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  • 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.

  • Relics of the Blank Slate, as Excavated at “Ethics” Magazine

    Posted on October 4th, 2015 Helian No comments

    There’s a reason that the Blank Slaters clung so bitterly to their absurd orthodoxy for so many years.  If there is such a thing as human nature, then all the grandiose utopias they concocted for us over the years, from Communism on down, would vanish like so many mirages.  That orthodoxy collapsed when a man named Robert Ardrey made a laughing stock of the “men of science.”  In this enlightened age, one seldom finds an old school, hard core Blank Slater outside of the darkest, most obscure rat holes of academia.  Even PBS and Scientific American have thrown in the towel.  Still, one occasionally runs across “makeovers” of the old orthodoxy, in the guise of what one might call Blank Slate Lite.

    I recently discovered just such an artifact in the pages of Ethics magazine, which functions after a fashion as an asylum for “experts in ethics” who still cling to the illusion that they have anything relevant to say.  Entitled The Limits of Evolutionary Explanations of Morality and Their Implications for Moral Progress, it was written by Prof. Allen Buchanan of Duke and Kings College, London, and Asst. Prof. Russell Powell of Boston University.  Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay wall, and is quite long, but if you’re the adventurous type you might be able to access it at a local university library.  In any case, the short version of the paper might be summarized as follows:

    Conservatives have traditionally claimed that “human nature places severe limitations on social and moral reform,” but have “offered little in the way of scientific evidence to support this claim.”  Now, however, a later breed of conservatives, knows as “evoconservatives,” have “attempted to fill this empirical gap in the conservative argument by appealing to the prevailing evolutionary explanation of morality to show that it is unrealistic to think that cosmopolitan and other “inclusivist” moral ideals can meaningfully be realized.”  However, while evolved psychology can’t be discounted in moral theory, and there is such a thing as human nature, they are so plastic and malleable that it doesn’t stand in the way of moral progress.

    This, at least, is the argument until one gets to the “Conclusion” section at the end.  Then, as if frightened by their own hubris, the authors make noises in a quite contradictory direction, writing, for example,

    …we acknowledge that evolved psychological capacities, interacting with particular social and institutional environments, can pose serious obstacles to using our rationality in ways that result in more inclusive moralities. For example, environments that mirror conditions of the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptation, i.e., the environment in which moral behavioral predispositions presumably evolved, ed.)—such as those characterized by great physical insecurity, high parasite threat, severe intergroup competition for resources, and a lack of institutions for peaceful, mutually beneficial cooperation—will tend to be very unfriendly to the development of inclusivist morality.

    However, they conclude triumphantly with the following:

    At the same time, however, we have offered compelling reasons, both theoretical and empirical, to believe that human morality is only weakly constrained by human evolutionary history, leaving the potential for substantial moral progress wide open. Our point is not that human beings have slipped the “leash” of evolution, but rather that the leash is far longer than evoconservatives and even many evolutionary psychologists have acknowledged—and no one is in a position at present to know just how elastic it will turn out to be.

    Students of the Blank Slate orthodoxy will see that all the main shibboleths are still there, if in somewhat attenuated form.  The Blank Slate itself is replaced by a “long leash.”  The “genetic determinist” strawman of the Blank Slaters is replaced by “evoconservatives.”  These evoconservatives are no longer “fascists and racists,” but merely a nuisance standing in the way of “moral progress.”  The overriding goal is no longer anything like the Marxist paradise on earth, but the somewhat less inspiring continued “development of inclusivist morality.”

    Readers of this blog should immediately notice the unwarranted assumption that there actually is such a thing as “moral progress.”  In that case, there must be a goal towards which morality is progressing.  Natural selection occurs without any such goal or purpose.  It follows that the authors believe that there must be some “mysterious, transcendental” origin other than natural evolution to account for this progress.  However, they insist they don’t believe in such a “mysterious, transcendental” source.  How, then, do they account for the existence of this “thing” they refer to as “moral progress?”  What the authors are really referring to when they refer to this “moral progress” is “the way we and other good liberals want things.”

    By “inclusivist” moralities, the authors mean versions that can be expanded to include very large subsets of the human population that are neither kin to the bearers of that morality nor members of any identifiable group that is likely to reciprocate their good deeds.  Presumably the ultimate goal is to expand these subsets to “include” all mankind.  The “evoconservatives” we are told, deny the possibility of such “inclusivism” in spite of the fact that one can cite many obvious examples to the contrary.  At this point, one begins to wonder who these obtuse evoconservatives really are.  The authors are quite coy about identifying them.  The footnote following their first mention merely points to a blurb about what the authors will discuss later in the text.  No names are named.  Much later in the text Jonathan Haidt is finally identified as one of the evoconservatives.  As the authors put it,

    Leading psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has stressed the moral psychological significance of in-group loyalty, expresses a related view: ‘It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

    In fact, as anyone who has actually read Haidt is aware, he neither believes that “inclusivist” moralities as defined by the authors are impossible, nor does this quote imply anything of the sort.  A genuine conservative would doubtless classify Haidt as a liberal, but he has defended, or at least tried to explain, conservative moralities.  Apparently that is sufficient to cast him into the outer darkness as an “evoconservative.”

    The authors also point the finger at Larry Arnhart.  Arnhart is neither a geneticist, nor an evolutionary biologist, nor an evolutionary psychologist, but a political scientist who apparently subscribes to some version of the naturalistic fallacy.  Nowhere is it demonstrated that he actually believes that the inclusivist versions of morality favored by the authors are impossible.  In a word, the few slim references to individuals who are supposed to fit the description of the evoconservative strawman concocted by the authors actually do nothing of the sort.  Yet in spite of the fact that the authors can’t actually name anyone who explicitly embraces their version of evoconservatism, they describe the existence of “inclusivist morality” as a “major flaw in evoconservative arguments.”

    A bit later, the authors appear to drop their evoconservative strawman, and expand their field of fire to include anyone who claims that “inclusivist morality” could have resulted from natural selection.  For example, quoting from the article:

    The key point is that none of these inclusivist features of contemporary morality are plausibly explained in standard selectionist terms, that is, as adaptations or predictable expressions of adaptive features that arose in the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA).

    Here, “evoconservatives” have been replaced by “standard selectionists.”  Invariably, the authors walk back such seemingly undistilled statements of Blank Slate ideology with assurances that no one believes more firmly than they in the evolutionary roots of morality.  That, of course, begs the question of how “these inclusivist features,” if they are not explainable in “standard selectionist terms,” are plausibly explained in “non-standard selectionist terms,” and who these “non-standard selectionists” actually are.  Apparently the only alternative is that the “inclusivist features” have a “transcendental” explanation, not further elaborated by the authors.  This conclusion is not as far fetched as it seems.  Interestingly enough, the authors’ work is partially funded by the Templeton Foundation, an accommodationist outfit with the ostensible goal of proving that religion and science are not mutually exclusive.

    In fact, I know of not a single scientist whose specialty is germane to the subject of human morality who would dispute the existence of inclusive moralities.  The authors limit themselves to statements to the effect that the work of such and such a person “suggests” that they don’t believe in inclusive moralities, or that the work of some other person “implies” that they don’t believe such moralities are stable.  Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to simply go and ask these people what they actually believe regarding these matters, instead of putting words in their mouths?

    Left out of all these glowing descriptions of inclusive moralities is the fact that not a single one of them exists without an outgroup.  That fact is demonstrated by the authors themselves, whose outgroup obviously includes those they identify as “evoconservatives.”  One might also point out that those who have “inclusive” ingroups commonly have “inclusive” outgroups as well, and liberals are commonly found among the most violent outgroup haters on the planet.  To confirm this, one need only look at the comments at the websites of Daily Kos, or Talking Points Memo, or the Nation, or any other familiar liberal watering hole.

    While I’m somewhat dubious about all the authors’ loose talk about “moral progress,” I think we can at least identify some real progress towards getting at the truth in their version of Blank Slate Lite.  After all, it’s a far cry from the old school version.  Throughout the article the authors question the ability of natural selection in the environment in which moral behavior presumably evolved in early humans to account for this or that feature of their observed “inclusive morality.”  As noted above, however, as often as they do it, they are effusive in assuring the reader that by no means do they wish to imply that they find any fault whatsoever with innate theories of human morality.  In the end, what more can one ask than the ability to continue seeking the truth about human moral behavior in every relevant area of science without fear of being denounced and intimidated as guilty of one type of villainy or another.  That ability seems more assured if the existence of innate behavior is at least admitted, and is therefore unlikely to be criminalized as it was in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  In that respect, Blank Slate Lite really does represent progress.

    Of course, there remains the question of why so many of us still take seriously the authors’ fantasies about “moral progress” more than a century after Westermarck pointed out the absurdity of truth claims about morality.  I suspect the answer lies in the fact that ending the charade would reduce all the pontifications of all the “experts in morality” catered to by learned journals like Ethics to gibberish.  Experts don’t like to be confronted with the truth that their painstakingly acquired expertise is irrelevant.  Admitting it would make it a great deal harder to secure grants from the Templeton Foundation.

    UPDATE:  I failed to mention another intriguing paragraph in the paper that reads as follows:

    The human capacity to reflect on and revise our conceptions of duty and moral standing can give us reasons here and now to expand our capacities for moral behavior by developing institutions that economize on sympathy and enhance our ability to take the interests of strangers into account. This same capacity may also give us reasons, in the not-too-distant future, to modify our evolved psychology through the employment of biomedical interventions that enable us to implement new norms that we develop as a result of the process of reflection. In both cases, the limits of our evolved motivational capacities do not translate into a comparable constraint on our capacity for moral action. The fact that we are not currently motivationally capable of acting on the considered moral norms we have come to endorse is not a reason to trim back those norms; it is a reason to enhance our motivational capacity, either through institutional or biomedical means, so that it matches the demands of our considered morality.

    Note the bolded wording.  I’m not sure what to make of it, dear reader, but it appears that, one way or another, the authors intend to “get our minds right.”

  • The Great European Morality Inversion

    Posted on October 2nd, 2015 Helian 5 comments

    If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know my take on morality.  It is the manifestation of a subset of our suite of innate behavioral traits.  The traits in question exist because they evolved.  Absent those traits, morality as we know it would not exist.  It follows that attempts to apply moral emotions in order to solve complex problems that arise in an environment that is radically different from the one in which the innate, “root causes” of morality evolved are irrational.  That, however, is precisely how the Europeans are attempting to deal with an unprecedented flood of culturally and genetically alien refugees.  The result is predictable – a classic morality inversion.

    The situation is unfolding just as Jonathan Haidt described it in his paper, The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  As he put it,

    …moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.

    In other words, the “emotional dog” makes the judgment.  Only after the judgment has been made does the “rational tail” begin “wagging the dog,” concocting good sounding “reasons” for the judgment.  One can get a better idea of what’s really going on by tracking down the source of the moral emotions involved.

    Let’s consider, then, what’s going on inside the “pro-refugee” brain.  As in every other brain, the moral machinery distinguishes between ingroup and outgroup(s).  In this case these categories are perceived primarily in ideological terms.  The typical pro-refugee individual is often a liberal, as that rather slippery term is generally understood in the context of 21st century western democracies.  Such specimens will occasionally claim that they have expanded their ingroup to include “all mankind,” so that it is no longer possible for them to be “haters.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  It comes with the human behavioral package.

    If anything, the modern liberal hates more violently than any other subgroup.  He commonly hates the people within his own culture who disagree with the shibboleths of his ideology.  Those particular “others,” almost always constitute at least a part of his outgroup.  Outside of his own culture, ideology matters much less as a criterion of outgroup identification, as demonstrated, for example, by the odd affinity between many Western liberals and radical Islamists.

    Beyond that, however, he is hardly immune from the more traditional forms of tribalism.  For example, European liberals typically hate the United States.  The intensity of that hatred tends to rise and fall over time, but can sometimes reach almost incredible levels.  The most recent eruption occurred around the year 2000.  Interestingly enough, one of the most spectacular examples occurred in Germany, the very country that now takes the cake for moralistic grandstanding in the matter of refugees.  Der Spiegel, its number one news magazine, was certainly in the avant-garde of the orgasm of hatred.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany on the homepage of its website, so filled was it with furious, spittle-flinging rants about the imagined evils of “die Amerikaner.”  However, virtually every other major German “news” outlet, whether it was nominally “liberal” or “conservative,” eventually jointed the howling pack.  The most vicious examples of anti-American hate were typically found in just those publications that are now quick to denounce German citizens who express concern about the overwhelming waves of refugees now pouring into the country as “haters.”

    On the other hand, refugees, or at least those of the type now pouring into Europe, seldom turn up in any of these common outgroups of the modern liberal.  They land squarely in his ingroup.  Humans are generally inclined to help ingroup members who, like the refugees, appear to be in trouble.  This is doubly true of the liberal, who piques himself on what he imagines to be his moral superiority.  Furthermore, as the refugees can be portrayed as victims of colonialism and imperialism, one might say they are a “most favored subset” of the ingroup.  Throw in a few pictures of drowned children, impoverished women begging for help, etc., and all the moral ingredients are there to render the liberal an impassioned defender of the masses of humanity drawing a bead on his country.  Nothing gives him more self-righteous joy than imagining himself a “savior.”  This explains the fact that liberals are eternally in the process of “saving” one group of unfortunates or another without ever getting around to accomplishing anything actually recognizable as salvation.  All the pleasure is in the charade.  We find the same phenomenon whether its a matter of “saving” the environment, “saving” the planet from global warming, or “saving” the poor.  For the liberal, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

    Which brings us back to the theme of this post.  All the sublime moral emotions now at play in the “salvation” of the refugees have an uncanny resemblance to many other instances of moral behavior as practiced by the modern liberal.  They have a tendency to favor an outcome which is the opposite of what the same moral emotions accomplished at an earlier time, and that led to their preservation by natural selection to begin with.  In a word, as noted above, we are witnessing yet another classic morality inversion.

    Why an inversion?  At the most fundamental level, because it will lead to the diminution or elimination of the genes whose survival a similar response once favored.  At the moment, the pro-refugee side is calling the shots.  It controls the governments of all the major European states.  All of them more or less fit the pattern described above, whether they are nominally “liberal” or “conservative.”  Indeed, foremost among them is Germany’s “conservative’ regime, which has positively invited a flood of alien refugees across its borders.  Based on historical precedent, the outcome of all this altruism isn’t difficult to foresee.  In terms of “culture” it will be a future of ethnic and religious strife, possibly leading to civil war.  Genetically, it amounts to an attempt at ethnic suicide.  I am well aware that these outcomes are disputed by those promoting the refugee inundation.  However, I consider it pointless to argue about it.  I am content to let history judge.

    While we bide our time waiting for the train wreck to unfold, it may be of interest to examine some of the techniques being used to maintain this remarkable instance of moralistic play-acting.  I take most of my examples from the German media, which includes some of the most avid refugee cheerleaders.  Predictably, outgroup vilification is part of the mix.  As noted above, anyone who objects to the flood of refugees is almost universally denounced as a “hater” by just those people who wear their own virulent hatreds on their sleeves while pretending they don’t exist.  Of course, there are also the usual hackneyed violations of Godwin’s Law.  For example, Jacob Augstein, leftwing stalwart for Der Spiegel, denounces them as “Browns” (i.e., brownshirts, Nazis) in a recent column.  On the “positive” side, the “conservative” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung optimistically suggests that the refugees will promote economic growth.  According to another article in Der Spiegel, the eastern Europeans, who are not quite so refugee-friendly as the Germans, are “blowing their chance.”  The ominous byline reads,

    Europe is shrinking.  The demographic downtrend is particularly dramatic in the eastern part of the continent, where the population is literally dying out.  In spite of that, Hungary, Poland and company are resisting immigration.  They will regret it.

    In other words, before turning out the lights and committing suicide, the eastern Europeans should make sure an alien culture is in place to take over their territories when they’re gone.  Of course, this flies in the face of the impassioned rhetoric the liberals have been feeding us about the need to reduce the surface population if we are to have an environmentally sustainable planet.

    I note in passing that the European elites that are driving this process now seem to have taken a step back from the brink.  They are having second thoughts.  They realize that they don’t have their populations behind them, and that their defiance of popular opinion might eventually threaten their own power.  As a result, the number of news articles about the refugees and their plight is only a shadow of what it was only a few weeks ago.  Mild reservations about refugee wowserism are starting to appear even in such gung-ho forums as Der Spiegel where, as I write this, the lead article on their homepage is entitled “Now Things Are Getting Uncomfortable.”  Ya think!?  The byline reads,

    There is a chance in tone in the refugee crisis.  SPD (German Social Democratic Party) chief Gabriel warms about limits to Germany’s ability to absorb refugees.  Minister of the Interior de Maziere deplores the misbehavior of many migrants.  The pressure on Chancellor Merkel is increasing.

    “Ought” the Europeans to alter their behavior?  Is what they consider “good” really “evil?”  Are they ignoring the real “goal” of natural selection?  Certainly not, at least from an objective point of view.  There is no objective criterion for determining what anyone “ought” to do, anymore than there is an objective way to distinguish the difference between things, such as good and evil, that have no objective existence.  They are hardly failing to move towards the “goal” of natural selection, since that process does not have either a purpose or a goal.  As you may have gathered, my own subjective whim is to oppose unlimited immigration.  I have, however, not the slightest basis for declaring that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is “evil.”  At best, I can try to explain my own whims.

    I’m what you might call a moral compatibilist.  I see myself sitting at the end of a chain of life spawned by genetic material that has evolved over a period of more than three billions years, surviving and reproducing over that incredible gulf of time via an almost infinite array of successive forms, culminating in the species to which I now belong.  I consider the whole process, and the universe I live in, awesome and wonderful.  Subjectively, it seems to me “good” to act in a way that is compatible with the natural processes that have given me life.  It follows that, from my own, individual, subjective point of view, I “should” seek to preserve that life and pass it on into the indefinite future.

    I have not the slightest basis for claiming that “my way” is better than the whimsical behavior of those I see around me exultantly pursuing their morality inversions.  At best, I must limit myself to observing that “my way” seems more consistent.