No. Morality is, indeed, a manifestation of evolved traits, but, objectively speaking, that very fact reduces the term “morally better” to an absurdity. However, the default position of modern intellectuals, even if they accept the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, is that it is still possible to be “morally better” or “morally worse.” They treat this assumption as a matter of objective fact, independent of the subjective opinions of individuals. As a case in point, consider an article by Michael Price entitled How Evolutionary Science Can Make Us Morally Better. Its byline reads “Using Darwinism to resolve moral conflicts.”
Price certainly knows that the brain exists because it evolved. He also knows that moral judgments are manifestations of emotions that are generated in that evolved brain. For example, echoing Jonathan Haidt, he writes,
Given that morality is so important, you’d think we’d want to make sure that we were doing it right. That is, you’d think that we would insist on knowing why we have the beliefs that we have, how those beliefs came into being, who they benefit, and where they are likely to lead us. Very often, however, our moral judgments are based primarily on our immediate emotional reactions to the behavior of others, and our attempts to justify our judgments are just post hoc rationalizations of these emotions.
In spite of this, Price insists on the existence of “moral progress.” As he puts it,
We’d be better able to move on from these disputes in productive ways—and thus to make moral progress—if we could better understand our own moral beliefs. But how can we do this when our beliefs seem so opaque to introspection? It’s easy to feel passionate about our beliefs, but how can we see behind our emotions, to find out where our beliefs came from and whether they are leading us to where we want to go? Evolutionary science provides the key to such moral progress.
This begs the question, “progress towards what?” Evolution is not a conscious thing that sets goals for itself. Function or goal implies consciousness, but evolution is merely a natural process. To speak of its goal or function is absurd. Price admits as much, writing,
What I don’t mean is that the evolutionary process itself can provide guidance about right or wrong. If something increased or increases reproductive fitness, does that mean we should judge it as morally good? Of course not; I agree with philosophers who identify such thinking as a flawed “appeal to nature” or “naturalistic fallacy.”
How, then, are we to identify the goals towards which moral progress is to occur? According to Price, we should just make them up:
So if the evolutionary process provides zero guidance about right and wrong, how do we know what our moral beliefs should be? It’s up to us. We have to do our best to agree about what our goals as a society should be, and then advocate and enforce moral norms based on how useful we think they will be for accomplishing these goals. Which brings me to the first way in which evolutionary science is the key to moral progress: the better we understand human nature, the better we can design moral systems that encourage expression of our “good” evolved psychological adaptations while discouraging expression of our “bad” ones. A moral system will succeed not by attempting to ignore or override evolved human nature, but rather by strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others.
“Our goals as a society?” That sounds very noble, but morality didn’t evolve for the good of society. What Price is suggesting here is that we manipulate moral emotions to accomplish goals that have nothing to do with the reasons that the traits responsible for the existence of morality evolved to begin with. Where do “our goals” actually come from? Scrape away the philosophical jargon, and you’ll always find some emotional whim as the actual basis for the existence of “our goals.” Such whims are no different than the emotional responses responsible for the existence of morality. They exist as a result of natural selection, and they were selected because they happened to promote the survival and reproduction of genes in individuals. They can hardly be expected to accomplish the same things now as they did in the radically different environment in which they evolved, and yet satisfying these whims is represented as “moral progress!”
In fact, we know the outcome of Price’s prescription for achieving “moral progress,” because it’s already been tried many times. We are not all identical when it comes to moral emotions. It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the expression of moral emotions that all human populations have in common, but particular aspects of those emotions can vary significantly between individuals, and between populations. It follows that we will never agree on what our “goals as a society” should be. Some subset of the individuals in a society may agree on the goals of “moral progress,” but what of those who don’t? Inevitably, they will be the evil ones, the “deplorables,” the outgroup whose opinions can be ignored because they are “morally bad.” What happens to those who are “morally bad?” In the twentieth century, familiar outgroups included the Jews and the “bourgeoisie.” The members of these outgroups were murdered. “Strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others” didn’t prevent these slaughters, and there is no reason to believe that the outcome of playing with fire in the form of manipulating moral emotions to achieve “moral progress” will be any different in the future.
This dual nature of human morality based on our universal and powerful tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups is reason enough in itself to reject the notion of “moral progress.” We have tried to outlaw various manifestations of the behavior by giving them bad names, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and so on. The result of such attempts has invariably been the creation of yet more outgroups. The hatred doesn’t disappear. Instead, it simply pops up again, even more virulent than before, but directed at some alternative outgroup that hasn’t yet been declared off limits. The furious hatred of the Left for Trump and his supporters is a case in point. The outgroup, furious at what it deems unfair vilification, hates back with equal fury. Seeking to apply morality to modern political decisions involving millions of people in this way will always result in such new forms of vilification, creating legions of “villains,” and inspiring hatred of these “villains” in legions of others, who the “villains” will then cordially hate back.
Such problems are exacerbated by the way in which the vast majority of human beings perceive moral rules. Regardless of whether psychologists and philosophers grasp their subjective nature or not, and in spite of the fact that we are now seeing them change rapidly and drastically, literally before our eyes, most of us still manage to convince ourselves that moral rules are fixed, objective laws, independent of what any individual thinks about them. It is unlikely that this aspect of our behavior will change anytime soon. As a result, once Price and the other proponents of “moral progress” discover they have actually created a monster, it will be a great deal more difficult than they think to “de-emphasize” the monster and make it go away.
What of the reason given for creating the monster in the first place? In fact, it boils down to a desire to satisfy emotional urges common to some subset of individuals. These urges are given pretty names and fobbed off as noble attempts to achieve “progress” towards such fine goals as “human flourishing.” Regardless of whether they pay lip service to the evolved nature of moral emotions or not, the proponents of these goals promote them as and, to all appearances themselves believe that they are, self-justifying things in themselves, independent of the outcomes of natural selection. However, if we examine the underlying urges more closely, we notice that they exist for the very same reasons that all of our less “noble” urges exist. Those reasons have nothing to do with interactions between huge numbers of people in modern states, and certainly have nothing to do with some “common goal” towards which we are supposed to “progress.” They are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are mere facts of nature. The very perception that such urges can be transmogrified into “common goals,” which can then be achieved by manipulating moral behavior is really just a symptom of the dysfunction of the innate basis of those urges in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which that basis evolved.
We can certainly seek to agree on common goals, but I doubt that construing differences of opinion on the subject in terms of a battle of Good versus Evil is likely to be helpful. Any goal or aspiration will inevitably have an emotional basis. As was demonstrated long ago by the likes of Hutcheson and Hume, they can’t spring from pure logic. Indeed, reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined. It is essential that we continue to learn as much as we can about the innate basis of our emotions if we are to avoid the danger of blindly responding them out of the context of environment in which they evolved.
The term “moral progress” invariably assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist in reality; an objective moral imperative. This is true whether those who promote such “progress” are aware of it or not, and whether they admit it or not. The more fanatically one pursues this chimera, the more dangerous he becomes to others. It is time to jettison the term once and for all.
Supposing we do? Won’t that leave us ideologically disarmed in a world full of fanatics? After all, fanatics have been very successful, if not in achieving their ostensible goals, at least in achieving power, especially in the face of indifferent resistance by those not inspired by a holy cause of their own. Must we, too, embrace a lie, or be overrun? I don’t think so. We can make it our “holy cause” to resist any other “holy cause” based on an assumption of moral righteousness. To understand human morality is to understand the mortal danger that self-righteous fanatics pose to the rest of us. Our “holy cause” should be to resist Social Justice Warriors, religious fanatics, ideological zealots, and anyone else who feels their own righteousness entitles them to harm others.
We certainly cannot jettison morality entirely. It is our nature to be moral beings, and we perceive moral rules not in relative, but in absolute terms. We need to come up with a “moral law” that is in harmony with our moral emotions, that facilitates the day to day interactions of individuals, is enforced by punishment of those who disobey it, but is at the same time limited in its applicability to the minimum possible sphere of human relationships. Political decisions affecting millions must certainly take moral emotions into account, but they should never be dictated by them, and they should be informed by a lively appreciation of the danger those emotions pose. “Moral progress” achieved by empowering the pathologically self-righteous among us will forever be an oxymoron.