On Justifications of Morality

There is no justification of morality.  Period.  That’s the bottom line. 

Before one sets forth boldly to justify morality, it is always a good idea to first acquire an understanding of what it is.  Morality is a human trait resulting from predispositions hard-wired in the brain.  The exact manner in which it manifests itself in the form of behavior and perceptions is influenced to some extent by the environment.  Human beings are an evolved life form.  Therefore, traits such as hands, feet, eyes, ears, and morality exist because, at least at some point, they promoted our survival. 

Eyes did not suddenly spring into being in perfect form as a result of some remarkable chance mutation.  Their development can be traced back over hundreds of millions of years, presumably to the emergence of light sensitive cells on some primitive life form.  The same may be said of morality.  It is a manifestation of physical processes that take place in the brain.  Related physical processes take place in the brains of other animals, as they did in the brains of our ancestors going back tens of millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions, of years. 

Until quite recently, our ancestors did not have the mental equipment necessary to speculate wisely about Kant and Schopenhauer.  Morality would not have promoted our survival if it had taken the form of a predisposition to read tomes of philosophy, and then draw our own conclusions.  It promotes our survival by modifying our social behavior in a much more efficient manner, and one that worked for our animal ancestors as well as it does for us today.  It causes us to act according to moral rules or imperatives that we obey without thinking about them.  Other primates don’t have the luxury of thinking about why they act morally.  They just do it.  We can think about it, and the results have been very interesting.

On evolutionary time scales, human intelligence evolved with great speed.  There may have been some alterations in the mental wiring responsible for moral behavior during the process, but it’s most unlikely the related changes took place in perfect harmony.  We still experience morality in the same way as other primates, in the form of imperatives, or absolute rules.  As a result, it seems to us that those rules must have an objective existence of their own, independent of the mental processes that give rise to them.  For thousands of years philosophers have been seeking this object, this holy grail – in vain.  Even though we experience it that way, morality as an objective thing does not exist.  The holy grail was never there.  Morality exists, but its existence is in the form of physical processes in our brains, not as an object with an independent existence of its own.  Because morality is not an object, attempts to give it objective legitimacy – to “justify” it – are necessarily in vain.  One cannot “justify” behavioral traits that evolved in response to a social environment that no longer exists.  At best, one can understand what they are and why they are there.

It occurred to Darwin that the behavioral traits associated with morality had evolved, and many thinkers since his time have come to the same conclusion.  It was, however, a conclusion that seemed to fly in the face of any number of ideological narratives, not to mention most of the world’s organized religions.  As a result, it has taken us a long time to accept the obvious.  However, our knowledge has continued to expand, and recent scientific advances, particularly in the form of powerful tools that allow us to watch the brain in action, and the ability to unravel the human genome, have made it increasingly difficult to deny any genetic component to morality.  The idea has gone mainstream.

All this comes as bad news to those philosophers who have devoted their careers to the search for the holy grail of objective justification.  It completely upsets their apple cart of nicely arranged epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies.  In spite of that, they no longer have the luxury of pretending that the idea doesn’t exist.  One way or another, they have to address it.  One can find an interesting response to this troubling state of affairs by Jan Gorecki, one of the guild of grail seekers, in his book, “Justifying Ethics; Human Rights & Human Nature.”

Gorecki is aware of the idea that morality is there as an adaptive function.  He is also perceptive enough to grasp the implications of that idea.  Speaking of the genetic explanation of morality he writes,

If true, it precludes not only the validity of the functional justification, but also of all other traditionally claimed justifications. Within the view of the world and of ethics accepted by proponents of this explanation, there is no room for such normmaking facts as divine will, intuitionist ontology, existence of pure reason as the source of ethics, or of human nature understood otherwise than as a genetic fitness implement. That is why no proponent of the genetic explanation supports any kind of objective justification of morality; they understand that, once their explanation is considered true, all justifications fail.

Precisely!  I couldn’t have said it any better myself.  What’s even more remarkable is the way that Gorecki, in spite of this realization, manages to maintain the precarious balance of his own particular apple cart.  Here are some relevant quotes:

… the very idea of morality being with us as an adaptive tool is enigmatic… In a living organism, the adaptive emergence of various organs is reasonably clear in the light of natural selection. But how can anyone explain, short of a miracle, an analogous role of moral evaluations in human society? (!)

Morality is, from this perspective, just one such technique. It is claimed that the human ability to ontogenetically develop the specifically human moral experiences emerged as a mutation over five million years ago, among hunters-gatherers living in small, endogamously breeding kinship bands. By providing a strong altruistic and cooperative motivation, this ability enhanced the inclusive fitness of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!)

This brings us to the basic question: is the genetic explanation true? The question cannot be answered in a publicly convincing way. It may well be true; it is possible that whatever exists is matter, that life can be reduced to physicochemical processes and mind to physiology, and that human morality is there since it promotes replication of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!!)

During this discussion, Gorecki cites several of the works of E.O. Wilson, such as “Sociobiology,” and “On Human Nature.”  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  If professional philosophers can so grossly misunderstand ideas as they are set forth by one who writes as clearly and elegantly as E.O. Wilson, are we really to believe that they understand Kant, who wrote in obscure German sentences a page and a half long?

The rest is predictable.  Gorecki buries his head in the sand, and insists that the rest of us do likewise;

…the belief “that human values are determined or fixed genetically…is doubtful to say the least,” and possibly untestable. (It’s certainly doubtful in the form he understands it.) Thus, we are not, and may never be, able to determine whether the genetic explanation of ethics is true. This indeterminacy is most relevant for our analysis; unproved and uncertain, the genetic explanation cannot be used for rebuttal of the functional justification (and other justifications) of morality.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s a time tested way of denying the obvious, if the obvious happens to conflict with a cherished world view.  Just hold the obvious to an impossible standard of proof, and then pretend it’s rational to ignore it by virtue of the fact that it can’t be proved.  Of course, one can always close ones eyes, hold ones hands firmly over ones ears, and declare that anything one doesn’t want to believe “can’t be proved.”  For that matter, it would be true.  Infirm creatures that we are, with a limited, and generally grossly overestimated, ability to reason, we can’t “prove” anything.  We must act according to probabilities.  It is highly probable, and becoming increasingly so as our knowledge expands, that morality is an evolved trait.  Failure to grasp the implications of that knowledge, and to act on them, is risky now, and will become increasingly risky in a world in which our powers of self-destruction expand with each passing day.  Assuming we value our own survival, we had best learn to know ourselves.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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