Morality in the Age of Trump

When it comes to morality, you might say Trump’s presidency was a “study” on a vast scale. If there are aliens out there watching us, I’m sure they found it instructive as far as that aspect of human behavior is concerned.

I haven’t posted for a while, so let’s recapitulate what morality actually is. In fact, it’s exactly what Darwin said it was; a manifestation in a highly intelligent animal of innate behavioral traits similar to those observed in many other species. Those traits exist by virtue of natural selection; they happened to improve the odds that the individual bearing the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Edvard Westermarck pointed out some of the more significant implications of this fact in his “Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” published in 1906. More than a century has passed since his book appeared, and no one has improved on it since. Some of the more significant passages are as follows:

The moral concepts are essentially generalizations of tendencies in certain phenomena to call forth moral emotions.

We are not willing to admit that our moral convictions are a mere matter of taste, and we are inclined to regard convictions differing from our own as errors.

The error we commit by attributing objectivity to moral estimates becomes particularly conspicuous when we consider that these estimates have not only a certain quality, but a certain quantity. There are different degrees of badness and goodness, a duty may be more or less stringent, a merit may be smaller or greater. These quantitative differences are due to the emotional origin of all moral concepts.

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a 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 presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

The “enthusiasts” Westermarck referred to flourished in the era of Trump, and were as delusional as ever. This was particularly true in the case of the ubiquitous ingroup/outgroup aspect of human morality first noted by Herbert Spencer, and discussed in depth by Sir Arthur Keith in his “A New Theory of Human Evolution.” For four years the headlines of the media controlled by Trump’s enemies were dominated on an almost daily basis by furious denunciations of the President as a morally bad man. Look through these headlines and you will find virtually every negative attribute commonly attributed to the “other” since the dawn of recorded history. Trump was an outsider. As such, it was easy for Washington insiders of both parties to perceive him as “other,” and relegate him to their respective outgroups. Some of the most furious denunciations of Trump as a “bad” man came from within his own party.

It is noteworthy that ingroup/outgroup behavior, along with all of the other traits we commonly lump together under the rubric of morality, evolved at a time radically different from the present. Presumably, when it evolved it tended to discourage small groups of hunter-gatherers from clustering too close to each other, and exhausting the resources available in a given area. Obviously, it no longer serves the same purpose in modern societies. Among other things, it has been a prime motivator for the warfare that has so frequently blighted our history, the source of endless bloodshed over arcane differences of opinion in matters of religion that are now long forgotten, and the motivator of mass murder against convenient outgroups such as the Jews in the case of the Nazis, and the “bourgeoisie” in the case of the Communists. This is hardly the only aspect of human moral behavior that accomplishes more or less the opposite in modern societies from what it did in the time of our stone age ancestors.

It would seem to be high time for us to finally accept and come to grips with the emotional nature of our morality, but there are few signs of that happening. Many modern philosophers and intellectuals claim to believe that morality is subjective. I am not aware of a single one who acts as if they believe it. What we actually observe among them is a tribute to the power of our moral emotions.

In the case of Trump, one would expect that prominent intellectuals who are convinced defenders of the theory of evolution by natural selection, claim to be aware of the Darwinian origins of morality and, hence, its subjective nature, and have, in some cases, actually written books about the subject, would at least be somewhat reticent to publish moral judgments of anyone as if they were stating objective facts. Chimerically, in the case of Trump, we see precisely the opposite. Consider, for example, the case of Richard Dawkins, who admitted the evolutionary origins of morality in his “The Selfish Gene.” According to Dawkins,

Is Twitter’s ban of Trump a worrying Free Speech issue? On reflection I think not because

(a) Trump went far beyond expression of opinion (which should be protected) to outright lies, demonstrable falsehoods. Falsehoods, moreover which were calculated to

(b) incite violence.

Dawkins pronounces this moral judgment of Trump as if it were objectively true that Trump is evil. He does not qualify it as a personal opinion, but demands that Trump be punished. Obviously, as a prominent atheist, Dawkins lacks even the fig leaf of a God as an authority for stating his emotional reaction to Trump as a moral “fact.” The rationalizations on which he bases his judgment are garden variety instances of outgroup identification; that the “other” is a liar, and incites violence. Ironically, such charges are actually more credible in the case of Dawkins himself.

For example, in his The God Delusion he repeats the “demonstrable lie” that Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, ever said, “We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.” Indeed, even the false quote is wrong. The “correct” original claim is that Watt said, “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” In fact, Watt never said any such thing, and Bill Moyers and others who have repeated the claim have been forced to retract it. It is hard to believe that Dawkins isn’t aware of this “demonstrable lie,” yet as far as I know he has never corrected it. As far as “inciting violence” is concerned, Dawkins’ repeated description of evangelicals in the U.S. as the “American Taliban” are ostensibly far better calculated to inspire violence against them than anything Trump ever said.

According to Jerry Coyne, another prominent Darwinian who has publicly stated his belief that morality is subjective,

Though there are arguments on both sides, I tend to approve of both the House impeaching Trump and the Senate trying him, even though they won’t secure a conviction. The symbolic act is a powerful one, which, though it may be divisive, will only divide those who support America’s democratic values from those who support fascism. Congress needs to make a statement, and impeachment, even without conviction, is a statement.

Here, Coyne not only claims that Trump is evil without qualification as a matter of objective fact, but makes a similar claim about the tens of millions who support him. They are all “fascists.”

Jonathan Haidt, the most “conservative” of all the prominent supposedly Darwinian moralists, is no exception. In his words,

The psychologists I spoke to before Trump was elected overwhelmingly said that the diagnosis they would make based on what they saw is narcissistic personality disorder. And I think we’ve seen that continuously since his election, that he tends to make everything about him. And so that is pretty much the opposite of ethical leadership, where it needs to be about the team and our shared interest. I don’t see much of a chance of us really coming together and overcoming our differences before the election. Or, basically, as long as Trump is in office.

Here, Haidt states that Trump is “unethical” as an objective fact, a claim that flies in the face of what he has written about morality in “The Righteous Mind,” and “The Happiness Hypothesis.”

In short, however one cares to judge him, Trump has done a wonderful job of exposing the difference between what the most prominent “subjective moralists” among our public intellectuals say about morality, and how they actually apply it. Just as Westermarck pointed out long ago, moral judgments are based on an illusion, but it is a very powerful illusion. It is powerful enough to inspire the Dawkins, Coynes and Haidts of the world to issue moral judgments in ways that would be completely irrational absent the implicit assumption that good and evil are real, objective things.

Suppose these gentry actually wanted to be consistent with what they’ve said about morality in their judgments of Trump. They would have to say something like, “I realize that my moral emotions exist because they enhanced the odds that my ancestors would survive in the days when they were hunter-gatherers. After due consideration, I’ve decided that I want to act in a way that is consistent with the reason that these emotions exist to begin with. I believe Trump is a threat to my genetic survival for reasons a, b, and c. Therefore, I’ve decided to resist him by pretending that he is a “truly bad” man. Alternatively, they might say, “I know why my moral emotions exist. However, after due consideration, I’ve decided that doesn’t matter to me, and I just want to be happy. Pretending that the illusions spawned by my moral emotions are real makes me happy. I enjoy experiencing the illusion that Trump is an objectively bad man. Therefore, I’ve decided to pretend that it’s actually true.

Obviously, no such statements have ever been heard of from any public intellectual, and I expect none will be made anytime soon. We will continue to live in the same old, familiar world of moral chaos, where new moral fashions are invented on the fly, and then paraded about as if they represented some kind of objective truth. As usual, the winners at this game will be those who are the cleverest at manipulating moral emotions. I need hardly add that the game is a dangerous one, given that the emotions in question are more than likely to accomplish the opposite in the world we live in today to what they accomplished when they evolved. Deal with it, my friends. When it comes to morality, the Darwinians have forgotten all about Darwin.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “Morality in the Age of Trump”

  1. Once again. you are casting pearls of reason before the swine of self-serving intellectual “skewery.” where intellectual argumentation is not employed to clarify and discover, but rather to pontificate. Logic is twisted and skewed to produce a preconceived end, ssomething like arguments for the existence of God. I sincerely hope your always thoughtful and provocative words have a wider readership than the lack of comments might suggest.

  2. Thanks for the note, David. As for comments, I might get a few more if the link on the left were more conspicuous.

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