Caning Darwin

[cross posted at Liberty & Power]

Joseph Sobran suggests (conical hat tip to LRC) that people’s willingness to help or praise others refutes Darwinism and atheism, and defies Randian egoism. Let’s take these in turn.

Charles Darwin Darwinism: Sobran seems to imagine that if Darwinism were true, people would be interested solely in their own narrow survival and would have no genuine concern for others. This is wrong on two different levels.

First, Sobran mistakenly assumes that Darwinism commits us to holding that all our mental contents, all our beliefs and desires, are there solely because they promote survival. Yet Darwinism implies nothing of the kind. Natural selection explains our possession of various capacities for learning, choosing, being influenced; but natural selection by itself does not guarantee that these capacities will be exercised solely in survival-conducing ways. How could it? My belief that 666 is the square root of 443556 isn’t there because that belief has survival value; there may be cases where it would, but I doubt that it ever has. Instead my belief that 666 is the square root of 443556 is the product of a general capacity to figure things out (i.e., reason), and that capacity has survival value.

Second, even if Darwinism did imply that all our mental contents are directly explainable by natural selection, it still wouldn’t follow that we should be surprised at the existence of genuine other-concern. Suppose (and this does not seem to be an especially heroic assumption) that creatures who are inclined to cooperate with one another are more likely on average to survive than those who aren’t. What more does one need by way of an evolutionary explanation? Has Sobran never read Spencer? Or Darwin himself?

Sobran thinks it should be a puzzle for the Darwinian why human beings express varieties of concern that other animals lack. But he himself offers the answer: reason. And as I noted above, this is a perfectly Darwinian-compatible explanation.

The weirdest section of Sobran’s article comes when he suggests that “killing your own children” (this is Sobran’s tendentious description of abortion; he seems to have forgotten that before a woman has given birth she has no “children”) “makes some sort of sense from an atheistic and Darwinian point of view,” since “[i]f survival is a ruthless competition, your kids are your competitors.” Um, Darwinian natural selection promotes traits that enhance the likelihood of reproduction; survival is selected for only insofar as it promotes reproduction. (Of course we can outwit natural selection, and a good thing too; the view, mysteriously popular among many religious conservatives, that we should bow to the purposes of our genes surely contradicts Genesis 1:26.)

Atheism: I was initially puzzled as to how Sobran’s argument was supposed to be relevant to atheism, until I realized that he is treating atheism and Darwinism as equivalents. But they aren’t. One can be a Darwinian without being an atheist (for this we have the assurance of no less an authority than Pope John Paul II), and one can likewise be an atheist without being a Darwinian (as all atheists were, prior to the 19th century, and as many have been since).

Randian egoism: Sobran treats Randian egoism as though it counseled against genuine concern for others. But Randian egoism says no such thing; its conception of self-interest is modeled on Aristotelean eudaimonia, and most definitely includes various forms of other-concern. There is a dispute in Randian circles as to whether such concern is related causally or constitutively to self-interest; but such concern remains genuine in either case. Egoism is a doctrine of the ground of our legitimate concerns, not of their scope. If egoism is Sobran’s basis for rejecting Rand, he should reject Thomas Aquinas for the same reason.

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9 Responses to Caning Darwin

  1. Neil Parille June 1, 2007 at 4:23 pm #

    Rand’s main writing on “concern for others” is “The Ethics of Emergencies” in The Virtue of Selfishness. Apart from arguing that we should help strangers in emergencies (such as someone who is drowing) or people in a temporary crisis (she gives the example of a neighbor who is sick and penniless), Rand doesn’t appear to think that charity in the general sense (helping victims of earthquakes in India say) to be appropriate. The essay isn’t as clear as one would like about charity that fals into the latter class.

  2. Joel Schlosberg June 1, 2007 at 4:37 pm #


    I like what Randian Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, who’s played a role in giving away countless eBooks, said:

    “By the way, I’m not anti-capitalism, I really am an Ayn Rand freak, figure that out. . .hee hee! I am doing Project Gutenberg for the most selfish of reasons – because I want a world that has Project Gutenberg in it.”

  3. Richard Simões June 1, 2007 at 5:31 pm #

    That article is just silly. How is this guy even worth responding to?

  4. Administrator June 1, 2007 at 9:13 pm #

    It’s odd how many people think that in “The Ethics of Emergencies” Rand said that the prohibition on initiating force is lifted in emergencies. She did suggest that elsewhere, but not there. As you say, what she says there is that the insistence on letting other people be self-reliant is lifted in emergencies.

    In her Playboy interview, Rand was asked, “Do you consider wealthy businessmen like the Fords and the Rockefellers immoral because they use their wealth to support charity?” She answered: “No. That is their privilege, if they want to. My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”

    On the other hand, she describes Austen Heller, one of the positive characters in The Fountainhead, as someone who “never donated to charity, but spent more of his own money than he could afford on defending political prisoners anywhere.” In other words, he did give to charity, but only of a certain sort.

    Rand herself was willing to help people financially if she thought they were worthy; see examples in her Letters.

    I agree with David Kelley that Rand undervalued the virtue of generosity (though his case for its value is too consequentialist for my taste); but it’s a mistake to think she was *against* charity. Her concept of self-interest was orthogonal to the whole pro-charity/anti-charity issue.

  5. Neil Parille June 1, 2007 at 9:55 pm #

    I’ve reviewed the entries for “charity” in the Letters and in an early letter (page 32 or so) she commened what might be called “generic charity,” that is helping “people in need” without any particular concern for their worth (“the blind,” “the disabled,” etc.). The other example (in a letter to John Hospers) seems to focus in large part on what the Playboy quote above references, viz, the moral “worth” of the recipient. How can I know the moral worth of earthquake victims in India?

  6. Richard Garner June 2, 2007 at 5:20 am #

    I’m quite surprised at Sobran making these assertions and suspect that s all they are, and that he hasn’t read around the issue. Otherwise, how could he account for the “Nice Guys Finish First” chapter of The Selfish Gene. I would also recommend Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue and Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Co-operation. Hey, even Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid should probably be looked at.

  7. Roger Young June 2, 2007 at 8:41 am #

    “he [Sobran] seems to have forgotten that before a woman has given birth she has no “children”

    So what is that in her womb- a parasite, a product of conception?

  8. David Gordon June 2, 2007 at 5:39 pm #

    Other than that, how did you like Sobran’s article?

  9. Administrator June 2, 2007 at 6:13 pm #

    Neil Parille: she [condemned] what might be called “generic charity,” that is helping “people in need” without any particular concern for their worth

    Yet Austen Heller seems not to have let cocnerns about individual worth prevent him from helping “political prisoners anywhere.”

    Roger Young: So what is that in her womb- a parasite, a product of conception?

    I’m not sure I understand the question. Is it a parasite? Not if she wants it. Is it a product of conception? Of course — as are we all, pre-birth or post.

    David Gordon: Other than that, how did you like Sobran’s article?

    I liked the part about “cattle in the pasture dancing and mooing in unison.”

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