Ethics Whimsy

There are many unflattering but appropriate adjectives that describe the current state of our culture. In perusing the pages of the latest issue of Ethics journal, it struck me that one of the better ones is “absurd.” According to a page entitled, “Information for Contributors,”

Ethics publishes both theory and the application of theory to contemporary moral issues.

In fact, Darwin supplied us with what is by far the most significant and salient theory as far as moral issues are concerned. He pointed out that morality is a manifestation of the same evolutionary process that accounts for the rest of our mental and physical characteristics. In doing so, he reduced all the tomes of moral philosophy, whether written before or since, that don’t take that fact into account, to intellectual curiosities. Most of the articles one finds in Ethics refer to Darwin, if at all, as an afterthought. That is not the least of its absurdities. Indeed, assuming our species ever achieves what might be referred to as sanity without a smirk, future cultural anthropologists may find its content amusing, albeit somewhat pathetic.

Consider, for example, the first article in the latest Ethics, entitled Oppressive Double Binds, by Sukaina Hirji. The article addresses the vicissitudes of those who deem themselves oppressed as they deal with “double binds that exist in virtue of oppression.” The author cites as a typical example,

…an untenured professor and the only woman and person of color among the faculty in a philosophy department.

We are informed that such oppressed individuals face inordinate demands on their time from similarly oppressed students who demand mentorship and emotional support. However, time devoted in this way is “emotionally draining and takes significant time away from your own research. You feel trapped.” The author comes up with several similar instances of the “oppressive double binds” faced by such oppressed classes as “trans women and queer femmes.” These, we are assured, “…are a powerful and pervasive mechanism of oppression,” forcing these unfortunates to “become a mechanism in their own oppression.”

As the reader is no doubt aware, trans women are currently a particularly fashionable instance of an “oppressed” group. The author singles them out for particular attention accordingly, noting for example,

For a trans woman to be read as a woman at all in certain communities, she will need to present in an overtly feminine-coded way. However, given the stereotypes about trans women as artificial or constructed, an overtly femme presentation risks being dismissed as “trying too hard” or as “inauthentic.” If a trans woman does not present in an overtly feminine-coded way, her presentation is explained by her not being a “real” woman. In this sort of case, part of what is going on is the intersection of an oppressive norm faced by women in general and an oppressive norm faced by trans women in particular.

Given the many genuine instances of oppression that have occurred within living memory in this century and the last, involving the torture and death of millions, it strikes me personally as obscene to even refer to such trivial stuff as “oppression.” That becomes doubly true in view of the fact that trans women and the other “oppressed classes” referred to by the author have virtually absolute control over the cultural and political agenda in the U.S. and other modern “liberal democracies.”

When it comes to oppression, if the author cares to experience something closer to the real thing, I suggest she submit an article to Ethics denouncing the unfairness to biological females of allowing trans women to participate in women’s sports. She will quickly find that she is no longer on the tenure track, and her future chances of having articles published in Ethics and similar academic journals have become vanishingly small. There will be some compensation, of course, in view of the fact that other “oppressed” people will no longer rely on her for mentoring and emotional support. Should she care to enlighten herself about who are actually the oppressed and who the oppressors today when it comes to trans women, I suggest she read the accounts linked here, here, here, here, and here of people who have been fired, suspended, or cancelled for daring to question the prevailing orthodoxy. They are hardly the only examples.

Anyone seeking even a hint of originality in the remainder of the journal about the nature of human morality, or the reasons for its existence, will do so in vain. According to the abstract of another article,

Nietzsche famously discusses a psychological condition he calls resentiment, a condition involving toxic, vengeful anger.

As an instance of this resentiment, he cites the CNN version of a recent historical event:

…self-styled “white nationalists” marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting variously “you will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” – the background perception being that other racial and ethnic groups were, through an alleged conspiracy, gaining power and status that the white supremacists thought was rightfully theirs.

It never occurs to the author to even mention the fact that there are alternative versions of what went down at Charlottesville, or that the violence may not have been entirely provoked by “white nationalists,” or that any of the marchers were there for reasons other than promoting “white supremacy.” Of course, if he dared to deviate from the official narrative, he, too, might experience something closer to real oppression, and that with alacrity.

One finds the same, dreary, slavish conformity to the currently fashionable version of “objective good” in the remainder of the latest issue of Ethics. For example, from an article entitled Impermissible yet Praiseworthy we read,

Suppose you are morally required to adopt a vegan diet, but you adopt a lacto-vegetarian diet instead. Although what you do is impermissible, blaming you for not going all the way to veganism could be counterproductive. Perhaps the effects of blaming you are even bad enough that we ought not to do so.

I don’t know whether the future anthropologists I referred to earlier will laugh or cry when they read such stuff. One must hope that they will be at least marginally more capable of intelligent and original thought than today’s “experts on ethics.”  As for you, dear reader, spare yourself the pain of seeking knowledge about human morality in modern academic journals. You’ll find as much useful information about the subject in the first chapter of Edvard Westermarck’s The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas published in 1906, as in anything that’s been written since.

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 “Ethics Whimsy”

  1. I’d like to ask you a question. First of all, let me say that I like the blog quite a bit, so thank you for writing it.

    I think that you and I have essentially the same moral anti-realist worldview. By way of background, I came to this way of thinking before reading your blog, or really any philosophical works. I previously accepted a kind of utilitarian meta-ethics, based on the idea that “right” was to maximize the subjective well-being of all people equally. This utilitarian outlook led to a rather milquetoast left-wing politics. The end of my utilitarian convictions actually came in the run-up to the 2016 election, when I thought and read a great deal about politics (which is, after all, applied ethics). At some point, I had the thought, more or less out of the blue, that there was no “reason” for me to take a political outlook aimed at benefitting all people equally. I was free to vote for the party that benefited me most, and there was actually no argument or reason that could persuade me otherwise. This insight might seem rather anodyne, but at the time it shocked me with the force of a thunderclap. Some years later I came upon your blog, and I found that you expressed essentially the same thoughts.

    I’m a young man, so question of practical ethics are important to me, and have real effects on how I shape my life. Your ethical outlook seems to be that, recognizing ourselves to be machines designed by evolution to survive and reproduce, we “should” strive to fulfil this function as best as possible. It would be absurd to go against our nature by subordinating the real reason why we exist — survival and reproduction — to other “reasons” which are merely subjective whims of our moral consciousness. I find this persuasive, and I do find it rather sickening and absurd to see people twist themselves up in knots by, for example, sterilizing themselves with synthetic hormones (denying and destroying their nature as sexed beings) or becoming vegan (denying their nature as omnivorous predators), all the more so when they claim that this behavior is “right”, and the rest of us are bad people for not lauding them or following suit.

    On the other hand, it seems like the logical conclusion of this thinking would be to become like this man: Simply produce as many children as possible — the rest of one’s time would be spent amassing wealth to provide them with physical resources, thus increasing the odds that your genes will survive long into the future. Things like fun, love, intellectual exploration, and relaxation would be discarded as inefficient. I would like to have children (I have none yet), but I simply don’t feel any compulsion to act this way; I certainly won’t be having 800 of them. Whether or not it’s the best way to fulfil my nature as a machine for survival and reproduction, I simply don’t want to go that far. And from reading your blog, it seems like you feel similarly; while you have a family, you certainly haven’t spread your genes to the maximum extent possible. There are probably huge numbers of men who never thought a single thought about moral philosophy and have left behind far more descendants.

    Now, I’m sure you could point out that this kind of decision is nothing but a matter of personal whimsy, and hence everyone should feel free to have zero, two, five, or a hundred children, as they personally please. I certainly agree with this. I guess my question is: Is there really any difference between you and I, and people who more obviously damage their own inclusive genetic fitness (for example, by allowing unfriendly aliens to move into their home country or by sterilizing themselves or their children)? Maybe their behavior is somewhat more obviously dysgenic, but nobody is really seeking to maximize their efficiency as a survival and reproduction machine; we are mostly just doing whatever makes us feel good.

    Anyway, if you’re interested in responding, I really would like to see your thoughts on this question.

  2. There is no objective reason to consider the people you mention morally better or worse than us or anyone else, for the simple reason that objective goods, evils and oughts don’t exist. There is no basis for making such a judgment. For the same reason, there is no objective reason why you ought to resist such people, or why you ought not to resist them. There is also no objective reason why you ought or ought not to make up your own mind about how you respond to them. There is no force, entity or god out there dictating to you or anyone else how you ought or ought not to act. It boils down to a matter of personal choice. In fact, that is how these decisions have always been made. I merely suggest that in making these and similar decisions, you be aware of and take into account what you are, the reasons that account for your existence, and the reasons for and emotional basis of human moral behavior.

    It may be that, having chosen what your goals in life are based on due consideration of these factors, you decide that any of these people or groups stand in your way. There is no reason why you can’t resist them to the best of your ability, using the same manipulation of moral emotions that they use against others to fight them if you choose. If you choose different goals, you may decide that these people benefit you. In that case there is also no objective reason why you can’t join them and promote the same causes. There is certainly no objective reason why you “ought” to choose goals in life similar to mine. Indeed, from my personal point of view it would be very harmful if everyone had similar goals.

    I wouldn’t say we are machines because of the negative implications of the term. We are a type of animal. We may exist by virtue of the fact that our ancestors survived and reproduced, but evolution certainly didn’t “design” us. Design implies a conscious entity as designer. No such designer exists. We are the outcome of a natural process. As such, we have no “function,” and there is no objective reason we “should” or “should not” strive to perform such an imaginary function.

    There is nothing absurd about “going against our nature by subordinating the real reason we exist -survival and reproduction – to other ‘reasons’ which are merely subjective whims of our moral consciousness.” Human beings do that all the time and, given what we observe in the real world, it would be surprising if they suddenly stopped behaving that way. There are no objective reasons for human beings to act in harmony with the reasons they exist or otherwise. All of us must decide for ourselves. I merely suggest that, in making these decisions, people might want to take into account the reality of what we are, including the innate behavioral traits that account for the existence of what we refer to as morality. There is no objective reason why it is “logical” to think like the sperm donor you refer to, for the simple reason that there is no objective basis or criterion “out there” for deciding whether it is logical or not. The universe doesn’t care one way or the other.

    It is very difficult for us to accept the fact that “practical ethics” don’t exist. We “feel in our bones” that some things are “really good” and others are “really evil”, regardless of what any individual happens to think about the subject. However, as Westermarck observed, and I have insisted on this blog, that feeling is an illusion. Human beings have always made moral decisions based on that illusion and, for the most part, will continue to do so. I merely suggest that, instead of spending our lives blindly chasing an illusion, it might be worthwhile to see through it, and to consider why it exists. That’s doubly true in view of the fact that the emotional traits that account for the illusion evolved in an environment radically different than the one most of us live in today. It is most unlikely that blindly responding to it will have the same outcome now as it did then.

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