The Afterlife of Objective Morality

Morality is a subjective mental construct, fundamentally emotional in nature, and no more capable of existing as a “thing in itself,” discoverable by reason, than hunger, sexual desire, or physical pain.  Its ultimate cause as a collection of behavioral traits inherent in our brains in the form of predispositions whose expression can vary depending on cultural and environmental factors, but is broadly similar among human populations.  The mental traits responsible for the expression of morality evolved.  They did not suddenly pop into existence thanks to some miraculous mutation simultaneously with the appearance of homo sapiens.  Rather, those traits in humans represent incremental adaptations of similar traits that have existed in our animal ancestors for tens of millions of years, if not longer.  They are entirely similar in that respect to most of our other distinguishing characteristics as a species, as demonstrated by the wonderful advances in the field of evolutionary development in recent years.  They did not evolve because they served the greater good, or because they were in accord with some imaginary, objective “good-in-itself,” or because they promoted “human flourishing,” as it is variously defined.  They evolved because they increased the probability that the individual packets of genetic material that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce.  They did not evolve to serve any purpose, nor did they evolve because they promoted the “good of the species.”  They evolved at a time in which the conditions of human existence were utterly dissimilar to those existing today.  As a result, the assumption that they will continue to promote the survival of the packets of genetic material that give rise to them under these vastly altered conditions is unwarranted.

I cannot assert that all of the above statements are certainly true, any more than I can assert that anything at all is certainly true.  I can, however, point out that all of them are supported by compelling and rapidly increasing bodies of evidence.  Most of the scientists working in the relevant fields of study are aware of the existence of that evidence.  As a result, most of them will now admit that, at least to some degree, human morality, not to mention our other behavioral traits, are dependent for their existence on features programmed in our brains by our genes.  Few of them would have made such an admission, at least in the behavioral sciences, as recently as two decades ago.  In spite of the fact that thinkers since the days of Darwin and before have insisted on the decisive role of innate predispositions, or “human nature” in shaping human behavior, the quite recent general acceptance of that fact that can be traced in both the scientific and popular literature represents a genuine paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences.

It should hardly be surprising that the behavioral expression of morality in conscious animals with highly developed brains can be complex and vary significantly in detail across human populations.  The fact remains that the mental traits responsible for what we refer to as “moral” behavior, under its various definitions, are a subset of the mental traits that are the ultimate cause of what is loosely referred to as “human nature,” more or less arbitrarily set apart from the rest.  It follows that, absent those evolved mental traits, morality as we know it would cease to exist.  It does exist because it promoted the survival of packets of genetic material carried by individual human beings.  Attempts to alienate it from those origins by assigning some “purpose” to it, whether that purpose be the service of some imaginary supernatural being, the greater good of some “master race,” promotion of “human flourishing,” or what have you, are irrational.  There is no “objective good.”  There is no legitimate basis for one animal of a particular species insisting that all the other animals of that species “should” conform to and adopt his particular version of “the good” given the fact that his ability to imagine such a fundamentally emotional construct as “the good” exists because of mental traits that evolved because, at least at some time in the past, they happened to promote the survival of the packet of genes he happens to be carrying around.  If our species were anywhere near as intelligent as we give ourselves credit for being, it would seem that recognition of the above facts would follow immediately on recognition of the fundamental nature of morality.  It is a tribute to the power of the emotional traits that give rise to moral behavior that nothing of the sort has happened.  The deontologists, consequentialists, and various other tribes of moral and ethical philosophers have continued their speculations about what we “really ought” to do as if nothing had happened, like the sages of yore who debated over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

I suggest to the fellow members of my species that, given the paradigm shift referred to above, it is high time that we refrain from such unproductive debates, and accept the logical consequences of what we have discovered about morality.  It would be useful, at least from my point of view, for a number of reasons.  For example, for reasons I have set forth elsewhere, continued attempts to establish moral systems threaten the survival of our species.  The desire to avoid extinction may be just another emotional whim, but I suspect that it is one that I share with many others of my species.  As such, it is a goal towards which we might agree to work together.

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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