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  • Steven Pinker and His Obscurantist “Enlightenment”

    Posted on January 19th, 2019 Helian 1 comment

    Quillette recently hosted an essay by Steven Pinker on his Enlightenment Now a year after its publication. The following is a repost of a comment on the book I left there by way of a review. In the first chapters of the book, Pinker argues that we’ve made lots of progress towards “human flourishing” by applying the principles of the Enlightenment. I don’t take issue here with those claims one way or the other. I do take issue with what he has to say about his favorite flavor of morality, referred to in the book as humanism, as follows:

    Pinker extols the merits of science and reason. The problem with “Enlightenment Now” is that it is fundamentally irrational and unscientific. Consider, for example, what he has to say about morality, which he discusses under the rubric of humanism. He agrees with Darwin that it is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “human nature” if you will. If that is the case, then there can be no such thing as objective morality. Darwin practically spoon fed us this truth in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” The illusion that there is an objective morality, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter, complete with objective goods and evils, is as much an illusion as the belief in God, yet Pinker, in spite of accepting the innate basis of morality, makes the fundamentally irrational claim that the illusion is real. Nowhere in the book do we find a disclaimer to the effect that what he has written about morality merely represents his personal opinion. On the contrary, he speaks of it as an objective thing, imposing duties on the rest of us. It comes complete with “moral imperatives” and even an “authority,” based on what Pinker describes in glowing terms as the values of the Enlightenment. These values themselves, however, cannot be distilled from pure reason, any more than a computer can program itself. Hume pointed this out long ago. Try to trace Pinker’s reasons for embracing the values of the Enlightenment back to their “rational” source, reason by reason, and you will find that his reasons only end up chasing their own tails. In the end, those values, too, must have a root cause or source in innate predispositions, or emotions, if you will, that exist by virtue of natural selection. Since these predispositions exist by virtue of a natural process, they cannot have a purpose. They are simply facts of nature. They could not have a purpose of the sort claimed by Pinker unless a God or other creator existed who gave them purpose.

    Pinker is well known as an opponent of group selection. He confirms his belief that the emotional roots of morality exist by virtue of natural selection, and are selected at the level of the gene, in the following passage:

    Today’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which the unit of selection is the group, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest group in competition with other groups, and humans have been selected to sacrifice their interests for the supremacy of their group. (This contrasts with mainstream evolutionary psychology, in which the unit of selection is the gene.)

    He then commits the fundamentally irrational non sequitur of claiming that we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with, and jury-rig it so that it goes well beyond group selection, and promotes “the good of the species!” For example,

    Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.

    and,

    Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind.

    How can it possibly be deemed “rational” to “reprogram” morality in this way? We are dealing with a manifestation of human nature that evolved at a time radically unlike the present, in which the very existence of “all of humankind” was unknown. It evolved because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Pinker would have us believe that it is “reasonable” to “fool” morality into serving other ends that may well result in outcomes that are not only dangerous, but the very opposite of the survival of those genes. The “other ends” Pinker has in mind are the “values of the Enlightenment,” which he describes in noble, glowing phrases, but which are really just expressions of other emotional predispositions not unlike those that give rise to morality. We can certainly reason about whether we want to promote “the values of the Enlightenment” or not as individuals, but to bowdlerize morality in order to serve those ends, harnessing powerful illusions of “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” which can just as easily promote violence and warfare as they can “the values of the Enlightenment” is nothing short of foolhardy. I suggest that we would all be better served by reducing the scope of such a powerful emotional phenomenon as much as possible.

    As far as Pinker’s embrace of “reason” is concerned, consider all the passages in the book in which he condemns Trump and all his works. He would have us believe that Trump is no less than a follower of Hitler and Mussolini, inspired by a careful parsing of the works of Nietzsche. Anyone who supports him, and that would amount to half the population of the United States, give or take, must therefore be either a Nazi or a dupe of the Nazis. In what way does such a claim support the notion of a “rational” dialogue with all these people? I am certainly not in the habit of calmly and rationally discussing things with people who initiate the conversation by claiming I’m a Nazi.

    In fact, a major reason Trump was elected, and the main reason a great many voters supported him, was his promise to enforce our immigration laws. Not only was this not irrational, it was actually an embrace of Enlightenment values. Was not one of those values respect for the law? “The rule of law” was deemed so important that it was actually inscribed as a motto on French coins after the Revolution! Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construe the furious attacks on Trump that appear so frequently throughout the book as “reasonable.” They are far better understood as virtue signaling to Pinker’s academic tribe. He has often subjected that tribe to pinpricks here and there, but he is well aware that he dare not attack the fundamental shibboleths that define his tribalist ingroup, and one of those shibboleths is currently blind allegiance to the notion that Trump is a manifestation of pure evil. Respect for the shibboleths of his tribe is how Pinker has managed to avoid being denounced as a heretic and ostracized after the fashion of Charles Murray or James Watson. Need I add that there is nothing “rational” about tribalistic virtue signaling, other than the fact that it is a common trait of our species?

  • Morality and Reason – Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

    Posted on January 12th, 2019 Helian 4 comments

    Consider the evolution of life from the very beginning. Why did the first stirrings of life – molecules that could reproduce themselves – do what they did? The answer is simple – chemistry. As life forms became more complex, they eventually acquired the ability to exploit external sources of energy, such as the sun or thermal vents, to survive and reproduce. They improved the odds of survival even further by acquiring the ability to move towards or away from such resources. One could easily program a machine to perform such simple tasks. Eventually these nascent life forms increased the odds that they would survive and reproduce even further by acquiring the ability to extract energy from other life forms. These other life forms could only survive themselves by virtue of acquiring mechanisms to defend themselves from these attacks. This process of refining the traits necessary to survive continues to this day. We refer to it as natural selection. Survival tools of astounding complexity have evolved in this way, such as the human brain, with its ability evoke consciousness of such things as the information received from our sense organs, drives such as thirst, hunger, and sexual desire, and our emotional responses to, for example, our own behavior and the behavior of others. Being conscious of these things, it can also reason about them, considering how best to satisfy our appetites for food, water, sex, etc., and how to interpret the emotions we experience as we interact with others of our species.

    A salient feature of all these traits, from simple to complex, is the reason they exist to begin with. They exist because at the time and in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that we would survive, or at least they did to the extent that they were relevant to our survival at all. They exist for no other reason. Our emotions and predispositions to behave in some ways and not others are certainly no exception. They are innate, in the sense that their existence depends on genetic programming. Thanks to natural selection, we also possess consciousness and the ability to reason. As a result, we can reason about what these emotions and predispositions mean, and how we should respond to them. They are not rigid instincts, and they do not “genetically determine” our behavior. In the case of a subset of them, we refer to the outcome of this process of reasoning about and seeking to interpret them as morality. It is these emotions and predispositions that are the root cause for the existence of morality. Without them, morality as we know it would not exist. They exist by virtue of natural selection. At some time and in some environment, they promoted our survival and reproduction. It can hardly be assumed that they will accomplish the same result at a later date and in a different environment. In fact, it is quite apparent that in the drastically different environment we live in today, they often accomplish the opposite. For a sizable subset of the human population, morality has become maladaptive.

    The remarkable success of our species in expanding from a small cohort of African apes to cover virtually the entire planet is due in large part to our ability to deal with rapid changes in the environment. We can thrive in the tropics or the arctic, and in deserts or rain forests. However, when it comes to morality, we face a very fundamental problem in dealing with such radical changes. Our brain spawns illusions that make it extremely difficult for us to grasp the nature of the problem we are dealing with. We perceive Good, Evil, Rights, etc., as real, objective things. These illusions are extremely powerful, because by being powerful they could most effectively regulate our behavior in ways that promoted survival. Now, in many cases, the illusions have become a threat to our survival, but we can’t shake them, or see them for what they really are. What they are is subjective constructs that are completely incapable of existing independently outside of the minds of individuals. Even those few who claim to see through the illusion are found defending various “Goods,” “Evils,” “Rights,” “Duties,” and other “Oughts” in the very next breath as if they were referring to real, objective things. They often do so in support of behaviors that are palpably maladaptive, if not suicidal.

    An interesting feature of such maladaptive behaviors is the common claim that they are justified by “reason.” The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson explained very convincingly why moral claims can’t be based on reason alone almost 300 years ago. As David Hume put it somewhat later, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason alone can never do anything but chase its own tail. After all, computers don’t program themselves. There must be something to reason about. In the case of human behavior the chain of reasons can be as long and as elaborate as you please, but must always and invariably originate in an innate predisposition or drive, whether it be hunger, thirst, lust, or what is occasionally referred to as our “moral sense.” Understood in that way, all of our actions are “unreasonable,” because reason can never, ever serve as the cause of our actions itself.  Reasoning about good and evil is equivalent to reasoning about the nature of God. In both cases one is reasoning about imaginary things. Behavior can never be objectively good or evil, because those categories only exist as illusions. It can, however, be objectively described as adaptive or maladaptive, depending on whether it enhances the odds of genetic survival or not.

    In the case of morality, maladaptive behavior is seldom limited to a single individual. Morality is always other-regarding. The illusion that Good, Evil, etc., exist as independent, objective things implies that, not just we ourselves, but everyone else “ought” to behave in ways that embrace the “Good,” and resist “Evil.” As a result we assume a “right” to dictate potentially maladaptive and/or suicidal behavior to others. If we are good at manipulating the relevant emotions, those others may quite possibly agree with us. If we can convince them to believe our version of the illusion, they may accept our reasoning about what our moral emotions are “really” trying to tell us, and become convinced that they must act in ways detrimental to their own survival as well. They may clearly see that they are being induced to behave in a way that is not to their advantage, but the illusion would tend to paralyze any attempt to behave differently. The only means of resistance would be to manipulate the moral sense so as to evoke different illusions of what good and evil “really” are.

    If, as noted above, there is nothing objectively good or evil about anything, it follows that there is nothing objectively good or evil about any of these behaviors. They are simply biological facts that happen to be observable at a given time and in a given environment. However, whatever one seeks to accomplish in life, they will be more likely to succeed if they base their actions on facts rather than illusions. That applies to the illusions associated with our moral sense as much as to any others. The vast majority of us, including myself, have an almost overwhelming sense that the illusions are real, and that good and evil are objective things. However, it is becoming increasingly dangerous, if not suicidal, to continue to cling to these illusions, assuming one places any value on survival.

    Most of us have goals in life. In most cases those goals are based on illusions such as those described above. Human beings tend to stumble blindly through life, without a clue about the fundamental reasons they behave the way they do. Occasionally one sees them jumping off cliffs, stridently insisting that others must jump off the cliff too, because it is “good,” or it is their “duty.” Perhaps Socrates had such behavior in mind when he muttered, “The unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial. Before jumping off a cliff, would it not be wise to closely examine your reasons for doing so, following those reasons to their emotional source, and considering why those emotions exist to begin with? I, too, have goals. Paramount among my personal goals is survival and reproduction. There is nothing intrinsically or objectively better about those goals than anyone else’s, including the goal of jumping off a cliff. I have them because I perceive them to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Those who do not wish to survive and reproduce appear to me to be sick and dysfunctional biological units. I do not care to be such a unit. As corollary goals I wish for the continued evolution of my species to become ever more capable of survival, and beyond that for the continued existence of biological life in general. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are “correct,” or that the goals of others are “wrong.” Mine are just as much expressions of emotion as anyone else’s. Call them whims, if you will, but at least they have the virtue of being whims that aren’t self destructive.

    Supposing you have similar goals, I suggest that it would behoove you to shed the illusion of objective morality. That is by no means the same thing as dispensing with morality entirely, nor does it imply that you can’t treat a version of morality you deem conducive to your survival as an absolute. In other words, it doesn’t imply “moral relativism.” It is our nature to perceive whatever version of morality we happen to favor as absolute. Understanding why that is our nature will not result in moral nihilism, but it will have the happy effect of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the moralistic bullies who have always assumed a right to dictate behavior to the rest of us. To understand morality is to realize that the “moral high ground” they imagine they’re standing on doesn’t exist.

    It is unlikely that any of us will be able to resist or significantly influence the massive shifts in population, ideology and the other radical changes to the world we live in that are happening at an ever increasing rate merely by virtue of the fact that we recognize morality and the illusions of objective good and evil associated with it for what they really are. However, it seems to me that recognizing the truth will at least enhance our ability to cope with those changes. In other words, it will help us survive, and, after all, survival is the reason that morality exists to begin with.

  • Touching on the Dangers of Living Among the Morally Delusional

    Posted on December 17th, 2018 Helian 3 comments

    A major theme of all I have written about morality is that it is subjective. Assuming I am right, this fact has major implications regarding human behavior. It follows, for example, that good and evil do not exist as objective things. Since they are almost universally imagined to actually be objective things, it follows that good and evil are subjective illusions. This begs the question of why the illusions exist. The obvious reason is that they exist by virtue of natural selection. As a result of the natural process of evolution we have brains that construct these illusions because, at some time and in some environment that was likely vastly different from the present, the illusions happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. They are an aspect of human nature, if you will, and one that gives rise to what we commonly refer to as morality. Absent this particular aspect of human nature, morality as we know it would not exist.

    Morality predisposes us to imagine that we ought to do some things, and ought not to do others. However, since the mental traits responsible for morality are the result of a natural process, it is impossible that there can be anything that we ought or ought not to do from an objective point of view. To imagine otherwise is to fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy. However, a life lived in complete indifference to what we ought or ought not to do would certainly be boring, and probably impossible for creatures such as ourselves, with a powerful predisposition to imagine that good and evil are real things. The question is, how do we come up with our oughts and ought nots? More broadly speaking, how do we come up with a “meaning of life” to which all of our other oughts and ought nots would presumably be subordinated? The obvious answer is that we assign these things to ourselves.

    From a purely personal point of view I consider it expedient to consider rationally this matter of what ultimate goals to assign myself, and what I ought and ought not to do in pursuit of these goals. I have decided that my own personal goals should include survival and reproduction. There is no objective reason for pursuing such a goal, anymore than there is an objective reason for pursuing any other goal. I have chosen these goals because of my conclusion that virtually all of my essential physical and mental traits exist because they enhanced the odds that I would survive and reproduce. I prefer to act in a way that is in harmony with the natural processes that are responsible for my existence. If I were to do otherwise, I would have the impression that I had become “sick” or “dysfunctional” as a biological unit. In keeping with this goal, I have the additional goals of ensuring the survival of my species, and promoting its continued evolution to become ever more capable of surviving in any environment it is likely to encounter, and of ensuring the survival of biological life itself. I consider these additional goals reasonable because I deem them preconditions for my original goal of survival and reproduction, extended into the indefinite future. None of these goals are justifiable from an objective point of view, independent of my subjective mind. It is impossible for any goal to have that attribute. Call them whims, if you will, but there you have them. I have laid my cards on the table.

    I would certainly like to see the other members of my species lay their cards on the table in a similar fashion, but that is not likely to happen. The problem is that almost all of them are delusional. They actually believe that the illusions of good and evil are real. Many of them also believe that their meaning and purpose are supplied by imaginary gods that don’t actually exist. Unfortunately, all this has a severe impact, not just on themselves, but on those around them as well. It can do a lot of what those others may perceive, and what I personally certainly perceive, as harm.

    Consider, for example, the case of morality. There has always been widespread recognition of the harm done by those who blindly follow their moral whims. Shakespeare referred to them as “devils of Puritans.” More recently, they have been contemptuously referred to as the Uplift, or do gooders, or Social Justice Warriors. Seldom if ever, however, has anyone been able to put their finger on the reason why the behavior of such people is dangerous and harmful. The main reason for this is that they have always suffered from the same delusion as the do gooders. They, too, have imagined that good and evil exist as objective things. They merely believe in different versions of these imaginary things. As a result, they cannot simply point out that the pathologically pious among us are blindly following an emotional whim that is harmful to the rest of us. They are generally reduced to coming up with an alternative grab bag of goods and evils, and engaging in futile arguments over whose grab bag is better. Since the do gooders are generally a great deal more adept at manipulating moral emotions, they commonly win these arguments.

    Consider what the outcome of this state of affairs has been concerning, for example, the integrity of national borders. In recent years, much of Europe, North American, and parts of east Asia had reached a state of affairs in which the birthrates of the indigenous populations was below replacement level. Eventually, this would have caused their populations to begin shrinking. In some cases they have already begun to shrink. From my personal point of view, this is an extremely good state of affairs. I would be the first to admit that alarmists have exaggerated many of the environmental problems we face. However, considering that earth is the only boat we have to live in at the moment, why rock it? Virtually every environmental problem you could name would go away with substantial reductions in population. With fewer others to compete with for limited resources, there would be more elbow room for my descendants. We are told that the economy will only be good as long as the population continually increases. Obviously, this can’t go on forever. The planet can only sustain so many people, and its limits are already being strained in many areas. To the extent that survival is a goal we have in common, it would be much better, not only for me, but for our species in general, if at least a few enclaves could be preserved with sustainable populations. Worrying about or tweaking the economy amounts to little more than an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We have far more substantial problems to worry about.

    However, we are told by the pathologically pious that we cannot continue to protect these potentially sustainable enclaves of ours because it is immoral. We must open our borders and allow anyone who pleases to move in, because this is the “moral” thing to do. The result is not hard to foresee. The amount of environmental damage these immigrants will cause will be vastly greater than if they had stayed in their own countries. Our population will no longer begin decreasing to more sustainable levels. Those coming in are culturally and ethnically different from the population already here. In view of the invariable human tendency to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, this will inevitably lead to social tension, perhaps culminating in civil war.  Even in terms of the economy, there is no evidence that allowing cheap labor to flood across the border, placing huge demands on our health, educational, and social welfare resources, will have a beneficial effect, even in the short term. Our population will begin to look more and more like the populations of South American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela that have been notably unsuccessful in sustaining a level of affluence similar to the one we enjoy, in spite of their control over vast natural resources. These obvious objections are commonly rationalized away with specious arguments in the interest of doing “good.”

    If I were to ask those who support such a destructive policy to justify their claim that it must be done because it is moral, they would be incapable of responding with a coherent answer. If they actually understood what morality is, the best reply they could give me would be that they want to do it to satisfy an emotional whim. However, that emotional whim evolved at a time when our species never had to deal with such issues. Attempting to solve the complex issues we are faced with now by doing whatever happens to be most emotionally satisfying is not only stupid, but self-destructive. Unfortunately, those who seek to blindly satisfy their emotional whims in this way apply them not just to themselves, but to the rest of us as well. Unless they are allowed to dictate to us what we “ought” or “ought not” to do, not only in the matter of borders, but in everything else, then they will deem us “evil,” and seek to force their emotionally motivated solutions to all the world’s problems down our collective throats.

    Unless we wake up and realize what morality actually is, those who hardly have our welfare or interests at heart will continue to manipulate it to lead us around by the nose. Unfortunately, I don’t see our species waking up any time soon. Our situation will remain as it is. Whatever goals and purposes we happen to assign ourselves, we must learn to deal with it. 

  • Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams

    Posted on November 4th, 2018 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We ought not to go against nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Morality Whimsy: Darwin and the Latter Day Philosophers

    Posted on September 30th, 2018 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Please, Leave Me Out of Your Philosophical Pigeonholes

    Posted on June 27th, 2018 Helian 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Morality and the Floundering Philosophers

    Posted on May 26th, 2018 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • 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 7 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.