Wednesday, 3 January 2007


Mark Spahn sent a link to this essay by Steve Sailer.  Fascinating stuff.  If that’s not enough to sate your appetite for information about Barack Obama, here is a column by Dick Morris.  I wonder whether Dick would go to work for Obama.  He used to work for Bill Clinton, after all.


A presumptuous person, according to The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (1999) is one who is “unduly or overbearingly confident and presuming.”  To presume is to “suppose to be true; take for granted.”  Let me give an example of presumptuousness from one of the textbooks I’ve used for many years.  The book—now in its fourth edition (2003), and reputed to be the most widely used textbook in all of philosophy—is The Elements of Moral Philosophy, by James Rachels (1941-2003).  In the book’s final chapter, Rachels sets out a number of requirements for “a satisfactory moral theory.”  Here is the first requirement (from pages 191-2):

A Modest Conception of Human Beings.  A satisfactory theory would, first of all, be sensitive to the facts about human nature, and it would be appropriately modest about the place of human beings in the scheme of things.  The universe is some 15 billion years old—that is the time elapsed since the “big bang”—and the earth itself was formed about 4.6 billion years ago.  The evolution of life on the planet was a slow process, guided largely by natural selection.  The first humans appeared quite recently.  The extinction of the great dinosaurs 65 million years ago (possibly as the result of a catastrophic collision between the earth and an asteroid) left ecological room for the evolution of the few little mammals that were about, and after 63 or 64 million more years, one line of that evolution finally produced us.  In geological time, we arrived only yesterday.

But no sooner did our ancestors arrive than they began to think of themselves as the most important things in all creation.  Some of them even imagined that the whole universe had been made for their benefit.  Thus, when they began to develop theories of right and wrong, they held that the protection of their own interests had a kind of ultimate and objective value.  The rest of creation, they reasoned, was intended for their use.  We now know better.  We now know that we exist by evolutionary accident, as one species among many, on a small and insignificant world in one little corner of the cosmos.  The details of this picture are revised each year, as more is discovered; but the main outlines seem well established.

Rachels is pretty clearly a Darwinian, as I am.  (He is the author of Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism [1991].)  I have no problem with his description of the evolutionary process or with the appropriateness of including such a description in an ethics textbook.  But notice what happens by the middle of the second paragraph. “We now know,” Rachels writes, “that we exist by evolutionary accident.”  The implication is twofold: first, that evolution is not part of a divine plan; and second, that science has demonstrated this.  (The most common contrast with “accidental” is “intentional.”)

But science can’t tell us whether the processes that it discovers are part of a divine plan!  Science, by definition, is in the business of studying the natural world.  Whether there is anything beyond the natural world—a supernatural realm—is outside of its purview.  Notice the ease with which Rachels slides from science to metaphysics, and notice the dogmatism of the expression, “We now know that.”  As if it has been demonstrated that there is no god!  This slide is dismayingly common among scientists such as Richard Dawkins, who might be excused on the ground that they’re philosophically naive.  That a philosopher should make such a slide is shocking.

There are many other examples of presumptuousness in Rachels’s book, some of which I set out in a review in Teaching Philosophy a few years ago.  After much soul-searching, I have decided not to use the book again, despite its merits.  It’s well written, easy for students to understand, and thorough.  Rachels covers the main normative and metaethical theories.  There’s also a companion volume, The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy (3d ed., 2003), which allows instructors to assign primary sources.  But I finally tired of apologizing to my students for Rachels’s presumptuousness.  (His discussion of natural law, for example, is abominable, and he all but defines ethical egoism out of existence.)  Starting this spring, I’m going back to Fred Feldman’s Introductory Ethics (1978), which I used for the first time 20 years ago.  The book is still in print, even though it has never been revised.  Is there any other subject or field in which a 29-year-old textbook could be used?

Great Minds Think Alike

Why am I not surprised that Bill Vallicella, the desert doctor, likes The Twilight Zone?  See here.


Michelle Malkin, the intrepid one, is going to Iraq.  See here.  You can be sure that she will give “the other side of the story,” i.e., the story you don’t get from the elite media.  I read Michelle’s blog every day.  Do you?

The 110th Congress

Here is President Bush’s welcome to the 110th Congress.  It’s time for our elected representatives to (1) seal the borders and (2) deport the aliens.

Still Fresh After All These Years

When Smokey Sings” (1987).

Best of the Web Today


J. Daryl Charles on Natural Law

Despite the significance of such early-modern natural-law thinkers as Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez, who protested injustices in the New World based on the natural law, and Hugo Grotius, considered the father of international law, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a decline in claims of a transcendent source for morality.  For social reformers, romanticists, revolutionaries, and enlightened despots—from Hobbes and Rousseau to the complete moral autonomy of reason in Kant and the skepticism of Hume—Enlightenment rationalism represents a break with moral tradition.  “Nature” and “natural law” are thus set in opposition to the civitas.  Hobbes denies what Aquinas had affirmed, that as social creatures we have a natural inclination toward the good of others.  And with Kant, a person is subject to no laws other than those imposed by the self.  Individual freedom thus renders impotent the natural law through its severance of law and morality, as well as through the noumenal and the phenomenal.

(J. Daryl Charles, “Protestants and Natural Law,” First Things [December 2006]: 33-8, at 35)

Hall of Fame?

Roger Clemens.  (For an explanation of this feature, see here.)

Homosexual “Marriage”

The people of the commonwealth of Massachusetts will eventually get their way—as they should.  See here.

Net Neutrality

Here is a New York Times editorial opinion about net neutrality, which, for what it’s worth, I favor.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Jeffrey Toobin (“Gerald Ford’s Affirmative Action,” Op-Ed, Dec. 30) argues that in supporting affirmative action at the University of Michigan, former President Gerald R. Ford remained “in the center of the country” while the Republican Party, in its opposition, has drifted to the right.

But racial preferences have been rejected by a substantial margin in every state in which they have appeared on the ballot, most recently in Michigan itself. On this issue, Gerald Ford represented the opinion of the country’s elites, not its median voter.

John O. McGinnis
Chicago, Dec. 30, 2006
The writer is a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University.

A Year Ago