What Kind of Seriousness is This?

The Big Trunk from Power Line posts an excerpt from Harvey Mansfield's Weekly Standard review of Stephen Rhoad's Taking Sex Differences Seriously. Let me tell you what I think of this bit:

What evolutionists think is the closest we usually get to the notion of nature these days. But it is not close enough. For evolution sees everything as organized for survival and cannot recognize our better, higher nature. Thus it sees no difference in rank between the male desire for an active sex life and the male interest in being married, or between the promptings of desire and the instruction of reason. What kind of seriousness is this?

Right back atcha Mansfield. What kind of seriousness is this? You know, I've heard this stuff about “seriousness” before from Strausseans. It's really got to be said that Mansfield and his posse are masters of “seriousness,” which is a kind of painfully earnest self-congratulating pose. But he apparently cares very little about seriousness, which is involved in things like finding out what nature is like, as opposed to jacking off over Machiavelli.

wilberforces.jpgAnyway, get this: “What evolutionists think is the closest we usually get to the notion of nature these days. But it's not close enough.” Wow. I think I just shit my pants. Seriously (not “seriously”), who does this guy think he is? Sure, sure: William R. Kenan Professor of Government at Harvard University. But where does the Kenan Professor of Government get off announcing that what evolutionists, people who study nature in a systematic and methodical way for a living, aren't close enough, to the “notion of nature?”

Apparently Mansfield, master of the classics, knows nature. Mansfield knows, a priori from the well-appointed comfort of his study, that a sufficient approximation to the “notion of nature” includes a satisfactory account of our “better, higher nature.” What is this exactly?, you may find yourself asking. Better than what? Higher than what? Well, whatever it is, I guess an account of it is a constraint on any theory of nature. Somebody call the biology department! Call MIT! Does Steven Pinker know?

If by “better, higher nature,” Mansfield means our capacity for benevolence, sacrifice, sense of honor, dignity, spirituality, integrity, loyalty, love, friendship, longing for transcendence, etc., then the evolutionist has exactly zero problem recognizing our better, higher nature. It's data. It is something to be explained.

Mansfield's beef is this: actual factual mind-independent nature, the thing that people who specialize in studying nature, like evolutionists, specialize in studying, that thing, out there, is not normative just all by itself, and thus lacks “ranks” and differences thereof.

Disappointingly, an evolutionary (or any naturalistic) explanation of our longing for transcendence, for example, will not be an account of the existence of a transcendent reality in which we as beings are finally made whole through reunification with our creator. An explanation of love is going to say something about pair bonding, babymaking, oxytocin, vasopressin, credible commitment in a high stakes cooperative game, and so forth, and NOT, that we were all once roly-polys ripped asunder by Zeus's lightning bolts and left longing for our lost halves. Or whatever. That is, an account of our nature that has something to do with truth, i.e., correspondence with the world, and not “Truth,” i.e., a certain profound feeling of affirmation and enlightenment, will be an explanation that is not built from within the first-personal moral-psychological conceptual scheme.

Now, most of us understand the difference in rank between a desire for an active sex life, which is clearly sensible, moral and good, and the desire to become married, which tends to be a disastrous mypopic choice stemming from a desperate desire to avoid confronting one's own panicked emptiness. And we all know about the promptings of the desire to heed the insructions of reason and the instruction of reason to heed the promptings of desire, and which is better than which. So the problem isn't that we don't perfectly well know how to rank things.

The point is that ranking things is something that we do, not something that nature does. We have hopes and dreams and all sorts of “higher” emotions that play into the way we represent and engage with the world. If we were built differently, and we held the rest of nature constant,–if we had other needs, a different kind of psychology,a different set of emotions–then we'd ranks things differently, and we'd be right to do it.

In any case, Mansfield, like most Straussians, is a rhetorician, not a philosopher. So he is not, strictly speaking, arguing. He is exhorting us to imagine his moral opinions as lines in the book of nature. I decline. It's a good book as it is. Take a look Harvey!

[Note: Thanks to Robert Light for the link. The picture is Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford.]