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Can Ruse's View of Ethics Save Us from Hitler?

[Editor's Note: Historian Richard Weikart is featured prominently in the just-released DVD, "What Hath Darwin Wrought?" exploring the painful history of Social Darwinism in Germany and America from the twentieth century to the present. To purchase a copy or find out more information about this documentary, visit www.whathathdarwinwrought.com.]

Michael Ruse recently criticized my work in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, which examines the way that evolutionary ethics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries undermined Judeo-Christian views of ethics, especially the sanctity-of-life ethic. Ruse opposes my claim that evolutionary ethics as proposed by Darwin and other evolutionists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exerted a powerful influence on Hitler's ideology.

Given his own views on the evolution of ethics, I'm wondering what Ruse has to offer us to counter Hitler's own ethics. Ruse has written on several occasions that ethics is "illusory" and an "illusion" that is biologically innate, helping us survive and reproduce. Ethics and morality, then, are nothing but the products of evolution, having no objective basis. (This is also Darwin's own view). So what moral fulcrum does Ruse (or Darwin) have for pronouncing Hitler's policies evil or wrong? Hitler claimed he was acting in harmony with his own instincts, which taught him to love his racial comrades and hate and destroy those of other races. As I explain in detail in Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, Hitler thought he was advancing human evolution by destroying "inferior" races, and for him promoting evolution was the highest good. Ruse, as far as I can tell, can only respond by appealing to his own "illusions" to counter Hitler's "illusions." It seems to me that this is hardly the kind of argument a good philosopher should be making.

Last November at a conference on Darwinism I conversed with a graduate student in philosophy who embraced Ruse's position on the evolution of ethics, which is not all that unusual among evolutionists. He told me he believed that morality is a biologically innate response shaped by evolutionary processes. It has no independent, objective, or universal existence. I pressed this graduate student, asking him how far he was willing to take his ethical relativism. Upon his affirmation that he subscribed to it completely, I asked him if he thought Hitler was morally evil. After explaining that he personally found Hitler's views repugnant, he admitted that he had no basis for condemning Hitler and finally he conceded, "Hitler was OK."

I doubt Ruse would be comfortable saying that Hitler was OK, because Ruse's (and Darwin's) political views are miles apart from Hitler's. However, Ruse's worldview (and Darwin's own) does not, as far as I can see, provide any objective basis for opposing or condemning Hitler (or Stalin or Mao).

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State Univ., Stanislaus, a research fellow of Discovery Institute, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.