only compatible with an Aristotelean-Hegelian framework for thinking about ethics but kind of necessary to make such a framework effective in dealing with real problems.