Anastaplo & Strauss on Natural Right and Non-Western Thought

by Larry Arnhart


The very idea of Darwinian natural right, as I have developed it, carries with it many contestable ideas.

The idea of nature was discovered by the ancient Greek philosophers when they recognized that there was a rational order in the universe and in human life as part of the universe, a rational order that is universal and unchanging and therefore distinguishable from the conventional or customary order of particular human groups. This Greek idea of nature runs throughout the Western tradition of thought. But if this idea of nature is uniquely Western, then one might wonder whether it has any truth in application to non-Western cultures.

The idea of natural right suggests that nature provides a ground for morality. In human nature, one might discern natural desires and capacities that set norms of good and bad, just and unjust. Natural right or justice is that which conforms to human nature and is therefore universal, whereas conventional right or justice is that which has been established by human contrivance in particular societies. But the diversity of moral experience across the differing cultural traditions might make us wonder whether there is any universal human nature supporting a universal morality.

The idea of Darwinian natural right suggests that the ancient Greek conception of natural right could be supported by a modern Darwinian understanding of human biological nature. But we might question whether modern natural science can do this, because it might seem that modern science denies the teleological conception of nature that was assumed in ancient Greek–and particularly Aristotelian–science.

The idea of Darwinian natural right implies that morality can be founded on a philosophic or scientific understanding of nature. But some people would argue that the ultimate ground of morality is found not in natural experience as known by human reason but in a divine law that is known only by religious faith. And, in fact, the moral life of human beings in diverse cultures often seems to rest on religious belief in the divine authority of moral law.

In working through these issues, it has been helpful for me to ponder the lines of thought suggested by George Anastaplo in his book But Not Philosophy: Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought (Lexington Books, 2002). Anastaplo was a student of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, and his thinking has been shaped by Strauss’s account of the Greek understanding of nature, natural right, and religious faith. The great value of Anastaplo’s book is that he applies these Straussian ideas to the study of seven non-Western traditions of thought–Mesopotamian thought (the Gilgamesh Epic), ancient African thought, Hindu thought (the Bhagavad Gita), Confucian thought (the Analects), Buddhist thought, Islamic thought (the Koran), and North American Indian thought.

Some years ago, I wrote an article for The Political Science Reviewer analyzing and responding to Anastaplo’s studies of non-Western thought. That article can be found online.

Although I generally agree with Anastaplo’s Straussian arguments, I do raise some questions about whether the philosophic conception of nature can be defended against the challenge coming from religious faith. I also lay out my reasoning for why I think modern science–and particularly, Darwinian science–can sustain the idea of natural right as founded in human biological nature. Along the way, I suggest that Anastaplo’s reasoning is remarkably similar to that of David Hume.

Previously posted by Larry Arnhart at Darwinian Conservatism on December 5, 2008.

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