Morality; Once More From the Top

It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality.  Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it.  Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality.  They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions.  As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.

Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning.  According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid.  Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God.  However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.

Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions.  Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.”  However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.

Evolution is a natural process.  As such, it has no purpose or goal.  It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.

The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past.  It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now.  It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.

Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature.  They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.

Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do.  That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals.  It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.

In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity.  They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.

Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it.  These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways.  In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed.  Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals.  However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.

Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them.  It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then.  When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past.  One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.

So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior.  Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small?  The answer lies in morality itself.  More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups.  When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people.  Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality.  Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup.  It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe.  We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing.  The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above.  As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.

Why do I bother to write about morality?  Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above.  I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject.  One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right.  One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind?  Assuming they exist, can you show one to me?  Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing?  Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”

The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us.  For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with.  Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path.  Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors.  When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders.  H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift.  From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative.  In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned.  The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful.  As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.

I know, I’m grasping at straws.  The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck.  He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him.  The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work.  His example is hardly encouraging.  On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing.  Therefore, I will do something.  I will continue to write.

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.

5 thoughts on “Morality; Once More From the Top”

  1. You must continue to write as there is a need for people who have unrelentingly discarded ‘belief etc’ to have the ability to find others who are so minded.
    I would like to think that such open thoughts led to my ‘discovery’ of ‘Ardrey’ and subsequently your site. Is it pushing the boundaries of logic to state that if there is anything approaching the ‘Truth’, then people should be able to independently reach similar understandings.
    Independantly reaching the same outcomes is something that religion clearly lacks. Materialism, in its various guises tend to pop up in most regions, epochs, and indeed some religious traditions.
    What to do with the more ‘null’ of the theories is the question, but one thing for sure, independance does lead one to be heartedly sick of being told what to do by fool, continue on.

  2. Exhibit ‘A’
    Richard Dawkins….
    “Evolution by natural selection is the explanation for why we exist. It is not something to guide our lives in our society.
    Study your Darwinism for two reasons, because it explains why you’re here, and … learn what to avoid in setting up society. What we need is a truly anti-Darwinian society. Anti-Darwinian in the sense that we don’t wish to live in a society where the weakest go to the wall, where the strongest suppress the weakest. ”

    This is the difficulty of Dawkins with his humanism, it’s confused, it is in a way wishful thinking and allows for nasty surprises when we lower our guard only to be caught later. (Immigration etc).
    Another reason I dislike these sentiments is that it verges on game theory, ie lets all be nice, sharing etc, whilst at the same time amassing huge assets etc. Do as I say, not as I do.

  3. @David

    Yes, Dawkins is an interesting case. He wrote a whole chapter in his “The God Delusion” about the evolutionary roots of morality. Then he tells us that we must be “anti-Darwinian” in order to serve some greater “un-Darwinian” good. The problem is that there is no un-Darwinian good. In the end, every “good” mankind has ever come up with is the expression of an emotion that exists by virtue of natural selection. The rarified “goods” of Darwin’s leftist ingroup are no different. Scratch the surface and you’ll have little trouble finding the Darwinian provenance of all of them just beneath it.

    Dawkins’ problem at the moment is that his ingroup has left him behind. They’ve gone off on a love affair with radical Islam. People of his ideological type are typically out to save the world. Hence their tastes run to messianic ideologies. With the demise of Communism, radical Islam is the only one still standing at the moment with any traction. No matter that it’s 180 degrees out of synch with everything they claim, or at least used to claim, to believe. It fascinates them. That’s a bridge too far for the New Atheists. As a result, Dawkins has been left standing in the dust, “riddled with bullets” as Jerry Coyne puts it.

  4. The rather bullet filled body of Dawkins seems to be surrounded by many on the left. This affair with religion seems to me a defining moment, again, I return to the question why. What is it that is reflected or in Lorenzian terms, which pump is being exercised. The answer is not clear, but I remember an incident that occurred when I was a Mayor of a provincial town in Victoria, I was (“was” being the operative word) known as a Green. Anyway I had the remarkable experience of all the local leaders of the fringe happy clapper type christian churches coming for a meeting, They all knew each other and all sat around in this meeting, which they characteristically started with a prayer. I declined to pray with them, this started their shaking,. Anyway, they then informed me that whilst they didn’t understand the motivation of their god, he must have decided that for some reason I was the right person to lead the City and that they would work with me. The term cognitive dissidence rings in my ears, but there was something surreal yet powerfully insightful here.
    They had a bizzare sense that they were important players in keeping the stars in orbit. They also allowed me to see how their ‘spoken conduct’, their ‘pronoucements’, their ‘ten commandments’ seemed to be very important. That various of them were caught later embezzling or sexually abusing their flock will come as no surprise.
    Now lets drag the latter day humanist back into screen, as a biologist Dawkins and his ilk are saying, “look here are the laws of nature,. Here are its achievements, (including us) but if we do that, or at least, if I admit that my behaviour will be based on the laws of nature, then I won’t be able to con you into acting in a caring sharing manner.” I say this with a certain bitterness having seen various university lecturers etc spend years drumming into their students the humanist principles, whilst on great salaries and then retiring on huge superannuation packages, one of which said to me , “Oh but at least you still have your principles) but that’s another story.
    Here I need to go out onto a rather shaky limb but it’s worth the climb. All of the humanists are consciously sprucking this post kantian christian fallacy, whilst few of them are able to overcome the unconscious need to aquire territory and wealth. This leads to the current confusion with religion, for them to attack the ‘nice pronouncements’ or religion would be, like my christian gang, to confront the absurdity that we humans can ‘manifacture’ a ‘better’ or ‘enhanced’ reality, or code of conduct.
    Hows my branch looking, it seems pretty shaky but compared to the Dawkins comment I’d rather be on it?

  5. @David

    It’s true that Dawkins is still surrounded by people on the Left, but they are mainly just his acolytes. At this point few if any of his supporters belong to the clique that creates and maintains the narrative on the Left.

    I don’t think your “limb” is completely unattached to the tree. The tacit assumption behind most of the currently fashionable religious and philosophical worldviews is, indeed, that we can ignore Darwin and “manufacture a better or enhanced reality or code of conduct.” But, as the Borg say, “Resistance is futile.” In the end, the emotions that spawn all these utopias are there because of natural selection.

    I notice you seem bitter about the Christians, wealthy university professors who spout postmodern slogans as they draw their comfortable pensions, etc. It’s an entirely human reaction, and one that I am just as susceptible to as you, but it, too, is an artifact of evolved behavioral traits. These people are not “really evil,” or “really good,” for that matter, because such categories don’t exist. They are simply a species of animal behaving in the way that species typically acts. Judging others is one of the most elementary aspects of our nature. We all do it. However, like all emotional reactions out of the context of the environment in which they evolved, it’s sometimes useful to consider whether they’re rational or not.

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