In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Darwinian Conservatism as the New Natural Law
  • Larry Arnhart (bio)

Conservatives need Charles Darwin. They need him because conservatism at its best is founded on natural law, and a Darwinian science of human nature now provides the best support for a natural moral law.

Many conservatives resist this idea because they assume that Darwinism promotes a morally corrupting materialism. But some conservative thinkers see that the intellectual vitality of conservative thought depends on appropriating the advances in Darwinian science in developing a Darwinian conservatism of natural law. A good illustration of how this might work is in the debate over the moral and political consequences of biotechnology.1

The Human Biology of Natural Law

The story of natural law begins with Aristotle's claim that human beings are by nature moral and political animals. As a biologist, Aristotle understood the nature of human beings by comparing them with other animals. He observed that all animals are inclined by their natural desires to secure their self-preservation and the propagation of their progeny. Social cooperation ultimately arises as an extension of the natural desires for sexual coupling and parental care of the young. Some animals provide little care for their offspring. But the more social and more intelligent animals care for the complete development of their young. Human beings and other political animals (such as bees, ants, wasps, and cranes) show the most enduring and intense forms of parental care, which includes not only feeding and protecting the young, but also passing on the habits and knowledge required for living in groups with complex social structures.

Although Aristotle did not identify apes as political animals, he saw that they were close to human beings. From his anatomical comparisons, which included dissections of monkeys and apes, he concluded that in their feet, legs, hands, face, teeth, and internal parts, the apes are humanlike.

Aristotle saw that like human beings, other political animals have leaders who help to coordinate social life for common ends, although leaders can also harm a community when they lead factions that divide it. Political animals need intelligence to maneuver their way through a complex interplay of conflicts and confluences of interest within their groups.

Aristotle observed that human beings are more political than the other political animals because of the uniquely human capacity for speech. Through speech, we human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive than is possible for other political animals. Through speech, we can deliberate about the common interest as the criterion of justice, so that we can judge a just political community to be one that serves the common interest of all its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private interest of its ruling group. The good is the desirable, and therefore we can judge social practices by how well they satisfy the full range of natural human desires. The contingencies of individual temperament and social history are so variable, however, that we need prudence to judge what is best in particular circumstances for particular people.

Aristotle distinguishes at least three levels in our natural desires. Like all animals, we have appetitive desires for survival and health. Like the social animals, we have social desires for sexual mating and parental care. Like the political animals, we have political desires for social ranking and political rule. And because of our uniquely human capacity for deliberate choice in the light of our past experiences and our future expectations, we can pursue the harmonious satisfaction of our desires as conforming to some conception of a whole life well lived. Due to the variable contingencies of individual temperament and social circumstances, we need to exercise prudence or practical judgment in deciding what is desirable for particular individuals and particular communities in particular circumstances.

Aristotle thus stated a cluster of six ideas that would later be elaborated in the natural law tradition by Stoic philosophers in antiquity and scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages. (1) Animals have natural inclinations. (2) The normal development of each kind of animal requires the fulfillment of these natural inclinations. (3) Animals with conscious awareness desire the satisfaction of...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 14-19
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.