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  • On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck

    Posted on April 4th, 2019 Helian 3 comments

    The illusion of objective morality is amazingly powerful. The evidence is now overwhelming that morality is a manifestation of emotions, and that these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that there can be no such thing as objective moral truths. The brilliant Edvard Westermarck explained why more than a century ago in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas:

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

    Westermarck, in turn, was merely pointing out some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin had written about morality in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Today Westermarck is nearly forgotten, what Darwin wrote about morality is ignored as if it didn’t exist, and the illusion is as powerful and persistent as it was more than a century ago. Virtually every human being on the planet either believes explicitly in objective moral truths, or behaves as if they did regardless of whether they admit to believing in them or not.

    There are many, for example, who claim to accept the fact that morality is subjective. If that were the case, however, it would be irrational for them to argue that one should do one thing and should not do another thing without qualification. That, however, is precisely what every single “subjective moralist” I’ve ever heard, ever read, or was ever aware of actually does. If anyone knows of an exception, I would be pleased to hear about it. The delusional belief in objective moral truths is evidently far more difficult to shed than the “God delusion.” Consider, for example, the case of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is, of course, one of the most prominent “New Atheists.” It’s also clear that he is aware that our moral emotions exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. He made that perfectly clear as early as the publication of “The Selfish Gene” more than four decades ago. In spite of that, Dawkins constantly turns up on Twitter condemning some “evil,” or promoting some “good,” for all the world as if they were objective things. He is not alone in committing this glaring non sequitur. Everyone else on the planet who has ever passed as a New Atheist does exactly the same thing. Even Westermarck was no exception, closing his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas with the paragraph,

    I have here pointed out only the most general changes to which the moral ideas have been subject in the course of progressive civilization; the details have been dealt with each in their separate place. There can be no doubt that changes also will take place in the future, and that similar causes will produce similar effects. We have every reason to believe that the altruistic sentiment will continue to expand, and that those moral commandments which are based on it will undergo a corresponding expansion; that the influence of reflection upon moral judgments will steadily increase; that the influence of sentimental antipathies and likings will diminish; and that in its relation to morality religion will be increasingly restricted to emphasizing ordinary moral rules, and less preoccupied with inculcating special duties to the deity.

    In other words he felt obligated to reassure his readers that, in spite of his revolutionary Darwinian approach to morality, they needn’t worry; society would continue to make “moral progress” towards what everyone knows is “really good.” This incredibly tenacious belief in “moral progress,” a delusion not only of the new atheists, but of Westermarck himself, persists in spite of the seemingly obvious fact that, if there are no moral truths, there can be no moral progress. There is simply nothing to progress towards. If morality is an artifact of natural selection, it cannot possibly have a goal or anything of the sort towards which “progress” can be made. What passes for “moral progress” can never be anything more than progress towards satisfying the emotionally driven whims of individuals, no matter how many individuals happen to share the same whim. It is progress towards a mirage, and a dangerous mirage at that.

    The virtually universal belief, whether admitted or not, that the mirage is real, is remarkable in view of all we have learned about the workings of the human mind in the last century and a half. In light of that knowledge, the fact that morality is subjective should be obvious. It doesn’t even take Darwin to demonstrate the fact. Simply observe some ranting social justice warrior during one of their fits of virtuous indignation and ask yourself the question, “What authority entitles them to make these moral judgments.” In every case, the answer is the same. They possess no such authority. They simply assume it. If challenged, of course, they would seldom admit as much. The God authority has become unfashionable, but they can be relied on to come up with another one, even more absurd. Often, they simply rely on some version of the circular argument that what they claim is good is really good because it can be derived from some other good that is “obviously” really good. A rich array of such specious arguments have been invented to prop up the illusion, each more threadbare than the last. Most of us are incapable of even considering the possibility that morality is subjective, far less the implications of that fact. If the possibility is suggested, a typical response it to grasp at one of these arguments as a drowning man grasps a straw, and defend it to the end. No attempt is made to rationally consider the arguments in favor of subjective morality. Instead, one simply assumes they must be wrong, and then proceeds to rationalize the assumption. Anything to avoid facing the truth.

    If morality were objective it would necessarily exist in some form independent of the minds of individuals. No such object has ever been detected, for the obvious reason that no such object exists. Amazingly, this rather salient fact doesn’t seem to matter at all. As Westermarck put it,

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

    The illusion is so powerful that our finest scientists and our most brilliant intellectuals appear powerless to resist it even today. We behold all mankind blindly chasing a chimera, far from realizing that it’s a chimera, and incapable of rationally considering the implications of the natural process that created such a realistic illusion to begin with. This, in a nutshell, is the default state of our species. Our behavior is fundamentally irrational. The only general advice I can give individuals, whatever their personal goals happen to be, is Adapt. Your fellow human beings are likely to continue to act irrationally for the foreseeable future.

  • More Fun with Moral Realism

    Posted on January 16th, 2016 Helian No comments

    What is moral realism?  Edvard Westermarck provided a good definition in the first paragraph of his Ethical Relativity:

    Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity.  The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.  The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

    Westermarck dismissed moral realism as a chimera.  So do I.  Indeed, in view of what we now know about the evolutionary origins of moral emotions, the idea strikes me as ludicrous.  It is, however, treated as matter-of-factly as if it were an unquestionable truth, and not only in the general public.  Philosophers merrily discuss all kinds of moral conundrums and paradoxes in academic journals, apparently in the belief that they have finally uncovered the “truth” about such matters, to all appearances with no more fear of being ridiculed than the creators of the latest Paris fashions.  The fact is all the more disconcerting if one takes the trouble to excavate the reasons supplied for this stubborn belief that subjective emotional constructs in the minds of individuals actually relate to independent things.  Typically, they are threadbare almost beyond belief.

    Recently I discussed the case of G. E. Moore, who, after dismissing the arguments of virtually everyone who had attempted a “proof” of moral realism before him as fatally flawed by the naturalistic fallacy, supplied a “proof” of his own.  It turned out that the “objective good” consisted of those things that were most likely to please an English country gentleman.  The summum bonum was described as something like sitting in a cozy house with a nice glass of wine while listening to Beethoven.  The only “proof” supplied for the independent existence of this “objective good” was Moore’s assurance that he was an expert in such matters, and that it was obvious to him that he was right.

    I recently uncovered another such “proof,” this time concocted in the fertile imagination of the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö. It turned up in an interview on the website of 3:AM Magazine under the title, The Hedonistic Utilitarian.  In response to interviewer Richard Marshall’s question,

    Why are you a moral realist and what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

    Tännsjö replies,

    I am indeed a moral realist.  In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one.  There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualization.  My main argument in defense of the position is this.  It is true (independently of our conceptualization) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth).  But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualization, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true.  We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise.

    In reading this, I was reminded of PFC Littlejohn, who happened to serve in my unit when I was a young lieutenant in the Army.  Whenever I happened to pull his leg more egregiously than even he could bear, he would typically respond, “You must be trying to bullshit me, sir!”  Apparently Tännsjö doesn’t consider Darwin’s theory, or Darwin’s own opinion regarding the origin of the moral emotions, or the flood of books and papers on the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, or the convincing arguments for the selective advantage of just such an emotional response as he describes, or the utter lack of evidence for the physical existence of “moral truths” independent of our “thought and conceptualization,” as sufficiently strong reasons “to think otherwise.”  Tännsjö continues,

    Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see.  It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualization) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest.  It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons.  If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is righty to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well.

    Yes, in the same sense that deontic logic is necessary to determine whether it is true or false that there are fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  No deontic logic is necessary here – just the realization that Tännsjö is trying to make truth claims about something that is not subject to truth claims.  The claim that it is objectively “not wrong” to do what he describes is as much a truth claim, and therefore just as irrational, as the claim that it is wrong.  As for his equally irrational worries about “moral nihilism,” his argument is similar to those of the religious true believers who think that, because they find a world without a God unpalatable, one must therefore perforce pop into existence.  Westermarck accurately described the nature of Tännsjö’s “proof” in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, where he wrote,

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion

    The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    Today, Westermarck is nearly forgotten, while G. E. Moore is a household name among moral philosophers.  The Gods and angels of traditional religions seem to be in eclipse in Europe and North America, but “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen” are still with us, transmogrified into the ghosts and goblins of moral realism.  We find atheist social justice warriors hurling down their anathemas and interdicts more furiously than anything ever dreamed of by the Puritans and Pharisees of old, supremely confident in their “objective” moral purity.

    And what of moral nihilism?  Dream on!  Anyone who seriously believes that anything like moral nihilism can result from the scribblings of philosophers has either been living under a rock, or is constitutionally incapable of observing the behavior of his own species.  Human beings will always behave morally.  The question is, what kind of a morality can we craft for ourselves that is both in harmony with our moral emotions, that does the least harm, and that most of us can live with.  I personally would prefer one that is based on an accurate understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.

    Do I think that anything of the sort is on the horizon in the foreseeable future?  No.  When it comes to belief in religion and/or moral realism, one must simply get used to living in Bedlam.

  • G. E. Moore Contra Edvard Westermarck

    Posted on November 10th, 2015 Helian 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Clash of the Moral Titans: Sam Harris vs. Noam Chomsky

    Posted on May 16th, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky have a lot in common.  Both are familiar public intellectuals, both are atheists, and both are well to the left of center politically.  Both are also true believers in the fantasy of objective morality.  As I noticed on my latest visit to the Salon website, however, that hasn’t deterred them from hurling anathemas at each other.  Harris landed some weak jabs in a recent exchange of verbal fisticuffs, but according to Salon, Chomsky won by a knockout in the later rounds.  A complete, blow by blow account may be found on Sam’s website, along with his own post mortem.

    Apparently it all began when Harris tried to, in his words, “engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics.”  As he wrote on his blog,

    For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.

    To clear the air, he wrote a pleasant note to Chomsky suggesting that they engage in a public conversation to, “explore these disagreements, clarify any misunderstandings,” and “attempt to find some common ground.”  Not one to be taken in by such pleasantries, old pro Chomsky immediately positioned himself on the moral high ground.  His tart reply:

    Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you.  Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false.  I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings.  If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine.  But with sources.

    Harris should have known going in that hardcore “progressive” leftists never have friendly differences of opinion with anyone on matters more significant than the weather.  Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically tossed into their outgroup, and acquires all the usual characteristics of the denizens thereof.  They are, of course, always immoral, and commonly disgusting and mentally incompetent as well.  That’s often how Harris portrays those who disagree with him on questions of morality himself.  Nevertheless, he walked right into Chomsky’s punch, admitting the possibility that he may have misread him.  He merely threw in the caveat that, if so, it could only have happened in a passage in his first book, The End of Faith, as that was the only time he’d ever mentioned Chomsky’s work in writing.  That was plenty for Chomsky.  In effect, Harris had just handed him the opportunity to pick his own battlefield.  He did so with alacrity.  As it happens, in the passage in question, Harris had objected to Chomsky’s condemnation of the Clinton Administration’s decision to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in the context of remarks about the 9/11 attacks.  As he put it:

    Chomsky does not hesitate to draw moral equivalences here: “For the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they routinely have carried out elsewhere.”

    Citing the passage in his own work Harris referred to, Chomsky immediately fired back, denying that it had ever been his intent to “draw moral equivalences”:

    Let’s turn to what you did say—a disquisition on “moral equivalence.” You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite.  I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.

    Having thus seized the moral high ground, he proceeded to rain down pious punches on Harris, demonstrating that he was not merely wrong, but grossly immoral.  His ensuing replies include such choice examples as,

    You also ignored the fact that I had already responded to your claim about lack of intention—which, frankly, I find quite shocking on elementary moral grounds, as I suspect you would too if you were to respond to the question raised at the beginning of my quoted comment.

    Harris is willfully blind to the crimes of the Clinton Administration:

    And of course they knew that there would be major casualties.  They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?

    He is morally depraved for abetting this crime:

    Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them.

    and,

    I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.

    Chomsky closes on a magnanimous note:

    I’ll put aside your apologetics for the crimes for which you and I share responsibility, which, frankly, I find quite shocking, particularly on the part of someone who feels entitled to deliver moral lectures.

    Harris is game enough, but staggers on rubbery legs for the rest of the fight.  Even in the midst of these blows, he can’t rid himself of the idée fixe that it’s possible to have a polite exchange with someone like Chomsky on differences of opinion about morality.  In the post mortem on his website, it’s clear that he still doesn’t know what hit him.  It’s virtually impossible to win arguments about objective morality with the likes of Chomsky unless you grasp the fundamental truth that there’s no such thing as objective morality.  In fact, the whole debate was about subjective perceptions that are, as Westermarck put it, entirely outside the realm of truth claims.

    I can only suggest that next time, instead of getting “down in the weeds,” as he puts it, in a debate with Chomsky about who is “really” the most morally pure, Harris consider the matter pragmatically.  In fact, Chomsky is, and always has been, what Lenin referred to as “a useful idiot.”  The net effect of all his moralistic hair splitting has been to aid and abet ideologies for which most sane people would just as soon avoid serving as guinea pigs, and to demoralize those who would seek to stand in their way.  The most egregious example is probably the moral support he provided for the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia at the very time it was perpetrating what was probably, at least on a per capita basis, the worst act of genocide in human history, resulting in the virtual decapitation of a whole country and the annihilation of a large percentage of its population.  There are many accounts of his role in this affair on the Internet, and I invite interested readers to have a look at them.  One of the more balanced accounts may be found here.  Here, too, Chomsky would run rings around Harris if he attempted to debate his role on moralistic grounds.  Here, too, he could claim that he had never deliberately drawn any “moral equivalence,” that he had never intended to support the Khmer Rouge, and that those who suggest otherwise are immoral because of a, b, and c.  However, it is a fact that Pol Pot and his cronies made very effective use of his remarks in their propaganda, among other things, predictably exploiting them to draw “moral equivalence” in blithe disregard of Chomsky’s assertions about his “intent.”

    In fact, Chomsky has been a virtual poster boy for potential tyrannies of all stripes.  One might say he has been an “equal opportunity” useful idiot.  Once when I was visiting Germany I happened to glance at the offerings of a local newsstand, and saw the smiling face of none other than Noam Chomsky smiling down at me from the front page of the neo-Nazi “Deutsche National-Zeitung!”   In the accompanying article, the fascists cited him as an ideal example of a true American hero.  I note in passing that tyrants themselves usually have no illusions about the real nature of such paragons of morality.  Once Stalin had successfully exploited them to gain absolute power, he shot or consigned to the Gulag every single one he could lay his hands on.

    In a word, I suggest that Sam take some advice that my father once passed down to me regarding such affairs:  “Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk.”  You don’t need to convince anyone that you’re more morally pure than Chomsky in order to realistically assess the net effect of all his “piety.”  You just need to realize that, from a purely subjective point of view, it is “good” to survive.

  • The Objective Morality Delusion

    Posted on March 15th, 2015 Helian No comments

    Human morality is the manifestation of innate behavioral traits in animals with brains large enough to reason about their own emotional reactions.  It exists because those traits evolved.  They did not evolve to serve any purpose, but purely because they happened to enhance the probability that individuals carrying them would survive and reproduce.  In the absence of those traits morality as we know it would not exist.  Darwin certainly suspected as much.  Now, more than a century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species, so much is really obvious.

    Scores of books have been published recently on the innate emotional wellsprings of morality.  Its analogs have been clearly identified in other animals.  Its expression has been demonstrated in infants, long before the they could have learned the responses in question via cultural transmission.  Unless all these books are pure gibberish, and all these observations are delusions, morality is ultimately the expression of physical phenomena happening in the brains of individuals.  In other words, it is subjective.  It does not have an independent existence as a thing-in-itself, outside of the minds of individuals.  It follows that it cannot somehow jump out of the skulls of those individuals and gain some kind of an independent, legitimate power to prescribe to other individuals what they should or should not do.

    In spite of all that, the faith in objective morality persists, in defiance of the obvious.  The truth is too jarring, too uncomfortable, too irreconcilable with what we “feel,” and so we have turned away from it.  As the brilliant Edvard Westermarck put it in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

    It follows that, as Westermarck puts it,

    The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    and therefore,

    If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.

    Westermarck wrote those words in 1906.  More than a century later, we are still whistling past the graveyard of objective morality.  Interested readers can confirm this by a quick trip to their local university library.  Browsing through the pages of Ethics, one of the premier journals devoted to the subject, they will find articles on deontological, consequentialist, and several other abstruse flavors of morality.  They will find a host of helpful recipes for what should or should not be done in a given situation.  They will discover that it is their “duty” to do this, that, or the other thing.  Finally, they will find all of the above ensconced in an almost impenetrable smokescreen of academic jargon.  In a word, most of the learned contributors to Ethics have ignored Westermarck, and are still chasing their tails, doggedly pursuing a “scientific ethics” that will “fix rules for human conduct” once and for all.

    Challenge one of these learned philosophers, and their response is typically threadbare enough.  A common gambit is no more complex than the claim that objective morality must exist, because if it didn’t then the things we all know are bad wouldn’t be bad anymore.  An example of the genre recently turned up on the opinion pages of The New York Times, entitled, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.  Its author, Justin McBrayer, an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, opens with the line,

    What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

    Now, as Westermarck pointed out, it is impossible for things to be “true” if they have no objective existence.  Read the article carefully, and you’ll see that McBrayer doesn’t even attempt to dispute the logic behind Westermarck’s observation.  Rather, he tells him the same thing Socrates’ judges told him as they handed him the hemlock:  “I’m right and you’re wrong because what you claim is true is bad for the children.”  In other words, there must be an objective bad because otherwise it would be bad.   Other than that, the only attempt at an argument in the whole article is the following ad hominem remark about any philosopher who denies the existence of objective morality:

    There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare.

    In other words, objective morality must be true, because those who deny it are “creatures.”  No doubt, such “defenses” of objective morality have been around since time immemorial.  They certainly were in Westermarck’s day.  His response was as valid then as it is now:

    Ethical subjectivism is commonly held to be a dangerous doctrine, destructive to morality, opening the door to all sorts of libertinism.  If that which appears to each man as right or good, stands for that which is right or good; if he is allowed to make his own law, or to make no law at all; then, it is said, everybody has the natural right to follow his caprice and inclinations, and to hinder him from doing so is an infringement on his rights, a constraint with which no one is bound to comply provided that he has the power to evade it.  This inference was long ago drawn from the teaching of the Sophists, and it will no doubt be still repeated as an argument against any theorist who dares to assert that nothing can be said to be truly right or wrong.  To this argument may, first, be objected that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.

    Obviously, as Westermarck foresaw, the argument is “still repeated” more than a century later.  In McBrayer’s case, it goes like this:

    Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

    He adds,

    As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

    One often hears such remarks about the supposed pervasiveness of moral relativism.  They are commonly based on the fallacy that human morality is the product of human reason rather than human emotion.  The reality is that Mother Nature has been blithely indifferent to the repeated assertions of philosophers that, unless we listen to them, morality will disappear.  She designed morality to work, for better or worse, whether we take the trouble to reason about it or not.  All these fears of moral relativism can’t even pass the “ho ho” test.  They fly in the face of all the observable facts about moral behavior in the real world.  Moral relativism on campus, you say?  Please!  There has never been such a hotbed of extreme, moralistic piety as exists today in academia since the heyday of the Puritans.  No less a comedian than Chris Rock won’t even perform on college campuses anymore because of repeated encounters with the extreme manifestations of priggishness one finds there.  One can’t tell a joke without “offending” someone.

    Morality isn’t going anywhere.  It will continue to function just as it always has, oblivious to whether it has the permission of philosophers or not.  As can be seen by the cultural differences in the way that moral emotions are “acted out,” within certain limits morality is malleable.  We have some control over whether it is “acted out” by the immolation of enemy pilots and the beheading and crucifixion of “infidels,” or in forms that promote what Sam Harris might call “human flourishing.”  Regardless of our choice, I suspect that our chances of successfully shaping a morality that most of us would find agreeable will be enhanced if we base our actions on what morality actually is rather than on what we want it to be.

  • On the Unbearable Lightness of Objective Morality

    Posted on October 14th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    There are still objective moralists – lots of them.  Of course, billions of people on the planet are objective moralists because they believe in God, but that’s the trivial case.  I’m not referring to them.  I’m referring to the legions of philosophers, ethicists, and moralists who sawed that particular branch off long ago, and yet imagine they can still sit on it.  It reminds me of an old “Itchy and Scratchy” episode on “The Simpsons.”  Itchy tears out Scratchy’s heart and hands it to him as a valentine.  Scratchy is charmed, and carries on as if nothing were amiss until he happens to read the bold headline in his newspaper, “You Need a Heart to Live!”  So it is with the objective moralists.  They insist that their treasured object needs neither a heart nor a God to exist.  It exists because they say so, and after all, they are the experts.  More importantly, it exists because they would not at all approve of a world in which it didn’t.

    An interesting example of the genre recently turned up in the pages of The New Atlantis in the form of an article entitled, The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson.  It was penned by Whitley Kaufman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  Kaufman is also an objective moralist, and his article is intended as a refutation of E. O. Wilson’s “evolutionary ethics.”  He informs us that “the discipline of evolutionary ethics can be divided into two broad camps.”  Supposedly Wilson belongs to the first camp, which “views evolutionary explanations of morality as a way to improve our understanding of what is moral and to put ethical claims on a stronger foundation.”  However, Kaufman finally gets around to telling us where he stands in describing the second camp:

    But there is a second, more radical school of thought in evolutionary ethics.  This view holds that evolutionary biology, rather than providing a basis for improving or modernizing ethics, shows that the idea of objective ethical rules is inherently mistaken.

    Returning to the same theme a bit later he writes,

    …the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims.

    That might well be true if there were even the faintest basis for the “objective status of ethical claims.”  In fact, there is none, and Kaufman makes no effort to supply one.  Objective moralists seldom do.  It seems to them that the Good and Evil objects that dance before their eyes are so light that they can float about in the ether without support.  It’s a common illusion among those who have reached terminal velocity as gravity pulls them crashing down to earth.

    By all means, read Kaufman’s essay from end to end.  You will search in vain for any justification of the claim that there is such a thing as objective morality.  Instead, you will find a very typical mélange of appeals to emotion, moralistic posing, and insistences that, because the author wouldn’t like it if there were no objective morality, therefore objective morality must exist.

    For example, in a section entitled Disquieting Precedents, he dangles familiar bugaboos before our eyes.  They include Social Darwinism, eugenics, and, of course, the Nazis.  These are all, supposedly, the misshapen children of evolutionary ethics.  In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:  I feel really, really strongly that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are evil.  It would be really, really outrageous for anyone to believe that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are good.  Therefore, it follows that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are objectively evil.  Using similar logic, one can easily prove the existence of a God.  After all, if God didn’t exist, we couldn’t go to heaven after we die, the bad people we resent wouldn’t go to hell, and our prayers for our favorite football team would never be answered.  Therefore, there must be a God.

    A little later, Kaufman puts this “it just can’t be” argument into an even simpler form.  Taking issue with Wilson he writes,

    In his 1986 essay “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” written with philosopher Michael Ruse, he (E. O. Wilson) argues that we now understand that we have been “deceived by our genes” into believing that morality objectively binds us, that there is a real right versus wrong.

    This view is best characterized as a form of moral nihilism, the idea that moral obligations do not exist.  Wilson tries to avoid the nihilistic position by insisting that the illusion of right and wrong is so deeply built into us that even recognizing it as an illusion will not likely make a difference in our behavior.  But committed moral nihilists reject this response:  realizing that moral claims are illusions surely means that moral claims are false.  There is, under this view, no real ethical difference between the actions of the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint.

    In other words, we have the following additional arguments for objective morality:  a) I don’t like moral nihilists at all, and, since moral nihilists deny the existence of objective right and wrong, therefore objective right and wrong must exist, b) I don’t at all like the idea that there is no objective moral difference between the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint, so there must be an objective moral difference between them, and, c) It would be a great shame if the mirage of a cool spring of water and palm trees shimmering ahead of me on the desert floor weren’t real.  Therefore they must be real.  Do any of these arguments make sense to you?  They certainly don’t to me.  A bit further on Kaufman writes,

    There are stronger grounds than Wilson offers, however, for rejecting the moral nihilism that some say is a consequence of evolutionary biology.  Consider an analogy with mathematics and science.  Like our ability to think about the morality of our actions, the cognitive abilities underlying mathematics and science are in some sense products of evolution.  But this fact has no significant implications regarding our ability to objectively study mathematics or physics, and it certainly does not imply that numbers, molecules, or, for that matter, genes, brains, and bodies studied by evolutionary biologists are fictions.  Likewise, the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims… To try to do ethics without genuine values and prescriptive moral principles is like trying to do science without recourse to facts and observations.

    There’s a novel proof for you.  Objective Good and Evil must exist because Prof. Kaufman requires them to do his job.  Actually, I’m entirely willing to believe in genuine values and prescriptive moral principles if Professor Kaufman could just catch one in his butterfly net and bring it in for me to observe.  That’s really where his ox is gored.  If there is no objective morality, people like him really have nothing to teach us, other than their opinions tarted up as “objects.”  I’m sorry about that, but the fact doesn’t alter reality one bit.  According to Kaufman,

    In order to fully comprehend human nature, there must always be a place for philosophy, history, literary studies, and even theology – disciplines that complement the natural sciences and fill in the picture of the human being as a free and rational agent.

    I personally don’t care what discipline my knowledge comes from.  You can call it science, or philosophy, or history, or whatever you like.  But regardless of where it comes from, I must insist that if people make assertions about objects that are supposed to exist independently of their subjective minds, they provide some data, some actual evidence that those objects exist.  Absent such data, but with plenty of data demonstrating that those “objects” are just what E. O. Wilson says they are – subjective illusions – I will continue in the belief that they are just that.

    Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for the existence of human morality.  Absent those predispositions, our morality as we know it would cease to exist.  In my opinion, that is the simple truth.  It will remain the truth whether its implications are unpleasant to the Kaufmans of the world or not.  Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are obviously possible, though hardly inevitable, outcomes if people engage in faulty reasoning about what they should do in response to their moral emotions.  If we really want to avoid such outcomes in the future, wouldn’t it be advisable to understand the truth about our moral emotions and where morality comes from?  It seems to me that would be wiser than attempting to ban them by insisting that everyone believe in imaginary objects.  That would amount to insisting that we repeat the same mistakes over again.  After all, there were no stronger believers in objective morality than the Nazis unless, perhaps, it was the Communists.  For them, the ultimate, objective Good was the welfare of the German Volk.  They tolerated no moral relativism on that score whatsoever.  For the Communists, the objective Good was achieving the future classless utopia.  They, too, allowed no moral relativism touching on that ultimate goal.  It seems to me that the lesson we really should have learned from Nazism and Communism is that such illusions of objective Good can be very dangerous, and we should be wary of anyone who comes along trying to peddle a new and improved version.

    There is no reason we will cease to be moral beings because we have finally learned to understand morality.  Just as E. O. Wilson said, it is our nature to be moral beings.  If there be moral nihilists who assume they can break the rules because the rules are conventions rather than objects, we will continue to punish them just as we have always punished such moral nihilists in the past.  I, for one, will have no problem with that.  However, it seems to me that the interactions of modern nation states armed with nuclear weapons bear little resemblance to those that prevailed during the long period over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved.  Under the circumstances it seems to me imprudent to regulate those interactions with reference to imaginary Good and Evil objects.  We did, after all, have some rather unpleasant experiences during the last century trying to do just that.  Let us refrain from compounding the error by attempting to repeat those experiments.  I have very little faith in the efficacy of the vaunted intelligence of our species.  However, it seems to me that in such cases we should leave off trying to cobble together new moral systems and actually try to be reasonable.

    As for Good and Evil objects, I am not intransigent.  I am entirely willing to believe in them.  All I ask is that Professor Kaufman rope one and show it to me.

     

  • But Wait! There are More “Worries” from The Edge!

    Posted on February 3rd, 2013 Helian No comments

    I won’t parse all 150+ of them, but here are a few more that caught my eye.

    Science writer and historian Michael Shermer, apparently channeling Sam Harris, is worried about the “Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.”  According to Shermer,

    …most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

    It’s only a mistake to the extent that there’s actually some “high ground” to be conceded.  There is not.  Assuming that Shermer is not referring to the trivial case of discovering mere opinions in the minds of individual humans, neither science nor philosophy is capable determining anything about objects that don’t exist.  Values, morals and ethics do not exist as objects.  They are not things-in-themselves.  They cannot leap out of the skulls of individuals and acquire a reality and legitimacy that transcends individual whim.  Certainly, large groups of individuals who discover that they have whims in common can band together and “scientifically” force their whims down the throats of less powerful groups and individuals, but, as they say, that don’t make it right.

    Suppose we experience a holocaust of some kind, and only one human survived the mayhem.  No doubt he would still be able to imagine what it was like when there were large groups of other’s like himself.  He might recall how they behaved, “scientifically” categorizing their actions as “good” or “evil,” according to his own particular moral intuitions.  Supposed, now, that his life also flickered out.  What would be left of his whims?  Would the inanimate universe, spinning on towards its own destiny, care about them one way or the other.  Science can determine the properties and qualities of things.  Where, then, would the “good” and “evil” objects reside?  Would they still float about in the ether as disembodied spirits?  I’m afraid not.  Science can have nothing to say about objects that don’t exist.  Michael Shermer might feel “in his bones” that some version of “human flourishing” is “scientifically good,” but there is no reason at all why I or anyone else should agree with his opinion.  By all means, let us flourish together, if we all share that whim, but surely we can pursue that goal without tacking moral intuitions on to it.  “Scientific” morality is not only naive, but, as was just demonstrated by the Communists and the Nazis, extremely dangerous as well. According to Shermer,

    We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong…

    In fact, if scientists cease looking for and seeking to study objects that plainly don’t exist, it would seem to me more reason for congratulations all around than worry.  Here’s a sample of the sort of “reasoning” Shermer uses to bolster his case:

    We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.

    Forgive me for being blunt, but this is gibberish.  Natural selection can have no target, because it is an inanimate process, and can no more have a purpose or will than a stone.  “Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism – people in this context – is the basis of establishing values and morals”??  Such “reasoning” reminds me of the old “Far Side” cartoon, in which one scientist turns to another and allows that he doesn’t quite understand the intermediate step in his proof:  “Miracle happens.”  If a volcano spits a molten mass into the air which falls to earth and becomes a rock, is not it, in the same sense, the “target” of the geologic processes that caused indigestion in the volcano?  Is not the survival and flourishing of that rock equally a universal “good?”

    Of the remaining “worries,” this was the one that most worried me, but there were others.  Kevin Kelly, Editor at Large of Wired Magazine, was worried about the “Underpopulation Bomb.”  Noting the “Ur-worry” of overpopulation, Kelly writes,

    While the global population of humans will continue to rise for at least another 40 years, demographic trends in full force today make it clear that a much bigger existential threat lies in global underpopulation.

    Apparently the basis of Kelly’s worry is the assumption that, once the earths population peaks in 2050 or thereabouts, the decrease will inevitably continue until we hit zero and die out.  In his words, “That worry seems preposterous at first.”  I think it seem preposterous first and last.

    Science writer Ed Regis is worried about, “Being Told That Our Destiny Is Among The Stars.”  After reciting the usual litany of technological reasons that human travel to the stars isn’t likely, he writes,

    Apart from all of these difficulties, the more important point is that there is no good reason to make the trip in the first place. If we need a new “Earth 2.0,” then the Moon, Mars, Europa, or other intra-solar-system bodies are far more likely candidates for human colonization than are planets light years away.  So, however romantic and dreamy it might sound, and however much it might appeal to one’s youthful hankerings of “going into space,” interstellar flight remains a science-fictional concept—and with any luck it always will be.

    In other words, he doesn’t want to go.  By all means, then, he should stay here.  I and many others, however, have a different whim.  We embrace the challenge of travel to the stars, and, when it comes to human survival, we feel existential Angst at the prospect of putting all of our eggs in one basket.  Whether “interstellar flight remains a science-fiction concept” at the moment depends on how broadly you define “we.”  I see no reason why “we” should be limited to one species.  After all, any species you could mention is related to all the rest.  Interstellar travel may not be a technologically feasible option for me at the moment, but it is certainly feasible for my relatives on the planet, and at a cost that is relatively trivial.  Many simpler life forms can potentially survive tens of thousands of years in interstellar space.  I am of the opinion that we should send them on their way, and the sooner the better.

    I do share some of the other worries of the Edge contributors.  I agree, for example, with historian Noga Arikha’s worry about, “Presentism – the prospect of collective amnesia,” or, as she puts it, the “historical blankness” promoted by the Internet.  In all fairness, the Internet has provided unprecedented access to historical source material.  However, to find it you need to have the historical background to know what you’re looking for.  That background about the past can be hard to develop in the glare of all the fascinating information available about the here and now.  I also agree with physicist Anton Zeilinger’s worry about, “Losing Completeness – that we are increasingly losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental, and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.”  It’s an enduring problem.  The name “university” was already a misnomer 200 years ago, and in the meantime the problem has only become worse.  Those who can see the “big picture” and have the talent to describe it to others are in greater demand than ever before.  Finally, I agree with astrophysicist Martin Rees’ worry that, “We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks.”  In particular, I agree with his comment to the effect that,

    The ‘anthropocene’ era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, there were several occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward nuclear Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation. Those who lived anxiously through the Cuba crisis would have been not merely anxious but paralytically scared had they realized just how close the world then was to catastrophe.

    This threat is still with us.  It is not “in abeyance” because of the end of the cold war, nor does that fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II mean that they will never be used again.  They will.  It is not a question of “if,” but “when.”

  • On the Existence of “Moral Blind Spots”

    Posted on November 11th, 2012 Helian No comments

    According to Michael Austin, who writes the Ethics for Everyone blog for Psychology Today, we are suffering from “Moral Blind Spots.”  Referring to the morality-based arguments in favor of slavery of an earlier time, he writes,

    When I read these arguments and discuss their flaws with students, I’m reminded of something a professor of mine once asked, “What will future generations think about us? What moral blind spots of ours will they see, that we miss?” There are many possibilities, to be sure, but I think that future generations may look back at the disparity of wealth in our world and wonder how we could have missed the injustices that exist related to this.

    If future generations are still capable of rational thought, perhaps they will ask a more pertinent question:  In view of the fact that the nature of morality and the ultimate reasons for its existence should have been obvious to our generation, why did so many of our philosophers, professors, and other assorted Ph.D.’s in the social sciences still believe there was some logical basis for making moral judgments of past generations?  Like so many of the other contemporary experts on morality, his work is informed by the tacit assumption that Good and Evil exist, independent of their subjective origins.  Like the others, he throws out a barrage of “shoulds” without troubling himself in the least about establishing their legitimacy, apparently oblivious to the many books discussing the biological origins of morality that have been appearing lately.  Here are some examples from his article:

    It is disturbing, shocking, and disappointing to read arguments which include the attempt to defend the indefensible.

    The “indefensible” he refers to is slavery.  Austin is not providing us with a description of his subjective moral intuitions in response to a particular stimulus.  Rather, the implication here is that there are objective reasons to consider slavery indefensible, and attempts to defend it as disturbing, shocking, and disappointing.  In short, he is saying that slavery is objectively Evil.  Why?  We are not told.  Nothing could be easier than striking poses in defense of this particular instance of “expertise in morality.”  Does not everyone agree that slavery is Evil?  What could be easier than simply shouting down anyone who disagrees?  They simply reveal themselves as Evil by association.  In reality, slavery is neither Good, nor Evil, because such categories simply don’t exist as things in themselves.  We can certainly say that the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the U.S. today is that slavery is evil.  It was also the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the ante-bellum South that slavery was good.  What we cannot say is that there is some objective basis for deciding which of them is right.  Continuing from the article,

    We look back and wonder, “how could educated people believe that slavery was a moral institution?”

    Here Austin is assuming that there are objective reasons for considering slavery moral or immoral.  He does not tell us what they are, and for good reason.  There are none.

    How could we believe that it is morally permissible for certain parts of the world to have so much, while others, through no fault of their own, die of malaria because they lack access to something as cheap and effective as a bed net or anti-malarial medication.

    Here Austin is assuming that there is an objective basis for declaring some things morally permissible, and others not.  Again, he does not trouble himself to explain why.

    I pay extra money each month to my satellite tv provider so that I can watch Arsenal on the Fox Soccer Channel, have an occasional overpriced drink at the local coffee shop, and I purchase other things that I don’t really need. To be clear, I don’t think that we should necessarily stop all such spending. What I do think we should consider, however, is the option of curtailing some of this spending and then putting that money to work in ways that can help others who are suffering from treatable illnesses. By making do with a little less, we can help others live. This is not mere charity, it is a matter of justice.

    Here, we find a baseless “should” associated with the spending of money in one way as opposed to another, another baseless “should” concerning what it is appropriate for us to consider, and what not, and a declaration that something is a “matter of justice” without the least semblance of an attempt to establish the legitimacy of that assertion.

    Morality is a loose description of a collection of behavioral traits, observable in human beings, with analogs in other species.  The ultimate reason for their existence is the evolution of physical traits in the brain and nervous system.  Those traits exist solely because individuals who possessed them were more likely to survive, in times which bear little resemblance to the present, than those who didn’t.  So much is becoming increasingly obvious.  In spite of this, Austin and legions of other modern moralists continue to simply assume the existence of objective morality as a given.  It is nothing of the sort.  Today, objective morality is like a dead man walking.  Perhaps future generations will have the sense to wonder why it is taking the dead man so long to finally collapse.