Morality and the John Stuart Mill Syndrome

John Stuart Mill recognized the subjective nature of morality, contrasting his own opinion with those who believed that good and evil were objective “things in themselves.” As he put it,

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

In spite of this, one constantly runs into artifacts of the implicit assumption that morality really does correspond to an object, a real thing. Consider, for example, the following excerpt concerning the basis of right and wrong:

A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it. The difficulty is not avoided by having recourse to the popular theory of a natural faculty, a sense of instinct, informing us of right and wrong. For – besides that the existence of such a moral instinct is itself one of the matters in dispute – those believers in it who have any pretensions to philosophy, have been obliged to abandon the idea that it discerns what is right or wrong in the particular case in hand, as our other senses discern the sight or sound actually present. Our moral faculty, according to those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not the perception of it in the concrete.

The implication here is, of course, that there actually is something concrete to find.  Weight is added to that impression by the following passage, in which, after noting the failure of philosophers to discover a universal morality in spite of more than 2000 years of effort, Mill suggests that whatever consistency we have finally attained on the subject is due to a “standard not recognized.”

To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine.  It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.

To the extent that such a standard exists, and is not due to innate human nature, it must be an objective thing it itself.  Mill was a brilliant man.  He had, however, the great misfortune of writing before the theories of Darwin could inform his work.  He was not a “Blank Slater” in the 20th century sense of the term, that is, an ideologue who insisted that he could not be wrong about innate human nature, and that anyone who maintained the contrary was morally or politically suspect.  He was aware he might be wrong about the matter, and admitted as much.

But I digress.  The point of this post is that, in spite of admitting the subjective nature of moral systems, Mill believed that, once the rational basis for the “utility” of his system of utilitarianism, or, as he put it, “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” had been accepted, It would somehow also acquire legitimacy.  In other words, it would become a valid basis for judging the actions, not just of himself and those who agreed with him, but everyone else, as well.  In short, it would become an objective thing.

We have learned a lot since then.  “Innate human nature” is now accepted as if there had never been any dispute about the matter, and, if the works of the likes of Jonathan Haidt, Frans de Waal, and Richard Wrangham are any guide, the ultimate reasons for the existence of morality are to be found in that nature.  As Mill would have agreed, it is entirely subjective.  It seems abundantly obvious that, given its nature and origins, morality cannot possibly acquire anything like universal legitimacy.  That, however, is a truth that our modern experts in ethics have found too hard to bear.  In a sense, it puts them out of business.  What good is their expertise if there is no universal standard to discover?  What becomes of the delicious joy of virtuous indignation and the divine pleasure of moral outrage once the absolute standard those joys depend on evaporates?

For example, consider an essay penned by Michael Price, a professor of psychology, in “From Darwin to Eternity,” a blog he writes for Psychology Today.  Entitled “Morality:  What is it Good for?,” the article makes all the requisite nods to human nature.  For example,

Human moral systems are ultimately biological:  they are generated by brains, and brains are composed of mechanisms that evolve by standard Darwinian natural selection.  Like all biological adaptations (such as hearts, uteruses, and hands), these mechanisms solve problems related to individual survival and reproduction.  The moral judgments of individuals can generally be regarded as the primary products, or else as the by-products, of these mechanisms.

and, fending off in advance the charge of genetic determinism beloved of the old Blank Slaters,

Some psychological adaptations for morally-relevant behavior solve problems that exist in virtually all human environments (for instance, the problem of avoiding inbreeding).  Others are solutions to problems that are more severe in some environments than others, and this is a major reason why – despite the fact that human nature is fundamentally the same cross-culturally – some aspects of moral systems vary significantly across cultures.  For example, in environments in which access to resources depends especially heavily on success in war – such as among the tribal communities of highland New Guinea, or the fiefdoms of medieval Europe – people are relatively likely to endorse military virtues like fierceness and valor and to disparage cowardice.

Prof. Price concludes with some reflections on what he calls “cultural group selection”:

Historically, groups with relatively empowering moral systems have tended to supplant groups with relatively enfeebling moral systems, and also to be imitated by weaker groups who wish to emulate their success.  Through these processes, winning moral formulas have tended to spread at the expense of losing ones.  From this perspective, the crucible of intergroup competition plays a key role in determining which moral systems flourish and which ones perish.  This view does not necessarily imply anything cynical about morality:  there’s no reason at all from biology that this competition must be violent (and indeed, Pinker argues persuasively in his recent book (The Better Angels of our Nature) that it has become much less violent over time), and nonviolent, productive competition can lead to a rising tide of benefits for humanity in general.

“Benefits for humanity?”  Where have we heard that before?  You guessed it.  In the end it’s not about gaining a rational understanding of human moral emotions and accommodating them as best we can in a rapidly changing world.  It’s about inventing a better mousetrap:

What this view does imply is that morality ought to be less about passionate expressions of outrage, and more about designing a value system that will enable societal success in a constantly changing and eternally competitive world.

And so, after all these assurances about the subjective nature of morality as a consequence of the evolved mental characteristics of a certain biological species with large brains, the Good Object begins to emerge from the shadows once again, hazy but palpable.  From its admittedly humble origins as an odd collection of behavioral traits that happened to contribute to the fitness of ancient groups of hunter gatherers, an infant “value system” emerges, a Thing that, if it survives to adulthood, will seek to acquire legitimacy by “enabling societal success” along the way.  In a word, we’ve come full circle, back to John Stuart Mill.  Undeterred by the dubious success of innovative “value systems” like Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, we merely need to persevere.  With luck, we’ll cobble together an entirely new one that will finally “enable societal success” without the creation of another luckless outgroup like the Jews or the bourgeoisie along the way, and with none of the other traditional unfortunate side effects that have inevitably accompanied mankind’s previous efforts to apply morality to modern societies.  No thanks.  We’ve been down that path before.

I don’t mean to pick on Professor Price.  What public intellectual doesn’t share his penchant for concocting gaudy new moralities that will usher in a Brave New World of “human flourishing?”  We find even the new atheists ostentatiously striking pious poses and raining down indignant anathemas on the morally suspect.  Nothing is harder to shake off and leave behind than the odor of sanctity.  I suspect, however, that we must if we ever really want to flourish.

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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