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  • Morality and the Ideophobes

    Posted on February 12th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    In our last episode I pointed out that, while some of the most noteworthy public intellectuals of the day occasionally pay lip service to the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, they act and speak as if they believed the opposite.  If morality is an expression of evolved traits, it is necessarily subjective.  The individuals mentioned speak as if, and probably believe, that it is objective.  What do I mean by that?  As the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck put it,

    The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise (his Ethical Relativity, ed.) implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.

    All of the individuals mentioned in my last post are aware that there is a connection between morality and its evolutionary roots.  If pressed, some of them will even admit the obvious consequence of this fact; that morality must be subjective.  However, neither they nor any other public intellectual that I am aware of actually behaves or speaks as if that consequence meant anything or, indeed, as if it were even true.  One can find abundant evidence that this is true simply by reading their own statements, some of which I quoted.  For example, according the Daniel Dennett, Trump supporters are “guilty.”  Richard Dawkins speaks of the man in pejorative terms that imply a moral judgment rather than rational analysis of his actions.  Sam Harris claims that Trump is “unethical,” and Jonathan Haidt says that he is “morally wrong,” without any qualification to the effect that they are just making subjective judgments, and that the subjective judgments of others may be different and, for that matter, just as “legitimate” as theirs.

    A commenter suggested that I was merely quoting tweets, and that the statements may have been taken out of context, or would have reflected the above qualifications if more space had been allowed.  Unfortunately, I have never seen a single example of an instance where one of the quoted individuals made a similar statement, and then qualified it as suggested.  They invariably speak as if they were stating objective facts when making such moral judgments, with the implied assumption that individuals who don’t agree with them are “bad.”

    A quick check of the Internet will reveal that there are legions of writers out there commenting on the subjective nature of morality.  Not a single one I am aware of seems to realize that, if morality is subjective, their moral judgments lack any objective normative power or legitimacy whatsoever when applied to others.  Indeed, one commonly finds them claiming that morality is subjective, and as a consequence one is “morally obligated” to do one thing, and “morally obligated” not to do another, in the very same article, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are stating a glaring non sequitur.

    None of this should be too surprising.  We are not a particularly rational species.  We give ourselves far more credit for being “wise” than is really due.  Most of us simply react to atavistic urges, and seek to satisfy them.  Our imaginations portray Good and Evil to us as real, objective things, and so we thoughtlessly assume that they are.  It is in our nature to be judgmental, and we take great joy in applying these imagined standards to others.  Unfortunately, this willy-nilly assigning of others to the above imaginary categories is very unlikely to accomplish the same thing today as it did when the  responsible behavioral predispositions evolved.  I would go further.  I would claim that this kind of behavior is not only not “adaptive.”  In fact, it has become extremely dangerous.

    The source of the danger is what I call “ideophobia.”  So far, at least, it hasn’t had a commonly recognized name, but it is by far the most dangerous form of all the different flavors of “bigotry” that afflict us today.  By “bigotry” I really mean outgroup identification.  We all do it, without exception.  Some of the most dangerous manifestations of it exist in just those individuals who imagine they are immune to it.  All of us hate, despise, and are disgusted by the individuals in whatever outgroup happens to suit our fancy.  The outgroup may be defined by race, religion, ethnic group, nationality, and even sex.  I suspect, however, that by far the most common form of outgroup (and ingroup) identification today is by ideology.

    Members of ideologically defined ingroups have certain ideas and beliefs in common.  Taken together, they form the intellectual shack the ingroup in question lives in.  The outgroup consists of those who disagree with these core beliefs, and especially those who define their own ingroup by opposing beliefs.  Ideophobes hate and despise such individuals.  They indulge in a form of bigotry that is all the more dangerous because it has gone so long without a name.  Occasionally they will imagine that they advocate universal human brotherhood, and “human flourishing.”  In reality, “brotherhood” is the last thing ideophobes want when it comes to “thought crime.”  They do not disagree rationally and calmly.  They hate the “other,” to the point of reacting with satisfaction and even glee if the “other” suffers physical harm.  They often imagine themselves to be great advocates of diversity, and yet are blithely unaware of the utter lack of it in the educational, media, entertainment, and other institutions they control when it comes to diversity of opinion.  As for the ideological memes of the ingroup, they expect rigid uniformity.  What Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Haidt thought they were doing was upholding virtue.  What they were really doing is better called “virtue signaling.”  They were assuring the other members of their ingroup that they “think right” about some of its defining “correct thoughts,” and registering the appropriate allergic reaction to the outgroup.

    I cannot claim that ideophobia is objectively immoral.  I do believe, however, that it is extremely dangerous, not only to me, but to everyone else on the planet.  I propose that it’s high time that we recognized the phenomenon as a manifestation of human nature that has long outlived its usefulness.  We need to recognize that ideophobia is essentially the same thing as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, or what have you.  The only difference is in the identifying characteristics of the outgroup.  The kind of behavior described is a part of what we are, and will remain a part of what we are.  That does not mean that it can’t be controlled.

    What evidence do I have that this type of behavior is dangerous?  There were two outstanding examples in the 20th century.  The Communists murdered 100 million people, give or take, weighted in the direction of the most intelligent and capable members of society, because they belonged to their outgroup, commonly referred to as the “bourgeoisie.”  The Nazis murdered tens of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and members of any other ethnicity that they didn’t recognize as belonging to their own “Aryan” ingroup.  There are countless examples of similar mayhem, going back to the beginnings of recorded history, and ample evidence that the same thing was going on much earlier.  As many of the Communists and Nazis discovered, what goes around comes around.  Millions of them became victims of their own irrational hatred.

    No doubt Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Haidt and legions of others like them see themselves as paragons of morality and rationality.  I have my doubts.  With the exception of Haidt, they have made no attempt to determine why those they consider “deplorables” think the way they do, or to calmly analyze what might be their desires and goals, and to search for common ground and understanding.  As for Haidt, his declaration that the goals of his outgroup are “morally wrong” flies in the face of all the fine theories he recently discussed in his The Righteous Mind.  I would be very interested to learn how he thinks he can square this circle.  Neither he nor any of the others have given much thought to whether the predispositions that inspire their own desires and goals will accomplish the same thing now as when they evolved, and appear unconcerned about the real chance that they will accomplish the opposite.  They have not bothered to consider whether it even matters, and why, or whether the members of their outgroup may be acting a great deal more consistently in that respect than they do.  Instead, they have relegated those who disagree with them to the outgroup, slamming shut the door on rational discussion.

    In short, they have chosen ideophobia.  It is a dangerous choice, and may turn out to be a very dangerous one, assuming we value survival.  I personally would prefer that we all learn to understand and seek to control the worst manifestations of our dual system of morality; our tendency to recognize ingroups and outgroups and apply different standards of good and evil to individuals depending on the category to which they belong.  I doubt that anything of the sort will happen any time soon, though.  Meanwhile, we are already witnessing the first violent manifestations of this latest version of outgroup identification.  It’s hard to say how extreme it will become before the intellectual fashions change again.  Perhaps the best we can do is sit back and collect the data.

  • George Gissing, G. E. Moore, and the “Good in Itself”

    Posted on October 15th, 2016 Helian 1 comment

    A limited number of common themes are always recognizable in human moral behavior.  However, just as a limited number of atoms can combine to form a vast number of different molecules, so those themes can combine to form a vast variety of different moral systems.  Those systems vary not only from place to place, but in the same place over time.  A striking example of the latter may be found in the novels of George Gissing, most of which were published in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Gissing was a deep-dyed Victorian conservative of a type that would be virtually unrecognizable to the conservatives of today.  George Orwell admired him, and wrote a brief but brilliant essay about him that appears in In Front of Your Nose, the fourth volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters.  Orwell described him as one of the greatest British novelists because of the accuracy with which he portrayed the poverty, sordid social conditions, and sharp caste distinctions in late Victorian England.  Orwell was generous.  Gissing condemned socialism, particularly in his novel Demos, whereas Orwell was a lifelong socialist.

    According to the subtitle of the novel, it is “A story of English socialism.”  Socialism was becoming increasingly fashionable in those days, but Gissing wasn’t a sympathizer.  He wanted to preserve everything just as it had been at some halcyon time in the past.  Hubert Eldon, the “hero” of the novel, wouldn’t pass for one in our time.  Today he would probably be seen as a rent-seeking parasite. He was apparently unsuited for any kind of useful work, and spent most of his time gazing at pretty pictures in European art galleries when he wasn’t in England.  When he was home his favorite pastime was to admire the country scenery near the village of Wanley, where he lived with his mother.

    Eldon was expecting to inherit a vast sum of money from his brother’s father-in-law, a self-made industrialist named Richard Mutimer.  He could then marry the pristine Victorian heroine, Adela Waltham, who also lived in the village.  However, to everyone’s dismay, the old man dies intestate, and the lion’s share of the money goes to a distant relative, also named Richard Mutimer, who happens to be a socialist workingman.  The younger Mutimer uses the money to begin tearing the lovely valley apart in order to build mines and steel mills for a model socialist community.  Adela’s mother, a firm believer in the ennobling influence of money, insists that she marry Mutimer.  Dutiful daughter that she is, she obeys, even though she loves Eldon.  In the end, Mutimer is conveniently killed off.  The old man’s will is miraculously found and it turns out Eldon inherits the money after all.  This “hero” doesn’t shrink from dismantling the socialist community that had been started by his rival, even though he knew it would throw the breadwinners of many families out of work. He thought it was too ugly, and wanted to return the landscape to its original beauty.  Obviously, the author thought he was being perfectly reasonable even though, as he mentioned in passing, former workers in a socialist community would likely be blacklisted and unable to find work elsewhere.  It goes without saying that the “hero” gets the girl in the end.

    One of the reasons Orwell liked Gissing so much was the skill with which he documented the vast improvement in the material welfare of the average citizen that had taken place in England over the comparatively horrific conditions that prevailed in the author’s time. Unfortunately, that improvement could never have taken place without the sacrifice of many pleasant country villages like Wanley. Gissing was nothing if not misanthropic, and probably would have rejected such progress even if he could have imagined it. In fact old Mutimer was the first one to think of mining the valley, and the author speaks of the idea as follows:

    It was of course a deplorable error to think of mining in the beautiful valley which had once been the Eldon’s estate. Richard Mutimer could not perceive that. He was a very old man, and possibly the instincts of his youth revived as his mind grew feebler; he imagined it the greatest kindness to Mrs. Eldon and her son to increase as much as possible the value of the property he would leave at his death. They, of course, could not even hint to him the pain with which they viewed so barbarous a scheme; he did not as much as suspect a possible objection.

    Gissing not only accepted the rigid class distinctions of his day, but positively embraced them.  In describing the elder Mutimer he writes,

    Remaining the sturdiest of Conservatives, he bowed in sincere humility to those very claims which the Radical most angrily disallows: birth, hereditary station, recognised gentility – these things made the strongest demand upon his reverence. Such an attitude was a testimony to his own capacity for culture, since he knew not the meaning of vulgar adulation, and did in truth perceive the beauty of those qualities to which the uneducated Iconoclast is wholly blind.

    The author leaves no doubt about his rejection of “progress” and his dim view of the coming 20th century in the following exchange between Eldon and his mother about the socialist Mutimer:

    “Shall I tell you how I felt in talking with him?  I seemed to be holding a dialogue with the 20th century, and you may think what that means.”

    “Ah, it’s a long way off, Hubert.”

    “I wish it were farther.  The man was openly exultant; He stood for Demos grasping the scepter.  I am glad, mother, that you leave Wanley before the air is poisoned.”

    “Mr. Mutimer does not see that side of the question?”

    “Not he!  Do you imagine the twentieth century will leave one green spot on the earth’s surface?”

    “My dear, it will always be necessary to grow grass and corn.”

    “By no means; depend upon it.  Such things will be cultivated by chemical processes.  There will not be one inch left to nature; the very oceans will somehow be tamed, the snow mountains will be leveled.  And with nature will perish art.  What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?”

    Mrs. Eldon sighed gently.

    “I shall not see it.”

    Well, the twentieth century did turn out pretty badly, especially for socialism, but not quite that badly.  Of course, one can detect some of the same themes in this exchange that one finds in the ideology of 21st century “Greens.”  However, I think the most interesting affinity is between the sentiments in Gissing’s novels and the moral philosophy of G. E. Moore.  I touched on the subject in an earlier post .  Moore was the inventor of the “naturalistic fallacy,” according to which all moral philosophers preceding him were wrong, because they insisted on defining “the Good” with reference to some natural object.  Unfortunately, Moore’s own version of “the Good” turned out to be every bit as slippery as any “sophisticated Christian’s” version of God.  It was neither fish nor fowl, mineral nor vegetable.

    When Moore finally got around to giving us at least some hint of exactly what he was talking about in his Principia Ethica, we discovered to our surprise that “the Good” had nothing to do with the heroism of the Light Brigade, or Horatius at the Bridge.  It had nothing to do with loyalty or honor.  It had nothing to do with social justice or the brotherhood of man.  Nor did it have anything to do with honesty, justice, or equality.  In fact, Moore’s version of “the Good” turned out to be a real thigh slapper.  It consisted of the “nice things” that appealed to English country gentlemen at more or less the same time that Gissing was writing his novels. It included such things as soothing country scenery, enchanting music, amusing conversations with other “good” people, and perhaps a nice cup of tea on the side.  As Moore put it,

    We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

    and,

    By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

    Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve doubted it. Not only have I doubted it, but I consider the claim absurd.  Those words were written in 1903.  By that time a great many people were already aware of the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection.  That connection was certainly familiar to Darwin himself, and a man named Edvard Westermarck spelled out the seemingly obvious implications of that connection in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas a few years later, in 1906.  Among those implications was the fact that the “good in itself” is pure fantasy.  “Good” and “evil” are subjective artifacts that are the result of the behavioral predispositions we associate with morality filtered through the minds of creatures with large brains.  Nature played the rather ill-natured trick of portraying them to us as real things because that’s the form in which they happened to maximize the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive and reproduce. (That, by the way, is why it is highly unlikely that “moral relativity” will ever be a problem for our species.)  The fact that Moore was capable of writing such nonsense more than 40 years after Darwin appeared on the scene suggests that he must have lived a rather sheltered life.

    In retrospect, it didn’t matter.  Today Moore is revered as a great moral philosopher, and Westermarck is nearly forgotten.  It turns out that the truth about morality was very inconvenient for the “experts on ethics.”  It exposed them as charlatans who had devoted their careers to splitting hairs over the fine points of things that didn’t actually exist.  It popped all their pretentions to superior wisdom and virtue like so many soap bubbles.  The result was predictable.  They embraced Moore and ignored Westermarck.  In the process they didn’t neglect to spawn legions of brand new “experts on ethics” to take their places when they were gone.  Thanks to their foresight we find the emperor’s new clothes are gaudier than ever in our own time.

    The work of George Gissing is an amusing footnote to the story.  We no longer have to scratch our heads wondering where on earth Moore came up with his singular notions about the “Good in itself.”  It turns out the same ideas may be found fossilized in the works of a Victorian novelist.  The “experts on ethics” have been grasping at a very flimsy straw indeed!

    George Gissing

    George Gissing

  • Moral Nihilism, Moral Chaos, and Moral Truth

    Posted on October 5th, 2016 Helian 3 comments

    The truth about morality is both simple and obvious.  It exists as a result of evolution by natural selection.  From that it follows that it cannot possibly have a purpose or goal, and from that it follows that one cannot make “progress” towards fulfilling that nonexistent purpose or reaching that nonexistent goal.  Simple and obvious as it is, no truth has been harder for mankind to accept.

    The reason for this has to do with the nature of moral emotions themselves.  They portray Good and Evil to us as real things that exist independent of human consciousness, when in fact they are subjective artifacts of our imaginations.  That truth has always been hard for us to accept.  It is particularly hard when self-esteem is based on the illusion of moral superiority.  That illusion is obviously alive and well at a time when a large fraction of the population is capable of believing that another large fraction is “deplorable.”  The fact that the result of indulging such illusions in the past has occasionally and not infrequently been mass murder suggests that, as a matter of public safety, it may be useful to stop indulging them.

    The “experts on ethics” delight in concocting chilling accounts of what will happen if we do stop indulging them.  We are told that a world without objective moral truths will be a world of moral nihilism and moral chaos.  The most obvious answer to such fantasies is, “So what?”  Is the truth really irrelevant?  Are we really expected to force ourselves to believe in lies because that truth is just to scary for us to face?  Come to think of it, what, exactly, do we have now if not moral nihilism and moral chaos?

    We live in a world in which every two bit social justice warrior can invent some new “objective evil,” whether “cultural appropriation,” failure to memorize the 57 different flavors or gender, or some arcane “micro-aggression,” and work himself into a fine fit of virtuous indignation if no one takes him seriously.  The very illusion that Good and Evil are objective things is regularly exploited to justify the crude bullying that is now used to enforce new “moral laws” that have suddenly been concocted out of the ethical vacuum.  The unsuspecting owners of mom and pop bakeries wake up one morning to learn that they are now “deplorable,” and so “evil” that their business must be destroyed with a huge fine.

    We live in a world in which hundreds of millions believe that other hundreds of millions who associate the word “begotten” with the “son of God,” or believe in the Trinity, are so evil that they will certainly burn in hell forever.  These other hundreds of millions believe that heavenly bliss will be denied to anyone who doesn’t believe in a God with these attributes.

    We live in a world in which the regime in charge of the most powerful country in the world believes it has such a monopoly on the “objective Good” that it can ignore international law, send its troops to occupy parts of another sovereign state, and dictate to the internationally recognized government of that state which parts of its territory it is allowed to control, and which not.  It persists in this dubious method of defending the “Good” even though it risks launching a nuclear war in the process.  The citizens in that country who happen to support one candidate for President don’t merely consider the citizens who support the opposing candidate wrong.  They consider them objectively evil according to moral “laws” that apparently float about as insubstantial spirits, elevating themselves by their own bootstraps.

    We live in a world in which evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and neuroscientists who are perfectly well aware of the evolutionary roots of morality nevertheless persist in cobbling together new moral systems that lack even so much as the threadbare semblance of a legitimate basis.  The faux legitimacy that the old religions at least had the common decency to supply in the form of imaginary gods is thrown to the winds without a thought.  In spite of that these same scientists expect the rest of us to take them seriously when they announce that, at long last, they’ve discovered the philosopher’s stone of objective Good and Evil, whether in the form of some whimsical notion of “human flourishing,” or perhaps a slightly retouched version of utilitarianism.  In almost the same breath, they affirm the evolutionary basis of morality, and then proceed to denounce anyone who doesn’t conform to their newly minted moral “laws.”  When it comes to morality, it is hard to imagine a more nihilistic and chaotic world.

    I find it hard to believe that a world in which the subjective nature and rather humble evolutionary roots of all our exalted moral systems were commonly recognized, along with the obvious implications of these fundamental truths, could possibly be even more nihilistic and chaotic than the one we already live in.  I doubt that “moral relativity” would prevail in such a world, for the simple reason that it is not in our nature to be moral relativists.  We might even be able to come up with a set of “absolute” moral rules that would be obeyed, not because humanity had deluded itself into believing they were objectively true, but because of a common determination to punish free riders and cheaters.  We might even be able to come up with some rational process for changing and adjusting the rules when necessary by common consent, rather than by the current “enlightened” process of successful bullying.

    We would all be aware that even the most “exalted” and “noble” moral emotions, even those accompanied by stimulating music and rousing speeches, have a common origin; their tendency to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive in a Pleistocene environment.  Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to doubt, not only their ability to detect “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” but the wisdom of paying any attention to them at all.  Instead of swallowing the novel moral concoctions of pious charlatans without a murmur, we would begin to habitually greet them with the query, “Exactly what innate whim are you trying to satisfy?”  We would certainly be very familiar with the tendency of every one of us, described so eloquently by Jonathan Haidt in his “The Righteous Mind,” to begin rationalizing our moral emotions as soon as we experience them, whether in response to “social injustice” or a rude driver who happened to cut us off on the way to work.  We would realize that that very tendency also exists by virtue of evolution by natural selection, not because it is actually capable of unmasking social injustice, or distinguishing “evil” from “good” drivers, but merely because it improved our chances of survival when there were no cars, and no one had ever heard of such a thing as social justice.

    I know, I’m starting to ramble.  I’m imagining a utopia, but one can always dream.

  • The “Moral Progress” Delusion

    Posted on August 14th, 2016 Helian 7 comments

    “Moral progress” is impossible.  It is a concept that implies progress towards a goal that doesn’t exist.  We exist as a result of evolution by natural selection, a process that has simply happened.  Progress implies the existence of an entity sufficiently intelligent to formulate a goal or purpose towards which progress is made.  No such entity has directed the process, nor did one even exist over most of the period during which it occurred.  The emotional predispositions that are the root cause of what we understand by the term “morality” are as much an outcome of natural selection as our hands or feet.  Like our hands and feet, they exist solely because they have enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce.  There is increasing acceptance of the fact that morality owes its existence to evolution by natural selection among the “experts on ethics” among us.  However, as a rule they have been incapable of grasping the obvious implication of that fact; that the notion of “moral progress” is a chimera.  It is a truth that has been too inconvenient for them to bear.

    It’s not difficult to understand why.  Their social gravitas and often their very livelihood depend on propping up the illusion.  This is particularly true of the “experts” in academia, who often lack marketable skills other than their “expertise” in something that doesn’t exist.  Their modus operandi consists of hoodwinking the rest of us into believing that satisfying some whim that happens to be fashionable within their tribe represents “moral progress.”  Such “progress” has no more intrinsic value than a five year old’s progress towards acquiring a lollipop.  Often it can be reasonably expected to lead to outcomes that are the opposite of those that account for the existence of the whim to begin with, resulting in what I have referred to in earlier posts as a morality inversion.  Propping up the illusion in spite of recognition of the evolutionary roots of morality in a milieu that long ago dispensed with the luxury of a God with a big club to serve as the final arbiter of what is “really good” and “really evil” is no mean task.  Among other things it requires some often amusing intellectual contortions as well as the concoction of an arcane jargon to serve as a smokescreen.

    Consider, for example, a paper by Professors Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell entitled Toward a Naturalistic Theory of Moral ProgressIt turned up in the journal Ethics, that ever reliable guide to academic fashion touching on the question of “human flourishing.”  Far from denying the existence of human nature after the fashion of the Blank Slaters of old, the authors positively embrace it.  They cheerfully admit its relevance to morality, noting in particular the existence of a predisposition in our species to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups; what Robert Ardrey used to call the Amity/Enmity Complex.  Now, if these things are true, and absent the miraculous discovery of any other contributing “root cause” for morality other than evolution by natural selection, whether in this world or the realm of spirits, it follows logically that “progress” is a term that can no more apply to morality than it does to evolution by natural selection itself.  It further follows that objective Good and objective Evil are purely imaginary categories.  In other words, unless one is merely referring to the scientific investigation of evolved behavioral traits, “experts on ethics” are experts about nothing.  Their claim to possess a philosopher’s stone pointing the way to how we should act is a chimera.  For the last several thousand years they have been involved in a sterile game of bamboozling the rest of us, and themselves to boot.

    Predictly, the embarrassment and loss of gravitas, not to mention the loss of a regular paycheck, implied by such a straightforward admission of the obvious has been more than the “experts” could bear.  They’ve simply gone about their business as if nothing had happened, and no one had ever heard of a man named Darwin.  It’s actually been quite easy for them in this puritanical and politically correct age, in which the intellectual life and self-esteem of so many depends on maintaining a constant state of virtuous indignation and moral outrage.  Virtuous indignation and moral outrage are absurd absent the existence of an objective moral standard.  Since nothing of the sort exists, it is simply invented, and everyone stays outraged and happy.

    In view of this pressing need to prop up the moral fashions of the day, then, it follows that no great demands are placed on the rigor of modern techniques for concocting real Good and real Evil.  Consider, for example, the paper referred to above.  The authors go to a great deal of trouble to assure their readers that their theory of “moral progress” really is “naturalistic.”  In this enlightened age, they tell us, they will finally be able to steer clear of the flaws that plagued earlier attempts to develop secular moralities.  These were all based on false assumptions “based on folk psychology, flawed attempts to develop empirically based psychological theories, a priori speculation, and reflections on history hampered both by a lack of information and inadequate methodology.”  “For the first time,” they tell us, “we are beginning to develop genuinely scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through the development of empirical psychological theories that take evolutionary biology seriously.”  This begs the question, of course, of how we’ve managed to avoid acquiring “scientific knowledge about human nature” and “taking evolutionary biology seriously” for so long.  But I digress.  The important question is, how do the authors manage to establish a rational basis for their “naturalistic theory of moral progress” while avoiding the Scylla of “folk psychology” on the one hand and the Charybdis of “a priori speculation” on the other?  It turns out that the “basis” in question hardly demands any complex mental gymnastics.  It is simply assumed!

    Here’s the money passage in the paper:

    A general theory of moral progress could take a more a less ambitious form.  The more ambitious form would be to ground an account of which sorts of changes are morally progressive in a normative ethical theory that is compatible with a defensible metaethics… In what follows we take the more modest path:  we set aside metaethical challenges to the notion of moral progress, we make no attempt to ground the claim that certain moralities are in fact better than others, and we do not defend any particular account of what it is for one morality to be better than another.  Instead, we assume that the emergence of certain types of moral inclusivity are significant instances of moral progress and then use these as test cases for exploring the feasibility of a naturalized account of moral progress.

    This is indeed a strange approach to being “naturalistic.”  After excoriating the legions of thinkers before them for their faulty mode of hunting the philosopher’s stone of “moral progress,” they simply assume it exists.  It exists in spite of the elementary chain of logic leading inexorably to the conclusion that it can’t possibly exist if their own claims about the origins of morality in human nature are true.  In what must count as a remarkable coincidence, it exists in the form of “inclusivity,” currently in high fashion as one of the shibboleths defining the ideological box within which most of today’s “experts on ethics” happen to dwell.  Those who trouble themselves to read the paper will find that, in what follows, it is hardly treated as a mere modest assumption, but as an established, objective fact.  “Moral progress” is alluded to over and over again as if, by virtue this original, “modest assumption,” the real thing somehow magically popped into existence in the guise of “inclusivity.”

    Suppose we refrain from questioning the plot, and go along with the charade.  If inclusivity is really to count as moral progress, than it must not only be desirable in certain precincts of academia, but actually feasible.  However if, as the authors agree, humans are predisposed to perceive others of their species in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the feasibility of inclusivity is at least in question.  As the authors put it,

    Attempts to draw connections between contemporary evolutionary theories of morality and the possibility of inclusivist moral progress begin with the standard evolutionary psychological assertion that the main contours of human moral capacities emerged through a process of natural selection on hunter-gatherer groups in the Pleistocene – in the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA)… The crucial claim, which leads some thinkers to draw a pessimistic inference about the possibility of inclusivist moral progress, is that selection pressures in the EEA favored exclusivist moralisties.  These are moralities that feature robust moral commitments among group members but either deny moral standing to outsiders altogether, relegate out-group members to a substantially inferior status, or assign moral standing to outsiders contingent on strategic (self-serving) considerations.

    No matter, according to the authors, this flaw in our evolved moral repertoire can be easily fixed.  All we have to do is lift ourselves out of the EEA, achieve universal prosperity so great and pervasive that competition becomes unnecessary, and the predispositions in question will simply fade away, more or less like the state under Communism.  Invoking that wonderful term “plasticity,” which seems to pop up with every new attempt to finesse human behavioral traits out of existence, they write,

    According to an account of exclusivist morality as a conditionally expressed (adaptively plastic) trait, the suite of attitudes and behaviors associated with exclusivist tendencies develop only when cues that were in the past highly correlated with out-group threat are detected.

    In other words, it is the fond hope of the authors that, if only we can make the environment in which inconvenient behavioral predispositions evolved disappear, the traits themselves will disappear as well!  They go on to claim that this has actually happened, and that,

    …exclusivist moral tendencies are attenuated in populations inhabiting environments in which cues of out-group threat are absent.

    Clearly we have seen a vast expansion in the number of human beings that can be perceived as ingroup since the Pleistocene, and the inclusion as ingroup of racial and religious categories that once defined outgroups.  There is certainly plasticity in how ingroups and outgroups are actually defined and perceived, as one might expect of traits evolved during times of rapid environmental change in the nature of the “others” one happened to be in contact with or aware of at any given time.  However, this hardly “proves” that the fundamental tendency to distinguish between ingroups and outgroups itself will disappear or is likely to disappear in response to any environmental change whatever.  Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to refer to the paper itself.

    Clearly the authors imagine themselves to be “inclusive,” but is that really the case?  Hardly!  It turns out they have a very robust perception of outgroup.  They’ve merely fallen victim to the fallacy that it “doesn’t count” because it’s defined in ideological rather than racial or religious terms.  Their outgroup may be broadly defined as “conservatives.”  These “conservatives” are mentioned over and over again in the paper, always in the guise of the bad guys who are supposed to reject inclusivism and resist “moral progress.”  To cite a few examples,

    We show that although current evolutionary psychological understandings of human morality do not, contrary to the contentions of some authors, support conservative ethical and political conclusions, they do paint a picture of human morality that challenges traditional liberal accounts of moral progress.

    …there is no good reason to believe conservative claims that the shift toward greater inclusiveness has reached its limit or is unsustainable.

    These “evoconservatives,” as we have labeled them, infer from evolutionary explanations of morality that inclusivist moralities are not psychologically feasible for human beings.

    At the same time, there is strong evidence that the development of exclusivist moral tendencies – or what evolutionary psychologists refer to as “in-group assortative sociality,” which is associated with ethnocentric, xenophobic, authoritarian, and conservative psychological orientations – is sensitive to environmental cues…

    and so on, and so on.  In a word, although the good professors are fond of pointing with pride to their vastly expanded ingroup, they have rather more difficulty seeing their vastly expanded outgroup as well, more or less like the difficulty we have seeing the nose at the end of our face.  The fact that the conservative outgroup is perceived with as much fury, disgust, and hatred as ever a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan felt for blacks or Catholics can be confirmed by simply reading through the comment section of any popular website of the ideological Left.  Unless professors employed by philosophy departments live under circumstances more reminiscent of the Pleistocene than I had imagined this bodes ill for their theory of “moral progress” based on “inclusivity.”  More evidence that this is the case is easily available to anyone who cares to look for “diversity” in the philosophy department of the local university in the form of a professor who can be described as conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

    I note in passing another passage in the paper that demonstrates the fanaticism with which the chimera of “moral progress” is pursued in some circles.  Again quoting the authors,

    Some moral philosophers whom we have elsewhere called “evoliberals,” have tacitly affirmed the evo-conservative view in arguing that biomedical interventions that enhance human moral capacities are likely to be crucial for major moral progress due to evolved constraints on human moral nature.

    In a word, the delusion of moral progress is not necessarily just a harmless toy for the entertainment of professors of philosophy, at least as far as those who might have some objection to “biomedical interventions” carried out be self-appointed “experts on ethics” are concerned.

    What’s the point?  The point is that we are unlikely to make progress of any kind without first accepting the truth about our own nature, and the elementary logical implications of that truth.  Darwin saw them, Westermarck saw them, and they are far more obvious today than they were then.  We continue to ignore them at our peril.

  • On Losing Our “Moral Compass” in Syria

    Posted on February 13th, 2016 Helian 2 comments

    It’s important to understand morality.  For example, once we finally grasp the fact that it exists solely as an artifact of evolution, it may finally occur to us that attempting to solve international conflicts in a world full of nuclear weapons by consulting moral emotions is probably a bad idea.  Syria is a case in point.  Consider, for example, an article by Nic Robertson entitled, From Sarajevo to Syria: Where is the world’s moral compass?, that recently turned up on the website of CNN.  The author suggests that we “solve” the Syrian civil war by consulting our “moral compass.”  In his opinion that is what we did in the Balkans to end the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Apparently we are to believe that the situation in Syria is so similar that all we have to do is check the needle of the “moral compass” to solve that problem as well.  I’m not so sure about that.

    In the first place, the outcomes of following a “moral compass” haven’t always been as benign as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Czar Nicholas was following his “moral compass” when he rushed to the aid of Serbia in 1914, precipitating World War I.  Hitler was following his “moral compass” when he attacked Poland in 1939, bringing on World War II.  Apparently it’s very important to follow the right “moral compass,” but the author never gets around to specifying which one of the many available we are to choose.  We must assume he is referring to his own, personal “moral compass.”  He leaves us in doubt regarding its exact nature, but no doubt it has much in common with the “moral compass” of the other journalists who work for CNN.  Unlike earlier versions, we must hope that this one is proof against precipitating another world war.

    If we examine this particular “moral compass” closely, we find that it possesses some interesting idiosyncrasies.  It points to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with using military force to depose a government recognized as legitimate by the United Nations.  According to earlier, now apparently obsolete versions of the “moral compass,” this sort of thing was referred to as naked aggression, and was considered “morally bad.”  Apparently all that has changed.  Coming to the aid of a government so threatened, as Russia is now doing in Syria, used to be considered “good.”  Under the new dispensation, it has become “bad.”  It used to be assumed that governments recognized by the international community as legitimate had the right to control their own airspaces.  Now the compass needle points to the conclusion that control over airspaces is a matter that should be decided by the journalists at CNN.  We must, perforce, assume that they have concocted a “moral compass” superior to anything ever heard of by Plato and Socrates, or any of the other philosophers who plied the trade after them.

    I suggest that, before blindly following this particular needle, we consider rationally what the potential outcomes might be.  Robertson never lays his cards on the table and tells us exactly what he has in mind.  However, we can get a pretty good idea by consulting the article.  In his words,

    Horror and outrage made the world stand up to Bosnia’s bullies after that imagination and fear had ballooned to almost insurmountable proportion.

    Today it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin whose military stands alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Together they’ve become a force no nation alone dares challenge. Their power is seemingly set in stone.

    It would seem, then, based on the analogies of Bosnia and Kosovo, where we did “good,” that Robertson is suggesting we replace the internationally recognized government of Syria by force and confront Russia, whose actions within Syria’s borders are in response to a request for aid by that government.  In the process it would be necessary for us to defeat and humiliate Russia.  It was out of fear of humiliation that Russia came to Serbia’s aid in 1914.  Are we really positive that Russia will not risk nuclear war to avoid a similar humiliation today?  It might be better to avoid pushing our luck to find out.

    What of the bright idea of replacing the current Syrian government?  It seems to me that similar “solutions” really didn’t work out too well in either Iraq or Libya.  Some would have us believe that “moderates” are available in abundance to spring forth and fill the power vacuum.  So far, I have seen no convincing evidence of the existence of these “moderates.”  Supposing they exist, I suspect the chances that they would be able to control a country brimming over with religious fanatics of all stripes without a massive U.S. military presence are vanishingly small.  In other words, I doubt the existence of a benign alternative to Bashar al-Assad.  Under the circumstances, is it really out of the question that the best way to minimize civilian casualties is not by creating a power vacuum, or by allowing the current stalemate to drag on, but by ending the civil war in exactly the way Russia is now attempting to do it; by defeating the rebels?  Is it really worth risking a nuclear war just so we can try the rather dubious alternatives?

    Other pundits (see, for example, here, here, and here) inform us that Turkey “cannot stand idly by” while Syria and her Russian ally regain control over Aleppo, a city within her own borders.  Great shades of the Crimean War!  What on earth could lead anyone to believe that Turkey is our “ally” in any way, shape or form other than within the chains of NATO?  Turkey is a de facto Islamist state.  She actively supports the Palestinians against another of our purported allies, Israel.  Remember the Palestinians?  Those were the people who danced in the streets when they saw the twin towers falling.  She reluctantly granted access to Turkish bases for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS only so she would have a free hand attacking the Kurds, one of the most consistently pro-U.S. factions in the Middle East.  She was foolhardy enough to shoot down a Russian plane in Syrian territory, killing its pilot, for the “crime” of violating her airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds.  She cynically exploits the flow of refugees to Europe as a form of “politics by other means.”  Could there possibly be any more convincing reasons for us to stop playing with fire and get out of NATO?  NATO is a ready-made fast track to World War III on behalf of “allies” like Turkey.

    But I digress.  The point is that the practice of consulting something as imaginary as a “moral compass” to formulate foreign policy is unlikely to end well.  It assumes that, after all these centuries, we have finally found the “correct” moral compass, and the equally chimerical notion that “moral truths” exist, floating about as disembodied spirits, quite independent of the subjective imaginations of the employees of CNN.  Forget about the “moral compass.”  Let us identify exactly what it is we want to accomplish, and the emotional motivation for those desires.  Then, assuming we can achieve some kind of agreement on the matter, let us apply the limited intelligence we possess to realize those desires.

    Morality exists because the behavioral predispositions responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to promote the survival of genes in times radically different than the present.  It exists for that reason alone.  It follows that, if there really were such things as “moral truths,” then nothing could possibly be more immoral than failing to survive.  We would do well to keep that consideration in mind in determining the nature of our future relationship with Russia.

  • Of Moral Truths and Moral Smoke Screens

    Posted on January 9th, 2016 Helian 3 comments

    I’m hardly the only one who’s noticed the evolutionary origins of morality.  I’m not even the only one who’s put two and two together and realized that, as a consequence, objective morality is a chimera.  Edvard Westermarck arrived at the same conclusion more than a century ago, pointing out the impossibility of truth claims about good and evil.  Many of my contemporaries agree on these fundamental facts.  However, it would seem that very few of them agree with me on the implications of these truths for each of us as individuals.

    Consider, for example, a recent post by Michael Shepanski, entitled Morality without smoke, that appeared on his blog Step Back, Step Forward.  Shepanski appears to have no reservations about the evolutionary origins of morality, noting that those origins don’t imply the Hobbesian conclusion that all human behavior is motivated by self-interest:

    To begin, human nature is not the horrible thing that some have imagined. I’m looking at you, Thomas Hobbes:

    Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

    That was written in 1651, and since then we have learnt something about evolutionary psychology. It turns out that our genes have equipped us with more than narrow self-interest: we come with innate tendencies towards (among other things) altruism, empathy, loyalty, and retribution. Also society has systems of rewards and punishments to keep us mostly in line, whether we’re innately disposed to it or not.

    Shepanski also appears to accept the conclusion that, as a result of the evolutionary origins of morality, all the religious and secular edifices concocted so far as a “basis” for it are really just so much smoke.  However, he denies the implication that this implies the “end of morality.”  Rather, he would prefer a “morality without smoke,” meaning one that doesn’t have a “mystical foundation.”  The problem is that he has no such morality to offer:

    About now, you might expect me to put forward some non-mystical basis for morals: something from science perhaps. No, that is not my plan. I don’t believe it’s possible. I’m with the philosopher David Hume, who said we can never reason from matters of fact alone to a moral conclusion: we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.

    I agree with Shepanski about the lack of an objective, or “smoke-free” basis for morality, and I also agree that the lack of such a basis does not imply the “end of morality.”  Morality certainly isn’t going anywhere, regardless of the musings of the philosophers.  It is part of our nature, and a part that we could not well do without even if that were possible, which it isn’t.  This is where things really get interesting, however, and not just in the context of Shepanski’s paper, but in general.  What are the consequences of the facts set forth above?  What “should” we do in view of them?  What do they imply in terms of how individuals should interpret their own moral emotions?

    According to Shepanski,

    And I agree with Hume because (a) as a matter of logic, I don’t see how you can ever get a conclusion that uses the moral words (“ought”, “should”, “good”, “evil” etc.) from premises that don’t use those words (unless the conclusion is completely vacuous), and (b) to my knowledge, no-one has ever found a way around Hume’s law (and even if some ingenious workaround can be found, we don’t want to put morality on hold while we’re waiting for it).

    Summing up so far: basing morals on mysticism is noxious, and basing morals on science alone looks impossible. What next?

    Tell the truth?  Accept the fact that objective morality is as imaginary as Santa Claus, and consider rationally where we go from there?  Well, not quite.  Again quoting Shepanski,

    When you get to that point, and someone asks you what your moral bedrock is based on, my advice is: don’t answer. Keep mum. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Zip it. (Or if you really must have some words to fill an awkward conversational silence, then it’s probably harmless to say any of the following: “It’s a deeply held personal belief,” “It’s just the way I was brought up,” or “These truths we hold to be self-evident”. Just don’t attempt a real defense: don’t attempt to deduce your moral bedrock from anything else.)

    In other words, as my old drama teacher used to put it, “Ad lib!”  Just make sure you never reveal the little man behind the curtain.  Manipulate moral emotions to your heart’s content, but just make sure you never tell the truth.  Of course, this “solution” is very convenient for the “experts on ethics.”  They get to continue pretending that they’re actually experts about something real.  That, of course, is exactly what the legions of them plying their trade in academia and elsewhere are doing as I write this.

    As I pointed out above, what’s interesting about Shepanski’s take on morality is that he derives it from the same basic facts as my own.  In short, he realizes that there is no such thing as objective morality, and he knows that morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains, capable of reasoning about what their moral emotions are trying to tell them.  As he puts it:

    Without smoke, moral principles are pegged to one thing only: our willingness to accept their consequences. Which consequences we are willing to accept is determined, to a large extent, by our evolved psychological tendencies, including altruism, empathy, and self-interest. Within the human species these evolved tendencies are probably more similar than different, so there is hope that our moral principles will converge. Reasoning with one other…, can bring the convergence forward.

    Is that really what we “ought” to do?  Embrace a future in which the best manipulators of moral emotions get to guide their “convergence” to whatever end state they happen to prefer?  I can’t answer that question.  Like Shepanski, I lack any “bedrock” basis for telling anyone what they “ought” to do as a matter of principle.  When it comes to “oughts,” I must limit myself to suggesting what they “ought” to do as a mere matter of utility in order to best achieve goals that, for one reason or another, happen to be important to them.  With that caveat, I suggest that they ought not to follow Shepanski’s advice.

    If human morality is really the expression of evolved behavioral traits, as Shepanski and I both agree, than those traits didn’t just suddenly pop into existence.  Perhaps, like the human eye, they arose from extremely primitive origins, and were gradually refined to their present state over the eons.  Regardless of the precise sequence of events, it’s clear that they evolved in times radically different from the present.  If they evolved, then they must have had some survival value at the time they evolved.  It is certainly not obvious, and indeed it would be surprising, if they were similarly effective in promoting our survival today.  One can cite many examples in which they appear to be accomplishing precisely the opposite, leading to what I have referred to elsewhere as “morality inversions.”

    In other words, while I think it likely that most of us have some subjective notion of purpose, of the meaning of life, of aspirations or goals that are important to us, I very much doubt that a “convergence” of morality will prove to be the most effective way for most of us to achieve those ends.  In the first place, manipulating atavistic emotions strikes me as a dangerous game.  In the second, human moral emotions don’t promote “convergence.”  As Sir Arthur Keith pointed out long ago, they are dual in nature, and include an innate tendency to identify an outgroup, whose members it is natural to despise and hate.  One need only glance through the comment section of any blog or website hosted by some proponent of the “brotherhood of man” to find abundant artifacts of the intense hatred felt for the ideological “other.”  Hatred of the “other” has been with us throughout recorded history, is alive and well today, especially among those of us who most pique themselves on their superior piety and moral purity, and will certainly continue to be a prominent trait of our species for a long time to come.

    What do I suggest as a more “useful” approach than Shepanski’s “convergence?”  The truth is always a good place to start.  We have the misfortune to live in an age dominated by Puritans in both the traditional spiritual and modern secular flavors.  Their demands to be taken seriously as well as the wellsprings of such power as they possess is absolutely dependent on maintaining the illusion that there are such things as objective good and evil.  As a result, promoting a general knowledge and appreciation of the consequences of the truth won’t be easy.  It will entail pulling the rug out from under these obscurantists.  Beyond that, we need to restrict morality to the limits within which we can’t do without it, such as the common, day-to-day interactions of human beings.  My personal preference would be to come up with a common morality that limits the harm we do to each other as much as possible, while at the same time leaving each of us as free as possible to pursue whatever goals in life we happen to have.

    None of the above are likely to happen anytime soon.  No doubt that will come as some comfort to those who “feel in their bones” that good and evil are real things, independent of the human minds that concoct them.  Still, it seems that there’s an increasing tendency, at least in some parts of the world, for people to jettison the silly notion of God into the same realms as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  If that trend is any indication, perhaps there is at least a ray of hope.

  • G. E. Moore Contra Edvard Westermarck

    Posted on November 10th, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    Many pre-Darwinian philosophers realized that the source of human morality was to be found in innate “sentiments,” or “passions,” often speculating that they had been put there by God.  Hume put the theory on a more secular basis.  Darwin realized that the “sentiments,” were there because of natural selection, and that human morality was the result of their expression in creatures with large brains.  Edvard Westermarck, perhaps at the same time the greatest and the most unrecognized moral philosopher of them all, put it all together in a coherent theory of human morality, supported by copious evidence, in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.

    Westermarck is all but forgotten today, probably because his insights were so unpalatable to the various academic and professional tribes of “experts on ethics.”  They realized that, if Westermarck were right, and morality really is just the expression of evolved behavioral predispositions, they would all be out of a job.  Under the circumstances, its interesting that his name keeps surfacing in modern works about evolved morality, innate behavior, and evolutionary psychology.  For example, I ran across a mention of him in famous primatologist Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist.  People like de Waal who know something about the evolved roots of behavior are usually quick to recognize the significance of Westermarck’s work.

    Be that as it may, G. E. Moore, the subject of my last post, holds a far more respected place in the pantheon of moral philosophers.  That’s to be expected, of course.  He never suggested anything as disconcerting as the claim that all the mountains of books and papers they had composed over the centuries might as well have been written about the nature of unicorns.  True, he did insist that everyone who had written about the subject of morality before him was delusional, having fallen for the naturalistic fallacy, but at least he didn’t claim that the subject they were writing about was a chimera.

    Most of what I wrote about in my last post came from the pages of Moore’s Principia Ethica.  That work was published in 1903.  Nine years later he published another little book, entitled Ethics.  As it happens, Westermarck’s Origin appeared between those two dates, in 1906.  In all likelihood, Moore read Westermarck, because parts of Ethics appear to be direct responses to his book.  Moore had only a vague understanding of Darwin, and the implications of his work on the subject of human behavior.  He did, however, understand Westermarck when he wrote in the Origin,

    If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.  It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else.  But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true.  If the word “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

    Now that got Moore’s attention.  Responding to Westermarck’s theory, or something very like it, he wrote:

    Even apart from the fact that they lead to the conclusion that one and the same action is often both right and wrong, it is, I think, very important that we should realize, to begin with, that these views are false; because, if they were true, it would follow that we must take an entirely different view as to the whole nature of Ethics, so far as it is concerned with right and wrong, from what has commonly been taken by a majority of writers.  If these views were true, the whole business of Ethics, in this department, would merely consist in discovering what feelings and opinions men have actually had about different actions, and why they have had them.  A good many writers seem actually to have treated the subject as if this were all that it had to investigate.  And of course questions of this sort are not without interest, and are subjects of legitimate curiosity.  But such questions only form one special branch of Psychology or Anthropology; and most writers have certainly proceeded on the assumption that the special business of Ethics, and the questions which it has to try to answer, are something quite different from this.

    Indeed they have.  The question is whether they’ve actually been doing anything worthwhile in the process.  Note the claim that Westermarck’s views were “false.”  This claim was based on what Moore called a “proof” that it couldn’t be true that appeared in the preceding pages.  Unfortunately, this “proof” is transparently flimsy to anyone who isn’t inclined to swallow it because it defends the relevance of their “expertise.”  Quoting directly from his Ethics, it goes something like this:

    1.  It is absolutely impossible that any one single, absolutely particular action can ever be both right and wrong, either at the same time or at different times.
    2. If the whole of what we mean to assert, when we say that an action is right, is merely that we have a particular feeling towards it, then plainly, provided only we really have this feeling, the action must really be right.
    3. For if this is so, and if, when a man asserts an action to be right or wrong, he is always merely asserting that he himself has some particular feeling towards it, then it absolutely follows that one and the same action has sometimes been both right and wrong – right at one time and wrong at another, or both simultaneously.
    4. But if this is so, then the theory we are considering certainly is not true.  (QED)

    Note that this “proof” requires the positive assertion that it is possible to claim that an action can be right or wrong, in this case because of “feelings.”  A second, similar proof, also offered in Chapter III of Ethics, “proves” that an action can’t possible be right merely because one “thinks” it right, either.  With that, Moore claims that he has “proved” that Westermarck, or someone with identical views, must be wrong.  The only problem with the “proof” is that Westermarck specifically pointed out in the passage quoted above that it is impossible to make truth claims about “moral principles.”  Therefore, it is out of the question that he could ever be claiming that any action “is right,” or “is wrong,” because of “feelings” or for any other reason.  In other words, Moore’s “proof” is nonsense.

    The fact that Moore was responding specifically to evolutionary claims about morality is also evident in the same Chapter of Ethics.  Allow me to quote him at length.

    …it is supposed that there was a time, if we go far enough back, when our ancestors did have different feelings towards different actions, being, for instance, pleased with some and displeased with others, but when they did not, as yet, judge any actions to be right or wrong; and that it was only because they transmitted these feelings, more or less modified, to their descendants, that those descendants at some later stage, began to make judgments of right and wrong; so that, in a sense, or moral judgments were developed out of mere feelings.  And I can see no objection to the supposition that this was so.  But, then, it seems also to be supposed that, if our moral judgments were developed out of feelings – if this was their origin – they must still at this moment be somehow concerned with feelings; that the developed product must resemble the germ out of which it was developed in this particular respect.  And this is an assumption for which there is, surely, no shadow of ground.

    In fact, there was a “shadow of ground” when Moore wrote those words, and the “shadow” has grown a great deal longer in our own day.  Moore continues,

    Thus, even those who hold that our moral judgments are merely judgments about feelings must admit that, at some point in the history of the human race, men, or their ancestors, began not merely to have feelings but to judge that they had them:  and this along means an enormous change.

    Why was this such an “enormous change?”  Why, of course, because as soon as our ancestors judged that they had feelings, then, suddenly those feelings could no longer be a basis for morality, because of the “proof” given above.  Moore concludes triumphantly,

    And hence, the theory that moral judgments originated in feelings does not, in fact, lend any support at all to the theory that now, as developed, they can only be judgments about feelings.

    If Moore’s reputation among them is any guide, such “ironclad logic” is still taken seriously by todays crop of “experts on ethics.”  Perhaps it’s time they started paying more attention to Westermarck.

  • The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore, or Why You Don’t Need to Bother with Aristotle, Hegel, and Kant

    Posted on November 7th, 2015 Helian No comments

    G. E. Moore isn’t exactly a household name these days, except perhaps among philosophers.  You may have heard of his most famous concoction, though – the “naturalistic fallacy.”  If we are to believe Moore, not only Aristotle, Hegel and Kant, but virtually every other philosopher you’ve ever heard of got morality all wrong because of it.  He was the first one who ever got it right.  On top of that, his books are quite thin, and he writes in the vernacular.  When you think about it, he did us all a huge favor.  Assuming he’s right, you won’t have to struggle with Kant, whose sentences can run on for a page and a half before you finally get to the verb at the end, and who is comprehensible, even to Germans, only in English translation.  You won’t have to agonize over the correct interpretation of Hegel’s dialectic.  Moore has done all that for you.  Buy his books, which are little more than pamphlets, and you’ll be able to toss out all those thick tomes and learn all the moral philosophy you will ever need in a week or two.

    Or at least you will if Moore got it right.  It all hinges on his notion of the “Good-in-itself.”  He claims it’s something like what philosophers call qualia.  Qualia are the content of our subjective experiences, like colors, smells, pain, etc.  They can’t really be defined, but only experienced.  Consider, for example, the difficulty of explaining “red” to a blind person.  Moore’s description of the Good is even more vague.  As he puts it in his rather pretentiously named Principia Ethica,

    Let us, then, consider this position.  My point is that ‘good’ is a simple notion, just as ‘yellow’ is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to any one who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.

    In other words, you can’t even define good.  If that isn’t slippery enough for you, try this:

    They (metaphysicians) have always been much occupied, not only with that other class of natural objects which consists in mental facts, but also with the class of objects or properties of objects, which certainly do not exist in time, are not therefore parts of Nature, and which, in fact, do no exist at all.  To this class, as I have said, belongs what we mean by the adjective “good.” …What is meant by good?  This first question I have already attempted to answer.  The peculiar predicate, by reference to which the sphere of Ethics must be defined, is simple, unanalyzable, indefinable.

    Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the Good doesn’t exist.  It just is.  Which brings us to the naturalistic fallacy.  If, as Moore claims, Good doesn’t exist as a natural, or even a metaphysical, object, it can’t be defined with reference to such an object.  Attempts to so define it are what he refers to as the naturalistic fallacy.  That, in his opinion, is why every other moral philosopher in history, or at least all the ones whose names happen to turn up in his books, have been wrong except him.  The fallacy is defined at Wiki and elsewhere on the web, but the best way to grasp what he means is to read his books.  For example,

    The naturalistic fallacy always implies that when we think “This is good,” what we are thinking is that the thing in question bears a definite relation to some one other thing.

    That fallacy, I explained, consists in the contention that good means nothing but some simple or complex notion, that can be defined in terms of natural qualities.

    To hold that from any proposition asserting “Reality is of this nature” we can infer, or obtain confirmation for, any proposition asserting “This is good in itself” is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

    In short, all the head scratching of all the philosophers over thousands of years about the question of what is Good has been so much wasted effort.  Certainly, the average layman had no chance at all of understanding the subject, or at least he didn’t until the fortuitous appearance of Moore on the scene.  He didn’t show up a moment too soon, either, because, as he explains in his books, we all have “duties.”  It turns out that, not only did the intuition “Good,” pop up in his consciousness, more or less after the fashion of “yellow,” or the smell of a rose.  He also “intuited” that it came fully equipped with the power to dictate to other individuals what they ought and ought not to do.  Again, I’ll allow the philosopher to explain.

    Our “duty,” therefore, can only be defined as that action, which will cause more good to exist in the Universe than any possible alternative… When, therefore, Ethics presumes to assert that certain ways of acting are “duties” it presumes to assert that to act in those ways will always produce the greatest possible sum of good.

    But how on earth can we ever even begin to do our duty if we have no clue what Good is?  Well, Moore is actually quite coy about explaining it to us, and rightly so, as it turns out.  When he finally takes a stab at it in Chapter VI of Principia, it turns out to be paltry enough.  Basically, it’s the same “pleasure,” or “happiness” that many other philosophers have suggested, only it’s not described in such simple terms.  It must be part of what Moore describes as an “organic whole,” consisting not only of pleasure itself, for example, but also a consciousness capable of experiencing the pleasure, the requisite level of taste to really appreciate it, the emotional equipment necessary to react with the appropriate level of awe, etc.  Silly old philosophers!  They rashly assumed that, if the Good were defined as “pleasure,” it would occur to their readers that they would have to be conscious in order to experience it without them spelling it out.  Little did they suspect the coming of G. E. Moore and his naturalistic fallacy.

    When he finally gets around to explaining it to us, we gather that Moore’s Good is more or less what you’d expect the intuition of Good to be in a well-bred English gentleman endowed with “good taste” around the turn of the 20th century.  His Good turns out to include nice scenery, pleasant music, and chats with other “good” people.  Or, as he put it somewhat more expansively,

    We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

    and

    By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

    Really?  No one?  One can only surmise that Moore’s circle of acquaintance must have been quite limited.  Unsurprisingly, Beethoven’s Fifth is in the mix, but only, of course, as part of an “organic whole.”  As Moore puts it,

    What value should we attribute to the proper emotion excited by hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, if that emotion were entirely unaccompanied by any consciousness, either of the notes, or of the melodic and harmonic relations between them?

    It would seem, then, that even if you’re such a coarse person that you can’t appreciate Beethoven’s Fifth yourself, it is still your “duty” to make sure that it’s right there on everyone else’s smart phone.

    Imagine, if you will, Mother Nature sitting down with Moore, holding his hand, looking directly into his eyes, and revealing to him in all its majesty the evolution of life on this planet, starting from the simplest, one celled creatures more than four billion years ago, and proceeding through ever more complex forms to the almost incredible emergence of a highly intelligent and highly social species known as Homo sapiens.  It all happened, she explains to him with a look of triumph on her face, because, over all those four billion years, the chain of life remained unbroken because the creatures that made up the links of that chain survived and reproduced.  Then, with a serious expression on her face, she asks him, “Now do you understand the reason for the existence of moral emotions?”  “Of course,” answers Moore, “they’re there so I can enjoy nice landscapes and pretty music.”  (Loud forehead slap)  Mother Nature stands up and walks away shaking her head, consoling herself with the thought that some more advanced species might “get it” after another million years or so of natural selection.

    And what of Aristotle, Hegel and Kant?  Throw out your philosophy books and forget about them.  Imagine being so dense as to commit the naturalistic fallacy!

    Moore

  • More Fun with “Ethics”

    Posted on October 30th, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    One cannot make truth claims about morality because moral perceptions are subjective manifestations of evolved behavioral traits.  That fact should have been obvious to any rational human being shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.  It was certainly obvious enough to Darwin himself.  Edvard Westermarck spelled it out for anyone who still didn’t get it in his The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, published in 1906.  More than a century later one might think it should be obvious to any reasonably intelligent child.  Alas, most of us still haven’t caught on.  We still take our occasional fits of virtuous indignation seriously, and expect everyone else to take them seriously, too.  As for the “experts” who have assumed the responsibility of explaining to the rest of us when our fits are “really” justified, and when not, well, it seems they’ve never heard of a man named Darwin.  Or at least it does to anyone who takes the trouble to thumb through the pages of the journal Ethics.

    You might describe Ethics as a playground for academic practitioners of moral philosophy.  They use it to regale each other with articles full of rarefied hair splitting and arcane jargon describing the flavor of morality they happen to prefer at the moment.  Of course, it also serves as a venue for accumulating the publications upon which academic survival depends.  Look through the articles in any given issue, and you’ll find statements like the following:

    The reasons why actions are right or wrong sometimes are relatively straightforward, and then explicit moral understanding may be quite easy to achieve.

    Since almost all civilians are innocent in war, and since killing innocent civilians is worse than killing soldiers, killing civilians is worse than killing soldiers.

    We are constrained, it seems, not only not to treat others in certain ways, but to do so because they have the moral standing to demand that we do so, and to hold us accountable for wronging them if we fail.

    Some deontologists claim that harm-enabling is a species of harm-allowing.  Others claim that while harm-enabling is properly classified as a species of harm-doing, it is nonetheless morally equivalent, all else equal, to harm-allowing.

    Do you notice the common thread here?  That’s right!  All these statements are dependent on the tacit assumption that there actually is such a thing as moral truth.  In the first that assumption comes in the form of a statement that implies that what we call “good” and “evil” actually exist as objective things.  In the second it comes in the form of an assumption that there is an objective way to determine guilt or innocence.  In the third it manifests itself as a belief the moral emotions can jump out of the skull of one individual and acquire “standing,” so that they apply to other individuals as well.  In the fourth, it turns up in the form of a standard by which it can be determined whether acts are “morally equivalent” or not.  Westermarck cut through the fog obfuscating the basis of such claims in the first chapter of his book.  As he put it,

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.  The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    In other words, all the learned articles on the merits of this or that moral system in the pages of Ethics and similar journals are more or less the equivalent of a similar number of articles on the care and feeding of unicorns, or the number of persons, natures and wills of imaginary super-beings.  Why don’t these people face the obvious?  Well, perhaps first and foremost, because it would put them out of a job.  Beyond that, all their laboriously acquired “expertise,” would become as futile as the expertise of physicians in the 18th century on the proper technique for bleeding patients suffering from smallpox.  For that matter, most of them probably believe their own cant.  As Julius Caesar, among many others, pointed out long ago, human beings tend to believe what they want to believe.

    Morality is what it is, and won’t become something different even if the articles in learned journals on the subject multiply until the stack reaches the moon.  What would happen if the whole world suddenly accepted the fact?  Very little, I suspect.  We don’t behave morally the way we do because of the scribblings of this or that philosopher.  We behave the way we do because that is our nature.  Accepting the truth about morality wouldn’t result in a chaos of moral relativism, or an astronomical increase in crime, or even a sudden jolt of the body politic to the right or the left of the political spectrum.  With luck, a few people might start considering the implications of the truth, and point out that all the virtue posturing and outbursts of pious wrath that are such a pervasive feature of the age we live in are more or less equivalent to the tantrums of children.  The result might be a world that is marginally less annoying to live in.  I personally wouldn’t mind living in a world in which the posturing of moral buffoons had become more a source of amusement than annoyance.

  • Whither Morality?

    Posted on October 10th, 2015 Helian No comments

    There are no such things as objective good and evil.  Human morality is a behavioral artifact of natural selection.  What’s that?  If there’s no objective morality then anything is permitted?  If there’s no objective morality then Hitler wasn’t really evil?  If there’s no objective morality then it’s just as true that female genital mutilation is “good” as that it is “evil?”  If there’s no objective morality, then “moral progress” is a fantasy?  To all this the answer is obvious.  So what?

    What are you telling me?  That you don’t want to deal with reality?  That the consequences of the truth are so bad that the truth can’t be true?  That if the truth were generally known, civilization would collapse into a chaos of moral relativism?  That if the level of virtuous indignation among learned professors of philosophy increases beyond a certain point, objective good and evil will magically pop out of the luminiferous aether like Athena from the head of Zeus?  I don’t think so.

    Good and evil are purely subjective constructs.  That is the truth.  What if, overnight, the entire human population of the planet suddenly accepted that truth?  What would happen?  I’m not the pope, dear reader.  I lack the divine gift of infallibility.  All I can serve up on this blog is my opinion, and my opinion is that nothing much would change, or at least not in a hurry.  In any case, I doubt the result could be any worse than the world of absurd morality inversions and self-righteous scarecrows we live in now.

    We would certainly not all become moral relativists, because it is our nature to perceive good and evil as absolute objects.  I can show you examples of highly intelligent people who have accepted the truth of the subjectivity of moral claims, and yet continue to strike pious poses with the assurance of so many saints, hurling down anathemas on anyone with the temerity to rub their moral emotions the wrong way.  No, the orgasmic pleasure of virtuous indignation is much too great for anything like moral relativism to insinuate itself among us.  I suspect that, even if we all accepted the truth, nothing much would change in our moral behavior, or at least not in a hurry.

    On the other hand, some of us might begin to realize that the behavior inspired by our moral emotions hasn’t exactly been accomplishing the same thing lately as it did when those emotions evolved.  Indeed, for many of us, moral behavior is accomplishing the opposite.  Where once it promoted life, now it promotes death.  In the radically altered environment we have created for ourselves, we witness the remarkable sight of both western liberals and Moslem suicide bombers joyfully embracing their own extinction.

    Assuming that care has been taken to point out to these individuals some of the facts set forth above, I certainly have no objection to their rushing to their own destruction.  If they insist that they must because Allah demands it, or the “moral progress” of mankind makes it imperative, so be it.  I would, however, ask of them the same thing that I would ask of someone who is considered doing away with themselves by jumping in front of a passenger train, or leaping off a highway overpass into rush hour traffic; be so kind as to not involve the rest of us.

    And what of the residue of mankind that decides, on sober consideration of the truth about morality, that they would prefer survival to the alternative after all?  Given the damage uncritical indulgence of moral emotions has done in our recent history, I suggest it would behoove us to constrain their sphere within the narrowest possible limits.  It seems clear that we can’t do without morality in our day-to-day interactions with each other as individuals.  There is simply no viable alternative.  To serve that purpose, it should be possible to come up with a simple moral code in harmony with our emotional nature that reduces friction among us to a minimum.  As noted above, we are not moral relativists by nature.  Most of us would tend to perceive the rules of such a code as absolutes.  “Free riders” who decide to ignore the rules, because of the absence of a God to back them up, or they because they conclude the rules lack objective legitimacy, or because they decide society has no right to constrain their behavior, would be dealt with in the same way that free riders have always been dealt with in healthy societies since time immemorial.  They would be punished in a way that demonstrated both to themselves and others that there was nothing to be gained and much to lose by their defiance.

    On the other hand, when it comes to making broad policy decisions on a higher level, the reasons for making them one way and not another should be carefully scrutinized.  In the end, those reasons will never amount to a distillation of pure logic.  As Hume rightly pointed out, reason must always be the slave of passion.  An emotional whim of some kind or another will always lie at the tail end of the chain of logic.  It will be important to determine exactly what that whim is, and why satisfying it will work to what most of us would consider their advantage, and not their harm or destruction.

    All this is painted with a very broad brush, of course.  In the end, the result would depend on a great deal of trial and error, not to mention the inevitable decision each of us will make regarding who belongs to their ingroup and who their outgroup.  The ingroup will never, under any circumstances, include “all mankind.”  It should be chosen wisely, based, among other things, on whether ones whim is to survive or not.

    Would such a world, based on a clear appreciation of the truth about morality, be better than the one we have now?  That, of course, will depend on each individual’s point of view.  I think that, for most of us, the result will be agreeable enough.  If nothing else, it should reduce to a bare minimum the number of pious peck sniffs whose constant state of offended virtuous indignation is such a nuisance for the rest of us.