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Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature is a book by Larry Arnhart that describes a theory of Ethical Naturalism that shares significant similarities with Desirism. It has ten chapters, each of which will be summarised within the present article.

Aristotle, Darwin, and Natural Right[]

Arnhart's first chapter is divided into four sections. The fourth and final section presents an overview of the book, and therefore will not be covered.

An Intellectual Journey[]

The first, 'An Intellectual Journey', describes the history of his interest in the topic and how how he arrived at the theory and hypotheses presented. He beings with the theory of human nature and morality presented by Aristotle in his Politics and Nichomachean Ethics, noting that debates on political policy are driven by 'opinions about the best way of life for human beings, about how human beings must live to satisfy their natural desires.' From this he holds forth firstly that political questions are primarily about how to shape moral character to fit these desires and also that - given a common human nature - such 'natural desires' constitute a cross-cultural standard by which to judge human characters and institutions.

Through the history of his formulation, Arnhart characterises his theory of natural rights as belonging to 'a tradition of ethical naturalism that included Aristotle's idea of natural right, Hume's idea of the natural moral sense, and Darwin's idea of the moral sense as shaped by natural selection.' Also mentioned as being of especial importance besides the work of these three is are the interpetations of Aristotle and Hume by Roger Masters (in his 1987 article "Evolutionary Biology and Natural Right") and Alisdair MacIntyre (in her 1959 "Hume on 'Is' and 'Ought' ") respectively; as well as James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense, a book that 'survey[s] the contemporary research in the social sciences supporting the existence of a natural moral sense, and... conclude[s] that this research sustained the ethical naturalism of Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin in rooting human morality in the biological nature of human beings.'

Ten Propositions[]

From here, we get to the second section of the chapter, 'Ten Propositions'. True to form, this section is mainly composed of the book's main premise summarised in ten points, produced here verbatim:

'The good is the desirable'[]

'The good is the desirable, because all animals capable of voluntary movement pursue the satisfaction of their desires as guided by their information about the world.'

Human Capacities for Reason and Language[]

'Only human beings, however, can pursue happiness as a deliberate conception of the fullest satisfaction of their desires over a whole life, because only they have the cognitive capacities for reason and language that allow them to formulate a plan of life, so that they can judge present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations.'

Social and Political Animals[]

'Human beings are by nature social and political animals, because the species-specific behavioral repertoire of Homo sapiens includes inborn desires and cognitive capacities that are fulfilled in social and political life.'

Learning and Habituation[]

'The fulfillment of these natural potentials requires social learning and moral habituation; and although the specific content of this learning and habituation will vary according to the social and physical circumstances of each human group, the natural repertoire of desires and cognitive capacities will structure this variability.'

The Subject of Moral Decisions[]

'We can judge divergent ways of life by how well they nurture the natural desires and cognitive capacities of human beings in different circumstances, but deciding what should be done in particular cases requires prudential judgments that respect the social practices of the group.'


'Rather than identifying morality with altruistic selflessness, we should see that human beings are moved by self-love, and as social animals they are moved to love others with whom they are bonded as extensions of themselves.'

Family and Marriage[]

'Two of the primary forms of human sociality are the familial bond between parents and children and the conjugal bond between husband and wife.'

Natural Moral Sense[]

'Human beings have a natural moral sense that emerges as a joint product of moral emotions such as sympathy and anger and moral principles such as kinship and reciprocity.'


'Modern Darwinian biology supports this understanding of the ethical and social nature of human beings by showing how it could have arisen by natural selection through evolutionary history.'

...therefore Aristotle[]

'Consequently, a Darwinian understanding of human nature supports a modern version of Aristostelian natural right.'

Seven Objections[]

In part 3, 'Seven Objections', Arnhart lays out and responds to a number of different objections which he anticipates people raising to his theory, many of which are faced by other theories of ethical naturalism as well, such as desirism. Although within the book itself they are all enumerated and described first and then refuted, I will offer the refutations in the sections with each of the individual objections. Each refutation is the contention that the objection itself rests upon a false dichotomy.

The Fact-Value Dichotomy[]

The most common objection, Arnhart declares, is the supposedly unbridgable gap between 'is' and 'ought'. From the fact that someone wants to do something, it doesn't follow therefrom that they should. Therefore, goes the argument, even if we have a successful and complete description of human nature, we cannot derive therefrom a theory of morals or moral value. This objection has its own article on the desirism wiki, found here).

Arnhart, however, views this as a false dichotomy. 'If the human good is what is desirable for human beings,' he says, 'then the facts concerning the natural human desires do imply ethical conclusions.'

Human Freedom[]

Any descriptions of human nature invalidate morality because they disregard human beings' contra-causal free will. Without this kind of free will, goes the argument, there can be no moral culpability. Arhnart agrees with this assertion, but declares it the false dichotomy of 'biological determinism versus human freedom', proposing a compatibilist definition of free will instead.

Human Learning[]

According to this argument, human behavior is different from that of other animals not because of free will, but because it is learned rather than instinctual. This, then, provides the freedom whence culpability comes. Arnhart declares, however, that the human capacity for learning does not supercede but rather extends the reach of human instinct 'through the uniquely human capacity for language and other symbolism'.

Human Culture[]

This argument says that moral codes are largely (or even entirely) products of individual cultures, and therefore human biology plays little role. If this were true, any attempts to try to derive morality from that biology would be fundamentally misguided. While denying the primacy of culture in moral codes, he does concede that they are important, declaring that 'we need to understand both the circumstantial variations and human universals expressed in particular societies.'

Impermanent species[]

In this objection, the temporality of species is used to argue that it cannot be used to ground morality. This points to a major difference between Aristotle's views on biology, which held that species were eternal and unchangable, and that of modern evolutionary biology. This is not so much of a problem, however, as the changes occurs at a slow enough rate that moral claims are still stable over time, even if they are prone to change.

The problem of teleology[]

The sixth objection follows from a denial of teleology. In Aristotle's belief system, all natural beings work towards their telos, or purpose, which was conceived of as a natural fact about those beings. Modern science, however, generally makes use of causes rather than purposes. Can something like Aristotle's ethical system survive once this seemingly crucial piece has been removed? Arnhart notes that even though the universe as a whole doesn't run on teloi as Aristotle thought, organisms do still make goal-oriented decisions, which is sufficient for Aristotle's theory of ethics.

Religious transcendence[]

Somewhat as an extension of the sixth objection, this objection claims that human beings do have a purpose, that being to obey God. Arnhart dismisses this possibility, however, by saying that 'Darwinism seems to claim that we can explain the appearance of design in nature without any need for invoking a Divine Creator. Therefore, as a final objection to the attempt to root ethics in the biology of human nature, it could be argued that a Darwinian explanation of nature denies any appeal to God as the transcendent ground of morality.'

Desire and Reason[]

To be added...

Political Animals[]

To be added...

The Human Nature of Morality and Freedom[]

To be added...

Parent and Child[]

To be added...

Man and Woman[]

To be added...

Master and Slave[]

To be added...

The Poverty of Psychopathic Desire[]

To be added...

The Ends and Kinds of Life[]

To be added...

Nature and Nature's God[]

To be added...