Why do you do the things you do? Why do you do those things?

If I am to believe the anecdotal evidence I find on the Internet, I am preaching to the choir. Supposedly, the vast majority of educated people in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) countries agree with me that morality is subjective. For example, a professor at California Baptist University reports that, when asked whether morality is objective or subjective, about 95% of students starting his Introduction to Philosophy class answered that it is subjective, at a Christian school, no less! The percentage reported from other polls varies according to the type of people asked, but one often finds a majority claiming that morality is subjective.

This is a very counter-intuitive result if you look at what is happening in our societies. A great number of people may claim to believe that morality is subjective, but the number who appear to have even begun to reason about the implications of that fact is vanishingly small. We find people delivering themselves of furious sermons loaded with appeals to moral emotions in favor of such novel “goods” as the mutilation of children and destruction of their ability to reproduce in order to “trans-gender” them, or denouncing human reproduction itself as morally “evil.” These novelties are invariably presented as if they represented moral truths, with the obvious implication that anyone who disagrees with them is objectively evil. One could cite many more examples, yet if morality is truly subjective, such claims cannot possibly possess either legitimacy or authority. The two examples cited above, along with many others, represent morality inversions. They accomplish exactly the opposite of the evolutionary reasons that morality exists to begin with.

A glance at the debates and discussions on the Internet should be enough to convince anyone that no one really takes the reality of subjective morality seriously. For the most part, these conversations consist of fencing matches with conventional weapons replaced by manipulation of moral emotions. The “moral truths” defended in these debates are almost invariably presented as objective facts. People may claim to believe that morality is subjective, but they seldom if ever behave as if they believe it. I know of not a single exception among living scientists, philosophers, or any other prominent public intellectuals. Every one of them makes moral judgments as if those judgments weren’t just a mere opinion, but expressions of some objective fact. They may realize that morality is an artifact of natural selection, but it doesn’t matter. They condemn this and praise that, for all the world as if Darwin had never existed. The only philosopher I’m aware of who did take Darwin seriously was Edvard Westermarck, and he’s been gone now for more than 80 years.

The behavioral predispositions that eventually manifest themselves as moral behavior after percolating through the skulls of creatures with large brains such as ourselves exist because, in an environment we can safely assume is very different from the one we live in now, they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his “The Selfish Gene,” these predispositions are not selected at the level of political parties, or religious denominations, or ideological factions, but at that of the replicator; the “vehicle” that carries genes from one generation to the next. Under the circumstances, it seems logical to ask anyone seeking to impose their moral judgments on the rest of us, “How will this benefit the genes you’re carrying around?”

There isn’t a morally correct way to answer this question, for the obvious reason that moral categories have no objective existence. There is no “morally good” or “morally bad” answer, because the universe doesn’t care one way or the other. Based on the behavior of our fellow humans, we must assume in virtually every case the answer would be, “I don’t consciously associate my moral judgments with my genes at all. I make them because they make me feel good. I find them emotionally satisfying.” I can’t say in reply, “That’s not the way you ought to decide.” I have not the slightest authority or basis to make such a claim. I can’t tell them that their answer is morally good, or morally bad, because those categories don’t exist as other than subjective opinions. All I can say is that I find it somewhat disturbing that I live on a planet along with upwards of seven billion others who never ask themselves, at a fundamental level, “Why do I do the things I do?”

Ask any of your fellow humans, “How will the moral behavior you advocate enhance the odds that the genes you carry will survive and reproduce?”, and they are likely to respond with a look of blank incomprehension. They might answer that their version of morality is objectively true, but in 5000 years the best philosophers among us have never agreed on what that objective truth is, for the seemingly obvious reason that it doesn’t exist. They might answer that their morality has been handed down to them by a God or gods, but belief in such beings is an illusion, and an embarrassing one for our species at that. They might also answer that they are serving the equally illusory cause of “human flourishing,” but that begs the question of what constitutes human flourishing. There is no objectively right answer. In my personal opinion, human flourishing would mean the survival of my species, and its eventual acquisition of traits that would enhance the odds that its descendants will survive into the indefinite future. To the extent that any attempt is made to define it at all, however, it generally means a future state in which everyone is happy, and has easy access to anything they might need or desire. However, happiness, in common with every other human emotional state, isn’t a good in itself. Like all the rest, it exists by virtue of natural selection. I submit that this commonly accepted version of “human flourishing” would be far more likely to result in our extinction than our continued survival.

I, too, act the way I do because of emotions. As Hume pointed out long ago, pure reason can provide no answer to question of how we ought or ought not to behave. However, I do take into account the reasons my emotions exist to begin with, and seek to behave in ways that are consistent with those reasons. I have no basis for claiming that everyone should share my values, and act the way I do. I merely suggest that they might consider asking themselves why they exist, and choose the goals they set for themselves in light of the answer to that question. Apparently, few people do. Most of us stumble through life, chasing illusions, and seeking to satisfy emotional urges without ever taking into account why those urges exist. In the case of morality, we seek to satisfy them by demanding that others behave in some ways and not in others, in spite of our utter lack of authority for making such claims. In the process, we make ourselves a serious nuisance to others.

I have no easy solution to the problem. All I’ve really done is describe how humans behave in the environment we find ourselves in today. All I can suggest is that you take it into account and deal with it, whatever your goals in life happen to be.

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.

One thought on “Why do you do the things you do? Why do you do those things?”

  1. If by “subjective” you mean metaphysical – that is, existing in the realm of the mind and not objective in the empirical sense – then yes, morality is subjective. However, there is a hierarchy of competence among value judgements, ranked in accord to reason, and we often refer to this colloquially as “being objective.” This is why we have phrases like “objective criticism”, which would otherwise seem like an oxymoron, especially to postmodernists, who have long since weaponized empiricism against rationality. You would no doubt argue that “objective” is not the best word to describe anthropocentric facts, that “objectivity” should apply to empirical (non-anthropocentric) facts only. In my understanding, the distinction between facts and truth is the presence of a mind; a truth is metaphysical, it centers around human inclinations, desires and preferences, whereas empirical things (facts) exist independently of the mind. Truths remain as palpable as physical objects, however.

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