The Objective Morality Delusion

Human morality is the manifestation of innate behavioral traits in animals with brains large enough to reason about their own emotional reactions.  It exists because those traits evolved.  They did not evolve to serve any purpose, but purely because they happened to enhance the probability that individuals carrying them would survive and reproduce.  In the absence of those traits morality as we know it would not exist.  Darwin certainly suspected as much.  Now, more than a century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species, so much is really obvious.

Scores of books have been published recently on the innate emotional wellsprings of morality.  Its analogs have been clearly identified in other animals.  Its expression has been demonstrated in infants, long before the they could have learned the responses in question via cultural transmission.  Unless all these books are pure gibberish, and all these observations are delusions, morality is ultimately the expression of physical phenomena happening in the brains of individuals.  In other words, it is subjective.  It does not have an independent existence as a thing-in-itself, outside of the minds of individuals.  It follows that it cannot somehow jump out of the skulls of those individuals and gain some kind of an independent, legitimate power to prescribe to other individuals what they should or should not do.

In spite of all that, the faith in objective morality persists, in defiance of the obvious.  The truth is too jarring, too uncomfortable, too irreconcilable with what we “feel,” and so we have turned away from it.  As the brilliant Edvard Westermarck put it in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

It follows that, as Westermarck puts it,

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

and therefore,

If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.

Westermarck wrote those words in 1906.  More than a century later, we are still whistling past the graveyard of objective morality.  Interested readers can confirm this by a quick trip to their local university library.  Browsing through the pages of Ethics, one of the premier journals devoted to the subject, they will find articles on deontological, consequentialist, and several other abstruse flavors of morality.  They will find a host of helpful recipes for what should or should not be done in a given situation.  They will discover that it is their “duty” to do this, that, or the other thing.  Finally, they will find all of the above ensconced in an almost impenetrable smokescreen of academic jargon.  In a word, most of the learned contributors to Ethics have ignored Westermarck, and are still chasing their tails, doggedly pursuing a “scientific ethics” that will “fix rules for human conduct” once and for all.

Challenge one of these learned philosophers, and their response is typically threadbare enough.  A common gambit is no more complex than the claim that objective morality must exist, because if it didn’t then the things we all know are bad wouldn’t be bad anymore.  An example of the genre recently turned up on the opinion pages of The New York Times, entitled, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.  Its author, Justin McBrayer, an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, opens with the line,

What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

Now, as Westermarck pointed out, it is impossible for things to be “true” if they have no objective existence.  Read the article carefully, and you’ll see that McBrayer doesn’t even attempt to dispute the logic behind Westermarck’s observation.  Rather, he tells him the same thing Socrates’ judges told him as they handed him the hemlock:  “I’m right and you’re wrong because what you claim is true is bad for the children.”  In other words, there must be an objective bad because otherwise it would be bad.   Other than that, the only attempt at an argument in the whole article is the following ad hominem remark about any philosopher who denies the existence of objective morality:

There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare.

In other words, objective morality must be true, because those who deny it are “creatures.”  No doubt, such “defenses” of objective morality have been around since time immemorial.  They certainly were in Westermarck’s day.  His response was as valid then as it is now:

Ethical subjectivism is commonly held to be a dangerous doctrine, destructive to morality, opening the door to all sorts of libertinism.  If that which appears to each man as right or good, stands for that which is right or good; if he is allowed to make his own law, or to make no law at all; then, it is said, everybody has the natural right to follow his caprice and inclinations, and to hinder him from doing so is an infringement on his rights, a constraint with which no one is bound to comply provided that he has the power to evade it.  This inference was long ago drawn from the teaching of the Sophists, and it will no doubt be still repeated as an argument against any theorist who dares to assert that nothing can be said to be truly right or wrong.  To this argument may, first, be objected that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.

Obviously, as Westermarck foresaw, the argument is “still repeated” more than a century later.  In McBrayer’s case, it goes like this:

Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

He adds,

As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

One often hears such remarks about the supposed pervasiveness of moral relativism.  They are commonly based on the fallacy that human morality is the product of human reason rather than human emotion.  The reality is that Mother Nature has been blithely indifferent to the repeated assertions of philosophers that, unless we listen to them, morality will disappear.  She designed morality to work, for better or worse, whether we take the trouble to reason about it or not.  All these fears of moral relativism can’t even pass the “ho ho” test.  They fly in the face of all the observable facts about moral behavior in the real world.  Moral relativism on campus, you say?  Please!  There has never been such a hotbed of extreme, moralistic piety as exists today in academia since the heyday of the Puritans.  No less a comedian than Chris Rock won’t even perform on college campuses anymore because of repeated encounters with the extreme manifestations of priggishness one finds there.  One can’t tell a joke without “offending” someone.

Morality isn’t going anywhere.  It will continue to function just as it always has, oblivious to whether it has the permission of philosophers or not.  As can be seen by the cultural differences in the way that moral emotions are “acted out,” within certain limits morality is malleable.  We have some control over whether it is “acted out” by the immolation of enemy pilots and the beheading and crucifixion of “infidels,” or in forms that promote what Sam Harris might call “human flourishing.”  Regardless of our choice, I suspect that our chances of successfully shaping a morality that most of us would find agreeable will be enhanced if we base our actions on what morality actually is rather than on what we want it to be.

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