It’s a strange day when I have to agree with Richard Dawkins against Frank Beckwith, but Beckwith’s argument against Dawkins in this space last week is, I think, mistaken.

Beckwith recounts Dawkins’ criticism of a promising young scientist who gave up a career in geology because of his literal understanding of Genesis, and Beckwith argues that implicit in Dawkins’ criticism is the view that "the human being who wastes his talents is one who does not respect his natural gifts or the basic capacities whose maturation and proper employment make possible the flourishing of many goods. In other words, the notion of a ‘proper function,’ as Alvin Plantinga puts it, coupled with the observation that certain perfections grounded in basic capacities have been impermissibly obstructed from maturing, is assumed in the very judgment Dawkins makes." But, Beckwith argues, Dawkins may not consistently appeal to this notion of a proper function because Dawkins "does not actually believe that living beings, including human beings, have intrinsic purposes or are designed so that one may conclude that violating one’s proper function amounts to a violation of one’s moral duty to oneself. Dawkins has maintained for decades that the natural world only appears to be designed" but is not really so. Hence, Dawkins may not consistently criticize anyone on the basis that the person has violated a natural function.

This answer to Dawkins doesn’t work, in my view, because it confuses a function , which is had by a thing in virtue of its objective properties, with a purpose , which exists in the mind of an intelligent agent, perhaps one that made the thing. An example will make the difference clear.

Say that some engineers at Boeing want to design a new passenger aircraft, and after much work they build the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The purpose exists in the mind of the engineers, but the plane itself has a function: Because it has certain physical properties and not others, the plane is well-suited for travel through the atmosphere but not, for example, under water. In this case, the purpose in the mind of the agent coincides with the function of the object and is even the cause of the object’s having the function it does, for the engineers intentionally caused the object to have certain properties rather than others in order that the object be suited for certain activities rather than others.

The purpose and the function, however, are still different things: The Dreamliner has a certain purpose because it was made by intelligent agents acting with that purpose in mind, but it has its function because of its own objective physical properties. Although unusual, it is quite possible for these two to be separated. If, for example, through astronomically unlikely random collisions of molecules in space there resulted an object physically identical to a Boeing Dreamliner, that object would have all the same physical properties as a Dreamliner and so would have the same function as a Dreamliner. It would not, however, have been designed by an intelligent agent, and so it would have no purpose at all. The function arises from an object’s objective properties without regard to how the object came to have such properties.

Now Dawkins’ argument requires that human beings have a natural function but not a purpose. That is, it’s quite enough for Dawkins to say that human beings, because they are one way rather than another, are well-suited for certain kinds of activities rather than others, and so have a natural function. If they violate this natural function, they are bad qua human beings. How human beings have come to exist and have certain properties rather than others, Dawkins can say, is entirely irrelevant to his normative argument.

Nor would Dawkins be the first person to adopt such an understanding of morality. Indeed, quite the contrary, for he could appeal to an authority no less than Aristotle, who believed that human beings have natural functions and based his moral system on such functions (see Nicomachean Ethics I.7) but did not believe that God or any other intelligent agent designed human beings to have natural functions or to fulfill any particular purpose. Hence, it is quite possible to understand morality in this way and to base moral judgments on such natural functions without thinking that human beings or the universe generally are the product of an intelligent agent.

True, some people think moral systems like Aristotle’s are insufficient because the notion of moral obligation they yield isn’t quite the Christian one (in Aristotle, for example, moral wrongdoing isn’t an affront to God) and also because it even falls short of the categorical ought of Kant (in Aristotle the moral ought is hypothetical: If you would achieve your natural function, then do thus-and-so). But such arguments are all to the effect that the notion of morality possible in an Aristotelian system is somehow incomplete, not that it’s incoherent and not that it’s other than true as far as it goes.

More generally, there is no doubt that Aristotle had a moral system, and there is no reason Dawkins can’t be an Aristotelian in ethics consistent with his understanding of human origins and evolution. There is much wrong with what Dawkins says, but he doesn’t disable himself from making moral judgments, at least not ones couched in an Aristotelian form of natural morality.

Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.

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