Tijdschrift voor Theologie vol:52 issue:3 pages:226-248
WILL PERSONALISM CORRODE? DARWIN AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS
JOHAN DE TAVERNIER (KU LEUVEN)
In this article the relevance of Darwinian evolutionary theory for Christian ethics is explored. Christian ethics has ignored a significant body of scientific literature dealing with the natural roots of morality. Popular evolution-based writers (a.o. Dawkins, Trivers, E.O. Wilson, Pinker, De Waal) claim to explain in a comprehensive way human behavior in evolutionary terms, although saltationists like Williams, following Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Huxley, still see a qualitative difference between human and animal behavior. Reductionist neuroscientists explain morality merely as a function of brain-based psychological mechanisms and consequently interpret free will and responsibility as an illusion (a.o. Verplaetse, Lamme, Thagard). What do Christian ethicists think about their findings? Accepting Aquinas’ axiom that truth can never conflict with truth, one can argue that knowledge provided by evolutionary theories must be in consonance with the findings of Christian ethics (Pope). Ignoring the findings of natural sciences would contradict the mainstream of the Catholic tradition. Making use of insights of Rottschaeffer, Damasio, Changeux, Singer, Vincent, Ganoczy and Edelman, it is argued that knowledge of evolutionary roots of morality as ‘emergent complexity’ could provide helpful knowledge of the human condition. It makes us understand how human capacities, providing a ‘proto-morality’, have been raised. Biological perspectives can deepen the minds of Christian ethicists in order to grasp the differences between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and to develop a more realistic understanding of human behavior. Knowledge of evolutionary roots of morally relevant emotions invites us to give more attention to virtue education in order to avoid as much as possible situations in which moral agency is overwhelmed by unconscious, deep-rooted biological inclinations.