September 15, 2010

Facts and values

Shortly after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, he wrote to a scientific friend that

I have received in a Manchester newspaper rather a good squib, showing that I have proved might is right and therefore that Napoleon is right, and every cheating tradesman is right.

That unknown Manchester journalist may have been one of the first--but far from the last--to make some kind of leap from the fact of evolution to the idea that this makes something right. From then on partisans of the privileged and powerful seized on evolution to "prove" that cutthroat capitalism was a law of human nature.

This kind of leap from an "is" to an "ought" is a fallacy pointed out as early as 1739 by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. One way this shows up in popular culture is the conflation of the idea of "nature" or things that are natural with that of "goodness." One doesn't have to turn over too many rocks, however, to find quite a few things in nature that seem downright nasty to most people. At the ancient sage Lao Tzu put it, "Heaven and earth are not humane."

Evolution by means of natural selection, then, isn't good or right. It just is. People have to decide questions of value form themselves.

THE CLOCK IS TICKING on a program credited with creating 240,000 jobs in the recession. The Emergency TANF program, part of the Recovery Act, will expire at the end of the month unless it is reauthorized. This item highlights efforts in the Senate to keep it going. If you haven't done your good deed for the day, getting in touch with your senators' offices on this would fit the bill.


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