Darwin was well aware of the implications of his great theory regarding human morality. As he put it in Chapter IV of his “The Descent of Man,”
The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, than any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.
He added another passage of critical significance with respect to the notion that “moral truth” has some kind of objective or transcendental existence, and that natural selection has had the felicitous tendency to “track” this moral truth in man:
It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though the admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.
Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s brilliant insights. In retrospect, they seem obvious. In his words,
As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotions 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 it 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 emotions fall entirely outside the category of truth.
If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth. It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else. But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true. If the word “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.
These words were written more than a century ago. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere, with rare exceptions they fell on deaf ears among the tribe of academic and professional philosophers. The result has been the descent of philosophy into the state of utter futility we find it in today. Cloaking the puerility of their work in obscure jargon, modern philosophers assume the existence of “moral truth,” either explicitly or implicitly, and assure us that they are supplying us with the “moral knowledge” necessary to perceive this nonexistent truth. It’s as if a vast army of intellectuals were supplying us with a precise knowledge of the nature of unicorns.
The absurdity of these pretensions becomes obvious when applied to something as concrete as the war in Ukraine. The reactions to that war certainly confirm what another brilliant thinker, Jonathan Haidt, wrote in his “The Righteous Mind”:
Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agenda – to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense. Keep you eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.
The modern tribe of philosophers is no exception to the rule. Anyone reading through their reactions to the war looking for insight into the “moral consciousness as a fact” of the two sides, as Westermarck put it, would search in vain. Instead, their contribution has been limited to ensuring that we can correctly distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Consider, for example, the contributions of four philosophers polled on the subject by Justin Weinberg, proprietor of the website “Daily Nous.” The first of them, Saba Bazargan-Forward, writes,
It might seem that the study of war ethics has little to add when it comes to morally evaluating Russia’s war in Ukraine. Consider Vladimir Putin’s motivations for the invasion. His goals might be security-driven, in that he fears NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. Or perhaps a revanchist nostalgia for the Russian empire is what motivates Putin. Or maybe he seeks to re-litigate the outcome of the Cold War. Or maybe Putin fears that the recent liberalization and democratization of Ukraine might spread to Russia, threatening his brand of kleptocratic authoritarianism. What is notable about these (and other) candidate explanations, is that none of them morally justify invading a peaceful, sovereign nation. His purported justifications are risible and fail to withstand even cursory examination. It is luminously obvious that Putin’s war in Ukraine is unjust. Given this, what can the study of war ethics, with its myriad principles, distinctions, and doctrines, possibly add to a moral evaluation of this war? Bringing the study of war ethics to bear on the invasion of Ukraine seems, to borrow a phrase from Hermine Wittgenstein, like using a scalpel to open up crates.
As Westermarck pointed out long ago, there is no such thing as moral truth, and in the absence of moral truth there can be no such thing as moral justification. There is also no basis for the claim that the war is unjust, or that it is just, either, for that matter. This philosopher is a victim of the illusion Westermarck referred to. He believes that emotions that evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago can somehow uncover “moral truths” about a war between societies that are radically different from anything that existed in those ancient times. Is it not abundantly obvious that blindly flailing about in an attempt to apply moral emotions that evolved among hunter-gatherers to conflicts among modern states, some of which are armed with nuclear weapons, is not only absurd, but highly dangerous? And yet modern philosophers, almost without exception, simply assume the existence of “moral truth,” and imagine that their value to society is in providing the rest of us with “moral knowledge” about this “moral truth.” Whimsically enough, this is just as true of those who admit that morality is subjective as of those who continue to insist that it is objective. Consider, for example, the contributions of the three other philosophers consulted by Prof. Weinberg. Jovana Davidovic imagines that her moral emotions have led her to the “truth” that Russian soldiers should lay down their arms:
Encouraging Russian soldiers today to remember what honorable fighting looks like, and put down their arms, is maybe a pie in the sky, but changing our norms regarding equality of combatants and what legitimate fighting in a war looks like, is not. Seeing at least some in the Russian military stand up against this unjust invasion will pay dividends in the days and years to come. Long-lasting peace can only come from respect and reconciliation. And knowing that at least some Russian people and Russian soldiers did the right thing can help sustain a healthy peace one day.
“Honorable fighting,” “unjust invasions,” and “the right thing,” are all emotionally based terms, perfectly familiar and understandable to every human being on the planet, yet entirely outside the realm of truth. We all suffer from the powerful illusion, the “feeling in our bones,” that they must represent some truth, but they simply don’t. Given the evolutionary origins of the emotions that gave rise to these terms, the belief that they represent some “truth” is out of the question.
We find the same assumption of the existence of “moral truth” in the contributions of the other two philosophers consulted by Prof. Weinberg. Christopher Finlay suggests we parse the applicable “moral truths,” to assign weights to equally imaginary “moral duties”:
The tension between a moral duty to protect victims of aggression and the duty to avoid uncontrolled escalation has led some US policy-makers to consider a possible middle way: instead of sending soldiers to Ukraine to thwart Russia’s invasion plans, it might be better to prepare for the eventuality that Ukraine’s regular forces might be defeated and then resist Russia’s occupation by arming Ukrainian guerrillas.
Helen Frowe imagines that her moral emotions are capable of supplying her with “truths” about which wars are “just” and which are “unjust”:
You don’t really need a just war theorist to shed light on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s campaign has already killed or injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Best guesses about the motivation for the war range from Putin’s having read some dodgy history books whilst developing lockdown-induced mental instability to a long-held desire to return Russia to its USSR glory—an agenda now being pursued via a charade of saving people from genocide in a country where no genocide is occurring. Unsurprisingly, neither explanation—nor even their combination—constitutes a just cause for war.
Any determination that a given war is “just” or “unjust” in itself must depend on the existence of some absolute moral standard as a basis for this claim. No such standard exists. It can be hard for us to appreciate the absurdity of such unqualified claims because we are all equipped with moral emotions that are more or less similar to Frowe’s. Her comments seem right, or at least reasonable to most of us, because we all subject to the moral illusions noted by Westermarck. However, consider the implications of what she is saying. Where does one find this absolute moral standard? How did it come into existence? Are we to believe that, at the moment of the big bang, not only neutrons, protons, and photons came flying out, but moral goods and evils as well? If so, given what Darwin said about the bees, isn’t it remarkable that these objects should just happen to “track” the moral emotions of our species, although a myriad of vastly different versions are possible? Supposing these imaginary objective goods and evils do exist, what possible difference could it make to us? If these moral objects are not congruent with the goals we’ve happened to set for ourselves, it would be absurd to pay any attention to them. After all, there is no authority to enforce them.
It’s sad, really. Philosophers could play an important role if they would stop playing the puerile game of searching for “moral truths” and “moral knowledge” and accept morality for what it is; a manifestation of evolved emotional traits that members of our species seek to interpret with our large brains. They could then try to find ways to for us to cope with these powerful emotions in societies that are radically different from the ones in which they evolved.
Seeking to concoct moral “truths” about something as complex as modern warfare is particularly dangerous and self-destructive in a world full of nuclear weapons. Supposing that, in harmony with the reasons we exist to begin with, our goals happen to include survival, it would behoove us in times of war to be as rational as possible, and as vigilant as possible against playing a game of blind man’s bluff with our moral emotions.