I recently read a book entitled Nature’s Virtue by James Pontuso, a professor of political science at Hampden-Sydney College. He informs his readers that his goal in writing the book was to demonstrate a foundation for virtue. In his words,
It is in taking up the challenge of anti-foundationalism that I hope this book will contribute to the on-going dialogue about the place of virtue in human life. It will attempt to define virtue in the course of a discussion of its friends and adversaries.
Pontuso then takes us on a rambling discussion of what the postmodernists, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, and several other thinkers had to say about virtue. All this may be enlightening for students of philosophy, but it is neither here nor there as far as establishing a foundation for virtue is concerned. In fact, the last two paragraphs of the book are the closest he comes to “taking up the challenge.” There he writes,
It is almost as natural for human beings to make value judgments about their own and other people’s behavior as it is for them to eat. Those judgments are the foundation of nature’s virtue.
Does nature command us to seek virtue? Command implies domination, but the diversity and complexity of human behavior indicates that we are not easily swayed. It might be better to say that nature beckons to us, and we are free to accept or reject the invitation. Nature’s virtue does not call to us loudly, but it does call.
I would certainly be the first to admit that “It is almost as natural for human beings to make value judgments about their own and other people’s behavior as it is for them to eat.” I also agree that our moral behavior is not rigidly programmed. Rather, it is a manifestation of predispositions that may or may not be overridden by other motivators. However, it seems to me more parsimonious to explain these facts in terms of evolved behavioral traits than reflections of “nature’s virtue.” Indeed, it appears that Pontuso has actually heard of Darwin. He mentions him quite prominently in Chapter 5 of his book, which he devotes to addressing the question, “What is virtue?” He notes that,
According to Darwinians, species disseminate traits that allow them to survive and flourish. Individual members of a species that thrive are more likely to live long enough to breed and to pass on these genes to their progeny. Even though individuals seek only to spread their own genes, natural selection chooses those attributes that best suit the continuation of the species.
Well, not exactly, but at least he gets the gist of the Darwinian argument. However, he dismisses it after a few pages. Why? Pontuso is obviously an intelligent man, and yet he jettisons Darwin and continues chasing his Will-o’-the-wisp of “nature’s virtue.” What is his justification for chasing after a ghost? It turns out that his argument is not completely without merit. As he puts it,
Darwinians do not stop at using natural selection to explain human behavior. They argue that genetic coding can be prescriptive as well. For example, (Larry) Arnhart maintains that evolution can show us that virtuous actions, private property, family values, and small local government are the proper way for people to live.
If Darwinian teleology is natural, why do the advocates of Darwinian teleology differ so much about the goals that people should pursue? MacIntyre argues that Darwinism leads to social democracy in which the most successful have a moral duty to care for the weak. Ridley maintains that limited government, protection of property rights, and voluntary cooperation are the evolutionary goals of the human species. As Robert Richards points out, Darwin’s ideas have been used to justify the free market, Marxism, the social welfare state, and even the Third Reich.
Pontuso has a point. Other than myself, I know of not a single proponent of evolved morality who doesn’t either implicitly or explicitly support some grab bag of Goods and Evils that are described and supported as objective things-in-themselves, existing independently of what any individual happens to think about them. Alas, dear reader, if the truth be told, even I, all too human as I am, have occasional weaknesses in that direction. And that’s just the problem. If morality is really a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, than it cannot possibly exist for a purpose, or have a goal. Morality is, and this “is” cannot imply an “ought.” Pontuso’s error isn’t in pointing out that natural selection provides no “ought” for his “virtue.” His error is in insisting that “virtue” exists as an objective thing to begin with. It doesn’t. His belief that it does is an illusion.
The fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits eliminates the possibility that it can support any objective “ought” whatsoever. It certainly eliminates the conjecture that a God is in charge of morality, but that does not imply that all things “ought” to be permitted, nor that all things “ought not” to be permitted. It does not imply the correctness of moral relativism, nor does it imply the correctness of moral absolutism. It does not imply the moral superiority of socialism to capitalism or vice versa. That which “is” does not imply that which “ought” to be for the simple reason that, objectively speaking, there is no “ought,” there is no “good,” there is no “evil,” and there is no “virtue.” These categories do not exist objectively, as things in themselves. They exist as things imagined in the minds of individuals by virtue of predispositions spawned by natural selection.
Does that imply that we can do without these illusions? No, I very much doubt it. We are not nearly smart enough for that.