On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck

The illusion of objective morality is amazingly powerful. The evidence is now overwhelming that morality is a manifestation of emotions, and that these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that there can be no such thing as objective moral truths. The brilliant Edvard Westermarck explained why more than a century ago in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

Westermarck, in turn, was merely pointing out some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin had written about morality in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Today Westermarck is nearly forgotten, what Darwin wrote about morality is ignored as if it didn’t exist, and the illusion is as powerful and persistent as it was more than a century ago. Virtually every human being on the planet either believes explicitly in objective moral truths, or behaves as if they did regardless of whether they admit to believing in them or not.

There are many, for example, who claim to accept the fact that morality is subjective. If that were the case, however, it would be irrational for them to argue that one should do one thing and should not do another thing without qualification. That, however, is precisely what every single “subjective moralist” I’ve ever heard, ever read, or was ever aware of actually does. If anyone knows of an exception, I would be pleased to hear about it. The delusional belief in objective moral truths is evidently far more difficult to shed than the “God delusion.” Consider, for example, the case of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is, of course, one of the most prominent “New Atheists.” It’s also clear that he is aware that our moral emotions exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. He made that perfectly clear as early as the publication of “The Selfish Gene” more than four decades ago. In spite of that, Dawkins constantly turns up on Twitter condemning some “evil,” or promoting some “good,” for all the world as if they were objective things. He is not alone in committing this glaring non sequitur. Everyone else on the planet who has ever passed as a New Atheist does exactly the same thing. Even Westermarck was no exception, closing his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas with the paragraph,

I have here pointed out only the most general changes to which the moral ideas have been subject in the course of progressive civilization; the details have been dealt with each in their separate place. There can be no doubt that changes also will take place in the future, and that similar causes will produce similar effects. We have every reason to believe that the altruistic sentiment will continue to expand, and that those moral commandments which are based on it will undergo a corresponding expansion; that the influence of reflection upon moral judgments will steadily increase; that the influence of sentimental antipathies and likings will diminish; and that in its relation to morality religion will be increasingly restricted to emphasizing ordinary moral rules, and less preoccupied with inculcating special duties to the deity.

In other words he felt obligated to reassure his readers that, in spite of his revolutionary Darwinian approach to morality, they needn’t worry; society would continue to make “moral progress” towards what everyone knows is “really good.” This incredibly tenacious belief in “moral progress,” a delusion not only of the new atheists, but of Westermarck himself, persists in spite of the seemingly obvious fact that, if there are no moral truths, there can be no moral progress. There is simply nothing to progress towards. If morality is an artifact of natural selection, it cannot possibly have a goal or anything of the sort towards which “progress” can be made. What passes for “moral progress” can never be anything more than progress towards satisfying the emotionally driven whims of individuals, no matter how many individuals happen to share the same whim. It is progress towards a mirage, and a dangerous mirage at that.

The virtually universal belief, whether admitted or not, that the mirage is real, is remarkable in view of all we have learned about the workings of the human mind in the last century and a half. In light of that knowledge, the fact that morality is subjective should be obvious. It doesn’t even take Darwin to demonstrate the fact. Simply observe some ranting social justice warrior during one of their fits of virtuous indignation and ask yourself the question, “What authority entitles them to make these moral judgments.” In every case, the answer is the same. They possess no such authority. They simply assume it. If challenged, of course, they would seldom admit as much. The God authority has become unfashionable, but they can be relied on to come up with another one, even more absurd. Often, they simply rely on some version of the circular argument that what they claim is good is really good because it can be derived from some other good that is “obviously” really good. A rich array of such specious arguments have been invented to prop up the illusion, each more threadbare than the last. Most of us are incapable of even considering the possibility that morality is subjective, far less the implications of that fact. If the possibility is suggested, a typical response it to grasp at one of these arguments as a drowning man grasps a straw, and defend it to the end. No attempt is made to rationally consider the arguments in favor of subjective morality. Instead, one simply assumes they must be wrong, and then proceeds to rationalize the assumption. Anything to avoid facing the truth.

If morality were objective it would necessarily exist in some form independent of the minds of individuals. No such object has ever been detected, for the obvious reason that no such object exists. Amazingly, this rather salient fact doesn’t seem to matter at all. As Westermarck put it,

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

The illusion is so powerful that our finest scientists and our most brilliant intellectuals appear powerless to resist it even today. We behold all mankind blindly chasing a chimera, far from realizing that it’s a chimera, and incapable of rationally considering the implications of the natural process that created such a realistic illusion to begin with. This, in a nutshell, is the default state of our species. Our behavior is fundamentally irrational. The only general advice I can give individuals, whatever their personal goals happen to be, is Adapt. Your fellow human beings are likely to continue to act irrationally for the foreseeable future.

3 thoughts on “On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck”

  1. If morality were objective it would necessarily exist in some form independent of the minds of individuals. No such object has ever been detected, for the obvious reason that no such object exists.

    Or we don’t know how to look for it. I repeatedly see people talking about how “objective morality doesn’t exist”, but I rarely see plausible ways for this claim to be falsified. Karl Popper taught us to understand that the equation F = GmM/r^2 means that nobody will observe F = GmM/r^2.01. If anyone does, then the first equation has been falsified. There’s something really neat about such precise equations: they rule out almost every logical possibility, including possibilities very “close” to everyday experience. It wouldn’t be miraculous to observe ^2.01, but it would be very scientifically interesting! In contrast, the claim that “there is no objective morality” doesn’t seem to be falsifiable in anything like this “very “close” to everyday experience”.

    We value scientific knowledge and consider it objective because different people can use it in a sufficiently similar way to better accomplish purposes they have. And so we have t-shirts which say: “Science: It works, bitches.” And yet, we could find rules in morality which better help us accomplish purposes we have as well, as I sketched in another comment. It certain behavior enables much faster progress in science, then that would appear to be a truth about reality that behaving in that way permits X. That seems like a perfectly objective claim. Or see:

    LB: Suppose that John Glubb is right in The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival and the rise and fall of civilizations follows a standard trajectory. Could it be that all of those empires refused to submit to some objective morality which is a technical requirement to avoid civilizational collapse? It’d be like getting continually hit by plague epidemics and never changing one’s behavior appropriately to make them less likely. Those dominated by whims won’t develop the kind of discipline required to deal with either problem.

    This would be as much of a “law of nature” as F = GmM/r^2. One could certainly deny it, but one would be able to do less as a result. And so with the kind of morality I’ve described, one could print the following t-shirts: “Morality: It works, bitches!”

  2. @Luke

    I don’t think proving negatives is what Popper had in mind when he published his ideas about falsification. Using your logic, we must assume that unicorns, leprechauns, and fairies exist until such claims are falsified. I don’t think the rigid insistence on Popperian falsifiability is a good idea in any case. At present string theory cannot be falsified. In spite of that the hypotheses of string theory have great explanatory power. Claiming they are useless, debunked, and should be ignored because they can’t be falsified would be ridiculous.

  3. @Helian

    I am confused as to how you got “proving negatives” from what I wrote. Instead, I’m merely claiming that “objective morality does not exist” is not a scientific statement because it is not specified with the kind of articulateness that lets it be falsified by “possibilities very “close” to everyday experience”.

    As to string theory, I don’t see it as currently explaining anything. At current, it is little better than just-so stories which can fit pretty much all of the “possibilities very “close” to everyday experience”—which can be accessed with current technology. There is promise that this will change, which is why so much money, time, and effort is being poured into its development. But if there is no deadline of any sort on that effort, or no constriction of resources if it doesn’t deliver results within some time period, we may be short-changing more promising lines of scientific inquiry. Resources are limited and must be allocated wisely if we want to explore reality as quickly as possible.

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