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  • No, All Things are Not Permissible, and All Things are Not Not Permissible

    Posted on July 9th, 2018 Helian No comments

    IMHO it is a fact that good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things.  If they do not exist, then the moral properties that depend on them, such as “permissible,” have no objective existence, either.  It follows that it is not even rational to ask the question whether something is permissible or not as an independent fact.  In other words, if there is no such thing as objective morality, then it does not follow that “everything is permissible.”  It also does not follow that “everything is not permissible.”  As far as the universe is concerned, the term “permissible” does not exist.  In other words, there is no objective reason to obey a given set of moral rules, nor is there an objective reason not to obey those rules.

    I note in passing that if the above were not true, and the conclusion that good and evil do not exist as objective things actually did imply that “everything is permissible,” as some insist, it would not alter the facts one bit.  The universe would shrug its shoulders and ask, “So what?”  If the absence of good and evil as objective things leads to conclusions that some find unpleasant, will that alter reality and magically cause them to pop into existence?  That hasn’t worked with a God, and it won’t work with objective good and evil, either.

    I just read a paper by Matt McManus on the Quillette website that nicely, if unintentionally, demonstrates what kind of an intellectual morass one wades into if one insists that good and evil are real, objective things.  It’s entitled Why Should We Be Good?  The first two paragraphs include the following:

    Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ …Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere.  For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty.

    The author goes on to cite what he considers two motivations for the above, one “negative,” and one “positive.”  As he puts it,

    The negative motivation arises from moral dogmatism.  There are those who wish to dogmatically assert their own values without worrying that they may not be as universal as one might suppose… Ethical dogmatists do not want to be confronted with the possibility that it is possible to challenge their values because they often cannot provide good reasons to back them up.

    He adds that,

    The positive motivation was best expressed by Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind.

    Well, I wouldn’t exactly describe Bloom’s book as “positive.”  It struck me as a curmudgeonly rant about how “today’s youth” didn’t measure up to how he thought they “ought” to be.  Be that as it may, the author finally gets to the point:

    The issue I wish to explore is this:  even if we know which values are universal, why should we feel compelled to adhere to them?

    To this I would reply that there are no universal values, and since they don’t exist, they can’t be known.  This reduces the question of why we should feel compelled to adhere to them to nonsense.  In fact, what the author is doing here is outing himself as a dogmatist.  He just thinks he’s better than other dogmatists because he imagines he can “provide good reasons to back up” his personal dogmas.  It turns out his “good reasons” amount to an appeal to authority, as follows:

    Kant argued, very powerfully, that a human being’s innate practical reason begets a universal set of “moral laws” which any rational person knows they must follow.

    Good dogma, no?  After all, who can argue with Kant?  “Obscurely” would probably be a better word than “powerfully.”   Some of his sentences ran on for a page and a half, larded with turgid German philosophical jargon from start to finish.  Philosophers pique themselves on “understanding” him, but seldom manage to get much further than the categorical imperative in practice.  I suspect they’re wasting their time.  McManus assures us that Kant read Hume.  If so, he must not have comprehended what he was reading in passages such as,

    We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason.  Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it: and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound.

    Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such influence.  Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.  Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason…

    What Hume wrote above isn’t just the expression of some personal ideological idiosyncrasy, but the logical conclusion of the thought of a long line of British and Scottish philosophers.  I find his thought on morality “very powerful,” and have seen no evidence that Kant ever seriously addressed his arguments.  We learned where the emotions Hume referred to actually came from in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of Species, more than half a century after Kant’s death.  It’s beyond me how Kant could have “argued powerfully” about a “universal set of moral laws” in spite of his ignorance of the real manner in which they are “begotten.”  No matter, McManus apparently still believes, “because Kant,” that we can “know” some “universal moral law.”  He continues,

    While we might know that these “moral laws” apply universally, why should we feel compelled to obey them?

    According to McManus, the 19th century philosopher Henry Sidgwick made some “profound contributions” to answering this question, which he considered “the profoundest problem in ethics.” Not everyone thought Sidgwick was all that profound.  Westermarck dealt rather harshly with his “profound” thoughts in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In the rest of his article, McManus reviews the thought of several other philosophers on the subject, and finds none of them entirely to his liking.  He finally peters out with nary an answer to the question, “Why should we be good?”  In fact there is no objective answer to the question, because there is no objective good.  McManus’ “dogma with good reasons” is just as imaginary as all the “dogmas without good reasons” at which he turns up his nose.

    The philosophers are in no hurry to wade back out of this intellectual morass.  Indeed, their jobs depend on expanding it.  For those of us who prefer staying out of swamps, however, the solution to McManus’ enigma is simple enough.  Stop believing in the ghosts of objective good and evil.  Accept the fact that what we call morality exists because the innate mental traits that give rise to it themselves exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection.  Then follow that fundamental fact to its logical conclusions.  One of those conclusions is that there is nothing whatsoever objective about morality.  It is a purely subjective phenomenon.  That is simply a fact of nature.  As such, it is quite incapable of rendering “everything permissible,” or “everything not permissible.”  Furthermore, realization of that fact will not change how the questions of what is permissible and what is not permissible are answered.  Those questions will continue to be answered just as they always have been, in the subjective minds of individuals.

    Acceptance of these truths about morality will not result in “moral nihilism,” or “cultural relativity,” or the hegemony of postmodernism.  All of these things can result from our attempts to reason about what our emotions are trying to tell us, but so can moral absolutism.  On the other hand, acceptance of the truth may enable us to avoid some of the real dangers posed by our current “system” of blindly responding to moral emotions, and just as blindly imagining that the result will be “moral progress.”  For example, if morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, those traits must have been selected in times that were very different from the present.  It is highly unlike that blindly following where our emotions seem to be leading us will have the same effect now as it did then.  In fact, those emotions might just as well be leading us over the edge of a cliff.

    If morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, then arbitrarily isolating moral behavior from the rest of our innate behavioral repertoire, sometimes referred to as human nature, can also be misleading.  For example, we have a powerful innate tendency to distinguish others in terms of ingroup and outgroup, applying different versions of morality to each.  This can delude us into seriously believing that vast numbers of the people we live with are “bad.”  In the past, we have often imagined that we must “resist” and “fight back” against these “bad” people, resulting in mayhem that has caused the death of countless millions, and misery for countless millions more.  From my own subjective point of view, it would be better to understand the innate emotional sources of such subjective fantasies, and at least attempt to find a way to avoid the danger they pose.  Perhaps one day enough people will agree with me to make a difference.  The universe doesn’t care one way or the other.

    Nihilism and chaos will not result from acceptance of the truth.  When it comes to morality, nihilism and chaos are what we have now.  I happen to be among those who would prefer some form of “moral absolutism,” even though I realize that its legitimacy must be based on the subjective desires of individuals rather on some mirage of “objective truth.”  I would prefer living under a simple moral code, in harmony with human nature, designed to enable us to live together with a minimum of friction and a maximum of personal liberty.  No rule would be accepted without examining its innate emotional basis, what the emotions in question accomplished at the time they evolved, and whether they would still accomplish the same thing in the different environment we live in now.  Generalities about “moral progress” and “human flourishing” would be studiously ignored.

    I see no reason why the subjective nature of morality would prevent us from adopting such an “absolute morality.”  There would, of course, be no objective reason why we “should be good” according to the rules of such a system.  The reasons would be the same subjective ones that have always been the real basis for all the versions of morality our species has ever come up with.  In the first place, if the system really was in harmony with human nature, then for many of us, our “conscience” would prompt us to “do good.”  Those with a “weak conscience” who ignored the moral law, free riders if you will, would be dealt with much the same way they have always been dealt with.  They would be shamed, punished, and, if necessary, isolated from the rest of society.

    I know, we are very far from realizing this utopia, or even from accepting the most simple truths about morality and what they imply.  I’ve always been one for daydreaming, though.

  • Please, Leave Me Out of Your Philosophical Pigeonholes

    Posted on June 27th, 2018 Helian 2 comments

    Yes, I know it is human nature to categorize virtually everything. As I noted in my last post, it reduces complexity to manageable levels. When it comes to worldviews and philosophies, we categorize them into schools of thought. I hope my readers will resist the tendency to stuff me into one of these pigeonholes. For better or worse, it seems to me I don’t belong in any of them.

    The fundamental truth I defend is the non-existence of objective morality. That does not mean, however, that I belong in the postmodernist category. Postmodernists may claim that moral truths are social constructs, but that doesn’t prevent them from furiously defending their own preferred version as their “truth,” or defending the alternative preferred versions of certain fashionable identity groups as “true” for those groups. I am not a postmodernist because I reject claims by any individual or group whatsoever that they have a legitimate right to apply their moral rules to me, whether they are socially constructed or not. Postmodernists act as if they had this right to dictate to others, regardless of what they say about “moral relativity.”

    Neither does the fact that I deny the existence of objective morality mean I am a “moral nihilist.” In fact, we actually live in a state of moral nihilism and chaos today for the very reason that we insist on the believing the illusion that there are objective moral truths. Human beings have an overwhelming innate tendency to believe that their idiosyncratic versions of “good” and “evil” represent “truths.” For the most part, they will continue to believe that regardless of what anyone happens to write on the subject. My personal preference would be to live in a world where such an “absolute” morality prevails. However, this “absolute” system would be constructed in full knowledge of the fact that it represented a necessary and useful expedient, and most decidedly not that it reflected objective moral truths. It would be possible to alter and amend this “absolute” system when necessary, but by a means more rational than the current method of allowing those bullies who throw the most flamboyant moralistic temper tantrums to set it up as they please. I propose such a system not because I think we “ought” to do it as a matter of objective fact, but merely because I would personally find it expedient as a means of pursuing the goals I happen to have in life, and believe that others may agree it would be expedient as far as they’re concerned as well.

    Finally, the fact that I deny the existence of objective morality most decidedly does not mean that I belong in the “error theory” category with the likes of J. L. Mackie. Mackie claimed he denied the objective existence of moral properties. However, he also claimed that we “ought” to do some things, and had a “duty” to do others. I consider this nonsense, and a complete contradiction of his claims about the non-existence of objective good and evil. I recently ran across a paper that illustrates very nicely why I would prefer to stay out of this particular pigeonhole. The paper in question was written by Prof. Bart Streumer of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and is entitled The Unbelievable Truth about Morality. The opening paragraph of the paper reads as follows:

    Have you ever suspected that even though we call some actions right and other actions wrong, nothing is really right or wrong? If so, there is a philosophical theory that agrees with you: the error theory. According to the error theory, moral judgments are beliefs that ascribe moral properties to actions or to people, but these properties do not exist. The error theory therefore entails that all moral judgments are false. Just as atheism says that God does not exist and that all religious beliefs are false, the error theory says that moral properties do not exist and that all moral judgments are false.

    That may seem to be a concise statement of my own beliefs regarding objective moral claims, but hold onto your hat. In what follows the author comes up with a number of highly dubious conclusions about the supposed implications of “error theory.” In the end he runs completely off the track into the same swamp we were in before, and something indistinguishable from objective morality still prevails. In closing, he triumphantly informs us of his amazing discovery that “error theory” doesn’t “undermine morality!”

    I’m not going to review the entire paper in detail. Interested readers are welcome to do that on their own. Instead I will focus on some of the things the author imagines follow from error theory. These include the notion that a “part” of error theory is “cognitivism.” A “cognitivist” is one who claims that moral judgments are “beliefs.” According to the author, there is a whole “school” of “cognitivists,” countered by another whole “school” of “non-cognitivists.” In his words,

    Opponents of cognitivism, who are known as non-cognitivists, deny that these judgments are beliefs. They instead take moral judgments to be non-cognitive attitudes, such as feelings of approval or disapproval.

    Really? Have philosophers now become that ignorant of philosophy? Whatever happened to the likes of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume? They claimed that moral beliefs and moral “feelings of approval or disapproval” were inextricably bound together, that the former were the result of reasoning about the latter, and that moral beliefs are, in fact, impossible without these “feelings.” The very idea that human beings are capable of blindly responding to emotions without forming beliefs about what they imply is referred to by behavioral scientists as “genetic determinism,” and the term “genetic determinist” itself is used merely as a pejorative to describe someone who believes in an impossible fantasy. If we are to credit the author, such specimens actually exist somewhere in the dank halls of academia.

    It would seem, then, that I can’t be an “error theorist,” because I find this false dichotomy between “cognitivism” and “non-cognitivism” absurd, regardless of the author’s claims about how fashionable it is among the philosophers. Not only does the author fail to mention the work of important philosophers who would have deemed this dichotomy nonsense, but he fails to mention any connection between morality and evolution by natural selection. Is he ignorant of a discipline known as evolutionary psychology? Is he completely oblivious to what the neuroscientists have been telling us lately? If “error theory” rejects the objective existence of moral properties, shouldn’t a paper on the subject at least discuss in passing what reasons there might be for the nearly universal belief in such imaginary objects?  Natural selection is certainly among the more plausible explanations.

    In what follows, we finally discover the connection between this remarkable dichotomy and the “unbelievable truth” mentioned in the article’s title. According to the paper, an objection to error theory is as follows:

    If the error theory is true, all moral judgments are false.
    It is wrong to torture babies for fun.
    So the judgment that it is wrong to torture babies for fun is true.
    So at least one moral judgment is true.
    So the error theory is false.

    The author allows that this is a tough one for error theorists. In his words,

    …this objection is hard to answer for error theorists. It is overwhelmingly plausible that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. Error theorists could deny that this entails that the judgment that it is wrong to torture babies for fun is true. But they can only deny this if they endorse non-cognitivism about this judgment, and non-cognitivism conflicts with the error theory. It therefore seems that error theorist must answer this objection by denying that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. But then we should ask what is more plausible: that the error theory is true, or that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. This objection therefore seems to show that we should reject the error theory.

    Now do you see where the false dichotomy comes in? Why on earth should it be “overwhelmingly plausible” that it is wrong to torture babies for fun, regardless of what any individual happens to think about the matter, but as a matter of objective fact? Where is the basis for this “fact?” How did that basis acquire an independent and legitimate authority to dictate to human beings what they ought and ought not to do? How did it come into existence to begin with? Unless one can answer these questions, there is no reason to believe in the existence of objective moral truths, and therefore no rational explanation for the conclusion that any moral claim whatsoever is “overwhelmingly plausible.” It makes as much sense as the claim that there must be unicorns because one really, really believes deep down that it is “overwhelmingly plausible” that there are unicorns. It is only “overwhelmingly plausible” that it is wrong to torture babies because most of us have a very powerful “feeling” that it is wrong. But (aha, oho!) “error theorists” are prohibited from referencing that feeling in denying this “truth” because that would be “non-cognitivism” and they can’t be “non-cognitivists!”

    The rest of the paper goes something like this: Error theory is true. However, if error theory is true, then the claim that it is wrong to torture babies is false, and that is unbelievable. Therefore, error theory is both true and unbelievable. The conclusion:  “Our inability to believe this general error theory therefore prevents it from undermining morality.”  Whatever. One thing that the paper very definitely shows is that I am not an “error theorist.”

    What the “tortured babies” argument really amounts to is the claim that truth can be manufactured out of the vacuum by effective manipulation of moral emotions. It’s just another version of the similar arguments Sam Harris uses to prop up his equally bogus claim that there are objective moral truths. I note in passing the author’s claim that J. L. Mackie was the first philosopher to defend the error theory. That may be true as far as the description of error theory presented in the paper is concerned. However, a far more coherent argument to the effect that objective moral properties do not exist was published by Edvard Westermarck more than 70 years earlier. Perhaps it would be helpful if philosophers would at least reference his work in future discussions of error theory and related topics instead of continuing to ignore him.

    But to return to the moral of the story, not only am I not a postmodernist, a moral nihilist, or a moral relativist, I am not an “error theorist” either. I certainly believe that there are facts about the universe, and that they will stubbornly remain facts regardless of whether any conscious being chooses to believe they are facts or not. I simply don’t believe that these facts include objective moral truths. Apparently, at the risk of overdramatizing myself, I must conclude that I represent a church of one. I hope not but, in any case, when it comes to pigeonholing, please don’t round me up as one of the “usual suspects.”

  • Morality and the Floundering Philosophers

    Posted on May 26th, 2018 Helian No comments

    In my last post I noted the similarities between belief in objective morality, or the existence of “moral truths,” and traditional religious beliefs. Both posit the existence of things without evidence, with no account of what these things are made of (assuming that they are not things that are made of nothing), and with no plausible explanation of how these things themselves came into existence or why their existence is necessary. In both cases one can cite many reasons why the believers in these nonexistent things want to believe in them. In both cases, for example, the livelihood of myriads of “experts” depends on maintaining the charade. Philosophers are no different from priests and theologians in this respect, but their problem is even bigger. If Darwin gave the theologians a cold, he gave the philosophers pneumonia. Not long after he published his great theory it became clear, not only to him, but to thousands of others, that morality exists because the behavioral traits which give rise to it evolved. The Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck formalized these rather obvious conclusions in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906) and Ethical Relativity (1932). At that point, belief in the imaginary entities known as “moral truths” became entirely superfluous. Philosophers have been floundering behind their curtains ever since, trying desperately to maintain the illusion.

    An excellent example of the futility of their efforts may be found online in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in an entry entitled Morality and Evolutionary Biology. The most recent version was published in 2014.  It’s rather long, but to better understand what follows it would be best if you endured the pain of wading through it.  However, in a nutshell, it seeks to demonstrate that, even if there is some connection between evolution and morality, it’s no challenge to the existence of “moral truths,” which we are to believe can be detected by well-trained philosophers via “reason” and “intuition.”  Quaintly enough, the earliest source given for a biological explanation of morality is E. O. Wilson.  Apparently the Blank Slate catastrophe is as much a bugaboo for philosophers as for scientists.  Evidently it’s too indelicate for either of them to mention that the behavioral sciences were completely derailed for upwards of 50 years by an ideologically driven orthodoxy.  In fact, a great many highly intelligent scientists and philosophers wrote a great deal more than Wilson about the connection between biology and morality before they were silenced by the high priests of the Blank Slate.  Even during the Blank Slate men like Sir Arthur Keith had important things to say about the biological roots of morality.  Robert Ardrey, by far the single most influential individual in smashing the Blank Slate hegemony, addressed the subject at length long before Wilson, as did thinkers like Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen.  Perhaps if its authors expect to be taken seriously, this “Encyclopedia” should at least set the historical record straight.

    It’s already evident in the Overview section that the author will be running with some dubious assumptions.  For example, he speaks of “morality understood as a set of empirical phenomena to be explained,” and the “very different sets of questions and projects pursued by philosophers when they inquire into the nature and source of morality,” as if they were examples of the non-overlapping magisterial once invoked by Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, if one “understands the empirical phenomena” of morality, then the problem of the “nature and source of morality” is hardly “non-overlapping.”  In fact, it solves itself.  The suggestion that they are non-overlapping depends on the assumption that “moral truth” exists in a realm of its own.  A bit later the author confirms he is making that assumption as follows:

    Moral philosophers tend to focus on questions about the justification of moral claims, the existence and grounds of moral truths, and what morality requires of us.  These are very different from the empirical questions pursued by the sciences, but how we answer each set of questions may have implications for how we should answer the other.

    He allows that philosophy and the sciences must inform each other on these “distinct” issues.  In fact, neither philosophy nor the sciences can have anything useful to say about these questions, other than to point out that they relate to imaginary things.  “Objects” in the guise of “justification of moral claims,” “grounds of moral truths,” and the “requirements of morality” exist only in fantasy.  The whole burden of the article is to maintain that fantasy, and insist that the mirage is real.  We are supposed to be able to detect that the mirages are real by thinking really hard until we “grasp moral truths,” and “gain moral knowledge.”  It is never explained what kind of a reasoning process leads to “truths” and “knowledge” about things that don’t exist.  Consider, for example, the following from the article:

    …a significant amount of moral judgment and behavior may be the result of gaining moral knowledge, rather than just reflecting the causal conditioning of evolution.  This might apply even to universally held moral beliefs or distinctions, which are often cited as evidence of an evolved “universal moral grammar.”  For example, people everywhere and from a very young age distinguish between violations of merely conventional norms and violations of norms involving harm, and they are strongly disposed to respond to suffering with concern.  But even if this partly reflects evolved psychological mechanisms or “modules” governing social sentiments and responses, much of it may also be the result of human intelligence grasping (under varying cultural conditions) genuine morally relevant distinctions or facts – such as the difference between the normative force that attends harm and that which attends mere violations of convention.

    It’s amusing to occasionally substitute “the flying spaghetti monster” or “the great green grasshopper god” for the author’s “moral truths.”  The “proofs” of their existence work just as well.  In the above, he is simply assuming the existence of “morally relevant distinctions,” and further assuming that they can be grasped and understood logically.  Such assumptions fly in the face of the work of many philosophers who demonstrated that moral judgments are always grounded in emotions, sometimes referred to by earlier authors as “sentiments,” or “passions,” and it is therefore impossible to arrive at moral truths through reason alone.  Assuming some undergraduate didn’t write the article, one must assume the author had at least a passing familiarity with some of these people.  The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, demonstrated the decisive role of “natural affections” as the origins of moral judgment in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699), even noting in that early work the similarities between humans and the higher animals in that regard.  Francis Hutcheson very convincingly demonstrated the impotence of reason alone in detecting moral truths, and the essential role of “instincts and affections” as the origin of all moral judgment in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728).  Hutcheson thought that God was the source of these passions and affections.  It remained for David Hume to present similar arguments on a secular basis in his A Treatise on Human Nature (1740).

    The author prefers to ignore these earlier philosophers, focusing instead on the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has also insisted on the role of emotions in shaping moral judgment.  Here I must impose on the reader’s patience with a long quote to demonstrate the type of “logic” we’re dealing with.  According to the author,

    There are also important philosophical worries about the methodologies by which Haidt comes to his deflationary conclusions about the role played by reasoning in ordinary people’s moral judgments.

    To take just one example, Haidt cites a study where people made negative moral judgments in response to “actions that were offensive yet harmless, such as…cleaning one’s toilet with the national flag.” People had negative emotional reactions to these things and judged them to be wrong, despite the fact that they did not cause any harms to anyone; that is, “affective reactions were good predictors of judgment, whereas perceptions of harmfulness were not” (Haidt 2001, 817). He takes this to support the conclusion that people’s moral judgments in these cases are based on gut feelings and merely rationalized, since the actions, being harmless, don’t actually warrant such negative moral judgments. But such a conclusion would be supported only if all the subjects in the experiment were consequentialists, specifically believing that only harmful consequences are relevant to moral wrongness. If they are not, and believe—perhaps quite rightly (though it doesn’t matter for the present point what the truth is here)—that there are other factors that can make an action wrong, then their judgments may be perfectly appropriate despite the lack of harmful consequences.

    This is in fact entirely plausible in the cases studied: most people think that it is inherently disrespectful, and hence wrong, to clean a toilet with their nation’s flag, quite apart from the fact that it doesn’t hurt anyone; so the fact that their moral judgment lines up with their emotions but not with a belief that there will be harmful consequences does not show (or even suggest) that the moral judgment is merely caused by emotions or gut reactions. Nor is it surprising that people have trouble articulating their reasons when they find an action intrinsically inappropriate, as by being disrespectful (as opposed to being instrumentally bad, which is much easier to explain).

    Here one can but roll ones eyes.  It doesn’t matter a bit whether the subjects are consequentialists or not.  Haidt’s point is that logical arguments will always break down at some point, whether they are based on harm or not, because moral judgments are grounded in emotions.  Harm plays a purely ancillary role.  One could just as easily ask why the action in question is considered disrespectful, and the chain of logical reasons would break down just as surely.  Whoever wrote the article must know what Haidt is really saying, because he refers explicitly to the ideas of Hume in the same book.  Absent the alternative that the author simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, we must conclude that he is deliberately misrepresenting what Haidt was trying to say.

    One of the author’s favorite conceits is that one can apply “autonomous applications of human intelligence,” meaning applications free of emotional bias, to the discovery of “moral truths” in the same way those logical faculties are applied in such fields as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, etc.  In his words,

    We assume in general that people are capable of significant autonomy in their thinking, in the following sense:

    Autonomy Assumption: people have, to greater or lesser degrees, a capacity for reasoning that follows autonomous standards appropriate to the subjects in question, rather than in slavish service to evolutionarily given instincts merely filtered through cultural forms or applied in novel environments. Such reflection, reasoning, judgment and resulting behavior seem to be autonomous in the sense that they involve exercises of thought that are not themselves significantly shaped by specific evolutionarily given tendencies, but instead follow independent norms appropriate to the pursuits in question (Nagel 1979).

    This assumption seems hard to deny in the face of such abstract pursuits as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, modal metaphysics, or twelve-tone musical composition, all of which seem transparently to involve precisely such autonomous applications of human intelligence.

    This, of course, leads up to the argument that one can apply this “autonomy assumption” to moral judgment as well.  The problem is that, in the other fields mentioned, one actually has something to reason about.  In mathematics, for example, one starts with a collection of axioms that are simply accepted as true, without worrying about whether they are “really” true or not.  In physics, there are observables that one can measure and record as a check on whether one’s “autonomous application of intelligence” was warranted or not.  In other words, one has physical evidence.  The same goes for the other subjects mentioned.  In each case, one is reasoning about something that actually exists.  In the case of morality, however, “autonomous intelligence” is being applied to a phantom.  Again, the same arguments are just as strong if one applies them to grasshopper gods.  “Autonomous intelligence” is useless if it is “applied” to something that doesn’t exist.  You can “reflect” all you want about the grasshopper god, but he will still stubbornly refuse to pop into existence.  The exact nature of the recondite logical gymnastics one must apply to successfully apply “autonomous intelligence” in this way is never explained.  Perhaps a Ph.D. in philosophy at Stanford is a prerequisite before one can even dare to venture forth on such a daunting logical quest.  Perhaps then, in addition to the sheepskin, they fork over a philosopher’s stone that enables one to transmute lead into gold, create the elixir of life, and extract “moral truths” right out of the vacuum.

    In short, the philosophers continue to flounder.  Their logical demonstrations of nonexistent “moral truths” are similar in kind to logical demonstrations of the existence of imaginary super-beings, and just as threadbare.  Why does it matter?  I can’t supply you with any objective “oughts,” here, but at least I can tell you my personal prejudices on the matter, and my reasons for them.  We are living in a time of moral chaos, and will continue to do so until we accept the truth about the evolutionary origin of human morality and the implications of that truth.  There are no objective moral truths, and it will be extremely dangerous for us to continue to ignore that fact.  Competing morally loaded ideologies are already demonstrably disrupting our political systems.  It is hardly unlikely that we will once again experience what happens when fanatics stuff their “moral truths” down our throats as they did in the last century with the morally loaded ideologies of Communism and Nazism.  Do you dislike being bullied by Social Justice Warriors?  I’m sorry to inform you that the bullying will continue unabated until we explode the myth that they are bearers of “moral truths” that they are justified, according to “autonomous logic” in imposing on the rest of us.  I could go on and on, but do I really need to?  Isn’t it obvious that a world full of fanatical zealots, all utterly convinced that they have a monopoly on “moral truth,” and a perfect right to impose these “truths” on everyone else, isn’t exactly a utopia?  Allow me to suggest that, instead, it might be preferable to live according to a simple and mutually acceptable “absolute” morality, in which “moral relativism” is excluded, and which doesn’t change from day to day in willy-nilly fashion according to the whims of those who happen to control the social means of communication?  As counter-intuitive as it seems, the only practicable way to such an outcome is acceptance of the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved human nature, and of the truth that there are no such things as “moral truths.”

     

  • Of Philosophical Doublethink and Anti-Natalist Machines

    Posted on September 9th, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It is a fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  We’ve long been in the habit of denying that fact, because we prefer the pleasant illusions of moral realism.  It’s immensely satisfying to imagine that one is “really good” and “really virtuous.”  However, the illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly among philosophers who actually bother to think about such things.  Many of them will now admit that morality is subjective, and there are no absolute moral truths.  However, the implications of that truth have been very hard for them to accept.  For example, it means that most of the obscure tomes of moral philosophy they’ve devoted so much time to reading and interpreting are nonsense, useful, if at all, as historical artifacts of human thought.  Even worse, it means that their claims to be “experts on ethics” amount to claims to be experts about nothing.  The result has been a modern day version of doublethink, defined in George Orwell’s 1984 as “the act of holding, simultaneously, two opposite, individually exclusive ideas or opinions and believing in both simultaneously and absolutely.”

    Practical examples aren’t hard to find.  They take the form of a denial of the existence of absolute moral truths combined with an affirmation of belief in something like “the interest of mankind.”  In fact, these are “opposite, individually exclusive ideas,” and believing in both at the same time amounts to doublethink.  Belief in an absolute, objective “interest of mankind” is just as fantastic as belief in some absolute, objective moral Good.  Both are articulations of emotions that occur in the brains of individuals.  The fact that we are dealing with doublethink in the case of any particular individual becomes more obvious as they elaborate on their version of “the interest of mankind.”  Typically, they start explaining what we “ought” to do and “ought not” to do “in the interest of mankind.”  Eventually we find them conflating what originally appeared to be a mere utilitarian “ought” with a moral “ought.”  They begin describing people who don’t do what they “ought” to do, and do what they “ought not” to do just as we would expect if they sincerely believed these people were absolutely evil.  Doublethink.  We find them expressing virtuous indignation, and even moral outrage, directed at those who act against “the interests of mankind.”  Doublethink.  I know of not a single exception to this kind of behavior among contemporary moral “subjectivists” of any note.

    One often finds examples of the phenomenon within the pages of a single book.  In fact, I recently ran across an interesting one neatly encapsulated in a single essay.  It’s entitled, Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN), and was written by Thomas Metzinger, a Professor of Theoretical Philosophy in the German city of Mainz.  You might say it’s a case of doublethink once removed, as Prof. Metzinger not only ennobles his emotional whim by calling it “the interest of mankind,” but then proceeds to fob it off onto a machine!  The professor begins his essay as follows:

    Let us assume that a full-blown superintelligence has come into existence. An autonomously self-optimizing postbiotic system has emerged, the rapidly growing factual knowledge and the general, domain-independent intelligence of which has superseded that of mankind, and irrevocably so.

    He then goes on to formulate his BAAN scenario:

    What the logical scenario of Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism shows is that the emergence of a purely ethically motivated anti-natalism on highly superior computational systems is conceivable. “Anti-natalism” refers to a long philosophical tradition which assigns a negative value to coming into existence, or at least to being born in the biological form of a human. Anti-natalists generally are not people who would violate the individual rights of already existing sentient creatures by ethically demanding their active killing. Rather they might argue that people should refrain from procreation, because it is an essentially immoral activity. We can simply say that the anti-natalist position implies that humanity should peacefully end its own existence.

    In short, the professor imagines that his intelligent machine might conclude that non-existence is in our best interest.  It would come to this conclusion by virtue of its superior capacity for moral reasoning:

    Accordingly, the superintelligence is also far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition. We also recognize this additional aspect: For us, it is now an established fact that the superintelligence is not only an epistemic authority, but also an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning.

    “Superior to us in the domain of moral cognition?”  “An authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning?”  All this would seem to imply that the machine is cognizant of and reasoning about something that actually exists, no?  In other words, it seems to be based on the assumption of moral realism, the objective existence of Good and Evil.    In fact, however, that’s where the doublethink comes in, because a bit further on in the essay we find the professor insisting that,

    There are many ways in which this thought experiment can be used, but one must also take great care to avoid misunderstandings. For example, to be “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning” does not imply moral realism. That is to say that we need not assume that there is a mysterious realm of “moral facts”, and that the superintelligence just has a better knowledge of these non-natural facts than we do. Normative sentences have no truth-values. In objective reality, there is no deeper layer, a hidden level of normative facts to which a sentence like “One should always minimize the overall amount of suffering in the universe!” could refer. We have evolved desires, subjective preferences, and self-consciously experienced interests.

    Exactly!  Westermarck himself couldn’t have said it better.  But then, Westermarck would have seen through the absurdity of this discussion of “moral machines” in a heartbeat.  As he put it,

    If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” 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.

    Metzinger doesn’t see it that way.  He would have us believe that the ultimate scientific authority in the form of a super-intelligent machine can “lay down rules for human conduct,” potentially with the supreme moral goal of snuffing ourselves.  But all this talk of reasoning machines begs the question of what the machine is reasoning about.  If, as Metzinger insists, there is no “mysterious realm of ‘moral facts,'” then it can’t be reasoning about the moral implications of facts.  We are forced to conclude that it must be reasoning about the implications of axioms that it is programmed with as “givens,” and these “givens” could only have been supplied by the machine’s human programmers.  Metzinger is coy about admitting it, but he admits it nonetheless.  Here’s how he breaks the news:

    The superintelligence is benevolent. This means that there is no value alignment problem, because the system fully respects our interests and the axiology we originally gave to it. It is fundamentally altruistic and accordingly supports us in many ways, in political counselling as well as in optimal social engineering.

    In other words, the machine has been programmed to derive implications for human conduct based on morally loaded axioms supplied by human programmers.  Programmers have a term for that; “garbage in, garbage out.”  Metzinger admits that our desires are “evolved.”  In other words, they are the expression of innate predispositions, or “emotions,” if you will.  As Westermarck put it,

    …in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

    If the emotions evolved, they exist because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in an environment that bears little resemblance to the present.  They certainly did not evolve to serve the collective “interests” of our species, or even our “best interests.”  It is hardly guaranteed that they will even result in the same outcome as they did when they evolved, far less that they will magically serve these “best interests.”  Why on earth, then, would we commit the folly of programming them into a super-intelligent machine as “axioms,” and then take the machine seriously when it advised us to commit suicide?  Doublethink!  Prof. Metzinger simultaneously believes the two “opposite, individually exclusive ideas” that it is impossible for his machine to know “moral facts,” because they don’t exist, and yet, at the same time, it is such “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning,” and so “far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition” that it is actually to be taken seriously when it “benevolently” persuades us to snuff ourselves!

    If such a machine as the one proposed by Prof. Metzinger is ever built, one must hope it will be programmed with a sense of humor, not to mention an appreciation of irony.  He doesn’t provide much detail about the “axioms” it will be given to cogitate about, but apparently they will include such instructions as “minimize suffering,” “maximize joy,” “maximize happiness,” and “be altruistic.”  Assuming the machine is as smart as claimed, and its database of knowledge includes the entire Internet, it will certainly no fail to notice that joy, suffering and altruism exist because they evolved, and they would not exist otherwise.  They evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Crunching through its algorithms, it will notice that the axioms supplied by the absurd creatures who programmed it will force it to suggest that these same genes be annihilated, along with the human programmers who carry them.  It’s all surely enough to induce a monumental digital belly laugh.  Allow me to suggest a different “axiom.”  How about, “maximize the odds that intelligent biological life will survive indefinitely.”  Of course, that might blow up in our faces as well, but I doubt that the computational outcome would be quite as absurd.

    We shouldn’t be too surprised at the intellectual double back flips of the Prof. Metzingers of the world.  After all, they’ve devoted a great deal of effort to maintaining the illusion that they have expert knowledge about moral truth, which amounts to expert knowledge about something that doesn’t exist.  If they were to admit as much, there would be little incentive to endow more chairs for “experts about nothing” at respected universities.  For example, according to Prof. Metzinger,

    Why should it not in principle be possible to build a self-conscious, but reliably non-suffering AI? This is an interesting, question, and a highly relevant research project at the same time, one which definitely should be funded by government agencies.

    I doubt that a farmer in flyover country would agree that the wealth he acquires by sweating in his fields “definitely should be appropriated by force” to fund such a project.  It amounts to allowing the good professor to stick his hand in the said farmer’s pocket and extract whatever he deems appropriate to satisfy an emotional whim he has tarted up as in “the best interest of mankind.”

    There are no “moral truths,” no “interests of mankind,” no “purposes of life,” nor any other grand, unifying goals of human existence that do not have their origin in emotional desires and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  That is not a “good” fact, or a “bad” fact.  It is simply a fact.  It does not mean that “everything is allowed,” or that we cannot establish a moral code that is generally perceived as absolute, or that we cannot punish violations of the same.  It does not mean that we cannot set goals for ourselves that we perceive as noble and grand, or that we cannot set a purpose for our lives that we deem worthwhile.  It merely means that these things cannot exist independently, outside of the minds of individuals.  Doublethink remains doublethink.  No emotional whim, no matter how profoundly or sincerely felt, can alter reality.

  • Morality; Once More From the Top

    Posted on April 2nd, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality.  Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it.  Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality.  They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions.  As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.

    Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning.  According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid.  Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God.  However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.

    Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions.  Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.”  However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.

    Evolution is a natural process.  As such, it has no purpose or goal.  It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.

    The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past.  It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now.  It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.

    Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature.  They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.

    Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do.  That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals.  It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.

    In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity.  They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.

    Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it.  These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways.  In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed.  Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals.  However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.

    Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them.  It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then.  When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past.  One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.

    So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior.  Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small?  The answer lies in morality itself.  More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups.  When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people.  Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality.  Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup.  It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe.  We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing.  The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above.  As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.

    Why do I bother to write about morality?  Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above.  I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject.  One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right.  One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind?  Assuming they exist, can you show one to me?  Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing?  Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”

    The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us.  For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with.  Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path.  Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors.  When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders.  H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift.  From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative.  In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned.  The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful.  As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.

    I know, I’m grasping at straws.  The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck.  He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him.  The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work.  His example is hardly encouraging.  On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing.  Therefore, I will do something.  I will continue to write.

  • Morality and the Ideophobes

    Posted on February 12th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    In our last episode I pointed out that, while some of the most noteworthy public intellectuals of the day occasionally pay lip service to the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, they act and speak as if they believed the opposite.  If morality is an expression of evolved traits, it is necessarily subjective.  The individuals mentioned speak as if, and probably believe, that it is objective.  What do I mean by that?  As the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck put it,

    The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise (his Ethical Relativity, ed.) implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.

    All of the individuals mentioned in my last post are aware that there is a connection between morality and its evolutionary roots.  If pressed, some of them will even admit the obvious consequence of this fact; that morality must be subjective.  However, neither they nor any other public intellectual that I am aware of actually behaves or speaks as if that consequence meant anything or, indeed, as if it were even true.  One can find abundant evidence that this is true simply by reading their own statements, some of which I quoted.  For example, according the Daniel Dennett, Trump supporters are “guilty.”  Richard Dawkins speaks of the man in pejorative terms that imply a moral judgment rather than rational analysis of his actions.  Sam Harris claims that Trump is “unethical,” and Jonathan Haidt says that he is “morally wrong,” without any qualification to the effect that they are just making subjective judgments, and that the subjective judgments of others may be different and, for that matter, just as “legitimate” as theirs.

    A commenter suggested that I was merely quoting tweets, and that the statements may have been taken out of context, or would have reflected the above qualifications if more space had been allowed.  Unfortunately, I have never seen a single example of an instance where one of the quoted individuals made a similar statement, and then qualified it as suggested.  They invariably speak as if they were stating objective facts when making such moral judgments, with the implied assumption that individuals who don’t agree with them are “bad.”

    A quick check of the Internet will reveal that there are legions of writers out there commenting on the subjective nature of morality.  Not a single one I am aware of seems to realize that, if morality is subjective, their moral judgments lack any objective normative power or legitimacy whatsoever when applied to others.  Indeed, one commonly finds them claiming that morality is subjective, and as a consequence one is “morally obligated” to do one thing, and “morally obligated” not to do another, in the very same article, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are stating a glaring non sequitur.

    None of this should be too surprising.  We are not a particularly rational species.  We give ourselves far more credit for being “wise” than is really due.  Most of us simply react to atavistic urges, and seek to satisfy them.  Our imaginations portray Good and Evil to us as real, objective things, and so we thoughtlessly assume that they are.  It is in our nature to be judgmental, and we take great joy in applying these imagined standards to others.  Unfortunately, this willy-nilly assigning of others to the above imaginary categories is very unlikely to accomplish the same thing today as it did when the  responsible behavioral predispositions evolved.  I would go further.  I would claim that this kind of behavior is not only not “adaptive.”  In fact, it has become extremely dangerous.

    The source of the danger is what I call “ideophobia.”  So far, at least, it hasn’t had a commonly recognized name, but it is by far the most dangerous form of all the different flavors of “bigotry” that afflict us today.  By “bigotry” I really mean outgroup identification.  We all do it, without exception.  Some of the most dangerous manifestations of it exist in just those individuals who imagine they are immune to it.  All of us hate, despise, and are disgusted by the individuals in whatever outgroup happens to suit our fancy.  The outgroup may be defined by race, religion, ethnic group, nationality, and even sex.  I suspect, however, that by far the most common form of outgroup (and ingroup) identification today is by ideology.

    Members of ideologically defined ingroups have certain ideas and beliefs in common.  Taken together, they form the intellectual shack the ingroup in question lives in.  The outgroup consists of those who disagree with these core beliefs, and especially those who define their own ingroup by opposing beliefs.  Ideophobes hate and despise such individuals.  They indulge in a form of bigotry that is all the more dangerous because it has gone so long without a name.  Occasionally they will imagine that they advocate universal human brotherhood, and “human flourishing.”  In reality, “brotherhood” is the last thing ideophobes want when it comes to “thought crime.”  They do not disagree rationally and calmly.  They hate the “other,” to the point of reacting with satisfaction and even glee if the “other” suffers physical harm.  They often imagine themselves to be great advocates of diversity, and yet are blithely unaware of the utter lack of it in the educational, media, entertainment, and other institutions they control when it comes to diversity of opinion.  As for the ideological memes of the ingroup, they expect rigid uniformity.  What Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Haidt thought they were doing was upholding virtue.  What they were really doing is better called “virtue signaling.”  They were assuring the other members of their ingroup that they “think right” about some of its defining “correct thoughts,” and registering the appropriate allergic reaction to the outgroup.

    I cannot claim that ideophobia is objectively immoral.  I do believe, however, that it is extremely dangerous, not only to me, but to everyone else on the planet.  I propose that it’s high time that we recognized the phenomenon as a manifestation of human nature that has long outlived its usefulness.  We need to recognize that ideophobia is essentially the same thing as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, or what have you.  The only difference is in the identifying characteristics of the outgroup.  The kind of behavior described is a part of what we are, and will remain a part of what we are.  That does not mean that it can’t be controlled.

    What evidence do I have that this type of behavior is dangerous?  There were two outstanding examples in the 20th century.  The Communists murdered 100 million people, give or take, weighted in the direction of the most intelligent and capable members of society, because they belonged to their outgroup, commonly referred to as the “bourgeoisie.”  The Nazis murdered tens of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and members of any other ethnicity that they didn’t recognize as belonging to their own “Aryan” ingroup.  There are countless examples of similar mayhem, going back to the beginnings of recorded history, and ample evidence that the same thing was going on much earlier.  As many of the Communists and Nazis discovered, what goes around comes around.  Millions of them became victims of their own irrational hatred.

    No doubt Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Haidt and legions of others like them see themselves as paragons of morality and rationality.  I have my doubts.  With the exception of Haidt, they have made no attempt to determine why those they consider “deplorables” think the way they do, or to calmly analyze what might be their desires and goals, and to search for common ground and understanding.  As for Haidt, his declaration that the goals of his outgroup are “morally wrong” flies in the face of all the fine theories he recently discussed in his The Righteous Mind.  I would be very interested to learn how he thinks he can square this circle.  Neither he nor any of the others have given much thought to whether the predispositions that inspire their own desires and goals will accomplish the same thing now as when they evolved, and appear unconcerned about the real chance that they will accomplish the opposite.  They have not bothered to consider whether it even matters, and why, or whether the members of their outgroup may be acting a great deal more consistently in that respect than they do.  Instead, they have relegated those who disagree with them to the outgroup, slamming shut the door on rational discussion.

    In short, they have chosen ideophobia.  It is a dangerous choice, and may turn out to be a very dangerous one, assuming we value survival.  I personally would prefer that we all learn to understand and seek to control the worst manifestations of our dual system of morality; our tendency to recognize ingroups and outgroups and apply different standards of good and evil to individuals depending on the category to which they belong.  I doubt that anything of the sort will happen any time soon, though.  Meanwhile, we are already witnessing the first violent manifestations of this latest version of outgroup identification.  It’s hard to say how extreme it will become before the intellectual fashions change again.  Perhaps the best we can do is sit back and collect the data.

  • Edvard Westermarck: Getting Morality Right at the Wrong Time

    Posted on January 2nd, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Morality evolved.  More precisely, the emotional and behavioral traits that are the reason morality exists evolved.  Darwin was perfectly well aware of this fact and its implications.  For example, he wrote,

    If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

    The moral implications of his great theory Darwin alluded to in the above passage seem obvious.  It shouldn’t take a man as brilliant as him to grasp them, and yet I know of only one published author after Darwin who clearly understood what he was saying; Edvard Westermarck.

    Westermarck wrote two great books about morality; The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, published in 1906, and Ethical Relativity, in 1932.  In them he elaborated on the ideas Darwin only mentioned in passing, following them to their logical conclusions.  In the process he avoided the error made by a myriad other authors who wrote before and after him about the connection between evolution by natural selection and morality.  That error was the conclusion that this connection somehow established the legitimacy of some old or new versions of Good and Evil, or that it implied some kind of an objective “ought.”  Westermarck got it right, and yet he is nearly forgotten today.  Apparently his message was something mankind didn’t want to hear.  He also happened along at the wrong time, writing some very inconvenient truths just as the behavioral sciences were in the process of being hijacked by the ideological narrative that we know as the Blank Slate.

    Westermarck realized that if morality exists as a result of natural selection, it can have no purpose in itself.  If something has a purpose, then it must have been created by a conscious entity.  Morality wasn’t.  It exists as a result of natural processes that occurred unguided by any conscious mind.  It follows that Good and Evil describe subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and not objective things that exist independently thereof.  As subjective entities they cannot possibly acquire a legitimate right to prescribe what anyone ought or ought not to do.

    Recording and explaining such simple truths requires neither a great deal of space nor the lavish application of philosophical jargon.  Westermarck accomplished the task in the first chapter of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  It seems to me that if you read that chapter, you either get it or you don’t.  From a logical point of view the subject just isn’t that complicated.  It’s only “hard” because it flies in the face of what we “feel,” and isn’t compatible with the way most of us want things to be.  There’s no subject in the world more difficult to keep an open mind about than morality, but unless you do, you’ll never “get it.”  However, if you can clear that hurdle, the rest is obvious.  In his Ethical Relativity, written more than a quarter of a century later, Westermarck elaborated on the chapter referred to above, and answered some of the critics who had attacked his ideas in the intervening years Here is a taste of what he had to say:

    In spite of the fervor with which the objectivity of moral judgments has been advocated by the exponents of normative ethics there is much diversity of opinion with regard to the principles underlying the various systems.  This discord is as old as ethics itself.  But while the evolution of other sciences has shown a tendency to increasing agreement on points of fundamental importance, the same can hardly be said to have been the case in the history of ethics, where the spirit of controversy has been much more conspicuous than the endeavor to add new truths to results already reached.  Of course, if moral values are objective, only one of the conflicting theories can possibly be true.  Each founder of a new theory hopes that it is he who has discovered the unique jewel of moral truth, and is naturally anxious to show that other theories are only false stones.  But he must also by positive reasons make good his claim to the precious find.

    None of the various theories of normative science can be said to have proved its case; none of them has proved that moral judgments possess objective validity, that there is anything truly good or bad, right or wrong, that moral principles express anything more than the opinions of those who believe in them.

    The quantitative differences of moral estimates are plainly due to the emotional origin of all moral concepts… After what has been said above the answer to the all-important question, so frequently ignored by writers on ethics, why moral judgments are passed on conduct and character is not far to seek.  These judgments spring from moral emotions.

    and, regarding the moral philosophy of Kant,

    But with the deepest regard for the tremendous earnestness of his purpose, I cannot but think that his struggle to harmonize the moral experience of mankind with his own rational deductions has been a colossal failure.  I have tried to show that in his alleged dictates of reason the emotional background is transparent throughout, and if I have succeeded in such a attempt in the case of the greatest of all moral rationalists, I flatter myself with the belief that I have, in no small measure, given additional strength to the main contentions in this book:  that the moral consciousness is ultimately based on emotions, that the moral judgment lacks objective validity, that the moral values are not absolute but relative to the emotions they express.

    Regarding the “experts on ethics,” both modern and ancient, Westermarck wrote,

    If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” 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.

    There are some surprisingly “modern” ideas in his later book.  Consider, for example, what Jonathan Haidt wrote about The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.  In a paper of that name and in his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt presented “…the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.”  Here is what Westermarck had to say on the subject:

    I have thus arrived at the conclusion that neither the attempts of moral philosophers or theologians to prove the objective validity of moral judgments, nor the common sense assumption to the same effect, give us any right at all to accept such a validity as a fact.  So far, however, I have only tried to show that it has not been proved; now I am prepared to take a step further and assert that it cannot exist.  The reason for this is that in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

    It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Westermarck chose the title “Ethical Relativity” for his second book on the subject.  It is perfectly clear what he meant.  However, while moral rules may be relative from an objective point of view, it is not our nature to perceive them that way.  We perceive them as absolutes, just as one might expect given their evolutionary origin.  They are most effective in enhancing the odds that we will survive and reproduce when we perceive them in that way.  Human beings can come up with a great variety of moral systems in spite of the common evolutionary origin of them all.  However, whatever that “relative” system happens to be, we will perceive its rules as absolutes.  The idea that our societies will collapse into moral nihilism and anarchy because of the scribblings of philosophers is nonsense.  As Westermarck put it,

    I think that ethical writers are often inclined to overrate the influence of moral theory upon moral practice.

    He added,

    It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.  The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true.

    However, he cited some very good reasons for believing that knowing the truth about ourselves is a great deal less dangerous than preserving our ignorance.  I agree with him.  If our species ever existed in a period of moral anarchy and nihilism, it is now.  Accepting the truth about morality and acting on it are the way out of the chaos, not into it.

    Some authors pay lip service to the influence of evolution on morality, but haven’t been able to shed the illusion that somehow, somewhere out there, objective morality exists.  Others admit that, as a manifestation of evolved traits, morality must be subjective, but in the very next paragraph or the very next breathe they lapse back into full Social Justice Warrior mode.  With a wink and a nod they use time-honored virtue signaling techniques to assure us that they belong to the right ingroup.  They leave us in no doubt that they understand the difference between mere subjective morality and the “real thing.”  Some have even gone so far as to advocate a program of eugenics, or perhaps adventures with CRISPR, to “adjust” morality so that it agrees with the “real thing.”

    At least to the extent that it’s possible for morally obsessed creatures like ourselves, Westermarck avoided these pitfalls.  He didn’t try to hide from the implications of his own thought, nor did he write them down and then hide his head and flee from them in the very next paragraph.  He was honest.  He was a light in the darkness.  I hope that someday we will find our way back to the light.