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  • On the Unbearable Lightness of Objective Morality

    Posted on October 14th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    There are still objective moralists – lots of them.  Of course, billions of people on the planet are objective moralists because they believe in God, but that’s the trivial case.  I’m not referring to them.  I’m referring to the legions of philosophers, ethicists, and moralists who sawed that particular branch off long ago, and yet imagine they can still sit on it.  It reminds me of an old “Itchy and Scratchy” episode on “The Simpsons.”  Itchy tears out Scratchy’s heart and hands it to him as a valentine.  Scratchy is charmed, and carries on as if nothing were amiss until he happens to read the bold headline in his newspaper, “You Need a Heart to Live!”  So it is with the objective moralists.  They insist that their treasured object needs neither a heart nor a God to exist.  It exists because they say so, and after all, they are the experts.  More importantly, it exists because they would not at all approve of a world in which it didn’t.

    An interesting example of the genre recently turned up in the pages of The New Atlantis in the form of an article entitled, The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson.  It was penned by Whitley Kaufman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  Kaufman is also an objective moralist, and his article is intended as a refutation of E. O. Wilson’s “evolutionary ethics.”  He informs us that “the discipline of evolutionary ethics can be divided into two broad camps.”  Supposedly Wilson belongs to the first camp, which “views evolutionary explanations of morality as a way to improve our understanding of what is moral and to put ethical claims on a stronger foundation.”  However, Kaufman finally gets around to telling us where he stands in describing the second camp:

    But there is a second, more radical school of thought in evolutionary ethics.  This view holds that evolutionary biology, rather than providing a basis for improving or modernizing ethics, shows that the idea of objective ethical rules is inherently mistaken.

    Returning to the same theme a bit later he writes,

    …the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims.

    That might well be true if there were even the faintest basis for the “objective status of ethical claims.”  In fact, there is none, and Kaufman makes no effort to supply one.  Objective moralists seldom do.  It seems to them that the Good and Evil objects that dance before their eyes are so light that they can float about in the ether without support.  It’s a common illusion among those who have reached terminal velocity as gravity pulls them crashing down to earth.

    By all means, read Kaufman’s essay from end to end.  You will search in vain for any justification of the claim that there is such a thing as objective morality.  Instead, you will find a very typical mélange of appeals to emotion, moralistic posing, and insistences that, because the author wouldn’t like it if there were no objective morality, therefore objective morality must exist.

    For example, in a section entitled Disquieting Precedents, he dangles familiar bugaboos before our eyes.  They include Social Darwinism, eugenics, and, of course, the Nazis.  These are all, supposedly, the misshapen children of evolutionary ethics.  In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:  I feel really, really strongly that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are evil.  It would be really, really outrageous for anyone to believe that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are good.  Therefore, it follows that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are objectively evil.  Using similar logic, one can easily prove the existence of a God.  After all, if God didn’t exist, we couldn’t go to heaven after we die, the bad people we resent wouldn’t go to hell, and our prayers for our favorite football team would never be answered.  Therefore, there must be a God.

    A little later, Kaufman puts this “it just can’t be” argument into an even simpler form.  Taking issue with Wilson he writes,

    In his 1986 essay “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” written with philosopher Michael Ruse, he (E. O. Wilson) argues that we now understand that we have been “deceived by our genes” into believing that morality objectively binds us, that there is a real right versus wrong.

    This view is best characterized as a form of moral nihilism, the idea that moral obligations do not exist.  Wilson tries to avoid the nihilistic position by insisting that the illusion of right and wrong is so deeply built into us that even recognizing it as an illusion will not likely make a difference in our behavior.  But committed moral nihilists reject this response:  realizing that moral claims are illusions surely means that moral claims are false.  There is, under this view, no real ethical difference between the actions of the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint.

    In other words, we have the following additional arguments for objective morality:  a) I don’t like moral nihilists at all, and, since moral nihilists deny the existence of objective right and wrong, therefore objective right and wrong must exist, b) I don’t at all like the idea that there is no objective moral difference between the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint, so there must be an objective moral difference between them, and, c) It would be a great shame if the mirage of a cool spring of water and palm trees shimmering ahead of me on the desert floor weren’t real.  Therefore they must be real.  Do any of these arguments make sense to you?  They certainly don’t to me.  A bit further on Kaufman writes,

    There are stronger grounds than Wilson offers, however, for rejecting the moral nihilism that some say is a consequence of evolutionary biology.  Consider an analogy with mathematics and science.  Like our ability to think about the morality of our actions, the cognitive abilities underlying mathematics and science are in some sense products of evolution.  But this fact has no significant implications regarding our ability to objectively study mathematics or physics, and it certainly does not imply that numbers, molecules, or, for that matter, genes, brains, and bodies studied by evolutionary biologists are fictions.  Likewise, the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims… To try to do ethics without genuine values and prescriptive moral principles is like trying to do science without recourse to facts and observations.

    There’s a novel proof for you.  Objective Good and Evil must exist because Prof. Kaufman requires them to do his job.  Actually, I’m entirely willing to believe in genuine values and prescriptive moral principles if Professor Kaufman could just catch one in his butterfly net and bring it in for me to observe.  That’s really where his ox is gored.  If there is no objective morality, people like him really have nothing to teach us, other than their opinions tarted up as “objects.”  I’m sorry about that, but the fact doesn’t alter reality one bit.  According to Kaufman,

    In order to fully comprehend human nature, there must always be a place for philosophy, history, literary studies, and even theology – disciplines that complement the natural sciences and fill in the picture of the human being as a free and rational agent.

    I personally don’t care what discipline my knowledge comes from.  You can call it science, or philosophy, or history, or whatever you like.  But regardless of where it comes from, I must insist that if people make assertions about objects that are supposed to exist independently of their subjective minds, they provide some data, some actual evidence that those objects exist.  Absent such data, but with plenty of data demonstrating that those “objects” are just what E. O. Wilson says they are – subjective illusions – I will continue in the belief that they are just that.

    Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for the existence of human morality.  Absent those predispositions, our morality as we know it would cease to exist.  In my opinion, that is the simple truth.  It will remain the truth whether its implications are unpleasant to the Kaufmans of the world or not.  Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are obviously possible, though hardly inevitable, outcomes if people engage in faulty reasoning about what they should do in response to their moral emotions.  If we really want to avoid such outcomes in the future, wouldn’t it be advisable to understand the truth about our moral emotions and where morality comes from?  It seems to me that would be wiser than attempting to ban them by insisting that everyone believe in imaginary objects.  That would amount to insisting that we repeat the same mistakes over again.  After all, there were no stronger believers in objective morality than the Nazis unless, perhaps, it was the Communists.  For them, the ultimate, objective Good was the welfare of the German Volk.  They tolerated no moral relativism on that score whatsoever.  For the Communists, the objective Good was achieving the future classless utopia.  They, too, allowed no moral relativism touching on that ultimate goal.  It seems to me that the lesson we really should have learned from Nazism and Communism is that such illusions of objective Good can be very dangerous, and we should be wary of anyone who comes along trying to peddle a new and improved version.

    There is no reason we will cease to be moral beings because we have finally learned to understand morality.  Just as E. O. Wilson said, it is our nature to be moral beings.  If there be moral nihilists who assume they can break the rules because the rules are conventions rather than objects, we will continue to punish them just as we have always punished such moral nihilists in the past.  I, for one, will have no problem with that.  However, it seems to me that the interactions of modern nation states armed with nuclear weapons bear little resemblance to those that prevailed during the long period over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved.  Under the circumstances it seems to me imprudent to regulate those interactions with reference to imaginary Good and Evil objects.  We did, after all, have some rather unpleasant experiences during the last century trying to do just that.  Let us refrain from compounding the error by attempting to repeat those experiments.  I have very little faith in the efficacy of the vaunted intelligence of our species.  However, it seems to me that in such cases we should leave off trying to cobble together new moral systems and actually try to be reasonable.

    As for Good and Evil objects, I am not intransigent.  I am entirely willing to believe in them.  All I ask is that Professor Kaufman rope one and show it to me.

     

     

    2 responses to “On the Unbearable Lightness of Objective Morality” RSS icon

    • 1. What’s “objective existance”? Do triangles exist objectively? Can I say “something is a triangle, and something is not” objectively? In fact you could argue that my ability to perceive some objects and define them as triangles is a result of the evolution. So, are triangles objective?

      2. Do you believe in real world? In the existence of other people? Why? There is no more reasons for belief in real world than for belief in objective morality. There is only one thing for which I have no reasons to doubt – that I exist (as it was briliantly put in words by St. Agustine). Everything else are just my beliefs. I believe world exist; I believe you exist; But I do not claim my beliefs are objective reality.

    • I’m surprised you would cite the work of St. Augustine if you don’t believe he actually existed.


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