Posted on May 5th, 2013 4 comments
I believe in keeping up interstellar appearances. If aliens from outer space ever do visit us, I don’t want to be embarrassed. For example, it would be nice if they concluded that, given the rather short time since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we are actually rather smart. As things now stand, that’s most unlikely. What is likely is that they’ll have a hearty laugh at our expense, especially when they discover that we refer to ourselves as “Man the Wise.” In the first place, a large majority of us still believe in imaginary super-beings who plan to boil us in hell for billions and trillions of years for the paltry sins they knew we were predestined to commit and couldn’t possibly avoid during our brief lives, or who are divided up into a complicated mélange of “spirit” and human-like sexual characteristics. In the second, they will notice that, even though we have known about evolution for more than a century and a half, we still ascribe all sorts of supernatural qualities to morality as well. Shameful! The snickers and knowing glances at interstellar cocktail parties will be unbearable.
It may be that a benign zoologist or two among them will observe what orgasmic pleasure we get out of striking self-righteous poses, and how addicted we are to imagining ourselves as “good” and the others as “evil,” and will frown at all this levity at our expense. Such delicious pleasures are easy to rationalize, and hard to part with. Besides, surely some of the very interstellar wags who laugh the loudest at our expense belong to species that commited follies in their “gilded youth” that were just as bad, if not worse. Still, I’m keeping a paper bag handy to put over my head at need if the time comes.
The God thing is bad enough, but, as the sympathetic zoologists might point out, at least it’s understandable. Our species has an inordinate fear of dying and, since we’ve also managed the whimsical trick of identifying our consciousness, an entirely secondary entity that exists because it promoted genetic survival, with our “selves,” we imagine there’s no way out. We either have to face the fact that we’re going to “depart from among men,” as the historian Procopius always put it, or – we have to invent an imaginary super-being to save us.
The morality thing is a different matter. We don’t keep up that charade to avoid death. We just do it because it’s fun. Members of our species love to imagine themselves as noble heroes in a never-ending battle against evil. It “promotes high self-esteem.” It enables us to do remarkably selfish things in the name of selflessness. It even diverts our attention from our impending end and, when combined with the God illusion, offers an illusory way of escaping it. Dealing with people who are enamored of their own righteousness is always an inconvenience. Occasionally it’s much worse than that. They become psychopathic, manage to convince others that they’re right, and commit mass murder as a way of eliminating the evil people. It turns out that the God nexus isn’t even necessary. Even people who avoid that first illusion usually fall victim to the second – that Good and Evil are real things, objects in themselves.
The rationalization of the illusion is always flimsy enough. In the case of religious believers, we have been provided with an example by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. It goes like this:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore, God exists.
This is a farrago of nonsense. What does the existence of a super-being have to do with objective morality? Certainly, he can fry us in hell for billions and trillions of years for daring to disagree with him, but in the end, his opinion of good and evil is just that – an opinion. His opinion is no more legitimate than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that he can either torture us forever on the one hand, or shack us up with 72 virgins on the other. In other words, there is no way in which moral values can become objects just because he wants it that way. The existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of objective moral values.
As for the second component of the syllogism, it is a statement of faith, not fact. If objective moral values really do exist, how is it that, after all these thousands of years, we are still waiting for one of the moralists to catch one in his butterfly net and show it to us, neatly mounted on a pin? As for the third component, it evaporates without the first two.
The attempts of the atheists are just as persistent, and just as absurd. They often take the form of conflating a utilitarian ought with a moral ought. A typical example that is actually offered as a “rebuttal” to the Christian syllogism above recently appeared at Secular Outpost. The author, Bradley Bowen, starts out reasonably enough, noting that,
One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2). If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.
Then, however, he begins wading into the swamp:
Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1). Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values. I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE (Craig) argument.
Religious people have a way of becoming very acute logicians when it comes to assessing the moral illusions of atheists. William Lane Craig is no exception. Bowen quotes him as follows:
I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists? I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction. Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.
Reasonable enough. Here, of course, it is obvious that Craig is referring to justice as an objective moral good. He also points out the simple and seemingly obvious fact, at least since the days of Darwin, that, absent a God, moral values are “properties of persons.” Well put! While human morality can manifest itself in countless varieties of rules, systems, and laws depending on time and circumstances, the ultimate reason for its existence is a “property of persons.” In all its variations, it represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits. Absent those ultimate causes, carried about in the genetic material of each “person,” morality as most people understand the term would disappear.
Bowen, however, kicks against the goads. For him, dispensing with “objective moral values” would be as hard as giving up chocolate, or even sex. It would take all the joy out of life. To preserve them, he comes up with a “proof” just as chimerical as Craig’s syllogism. In essence, it is just a crude and transparent attempt to ignore the word “objective.” According to Bowen,
Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR (Atheistic Moral Realism) believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see. Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true. It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.
It is not hard to see at all. If justice does not exist independently of humans or persons, then it is subjective, not objective. Bowen has simply decided to ignore the term “objective.” This becomes more clear in the following:
I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons. If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity. However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.
In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as “green.” No doubt if we were smart enough, we could dissect all the molecules, hormones, and atomic interactions that account for the impression ”green.” However, if there is really any distinction between subjective and objective at all, green remains subjective. In other words, it is the impression left on the mind of an individual by certain real things, in this case, photons. It is, however, not the things themselves. Bowen is left with the burden of demonstrating how justice and all the rest of his moral subjects are magically transformed into objects. That, after all, is the whole point of Craig’s use of the term “objective.” How does justice, as described by Bowen, acquire the ability to leap out of his skull, or of any other skull for that matter, and become an “object.” By what mysterious process does it acquire that legitimacy?
No, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have more bad news for you. Not only is there not a Santa Claus, but there is no God, and no objective morality. Don’t despair, though. Santa Claus was certainly a grievous loss, but we’d all be much better off without the other two. In the end, lies are liabilities. “God” motivates us to fly airplanes full of people into tall buildings, and “objective morality” convinces us that we are perfectly justified in murdering millions of people because they are Jews or “bourgeoisie.”
Well, in spite of these rather obvious drawbacks, just as we are certainly descended from apes, most of us are certainly still absurd enough to believe in Gods and “objective morality.” When it comes to potential interstellar visitors, I can but paraphrase Darwin’s apocryphal noble lady and hope that these absurdities don’t become generally known. I’m still keeping my paper bag handy, though.
Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on March 26th, 2013 3 comments
New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.” According to Boehm,
In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.
Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.
All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.
Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.
However, something has gone terribly wrong. International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it. As Boehm puts it,
What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.
I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior. My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system? There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them. Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way. However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous. If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system. However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.
Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.
It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy. The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous. Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism? Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences? Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation. However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place. Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality. And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup. There is no Good without Evil. Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us. Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation? Hardly! One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.
I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions. I am, after all, human too. However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it. What’s that you say? It can’t happen here? You have a very short historical memory! By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful. However, let’s leave morality out of it. Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.” Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.
Posted on February 8th, 2013 No comments
Razib Khan, who writes Discover Magazine’s Gene Expression blog, has been a bit testy lately about some unusually vile ad hominem attacks being directed at Jared Diamond by some of the usual suspects among the pathologically pious faction of cultural anthropologists and miscellaneous self-appointed saviors of indigenous peoples. It seems that Diamond, author of such bestsellers as Guns, Germs, and Steel, and by all accounts safely on the left of the ideological spectrum, has been unmasked as a closet colonialist, imperialist, admirer of Cecil Rhodes, and pawn of evil global corporations. Razib’s response to all this:
I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated.
I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology.
and, more poetically,
Many cultural anthropologists believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.
I wouldn’t go quite that far, and, in fact, the people at Survival International who were responsible for giving Razib the final nudge over the top don’t actually claim to be cultural anthropologists, but I must admit it’s a nice turn of phrase. You can read the rest of what he had to say here and here. While I, too, have taken a rather dim view of Diamond’s books, I can only heartily agree with Razib when he says,
Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies.
And with that lengthy preamble, let me finally get to the point of this post. It has to do with something else Razib wrote in the articles linked above, namely,
As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter.
To this, a commenter replied,
There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.
I side with Razib on this one. Appeasement has never worked against self-righteous ideological zealots of any stripe. To this, an insightful reader who’s been following my blog for a while might reply, “But how can you favor responding to morally based attacks with morally based attacks? You don’t believe in morality!” Of course, that’s not quite accurate. I do believe in morality as the expression of subjective emotions whose existence ultimately depends on evolved behavioral traits. I don’t believe in transcendental morality, e.g., the existence of Good and Evil as objects, or things in themselves. For that reason I see the morally loaded attacks on Diamond that Khan objects to for what they really are; a self-righteous and self-interested display of moral emotions that have become disconnected from the “purpose” those emotions evolved to serve; the propagation and survival of the genes of the phenotypes from which the attacks are emanating. Or, to put it in the vernacular, they are absurd. They are being mounted by people who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of something that doesn’t exist; objective Good. They are not mounted because they are really likely to save anyone, but because they give pleasure to those who pose as saviors.
In spite of that, they are potentially very effective, are demonstrably very destructive, and are certainly not to be defeated by calm, scientific refutation. One must fight fire with fire, or accept defeat. Call it doublethink if you will. Essentially, I am advocating the use of a weapon whose existence is based on the premise that there is such a thing as objective Good, when there quite clearly is not. However, we are a moral species, and these battles are carried out in the realm of moral emotions, not reason. Jonathan Haidt even goes so far as to suggest that our rational minds themselves only exist to serve as advocates for those emotions. This is not a question of moral “shoulds,” but of mere practicality. Those who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of the Good in itself are not to be dissuaded by calm logic. Let history judge. How often were the fanatical zealots of such spiritual religions as Christianity and Islam, or such secular religions as Communism and Nazism, persuaded they were wrong by patient, reasoned argument? All of them were extremely effective at exploiting moral emotions as a weapon. One can either pick up that weapon and fight back, or sit back and await the pleasure of one’s enemies.
Posted on February 3rd, 2013 No comments
I won’t parse all 150+ of them, but here are a few more that caught my eye.
…most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.
It’s only a mistake to the extent that there’s actually some ”high ground” to be conceded. There is not. Assuming that Shermer is not referring to the trivial case of discovering mere opinions in the minds of individual humans, neither science nor philosophy is capable determining anything about objects that don’t exist. Values, morals and ethics do not exist as objects. They are not things-in-themselves. They cannot leap out of the skulls of individuals and acquire a reality and legitimacy that transcends individual whim. Certainly, large groups of individuals who discover that they have whims in common can band together and “scientifically” force their whims down the throats of less powerful groups and individuals, but, as they say, that don’t make it right.
Suppose we experience a holocaust of some kind, and only one human survived the mayhem. No doubt he would still be able to imagine what it was like when there were large groups of other’s like himself. He might recall how they behaved, ”scientifically” categorizing their actions as “good” or “evil,” according to his own particular moral intuitions. Supposed, now, that his life also flickered out. What would be left of his whims? Would the inanimate universe, spinning on towards its own destiny, care about them one way or the other. Science can determine the properties and qualities of things. Where, then, would the “good” and ”evil” objects reside? Would they still float about in the ether as disembodied spirits? I’m afraid not. Science can have nothing to say about objects that don’t exist. Michael Shermer might feel “in his bones” that some version of “human flourishing” is “scientifically good,” but there is no reason at all why I or anyone else should agree with his opinion. By all means, let us flourish together, if we all share that whim, but surely we can pursue that goal without tacking moral intuitions on to it. “Scientific” morality is not only naive, but, as was just demonstrated by the Communists and the Nazis, extremely dangerous as well. According to Shermer,
We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong…
In fact, if scientists cease looking for and seeking to study objects that plainly don’t exist, it would seem to me more reason for congratulations all around than worry. Here’s a sample of the sort of “reasoning” Shermer uses to bolster his case:
We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.
Forgive me for being blunt, but this is gibberish. Natural selection can have no target, because it is an inanimate process, and can no more have a purpose or will than a stone. “Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism – people in this context – is the basis of establishing values and morals”?? Such “reasoning” reminds me of the old “Far Side” cartoon, in which one scientist turns to another and allows that he doesn’t quite understand the intermediate step in his proof: “Miracle happens.” If a volcano spits a molten mass into the air which falls to earth and becomes a rock, is not it, in the same sense, the “target” of the geologic processes that caused indigestion in the volcano? Is not the survival and flourishing of that rock equally a universal “good?”
Of the remaining “worries,” this was the one that most worried me, but there were others. Kevin Kelly, Editor at Large of Wired Magazine, was worried about the “Underpopulation Bomb.” Noting the “Ur-worry” of overpopulation, Kelly writes,
While the global population of humans will continue to rise for at least another 40 years, demographic trends in full force today make it clear that a much bigger existential threat lies in global underpopulation.
Apparently the basis of Kelly’s worry is the assumption that, once the earths population peaks in 2050 or thereabouts, the decrease will inevitably continue until we hit zero and die out. In his words, “That worry seems preposterous at first.” I think it seem preposterous first and last.
Science writer Ed Regis is worried about, “Being Told That Our Destiny Is Among The Stars.” After reciting the usual litany of technological reasons that human travel to the stars isn’t likely, he writes,
Apart from all of these difficulties, the more important point is that there is no good reason to make the trip in the first place. If we need a new “Earth 2.0,” then the Moon, Mars, Europa, or other intra-solar-system bodies are far more likely candidates for human colonization than are planets light years away. So, however romantic and dreamy it might sound, and however much it might appeal to one’s youthful hankerings of “going into space,” interstellar flight remains a science-fictional concept—and with any luck it always will be.
In other words, he doesn’t want to go. By all means, then, he should stay here. I and many others, however, have a different whim. We embrace the challenge of travel to the stars, and, when it comes to human survival, we feel existential Angst at the prospect of putting all of our eggs in one basket. Whether “interstellar flight remains a science-fiction concept” at the moment depends on how broadly you define “we.” I see no reason why “we” should be limited to one species. After all, any species you could mention is related to all the rest. Interstellar travel may not be a technologically feasible option for me at the moment, but it is certainly feasible for my relatives on the planet, and at a cost that is relatively trivial. Many simpler life forms can potentially survive tens of thousands of years in interstellar space. I am of the opinion that we should send them on their way, and the sooner the better.
I do share some of the other worries of the Edge contributors. I agree, for example, with historian Noga Arikha’s worry about, “Presentism - the prospect of collective amnesia,” or, as she puts it, the “historical blankness” promoted by the Internet. In all fairness, the Internet has provided unprecedented access to historical source material. However, to find it you need to have the historical background to know what you’re looking for. That background about the past can be hard to develop in the glare of all the fascinating information available about the here and now. I also agree with physicist Anton Zeilinger’s worry about, ”Losing Completeness - that we are increasingly losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental, and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.” It’s an enduring problem. The name “university” was already a misnomer 200 years ago, and in the meantime the problem has only become worse. Those who can see the “big picture” and have the talent to describe it to others are in greater demand than ever before. Finally, I agree with astrophysicist Martin Rees’ worry that, “We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks.” In particular, I agree with his comment to the effect that,
The ‘anthropocene’ era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, there were several occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward nuclear Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation. Those who lived anxiously through the Cuba crisis would have been not merely anxious but paralytically scared had they realized just how close the world then was to catastrophe.
This threat is still with us. It is not “in abeyance” because of the end of the cold war, nor does that fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II mean that they will never be used again. They will. It is not a question of “if,” but “when.”
Posted on January 11th, 2013 No comments
Morality evolved! One can quibble about the precise meaning of those two words, but the sentence remains true regardless. Absent genetically programmed and heritable physical characteristics of the human brain, morality as commonly understood would not exist. It follows that good and evil have no existence other than as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.
So much is obvious. It will become increasingly obvious as long as researchers remain free to study that incredibly complex biological computer, the brain, and the genetic processes that bring it into existence. So much is, however, also inconvenient. It is our nature to derive a great deal of pleasure from self-righteousness and virtuous indignation. However, if good and evil do not exist as independent objects, the rational bases for self-righteousness and virtuous indignation, or, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the rational tail that wags the emotional dog, disappear. They remain interesting and worthy of study as emotional phenomena. However, the notion that they actually have some genuine rational justification becomes absurd.
Similarly, if there are no good and evil objects, the bases for the claims of hosts of philosophers, theologians, and assorted experts on morality of every stripe that they understand those objects better than the rest of us evaporate as well. As a result, as has so often happened with such inconvenient truths in the past, this one faces and will continue to face bitter opposition from those who, for the reasons alluded to above, prefer an alternate version of reality. Like the Blank Slaters of old who denied human nature because it relegated all their fine utopias to the scrap heap, they can be relied on to resist and obfuscate our efforts to gain understanding of the physical, emotional and genetic bases of morality. They realize perfectly well that such understanding renders them superfluous. Recently, their efforts to stem the tide of increasing knowledge have met with a distinct lack of success, even in academia. One must hope they will remain similarly ineffectual in the future, or at least one must hope so to the extent that one believes that an accurate understanding of ourselves will have some bearing on our future survival.
That belief has not always found ready acceptance, even among very intelligent people. For example, a great number of thinkers who doubted the truths of established religion themselves have objected to passing the word on to the “rabble,” fearing that, lacking a reason to be “good,” they would certainly embrace “evil.” Similarly, in our own day, many shrink from rejecting a transcendent Good-in-itself because they fear it will promote amorality and moral relativism. In fact, accepting the truth about morality will not result in amorality or moral relativism because it is not our nature to be amoral or morally relativistic. We are no more likely to change our moral nature than we are to sprout fins and take to the water, or return to walking on all fours, in response to learning the truth about what that moral nature really is, and how it came into being.
That is not to imply that such self-understanding will be useless. For example, it may occur to us to shape a morality that is simple, in harmony with our nature, and that promotes our happiness and discourages us from harming each other as effectively as possible. It may also occur to us to limit morality to spheres in which it can reasonably be expected to promote useful ends. Given the fact that morality is fundamentally an emotional rather than a rational phenomenon, it is unlikely those spheres to which our frail reason might better be applied, such as national politics, international relations, and other aspects of our current reality that didn’t exist when morality evolved, will be included. This remains true even though attempts to apply reason to such spheres without taking the moral nature, not to mention the other behavioral characteristics of our species into account are bound to fail. For example, the creation of laws that injure the average individual’s sense of justice will likely be useless, regardless of how reasonable they might seem to be on other grounds.
Having accepted the origins of morality, let us not shrink from accepting its reality as well. In particular, we should not pretend that it is invariably our nature to be ”nice,” and that all “non-niceness” derives exclusively from culture and environment. Just as it is our nature to belong to and seek acceptance by our ingroup, it is also our nature to hate and despise outgroups. It is not possible to suppress or stifle that aspect of our nature. We will always seek and find an outgroup. Consider the behavior of the very liberals and progressives who occasionally suggest chimerical schemes such as expanding our ingroup to include all mankind. Nothing could exceed the spite and fury of their denunciations of those who disagree with them, such as gun rights advocates, Christian fundamentalists, opponents of gay marriage, etc. The outgroup have ye always with you. Our goal should be to stop ignoring this truth, in spite of the fact that all human history is a testament to it, and in spite of the further fact that it is such an obvious explanation for so much about us that otherwise seems incomprehensible, and seek ways of dealing with it so as to minimize the mayhem it has so frequently caused in the past.
Posted on January 5th, 2013 No comments
Sam Harris has just posted an article on his blog supporting gun ownership. While he does so with certain caveats (he supports “sensible” gun control, and is “outraged” over the political influence of the National Rifle Association) his position puts him squarely at odds with liberals in general and liberal atheists like himself in particular. This is interesting in view of the fact that Harris claims the ability to “scientifically” discern the difference between Good and Evil. After all, opposition to gun ownership is fundamentally a moral issue as far as most liberals are concerned.
Consider, for example, the position of Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the “Why Evolution is True” blog, and, like Harris, a liberal atheist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, unlike Harris, Coyne claims that he does not agree that there are “scientifically establishable truths about ethics,” and asserts that moral judgments are subjective matters of opinion. In practice, however, that matters not a bit. He almost invariably writes as if there were. His position on gun control is a case in point. For example, a couple of posts later he states that theologian William Lane Craig should “rot in hell” for differing with him on the Newtown massacre. He does not elaborate on whether, like Christian and Moslem fundamentalists, he believes that Mr. Craig should rot in hell for billions and trillions of years just for starters, or, as befits a more enlightened, liberal point of view, his term should only last for a few millennia, or even centuries. Regardless, it would seem that Coyne’s “mere opinion” has somehow jumped out of his skull, thrown off its subjective strings, and become a normative object, complete with plenary power to judge whether opinions are good or evil, and consign the bearers of the latter to the eternal fire. As anyone who consults his blog can see, he reacts with similarly furious virtuous indignation to anyone else who disagrees with him concerning gun control. I suspect that most liberal atheists, who are just as cocksure as Coyne that they are the bearers of moral truth, come down squarely in his corner on the matter.
In a word, gun control is a profoundly moral issue as far as Harris’ fellow liberals are concerned. However, in spite of his assurances in The Moral Landscape that “science” can decide which side is good and which evil, he hardly mentions morality in his post. There is good reason for that. Good and evil are judgments based on subjective moral emotions, not scientific facts. Those moral emotions exist in the first place for reasons that are completely unrelated to the regulation of firearms. In other words, morality is irrelevant to the issue, other than to the extent that human behavioral traits must be taken into account in deciding matters of state policy. At some level, Harris is aware of the fact. He knows that Coyne and like-minded liberals, and not he, are standing on the “moral high ground” on the issue of gun control. In other words, it is far easier for them than for him to arouse moral emotions to support their point of view. That is why he has chosen to couch the issue in almost purely rationalistic terms.
For example, most people would prefer that their family members not be murdered or become victims of violent attack. Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that the right to keep and bear arms is likely to minimize the probability of these contingencies. Most people would prefer that they and their family members not become victims of a massacre perpetrated by a psychopath with a firearm. Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that a blanket ban on firearms would be an ineffective way to minimize this contingency. And so on. I applaud him for this approach. It has always been my opinion that it is best to decide matters of public policy in this way, and, to the extent possible, minimize the pernicious influence of moral emotions on those decisions. There is no reason to believe that moral emotions are likely to be helpful in deciding matters that have nothing to do with the ultimate reason for their existence. There is no better way to illustrate this point than to compare Harris’ reasoned arguments with the morally loaded ones of Coyne and his other liberal opponents. As Harris rightly observes, they are marked by an astounding level of ignorance, both of the arguments of their opponents, which are generally presented in a crudely bowdlerized form that demonstrates a lack of any serious attempt to study them in depth, and of firearms in general. As Harris puts it:
I have read articles in which literally everything said about firearms and ballistics has been wrong. I have heard major newscasters mispronounce the names of every weapon and weapons manufacturer more challenging than “Colt.” I can only imagine the mirth it has brought gun-rights zealots to see “automatic” and “semi-automatic” routinely confused, or to hear a major news anchor ominously declare that the shooter had been armed with a “Sig Sauzer” pistol. This has been more than embarrassing. It has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying.
Detailed knowledge of a subject is superfluous to those whose goal is not to decide matters of fact, but to arouse moral emotions.
Posted on December 15th, 2012 No comments
If Jonathan Haidt is right, we are a pathologically pious species, with logical minds that evolved mainly to serve our innate self-righteousness. Contemplate the behavior of modern atheists, and it seems plausible enough. After all, they realize, or at least the more intelligent among them do, that we are an evolved species. If they’ve looked at any of the recent flood of books on the subject, they also realize that our morality is the expression, not of the opinion of some supernatural being, but of evolved behavioral traits. It exists because it promoted our survival at times when our mode of existence and environment were radically different from what they are now. Good and evil are not objects and things-in-themselves. Rather, they are subjective perceptions in the minds of individuals. As such, they have no existence independent of those minds. The odd thing (or perhaps the predictable thing, given the nature of our species) is that these perfectly straightforward, rational conclusions seem to matter hardly at all.
Now, I maintain that there is no objective morality: that morality is a guide for how people should get along in society, and that what is “moral” comports in general with the rules we need to live by in a harmonious society—one with greater “well being,” as Harris puts it. A society in which half the inhabitants are dispossessed because they lack a Y chromosome is not a society brimming with well being, and I wouldn’t want to live in it. And yes, what promotes “well being” can in principle be established empirically. But that still presumes that the best society is one that promotes the greatest “well being,” and that is an opinion, not a fact.
And yes, of course moral judgments can hinge on matters of real scientific truth! If you think that abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, that’s something that science can, in principle, find out. But in the end that still depends on an opinion: causing a fetus pain, even though doing so comports with the mother’s wishes, is immoral. Just because a disagreement is “substantive” (whatever that means) does not mean that it can be resolved by determining objective truths.
Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong—that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong. And those reasons are based on opinions.
Here we have an “is”: Moral judgments are based on subjective perceptions or, if you will, opinions. Nowhere does Coyne address the problem of “ought”: how these subjective judgments might acquire the power to leap out of the brain of one individual and become applicable to other individuals as well, whether that other individual likes it or not. Yet a couple of posts later, his own judgments have magically acquired that power! Referring to a little girl who was bitten by a dolphin at Seaword, he writes,
I’m sorry the little girl was bitten, but that’s only the human side of the equation. What about the sufferings (yes, I think they suffer) of animals like dolphins, sea otters, and beluga whales forced to endlessly swim in circles in small tanks? (I once was moved almost to tears by watching an otter do this at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. I filed a complaint with a person in charge, but they completely ignored me.) As a biologist, this outrages me.
Let us make no mistake here: this is not about conservation, and only pretends to be about education. In the end, it’s all about money.
This begs the question, “So what?” Of course, Coyne could always beg off by claiming that he was merely describing his own, personal state of mind. To that, I would reply, “Nonsense!” His “outrage” is not a clinical description of his subjective state of mind at a particular moment, but a moral judgment directed at the “person in charge.” His comment that the behavior he is outraged about is “all about money” is not just a neutered opinion, but a moral judgment. How is it that Coyne’s state of mind has acquired this power over others? In fact, if we are to believe what he has written on the subject himself, no such path to power and legitimacy exists. The “person in charge” cannot be bound by Coynes “opinion,” any more than the managers of Seaworld and the Shedd Aquarium. In spite of that, he has elevated his own perceptions of good and evil to the status of the very ”objective truths” he denied a couple of posts earlier, as binding on others as on himself.
I don’t mean to single out Coyne. His irrational behavior is pervasive, and predictable, given the nature of our species. I, too, experience outrage at the maltreatment of animals. Rationally, however, I realize that my outrage is a mental phenomenon that is in no way connected to a “Good” that exists independently, outside of my own brain. The fact that Good and Evil don’t exist as independent objects in no way depends on acceptance of the hypothesis that human morality represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits, or on acceptance of the theory of evolution. It does not even depend on whether a God exists or not. A hypothetical super-being might have the power to fry me in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years for failing to share his opinion, but his opinion, his “subject,” would not become an “object” for all that.
Why do I bother to bring this up? I certainly am not immune to the “Coyne syndrome,” as readers of my blog will be quick to detect. However, having long ago concluded that there is no rational basis for self-righteousness, I find it very tiresome, at least in others. Beyond this personal whim, there is the matter of survival. If, in fact, morality exists because it evolved, and it evolved because it promoted our survival, it would be somewhat incongruous if it became the ultimate cause of our extinction. In the last century alone, the Communists murdered tens of millions for what they saw as the highest of moral reasons, and when Hitler exterminated the Jews, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, he believed he was doing “the Lord’s work.” Under the circumstances, it seems to me that it would behoove us as a species to cultivate a lively awareness of the subjective nature of morality. We must apply morality in our routine interactions with other individuals, because there is no alternative. We should be leery of applying it outside of that sphere, or at least those of us should who, like me, subjectively prefer that our species not become extinct.
Posted on November 18th, 2012 2 comments
Not long ago, the “Men of Science” in anthropology were furiously denying that ancient hominids hunted, and that chimpanzees were anything but inoffensive and pacific vegetarians, and that human behavior was significantly influenced by human nature, in the teeth of abundant evidence that such notions were not only wrong, but ridiculous. Today, discussions of morality have fallen into a similar rut. It is perfectly obvious that the very existence of morality as commonly understood ultimately depends on the presence of innate mental traits that evolved at a time when the human condition was a great deal different than it is now. However, to admit that fact would be to admit at the same time that “ethics expert” is an oxymoron, and to reduce the sublime joys of self-righteousness to an embarrassing absurdity, and to finally admit that Good and Evil don’t really transcend the petty minds of individuals. In a word, it would amount to rejecting the way things “ought” to be on behalf of what “is”. Hence, the fact is ignored and denied. We shouldn’t be surprised. This rejection of “is” on behalf of “ought” has happened many times before.
There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, for this stubborn embrace of the fallacy of transcendent morality. Legions of philosophers, whether believers or not, were terrified that if the rationalizations propping it up were kicked out, we would all become immoral or, at best, amoral. This delusion is based on the groundless suspicion that, unless some chain of logic based on unquestionable axioms is provided proving that we ought to act one way and not another, society will immediately collapse in an orgy of murder, robbery, rape and deliberate refusal to obey the traffic laws. Even worse, we might all become (gasp!) moral relativists. This further fallacy is based on ignorance of the innate grounding of morality, and the more than dubious belief that religion has had the net effect of promoting “moral niceness.”
Today, belief in a God or gods has become palpably ridiculous for anyone with average mental powers and the courage to face the existential drawbacks of their absence. However, the old gods have always been a reliable prop for objective morality. Furthermore, it has been plausibly suggested that there are innate underpinnings for religious belief itself. I doubt that we “instinctively” believe in magical supernatural beings, but you have to hand it to the old gods. They certainly scratched us where it itched. When they disappeared, something new had to be found to do the scratching. Enter secular religion. The quintessential example is, of course, Communism. Like the supernatural tyrants of old, it was a jealous god, allowing no other gods before it. Alas, the new god died a much quicker death than the old ones because the paradise it promised was here on earth where it could be fact checked instead of the sweet hereafter. However, when the new god evaporated with unseemly haste, we did not simply give up on secular religion as a bad job. The itch was still there. New secular religions sprouted to fill the gaps as soon as the old ones died off. The various versions touted by Sam Harris and the rest of the New Atheists are familiar examples, and come complete with all the same delectable moral certitude and watertight justification for bludgeoning of the unrighteousness as the old ones.
It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect humanity to relinquish its cherished “oughts” anytime soon in favor of simply recognizing the “is” of morality and dealing with it. However, I still suggest it as a contingency going forward. Whatever our personal whims happen to be, it seems to me we are more likely to satisfy them by acting according to that which is true than to that which is false. We might have some chance of putting the constant murderous and disruptive bickering and warfare inspired by religious belief over the centuries behind us, avoiding the untimely death of another 100 million in the name of some future version of “scientific Marxism-Leninism,” and ending the constant annoyance of living in a world full of ostentatiously righteous poseurs.
And what of the drawbacks of accepting the “is” of morality, and kicking out the props of the Good-in-itself? Would our societies suddenly and spontaneously descent into anarchy? Would the bad guys win by default? I think not. We do not need, nor have we ever depended on, religions of the secular or old-fashioned flavors to act morally. We act morally because that is our nature. Obviously, there are great variations in the details of moral behavior among human societies, even though they spring from the same innate roots. We are not rigidly programmed to act one way and not another like so many insects. This gives us some flexibility. We cannot simply jettison morality. We must depend on it to regulate our social interactions, at least at the level of individuals and small groups. Under the circumstances, I suggest we keep it as simple as possible. Reduce moral rules to an elementary common denominator sufficient for maximizing social harmony and minimizing mutual injury. At the level of large states, reduce the influence of moral emotions to a bare minimum, and seek to apply reason to the pursuit of social goals within the constraints of our limited intelligence. Here, of course, I am not speaking of “is,” but of some of my own, personal “oughts.” However, to the extent that they want to survive and even, to some extent, enjoy life, I think others may find them serviceable.
Posted on November 14th, 2012 No comments
Amoebas react to light. Mimosa plants react to touch. Humans react to other humans. As all three species are presumably related, although their common ancestor lived at a remote date, biochemists and neurophysicists might well be able to discover subtle similarities in the biological processes involved in all three cases. However, unlike amoebas and mimosas, humans are conscious beings, and can observe and think about their reactions. Sometimes those reactions fall within the sphere of what is commonly referred to as moral behavior. In other words, they involve the perception of what we call “good” and “evil.” However, Mother Nature did not bother with anything so impractical as causing us to perceive these intuitions as what they actually are; the result of physical and chemical processes with no existence outside of the brains of individuals. They promoted our survival much more effectively when perceived as things that existed on their own, independent of the will or consciousness of particular individuals. We have been involved in a hopeless search for the basis of this illusion ever since. Like wanderers in the desert seeking a mirage, we seek to establish the legitimacy of Good and Evil. It is a hopeless quest.
It is an interesting idiosyncrasy of our species that we can easily see through the flimsy rationalizations others use to establish some basis for the powerful perception that their own versions of Good and Evil apply, not just to themselves, but to others as well. We’re just not quite so perceptive when it comes to seeing the flaws in our attempts to establish the legitimacy of our own versions. An interesting example just turned up on Instapundit, in the form of a paper published by Arthur Leff in the Duke Law Journal back in 1979, entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.”
The opening paragraphs of the paper are worth quoting in full:
I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.
I mention the matter here only because I think that the two contradictory impulses which together form that paradox do not exist only on some high abstract level of arcane angst. In fact, it is my central thesis that much that is mysterious about much that is written about law today is understandable only in the context of this tension between the ideas of found law and made law: a tension particularly evident in the growing, though desperately resisted, awareness that there may be, in fact, nothing to be found – that whenever we set out to find “the law,” we are able to locate nothing more attractive, or more final, than ourselves.
With that preamble, Leff announces that he will, “…try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will.” In fact, he does an excellent job of it, in terms both simple and brief. Noting that,
A statement in the form “you ought to do X,” “it is right to do X,” or “X is good” will establish oughtness, rightness, or goodness only if there is a set of rules that gives the speaker the power totally to determine the question… it is precisely the question of who has the power to set such rules for validating evaluations that is the central problem of ethics.
He then goes on to consider the circumstances under which anyone might gain that power. However, before doing so, he does not leave us in suspense as to his own position. In his words, “There are no such circumstances.” Noting that God was once the evaluator of last resort, he continues,
The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises. What Kurt Gödel did for systems of logic, deicide has done for normative systems…Put briefly, if the law is “not a brooding omnipresence in the sky,” then it can be only one place: in us. If we are trying to find a substitute final evaluator, it must be one of us, some of us, all of us – but it cannot be anything else.
Thus, once it is accepted that (a) all normative statements are evaluations of actions and other states of the world; (b) an evaluation entails an evaluator; and (c) in the presumed absence of God, the only available evaluators are people, then only a determinate, and reasonably small, number of kinds of ethical and legal systems can be generated. Each such system will be strongly differentiated by the axiomatic answer it chooses to give to one key question: who ultimately gets to play the role of ultimately unquestionable evaluator, a role played in supernaturally based systems by God? Who among us, that is, ought to be able to declare “law” that ought to be obeyed?
Leff then goes on to demonstrate that the possible answers to this unsettling question are both few and transparently fallacious. He first takes up what he calls “Descriptivism.” Again, quoting Leff,
It (Descriptivism) goes like this: it is not at all necessary to specify who is generating the legal system, much less to describe how that generation is being effected. A legal system is a fact. It is something… that exists. The way to discover its existence is to discover what rules are in fact obeyed.
However, Descriptivism really accomplishes nothing. Defined in that way, according to Leff,
“the law” describes not good behavior or right behavior, but behavior… Under Descriptivism, it is impossible to say that anything ought or ought not to be.
A possible alternative to Descriptivism is what Leff calls “Personalism,” according to which,
Everyone can declare what ought to be for himself, and no one can legitimately criticize anyone else’s values – what they are or how they came to be – because everyone has equal ethical dignity… If the difficulty with Descriptivism is that it validates any normative system, the problem with the “God-is-me” approach (“Personalism”) is that it validates everyone’s individual normative system, while giving no instruction in, or warrant for, choosing among them.
In other words, it becomes necessary to decide who will get to play philosopher king:
The next move, one would guess, would be to find some way to distinguish among the individuals either quantitatively through some aggregation principle, or qualitatively. One might choose to stand, that is, on the most evaluations or the best ones.
However, neither choice solves the problem. In the first case,
All one has is the assumed conclusion that in cases of conflicting perfections, the largest number wins.
But, according to Leff, the second is no better:
Can we then get out of our bind by deciding after all to pay attention to the quality of the ethical boxes? No, we cannot.
The moment one suggests a criterion, then individual men have ceased to be the measure of all things, and something else – and that necessarily means someone else – has been promoted to the (formally impossible) position of evaluator-in-chief.
One would think that a fully considered moral position, the product of deep and thorough intellectual activity, one that fits together into a fairly consistent whole, would deserve more respect than shallow, expletive, internally inconsistent ethical decisions. Alas, to think that would be to think wrong: labor and logic have no necessary connection to ethical truth.
Should one not in such a situation give more weight to A’s position than to B’s? Only if someone has the power to declare careful, consistent, coherent ethical propositions “better” than the sloppier, more impulsive kinds. Who has that power and how did he get it? …Bluntly, intellectual beauty is not a necessary prerequisite to ethical adequacy unless someone declares it to be.
Leff next moves on to demolish what one might call the Sam Harris school of validation:
There remains, then, only one considerable approach to the validation of ethical systems. Under it no search is made for any evaluator, but rather some state of the world is declared to be good, and acts which effect that state are ethical acts. Merely to express this approach is, or course, to refute it, for a good state of the world must be good to someone. One cannot escape from the fact that a normative statement is an evaluation merely by dispensing with any mention of who is making it. Hence the description of a particular end-state – human happiness (or “human flourishing”, ed.) or wealth – as a validator of a system, is just another evaluator-centered approach, but with blinkers added. Wealth is good, and makes our acts good, if someone, or some collection of someones, says so. But which someone or someones count still has to be accounted for.
There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system. There is no way to prove one ethical legal system superior to any other, unless at some point an evaluator is asserted to have the final uncontradictable, unexaminable word. That choice of unjudged judge, whoever is given the role, is itself, strictly speaking, arbitrary.
And so, just as Kant demolished the existing proofs of God’s existence, Leff polished off the secular bases of moral legitimacy. Unlike Kant, however, he did it briefly and coherently. By all means, read the whole paper. It is a fine little nail in the coffin for all secular systems that seek the holy grail of objective Good and Evil, whether past, present, or yet to come. Its conclusions have always been obvious to fundamentalist Christians and Moslems who fondly believe that the fantasies on which they base their own moral systems provide a better support. However, they continue to slam against a brick wall of cognitive dissonance, against all odds and the accumulating mounds of evidence about the real nature of morality, in the minds of agnostics, atheists and “Godless” moralists who simply can’t believe that there is no basis for the legitimacy of moral intuitions that they feel so strongly “in their bones.” Far be it for me to offer any moral conclusions, but I do think it would behoove us all to put these delusions behind us. Whatever whims any of us might have, moral or otherwise, I suspect we will be more likely to satisfy them if we base our actions on that which is true rather than on that which is not.