Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

Darwin eliminated any rational basis for belief in objective moral truths when he revealed the nature of morality as a fundamentally emotional phenomenon and the reasons for its existence as a result of evolution by natural selection. Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s work for those with minds open enough to accept the truth. Their number has always been exceedingly small. The power of the illusion of the objective existence of good and evil has blinded most of us to facts that seem almost trivially obvious.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, and we have never been determined to believe anything more tenaciously than the illusion of moral truth. We have invented countless ways to prop it up and deny the obvious. Philosophers have always been among the most imaginative inventors. It stands to reason. After all, they have the most to lose if the illusion vanishes; their moral authority, their claims to expertise about things that don’t exist, and their very livelihoods. I’ve found what I call the “unicorn criterion” one of the most effective tools for examining these claims. It amounts to simply assuming that, instead of instilling in our brains the powerful illusion of objective good and evil, natural selection had fitted each of us out with an overpowering illusion that unicorns are real. Then, simply substitute unicorns for moral truths in the arguments of the objective moralists. If the argument is as good for the former as it is for the latter, it seems probable to me that both arguments are wrong.

I have reviewed some of the many schemes for propping up the illusion that appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, supposedly based on Darwin’s work itself. These were commonly based on the fallacy that evolution always results in “progress” from the “lower” and more primitive to the “higher” and more noble, and would finally ascend to identity with moral truth itself. Absurd as they were, these ideas at least accepted the existence of human nature. Debunking them was merely a matter of pointing out that evolution is a natural phenomenon that, by its very nature, cannot recognize the difference between “higher” and “lower,” and cannot possibly result in “progress” towards things that don’t exist.
By the time Westermarck put the final nail in the coffin of these imaginative schemes, however, a deus ex machina had appeared to rescue the illusion in the form of the Blank Slate. For half a century the “experts” and “men of science” insisted on the absurd but ideologically expedient notion that there is no such thing as human nature. What Darwin had said on the subject was ignored. With human nature safely swept under the rug, there could no longer be an objection to the illusion of objective moral truths based on naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality. Eventually, the Blank Slate orthodoxy collapsed, and human nature could no longer be ignored. “Evolutionary debunking arguments” began to appear, once again pointing out the connection between natural selection and the existence of the emotions that generations of earlier philosophers had demonstrated were an essential “root cause” of morality. Once again, latter day philosophers faced an existential challenge. They had to find more creative ways to prop up the illusion.

Enter the unicorn. As things now stand, the philosophers have met the challenge, at least in their imaginations. Even the “evolutionary debunkers” among them have come up with “anti-realist” versions of “moral truth” that leave the illusion virtually untouched. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for lay people to understand or assess the logic behind these ideas because philosophers are fond of cloaking them in a virtually impenetrable fog of academic jargon. In order to kick out the props holding up the illusion, one must devote some time to learning the jargon. I don’t speak the jargon myself, but have developed at least a rudimentary ability to understand it. I will try to translate at least part of one of the more prominent attempts to defend objective morality for the edification of my readers. It appeared in a paper entitled Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It, published in 1996 by Ronald Dworkin in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. The paper was actually debunked quite effectively in a paper by Prof. James Allan of the University of Queensland entitled Truth’s Empire – A Reply to Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It. By all means, read both if you have the time and don’t mind wading through the jargon. I will limit myself to what I consider a few of the more remarkable features of Dworkin’s article in this post.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is Dworkin’s tactic of placing his unicorn high on a shelf, obscured by jargon, and unreachable by naturalistic arguments. It’s actually a version of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria Argument (NOMA), used to protect religion on a similar shelf. According to Dworkin, morality is so hermetically sealed off from the rest of reality that it is impossible to even deny the existence of moral truths from outside the realm of morality itself. Merely stating that you don’t believe in the existence of objective moral truths becomes a “moral argument!” He invents the term “archimedeans” for those who imagine they are arguing against a belief from outside the “realm” of that belief itself, and further claims that it is impossible to do so in the case of morality. As he puts it,

Any successful – really, any intelligible – argument that evaluative propositions are neither true nor false must be internal to the evaluative domain rather than Archimedean about it.

This comment is only comprehensible if one grasps the truly radical nature of Dworkin’s unicorn. It doesn’t exist in the physical world, accessible to our familiar senses. My readers may recall that I’ve suggested to the true believers in objective Goods and objective Evils that they capture one for me and present it to me nicely mounted on a board. Dworkin reacts with disgust to the notion that his unicorn could be such a mundane creature, noting,

The idea of a direct impact between moral properties and human beings supposes that the universe houses, among its numerous particles of energy and matter, some special particles – morons – whose energy and momentum establish fields that at once constitute the morality or immorality, or virtue or vice, of particular human acts and institutions and also interact in some way with human nervous systems so as to make people aware of the morality and immorality or of the virtue or vice. We might call this picture the “moral-field” thesis. If it is intelligible, it is also false.

However, there is an unavoidable consequence to making the “morons” disappear. In Dworkin’s words,

The powerful consequence is this. Morality is a distinct, independent dimension of our experience, and it exercises its own sovereignty. We cannot argue ourselves free of it by its own leave, except, as it were, by making our peace with it… We cannot climb outside of morality to judge it from some external archimedean tribunal.

In other words, we cannot deny the existence of unicorns from outside the world of unicorns! Let’s be clear about this. Dworkin is actually claiming that morality exists in some kind of a transcendental spirit world, inaccessible not only to our physical senses but to even the most sensitive scientific instruments. If one can swallow that, then hand-waving Darwinian arguments out of existence becomes a mere bagatelle. For example, according to Dworkin,

Perhaps much of the contemporary philosophical skepticism has its forgotten source in exactly this logic: It may all be a lingering residue of the defeat of crude anthropomorphic religion. How else can we explain the widespread but plainly mistaken assumption that a successful Darwinian explanation of moral concern – that human animals with such a concern were more likely to survive – would have skeptical implications?

Indeed, a powerful innate belief in unicorns cannot be defeated by Darwinian arguments if the unicorns don’t exist in a world accessible to Darwin, but in a spirit world of their own. The spirit world argument is hardly unique to Dworkin. Similar arguments aren’t difficult to find in the journals of philosophy.

Dworkin doesn’t limit himself to the NOMA argument. He also tries the ad hominem gambit of conflating the claim that there are no objective moral truths with such whimsical and passing philosophical fads as post-modernism, anti-foundationalism, and related efforts to deny the very existence of objective truth. He also claims that disbelief in objective morality is “dangerous,” as if truth could be manufactured at will as a means of making us “safe.” It’s hardly worth wasting a torpedo on such flimsy arguments.

If we are to believe the philosophers themselves, the number of “realists” like Dworkin is increasing among them. It hardly seems to matter, though. Even the “anti-realists,” such as J. L. Mackie and “evolutionary debunker” Sharon Street assume the existence of “moral truth” even as they reject arguments in favor of “objective moral truth.” I have yet to figure out in what sense they consider the distinction relevant. The jargon becomes unusually opaque when they try to explain it. They write long papers and even books explaining why there are no objectively true answers to moral questions, and conclude by explaining to the rest of us what our “duties” and “obligations” are, and what we “ought” and “ought not” to do. I personally have no intention of allowing either “realists” or “anti-realists” to dictate behavior to me based on their conclusions about what their moral emotions are trying to tell them.

The “unicorn criterion” is interesting from a historical as well as a philosophical point of view. There was a rich literature devoted to the implications of Darwinism for morality before the Blank Slate debacle, but to all appearances it has all evaporated as if swallowed by a black hole. I have never yet seen anything by a modern “evolutionary debunker” attributing any of his ideas to a pre-Blank Slate philosopher in general or Edvard Westermarck in particular. Other than Darwin himself, they are seldom even mentioned. Perhaps it would be useful for the philosophers to learn some philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion”

  1. First, let me thank you for wading through all that philosophical mush.
    The idea of a morality “space” (or dimension) that can only be tested from within that space is perfectly reasonable to me, but only if one accepts the reality of the morality space. This smacks of nothing more than Plato’s metaphysical world of “ideals.” I think we’ve been there, done that.
    I think David Hume had it right, and I paraphrase, when he asserted that metaphysics is not so much a subject fo study but rather a disease to be cured.
    Thank you, doctor!

  2. ‘We tend to believe what we want to believe’.
    This is a powerful comment, however, do we have the conscious ability to do this, or are our beliefs ‘shallow’ noises of conformity?
    We see differing cultures having differing ‘shades’ of beliefs yet these are shallow, hollow beliefs. A young child cannot possible distinguish between a Christian world view, a hollow understanding of a Christian God, or an equally uncomprehending ‘belief’ in a alternative ‘belief’. ‘God’.
    Maybe its here that Montague etc became confused. Most people ‘believe’ in the cultural context. The moral truths, the gods etc exist within this ‘ingroup’, to oppose the ‘words and symbols’ of these ‘ingroup’ ‘truths/ethics morals etc’ leads the individual to be excluded, and leads to them becoming an outsider.
    The exclusion from the group is the most endangering thing that can happen to the individual. The chances of survival in the historic or ‘pre civilisation’ period would have been almost zero.
    A further extension of this is that in many cultures, the political and religious norms are simply accepted, the metaphysics of, or the logic behind, the ‘beliefs’ are simply ignored. Politically, the norms and the defence of the ‘group’ is paramount. We know only to well the cost of exposing or challenging the ruling inner core.

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