Column on Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Tibor R. Machan

is often held, by admirers of modern science (which took off around
about the 15th century) that if human beings are parts of nature, there
can be no room for morality in their lives.  They are then simply
complicated machines working as they must, with no possibility that they
can make choices, which is an essential part of morality.  Science and
morality are, then, often juxtaposed.

there are several problems with this.  For one, nature is bountiful in
its variety; so simply because other parts of it are mostly determined
to move as they must, it doesn’t follow that all parts do.  Just as
there are living things that swim, as well as some that fly or simply
slither about, there could also be some that are dumb beasts and others
that think, reason and make choices.  Nothing unnatural about that at
all.  And once something uses higher reasoning to get on in its life,
choices are just around the corner.

those who insist that we are all fully determined to do as we do tend,
paradoxically, to be very moralistic about insisting that this is how
everyone ought to think about us.  In effect they believe, “No one ought
to believe that people have free will, that they can make genuine
choices in their lives; they ought to be thought of as complex
machines.”  However, without the capacity to choose, such admonitions
are meaningless.  Without the capacity to choose, without free will, our
thinking is also purely determined and so if we do believe in free
will, we then
must believe in it.  Yet why then get annoyed with us for failing to heed the advice of those who deny our capacity to choose?

only that, innumerable scientific minded folks make moral declarations
galore.  Blaming and praising are part of this exercise and champions of
the scientific way quite often blame and praise.  They blame those who
reject their imperialism about how nature behaves and they praise those
who share it.  They often outright denounce those who think they
shouldn’t be given extensive government funding for their work.

the recent discussions by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and
Christopher Hitchens, the group called “the new atheists,” all kinds of
blaming is in evidence when others who don’t embrace Darwinian
evolution or do embrace creationism are being talked about.  These
people, these champions of science insist, others aren’t doing the right
thing, namely, accepting Darwin as correct about how the world works.
(Not even all of these scientifically minded people deny free will, by
the way.)

point I am making isn’t about whether such blaming or praising is
correct but that it doesn’t square with the belief that we are all
determined to be the way we are, that we all work like machines.

more recent discussions of human choice some scientists have suggested
that there might be room for it now that Newtonian physics has been
superseded by contemporary, post-Heisenbergian quantum physics, the kind
that leaves some room for uncertainty (at least at the subatomic level
of existence) and thus might allow that not everything is fully
determined to happen one and only one way. (Not that the features of
quantum physics that they rely on for this necessarily support anything
like human freedom of choice!)  In particular the late Karl Popper and
John Eccles had thought that the new physics allows for free will
(presented in their book
The Self and Its Brain [Springer Verlag, 1977]).

while there is wide consensus among champions of the natural sciences
about whether human beings have a moral nature–can reasonably be held
responsible for the conduct they choose to embark upon–some dissidents
do exist who think that, yes indeed, we are moral agents; it’s a
distinguishing aspect of our nature but still quite natural.  And
certainly quite a few scientists and their champions act like we all did
have free will, when, for instance, they blame those who refuse to
accept their ideas about evolution.  As already mentioned, blaming
someone implies they have the freedom to choose how they think and act.

course, the world of human beings is filled with moral elements.
 Personal, social, political and international affairs are all replete
with moral concerns, with how we ought to and ought not to think and
act.  And since this is also in evidence among scientists, it is
probably the right way to think about us.

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