According to the banner on its cover, Ethics is currently “celebrating 125 years.” It describes itself as “an international journal of social, political, and legal philosophy.” Its contributors consist mainly of a gaggle of earnest academics, all chasing about with metaphysical butterfly nets seeking to capture that most elusive quarry, the “Good.” None of them seems to have ever heard of a man named Westermarck, who demonstrated shortly after the journal first appeared that their prey was as imaginary as unicorns, or even Darwin, who was well aware of the fact, but was not indelicate enough to spell it out so blatantly.
The latest issue includes an entry on the “Transmission Principle,” defined in its abstract as follows:
If you ought to perform a certain act, and some other action is a necessary means for you to perform that act, then you ought to perform that other action as well.
As usual, the author never explains how you get to the original “ought” to begin with. In another article entitled “What If I Cannot Make a Difference (and Know It),” the author begins with a cultural artifact that will surely be of interest to future historians:
We often collectively bring about bad outcomes. For example, by continuing to buy cheap supermarket meat, many people together sustain factory farming, and the greenhouse gas emissions of millions of individuals together bring about anthropogenic climate change.
and goes on to note that,
Intuitively, these bad outcomes are not just a matter of bad luck, but the result of some sort of moral shortcoming. Yet in many of these situations, none of the individual agents could have made any difference for the better.
He then demonstrates that, because a equals b, and b equals c, we are still entirely justified in peering down our morally righteous noses at purchasers of cheap meat and emitters of greenhouse gases. His conclusion in academic-speak:
I have shown how Act Consequentialists can find fault with some agent in all cases where multiple agents who have modally robust knowledge of all the relevant facts gratuitously bring about collectively suboptimal outcomes, even if the agents individually cannot make any difference for the better due to the uncooperativeness of others.
The author does not explain the process by which emotions that evolved in a world without cheap supermarket meat have lately acquired the power to prescribe whether buying it is righteous or not.
It has been suggested by some that trading, the exchange of goods and services, is a defining feature of our species. In an article entitled “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” the authors conclude that,
In many cases, we are morally obligated to revise our semiotics in order to allow for greater commodification. We ought to revise our interpretive schemas whenever the costs of holding that schema are significant, without counterweight benefits. It is itself morally objectionable to maintain a meaning system that imbues a practice with negative meanings when that practice would save or improve lives, reduce or alleviate suffering, and so on.
No doubt that very thought occurred to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, enhancing their overall fitness. The happy result was the preservation of the emotional baggage that gave rise to it to later inform the pages of Ethics magazine.
In short, “moral progress,” as reflected in the pages of Ethics, depends on studiously ignoring Darwin, averting our eyes from the profane scribblings of Westermarck, pretending that the recent flood of books and articles on the evolutionary origins of morality and the existence of analogs of human morality in many animals are irrelevant, and gratuitously assuming that there really is some “thing” out there for the butterfly nets to catch. In other words, our “moral progress” has been a progress away from self-understanding. It saddens me, because I’ve always considered self-understanding a “good.” Just another one of my whims.