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  • Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams

    Posted on November 4th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

    Many modern writers on the subject of morality are aware of its connection with emotional traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Many of those also acknowledge that morality is a subjective phenomenon, and that good and evil have no existence independent of the minds that imagine them.  In a sense, these thinkers have managed to claw their way back to the simple truths Darwin alluded to in his The Descent of Man after they were eclipsed for many years by the Blank Slate debacle. Once they’ve done so, however, a funny thing happens. With the lone exception of Edvard Westermarck who began writing on the subject more than a century ago, none of them, or at least none that I am aware of, has managed to appreciate the seemingly obvious logical implications of these truths. Having glimpsed them, they shrink back, as if stunned by what they’ve seen.

    What are the logical implications I refer to? If morality exists by virtue of evolved emotional traits, then,

    1. The traits in question evolved because they happened to increase the odds that individuals carrying the genes that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce.
    2. As Darwin noted, evolution by natural selection is a random process. As a result, it is to be expected that the moral behavior that might evolve in intelligent species other than our own might potentially be quite different from ours.
    3. It follows that morality is subjective, and has no objective existence. Good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things. Rather, they are imagined in the minds of individuals.
    4. The responsible genes must have evolved at times radically different from the present, and even, at least in part, in species that were ancestral to our own.
    5. It follows that morality did not evolve to serve the “purpose” or “function” of promoting the happiness or flourishing of our species, however construed.
    6. There is no guarantee that the traits we associate with morality will have the same effect of enhancing the odds of survival of individuals in the environment we live in now as they did in the one in which the evolved.
    7. It is irrational to blindly rely on these traits to regulate the interactions between and within groups vastly larger and/or utterly different in kind from groups that existed when they evolved.
    8. It is irrational, not to mention potentially dangerous, to blindly rely on these traits to promote social goals that have no connection whatsoever with the reasons they exist to begin with.
    9. It is irrational to assume that the universal tendency to apply a radically different morality to outgroups to the one we apply to our ingroup will disappear if we ignore the former.
    10. It is no more rational to assume that the innate basis of human morality is uniform across all populations, than it is to assume that skin color will be the same across all populations. It is to be expected that there are similarities between different versions of morality, but also that there will be significant differences, which cannot be explained as mere artifacts of “culture.”

    A good number of modern moral philosophers accept the first four items in the above list.  Then, however, an odd thing happens. Far from accepting the seemingly obvious conclusions that follow from these four, as set forth in the rest of the list, they begin writing as if morality were an ideal vehicle for promoting whatever social goals they happen to favor. They begin speaking of things that they personally perceive as good or evil as if everyone else must necessarily also perceive them in the same way. In the end we find them speaking of these subjective goods and evils for all the world as if they were real, objective things. This powerful illusion, so characteristic of our species, reasserts itself, and the seemingly obvious implications of the evolved nature of morality are ignored.

    Why has it been so difficult for modern philosophers to jettison the illusion of objective morality? The answer can be found by examining their ingroup. Most of the public intellectuals and philosophers who write about morality do so in academia and other milieus currently dominated by the “progressive Left.” In other words, they belong to an ingroup that tends to be extremely moralistic, and is typically defined by ideology. Members of such ingroups tend to deem themselves “good,” and anyone who disagrees with the ideology of their ingroup “evil,” in accordance with the nature of human beings since time immemorial. There is no essential difference in this regard between them and a group of hunter/gatherers who deem themselves “good,” and their neighbors in an adjoining territory “evil,” other than the arbitrary features that happen to distinguish ingroup from outgroup. As we have seen so often in the recent past, any member of such ingroups who dares to seriously question any of the shibboleths that define the ideological box these people live in can expect to be ostracized and have their careers destroyed. In short, there is a very powerful incentive not to wander too far off the ideological reservation, and to occasionally virtue signal loyalty to the ingroup.

    Beyond that, those who imagine they possess the moral high ground also imagine that this gives them the right to dictate behavior to others.  In other words, morality rationalizes power and status, and the desire for these things has always been a very powerful motivator of human behavior. Those who possess them aren’t inclined to give them up without a struggle. Today not only moral philosophers but a host of others base their right to dictate behavior to the rest of us on the illusion that their version of morality is “true.” If the illusion disappears, their power disappears with it. Hence, regardless of what they claim to believe about the evolutionary roots of morality, we commonly find them busily propping up the illusion.

    Steve Stewart-Williams is an excellent example of the type referred to above.  He devotes a great deal of attention to the subject of morality in his Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life. On page 203 of my hard cover copy he even quotes E. O. Wilson’s argument “for the necessity of an evolutionary approach to morality.” On page 148 he says more or less  that same thing as I pointed out in the fourth item in the above list, although without referring specifically to morality:

    Our fear of snakes and spiders is an example of an aspect of human psychology that is poorly matched to modern living conditions, but which would have been useful in the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – the environment in which these fears evolved.

    In the following passage on page 291, Stewart-Williams seems to come out very explicitly in favor of the subjective nature of morality:

    The second way that Darwin’s theory could undermine morality is that it could undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths – truths that exist independently of human minds, emotions and conventions. In the remaining pages of this book, I’m going to argue that evolutionary theory does indeed undermine this idea, and that morality is, in some sense, a human invention (or, more precisely, a joint project of human beings and natural selection). In other words, in the final analysis, nothing is right and nothing is wrong. This perspective is quite counterintuitive to most people (myself included).

    It turns out that, as far as Stewart-Williams is concerned, this perspective is very counterintuitive indeed. Instead of drawing the seemingly obvious conclusions listed above that follow from the evolutionary roots of morality and its subjective nature, he spends much of the rest of the book alternately insisting that he believes in subjective morality, and then contradicting himself with comments that make no sense unless there is an objective moral law. Not surprisingly, this “objective moral law” turns out to be a vanilla version of the one that is currently fashionable in academia. Stewart-Williams realizes that the academic ingroup he belongs to is currently highly moralistic, and is likely to take a very dim view of anyone who seriously challenges the shibboleths that define its territorial boundaries.  To placate the “public opinion” of his ingroup, he begins delivering himself of statements that really are “counterintuitive” if he believes in subjective morality as he claims. For starters, he starts dreaming up ways to hop over Hume’s is/ought barrier:

    Hume’s law seems to show that facts about evolution can have no bearing on ethical issues, and that factual and ethical reasoning are completely independent domains of discourse. But it does not have this implication at all. The importance of the is-ought fallacy has been drastically overstated. Consider this argument again:

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick or poor.

    Clearly, the argument is not deductively valid. This could easily be remedied, however, by including an additional premise that would justify the leap from is to ought. After all, it is possible in principle to construct a valid argument from any premise to any conclusion, given the appropriate intervening premise.

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    We ought not to go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick, or poor.

    The argument is now deductively valid, and thus if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true also.

    Right. It kind of reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon, in which one mathematician is proudly displaying his proof of some obscure hypothesis to another mathematician. The second replies that he doesn’t quite follow the step in the proof labeled “Miracle happens.” If, as Stewart-Williams claims, morality is subjective, then the reason you can’t just hop over the is/ought barrier is because there is no ought to hop to on the other side.  One cannot speak of an unqualified ought as he does above at all, because every ought is simply the expression of some individual’s emotionally motivated subjective opinion. Once you admit it is such an opinion, “valid arguments” of the type given above become entirely superfluous. The only “fact” involved is the experience of a subjective feeling which itself exists by virtue of an natural evolutionary process which has no function or purpose whatsoever. “Moral reasoning” is what happens when individuals attempt to interpret what they imagine these subjective feelings are trying to tell them.

    Having justified himself in advance by virtue of this ineffectual quibbling about the is/ought barrier, Stewart-Williams rattles off a whole series of “oughts,” for all the world as if they were unquestionable, objective facts.  For example, on page 255,

    I think we can agree that preparing for the future generations is a highly desirable value to cultivate.

    If morality is subjective, there cannot possibly be any “values,” whether “highly desirable” or not, to cultivate. He could say, “I think everyone else in the world shares my subjective opinion that we ought to prepare for future generations,” but, aside from being clearly false, that statement is entirely different from what he has actually written, implying the existence of “values” as objective things. On page 274, after making it quite clear that he personally considers the “moral dividing line” between humans and animals “is arbitrary,” and that he is opposed to “speciesism,” he writes,

    So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is unjustified.

    The above makes sense only if morality is objective. If, as Stewart-Williams claimed earlier, it is actually subjective, it is impossible for anything to be either justified or unjustified, unless one qualifies the statement by admitting that it is merely an expression of personal opinion based on nothing more substantial than feelings that exist by virtue of natural selection. The statement, “So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is justified,” is every bit as valid as the one given above, by virtue of the fact that the validity of both is zero. Consider what we’re dealing with here; a bag of behavioral traits that exist purely because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. I doubt that he is arguing that allocation of equal moral status to other animals will accomplish the same thing today. It’s likely to accomplish the exact opposite. As it stands, the statement is fundamentally irrational. All he is really saying is that he arbitrarily interprets certain emotional feelings to mean that humans and other animals must have equal moral status, and insists that everyone else must interpret their emotional feelings in the same way.  A bit later, he doubles down, writing,

    However, if we opt for a morality based on a brute human/non-human distinction, we know we’re getting it wrong – some animals will definitely be treated worse than they should be.

    Again, absent objective morality, this statement is nonsense. If morality is subjective, it is impossible to make truth statements about it one way or the other. We cannot possibly “know” we are getting something wrong unless an objective criteria exists upon which to base that conclusion. On page 289 he tells us,

    When we look at large-scale surveys of everyday believers, we find that in many ways atheists are actually more moral than believers. On average, they are less prejudiced, less racist, and less homophobic; more tolerant and compassionate; and more law-abiding. Admittedly, whether this means atheists are more moral depends on your personal convictions; if you think homophobia is a virtue, for instance, then you’d have to conclude that a greater number of religious than non-religious people possess this particular virtue. Nonetheless, a convincing case can be made that non-religious moral codes are often superior to those traditionally linked with theism. Consider Peter Singer’s Top Three ethical recommendations: do something for the poor of the world; do something for non-human animals; and do something for the environment. This is the ethic of an atheist, a man who accepts that life evolved and has no ultimate meaning or purpose. To my mind, it is vastly superior to moral systems emphasizing trivial issues (or non-issues) such as premarital sex, blasphemy, and the like. Morality is not just about deciding what’s right and wrong, good or bad. it involves getting your moral priorities straight.

    Seldom does one find such a jumble of contradictions in one passage. Stewart-Williams tells us that, on the one hand, morality is subjective, and depends on “your personal convictions,” but, on the other hand, non-religious moral codes are superior to traditional ones linked with theism, and, if you don’t agree with the author, you “don’t have your moral priorities straight.” In other words, morality is subjective and objective at the same time. As an atheist, I’m flattered that he thinks I’m “more moral” than believers, but unfortunately there can be no rational basis for such a conclusion. What he is telling us is that we “ought to” jury rig moral emotions to accomplish ends that have no discernable connection with the reasons that those emotions exist to begin with. He calls this “getting our moral priorities straight.” Is it not abundantly obvious by now that exploiting moral emotions to accomplish social goal that could profoundly affect the lives of millions of people is not only counterproductive, but extremely dangerous? Have we really learned nothing from our experiences with Nazism and Communism? If we seek to stuff Singers three ethical recommendations down everyone’s throats as “good,” then everyone who disagrees with them automatically becomes “evil.” They are consigned to the outgroup. They become the Jews, or the “bourgeoisie.” Are we not yet sufficiently familiar with the often violent fate of outgroups in human history? Does he think he can simply wish away that aspect of human nature?

    Perhaps the above passage is best interpreted as Stewart-Williams’ triple kowtow to the gatekeepers of his ideologically/morally defined ingroup. In the end, it is apparent that he has been no more capable of freeing himself of the illusion of objective morality than the rest of his academic tribe.  He concludes the book with a bombastic passage that confirms this conclusion:

    Of course, nothing can be said to argue that people are morally obliged to accept this ethic, for to do so would be inconsistent with the ideas that inspired it in the first place. It is an ethic that will be adopted – if at all – by those who find a certain stark beauty in kindness without reward, joy without purpose, and progress without lasting achievement.

    No, I’m sorry. You can’t have your moral cake and eat it too. The only thing we can say with certainty about people who “adopt such an ethic” is that they are seriously delusional. They believe that the solution of all the complex social issues facing mankind is a mere matter of “correctly” tweaking a volatile mix of emotions whose origins have nothing whatever to do with the issues in question, and then just letting those emotions run wild to do their thing. As noted above, their thing” invariably involves dictating behavior to others, lending power and status to the would be dictators in the process.

    Allow me to suggest a different version of “getting our moral priorities straight.” In my personal opinion, we ought to limit the sphere of influence of human morality to the bare essentials, namely the regulation of the day to day interactions of human beings that it would be impractical to regulate in any other way because of our limited intelligence. When it comes to matters such as Singers “three ethical recommendations,” or any other social issues involving large numbers of people, let us leave morality strictly out of it to the extent possible for such emotional creatures as ourselves, and lay our cards on the table. No matter what we happen to desire, in the end the fundamental reason we desire it is to satisfy innate feelings and emotions that exist because they evolved. By “laying our cards on the table,” I mean citing the particular emotions we wish to satisfy, making it perfectly clear in the process whether the manner in which those emotions are to be satisfied will have anything to do with the reasons the emotions evolved to begin with or not. It strikes me that something of the sort would be a great deal more rational and less dangerous than continuing to pursue our current approach of allowing such matters to be decided by whatever faction proves most effective at manipulating our moral emotions.


    1 responses to “Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams” RSS icon

    • It seems obvious to me that the term objective, when used in any anthropocentric context, doesn’t mean observer-independent as it does in empirical science. Rather, it means that, in whatever plane or realm consciousness is located, a particular perception/judgement is absolute, either nomologically or as a matter of reason. Consider jewels and precious metals, inanimate objects which are universally cherished for their beauty. Hence there seems to be some kind of “psychophysical law” regulating our perception of them. Yes, I am aware that psychophysical laws can only exist in an anthropocentric universe, which we do not inhabit. Thus it would seem that two diametrically opposed worlds, one of consciousness and one a non-judgemental void, exist simultaneously. Now you might say, what about an individual or culture who place neither aesthetic nor monetary value on jewels and precious metals? Well, they may exist, but so do people who derive satisfaction from raping and murdering children. An inappropriate analogy? Perhaps, but the point I’m making is that we must distinguish between sound judgements made by healthy individuals and warped judgements made by damaged individuals, which are invalid, and we should have no qualms about asserting this. We can use two frames of reference to distinguish between valid and invalid judgement; either the nomological frame, or the frame of reason (which is undoubtedly influenced by biology, but to what extent remains a matter of contention).

      The distinction between facts and values, or more specifically facts and feelings, can be specious. With regards to morality, it is biological and rational facts that give rise to the feelings themselves. The moment an ostensible truth (in this case, Hume’s dilemma) starts facilitating anti-rational cults like postmodernism, that is the moment the utility of that truth comes into question.

      One must surely recognise that facts and values are, to some extent, inextricably intertwined. In describing things, one is invariably making a value judgement, because many descriptive words are implicitly loaded with such judgements. For instance, in order to describe the size or texture of something, we have to rely on our senses of sight and touch. Passing judgement based on rational evaluation of sensory data is par for the course in being human, and the scientific method cannot be exempt from this. Does this mean that whatever results we get from science are biased, because intersubjective consensus is an inevitable requirement in understanding the wider reality we all share? If we take that obstinate attitude, then no science will ever pass muster.

      But what’s so bad about subjectivity, I hear you ask. Well, calling a value judgement subjective does indeed threaten the primacy of that judgement, because it demotes it. One subjective judgement cannot be sovereign over all other subjective judgements. To secure that privilege, it must be either cosmically objective (which is impossible in a non-anthropocentric universe) or rationally objective. No doubt the postmodernists would insist that, in order for an axiom to be rationally objective, it would have to be so self-evident as to be impossible to deny or disagree with, in the same way that we cannot honestly deny that one plus one equals two.

      Using ideal observer theory, I think an “is” can lead the rational mind to an “ought”, so there is a rationally (not cosmically) objective element one must acknowledge. But to determine whether rationality is immutable, we must determine whether it is conditioned by our biology, or whether our rational principles would be self-evident to all sentient beings, as mathematics would.

      I like Sam Harris. He dares to say what desperately needs to be said, which we have all been forbidden to say since Hume. I respect him for that. His “Moral Landscape” is a defiant display of righteous anthropocentricity in the face of postmodernism and the uncaring, ever-expanding void that birthed us.

      I think Harris does understand the nature of the dilemma, but he realises that the fact/value distinction poses a serious threat to civilizational health, as it enables postmodernism to pursue its destructive (or should that be deconstructive?) goals, leaving us open to vulgar relativism and the complete chaos that ensues. Because of Hume, men of science are wedded to the idea that a claim cannot be taken seriously if it appears overly human; it must be robotic and rigid, and be free of axioms and value judgements of any kind. But we humble peasants on the front line ignore Hume’s maxim each and every day, in everything that we think, do and say. Only by disregarding his principle can we live a life one would recognise as human.

      I also can’t help but wonder, isn’t the supposedly immutable maxim “you can’t get an ought from an is” itself an “ought” based on an “is”? It presumes a matter-of-fact “is” that leads directly to the claim itself. I suppose Hume’s defenders might point out that his maxim doesn’t say that we ought not derive an ought from an is, but rather that we matter-of-factly cannot derive an ought from an is. But regardless of the intricacies, I have always maintained that Hume’s pernicious is/ought dilemma is the lynchpin of postmodernist thought. The alethic relativism that plagues our society will not be vanquished until the dilemma is overcome.

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