Relics of the Blank Slate, as Excavated at “Ethics” Magazine

There’s a reason that the Blank Slaters clung so bitterly to their absurd orthodoxy for so many years.  If there is such a thing as human nature, then all the grandiose utopias they concocted for us over the years, from Communism on down, would vanish like so many mirages.  That orthodoxy collapsed when a man named Robert Ardrey made a laughing stock of the “men of science.”  In this enlightened age, one seldom finds an old school, hard core Blank Slater outside of the darkest, most obscure rat holes of academia.  Even PBS and Scientific American have thrown in the towel.  Still, one occasionally runs across “makeovers” of the old orthodoxy, in the guise of what one might call Blank Slate Lite.

I recently discovered just such an artifact in the pages of Ethics magazine, which functions after a fashion as an asylum for “experts in ethics” who still cling to the illusion that they have anything relevant to say.  Entitled The Limits of Evolutionary Explanations of Morality and Their Implications for Moral Progress, it was written by Prof. Allen Buchanan of Duke and Kings College, London, and Asst. Prof. Russell Powell of Boston University.  Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay wall, and is quite long, but if you’re the adventurous type you might be able to access it at a local university library.  In any case, the short version of the paper might be summarized as follows:

Conservatives have traditionally claimed that “human nature places severe limitations on social and moral reform,” but have “offered little in the way of scientific evidence to support this claim.”  Now, however, a later breed of conservatives, knows as “evoconservatives,” have “attempted to fill this empirical gap in the conservative argument by appealing to the prevailing evolutionary explanation of morality to show that it is unrealistic to think that cosmopolitan and other “inclusivist” moral ideals can meaningfully be realized.”  However, while evolved psychology can’t be discounted in moral theory, and there is such a thing as human nature, they are so plastic and malleable that it doesn’t stand in the way of moral progress.

This, at least, is the argument until one gets to the “Conclusion” section at the end.  Then, as if frightened by their own hubris, the authors make noises in a quite contradictory direction, writing, for example,

…we acknowledge that evolved psychological capacities, interacting with particular social and institutional environments, can pose serious obstacles to using our rationality in ways that result in more inclusive moralities. For example, environments that mirror conditions of the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptation, i.e., the environment in which moral behavioral predispositions presumably evolved, ed.)—such as those characterized by great physical insecurity, high parasite threat, severe intergroup competition for resources, and a lack of institutions for peaceful, mutually beneficial cooperation—will tend to be very unfriendly to the development of inclusivist morality.

However, they conclude triumphantly with the following:

At the same time, however, we have offered compelling reasons, both theoretical and empirical, to believe that human morality is only weakly constrained by human evolutionary history, leaving the potential for substantial moral progress wide open. Our point is not that human beings have slipped the “leash” of evolution, but rather that the leash is far longer than evoconservatives and even many evolutionary psychologists have acknowledged—and no one is in a position at present to know just how elastic it will turn out to be.

Students of the Blank Slate orthodoxy will see that all the main shibboleths are still there, if in somewhat attenuated form.  The Blank Slate itself is replaced by a “long leash.”  The “genetic determinist” strawman of the Blank Slaters is replaced by “evoconservatives.”  These evoconservatives are no longer “fascists and racists,” but merely a nuisance standing in the way of “moral progress.”  The overriding goal is no longer anything like the Marxist paradise on earth, but the somewhat less inspiring continued “development of inclusivist morality.”

Readers of this blog should immediately notice the unwarranted assumption that there actually is such a thing as “moral progress.”  In that case, there must be a goal towards which morality is progressing.  Natural selection occurs without any such goal or purpose.  It follows that the authors believe that there must be some “mysterious, transcendental” origin other than natural evolution to account for this progress.  However, they insist they don’t believe in such a “mysterious, transcendental” source.  How, then, do they account for the existence of this “thing” they refer to as “moral progress?”  What the authors are really referring to when they refer to this “moral progress” is “the way we and other good liberals want things.”

By “inclusivist” moralities, the authors mean versions that can be expanded to include very large subsets of the human population that are neither kin to the bearers of that morality nor members of any identifiable group that is likely to reciprocate their good deeds.  Presumably the ultimate goal is to expand these subsets to “include” all mankind.  The “evoconservatives” we are told, deny the possibility of such “inclusivism” in spite of the fact that one can cite many obvious examples to the contrary.  At this point, one begins to wonder who these obtuse evoconservatives really are.  The authors are quite coy about identifying them.  The footnote following their first mention merely points to a blurb about what the authors will discuss later in the text.  No names are named.  Much later in the text Jonathan Haidt is finally identified as one of the evoconservatives.  As the authors put it,

Leading psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has stressed the moral psychological significance of in-group loyalty, expresses a related view: ‘It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

In fact, as anyone who has actually read Haidt is aware, he neither believes that “inclusivist” moralities as defined by the authors are impossible, nor does this quote imply anything of the sort.  A genuine conservative would doubtless classify Haidt as a liberal, but he has defended, or at least tried to explain, conservative moralities.  Apparently that is sufficient to cast him into the outer darkness as an “evoconservative.”

The authors also point the finger at Larry Arnhart.  Arnhart is neither a geneticist, nor an evolutionary biologist, nor an evolutionary psychologist, but a political scientist who apparently subscribes to some version of the naturalistic fallacy.  Nowhere is it demonstrated that he actually believes that the inclusivist versions of morality favored by the authors are impossible.  In a word, the few slim references to individuals who are supposed to fit the description of the evoconservative strawman concocted by the authors actually do nothing of the sort.  Yet in spite of the fact that the authors can’t actually name anyone who explicitly embraces their version of evoconservatism, they describe the existence of “inclusivist morality” as a “major flaw in evoconservative arguments.”

A bit later, the authors appear to drop their evoconservative strawman, and expand their field of fire to include anyone who claims that “inclusivist morality” could have resulted from natural selection.  For example, quoting from the article:

The key point is that none of these inclusivist features of contemporary morality are plausibly explained in standard selectionist terms, that is, as adaptations or predictable expressions of adaptive features that arose in the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA).

Here, “evoconservatives” have been replaced by “standard selectionists.”  Invariably, the authors walk back such seemingly undistilled statements of Blank Slate ideology with assurances that no one believes more firmly than they in the evolutionary roots of morality.  That, of course, begs the question of how “these inclusivist features,” if they are not explainable in “standard selectionist terms,” are plausibly explained in “non-standard selectionist terms,” and who these “non-standard selectionists” actually are.  Apparently the only alternative is that the “inclusivist features” have a “transcendental” explanation, not further elaborated by the authors.  This conclusion is not as far fetched as it seems.  Interestingly enough, the authors’ work is partially funded by the Templeton Foundation, an accommodationist outfit with the ostensible goal of proving that religion and science are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, I know of not a single scientist whose specialty is germane to the subject of human morality who would dispute the existence of inclusive moralities.  The authors limit themselves to statements to the effect that the work of such and such a person “suggests” that they don’t believe in inclusive moralities, or that the work of some other person “implies” that they don’t believe such moralities are stable.  Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to simply go and ask these people what they actually believe regarding these matters, instead of putting words in their mouths?

Left out of all these glowing descriptions of inclusive moralities is the fact that not a single one of them exists without an outgroup.  That fact is demonstrated by the authors themselves, whose outgroup obviously includes those they identify as “evoconservatives.”  One might also point out that those who have “inclusive” ingroups commonly have “inclusive” outgroups as well, and liberals are commonly found among the most violent outgroup haters on the planet.  To confirm this, one need only look at the comments at the websites of Daily Kos, or Talking Points Memo, or the Nation, or any other familiar liberal watering hole.

While I’m somewhat dubious about all the authors’ loose talk about “moral progress,” I think we can at least identify some real progress towards getting at the truth in their version of Blank Slate Lite.  After all, it’s a far cry from the old school version.  Throughout the article the authors question the ability of natural selection in the environment in which moral behavior presumably evolved in early humans to account for this or that feature of their observed “inclusive morality.”  As noted above, however, as often as they do it, they are effusive in assuring the reader that by no means do they wish to imply that they find any fault whatsoever with innate theories of human morality.  In the end, what more can one ask than the ability to continue seeking the truth about human moral behavior in every relevant area of science without fear of being denounced and intimidated as guilty of one type of villainy or another.  That ability seems more assured if the existence of innate behavior is at least admitted, and is therefore unlikely to be criminalized as it was in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  In that respect, Blank Slate Lite really does represent progress.

Of course, there remains the question of why so many of us still take seriously the authors’ fantasies about “moral progress” more than a century after Westermarck pointed out the absurdity of truth claims about morality.  I suspect the answer lies in the fact that ending the charade would reduce all the pontifications of all the “experts in morality” catered to by learned journals like Ethics to gibberish.  Experts don’t like to be confronted with the truth that their painstakingly acquired expertise is irrelevant.  Admitting it would make it a great deal harder to secure grants from the Templeton Foundation.

UPDATE:  I failed to mention another intriguing paragraph in the paper that reads as follows:

The human capacity to reflect on and revise our conceptions of duty and moral standing can give us reasons here and now to expand our capacities for moral behavior by developing institutions that economize on sympathy and enhance our ability to take the interests of strangers into account. This same capacity may also give us reasons, in the not-too-distant future, to modify our evolved psychology through the employment of biomedical interventions that enable us to implement new norms that we develop as a result of the process of reflection. In both cases, the limits of our evolved motivational capacities do not translate into a comparable constraint on our capacity for moral action. The fact that we are not currently motivationally capable of acting on the considered moral norms we have come to endorse is not a reason to trim back those norms; it is a reason to enhance our motivational capacity, either through institutional or biomedical means, so that it matches the demands of our considered morality.

Note the bolded wording.  I’m not sure what to make of it, dear reader, but it appears that, one way or another, the authors intend to “get our minds right.”

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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