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  • Edvard Westermarck on Morality: The Light Before the Darkness Fell

    Posted on October 18th, 2014 Helian 3 comments

    The nature of morality became obvious to anyone who cared to think about it after Darwin published his great theory, including Darwin himself.  In short, it became clear that the “root causes” of morality were to be found in “human nature,” our specie’s collection of evolved behavioral predispositions.  As the expression of evolved traits, morality has no purpose, unless one cares to use that term as shorthand for the apparent biological function it serves.  It exists because it enhanced the probability that the creatures with the genetic endowment that gave rise to it would survive and reproduce in the conditions that existed when those genes appeared.  As a result, there are no moral “truths.”  Rather, morality is a subjective phenomenon with emotional rather than logical origins.

    So much became obvious to many during the decades that following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.  One man spelled out the truth more explicitly, clearly, and convincingly than any other.  That man was Edvard Westermarck.

    Westermarck was a Finnish philosopher and sociologist who published his seminal work on morality, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, in 1906.  As we now know in retrospect, the truths in that great book were too much for mankind to bear.  The voices repeating those truths became fewer, and were finally silenced.  The darkness returned, and more than a century later we are still struggling to find our way out of the fog.  It should probably come as no surprise.  It goes without saying that the truth was unpalatable to believers in imaginary super beings.  Beyond that, the truth relegated the work of most of the great moral philosophers of the past to the status  of historical curiosities.  Those who interpreted their thought for the rest of us felt the ground slipping from beneath their feet.  Experts in ethics and morality became the equivalent of experts in astrology, and a step below the level of doctors of chiropracty.  Zealots of Marxism and the other emerging secular versions of religion rejected a truth that exposed the absurdity of attempts to impose new versions of morality from on high.  As for the average individuals of the species Homo sapiens, they rejected the notion that the “Good” and “Evil” objects that their emotions portrayed so realistically, and that moved them so profoundly, were mere fantasies.

    The result was more or less predictable.  Westermarck and the rest were shouted down.  The Blank Slate debacle turned the behavioral sciences into so many strongholds of an obscurantist orthodoxy.  The blind exploitation of moral emotions in the name of such newly concocted “Goods” as Nazism and Communism resulted in the deaths of tens of millions, and misery on a vast scale.  The Academy became the spawning ground of a modern, secular version of Puritanism, more intolerant and bigoted than the last.  In the case of Westermarck, the result has, at least, been more amusing.  He has been hidden in plain sight.  On his Wiki page, for example, he is described as one who “studied exogamy and incest taboo.”  To the extent that his name is mentioned at all, it is usually in connection with the Westermarck Effect, according to which individuals in close proximity in the early years of life become sexually desensitized to each other.  So much for the legacy of the man who has a good claim to be the most profound thinker on the subject of morality to appear since the days of Hume.

    Let us cut to the chase and consider what Westermarck actually said.  In the first place, he stressed a point often completely overlooked by modern researchers in the behavioral sciences; the complex emotions we now associate with morality did not suddenly appear fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.  Rather, they represent the results of a continuous process of evolution from simpler emotional responses that Westermarck grouped into the categories of “resentment” and “approval.”  These had existed in many animal species long before hominids appeared on the scene.  They were there as a result of natural selection.  As Westermarck put it:

    As to their origin, the evolutionist can hardly entertain a doubt. Resentment, like protective reflex action, out of which it has gradually developed, is a means of protection for the animal. Its intrinsic object is to remove a cause of pain, or, what is the same, a cause of danger. Two different attitudes maybe taken by an animal towards another which has made it feel pain: it may either shun or attack its enemy. In the former case its action is prompted by fear, in the latter by anger, and it depends on the circumstances which of these emotions is the actual determinant. Both of them are of supreme importance for the preservation of the species, and may consequently be regarded as elements in the animal’s mental constitution which have been acquired by means of natural selection in the struggle for existence.

    From what has been said above it is obvious that moral resentment is of extreme antiquity in the human race, nay that the germ of it is found even in the lower animal world among social animals capable of feeling sympathetic resentment.  The origin of custom as a moral rule no doubt lies in a very remote period of human history.

    This is followed by another remarkable passage, which showcases another aspect of Westermarck’s genius that appears repeatedly in his books; his almost incredible erudition.  His knowledge of the intellectual and historical antecedents of his own ideas is not limited to a narrow field, but is all-encompassing, and highly useful to anyone who cares to study the relevant source material on his own:

     This view is not new. More than one hundred and fifty years before Darwin, Shaftesbury wrote of resentment in these words:  ” Notwithstanding its immediate aim be indeed the ill or punishment of another, yet it is plainly of the sort of those [affections] which tend to the advantage “and interest of the self-system, the animal himself; and is withal in other respects contributing to the good and interest of the species.”  A similar opinion is expressed by Butler, according to whom the reason and end for which man was made liable to anger is, that he might be better qualified to prevent and resist violence and opposition, while deliberate resentment “is to be considered as a weapon, put into our hands by nature, against injury, injustice, and cruelty.”  Adam Smith, also, believes that resentment has “been given us by nature for defence, and for defence only,” as being “the safeguard of justice and the I security of innocence.”  Exactly the same view is taken by several modern evolutionists as regards the “end” of resentment, though they, of course, do not rest contented with saying that this feeling has been given us by nature, but try to explain in what way it has developed. “Among members of the same species,” says Mr. Herbert Spencer, “those individuals which have not, in any considerable degree, resented aggressions, must have ever tended to disappear, and to have left behind those which have with some effect made counter-aggressions.”

    All these references are accompanied by citations of the works in which they appear in the footnotes.  Westermarck then went on to derive conclusions from the evolutionary origins of morality that are both simple and obvious, but which modern behavioral scientists and philosophers have a daunting capacity to ignore.  He concluded that morality is subjective.  It may be reasoned about, but is the product of emotion, not reason.  It follows that there are no such things as moral “truths,” and that the powerful moral emotions that we so cling to, and that cause the chimeras of “Good” and “Evil” to hover in our consciousness as palpable, independent objects, are, in fact, illusions.  In Westermarck’s own words:

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

    The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is that the moral concepts are based upon emotions and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    Consider the significance of these passages, almost incredible looking back from a point of view through the Puritanical mist of the 21st century.  In one of the blurbs I ran across while searching the name “Westermarck,” his work was referred to as “outdated.”  I suppose that, in a sense, that conclusion is quite true, but not in the way intended.  I know of not a single modern thinker, scientist, or philosopher who has even come close to Westermarck in the simplicity and clarity with which he presents these conclusions, so obvious to anyone who has read and understood Darwin.  Here are some more passages that reinforce that conclusion:

    If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.  It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else.  But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true.  If the word, “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

    To put it more bluntly, and to reveal some of my own purely subjective moral emotions in the process, the flamboyant peacocks currently strutting about among us peddling their idiosyncratic flavors of virtuous indignation and moral outrage based on a supposed monopoly on moral “truths” are, in reality, so many charlatans and buffoons.  To take them seriously is to embrace a lie, and one that, as has been clearly and repeatedly demonstrated in the past, and will almost certainly be abundantly demonstrated again in the future, is not only irritating, but extremely dangerous.  The above, by the way, appears in the context of a shattering rebuttal of utilitarianism in Chapter 1 that is as applicable to the modern versions being concocted for our edification by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene as it is to the earlier theories of John Stuart Mill and others.  In reading Westermarck’s book, one is constantly taken aback by insights that are stunning in view of the time at which they were written.  Consider, for example, the following in light of recent research on mirror neurons:

    That a certain act causes pleasure or pain to the bystander is partly due to the close association which exists between these feelings and their outward expressions.  The sight of a happy face tends to produce some degree of pleasure in him who sees it.  The sight of the bodily signs of suffering tends to produce a feeling of pain.  In either case the feeling of the spectator is the result of a process of reproduction, the perception of the physical manifestation of the feeling recalling the feeling itself on account of the established association between them.

    I fear we will have a very long wait before our species grasps the significance of Westermarck’s ideas and adjusts its perceptions of the nature and significance of morality accordingly.  As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we are far to fond of the delightful joys of self-righteousness to admit the less than exalted truths about its origins without a struggle.  There are some grounds for optimism in the fact that a “Happy Few” are still around who understand that the significance of Westermarck completely transcends anything he had to say about sexual attraction and marriage.  As it happens, Frans de Waal, whose latest book is the subject of one of my recent posts, is one of them.  I personally became aware of him thanks to a reference to his book in Nietzsche’s “Human, All Too Human.”  I don’t think Nietzsche ever quite grasped what Westermarck was saying.  He had too much the soul of an artist and a poet rather than a scientist for that.  Yet, somehow, he had a sixth sense for ferreting out the wheat from the chaff in human thought.  As it happens, I began reading Stendhal, my favorite novelist, thanks to a reference in Nietzsche as well.  I may not exactly be on board as far as his ramblings about morality are concerned, but at least I owe him a tip of the hat for that.  As for Westermarck, I can but hope that many more will read and grasp the significance of his theories.  His book is available free online at Google books for anyone who cares to look at it.

    UPDATE:  Apparently I became too “dizzy with success” at discovering Westermarck to notice a “minor” temporal anomaly in the above post.  A commenter just pointed it out to me.  Westermarck wrote his book in 1906, and Nietzsche died in 1900!  He was actually referring to a book by Paul Ree entitled, “The Origin of the Moral Sensations,” which appeared in 1877.  Check Ree’s Wiki page, and you’ll see he’s the guy standing in front of a cart with Nietzsche in the famous picture with Lou Andreas-Salome sitting in the cart holding a whip.  Of course, it’s a spoof on Nietzsche’s famous dictum, “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!”  I was reading the German version of his “Human, all too Human.”  The quote referred to appears in Section 37, as follows:

    Welches ist doch der Hauptsatz, zu dem einer der kühnsten und kältesten Denker, der Verfasser des Buches “Über den Ursprung der moralischen Empfindungen” vermöge seiner ein-und durchschneidenden Analysen des menschlichen Handelns gelangt?

    In my English version of the book above the quote is translated as,

    Which principle did one of the keenest and coolest thinkers, the author of the book On the Origin of the Moral Feelings, arrive at through his incisive and piercing analysis of human actions?

    I translated the title on the fly as “On the Origin of the Moral Emotions,” and when you search that title on Bing, the first link that comes up points to Westermarck’s book.  In a word, my discovery of Westermarck was due to serendipity or bungling, take your pick.  The shade of Nietzsche must be chuckling somewhere.  Now I feel obligated to have a look at Ree’s book as well.  I’ll let you know what I think of him in a later post, and I promise not to claim I discovered him thanks to a reference in Aristotle’s “Ethics.”



    3 responses to “Edvard Westermarck on Morality: The Light Before the Darkness Fell” RSS icon

    • I’m surprised that Nietzsche knew about Westermarck.

      Westermarck’s book on marriage (1891) came out after Nietzsche’s collapse (1889) and the one on morals after N’s death (1900).

      Were there earlier writings?

    • Of course, you’re right. Evidently I was so stunned by the discovery of Westermarck that I completely overlooked such “minor” temporal difficulties. Nietzsche was actually referring to a book by Paul Ree. Check out Ree’s Wiki page, and you’ll see he’s actually the guy standing in front of the cart with Nietzsche in the famous picture in which Lou Andreas-Salome is sitting in the cart holding a whip! See the update to my post.

    • Ree and Westermarck may have had similar inspirations, at least so I learn from this:

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