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  • Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

    Posted on May 2nd, 2019 Helian 6 comments

    As I noted in a recent post, (Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective), John Staddon, a Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke, published a very timely and important article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion noting the gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities in secular humanist morality. These included its obvious lack of any visible means of support, even as flimsy as a God, for its claims to authority and legitimacy. My post included a link to a review by Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the Why Evolution is True website and New Atheist stalwart, that called Prof. Staddon’s article the “worst” ever to appear on Quillette, based on the false assumption that he actually did maintain that secular humanism is a religion. In fact, it’s perfectly obvious based on a fair reading of the article that he did nothing of the sort.

    Meanwhile, Quillette gave Prof. Coyne the opportunity to post a reply to Staddon. His rebuttal, entitled Secular Humanism is Not a Religion, doubled down on the false assertion that Staddon had claimed it is. Then, in a counterblast, entitled Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne, Staddon simply pointed out Prof. Coyne’s already obvious “confusion” about what he had actually written, and elaborated on his contention that secular values depend on faith. As I noted in the following comment I posted at Quillette, I couldn’t agree more:

    I’m sure Prof. Staddon doesn’t need my sympathy, but I sympathize with him nonetheless. He wrote an article in which he clearly does not claim that secular humanism is a religion. Prof. Coyne then falsely accused him of claiming that secular humanism is a religion, using this false accusation as the basis for his assertion that the article was “the worst ever” to appear at Quillette. Prof. Staddon responded by stating very politely what should have been obvious to anyone who gave his original article a fair reading in the first place – that Prof. Coyne’s response was based on a false premise. It would be nice if Prof. Coyne would now simply admit the truth and apologize but, human nature being what it is, I strongly doubt that will happen.

    IMHO Prof. Staddon’s article is one of the best that’s ever appeared at Quillette, not the worst. It addresses a very fundamental problem; the tendency of secular humanists to insist on tinkering with the law based on novel and constantly mutating versions of morality that lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide them with any reasonable claim to legitimacy or authority. This tendency is certainly predictable for our species, but it is also irrational. In fact, it is simply one aspect of an even bigger problem; our inability to understand and rationally respond to our moral nature.

    Secular humanist apologists among the commenters assure us that their moral claims are not similar to religious moral claims, because they are more rational and flexible. They can be refined and make progress towards the “Good.” Unfortunately, this “Good” of theirs doesn’t exist. It is an illusion. All they are really saying is, “Unlike religious morality, my version of morality is rational and flexible, and so can be refined and make progress towards satisfying my emotional whims.” That’s all their “Good” actually is, and yet they seriously believe it automatically possesses a magical authority to dictate behavior to others via the law.

    Lost in such claims is the very fact that morality is rooted in emotions, and wouldn’t exist, at least as we know it, absent these emotions. The claims are based on the assumption that the emotional basis of morality can simply be ignored, and “oughts” and “ought nots” tinkered and cobbled together as if these emotional constraints didn’t exist at all. In other words, secular humanism is just a warmed over version of John Stuart Mill’s Blank Slate utilitarianism, and just as chimerical.

    I’m afraid Prof. Staddon has Darwin on his side on this one. Just read Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” If that’s not clear enough for you, read the first chapter of Westermarck’s “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.” If that’s not enough, read Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” and, if you still don’t get it, all I can suggest is that you start wading through the ocean of books that have been rolling off the presses lately about “evolved morality,” and the expression of morality in animals. Consider the obvious implications if morality is an expression of evolved emotions. Natural selection is just that, a natural process. It does not make progress towards anything, nor does it have any goal or function in mind. It has no mind. The same applies to morality if it is the result of that natural process. In short, Darwinism and secular humanism are mutually exclusive and the latter is really nothing but an expression of blind faith, just as Prof. Staddon claims. Emotional whims have no intrinsic authority whatsoever, and yet, as he points out, secular humanists persist in claiming that the law must be based on these whims. When one considers that the emotions involved evolved in times radically different from the present, it should be abundantly obvious that it can’t be assumed that they will even have the same results now as they did then. Furthermore, there is no basis whatsoever for the claim that those results, namely, survival and reproduction of the relevant genes, are “Good in themselves.” The secular humanist rationale for meddling with the law is based on a fantasy. It is not only irrational, but potentially dangerous as well.

    Of course, secular humanists aren’t the only ones who are delusional about morality. Virtually everyone else on the planet is as well. The illusion that good and evil are real things, existing independently of anyone’s opinion about them, is a powerful and pervasive aspect of human nature. It is so powerful that, when it is challenged, we defend and rationalize the illusion, refusing to even consider the seemingly obvious and elementary reasons that it is just that – an illusion. Many “get” the connection between evolution by natural selection and the existence of morality. In spite of that, they are incapable of putting two and two together and accepting the implications of that connection. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist by virtue of natural selection, it is simply impossible for the illusions of good and evil spawned by these emotions to be true. As he put it,

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

    Prof. Coyne is typical of secular humanists in general. In one breath he claims that he realizes that morality is subjective, and in the next he leaps to the defense of the chimera! This glaring non sequitur is treated as if there were nothing incongruous or absurd about it at all. In defending his chimera, he resorts to typical rationalizations, which can also be found sprinkled among the comments to the articles referred to above. For example, he writes,

    But religious morality has three features that differentiate it from morality deriving from secular humanism. First, the diversity of morality among secular humanists is far wider than that of followers of a given religion: beyond adherence to the Golden Rule, secular humanists vary dramatically in what they consider moral.

    This is entirely beside the point. The number of versions of morality one can find among the various secular humanist ingroups is irrelevant. What is relevant is that both religious believers and humanists defend their goods and evils as if they were real, objective things, regardless of whether they claim to believe in the subjectivity of morality or not. Prof. Coyne goes on,

    Further, much of a religion’s morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims… In contrast, the morality of secular humanists derives from rational consideration about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but ultimately grounded on a secular preference (i.e., “I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.”). Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    As noted by Darwin, Westermarck, Hume, Hutcheson, and many others, these “secular preferences” are actually emotions, irrational by their very nature. If the moral pretensions of humanists are “ultimately grounded” on emotions, they cannot be “largely based on reason” at the same time. They are based on emotions, period! “Reason” comes in when, like everyone else, humanists attempt to figure out what their emotions are trying to tell them. This “rational” process inevitably fails, because the emotions in question are artifacts of a natural process. As such, they cannot possibly be trying to tell them anything. Coyne then recites the usual nonsensical circular argument humanists are fond of using to justify their moral claims:

    I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.

    which boils down to, “My version of the Good is that which maximizes the Good.” Coyne continues,

    Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    Really!? Is it “science” when mom and pop bakeries are threatened with destruction unless they act in ways that violate the proprietors’ religious beliefs, based on novel rules that didn’t exist when they opened their businesses? Is it “science” when parents are threatened with heavy fines, jail, and the state kidnapping of their children unless they agree to have them poisoned, mutilated, and neutered in order to promote “transgender rights?” Is it “science” when the careers of legitimate scientists are arbitrarily destroyed by baying mobs for being insufficiently “woke” about the latest dictates of political correctness? Is it “science” when the literature and other cultural icons of a people are destroyed because of some humanist’s delusion that they don’t “maximize well-being”? Is it “scientific” to propose versions of morality that blithely ignore such fundamental aspects of human morality as its dual nature – our universal tendency to apply different versions of morality to ingroups and outgroups? To this I can only respond, try reading and actually comprehending Prof. Staddon’s argument in his original article about the arbitrary manner in which humanist moral pretensions are actually transformed into law. Is there really anything “scientific” about it? Is there some regular process by which the opinions of all regardless of the version of morality they happen to embrace are taken into account? Is there any suggestion that those who insist that others obey laws based on their moral claims be required to clearly state the emotions that are the “ultimate grounding” for those claims, and explain whether or not the laws will accomplish anything even close to the reasons that account for the fact that the emotions in question exist to begin with? No, no, and again, no! The idea that there is anything remotely “scientific” about the way the moral sausage is prepared in our societies is utterly ludicrous. I think that is what Prof. Staddon was actually trying to say. In his words,

    I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion.

    This seems perfectly obvious to me, but apparently not to Prof. Coyne. He continues,

    Thus everyone in the world becomes religious, save for sociopaths and the few who disdain all morality.

    No, secular humanists to not “become religious” by virtue of the fact that there are similarities between their behavior and that of religious believers. And “everyone” does not belong to one of these two categories. Darwin was not a sociopath, and Westermarck did not disdain all morality, and yet neither of them seems to have suffered from the illusion that their moral emotions should be consulted in formulating the law.

    Prof. Staddon has a point, and a very important one. Our moral emotions, the real “ultimate basis” of our morality, are relics of an environment that no longer exists. It is extremely unlikely that blindly consulting them to formulate the laws and other rules that regulate human behavior in a completely different environment will have the same result that it did when the emotions in question evolved. I would go even further than Prof. Staddon. He claimed that secular humanists don’t believe in “invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.” In fact, they do believe that imaginary things, namely, Good and Evil, have an objective existence independent of anyone’s mere opinion about them. Many of them claim to be subjective moralists, but, for all practical matters, if not in theory, subjective morality and secular humanism are mutually exclusive. It is not rational to insist that the law be based on one’s emotions, and yet, as Prof. Staddon points out, that is precisely what we commonly find them doing. Far from respecting alternative opinions about morality, they perceive anyone who disagrees with them according to the familiar practice of our species – as outgroup. That is yet another characteristic they share with religious believers.

    If, as Darwin insisted, human morality is ultimately based on emotions, and those emotions exist by virtue of natural selection, then it is impossible to derive “moral truths” based on reason. That, however, is the secular humanist agenda. It is an agenda that depends on ignoring the reasons that the emotions in question exist to begin with, on insisting that they can be “reprogrammed” to apply to social realities that didn’t exist at the time they evolved, and being willfully blind to inconvenient truths about human morality, such as its dual quality of applying radically differently rules to ingroups and outgroups. It is on such palpably false assumptions that the rules and laws that regulate behavior in our societies are made. Nothing that I, Prof. Staddon, or anyone else says is likely to change that fact any time in the foreseeable future. However, whatever your personal goals happen to be, it would probably be expedient to take it into account as you pursue them.

  • On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck

    Posted on April 4th, 2019 Helian 3 comments

    The illusion of objective morality is amazingly powerful. The evidence is now overwhelming that morality is a manifestation of emotions, and that these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that there can be no such thing as objective moral truths. The brilliant Edvard Westermarck explained why more than a century ago in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas:

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

    Westermarck, in turn, was merely pointing out some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin had written about morality in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Today Westermarck is nearly forgotten, what Darwin wrote about morality is ignored as if it didn’t exist, and the illusion is as powerful and persistent as it was more than a century ago. Virtually every human being on the planet either believes explicitly in objective moral truths, or behaves as if they did regardless of whether they admit to believing in them or not.

    There are many, for example, who claim to accept the fact that morality is subjective. If that were the case, however, it would be irrational for them to argue that one should do one thing and should not do another thing without qualification. That, however, is precisely what every single “subjective moralist” I’ve ever heard, ever read, or was ever aware of actually does. If anyone knows of an exception, I would be pleased to hear about it. The delusional belief in objective moral truths is evidently far more difficult to shed than the “God delusion.” Consider, for example, the case of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is, of course, one of the most prominent “New Atheists.” It’s also clear that he is aware that our moral emotions exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. He made that perfectly clear as early as the publication of “The Selfish Gene” more than four decades ago. In spite of that, Dawkins constantly turns up on Twitter condemning some “evil,” or promoting some “good,” for all the world as if they were objective things. He is not alone in committing this glaring non sequitur. Everyone else on the planet who has ever passed as a New Atheist does exactly the same thing. Even Westermarck was no exception, closing his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas with the paragraph,

    I have here pointed out only the most general changes to which the moral ideas have been subject in the course of progressive civilization; the details have been dealt with each in their separate place. There can be no doubt that changes also will take place in the future, and that similar causes will produce similar effects. We have every reason to believe that the altruistic sentiment will continue to expand, and that those moral commandments which are based on it will undergo a corresponding expansion; that the influence of reflection upon moral judgments will steadily increase; that the influence of sentimental antipathies and likings will diminish; and that in its relation to morality religion will be increasingly restricted to emphasizing ordinary moral rules, and less preoccupied with inculcating special duties to the deity.

    In other words he felt obligated to reassure his readers that, in spite of his revolutionary Darwinian approach to morality, they needn’t worry; society would continue to make “moral progress” towards what everyone knows is “really good.” This incredibly tenacious belief in “moral progress,” a delusion not only of the new atheists, but of Westermarck himself, persists in spite of the seemingly obvious fact that, if there are no moral truths, there can be no moral progress. There is simply nothing to progress towards. If morality is an artifact of natural selection, it cannot possibly have a goal or anything of the sort towards which “progress” can be made. What passes for “moral progress” can never be anything more than progress towards satisfying the emotionally driven whims of individuals, no matter how many individuals happen to share the same whim. It is progress towards a mirage, and a dangerous mirage at that.

    The virtually universal belief, whether admitted or not, that the mirage is real, is remarkable in view of all we have learned about the workings of the human mind in the last century and a half. In light of that knowledge, the fact that morality is subjective should be obvious. It doesn’t even take Darwin to demonstrate the fact. Simply observe some ranting social justice warrior during one of their fits of virtuous indignation and ask yourself the question, “What authority entitles them to make these moral judgments.” In every case, the answer is the same. They possess no such authority. They simply assume it. If challenged, of course, they would seldom admit as much. The God authority has become unfashionable, but they can be relied on to come up with another one, even more absurd. Often, they simply rely on some version of the circular argument that what they claim is good is really good because it can be derived from some other good that is “obviously” really good. A rich array of such specious arguments have been invented to prop up the illusion, each more threadbare than the last. Most of us are incapable of even considering the possibility that morality is subjective, far less the implications of that fact. If the possibility is suggested, a typical response it to grasp at one of these arguments as a drowning man grasps a straw, and defend it to the end. No attempt is made to rationally consider the arguments in favor of subjective morality. Instead, one simply assumes they must be wrong, and then proceeds to rationalize the assumption. Anything to avoid facing the truth.

    If morality were objective it would necessarily exist in some form independent of the minds of individuals. No such object has ever been detected, for the obvious reason that no such object exists. Amazingly, this rather salient fact doesn’t seem to matter at all. As Westermarck put it,

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

    The illusion is so powerful that our finest scientists and our most brilliant intellectuals appear powerless to resist it even today. We behold all mankind blindly chasing a chimera, far from realizing that it’s a chimera, and incapable of rationally considering the implications of the natural process that created such a realistic illusion to begin with. This, in a nutshell, is the default state of our species. Our behavior is fundamentally irrational. The only general advice I can give individuals, whatever their personal goals happen to be, is Adapt. Your fellow human beings are likely to continue to act irrationally for the foreseeable future.

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

    Posted on September 15th, 2018 Helian 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Darwin and Morality

    Posted on September 10th, 2018 Helian No comments

    It’s not necessary to read all of Darwin’s books and manuscripts to learn what he had to say about morality.  Just read Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man.  If you haven’t seen those pages yet, they may be a revelation to you, because later generations of behavioral “scientists” have been very coy about mentioning them.  They are decidedly out of step with the socialist and egalitarian ideologies that it became the goal of the 20th century behavioral “sciences” to “prove” as corollaries of the Blank Slate.  As such they represent a high point in mankind’s search for truth and self-understanding.  When it comes to morality, that search was quickly derailed by a combination of ideologically corrupted “science” and sellers of philosophical snake oil.  Nearly a century and a half later, it remains derailed.  There is little reason to hope that it will recover anytime soon.

    The things Darwin had to say about morality were remarkably bold, given that he lived in Victorian England, and was married to an extremely pious Christian wife.  Indeed, the first sentences of the chapter in question can be seen as reflection of this less than ideal environment:

    I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.  This sense, as (Sir James) Mackintosh remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance.

    Later authors have attempted to use this passage to prop up their artificial taboo against “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, it is best understood as a brief genuflection to the prevailing “moral landscape.”  In this heavily cherry-picked chapter, it’s best to read the whole thing. Darwin was anything but a carbon copy of the “co-discoverer” of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who believed in evolution below the neck, but substituted spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo for the origin of the human mind and conscience.  Darwin considered the human brain, mind, and moral sense as much the result of natural evolution as the rest of us.  He realized that the same emotions responsible for the moral sense in humans exists in other animals as well. We are exceptional only in our ability to think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and our ability to use language to communicate our thoughts to others.  Darwin hardly considered this an unbridgeable gap, and thought it entirely possible that similarly advanced minds could evolve in other animals.  As he put it,

    The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

    So much for human exceptionalism!

    For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways.

    In the above we find Darwin clearly distinguishing between the fixed instincts of, for example, insects, and the more “malleable” behavioral predispositions existing in humans and other social mammals. In other words, here Darwin is preemptively debunking the favorite mantra of later generations of Blank Slaters that acceptance of evolved behavioral traits amounts to “genetic determinism.”

    But these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association… We have now seen that actions are regarded by savages, and were probably so regarded by primeval man, as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe, – not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe. This conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community.

    In other words, there are ingroups and outgroups, a fact that it took nearly half a century for Sir Arthur Keith to resurrect and state as a coherent hypothesis. Modern philosophers and behavioral scientists alike have fallen into the extremely dangerous habit of ignoring this aspect of human moral behavior, preferring to emphasize our “altruism” instead.

    Secondly, as soon as the mental faculties had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual; and that feeling of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly recalled.

    In other words, instead of being some unique human trait that suddenly evolved out of nothing, morality exists in nascent form in many other animals.  The “unique” features of human morality are merely artifacts of these preexisting traits in creatures with unusually high intelligence.

    It may well be first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, 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 gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.

    How can one read such passages without admiring the genius of Darwin?  No one else in his time even came close to writing anything of such brilliance and insight.  Consider what is packed into the last of these short passages alone: 1) A blunt denial of human exceptionalism, 2) A debunking of objective morality, and 3) Dismissal of theories that existed then as now that “objective moral truth” somehow manages to “track” morality rooted in mental traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Darwin goes on to cite many examples of analogs of human moral behavior in other animals, noting that,

    Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with (Louis) Agassiz that dogs possess something very like a conscience.

    As if in answer to later generations of behaviorists clutching their box mazes with their theories of “conditioning” he writes,

    In many instances, however, it is probable that instincts are persistently followed from the mere force of inheritance, without the stimulus of either pleasure or pain.  A young pointer, when it first scents game, apparently cannot help pointing. A squirrel in a cage who pats the nuts which it cannot eat as if to bury them in the ground, can hardly be thought to act thus, either from pleasure or pain. Hence the common assumption that men must be impelled to every action by experiencing some pleasure or pain may be erroneous.

    Far from believing that evolution by natural selection would result in a universal moral sense, identical in all races, Darwin concluded that the obvious differences in human moral behavior confirmed his theory.  As he put it,

    Except through the principle of the transmission of moral tendencies, we cannot understand the differences believed to exist in this respect between the various races of mankind.

    There is much more in this short chapter bearing on the evolution of human morality. It is truly a must read for anyone interested in the subject.  In addition to what he wrote about evolved behavioral traits in man and animals in The Descent of Man, Darwin also wrote a chapter on the subject intended for publication in The Origin of Species.  Unfortunately, the full manuscript did not appear in that book.  However, Darwin passed it along with much other related material accumulated during the course of his life to his young collaborator, George Romanes.  Romanes published the full chapter, along with much of the other material he had received from Darwin, in his Mental Evolution in Animals, which appeared shortly after Darwin’s death. The book is available online, and may be found by clicking the link on the title.

    Many authors published theories of morality, supposedly based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, beginning shortly after publication of The Origin of Species.  Almost all of them promoted some theory of objective morality, and either ignored or completely failed to grasp the significance of what Darwin had written on the subject.  Edvard Westermarck appeared like a ray of light in the fog, publishing his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906.  Among major philosophers, he alone appeared to grasp the implications of what Darwin had written about morality.  Like the fourth chapter of The Descent of Man, his book was forgotten, and no philosopher or scientist has appeared in the century plus since then who appears to grasp not only what Darwin wrote about the evolved roots of morality, but also the implications of what he wrote regarding the question of objective morality.  The lucubrations of some of these “evolutionary moralists” are interesting in their own right, but I must leave them for a later post.

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

    Posted on July 9th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

    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.