Many pre-Darwinian philosophers realized that the source of human morality was to be found in innate “sentiments,” or “passions,” often speculating that they had been put there by God. Hume put the theory on a more secular basis. Darwin realized that the “sentiments,” were there because of natural selection, and that human morality was the result of their expression in creatures with large brains. Edvard Westermarck, perhaps at the same time the greatest and the most unrecognized moral philosopher of them all, put it all together in a coherent theory of human morality, supported by copious evidence, in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.
Westermarck is all but forgotten today, probably because his insights were so unpalatable to the various academic and professional tribes of “experts on ethics.” They realized that, if Westermarck were right, and morality really is just the expression of evolved behavioral predispositions, they would all be out of a job. Under the circumstances, its interesting that his name keeps surfacing in modern works about evolved morality, innate behavior, and evolutionary psychology. For example, I ran across a mention of him in famous primatologist Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. People like de Waal who know something about the evolved roots of behavior are usually quick to recognize the significance of Westermarck’s work.
Be that as it may, G. E. Moore, the subject of my last post, holds a far more respected place in the pantheon of moral philosophers. That’s to be expected, of course. He never suggested anything as disconcerting as the claim that all the mountains of books and papers they had composed over the centuries might as well have been written about the nature of unicorns. True, he did insist that everyone who had written about the subject of morality before him was delusional, having fallen for the naturalistic fallacy, but at least he didn’t claim that the subject they were writing about was a chimera.
Most of what I wrote about in my last post came from the pages of Moore’s Principia Ethica. That work was published in 1903. Nine years later he published another little book, entitled Ethics. As it happens, Westermarck’s Origin appeared between those two dates, in 1906. In all likelihood, Moore read Westermarck, because parts of Ethics appear to be direct responses to his book. Moore had only a vague understanding of Darwin, and the implications of his work on the subject of human behavior. He did, however, understand Westermarck when he wrote in the Origin,
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. It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else. But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true. If the word “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.
Now that got Moore’s attention. Responding to Westermarck’s theory, or something very like it, he wrote:
Even apart from the fact that they lead to the conclusion that one and the same action is often both right and wrong, it is, I think, very important that we should realize, to begin with, that these views are false; because, if they were true, it would follow that we must take an entirely different view as to the whole nature of Ethics, so far as it is concerned with right and wrong, from what has commonly been taken by a majority of writers. If these views were true, the whole business of Ethics, in this department, would merely consist in discovering what feelings and opinions men have actually had about different actions, and why they have had them. A good many writers seem actually to have treated the subject as if this were all that it had to investigate. And of course questions of this sort are not without interest, and are subjects of legitimate curiosity. But such questions only form one special branch of Psychology or Anthropology; and most writers have certainly proceeded on the assumption that the special business of Ethics, and the questions which it has to try to answer, are something quite different from this.
Indeed they have. The question is whether they’ve actually been doing anything worthwhile in the process. Note the claim that Westermarck’s views were “false.” This claim was based on what Moore called a “proof” that it couldn’t be true that appeared in the preceding pages. Unfortunately, this “proof” is transparently flimsy to anyone who isn’t inclined to swallow it because it defends the relevance of their “expertise.” Quoting directly from his Ethics, it goes something like this:
- It is absolutely impossible that any one single, absolutely particular action can ever be both right and wrong, either at the same time or at different times.
- If the whole of what we mean to assert, when we say that an action is right, is merely that we have a particular feeling towards it, then plainly, provided only we really have this feeling, the action must really be right.
- For if this is so, and if, when a man asserts an action to be right or wrong, he is always merely asserting that he himself has some particular feeling towards it, then it absolutely follows that one and the same action has sometimes been both right and wrong – right at one time and wrong at another, or both simultaneously.
- But if this is so, then the theory we are considering certainly is not true. (QED)
Note that this “proof” requires the positive assertion that it is possible to claim that an action can be right or wrong, in this case because of “feelings.” A second, similar proof, also offered in Chapter III of Ethics, “proves” that an action can’t possible be right merely because one “thinks” it right, either. With that, Moore claims that he has “proved” that Westermarck, or someone with identical views, must be wrong. The only problem with the “proof” is that Westermarck specifically pointed out in the passage quoted above that it is impossible to make truth claims about “moral principles.” Therefore, it is out of the question that he could ever be claiming that any action “is right,” or “is wrong,” because of “feelings” or for any other reason. In other words, Moore’s “proof” is nonsense.
The fact that Moore was responding specifically to evolutionary claims about morality is also evident in the same Chapter of Ethics. Allow me to quote him at length.
…it is supposed that there was a time, if we go far enough back, when our ancestors did have different feelings towards different actions, being, for instance, pleased with some and displeased with others, but when they did not, as yet, judge any actions to be right or wrong; and that it was only because they transmitted these feelings, more or less modified, to their descendants, that those descendants at some later stage, began to make judgments of right and wrong; so that, in a sense, or moral judgments were developed out of mere feelings. And I can see no objection to the supposition that this was so. But, then, it seems also to be supposed that, if our moral judgments were developed out of feelings – if this was their origin – they must still at this moment be somehow concerned with feelings; that the developed product must resemble the germ out of which it was developed in this particular respect. And this is an assumption for which there is, surely, no shadow of ground.
In fact, there was a “shadow of ground” when Moore wrote those words, and the “shadow” has grown a great deal longer in our own day. Moore continues,
Thus, even those who hold that our moral judgments are merely judgments about feelings must admit that, at some point in the history of the human race, men, or their ancestors, began not merely to have feelings but to judge that they had them: and this along means an enormous change.
Why was this such an “enormous change?” Why, of course, because as soon as our ancestors judged that they had feelings, then, suddenly those feelings could no longer be a basis for morality, because of the “proof” given above. Moore concludes triumphantly,
And hence, the theory that moral judgments originated in feelings does not, in fact, lend any support at all to the theory that now, as developed, they can only be judgments about feelings.
If Moore’s reputation among them is any guide, such “ironclad logic” is still taken seriously by todays crop of “experts on ethics.” Perhaps it’s time they started paying more attention to Westermarck.