The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams

    Posted on November 4th, 2018 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We ought not to go against nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Morality Whimsy: Darwin and the Latter Day Philosophers

    Posted on September 30th, 2018 Helian No comments

    It’s hard to imagine how Darwin could have explained morality more clearly, given the Victorian context in which he wrote.  In Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man he said in so many words that it is a subjective manifestation of human nature. However, as I pointed out in my last post, even the philosophers of the 19th century who understood natural selection couldn’t draw the obvious conclusions.  None of them could free themselves of the illusion that Good and Evil are real, objective things, existing independently of human minds.  This was reflected in the various systems of “evolutionary morality” they proposed. They typically assumed that evolved morality had a goal, or purpose, which was usually some version of human flourishing, moral perfection, or “the good of the species.”  To all appearances, it never occurred to any of them that, as a natural process, evolution by natural selection cannot have a goal or a purpose.  In the 20th century, moral philosophers began to accept some of the more obvious implications of Darwinism.  In spite of that, they remained spellbound by the power of the illusion.  The only significant exception I’m aware of was Edvard Westermarck, who pointed out some of the obvious implications of Darwin’s claim that morality exists by virtue of evolved behavioral traits as far back as 1906.  He was forgotten, and we haven’t recovered the lost ground since.

    Today we know a lot more about the mechanics of natural selection than they did in the 19th century.  The study of morality suffered as much as any of the other behavioral sciences during the Blank Slate debacle, but we seem to be on the path to recovery, at least for the time being. Today many scientists and philosophers are at least vaguely aware of the fact, obvious as it was to Darwin, that human morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits. Some of them have even drawn some of the more obvious conclusions from that fact. However, we live in a highly moralistic era, especially in academia, and what we find written about morality today reflects this moralistic culture.

    To illustrate how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go, let’s consider the work of the philosopher Michael Ruse, one of the current crop of evolutionary moralists. He has written much on the subject, but I will focus on a paper he co-authored with E. O. Wilson back in 1986 entitled Moral Philosophy as Applied Science and the book Taking Darwin Seriously, published in 1999. First, the good news. Ruse does take Darwin seriously when it comes to the illusion of objective morality:

    …human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey.

    We believe that implicit in the scientific interpretation of moral behavior is a conclusion of central importance to philosophy, namely that there can be no genuinely objective external ethical premises. Everything that we know about the evolutionary process indicates that no such extrasomatic guides exist.

    As these passages imply, Ruse also rejected the Blank Slate:

    The evidence from both genetic and cognitive studies demonstrates decisively that the human brain is not a tabula rasa.

    The following passage just repeats what Darwin wrote over a century ago in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man:

    It is easy to conceive of an alien intelligent species evolving rules its members consider highly moral but which are repugnant to human beings, such as cannibalism, incest, the love of darkness and decay, parricide, and the mutual eating of faeces. Many animal species perform some or all of these things, with gusto and in order to survive. If human beings had evolved from a stock other than savanna-dwelling, bipedal, carnivorous man-apes we might do the same, feeling inwardly certain that such behaviors are natural and correct. In short, ethical premises are the peculiar products of genetic history. And they can be understood solely as mechanisms that are adaptive for the species that possess them. It follows that the ethical code of one species cannot be translated into that of another. No abstract moral principles exist outside the particular nature of individual species.

    Ruse explicitly rejects the currently fashionable philosophical conceit that evolved morality somehow tracks “true” morality:

    It is thus entirely correct to say that ethical laws can be changed, at the deepest level, by genetic evolution. This is obviously quite inconsistent with the notion of morality as a set of objective, eternal verities. Morality is rooted in contingent human nature, through and through.

    Nor is it possible to uphold the true objectivity of morality by believing in the existence of an ultimate code, such that what is considered right corresponds to what is truly right – that the thoughts produced by the epigenetic rules parallel external premises.

    Here “epigenetic rules” is a term Ruse and Wilson coined referring to the innate predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality. In other words, they’re what the 19th century philosophers referred to as “instincts.” It was an unfortunate choice in view of the current bitter disputes about the significance of epigenetic inheritance. They would have done better to stick with the terms already in use.

    So where is the fly in this promising ointment? To begin, Ruse isn’t quite on board with his own philosophy. In spite of his insistence on the subjective nature of morality, we constantly find him signaling to his morality-drenched academic peers that he’s “really good.” He suffers from the same morality addiction as the rest of them. Indeed, to get that monkey off his back, he would have to jump right out of his academic ingroup. For example,

    Like Huxley, I find these views (Social Darwinism)  taken to the extreme to be morally repellant. They are the epitome of all that is immoral, and anything but a guide to proper behavior… This philosophy I believe (generally) to be grossly immoral.

    Children with the disease (Tay-Sachs) develop at first in a normal manner. Then at six months they start to collapse into zombies, and die by the age of four. I see nothing immoral about detecting and aborting such children. In fact, I believe we have a positively moral obligation to do so.

    John Stuart Mill’s campaign for women’s rights was a good thing, as was Bertrand Russell’s opposition to nuclear weapons.

    What we have in the case of Darwinian ethics is a denial of objectivity, which is surely a denial of metaphysical reality by another name, and an affirmation of subjectivity, which is no less a commitment to common sense, in which the subject plays an active creative part. If anything is common sense, it is that rape is simply, totally, wrong.

    In spite of having affirmed that morality is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “epigenetic rules,” Ruse can find nothing wrong with applying it to decide all sorts of issues that could not possibly have contributed to the evolution of those rules. Consider, for example, this passage, which also includes virtue signaling in the form of a wink and a nod to his liberal ingroup.

    Darwinism is anything but a gospel for the extreme conservative. Apart from anything else, no one is saying that there are humans towards whom we have no sense of moral obligation whatsoever. Furthermore, the pretense that we need not bother about the Third World is self-refuting. If we ignore it, then through such effects as overpopulation, we shall soon find that it raises all sorts of difficult moral issues which do directly impinge on us.

    In case we are left in any doubt about Ruse’s actual commitment to objective morality under a veneer of subjectivism, he adds,

    My only hope is to have shown that a Darwinian approach to morality does not call for a repudiation of standards and values cherished by decent people of all nations.

    It is beyond me where in Ruse’s philosophy one can find a definition of “decent people.” Indeed, his philosophy excludes the possibility that one can make unqualified reference to “decent people” unless “decency” exists as an independent object. In other words, his use of the term is a blatant non sequitur. All this makes no sense at all unless we are aware that Ruse imagines he has found a way to skip blithely around Hume’s is/ought barrier. It goes something like this:

    If morality means anything, it means being prepared to hold out a helping hand to others. Christians, utilitarians, Kantians, and everyone else come together on this.

    I guess I’m not one of the above. To me, morality refers to social behavior that is ultimately the result of evolved behavioral traits. The above is yet another example of Ruse’s tendency to objectivize a possible manifestation of that behavior as “good.” Next, we are optimistically informed that a universal human morality is possible based on the dubious assumption that there are no differences in the evolved traits on which it is based among human populations:

    When it comes to general shared moral principles, the Darwinian stands firm. Humans share a common moral understanding. This universality is guaranteed by the shared genetic background of every member of Homo sapiens. The differences between us are far outweighed by the similarities. We (virtually) all have hands, eyes, ears, noses, and the same ultimate awareness. That is part of being human. There is, therefore, absolutely nothing arbitrary about morality, considered from the human perspective.

    All this is so much hand waving. Given the evidence of vast differences in moral rules and behavior across human populations, the idea that there is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it is nonsense. No matter. Apparently based on this axiom of universality, a miracle happens. Ruse cuts the Gordian knot, and walks right around the is/ought barrier!

    To use an American sporting metaphor, the Darwinian does an end-run around the is/ought barrier. He/she realizes that you cannot go through it, but argues that you can go around it, giving morality all of the justificatory insight possible.

    In fact, all the “justificatory insight possible” amounts to zero. There is no plausible reason for the claim that the implausible assumption of universal “epigenetic rules” relevant to morality enables an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier. In other words, Ruse is just another modern philosopher attempting to have his cake and eat it, too.

    Unfortunately, Ruse has left out a few things in his “universal moral understanding.” Among them is the outgroup. He never mentions its existence in any of his work I’ve read so far, and yet, if there is any universal aspect of human moral behavior, that is one of them.  If what Ruse has written above about skipping around the is/ought barrier is true, then it becomes our duty to hate the outgroup with a blind, irrational fury. Beyond that, he never seriously takes into account the vast difference between the environment in which we now live, and the one in which the predispositions responsible for moral behavior evolved. If he did, it would immediately reduce his notion that morality is an appropriate tool for deciding issues about how to deal with the Third World to an absurdity.

    Perhaps the most significant thing of all that Ruse has left out of his philosophizing is a very fundamental feature of human morality. We do not apply it to ourselves alone. We apply it to others as well. To the extent that one imagines that he has done an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier, he also imagines that he has acquired the right to dictate behavior to others. After all, who are we to dispute such a noted philosopher’s take on what our “universal human morality” consists of? That is my biggest problem with our latter day “evolutionary moralists.” In reality, they are just as addicted to objective morality as their 19th century precursors, and just as intent on explaining to the rest of us what we “ought” to do.

    Do you like to have others dictate to you what you ought and ought not to do? I don’t. I know that we require some form of morality, because as a species we are too stupid to do without it. Under the circumstances, I prefer to keep it as simple as possible, and to reduce its sphere of influence as much as possible. It strikes me that expanding that sphere to include “the Third World,” or anything of the sort, is not only absurd, but extremely dangerous. I cannot give you any objective reason why you ought not to grovel before people who presume to dictate to you what you ought or ought not to do. I can only inform you that I prefer not to grovel myself. That, it seems to me, is one of the great advantages of grasping the truth about the subjective nature of morality. That truth does not imply moral chaos, or the impossibility of a society with “absolute” moral rules. It merely provides some insight into what such an “absolute” morality might look like in the context of whatever goals or purpose you’ve established for yourself in life.

    In my next post I will review the work of another modern “evolutionary moralist” who, predictably, has been no more capable of shaking the objective morality illusion than Ruse. Things haven’t changed much since the 19th century. The symptoms of the addiction have just become more subtle.

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

    Posted on September 15th, 2018 Helian 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Darwin and Morality

    Posted on September 10th, 2018 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

    So much for human exceptionalism!

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It may well be first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Posted on July 9th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He adds that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Please, Leave Me Out of Your Philosophical Pigeonholes

    Posted on June 27th, 2018 Helian 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • On the “Immorality” of Einstein

    Posted on June 24th, 2018 Helian 2 comments

    Morality exists because of “human nature.”  In other words, it is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits that themselves exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection.  It follows that morality has no goal, no purpose, and no function, because in order to have those qualities it must necessarily have been created by some entity capable intending a goal, purpose, or function for it.  There was no such entity.  In human beings, the traits in question spawn the whimsical illusion that purely imaginary things that exist only in the subjective minds of individuals, such as good, evil, rights, values, etc., actually exist as independent objects.  The belief in these mirages is extremely powerful.  Occasionally a philosopher here and there will assert a belief in “moral relativity,” but in the end one always finds them, to quote a pithy Biblical phrase, returning like dogs to their own vomit.  After all their fine phrases, one finds them picking sides, sagely informing us that some individual or group is “good,” and some other ones “evil,” and that we “ought” to do one thing and “ought not” to do another.

    What does all this have to do with Einstein?  Well, recently he was accused of expressing impure thoughts in some correspondence he imagined would be private.  The nutshell version can be found in a recent article in the Guardian entitled, Einstein’s travel diaries reveal ‘shocking’ xenophobia Among other things, Einstein wrote that the Chinese he saw were “industrious, filthy, obtuse people,” and “even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.”  He, “…noticed how little difference there is between men and women,” adding, “I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthralls the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring.”  He was more approving of the Japanese, noting that they were “unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing,” and that he found “Pure souls as nowhere else among people.  One has to love and admire this country.”

    It goes without saying that only a moron could seriously find such comments “shocking” in the context of their time.  In the first place, Einstein was categorizing people into groups, as all human beings do, because we lack the mental capacity to store individual vignettes of all the billions of people on the planet.  He then pointed out certain things about these groups that he honestly imagined to be true.  He nowhere expressed hatred of any of the people he described, nor did he anywhere claim that the traits he described were “innate” or had a “biological origin,” as falsely claimed by the author of the article.  He associated them with the Chinese “race,” but might just as easily been describing cultural characteristics at a given time as anything innate.  Furthermore, “race” at the time that Einstein wrote could be understood quite differently from the way it is now.  In the 19th century, for example, the British and Afrikaners in South Africa were commonly described as different “races.”  Today we have learned some hard lessons about the potential harm of broadly associating negative qualities to entire populations, but in the context of the time they were written, ideas similar to the ones expressed by Einstein were entirely commonplace.

    In light of the above, consider the public response to the recent revelations about the content of Einstein’s private papers.  It is a testimony to the gross absurdity of human moral behavior in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which it evolved.  Einstein is actually accused by some of being a “racist,” a “xenophobe,” a “misogynist,” or, in short, a “bad” man.  Admirers of Einstein have responded by citing all the good-sounding reasons for the claim that Einstein was actually a “good” man.  These responses are equivalent to debating whether Einstein was “really a green unicorn,” or “really a blue unicorn.”  The problem with that is, of course, that there are no unicorns to begin with.  The same is true of objective morality.  It doesn’t exist.  Einstein wasn’t “good,” nor was he “bad,” because these categories do not exist as independent objects.  They are subjective, and exist only in our imaginations.  They are imagined to be real because there was a selective advantage to imagining them to be real in a given environment.  That environment no longer exists.  These are simple statements of fact.

    As so often happens in such cases, one side accuses the other of “moral relativity.”  In his response to this story at the Instapundit website, for example, Ed Driscoll wrote, “A century later, is the age of moral relativity about to devour the legacy of the man who invented the real theory of relativity?”  The problem here is most definitely not moral relativity.  In fact, it is the opposite – the illusion of objective morality.  The people attacking Einstein are moral absolutists.  If that were not true, what could possibly be the point of attacking him?  A genuine moral relativist would simply conclude that Einstein’s personal version of morality was different from theirs, and leave it at that.  That is not what is happening here.  Instead, Einstein is accused of violating “moral laws,” the most fashionable and up-to-date versions of which were concocted long after he was in his grave.  In spite of that, these “moral laws” are treated as if they represented objective facts.  Einstein was “bad” for violating them even though he had no way of knowing that these “moral laws” would exist nearly a century after he wrote his journals.  Is it not obvious that judging Einstein in this way would be utterly irrational unless these newly minted “moral laws” were deemed to be absolute, with a magical existence of their own, independent of what goes on in the subjective minds of individuals?

    Consider what is actually meant by this accusation of “racism.”  Normally a racist is defined as one who considers others to be innately evil or inferior by virtue of their race, and who hates and despises them by virtue of that fact.  It is simply one manifestation of the universal human tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  When this type of behavior evolved, there was no ambiguity about the identity of the outgroup.  It was simply the next tribe over.  The perception of “outgroup” could therefore be determined by very subtle differences without affecting the selective value of the behavior.  Now, however, with our vastly increased ability to travel long distances and communicate with others all over the world, we are quite capable of identifying others as “outgroup” whom we never would have heard of or come in contact with in our hunter-gatherer days.  As a result, the behavior has become “dysfunctional.”  It no longer accomplishes the same thing it did when it evolved.  Racism is merely one of the many manifestations of this now dysfunctional trait that has been determined by hard experience to be harmful in the environment we live in today.  As a result, it has been deemed “bad.”  Without understanding the underlying innate traits that give rise to the behavior, however, this attempt to patch up human moral behavior is of very limited value.

    The above becomes obvious if we examine the behavior of those who are in the habit of accusing others of racism.  They are hardly immune to similar manifestations of bigotry.  They simply define their outgroups based on criteria other than race.  The outgroup is always there, and it is hated and despised just the same.  Indeed, they may hate and despise their outgroups a great deal more violently and irrationally than those they accuse of racism ever did, but are oblivious to the possibility that their behavior may be similarly “bad” merely because they perceive their outgroup in terms of ideology, for example, rather than race.  Extreme examples of hatred of outgroups defined by ideology are easy to find on the Internet.  For example,

    • Actor Jim Carrey is quoted as saying, “40 percent of the U.S. doesn’t care if Trump deports people and kidnaps their babies as political hostages.
    • Actor Peter Fonda suggested to his followers on Twitter that they should “rip Barron Trump from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with pedophiles.”  The brother of Jane Fonda also called for violence against Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and called White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders a “c**t.”
    • An unidentified FBI agent is quoted as saying in a government report that, “Trump’s supporters are all poor to middle class, uneducated, lazy POS.”
    • According to New York Times editorialist Roxanne Gay, “Having a major character on a prominent television show as a Trump supporter normalizes racism and misogyny and xenophobia.”

    Such alternative forms of bigotry are often more harmful than garden variety racism itself merely by virtue of the fact that they have not yet been included in one of the forms of outgroup identification that has already been generally recognized as “bad.”  The underlying behavior responsible for the extreme hatred typified by the above statements won’t change, and if we whack the racism mole, or the anti-Semitism mole, or the homophobia mole, other moles will pop up to take their places.  The Carreys and Fondas and Roxanne Gays of the world will continue to hate their ideological outgroup as furiously as ever, until it occurs to someone to assign as “ism” to their idiosyncratic version of outgroup hatred, and people finally realize that they are no less bigoted than the “racists” they delight in hating.  Then a new “mole” will pop up with a new, improved version of outgroup hatred.  We will never control the underlying behavior and minimize the harm it does until we understand the innate reasons it exists to begin with.  In other words, it won’t go away until we learn to understand ourselves.

    And what of Einstein, not to mention the likes of Columbus, Washington, Madison, and Jefferson?  True, these men did more for the welfare of all mankind than any combination of their Social Justice Warrior accusers you could come up with, but for the time being, admiring them is forbidden.  After all, these men were “bad.”

  • Morality and the Floundering Philosophers

    Posted on May 26th, 2018 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • Morality and the Spiritualism of the Atheists

    Posted on May 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    I’m an atheist.  I concluded there was no God when I was 12 years old, and never looked back.  Apparently many others have come to the same conclusion in western democratic societies where there is access to diverse opinions on the subject, and where social sanctions and threats of force against atheists are no longer as intimidating as they once were.  Belief in traditional religions is gradually diminishing in such societies.  However, they have hardly been replaced by “pure reason.”  They have merely been replaced by a new form of “spiritualism.”  Indeed, I would maintain that most atheists today have as strong a belief in imaginary things as the religious believers they so often despise.  They believe in the “ghosts” of good and evil.

    Most atheists today may be found on the left of the ideological spectrum.  A characteristic trait of leftists today is the assumption that they occupy the moral high ground. That assumption can only be maintained by belief in a delusion, a form of spiritualism, if you will – that there actually is a moral high ground.  Ironically, while atheists are typically blind to the fact that they are delusional in this way, it is often perfectly obvious to religious believers.  Indeed, this insight has led some of them to draw conclusions about the current moral state of society similar to my own.  Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that atheists have no objective basis for claiming that one thing is “good” and another thing is “evil.”  For example, as noted by Tom Trinko at American Thinker in an article entitled “Imagine a World with No Religion,”

    Take the Golden Rule, for example. It says, “Do onto others what you’d have them do onto you.” Faithless people often point out that one doesn’t need to believe in God to believe in that rule. That’s true. The problem is that without God, there can’t be any objective moral code.

    My reply would be, that’s quite true, and since there is no God, there isn’t any objective moral code, either.  However, most atheists, far from being “moral relativists,” are highly moralistic.  As a consequence, they are dumbfounded by anything like Trinko’s remark.  It pulls the moral rug right out from under their feet.  Typically, they try to get around the problem by appealing to moral emotions.  For example, they might say something like, “What?  Don’t you think it’s really bad to torture puppies to death?”, or, “What?  Don’t you believe that Hitler was really evil?”  I certainly have a powerful emotional response to Hitler and tortured puppies.  However, no matter how powerful those emotions are, I realize that they can’t magically conjure objects into being that exist independently of my subjective mind.  Most leftists, and hence, most so-called atheists, actually do believe in the existence of such objects, which they call “good” and “evil,” whether they admit it explicitly or not.  Regardless, they speak and act as if the objects were real.

    The kinds of speech and actions I’m talking about are ubiquitous and obvious.  For example, many of these “atheists” assume a dictatorial right to demand that others conform to novel versions of “good” and “evil” they may have concocted yesterday or the day before.  If those others refuse to conform, they exhibit all the now familiar symptoms of outrage and virtuous indignation.  Do rational people imagine that they are gods with the right to demand that others obey whatever their latest whims happen to be?  Do they assume that their subjective, emotional whims somehow immediately endow them with a legitimate authority to demand that others behave in certain ways and not in others?  I certainly hope that no rational person would act that way.  However, that is exactly the way that many so-called atheists act.  To the extent that we may consider them rational at all, then, we must assume that they actually believe that whatever versions of “good” or “evil” they happen to favor at the moment are “things” that somehow exist on their own, independently of their subjective minds.  In other words, they believe in ghosts.

    Does this make any difference?  I suggest that it makes a huge difference.  I personally don’t enjoy being constantly subjected to moralistic bullying.  I doubt that many people enjoy jumping through hoops to conform to the whims of others.  I submit that it may behoove those of us who don’t like being bullied to finally call out this type of irrational, quasi-religious behavior for what it really is.

    It also makes a huge difference because this form of belief in imaginary objects has led us directly into the moral chaos we find ourselves in today.  New versions of “absolute morality” are now popping up on an almost daily basis.  Obviously, we can’t conform to all of them at once, and must therefore put up with the inconvenience of either keeping our mouths shut or risk being furiously condemned as “evil” by whatever faction we happen to offend.  Again, traditional theists are a great deal more clear-sighted than “atheists” about this sort of thing.  For example, in an article entitled, “Moral relativism can lead to ethical anarchy,” Christian believer Phil Schurrer, a professor at Bowling Green State University, writes,

    …the lack of a uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong based on Natural Law leads to the moral anarchy we see today.

    Prof. Schurrer is right about the fact that we live in a world of moral anarchy.  I also happen to agree with him that most of us would find it useful and beneficial if we could come up with a “uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong.”  Where I differ with him is on the rationality of attempting to base that standard on “Natural Law,” because there is no such thing.  For religious believers, “Natural Law” is law passed down by God, and since there is no God, there can be no “Natural Law,” either.  How, then, can we come up with such a uniform moral code?

    I certainly can’t suggest a standard based on what is “really good” or “really bad” because I don’t believe in the existence of such objects.  I can only tell you what I would personally consider expedient.  It would be a standard that takes into account what I consider to be some essential facts.  These are as follows.

    • What we refer to as morality is an artifact of “human nature,” or, in other words, innate predispositions that affect our behavior.
    • These predispositions exist because they evolved by natural selection.
    • They evolved by natural selection because they happened to improve the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce at the time and in the environment in which they evolved.
    • We are now living at a different time, and in a different environment, and it cannot be assumed that blindly responding to the predispositions in question will have the same outcome now as it did when those predispositions evolved.  Indeed, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that such behavior can be extremely dangerous.
    • Outcomes of these predispositions include a tendency to judge the behavior of others as “good” or “evil.”  These categories are typically deemed to be absolute, and to exist independently of the conscious minds that imagine them.
    • Human morality is dual in nature.  Others are perceived in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different standards applying to what is deemed “good” or “evil” behavior towards those others depending on the category to which they are imagined to belong.

    I could certainly expand on this list, but the above are certainly some of the most salient and essential facts about human morality.  If they are true, then it is possible to make at least some preliminary suggestions about how a “uniform standard” might look.  It would be as simple as possible.  It would be derived to minimize the dangers referred to above, with particular attention to the dangers arising from ingroup/outgroup behavior.  It would be limited in scope to interactions between individuals and small groups in cases where the rational analysis of alternatives is impractical due to time constraints, etc.  It would be in harmony with innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature.”  It is our nature to perceive good and evil as real objective things, even though they are not.  This implies there would be no “moral relativism.”  Once in place, the moral code would be treated as an absolute standard, in conformity with the way in which moral standards are usually perceived.  One might think of it as a “moral constitution.”  As with political constitutions, there would necessarily be some means of amending it if necessary.  However, it would not be open to arbitrary innovations spawned by the emotional whims of noisy minorities.

    How would such a system be implemented?  It’s certainly unlikely that any state will attempt it any time in the foreseeable future.  Perhaps it might happen gradually, just as changes to the “moral landscape” have usually happened in the past.  For that to happen, however, it would be necessary for significant numbers of people to finally understand what morality is, and why it exists.  And that is where, as an atheist, I must part company with Mr. Trinko, Prof. Schurrer, and the rest of the religious right.  Progress towards a uniform morality that most of us would find a great deal more useful and beneficial than the versions currently on tap, regardless of what goals or purposes we happen to be pursuing in life, cannot be based on the illusion that a “natural law” exists that has been handed down by an imaginary God, any more than it can be based on the emotional whims of leftist bullies.  It must be based on a realistic understanding of what kind of animals we are, and how we came to be.  However, such self knowledge will remain inaccessible until we shed the shackles of religion.  Perhaps, as they witness many of the traditional churches increasingly becoming leftist political clubs before their eyes, people on the right of the political spectrum will begin to find it less difficult to free themselves from those shackles.  I hope so.  I think that an Ansatz based on simple, traditional moral rules, such as the Ten Commandments, is more likely to lead to a rational morality than one based on furious rants over who should be allowed to use what bathrooms.  In other words, I am more optimistic that a useful reform of morality will come from the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum, as it now stands.  Most leftists today are much too heavily invested in indulging their moral emotions to escape from the world of illusion they live in.  To all appearances they seriously believe that blindly responding to these emotions will somehow magically result in “moral progress” and “human flourishing.”  Conservatives, on the other hand, are unlikely to accomplish anything useful in terms of a rational morality until they free themselves of the “God delusion.”  It would seem, then, that for such a moral “revolution” to happen, it will be necessary for those on both the left and the right to shed their belief in “spirits.”

     

  • On the Illusion of Moral Relativism

    Posted on April 8th, 2018 Helian No comments

    As recently as 2009 the eminent historian Paul Johnson informed his readers that he made “…the triumph of moral relativism the central theme of my history of the 20th century, Modern Times, first published in 1983.”  More recently, however, obituaries of moral relativism have turned up here and there.  For example one appeared in The American Spectator back in 2012, fittingly entitled Moral Relativism, R.I.P.  It was echoed a few years later by a piece in The Atlantic that announced The Death of Moral Relativism.”  There’s just one problem with these hopeful announcements.  Genuine moral relativists are as rare as unicorns.

    True, many have proclaimed their moral relativism.  To that I can only reply, watch their behavior.  You will soon find each and every one of these “relativists” making morally loaded pronouncements about this or that social evil, wrong-headed political faction, or less than virtuous individual.  In other words, their “moral relativism” is of a rather odd variety that occasionally makes it hard to distinguish their behavior from that of the more zealous moral bigots.  Scratch the surface of any so-called “moral relativist,” and you will often find a moralistic bully.  We are not moral relativists because it is not in the nature of our species to be moral relativists.  The wellsprings of human morality are innate.  One cannot arbitrarily turn them on or off by embracing this or that philosophy, or reading this or that book.

    I am, perhaps, the closest thing to a moral relativist you will ever find, but when my moral emotions kick in, I’m not much different from anyone else.  Just ask my dog.  When she’s riding with me she’ll often glance my way with a concerned look as I curse the lax morals of other drivers.  No doubt she’s often wondered whether the canine’s symbiotic relationship with our species was such a good idea after all.  I know perfectly well the kind of people Paul Johnson was thinking of when he spoke of “moral relativists.”  However, I’ve watched the behavior of the same types my whole life.  If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s a pronounced tendency to dictate morality to everyone else.  They are anything but “amoral,” or “moral relativists.”  The difference between them and Johnson is mainly a difference in their choice of outgroups.

    Edvard Westermarck may have chosen the title Ethical Relativity for his brilliant analysis of human morality, yet he was well aware of the human tendency to perceive good and evil as real, independent things.  The title of his book did not imply that moral (or ethical) relativism was practical for our species.  Rather, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of our package of innate behavioral predispositions, and that it follows that objective moral truths do not exist.  In doing so he was pointing out a fundamental truth.  Recognition of that truth will not result in an orgy of amoral behavior.  On the contrary, it is the only way out of the extremely dangerous moral chaos we find ourselves in today.

    The moral conundrum we find ourselves in is a result of the inability of natural selection to keep up with the rapidly increasingly complexity and size of human societies.  For example, a key aspect of human moral behavior is its dual nature – our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  We commonly associate “good” traits with our ingroup, and “evil” ones with our outgroup.  That aspect of our behavior enhanced the odds that we would survive and reproduce at a time when there was no ambiguity about who belonged in these categories.  The ingroup was our own tribe, and the outgroup was the next tribe over.  Our mutual antagonism tended to make us spread out and avoid starvation due to over-exploitation of a small territory.  We became adept at detecting subtle differences between “us” and “them” at a time when it was unlikely that neighboring tribes differed by anything as pronounced as race or even language.  Today we have given bad names to all sorts of destructive manifestations of outgroup identification without ever grasping the fundamental truth that the relevant behavior is innate, and no one is immune to it.  Racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, you name it.  They’re all fundamentally the same.  Those who condemn others for one manifestation of the behavior will almost invariably be found doing the same thing themselves, the only difference being who they have identified as the outgroup.

    Not unexpectedly, behavior that accomplished one thing in the Pleistocene does not necessarily accomplish the same thing today.  The disconnect is often absurd, leading in some cases to what I’ve referred to as morality inversions – moral behavior that promotes suicide rather than survival.  That has not prevented those who are happily tripping down the path to their own extinction from proclaiming their moral superiority and raining down pious anathemas on anyone who doesn’t agree.  Meanwhile, new versions of morality are concocted on an almost daily basis, each one pretending to objective validity, complete with a built in right to dictate “goods” and “bads” that never occurred to anyone just a few years ago.

    There don’t appear to be any easy solutions to the moral mess we find ourselves in.  It would certainly help if more of us could accept the fact that morality is an artifact of natural selection, and that, as a consequence, objective good and evil are figments of our imaginations.  Perhaps then we could come up with some version of “absolute” morality that would be in tune with our moral emotions and at the same time allow us to interact in a manner that minimizes both the harm we do to each other and our exposure to the tiresome innovations of moralistic bullies.  That doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon, though.  The careers of too many moral pontificators and “experts on ethics” depend on maintaining the illusion.  Meanwhile, we find evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and neuroscientists who should know better openly proclaiming the innate sources of moral behavior in one breath, and extolling some idiosyncratic version of “moral progress” and “human flourishing” in the next.  As one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have said, it’s just too shy-making.

    There is a silver lining to the picture, though.  At least you don’t have to worry about “moral relativism” anymore.