Moral Realism: Philosophers Chasing a Mirage

Darwin isn’t really necessary to debunk moral realism – the notion that objective moral truths exist. Examples of virtuous indignation and moral outrage are certainly abundant enough in modern societies. Examine one such example at your leisure and consider the questions, “Where is the authority for that behavior? What justification do the outraged have for insisting that particular acts or individuals are evil?” In fact, no such authority or justification exists independently of the mere opinion of individuals. Darwin’s great contribution was to explain why we so firmly believe in the illusion of moral truths. The illusion exists because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce, and it is an extremely powerful illusion because it maximized the odds by instilling absolute conviction that the illusion is real.

Many scientists and public intellectuals have accepted the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection. If that’s true, then we’re talking about a natural process that hasn’t been guided by a supernatural being or any other conscious entity. It seems obvious that this excludes the possibility that there are objective moral truths. The reason for the illusion that they exist is clear. There is no reason to continue believing that the illusion is real, especially in view of the fact that no “moral truth objects” have ever been detected. Some among the scientists and public intellectuals mentioned above have admitted as much, claiming to accept the fact that morality is subjective. The incredible power of the illusion is demonstrated by the fact that none of them who are alive today, or at least none that I am aware of, behaves in a way that is in any way comprehensible or rational if they actually believe what they say. All of them claim that certain individuals are immoral, or that we have moral obligations, or that we “ought” to do things they deem good, and “ought not” to do things they deem bad, without the slightest suggestion that all they are really doing is demanding that the rest of us respect and base our own behavior on their emotional whims. They may claim they don’t believe the illusion is real, but every one of them acts as if they firmly believe it is.

As if that weren’t evidence enough of the whimsical nature of our species, there are also philosophers who accept the fact that human morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and yet still insist on the existence of objective moral truths. Two examples of the same may be found in an article entitled Evolution and Moral Realism, that appeared in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science a few years ago. The authors, by the names of Kim Sterelny and Ben Fraser, were a professor and postdoc at the time in the philosophy program of the Australian National University. Wikipedia informs us that the former is the winner of several international prizes. They appear to accept the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolution by natural selection, at least for the sake of argument, but claim that there are moral facts and moral truths in spite of that. Based on his publication list, Sterelny is familiar with the work of Richard Dawkins, and must be familiar with how other authors have both supported and disputed his take on group selection. He seems to understand how natural selection actually works. In spite of that, according to the abstract of the paper in question,

…one important strand in the evolutionary history of moral thinking does support reductive naturalism – moral facts are facts about cooperation, and the conditions and practices that support or undermine it.

We make a positive case that true moral beliefs are a “fuel for success”, a map by which we steer, flexibly, in a variety of social interactions.

The authors leave no doubt about what they mean by “moral facts” and “true moral beliefs” a bit later when they write,

…we shall be arguing, that moral facts are facts about social interactions that support stable cooperation, the moral realist must hold that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, independently of what anyone says, believes, or thinks.

Coming from philosophers, this bit is surprising to say the least. The fact that human beings are predisposed to cooperate with others under certain conditions is a fact. It belongs to the realm of “is.” The claim that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of “ought.” In the rest of the paper the authors attempt to explain this leap from “is” to “ought.” I doubt that Hume would be impressed.

One problem is immediately apparent in the abstract, where the authors claim that facts about cooperation are moral facts because they are a “fuel for success.” Success at what? To be successful, one must have a goal. A goal is something a conscious being desires. Natural selection has no desires, nor does it have any goals. It does not have a function, because a function can also only be assigned by a conscious being. Claiming that natural selection has the goal or the function to promote cooperation is about as rational as claiming that a lump of carbon has the goal or the function to turn into a diamond, and yet the authors make that claim throughout the paper. Consider the following examples:

So one function of moral thinking is to track a class of facts about human social environments.

…a natural notion of moral truth emerges from the idea that normative thought has evolved to mediate stable cooperation.

The moral truths specify maxims that are members of near-optimal normative packages – sets of norms that if adopted, would help generate high levels of appropriately distributed, and hence stable, cooperation profits.

If moral thinking evolved as a tracking device, selected to track and respond to cooperation pitfalls, then the apparently truth-apt character of moral thought and talk would reflect its functional role.

Every one of these statements is incomprehensible absent the existence of some conscious mind directing the process. No such conscious mind exists to give natural selection a function, nor to “mediate stable cooperation,” nor to “generate cooperation profits.” Natural selection is a process that happens by virtue of the fact that some genes are more likely to survive and reproduce than others. A result of natural selection has been the evolution of our species. However, it is completely impossible for that to ever have been its “function,” or its “goal.”

Even if there were a conscious mind to give natural selection a “goal” and a “function,” it would hardly imply a moral obligation to comply with this goal. “Cooperation” might be a useful tool for achieving the hypothetical imperative of “fueling success,” as defined by the authors, but that fact by no means implies a moral, categorical imperative to cooperate in achieving that goal. Is it really necessary to explain to professors of philosophy that there is a difference between the statement that one “ought” to use a hammer to drive a nail, and the statement that one “ought” to act morally? Even the patron saint of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, understood the difference. He knew that there could be no objective, “transcendental” justification for his proposed morality. That’s why he supported the blank slate. He knew that if innate emotions played a major role in motivating morality, then his utilitarian nostrums would be stillborn.

In short, if the authors’ intention was to hop over the is-ought barrier, they’ve stumbled badly. Their notion of “moral truth” begs many other questions. For example, they actually mention the existence of ingroups and outgroups, but don’t explain how outgroups will fit within the rubric of cooperation as moral truth. We all tend to hate and despise those we identify as belonging to our outgroup, however we define it. When it evolved, that tendency typically applied to the neighboring group of hunter gatherers. It insured that we would keep our distance from each other, and avoid over-exploiting the resources in a given territory. Things have changed, of course. We are aware of a great many “groups,” and are capable of perceiving virtually any of them as the outgroup. Regardless of which one we choose, identification and hatred of outgroups remains a characteristic human trait.  Typical university professors are more than likely to perceive Donald Trump and his supporters as outgroup, and yet they make up half the population of the United States, give or take. How will “cooperation” as a moral imperative apply to them? Clearly, the idea that “cooperation” will have the same result globally in groups of hundreds of millions of people today as it did in the Pleistocene can hardly be assumed. Suppose it doesn’t? Will the dependent “moral truths” not evaporate as a result? If moral truth exists as an objective thing, independent of what anyone merely thinks to be good, how is it that this “objective truth” only popped into existence billions of years after the big bang, coincident with the emergence on one planet among trillions of a particular type of animal?

Clearly, the illusion that there are moral truths is an aspect of the innate nature of our species, and that illusion is extremely powerful. It is also a very expedient illusion for professors of philosophy. After all, they are supposed to be experts about good and evil. If good and evil don’t exist, that leaves them experts about nothing. Unfortunately, they don’t exist any more than unicorns and leprechauns. If we exist as a result of natural selection, then the most parsimonious and obvious explanation of morality is that it is a manifestation of emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved, and that the fact of their evolution excludes the possibility that they somehow track or correspond with “moral truths.”

The fact that there are no objective moral truths has no moral implications. It does not imply that we are forbidden to act in harmony with our moral emotions, nor does it imply that we are forbidden to establish a morality and treat it as an absolute, with punishment for those who violate the moral law. It does imply that, depending on what our personal goals happen to be, we should be very careful about how we construct such a morality. There is no guarantee that emotions that helped us reach our goals millions of years ago will have the same effect today.

5 thoughts on “Moral Realism: Philosophers Chasing a Mirage”

  1. Well said, one of the strongest points you make on this blog, and of such consequence. That so much of public debate is made up of ‘moral this’ or ‘ethical that’ shows how much of public debate is really nothing but noise.
    It all makes sense, of course, when we look through the prism of the Group.
    Thanks again and hope your OK.
    2020 reminds me of the old Chinese cures, “may you live in time of change”.

  2. It seems to me that you have not considered that, while there is empirical objectivity, there is another kind of objectivity, referring to a hierarchically privileged type of thinking, which we refer to as rationality. This is what is meant by terms like objective criticism, which would become oxymoronic if it weren’t for this distinction. Rationality is a linear pattern of thinking that is lucid, cogent, and corresponds to reality, in contrast to irrationality, which manifests in various forms of insanity (religion, schizophrenia, etc.)

  3. I think that what I mean by the term “objective” should be obvious to my readers, and if they don’t understand, reading my blog won’t do them much good in any case. I have no intention of adopting the hair splitting distinctions beloved of philosophers, for the simple reason that it will not help to clarify what I have written.

  4. Those two paradigms, the physical and the metaphysical, they exist and are very important, so I don’t see how that’s splitting hairs. Presumably you are one of those people who would find the phrase “objective criticism” oxymoronic and would reject my explanation of it, but it’s the only explanation you’re likely to get.

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