Edvard Westermarck: Getting Morality Right at the Wrong Time

Morality evolved.  More precisely, the emotional and behavioral traits that are the reason morality exists evolved.  Darwin was perfectly well aware of this fact and its implications.  For example, he wrote,

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

The moral implications of his great theory Darwin alluded to in the above passage seem obvious.  It shouldn’t take a man as brilliant as him to grasp them, and yet I know of only one published author after Darwin who clearly understood what he was saying; Edvard Westermarck.

Westermarck wrote two great books about morality; The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, published in 1906, and Ethical Relativity, in 1932.  In them he elaborated on the ideas Darwin only mentioned in passing, following them to their logical conclusions.  In the process he avoided the error made by a myriad other authors who wrote before and after him about the connection between evolution by natural selection and morality.  That error was the conclusion that this connection somehow established the legitimacy of some old or new versions of Good and Evil, or that it implied some kind of an objective “ought.”  Westermarck got it right, and yet he is nearly forgotten today.  Apparently his message was something mankind didn’t want to hear.  He also happened along at the wrong time, writing some very inconvenient truths just as the behavioral sciences were in the process of being hijacked by the ideological narrative that we know as the Blank Slate.

Westermarck realized that if morality exists as a result of natural selection, it can have no purpose in itself.  If something has a purpose, then it must have been created by a conscious entity.  Morality wasn’t.  It exists as a result of natural processes that occurred unguided by any conscious mind.  It follows that Good and Evil describe subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and not objective things that exist independently thereof.  As subjective entities they cannot possibly acquire a legitimate right to prescribe what anyone ought or ought not to do.

Recording and explaining such simple truths requires neither a great deal of space nor the lavish application of philosophical jargon.  Westermarck accomplished the task in the first chapter of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  It seems to me that if you read that chapter, you either get it or you don’t.  From a logical point of view the subject just isn’t that complicated.  It’s only “hard” because it flies in the face of what we “feel,” and isn’t compatible with the way most of us want things to be.  There’s no subject in the world more difficult to keep an open mind about than morality, but unless you do, you’ll never “get it.”  However, if you can clear that hurdle, the rest is obvious.  In his Ethical Relativity, written more than a quarter of a century later, Westermarck elaborated on the chapter referred to above, and answered some of the critics who had attacked his ideas in the intervening years Here is a taste of what he had to say:

In spite of the fervor with which the objectivity of moral judgments has been advocated by the exponents of normative ethics there is much diversity of opinion with regard to the principles underlying the various systems.  This discord is as old as ethics itself.  But while the evolution of other sciences has shown a tendency to increasing agreement on points of fundamental importance, the same can hardly be said to have been the case in the history of ethics, where the spirit of controversy has been much more conspicuous than the endeavor to add new truths to results already reached.  Of course, if moral values are objective, only one of the conflicting theories can possibly be true.  Each founder of a new theory hopes that it is he who has discovered the unique jewel of moral truth, and is naturally anxious to show that other theories are only false stones.  But he must also by positive reasons make good his claim to the precious find.

None of the various theories of normative science can be said to have proved its case; none of them has proved that moral judgments possess objective validity, that there is anything truly good or bad, right or wrong, that moral principles express anything more than the opinions of those who believe in them.

The quantitative differences of moral estimates are plainly due to the emotional origin of all moral concepts… After what has been said above the answer to the all-important question, so frequently ignored by writers on ethics, why moral judgments are passed on conduct and character is not far to seek.  These judgments spring from moral emotions.

and, regarding the moral philosophy of Kant,

But with the deepest regard for the tremendous earnestness of his purpose, I cannot but think that his struggle to harmonize the moral experience of mankind with his own rational deductions has been a colossal failure.  I have tried to show that in his alleged dictates of reason the emotional background is transparent throughout, and if I have succeeded in such a attempt in the case of the greatest of all moral rationalists, I flatter myself with the belief that I have, in no small measure, given additional strength to the main contentions in this book:  that the moral consciousness is ultimately based on emotions, that the moral judgment lacks objective validity, that the moral values are not absolute but relative to the emotions they express.

Regarding the “experts on ethics,” both modern and ancient, Westermarck wrote,

If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” 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.

There are some surprisingly “modern” ideas in his later book.  Consider, for example, what Jonathan Haidt wrote about The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.  In a paper of that name and in his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt presented “…the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.”  Here is what Westermarck had to say on the subject:

I have thus arrived at the conclusion that neither the attempts of moral philosophers or theologians to prove the objective validity of moral judgments, nor the common sense assumption to the same effect, give us any right at all to accept such a validity as a fact.  So far, however, I have only tried to show that it has not been proved; now I am prepared to take a step further and assert that it cannot exist.  The reason for this is that in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Westermarck chose the title “Ethical Relativity” for his second book on the subject.  It is perfectly clear what he meant.  However, while moral rules may be relative from an objective point of view, it is not our nature to perceive them that way.  We perceive them as absolutes, just as one might expect given their evolutionary origin.  They are most effective in enhancing the odds that we will survive and reproduce when we perceive them in that way.  Human beings can come up with a great variety of moral systems in spite of the common evolutionary origin of them all.  However, whatever that “relative” system happens to be, we will perceive its rules as absolutes.  The idea that our societies will collapse into moral nihilism and anarchy because of the scribblings of philosophers is nonsense.  As Westermarck put it,

I think that ethical writers are often inclined to overrate the influence of moral theory upon moral practice.

He added,

It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.  The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true.

However, he cited some very good reasons for believing that knowing the truth about ourselves is a great deal less dangerous than preserving our ignorance.  I agree with him.  If our species ever existed in a period of moral anarchy and nihilism, it is now.  Accepting the truth about morality and acting on it are the way out of the chaos, not into it.

Some authors pay lip service to the influence of evolution on morality, but haven’t been able to shed the illusion that somehow, somewhere out there, objective morality exists.  Others admit that, as a manifestation of evolved traits, morality must be subjective, but in the very next paragraph or the very next breathe they lapse back into full Social Justice Warrior mode.  With a wink and a nod they use time-honored virtue signaling techniques to assure us that they belong to the right ingroup.  They leave us in no doubt that they understand the difference between mere subjective morality and the “real thing.”  Some have even gone so far as to advocate a program of eugenics, or perhaps adventures with CRISPR, to “adjust” morality so that it agrees with the “real thing.”

At least to the extent that it’s possible for morally obsessed creatures like ourselves, Westermarck avoided these pitfalls.  He didn’t try to hide from the implications of his own thought, nor did he write them down and then hide his head and flee from them in the very next paragraph.  He was honest.  He was a light in the darkness.  I hope that someday we will find our way back to the light.

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.

2 thoughts on “Edvard Westermarck: Getting Morality Right at the Wrong Time”

  1. Another thought provoking piece, you on your most concrete ground here, as I have yet to see an argument that there is any other basis for morality(ie evolutionary)other than obvious wishful thinking of the various religious philisophical versions.
    Now re the verbal and written ‘rules’ of these various ethical schools and cults. They seem to be of the ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ variety and if we go further there seem to be a pattern that is hard to describe, but having asked for forgiveness I’ll try.
    In any pecking order with groups there is a dominant theme or interpretation re our place in the world and our actions towards others,.
    This works as the dominant few set a path or framework and expect those lower on the pecking order to follow. The ruling few however are exempt from their own rules. The lower down express their acceptance of these rules and usually follow them in regards to those above, however they play a different tune to those below.
    This is really an interface between group dynamics and basic game theory. Cheating is a crucial and extrodinarily successful strategy if played well.
    As a refugee of the left, one of the defining moments of waking up was to see the blinding hypocrisy and double standards, (of course it was really just a recognition of the fundamental and powerful role of these drivers at an unconscious level) of the mantra chanting left/so called progressives.

    thanks again for your postings.

  2. @David

    Yes, those with an ideologically defined ingroup are much more concerned with appearing to be “good” than in actually being “good.” As Westermarck put it,

    …it may be fairly asked if the influence of the moral law upon the conduct of men is really so great as well-meaning moralists try to make us believe. It does not seem to command obedience in any exceptional degree, the regard for it can hardly be called the mainspring of action. It is only one spring out of many, and variable like all others. In some instances it may be a dominant power in a man’s life, in others it is a voice calling in the wilderness; and the majority of people seem to be more afraid of the blame or ridicule of their fellowmen, or of the penalties with which the law of the country threatens them, than of “the viceregents of God” in their own hearts.

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