On the Poverty of (Moral) Philosophy

I’m not an anti-philosopher. Given the goals individuals set for themselves, philosophers can suggest alternative paths for reaching those goals, and provoke thought on whether the goals are worthwhile. Potentially, they could do the same for societies. Perhaps most importantly, they could suggest ways in which societies might construct systems of morality in pursuit of the common goals the members of society might set for themselves. These might include, for example, maximizing harmony and minimizing harm to individuals. Obviously, any effective system of morality must never lose sight of the reasons morality exists to begin with, and the limitations imposed by human nature. Contemporary philosopher’s, and particularly those in academia, are woefully failing at that task.

Darwin gave us a perfectly clear explanation of morality in his “The Descent of Man” almost a century and a half ago. He noted it was a natural phenomenon, and a result of natural selection. It promoted survival and reproduction by spawning a powerful illusion that good and evil exist as objective things, even though they are actually subjective and might be imagined very differently if they evolved in another intelligent species.

The philosophers still haven’t caught up. Indeed, they seem to be falling further behind all the time. True, they give a perfunctory nod to Darwin, but then they carry on with their philosophizing, for all the world as if the implications of what he taught us don’t matter. It stands to reason. After all, they’ve invested a great deal of time slogging through tomes of moral philosophy that are now of little more than historical interest. Their claims to expertise, not to mention their jobs, depend on propping up the illusion that the subject is incredibly complicated, accessible only to gatekeepers like themselves, possessed of the unique insight gleaned from these books, and mastery of the “philosophical method” of divining truth. The “philosophical method” consists of constructing long chains of reasons befogged by abstruse jargon that is a time-tested method of wading off into intellectual swamps. It was used long ago by the fathers of the church to acquaint us with fact that God has three persons, Christ has two wills and two natures, and similar “truths.” Today the philosophers use it to devise similar “mysteries” about morality.

There are other factors muddying the water as well. Just as earlier generations of philosophers were often forced to limit their speculations within the bounds imposed by Christian and other religious dogmas, modern philosophers are constrained by the dogmas that currently enjoy hegemony in academia. Their ingroup is defined by ideology, and they dare not step outside the bounds imposed by that ideology lest they be cast into outer darkness. For many years that ideology included a blanket denial that such a thing as human nature even exists. Absent acceptance that it does exist, it is impossible to understand human morality. When it comes to morality, the effect of this ideologically imposed constraint was, and continues to be, devastating.

The above can be illustrated by considering the work of those philosophers who, in the process of applying their idiosyncratic methods, have come closest to recognizing the implications of what Darwin wrote so long ago. Many of them are what’s known in the business as “error theorists.” Error theorists claim, quite accurately, that there are no moral facts. Just as statements about the length of a unicorn’s color are neither true nor false, because they describe something that doesn’t exist, error theorists insist that the same is true of claims about good and evil. They, too, can neither be true nor false, because they purport to describe moral facts, which are no more real than unicorns. This seems to fly in the face of the conviction that so many of us have that moral facts do exist, and are true or false regardless of what anyone’s subjective opinion happens to be on the subject. Darwin explained why this is true. The human behavioral traits we associate with morality exist by virtue of natural selection. They enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. The firm conviction, commonly associated with powerful emotions, that some things are truly morally good, and others truly morally evil, is just what one would expect. We did not survive by virtue of imagining that someone who stole from us, or lied to us, or attempted to kill us, had different subjective opinions then us about these things, and that perhaps we could sit down with them and have a rational discussion about it. We survived by virtue of truly believing that such individuals are evil, to be resisted regardless of what their personal opinions on the subject happened to be.

In short, Darwin provided a simple, rational explanation of human morality as we experience it. It is completely self-consistent, in that it requires nothing beyond natural selection for that explanation. For our philosophical error theorists, however, such simple explanations of morality are treated with great diffidence, almost as if they were embarrassing. They do not sufficiently exploit the idiosyncratic paths to the “truth” favored by philosophers. They are not sufficiently befogged by jargon, or obscured by long chains of complex syllogisms.

A philosopher by the name of Jonas Olson has supplied an excellent example of the above in a book fittingly entitled, “Moral Error Theory.” Olson begins as follows:

Virtually any area of philosophy is haunted by a sceptical spectre. In moral philosophy its foremost incarnation has for some time been the moral error theorist, who insists that ordinary moral thought and discourse involve untenable ontological commitments and that, as a consequence, ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue.

In fact, among the myriad abstruse theories concocted by modern philosophers to address morality, “error theory” comes closest to agreeing with some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin wrote about the subject long ago. One such implication is indeed that ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue, for the obvious reason that beliefs and claims about anything that doesn’t exist are uniformly untrue. It would seem that it is too obvious for the philosophers. After all, what can the role of philosophers be in explaining things that are simple and obvious. It is essential for them to complicate simple things and befog them with thick layers of jargon if they are to justify their existence. In the case of “error theory,” they have succeeded splendidly.

According to Olson, for example, one cannot even take up the subject of error theory without being familiar with a grab bag of related philosophical esoterica. As he informs us,

The focus on the semantics of moral judgements and the ontology or moral properties, which make it possible and meaningful to distinguish moral error theory from subjectivism, relativism, non-cognitivism and other theories on which morality is not primarily to be discovered but somehow invented, is fairly recent in the history of philosophical theorizing about morality.

Far from something that follows simply from what Darwin wrote about morality, error theory must be propped up with arguments so abstruse that only certified Ph.D.’s in philosophy can understand them. One such rarified construct is the “argument from queerness.” This argument is usually attributed to J. L. Mackie, who claimed that objective values can’t exist, because, if they did, they would be very queer. As he put it, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities…of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” According to Olson, this argument, and not Darwin, “has now become central to the debate about moral error theory, and about metaethics at large.” He continues, “I shall argue that there are four distinct queerness arguments and thus four distinct versions of the argument from queerness.” As if that weren’t enough, Olson assures us that “oughts” can somehow be distilled out of error theory, all with complex philosophical pedigrees of their own. He has his own favorite among them, adding, “Here I challenge moral abolitionism and moral fictionalism, and defend an alternative view, which I call moral conservationism.” As we shall see, Olson’s moral conservatism is just as naïve as the competing schemes proposed by modern philosophers.

One of these is the brainchild of Richard Joyce, who is perhaps foremost among modern philosophers in his embrace of human nature as the source of morality. In his “The Myth of Morality” there is an entire chapter devoted to “Morality and Evolution.” In the first paragraph of this chapter he writes,

A proponent of an error theory – especially when the error is being attributed to a common, familiar way of talking – owes us an account of why we have been led to commit such a fundamental, systematic mistake. In the case of morality, I believe, the answer is simple: natural selection. We have evolved to categorize aspects of the world using moral concepts. Natural selection has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, demands which it does not make.

Unfortunately, the chapter referred to only appears after five earlier chapters devoted to abstruse discussions of “error theory.” Heaven forefend that I should ever be classed as an “error theorist,” with all the accompanying philosophical flotsam. In it and later chapters, there is no mention of earlier thinkers who were most consistent in applying Darwin’s thought, such as Westermarck and Keith. I doubt that Joyce has even heard of either of them. According to Joyce, natural selection has only endowed us with traits that are “good” according to the ideology of his academic ingroup. It is our nature to be “sympathetic,” and “cooperative.” Perhaps, but it is also our nature to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, and to hate and despise that latter. As recent political events have amply demonstrated, this is especially true of Joyce’s ingroup. Amusingly, he actually dismisses Herbert Spencer, the first major philosopher to note the existence and significance of ingroups and outgroups, as follows:

An evolutionary success theory holds that the kind of fact in virtue of which such (moral) judgments are true is, in some manner, a fact about human evolution. The first and probably most famous proponent of this kind of theorizing was Herbert Spencer, but – with his misguided assumptions that natural selection leads to heterogeneity and improvement, with his crass application of the model onto the class struggle – he need not detain us.

It’s quite true that Spencer was more follower of Lamarck than Darwin when it comes to evolution, but that would hardly justify such a high-handed dismissal of a man who, if he was not infallible, was a profound thinker. Here Joyce is actually demonstrating just the sort of ingroup/outgroup behavior Spencer wrote about. The notion that Spencer was guilty of a “crass application of the model onto the class struggle” is nonsense, and a latter-day invention of Joyce’s leftist ingroup. They also invented his so-called “social Darwinism,” which would have been quite a trick, since he wasn’t a Darwinist to begin with. In fact, the burr Spencer stuck under their saddle was entirely different. He wrote a book debunking socialism decades before the Russian Revolution, predicting with uncanny accuracy that socialist regimes would tend to deteriorate into a brutal form of authoritarianism we later became familiar with as “Stalinism.” They never forgave him for this all too accurate prediction.

In any case, based on his decidedly un-Darwinian portrayal of “morality by natural selection,” which omits anything his ingroup would find objectionable about human nature, Joyce proposes that we all adopt what he is pleased to call “moral fictionalism.” As he describes it, it entails a form of moral doublethink, in which we pretend to firmly believe the moral law, until philosophers like him decide a course correction is necessary. Of course, if we actually take Darwin seriously, no such enforced doublethink is necessary, since perception of the moral law as absolute and objectively true comes as naturally to our species as hunger and thirst. Nowhere does Joyce suggest that there is anything about those aspects of our innate mental equipment we usually include in the “morality” grab bag that it might not be wise for us to blindly include in his “fictionalism.”

One finds the same kind of naivete in the competing “moral conservationism” paradigm preferred by Olson. This would entail “preservation of ordinary (faulty) moral thought and discourse. Olson elaborates,

According to moral conservationism, there is no need for self-surveillance to prevent slips from pretence moral belief (associated with Joyce’s fictionalism, ed.) and pretence moral assertion into genuine moral belief and genuine moral assertion, and there are consequently no associated costs of instability. Moral belief is to be embraced rather than resisted.

Is it really necessary to point out the naivete of this policy of “non-resistance” in blindly applying moral predispositions that evolved in the Pleistocene to regulate the utterly different societies that exist today? I maintain that such naivete is a predictable result of treating natural selection as a side issue and occasionally useful prop, and then proceeding to ignore it in favor of applying such abstruse stuff as Mackie’s “argument from queerness,” which actually comes in several different flavors, to prop up “error theory” instead. So much for the “usefulness” of two of the modern academic philosophers who have actually come closest to understanding what Darwin tried to tell us. From there things only get worse – often much worse.

It would be better to simply stick to Darwin. Westermarck did this back in 1906 in his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” but has been ignored in favor of philosophers who have been leading us into intellectual swamps with their obscure arguments and incomprehensible jargon ever since. Today we have reached a point where moral philosophers are really only capable of communicating with each other, have devised a myriad competing schools of thought about morality, each propped up by long chains of “rational” arguments of the type that are comprehensible only to them, and which have zero chance of any useful application. On top of that, they are irrelevant. The moral behavior of today’s academic philosophers is not predicted by their arcane theories, but by the ideology of their ingroup. In moral practice, as opposed to moral theory, they are as similar as so many peas in a pod. Their moral practice is determined, not by their theories, but by the dogmas of their ingroup.

The above has actually been evident for some time. Consider, for example, how academic and professional philosophers reacted to the grotesque atrocities of the likes of Stalin and Pol Pot. Apparently, their fine moral theories were far more likely to inform them that they should collaborate with these mass murderers rather than condemn them on moral grounds. On the other hand, we often find them hurling down their moral anathemas on the likes of Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves. I submit that Washington and Jefferson both did more for the welfare of all mankind by any rational standard than any combination of 10,000 social justice warriors one could collect. Today we find them strangely silent on issues that might place them outside the ideological box they live in. For example, I am aware of no proponent of the myriad objective or subjective moral systems on tap today who has so much as raised a finger against the poisoning and mutilation of children in the name of “transgendering” them. Since morality only exists by virtue of the fact that it has enhanced the odds that individuals would successfully reproduce, failure to even speculate on the moral significance of this destruction of the ability to reproduce in children seems somewhat inconsistent to say the least.
I submit that philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if they would accept the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and seriously consider the implications of that fact. If Darwin was right, then there is no need for “arguments from queerness” to support “error theory.” The same conclusions follow naturally. It becomes perfectly obvious why we experience moral rules as mind independent even though they aren’t, and why it is just as irrational to noodle about whether some action is “truly good” or “truly evil” as it is to create fine theories to decide the question of whether a unicorn’s fur is blue or green. If Darwin was right, then there is neither a need nor any evidence for the claim that evolved morality tracks “true morality.” Such theories should be relegated to the philosophical garbage bin where they belong. If Darwin was right, then it is easy to grasp the reasons for the dual, ingroup/outgroup aspects of human morality, a factor that the theories of the philosophers typically simply ignore. If Darwin was right, then the reasons why we hardly limit our version of morality to ourselves, but attempt to dictate behavior to others as well, also become obvious. This, too, the philosophers have an unsettling tendency to overlook.

The above are seemingly obvious implications of the origins of morality in natural selection. With the brilliant exceptions of Westermarck and a few others, philosophers have studiously avoided noticing the obvious. Instead, we find them following paths made up of long chains of reasons. As we know from long experience, unless they can be checked by repeatable experiments, these paths lead deep into intellectual swamps. To follow them is to demonstrate a gross lack of awareness of the limitations of human intelligence. Today we find the professional and academic philosophers among us floundering about in those swamps, spouting their obscure theories in jargon that renders them incomprehensible to the rest of us. In short, they have succeeded in rendering themselves irrelevant to anyone but themselves. It’s sad. It doesn’t have to be that way.

2 thoughts on “On the Poverty of (Moral) Philosophy”

  1. Thank you for this post, I think your exposing a hugely important issue re Philosophy/Truth here.
    One of the reasons that you can see the farce, which is often the interaction between the language and the beliefs of these various groups is, of course, that you are on the outside.
    The outsider, however, has a very great challenge, he should be aware that he may well be ‘unconsciously’ exhibiting the very same traits that he sees in the ‘other’. Is he a member of group, and does this group have similarity illogical/unscientific beliefs?.
    One of the fascinating elements of your blog is the relationship between the ‘ingroup’ and the ‘belief/s’ of said group. Firstly, the ‘ingroup’s’ belief/s are uniformly held, shrouded beneath incomprehensible and dense language, often hilarious idiotic, contradictory, and very importantly ‘changeable’.
    The ‘beliefs” can change on the whim of some, as yet not fully understood, interaction/process within the ‘Authorities’ ‘elites’, who can then present the ‘new beliefs’ and these are then accepted by the average member/follower of the group. This subservience re the ‘content and make up, of ‘truth’ tells us so much re the group dynamic, pecking order.
    The uniformity and the changeable nature of the individuals beliefs bring to the surface a hugely important point, what most people would identify as their filter of reality, their ‘truth finder’, ie “beliefs’ are not really connected to ‘truth’, ‘logic’, ‘consistent thought’, no, beliefs are an internal positive emotion that gives the individual the externally and internally emotional link when expressing their ‘belief’s’. They feel and look the part expressing their new found ‘beliefs’, beliefs that always miraculously coincide with those of the group. We see this everywhere and it makes sense, and in fact, I found some work on this in academia, but one would think it may have had a broader currency. I suppose most thought leaders in groups would find it somewhat challenging if they were to allow their followers to see that their fine words, their labyrinthine jargon and language was really nothing to do with ‘Truth’, just a group identifier designed to exclude non believers, and show the submission of ingroup ‘members’ further down the pecking order.
    There were so many other interesting points made in your blog, thank you again. I expect academia to be rushing to change their syllabuses any moment. In fact, one wonders just what it would take for them to do so?

  2. Yes, we can laugh at the absurd beliefs of others, but it’s always a good thing to keep in mind that we belong to the same species.

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