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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Darwinian Conservatism

Larry Arnhart

4 2005
Volume 11, Number 4


Darwinian Conservatism

Larry Arnhart

Imprint-Academic, 2005

iv + 156 pgs.

The title of Larry Arnhart’s valuable book seems a paradox. What has Darwinism, a theory about the origins of biological species, to do with a political viewpoint? Arnhart takes conservatism in a broad sense, so that classical liberalism is included within it; although Friedrich Hayek classed himself as an Old Whig rather than a conservative, our author includes him as one the principal exemplars of the political theory he supports.

Though readers of this journal will be glad that so able a scholar as Arnhart endorses political views close to our own, the question recurs: why is Darwinism relevant? Arnhart’s answer is that leftist programs depend on a view of human nature that modern biology shows to be false: "those on the political left—socialists and welfare-state liberals—have a utopian vision of human nature as perfectible. They believe that human nature is largely a social construction that can be perfected by rational social planning . . . they believe the human mind has capacities for rational planning and cultural change that liberate human nature from the constraints of biological nature" (p. 4).

Arnhart’s Darwinian conservatives, by contrast, respect the limits imposed by human nature. Two examples must here suffice. Many feminists hope to overthrow all differences between men and women in society. Everyone must be completely equal, and, if necessary to achieve this goal the family must be abolished. "The conservative opponents of such utopian projects have criticized them as contrary to human biological nature and thus contrary to natural law. So, for example, in Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism. . . . [Mises] disagreed with the socialist feminists who argued for abolishing sex differences. ‘It is a characteristic of socialism,’ Mises observed, ‘to discover in social institutions the origins of unalterable facts of nature, and to endeavour, by reforming these institutions, to reform nature’" (p. 52).

Again, when socialists look forward to the abolition of private property, they ignore the verdict of biology and anthropology: "Darwin saw evidence for the idea of property in the possessive behavior of animals. And he observed that no human society could survive without prohibiting theft, although stealing from strangers might be permitted or even honored. Later, Edward Westermarck surveyed the anthropological evidence supporting Darwin’s observations. The universal condemnation of theft shows that some notion of the right of property arises in all human societies" (pp. 61–62).

Arnhart is right that some leftist programs contravene human nature. But his argument seems to be open to question on two grounds. First, how much does Darwin add to the picture? Did we not know, long before Darwin, that human beings have a nature? Must we appeal to speculations about the behavior of baboons and chimpanzees to justify our acceptance of obvious truths? To paraphrase Freud, such studies can do no harm; but could not those who deny Darwin make similar arguments to Arnhart about the family and private property?

Further, how useful are appeals to human nature in our arguments against the statist left? It is not clear how strict are the limits that human nature imposes on political possibility. Feminists who wish to do away entirely with differences of sex, or, as they prefer "gender," will encounter precisely the problem to which Arnhart draws our attention. But do even less drastic feminist programs defy human nature? How far does Arnhart’s case go? Again, Rawls’s theory of justice makes provision for incentives by allowing inequalities that benefit the least well-off class in society. Does human nature nevertheless render this program impossible? It is not apparent whether it does. Arnhart should make clearer how exigent he takes the demands of biology to be.

Arnhart has struck a forceful blow against the lunatic left, but he has a more ambitious goal in mind. He suggests that Darwinian biology enables us to understand the foundations of morality. His argument begins from the premise that the good is the desirable. If so, "then the satisfaction of our natural desires constitutes a universal standard for judging social practice as either fulfilling or frustrating human nature, although prudence is required for judging what is best for particular people in particular social circumstances" (p. 26). Arnhart provides a list of twenty desires, including "a complete life," "parental care," and "social status," that he contends motivate human beings. Morality is a system of habits and rules that enable us to attain these desires to the greatest possible extent.

But is this not to confuse the "distinction between facts and values or is and ought?" (p. 26). To say that we in fact desire something is not to say that we ought to desire it. Arnhart turns this objection aside. "Whenever a moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why? And ultimately the only final answer to that question is, Because it’s desirable for you as something that will fulfill you or make you happy" (p. 27).

Arnhart seems to me to have accounted for only part of morality. He can tell us why various things are good for us, but I do not think he adequately explains moral obligation. We shall be better off if we live in a society where people do not steal, but my knowledge of this fact does not suffice to explain my perception of the obligation I now have not to steal. Arnhart would I think say that because a rule against theft is useful, natural selection has built into our ancestors a feeling of aversion to theft. Groups that lacked such an aversion would, other things being equal, lose out in evolutionary competition to groups whose members were averse to theft. Because we descend from these winners, we too feel that we should not steal.

"Feel that we should not"—there exactly is my objection. Is this not to reduce the direct perception of something to an emotion? I think that Arnhart’s view is untrue to moral phenomenology and that we directly perceive what we can awkwardly call "the oughtness of the ought." His ably presented combination of Aristotle and Darwin reduces morality to advice.1 I have of course merely stated a contrasting view to Arnhart’s, and readers are urged to read his provocative book and judge for themselves.

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