Moral Emotions and Moral Truth

There are moral emotions.  There is no such thing as moral truth.

The above are fundamental facts.  We live in a world of moral chaos because of our failure to accept them and grasp their significance.

Eighteenth century British philosophers demonstrated that emotions are the source of all moral judgments.  “Pure reason” is incapable of anything but chasing its own tail.  Darwin revealed the origin of the emotions as the result of evolution by natural selection.  It was left for the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck to draw the obvious conclusion; that there is no such thing as moral truth.

David Hume is often given the credit for identifying emotions or, as he put it, “passions,” as the source of moral judgments.  According to Hume,

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

However, when he wrote the above, Hume was really just repeating the earlier work of Francis Hutcheson.  It was Hutcheson who demonstrated the emotional origin of moral judgments beyond any serious doubt.  I encourage modern readers who are interested in the subject to read his books on the subject.  I have quoted him at length in earlier posts, and I will do so again here.  Here is what he had to say about the power of “pure reason” to isolate moral truth:

If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.

There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object.  This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike:  Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action:  Both propositions are equally true.

But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.

Hutcheson followed up this critique of reason with some comments about the role of “human nature” as the origin and inspiration of all moral judgment that might almost have come from a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology, and that are truly stunning considering that they were written early in the 18th century.  Again quoting the Ulster Scots/British philosopher as well as my own comments from an earlier post:

Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.

If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:

Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature:  and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.”  He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.

Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time.  As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:

Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition.  Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe:  Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed:  And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.

He concludes,

Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections?  …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire?  And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation.  A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.

The fact that Hutcheson believed that God was the origin of the emotions in question in no way detracts from the power of his logic about the essential role of the emotions themselves.  No modern philosopher sitting on the shoulders of Darwin has ever spoken more brilliantly or more clearly.

In considering the relevance of the above to the human condition, one must keep in mind the fact that any boundary between moral emotions and other emotions is artificial.  Nature created no such boundaries, and they are an artifact of the human tendency to categorize.  Of all the emotions not normally included in the category of moral emotions, the most significant may well be our tendency to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Our outgroup includes people we consider “deplorable.”  They are commonly perceived as evil, and are usually associated with other negative qualities.  For example, they may be considered impure, disgusting, contemptible, infidels, etc.  Outgroup identification is universal, although the degree to which it is present may vary significantly from one individual to the next, like any other subjective mental predisposition.  If one would explore and learn to understand his moral consciousness, he would do well to begin by asking the question, “What is my outgroup?”  The “deplorables” will always be there.

Consider the implications of the above.  Follow the abstruse reasoning of the “experts on ethics,” to its source, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

Follow the arcane logic of theologians touching on the moral implications of this or that excerpt from the holy scriptures, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

When bathroom warriors, or anti-culture appropriators, or the unmaskers of inappropriate Halloween costumes rain down their anathemas on anyone who happens to disagree with them, consider what motivates their behavior, and yet again you will find emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

Stand in a crowd of Communists as they sing the Internationale, or of Nazis dreaming noble dreams of the liberation of Aryans everywhere from the powers of darkness as they sing the Horst Wessel Song, and you will find that the emotions those songs evoke evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  You won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup, either of Communists or Nazis.  Millions of them were murdered in the name of these two manifestations of higher morality.

We live in a time of moral chaos because these truths have been too hard for us to bear.  As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we tend to invoke our inner moral lawyer whenever we happen to disagree with someone else about what ought to be.  We consult our moral emotions, and seek to justify ourselves by evoking similar moral emotions in others.  In the process we bamboozle ourselves and others into believing that those emotions relate to real things that we commonly refer to as good and evil, that are imagined to have an independent existence of their own.  They don’t.  They are merely illusions spawned by emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.

In a word, what we are doing is blindly following and reacting to emotional whims, even though it is questionable whether doing so will have the same result as it did when those whims evolved.  For that matter, we don’t even care.  As long as we can satisfy whims that evolved in the Pleistocene, it matters not at all to us that they will accomplish precisely the opposite in the 21st century to what they did then.  The result is what I have referred to as a morality inversion.  Instead of promoting our survival, the emotions in question promote behavior that accomplishes the opposite in the radically different environment we live in today.  It matters not a bit.  As long as we “feel in our bones” that the actions in question are “Good,” we cheerfully commit suicide, whether by donning a suicide belt or deciding that it must be “immoral” to have children.  We imagine that these actions are “noble” and “morally pure” even though all we have really done is satisfy atavistic whims without the least regard for why those whims exist to begin with, and whether responding to them is likely to accomplish the same thing now as it did millions of years ago or not.

Again, we live in a world of moral chaos because we have been unable to face the truth, simple and obvious as it is.  There is nothing “bad” about that, nor is there anything “good” about it.  It is just the way things are.  I personally would prefer that we face the truth.  Perhaps then it would occur to us that, since we can hardly do without morality, we would be well advised to come up with a simple moral system that maximizes the ability of each of us to pursue whatever whims we happen to find important with as little fear of possible of being threatened, vilified, or otherwise subjected to the penalties that are typically the lot of outgroups.  If we faced the truth about the real subjective origins of what have seemed objective moral certainties to so many of us in the past, perhaps at least some of us would be more reticent about seeking to impose their own versions of morality on those around them.  If we faced the truth, perhaps we would realize that our universal tendency to blindly vilify and condemn outgroups represents an existential threat to us all, and that the threat must be recognized and controlled.

These are things that I would like to see.  Of course, they represent nothing more significant than my own whims.

6 thoughts on “Moral Emotions and Moral Truth”

  1. “These are things that I would like to see. Of course, they represent nothing more significant than my own whims.”

    I think there is a lot more than a whim. As social animals we want an order and this represents your opinion of how that order should be arranged. I believe the world is moving in your direction, but it is a slow bloody process. I think it will be slower and more bloody than most realize.

    Social customs and religions, no matter how unfair, have evolved because they served to establish some kind of order and will not be abandoned easily. Many of them give one group an advantage over another. Is that advantage because of a better evolutionary answer to the local environment and therefore logical, or is it just happenstance? If it is a better answer can/should the environment be changed? At what cost?

    These problems, and a myriad others, are not amenable to logical solution, only evolution can “solve” them and that is a slow bloody process.

    We have an inherent desire for fairness, but also a drive to establish and defend a niche in the social order. These two are expressed differently in different people. Evolution results.

    I think that instability and unfairness is inherent in human social structures (probably true of most social animals bar insects). Top dogs are always unfair, if they get too strong a coalition of bottom dogs will depose them and a new order is established. Wash, rinse, repeat.

  2. On the social order/pecking order topic, there was an interesting article recently about chimpanzee (p trog.) social order. According to these researchers female chimps stayed more or less in the hierarchy position to which they were born, moving up the ladder as Alphas passed on, but males climbed the ladder by competition (which was long known).

    That hints (to me, at least) that the social competition in males is biologically based and not going away any time soon.

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161014150733.htm

  3. “…stayed more or less in the hierarchy position to which they were born…”

    That’s misstated, they stay more or less in the order at which they entered the hierarchy, which is influenced by social status of the mother among other things.

  4. @anon

    Yes, when you consider that most of us can’t even accept the basic truths about the evolutionary origin of morality and its implications, not to mention the rest of our behavioral baggage, our future doesn’t look all that bright. Beyond those simple truths, our problems only become more complex. Supposing some significant number of us eventually does accept the truth, what “should” we do at that point? There is certainly no “one size fits all” solution.

  5. “Supposing some significant number of us eventually does accept the truth, what “should” we do at that point?”

    IMO, that day will be so far in the future (centuries, if not millennia) that it should be of little concern to us now as far as any action we can take.

    If you ask me what the shape would be, I would say something with strong sense of personal responsibility, with a balance between social solidarity and a serious reluctance to subsidize failure. The central government would be strong where applicable, but very limited in scope.

    We need to evolve quite a bit more before we get to that point and, pardon the repetition, that is a slow and bloody process.

  6. A key tenet of science is observing reality, performing experiments, repeating said experiments, and getting consistent results. Hume’s Law flies in the face of this. He seems to be fundamentally anti-scientific.

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