The Objective Morality Delusion

That’s his thriving, flourishing power beyond his body and beyond his awareness.

Atheists often scorn those who believe in the God Delusion.  The faithful, in turn, scorn those atheists who believe in the Objective Morality Delusion.  The scorn is understandable in both cases, but I give the nod to the faithful on this one.  Philosophers and theologians have come up with many refined and subtle arguments in favor of the existence of imaginary super beings.  The arguments in favor of imaginary objective moralities are threadbare by comparison.  I can hardly blame the true believers for laughing at the obvious imposture.  They don’t require such a crutch to maintain the illusion of superior virtue.  As a result, they see through the charade immediately.

Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider morality to be the expression of a subset of the innate human behavioral traits that exist as a result of evolution by natural selection.  It follows that I do not believe that the comments of Darwin, who specifically addressed the subject, can be simply ignored.  Neither do I believe that all the books and papers on the evolved wellsprings of morality that have been rolling of the presses lately can be simply ignored.  I agree with Hume, who pointed out that reason is a slave of the passions, and with Haidt, who wrote about the emotional dog and its rational tail, and take a dubious view of those who think the points made by either author can be simply ignored.  In short, I consider morality a purely subjective phenomenon.  There are, of course, many implications of this conclusion that are uncomfortable to the pious faithful and pious atheists alike.  However, if what I say is true, their discomfort will not make it untrue.

I’ve discussed the arguments of Sam Harris and several other “objective moralists” in earlier posts.  As it happens, Daniel Fincke, another member of the club who writes the Camels with Hammers blog at Patheos.com has just chimed in.  Perhaps his comments on the subject will provide some insight into whether the supercilious smiles of the godly are out of place or not.

Fincke has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham, and teaches interactive philosophy classes online.  His comments appeared in the context of a pair of responses to Jerry Coyne, who differed with him on the subject at the latest Pennsylvania State Atheists Humanists Conference.  According to Fincke,

When we talk about an endeavor being objective in the main or subjective in the main we’re talking about whether there can be objective principles that can often, at least theoretically, lead to determinations independent of our preferences.

Of course, this statement that objective principles are those principles that are objective is somewhat lacking as a rigorous definition, but it’s on the right track.  Objective phenomena exist independently of the experiences or impressions in the minds of individuals.  Like Harris, Fincke associates morality with “human flourishing”:

As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).

One can almost guess where this is heading without reading the rest.  Like so many other “objective moralists,” Fincke will conflate that which is morally good with that which is “good” in the sense that it serves some useful purpose.  This gets us nowhere, because it merely begs the question of why the purpose served is itself morally good.  In what follows, our suspicions are amply confirmed.  For example, Fincke continues,

Morality comes in at the stage of where any people who live lives impacting each other develop implicit or explicit rules and practices and judgments, etc. geared at cooperative living. Each of us has an interest in morality because we are social beings in vital ways.

First, we socially depend for our basic flourishing on a society that is minimally orderly, where people are trustworthy, where we’re not swamped with chaotic violence, etc.

Second, the more others around us are empowered to develop their functioning in their excellent powers is the more that they provide the means of us doing the same. So a society with greater functioning, powerful people is a society where we’ll be enriched by the things they create—be they technological or social—that help us thrive in our abilities.

and so on.  In other words, moral rules are “objectively good” only in the sense that one can demonstrate their objective usefulness in advancing some other, higher “good.”  According to Fincke, this “higher good” is a “thriving, flourishing power” in each individual which is “beyond his body and beyond his awareness.”  Fine, but in that case the burden is still on him to demonstrate the objective nature of this “higher good.”  Unfortunately, he shrugs off the burden.  According to Fincke, the “higher good” is “objectively good” just because he says so.  For example,

So, moral rules and practices and behaviors are a practical project. What objectively constitutes good instances of these are what lead to our objective good of maximally empowered functioning according to the abilities we have and what leads us to coordinate best with others for mutual empowerment on the long term.

…with no explanation of why the “objective good” referred to is objectively good.  In a similar vein,

The good of our powers thriving is inherently good for us because we are our powers. And the inherent good of a power thriving is objectively determinable in the sense that it has a characteristic function that makes it the power that it is.

Again, Fincke doesn’t tell us why this “inherent good” is good in any objective sense, and why we should associate it with moral good at all.  Apparently we must simply take his word for it that he’s not just expressing a personal whim, but has some mysterious way of knowing that his “good” is both “objective” and “moral.”  Normally, when one claims objective existence for something, it must somehow manifest itself outside of the subjective minds of individuals.  If one is to believe in such an entity, one requires evidence of its independent existence.  That’s the main argument atheists have against the existence of God.  There’s no evidence for it.  How, then, is it reasonable for those same atheists to claim the objective existence of moral “good” with a similar lack of evidence.  The faithful can at least point to faith, and tell us that they believe because of the grace of God.  Atheists don’t have that luxury.  One of Fincke’s favorite arguments is as follows:

Within this framework we can reason rationally. Does it mean we will always come to conclusive answers? No, of course not. Reasoning involves dealing with the real world and it’s empirical variables. Science can only go so far too, because we’re stuck with contingencies. You need information, sometimes impossible to precisely ascertain information about the future or the expected consequences of one path or another.

That’s quite true, but science has something to back it up that Fincke can’t claim for his objective morality; data in the form of experimentally repeatable evidence.  We can be confident in the objective existence of electrons and photons, and on the fact that they don’t depend on our subjective whims for that existence, because we can observe and measure their physical characteristics.  To the best of my knowledge, neither Fincke nor Harris nor any of the rest have ever captured an objective “good” in their butterfly nets and produced any data regarding its physical or other qualities and characteristics.  If something is supposed to have an objective existence outside of our subjective minds, but we have not the faintest shred of evidence about it, we have only one alternative if we are to believe in it; blind faith.

For Fincke, morality is infinitely malleable.  We can make it up as we go along to serve the “ultimate good” as our cultural and social circumstances change:

Morality is a technological endeavor too. It’s one of determining what should be done for us all to live as well as we can collectively and individually. We should, as naturalists who have learned the lessons of empirical thinking in the hard sciences, determine our moral codes and practices according to what serves our purposes best.

Unfortunately, this flies in the face of everything we have been learning recently about the innate wellsprings of morality.  It requires that we simply ignore it.  The claim that human flourishing is the ultimate good, and that morality is an objective something that exists to serve this end excludes any evolutionary contribution to morality whatsoever.  Some claim that evolution may occur as high as the level of groups, but no process or mathematical model has yet been heard of that predicts that it can occur at the level of the human species as a whole.

If Fincke is right, then there can be no analogs of morality in animals, as claimed not only by Darwin, but by many others after him, and as suggested in Wild Justice by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce and in several other recent books on the subject.  Objective moral rules as he describes then would only be discoverable by highly intelligent creatures through the exercise of high-powered reasoning that is beyond the capacity of animals or, for that matter even humans other than Fincke and a few other enlightened philosophers, whom we must apparently depend on forevermore to explain things to us.  No doubt  the popes would all have loved this line of reasoning.  These purported rules exist to support an end that can never be the direct result of natural selection, as it only applies at a level where selection does not occur.

Again, if Fincke is right, then the emotions we associate with morality become absurd.  After all, what room is there for emotion in deriving perfectly rational “moral rules” from some “objective” ultimate good?  Why, indeed, do such reactions as virtuous indignation and moral outrage exist?  They are, after all, emotional rather than reasonable, and they can be observed across all cultures.  If true moral good is only discoverable by gurus like Fincke, and often contradicts our natural appetites and proclivities, where do these emotions come from?  Are they, as we were informed by the Blank Slaters of old, merely learned, along with such things as the pleasure we feel from eating when hungry, and the orgasms we experience during sex?  If not, how can we possibly explain their existence?  Here’s another excerpt from Fincke’s posts that raises some doubts about his “objective morality.”

People seem to recognize this readily with respect to every art–that doing it in the way that evinces excellent ability and has the result effect of empowering others is obviously desirable over the way that doesn’t–except when it comes to something like ruling or acquiring wealth. In those cases, people start talking like they think mere domination and accumulation is sufficiently desirable. But there’s no reason to think that’s correct. The ruler is a failure if they cannot create a powerful citizenry. What is the intrinsic goodness of merely getting your way compared to the actual creative power, the actual excellent ability, to create greater flourishing through your efforts. The great ruler, by the ruler’s own internal standards of success, should obviously be to rule for generations even beyond death. To do that means to be so shrewd in one’s decisions that what one builds outlives you and thrives beyond your mortal coil. It means to be a contributor to the thriving of your citizens while you’re alive so you can take credit for your role in their thriving (and for as many subsequent generations as possible).

and,

Just because some tyrants realize that’s impossible because they’re incompetent to create that and keep power and so instead choose to rule a graveyard through terror doesn’t mean those tyrants are being rational. They’re functioning badly. They’re epically failing to do the actually powerful task of ruling.

Genghis Khan might beg to differ.  In spite of recent attempts to rehabilitate him, it’s not an exaggeration to say he ruled a graveyard through terror throughout much of Asia, and was, therefore, an epic failure according to Fincke.  However, he left millions of descendants throughout the continent.  He would certainly have regarded this outcome as “good” and “powerful.”  It’s a human legacy that will certainly last much longer than the constitution of any state, or the opinion harbored by certain intellectuals in the 21st century concerning “human flourishing.”  Indeed, it’s a legacy that has the potential to last for billions of years, as demonstrated by the reality of our own existence as descendants of creatures who lived that long ago in the past.  How can we detect or identify an objective rule according to which the great Khan’s good is not really good, but evil?  Obviously, what we are looking for here is something more compelling than Fincke’s opinion on the matter.  According to Fincke,

…we set up moral systems to regulate and make it so people are able to resist the temptation to think in short term, microlevel, temporarily selfish ways about what is good for them.

Again, if moral systems are just something we “set up” at will to serve Fincke’s “inherent and ultimate good,” then Hume must be wrong.  Reason can’t be the slave of the passions.  Rather, the passions must be suppressed to serve reason.  Morality cannot possibly be associated with evolution in any way, because it would be impossible to “set up” the innate predispositions that would presumably be the result.  As it happens, our species already has extensive experience with “setting up” just such a moral system as Fincke describes, based on “science” and devoted to the ultimate goal of “human flourishing.”  It was called Communism.  It didn’t work.  As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”  Am I being paranoid if I would prefer, on behalf of myself and my species, to avoid trying it twice?

In the end, Fincke’s arguments really boil down to a statement of subjective morality in a nutshell:  “Human flourishing as defined by me and right-thinking individuals like me is the ultimate good, because I say so.”

 

2 thoughts on “The Objective Morality Delusion”

  1. Not being able to reside in someone else’s thoughts I may be wrong, but I think I understand why non-believers find all theisms unlikely to be true, and some worse than others. Yet that is only half the issue. If you don’t accept the theistic explanations for existence and moralisty, you are going to ultimately, by however long a chain of reasoning, accept some other unlikely explanation. Bertrand Russell was contemtuous of religious belief on the basis of his “Who made God?” question. Fair enough. But all explanations eventually turn into “turtles all the way down” explanations.

    When one starts to notice that belief is more common among physicists than among biologists, the suspicion that there is a cultural influence that is based on feelings of fitness rather than sharp logic emerges.

  2. I don’t think the evolutionary explanation for the existence of morality is unlikely or far-fetched. “Obvious” is a more appropriate adjective. If you’re speaking of objective morality, you’re quite right. Most people can’t accept the fact that their exalted moral emotions have such a mundane explanation. In the case of these two evolutionary psychologists, the result has been an amusing form of doublethink. Existence is a different story. We don’t yet know why we exist and why there is something instead of nothing, but most people are unable to accept the missing turtle. I think it was Nietzsche who once said something like, “It is better to have the void for a reason than to be void of a reason.” Any explanation is better than none, no matter how far-fetched.

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