Morality: On Whose Authority?

There are two very basic truths that one must grasp to avoid living in a world of illusions. There is no God, and morality exists by virtue of natural selection. We are inclined by what we refer to as our human nature to prefer the world of illusion; to believe in both God and objective moral goods and evils. However, if one thinks about these things with an open mind, it seems to me the truth should be evident to any reasonably intelligent person. Unfortunately, there are legions of individuals in our societies who benefit from propping up these mirages. The first sort promises us that we will live on in the hereafter for billions and trillions of years, apparently accomplishing nothing of any particular use to anyone other than avoiding death. The second sort flatter our desire to be noble champions of a nonexistent Good, and assure us that, of the myriad versions of the same on offer, theirs is the only genuine article. Among the latter are the editors and contributors to Ethics, a journal which caters to duly certified experts in mirage recognition.

Darwin explained what morality is and why it exists more than a century and a half ago in his The Descent of Man. It is an artifact of natural selection that happened to increase the odds that the genes that are its root cause would survive. Absent those genes, morality, good and evil, would not exist. It follows that, since there is no way for simple facts of nature to spawn objective “oughts,” good and evil are not objective things, and they have no independent existence outside of the minds of individuals. They may have been useful illusions at some point, but they are illusions regardless. These rather simple and obvious facts are commonly treated as if they were in bad taste, particularly as far as the journal Ethics is concerned.

Consider, for example the latest issue of this flagship publication of our “experts on ethics.” The first article is entitled “Democratic Equality and the Justification of Welfare-State Capitalism.” Needless to say, nothing could be more irrelevant to human morality than welfare-state capitalism, since neither welfare-states nor capitalism existed at the time the genes responsible for the existence of morality evolved. The process of evolution is a fact of nature, and as such is incapable of “justifying” anything. On whose authority are we to base the claim that “democratic equality” is an “objective good”? It is a bastard child of human morality, spawned in a modern environment alien to the one in which it evolved. It is not clear that “democratic equality” will promote the survival of the relevant genes in its modern proponents. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the opposite may be the case. No matter, “democratic equality” happens to evoke the emotional response “good,” in a great many individuals, including the members of the author’s academic tribe. Since these worthies all agree that “democratic equality” is good, it is assumed that it must really be Good. This is the rather flimsy basis for the objective “goodness” of democratic equality. Or it is at least as far as that particular tribe is concerned. The ”authority” we are looking for is nothing more substantial than the whim of that tribe.

The next article is entitled “Proportionality in War: Revising Revisionism.” Here, again, we are dealing with another weird artifact of morality that can occur in creatures with large brains when they ponder what their emotions are trying to tell them without taking into account why those emotions exist to begin with. Modern warfare did not exist at the time these emotions evolved. In spite of that, they have caused some individuals to imagine that “proportionality in war” is “good.” Again, no authority is cited for this conclusion. Apparently, we must assume it is true because it is “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.” In reality, the only “authority” for this “objective good” is the majority opinion prevailing among the academic tribe that controls the content of a particular journal. Since modern warfare is, at least in some cases, a struggle for mere survival, it seems that “win the war” would be a more appropriate moral “good” in warfare than “proportionality.” Of course, since we are dealing with emotional responses rather than reason, it doesn’t matter.

Another article in the latest Ethics is entitled “Rank-Weighted Utilitarianism and the Veil of Ignorance.” It is a discussion of some of the latest algorithms fashionable among Utilitarians for calculating utility. Again, when we ask on whose authority we are to base the claim that there is any connection between utility and “objective good,” we are left in the dark. Certainly, John Stuart Mill, who wrote the book on Utilitarianism, is no such authority. He didn’t believe in objective or, as he put it, transcendental morality. He proposed utilitarianism as a mere matter of expedience, based on the assumption that, when it came to morality, human beings are perfectly malleable, or a Blank Slate, if you will. As Darwin pointed out some years later, that assumption is wrong. The very existence of morality is a reflection of innate behavioral predispositions. Unless this very basic fact is taken into account, calculating how much utility it takes to add up to a moral good is as futile as calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In short, if you seek the answer to the question, “On whose authority?”, it is unlikely that you will find it in the pages of Ethics. The claim of our modern “experts on ethics” that they know all about Good is similar to the claim by priests and mullahs that they know all about God. Both claim special knowledge of things that don’t exist. In both cases, their claim to respect in society and often their very livelihood depend on their ability to convince others that an illusion is real.

If Darwin was right, then morality is a bottom an emotional phenomenon. It exists by virtue of emotionally driven behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved, and they evolved in an environment that no longer exists. One cannot speak credibly about ethics or morality at all without taking these facts into account. In view of this, consider the following paragraph from the conclusion of the article in Ethics referred to above:

“I myself am inclined to reject both REU theory and RWU for reasons independent of these issues. But the results of this article provide some reason for fans of these theories – or, more generally, of any nonseparable theories of distribution or decision – not to appeal to the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance may be a valuable heuristic device for ensuring impartiality, but, as Parfit puts it, “it does that crudely, like frontal lobotomy.” It requires us to ignore information that may be relevant to distributive justice – that is, which utilities belong to whom, and in which outcomes. We should not make distributive choices by depriving ourselves of this information, but by ensuring that we are impartial in other ways, if we can.”

Forget the acronyms and consider the assumptions implied by this paragraph.  The most fundamental assumption is that “distributive justice” is an object, a thing. It is further assumed that this justice object is good-in-itself. No authority is given for this conclusion. Apparently, we are to believe that it is intuitively obvious to all right-thinking philosophers that distributive justice is good, period, independently of any individual’s opinion on the matter. The author would have us believe that, by carefully parsing the outcomes of different schemes of distribution, he has arrived at a superior algorithm for maximizing “distributive justice.” All that is necessary for us to be morally good is to apply this algorithm.

If Darwin was right about morality (and he was right), such speculations are reduced to the pure gibberish they appear to be to casual readers of Ethics. It is hardly surprising that human beings have come up with the notion of “distributive justice.” Natural selection has predisposed us to think that way. Obviously, thinking that way must have enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the context of the small groups that existed when the trait in question evolved. However, it can hardly be assumed that the behavior resulting from that predisposition will promote the survival of the relevant genes in modern societies consisting of hundreds of millions of individuals the same way it did in groups of a hundred hunter-gatherers in a completely different environment. Under the circumstances it seems reasonable to ask the promoters of “distributive justice”, “Why are you doing this.” If Darwin was right, then “distributive justice,” regardless of how it is defined, cannot be good, nor can it be evil, for the simple reason that these categories have no objective existence. They don’t exist regardless of the powerful, emotionally driven illusion that they do exist. That illusion exists because it was selected at the level of the individual, and perhaps at the level of small groups. Notions to the effect that it was selected for “the good of the species,” or for “human flourishing,” or for “the welfare of all mankind,” are all equally absurd.

A rational answer to the question would be something like this: “I realize why my moral emotions exist. I realize that the odds that blindly responding to them in the environment we live in today will promote my genetic survival the same way they did eons ago are vanishingly small. However, I’ve decided, even though I’m aware of the facts that account for my existence, that I’m not interested in survival. I just want to be happy. One thing that makes me happy is to pretend that I am morally good, even though I am also aware that no such thing as “good” exists, and is just an emotionally spawned illusion.” However, the promoters of these emotionally driven exercises in self-deception are never satisfied to promote “distributive justice” on their own. They insist that the rest of us also behave according to their complicated recipes for maximizing it. The inform us that if we fail to assign the same value to their version of “distributive justice” that they do, then they will declare us “evil.” There is but one rational response to that assertion.

“On whose authority?”


Morality and Social Chaos: Can You Hear Darwin Now?

When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, it immediately rendered all previous theories and systems of morality obsolete. If he was right, then everything about us, or at least everything with a significant impact on our odds of survival, exists by virtue of natural selection. Our innate behavioral traits, some of which give rise to what we commonly refer to as morality, are no exception.  For the most part, the philosophers didn’t notice, or didn’t grasp the significance of what Darwin had revealed. Many of them continued to devote whole careers to things as futile as explicating the obscure tomes of Kant, or inventing intricate theories to “prove” the existence of something as imaginary as objective morality. Others concocted whole new theories of morality supposedly based on “evolution.” Virtually all of them imagined that “evolution” was actively striving to make progress towards the goal of a “higher” morality, thereby demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the significance of the term “natural” in natural selection. Darwin himself certainly didn’t fail to grasp the moral implications of his theory. He tried to spell it out for us in his “The Descent of Man” as follows:

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitable acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

To read Darwin is to wonder at his brilliance. He was well aware of the dual nature of human morality long before Herbert Spencer undertook a systematic study of the phenomena, or Sir Arthur Keith published his theory of in-groups and out-groups:

But these feelings and services (altruistic behavior, ed.) are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association.

He exposed the imbecility of the notion that natural selection “tracks” some imaginary objective moral law in a few sentences:

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 they 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.

It is a tribute to the tremendous power of the evolved moral sense described by Darwin that it spawns a powerful illusion that Good and Evil are real things, that somehow exist independently of what anyone’s mere opinion of them happens to be. The illusion has been so powerful that even his clear and direct explanation of why it isn’t real was powerless to dispel it. Only one philosopher of note, Edvard Westermarck, proved capable of grasping the full import of what Darwin had written. Today one can complete an undergraduate degree in philosophy without ever seeing his name mentioned, even as a footnote, in the textbooks and anthologies.

We live in a world full of others of our kind, all of whom are chasing this illusion. They feel they “ought” to do things because they are good, noble, just, and moral. Using their big brains, they come up with all sorts of fanciful whims about what these things are that they “ought” to do. The reasons they use to arrive at these notions may be as complex as you please, but if you follow the chain of reasons to the end, you will always find they lead back to emotions. Those emotions spawn the illusion of the Good, and they exist by virtue of natural selection.

Do you feel a powerful impulse to join a Black Lives Matter demonstration? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you imagine that you can serve the Good by pulling down statues? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think that the people who are doing these things are Evil, and should be destroyed? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think we need a revolution or a civil war to insure the victory of the Good. You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Have you considered the fact that the panacea you imagine will result from a successful revolution or civil war will inevitably be just as “unnatural” for our species as the system it replaces? We are simply not adapted to live in the massive societies we are forced to live in today if we want to survive, no matter how cleverly they are organized. The best we can hope for is that they be so structured as to minimize the inconvenience of living in them.

As for the emotions referred to above, we may find it useful to keep in mind the fact that they exist because they happened to motivate behaviors that increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive in an environment populated by small, widely dispersed groups of hunter-gatherers. Today, in a radically different environment, those same emotions still motivate our behavior. However, the odds that this will have the same effect now as they did then in promoting gene survival are vanishingly small.

What are the implications of all this at the level of the individual?  For starters, it is neither Good nor Evil to rush around blindly responding to emotions by pulling down statues, joining demonstrations, organizing revolutions, or joining in civil wars. The obvious reason for this is that Good and Evil are terms for categories that simply don’t exist. They are imagined to exist. I merely suggest that individuals may want to stand back for a moment and consider whether, in their frantic efforts to promote the Good, they are accomplishing anything remotely connected to the reasons they imagine such a thing as the Good exists to begin with. The illusion of Good exists because it once promoted survival. As they pursue this mirage, individuals may want to consider whether their behavior will have a similar result today.

It is up to individuals to choose what their goals in life will be. No God or objective moral law can make the choice for them, because these things don’t exist. Supposing you’ve read Darwin, and understand that the sole reason for the existence of the emotions that motivate your behavior is the fact that, once upon a time, long, long ago, they happened to increase the odds that the genes you carry would survive. You can still choose to respond to those emotions in ways that make you happy, or in ways that make you feel good and noble, even if your behavior doesn’t improve the odds that you will survive, and may actually be suicidal. With a little effort, you may even still be able to delude yourself into believing that you really are fighting for the Good. Realizing that you are a link in a chain of living creatures that has existed unbroken for upwards of two billion years, you can make a conscious decision to be the final link. You can go through life imagining that you are as noble as Don Quixote, and then die, fully aware that you represent a biological dead end. None of these choices would be immoral. All I can say about them is that I don’t personally find them attractive.

I happen to have different goals. My goals are personal survival, and beyond that the continued survival of my species, and its continued evolution into forms that will promote the survival of biological life in general. To reach these goals, I realize it will occasionally be necessary to second guess my emotions, and to choose to act against the way they incline me to act. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are better than the goal of living a happy life, or of devoting my life to fighting on behalf of the illusion of Good. All I can say is that they are my goals, which I have chosen because they happen to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Darwin explained those reasons to us. Perhaps it’s time to start listening to him.

Corona Comments

There are no objective oughts, no objective goods, no objective values, and no objective moral virtues. That is a simple statement of fact, and implies nothing whatsoever regarding how we ought to behave. Facts bear no implications about what we should do, except as means to an end. We must decide for ourselves what ends to seek. Objective facts may then inform us what we “should” do if we want to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
Whatever the goals we set for ourselves happen to be, in large measure if not totally, they are a response to our “nature”; predispositions that are as much innate as our arms and legs. These predispositions are similar but not identical among human individuals, and they exist by virtue of natural selection. In other words, at some point and in some environment, they promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors. It cannot be assumed that their influence on our behavior will have that result in the very different environment most of us live in today.

Our nature does not determine our behavior, in the sense that it does not dictate what we must do in this or that situation. Rather, it inclines us to act in some ways, and not in others. It is fundamentally emotional, in humans as well as in other animals. We happen to have very large brains, and so can ponder over what our emotions are trying to tell us. We can reason about how we ought to respond to them. However, our reason is far from infallible. As the reasoning process becomes more complex, the outcome regarding what we “ought” to do will vary increasingly among individuals. This is doubly true by virtue of the fact that most individuals respond to their emotions blindly, never considering or taking into account why those emotions exist to begin with.

The above is illustrated by the response of our societies to the spread of COVID-19. The situation is anomalous, in that few of us have experienced anything like it. As a result, an appropriate response to it is not neatly packaged among our preferred or habitual responses to everyday occurrences. One result of this is that we find unusual differences of opinion about how we should react to the virus, even among those whose ideology, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” was formerly a reliable predicter of what their response to a given situation would be. Two factions have formed; those who tend to agree that we ought to take extreme measures to control the spread of the virus, and those who tend to believe that this “cure” is worse than the disease. At the moment the former faction has the upper hand, although the latter hasn’t been silenced completely.

Both factions present their arguments as if they are defending an objective truth. In fact, that is impossible, because objective “oughts” do not exist. What they are really defending is something they want, or value, and what they want or value represents their response to emotions that exist because they evolved. That statement applies not just to our response to a virus, but to every other form of conscious human behavior.

Emotional responses are bound to vary to some extent across populations that have been widely separated by time and space, but they tend to be quite similar, as one would expect of traits that happen to promote survival in a given species. Fear and avoidance of death is one trait almost all of us have in common. The emotional root cause of this fear probably hasn’t changed much, but in creatures with large brains such as ourselves, our behavior isn’t rigidly determined by our genes. We think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and how we should behave in response. Needless to say, we don’t always all come to the same conclusions, regardless of how similar the underlying emotions happen to be.

In the modern human societies that exist in western Europe and North America, fear of death may well be a greater motivator than ever before. We have few children, and can reasonably expect that those children will survive to adulthood. That was not the case in societies that are more typical of our past, where a large fraction of children didn’t survive past their first few years. Death was not exactly welcomed, but we were more likely to accept it as a matter of course. Now we are more inclined to treat it as an unmitigated calamity, and one that must be staved off as long as possible at all costs. In the case of the virus, it almost seems some of us believe they will be immortal if only they can avoid catching it. Under the circumstances, such drastic steps as shutting down complex modern economies appear to be completely rational. We hand wave away any negative affect this may have on our own and future generations by simply assuming that the global economy will quickly recover afterwards. If we follow the chain of logic that is used to justify this behavior to its ultimate source, we will always find an emotion. The emotion is followed blindly, without regard for the reason it exists to begin with. That reason is that it once enhanced the odds of survival and reproduction of the genes that give rise to it. The question of whether it will have the same result if blindly reacted to in a completely different environment is treated as if it were entirely irrelevant.

In the case of the virus, our innate fear of death has triumphed over all other emotions. We don’t take into account the fact that, while that fear exists for a reason, the programmed death of our physical bodies and consciousness occurs for exactly the same reason. Our fear of death and our programmed death both promote the survival of our genes. Our genes don’t protect us from death indefinitely. Rather, they insure that we will die, but at a time that is optimum for insuring that they will not die. They have been around, in different forms but in an unbroken chain, for more than two billion years. For all practical purposes, they are potentially immortal. I happen to share the goal of my genes. That goal is no more intrinsically good or virtuous than someone else’s goal to accomplish the opposite. However, it does seem to me to have the virtue of being in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with, and to be formed in full awareness of why the emotions that motivate it exist to begin with as well.

It does not seem “better” to me to be blindly blown about by the shifting winds of my emotions in a completely different environment than the one in which they evolved. The blind fear of death can be and often is trumped by an equally blind response to other emotions. Consider, for example, such slogans as “Death before dishonor,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “A fate worse than death.” Those who coined these slogans and those who were moved by them were no hypocrites. In the past we can find myriad examples of such individuals laying down their lives in defense of their principles. These principles were based on other innate emotions than fear of death, perhaps including hatred of the outgroup, or territoriality, or the struggle for status. Thus, while emotions are the basis of all our actions, they can motivate goals that are diametrically opposed to each other in different situations. I merely suggest that, instead of reacting to them blindly, we may find it useful to consider why they exist to begin with. That seems to me particularly true in the case of events as profound as global pandemics.

Objective Morality: The “Ethical Intuitionism” Gambit

Does it make any difference whether morality is objective or subjective? I think the answer to that question is certainly “yes”. If morality is objective, than it is our duty to obey the moral law no matter what. If we don’t, we are bad by definition. To the extent that other people understand the moral law better than we do, or are more virtuous than we are, they have an indubitable right to dictate to us how we ought to behave, and to vilify us if we don’t do as they tell us. If, on the other hand, morality is subjective, then it must be an artifact of natural selection. It could not be otherwise with emotionally motivated behavioral traits that clearly have a profound influence on whether we will survive or not. At least it could not be otherwise assuming there is no God, and that Hume and others before him were right in claiming that morality is not accessible via pure reason. For reasons I have outlined elsewhere, I think both of these assumptions are true. If morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection, then it follows that it can hardly be blindly assumed that what promoted our survival in the past when the traits in question evolved will continue to promote our survival in the present. In fact, it is quite possible that some of them have become dangerous in the environment we live in now. In that case no one has a right to dictate how we ought or ought not to behave based on their subjective version of morality. Instead of helpfully informing us what we need to do to be good, such people may actually pose a threat to us, to the extent that we value our own survival. These are only a few of the issues that depend on the answer to this question.

As my readers know, I believe that morality is subjective. Many philosophers disagree with me. One such is Prof. Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. Huemer, who has a blog by the name of Fake Nous, supports a version of objective morality known as ethical intuitionism, which is also the title of a book he has written about the subject. His claim is that we are “justified” in assuming there is an objective moral law because it “appears” to our intuition, and we should trust appearances absent convincing evidence that they are wrong. I think that, in examining this version of objective morality, it will be possible to expose some of the weaknesses common to them all.

According to Huemer, the morality object does not exist in the realm of objects that can “appear” to our usual five senses, either directly or via scientific instruments. Of course, this must be true, as no one has yet succeeded in snagging a good or evil object and putting it on display in a museum for the rest of us to admire. However, things in the extrasensory realm where the morality object exists do appear to our intuition. According to Huemer, that’s how we recognize its reality.

Of course, an obvious objection to Huemer’s claim that we are as justified in believing in objects that “appear” to our intuitions as in objects that appear to our senses is that claims based on such “appearances” are not falsifiable by the conventional scientific method of checking them via repeatable experiments.  However, setting that aside for the moment, let’s examine the credibility of this claim starting from the very beginning. For all practical purposes, the very beginning was the Big Bang. Physicists have given us plausible explanations of how everything we can detect in the observable universe came into existence in the aftermath of the Big Bang. I can accept the existence of quarks, photons, and quantum fields, because their “appearance” has been confirmed many times over in repeatable experiments, and they are accessible to my senses, either directly, or via scientific instruments. However, I find it incredible that this cataclysmic event also spit out a moral law object, which now somehow permeates all space. I am not at all trying to be funny here. If this thing the philosophers refer to exists, there must be some explanation of how it came to exist. What is it?

However, let us assume for the moment that the moral law object did somehow come into existence. Presumably this must have been before the evolution of human beings, else we couldn’t possibly have evolved the capacity to detect it with our intuitions. Absent some other plausible path to the existence in our brains of something as sophisticated as an “intuition” sense capable of enabling us to detect the moral law object, this ability must necessarily be a result of natural selection. Of course, natural selection doesn’t automatically choose the Good. It chooses whatever promotes our survival. If Huemer is right, then we must have somehow acquired, not only the ability to detect the moral law object via intuition, but virtually at the same time a predisposition to act in accordance with the moral law. By a wonderful coincidence, it also just so happened that acting in this way promoted the survival of creatures such as ourselves, although it would more likely have resulted in the immediate demise of other life forms. Darwin mentions bees, for example.

Our eyes and ears have taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve. How is it that a “sense” capable of detecting the moral law object evolved so quickly? It couldn’t have happened in creatures less intelligent than ourselves, because they have no morality, at least as it is described by Huemer, nor any need for an intuition capable of detecting it. The initial appearance of this “sense” in our species and its subsequent evolution to such a state of perfection must have happened rapidly indeed.

Huemer dismisses natural selection as an explanation of subjective morality because, in his words, it is “not impressive.” As can be seen above, however, he cannot simply hand wave natural selection out of existence. He claims we possess an intuition capable of detecting morality objects. How did we acquire this intuition absent natural selection? If Huemer wants to claim that God did it, well and good, we can debate the existence of God. However, I doubt he wants to go there. There is no mention of God in his book. Absent God, what other path to the acquisition of such a complex ability exists, other than natural selection? Huemer will have to be “impressed” by natural selection at some point, whether he likes it or not.

Assuming Darwin was right about natural selection, isn’t it simpler and more rational to accept that innate behavior, including the predispositions that give rise to morality, evolved directly because it happened to promote survival, resulting in our associating “good” with behavior that promoted our survival and “bad” with behavior that didn’t? The alternative proposed by Huemer is that we first evolved the ability to detect the moral law, only then followed by the evolution of awareness that the moral law was trying to get us to do something followed by a predisposition to believe it was “good” to follow the moral law and “bad” not to follow it, along with the remarkable coincidence that all this promoted our survival. Does this sound even remotely plausible to you? Then, to use one of the author’s favorite clichés, I have some bridges to sell you.

I submit that every version of objective morality that doesn’t rely on the intervention of supernatural beings suffers from the same implausibility as Huemer’s system, for more or less the same reasons. That’s why I believe that morality is subjective. Huemer notes in his book that I am hardly alone in this regard. There are legions of people who describe themselves as subjective moralists. However, as he also correctly points out, it doesn’t make any difference. When it comes to their actual moral behavior, they act in ways that are inexplicable absent the implied assumption of objective morality. I know of not a single exception to this rule among philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals of note. Every one of them treats their idiosyncratic moral judgments as if they automatically apply to others without so much as blinking an eye. That is actually a major theme of this blog. However, I’ve rambled on long enough, and will take up the matter in my next post.

Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality

I recently read a book entitled Nature’s Virtue by James Pontuso, a professor of political science at Hampden-Sydney College. He informs his readers that his goal in writing the book was to demonstrate a foundation for virtue. In his words,

It is in taking up the challenge of anti-foundationalism that I hope this book will contribute to the on-going dialogue about the place of virtue in human life. It will attempt to define virtue in the course of a discussion of its friends and adversaries.

Pontuso then takes us on a rambling discussion of what the postmodernists, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, and several other thinkers had to say about virtue. All this may be enlightening for students of philosophy, but it is neither here nor there as far as establishing a foundation for virtue is concerned. In fact, the last two paragraphs of the book are the closest he comes to “taking up the challenge.” There he writes, Continue reading “Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality”

Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

In my last post I noted that the arguments in an article by Ronald Dworkin defending the existence of objective moral truths could be used equally well to defend the existence of unicorns. Dworkin is hardly unique among modern philosophers in this respect. Prof. Katia Vavova of Mt. Holyoke College also defended objective morality in an article entitled Debunking Evolutionary Debunking published in 2014 in the journal Oxford Studies in Metaethics. According to Prof. Vavova’s version of the argument, it is impossible to accurately describe the characteristics of unicorns without assuming the existence of unicorns. Therefore, we must assume the existence of unicorns. QED

As the title of her article would imply, Prof. Vavova focuses on arguments against the existence of objective moral truths based on the Theory of Evolution. In fact, Darwin’s theory is hardly necessary to debunk moral objectivity. If objective moral truths exist independently of what anyone merely thinks to be true, they can’t be nothing. They must be something. Dworkin was obviously aware of this problem in the article I referred to in my last post. He was also aware that no one has ever detected moral objects in a form accessible to our familiar senses. He referred derisively to the notion that the existed as moral particles, or “morons,” or as “morality fields” accessible to the laws of physics. To overcome this objection, however, he was forced to rely on the even more dubious claim that moral truths exist in some sort of transcendental plane of their own, floating about as unphysical spirits. Continue reading “Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn”

Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not. Continue reading “Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?”

On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck

The illusion of objective morality is amazingly powerful. The evidence is now overwhelming that morality is a manifestation of emotions, and that these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that there can be no such thing as objective moral truths. The brilliant Edvard Westermarck explained why more than a century ago in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of 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.

Westermarck, in turn, was merely pointing out some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin had written about morality in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Today Westermarck is nearly forgotten, what Darwin wrote about morality is ignored as if it didn’t exist, and the illusion is as powerful and persistent as it was more than a century ago. Virtually every human being on the planet either believes explicitly in objective moral truths, or behaves as if they did regardless of whether they admit to believing in them or not. Continue reading “On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck”

Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint”: The Reply of the Walking Dead

The significance of Robert Plomin’s Blueprint is not that every word therein is infallible. Some reviewers have questioned his assertions about the relative insignificance of the role that parents, schools, culture, and other environmental factors play in the outcome of our lives, and it seems to me the jury is still out on many of these issues. See, for example, the thoughtful review of Razib Khan in the National Review. What is significant about it is Plomin’s description of new and genuinely revolutionary experimental tools of rapidly increasing power and scope that have enabled us to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that our DNA has a very significant influence on human behavior. In other words, there is such a thing as “human nature,” and it is important. This truth might see obvious today. It is also a fact, however, that this truth was successfully suppressed and denied for over half a century by the vast majority of the “scientists” who claimed to be experts on human behavior.

There is no guarantee that such scientific debacles are a thing of the past. Ideologues devoted to the quasi-religious faith that the truth must take a back seat to their equalist ideals are just as prevalent now as they were during the heyday of the Blank Slate. Indeed, they are at least as powerful now as they were then, and they would like nothing better than to breathe new life into the flat earth dogmas they once foisted on the behavioral sciences. Consider, for example, a review of Blueprint by Nathaniel Comfort entitled “Genetic determinism rides again,” that appeared in the prestigious journal Nature. The first paragraph reads as follows:

It’s never a good time for another bout of genetic determinism, but it’s hard to imagine a worse one than this. Social inequality gapes, exacerbated by climate change, driving hostility towards immigrants and flares of militant racism. At such a juncture, yet another expression of the discredited, simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature seems particularly insidious.

Can anyone with an ounce of common sense, not to mention the editors of a journal that purports to speak for “science,” read such a passage and conclude that the author will continue with a dispassionate review of the merits of the factual claims made in a popular science book? One wonders what on earth they were thinking. Apparently Gleichschaltung is sufficiently advanced at Nature that the editors have lost all sense of shame. Consider, for example, the hoary “genetic determinism” canard. A “genetic determinist” is a strawman invented more than 50 years ago by the Blank Slaters of old. These imaginary beings were supposed to believe that our behavior is rigidly programmed by “instincts.” I’ve searched diligently during the ensuing years, but have never turned up a genuine example of one of these unicorns. They are as mythical as witches, but the Blank Slaters never tire of repeating their hackneyed propaganda lines. It would be hard to “discredit” the “simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature” by virtue of the fact that no one ever made such a preposterous claim to begin with, and Plomin certainly wasn’t the first. Beyond that, what could possibly be the point of dragging in all the familiar dogmas of the “progressive” tribe? Apparently Nature would have us believe that scientific “truth” is to be determined by ideological litmus tests.

In the next paragraph Comfort supplies Plomin, a professor of behavior genetics, with the title “educational psychologist,” and sulks that his emphasis on chromosomal DNA leaves microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts, and developmental biologists out in the cold. Seriously? Since when did these fields manage to hermetically seal themselves off from DNA and become “non-overlapping magisteria?” Do any microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts or developmental biologists actually exist who consider DNA irrelevant to their field?

Comfort next makes the logically questionable claim that, because “Darwinism begat eugenics”, “Mendelism begat worse eugenics,” and medical genetics begat the claim that men with an XYY genotype were violent, therefore behavioral genetics must also “begat” progeny that are just as bad. QED

Genome-wide association (GWA) methods, the increasingly powerful tool described in Blueprint that has now put the finishing touches on the debunking of the Blank Slate, are dismissed as something that “lures scientists” because of its “promise of genetic explanations for complex traits, such as voting behavior or investment strategies.” How Comfort distills this “promise” out of anything that actually appears in the book is beyond me. One wonders if he ever actually read it. That suspicion is greatly strengthened when one reads the following paragraph:

A polygenic score is a correlation coefficient. A GWAS identifies single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the DNA that correlate with the trait of interest. The SNPs are markers only. Although they might, in some cases, suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait, the polygenic score itself is in no sense causal. Plomin understands this and says so repeatedly in the book – yet contradicts himself several times by arguing that the scores are in fact, causal.

You have to hand it to Comfort, he can stuff a huge amount of disinformation into a small package. In the first place, the second and third sentences contradict each other. If SNPs are variations in the rungs of DNA that occur between individuals, they are not just markers, and they don’t just “suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait.” If they are reliable and replicable GWA hits, they are one of the actual points at which the trait is affected. Plomin most definitely does not “understand” that polygenic scores are in no sense causal, and nowhere does he say anything of the sort, far less “repeatedly.” What he does say is:

In contrast, correlations between a polygenic score and a trait can only be interpreted causally in one direction – from the polygenic score to the trait. For example, we have shown that the educational attainment polygenic score correlates with children’s reading ability. The correlation means that the inherited DNA differences captured by the polygenic score cause differences between children in their school achievement, in the sense that nothing in our brains, behavior, or environment can change inherited differences in DNA sequence.

I would be very interested to hear what Comfort finds “illogical” about that passage, and by virtue of what magical mental prestidigitations he proposes to demonstrate that the score is a “mere correlation.” Elsewhere we read,

Hereditarian books such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) and Nicholas Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance (see N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014) exploited their respective scientific and cultural moments, leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda. Although Blueprint is cut from different ideological cloth, the consequences could be just as grave.

In fact, neither The Bell Curve nor A Troublesome Inheritance have ever been discredited, if by that term is meant being proved factually wrong. If books are “discredited” by how many ideological zealots begin foaming at the mouth on reading them, of course, it’s a different matter. Beyond that, if something is true, it does not become false by virtue of Comfort deeming it “undemocratic.” I could go on, but what’s the point? Suffice it to say that Comfort’s favorite “scientific authority” is Richard Lewontin, an obscurantist high priest of the Blank Slate if ever there was one, and author of Not in Our Genes.

I can understand the editors of Nature’s desire to virtue signal their loyalty to the prevailing politically correct fashions, but this “review” is truly abject. It isn’t that hard to find authors on the left of the political spectrum who can write a book review that is at least a notch above the level of tendentious ideological propaganda. See, for example, Kathryn Paige Harden’s review of Blueprint in the Spectator. Somehow she managed to write it without implying that Plomin is a Nazi in every second sentence.  I suggest that next time they look a little harder.

My initial post about Blueprint tended to emphasize the historical ramifications of the book in the context of the Blank Slate disaster. As a result, my description of the scientific substance of the book was very broad brush. However, there are many good reviews out there that cover that ground, expressing some of my own reservations about Plomin’s conclusions about the importance of environment in the process. See, for example, the excellent review by Razib Khan in the National Review linked above. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the book itself is only 188 pages long, so, by all means, read it.

Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint” – The Blank Slate and the Behavioral Genetics Insurgency

Robert Plomin‘s Blueprint is a must read. That would be true even if it were “merely” an account of recent stunning breakthroughs that have greatly expanded our understanding of the links between our DNA and behavior. However, beyond that it reveals an aspect of history that has been little appreciated to date; the guerilla warfare carried on by behavioral geneticists against the Blank Slate orthodoxy from a very early date. You might say the book is an account of the victorious end of that warfare. From now on those who deny the existence of heritable genetic effects on human behavior will self-identify as belonging to the same category as the more seedy televangelists, or even professors in university “studies” departments.

Let’s begin with the science.   We have long known by virtue of thousands of twin and adoption studies that many complex human traits, including psychological traits, are more or less heritable due to differences in DNA. These methods also enable us to come up with a ballpark estimate of the degree to which these traits are influenced by genetics. However, we have not been able until very recently to detect exactly what inherited differences in DNA sequences are actually responsible for the variations we see in these traits. That’s were the “revolution” in genetics described by Plomin comes in. It turns out that detecting these differences was to be a far more challenging task than optimistic scientists expected at first. As he put it,

When the hunt began twenty-five years ago everyone assumed we were after big game – a few genes of large effect that were mostly responsible for heritability. For example, for heritabilities of about 50 per cent, ten genes each accounting for 5 per cent of the variance would do the job. If the effects were this large, it would require a sample size of only 200 to have sufficient power to detect them.

This fond hope turned out to be wishful thinking. As noted in the book, some promising genes were studied, and some claims were occasionally made in the literature that a few such “magic” genes had been found. The result, according to Plomin, was a fiasco. The studies could not be replicated. It was clear by the turn of the century that a much broader approach would be necessary. This, however, would require the genotyping of tens of thousands of single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (snips). A SNP is a change in a single one of the billions of rungs of the DNA ladder each of us carries. SNPs are one of the main reasons for differences in the DNA sequence among different human beings. To make matters worse, it was expected that sample sizes of a thousand or more individuals would have to be checked in this way to accumulate enough data to be statistically useful. At the time, such genome-wide association (GWA) studies would have been prohibitively expensive. Plomin notes that he attempted such an approach to find the DNA differences associated with intelligence, with the aid of a few shortcuts. He devoted two years to the study, only to be disappointed again. It was a second false start. Not a single DNA association with intelligence could be replicated.

Then, however, a major breakthrough began to make its appearance in the form of SNP chips.  According to Plomin, “These could “genotype many SNPs for an individual quickly and inexpensively. SNP chips triggered the explosion of genome-wide association studies.” He saw their promise immediately, and went back to work attempting to find SNP associations with intelligence. The result? A third false start. The chips available at the time were still too expensive, and could identify too few SNPs. Many other similar GWA studies failed miserably as well. Eventually, one did succeed, but there was a cloud within the silver lining. The effect size of the SNP associations found were all extremely small. Then things began to snowball. Chips were developed that could identify hundreds of thousands instead of just tens of thousands of SNPs, and sample sizes in the tens of thousands became feasible. Today, sample sizes can be in the hundreds of thousands. As a result of all this, revolutionary advances have been made in just the past few years. Numerous genome-wide significant hits have been found for a host of psychological traits. And now we know the reason why the initial studies were so disappointing. In Plomin’s words,

For complex traits, no genes have been found that account for 5 per cent of the variance, not even 0.5 per cent of the variance. The average effect sizes are in the order of 0.01 per cent of the variance, which means that thousands of SNP associations will be needed to account for heritabilities of 50 per cent… Thinking about so many SNPs with such small effects was a big jump from where we started twenty-five years ago. We now know for certain that heritability is caused by thousands of associations of incredibly small effect. Nonetheless, aggregating these associations in polygenic scores that combine the effects of tens of thousands of SNPs makes it possible to predict psychological traits such as depression, schizophrenia and school achievement.

In short, we now have a tool that, as I write this, is rapidly increasing in power, and that enables falsifiable predictions regarding many psychological traits based on DNA alone. As Plomin puts it,

The DNA revolution matters much more than merely replicating results from twin and adoption studies. It is a game-changer for science and society. For the first time, inherited DNA differences across our entire genome of billions of DNA sequences can be used to predict psychological strengths and weaknesses for individuals, called personal genomics.

As an appreciable side benefit, thanks to this revolution we can now officially declare the Blank Slate stone cold dead. It’s noteworthy that this revolutionary advance in our knowledge of the heritable aspects of our behavior did not happen in the field of evolutionary psychology, as one might expect. Diehard Blank Slaters have been directing their ire in that direction for some time. They could have saved themselves the trouble. While the evolutionary psychologists have been amusing themselves inventing inconsequential just so stories about the more abstruse aspects of our sexual behavior, a fifth column that germinated long ago in the field of behavioral genetics was about to drive the decisive nail in their coffin. Obviously, it would have been an inappropriate distraction for Plomin to expand on the fascinating history behind this development in Blueprint.  Read between the lines, though, and its quite clear that he knows what’s been going on.

It turns out that the behavioral geneticists were already astute at dodging the baleful attention of the high priests of the Blank Slate, flying just beneath their radar, at a very early date. A useful source document recounting some of that history entitled, Origins of Behavior Genetics: The Role of The Jackson Laboratory, was published in 2009 by Donald Dewsbury, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Florida. He notes that,

A new field can be established and coalesce around a book that takes loosely evolving material and organizes it into a single volume. Examples include Watson’s (1914) Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology and Wilson’s (1975) Sociobiology. It is generally agreed that Fuller and Thompson’s 1960 Behavior Genetics served a similar function in establishing behavior genetics as a separate field.

However, research on the effects of genes on behavior had already begun much earlier. In the 1930’s, when the Blank Slate already had a firm grip on the behavioral sciences, According to the paper, Harvard alumnus Alan Gregg, who was Director of the Medical Sciences Division of Rockefeller Foundation,

…developed a program of “psychobiology” or “mental hygiene” at the Foundation. Gregg viewed mental illness as a fundamental problem in society and believed that there were strong genetic influences. There was a firm belief that the principles to be discovered in nonhuman animals would generalize to humans. Thus, fundamental problems of human behavior might be more conveniently and effectively studied in other species.

The focus on animals turned out to be a very wise decision. For many years it enabled the behavioral geneticists to carry on their work while taking little flak from the high priests of the Blank Slate, whose ire was concentrated on scientists who were less discrete about their interest in humans, in fields such as ethology. Eventually Gregg teamed up with Clarence Little, head of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and established a program to study mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, and, especially dogs. Gregg wrote papers about selective breeding of dogs for high intelligence and good disposition. However, as his colleagues were aware, another of his goals “was conclusively to demonstrate a high heritability of human intelligence.”

Fast forward to the 60’s. It was a decade in which the Blank Slate hegemony began to slowly crumble under the hammer blows of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Robert Trivers, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and especially the outsider and “mere playwright” Robert Ardrey. In 1967 the Institute for Behavioral Genetics (IBG) was established at the University of Colorado by Prof. Jerry McClearn with his colleagues Kurt Schlesinger and Jim Wilson. In the beginning, McClearn et. al. were a bit coy, conducting “harmless” research on the behavior of mice, but by the early 1970’s they had begun to publish papers that were explicitly about human behavior. It finally dawned on the Blank Slaters what they were up to, and they were subjected to the usual “scientific” accusations of fascism, Nazism, and serving as running dogs of the bourgeoisie, but by then it was too late. The Blank Slate had already become a laughing stock among lay people who were able to read and had an ounce of common sense. Only the “experts” in the behavioral sciences would be rash enough to continue futile attempts to breath life back into the corpse.

Would that some competent historian could reconstruct what was going through the minds of McClearn and the rest when they made their bold and potentially career ending decision to defy the Blank Slate and establish the IBG. I believe Jim Wilson is still alive, and no doubt could tell some wonderful stories about this nascent insurgency. In any case, in 1974 Robert Plomin made the very bold decision for a young professor to join the Institute. One of the results of that fortuitous decision was the superb book that is the subject of this post. As noted above, digression into the Blank Slate affair would only have been a distraction from the truly revolutionary developments revealed in his book. However, there is no question that that he was perfectly well aware of what had been going on in the “behavioral sciences” for many years. Consider, for example, the following passage, about why research results in behavioral genetics are so robust and replicate so strongly:

Another reason seems paradoxical: behavioral genetics has been the most controversial topic in psychology during the twentieth century. The controversy and conflict surrounding behavioral genetics raised the bar for the quality and quantity of research needed to convince people of the importance of genetics. This has had the positive effect of motivating bigger and better studies. A single study was not enough. Robust replication across studies tipped the balance of opinion.

As the Germans say, “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stark” (What doesn’t kill me make me strong). If you were looking for a silver lining to the Blank Slate, there you have it. What more can I say. The book is a short 188 pages, but in those pages are concentrated a wealth of knowledge bearing on the critical need of our species to understand itself. If you would know yourself, then by all means, buy the book.