Frank Salter’s Ethic

Of all the hopeless new moralities that are being cobbled together to promote “human flourishing” and related chimeras, anthropologist Frank Salter’s adaptive utilitarianism, as set forth in his book On Genetic Interests, at least has the merit of being logically consistent.  It’s premise is that a “good” act is one that increases or protects the fitness of the greater number.  That seems reasonable given that virtually all of our physical and mental traits, including the ones that give rise to morality, only exist because, at least at some time in the past, they enhanced our genetic fitness.  However, Salter’s morality is a non-starter for the same reasons as all the rest.  David Hume pointed them out back in the 18th century:

There has been an opinion very industriously propagated by certain philosophers, that morality is susceptible of demonstration; and tho’ no one has ever been able to advance a single step in those demonstrations; yet ’tis taken for granted, that this science may be brought to an equal certainty with geometry or algebra.

If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralities abound.

Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such influence.  Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.  Reason of itself is utterly impotent in the particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of reason…

…reason can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence.  Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable.

Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cites Hume’s dictum that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” and reviews recent experimental demonstration of the existence of these “passions,” and the way in which they influence moral judgment.  Noting that there are not just one, but six innate “foundations” of moral judgment, he adds,

…we believe that moral monism – the attempt to ground all morality on a single principle – leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.

It goes without saying that philosophers don’t create moral systems to apply only to themselves.  Unless it is applied to others as well, morality is pointless.  It is the source of moral judgment, and the basis of what Haidt identifies as a very fundamental human behavioral trait; self-righteousness.  That is another Achilles heel of the cobblers of moral systems; all moralities imply self-righteousness, but self-righteousness can never be objectively legitimate.  We all judge others, because it is our nature to do so.  However, the idea that there can ever be some objective basis for those judgments that renders them valid in themselves is nonsense.  We have certainly evolved to experience them as valid in themselves, but that is hardly a proof that they actually are.  In my opinion, that is actually one of the more comforting aspects of the philosophy of Hume and the science of evolutionary morality.  We are no longer burdened by any tiresome obligation to take the pathologically pious among us seriously.  It becomes quite reasonable for us to view them as buffoons.  Of course, in saying that, I am expressing a moral sentiment of my own.

It seems to me Salter’s ideas work much better as a source of a personal sense of purpose than as a source of ethics.  There is no objective reason why we “ought” to do anything.  Our reasons must be entirely subjective.  It may not work for everyone, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t, for that matter, but serving what Salter refers to as my genetic interests works for me.  I find it very satisfying as the “purpose of life.”  While I can hardly provide a rational objective basis for this “ought,” the same could be said of any other “ought” anyone could come up with.  I look at it this way.  I exist because everything about me has promoted my genetic survival.  If my conscious acts and my conscious purpose are not in harmony with the reasons for my existence, I am, in a sense, ill and defective.  The thought of being ill and defective is not pleasing to me.  Hence, my “purpose in life.”  It’s entirely subjective and I can’t reasonably apply it to anyone else, I know, but that’s the beauty of it.  It’s not at all troubling to me that most other people don’t appear to have a similar purpose in life, unless, of course, they happen to be close relatives.

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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