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  • On Legitimizing Moral Laws: “Purpose” as a God Substitute

    Posted on January 14th, 2018 Helian 4 comments

    The mental traits responsible for moral behavior did not evolve because they happened to correspond to “universal moral truths.”  They evolved because they increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  The evolutionary origins of morality explain why we imagine the existence of “universal moral truths” to begin with.  We imagine that “moral truths” exist as objective things, independent of the minds that imagine them, because there was a selective advantage to perceiving them in that way.  Philosophers have long busied themselves with the futile task of “proving” that these figments of their imaginations really do exist just as they imagine them – as independent things.  Of course, even though they’ve been trying for thousands of years, they’ve never succeeded, for the very good reason that the things whose existence they’ve been trying to prove don’t exist.  No matter how powerfully our imaginations portray these illusions to us as real things, they remain illusions.

    God has always served as a convenient prop for objective morality.  It has always seemed plausible to many that, if God says something is morally good, it really is good.  Plato exposed the logical flaws of this claim in his Euthyphro.  However, such quibbles may be conveniently ignored by those who believe that the penalty for meddling with the logical basis of divine law is an eternity in hell.  They dispose of Plato by simply accepting without question the axiom that God is good.  If God is good, then his purposes must be good.  If, as claimed by the 18th century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, he endowed us with an innate moral sense, which serves as the fundamental source of morality, then he must have done it for a purpose.  Since that purpose is Godly, and therefore good in itself, moral rules that are true expressions of our God-given moral sense must be good in themselves as well. QED

    Unfortunately, there is no God, a fact that has become increasingly obvious over the years as the naturalistic explanations of the universe supplied by the advance of science have supplanted supernatural ones at an accelerating rate.  As a result, atheists already make up a large proportion of the population in many countries where threats of violence and ostracism are no longer effective props for the old religions.  However, most of these atheists haven’t yet succeeded in divorcing themselves from the spirit world.  They still believe that disembodied Goods and Evils hover about us in ghostly form, endowed with a magical power to dictate “right” behavior, not only to themselves, but to everyone else as well.

    The challenge these latter day moralists face, of course, is to supply an explanation of just how it is that the moral rules supplied by their vivid imaginations acquire the right to dictate behavior to the rest of us.  In view of the fact that, if one really believes in objective morality, independent of the subjective minds of individuals, one must also account for the recent disconcerting habit of the “moral law” to undergo drastic changes on an almost daily basis, this is no easy task.

    In fact, it is an impossible task, since the “objective” ghosts of Good and Evil exist no more in reality than does God.  However, there are powerful incentives to believe in these ghosts, just as there are powerful incentives to believe in God.  As a result, there has been no lack of trying.  One gambit in this direction, entitled Could Morality Have a Transcendent Evolved Purpose?, recently turned up at From Darwin to Eternity, one of the blogs hosted by Psychology Today.  According to the author, Michael Price, the “standard naturalistic conclusion” is that,

    It is hard to see how morality could ultimately serve any larger kind of purpose.  Conventional religions sidestep this problem, of course, by positing a supernatural purpose provider.  But that’s an unsatisfactory solution, if you wish to maintain a naturalistic worldview.

    Here it is important to notice an implied assumption that becomes increasingly obvious as we read further in the article.  The assumption is that, if we can successfully identify a “larger kind of purpose,” then the imagined good is somehow transformed into objective Good, and imagined evil into objective Evil.  There is no basis whatsoever for this assumption, regardless of where the “larger kind of purpose” comes from.  It is important to notice this disconnect, because Price apparently believes that, if morality can be shown to serve a “transcendent naturalistic purpose,” then it must thereby gain objective legitimacy and independent normative power.  He doesn’t say so explicitly, but if he doesn’t believe it, his article is pointless.  He goes on to claim that, according to the “conventional interpretation,” of those who accept the fact of evolution by natural selection,

    There can be no transcendent purpose, because no widely-understood natural process can generate such purpose. Transcendent purpose is a subject for religion, and maybe for philosophy, but not for science. That’s the standard naturalistic conclusion.

    I note in passing that, while this may be “the standard naturalistic conclusion,” it certainly hasn’t stopped the vast majority of its proponents from thinking and acting just as if they believed in objective morality.  I know of not a single exception among contemporary scientists or philosophers of any note, regardless of what their theories on the subject happen to be.  One can find artifacts in the writings or sayings of all of them that make no sense unless they believe in objective morality, regardless of what their philosophical theories on the subject happen to be.  Typically these artifacts take the form of assertions that some individual or group of individuals is morally good or evil, without any suggestion that the assertion is merely an opinion.  Such statements make no sense absent a belief in some objective Good, generally applicable to others besides themselves, and not merely an artifact of their subjective whims.  The innate illusion of objective Good has been too powerful for any of them to entirely free themselves of the fantasy.  Be that as it may, Price tells us that there is also an “unconventional interpretation.” He poses the rhetorical question,

    Could morality be “universal” in the sense that there is some transcendent moral purpose to human existence itself?… This is a tricky question because natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer “purpose” (moral or otherwise). It does so by generating “function,” which is essentially synonymous with “purpose”: the function/purpose of an eye, for example, is to see.

    Notice the quotation marks around “purpose” and “function” when they’re first used in this quote.  That’s as it should be, as the terms are only used in this context as a convenient form of shorthand.  They refer to the reasons that the characteristics in question happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, these shorthand terms should never be confused with a real function or purpose.  In the case of “purpose,” for example, consider the actual definition found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

    Purpose: 1: something set up as an object or end to be attained 2 : a subject under discussion or an action in course of execution

    Clearly, someone must be there to set up the object or end, or to discuss the subject.  In the case of evolution, no “someone” is there.  In other words, there is no purpose to evolution or its outcomes in the proper sense of the term.  However, if you look at the final sentence in the Price quote above, you’ll notice something odd has happened.  The quote marks have disappeared.  “Function/purpose” has suddenly become function/purpose!  One might charitably assume that Price is still using the terms in the same sense, and has simply neglected the quote marks.  If so, one would be assuming wrong.  A bit further on, the “purpose” that we saw change to purpose metastasizes again.  It is now not just a purpose, but a “transcendent naturalistic purpose!”  In Price’s words,

    I think the standard naturalistic conclusion is premature, however. There is one way in which transcendent naturalistic purpose could in fact exist.

    In the very next sentence, “transcendent naturalistic purpose” has completed the transformation from egg to butterfly, and becomes “transcendent moral purpose!” Again quoting Price,

    If selection is the only natural source of purpose, then transcendent moral purpose could exist if selection were operating at some level more fundamental than the biological.  Specifically, transcendent purpose would require a process of cosmological natural selection, with universes being selected from a multiverse based on their reproductive ability, and intelligence emerging (as a subroutine of cosmological evolution) as a higher-level adaptation for universe reproduction.  From this perspective, intelligent life (including its moral systems) would have a transcendent purpose: to eventually develop the sociopolitical and technical expertise that would enable it to cooperatively create new universes…  These ideas are highly speculative and may seem strange, especially if you haven’t heard them before.

    That’s for sure! In his conclusion Price gets a bit slippery about whether he personally buys into this extravagant word game. As he puts it,

    At any rate, my goal here is not to argue that these ideas are likely to be true, nor that they are likely to be false. I simply want to point out that if they’re false, then it seems like it must also be false – from a naturalistic perspective, at least – that morality could have any transcendent purpose.

    This implies that Price accepts the idea that, if “these ideas are likely to be true,” then morality actually could have a “transcendent purpose.”  Apparently we are to assume that moral rules could somehow acquire objective legitimacy by virtue of having a “transcendent purpose.”  The “proof” goes something like this:

    1. Morality evolved because it serves a “purpose.”
    2. Miracle a happens
    3. Therefore, morality evolved because it serves a purpose.
    4. Miracle b happens
    5. Therefore, morality evolved to serve an independent naturalistic purpose.
    6. Miracle c happens
    7. Therefore, morality evolved to serve a transcendental moral purpose.
    8. Miracle d happens
    9. If a transcendental moral purpose exists, then it automatically becomes our duty to obey moral rules that serve that purpose. The rules acquire objective legitimacy.

    So much for a rigorous demonstration that a new God in the form of “transcendental moral purpose” exists to replace the old God.  I doubt much has been gained here.  At least the “proofs” of the old God’s existence didn’t require such a high level of “mental flexibility.”  Would it be impertinent to ask how the emotional responses we normally associate with morality could become completely divorced from the “transcendental moral purpose,” to serve which we are to believe they actually exist?  Has anyone told the genes responsible for the predispositions that are the ultimate cause of our moral behavior about this “transcendental moral purpose?”

    In short, it’s clear that while belief in God is falling out of fashion, at least in some countries, belief in an equally imaginary “objective morality” most decidedly is not.  We have just reviewed an example of the ludicrous lengths to which our philosophers and “experts on morality” are willing to go to prop up their faith in this particular mirage.  It has been much easier for them to give up the God fantasy than the fantasy of their own moral righteousness.  Indeed, legions of these “experts on morality” would quickly find themselves unemployed if it were generally realized that what they claim to be “expert” about is a mere fantasy.  So goes life in the asylum.

  • Can Darwinism Make Us Morally Better?

    Posted on August 19th, 2017 Helian No comments

    No.  Morality is, indeed, a manifestation of evolved traits, but, objectively speaking, that very fact reduces the term “morally better” to an absurdity.  However, the default position of modern intellectuals, even if they accept the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, is that it is still possible to be “morally better” or “morally worse.”  They treat this assumption as a matter of objective fact, independent of the subjective opinions of individuals.  As a case in point, consider an article by Michael Price entitled How Evolutionary Science Can Make Us Morally Better.  Its byline reads “Using Darwinism to resolve moral conflicts.”

    Price certainly knows that the brain exists because it evolved.  He also knows that moral judgments are manifestations of emotions that are generated in that evolved brain.  For example, echoing Jonathan Haidt, he writes,

    Given that morality is so important, you’d think we’d want to make sure that we were doing it right. That is, you’d think that we would insist on knowing why we have the beliefs that we have, how those beliefs came into being, who they benefit, and where they are likely to lead us. Very often, however, our moral judgments are based primarily on our immediate emotional reactions to the behavior of others, and our attempts to justify our judgments are just post hoc rationalizations of these emotions.

    In spite of this, Price insists on the existence of “moral progress.”  As he puts it,

    We’d be better able to move on from these disputes in productive ways—and thus to make moral progress—if we could better understand our own moral beliefs. But how can we do this when our beliefs seem so opaque to introspection? It’s easy to feel passionate about our beliefs, but how can we see behind our emotions, to find out where our beliefs came from and whether they are leading us to where we want to go? Evolutionary science provides the key to such moral progress.

    This begs the question, “progress towards what?”  Evolution is not a conscious thing that sets goals for itself.  Function or goal implies consciousness, but evolution is merely a natural process.  To speak of its goal or function is absurd.  Price admits as much, writing,

    What I don’t mean is that the evolutionary process itself can provide guidance about right or wrong. If something increased or increases reproductive fitness, does that mean we should judge it as morally good? Of course not; I agree with philosophers who identify such thinking as a flawed “appeal to nature” or “naturalistic fallacy.”

    How, then, are we to identify the goals towards which moral progress is to occur?  According to Price, we should just make them up:

    So if the evolutionary process provides zero guidance about right and wrong, how do we know what our moral beliefs should be? It’s up to us. We have to do our best to agree about what our goals as a society should be, and then advocate and enforce moral norms based on how useful we think they will be for accomplishing these goals. Which brings me to the first way in which evolutionary science is the key to moral progress: the better we understand human nature, the better we can design moral systems that encourage expression of our “good” evolved psychological adaptations while discouraging expression of our “bad” ones. A moral system will succeed not by attempting to ignore or override evolved human nature, but rather by strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others.

    “Our goals as a society?”  That sounds very noble, but morality didn’t evolve for the good of society.  What Price is suggesting here is that we manipulate moral emotions to accomplish goals that have nothing to do with the reasons that the traits responsible for the existence of morality evolved to begin with.  Where do “our goals” actually come from?  Scrape away the philosophical jargon, and you’ll always find some emotional whim as the actual basis for the existence of “our goals.”  Such whims are no different than the emotional responses responsible for the existence of morality.  They exist as a result of natural selection, and they were selected because they happened to promote the survival and reproduction of genes in individuals.  They can hardly be expected to accomplish the same things now as they did in the radically different environment in which they evolved, and yet satisfying these whims is represented as “moral progress!”

    In fact, we know the outcome of Price’s prescription for achieving “moral progress,” because it’s already been tried many times.  We are not all identical when it comes to moral emotions.  It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the expression of moral emotions that all human populations have in common, but particular aspects of those emotions can vary significantly between individuals, and between populations.  It follows that we will never agree on what our “goals as a society” should be.  Some subset of the individuals in a society may agree on the goals of “moral progress,” but what of those who don’t?  Inevitably, they will be the evil ones, the “deplorables,” the outgroup whose opinions can be ignored because they are “morally bad.”  What happens to those who are “morally bad?”  In the twentieth century, familiar outgroups included the Jews and the “bourgeoisie.”  The members of these outgroups were murdered.  “Strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others” didn’t prevent these slaughters, and there is no reason to believe that the outcome of playing with fire in the form of manipulating moral emotions to achieve “moral progress” will be any different in the future.

    This dual nature of human morality based on our universal and powerful tendency to perceive others in terms of  ingroups and outgroups is reason enough in itself to reject the notion of “moral progress.”  We have tried to outlaw various manifestations of the behavior by giving them bad names, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and so on.  The result of such attempts has invariably been the creation of yet more outgroups.  The hatred doesn’t disappear.  Instead, it simply pops up again, even more virulent than before, but directed at some alternative outgroup that hasn’t yet been declared off limits.  The furious hatred of the Left for Trump and his supporters is a case in point.  The outgroup, furious at what it deems unfair vilification, hates back with equal fury.  Seeking to apply morality to modern political decisions involving millions of people in this way will always result in such new forms of vilification, creating legions of “villains,” and inspiring hatred of these “villains” in legions of others, who the “villains” will then cordially hate back.

    Such problems are exacerbated by the way in which the vast majority of human beings perceive moral rules.   Regardless of whether psychologists and philosophers grasp their subjective nature or not, and in spite of the fact that we are now seeing them change rapidly and drastically, literally before our eyes, most of us still manage to convince ourselves that moral rules are fixed, objective laws, independent of what any individual thinks about them.  It is unlikely that this aspect of our behavior will change anytime soon.  As a result, once Price and the other proponents of “moral progress” discover they have actually created a monster, it will be a great deal more difficult than they think to “de-emphasize” the monster and make it go away.

    What of the reason given for creating the monster in the first place?  In fact, it boils down to a desire to satisfy emotional urges common to some subset of individuals.  These urges are given pretty names and fobbed off as noble attempts to achieve “progress” towards such fine goals as “human flourishing.”  Regardless of whether they pay lip service to the evolved nature of moral emotions or not, the proponents of these goals promote them as and, to all appearances themselves believe that they are, self-justifying things in themselves, independent of the outcomes of natural selection.  However, if we examine the underlying urges more closely, we notice that they exist for the very same reasons that all of our less “noble” urges exist.  Those reasons have nothing to do with interactions between huge numbers of people in modern states, and certainly have nothing to do with some “common goal” towards which we are supposed to “progress.”  They are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are mere facts of nature.  The very perception that such urges can be transmogrified into “common goals,” which can then be achieved by manipulating moral behavior is really just a symptom of the dysfunction of the innate basis of those urges in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which that basis evolved.

    We can certainly seek to agree on common goals, but I doubt that construing differences of opinion on the subject in terms of a battle of Good versus Evil is likely to be helpful.  Any goal or aspiration will inevitably have an emotional basis.  As was demonstrated long ago by the likes of Hutcheson and Hume, they can’t spring from pure logic.  Indeed, reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined.  It is essential that we continue to learn as much as we can about the innate basis of our emotions if we are to avoid the danger of blindly responding them out of the context of environment in which they evolved.

    The term “moral progress” invariably assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist in reality; an objective moral imperative.  This is true whether those who promote such “progress” are aware of it or not, and whether they admit it or not.  The more fanatically one pursues this chimera, the more dangerous he becomes to others.  It is time to jettison the term once and for all.

    Supposing we do?  Won’t that leave us ideologically disarmed in a world full of fanatics?  After all, fanatics have been very successful, if not in achieving their ostensible goals, at least in achieving power, especially in the face of indifferent resistance by those not inspired by a holy cause of their own.  Must we, too, embrace a lie, or be overrun?  I don’t think so.  We can make it our “holy cause” to resist any other “holy cause” based on an assumption of moral righteousness.  To understand human morality is to understand the mortal danger that self-righteous fanatics pose to the rest of us.  Our “holy cause” should be to resist Social Justice Warriors, religious fanatics, ideological zealots, and anyone else who feels their own righteousness entitles them to harm others.

    We certainly cannot jettison morality entirely.  It is our nature to be moral beings, and we perceive moral rules not in relative, but in absolute terms.  We need to come up with a “moral law” that is in harmony with our moral emotions, that facilitates the day to day interactions of individuals, is enforced by punishment of those who disobey it, but is at the same time limited in its applicability to the minimum possible sphere of human relationships.  Political decisions affecting millions must certainly take moral emotions into account, but they should never be dictated by them, and they should be informed by a lively appreciation of the danger those emotions pose.  “Moral progress” achieved by empowering the pathologically self-righteous among us will forever be an oxymoron.

  • J. L. Mackie: A Moral Subjectivist and His Magical System

    Posted on July 1st, 2017 Helian 8 comments

    J. L. Mackie was an Australian philosopher.  He was astute enough to realize that there are no such things as objective good and evil.  In fact, the very first sentence of his Ethics:  Inventing Right and Wrong consists of the bald statement,

    There are no objective moral values.

    A couple of paragraphs later he elaborates as follows:

    The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues – rightness and wrongness, duty obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on.

    In the next four chapters of his book, Mackie elaborates on this theme and its implications.  At the beginning of chapter 5 he claims to have demonstrated that,

    …no substantive moral conclusions or serious constraints on moral views can be derived from either the meanings of moral terms or the logic of moral discourse.

    Perhaps, but at this point Mackie has climbed quite a ways up the scaffolding he was busy building in the first four chapters.  Like so many “subjective moralists” before him, he now makes the mistake of looking down.  He suffers an attack of vertigo, based on the realization that if he climbs much higher, he will be forced to admit that all the tomes of moral philosophy he has spent a lifetime reading, the very basis of his claims to be an “expert,” are actually irrelevant to the subject he claims to be an expert about, other than as historical curiosities.  As we read on, he begins carefully climbing back down.  In the following passage we find him taking his first tentative steps in reverse:

    What tasks then remain for moral philosophy?  One could study the moral views and beliefs of our own society or others, perhaps through time, taking as one’s subject what is summed up in Westermarck’s title, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  But this perhaps belongs rather to anthropology and sociology.  More congenial to philosophers and more amenable to philosophical methods would be the attempt systematically to describe our own moral consciousness or some part of it, such as our “sense of justice,” to find some set of principles which were themselves fairly acceptable to us and with which, along with their practical consequences and applications, our “intuitive” (but really subjective) detailed moral judgements would be in “reflective equilibrium.”

    Mackie should have read Westermarck more carefully.  He’s the only one I know of other than Darwin himself who not only realized the subjective nature of moral judgements, but was also aware of the implications of the fact that morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist as a result of natural selection.  Mackie paid lip service to Darwin, but clearly didn’t understand the process of natural selection.  Nothing evolves to serve a purpose, or to perform a task.  Moral emotions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce at a particular point in time.  As we read on, it becomes clear that what Mackie is saying in the above passage is that the job of the moral philosopher is to discover this nonexistent task, and then concoct a moral system designed to accomplish the task.  As he puts it,

    At least we can look at the matter in another way.  Morality is not to be discovered, but to be made:  we have to decide what moral views to adopt, what moral stands to take.

    Let’s consider what Mackie is saying here if morality really is a manifestation of evolved behavioral predispositions.  In that case it must be a manifestation of emotions, so what Mackie is saying is that we have to manipulate emotions.  Apparently he assumes they are so malleable they can be manipulated at will to make them conform to any “moral stand.”  What, however, would be the point of taking this, that, or the other “moral stand?”  Mackie explains,

    In the narrow sense, a morality is a system of a particular sort of constraints on conduct – ones whose central task is to protect the interests of persons other than the agent and which present themselves to an agent as checks on his natural inclinations or spontaneous tendencies to act.

    A bit later on he quotes another moral philosopher, G. J. Warnock, as follows:

    …we shall understand (morality) better if we ask what it is for, what is the object of morality.  Morality is a species of evaluation, a kind of appraisal of human conduct; this must, he (Warnock) suggests, have some distinctive point, there must be something that it is supposed to bring about… The function of morality is primarily to counteract this limitation of men’s sympathies.  We can decide what the content of morality must be by inquiring how this can best be done.

    According to Mackie, these comments, evoking as they do “tasks,” and “purposes” and “functions” of a form of evolved behavior, and thereby flying in the face of everything Darwin taught about natural selection, are “…a useful approach.”  In fact, they are the foundation of sand upon which Mackie will later erect an elaborate moral system.  All Mackie is really suggesting is that we manipulate some emotions in order to satisfy another emotion.  Apparently the moral itch he wants to scratch is the “limitation of men’s sympathies.”  However, this particular moral itch has no more objective legitimacy or external authority than the desire to hang a thief, or take vengeance on an enemy, or satisfy any other whim one could suggest.  This fundamental error is made by every moral subjectivist, moral nihilist, or moral relativist I am aware of except for Westermarck and Darwin himself.  Herbert Spencer, who may have been wrong about many things, but was an original thinker for all that, exposed the error very nicely in the case of utilitarianism in his Social Statics (pp. 33-35), more than a century and a half ago.  It comes in the form of a dialog, closing with the following:

    Wherefore, if reduced to its simplest form, your doctrine turns out to be the assertion, that all men have equal claims to happiness; or applying it personally – that you have as good a right to happiness as I have.

    No doubt I have.

    And pray, sir, who told you that you have as good a right to happiness as I have?

    Who told me?  I am sure of it; I know it; I feel it; I…

    Nay, nay, that will not do.  Give me your authority.  Tell you who told you this – how you got at it – whence you derived it.

    Whereupon, after some shuffling, our petitioner is forced to confess, that he has no other authority than his own feeling – that he has simply an innate perception of the fact; or, in other words, that “his moral sense tells him so.”

    So much for Mackie’s “useful approach.”  In fact, it is nothing but the expression of an emotional whim, and is similar in that regard to all the other ultimate goods that ever tickled the fancy of moral philosophers.  In spite of that he uses the remainder of the book to start tacking together yet another moral system, complete with hairsplitting distinctions between alternative “oughts” that would gladden the hearts of pettifogging lawyers and quibbling theologians alike.  In the end his “subjective” morality is anything but that.  It has now become a tool that is to be “made” to perform a “function,” and this “function” is to promote the “higher goal” of “protecting the interests of persons other than the agent,” a goal which is not only unrelated to the reasons that morality evolved to begin with, but has now, for all practical purposes, been transmogrified into an objective good.

    Why does it matter?  Why not just let Mackie and the rest of the “experts on ethics” continue to play in their sandboxes?  In my opinion, because we can no longer afford to blindly respond to the emotions that give rise to morality as if they were still operating in the environment in which they evolved.  The environment is radically different now, and the games we are playing with moral emotions are becoming increasingly dangerous.  The emotions aren’t going anywhere.  We are profoundly moral beings, and simply suppressing our moral emotions is not an option.  I personally would prefer that we find a way to accommodate them that doesn’t involve the moral blackmail, bullying, and pious posing that are currently the preferred methods of adjusting our differences over what our moral emotions are trying to tell us.  However, we can only do that if we understand what morality really is, and how and why it evolved.  The invention of yet another moral “system” is not the way to gain that understanding.

     

  • On the Practicality of Non-Lethal Methods of Updating Morality

    Posted on May 18th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Character is destiny.  Societies tend to thrive when there are well-understood moral rules that are obeyed, or, in cases where they are not obeyed, the disobedient are punished so as to prevent their disobedience from doing harm to others.  There are no objective moral truths, so it follows that the moral rules referred to above cannot be based on such truths.  However, if the statements above are true, they will remain true whether there are objective moral truths or not.

    It does not follow from the absence of objective moral truth that everyone “should” be allowed to rape, murder, and pillage, or do anything they please, for the simple reason that if there are no objective moral truths, there can be no objective “shoulds” either.  It may not be objectively bad to rape, murder, and pillage, but it is not objectively bad for the members of a society to punish or eliminate from that society those who do such things, either.  They do so by establishing moral rules, sometimes made explicit in the form of laws, and sometimes not.

    Moral rules will exist whether the individuals in a given society have religious beliefs or not, whether they believe in the existence of objective moral truths or not, and whether they subscribe to any given philosophy or not.  Our societies have moral rules because it is our nature to experience moral emotions.  These emotions incline us to believe that there are ways that we and others ought to behave, and ways that we and others ought not to behave.  As noted above, these beliefs manifest themselves in the formulation of moral rules.  We experience these rules as absolute, objective things, even though they cannot possibly be absolute, objective things.  At the moment, the contradiction between this emotionally derived belief and reality is becoming increasingly acute.  In the first place, the religious beliefs that once supplied a rationalization for the existence of absolute moral rules are declining in some parts of the world.  It is also difficult to accommodate a belief in objective morality with the increasing realization that moral emotions are innate, and must therefore have evolved.  Finally, thanks to the vast expansion in our ability to examine and communicate with other cultures that has occurred in the last few hundred years, we have learned that, while there are significant commonalities across all moralities, there are also profound differences between them.  If moral rules are objective and absolute, it seems to follow logically that no such differences could exist.

    It is a tribute to the power of our moral emotions that these contradictions have had little impact on our moral behavior.  Most of us still imagine that moral rules are absolute, or at least behave as if they were, regardless.  However, as a result of changes to the social environment such as those referred to above, individuals in our societies experience changes in their perceptions of what their moral emotions are trying to tell them as well.  They imagine that new “objective” moral rules must exist, and that old ones were never valid to begin with.  Occasionally enough of them experience the same illusion to force changes in the moral paradigm.  This process has certainly happened in the past.  Moralities have evolved as new religions became dominant, or new heresies and orthodoxies arose in old ones.  Now, however, it is occurring at an increasingly rapid, if not historically unprecedented rate.  The result has been moral chaos.  Deep fractures are opening in our societies between ingroups that prefer traditional versus those that favor updated versions of “absolute” morality.

    Ingroups of the type referred to above typically define themselves ideologically, on the basis of a particular version of morality.  They recognize others who don’t agree with their ideological narrative not just as individuals who are wrong about particular facts, but as members of outgroups.  It is our nature to experience hatred and disgust in response to outgroups, and to vilify their members.  We seek to arouse moral emotions in others that cause them to hate and despise the outgroup as well.  We see the results of this process in action around us every day.  Obviously, they do not promote social harmony.  History has demonstrated the likely outcomes of the process over and over again.  In the past these have included mass murder and warfare.  We will continue to experience these outcomes until we recognize the problem and come up with more rational ways of dealing with it.  My own preferred method of dealing with it would include coming up with a better way to formulate our “absolute” moralities.

    Through thousands of years of recorded history, we have never come up with a perfect form of government.  It is not to be expected that we will suddenly come up with a perfect way to formulate morality, either.  In fact, it would be impractical to even make the attempt unless the members of society, or at least a majority of them, understood and accepted what morality is, and why it exists.  That knowledge is a precondition if we would escape the prevailing moral chaos.  Supposing that society ever achieves that state of enlightenment, I offer the following suggestions as an Ansatz for establishing a rational morality.  I offer them not as infallible nostrums, but as suggestions.  In the event that a serious attempt is ever made to implement them, experience will certainly make it obvious whether any of them are practical or not, but we have to start somewhere.  With those reservations in mind, here is what I suggest for a possible “morality of the future.”

    It should be minimal, limited to only those situations where it is indispensable.  It is indispensable in situations where it would be impractical to apply careful, logical thought.  Examples are day to day interactions among individuals.

    It would have the support of the majority of those to whom it apples.

    It would maximize the freedom of individuals to pursue whatever goals in life they happen to have, free from harm by others or excessive regimentation by government.

    It would be possible to change it, but only at infrequent though regular intervals, according to an established procedure accepted by a majority.  Changes would not be made without thorough vetting beforehand, nor without the support of a majority of those affected.  Each change would require explicit recognition of the moral emotions driving it, and whether it would enhance the odds of survival of the responsible genes or not.

    It would be in harmony with human nature.  It would not contradict or be in conflict with human moral emotions.

    It would be sequestered from politics and other areas in which the possibility exists to examine different courses of action rationally and evaluate them based on explicit recognition of the behavioral predispositions/emotions driving those courses of action.

    In keeping with human nature, once established, the moral rules would be treated as absolute.  those breaking the rules, that is, acting “immorally,” would be punished in accordance with the severity of the breach.

    The moral emotions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved because they enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Therefore, no decisions affecting society at large would be made without explicit recognition of the impact those decisions will have on the genetic survival of the individuals to whom they apply.  If they will not promote the genetic survival of the members of the society to whom they apply, a rational explanation will be required for why the action is still considered desirable.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions to accomplish political ends would be discouraged and/or punished.  To this end, it would be necessary to suppress the human predisposition to cast every decision and action in moral terms.  In other words, it would be necessary to act against human nature.  Obviously, this could not be done without carefully educating the members of society about the reasons why this is necessary, based on the disconnect between the environment in which the predispositions motivating the behavior in question evolved, and the environment we live in now.  It would be necessary for them to understand that behavior that evolved because it enhanced the odds of survival long ago now is more likely to accomplish the opposite in the radically different societies we live in now.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions with the goal of altering the moral law independently of the established procedures for doing so would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Attempts to harm or shame others by arousing moral emotions other than those explicitly sanctioned by the existing moral law would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Again, these suggestions would fall flat absent recognition of the evolved and innate origins of morality by the people capable of implementing them.  They will certainly require revision in practice, and are not intended as an exhaustive list.  However, I think they represent a step forward from the old fashioned way of updating moralities by mutual vilification, occasionally culminating in mass murder and warfare.  Although the old fashioned way has certainly been effective, at least for some ingroups, I think most of my readers would agree it has been somewhat unpleasant in practice.  Perhaps we can find a better way.

  • Moral Whimsy

    Posted on May 8th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Human moralities have always been concocted and altered in a chaotic, and sometimes whimsical fashion.  They are all manifestations of innate behavioral predispositions that are probably quite similar across all human populations.  However, in conscious creatures with large brain such as ourselves, these predispositions can be interpreted very differently as a function of environment, culture, and pre-existing versions of morality.  As a result we see wild variations in the “end product” in the form of moral rules.  Moralities have always evolved in this way over time, both now and in the distant past.  In spite of the arbitrary nature of the process, the evanescent “moral laws” that happen to pop up and then disappear from time to time are perceived as objective things, unchanging, and independent of the social/biological process that actually gave rise to them.  This seemingly irrational perception actually makes perfect sense.  Morality exists because the traits responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  It turns out that the most effective way to improve the odds was to program the perception of moral rules as objective things.  However, they are not objective things, but manifestations of subjective emotions.  You might say that we are hard-wired to believe in hallucinations.  The chaotic process of “updating” a given version of morality referred to above happens when different individuals believe in different hallucinations.

    I recently ran across a good example of the process in action in an article in New York Magazine entitled “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.”  The particular moral rule at issue was the degree to which the terms “transgender” and “transracial” can be treated as equivalent.  Rebecca Tuval, an assistant professor (usually a junior, tenure track professor) of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, had recently published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia entitled, “In Defense of Transracialism.”   Perhaps she thought the article was merely harmless padding for her resume, the better to facilitate her eventual promotion to full professor.  It didn’t turn out that way.  A vicious attack on her began in the form of an open letter to Hypatia, now signed by some hundreds of her academic colleagues, expressing “dismay” at the “harms” Tuvel had caused by her inappropriate conflation of the terms noted above.  The witch hunt continued with poison pen attacks posted at the usual social media suspects, culminating in an abject apology by “a majority of Hypatia’s board of associate editors” rivaling anything ever seen in Stalin’s Great Purge Trials.  I half expected to see a paragraph admitting that the journal’s staff had conspired with Trotsky himself to promote the counter-revolutionary plots of the Left Opposition.  A few days later, editor Sally Scholz and Miriam Solomon, president of Hypatia’s board of directors, fired back with disavowals of the disavowal.

    This is basically the manner in which moralities have always (culturally) evolved and changed.  As societies change, the members of particular ingroups, and especially ingroups that define themselves primarily by ideology, may experience strong moral emotions in response to supposed “evils” that were previously matters of indifference.  They then seek to manipulate the moral emotions of others so that they, too, perceive what amounts to an emotional whim as an objective thing.  This “thing” takes the form of an evil that exists independently of the evolved emotional predispositions that actually inspired the perception.  Members of other ingroups with different narratives, or members of the same ingroups responding more strongly to other moral emotions, push back, seeking to manipulate moral emotions in the opposite direction.  Whoever is the most effective manipulator wins, and a new “moral law” is born.

    The whole process is fundamentally irrational.  Why?  Because it amounts to a competition between alternative mirages.  The evolved emotional traits that are responsible for this aspect of human behavior exist because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, they did so at a time that was radically different from the present.  There is no guarantee that they will have the same result today as they did then.  None of this makes any difference to the parties to these disputes as they blindly chase their alternative illusions.  They are seldom aware of the connection between their behavior and its ultimate cause in emotional traits spawned in the process of evolution by natural selection.  The illusion that they are champions of a thing-in-itself called the Good is so powerful that it probably wouldn’t matter even if they did know.

    The above describes the process by which we currently seek to resolve the issues that arise in complex modern civilizations by attempting to satisfy emotional whims that are probably much the same as those experienced by our ancestors in the Pleistocene.  The results are seldom benign.  Sometimes the damage is limited to the destruction of some junior professor’s career.  Sometimes it involves warfare that costs millions their lives.  One can certainly imagine more rational ways of adjudicating among all these emotionally inspired whims.  However, I am not optimistic that one of them will be adopted anytime soon.  We are moralistic creatures to the core.  We are addicted to construing something we want as “the Good,” and then manipulating the moral emotions of others to get it.  The effect “the Good” might actually have on the odds of our genetic survival is normally a matter of utter indifference.  We live in a world of irrational creatures, all seeking to satisfy emotional whims without the least regard for whether they accomplish the same thing as they did when they evolved or not.

    That’s the reality that we must deal with.  All of us must find our own way of coping.  However, as a tip to my readers, I suggest you think twice before publishing in a philosophical journal.  Unless, of course, you actually like to be bullied.

  • Morality; Once More From the Top

    Posted on April 2nd, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality.  Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it.  Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality.  They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions.  As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.

    Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning.  According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid.  Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God.  However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.

    Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions.  Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.”  However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.

    Evolution is a natural process.  As such, it has no purpose or goal.  It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.

    The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past.  It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now.  It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.

    Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature.  They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.

    Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do.  That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals.  It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.

    In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity.  They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.

    Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it.  These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways.  In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed.  Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals.  However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.

    Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them.  It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then.  When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past.  One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.

    So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior.  Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small?  The answer lies in morality itself.  More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups.  When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people.  Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality.  Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup.  It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe.  We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing.  The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above.  As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.

    Why do I bother to write about morality?  Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above.  I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject.  One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right.  One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind?  Assuming they exist, can you show one to me?  Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing?  Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”

    The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us.  For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with.  Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path.  Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors.  When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders.  H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift.  From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative.  In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned.  The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful.  As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.

    I know, I’m grasping at straws.  The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck.  He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him.  The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work.  His example is hardly encouraging.  On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing.  Therefore, I will do something.  I will continue to write.

  • On the Unsubjective Morality and Unscientific Scientism of Alex Rosenberg

    Posted on February 26th, 2017 Helian 7 comments

    In a recent post I pointed out the irrational embrace of objective morality by some public intellectuals in spite of their awareness of morality’s evolutionary roots.  In fact, I know of only one scientist/philosopher who has avoided this non sequitur; Edvard Westermarck.  A commenter suggested that Alex Rosenberg was another example of such a philosopher.  In fact, he’s anything but.  He’s actually a perfect example of the type I described in my earlier post.

    A synopsis of Rosenberg’s philosophy may be found in his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality.  Rosenberg is a proponent of “scientism.”  He notes the previous, pejorative use of the term, but announces that he will expropriate it.  In his words,

    …we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.”  This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today… Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understating is all about.

    Well, I’m “one of us atheists,” and while I would agree that science is the best and most effective method to secure knowledge of anything, I hardly agree that it is the only method, nor do I agree that it is always reliable.  For that matter, I doubt that Rosenberg believes it either.  He dismisses all the humanities with a wave of the hand as alternate ways of knowing, with particular emphasis on history.  In fact, one of his chapters is entitled, “History Debunked.”  In spite of that, his book is laced with allusions to history and historical figures.

    For that matter, we could hardly do without history as a “way of knowing” just what kind of a specimen we’re dealing with.  It turns out that, whether knowingly or not, Rosenberg is an artifact of the Blank Slate.  I reached convulsively for my crucifix as I encountered the telltale stigmata.  As those who know a little history are aware, the Blank Slate was a massive corruption of science involving what amounted to the denial of the existence of human nature that lasted for more than half a century.  It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  It should come as no surprise that Rosenberg doesn’t mention it, and seems blithely unaware that it ever happened.  It flies in the face of the rosy picture of science he’s trying to paint for us.

    We first get an inkling of where Rosenberg fits in the context of scientific history when he refers approvingly to the work of Richard Lewontin, who is described as a “well-known biologist.”  That description is a bit disingenuous.  Lewontin may well be a “well-known biologist,” but he was also one of the high priests of the Blank Slate.  As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate,

    Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the “generalizations of eating, excreting, and sleeping.”  The rest of the slate, presumably, is blank.

    Lewontin embraced “scientific” Marxism, and alluded to the teachings of Marx often in his work.  His “scientific” method of refuting those who disagreed with him was to call them racists and fascists.  He even insisted that a man with such sterling leftist bona fides as Richard Trivers be dismissed as a lackey of the bourgeoisie.  It seems to me these facts are worth mentioning about anyone we may happen to tout as a “scientific expert.”  Rosenberg never gets around to it.

    A bit further on, Rosenberg again refers approvingly to another of the iconic figures of the Blank Slate; B. F. Skinner.  He cites Skinner’s theories as if there had never been anything the least bit controversial about them.  In fact, as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,

    Skinner… preferred language of control and domination.  He spoke of behavioral engineering and manipulation, and not just in relation to animals.  Later in life he sought to turn humans into happy, productive, and “maximally effective” citizens.

    and

    B. F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior.  Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered.  His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century.  Loosening its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

    Behaviorism, with its promise of the almost perfect malleability of behavior in humans and other animals, was a favorite prop of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Such malleability was a prerequisite for the creation of “maximally effective” citizens to occupy the future utopias they were concocting for us.

    Reading on, we find Rosenberg relating another of the favorite yarns of the Blank Slaters of old, the notion that our Pleistocene ancestors’ primary source of meat came from scavenging.  They would scamper out, we are told, and steal choice bones from the kills of large predators, then scamper back to their hiding places and smash the bones with rocks to get at the marrow.  This fanciful theory was much in fashion back in the 60’s when books disputing Blank Slate ideology and insisting on the existence and significance of human nature first started to appear.  These often mentioned aggression as one aspect of human behavior, an assertion that never failed to whip the Blank Slaters into a towering rage.  Hunting, of course, might be portrayed as a form of aggression.  Therefore it was necessary to deny that it ever happened early enough to have an effect on evolved human behavioral traits.  In those days, of course, we were so ignorant of primate behavior that Blank Slater Ashley Montagu was able to write with a perfectly straight face that chimpanzees are,

    …anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is no reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

    We’ve learned a few things in the ensuing years.  Jane Goodall observed both organized hunting behavior and murderous attacks on neighboring bands carried out by these “amiable” creatures.  For reporting these observations she was furiously denounced and insulted in the most demeaning terms.  Meanwhile, chimps have been observed using sticks as thrusting spears, and fire-hardened spears were found associated with a Homo erectus campsite dated to some 400,000 years ago.  There is evidence that stone-tipped spears were used as far back as 500,000 years ago, and much more similar evidence of early hunting behavior has surfaced.  Articles about early hunting behavior have even appeared in the reliably politically correct Scientific American, not to mention that stalwart pillar of progressive ideology, PBS.  In other words, the whole scavenging thing is moot.  Apparently no one bothered to pass the word to Rosenberg.  No matter, he still includes enough evolutionary psychology in his book to keep up appearances.

    In spite of the fact that he writes with the air of a scientific insider who is letting us in on all kinds of revelations that we are to believe have been set in stone by “science” in recent years, and that we should never dare to question, Rosenberg shows similar signs of being a bit wobbly when it comes to actually knowing what he’s talking about elsewhere in the book.  For example, he seems to have a fascination with fermions and bosons, mentioning them often in the book.  He tells us that,

    …everything is made up of these two kinds of things.  Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of.

    Well, not exactly.  If matter isn’t composed of bosons, it will come as news to the helium atoms engaging in one of the neat tricks only bosons are capable of in the Wiki article on superfluidity.  As it happens, one of the many outcomes of the fundamental difference between bosons and fermions is that bosons are usually force carriers, but the notion that it actually is the fundamental difference is just disinformation, and a particularly unfortunate instance thereof at that.  I say that because our understanding of that difference is the outcome of an elegant combination of theoretical insight and mathematics.  I lack the space to go into detail here, but it follows from the indistinguishability of quantum particles.  I suggest that anyone interested in the real difference between bosons and fermions consult an elementary quantum textbook.  These usually boil the necessary math down to a level that should be accessible to any high school graduate who has taken an honors course or two in the subject.

    There are some more indications of the real depth of Rosenberg’s scientific understanding in his description of some of the books he recommends to his readers so they can “come up to speed” with him.  For example, he tells us that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, “…argues for a sophisticated evolutionary account of several cognitive capacities critical for speech.”  Well, not really.  As the title implies Pinker’s The Blank Slate is about The Blank Slate.  I can only conclude that cognitive dissonance must have set in when Rosenberg read it, because that apocalypse in the behavioral sciences doesn’t fit too well in his glowing tale of the triumphant progress of science.  Elsewhere he tells us that,

    At its outset, human history might have been predictable just because the arms races were mainly biological.  That’s what enabled Jared Diamond to figure out how and why western Europeans came to dominate the globe over a period that lasted 8000 years or so in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Diamond is only applying an approach to human history made explicit by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature more than 30 years ago (1978)…”

    Seriously?  Guns, Germs and Steel was actually an attempt to explain differences between human cultures in terms of environmental factors, whereas in On Human Nature Wilson doubled down on his mild assault on the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology, insisting on the existence and significance of evolved human behavioral traits.  I can only conclude that, assuming Rosenberg actually read the books, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading.

    With that let’s consider what Rosenberg has to say about morality.  He certainly seems to “get it” in the beginning of the book.  He describes himself as a “nihilist” when it comes to morality.  I consider that a bad choice of words, but whatever.  According to Rosenberg,

    Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required.  Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong.  More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions.  Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally responsible” is untenable nonsense.  As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.”  That, too, is untenable nonsense.

    Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value.  People think that there are things that are intrinsically valuable, not just as a means to something else:  human life or the ecology of the planet or the master race or elevated states of consciousness, for example.  But nothing can have that sort of intrinsic value – the very kind of value morality requires.  Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.  Therefore, nihilism can’t be accused of advocating the moral goodness of, say, political violence or anything else.

    A promising beginning, no?  Sounds very Westermarckian.  But don’t jump to conclusions!  Before the end of the book we will find Rosenberg doing a complete intellectual double back flip when it comes to this so-called “nihilism.”  We will witness him chanting a few magic words over the ghost of objective morality, and then see it rise zombie-like from the grave he just dug for it.

    Rosenberg begins the pilgrimage from subjectivity to objectivity by evoking what he calls “core morality.”  He presents us with two premises about it, namely,

    First premise:  All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core principles as binding on everyone.

    and

    Second premise:  The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness – for our survival and reproduction.

    Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it, but then we learn some things that appear a bit counterintuitive about core morality.  For example,

    There is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans.  Among competing core moralities, it was the one that somehow came closest to maximizing the average fitness of our ancestors over a long enough period that it became almost universal.  For all we know, the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.  Let’s hope so, at any rate, since core morality is almost surely locked in by now.

    Are you kidding me?  There is not even a remote chance that “the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.”  Here, Rosenberg is whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the role he has in store for his “core morality.”  He is forced to make this patently absurd statement about our supposedly static environment because otherwise “core morality” couldn’t perform its necessary role in bringing the zombie back to life.  How can it perform that neat trick?  Well, according to Rosenberg,

    Along with everyone else, the most scientistic among us accept these core principles as binding. (!!)

    Some nihilism, no?  Suddenly, Rosenberg’s “core morality” has managed to jump right out of his skull onto our backs and is “binding” us!  Of course, it would be too absurd even for Rosenberg to insist that this “binding” feature was still in effect in spite of the radical changes in the environment that have obviously happened since “core morality” supposedly evolved.  Hence, he has to deny the obvious with his ludicrous suggestion that the environment hasn’t changed.  Meanwhile, the distinction noted by Westermarck between that which is thought to be binding, and that which actually is binding, has become very fuzzy.  We are well on the way back to the safe haven of objective morality.

    To sweeten the pill, Rosenberg assures us that core morality is “nice,” and cites all sorts of game theory experiments to prove it.  He wonders,

    Once its saddled with nihilism, can scientism make room for the moral progress that most of us want the world to make?  No problem.

    “Moral progress?”  That is a contradiction in terms unless morality and its rules exist as objective things in themselves.  How is “progress” possible if morality is really an artifact of evolution, and consequently has neither purpose nor goal?  Rosenberg puts stuff like this right in the middle of his pronouncements that morality is really subjective.  You could easily get whiplash reading his book.  The icing on the cake of “niceness” turns out to be altruistic behavior towards non-kin, which is also supposed to have evolved to enhance “fitness.”  Since one rather fundamental difference between the environment “then” and “now” is that “then” humans normally lived in communities of and interacted mainly with only about 150 people, the idea that they were really dealing with non-kin, and certainly any idea that similar behavior must work just as well between nations consisting of millions of not quite so closely related individuals is best taken with a grain of salt.

    Other then a few very perfunctory references, Rosenberg shows a marked reticence to discuss human behavior that is not so nice.  Of course, there is no mention of the ubiquitous occurrence of warfare between human societies since the dawn of recorded time.  After all, that would be history, and hasn’t Rosenberg told us that history is bunk?  He never mentions such “un-nice” traits as ingroup-outgroup behavior, or territoriality.  That’s odd, since we can quickly identify his own outgroup, thanks to some virtue signaling remarks about “Thatcherite Republicans,” and science-challenged conservatives.  As for those who get too far out of line he writes,

    Recall the point made early in this chapter that even most Nazis may have really shared a common moral code with us.  The qualification “most” reflects the fact that a lot of them, especially at the top of the SS, were just psychopaths and sociopaths with no core morality.

    Really?  What qualifies Rosenberg to make such a statement?  Did he examine their brains?  Did neuroscientists subject them to experiments before they died?  It would seem that if we don’t “get our minds right” about core morality we could well look forward to being “cured” the way “psychopaths and sociopaths” were “cured” in the old Soviet Union.

    By the time we get to the end of the book, the subjective façade has been entirely dismantled, and the “core morality” zombie has jettisoned the last of its restraints.  Rosenberg’s continued insistence on the non-existence of objective good and bad has deteriorated to a mere matter of semantics.  Consider, for example, the statement,

    Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not require of us.  Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right – or wrong.  There is no such thing.

    That should be comforting news to the inmates of the asylum who didn’t do what was “required” of them. We learn that,

    Almost certainly, when all these facts are decided, it will turn out that core morality doesn’t contain any blanket prohibition or permission of abortion as such.  Rather, together with the facts that science can at least in principle uncover, core morality will provide arguments in favor of some abortions and against other abortions, depending on the circumstances.

    The pro-life people shouldn’t entirely despair, however, because,

    Scientism allows that sometimes the facts of a case will combine with core morality to prohibit abortion, even when the woman demands it as a natural right.

    That’s about as wild and crazy as Rosenberg gets, though.  In fact, he’s not a scientist but a leftist ideologue, and we soon find him scurrying back to the confines of his ideologically defined ingroup, core morality held firmly under his arm.  He assures us that,

    …when you combine our core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics.  In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.  No wonder most scientists in the United States are Democrats and in the United Kingdom are Labour Party supporters or Liberal Democrats.

    Core morality reaches out its undead hand for the criminal justice system as well:

    There are other parts of core morality that permit or even require locking people up – for example, to protect others and to deter, reform, rehabilitate, and reeducate the wrongdoer.

    That would be a neat trick – reeducating wrongdoers if there really isn’t such a thing as wrong.  No matter, core morality is now not only alive but is rapidly turning into a dictator with “requirements.”

    Core morality may permit unearned inequalities, but it is certainly not going to require them without some further moral reason to do so.  In fact, under many circumstances, core morality is going to permit the reduction of inequalities, for it requires that wealth and income that people have no right to be redistributed to people in greater need.  Scientism assures us that no one has any moral rights.  Between them, core morality and scientism turn us into closet egalitarians.

    Did you get that?  Your “selfish genes” are now demanding that you give away your money to unrelated people even if the chances that this will ever help those genes to survive and reproduce are vanishingly small.  Rosenberg concludes,

    So, scientism plus core morality turn out to be redistributionist and egalitarian, even when combined with free-market economics.  No wonder Republicans in the United States have such a hard time with science.

    Did his outgroup just pop up on your radar screen?  It should have.  At this point any rational consequences of the evolved origins and subjective nature of morality have been shown the door.  The magical combination of scientism and core morality has us in a leftist full nelson.  They “require” us to do the things that Rosenberg considers “nice,” and refrain from doing the things he considers “not nice.”  In principle, he dismisses the idea of free will.  However, in this case we will apparently be allowed just a smidgeon of it if we happen to be “Thatcherite Republicans.”  Just enough to get our minds right and return us to a “nice” deterministic track.

    In a word, Rosenberg is no Westermarck.  In fact, he is a poster boy for leftist ideologues who like to pose as “moral nihilists,” but get an unholy pleasure out of dictating moral rules to the rest of us.  His “scientific” pronouncements are written with all the cocksure hubris characteristic of ideologues, and sorely lack the reticence more appropriate for real scientists.  There is no substantial difference between the illusion that there are objective moral laws, and Rosenberg’s illusion that a “core morality” utterly divorced from its evolutionary origins is capable of dictating what we ought and ought not to do.

    It’s not really that hard to understand.  The ingroup, or tribe, if you will, of leftist ideologues like Rosenberg and the other examples I mentioned in recent posts, lives in a box defined by ideological shibboleths.  Its members can make as many bombastic pronouncements about moral nihilism as they like, but in the end they must either kowtow to the shibboleths or be ostracized from the tribe.  That’s a sacrifice that none of them, at least to the best of my knowledge, has ever been willing to make.  If my readers are aware of any other “counter-examples,” I would be happy to examine them in my usual spirit of charity.

  • Morality and the Ideophobes

    Posted on February 12th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The “Moral Philosophers” and the “Power of the Air”

    Posted on January 30th, 2017 Helian 11 comments

    In Ephesians 2:2 we read,

    Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.

    Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul.  They are not atheists after all.  They, too, believe in “the power of the air.”  It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.”  It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do.  Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity.  Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors.  According to Daniel Dennett,

    Regretfull Trump voters:  It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on.  Act now.  Every day you wait adds guilt.

    Richard Dawkins chimes in:

    “Make America great again?”  Obama’s America already WAS great.  And now look what you’ve got!  A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.

    Sam Harris piles on:

    I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy.  Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.

    Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:

    Presidents can revise immigration policies.  But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.

    I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases.  Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense.  Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?”  Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?”  Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?”  I think not.   Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”

    What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species.  Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup?  It’s there in all its glory.  Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury.  Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives.  The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!”  It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong.  No!  By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”

    This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like.  Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God.  This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed.  It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them.  We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist.  None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire.  They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”

    In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature.  Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species.  How much smarter than the rest can we really be?  The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds.  We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions.  One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon.  At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.

  • Edvard Westermarck and His Detractors

    Posted on January 9th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Judging by the amount of space devoted to him on Wikipedia, Edvard Westermarck was little regarded as a moral philosopher.  Contemporaries such as G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, not to mention such immediate predecessors as John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, made a much bigger splash.  For all that, Westermarck was aware of some simple but very significant truths about morality, and the rest were blind to them.  Apparently you don’t get a lot of space in Wikipedia for being right, or at least not for being right about morality.  When it comes to that subject, people tend to listen only when you say what they want to hear.  Westermarck most definitely did not.

    It was no secret to Westermarck that he was stepping on some toes.  He told the legions of moral philosophers and experts on ethics that they were superfluous because they were experts about something that didn’t exist.  He told the legions of religious zealots that the source of their moral dogmas was imaginary.  He told all the rest of us that the “facts” about morality that we “feel in our bones” are illusions.

    It is natural for us to perceive Good and Evil as absolute facts.  Morality is a manifestation of evolved traits, and traits evolve because they happen to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them will survive and reproduce.  Obviously, morality is most effective at improving the odds when we perceive Good and Evil, not as subjective entities that we can change from day to day according to our whims of the moment, but as objective things-in-themselves that have a “real existence apart from any reference to a human mind,” as Westermarck put it.  If someone tells us it just ain’t so, our reaction is predictably negative.  He addressed the objections of one such critic, the utilitarian Dr. H. Rashdall in his Ethical Relativity, published in 1932.  According to Dr. Rashdall, the denial of the objective validity of moral judgments,

    …is fatal to the deepest spiritual convictions and to the highest spiritual aspirations of the human race.

    to which Westermarck replies,

    It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief… Another question is whether the ethical subjectivism I am here advocating really is a danger to morality… My moral judgments spring from my own moral consciousness; they judge of the conduct of other men not from their point of view but from mine, not in accordance with their feelings and opinions about right and wrong but according to my own.  And these are not arbitrary.  We approve and disapprove because we cannot do otherwise; our moral consciousness belongs to our mental constitution, which we cannot change as we please.  Can we help feeling pain when the fire burns us?  Can we help sympathizing with our friends?  Are these facts less necessary or less powerful in their consequences, because they fall within the subjective sphere of our experience?  So also, why should the moral law command less obedience because it forms a part of ourselves?

    I think this is an excellent response to those who warn that accepting the truth about morality will lead to nihilism and moral chaos.  The subjective nature of moral judgments will hardly alter our tendency to make them.  Westermarck adds,

    …it seems to me that ethical subjectivism, instead of being a danger, is more likely to be an advantage to morality.  Could it be brought home to people that there is no absolute standard in morality, they would perhaps be on the one hand more tolerant and on the other hand more critical in their judgments.

    It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this last quote.  When it comes to morality, we live in an age of gross intolerance, particularly on the part of the “progressive Left.”  These people pull new “absolute moral truths” out of thin air on a regular basis, and then proceed to stuff them down the throats of the rest of us.  I may not be able to say that such behavior is absolutely “Good,” or absolutely “Evil,” but I personally find it extremely disagreeable.  I think many others would agree with me on that point.  The truth about morality hardly encourages this type of moral bullying.  Rather, it pulls the rug out from under the feet of the bullies.  In fact, they have not the faintest basis for their moral claims.  They can in no way justify elevating what amount to personal whims to the status of absolute moral laws and then insisting that the rest of us respect them.  They manage to get away with it by appealing to subjective moral emotions.  This will only work as long as they can maintain the fantasy, cherished by so many of us, that these emotions somehow relate to real, objective things.  That fantasy is hardly a barrier between us and moral chaos.  It is the reason for moral chaos.  We will never escape the prevailing “moral nihilism” until we accept the truth.

    Westermarck had it right in the above quotes.  If all of us were aware of the truth, we would also be aware of the real provenance of moral judgments, and would be more tolerant of the similar judgments of others as a result.  It might finally be possible for us to take a critical look at those judgments, as Westermarck suggests, and come up with a system of morality that best suits the needs of all of us, instead of enabling the moral tyranny of a minority.

    So much for the “danger” of Westermarck’s ideas.  If we look at some of the other objections posed by his contemporaries, their claims to “expertise” in matters of morality grow increasingly dubious.  For example, Danish philosopher Harald Höffding argued that, “the subjectivity of our moral valuations does not prevent ethics from being a science any more than the subjectivity of our sensations renders a science of physics impossible, because both are concerned with finding the external facts that correspond to the subjective processes.”  According to this “Höffding’s fallacy,” anything we can imagine must relate to some “external fact.”  Unfortunately, Professor Höffding completely missed the point.  In this case the “external facts” don’t exist.  They are a figment of his imagination.  Westermarck adds,

    It may, of course, be a subject for scientific inquiry to investigate the means which are conducive to human happiness or welfare, and the results of such a study may also be usefully applied by moralists, but it forms no more a part of ethics than physics is a part of psychology.  If the word “ethics” 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.

    My personal favorite among the critics of Westermarck is G. E. Moore, who became far more highly regarded as an “expert on ethics” by debunking all previous practitioners of the trade as victims of the “naturalistic fallacy,” and being extremely coy about the nature of morality himself.  No one could ever pin him down as to whether Good and Evil were animal, vegetable, or mineral.  From the few broad hints he gave us, it appears that the Good has a remarkable resemblance to what a Victorian rent seeker would consider “nice things,” or at least the ones that they admitted to openly.  In any case, here is Westermarck’s account of Moore’s criticism:

    He argues that if one person says “this action is wrong,” and another says of the very same action that it is not wrong, and each of them merely makes a judgment about his own feelings towards it, they are not differing in opinion about it at all, and, generally speaking, there is absolutely no such thing as a difference of opinion upon moral questions.  “If two persons think they differ in opinion on a moral question (and it certainly seems as if they sometimes think so), they are always on this view, making a mistake, and a mistake so gross that it seems hardly possible that they should make it:  a mistake as gross as that which would be involved in thinking that when you say, ‘I did not come from Cambridge today’ you are denying what I say when I say ‘I did.'” This seems to Professor Moore to be a very serious objection to my view.  But let me choose another, analogous case, to illustrate the nature of his argument.  One person says, “This food is disagreeable,” and another says of the very same food that it is not disagreeable.  We should undoubtedly assert that they have different opinions about it.  On Professor Moore’s view this shows that the two persons do not merely judge about their feelings but state that the food really is, or is not, disagreeable, and if they admitted that they only expressed their own feelings – as they most probably would if their statements were challenged – and yet thought that they differed in opinion, they would make a mistake almost too great to be possible.  For my own part I venture to believe that most people would find it absurd if they denied that they had different opinions about the food.

    It seems to me that Westermarck could have had a lot more fun with Moore if he had been so inclined.  After all, the point of this flimsy argument, which was taken quite seriously by several other “experts on ethics” at the time, was that moral judgments are not purely subjective in nature.  If it really made any sense, we could magically transform anything we pleased into a real thing.  One could, for example, resurrect the Greek gods out of thin air simply by virtue of believing in them.  If one were merely making a judgment about his own feelings, than, according to Moore, a difference of opinion on the matter would become impossible.  The only alternative is that the Greek gods actually do exist.  To deny it would be tantamount to denying the objective existence of Good and Evil!  I note in passing that Moore’s argument was considered “unanswerable” by W. D. Ross, who added some objections of his own based on a similar conflating of objective facts with subjective feelings.  If you’re interested in more detail, it’s all there in Westermarck’s Ethical Relativity.

    When it comes to moral philosophy, fame doesn’t depend on the truth of what you say, but on how well it fits the prevailing narrative.  Then and now, too many people have too much to lose by admitting that Westermarck was right.  Their tedious reading of many dry tomes of moral philosophy would have been for nothing, and their claims to “expertise,” would vanish like the morning fog.  Hence the few lines devoted to him on Wikipedia and elsewhere.  He was right where so many have been wrong, but I doubt that he will get the recognition he deserves anytime soon.  Perhaps, in view of the mountains of bilge that somehow are published as “moral philosophy” these days, it might at least be possible to put his two major books on the subject, Ethical Relativity and The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, back into print.  I would certainly be willing to contribute my widow’s mite to the cause.  I’m not holding my breath, though.