Morality and Reason – Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

Consider the evolution of life from the very beginning. Why did the first stirrings of life – molecules that could reproduce themselves – do what they did? The answer is simple – chemistry. As life forms became more complex, they eventually acquired the ability to exploit external sources of energy, such as the sun or thermal vents, to survive and reproduce. They improved the odds of survival even further by acquiring the ability to move towards or away from such resources. One could easily program a machine to perform such simple tasks. Eventually these nascent life forms increased the odds that they would survive and reproduce even further by acquiring the ability to extract energy from other life forms. These other life forms could only survive themselves by virtue of acquiring mechanisms to defend themselves from these attacks. This process of refining the traits necessary to survive continues to this day. We refer to it as natural selection. Survival tools of astounding complexity have evolved in this way, such as the human brain, with its ability evoke consciousness of such things as the information received from our sense organs, drives such as thirst, hunger, and sexual desire, and our emotional responses to, for example, our own behavior and the behavior of others. Being conscious of these things, it can also reason about them, considering how best to satisfy our appetites for food, water, sex, etc., and how to interpret the emotions we experience as we interact with others of our species.

A salient feature of all these traits, from simple to complex, is the reason they exist to begin with. They exist because at the time and in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that we would survive, or at least they did to the extent that they were relevant to our survival at all. They exist for no other reason. Our emotions and predispositions to behave in some ways and not others are certainly no exception. They are innate, in the sense that their existence depends on genetic programming. Thanks to natural selection, we also possess consciousness and the ability to reason. As a result, we can reason about what these emotions and predispositions mean, and how we should respond to them. They are not rigid instincts, and they do not “genetically determine” our behavior. In the case of a subset of them, we refer to the outcome of this process of reasoning about and seeking to interpret them as morality. It is these emotions and predispositions that are the root cause for the existence of morality. Without them, morality as we know it would not exist. They exist by virtue of natural selection. At some time and in some environment, they promoted our survival and reproduction. It can hardly be assumed that they will accomplish the same result at a later date and in a different environment. In fact, it is quite apparent that in the drastically different environment we live in today, they often accomplish the opposite. For a sizable subset of the human population, morality has become maladaptive.

The remarkable success of our species in expanding from a small cohort of African apes to cover virtually the entire planet is due in large part to our ability to deal with rapid changes in the environment. We can thrive in the tropics or the arctic, and in deserts or rain forests. However, when it comes to morality, we face a very fundamental problem in dealing with such radical changes. Our brain spawns illusions that make it extremely difficult for us to grasp the nature of the problem we are dealing with. We perceive Good, Evil, Rights, etc., as real, objective things. These illusions are extremely powerful, because by being powerful they could most effectively regulate our behavior in ways that promoted survival. Now, in many cases, the illusions have become a threat to our survival, but we can’t shake them, or see them for what they really are. What they are is subjective constructs that are completely incapable of existing independently outside of the minds of individuals. Even those few who claim to see through the illusion are found defending various “Goods,” “Evils,” “Rights,” “Duties,” and other “Oughts” in the very next breath as if they were referring to real, objective things. They often do so in support of behaviors that are palpably maladaptive, if not suicidal.

An interesting feature of such maladaptive behaviors is the common claim that they are justified by “reason.” The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson explained very convincingly why moral claims can’t be based on reason alone almost 300 years ago. As David Hume put it somewhat later, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason alone can never do anything but chase its own tail. After all, computers don’t program themselves. There must be something to reason about. In the case of human behavior the chain of reasons can be as long and as elaborate as you please, but must always and invariably originate in an innate predisposition or drive, whether it be hunger, thirst, lust, or what is occasionally referred to as our “moral sense.” Understood in that way, all of our actions are “unreasonable,” because reason can never, ever serve as the cause of our actions itself.  Reasoning about good and evil is equivalent to reasoning about the nature of God. In both cases one is reasoning about imaginary things. Behavior can never be objectively good or evil, because those categories only exist as illusions. It can, however, be objectively described as adaptive or maladaptive, depending on whether it enhances the odds of genetic survival or not.

In the case of morality, maladaptive behavior is seldom limited to a single individual. Morality is always other-regarding. The illusion that Good, Evil, etc., exist as independent, objective things implies that, not just we ourselves, but everyone else “ought” to behave in ways that embrace the “Good,” and resist “Evil.” As a result we assume a “right” to dictate potentially maladaptive and/or suicidal behavior to others. If we are good at manipulating the relevant emotions, those others may quite possibly agree with us. If we can convince them to believe our version of the illusion, they may accept our reasoning about what our moral emotions are “really” trying to tell us, and become convinced that they must act in ways detrimental to their own survival as well. They may clearly see that they are being induced to behave in a way that is not to their advantage, but the illusion would tend to paralyze any attempt to behave differently. The only means of resistance would be to manipulate the moral sense so as to evoke different illusions of what good and evil “really” are.

If, as noted above, there is nothing objectively good or evil about anything, it follows that there is nothing objectively good or evil about any of these behaviors. They are simply biological facts that happen to be observable at a given time and in a given environment. However, whatever one seeks to accomplish in life, they will be more likely to succeed if they base their actions on facts rather than illusions. That applies to the illusions associated with our moral sense as much as to any others. The vast majority of us, including myself, have an almost overwhelming sense that the illusions are real, and that good and evil are objective things. However, it is becoming increasingly dangerous, if not suicidal, to continue to cling to these illusions, assuming one places any value on survival.

Most of us have goals in life. In most cases those goals are based on illusions such as those described above. Human beings tend to stumble blindly through life, without a clue about the fundamental reasons they behave the way they do. Occasionally one sees them jumping off cliffs, stridently insisting that others must jump off the cliff too, because it is “good,” or it is their “duty.” Perhaps Socrates had such behavior in mind when he muttered, “The unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial. Before jumping off a cliff, would it not be wise to closely examine your reasons for doing so, following those reasons to their emotional source, and considering why those emotions exist to begin with? I, too, have goals. Paramount among my personal goals is survival and reproduction. There is nothing intrinsically or objectively better about those goals than anyone else’s, including the goal of jumping off a cliff. I have them because I perceive them to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Those who do not wish to survive and reproduce appear to me to be sick and dysfunctional biological units. I do not care to be such a unit. As corollary goals I wish for the continued evolution of my species to become ever more capable of survival, and beyond that for the continued existence of biological life in general. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are “correct,” or that the goals of others are “wrong.” Mine are just as much expressions of emotion as anyone else’s. Call them whims, if you will, but at least they have the virtue of being whims that aren’t self destructive.

Supposing you have similar goals, I suggest that it would behoove you to shed the illusion of objective morality. That is by no means the same thing as dispensing with morality entirely, nor does it imply that you can’t treat a version of morality you deem conducive to your survival as an absolute. In other words, it doesn’t imply “moral relativism.” It is our nature to perceive whatever version of morality we happen to favor as absolute. Understanding why that is our nature will not result in moral nihilism, but it will have the happy effect of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the moralistic bullies who have always assumed a right to dictate behavior to the rest of us. To understand morality is to realize that the “moral high ground” they imagine they’re standing on doesn’t exist.

It is unlikely that any of us will be able to resist or significantly influence the massive shifts in population, ideology and the other radical changes to the world we live in that are happening at an ever increasing rate merely by virtue of the fact that we recognize morality and the illusions of objective good and evil associated with it for what they really are. However, it seems to me that recognizing the truth will at least enhance our ability to cope with those changes. In other words, it will help us survive, and, after all, survival is the reason that morality exists to begin with.

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.

4 thoughts on “Morality and Reason – Why Do We Do the Things We Do?”

  1. Well said!
    Two little points if I could,.
    Whilst listening to a radio show called ‘The Religion and Ethics show’, I was fascinated at how the conversation was based around the Q, ‘What can society use to replace the declining influence of religion as a guiding ethical framework’. How far these people are from realising that as there have never been any gods, ipso facto, society has been battling along not only without any guiding ‘authority’, but indeed somewhat hampered by the delusional rantings of the the various liars and cheats.
    Secondly, I would be fascinated to hear your take on the recent events in your country. I don’t quite get how the DNC/HRC and the whole scandal that was the corrupted primaries process seems to have been forgotten, whilst the Russia/Trump conspiracy theory seems to be running out of control.
    Ingroup behaviour has reached peak nutty when the usually anti war left are now pro war, primarily because Trump is now trying to withdraw the US from Syria?
    We seem to be in the zone of the unknown unknown.

  2. @David

    Yes, I’d love to hear someone on one of those radio shows point out that the whole idea of a “guiding authority” is pure fantasy. Other animals possess at least the rudiments of morality, but they have the great advantage over us of not needing to invent a “guiding authority.” It never occurs to them to harass Mother Nature with tiresome questions about why good is good, or evil is evil.

    Given that the MSM in this country as well as in Europe and Australia is controlled by the Left, the coverage of Trump should come as no surprise. As far as the DNC/HRH scandals are concerned, I agree with Iowahawk. As he put it, “Journalism is about covering the important stories. With a pillow, until they stop moving.” Old school leftists in the US can quibble about freedom of speech, and even the lack of ideological diversity on college campuses if they’re especially daring. One thing you will never find them doing, though, is supporting Trump in any way. To do so would be to attack one of the fundamental shibboleths that currently defines their ingroup. That would mean exclusion from the ingroup, with all the ostracizing, shaming, and humiliation, not to mention loss of gainful employment, that goes with it. An amusing corollary of this fact is that they’ve suddenly become pro-war.

  3. Understood in that way, all of our actions are “unreasonable,” because reason can never, ever serve as the cause of our actions itself.

    But how then can anything in what you write be the result of reason? I don’t think this is some irrelevant little logic paradox; you seem to be hiving off your own thinking from the criticism that it is not based in reason, while castigating other thinking on that basis. When Hume said that any book not dealing in facts should be burned, he condemned his book to the bonfire—at least that sentence. Self-consistency is a harsh master.

    It is our nature to perceive whatever version of morality we happen to favor as absolute.

    Is this actually true? From a tiny bit I’ve read about polytheistic times, there was actually great uncertainty about what was the right thing to do. Following this god might benefit you for a time, but civilizations collapse. I wonder if what you describe is actually peculiarly monotheistic.

    In other words, it will help us survive, and, after all, survival is the reason that morality exists to begin with.

    Survival of which ‘us’? Natural selection has pruned many branches. Nature has finite resources; for you to have more children with opportunity is to allocate yourself more of them and others, less. I see nothing against the most flagrant tribalism in what you write. Were half of humanity to be wiped out, the human race would still survive.

  4. @Luke

    I certainly reason about what I write, and I can cite reasons for those reasons, and even more reasons beyond that. However, if I follow the chain of reasons to their source, I’ll find an emotion or predisposition to account for the “behavior” of writing.

    When it comes to absolute morality, I don’t think it’s merely a monotheistic thing. I’m not talking about social conventions, such as driving on the right side of the street. When I speak of morality I always refer to a behavioral phenomenon that is driven by what some have called the “moral sense.” At the most elementary level, it can be documented in infants. Infants, of course, do not have an opinion about driving on the right side of the street.

    As far as “us” is concerned, the relative predispositions are selected at the level of the gene and, if you believe what E. O. Wilson has to say about the subject, also at the level of the group in some cases. Regardless, morality exists by virtue of natural selection.

Leave a Reply