Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on February 3rd, 2013 No comments
I won’t parse all 150+ of them, but here are a few more that caught my eye.
…most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.
It’s only a mistake to the extent that there’s actually some ”high ground” to be conceded. There is not. Assuming that Shermer is not referring to the trivial case of discovering mere opinions in the minds of individual humans, neither science nor philosophy is capable determining anything about objects that don’t exist. Values, morals and ethics do not exist as objects. They are not things-in-themselves. They cannot leap out of the skulls of individuals and acquire a reality and legitimacy that transcends individual whim. Certainly, large groups of individuals who discover that they have whims in common can band together and “scientifically” force their whims down the throats of less powerful groups and individuals, but, as they say, that don’t make it right.
Suppose we experience a holocaust of some kind, and only one human survived the mayhem. No doubt he would still be able to imagine what it was like when there were large groups of other’s like himself. He might recall how they behaved, ”scientifically” categorizing their actions as “good” or “evil,” according to his own particular moral intuitions. Supposed, now, that his life also flickered out. What would be left of his whims? Would the inanimate universe, spinning on towards its own destiny, care about them one way or the other. Science can determine the properties and qualities of things. Where, then, would the “good” and ”evil” objects reside? Would they still float about in the ether as disembodied spirits? I’m afraid not. Science can have nothing to say about objects that don’t exist. Michael Shermer might feel “in his bones” that some version of “human flourishing” is “scientifically good,” but there is no reason at all why I or anyone else should agree with his opinion. By all means, let us flourish together, if we all share that whim, but surely we can pursue that goal without tacking moral intuitions on to it. “Scientific” morality is not only naive, but, as was just demonstrated by the Communists and the Nazis, extremely dangerous as well. According to Shermer,
We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong…
In fact, if scientists cease looking for and seeking to study objects that plainly don’t exist, it would seem to me more reason for congratulations all around than worry. Here’s a sample of the sort of “reasoning” Shermer uses to bolster his case:
We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.
Forgive me for being blunt, but this is gibberish. Natural selection can have no target, because it is an inanimate process, and can no more have a purpose or will than a stone. “Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism – people in this context – is the basis of establishing values and morals”?? Such “reasoning” reminds me of the old “Far Side” cartoon, in which one scientist turns to another and allows that he doesn’t quite understand the intermediate step in his proof: “Miracle happens.” If a volcano spits a molten mass into the air which falls to earth and becomes a rock, is not it, in the same sense, the “target” of the geologic processes that caused indigestion in the volcano? Is not the survival and flourishing of that rock equally a universal “good?”
Of the remaining “worries,” this was the one that most worried me, but there were others. Kevin Kelly, Editor at Large of Wired Magazine, was worried about the “Underpopulation Bomb.” Noting the “Ur-worry” of overpopulation, Kelly writes,
While the global population of humans will continue to rise for at least another 40 years, demographic trends in full force today make it clear that a much bigger existential threat lies in global underpopulation.
Apparently the basis of Kelly’s worry is the assumption that, once the earths population peaks in 2050 or thereabouts, the decrease will inevitably continue until we hit zero and die out. In his words, “That worry seems preposterous at first.” I think it seem preposterous first and last.
Science writer Ed Regis is worried about, “Being Told That Our Destiny Is Among The Stars.” After reciting the usual litany of technological reasons that human travel to the stars isn’t likely, he writes,
Apart from all of these difficulties, the more important point is that there is no good reason to make the trip in the first place. If we need a new “Earth 2.0,” then the Moon, Mars, Europa, or other intra-solar-system bodies are far more likely candidates for human colonization than are planets light years away. So, however romantic and dreamy it might sound, and however much it might appeal to one’s youthful hankerings of “going into space,” interstellar flight remains a science-fictional concept—and with any luck it always will be.
In other words, he doesn’t want to go. By all means, then, he should stay here. I and many others, however, have a different whim. We embrace the challenge of travel to the stars, and, when it comes to human survival, we feel existential Angst at the prospect of putting all of our eggs in one basket. Whether “interstellar flight remains a science-fiction concept” at the moment depends on how broadly you define “we.” I see no reason why “we” should be limited to one species. After all, any species you could mention is related to all the rest. Interstellar travel may not be a technologically feasible option for me at the moment, but it is certainly feasible for my relatives on the planet, and at a cost that is relatively trivial. Many simpler life forms can potentially survive tens of thousands of years in interstellar space. I am of the opinion that we should send them on their way, and the sooner the better.
I do share some of the other worries of the Edge contributors. I agree, for example, with historian Noga Arikha’s worry about, “Presentism - the prospect of collective amnesia,” or, as she puts it, the “historical blankness” promoted by the Internet. In all fairness, the Internet has provided unprecedented access to historical source material. However, to find it you need to have the historical background to know what you’re looking for. That background about the past can be hard to develop in the glare of all the fascinating information available about the here and now. I also agree with physicist Anton Zeilinger’s worry about, ”Losing Completeness - that we are increasingly losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental, and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.” It’s an enduring problem. The name “university” was already a misnomer 200 years ago, and in the meantime the problem has only become worse. Those who can see the “big picture” and have the talent to describe it to others are in greater demand than ever before. Finally, I agree with astrophysicist Martin Rees’ worry that, “We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks.” In particular, I agree with his comment to the effect that,
The ‘anthropocene’ era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, there were several occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward nuclear Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation. Those who lived anxiously through the Cuba crisis would have been not merely anxious but paralytically scared had they realized just how close the world then was to catastrophe.
This threat is still with us. It is not “in abeyance” because of the end of the cold war, nor does that fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II mean that they will never be used again. They will. It is not a question of “if,” but “when.”
Posted on January 11th, 2013 No comments
Morality evolved! One can quibble about the precise meaning of those two words, but the sentence remains true regardless. Absent genetically programmed and heritable physical characteristics of the human brain, morality as commonly understood would not exist. It follows that good and evil have no existence other than as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.
So much is obvious. It will become increasingly obvious as long as researchers remain free to study that incredibly complex biological computer, the brain, and the genetic processes that bring it into existence. So much is, however, also inconvenient. It is our nature to derive a great deal of pleasure from self-righteousness and virtuous indignation. However, if good and evil do not exist as independent objects, the rational bases for self-righteousness and virtuous indignation, or, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the rational tail that wags the emotional dog, disappear. They remain interesting and worthy of study as emotional phenomena. However, the notion that they actually have some genuine rational justification becomes absurd.
Similarly, if there are no good and evil objects, the bases for the claims of hosts of philosophers, theologians, and assorted experts on morality of every stripe that they understand those objects better than the rest of us evaporate as well. As a result, as has so often happened with such inconvenient truths in the past, this one faces and will continue to face bitter opposition from those who, for the reasons alluded to above, prefer an alternate version of reality. Like the Blank Slaters of old who denied human nature because it relegated all their fine utopias to the scrap heap, they can be relied on to resist and obfuscate our efforts to gain understanding of the physical, emotional and genetic bases of morality. They realize perfectly well that such understanding renders them superfluous. Recently, their efforts to stem the tide of increasing knowledge have met with a distinct lack of success, even in academia. One must hope they will remain similarly ineffectual in the future, or at least one must hope so to the extent that one believes that an accurate understanding of ourselves will have some bearing on our future survival.
That belief has not always found ready acceptance, even among very intelligent people. For example, a great number of thinkers who doubted the truths of established religion themselves have objected to passing the word on to the “rabble,” fearing that, lacking a reason to be “good,” they would certainly embrace “evil.” Similarly, in our own day, many shrink from rejecting a transcendent Good-in-itself because they fear it will promote amorality and moral relativism. In fact, accepting the truth about morality will not result in amorality or moral relativism because it is not our nature to be amoral or morally relativistic. We are no more likely to change our moral nature than we are to sprout fins and take to the water, or return to walking on all fours, in response to learning the truth about what that moral nature really is, and how it came into being.
That is not to imply that such self-understanding will be useless. For example, it may occur to us to shape a morality that is simple, in harmony with our nature, and that promotes our happiness and discourages us from harming each other as effectively as possible. It may also occur to us to limit morality to spheres in which it can reasonably be expected to promote useful ends. Given the fact that morality is fundamentally an emotional rather than a rational phenomenon, it is unlikely those spheres to which our frail reason might better be applied, such as national politics, international relations, and other aspects of our current reality that didn’t exist when morality evolved, will be included. This remains true even though attempts to apply reason to such spheres without taking the moral nature, not to mention the other behavioral characteristics of our species into account are bound to fail. For example, the creation of laws that injure the average individual’s sense of justice will likely be useless, regardless of how reasonable they might seem to be on other grounds.
Having accepted the origins of morality, let us not shrink from accepting its reality as well. In particular, we should not pretend that it is invariably our nature to be ”nice,” and that all “non-niceness” derives exclusively from culture and environment. Just as it is our nature to belong to and seek acceptance by our ingroup, it is also our nature to hate and despise outgroups. It is not possible to suppress or stifle that aspect of our nature. We will always seek and find an outgroup. Consider the behavior of the very liberals and progressives who occasionally suggest chimerical schemes such as expanding our ingroup to include all mankind. Nothing could exceed the spite and fury of their denunciations of those who disagree with them, such as gun rights advocates, Christian fundamentalists, opponents of gay marriage, etc. The outgroup have ye always with you. Our goal should be to stop ignoring this truth, in spite of the fact that all human history is a testament to it, and in spite of the further fact that it is such an obvious explanation for so much about us that otherwise seems incomprehensible, and seek ways of dealing with it so as to minimize the mayhem it has so frequently caused in the past.
Posted on January 5th, 2013 No comments
Sam Harris has just posted an article on his blog supporting gun ownership. While he does so with certain caveats (he supports “sensible” gun control, and is “outraged” over the political influence of the National Rifle Association) his position puts him squarely at odds with liberals in general and liberal atheists like himself in particular. This is interesting in view of the fact that Harris claims the ability to “scientifically” discern the difference between Good and Evil. After all, opposition to gun ownership is fundamentally a moral issue as far as most liberals are concerned.
Consider, for example, the position of Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the “Why Evolution is True” blog, and, like Harris, a liberal atheist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, unlike Harris, Coyne claims that he does not agree that there are “scientifically establishable truths about ethics,” and asserts that moral judgments are subjective matters of opinion. In practice, however, that matters not a bit. He almost invariably writes as if there were. His position on gun control is a case in point. For example, a couple of posts later he states that theologian William Lane Craig should “rot in hell” for differing with him on the Newtown massacre. He does not elaborate on whether, like Christian and Moslem fundamentalists, he believes that Mr. Craig should rot in hell for billions and trillions of years just for starters, or, as befits a more enlightened, liberal point of view, his term should only last for a few millennia, or even centuries. Regardless, it would seem that Coyne’s “mere opinion” has somehow jumped out of his skull, thrown off its subjective strings, and become a normative object, complete with plenary power to judge whether opinions are good or evil, and consign the bearers of the latter to the eternal fire. As anyone who consults his blog can see, he reacts with similarly furious virtuous indignation to anyone else who disagrees with him concerning gun control. I suspect that most liberal atheists, who are just as cocksure as Coyne that they are the bearers of moral truth, come down squarely in his corner on the matter.
In a word, gun control is a profoundly moral issue as far as Harris’ fellow liberals are concerned. However, in spite of his assurances in The Moral Landscape that “science” can decide which side is good and which evil, he hardly mentions morality in his post. There is good reason for that. Good and evil are judgments based on subjective moral emotions, not scientific facts. Those moral emotions exist in the first place for reasons that are completely unrelated to the regulation of firearms. In other words, morality is irrelevant to the issue, other than to the extent that human behavioral traits must be taken into account in deciding matters of state policy. At some level, Harris is aware of the fact. He knows that Coyne and like-minded liberals, and not he, are standing on the “moral high ground” on the issue of gun control. In other words, it is far easier for them than for him to arouse moral emotions to support their point of view. That is why he has chosen to couch the issue in almost purely rationalistic terms.
For example, most people would prefer that their family members not be murdered or become victims of violent attack. Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that the right to keep and bear arms is likely to minimize the probability of these contingencies. Most people would prefer that they and their family members not become victims of a massacre perpetrated by a psychopath with a firearm. Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that a blanket ban on firearms would be an ineffective way to minimize this contingency. And so on. I applaud him for this approach. It has always been my opinion that it is best to decide matters of public policy in this way, and, to the extent possible, minimize the pernicious influence of moral emotions on those decisions. There is no reason to believe that moral emotions are likely to be helpful in deciding matters that have nothing to do with the ultimate reason for their existence. There is no better way to illustrate this point than to compare Harris’ reasoned arguments with the morally loaded ones of Coyne and his other liberal opponents. As Harris rightly observes, they are marked by an astounding level of ignorance, both of the arguments of their opponents, which are generally presented in a crudely bowdlerized form that demonstrates a lack of any serious attempt to study them in depth, and of firearms in general. As Harris puts it:
I have read articles in which literally everything said about firearms and ballistics has been wrong. I have heard major newscasters mispronounce the names of every weapon and weapons manufacturer more challenging than “Colt.” I can only imagine the mirth it has brought gun-rights zealots to see “automatic” and “semi-automatic” routinely confused, or to hear a major news anchor ominously declare that the shooter had been armed with a “Sig Sauzer” pistol. This has been more than embarrassing. It has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying.
Detailed knowledge of a subject is superfluous to those whose goal is not to decide matters of fact, but to arouse moral emotions.
Posted on December 15th, 2012 No comments
If Jonathan Haidt is right, we are a pathologically pious species, with logical minds that evolved mainly to serve our innate self-righteousness. Contemplate the behavior of modern atheists, and it seems plausible enough. After all, they realize, or at least the more intelligent among them do, that we are an evolved species. If they’ve looked at any of the recent flood of books on the subject, they also realize that our morality is the expression, not of the opinion of some supernatural being, but of evolved behavioral traits. It exists because it promoted our survival at times when our mode of existence and environment were radically different from what they are now. Good and evil are not objects and things-in-themselves. Rather, they are subjective perceptions in the minds of individuals. As such, they have no existence independent of those minds. The odd thing (or perhaps the predictable thing, given the nature of our species) is that these perfectly straightforward, rational conclusions seem to matter hardly at all.
Now, I maintain that there is no objective morality: that morality is a guide for how people should get along in society, and that what is “moral” comports in general with the rules we need to live by in a harmonious society—one with greater “well being,” as Harris puts it. A society in which half the inhabitants are dispossessed because they lack a Y chromosome is not a society brimming with well being, and I wouldn’t want to live in it. And yes, what promotes “well being” can in principle be established empirically. But that still presumes that the best society is one that promotes the greatest “well being,” and that is an opinion, not a fact.
And yes, of course moral judgments can hinge on matters of real scientific truth! If you think that abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, that’s something that science can, in principle, find out. But in the end that still depends on an opinion: causing a fetus pain, even though doing so comports with the mother’s wishes, is immoral. Just because a disagreement is “substantive” (whatever that means) does not mean that it can be resolved by determining objective truths.
Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong—that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong. And those reasons are based on opinions.
Here we have an “is”: Moral judgments are based on subjective perceptions or, if you will, opinions. Nowhere does Coyne address the problem of “ought”: how these subjective judgments might acquire the power to leap out of the brain of one individual and become applicable to other individuals as well, whether that other individual likes it or not. Yet a couple of posts later, his own judgments have magically acquired that power! Referring to a little girl who was bitten by a dolphin at Seaword, he writes,
I’m sorry the little girl was bitten, but that’s only the human side of the equation. What about the sufferings (yes, I think they suffer) of animals like dolphins, sea otters, and beluga whales forced to endlessly swim in circles in small tanks? (I once was moved almost to tears by watching an otter do this at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. I filed a complaint with a person in charge, but they completely ignored me.) As a biologist, this outrages me.
Let us make no mistake here: this is not about conservation, and only pretends to be about education. In the end, it’s all about money.
This begs the question, “So what?” Of course, Coyne could always beg off by claiming that he was merely describing his own, personal state of mind. To that, I would reply, “Nonsense!” His “outrage” is not a clinical description of his subjective state of mind at a particular moment, but a moral judgment directed at the “person in charge.” His comment that the behavior he is outraged about is “all about money” is not just a neutered opinion, but a moral judgment. How is it that Coyne’s state of mind has acquired this power over others? In fact, if we are to believe what he has written on the subject himself, no such path to power and legitimacy exists. The “person in charge” cannot be bound by Coynes “opinion,” any more than the managers of Seaworld and the Shedd Aquarium. In spite of that, he has elevated his own perceptions of good and evil to the status of the very ”objective truths” he denied a couple of posts earlier, as binding on others as on himself.
I don’t mean to single out Coyne. His irrational behavior is pervasive, and predictable, given the nature of our species. I, too, experience outrage at the maltreatment of animals. Rationally, however, I realize that my outrage is a mental phenomenon that is in no way connected to a “Good” that exists independently, outside of my own brain. The fact that Good and Evil don’t exist as independent objects in no way depends on acceptance of the hypothesis that human morality represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits, or on acceptance of the theory of evolution. It does not even depend on whether a God exists or not. A hypothetical super-being might have the power to fry me in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years for failing to share his opinion, but his opinion, his “subject,” would not become an “object” for all that.
Why do I bother to bring this up? I certainly am not immune to the “Coyne syndrome,” as readers of my blog will be quick to detect. However, having long ago concluded that there is no rational basis for self-righteousness, I find it very tiresome, at least in others. Beyond this personal whim, there is the matter of survival. If, in fact, morality exists because it evolved, and it evolved because it promoted our survival, it would be somewhat incongruous if it became the ultimate cause of our extinction. In the last century alone, the Communists murdered tens of millions for what they saw as the highest of moral reasons, and when Hitler exterminated the Jews, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, he believed he was doing “the Lord’s work.” Under the circumstances, it seems to me that it would behoove us as a species to cultivate a lively awareness of the subjective nature of morality. We must apply morality in our routine interactions with other individuals, because there is no alternative. We should be leery of applying it outside of that sphere, or at least those of us should who, like me, subjectively prefer that our species not become extinct.
Posted on November 18th, 2012 2 comments
Not long ago, the “Men of Science” in anthropology were furiously denying that ancient hominids hunted, and that chimpanzees were anything but inoffensive and pacific vegetarians, and that human behavior was significantly influenced by human nature, in the teeth of abundant evidence that such notions were not only wrong, but ridiculous. Today, discussions of morality have fallen into a similar rut. It is perfectly obvious that the very existence of morality as commonly understood ultimately depends on the presence of innate mental traits that evolved at a time when the human condition was a great deal different than it is now. However, to admit that fact would be to admit at the same time that “ethics expert” is an oxymoron, and to reduce the sublime joys of self-righteousness to an embarrassing absurdity, and to finally admit that Good and Evil don’t really transcend the petty minds of individuals. In a word, it would amount to rejecting the way things “ought” to be on behalf of what “is”. Hence, the fact is ignored and denied. We shouldn’t be surprised. This rejection of “is” on behalf of “ought” has happened many times before.
There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, for this stubborn embrace of the fallacy of transcendent morality. Legions of philosophers, whether believers or not, were terrified that if the rationalizations propping it up were kicked out, we would all become immoral or, at best, amoral. This delusion is based on the groundless suspicion that, unless some chain of logic based on unquestionable axioms is provided proving that we ought to act one way and not another, society will immediately collapse in an orgy of murder, robbery, rape and deliberate refusal to obey the traffic laws. Even worse, we might all become (gasp!) moral relativists. This further fallacy is based on ignorance of the innate grounding of morality, and the more than dubious belief that religion has had the net effect of promoting “moral niceness.”
Today, belief in a God or gods has become palpably ridiculous for anyone with average mental powers and the courage to face the existential drawbacks of their absence. However, the old gods have always been a reliable prop for objective morality. Furthermore, it has been plausibly suggested that there are innate underpinnings for religious belief itself. I doubt that we “instinctively” believe in magical supernatural beings, but you have to hand it to the old gods. They certainly scratched us where it itched. When they disappeared, something new had to be found to do the scratching. Enter secular religion. The quintessential example is, of course, Communism. Like the supernatural tyrants of old, it was a jealous god, allowing no other gods before it. Alas, the new god died a much quicker death than the old ones because the paradise it promised was here on earth where it could be fact checked instead of the sweet hereafter. However, when the new god evaporated with unseemly haste, we did not simply give up on secular religion as a bad job. The itch was still there. New secular religions sprouted to fill the gaps as soon as the old ones died off. The various versions touted by Sam Harris and the rest of the New Atheists are familiar examples, and come complete with all the same delectable moral certitude and watertight justification for bludgeoning of the unrighteousness as the old ones.
It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect humanity to relinquish its cherished “oughts” anytime soon in favor of simply recognizing the “is” of morality and dealing with it. However, I still suggest it as a contingency going forward. Whatever our personal whims happen to be, it seems to me we are more likely to satisfy them by acting according to that which is true than to that which is false. We might have some chance of putting the constant murderous and disruptive bickering and warfare inspired by religious belief over the centuries behind us, avoiding the untimely death of another 100 million in the name of some future version of “scientific Marxism-Leninism,” and ending the constant annoyance of living in a world full of ostentatiously righteous poseurs.
And what of the drawbacks of accepting the “is” of morality, and kicking out the props of the Good-in-itself? Would our societies suddenly and spontaneously descent into anarchy? Would the bad guys win by default? I think not. We do not need, nor have we ever depended on, religions of the secular or old-fashioned flavors to act morally. We act morally because that is our nature. Obviously, there are great variations in the details of moral behavior among human societies, even though they spring from the same innate roots. We are not rigidly programmed to act one way and not another like so many insects. This gives us some flexibility. We cannot simply jettison morality. We must depend on it to regulate our social interactions, at least at the level of individuals and small groups. Under the circumstances, I suggest we keep it as simple as possible. Reduce moral rules to an elementary common denominator sufficient for maximizing social harmony and minimizing mutual injury. At the level of large states, reduce the influence of moral emotions to a bare minimum, and seek to apply reason to the pursuit of social goals within the constraints of our limited intelligence. Here, of course, I am not speaking of “is,” but of some of my own, personal “oughts.” However, to the extent that they want to survive and even, to some extent, enjoy life, I think others may find them serviceable.
Posted on November 14th, 2012 No comments
Amoebas react to light. Mimosa plants react to touch. Humans react to other humans. As all three species are presumably related, although their common ancestor lived at a remote date, biochemists and neurophysicists might well be able to discover subtle similarities in the biological processes involved in all three cases. However, unlike amoebas and mimosas, humans are conscious beings, and can observe and think about their reactions. Sometimes those reactions fall within the sphere of what is commonly referred to as moral behavior. In other words, they involve the perception of what we call “good” and “evil.” However, Mother Nature did not bother with anything so impractical as causing us to perceive these intuitions as what they actually are; the result of physical and chemical processes with no existence outside of the brains of individuals. They promoted our survival much more effectively when perceived as things that existed on their own, independent of the will or consciousness of particular individuals. We have been involved in a hopeless search for the basis of this illusion ever since. Like wanderers in the desert seeking a mirage, we seek to establish the legitimacy of Good and Evil. It is a hopeless quest.
It is an interesting idiosyncrasy of our species that we can easily see through the flimsy rationalizations others use to establish some basis for the powerful perception that their own versions of Good and Evil apply, not just to themselves, but to others as well. We’re just not quite so perceptive when it comes to seeing the flaws in our attempts to establish the legitimacy of our own versions. An interesting example just turned up on Instapundit, in the form of a paper published by Arthur Leff in the Duke Law Journal back in 1979, entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.”
The opening paragraphs of the paper are worth quoting in full:
I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.
I mention the matter here only because I think that the two contradictory impulses which together form that paradox do not exist only on some high abstract level of arcane angst. In fact, it is my central thesis that much that is mysterious about much that is written about law today is understandable only in the context of this tension between the ideas of found law and made law: a tension particularly evident in the growing, though desperately resisted, awareness that there may be, in fact, nothing to be found – that whenever we set out to find “the law,” we are able to locate nothing more attractive, or more final, than ourselves.
With that preamble, Leff announces that he will, “…try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will.” In fact, he does an excellent job of it, in terms both simple and brief. Noting that,
A statement in the form “you ought to do X,” “it is right to do X,” or “X is good” will establish oughtness, rightness, or goodness only if there is a set of rules that gives the speaker the power totally to determine the question… it is precisely the question of who has the power to set such rules for validating evaluations that is the central problem of ethics.
He then goes on to consider the circumstances under which anyone might gain that power. However, before doing so, he does not leave us in suspense as to his own position. In his words, “There are no such circumstances.” Noting that God was once the evaluator of last resort, he continues,
The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises. What Kurt Gödel did for systems of logic, deicide has done for normative systems…Put briefly, if the law is “not a brooding omnipresence in the sky,” then it can be only one place: in us. If we are trying to find a substitute final evaluator, it must be one of us, some of us, all of us – but it cannot be anything else.
Thus, once it is accepted that (a) all normative statements are evaluations of actions and other states of the world; (b) an evaluation entails an evaluator; and (c) in the presumed absence of God, the only available evaluators are people, then only a determinate, and reasonably small, number of kinds of ethical and legal systems can be generated. Each such system will be strongly differentiated by the axiomatic answer it chooses to give to one key question: who ultimately gets to play the role of ultimately unquestionable evaluator, a role played in supernaturally based systems by God? Who among us, that is, ought to be able to declare “law” that ought to be obeyed?
Leff then goes on to demonstrate that the possible answers to this unsettling question are both few and transparently fallacious. He first takes up what he calls “Descriptivism.” Again, quoting Leff,
It (Descriptivism) goes like this: it is not at all necessary to specify who is generating the legal system, much less to describe how that generation is being effected. A legal system is a fact. It is something… that exists. The way to discover its existence is to discover what rules are in fact obeyed.
However, Descriptivism really accomplishes nothing. Defined in that way, according to Leff,
“the law” describes not good behavior or right behavior, but behavior… Under Descriptivism, it is impossible to say that anything ought or ought not to be.
A possible alternative to Descriptivism is what Leff calls “Personalism,” according to which,
Everyone can declare what ought to be for himself, and no one can legitimately criticize anyone else’s values – what they are or how they came to be – because everyone has equal ethical dignity… If the difficulty with Descriptivism is that it validates any normative system, the problem with the “God-is-me” approach (“Personalism”) is that it validates everyone’s individual normative system, while giving no instruction in, or warrant for, choosing among them.
In other words, it becomes necessary to decide who will get to play philosopher king:
The next move, one would guess, would be to find some way to distinguish among the individuals either quantitatively through some aggregation principle, or qualitatively. One might choose to stand, that is, on the most evaluations or the best ones.
However, neither choice solves the problem. In the first case,
All one has is the assumed conclusion that in cases of conflicting perfections, the largest number wins.
But, according to Leff, the second is no better:
Can we then get out of our bind by deciding after all to pay attention to the quality of the ethical boxes? No, we cannot.
The moment one suggests a criterion, then individual men have ceased to be the measure of all things, and something else – and that necessarily means someone else – has been promoted to the (formally impossible) position of evaluator-in-chief.
One would think that a fully considered moral position, the product of deep and thorough intellectual activity, one that fits together into a fairly consistent whole, would deserve more respect than shallow, expletive, internally inconsistent ethical decisions. Alas, to think that would be to think wrong: labor and logic have no necessary connection to ethical truth.
Should one not in such a situation give more weight to A’s position than to B’s? Only if someone has the power to declare careful, consistent, coherent ethical propositions “better” than the sloppier, more impulsive kinds. Who has that power and how did he get it? …Bluntly, intellectual beauty is not a necessary prerequisite to ethical adequacy unless someone declares it to be.
Leff next moves on to demolish what one might call the Sam Harris school of validation:
There remains, then, only one considerable approach to the validation of ethical systems. Under it no search is made for any evaluator, but rather some state of the world is declared to be good, and acts which effect that state are ethical acts. Merely to express this approach is, or course, to refute it, for a good state of the world must be good to someone. One cannot escape from the fact that a normative statement is an evaluation merely by dispensing with any mention of who is making it. Hence the description of a particular end-state – human happiness (or “human flourishing”, ed.) or wealth – as a validator of a system, is just another evaluator-centered approach, but with blinkers added. Wealth is good, and makes our acts good, if someone, or some collection of someones, says so. But which someone or someones count still has to be accounted for.
There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system. There is no way to prove one ethical legal system superior to any other, unless at some point an evaluator is asserted to have the final uncontradictable, unexaminable word. That choice of unjudged judge, whoever is given the role, is itself, strictly speaking, arbitrary.
And so, just as Kant demolished the existing proofs of God’s existence, Leff polished off the secular bases of moral legitimacy. Unlike Kant, however, he did it briefly and coherently. By all means, read the whole paper. It is a fine little nail in the coffin for all secular systems that seek the holy grail of objective Good and Evil, whether past, present, or yet to come. Its conclusions have always been obvious to fundamentalist Christians and Moslems who fondly believe that the fantasies on which they base their own moral systems provide a better support. However, they continue to slam against a brick wall of cognitive dissonance, against all odds and the accumulating mounds of evidence about the real nature of morality, in the minds of agnostics, atheists and “Godless” moralists who simply can’t believe that there is no basis for the legitimacy of moral intuitions that they feel so strongly “in their bones.” Far be it for me to offer any moral conclusions, but I do think it would behoove us all to put these delusions behind us. Whatever whims any of us might have, moral or otherwise, I suspect we will be more likely to satisfy them if we base our actions on that which is true rather than on that which is not.
Posted on November 11th, 2012 No comments
According to Michael Austin, who writes the Ethics for Everyone blog for Psychology Today, we are suffering from “Moral Blind Spots.” Referring to the morality-based arguments in favor of slavery of an earlier time, he writes,
When I read these arguments and discuss their flaws with students, I’m reminded of something a professor of mine once asked, “What will future generations think about us? What moral blind spots of ours will they see, that we miss?” There are many possibilities, to be sure, but I think that future generations may look back at the disparity of wealth in our world and wonder how we could have missed the injustices that exist related to this.
If future generations are still capable of rational thought, perhaps they will ask a more pertinent question: In view of the fact that the nature of morality and the ultimate reasons for its existence should have been obvious to our generation, why did so many of our philosophers, professors, and other assorted Ph.D.’s in the social sciences still believe there was some logical basis for making moral judgments of past generations? Like so many of the other contemporary experts on morality, his work is informed by the tacit assumption that Good and Evil exist, independent of their subjective origins. Like the others, he throws out a barrage of “shoulds” without troubling himself in the least about establishing their legitimacy, apparently oblivious to the many books discussing the biological origins of morality that have been appearing lately. Here are some examples from his article:
It is disturbing, shocking, and disappointing to read arguments which include the attempt to defend the indefensible.
The “indefensible” he refers to is slavery. Austin is not providing us with a description of his subjective moral intuitions in response to a particular stimulus. Rather, the implication here is that there are objective reasons to consider slavery indefensible, and attempts to defend it as disturbing, shocking, and disappointing. In short, he is saying that slavery is objectively Evil. Why? We are not told. Nothing could be easier than striking poses in defense of this particular instance of “expertise in morality.” Does not everyone agree that slavery is Evil? What could be easier than simply shouting down anyone who disagrees? They simply reveal themselves as Evil by association. In reality, slavery is neither Good, nor Evil, because such categories simply don’t exist as things in themselves. We can certainly say that the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the U.S. today is that slavery is evil. It was also the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the ante-bellum South that slavery was good. What we cannot say is that there is some objective basis for deciding which of them is right. Continuing from the article,
We look back and wonder, “how could educated people believe that slavery was a moral institution?”
Here Austin is assuming that there are objective reasons for considering slavery moral or immoral. He does not tell us what they are, and for good reason. There are none.
How could we believe that it is morally permissible for certain parts of the world to have so much, while others, through no fault of their own, die of malaria because they lack access to something as cheap and effective as a bed net or anti-malarial medication.
Here Austin is assuming that there is an objective basis for declaring some things morally permissible, and others not. Again, he does not trouble himself to explain why.
I pay extra money each month to my satellite tv provider so that I can watch Arsenal on the Fox Soccer Channel, have an occasional overpriced drink at the local coffee shop, and I purchase other things that I don’t really need. To be clear, I don’t think that we should necessarily stop all such spending. What I do think we should consider, however, is the option of curtailing some of this spending and then putting that money to work in ways that can help others who are suffering from treatable illnesses. By making do with a little less, we can help others live. This is not mere charity, it is a matter of justice.
Here, we find a baseless “should” associated with the spending of money in one way as opposed to another, another baseless “should” concerning what it is appropriate for us to consider, and what not, and a declaration that something is a “matter of justice” without the least semblance of an attempt to establish the legitimacy of that assertion.
Morality is a loose description of a collection of behavioral traits, observable in human beings, with analogs in other species. The ultimate reason for their existence is the evolution of physical traits in the brain and nervous system. Those traits exist solely because individuals who possessed them were more likely to survive, in times which bear little resemblance to the present, than those who didn’t. So much is becoming increasingly obvious. In spite of this, Austin and legions of other modern moralists continue to simply assume the existence of objective morality as a given. It is nothing of the sort. Today, objective morality is like a dead man walking. Perhaps future generations will have the sense to wonder why it is taking the dead man so long to finally collapse.
Posted on October 15th, 2012 No comments
I’ve mentioned subjects that the human brain perceives as objects before. Examples include Good, Evil, and Rights; entities that cannot possibly exist as other than subjective impressions or intuitions in the minds of individuals, and yet are still perceived as things-in-themselves that have an independent existence of their own. Edward Fitzgerald put it much more elegantly in his Rubaiyat, that font of wisdom thinly disguised as the translation of the work of a medieval Islamic poet:
The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
Yet, in spite of the fact that no one has yet devised an experiment capable of “seeing” these entities at any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, or measuring their temperature, or detecting their presence via gravitational anomalies, or otherwise demonstrating their independent existence outside of the brains of individuals, we stubbornly insist that they are real. It’s not hard to understand why Mother Nature has arranged things that way. Conceived as mere subjective individual whims, categories such as good and evil lose their normative power. The basis for applying them to others disappears, and they become useless for regulating behavior within or between groups. Perceived in that way, they would never helped us survive. As a consequence, they would never have evolved in the first place.
There are other interesting examples of the same phenomenon. “Value” is one of them. Survivalists and goldbugs favor a monetary system backed by precious metals because it seems to them they have real value, although there is no measurable quality of gold that would make it possible to distinguish its value from that of a common rock. Of course, there’s method in their madness. One could certainly devise a metric to distinguish the scarcity of gold from that of paper. No doubt statisticians could establish a correlation between scarcity and perceived value. Although he never actually spoke of a “labor theory of value,” Karl Marx did derive a “law of value” based on the work of earlier economists. I will leave the hair splitting over the precise manner in which Marx perceived value to the Marxist scholars. However, his many followers based their notion of “surplus value” on his work. They perceived of it as a real thing that the exploiting capitalists stole from the proletariat.
“Science” is another example. In reality it is merely a systematic approach to discovering truth which is usually haphazardly applied by scientists and often doesn’t work in practice. However, it, too, has been transmogrified into an object. One speaks of doing things “for science.” To imply that something is “scientific” is to imply that it is necessarily true, as in “scientific Marxism-Leninism.” Eugenics was scientific in its day, as was the luminiferous ether. “Men of Science” are supposed to “think right” compared to other mere mortals, who should not presume to intrude in their specialized domains. Often these “Men of Science” are, in reality, the prisoners of some fashionable ideology which causes them to imagine things that are palpable nonsense to most people. The Blank Slate dogma is a good example. In my own specialty, computational physics, “Men of Science” often make a cottage industry out of some arcane mathematical approach, and continue to tweak and fiddle with it, milking it for an endless series of papers in prestigious academic journals long after advances in computer power have rendered it completely obsolete. No matter that what they are doing is quite useless; it is, after all, “Science.”
No doubt there are other similar examples, but I will not attempt to catalog them all here. The point is that our brains are designed so that we perceive certain subjective intuitions as objects. Presumably, that trait evolved because it promoted our survival. Unfortunately, it evolved at times that were radically different than the present. It might not be quite as effective at promoting our survival today. The Nazis and the Communists were both completely convinced that they represented the Good, as did the suicide bombers of 911. Those whose tastes run to saving the world based on alternative versions of the Good might do well to keep their example in mind.
Posted on October 9th, 2012 No comments
Moral intuitions are elements in the behavioral repertoire of human beings. Their expression differs in detail from one individual to another, but in all cases the ultimate reason for their existence is the fact that our brains acquired the capacity to generate such intuitions through evolution by natural selection. In other words, those intuitions promoted our survival during times in which our environment and manner of living were very different than they are now. Strictly speaking, by “us” I mean our genes. They are the only parts of us that have been continuously alive since the origin of life on earth, and only they have the potential to continue to survive into the indefinite future. The phenotypes they give rise to possess no such potential immortality, but are born and die within a relatively short time. Moral intuitions are a property of the phenotype, not the genes themselves. Just as neither genotypes nor phenotypes can have a purpose, neither can the moral intuitions that are aspects of the phenotype have a purpose. Things that exist as a result of a long series of random mutations that occurred in a continuously varying environment do not have a purpose. Purpose implies a conscious creator, but there was no such creator.
Assume for the moment that, aside from philological quibbles, what I have said above is true. In that case, it is absurd to suppose that the moral intuitions that exist in the mind of an individual of a particular species that was organized by a particular packet of genes can somehow acquire and independent life of their own, acquiring the property of applying not just to that individual, but to other individuals of the same species as well, even if they happen to carry a different packet of genes that provided them with a package of moral intuitions that are substantially different from those of the first individual. There is no way in which one moral intuition can acquire the quality of being absolutely superior to or better than a different, contradictory moral intuition. I suspect that, for those readers who happen to be of a religious bent, the above is “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.” A God solves the legitimacy problem (or seems to) in short order. Being on what seems to them secure ground, they have no trouble seeing that their secular neighbors are floating in thin air without visible means of support.
However, secular moralists “feel in their bones” that one thing is “truly good” and another “truly evil” in exactly the same way as religious believers. It is our nature to experience moral intuitions in that way. They cast about for some basis for the legitimacy of their moral claims, and eventually come up with one, arriving at it with a chain of reasoning that invariably includes the step, “miracle happens.” If memory serves, it was Nietzsche who said “It is better to have the void for a reason than to be void of reason.” To disguise the void, secular moralists will often exploit moral intuitions themselves. They pick some deed that is likely to evoke a powerful moral intuition similar to theirs in whoever it is they are trying to convince, such as female genital mutilation, the racist lynching of innocent blacks, the Holocaust, etc., and insist that it is “truly evil.” If the listener dares to object, they can always bring virtuous indignation into play, with the implication that the listener must then himself be evil. Such “logic” is nonsense if what I asked the reader to “assume for a moment” above is actually true. As an unbeliever, it happens to be my opinion that it actually is true. If any secular readers disagree, I would certainly be interested in hearing why.
This sort of common if flimsy rationalization of “the good” by polling of moral intuitions leads to some interesting contradictions. For example, the recent death of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has evoked fawning eulogies from those who saw in him the prophet of a brave new world free of inequality, exploitation and misery. After all, doesn’t everyone agree that inequality, exploitation and misery are “really evil”? It has also evoked hostile condemnations from those who considered him one of Stalin’s many apologists and, as such, a collaborator in mass murder. After all, doesn’t everyone agree that mass murder is “really evil”? The resolution of the disagreement in the mind of a given individual depends on whether, one the one hand, their preference for living in a world free of mass murderers outweighs their dubious trust in the promoters of future utopias, or, on the other, their belief in some shining “Brave New World” of the future inclines them to dismiss the “breaking of a few eggs to make an omelet” as a necessary evil.
My own moral intuitions happen to place me in the former group. I have a strong aversion to the Hobsbawms of the world because I agree that they are collaborators in mass murder, and consider their “enlightened” belief in future utopias dangerous delusions. I disagree, however, with the assertion that Hobsbawm was “truly evil,” meaning objectively evil regardless of the opinion of any individual on the matter. The typical objection to such a point of view is that it would promote “moral relativism,” and that the resulting moral anarchy would result in the collapse of civilization or something similarly apocalyptic. In fact, in the unlikely event that most of us did adopt my point of view, we would not all become “moral relativists” because it is not our nature to be moral relativists, and our societies would not descent into amoral anarchy because it is our nature to be moral beings. Morality isn’t going anywhere simply by virtue of the fact that we finally recognize the truth about what it is. It seems to me that truth has been obvious for some time. Books about the genetic basis of morality have been rolling off the presses at an ever increasing rate of late. As research on the genetic origins of morality and the details of its manifestation in the brain continue, the evidence in favor of that truth will become ever weightier.
I personally find general recognition of the truth preferable to the maintenance of what some consider useful lies. Those who agree with my aversion for the Hobsbawms of the world will find any fears they might have that it would disarm the opposition are misplaced. It did not disarm me when I volunteered to serve in Vietnam, even though my opinions about morality were the same then as they are now. My aversion to living in a world run by Hobsbawm and his fellow ”enlightened idealists” outweighed my aversion to assuming the personal risk of fighting to defeat them. I know I am not unique in that regard. Other than that, I personally foresee positive benefits to living in a world in which there is general recognition of the truth about morality. For one thing, the pathologically pious and chronically indignant among us who have become an ever greater nuisance of late would be revealed for the ludicrous frauds they really are. Most of the charlatans posing as “morality experts” would become laughing stocks, encouraging them to seek a more useful mode of making a living. I certainly “feel” that that would be “truly good” even if I must agree with Hume that reason can provide no basis for my feeling.