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  • Morality Whimsy: What the Philosophers “Learned” from Darwin

    Posted on September 15th, 2018 Helian 4 comments

    When he published The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin practically spoon fed the rest of us the truth about human morality. He explained that it was as much a result of evolution by natural selection as any of our more obvious physical features. Similar versions of the heritable mental traits responsible for its existence are also present in other animals. The only difference between us and them is our ability to contemplate what we experience as a result of those traits with our large brains, and communicate our thoughts to others. As the result of a natural process, morality is not fixed, and could potentially be entirely different in other animals that might eventually happen to acquire levels of intelligence close to our own. In other words, it is a purely subjective phenomenon that does not “track” some imaginary “true” version of objective moral law. As a natural phenomenon, there is no reason to expect that it is striving towards some imaginary goal, such as human perfection or ideal virtue. It’s hard to imagine how Darwin could have expressed these facts in simpler or more straightforward terms.

    If Darwin’s claim that morality is derived from heritable mental traits that exist by virtue of natural selection is right, it follows that it is not a perfectly malleable manifestation of environment or culture. Human beings cannot be programmed by learning or environment to adopt completely arbitrary versions of morality. It also follows that humans will perceive moral rules as absolutes. Furthermore, human beings are social animals. If morality exists by virtue of evolved mental traits, it follows that it enhances the probability of the survival and reproduction of the responsible genes in a group environment. It would hardly be effective in doing so if it predisposed us to believe that certain of our behaviors are “good” and others “evil” merely as individuals, but that no such rules or categories apply to the behavior of others. In that case altruism would certainly be a losing strategy in the struggle for survival. However, altruism exists. It follows that we must perceive the moral “rules” not only as absolute, and not only as applying to ourselves, but to everyone else as well. In short, belief in objective morality is an entirely predictable illusion, but an illusion regardless. If it were not an illusion, Darwin’s comment that completely different versions of morality could evolve for different intelligent species would necessarily be false. Whatever else one thinks of objective morality, it is certainly un-Darwinian.

    In the years that followed, Darwin’s great theory spawned a host of different versions of “evolutionary morality.” One cannot but experience a sinking feeling in reading through them. Not a single one of the authors had a clue what Darwin was talking about. As far as I can tell, every single one of the systems of “evolutionary morality” concocted in the 19th century was based on the assumption of objective moral law. Evolution was merely the “natural” process of mankind’s progress towards the “goal” of compliance with this objective law, and the outcome of this “natural” process would be (of course) human moral perfection, in harmony with assorted versions of “true” morality. In other words, the power of the illusion asserted itself with a vengeance. “Man the wise” proved incapable of putting two and two together. Instead we clung to the old, familiar mirage that good and evil exist as objective things, just as our minds have always portrayed them to us.

    One can confirm the above by reviewing some representative samples of the early versions of evolutionary morality. Many of them were described by Charles Mallory Williams in his A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution, published in 1893. By that time such systems were hardly a novelty. As Williams put it,

    Now every year and almost every month brings with it a fresh supply of books, pamphlets and magazine articles on The Evolution of Morality. So many are the waters which now pour themselves into this common stream that the current threatens soon to become too deep and swift for any but the most expert swimmers.

    Noting that it was already impossible to do justice to all the theories in a single book, Williams limited himself to reviewing the systems proposed by the most prominent authors in the field. These included Ernst Haeckel, who suggested substituting a “nature religion” based on evolution for the old “church religions.” According to Haeckel,

    The greatest rudeness and barbarity of custom often goes hand in hand with the absolute dominion of an all-powerful church; in confirmation of which assertion one need only remember the Middle Ages. On the other hand, we behold the highest standard of perfection attained by men who have severed connection with every creed. Independent of every confession of faith, there lives in the breast of every human being the germ of a pure nature religion; this is indissolubly bound up with the noblest sides of human life. Its highest commandment is love, the restraint of our natural egoism for the benefit of our fellow-men, and for the good of human society, whose members we are.

    The very un-Darwinian assumptions that evolution had resulted in a moral sense that was in tune with some version of ideal goodness, referred to by Haeckel as “a pure nature religion,” and that this moral sense existed to serve “the good of human society,” or the good of the species, are characteristic of all the early versions of “evolutionary morality.” For example, from the system proposed by Herbert Spencer,

    From the fundamental laws of life and the conditions of social existence are inducible certain imperative limitations to individual action – limitations which are essential to a perfect life, individual and social, or in other words essential to the greatest possible happiness. And these limitations following inevitably as they do from undeniable first principles deep as the nature of life itself constitute what we may distinguish as absolute morality… In the ideal state towards which evolution tends, any falling short of function implies deviation from perfectly moral conduct.

    Spencer’s friend, John Fiske, imagined that Darwin, “properly understood” pointed in a similar direction:

    Man is slowly passing from a primitive social state, in which he was little better than a brute, toward an ultimate social state in which his character shall have become so transformed that nothing of the brute can be detected in it. The “original sin” of theology is the brute inheritance, which is being gradually eliminated; and the message of Christianity: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” will be realized in the state of universal peace towards which mankind is tending. Strife and Sorrow shall disappear. Peace and Love shall reign supreme. The goal of evolution is the perfecting of man, whereby we see, more than ever, that he is the chief object of divine care, the fruition of that creative energy which is manifested throughout the knowable universe.

    Another Englishman, Alfred Barratt, proposed an even more confused version of “Darwinian morality:”

    The Moral Sense therefore is merely one of the emotions, though the last of all in the order of evolution. It can only claim a life of some two or three centuries, (!) and there are even some who still doubt its existence. Man, at any rate, is the only animal who possesses it in its latest development, for even in horses and dogs we cannot believe that it has passed the intentional or conscious stage. Good with them has no artificial meaning; it is simply identical with the greatest pleasure. Only by complete and perfect obedience to all emotions can perfect freedom from regret be obtained in the gratification of all desire. Man is at present passion’s slave because he is so only in part, for the cause of repentance is never the attainment of some pleasure, but always the non-attainment of more; not the satisfaction of one desire, but the inability to satisfy all. The highest virtue, therefore, consists in being led not by one desire but by all in the complete organization of the Moral Nature.

    According to the abstruce version of “Darwinism” proposed by Austrian philosopher Bartolomäus von Carneri, evolution had a “goal.” Happily, it was “the perfection of man.”

    When we do away with all concessions to one sided extravagant desires, abstain from placing mind above the universal law of causality, and are content with the facts made known to us by science, we perceive that the absolute True, Beautiful, and Good bears the character of the Universal. In this universal character it has always finally found expression in human life and in this character it will always find expression… There is no absolute Evil in contrast to the absolute Good. Evil is negative. The perfection of man is identical with the attainment of absolute Good through evolution.

    So much for “evolutionary morality” in the 19th century.  None of these philosophers had a clue that they were spouting nonsense that flew in the face of what Darwin had actually said about morality.  None of them so much as stopped to think that there is no path from a natural process such as evolution by natural selection to objective “oughts.”  They could not free themselves of the powerful illusion that good and evil are real things. It took a critic of Darwin who rejected the idea that evolution had anything to do with morality to see the blatant fallacies at the bottom of all these systems of “evolutionary morality.” Such a man was Jacob Gould Schurman, who took occasion to point out some of the gaping holes in all these fine theories in his The Ethical Import of Darwinism, published in 1888. The diehard Schurman commented bitterly that,

    It is a historical fact that no one nowadays seems to doubt the validity of the general theory of evolution. However, the same cannot be said of natural selection.

    He cited several prominent contemporary scientists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, who rejected Darwin’s theory either in whole or in part. Noting that “Darwin is certainly the father of evolutionary ethics,” Schurman then continued with a scathing attack on the whole idea, pointing out gaping holes in the above theories of “evolutionary morality” that are just as applicable to the tantrums of modern SJWs. For example,

    It is worse than idle for mechanical evolutionists to talk of the reason or end or ground of morality.

    The mental and moral faculties are both reduced to the rank of natural phenomena.

    The absolute ought cannot be the product of (evolution).

    Will not evolution, then, as thus interpreted, work revolution in our views of the moral nature of man, since it implies that morality is not grounded in the nature of things, but something purely relative to man’s circumstances; a happy device whereby man’s ancestors managed to cohere in a united society, and so kill out rival and disunited groups.

    Exactly! If Darwin was right, then the claims of any system of “evolutionary morality” to represent objective moral truths must be dismissed as absurd. It is impossible for objective Good and Evil to be “grounded in the nature of things” if morality is the outcome of a random natural process. Indeed, it is not out of the question that intelligent life may already have evolved on other planets by a process similar to the one that occurred on earth, resulting in entirely different versions of good and evil.  It is a tribute to the power of the illusions that our evolved “moral sense” spawns in our brains that it is only obvious to those who disagree with our preferred version of “moral truth” that we are delusional.

    Today we suffer from an infestation of secular “Social Justice Warriors,” who are in the habit of delivering themselves of bombastic moral pronunciamientos, and become furious when the rest of us pay no attention to them. Only Christians and other theists appear capable of noticing that they lack any basis for the legitimacy of their moral claims. In fact, they are behaving just as Darwin would have predicted, blindly responding to innate moral emotions, oblivious to the fact that the consequences of doing so today are highly unlikely to be the same as those that applied in the radically different world in which those emotions evolved. Just as the Darwin critic Schurman immediately recognized that the evolutionary moralists’ fantastic notion that they had discovered a philosopher’s stone to prop up their “absolute ought” was absurd, today’s theists can immediately see that the fine “objective truths” in which secular humanists imagine they’ve arrayed their moralistic emperor are purely figments of their imaginations.  Their emperor is naked.

    As far as “evolutionary morality” is concerned, little has changed since the 19th century.  “Evolutionary moralists” flourish even more luxuriantly now than they did then.  Some of them even deny the existence of objective moral truths.  None that I am aware of are to be taken seriously when they make that claim.  In nearly the same breath in which they announce their belief in subjective morality, they will launch into a morally drenched rant against conservatives, or populists, or nationalists, or capitalists, or whoever else has the honor of belonging to their outgroup.  They do this without the least explanation, as if there were nothing at all contradictory about it.  They announce that there are no moral truths, and then proceed to furiously defend whatever flavor of moral truth they happen to prefer. Nothing could be further from their minds than explaining just how they imagine the particular “moral truths” they endorse will enhance the odds that the responsible genes they happen to carry will survive and reproduce. Only the great Edvard Westermarck popped for a brief moment out of the prevailing fog and followed the teachings of Darwin to their logical conclusion.  He was quickly forgotten.

    Why is all this important?  I can only answer that question from a personal point of view.  It may not be important to some people.  That said, it is important to me because I find it expedient to know and base my actions and decisions on the truth.  I can’t say with absolute certainty whether anything is true or not, so I settle for what I consider probably true, and I deem it highly probable that there is no such thing as objective moral truth.

    Some have argued that acknowledging this particular truth will harm society, because it will lead to moral relativism and moral chaos.  Human history in general, and the historical facts I have cited above in particular, demonstrate that this conclusion is false.  In view of what Darwin wrote about morality, it would seem perfectly clear and perfectly obvious that no system of objective morality can be based on his theory of evolution by natural selection.  This was abundantly clear to many of his opponents.  It remains obvious to the theists who reject his theory today.  However, almost to a man, those who considered themselves “Darwinians” and proposed systems of morality supposedly based on his theory concluded that there are objective moral truths, and that it is the “goal” of evolution to realize these truths! I can think of no rational explanation for this fact other than the existence of a powerful, innate human predisposition to perceive moral rules as independent, objective facts.  The power of this common illusion is demonstrated by the fact that highly intelligent “Darwinian” moral philosophers could not wean themselves from it even after Darwin had, for all practical purposes, told them point blank that they were fooling themselves.  In short, our species faces no danger from moral relativism.  The opposite is true. We are moral absolutists by nature, and will continue to be moral absolutists regardless of the scribblings of philosophers.  The real danger we face is our tendency to blindly follow the promptings of our “moral sense” in an environment that is radically different from the one in which that moral sense evolved.

    Demonstrating the truth of the above couldn’t be simpler. Just gather up as many evolutionary moralists, postmodernists, and self-proclaimed believers in subjective morality as you please. Then take a close look at what they’ve actually written.  You’ll quickly find that every single one of them has made and continues to make morally loaded pronouncements that make no sense whatever absent the implicit assumption that there are objective moral truths.  They will announce that someone in their outgroup is immoral, or that we “ought” to do something, not merely as a matter of utility, but because it is the “right” thing to do, or that we have a “duty” to do something and refrain from doing something else.  They will proclaim their desire for “moral progress” or “human flourishing” without feeling in the least embarrassed by their failure to explain how “moral progress” or “human flourishing” will promote the survival of the genes that are the ultimate reason they find these nebulous utopias so attractive to begin with.

    I, too, am human, and tend to wander off into such irrationalities myself sometimes.  However, if challenged, I will at least admit that I am merely expressing whims spawned by my own “moral sense,” and that I know of no legitimate basis whatever for claiming that my whims have some magical power to dictate to others what they ought or ought not to do.

    We are not threatened by moral relativism.  We are threatened by the pervasive illusion that the objects we refer to as good and evil are real, and that we and the members of our ingroup have a monopoly on the knowledge of what these imaginary objects look like.  We cannot free ourselves of this illusion.  We are moral absolutists by nature.  Under the circumstances, it might behoove us to construct an “absolute morality” that is as benign, useful, and unobtrusive as possible.  If nothing else, it would pull the rug out from under the feet of the pious bullies and self-appointed moral dictators that I personally find an insufferable blight on modern society.  With luck, it might even encourage some of our benighted fellow creatures, who are now rushing down “morally pure” paths to extinction, to think twice about the wisdom of what they are doing, or as least to refrain from insisting that the rest of us accompany them on the journey.


    4 responses to “Morality Whimsy: What the Philosophers “Learned” from Darwin” RSS icon

    • Of course while it is true that belief in an objective morality is an illusion it is also true that there is nothing objectively wrong about believing such an illusion. Indeed there is no reason to believe that evolution is gradually driving us to a more and more accurate knowledge of reality. For example it is quite possible that natural selection in the coming times will favor nonsensical and fanatical ideologies. The past history of both Christianity, Islam and Marxism may be the future.

    • Thank you for the last two posts, very enjoyable and thought provoking,.
      I found myself looking for answers to the question of why the average person, indeed why the average academic, bishop, politician, is unable to grasp the reality of the situation as shown so brilliantly by Darwin, and other? Why?
      This led to a long and convoluted thought process re the unconscious nature of our thoughts, the usurpation of Autority by tthe Church and Nation State, academia and commerce etc but still it was cloudy. Then I thought this morning, lets approach this from the other side, why don’t the establishment teach reality, why don’t the Churches and Temples teach reality, why don’t the academics teach reality, etc etc ,.
      Well lets look at what they do teach, submission to an external authority that may or may not be in their personal(evolutionary) interest. The primacy of groups that are not real, a dislocation from natural systems, a fear of others where there is no personal likelihood of threat. Etc
      If I can now flip to Tinbergens masterpiece on Instincts, could I make one criticism, it links to the above. When he describes the usurpation of the beak by a crude imitation that only needs a bigger patch of red, he calls this phenomena a ‘supernormal stimuli’. This is a shame, far better and far easier for us to translate this breakthrough thought if he had called it a ‘False Stimuli’.
      Thanks again, I have to rush out and buy a copy of Darwins masterpieces.

    • @Jim

      All of what you say is true. It’s also true that someone may be irritated by people who are delusional about moral objectivity and try to force their version of morality down others’ throats as a result. In that case, there’s nothing objectively wrong about fighting back against such people and/or supporting a different version of morality, violently or otherwise.

      Egalitarianism has been a meme for a long time, and can quickly spawn illusions of its own. For example, in keeping with the principle of equality, we “ought not” to favor one version of subjective morality over another. However, there is no basis for this claim other than the illusion that equality is some kind of a transcendent, objectively valid principle. It is not, and in this case, it would be a recipe for suicide. That is increasingly what it is becoming in modern society in any case. It has already led to the self-decapitation of at least two countries – Cambodia and the Soviet Union – and resulted in the deaths of 100 million people, give or take, in its Communist guise alone. There is nothing objectively wrong about Communism for that reason, but there is also nothing objectively wrong about choosing to fight to the death to oppose Communism.


      I think the reason that academics, bishops, and politicians, not to mention the philosophers I mentioned in my last post, have been unable to grasp the reality set forth so clearly by Darwin is the power of the illusion of moral objectivity that we are all subject to. Assuming the illusion is there by virtue of natural selection, it’s obvious why it exists. When it evolved, it was more effective at promoting genetic survival than such alternative illusions as, “It’s OK for another person to act in ways that favor the survival of my genes, but if they don’t feel like it, that’s OK, too.”

    • Possibly ‘moral objectivity’ is not so much an ‘illuison’, rather a ‘false’ expression of a system that naturally occurs.
      If we look at ‘precivilisation’ groups the ‘moral code’ was written by the ‘elders/alpha’s’. The code would have been enforced by said group.
      If we look across all societies for a correlation between the expression of ‘moral objectivity’ and other ‘elements/strata/groups’ occurring I would propose that the highest correlation is between the ‘ruling elite’ and the ‘code of the day’.
      If you want to find the keepers of ‘moral objectivity’ look for those who enforced said code.
      To go out on a limb, ‘group/social/societal cohesion’ demands that the vast majority search for a dominating group. Characteristics of this ‘submissive’ group again correlate strongly when we look for “acceptance of any old rubbish served as ‘moral objectivity’” and not being the group which enforces said ‘moral objectivity’.
      On a slightly different angle, the existence of a system does not neccesarily show an evolutionary trait. Being able to manipulate others ‘false’ beliefs could however develop into an advantageous evolutionary element. Etc etc,.

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