Moral Whimsy

Human moralities have always been concocted and altered in a chaotic, and sometimes whimsical fashion.  They are all manifestations of innate behavioral predispositions that are probably quite similar across all human populations.  However, in conscious creatures with large brain such as ourselves, these predispositions can be interpreted very differently as a function of environment, culture, and pre-existing versions of morality.  As a result we see wild variations in the “end product” in the form of moral rules.  Moralities have always evolved in this way over time, both now and in the distant past.  In spite of the arbitrary nature of the process, the evanescent “moral laws” that happen to pop up and then disappear from time to time are perceived as objective things, unchanging, and independent of the social/biological process that actually gave rise to them.  This seemingly irrational perception actually makes perfect sense.  Morality exists because the traits responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  It turns out that the most effective way to improve the odds was to program the perception of moral rules as objective things.  However, they are not objective things, but manifestations of subjective emotions.  You might say that we are hard-wired to believe in hallucinations.  The chaotic process of “updating” a given version of morality referred to above happens when different individuals believe in different hallucinations.

I recently ran across a good example of the process in action in an article in New York Magazine entitled “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.”  The particular moral rule at issue was the degree to which the terms “transgender” and “transracial” can be treated as equivalent.  Rebecca Tuval, an assistant professor (usually a junior, tenure track professor) of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, had recently published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia entitled, “In Defense of Transracialism.”   Perhaps she thought the article was merely harmless padding for her resume, the better to facilitate her eventual promotion to full professor.  It didn’t turn out that way.  A vicious attack on her began in the form of an open letter to Hypatia, now signed by some hundreds of her academic colleagues, expressing “dismay” at the “harms” Tuvel had caused by her inappropriate conflation of the terms noted above.  The witch hunt continued with poison pen attacks posted at the usual social media suspects, culminating in an abject apology by “a majority of Hypatia’s board of associate editors” rivaling anything ever seen in Stalin’s Great Purge Trials.  I half expected to see a paragraph admitting that the journal’s staff had conspired with Trotsky himself to promote the counter-revolutionary plots of the Left Opposition.  A few days later, editor Sally Scholz and Miriam Solomon, president of Hypatia’s board of directors, fired back with disavowals of the disavowal.

This is basically the manner in which moralities have always (culturally) evolved and changed.  As societies change, the members of particular ingroups, and especially ingroups that define themselves primarily by ideology, may experience strong moral emotions in response to supposed “evils” that were previously matters of indifference.  They then seek to manipulate the moral emotions of others so that they, too, perceive what amounts to an emotional whim as an objective thing.  This “thing” takes the form of an evil that exists independently of the evolved emotional predispositions that actually inspired the perception.  Members of other ingroups with different narratives, or members of the same ingroups responding more strongly to other moral emotions, push back, seeking to manipulate moral emotions in the opposite direction.  Whoever is the most effective manipulator wins, and a new “moral law” is born.

The whole process is fundamentally irrational.  Why?  Because it amounts to a competition between alternative mirages.  The evolved emotional traits that are responsible for this aspect of human behavior exist because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, they did so at a time that was radically different from the present.  There is no guarantee that they will have the same result today as they did then.  None of this makes any difference to the parties to these disputes as they blindly chase their alternative illusions.  They are seldom aware of the connection between their behavior and its ultimate cause in emotional traits spawned in the process of evolution by natural selection.  The illusion that they are champions of a thing-in-itself called the Good is so powerful that it probably wouldn’t matter even if they did know.

The above describes the process by which we currently seek to resolve the issues that arise in complex modern civilizations by attempting to satisfy emotional whims that are probably much the same as those experienced by our ancestors in the Pleistocene.  The results are seldom benign.  Sometimes the damage is limited to the destruction of some junior professor’s career.  Sometimes it involves warfare that costs millions their lives.  One can certainly imagine more rational ways of adjudicating among all these emotionally inspired whims.  However, I am not optimistic that one of them will be adopted anytime soon.  We are moralistic creatures to the core.  We are addicted to construing something we want as “the Good,” and then manipulating the moral emotions of others to get it.  The effect “the Good” might actually have on the odds of our genetic survival is normally a matter of utter indifference.  We live in a world of irrational creatures, all seeking to satisfy emotional whims without the least regard for whether they accomplish the same thing as they did when they evolved or not.

That’s the reality that we must deal with.  All of us must find our own way of coping.  However, as a tip to my readers, I suggest you think twice before publishing in a philosophical journal.  Unless, of course, you actually like to be bullied.

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 “Moral Whimsy”

  1. No problem with any idea of publishing in any journal, as a non-academic they wouldn’t allow me to join their club and as Groucho? Marx wrote, I wouldn’t want to join if I could.
    Thank you again, I’ve been pondering this post for a while and it has led to some fun with my ex/fellow travellers of the left/progressive realms.
    To tackle the “moral/ethics’ debate I’ve taken to questioning ‘Humanists’, in particular, but others as well about the dilemma they face when confronted with Darwin’s’ old pet theory.
    For the sake of explanation lets look at a recent example from facebook,.
    First) Some whiny whingey stuff about those nasty conservatives who dare to raise issues re immigration/gender/race issues
    Second) A challenge to the correspondent to explain how humanists deal with Darwin’s theory of evolution and how it would deal with the issue.
    Third) Response along the lines of “Well evolution is about how we evolved not how we should live, that should be obvious”. I enjoy when argument drops to the level of ‘Well that should be obvious’.
    Fourth) I’ve taken to then asking them to define ‘humanism’.
    Fifth) Now it gets quite exciting, I had a good response the other day when he listed such things as ‘fairness’, ‘basic human rights’, an acceptance of ‘science’ etc
    Sixth) I sense your going to get my next comment, anyhow, “So you list ‘acceptance of science’ as a trait of ‘humanism’ but deny evolution as having a role in the thought processes and discussion around our next step’.
    Seventh) Silence!
    On a slight tangent here, I am increasingly led to think that the ability to change anyone’s point of view, or the words and language they use, is highly unlikely for two reason. Firstly the language and arguments seem to be more of a ‘whale song’ for identifying others of their group. Secondly people take no notice of the logical extensions of their ‘beliefs’ anyway.
    Thanks again for your blog.

  2. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that the Left is “pro-science” when they deny human biodiversity, the evolutionary roots of morality and the implications thereof, and their responsibility for the Blank Slate, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all times.

    I agree that it’s hard to fundamentally change a person’s World View, and particularly difficult to get them to give up the fantasy of moral superiority, but it’s happened before, and will happen again.

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