Posted on October 12th, 2014 No comments
Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist is interesting for several reasons. As the title of this post suggests, it demonstrates the disconnect between the theory and practice of morality in the academy. It’s one of the latest brickbats in the ongoing spat between the New Atheists and the “accommodationist” atheists. It documents the current progress of the rearrangement of history in the behavioral sciences in the aftermath of the Blank Slate debacle. It’s a useful reality check on the behavior of bonobos, the latest “noble savage” among the primates. And, finally, it’s an entertaining read.
In theory, de Waal is certainly a subjective moralist. As he puts it, “the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom up approach” to morality, as opposed to the top down approach: “The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover.” The “bottom” de Waal refers to are evolved emotional traits. In his words,
The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.
My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other. This approach deserves attention at a time in which even avowed atheists are unable to wean themselves from a semireligious morality, thinking that the world would be a better place if only a white-coated priesthood could take over from the frocked one.
So far, so good. I happen to be a subjective moralist myself, and agree with de Waal on the origins of morality. However, reading on, we find confirmation of a prediction made long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche. In Human, All Too Human, he noted the powerful human attachment to religion and the “metaphysics” of the old philosophers. He likened the expansion of human knowledge to a ladder, or tree, up which humanity was gradually climbing. As we reached the top rungs, however, we would begin to notice that the old beliefs that had supplied us with such great emotional satisfaction in the past were really illusions. At that point, our tendency would be to recoil from this reality. The “tree” would begin to grow “sprouts” in reverse. We would balk at “turning the last corner.” Nietzsche imagined that developing a new philosophy that could accommodate the world as it was instead of the world as we wished it to be would be the task of “the great thinkers of the next century.” Alas, a century is long past since he wrote those words, yet to all appearances we are still tangled in the “downward sprouts.”
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the academy, where a highly moralistic secular Puritanism prevails. Top down, objective morality is alive and well, and the self-righteous piety of the new, secular priesthood puts that of the old-fashioned religious Puritans in the shade. All this modern piety seems to be self-supporting, levitating in thin air, with none of the props once supplied by religion. As de Waal puts it,
…the main ingredients of a moral society don’t require religion, since they come from within.
Clearly, de Waal can see where morality comes from, and how it evolved, and why it exists, but, even with these insights, he too recoils from “climbing the last rungs,” and “turning the final corner.” We find artifacts of the modern objective morality prevalent in the academy scattered throughout his book. For example,
Science isn’t the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the “naturalistic fallacy” and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been much involved in the genocidal machine, conducting unimaginable experiments.
American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics. They advocated racist immigration laws and forced sterilization of the deaf, blind, mentally ill, and physically impaired, as well as criminals and members of minority races.
I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden.
One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good. I happen to belong to the first camp.
None of these statements make any sense in the absence of objective good and evil. If, as de Waal claims repeatedly elsewhere in his book, morality is ultimately an expression of emotions or “gut feelings,” analogs of which we share with many other animals, and which exist because they evolved, then the notions that scientists are or were evil, period, or that science itself can be morally impure, period, or that humans can be good, period, or evil, period, are obvious non sequiturs. De Waal has climbed up the ladder, peaked at what lay just beyond the top rungs, and jumped back down onto Nietzsche’s “backward growing sprouts.” Interestingly enough, in spite of that de Waal admires the strength of one who was either braver or more cold-blooded, and kept climbing; Edvard Westermarck. But I will have more to say of him later.
The Bonobo and the Atheist is also interesting from a purely historical point of view. The narrative concocted to serve as the “history” of the behavioral sciences continues to be adjusted and readjusted in the aftermath of the Blank Slate catastrophe, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. As usual, the arch-villain is Robert Ardrey, who committed the grave sin of being right about human nature when virtually all the behavioral scientists and professionals, at least in the United States, were wrong. Imagine the impertinence of a mere playwright daring to do such a thing! Here’s what de Waal has to say about him:
Confusing predation with aggression is an old error that recalls the time that humans were seen as incorrigible murderers on the basis of signs that our ancestors ate meat. This “killer ape” notion gained such traction that the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey showed one hominin bludgeoning another with a zebra femur, after which the weapon, flung triumphantly into the air, turned into an orbiting spacecraft. A stirring image, but based on a single puncture wound in the fossilized skull of an ancestral infant, known as the Taung Child. It’s discoverer had concluded that our ancestors must have been carnivorous cannibals, an idea that the journalist Robert Ardrey repackaged in African Genesis by saying that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels. It is now considered likely, however, that the Taung Child had merely fallen prey to a leopard or eagle.
I had to smile when I read this implausible yarn. After all, anyone can refute it by simply looking up the source material, not to mention the fact that there’s no lack of people who’ve actually read Ardrey, and are aware that the “Killer Ape Theory” is a mere straw man concocted by his enemies. De Waal is not one of them. Not only has he obviously not read Ardrey, but he probably knows of him at all only at third or fourth hand. If he had, he’d realize that he was basically channeling Ardrey in the rest of his book. Indeed, much of The Bonobo and the Atheist reads as if it had been lifted from Ardrey’s last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, complete with the ancient origins of morality, Ardrey’s embrace of de Waal’s theme that humans are genuinely capable of altruism and cooperation, resulting in part, as also claimed by de Waal, from his adoption of a hunting lifestyle, and his rejection of what de Waal calls “Veneer Theory,” the notion that human morality is merely a thin veneer covering an evil and selfish core. For example, according to de Waal,
Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution. The big-game hunting of our ancestors required even tighter cooperation.
This conclusion is familiar to those who have actually read Ardrey, but was anathema to the “Men of Science” as recently as 15 years ago. Ardrey was, of course, never a journalist, and his conclusion that Australopithecine apes had hunted was based, not on the “single puncture wound” in the Taung child’s skull, but mainly on the statistical anomaly of numbers of a particular type of bone that might have been used as a weapon found in association with the ape remains far in excess of what would be expected if they were there randomly. To date, no one has ever explained that anomaly, and it remains carefully swept under the rug. In a word, the idea that Ardrey based his hypothesis entirely “on a single puncture wound” is poppycock. In the first place, there were two puncture wounds, not one. Apparently, de Waal is also unaware that Raymond Dart, the man who discovered this evidence, has been rehabilitated, and is now celebrated as the father of cave taphonomy, whereas those who disputed his conclusions about what he had found, such as C. K. Brain, who claimed that the wounds were caused by a leopard, are now in furious rowback mode. For example, from the abstract of a paper in which Brain’s name appears at the end of the list of authors,
The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.
Meanwhile, we find that none other than Stephen Jay Gould has been transmogrified into a “hero.” As documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Gould was basically a radical Blank Slater, unless one cares to give him a pass because he grudgingly admitted that, after all, eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating might not be purely learned behaviors, after all. The real Steven Jay Gould rejected evolutionary psychology root and branch, and was a co-signer of the Blank Slater manifesto that appeared in the New York Times in response to claims about human nature as reserved as those of E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology. He famously invented the charge of “just so stories” to apply to any and all claims for the existence of human behavioral predispositions. Now, in The Bonobo and the Atheist, we find Gould reinvented as a good evolutionary psychologist. His “just so stories” only apply to the “excesses” of evolutionary psychology. We find the real Gould, who completely rejected the idea of “human nature,” softened to a new, improved Gould who merely “vehemently resisted the idea that every single human behavior deserves an evolutionary account.” If anyone was a dyed-in-the-wool habitue of the Blank Slate establishment in its heyday, it was Gould, but suddenly we learn that “Several skirmishes between him and the evolutionary establishment unfolded in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1997.” I can only suggest that anyone who honestly believes that a new “establishment” had already replaced the Blank Slate prior to 1997 should read Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, published as recently as last year. No matter, according to de Waal, “The greatest public defender of evolution this country has ever known was Stephen Jay Gould.”
Perhaps one can best understand the Gould panegyrics in connection with another of the major themes of de Waal’s book; his rejection of Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists. De Waal is what New Atheist Jerry Coyne would refer to as an “accommodationist,” that is, an atheist who believes that the atheist lions should lie down with the religious sheep. As it happens, Gould was the Ur-accommodationist, and inventor of the phrase “nonoverlapping magisterial,” or NOMA to describe his claim that science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge. One can find a good summary of the objections to NOMA from the likes of “New Atheists” Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Coyne on Prof. Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, for example, here and here.
It’s hard to understand de Waal’s bitter opposition to atheist activism as other than yet another example of Nietzsche’s “climbing down onto the backward pointing shoots.” Indeed, as one might expect from such instances of “turning back,” it’s not without contradictions. For example, he writes,
Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black.
And yet he objects to the same kind of activism among atheists that has been the most effective antidote to such bigotry directed at, for example, gays and blacks. For some reason, atheists are just supposed to smile and take it. De Waal accuses Dawkins, Harris and the rest of being “haters,” but I know of not a single New Atheist that term can really be accurately applied to, and certainly not to the likes of Dawkins, Harris or Coyne. Vehement, on occasion, yes, but haters of the religious per se? I don’t think so. De Waal agrees with David Sloan Wilson that “religion” evolved. I can certainly believe that predispositions evolved that have the potential to manifest themselves as religion, but “religion” per se, complete with imaginary spiritual beings? Not likely. Nevertheless, De Waal claims it is part of our “social skin.” And yet, in spite of this claim that religion “evolved,” a bit later we find him taking note of a social phenomenon that apparently directly contradicts this conclusion:
The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naively ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches.”
Apparently, then, “evolved religion” only infected a portion of our species in northern Europe, and they all moved to the United States. Finally, in his zeal to defend religion, de Waal comes up with some instances of “moral equivalence” that are truly absurd. For example,
I am as sickened (by female genital mutilation, ed.) as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.
As it happens I know of several instances in which my undergraduate classmates voluntarily had themselves circumcised, not for any religious motive, but because otherwise their girlfriends wouldn’t agree to oral sex. One wonders whether de Waal can cite similar instances involving FGM.
Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Anyone who believes in a “bottom up” version of subjective morality can’t be all bad, according to my own subjective judgment, of course. Indeed, de Waal even has the audacity to point out that bonobos, those paragons of primate virtue extolled so often as role models for our own species do, occasionally fight. Along with Jonathan Haidt, he’s probably the closest thing to a “kindred spirit” I’m likely to find in academia. The icing on the cake is that he is aware of and admires the brilliant work of Edvard Westermarck on morality. What of Westermarck, you ask. Well, I’ll take that up in another post.
Posted on April 29th, 2014 No comments
You might say Leon Trotsky was the “best” of the old Bolsheviks. He was smart, was familiar with the work of a host of important thinkers beyond the usual Marx and Hegel, and wrote in a style that was a great deal more entertaining than the cock-sure, “scientific” certainties of Lenin or the quasi-liturgical screeds of Stalin. He also had a very rational understanding of morality, right up to the point where his embrace of Marxism forced him to stumble across the is-ought divide. He set down his essential thought on the subject in an essay entitled Their Morals and Ours, which appeared in the June 1938 edition of The New International.
Trotsky begins by jettisoning objective morality, summarizing in a nutshell a truth that is perfectly obvious to religious believers but that atheist moralists so often seem unable to grasp:
Let us admit for the moment that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means. Then it is evidently necessary to seek criteria outside of historical society and those ends which arise in its development. But where? If not on earth, then in the heavens. In divine revelation popes long ago discovered faultless moral criteria. Petty secular popes speak about eternal moral truths without naming their original source. However, we are justified in concluding: since these truths are eternal, they should have existed not only before the appearance of half-monkey-half-man upon the earth but before the evolution of the solar system. Whence then did they arise? The theory of eternal morals can in nowise survive without god.
It is a tribute to the power of human moral emotions that the Sam Harris school of atheists continue doggedly concocting “scientific” theories of morality in spite of this simple and seemingly self-evident truth. It follows immediately on rejection of the God hypothesis. In spite of that, legions of atheists reject it because they “feel in their bones” that the chimeras of Good and Evil that Mother Nature has seen fit to dangle before their eyes must be real. It just can’t be that all their noble ideals are mere artifacts of evolution, and so they continue tinkering on their hopeless systems as the “ignorant” religious fundamentalists smirk in the background.
The very title of Trotsky’s essay reveals that he understood another fundamental aspect of human morality – its dual nature. In spite of approaching the subject via Marx instead of Darwin, he understood the difference between ingroups and outgroups. In the jargon of Marxism, these became “classes.” Thus, Trotsky’s ingroup was the proletariat, and his outgroup the bourgeoisie, and he found the notion that identical moral criteria should be applied to “oppressors” and “oppressed” alike absurd:
Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.
Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution.
Trotsky was quite familiar with Darwinian explanations of morality. One might say that, like so many Marxists who came after him, he was a “Blank Slater,” but certainly not in the same rigid, dogmatic sense as the later versions who denied the very existence of human behavioral predispositions. He allowed that there might be such a thing as “human nature,” but only to the extent that it didn’t get in the way of the proper development of “history.” For example,
But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.
He didn’t realize that these “elementary moral precepts” were just as capable of accommodating the Marxist “classes” as ingroups and outgroups as they are of enabling more “natural” perceptions of one’s own clan of hunter-gatherers and the next one over in the same roles. His conclusion that these “precepts” were relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things was reinforced by the fact that he was also familiar with and had a predictable allergic reaction to the work of those who derived imaginary, quasi-objective and un-Marxist “natural laws” from “human nature”:
Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type, in so far as they do not confine themselves to rationalist utilitarianism, the ethics of bourgeois bookkeeping, appear conscious or unconscious students of Viscount Shaftesbury, who at the beginning of the 18th century deduced moral judgments from a special “moral sense” supposedly once and for all given to man.
The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer, since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of a gregarious animal, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society torn by classes.
Other than the concocters of “natural law,” there was another powerful barrier in the way of Trotsky’s grasping the fundamental significance of his “elementary moral precepts” – his own, powerful moral emotions. According to his autobiography, these manifested themselves at a very young age as powerful reactions to what he perceived as the oppression of the weak by the strong. As Jonathan Haidt might have predicted, they were concentrated in the “Care/harm,” “Liberty/oppression,” and “Fairness/cheating” “foundations” of morality described in his The Righteous Mind as characteristic of the ideologues of the Left. It was inconceivable to Trotsky that the ultimate cause of these exalted emotions was to be found in a subset of the evolved behavioral traits of our species that have no “purpose,” and exist purely because they happened to increase the odds that his ancestors would survive and reproduce. And so it was that, as noted above, he skipped cheerfully across the is-ought divide, hardly noticing that he’d even crossed the line. At the end of the essay we discover that this sober rejecter of all absolute and objective moralities has somehow discovered a magical philosopher’s stone that enabled him to distinguish “higher” from “lower” moralities:
To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party, since the party embodies in his consciousness the very highest tasks and aims of mankind… Does it not seem that “amoralism” in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?
Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will – only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!
Let us say that it provided Trotsky with moral satisfaction, and leave it at that. It is certainly easier to forgive him for such a non sequitur than the more puritanical among the New Atheists of today, who have witnessed the collapse of the Blank Slate, can have no excuse for failing to understand where morality “comes from,” and yet still insist on edifying the rest of us with their freshly minted universal and “scientific” moral systems.
As it happens, there is a poignant footnote to Trotsky’s essay. Even at the time he wrote it, he probably knew in his heart of hearts that his earthly god had failed. By then, he could only maintain his defiant faith in Marxism by some convoluted theoretical revisions that must have seemed implausible to a man of his intelligence. According to the dogma of his “Fourth International,” the Bolshevik coup of 1917 had, indeed, been a genuine proletarian revolution. However, soon after seizing power, the proletariat had somehow gone to sleep, and allowed the sly bourgeoisie to regain control, using Stalin as their tool. The historical precedent for this remarkable historical double back flip was the Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution. As all good Marxists know, this had ended in the defeat of Robespierre and the Jacobins, who were the “real revolutionaries,” by the dark minions of the ancien regime. A more realistic interpretation of the events of 9 Thermidor is that it was a logical response on the part of perfectly sensible men to the realization that, if they did nothing, they were sure to be the next victims of Madame Guillotine. No matter, like the pastor of some tiny fundamentalist sect who insists that only his followers are “true Christians,” and only they will go to heaven, Trotsky insisted that only his followers were the “true revolutionaries” of 1917.
The fact that he took such license with Marxist dogma didn’t prevent Trotsky from grasping what was going on in the 1930’s much more clearly than the “parlor pink” Stalinist apologists of the time. Here’s what he had to say about he Duranty school of Stalinist stooges:
The King’s Counselor, Pritt, who succeeded with timeliness in peering under the chiton of the Stalinist Themis and there discovered everything in order, took upon himself the shameless initiative. Romain Rolland, whose moral authority is highly evaluated by the Soviet publishing house bookkeepers, hastened to proclaim one of his manifestos where melancholy lyricism unites with senile cynicism. The French League for the Rights of Man, which thundered about the “amoralism of Lenin and Trotsky” in 1917 when they broke the military alliance with France, hastened to screen Stalin’s crimes in 1936 in the interests of the Franco-Soviet pact. A patriotic end justifies, as is known, any means. The Nation and The New Republic closed their eyes to Yagoda’s exploits since their “friendship” with the U.S.S.R. guaranteed their own authority. Yet only a year ago these gentlemen did not at all declare Stalinism and Trotskyism to be one and the same. They openly stood for Stalin, for his realism, for his justice and for his Yagoda. They clung to this position as long as they could.
Until the moment of the execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the others, the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure, though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the revolutionists in the U.S.S.R. In this sense The Nation and The New Republic, not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the pen, fully responded to the interests of “democratic” imperialism. The execution of the generals alarmed the bourgeoisie, compelling them to understand that the advanced disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus lightened the tasks of Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado. The New York Times cautiously but insistently began to correct its own Duranty.
Those who don’t understand what Trotsky is getting at with his imputations of Stalinism regarding The Nation and The New Republic need only read a few back issues of those magazines from the mid to late 1930’s. It won’t take them long to get the point.
Even if the gallant old Bolshevik still firmly believed in his own revisions of Marxism in 1938, there can be little doubt that the scales had fallen from his eyes shortly before Stalin had him murdered in 1940. By then, World War II was already underway. In an essay that appeared in his last book, a collection of essays entitled In Defense of Marxism, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.
The assassin who ended Trotsky’s life with an ice pick was perhaps the most merciful of Stalin’s many executioners. There could have been little joy for the old Bolshevik in witnessing the bloody dictator’s triumph in 1945, and the final collapse of all his glorious dreams.
Posted on April 16th, 2014 2 comments
One Thomas Rodham Wells, who apparently fancies himself a philosopher, has posted an article entitled Is Parenthood Morally Respectable? over at 3quarksdaily. It explains to the rest of us benighted souls why it’s immoral to have children, except in situations where the number is limited to one, and the prospective parents’ motives in having children are scrutinized for moral purity, presumably by a board of philosophers appointed by Wells. Such tracts have been popping up in increasing numbers lately, mainly emanating from the left of the ideological spectrum. I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see them. They’re the ultimate expressions of what one might call a morality inversion – morality as a negation of the very basis of morality itself. Moral objections to parenthood are hardly the only manifestations of such suicidal inversions observable in modern society. For example, often the very same people who consider parenthood “evil” also consider unlimited illegal immigration “good.” I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised. Jury-rigging a large brain on a creature with a pre-existing set of behavioral traits, and then expecting the moral emotions to catch up with the change overnight would be a dubious proposition even in a static environment. Plump that creature down in the environment of today, radically different as it is from the one in which its moral equipment evolved, and such “anomalies” are only to be expected.
On the other hand, Darwin happened. He certainly had no trouble making the connection between his revolutionary theory and moral behavior. It was immediately obvious to him that morality exists because it evolved. The connection has been just as obvious to many others who have come and gone in the intervening century and a half. In this post-Blank Slate era the fact should be as obvious as the nose on your face. It should serve as a check on the intellectual hubris of our species that, in spite of that, so many of us still don’t get it.
I won’t go into too much detail about how Wells rationalized himself into a morality inversion. It’s the usual stuff. Parenthood is selfish because it imposes social costs on those who choose not to have children. Parenthood is irresponsible because the carbon footprint of children will melt the planet. Parenthood is unfair because the burden of other people’s children on the childless don’t outweigh their advantages. And so on, and so on. As usual, all this completely misses the point. The “point” is that the ultimate reason that morality exists to begin with, and absent which it would not exist, is that it increased the probability that individuals of our species would survive and have children who would also survive. In other words, using morality to encourage genetic suicide is manifestly absurd. It is basically the same thing as using one’s evolved hand to shoot oneself, or using one’s evolved feet to jump off a cliff. One can only conclude that, in the midst of all his complex moral reasoning, Wells never bothered to consider why, exactly, there is such a thing as morality.
Should one go to the trouble of pointing all this out to him? Why on earth for! The rest of us should be overjoyed that he and as many others like him as possible are delusional. If anything, we should encourage them to remain delusional. If they have no children, we won’t have to feed them, educate them, the planet may not melt after all, and, best of all, there will be more room for our children. As for me pointing this out to my readers, I admit, it does seem somewhat counterintuitive. On the other hand, so far there aren’t enough of you to seriously risk melting the planet, and if you’re smart enough to “get it” it’s probably worth my while to keep you around to provide a little quality genetic diversity in any case.
Posted on March 29th, 2014 7 comments
People worry about a “grounding” for morality. There’s really no need to. As Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce pointed out in Wild Justice – The Moral Lives of Animals, there are analogs of moral behavior in many species besides our own. Eventually some bright Ph.D. will design an experiment to scan the brains of chimpanzees as they make morally loaded decisions, and discover that the relevant equipment in their brains is located more or less in the same places as in ours. Other animals don’t wonder why one thing is good and another evil. They’re not intelligent enough to worry about it. Hominids are Mother Nature’s first experiment with creatures that are smart enough to worry about it. The result of this cobbling of big brains onto the already existing mental equipment responsible for moral emotions and perceptions hasn’t been entirely happy. In fact, it has caused endless confusion through the ages.
We can’t just perceive one thing as good, and another as evil, and leave it at that like other animals. We’re too smart for that. We have to invent a story to explain why. We perceive Good and Evil as things independent of ourselves, so we need to come up with some kind of myth about how they got there. It’s an impossible task, because Good and Evil don’t exist as independent things. They are subjective impressions. It is our nature to perceive them as things because morality has always worked best that way, at least until now. That fact has led to endless confusion over the ages, as philosophers and theologians have tried to grasp the mirage.
We are much like the patients described in Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain, who had their left and right brain hemispheres severed from each other to relieve severe epilepsy. According to Gazzaniga,
Beyond the finding…that the left hemisphere makes strange input logical, it includes a special region that interprets the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs. I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.
Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patients’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”
We constantly invent similar stories to rationalize to ourselves why something we have just perceived as good really is Good, or why something we have perceived as evil really is Evil. Jonathan Haidt describes the same phenomenon in his The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Noting that he will present evidence in the paper to back up his claims, he writes,
These findings offer four reasons for doubting the causality of reasoning in moral judgment: 1) there are two cognitive processes at work — reasoning and intuition — and the reasoning process has been overemphasized; 2) reasoning is often motivated; 3) the reasoning process constructs post-hoc justifications, yet we experience the illusion of objective reasoning; and 4) moral action covaries with moral emotion more than with moral reasoning.
The most common post-hoc justification, of course, has always been God. Coming up with a God-based narrative is a piece of cake compared to the alternative. After all, if the big guy upstairs wants one thing to be Good and another Evil, and promises to fry you in hell forever if you beg to differ with him, it’s easy to find reasons to agree with Him. Take him out of the mix, however, and things get more complicated. We come up with all kinds of amusing and flimsy rationalizations to demonstrate the existence of the non-existent.
Consider, for example, the matter of Rights which, like Good and Evil, exist as subjective impressions that our mind portrays to us as objective things. The website of the Foundation for Economic Education has a regular “Arena” feature hosting debates on various topics, and a while back the question was, “Do Natural Rights Exist?” The affirmative side was taken by Tibor Machan in a piece entitled, “Natural Rights Come From Human Nature.” If you get the sinking feeling on reading this that you’re about to see yet another version of the naturalistic fallacy, unfortunately you would be right. Machan sums up his argument in the final two paragraphs as follows:
We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits (a class of some kind of beings) and games (another class) and subatomic particles (yet another class) and so on. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified, but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn’t be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chickens and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, or when there are some oddities involved.
So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us—we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights, and as they do so they must also respect them.
Is it just me, or is this transparent conflation of “is” and “ought” sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old? Well, it must be me, because according to the poll accompanying the debate, 66% of the respondents thought that Machan “won” with this argument, according to which Natural Rights “evolved” right along with our hands and feet. Obviously, since people “know in their bones” that Rights are real things, it doesn’t take a very profound argument to convince them that “it must be true.” In a word, if you think that the world will sink into a fetid sewer of moral relativism and debauchery because there is no “grounding of morality,” I have good news for you. It ain’t so. If our moral equipment works perfectly well even when the only thing propping it up is such a flimsy post-hoc rationalization, it can probably get along just as well without one.
Posted on March 22nd, 2014 4 comments
There is none. An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, period! Somehow, that simple definition just never seems to register in the minds of large cohorts of atheists and believers alike. Take, for example, Theo Hobson, who supplies us with his own, idiosyncratic definition in a piece entitled “Atheism is an Offshoot of Deism” that recently turned up in the Guardian:
Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.
Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).
So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us.
Sorry, but I beg to differ with you Theo. There certainly are many delusional atheists who embrace such a “moral vision,” but the notion that all of them do is nonsense. For example, I reject any such “moral vision,” which Michael Rosen accurately described as “Religion Lite.” If you’ll trouble yourself to read the comments after your article, you’ll see I’m not alone. For example, from commenter Whiterthanwhite,
So is my Afairyism an offshoot of my five-year-old’s belief in fairies? Is my Afatherchristmasism an offshoot of her belief in Father Christmas?
Topher chimes in,
Indeed. Certain (rather more arrogant) religious people insist on seeing atheism as a reflection of theism rather than a rejection of it. It makes them feel better I guess, but of course is absolutely misguided.
Yes what a bag of bollocks this is. Atheism is an ‘offshoot’ of deism the way that absence is an offshoot of presence. It seems that what theists can’t stand about atheism is the sheer absence of belief. Get over it.
Can you, and others like you, please stop talking about atheism as if it were a belief system? I don’t believe in God. Doesn’t mean a subscribe to whatever incoherent, ill-thought-out Humanism you’re passing off as philosophy.
There are many similar comments, but as noted above, it never seems to register, even among some atheists. Follow an atheist website long enough, and you’re sure to run across commenters who insist on associating atheism with veganism, progressivism, schemes for gladdening us with assorted visions of “human flourishing,” and miscellaneous secular Puritans of all stripes. No. I don’t think so! Atheism doesn’t even come pre-packaged with “scientific rationalism.” It is merely the absence of a belief in a God or gods – Period! Aus! Schluss! Basta!
If any word is long overdue for a re-definition, it’s “religion,” not “atheism.” Instead of being rigidly associated with theism, it should embrace all forms of belief in imaginary, supernatural entities, or at least those with normative powers. In particular, in addition to a God or gods, it should include belief in such things as Rights, Good, and Evil as things-in-themselves, independent of the subjective impressions of them that exist in the minds of individuals.
Among other things, such a re-definition would add a certain coherence to theories according to which the predisposition to embrace “religion” is an evolved behavior. I rather doubt that we’ll eventually find something quite so specific as “You shall believe in supernatural beings!” hard-wired in our brains. On the other hand, there may be predispositions that make it substantially more likely that belief in such beings will follow once a certain level of intelligence is reached. I suspect that the origins of secular religions such as Communism will eventually be found by rummaging about in the very same behavioral baggage. I’m not the only one who’s seen the affinity. Many others have spoken of the “popes,” “bishops,” and “priesthood” of Communism and its antecedents, for almost as long as they’ve been around.
In any case, not all atheists are secular Puritans who embrace these various versions of “religion lite.” I personally hope our species will eventually grow up enough to jettison them along with the older editions. Darwin immediately grasped the truth, as did many others since him. It follows immediately from his theory. Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of morality and the perception of such subjective entities as Good and Evil that go with it. That is the simple truth, and it follows that belief in the existence of Good and Evil as objective things with some kind of a legitimate, independent normative power, whether ones tastes run to the versions preferred by the “heavy” or “lite” versions of religion, is a chimera.
Does that mean it’s time to jettison morality? No, sorry, our species doesn’t have that option. We will continue to act morally in spite of the vociferous objections of legions of philosophers, because it is our nature to act morally. It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t “real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it. On the other hand, we do have the option of recognizing the pathologically self-righteous among us for the charlatans they are.
Posted on March 11th, 2014 6 comments
Atheists of the ideological type that might be described as “progressive” or “liberal” have a problem. In general, they are extremely moralistic and self-righteous. Read their articles, visit their blogs, or just follow one of them on Twitter for a while, and you’ll see what I mean. Take New Atheist kingpin Richard Dawkins, for example. In the last week alone he has tweeted anathemas against sexists, racists, animal abusers, and female genital mutilators. The problem with this is that atheists lack any legitimate basis for applying their moral judgments to anyone. As political philosopher Michael Rosen puts it, their tacit assumption of such legitimacy amounts to “religion lite.”
Rosen’s comment appeared in a review of American philosopher, legal scholar, and liberal atheist Ronald Dworkin’s book, Religion Without God, that recently appeared in The Nation. Noting that Dworkin accepted “the full, independent reality of value,” Rosen, himself a liberal atheist, points out that there is a problem with this claim. There is no more evidence for it than there is for the existence of God. He sums up the implications in the final paragraph of his review:
I cannot see that describing the target of our disagreements about value as existing in a fully independent, objective realm is anything other than religion lite: the religious idea of eternal goodness without the miraculous elements of omnipotent divine will and personal immortality. Yet I am one with Dworkin in thinking that even a fully secular individual should contemplate the universe not just with curiosity and wonder but with reverence and gratitude. Still, behind me I hear a voice – a Nietzschean one, perhaps – that tells me that what Dworkin and I are looking at is no more than a penumbra, the few rays that remain in the sky after the sun of revealed religion has set. If that is so, then the coming night may be dark indeed.
This sums up the dilemma of the liberal atheist very nicely. They want to continue sitting comfortably on a branch they have just sawed off. Religious believers notice this immediately and laugh, with good reason. the world view of the modern liberal may well turn out to be as dangerous as that of any religious fanatic, but at the same time it’s a joke. It is as moralistic as that of the most self-righteous Pharisee, or the most pious Puritan, utterly dependent on the existence in an “independent, objective realm” of Good, Evil, and Rights to have any semblance of rationality, but lacking any evidence or rational basis for belief in such mirages. The continuing stream of news from the realm of science, which good liberals must at least pretend to respect, to the effect that the ultimate basis for morality may be found in the evolved behavioral predispositions of an animal species with a particularly large brain has done nothing to help matters. All this is happening at a time when the modern incarnation of the liberal can hardly engage in a rational debate without constantly falling back on the illusion of moral superiority as his inevitable ultima ratio. No wonder Rosen senses the approach of darkness for liberal atheists. What happens when the very basis of the ultima ratio disappears?
But what of the rest of us? Are dark times approaching for us as well? There might be a nuclear holocaust tomorrow for all I know. However, no matter what the future brings, I like our chances of survival better if we base our decisions on what is true rather than on what is false. It may be you think that a chaotic world of moral relativism is inevitable if there is no objective Good and Evil. It may be you think human beings will lose their dignity if there is no God. It may be that you think that tyranny and oppression will be our lot if there are no objective Rights. True or not, one thing is certain. None of these fears will cause Good, Evil, God, or Rights to magically pop into existence, independent of the minds that dream them up. You may not be happy about reality, but it will stubbornly persist in being real in spite of you.
Such fears are also unrealistic. Moral relativism is the ground state of living things. It doesn’t work for a social species like ours. If every one of us tried to monopolize all the available resources within his grasp at the cost of everyone else, the chances that any given individual would survive and reproduce would be drastically reduced. Therefore, morality. It exists because, from an evolutionary perspective, it works. It will continue to function just as it always has, even if 100,000 philosophers shout at the top of their lungs that it’s irrational. Of course it is, but it doesn’t matter. We will continue to perceive the good and evil that seem so real to our imaginations as absolutes. It is our nature to do so, and it will only be possible for us to override that nature by an act of will. When it comes to regulating our social interactions, morality is the only game in town. There is no viable substitute. Within certain limits, of course, there is a great deal of flexibility in exactly what these “absolutes” will be. Assuming we value the survival of our species, we would do well to choose them wisely, and limit their scope to the bare necessities.
It will never be possible to ignore human moral emotions with impunity. They aren’t going anywhere, and “rational” arguments will never really be rational unless they are taken into account. That said, it seems obvious that decisions regarding the optimum minimum wage, how we should react to the situation in Ukraine, and what the law should be regarding corporations were not contemplated by Mother Nature when she devised morality. Perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to apply our limited powers of reason to deciding such matters, rather than just allowing ourselves to be carried along on a tide of moral emotions. Those among us who invariably react to those whose opinions differ from their own in such matters with outrage and virtuous indignation are not only tiresome, but irrational. The liberal atheists may sense the darkness as the façade of their cherished righteousness collapses around them. The rest of us, however, can breathe a sigh of relief.
Posted on February 21st, 2014 2 comments
In my last post I noted Jonathan Haidt’s classification of facts as “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric” in his refutation of Sam Harris’ scientific morality. The terms were coined by philosopher David Wiggins, and Haidt defines them as follows:
Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.
Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
As I pointed out earlier, the value of such terms is dubious. When applied to morality, they are downright misleading, because they rationalize the elevation of moral judgments to the status of “facts.”
Consider the examples given of the sweetness of sugar and the pain of solitary confinement. “Sweet” describes a sensation experienced through one of the senses, namely, taste. Senses are diagnostic tools that evolved because they enabled the life forms that possessed them to perceive facts about the environment, the knowledge of which made it more likely that they would survive and reproduce. If we taste something as sweet, or feel it as hard, or see it as green, those impressions tell us something about the real, physical nature of the objects we are sensing. All these subjective impressions are referred to in the jargon of philosophy as “qualia.” Philosophers argue endlessly over the nature of their existence, whether they can exist in the context of materialism, their implications for the mind-body problem, etc., etc. Sophisticated Christians even use them to bamboozle themselves and amaze their friends with fancy proofs of the existence of God. That’s neither here nor there as far as this blog post is concerned. What matters is that all of them exist because, at some point in the past, their existence enhanced the probability that our ancestors would survive and reproduce, and that all of them are subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.
To the extent that they are “facts,” then, these qualia exist only as such subjective impressions. Physical objects can give rise to them (in the case of sense perceptions) or not (in the case of subjective impressions of good, evil, rights, values, etc.), and they can communicate information about the qualities of physical objects. However, they are not physical aspects of the objects in themselves. For that reason, it can be very misleading to label them as facts, even if one tosses in the qualifying adjective “anthropocentric.” They are only “facts” if one bears constantly in mind exactly what kind of “facts” they are.
Haidt’s essay is a case in point. Having introduced the term “anthropocentric,” he immediately begins using it as a rationalization for converting subjective to objective. In the end, he drops the adjective altogether, and suddenly, we no longer find ourselves talking about subjective impressions, but simply about “facts.” He begins his perambulation into the swamp by claiming that his own, subjective impressions must necessarily be the same as everyone elses:
Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
In fact, they are his personal opinions. I firmly believe Mother Nature has been parsimonious in this affair, and hasn’t gone to the trouble of having everyone experience “sweet” and “pain” differently, but I have no way of proving it. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out, qualia are private. In other words, there is no way for me to describe to a blind person precisely what I mean when I say describe something as “red.” Haidt continues with such remarkable assertions as,
Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion.
I’m sure Haidt could argue very convincingly that gold really is more valuable than silver. The last time I checked, the price of gold was 60 times that of silver, give or take. However, that price is the distillation of subjective value judgments by many individuals. It has nothing to do with the objective nature of gold or silver, nor does it make sense to insist that gold “really” is more valuable than silver unless we are careful to add that we are speaking of subjective impressions as they exist at a given time and place. It is also a “fact” that when people read a statement like, “It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver,” they will take it to mean just what it says, without calling to mind any hair-splitting distinctions between “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric.”
This willy-nilly conflating of objective and subjective continues when Haidt finally gets around to discussing the theme of his essay; morality. Suddenly, all the adjectives somehow melt off the “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths” Haidt was talking about in earlier paragraphs, and we find them standing there naked as simple “truths.” For example,
I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards.
Here, Haidt has ended by bamboozling himself. In the end, the difference between him and Harris isn’t one of substance, but of a mere sterile quibble over which “facts” can be described as “scientific” and which not. Other than Haidt’s qualification that the “facts” only apply at a given place and time, after “emerging,” the result is exactly the same. The subjective strings drop away, and impressions in the minds of individuals suddenly and magically acquire normative powers over other individuals. Some cultures really are “worse” than others. Some military responses really are “just.” In the last sentence of Haidt’s quote, we find that the impressions that some cultures are “bad” and some military interventions are “just” can be transmogrified into “facts” merely by virtue of a shift in popular opinion. Thanks to this magic elixir, the impressions “good” and “evil” spring out of their cocoons, and emerge as full-fledged Things-in-Themselves. From good and evil, they are transformed into “Good” and “Evil,” complete with the autonomous power to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t happen to be quite on the same page with Haidt’s or Harris’ version of modernity.
Haidt is really too smart for this. It’s hard for me to imagine how he could come up with stuff like this after writing a book like The Righteous Mind, unless he’s finally succumbed to the moralistic bullying that Harris invariably resorts to when anyone points out the obvious absurdity of his “scientific morality.” Perhaps it finally became unbearable to Haidt to have to put up with accusations that he is “evil” because he doesn’t believe that female genital mutilation, for example, is objectively “bad.” In the end, he cooked up this stew of philosophical leftovers so he, too, could declare, in the odor of sanctity, and without qualification, that, “Female genital mutilation is bad.”
As it happens, the subjective impression that FGM is bad exists in my consciousness, too. I hope many others will agree with me, and that together we can end FGM once and for all. I am no “moral relativist.” Unlike Haidt and Harris, I have gone beyond the writing of essays and have taken up a weapon to fight for these subjective impressions of mine in the past. I found these impressions, these whims, if you will, entirely adequate to justify my actions to myself. It is simply worth it to me to put my life on the line to end certain things that I don’t want to live with. However, it was never necessary for me to stoop to the lazy conceit that I was fighting for the Good-in-Itself. Indeed, I am firmly convinced there is no such thing. And while Haidt may be disappointed to hear it, there is also no such thing as an emergent, culture-specific, anthropocentric Good-in-Itself.
Posted on February 18th, 2014 1 comment
Four of the editors at David Sloan Wilson’s This View of Life website have submitted essays in response to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge. That challenge was to refute the central premise of Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, which is as follows:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
All of the four editors (Jiro Tanaka, Michael Price, Mark Sloan, and Jonathan Haidt) are apparently aware that moral emotions exist because they evolved. At least one of them, Haidt, has read, understood, and quotes at length in his own work David Hume’s masterful demonstration that it is impossible to use reason to establish moral truths in his A Treatise of Human Nature. It is a testimony to the powerful force of the illusions that the process of evolution has planted in our minds, causing us to interpret our emotional responses as actual objects or things that exist independently of our minds, that none of the four could supply a simple, straightforward response to the challenge. In fact, to a greater or lesser extent, all four of them, with the possible exception of Haidt, actually agreed with Harris, at least by implication, that the illusions are real.
It boggles the mind, really. Presumably all four of these gentlemen are aware that moral emotions are just that – moral emotions. The ultimate cause of those emotions, and the only reason that they exist at all, is evolution by natural selection. One can pontificate about the wild and spectacular differences in the actual manner in which those emotions are expressed in different human cultures all day long, but the ultimate cause remains the same. Evolved traits do not have a purpose. Purpose implies a creator, and presumably all four reject that hypothesis. Moral emotions, like every other evolved trait, exist because their presence increased the probability that the genes responsible for the existence of those traits would survive and reproduce. Moral emotions, and the associated illusions of the existence of Good and Evil as things in themselves, exist as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals. There is no way in which they can acquire the power to transcend those individual minds, and acquire some kind of a mysterious “scientific” normative power over other individuals. There is no way that they can magically acquire a purpose.
So much is really obvious without the benefit of Darwin’s theories. Suppose there were no human beings in the universe. Would morality exist? Would one stone on some rocky planet be “Good,” and another “Evil?” Obviously, the answer is no. Now supply that universe with one human individual with the usual suite of moral emotions. Would the presence of those emotions in the mind of one individual suddenly change everything? Would objective Good and Evil suddenly ripple out from the mind of that one individual at the speed of light, acquiring some kind of normative power independent of the mind of the individual throughout the entire universe? No. Suppose we supplied the universe with more such individuals. Is there any conceivable way in which the moral emotions of the first individual could jump out of his skull, acquire an independent existence of their own, and acquire the power to prescribe to the newcomers what they, too, are bound to agree are Good and Evil? No.
Still, the illusions commonly trump reality, even in the most carefully reasoned attempts to approach the subject of morality. Like Kafka’s Castle, it beckons like a real thing, yet remains out of reach. Mother Nature didn’t mess around. As if taunting their authors, she left her stamp on all four essays. In the first, entitled Necessary but not Sufficient, Jiro Tanaka, immediately concedes that the term well-being, as used by Harris, “carries moral weight.” Really? What on earth does he mean by that? How can something have “moral weight” unless there is some objective standard by which to measure that weight? Reading further in the essay, we find that Tanaka doesn’t really disagree with Harris at all about the possibility of a “scientific morality.” He’s simply quibbling about how to get there. For example, he writes,
Harris’s “multiple peaks” argument sidesteps the fact that a concern for well-being, while a necessary condition for a scientific morality, is still far from sufficient.
Despite the presence of irrationality in academe, there are also rational scholars who are conversant with modern science. How is “science” in the broad sense any different from the best moral philosophy and political science as we have it already?
In other words, there actually is a “scientific morality,” which enables us, among other things, to establish a Good by which we can answer such questions as what is the “best” moral philosophy. There’s no fundamental disagreement here at all; just a minor squabble over details. Chalk up one for Harris.
In his How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality, Price has apparently concluded, against all reason, that Harris is unaware of the evolutionary wellsprings of morality. The man has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and yet Price presumes to lecture him like a child about the characteristics of our moral emotions. For example, he writes,
Humans are adapted to strive for goals that would have promoted their individual fitness (genetic survival and reproduction) in the evolutionary past.
If people use moral rules to better pursue their shared interests, then it becomes clear why Harris’ proposal – that reason-based morality ought to promote the well-being of conscious creatures – will not generally apply. People judge the reasonableness of a moral rule not by how much it benefits conscious beings in general, or even other people in general, but primarily by how much they perceive the rule to promote the interests they share with their group.
A promising start, and yet, somehow, Price cannot cut to the chase and pin down the reasons why Harris’ attempts to redirect morality “will not generally apply.” Instead, his cart runs into the same rut as Tanaka’s. He, too, ends up actually agreeing with Harris that a particular version of the Good is real; apparently the one currently favored in the ivory towers of academia. His only problem with Sam is that he hasn’t chosen the optimum path to approach it. After carefully explaining to the infant Sam the basic characteristics of evolved human moral emotions, he cobbles together his own approach to the summum bonum of “well-being.” Choosing as his example the problem of income inequality, he writes,
The wealthier classes tend to argue that inequality is morally justified (e.g., “It’s the result of rewarding people who work harder than others”), whereas the more deprived classes tend to say it’s immoral (e.g., “It results from unequal opportunities”).
Then, in what must come as an epiphany to Sam, he reveals that a couple of academics named Wilkinson and Pickett have triumphantly solved the problem! All that’s necessary to get the lion to lie down with the lamb is to explain to them that they will be much better off forming a bigger “group” whose “well-being” will best be served by (you guessed it), adopting the Good favored in academia. He writes,
Wilkinson and Pickett attempt to transcend this conflict by focusing on inequality’s impact on the larger group to which both coalitions belong: They present evidence that countries with higher inequality score worse on many different indicators of national performance. Their analysis has not been without its critics, but regardless, they have the right idea about how to be reasonable about morality: They attempt to assess the moral value of a group’s practice by investigating how successfully that practice has been in promoting the group members’ shared interests. Their analysis indicates how an appeal to a higher-level coalitional interest (the national interest) could help transcend lower-level coalitional conflicts between socioeconomic classes.
One can just imagine Harris (and Karl Marx) slapping their foreheads at this point and exclaiming, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that!” All we need to do to get those greedy rich people to joyfully redistribute all their wealth is to dump a batch of “studies” in their lap about the correlation between high income inequality and national performance! Then the scales will fall from their eyes and they will become truly Good, or, as Price puts it, they will finally grasp the “moral value” of coughing up their wealth. In other words, Price doesn’t dispute the existence of “moral value.” He just has his own ideas about how to approach it. Chalk up number two for Harris.
On to the third essay. The first few paragraphs of Mark Sloan’s essay, Mainstream science of morality contradicts Sam Harris’ central claim, are even more promising than Price’s. He writes,
…the largest component of what people consider morality is a natural phenomenon with the universal function of increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups; however, morality lacks any fixed, ultimate goal. Indeed, morality as a natural phenomenon has been used by groups to obtain a range of goals such as reproductive fitness and increased material goods – as well as increased well-being.
This contradicts Sam Harris’ claim that, as a matter of science, the goal of moral behavior is fixed as well-being.
There is plentiful evidence in science for the claim that morality, as a natural phenomenon, has no fixed ultimate goal. No equivalent evidence exists in science for Harris’ claim: Harris cannot coherently claim that the goal of a natural phenomenon “ought” to be something different than it “is” without agreeing that the hybrid product is no longer a purely natural phenomenon. This moves his contention beyond the domain of science.
And then, Sloan wanders off into the same swamp as Price and Tanaka. He is no more able than them to resist the power of the illusion. For him, as for the other two, the Good exists. Without even bothering to provide a basis for the claim that his version of the Good actually exists (and his version just happens to agree with the version currently favored in academia, wink, wink, nod, nod), he simply throws it out there, and sagely explains to Sam that either science is the wrong tool, or his version of science is too crude a tool, to approach it. It’s really hard to tell which one, because at this point Sloan’s essay becomes completely incoherent. Sloan associates his version of the Good, which is presumably floating out there in the luminiferous ether with an independent life of its own, like those of Tanaka and Price, with “altruistic cooperation strategy”:
What can the science of morality tell us about right and wrong moral norms? Using morality as a natural phenomenon as its criterion, science can tell us if the moral norm actually is an altruistic cooperation strategy and therefore moral in this sense.
and if something is “moral in this sense,” it turns out to be really Good! Sloan doesn’t leave us hanging on this point. He spells it out for us:
Consider the norms: “Homosexuality is evil,” and “women must be subservient to men.” These both have the necessary “violators deserve punishment” part and altruistic parts of all altruistic cooperation strategies as described above. However, are they really altruistic cooperation strategies? They appear to be if you look no further than the in-groups that may altruistically cooperate to impose them and benefit. But how do they measure up regarding altruistic cooperation between the in-group and the out-group? They reduce altruistic cooperation because the out-group generally cannot equally punish the in-group; consequently, the out-group is exploited. So these two norms (like all norms allowing exploitation) are immoral by this universal moral standard.
Indeed, it turns out that Sloan is in possession of some kind of an absolute standard for deciding what is “shameful,” as he continues,
Could acknowledgement of the two norms’ shameful origins in exploitation and that they are immoral by this universal moral standard change the mind of a religious person? I expect a religious person would be more likely to reinterpret Holy Scriptures – motivated by these science of morality insights, rather than being motivated by simply being told “Science shows the ultimate goal of morality is well-being.” Let’s do all we can to make the science of morality useful to religious people; some need a lot of help.
And so, this “universal moral standard” certainly exists. Like the other two, Sloan is just quibbling about the best way to realize it. Chalk up number three for Harris.
It is with a heavy heart that I turn to Haidt. I have admired his books and papers. He really seems to “get it.” At least he doesn’t fall into the same slough as the others by actually agreeing with Harris about the existence of the Good, and merely quibbling about how to get there. Haidt is someone who, by all appearances, should be able to debunk Harris’ “scientific morality” in a few sentences, and yet, somehow, he can’t seem to cut to the chase. Instead, he comes down with a severe case of philosophical flatulence before our eyes.
In his essay, Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality, Haidt comes up with two objections to Harris’ claim. The first is that “well-being” can’t be measured in “an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.” This is really just arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. All Harris has to do is marshal his gazillions of counter-arguments that well-being can, in fact, be measured scientifically, and we are right back where we started from. Haidt introduces his next objection by trotting out two completely unnecessary bits of philosophical jargon, succeeding thereby in throwing a smoke screen over the rest of the objection. He uses one of the terms in the title of the objection itself: The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts. To avoid confusing the reader any more than necessary, I will let Haidt speak for himself:
The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities). Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.
Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.
But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos.
All I can say to Haidt is, “Lose the ‘anthropocentric’ and ‘non-anthropocentric,’ already!” It’s just not that complicated! The illusion of the Good increased the probability that our genes would survive and reproduce. It exists only for that reason. There is no way that it can somehow shed its evolutionary strings and become a real thing. The answer Harris is looking for, but will certainly fail to see, is really just as simple as that.
Apparently Harris received hundreds of essays in response to his challenge. Forgive me if I don’t read any more of them.
Posted on February 1st, 2014 No comments
The latest gambit among the spiritually inclined opponents of such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris has been to deprecate them as “undergraduate atheists.” Their unseemly and childish squabbles with equally unenlightened religious fundamentalists are supposedly just the predictable outcome of their mutual confusion about the real nature of God. They are in dire need of adult supervision from more sophisticated believers who have troubled themselves to acquire this knowledge. One such self-appointed guardian of the divine wisdom is David Bentley Hart, whose latest effort to set the New Atheists straight is entitled The Experience of God. As Hart puts it,
…any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be. If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book. As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions. However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians. According to Hart, all this amounts to is a pitiful spectacle of equally ignorant atheists and religious fundamentalists chasing each others tails. Supposedly, by focusing on what most of the faithful actually believe about the nature of God, the New Atheists have removed themselves from the debate. In reality, Hart is the one who’s not really in the “debate,” because he artificially attempts to lift himself out of it. He does this by fragmenting God into a “philosophical” God and a “dogmatic” God, as if the latter were irrelevant to the former. This is supposedly done in order to achieve “clarity,” and to spare the reader “boring arguments.” In fact, this taking a meat ax to God to chop off the inconvenient bits achieves the very opposite of “clarity.” What it does do is obfuscate the very real and very sharp incompatibilities between the different religious traditions that Dawkins was referring to when he wrote in the God Delusion,
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book. What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc. These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”
For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another. Moslems beg to differ. Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever. “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye. Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means. One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames. One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now. He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.
It is one of Hart’s favorite conceits, practiced, he assures us, since the days of the earliest fathers of the church, to dismiss all the contradictions and physical absurdities in the Bible as “allegories.” Unfortunately, one does not have this luxury with the Quran. Muhammad said quite plainly that he hadn’t written any riddles or allegories, and he meant everything he said. In fact, the different versions of God are the same only if we allow Hart to perform his “dogmatic” lobotomy on them. Thus, to the extent that they make any sense at all, such statements in the book as,
…if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting.
can make sense only after Hart has carefully denatured God by excising all his “dogmatic” bits. But what of Hart’s “philosophical” God, this denatured God of the mystics and metaphysicians, about whose nature Christian priests, Moslem mullahs, and Hindu sadhus are supposed to be in such loving agreement? Predictably, it turns out that He exists up on an intellectual shelf, free from the prying rationality of the atheists. As Hart puts it,
All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension, hence, much of the language used of Him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.
He then goes on to present us with the terms that, later in the book, are to figure prominently both in his definition of God and the proof of his existence:
The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of the volume announces, are “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss.” This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition… they are ideal descriptions not only of how various traditions understand the nature of God, but also of how the reality of God can, according to those traditions, be experienced and known by us. For to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of experience.
I invite those interested in a further explication of these terms to consult Hart’s book, as he devotes a chapter to each of them. However, for the purposes of this post, I will cut to the chase. These terms are supposed to constitute a bulletproof rejoinder to the “undergraduate atheists.” According to Hart, we cannot explain how there is something rather than nothing without a God (being), we cannot explain consciousness without a God, and we cannot explain such things as beauty or the “moral law within” without God (bliss). I must say that I am in full agreement with Hart to the extent that I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. I have no clue how I can be conscious, and I haven’t the faintest inkling of exactly how my consciousness experiences beauty. However, the hoary conceit that we are somehow forced to supply a God to explain the things we don’t understand strikes me as rather weak, especially for someone like Hart, who writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over that she imagines she’s Meryl Streep.
In reality, Hart’s “proofs” of God’s existence amount to nothing more than the classic non sequitur of supplying something more complicated to explain something less complicated, regardless of whether he chooses to describe God as an object, a subject, a Ground of Being, an Absolute Reality, or whatever. In the end, that’s really all he’s got. These three words supply his whole rationalization to himself of why he’s infinitely smarter and wiser than the “undergraduate atheists.” He would have been better off just stating these “proofs” and leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist pondering the implications of these three “incontrovertible” truths for science itself, and lecturing the scientists accordingly. We learn in the process that he’s not only way, way smarter than just the New Atheists, but also such worthies as the physicists Weinberg, Feynman and Hawking, to whom he delivers a stern lecture for daring to violate his metaphysical territory. Needless to say, he also imagines himself far above such intellectual “lightweights” as Dawkins,
As for Dawkins’ own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God’s existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.
as for the rest of the New Atheists,
Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.
Hart presents us with such bluster repeatedly, without accompanying it with a serious attempt to specifically address so much as one of Dawkins’ actual arguments against the existence of God. In fact, one might say he is the perfect platonic “form” of a Pharisee. One can just imagine him in the temple, praying to his God,
I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this New Atheist. (Luke 18:11)
One wonders how he squares this flamboyant intellectual hubris with such teachings of Jesus as,
Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
No doubt, like Noah’s ark and the Garden of Eden they are just another lot of “allegories.” For all his hubris, the self-assurance with which Hart lectures the likes of Hawking and Feynman is based on a level of scientific understanding that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. For example,
As a species, we have been shaped evolutionarily, in large part at least, by transcendental ecstasies whose orientation exceeds the whole of nature. Instead of speaking vacuously of genetic selfishness, then, it would be immeasurably more accurate to say that compassion, generosity, love, and conscience have a unique claim on life.
The mystery remains: the transcendent good, which is invisible to the forces of natural selection, has made a dwelling for itself within the consciousness of rational animals. A capacity has appeared within nature that, in its very form, is supernatural: it cannot be accounted for entirely in terms of the economy of advantageous cooperation because it continually and exorbitantly exceeds any sane calculation of evolutionary benefits. Yet, in the effectual order of evolution, it is precisely this irrepressible excessiveness that, operating as a higher cause, inscribes its logic upon the largely inert substrate of genetic materials, and guides the evolution of rational nature toward an openness to ends that cannot be enclosed within mere physical processes.
No doubt this will inspire some serious rewriting of the mathematical models of the geneticists and evolutionary biologists. It grieved me to see that, of all the scientific tribes, the evolutionary psychologists were singled out for a double helping of Hart’s disapprobation. Those ubiquitous whipping boys for ideological and religious zealots of all stripes came in for his particular ire for suggesting that morality might not come from God. In other words, they sinned against the “bliss” part of his “ternion.” As Hart somewhat flamboyantly explains,
In the end, the incongruity speaks for itself. No explanation of ethical desire entirely in terms of evolutionary benefit can ever really account for the sheer exorbitance of the moral passion of which rational minds are capable, or for the transcendentally “ecstatic” structure of moral longing.
In other words, Hart believes in “hard-wired” morality. He just thinks that God did the wiring. However, furious at the pretensions of the evolutionary psychologists, he seizes on the nearest rock to throw at them. As it happens, this is the very same rock that leftist ideologues once fashioned for themselves:
There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor. (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a “science” that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.)
Ludicrously, Hart doesn’t realize that the “Just So Story” gambit makes no sense whatsoever if there really is a “moral law within.” It was invented by the Blank Slaters to bolster their arguments that all human behavior is a product of culture and experience. Presumably, if there really is a “moral law within,” the experiments of the evolutionary psychologists would detect it. If Hart’s God-given version of morality is true, than the notion that what they’re seeing are “Just So Stories” is out of the question. The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize who put the morality there to begin with.
Apparently Hart has read so many books of metaphysics that, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote with his books of knight-errantry, his brain has dried up. It is no longer possible for him to imagine that anyone who doesn’t swallow the ancient conceit that, because there are things that we don’t understand, there must be a God, could possibly be arguing in good faith. Indeed, they must be evil! And so, in the spirit of that venerable Christian teaching,
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7:1-2)
Hart gives us a glance at his religious zealot’s teeth, now sadly rotted and dulled since the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition. For example, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a collaborator with the Communists and Nazis:
Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty: “scientific” racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, “curative” lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed)… This is why it is silly to assert (as I have heard two of the famous New Atheists do of late) that the atheism of many of those responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was something entirely incidental to their crimes, or that there is no logical connection between the cultural decline of religious belief at the end of the nineteenth century and the political and social horrors of the first half of the twentieth.
This in spite of the fact that, as Hitler wrote and said repeatedly, he was a firm Christian believer. For example, from one of his speeches,
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.
As for Communism, countless pundits have pointed out that socialist ideology was a religion, the essential difference between it and, for example, Christianity and Islam, lying merely in the fact that its devotees worshipped a secular rather than a spiritual God. Indeed, the great Scotch intellectual Sir James Mackintosh, writing long before the heyday of Marx, correctly predicted its eventual demise because, unlike the traditional spiritual gods, its god could be fact-checked.
Undeterred, and probably innocent of any knowledge of such inconvenient truths, and with the briefest of mentions of the war, slaughter, and oppression that actually have been the direct result of religious belief through the centuries, Hart goes on to explain that atheists are guilty, not only of the sins of the Communists, but of the bourgeoisie as well!
Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values… In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.
So much for the notion of a “dialogue” between atheists and believers. In closing, I cannot refrain from quoting a bit from Edward Fitzgerald’s wonderful critique of organized religion in general and Islam in particular, disguised as a “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.
Would you that spangle of Existence spend
About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–
And upon what, prithee, may life depend?
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;
Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–
Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to The Master too;
Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins
Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and
They change and perish all–but He remains;
A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold
Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d
Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,
He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.
Obviously, Fitzgerald knew all about Hart’s metaphysical God and his “quicksilver-like” presence. There’s a lot more to his poem than “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”
Posted on January 24th, 2014 No comments
Joshua Greene is a professor of psychology at Harvard. In reality, he’s not proposing an entirely new morality, but an updated version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. Greene refers to it as “Deep Pragmatism.” He describes his goal in writing Moral Tribes as follows:
This book is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up. It’s about understanding what morality is, how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains. It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems that our brains were designed to solve and the distinctively modern problems we face today. Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.
I won’t go into too much detail about Greene’s version of utilitarianism, or his rationale for proposing it. Suffice it to say that Greene is familiar with Darwin. He knows that our moral emotions exist because they promoted our survival and procreation. In other words, they evolved, as he puts it, as a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, familiar to students of philosophy. However, while they solved that problem by promoting cooperation within groups, they did nothing to solve the problem of hostility between groups. In Greene’s words,
Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups). How do we know this? Why couldn’t morality have evolved to promote cooperation in a more general way? Because universal cooperation is inconsistent with the principles governing evolution by natural selection.
In other words, Greene knows about ingroups and outgroups. He refers to this lack of universal cooperation as the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.” As he puts it,
Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation. On the contrary, it evolved as a device for successful intergroup competition. In other words, morality evolved to avert the Tragedy of the Commons, but it did not evolve to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.
In proposing a solution to this problem, Greene introduces us to a metaphor that appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the book. He compares the human moral machinery to a camera that has both an automatic, point and shoot mode and a manual mode. It’s basically just a revamped version of the old reason versus untamed emotion dichotomy that has busied philosophers since Plato’s allegory of the chariot. In general, the automatic mode is fine for dealing with problems within groups. However, as Greene puts it,
…the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is a tragedy of moral inflexibility. There is strife on the new pastures not because herders are hopelessly selfish, immoral, or amoral, but because they cannot step outside their respective moral perspectives. How should they think? The answer is now obvious: They should shift into manual mode.
In other words, we need to stop and think. However, as he points out, “reasoning has no end of its own.” I other words, he explicitly agrees with Hume, who wrote that reason is a “slave of the passions,” noting that “reason cannot produce good decisions without some kind of emotional input, however indirect.” And what is that emotional input to be? Basically, the desire for “happiness,” that sine qua non of utilitarians everywhere, combined with impartiality, which Greene claims is the “essence of morality.” Now, of these two, impartiality is the only one that really has anything to do with human moral emotions per se. Assuming for the sake of argument that happiness, and particularly the esoteric version in which utilitarians take such delight, is something we all want, it can hardly be said that people who are unhappy are also evil, and vice versa. Focusing on impartiality, Greene writes,
First, the human manual mode is, by nature, a cost-benefit reasoning system that aims for optimal consequences. Second, the human manual mode is susceptible to the ideal of impartiality. And, I submit, this susceptibility is not tribe-specific. Members of any tribe can get the idea behind the Golden Rule. Put these two things together and we get manual modes that aspire, however imperfectly, to produce consequences that are optimal from an impartial perspective, giving equal weight to all people.
Here I can but wonder what species Greene is talking about. It certainly isn’t ours. I could cite dozens of passages in his own book that demonstrate that he himself has anything but an “impartial perspective.” In any case, the result of brewing together happiness and impartiality to create what Greene refers to as a new “metamorality” is predictable. It stands human morality completely on its head. Divorced completely from the reasons it evolved to begin with, this new utilitarian morality, which Greene likes to refer to as “Deep Pragmatism,” insists that we reject the “inflexible, automatic mode, moral gizmos” that belong to the normal human complement of moral emotions whenever they don’t promote “happiness.” We are not referring to our own happiness here. Rather, we are to become servants of the happiness of all mankind. As Greene puts it,
Utilitarianism is a very egalitarian philosophy, asking the haves to do a lot for the have-nots. Were you to wake up tomorrow as a born-again utilitarian, the biggest change in your life would be your newfound devotion to helping unfortunate others.
We can excuse Mill for promoting such a philosophy. He wrote before his philosophy could be informed by work of Darwin. As a result, even though he was aware of contemporary theories claiming an innate basis to moral behavior, he rejected them. In other words, he was a Blank Slater, though certainly not in the same sense as the ideologically motivated Blank Slaters who came after him, or the religiously motivated Blank Slaters, like Locke, who came before him. As a result, he believed that the human mind could adopt virtually any morality, and concluded that the best one would be that which was also most useful. Clearly, he realized that, if morality were innate, it would have profound implications for his theories. As I have written elsewhere, I think it highly probable that, if he had lived in our times, he would have put two and two together and rejected utilitarianism.
Not so Greene. As he puts it,
We can, for example, donate money to faraway strangers without expecting anything in return. From a biological point of view, this is just a backfiring glitch, much like the invention of birth control. But from our point of view as moral beings who can kick away the evolutionary ladder, it may be exactly what we want. Morality is more than what it evolved to be.
Kick away the evolutionary ladder? Turn morality on its head? Such notions are delusional unless you believe in some kind of objective “moral truth.” Greene claims that he’s “agnostic” when it comes to the idea of moral truth, and it doesn’t really matter as far as utilitarianism is concerned, but that’s nonsense. There has to be some reason for rejecting normal human “automatic mode” moral emotions in favor of some “meta-morality” that serves purposes that are diametrically opposed to the reasons that moral emotions evolved to begin with, and I can think of no other reason than an irrational faith in some kind of objective moral truth. And in spite of his disclaimers, one can cite dozens of passages in his book that demonstrate that he does embrace what Mill referred to as “transcendental morality.” For example,
(referring to someone in a fine Italian suit that will be ruined if he wades into a pond to save a drowning child) Is it morally acceptable to let this child drown in order to save your suit? Clearly not, we say. That would be morally monstrous.
Utilitarianism says that we should do whatever really works best, in the long run, and not just for the moment. (Implies that there is a universal standard of what is “best.”)
Happiness is the ur-value, the Higgs boson of normativity, the value that gives other values their value.
We’ll dispense with the not especially moral goal of spreading genes and focus instead on the more proximate goal of cooperation.
In other words, dangling before Greene’s imagination is a Morality that has nothing to do with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral behavior to begin with. I have different goals. I don’t hide them behind a smokescreen of “meta-morality.” They are, first, to promote the survival of my own genes, second, to promote the survival of my species, and third, to promote the survival of terrestrial life. I do not consider my conscious mind anything but a transitory, evolved aspect of my phenotype, but to that mind there is something sublime and majestic in being the link in a chain of life that has existed for billions of years. The idea that I will be the last link in that chain is repugnant to me. Serving as a “happiness pump” for a huge colony of happy ants that has no perceptible reason for existing except to “flourish” and be “happy” is completely repugnant to me.
Greene, of course, is of a different opinion. I agree that it may be possible to sort out such differences in “manual mode,” but one that is based as much as possible on reason and that takes as little account of morality as possible. As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be more selfish than attempting to tart up my own whims as a “meta-morality.” The result of such attempts in the past should serve as a sufficient deterrent from trying it again, even with a philosophy as transparently impractical to implement as utilitarianism. Greene is well aware of these potential drawbacks. He writes,
History offers no shortage of grand utopian visions gone bad, including the rise and (nearly complete) fall of communism during the twentieth century. Communists such as Stalin and Mao justified thousands of murders, millions more deaths from starvation, and repressive totalitarian governments in the name of the “greater good.” Shouldn’t we be very wary of people with big plans who say that it’s all for the greater good? Yes, we should. Especially when those big plans call for big sacrifices. And especially, especially when the people making the sacrifices (or being sacrificed!) are not the ones making the big plans. But this wariness is perfectly pragmatic, utilitarian wariness. What we’re talking about here is avoiding bad consequences. Aiming for the greater good does not mean blindly following any charismatic leader who says that it’s all for the greater good. That’s a recipe for disaster.
So Greene thinks that the whole Communist debacle, with its gestation period of well over a century, during which time its development was carried forward by a host of convinced theorists, many of whom were neither charismatic themselves nor particularly attracted to charismatic leaders, could have easily been avoided if its adepts had just been “pragmatic,” and had been more circumspect in their choice of leaders? Sorry, but I think a better way to avoid such catastrophes in the future would be to stop cobbling together new “meta-moralities” altogether.
We cannot dispense with morality, at least at the level of individual interactions. We’re not smart enough to do without it. That said, we can at least attempt to understand its evolutionary roots and the reasons for its existence, and, in the realization that the traits we associate with moral behavior evolved at times utterly unlike the present, do our best to keep our moral emotions from blowing up in our faces. Greene’s utilitarianism will never be a miraculous solution to the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.” There will always be ingroups and outgroups, and they will always be hostile to each other, manual mode or no manual mode. What could possibly be more manifest than the furious hostility of Greene’s own liberal tribe to their conservation outgroup? If we are to survive, we must learn to manage this hostility, and creating yet another new moral system seems to me an extremely unpromising approach to the problem.