Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man (Loyalty & Conscience 2)

In the early part of this essay Darwin tries to establish the fact that loyalty to the group is a biological trait which helps a species survive.  This seems logical when applied to social animals and especially when it applies to humans.  Being loyal to one’s family, community and country is a basic ingredient for social cohesion.  It’s the glue that holds society together and is a fundamental principle for Rousseau’s Social Contract (GB1).  On a societal level it’s crucial that we follow the laws and customs of our neighbors.  But on an individual level why should I do what’s best for the community rather than what’s best for me?  One instinct tells me I should be a good neighbor and follow the golden rule because we’re all in this together.  Another instinct tells me I should put my own interests first because in the real world it is survival of the fittest.  Which instinct should I follow?  Darwin put the question this way: “Why should a man feel he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”  Great Books authors disagree on this point.  Kant and Aristotle come down on the golden rule side.  Kant because we should always act as if our actions were universal and ask what would happen if everybody did it?  Aristotle because we’re social animals by nature and loyalty to our family and community develops natural virtue.  Felicite in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (GB5) is a good example.  Machiavelli and Nietzsche come down on the other side.  Machiavelli because leaders must sometimes be willing to break rules, even the golden rule.  Nietzsche because following the herd is for weaklings and the golden rule was invented by weaklings to protect themselves from stronger, better, more independent men.  Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (GB1) is a good case study.  So is Snopes in William Faulkner’s Barn Burning (IGB2).  Darwin has stepped into a hornet’s nest.   

What’s at stake here is the moral sense of Man.  As far as we know only human beings are capable of making moral decisions and having either a clean or a guilty conscience.  Darwin approaches the problem from a biological perspective and says “We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity… But in the case of man, who alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being, actions of a certain class are called moral…”  According to Darwin human beings are moral beings because of biology.  We have natural instincts to live in social units and after long generations of natural selection we have developed a very complex moral culture that is best suited to adapt and thrive in our environment.  But there’s still room for improvement.  Darwin believes “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”  Freud thinks this is impossible and even psychologically damaging because at bottom we’re irrational creatures driven by impulses we’re not even aware of, much less in control of.  And in our next reading Shakespeare has Iago give a little speech that demonstrates the depth of depravity that lurks in the human heart: “Virtue! a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce… why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts…” (Othello, Act I, Scene 3)  For some folks Reason is a weak weapon to use against raging carnal lust.  Still, Darwin has a Victorian gentleman’s optimism that things will get better, that we’re making progress: “Looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger…”  That was 150 years ago; a mere blip in the slow, slow process of natural selection.  In our next reading we’ll see how Shakespeare handles this question of loyalty and conscience. 


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