“Moral progress” is impossible. It is a concept that implies progress towards a goal that doesn’t exist. We exist as a result of evolution by natural selection, a process that has simply happened. Progress implies the existence of an entity sufficiently intelligent to formulate a goal or purpose towards which progress is made. No such entity has directed the process, nor did one even exist over most of the period during which it occurred. The emotional predispositions that are the root cause of what we understand by the term “morality” are as much an outcome of natural selection as our hands or feet. Like our hands and feet, they exist solely because they have enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce. There is increasing acceptance of the fact that morality owes its existence to evolution by natural selection among the “experts on ethics” among us. However, as a rule they have been incapable of grasping the obvious implication of that fact; that the notion of “moral progress” is a chimera. It is a truth that has been too inconvenient for them to bear.
It’s not difficult to understand why. Their social gravitas and often their very livelihood depend on propping up the illusion. This is particularly true of the “experts” in academia, who often lack marketable skills other than their “expertise” in something that doesn’t exist. Their modus operandi consists of hoodwinking the rest of us into believing that satisfying some whim that happens to be fashionable within their tribe represents “moral progress.” Such “progress” has no more intrinsic value than a five year old’s progress towards acquiring a lollipop. Often it can be reasonably expected to lead to outcomes that are the opposite of those that account for the existence of the whim to begin with, resulting in what I have referred to in earlier posts as a morality inversion. Propping up the illusion in spite of recognition of the evolutionary roots of morality in a milieu that long ago dispensed with the luxury of a God with a big club to serve as the final arbiter of what is “really good” and “really evil” is no mean task. Among other things it requires some often amusing intellectual contortions as well as the concoction of an arcane jargon to serve as a smokescreen.
Consider, for example, a paper by Professors Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell entitled Toward a Naturalistic Theory of Moral Progress. It turned up in the journal Ethics, that ever reliable guide to academic fashion touching on the question of “human flourishing.” Far from denying the existence of human nature after the fashion of the Blank Slaters of old, the authors positively embrace it. They cheerfully admit its relevance to morality, noting in particular the existence of a predisposition in our species to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups; what Robert Ardrey used to call the Amity/Enmity Complex. Now, if these things are true, and absent the miraculous discovery of any other contributing “root cause” for morality other than evolution by natural selection, whether in this world or the realm of spirits, it follows logically that “progress” is a term that can no more apply to morality than it does to evolution by natural selection itself. It further follows that objective Good and objective Evil are purely imaginary categories. In other words, unless one is merely referring to the scientific investigation of evolved behavioral traits, “experts on ethics” are experts about nothing. Their claim to possess a philosopher’s stone pointing the way to how we should act is a chimera. For the last several thousand years they have been involved in a sterile game of bamboozling the rest of us, and themselves to boot.
Predictly, the embarrassment and loss of gravitas, not to mention the loss of a regular paycheck, implied by such a straightforward admission of the obvious has been more than the “experts” could bear. They’ve simply gone about their business as if nothing had happened, and no one had ever heard of a man named Darwin. It’s actually been quite easy for them in this puritanical and politically correct age, in which the intellectual life and self-esteem of so many depends on maintaining a constant state of virtuous indignation and moral outrage. Virtuous indignation and moral outrage are absurd absent the existence of an objective moral standard. Since nothing of the sort exists, it is simply invented, and everyone stays outraged and happy.
In view of this pressing need to prop up the moral fashions of the day, then, it follows that no great demands are placed on the rigor of modern techniques for concocting real Good and real Evil. Consider, for example, the paper referred to above. The authors go to a great deal of trouble to assure their readers that their theory of “moral progress” really is “naturalistic.” In this enlightened age, they tell us, they will finally be able to steer clear of the flaws that plagued earlier attempts to develop secular moralities. These were all based on false assumptions “based on folk psychology, flawed attempts to develop empirically based psychological theories, a priori speculation, and reflections on history hampered both by a lack of information and inadequate methodology.” “For the first time,” they tell us, “we are beginning to develop genuinely scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through the development of empirical psychological theories that take evolutionary biology seriously.” This begs the question, of course, of how we’ve managed to avoid acquiring “scientific knowledge about human nature” and “taking evolutionary biology seriously” for so long. But I digress. The important question is, how do the authors manage to establish a rational basis for their “naturalistic theory of moral progress” while avoiding the Scylla of “folk psychology” on the one hand and the Charybdis of “a priori speculation” on the other? It turns out that the “basis” in question hardly demands any complex mental gymnastics. It is simply assumed!
Here’s the money passage in the paper:
A general theory of moral progress could take a more a less ambitious form. The more ambitious form would be to ground an account of which sorts of changes are morally progressive in a normative ethical theory that is compatible with a defensible metaethics… In what follows we take the more modest path: we set aside metaethical challenges to the notion of moral progress, we make no attempt to ground the claim that certain moralities are in fact better than others, and we do not defend any particular account of what it is for one morality to be better than another. Instead, we assume that the emergence of certain types of moral inclusivity are significant instances of moral progress and then use these as test cases for exploring the feasibility of a naturalized account of moral progress.
This is indeed a strange approach to being “naturalistic.” After excoriating the legions of thinkers before them for their faulty mode of hunting the philosopher’s stone of “moral progress,” they simply assume it exists. It exists in spite of the elementary chain of logic leading inexorably to the conclusion that it can’t possibly exist if their own claims about the origins of morality in human nature are true. In what must count as a remarkable coincidence, it exists in the form of “inclusivity,” currently in high fashion as one of the shibboleths defining the ideological box within which most of today’s “experts on ethics” happen to dwell. Those who trouble themselves to read the paper will find that, in what follows, it is hardly treated as a mere modest assumption, but as an established, objective fact. “Moral progress” is alluded to over and over again as if, by virtue this original, “modest assumption,” the real thing somehow magically popped into existence in the guise of “inclusivity.”
Suppose we refrain from questioning the plot, and go along with the charade. If inclusivity is really to count as moral progress, than it must not only be desirable in certain precincts of academia, but actually feasible. However if, as the authors agree, humans are predisposed to perceive others of their species in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the feasibility of inclusivity is at least in question. As the authors put it,
Attempts to draw connections between contemporary evolutionary theories of morality and the possibility of inclusivist moral progress begin with the standard evolutionary psychological assertion that the main contours of human moral capacities emerged through a process of natural selection on hunter-gatherer groups in the Pleistocene – in the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA)… The crucial claim, which leads some thinkers to draw a pessimistic inference about the possibility of inclusivist moral progress, is that selection pressures in the EEA favored exclusivist moralisties. These are moralities that feature robust moral commitments among group members but either deny moral standing to outsiders altogether, relegate out-group members to a substantially inferior status, or assign moral standing to outsiders contingent on strategic (self-serving) considerations.
No matter, according to the authors, this flaw in our evolved moral repertoire can be easily fixed. All we have to do is lift ourselves out of the EEA, achieve universal prosperity so great and pervasive that competition becomes unnecessary, and the predispositions in question will simply fade away, more or less like the state under Communism. Invoking that wonderful term “plasticity,” which seems to pop up with every new attempt to finesse human behavioral traits out of existence, they write,
According to an account of exclusivist morality as a conditionally expressed (adaptively plastic) trait, the suite of attitudes and behaviors associated with exclusivist tendencies develop only when cues that were in the past highly correlated with out-group threat are detected.
In other words, it is the fond hope of the authors that, if only we can make the environment in which inconvenient behavioral predispositions evolved disappear, the traits themselves will disappear as well! They go on to claim that this has actually happened, and that,
…exclusivist moral tendencies are attenuated in populations inhabiting environments in which cues of out-group threat are absent.
Clearly we have seen a vast expansion in the number of human beings that can be perceived as ingroup since the Pleistocene, and the inclusion as ingroup of racial and religious categories that once defined outgroups. There is certainly plasticity in how ingroups and outgroups are actually defined and perceived, as one might expect of traits evolved during times of rapid environmental change in the nature of the “others” one happened to be in contact with or aware of at any given time. However, this hardly “proves” that the fundamental tendency to distinguish between ingroups and outgroups itself will disappear or is likely to disappear in response to any environmental change whatever. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to refer to the paper itself.
Clearly the authors imagine themselves to be “inclusive,” but is that really the case? Hardly! It turns out they have a very robust perception of outgroup. They’ve merely fallen victim to the fallacy that it “doesn’t count” because it’s defined in ideological rather than racial or religious terms. Their outgroup may be broadly defined as “conservatives.” These “conservatives” are mentioned over and over again in the paper, always in the guise of the bad guys who are supposed to reject inclusivism and resist “moral progress.” To cite a few examples,
We show that although current evolutionary psychological understandings of human morality do not, contrary to the contentions of some authors, support conservative ethical and political conclusions, they do paint a picture of human morality that challenges traditional liberal accounts of moral progress.
…there is no good reason to believe conservative claims that the shift toward greater inclusiveness has reached its limit or is unsustainable.
These “evoconservatives,” as we have labeled them, infer from evolutionary explanations of morality that inclusivist moralities are not psychologically feasible for human beings.
At the same time, there is strong evidence that the development of exclusivist moral tendencies – or what evolutionary psychologists refer to as “in-group assortative sociality,” which is associated with ethnocentric, xenophobic, authoritarian, and conservative psychological orientations – is sensitive to environmental cues…
and so on, and so on. In a word, although the good professors are fond of pointing with pride to their vastly expanded ingroup, they have rather more difficulty seeing their vastly expanded outgroup as well, more or less like the difficulty we have seeing the nose at the end of our face. The fact that the conservative outgroup is perceived with as much fury, disgust, and hatred as ever a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan felt for blacks or Catholics can be confirmed by simply reading through the comment section of any popular website of the ideological Left. Unless professors employed by philosophy departments live under circumstances more reminiscent of the Pleistocene than I had imagined this bodes ill for their theory of “moral progress” based on “inclusivity.” More evidence that this is the case is easily available to anyone who cares to look for “diversity” in the philosophy department of the local university in the form of a professor who can be described as conservative by any stretch of the imagination.
I note in passing another passage in the paper that demonstrates the fanaticism with which the chimera of “moral progress” is pursued in some circles. Again quoting the authors,
Some moral philosophers whom we have elsewhere called “evoliberals,” have tacitly affirmed the evo-conservative view in arguing that biomedical interventions that enhance human moral capacities are likely to be crucial for major moral progress due to evolved constraints on human moral nature.
In a word, the delusion of moral progress is not necessarily just a harmless toy for the entertainment of professors of philosophy, at least as far as those who might have some objection to “biomedical interventions” carried out be self-appointed “experts on ethics” are concerned.
What’s the point? The point is that we are unlikely to make progress of any kind without first accepting the truth about our own nature, and the elementary logical implications of that truth. Darwin saw them, Westermarck saw them, and they are far more obvious today than they were then. We continue to ignore them at our peril.
7 thoughts on “The “Moral Progress” Delusion”
Well argued, but I think you’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater: Just because Buchanan and Powell failed to make a convincing case for “moral progress” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. My claim is that it does, but that it is driven by *technological* progress, not anything to do with changes in humans themselves. The details of the argument can be found at http://www.matchism.org/internal-moral-codes/, but I’d recommend first reading at least the first few pages of intro to get oriented:
PS: Opening your site directly (http://helian.net/) is broken (some sort of WordPress config problem)
“…biomedical interventions that enhance human moral capacities are likely to be crucial for major moral progress due to evolved constraints on human moral nature.”
In the words of David Horowitz, “Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out.” People like the authors are prime examples, but there has never been a shortage of such men.
Thankfully, Nature bats last and is not likely to “agree” with their plans. I take great comfort in the fact that Robespierre eventually went to the same Guillotine to which he sent so many others.
So it goes.
In response to the original piece.
Well done again, there appears to be very few that can grasp the fundamentally important concept that all of our ‘civilised’ rules/laws and moral/ethical codes etc are human constructs made of little more than projections and wishful thoughts.
When you say;
“However, as a rule they have been incapable of grasping the obvious implication of that fact; that the notion of “moral progress” is a chimera. It is a truth that has been too inconvenient for them to bear.”
You are spot on. I see enough evidence to suggest that the brain has a mechanism that locks out this rather challenging insight into reality. What a panic most would find themselves in if they for one moment saw that all the social edifices they surround themselves with are merely fairy tales for children.
When I suggest that the brain has an actual part that stops the ‘conscious’ self from grasping the challenging truth, I go further and propose that for at least two reasons this must/may be a subconscious mechanism.
Firstly there is little to be gained by pondering the vast and unknowable complexities of our surrounding reality, probably best to concentrate on the important like, food, shelter, mating, avoiding predators and bringing up offspring.
The second reason brings into play game theory, always better to have those around you sharing all sorts of warm sharing and caring ideas. It identifies them as in need of external help and allows for all sorts of benefits to the one who can ‘game’ the resources etc.
More broadly when we look at the ‘seats’ of moral thought, it’s hard not to be struck by the blinding hypocrisy(gaming) we so often find next to it. The priest and his attendant hypocrisy need little expansion, the academic is often a ruthless self promoter and careerist, yet will be the first to expand some utopian vision of sharing.
So far are we from the broader acceptance of our state, the only solace I find in this is that it has ever been thus.
Whatever the reason, you’re certainly right about people refusing to accept the obvious. I recently lived in a Mormon neighborhood. They were wonderful people; helpful, kind, didn’t go out of their way to proselytize me, but they all believed the craziest things imaginable.
This isn’t the first time I’ve run into such allusions to the “eugenic” approach to “human flourishing.” They’re dead serious about it.
“They’re dead serious about it.”
The transhumanist movement is just an acknowledgement of how high the barriers are for the continuance of “business as usual” for us humans.
It is the same as the image of Robinson Jeffers poem “The Purse Seine”, that of fish caught in a net thrashing from side to side looking for an escape.
“…I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible,
then, when the crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall
to the other of their closing destiny…”
a) Alan Gray the British Philosopher claims that our rush for ‘advancement’ be it science, technology indeed modernity faces the same ultimate problem. It is all for naught, just our human need to feel we are advancing ‘somewhere’. Or is there something more concrete about our improving our physical wellbeing etc, whereas our ‘moral’ improvement is a far more slippery eel.?
b) There are so many subsets to this discussion. You touch on the ‘beliefs’ of the Mormons, ‘group identifiers’. How fascinating.