Scientific Morality and the Illusion of Progress

British philosophers demonstrated the existence of a “moral sense” early in the 18th century.  We have now crawled through the rubble left in the wake of the Blank Slate debacle and finally arrived once again at a point they had reached more than two centuries ago.  Of course, men like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson thought this “moral sense” had been planted in our consciousness by God.  When Hume arrived on the scene a bit later it became possible to discuss the subject in secular terms.  Along came Darwin to suggest that the existence of this “moral sense” might have developed in the same way as the physical characteristics of our species; via evolution by natural selection.  Finally, a bit less than half a century later, Westermarck put two and two together, pointing out that morality was a subjective emotional phenomenon and, as such, not subject to truth claims.  His great work, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, appeared in 1906.  Then the darkness fell.

Now, more than a century later, we can once again at least discuss evolved morality without fear of excommunication by the guardians of ideological purity.  However, the guardians are still there, defending a form of secular Puritanism that yields nothing in intolerant piety to the religious Puritans of old.  We must not push the envelope too far, lest we suffer the same fate as Tim Hunt, with his impious “jokes,” or Matt Taylor, with his impious shirt.  We cannot just blurt out, like Westermarck, that good and evil are merely subjective artifacts of human moral emotions, so powerful that they appear as objective things.  We must at least pretend that these “objects” still exist.  In a word, we are in a holding pattern.

One can actually pin down fairly accurately the extent to which we have recovered since our emergence from the dark age.  We are, give or take, about 15 years pre-Westermarck.  As evidence of this I invite the reader’s attention to a fascinating “textbook” for teachers of secular morality that appeared in 1891.  Entitled Elements of Ethical Science: A Manual for Teaching Secular Morality, by John Ogden, it taught the subject with all the most up-to-date Darwinian bells and whistles.  In an introduction worthy of Sam Harris the author asks the rhetorical question,

Can pure morality be taught without inculcating religious doctrines, as these are usually interpreted and understood?

and answers with a firm “Yes!”  He then proceeds to identify the basis for any “pure morality:”

Man has inherently a moral nature, an innate moral sense or capacity.  This is necessary to moral culture, since, without the nature or capacity, its cultivation were impossible… This moral nature or capacity is what we call Moral Sense.  It is the basis of conscience.  It exists in man inherently, and, when enlightened, cultivated, and improved, it becomes the active conscience itself.  Conscience, therefore, is moral sense plus intelligence.

The author recognizes the essential role of this Moral Sense as the universal basis of all the many manifestations of human morality, and one without which they could not exist.  It is to the moral sentiments what the sense of touch is to the other senses:

(The Moral Sense) furnishes the basis or the elements of the moral sentiments and conscience, much in the same manner in which the cognitive facilities furnish the data or elements for thought and reasoning.  It is not a sixth sense, but it is to the moral sentiments what touch is to the other senses, a base on which they are all built or founded; a soil into which they are planted, and from which they grow… All the moral sentiments are, therefore, but the concrete modifications of the moral sense, or the applications of it, in a developed form, to the ordinary duties of life, as a sense of justice, of right and wrong, of obligation, duty, gratitude, love, etc., just as seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling are but modified forms of feeling or touch, the basis of all sense.

And here, in a manner entirely similar to so many modern proponents of innate morality, Ogden goes off the tracks.  Like them, he cannot let go of the illusion of objective morality.  Just as the other senses inform us of the existence of physical things, the moral sense must inform us of the existence of another kind of “thing,” a disembodied, ghostly something that floats about independently of the “sense” that “detects” it, in the form of a pure, absolute truth.  There are numerous paths whereby one may, more or less closely, approach this truth, but they all converge on the same, universal thing-in-itself:

…it must be conceded that, while we have a body of incontestable truth, constituting the basis of all morality, still the opinions of men upon minor points are so diverse as to make a uniform belief in dogmatical principles impossible.  The author maintains that moral truths and moral conduct may be reached from different routes or sources; all converging, it is true, to the same point:  and that it savors somewhat of illiberality to insist upon a uniform belief in the means or doctrines whereby we are to arrive at a perfect knowledge of the truth, in a human sense.

The means by which this “absolute truth” acquires the normative power to dictate “oughts” to all and sundry is described in terms just as fuzzy as those used by the moral pontificators of our own day, as if it were ungenerous to even ask the question:

When man’s ideas of right and wrong are duly formulated, recognized and accepted, they constitute what we denominate MORAL LAW.  The moral law now becomes a standard by which to determine the quality of human actions, and a moral obligation demanding obedience to its mandates.  The truth of this proposition needs no further confirmation.

As they say in the academy to supply missing steps in otherwise elegant proofs, it’s “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.”  In those more enlightened times, only fifteen years elapsed before Westermarck demolished Ogden’s ephemeral thing-in-itself, pointing out that it couldn’t be confirmed because it didn’t exist, and was therefore not subject to truth claims.  I doubt that we’ll be able to recover the same lost ground so quickly in our own day.  Secular piety reigns in the academy, in some cases to a degree that would make the Puritans of old look like abandoned debauchees, and is hardly absent elsewhere.  Savage punishment is meted out to those who deviate from moral purity, whether flippant Nobel Prize winners or overly principled owners of small town bakeries.  Absent objective morality, the advocates of such treatment would lose their odor of sanctity and become recognizable as mere absurd bullies.  Without a satisfying sense of moral rectitude, bullying wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.  It follows that the illusion will probably persist a great deal longer than a decade and a half this time around.

Be that as it may, Westermarck still had it right.  The “moral sense” exists because it evolved.  Failing this basis, morality as we know it could not exist.  It follows that there is no such thing as moral truth, or any way in which the moral emotions of one individual can gain a legitimate power to dictate rules of behavior to some other individual.  Until we find our way back to that rather elementary level of self-understanding, it will be impossible for us to deal rationally with our own moral behavior.  We’ll simply have to leave it on automatic pilot, and indulge ourselves in the counter-intuitive hope that it will serve our species just as well now as it did in the vastly different environment in which it evolved.

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.

4 thoughts on “Scientific Morality and the Illusion of Progress”

  1. On the theme of the social value of morality I think that the Chapter, “The Conformity Police” of Howard Bloom’s “Global Brain” has a lot to say.

    Quote: “…Says Harlow, “If they had not learned to cooperatively aggress, there would be no monkeys in the world….” In other words, Harlow felt that collective sadism was practice for the inter-group tournaments which pit monkeys against those who would like to dine on them or rival groups of their own species determined to do them harm.

    But coordinated viciousness serves a function within the group as well. It builds the backbone of a social structure, polices it, and then compels conformity.”

    As for the future, it seems to me that if a society has so distorted morality that it forbids failure of individuals (or groups) then it risks failure of the society.

  2. Comment refers to the thinkers mentioned in the original piece and the pattern.

    Another thought provoking piece, now there are a few points that sprung to my mind:
    1) The pattern is too short for there to be any revolving collective knowledge,(Ie cycle of human awareness) and I don’t think you meant it that way, anyway.
    The emergence of and the ability of certain individuals to reach the same or similar points was what fascinated me. What is it about the individuals you have identified that allowed them to independantly or with a subtle continuity to reach this spot. Ie the Ardrey’s the Lorenz, Tinbergen work, and of course the genius of Morais. (I’m unfamiliar with the people you mentioned from this previous epoch but let me guess that they were attacked by the establishment. The church would have attacked, but can I hint where my thinking was going and it was this, was there anything in the upbringing or ‘life experience’ of these people that allowed them to ‘see’ without the ‘cultural’ blinkers that we so often see in academia for example?
    That was the main thought that this piece stirred up in me, and the reverse is also relevant. What is it in the upbringing, cultural experience of the overwhelming vast majority of people that they are completely unable to even begin to comprehend the shattering reality that emerges from this grasping of objective facts and patterns?
    As a slight aside, this is partly what I was trying to describe in a previous post re Dawkins and the Tinbergen work. Dawkins was Tinbergens student, and I think is in some way is involved in Tinbergens academic estate. Now I have a slightly differing take on some of these issue which I won’t go into now, but I strongly believe that Dawkins just does not get the ‘core’ issue here. Here we go back to the personal development, Dawkins is a member of the British elite, he is priviledged and ‘ingroup’, Tinbergen and Lorenz experienced shocking things in the second WW. Morias was a genius who experienced huge tradgedy. Again my point, how much of the ‘ability’ to see is dependant on the collapse of the religious/cultural structures we may call normality? Enough.

  3. I think that’s pretty much the point of understanding what morality really is and why it exists. Since we can’t do without it, we need to configure it within its natural limits to be as benign a force as possible in an environment unlike the one in which it evolved.

  4. I don’t think there’s anything too surprising about the fact that the individuals I mentioned reached the same spot. They were, after all, only insisting on the existence of human nature, something that had long been obvious to everyone accept idiots and intellectuals, as Orwell put it. There is certainly a cultural component, upbringing, etc., that contributes to the ability to “see” things. However, to point out what one sees, one must occasionally have courage, and/or be beyond the reach of the thought police.

    For one reason or another, Dawkins was just never as engaged in the battle over human nature as some of the other thinkers of his generation. He was never a Blank Slater, and his main reason for attacking the likes of Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt was probably to promote his own work. He knew the Blank Slaters who largely controlled the media at the time hated them, and were likely to receive his own book favorably if he seemed to be “on their side.” He has always been more interested in promoting his theory of the gene, the mechanisms of evolution, and militant atheism than in human nature.

Leave a Reply