Moral Truth and the End of ManSENATOR RICK SANTORUM
Intellectual formation — building intellectual capital — is all about conforming our minds to the truth. But as I said at the start, truth and goodness go hand in hand. So we also have to talk about how morality fits into the formation of intellectual capital. To do that, please permit me to dig a little deeper into philosophy than is usual in a book on public policy.
Even the most “value-fearing” village elder can’t really avoid facing the question of moral truth and its place in the learning process. In fact, liberals are just as eager as I am to teach morality to schoolchildren. They are eager to teach them lessons about racial and sexual equality, for example. I agree with them; such moral lessons about equality of opportunity and the intrinsic dignity of every human person before God and the law should be taught. But equality is not a “fact” in any narrow scientific sense — in fact, the more scientifically we look at human beings, the more dissimilar and unequal they are. No, equality is not a “fact,” but rather a moral judgment, a moral commitment — one that I strongly support our schools teaching. Similarly, we should teach our children to make other kinds of proper moral judgments, such as the importance of tolerance, properly understood, of fairness, of proper respect for people, and of proper respect for the natural world.
As I mentioned before, the most heated arguments about values and morals in our society come from strong disagreements over a fairly narrow range of issues, mostly having to do with sex and human life. So let’s put those aside for a moment and talk about the values that have made William Bennett’s Book of Virtues a bestseller with American families: kindness, honesty, loyalty, friendship, charity, promise-keeping, and self-sacrifice for the good of others. Can anyone seriously doubt that we will more effectively educate our children and build our nation’s intellectual and moral capital (as well as all the other kinds of capital I’ve been discussing) if we include this basic moral formation in our educational system?
Well, yes, in fact, it is possible to doubt this, and a very small minority will. But if you as a parent seriously do not want your child to be educated in these basic moral truths, then in our new family-focused educational model you can take your educational scholarships and head over to the Moral Relativism Academy, or for that matter the Church of the Golden Calf Elementary School, or wherever else you can find someone teaching the values that are important to you. Welcome to the Land of Freedom and Opportunity Version 2.0!
Now, you may not find that pragmatic answer completely satisfying, so let’s talk a little more about the basic truths involved here. Facts are one thing and values are another, it is said. In Philosophy 101 we may have learned that you can’t derive an “ought” (value) from an “is” (fact). That is one of the fundamental claims of modern philosophy. But is it true? Can there be an objective moral reality? Is there a way that, even if we had to educate all our children together, we could agree on some basic moral truths that should be the basis of their education?
Let’s try to answer that question by listening to a great thinker of the twentieth century (who’s still going strong in the early twenty-first, by the way): Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre himself is a kind of microcosm of — and object lesson for — our times. Raised in the tradition of philosophical liberalism, as a young man he became a Marxist ethicist. But he began to think hard (always dangerous!) about what it would mean for a Marxist to make an ethical critique of Stalinism (something many Marxists wanted to do). And that raised a whole series of problems, which led him back to the historical roots of ethics and philosophy, where he found the answer he was seeking.
As described in his classic book After Virtue, what he found was this: it is not true that there is a fundamental distinction between facts and values. To start with, some kinds of evaluative claims (notice the “value” in the center of the word “evaluative”) are clearly factual. For example, if you say, “This is a good car,” or “This is a good horse,” or “He is a good sea captain,” you are making an evaluative claim — saying that something is good or bad. But those are (or can be, given sufficient context) factual claims as well — you can make a clear judgment that everyone must agree with after examining the facts of the case.
After making this analysis, MacIntyre asked the question: Why does it seem to us that we cannot make evaluative judgments about moral goodness in the same way? The answer he gives is that in the modern era human nature is viewed as something arbitrary and self-created. Personal autonomy — the right to “create” myself by defining my own “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” — has been given the highest value. In fact, it has become something like a supervalue, throwing every other human good into the shadows of mere opinion. Because of the autonomy ideal, we no longer agree in principle about the purpose of a human life, what a human being is for. Nor, consequently, do we agree on the answers to follow-on questions, like what a husband or wife are for, what children are for. If, on the other hand, we could agree about the purpose of human life or some aspect of human life, we could make moral judgments that are completely objective by simply comparing the character and activities of a given person to his or her purposes or ends.
So the autonomy ideal of philosophical liberalism is at the root of our tendency to fall into nervous silence when we try to reason about moral questions. It is why I hear so often from liberals that we can’t “legislate morality.” Obviously, those of us coming to basic questions of human existence from a Judeo-Christian perspective can simply reject the “pure self-created autonomy” notion of human nature, readily answer many of the important questions about the purpose of human life, and thus ask and answer moral questions. But what about nontheists in our pluralistic society? What do we do in the case of, say, public schooling, when we must educate our children together without agreement on religion or other sources of value?
It seems to me that, once again, there is still much we can all agree on, and we can educate our children accordingly. We can agree that friendship is a good and honorable thing; that true friends treat each other with respect and dignity; that kindness is the better way when faced with a challenging person or situation; that love involves desiring the good of the other above our own good, and that sacrificing self-interest for the good of the beloved is always right and proper; that human life is valuable and important; that honesty builds up the human family.
These are truths we can agree on, whatever our religious or political views. And with those we can form a fairly complete picture of the purpose of human life and how it should be lived. An educational system can thus be grounded in the natural moral law embodied in these judgments, and our human lives can be fairly and “factually” judged according to whether or not they meet the standards that we have set for ourselves. Morality, far from being an arbitrary projection of wishes and urges, derives from the objective reality that lies at the very heart of being human.
For example, liberalism is intolerant of moral commitments and ways of life that are not understood as self-created. Think of the Amish: almost every contemporary liberal moral and political theory is hostile to the Amish. But think also about marriage. Marriage brings to human beings an extraordinary range of human goods and trains us in many virtues, but marriage also limits our autonomy. Liberal theory is therefore skeptical about marriage, more or less unwilling to give it public support. And the same is true about friendship. Deep friendship carries with it obligations, and those obligations are also a limitation on autonomy, which is the liberal supervalue. But would anyone choose to live a life without friendship?
The philosophical village elders thought we could get out of the is/ought problem by saying that what a human being is is an autonomous being, whose only permanent and unchanging nature is the freedom to choose. If that is true, then the only permanent and unchanging ought is that society ought to equally accommodate everyone’s No-Fault Freedom. MacIntyre shows us that this liberal solution doesn’t work, even on its own terms: a society constructed on the autonomy ideal still ends up systematically favoring some ways of life and disfavoring others. But we haven’t yet absorbed this lesson about liberalism’s biases, and so too often we still talk as if autonomy is the one thing everyone can agree on, while every other moral claim is subject to radical doubt.
We have to get back to a fuller, more complete understanding of human nature as the basis for our educational system. We need not agree on every detail of the moral law to agree that we can’t live together without a binding moral code, grounded in the facts of human nature itself. And on that basis we can educate our children together and have a democratic polity as well.
After all, without some kind of basic moral consensus, is democracy even possible? Our founders didn’t think so. Public education isn’t the only thing at stake in this question of objective moral standards.
During the second half of the twentieth century, many major thinkers were drawn toward the perennial truths of natural law, toward the idea of an objective moral order. This whole way of thinking got a huge boost in the aftermath of World War II, when the Allies put Nazi leaders on trial for crimes against humanity, only to be faced with the quintessential modern problem: who’s to say that what the Nazis did is really wrong in some absolute, universal sense? After all, there were no “laws on the books” outlawing the Nazis’ crimes, and after all, some of the Nazis were “just obeying orders,” just obeying the Nazi law. How can we recognize when the Nazi law, or any law today, is itself unjust? How could the conviction and execution of the Nazi criminals be something more than an act of vindictive force by the victors? How could the Nuremberg trials be an act of justice rather than an act of power? Only by renewing the tradition of natural law could the Nazis be brought to justice.
Some of the best thinkers in the restored natural law tradition, however, recognized a major problem lurking just below the surface. The tradition of natural law can discern purpose in human nature only because it sees purpose in the whole of nature itself. Human beings have a purpose or “end,” a telos, only because the whole of creation has an end or telos as well. The problem is that modern natural science has rejected the notion that nature has an end. If nature has no end, no goal, no destiny, then neither can human nature. But if human nature has no end, then our judgment of Nazi war criminals has nothing to do with justice, only with power.
The human mind rebels against such a conclusion. Modern science seems to tell us that there is no purpose in nature, only the mindless movement of matter in conformity to the unchanging laws of physics. But somehow we also know that human life has a purpose or set of purposes, and as a result we can reason ethically about it. We seem to be in a dilemma.
But what if the universe had a purpose after all? Well, this seems to be exactly the trend of certain developments in modern science in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries — contrary to the movement of modern science from its inception in the seventeenth century until the twentieth. The interpretation of these developments is highly controversial: it seems that many scientists, clinging to their picture of a universe without a creator, simply “don’t want to go there” when confronted by these new arguments. But we have to go there, we have to follow the evidence to its logical conclusion.
The first powerful indication of “teleology” or purpose in nature was the gradual establishment of Big Bang theory in cosmology during the twentieth century. Unlike the steady-state theories that preceded it, Big Bang theory gives precise mathematical form to a mass of evidence that the cosmos had a beginning (of some sort) and thus will have an end (of some sort). The point of this is not the crude one that the Big Bang somehow confirms a traditional theistic doctrine of creation out of nothing. The point is simply that, contrary to the best modern science up through the nineteenth century, the cosmos seems to be “going somewhere” — to have an “end” in the most general sense of the term.
The next major indicator that the universe might have some sort of design was the gradual discovery starting in the 1950s of dozens of “fine-tuned” parameters in physics and cosmology that were of seemingly arbitrary values; yet if those values were varied by even the tiniest amount, the universe simply wouldn’t “work” in anything like that way it actually does. The Big Bang would have been followed immediately by a Big Crunch. Or atoms and molecules could not have formed. Or galaxies, stars, and planets could not have formed. Or carbon and other heavier atoms — all necessary for life — could not have formed. There is a long list of such parameters that have been identified, and the probability of getting the “right” values for all of these by blind chance so as to enable life as we know it on our planet is so astronomically high that it raises some obvious and weighty questions about whether the cosmos bears the mark of design.
Interestingly, in response to this scientific case for cosmic design many — probably a large majority — of working cosmologists have accepted an ad hoc escape valve called the “multiverse” hypothesis. The idea is that there must be an infinite number of universes (multiverses), each with a random set of physical laws, constants, constraints, etc. We just happen to have “won the lottery” — we’re sitting in a single one of these trillions of universes (and I do mean trillions, because the odds are at least that remote) that just happens to have the right conditions that make life possible. Now, doesn’t it take a lot of “faith” to believe in this multiverse hypothesis?
But what many people may not realize is that, from the start, Darwinism has been something more than just a scientific theory. As anyone who has studied the life of “Darwin’s bulldog” T. H. Huxley knows, the theory quickly took on the sociopsychological role of the creation myth of modern atheism, and it has been used as a club against the beliefs of traditional theists ever since.
Moreover, among modern scientific theories, Darwin’s theory is almost unique in being explicitly anti-teleological — that is, it functions to deny the natural inference that the complexities of nature must imply a designer. Other modern scientific theories such as Newton’s laws of motion or Einstein’s relativity theory provide mathematical descriptions of the workings of nature while simply ignoring the question of purpose or design. Atheists accept these “laws of nature” as brute facts that simply are and cannot be explained. Theists draw the natural inference that these “laws” require explanation, like anything else, and the only reasonable explanation for the laws is some kind of lawgiver.
But Darwinism is totally different. It is not a mathematical descriptive theory that allows for different explanations (or nonexplanations) of the origins of the laws of nature. Darwin’s theory contains only the “law” of natural selection and specifically denies the possibility of a lawgiver or a designer, claiming that what appears to be design in nature is only an illusion. Being anti-teleological, of course, does not in itself disqualify Darwinism as a scientific theory. It is important to neither exclude nor include any theory of origins because it has teleological or even theological implications. We must follow the evidence where it leads, without preconceptions that either include or preclude the notion of design and a designer.
I said that Darwin’s theory was “almost” unique in being anti-teleological. We’ve already discussed the other major anti-teleological theory of modern science: the multiverse hypothesis. Did you notice that both Darwinism and the multiverse invoke chance as the real cause of something that appears to be designed? They substitute a spontaneous, random, luck-based explanation for an explanation based on order, plan, and purpose.
Given this history and recent developments in scientific knowledge, there’s little wonder then that many scientists aren’t buying full-blown Darwinism anymore. Criticisms of Darwin’s theory and a new understanding of purpose in biological nature are coming on strong from various schools or camps. “Intelligent Design theory” led by William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Stephen Meyer, among others, claims to be able to scientifically detect in natural things the unique signatures or hallmarks of an intelligent cause. “Self-organization theorists” like Stuart Kauffman claim that not random mutation and natural selection but certain mathematical laws or principles underlie the development of biological complexity. Teleologists like Michael Denton in his book Nature’s Destiny and Simon Conway Morris in his book Life’s Solution see powerful evidence for a built-in purpose or striving in biological evolution towards certain preordained patterns or forms, ever increasing in complexity, that are crowned by human life.
In short, the question of whether nature shows evidence of a plan or purpose is very much alive and well within modern science — long after such questions had been thought to be banished into the nether realms of philosophy and theology.
At this point it should be obvious why I have taken a public stance on the question of how evolution should be taught in public schools. I authored the only legislation on this matter ever passed by the federal government. My amendment on the teaching of biological origins,† which passed in the Senate by a vote of 91 to 8, became part of the Conference Report of the No Child Left Behind Education Reform Act of 2001. It has in turn sparked many spirited debates among both state boards of education and local school boards as both review their curricula.
† “It is the sense of the Senate that —
Let me emphatically state that schools should teach everything there is to teach about neo-Darwinian evolution, which is certainly held to be true by most modern biologists. But teaching everything includes teaching the weaknesses and problems as well as the strengths of the theory. Our children should be exposed not just to the historically dominant view of such an important topic, but also the cutting-edge and persistent question: Is there evidence for any kind of design or purpose in nature? This is a scientific question, no doubt, but not necessarily one that can fairly be answered by a cramped, reductionist understanding of science.
First, these issues are not too difficult for the average person to understand in a basic and useful way. In particular, I find young people are fascinated by this subject and are eager to learn more about it. What child doesn’t want to know where she comes from and where she is going?
Second, I am encouraged by the fact that men of science whom I respect and admire have come to similar conclusions. Take for example Dr. Leon Kass, a medical doctor, PhD in biochemistry, long-time University of Chicago professor, and most recently chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In a brilliant essay titled “The Permanent Limitations of Biology” at the end of his book Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, Dr. Kass shows how modern biology has achieved its astounding results while at the same time suffering from a profound myopia about the real nature of living things. Much in the same way that Alasdair MacIntyre returned to the wisdom of classical philosophy to understand how modern ethical discourse can be regrounded, so Dr. Kass returns to the wisdom of classical philosophy to understand the limits of modern science itself, and to show us a way that we can restore the older wisdom about nature without giving up the benefits of our new technical mastery of nature.
Among the fundamental limits that Dr. Kass identifies in modern biology are its emphasis on mechanism (living things viewed as machines) and its consequent denial of teleology (final causation) as a real element of the science of living things. But goal-oriented teleology can be found literally everywhere in the world of the living: it takes years of indoctrination and training to turn out biologists who cannot see it.
The third and final reason I have taken up this cause to open up our educational system to evidence of design in nature is because these cosmological ideas have real-world moral consequences. When our imaginations are filled with the prospect of a purposeless universe of blind chance and insensible matter and nothing else, is it any wonder that moral respect for the universal dignity of every human being is eclipsed? The Nazis built their pseudoethics with its grim logic on precisely this Nietzschean cosmological view. Aided in no small part by the horrific negative example of the Nazis, Americans have avoided sliding down this slippery slope. But when we look at the movement for biotech “research” that would require the killing of the smallest and most marginal members of the human family for the harvesting of their cells, I wonder if we have merely been momentarily delayed in our slide.
Intellect and will, truth and morals, cannot be separated. The Darwinian universe has no room for the unique dignity of the human person, for in that universe we are nothing but the result of purposeless chance; moral consequences are eventually drawn from that. But the reverse is also true. The moral commitment of modern scientists to a world entirely conquerable by science has led many scientists to a very unscientific rejection of any possibility of a designed universe. It is almost as if they will go to any theoretical length so long as they can hold on to the principle of blind chance as the ultimate explanation for the wonders science has allowed us to see.
As a basis for sound education, what could be better than to explore the great questions of purpose in both nature and human life in a sober, modest, and scientific way? Our nation is not well served by an educational establishment, led by the village elders, that is so intent on driving any recognition of God or a Creator out of the public consciousness that it requires, to the exclusion of all else, the teaching of the dogma of blind chance as the fundamental truth of the universe. No-Fault Freedom has even infected the world of science. Veritas. Quid es veritas?
Rick Santorum. "Moral Truth and the End of Man." Chapter 39 in It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), 388-402.
Reprinted by permission of ISI Books and the author, Rick Santorum. All rights reserved.
© 2005 ISI Books
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