Edvard Westermarck and His Detractors

Judging by the amount of space devoted to him on Wikipedia, Edvard Westermarck was little regarded as a moral philosopher.  Contemporaries such as G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, not to mention such immediate predecessors as John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, made a much bigger splash.  For all that, Westermarck was aware of some simple but very significant truths about morality, and the rest were blind to them.  Apparently you don’t get a lot of space in Wikipedia for being right, or at least not for being right about morality.  When it comes to that subject, people tend to listen only when you say what they want to hear.  Westermarck most definitely did not.

It was no secret to Westermarck that he was stepping on some toes.  He told the legions of moral philosophers and experts on ethics that they were superfluous because they were experts about something that didn’t exist.  He told the legions of religious zealots that the source of their moral dogmas was imaginary.  He told all the rest of us that the “facts” about morality that we “feel in our bones” are illusions.

It is natural for us to perceive Good and Evil as absolute facts.  Morality is a manifestation of evolved traits, and traits evolve because they happen to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them will survive and reproduce.  Obviously, morality is most effective at improving the odds when we perceive Good and Evil, not as subjective entities that we can change from day to day according to our whims of the moment, but as objective things-in-themselves that have a “real existence apart from any reference to a human mind,” as Westermarck put it.  If someone tells us it just ain’t so, our reaction is predictably negative.  He addressed the objections of one such critic, the utilitarian Dr. H. Rashdall in his Ethical Relativity, published in 1932.  According to Dr. Rashdall, the denial of the objective validity of moral judgments,

…is fatal to the deepest spiritual convictions and to the highest spiritual aspirations of the human race.

to which Westermarck replies,

It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief… Another question is whether the ethical subjectivism I am here advocating really is a danger to morality… My moral judgments spring from my own moral consciousness; they judge of the conduct of other men not from their point of view but from mine, not in accordance with their feelings and opinions about right and wrong but according to my own.  And these are not arbitrary.  We approve and disapprove because we cannot do otherwise; our moral consciousness belongs to our mental constitution, which we cannot change as we please.  Can we help feeling pain when the fire burns us?  Can we help sympathizing with our friends?  Are these facts less necessary or less powerful in their consequences, because they fall within the subjective sphere of our experience?  So also, why should the moral law command less obedience because it forms a part of ourselves?

I think this is an excellent response to those who warn that accepting the truth about morality will lead to nihilism and moral chaos.  The subjective nature of moral judgments will hardly alter our tendency to make them.  Westermarck adds,

…it seems to me that ethical subjectivism, instead of being a danger, is more likely to be an advantage to morality.  Could it be brought home to people that there is no absolute standard in morality, they would perhaps be on the one hand more tolerant and on the other hand more critical in their judgments.

It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this last quote.  When it comes to morality, we live in an age of gross intolerance, particularly on the part of the “progressive Left.”  These people pull new “absolute moral truths” out of thin air on a regular basis, and then proceed to stuff them down the throats of the rest of us.  I may not be able to say that such behavior is absolutely “Good,” or absolutely “Evil,” but I personally find it extremely disagreeable.  I think many others would agree with me on that point.  The truth about morality hardly encourages this type of moral bullying.  Rather, it pulls the rug out from under the feet of the bullies.  In fact, they have not the faintest basis for their moral claims.  They can in no way justify elevating what amount to personal whims to the status of absolute moral laws and then insisting that the rest of us respect them.  They manage to get away with it by appealing to subjective moral emotions.  This will only work as long as they can maintain the fantasy, cherished by so many of us, that these emotions somehow relate to real, objective things.  That fantasy is hardly a barrier between us and moral chaos.  It is the reason for moral chaos.  We will never escape the prevailing “moral nihilism” until we accept the truth.

Westermarck had it right in the above quotes.  If all of us were aware of the truth, we would also be aware of the real provenance of moral judgments, and would be more tolerant of the similar judgments of others as a result.  It might finally be possible for us to take a critical look at those judgments, as Westermarck suggests, and come up with a system of morality that best suits the needs of all of us, instead of enabling the moral tyranny of a minority.

So much for the “danger” of Westermarck’s ideas.  If we look at some of the other objections posed by his contemporaries, their claims to “expertise” in matters of morality grow increasingly dubious.  For example, Danish philosopher Harald Höffding argued that, “the subjectivity of our moral valuations does not prevent ethics from being a science any more than the subjectivity of our sensations renders a science of physics impossible, because both are concerned with finding the external facts that correspond to the subjective processes.”  According to this “Höffding’s fallacy,” anything we can imagine must relate to some “external fact.”  Unfortunately, Professor Höffding completely missed the point.  In this case the “external facts” don’t exist.  They are a figment of his imagination.  Westermarck adds,

It may, of course, be a subject for scientific inquiry to investigate the means which are conducive to human happiness or welfare, and the results of such a study may also be usefully applied by moralists, but it forms no more a part of ethics than physics is a part of psychology.  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.

My personal favorite among the critics of Westermarck is G. E. Moore, who became far more highly regarded as an “expert on ethics” by debunking all previous practitioners of the trade as victims of the “naturalistic fallacy,” and being extremely coy about the nature of morality himself.  No one could ever pin him down as to whether Good and Evil were animal, vegetable, or mineral.  From the few broad hints he gave us, it appears that the Good has a remarkable resemblance to what a Victorian rent seeker would consider “nice things,” or at least the ones that they admitted to openly.  In any case, here is Westermarck’s account of Moore’s criticism:

He argues that if one person says “this action is wrong,” and another says of the very same action that it is not wrong, and each of them merely makes a judgment about his own feelings towards it, they are not differing in opinion about it at all, and, generally speaking, there is absolutely no such thing as a difference of opinion upon moral questions.  “If two persons think they differ in opinion on a moral question (and it certainly seems as if they sometimes think so), they are always on this view, making a mistake, and a mistake so gross that it seems hardly possible that they should make it:  a mistake as gross as that which would be involved in thinking that when you say, ‘I did not come from Cambridge today’ you are denying what I say when I say ‘I did.'” This seems to Professor Moore to be a very serious objection to my view.  But let me choose another, analogous case, to illustrate the nature of his argument.  One person says, “This food is disagreeable,” and another says of the very same food that it is not disagreeable.  We should undoubtedly assert that they have different opinions about it.  On Professor Moore’s view this shows that the two persons do not merely judge about their feelings but state that the food really is, or is not, disagreeable, and if they admitted that they only expressed their own feelings – as they most probably would if their statements were challenged – and yet thought that they differed in opinion, they would make a mistake almost too great to be possible.  For my own part I venture to believe that most people would find it absurd if they denied that they had different opinions about the food.

It seems to me that Westermarck could have had a lot more fun with Moore if he had been so inclined.  After all, the point of this flimsy argument, which was taken quite seriously by several other “experts on ethics” at the time, was that moral judgments are not purely subjective in nature.  If it really made any sense, we could magically transform anything we pleased into a real thing.  One could, for example, resurrect the Greek gods out of thin air simply by virtue of believing in them.  If one were merely making a judgment about his own feelings, than, according to Moore, a difference of opinion on the matter would become impossible.  The only alternative is that the Greek gods actually do exist.  To deny it would be tantamount to denying the objective existence of Good and Evil!  I note in passing that Moore’s argument was considered “unanswerable” by W. D. Ross, who added some objections of his own based on a similar conflating of objective facts with subjective feelings.  If you’re interested in more detail, it’s all there in Westermarck’s Ethical Relativity.

When it comes to moral philosophy, fame doesn’t depend on the truth of what you say, but on how well it fits the prevailing narrative.  Then and now, too many people have too much to lose by admitting that Westermarck was right.  Their tedious reading of many dry tomes of moral philosophy would have been for nothing, and their claims to “expertise,” would vanish like the morning fog.  Hence the few lines devoted to him on Wikipedia and elsewhere.  He was right where so many have been wrong, but I doubt that he will get the recognition he deserves anytime soon.  Perhaps, in view of the mountains of bilge that somehow are published as “moral philosophy” these days, it might at least be possible to put his two major books on the subject, Ethical Relativity and The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, back into print.  I would certainly be willing to contribute my widow’s mite to the cause.  I’m not holding my breath, though.

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 and His Detractors”

  1. How amazing to consider that the worlds philisophical discussions and the basis of most of our social sciences is nothing other than wishful thinking and fantasy.
    When confronted with even a basic questioning of the foundation, or lack of it, of peoples ‘attitudes, beliefs and morals’, we are confronted by outrage and an almost violent reaction.
    I have mentioned in the past that this defence of peoples world views seems to be ‘organic’, ‘physiological’, ie it is part of our brain. Indeed this defensive reaction to challenge is so universal across cultures that it must an entity. Therefore this defence acts as a buffer, a buffer that we don’t even have a name for such is its magnificence in its work and secrecy.
    Just a thought, but a thought that took much experience and challenge to confront.
    Thank you again and I fully intend to buy the books you mention here,. With the rise of small scale publication I wonder at the ability to do some small runs,. I presume copyright has expired,.

  2. Copyright has expired on “The Origin,” so you can get a scanned copy. However, “Ethical Relativity” is still protected by copyright.

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