Darwinian Humanism

In honor of Darwin Day 2015, I would like to revisit an odd paper I had published in Environmental Values in 2007, titled “Darwinian Humanism: A Proposal for Environmental Ethics“. I would here like to offer a few – I hope tantalizing – excerpts from my final typescript.

In hindsight, it was an odd and audacious paper, but one the right of which helped me to sort out my thinking about some basic distinctions in ethical theory.

According to the abstract:

There are two distinct strands within modern philosophical ethics that are relevant to environmental philosophy: an empiricist strand that seeks a naturalist account of human conduct and a humanist strand rooted in a conception of transcendent human freedom. Each strand has its appeal, but each also raises both strategic and theoretical problems for environmental philosophers. Based on a reading of Kantʼs critical solution to the antinomy of freedom and nature, I recommend that environmental philosophers consider the possibility of a Darwinian humanism, through which moral agents are understood as both free and causally intertwined with the natural world.

Along the way, I devote some attention to Darwin’s treatment of “the moral sense,” especially in The Descent of Man. Here’s an extended excerpt:

Darwinʼs treatment of the moral sense in The Descent of Man is part of a broader strategy to overcome likely objections to one implication of evolution by natural selection. If the features of other species can be explained as the products of variation and selection working inexorably over long stretches of time, and if diverse species can be traced back to a common ancestor, then why should humans be exempt? The structure and function of human bodies are homologous with those of other mammals, after all, and we have always been engaged in the struggle for survival that favors some variations over others.

The objection, of course, is that some differences between humans and other animals seem to be differences of kind and not merely of degree. Darwinʼs contemporaries maintained (and many of our contemporaries concur) that humans participate in the divine, at least to the extent that we possess intellect, especially a capacity for moral judgment. That such divine attributes could have their origins in the brains of monkeys was regarded as offensive, if not outright blasphemous.

So, in the second and third chapters of Descent, Darwin compares the mental powers of humans and animals in order to narrow the perceived gap between them and to set up a plausible natural account of their common origin. In the third chapter, Darwin cites Kantʼs praise of duty, and joins him in wondering how humans have come to use ʻthat short but imperious word ought, so full of high significanceʼ. Unlike Kant, Darwin (1981: 70–71) proposes to examine the matter ʻexclusively from the side of natural historyʼ.

Darwin follows Hume and Smith in his appeal to moral sentiments as the basis for moral obligation: ʻthe imperious word ought seems merely to imply the consciousness of the existence of a persistent instinct, either innate or partly acquiredʼ, which guides action, although it is ʻliable to be disobeyedʼ (Darwin, 1981: 92). Darwin cites in particular the social instincts that ʻlead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for themʼ (Darwin, 1981: 72). This echoes Humeʼs contention in the Treatise that moral distinctions are rooted in sentiments that may be observed through introspection. Looking for the vice in any vicious action, Hume (1978: 468–9) asserts, ʻyou never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you toward this action. Here is a matter of fact, but ʼtis the object of feeling, not of reason.ʼ

After a brief digression on Darwin’s predecessors in what I call the empiricist tradition in ethics, I add this:

While social instincts are necessary to the development of morality, according to Darwin, they are not in themselves sufficient: conscience is the product of sentiment working in conjunction with intellect. The development of memory allows each individual to review past actions and the motives that produced them, providing new objects to elicit emotional responses. The experience of guilt is a prime example, elicited by the memory of moments in which stronger but more fleeting instincts overrode social instincts, leading to some offense against others in the group.

At the same time, the development of language allows members of the community to express their desires, so that ʻthe common opinion how each member ought to act for the public good, would naturally become to a large extent the guide to actionʼ (Darwin, 1981: 72). Note that common opinion plays a largely directive role, determining how individuals are to act for the public good. Social instincts still provide the basic impulse, the reason why individuals act for the common good. Opinion may direct or deflect this impulse, Darwin maintains, but the power of common opinion itself derives entirely from ʻinstinctive sympathyʼ: because I care about others in my group, I care what they think of me and my actions (Darwin, 1981: 72). Again, Darwin seems to be following Hume, who proclaims in the Treatise (1978: 415) that ʻreason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey themʼ.

I then discuss the appeal this approach has for some environmental ethicists, particularly for J. Baird Callicott in his interpretation of the writing of Aldo Leopold.

I then note some of the strategic disadvantage for environmental ethicists in following the empiricist line that runs from Hobbes through Hume and on to Darwin and beyond, not least of which is its basic conservatism:

For Darwin as for Hume, there is no perspective from which to criticize moral sentiments themselves, so the theory ends up validating whatever inclinations people already happen to have. In Humeʼs case, the appeal to sentiment often serves to reinforce traditional hierarchies of class and gender. His take on the virtue of chastity, for example, enshrines the prejudices of the majority or of the powerful concerning sexuality and the subordination of women, construing them as natural and morally binding (Hume, 1975: 571–3). Darwin also places the final appeal in matters of morality in the court of public opinion: an individual looking back over past action ought to feel guilty for giving in to instincts of which most others disapprove (Darwin, 1981: 72). This does not augur well for environmentalists, who think of themselves as part a movement of opposition against comparable prejudices about the proper relationship between humans and our natural environment.

I then go on to consider the humanist tradition that runs from Rousseau through Kant and beyond, noting it’s various advantages and disadvantages. I pay particular attention to Kant:

For Kant, this distinction between the autonomy of the will and the heteronomy of natural necessity is essential to the very possibility of ethics. In the Preface to the Groundwork, Kant explicitly sets aside any empirical approach to ethics as mere ʻpractical anthropologyʼ, rather than ethics in the strict sense (Kant, 1958: 56, emphasis in original). He insists that we must pursue pure ethics, developing a metaphysic of morals and not just a metaphysic of nature, if we are to give a coherent account of obligation. Despite the obvious anachronism, this could be taken as a direct response to Darwinʼs attempt to find a natural grounding of ʻthe imperious word oughtʼ. Darwinʼs efforts are doomed in advance, Kant could have argued, because he can never find a way to establish the absolute necessity of moral law without postulating transcendental freedom of the will. Sympathy, instinct, and regard for public opinion and prejudice can at most act as heteronomous principles, perhaps informing a kind of social prudence

Where all this takes me, in the end, is toward the kind of pragmatic pluralism that lies at the heart of my thinking and teaching about practical ethics these days, building on the way Kant himself deals with the apparent tension between free will and determinism by acknowledging that there are two distinct standpoints, each of which makes sense on its own terms.

Once we reject the dogmatism on both sides and accept that appearances are not things in themselves, the transcendental illusion vanishes and we are left with two distinct standpoints that need not be thought of as looking out upon two independent ontological realms. Rather, they provide a way of reconciling two different perspectives on our lived experience within the common world (Beck, 1960: 192; Kant, 1993: 120–21 (Ak.114)). A room full of people is a physical space occupied by natural objects that are demonstrably subject to natural laws, and it is also at the same time a moral space in which free moral agents can negotiate the terms of their relations to one another and engage in inquiry and deliberation about what is good and what is right. It is possible to hold these perspectives at the same time because neither on its own can capture the whole truth of what a room full of people really is.

In the paper I emphasize, though, that maintaining these two distinct standpoints is by no means always an easy or a comfortable thing to do: we have to acknowledge the extent to which Darwin’s work is profoundly disruptive of our self-understanding as human beings in the world.

Appealing to the two standpoints suggests an easy compromise between empiricism and humanism: as long as each side minds its own business, everything will be fine. Nevertheless, this compromise may be increasingly unstable given the full impact of the Darwinian revolution. The second-order abstractions of the sciences may have come on the scene only recently, but evolutionary theory and its consequences have the potential to shake us to the core. Dennett casts Darwinian evolution as a universal acid – one that can dissolve anything and so cannot be contained – that ʻeats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental waysʼ (Dennett, 1995: 63).

At this moment in history, to shift metaphors, the intertwining of the two standpoints has become an Escher-like puzzle. Each standpoint is utterly compelling on its own terms, and each is indispensable to a full understanding of human life in the world, and yet they remain firmly at odds: each overturns the other with equal force. We seem to be left with a profound ambiguity in the human condition, an interpenetration of the actor perspective and the spectator perspective. How did we get to this point?

As Merleau-Ponty would say, even though we always start from the actor perspective, we experience ourselves as both active and passive in relation to the surrounding world, perceiving and perceptible (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 139). We push and pull on the world, it pushes and pulls on us, in very particular ways; the lifeworld and the structures of our own bodies offer us opportunities for action and impose constraints upon us. The natural sciences have emerged as efforts to systematize our pushing and pulling, and eventually to form models of what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the ʻarmatureʼ or ʻhingesʼ or ʻpivotsʼ that are hidden from us in the depths of the world (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 133, 149, 180, 184, 225).

We have progressed so far in this systematisation that we can begin to model the hidden armature of the actor perspective itself as a product of the evolutionary history of these bodies that we are. We have, in a sense, managed to turn ourselves inside-out. Now that we are here, investigating the natural origins of what we are, we have begun to worry about the creeping advance of mechanistic explanation that seems poised to explain away our freedom and our dignity. And yet, we remain rooted in freedom, and the systematization of knowledge remains one of our projects as incarnate subjects, another expression of our agency.

If there can be any such thing as Darwinian humanism, then, it is not so much a coherent worldview as it is an acknowledgment of an unavoidable ambiguity at the heart of human moral experience: we are somehow able to experience ourselves as fully free and fully natural at the same time.

I published a sequel to this paper not quite two years later, just after the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth . . . but that may have to wait for another post.


  • Beck, Lewis White. 1960. A Commentary on Kantʼs Critique of Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Darwin, Charles. 1981. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (facsimile of first ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwinʼs Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Hume, David. 1975. Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hume, David. 1978. A Treatise of Human Nature (Second edn). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel. 1958. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (H. J. Paton, trans.). New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Kant, Immanuel. 1993. Critique of Practical Reason (L. W. Beck, trans. Third edn). New York: Macmillan/Library of Liberal Arts.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible (A. Lingis, trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

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