Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

In my last post I noted that the arguments in an article by Ronald Dworkin defending the existence of objective moral truths could be used equally well to defend the existence of unicorns. Dworkin is hardly unique among modern philosophers in this respect. Prof. Katia Vavova of Mt. Holyoke College also defended objective morality in an article entitled Debunking Evolutionary Debunking published in 2014 in the journal Oxford Studies in Metaethics. According to Prof. Vavova’s version of the argument, it is impossible to accurately describe the characteristics of unicorns without assuming the existence of unicorns. Therefore, we must assume the existence of unicorns. QED

As the title of her article would imply, Prof. Vavova focuses on arguments against the existence of objective moral truths based on the Theory of Evolution. In fact, Darwin’s theory is hardly necessary to debunk moral objectivity. If objective moral truths exist independently of what anyone merely thinks to be true, they can’t be nothing. They must be something. Dworkin was obviously aware of this problem in the article I referred to in my last post. He was also aware that no one has ever detected moral objects in a form accessible to our familiar senses. He referred derisively to the notion that the existed as moral particles, or “morons,” or as “morality fields” accessible to the laws of physics. To overcome this objection, however, he was forced to rely on the even more dubious claim that moral truths exist in some sort of transcendental plane of their own, floating about as unphysical spirits. His explanations of how these spirits manage to acquire the normative power to render some of us here below objectively “good,” and others objectively “evil,” were even more vague. As I pointed out, entirely similar arguments can be used to “prove” the existence of unicorns. Evolution isn’t necessary to debunk Dworkin’s theory of “morality spirits.” Vavova avoids this problem by being, or pretending to be, blithely unaware of any need to explain the mode of existence of the moral objects she so confidently insists are real.

In fact, Darwins’ theory cannot disprove the existence of moral objects on its own. It can, however, explain why it is that so many human beings persist in believing in such extravagant entities. In the process, it even further undermines the already flimsy arguments in their favor. Prof. Vavova seems aware of this at some level, because she persistently refuses to even seriously engage arguments to the effect that the objects she believes in so firmly simply don’t exist. Thus, in much of her paper we find her tilting against such windmills as the notion that moral beliefs traceable to the influence of natural selection are “off track” from “true” moral beliefs. The possibility that these “true” moral beliefs are nonexistent is rejected out of hand. She claims she is justified in rejecting this possibility because,

Since it targets all of our moral beliefs, we are left knowing nothing about morality. But how can we tell if we are likely to be mistaken about morality, if we know nothing about it?

Yes, and how can we tell if we are likely to be mistaken about unicorns, if we know nothing about them? Consider, for a moment, just how absurd this argument really is. We are supposed to believe that, unless we can assume the existence of moral truths, we can know nothing about morality. Most of us certainly experience moral emotions, and can be profoundly affected by them. It is hardly necessary for us to assume the existence of moral truths before we can question why those emotions exist and, given the reasons for their existence, whether they reflect what is objectively true, or what is subjectively imagined to be true. We can localize where in the brain these emotions arise, and we can study the chemical and electrical phenomena that accompany them. In other words, it is perfectly obvious that we can know a great deal more about morality than “nothing” without assuming the existence of objective moral truths. I am not cherry picking from Vavova’s text here. One can find similar passages throughout her article. For example,

But we cannot determine if we are likely to be mistaken about morality if we can make no assumptions at all about what morality is like.

and,

Likewise, I cannot show that I am not hopeless at understanding right and wrong without being allowed to make some assumptions about what is right and wrong.

Really? We can know nothing about morality unless we assume the existence of objects that, as Dworkin pointed out, don’t exist in a form accessible either to our senses, or to any of the intricate scientific instruments we have created as extensions of those senses, but in the realm of spirits? Vavova justifies such dubious claims as follows:

Unless we are skeptics, we should grant that sensory perception is a perfectly good belief-forming method. Ceteris paribus, if you perceive that p, you are rational in concluding that p. Do we have good reason to think that perception would lead us to true beliefs about our surroundings? Not if “good” reason is understood as an appropriately independent reason: for if we set aside all that is in question, we must set aside all beliefs gained by perception. Without those, we cannot evaluate the rationality of beliefs formed by perception.

Here Vavova is conflating the perception of objects with the existence of objects. We are all capable of perceiving mirages, but we are not forced to admit that, by virtue of that perception, the mirage must be real. Indeed, we have very reliable ways of demonstrating that mirages are not real that are in no way “independent” of our senses. One does not “set aside all beliefs gained by perception” by virtue of realizing that mirages aren’t real. We have developed many reliable ways to evaluate the rationality of beliefs about objects that exist independently of ourselves if those objects are accessible to our senses. As Dworkin pointed out, moral objects cannot possibly be so accessible. Our senses can tell us nothing about the characteristics of such objects, or even whether they exist at all. Evolution by natural selection, on the other hand, can give us a very good explanation of why we perceive the existence of these objects, and at the same time makes it extremely implausible that they actually do exist. It would be necessary for them to exist by virtue of some reason having nothing to do with natural selection, to exist in a form undetectable by our senses, and be somehow a necessary outcome of the existence of the universe itself. I am more ready to believe in unicorns and the reality of mirages than in such whimsical objects.

In the world we live in, one becomes a respected philosopher by insisting on the existence of unicorns, and writing papers that appear in prestigious academic journals describing exactly how they must be fed and cared for. I, on the other hand, am quite convinced that there are no unicorns. It seems to me that evolution by natural selection provides very compelling reasons why the moral equivalent of unicorns are imagined to exist, and at the same time renders the probability that these objects actually do exist vanishingly small. Of course, there are also very compelling reasons why our philosophers and “experts on morality” persist in continuing the charade. After all, their livelihoods, reputations, and claims to “expertise” depend on it. Then again, none of my thoughts on the subject has appeared in journals of philosophy. I write a blog with a handful of readers. Who are you going to believe?

2 thoughts on “Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn”

  1. If we extend your use of the unicorn we are given hints as to the role of the unicorn within the groups (religions/academia’s) of our world. Those on the inside of the groups accept the unicorn that is particular to them, some are pink, some have spots (they are of course never actually seen), some demand sacrifice, some tribute, but they all demand acceptance.
    People in one group identify the unicorns of the other groups and heap ridicule upon them, how could anyone accept such arrant nonsense, “its obvious to all that it rubbish etc.”
    Logical inconsistencies, when dealing with ones own breed of unicorns, are not to be pointed out. This really struck me in the ‘environmental’ realm. They would talk about the grandeur of nature and balance etc and then leap to completely idiotic standpoints. Population growth and allowing wide scale immigration etc was welcomed as the ‘right thing to do’. Peace and harmony were staples and when challenged with the example of the blood curdling territorial rules of nature, they would suddenly stand on their high horse with maddening comments like, ‘Ah yes, be we are humans and we must overcome such base acts’.
    So a question, Morias, Ardrey and to a very real extent Lorenz, all were outsiders. I sense that the people who enjoy your work have among them some who see the group for what it is.
    Is it a prerequisite of understanding the nonexistence of unicorns to be an outsider?

  2. @David

    I don’t think being an outsider is a prerequisite for understanding the nonexistence of unicorns. Depending on the species of unicorn, it’s likely to land you in the ingroup of some and the outgroup of others, though.

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