The “Moral Philosophers” and the “Power of the Air”

In Ephesians 2:2 we read,

Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.

Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul.  They are not atheists after all.  They, too, believe in “the power of the air.”  It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.”  It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do.  Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity.  Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors.  According to Daniel Dennett,

Regretfull Trump voters:  It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on.  Act now.  Every day you wait adds guilt.

Richard Dawkins chimes in:

“Make America great again?”  Obama’s America already WAS great.  And now look what you’ve got!  A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.

Sam Harris piles on:

I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy.  Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.

Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:

Presidents can revise immigration policies.  But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.

I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases.  Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense.  Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?”  Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?”  Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?”  I think not.   Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”

What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species.  Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup?  It’s there in all its glory.  Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury.  Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives.  The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!”  It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong.  No!  By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”

This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like.  Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God.  This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed.  It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them.  We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist.  None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire.  They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”

In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature.  Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species.  How much smarter than the rest can we really be?  The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds.  We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions.  One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon.  At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.

Moral Emotions and Moral Truth

There are moral emotions.  There is no such thing as moral truth.

The above are fundamental facts.  We live in a world of moral chaos because of our failure to accept them and grasp their significance.

Eighteenth century British philosophers demonstrated that emotions are the source of all moral judgments.  “Pure reason” is incapable of anything but chasing its own tail.  Darwin revealed the origin of the emotions as the result of evolution by natural selection.  It was left for the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck to draw the obvious conclusion; that there is no such thing as moral truth.

David Hume is often given the credit for identifying emotions or, as he put it, “passions,” as the source of moral judgments.  According to Hume,

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

However, when he wrote the above, Hume was really just repeating the earlier work of Francis Hutcheson.  It was Hutcheson who demonstrated the emotional origin of moral judgments beyond any serious doubt.  I encourage modern readers who are interested in the subject to read his books on the subject.  I have quoted him at length in earlier posts, and I will do so again here.  Here is what he had to say about the power of “pure reason” to isolate moral truth:

If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.

There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object.  This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike:  Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action:  Both propositions are equally true.

But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.

Hutcheson followed up this critique of reason with some comments about the role of “human nature” as the origin and inspiration of all moral judgment that might almost have come from a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology, and that are truly stunning considering that they were written early in the 18th century.  Again quoting the Ulster Scots/British philosopher as well as my own comments from an earlier post:

Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.

If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:

Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature:  and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.”  He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.

Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time.  As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:

Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition.  Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe:  Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed:  And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.

He concludes,

Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections?  …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire?  And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation.  A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.

The fact that Hutcheson believed that God was the origin of the emotions in question in no way detracts from the power of his logic about the essential role of the emotions themselves.  No modern philosopher sitting on the shoulders of Darwin has ever spoken more brilliantly or more clearly.

In considering the relevance of the above to the human condition, one must keep in mind the fact that any boundary between moral emotions and other emotions is artificial.  Nature created no such boundaries, and they are an artifact of the human tendency to categorize.  Of all the emotions not normally included in the category of moral emotions, the most significant may well be our tendency to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Our outgroup includes people we consider “deplorable.”  They are commonly perceived as evil, and are usually associated with other negative qualities.  For example, they may be considered impure, disgusting, contemptible, infidels, etc.  Outgroup identification is universal, although the degree to which it is present may vary significantly from one individual to the next, like any other subjective mental predisposition.  If one would explore and learn to understand his moral consciousness, he would do well to begin by asking the question, “What is my outgroup?”  The “deplorables” will always be there.

Consider the implications of the above.  Follow the abstruse reasoning of the “experts on ethics,” to its source, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

Follow the arcane logic of theologians touching on the moral implications of this or that excerpt from the holy scriptures, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

When bathroom warriors, or anti-culture appropriators, or the unmaskers of inappropriate Halloween costumes rain down their anathemas on anyone who happens to disagree with them, consider what motivates their behavior, and yet again you will find emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

Stand in a crowd of Communists as they sing the Internationale, or of Nazis dreaming noble dreams of the liberation of Aryans everywhere from the powers of darkness as they sing the Horst Wessel Song, and you will find that the emotions those songs evoke evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  You won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup, either of Communists or Nazis.  Millions of them were murdered in the name of these two manifestations of higher morality.

We live in a time of moral chaos because these truths have been too hard for us to bear.  As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we tend to invoke our inner moral lawyer whenever we happen to disagree with someone else about what ought to be.  We consult our moral emotions, and seek to justify ourselves by evoking similar moral emotions in others.  In the process we bamboozle ourselves and others into believing that those emotions relate to real things that we commonly refer to as good and evil, that are imagined to have an independent existence of their own.  They don’t.  They are merely illusions spawned by emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.

In a word, what we are doing is blindly following and reacting to emotional whims, even though it is questionable whether doing so will have the same result as it did when those whims evolved.  For that matter, we don’t even care.  As long as we can satisfy whims that evolved in the Pleistocene, it matters not at all to us that they will accomplish precisely the opposite in the 21st century to what they did then.  The result is what I have referred to as a morality inversion.  Instead of promoting our survival, the emotions in question promote behavior that accomplishes the opposite in the radically different environment we live in today.  It matters not a bit.  As long as we “feel in our bones” that the actions in question are “Good,” we cheerfully commit suicide, whether by donning a suicide belt or deciding that it must be “immoral” to have children.  We imagine that these actions are “noble” and “morally pure” even though all we have really done is satisfy atavistic whims without the least regard for why those whims exist to begin with, and whether responding to them is likely to accomplish the same thing now as it did millions of years ago or not.

Again, we live in a world of moral chaos because we have been unable to face the truth, simple and obvious as it is.  There is nothing “bad” about that, nor is there anything “good” about it.  It is just the way things are.  I personally would prefer that we face the truth.  Perhaps then it would occur to us that, since we can hardly do without morality, we would be well advised to come up with a simple moral system that maximizes the ability of each of us to pursue whatever whims we happen to find important with as little fear of possible of being threatened, vilified, or otherwise subjected to the penalties that are typically the lot of outgroups.  If we faced the truth about the real subjective origins of what have seemed objective moral certainties to so many of us in the past, perhaps at least some of us would be more reticent about seeking to impose their own versions of morality on those around them.  If we faced the truth, perhaps we would realize that our universal tendency to blindly vilify and condemn outgroups represents an existential threat to us all, and that the threat must be recognized and controlled.

These are things that I would like to see.  Of course, they represent nothing more significant than my own whims.

George Gissing, G. E. Moore, and the “Good in Itself”

A limited number of common themes are always recognizable in human moral behavior.  However, just as a limited number of atoms can combine to form a vast number of different molecules, so those themes can combine to form a vast variety of different moral systems.  Those systems vary not only from place to place, but in the same place over time.  A striking example of the latter may be found in the novels of George Gissing, most of which were published in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Gissing was a deep-dyed Victorian conservative of a type that would be virtually unrecognizable to the conservatives of today.  George Orwell admired him, and wrote a brief but brilliant essay about him that appears in In Front of Your Nose, the fourth volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters.  Orwell described him as one of the greatest British novelists because of the accuracy with which he portrayed the poverty, sordid social conditions, and sharp caste distinctions in late Victorian England.  Orwell was generous.  Gissing condemned socialism, particularly in his novel Demos, whereas Orwell was a lifelong socialist.

According to the subtitle of the novel, it is “A story of English socialism.”  Socialism was becoming increasingly fashionable in those days, but Gissing wasn’t a sympathizer.  He wanted to preserve everything just as it had been at some halcyon time in the past.  Hubert Eldon, the “hero” of the novel, wouldn’t pass for one in our time.  Today he would probably be seen as a rent-seeking parasite. He was apparently unsuited for any kind of useful work, and spent most of his time gazing at pretty pictures in European art galleries when he wasn’t in England.  When he was home his favorite pastime was to admire the country scenery near the village of Wanley, where he lived with his mother.

Eldon was expecting to inherit a vast sum of money from his brother’s father-in-law, a self-made industrialist named Richard Mutimer.  He could then marry the pristine Victorian heroine, Adela Waltham, who also lived in the village.  However, to everyone’s dismay, the old man dies intestate, and the lion’s share of the money goes to a distant relative, also named Richard Mutimer, who happens to be a socialist workingman.  The younger Mutimer uses the money to begin tearing the lovely valley apart in order to build mines and steel mills for a model socialist community.  Adela’s mother, a firm believer in the ennobling influence of money, insists that she marry Mutimer.  Dutiful daughter that she is, she obeys, even though she loves Eldon.  In the end, Mutimer is conveniently killed off.  The old man’s will is miraculously found and it turns out Eldon inherits the money after all.  This “hero” doesn’t shrink from dismantling the socialist community that had been started by his rival, even though he knew it would throw the breadwinners of many families out of work. He thought it was too ugly, and wanted to return the landscape to its original beauty.  Obviously, the author thought he was being perfectly reasonable even though, as he mentioned in passing, former workers in a socialist community would likely be blacklisted and unable to find work elsewhere.  It goes without saying that the “hero” gets the girl in the end.

One of the reasons Orwell liked Gissing so much was the skill with which he documented the vast improvement in the material welfare of the average citizen that had taken place in England over the comparatively horrific conditions that prevailed in the author’s time. Unfortunately, that improvement could never have taken place without the sacrifice of many pleasant country villages like Wanley. Gissing was nothing if not misanthropic, and probably would have rejected such progress even if he could have imagined it. In fact old Mutimer was the first one to think of mining the valley, and the author speaks of the idea as follows:

It was of course a deplorable error to think of mining in the beautiful valley which had once been the Eldon’s estate. Richard Mutimer could not perceive that. He was a very old man, and possibly the instincts of his youth revived as his mind grew feebler; he imagined it the greatest kindness to Mrs. Eldon and her son to increase as much as possible the value of the property he would leave at his death. They, of course, could not even hint to him the pain with which they viewed so barbarous a scheme; he did not as much as suspect a possible objection.

Gissing not only accepted the rigid class distinctions of his day, but positively embraced them.  In describing the elder Mutimer he writes,

Remaining the sturdiest of Conservatives, he bowed in sincere humility to those very claims which the Radical most angrily disallows: birth, hereditary station, recognised gentility – these things made the strongest demand upon his reverence. Such an attitude was a testimony to his own capacity for culture, since he knew not the meaning of vulgar adulation, and did in truth perceive the beauty of those qualities to which the uneducated Iconoclast is wholly blind.

The author leaves no doubt about his rejection of “progress” and his dim view of the coming 20th century in the following exchange between Eldon and his mother about the socialist Mutimer:

“Shall I tell you how I felt in talking with him?  I seemed to be holding a dialogue with the 20th century, and you may think what that means.”

“Ah, it’s a long way off, Hubert.”

“I wish it were farther.  The man was openly exultant; He stood for Demos grasping the scepter.  I am glad, mother, that you leave Wanley before the air is poisoned.”

“Mr. Mutimer does not see that side of the question?”

“Not he!  Do you imagine the twentieth century will leave one green spot on the earth’s surface?”

“My dear, it will always be necessary to grow grass and corn.”

“By no means; depend upon it.  Such things will be cultivated by chemical processes.  There will not be one inch left to nature; the very oceans will somehow be tamed, the snow mountains will be leveled.  And with nature will perish art.  What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?”

Mrs. Eldon sighed gently.

“I shall not see it.”

Well, the twentieth century did turn out pretty badly, especially for socialism, but not quite that badly.  Of course, one can detect some of the same themes in this exchange that one finds in the ideology of 21st century “Greens.”  However, I think the most interesting affinity is between the sentiments in Gissing’s novels and the moral philosophy of G. E. Moore.  I touched on the subject in an earlier post .  Moore was the inventor of the “naturalistic fallacy,” according to which all moral philosophers preceding him were wrong, because they insisted on defining “the Good” with reference to some natural object.  Unfortunately, Moore’s own version of “the Good” turned out to be every bit as slippery as any “sophisticated Christian’s” version of God.  It was neither fish nor fowl, mineral nor vegetable.

When Moore finally got around to giving us at least some hint of exactly what he was talking about in his Principia Ethica, we discovered to our surprise that “the Good” had nothing to do with the heroism of the Light Brigade, or Horatius at the Bridge.  It had nothing to do with loyalty or honor.  It had nothing to do with social justice or the brotherhood of man.  Nor did it have anything to do with honesty, justice, or equality.  In fact, Moore’s version of “the Good” turned out to be a real thigh slapper.  It consisted of the “nice things” that appealed to English country gentlemen at more or less the same time that Gissing was writing his novels. It included such things as soothing country scenery, enchanting music, amusing conversations with other “good” people, and perhaps a nice cup of tea on the side.  As Moore put it,

We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

and,

By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve doubted it. Not only have I doubted it, but I consider the claim absurd.  Those words were written in 1903.  By that time a great many people were already aware of the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection.  That connection was certainly familiar to Darwin himself, and a man named Edvard Westermarck spelled out the seemingly obvious implications of that connection in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas a few years later, in 1906.  Among those implications was the fact that the “good in itself” is pure fantasy.  “Good” and “evil” are subjective artifacts that are the result of the behavioral predispositions we associate with morality filtered through the minds of creatures with large brains.  Nature played the rather ill-natured trick of portraying them to us as real things because that’s the form in which they happened to maximize the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive and reproduce. (That, by the way, is why it is highly unlikely that “moral relativity” will ever be a problem for our species.)  The fact that Moore was capable of writing such nonsense more than 40 years after Darwin appeared on the scene suggests that he must have lived a rather sheltered life.

In retrospect, it didn’t matter.  Today Moore is revered as a great moral philosopher, and Westermarck is nearly forgotten.  It turns out that the truth about morality was very inconvenient for the “experts on ethics.”  It exposed them as charlatans who had devoted their careers to splitting hairs over the fine points of things that didn’t actually exist.  It popped all their pretentions to superior wisdom and virtue like so many soap bubbles.  The result was predictable.  They embraced Moore and ignored Westermarck.  In the process they didn’t neglect to spawn legions of brand new “experts on ethics” to take their places when they were gone.  Thanks to their foresight we find the emperor’s new clothes are gaudier than ever in our own time.

The work of George Gissing is an amusing footnote to the story.  We no longer have to scratch our heads wondering where on earth Moore came up with his singular notions about the “Good in itself.”  It turns out the same ideas may be found fossilized in the works of a Victorian novelist.  The “experts on ethics” have been grasping at a very flimsy straw indeed!

George Gissing
George Gissing

The “Moral Progress” Delusion

“Moral progress” is impossible.  It is a concept that implies progress towards a goal that doesn’t exist.  We exist as a result of evolution by natural selection, a process that has simply happened.  Progress implies the existence of an entity sufficiently intelligent to formulate a goal or purpose towards which progress is made.  No such entity has directed the process, nor did one even exist over most of the period during which it occurred.  The emotional predispositions that are the root cause of what we understand by the term “morality” are as much an outcome of natural selection as our hands or feet.  Like our hands and feet, they exist solely because they have enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce.  There is increasing acceptance of the fact that morality owes its existence to evolution by natural selection among the “experts on ethics” among us.  However, as a rule they have been incapable of grasping the obvious implication of that fact; that the notion of “moral progress” is a chimera.  It is a truth that has been too inconvenient for them to bear.

It’s not difficult to understand why.  Their social gravitas and often their very livelihood depend on propping up the illusion.  This is particularly true of the “experts” in academia, who often lack marketable skills other than their “expertise” in something that doesn’t exist.  Their modus operandi consists of hoodwinking the rest of us into believing that satisfying some whim that happens to be fashionable within their tribe represents “moral progress.”  Such “progress” has no more intrinsic value than a five year old’s progress towards acquiring a lollipop.  Often it can be reasonably expected to lead to outcomes that are the opposite of those that account for the existence of the whim to begin with, resulting in what I have referred to in earlier posts as a morality inversion.  Propping up the illusion in spite of recognition of the evolutionary roots of morality in a milieu that long ago dispensed with the luxury of a God with a big club to serve as the final arbiter of what is “really good” and “really evil” is no mean task.  Among other things it requires some often amusing intellectual contortions as well as the concoction of an arcane jargon to serve as a smokescreen.

Consider, for example, a paper by Professors Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell entitled Toward a Naturalistic Theory of Moral ProgressIt turned up in the journal Ethics, that ever reliable guide to academic fashion touching on the question of “human flourishing.”  Far from denying the existence of human nature after the fashion of the Blank Slaters of old, the authors positively embrace it.  They cheerfully admit its relevance to morality, noting in particular the existence of a predisposition in our species to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups; what Robert Ardrey used to call the Amity/Enmity Complex.  Now, if these things are true, and absent the miraculous discovery of any other contributing “root cause” for morality other than evolution by natural selection, whether in this world or the realm of spirits, it follows logically that “progress” is a term that can no more apply to morality than it does to evolution by natural selection itself.  It further follows that objective Good and objective Evil are purely imaginary categories.  In other words, unless one is merely referring to the scientific investigation of evolved behavioral traits, “experts on ethics” are experts about nothing.  Their claim to possess a philosopher’s stone pointing the way to how we should act is a chimera.  For the last several thousand years they have been involved in a sterile game of bamboozling the rest of us, and themselves to boot.

Predictly, the embarrassment and loss of gravitas, not to mention the loss of a regular paycheck, implied by such a straightforward admission of the obvious has been more than the “experts” could bear.  They’ve simply gone about their business as if nothing had happened, and no one had ever heard of a man named Darwin.  It’s actually been quite easy for them in this puritanical and politically correct age, in which the intellectual life and self-esteem of so many depends on maintaining a constant state of virtuous indignation and moral outrage.  Virtuous indignation and moral outrage are absurd absent the existence of an objective moral standard.  Since nothing of the sort exists, it is simply invented, and everyone stays outraged and happy.

In view of this pressing need to prop up the moral fashions of the day, then, it follows that no great demands are placed on the rigor of modern techniques for concocting real Good and real Evil.  Consider, for example, the paper referred to above.  The authors go to a great deal of trouble to assure their readers that their theory of “moral progress” really is “naturalistic.”  In this enlightened age, they tell us, they will finally be able to steer clear of the flaws that plagued earlier attempts to develop secular moralities.  These were all based on false assumptions “based on folk psychology, flawed attempts to develop empirically based psychological theories, a priori speculation, and reflections on history hampered both by a lack of information and inadequate methodology.”  “For the first time,” they tell us, “we are beginning to develop genuinely scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through the development of empirical psychological theories that take evolutionary biology seriously.”  This begs the question, of course, of how we’ve managed to avoid acquiring “scientific knowledge about human nature” and “taking evolutionary biology seriously” for so long.  But I digress.  The important question is, how do the authors manage to establish a rational basis for their “naturalistic theory of moral progress” while avoiding the Scylla of “folk psychology” on the one hand and the Charybdis of “a priori speculation” on the other?  It turns out that the “basis” in question hardly demands any complex mental gymnastics.  It is simply assumed!

Here’s the money passage in the paper:

A general theory of moral progress could take a more a less ambitious form.  The more ambitious form would be to ground an account of which sorts of changes are morally progressive in a normative ethical theory that is compatible with a defensible metaethics… In what follows we take the more modest path:  we set aside metaethical challenges to the notion of moral progress, we make no attempt to ground the claim that certain moralities are in fact better than others, and we do not defend any particular account of what it is for one morality to be better than another.  Instead, we assume that the emergence of certain types of moral inclusivity are significant instances of moral progress and then use these as test cases for exploring the feasibility of a naturalized account of moral progress.

This is indeed a strange approach to being “naturalistic.”  After excoriating the legions of thinkers before them for their faulty mode of hunting the philosopher’s stone of “moral progress,” they simply assume it exists.  It exists in spite of the elementary chain of logic leading inexorably to the conclusion that it can’t possibly exist if their own claims about the origins of morality in human nature are true.  In what must count as a remarkable coincidence, it exists in the form of “inclusivity,” currently in high fashion as one of the shibboleths defining the ideological box within which most of today’s “experts on ethics” happen to dwell.  Those who trouble themselves to read the paper will find that, in what follows, it is hardly treated as a mere modest assumption, but as an established, objective fact.  “Moral progress” is alluded to over and over again as if, by virtue this original, “modest assumption,” the real thing somehow magically popped into existence in the guise of “inclusivity.”

Suppose we refrain from questioning the plot, and go along with the charade.  If inclusivity is really to count as moral progress, than it must not only be desirable in certain precincts of academia, but actually feasible.  However if, as the authors agree, humans are predisposed to perceive others of their species in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the feasibility of inclusivity is at least in question.  As the authors put it,

Attempts to draw connections between contemporary evolutionary theories of morality and the possibility of inclusivist moral progress begin with the standard evolutionary psychological assertion that the main contours of human moral capacities emerged through a process of natural selection on hunter-gatherer groups in the Pleistocene – in the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA)… The crucial claim, which leads some thinkers to draw a pessimistic inference about the possibility of inclusivist moral progress, is that selection pressures in the EEA favored exclusivist moralisties.  These are moralities that feature robust moral commitments among group members but either deny moral standing to outsiders altogether, relegate out-group members to a substantially inferior status, or assign moral standing to outsiders contingent on strategic (self-serving) considerations.

No matter, according to the authors, this flaw in our evolved moral repertoire can be easily fixed.  All we have to do is lift ourselves out of the EEA, achieve universal prosperity so great and pervasive that competition becomes unnecessary, and the predispositions in question will simply fade away, more or less like the state under Communism.  Invoking that wonderful term “plasticity,” which seems to pop up with every new attempt to finesse human behavioral traits out of existence, they write,

According to an account of exclusivist morality as a conditionally expressed (adaptively plastic) trait, the suite of attitudes and behaviors associated with exclusivist tendencies develop only when cues that were in the past highly correlated with out-group threat are detected.

In other words, it is the fond hope of the authors that, if only we can make the environment in which inconvenient behavioral predispositions evolved disappear, the traits themselves will disappear as well!  They go on to claim that this has actually happened, and that,

…exclusivist moral tendencies are attenuated in populations inhabiting environments in which cues of out-group threat are absent.

Clearly we have seen a vast expansion in the number of human beings that can be perceived as ingroup since the Pleistocene, and the inclusion as ingroup of racial and religious categories that once defined outgroups.  There is certainly plasticity in how ingroups and outgroups are actually defined and perceived, as one might expect of traits evolved during times of rapid environmental change in the nature of the “others” one happened to be in contact with or aware of at any given time.  However, this hardly “proves” that the fundamental tendency to distinguish between ingroups and outgroups itself will disappear or is likely to disappear in response to any environmental change whatever.  Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to refer to the paper itself.

Clearly the authors imagine themselves to be “inclusive,” but is that really the case?  Hardly!  It turns out they have a very robust perception of outgroup.  They’ve merely fallen victim to the fallacy that it “doesn’t count” because it’s defined in ideological rather than racial or religious terms.  Their outgroup may be broadly defined as “conservatives.”  These “conservatives” are mentioned over and over again in the paper, always in the guise of the bad guys who are supposed to reject inclusivism and resist “moral progress.”  To cite a few examples,

We show that although current evolutionary psychological understandings of human morality do not, contrary to the contentions of some authors, support conservative ethical and political conclusions, they do paint a picture of human morality that challenges traditional liberal accounts of moral progress.

…there is no good reason to believe conservative claims that the shift toward greater inclusiveness has reached its limit or is unsustainable.

These “evoconservatives,” as we have labeled them, infer from evolutionary explanations of morality that inclusivist moralities are not psychologically feasible for human beings.

At the same time, there is strong evidence that the development of exclusivist moral tendencies – or what evolutionary psychologists refer to as “in-group assortative sociality,” which is associated with ethnocentric, xenophobic, authoritarian, and conservative psychological orientations – is sensitive to environmental cues…

and so on, and so on.  In a word, although the good professors are fond of pointing with pride to their vastly expanded ingroup, they have rather more difficulty seeing their vastly expanded outgroup as well, more or less like the difficulty we have seeing the nose at the end of our face.  The fact that the conservative outgroup is perceived with as much fury, disgust, and hatred as ever a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan felt for blacks or Catholics can be confirmed by simply reading through the comment section of any popular website of the ideological Left.  Unless professors employed by philosophy departments live under circumstances more reminiscent of the Pleistocene than I had imagined this bodes ill for their theory of “moral progress” based on “inclusivity.”  More evidence that this is the case is easily available to anyone who cares to look for “diversity” in the philosophy department of the local university in the form of a professor who can be described as conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

I note in passing another passage in the paper that demonstrates the fanaticism with which the chimera of “moral progress” is pursued in some circles.  Again quoting the authors,

Some moral philosophers whom we have elsewhere called “evoliberals,” have tacitly affirmed the evo-conservative view in arguing that biomedical interventions that enhance human moral capacities are likely to be crucial for major moral progress due to evolved constraints on human moral nature.

In a word, the delusion of moral progress is not necessarily just a harmless toy for the entertainment of professors of philosophy, at least as far as those who might have some objection to “biomedical interventions” carried out be self-appointed “experts on ethics” are concerned.

What’s the point?  The point is that we are unlikely to make progress of any kind without first accepting the truth about our own nature, and the elementary logical implications of that truth.  Darwin saw them, Westermarck saw them, and they are far more obvious today than they were then.  We continue to ignore them at our peril.

Anti-Natalism For Thee, But Not For Me

According to Wikipedia, anti-natalism is “a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth.”  In general, it includes the claim that having children is immoral.  Commenter Simon Elliot asked that I take up the topic again, adding,

I remember you said that you didn’t take it seriously because you thought it demonstrated a “morality inversion” of sorts, but I’ve since spoken to a fellow anti-natalist who has heard that argument many times and has found a way around it.

I’ll gladly take up the topic again.  As for the anti-natalist who’s “found a way around it,” all I can say is, more power to him.  I don’t peddle objective “oughts” on this blog, because no one has ever succeeded in capturing one and showing it to me.  As far as I’m concerned, there are only subjective oughts, and I know of no mechanism whereby the ones that happen to reside inside my skull can manage to escape and acquire normative power over other human beings.  My personal ought regarding natalism applies only to myself.

According to that ought, I should have as many children as possible.  Since I also believe that I and my descendants would be much better off if the population of the planet were greatly reduced, I certainly don’t want everyone else to share this particular ought.  Ideally, I would prefer that only a small percentage of the current population share my opinion on the subject.  The subset in question would consist of those individuals whose survival would contribute most to the survival of my own kin in particular, and to the indefinite survival of life as we know it in general.

Simon is right when he says that I consider anti-natalism an example of a “morality inversion.”  By that I mean that anti-natalists typically rely on moralistic arguments to render themselves biological dead ends, whereas morality exists because the genes that are its root cause were selected by virtue of the fact that they resulted in just the opposite.  Why am I a natalist?  You might say it’s a matter of aesthetic taste.  I perceive morality inversions as symptoms that a biological entity is sick and dysfunctional.  I don’t like to think of myself as sick and dysfunctional.  Therefore I tend to avoid morality inversions.

My position on the matter also has to do with my perception of my consciousness.  My consciousness is the “me” that I perceive, but it will survive but a short time.  On the other hand, there is something about me that has survived 3 billion years, give or take, carried by an unbroken chain of physical entities, culminating in myself.  That part of me, my genes, is potentially immortal.  I consider them, and not my consciousness, the real “me.”  My consciousness is really just an ancillary feature of my current phenotype that exists because it happened to increase the odds that the real “me” would survive.  I find the thought that my consciousness might “malfunction” and break the chain disturbing.  I would prefer that the chain remain unbroken.  Therefore, I am a natalist.  However, I have no interest whatsoever in “converting” anti-natalists.  Other than the exceptions noted above, the more of them the better as far as I’m concerned.

Good and evil have no objective existence.  It is therefore impossible that I could have a “duty” to be either a natalist or an anti-natalist, independent of what is thought to be my duty in my own or anyone else’s subjective mind.  It does not occur to me that my personal opinion on the matter has some kind of a normative power on anyone else, nor am I willing to allow anyone else’s opinion to have any normative power over me.

I realize perfectly well that anti-natalists like David Benatar seek to justify their opinions on what they perceive as objective moral standards.  However, that perception is an illusion.  In view of what moral emotions really are, and the reasons that they exist to begin with, I consider attempts to apply morality to decide this issue not only irrational, but potentially dangerous, at least in terms of the goals in life that are important to me.  They are irrational and potentially dangerous for more or less the same reasons that it is irrational and potentially dangerous to blindly consult moral emotions in any situation significantly more complex than the routine interactions of individuals.  Western societies are currently in the process of demonstrating the fact by engaging in suicidal behavior that is routinely fobbed off as an expression of moral righteousness.  No doubt the verdict of history on the effects of this “righteousness” will be quite educational for whoever happens to occupy the planet a century from now.  Unfortunately, the anti-natalists won’t be around to witness what the resulting “human flourishing” will look like in the real world.

In a word, then, my position on the matter is, “anti-natalism for thee, but not for me.”  No doubt it is a position that is immoral according to the subjective standards prevailing in the academy and among the like-minded denizens of the ideological Left.  However, I am confident I can bear the shame until the individuals in question manage to successfully remove themselves from the gene pool.

Panksepp, Animal Rights, and the Blank Slate

So who is Jaak Panksepp?  Have a look at his YouTube talk on emotions at the bottom of this post, for starters.  A commenter recommended him, and I discovered the advice was well worth taking.  Panksepp’s The Archaeology of Mind, which he co-authored with Lucy Biven, was a revelation to me.  The book describes a set of basic emotional systems that exist in all, or virtually all, mammals, including humans.  In the words of the authors:

…the ancient subcortical regions of mammalian brains contain at least seven emotional, or affective, systems:  SEEKING (expectancy), FEAR (anxiety), RAGE (anger), LUST (sexual excitement), CARE (nurturance), PANIC/GRIEF (sadness), and PLAY (social joy).  Each of these systems controls distinct but specific types of behaviors associated with many overlapping physiological changes.

This is not just another laundry list of “instincts” of the type often proposed by psychologists at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  Panksepp is a neuroscientist, and has verified experimentally the unique signatures of these emotional systems in the ancient regions of the brain shared by humans and other mammals.  Again quoting from the book,

As far as we know right now, primal emotional systems are made up of neuroanatomies and neurochemistries that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species.  This suggests that these systems evolved a very long time ago and that at a basic emotional and motivational level, all mammals are more similar than they are different.  Deep in the ancient affective recesses of our brains, we remain evolutionarily kin.

If you are an astute student of the Blank Slate phenomenon, dear reader, no doubt you are already aware of the heretical nature of this passage.  That’s right!  The Blank Slaters were prone to instantly condemn any suggestion that there were similarities between humans and other animals as “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, if you read the book you will find that their reaction to Panksepp and others doing similar research has been every bit as allergic as their reaction to anyone suggesting the existence of human nature.  However, in the field of animal behavior, they are anything but a quaint artifact of the past.  Diehard disciples of the behaviorist John B. Watson and his latter day follower B. F. Skinner, Blank Slaters of the first water, still haunt the halls of academia in significant numbers, and still control the message in any number of “scientific” journals.  There they have been following their usual “scholarly” pursuit of ignoring and/or vilifying anyone who dares to disagree with them ever since the heyday of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin.  In the process they have managed to suppress or distort a great deal of valuable research bearing directly on the wellsprings of human behavior.

We learn from the book that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been as damaging for other animals as it has been for us.  Among other things, it has served as the justification for indifference to or denial of the feelings and consciousness of animals.  The possibility that this attitude has contributed to some rather gross instances of animal abuse has been drawing increasing attention from those who are concerned about their welfare.  See for example, the website of Panksepp admirer Temple Grandin.  According to Panksepp & Bevin,

Another of Descartes’ big errors was the idea that animals are without consciousness, without experiences, because they lack the subtle nonmaterial stuff from which the human mind is made.  This notion lingers on today in the belief that animals do not think about nor even feel their emotional responses.

Many emotion researchers as well as neuroscience colleagues make a sharp distinction between affect and emotion, seeing emotion as purely behavioral and physiological responses that are devoid of affective experience.  They see emotional arousal as merely a set of physiological responses that include emotion-associated behaviors and a variety of visceral (hormonal/autonomic) responses, without actually experiencing anything – many researchers believe that other animals may not feel their emotional arousals.  We disagree.

Some justify this rather counter-intuitive belief by suggesting that it is impossible to really experience or be conscious of emotions (affects) without language.  Panksepp & Bevins’ response:

Words cannot describe the experience of seeing the color red to someone who is blind.  Words do not describe affects either.  One cannot explain what it feels like to be angry, frightened, lustful, tender, lonely, playful, or excited, except indirectly in metaphors.  Words are only labels for affective experiences that we have all had – primary affective experiences that we universally recognize.  But because they are hidden in our minds, arising from ancient prelinguistic capacities of our brains, we have found no way to talk about them coherently.

With such excuses, and the fact that they could not “see” feelings and emotions in their experiments with “reinforcement” and “conditioning,” the behaviorists concluded that the feelings of the animals they were using in their experiments didn’t matter.  It was outside the realm of “science.”  Again from the book,

Much as we admire the scientific finesses of these conditioning experiments, we part company with (Joseph) LeDoux and many of the others who conduct this kind of work when it comes to understanding what emotional feelings really are.  This is because they studiously ignore the feelings of their animals, and they often claim that the existence or nonexistence of the animals’ feelings is a nonscientific issue (although there are some signs of changing sentiments on these momentous issues).  In any event…, LeDoux has specifically endorsed the read-out theory – to the effect that affects are created by neocortical working-memory functions, uniquely expanded in human brains.  In other words, he see affects as a higher-order cognitive construct (perhaps only elaborated in humans), and thereby he envisions the striking FEAR responses of his animals to be purely physiological effects with no experiential consequences.

…And when we analyze the punishing properties of electrical stimulation here in animals, we get the strongest aversive responses imaginable at the lowest levels of brain stimulation, and humans experience the most fearful states of mind imaginable.  Such issues of affective experience should haunt fear-conditioners much more than they apparently do.

The evidence strongly indicates that there are primary-process emotional networks in the brain that help generate phenomenal affective experiences in all mammals, and perhaps in many other vertebrates and invertebrates.

It’s stunning, really.  Anyone who has ever owned a dog is aware of how similar their emotional responses can often be to those of humans, and how well they remember them.  Like humans, they are mammals.  Like humans, their brains include a cortex.  It would hardly be “parsimonious” to simply assume that humans represent some kind of a radical departure when it comes to the ability to experience and remember emotions, and that other animals lack this ability, in defiance of centuries of such “common sense” observations that they can.  All this mass of evidence apparently isn’t “scientific,” and therefore doesn’t count, because these latter day Blank Slaters can’t observe in their mazes and shock boxes what appears obvious to everyone else in the world.  “Anthropomorphism!”  From such profound reasoning we are apparently to conclude that pain in animals doesn’t matter.

Why the Blank Slate’s furious opposition to “anthropomorphism?”  In a sense, it’s actually an anachronism.  Recall that the fundamental dogma of the Blank Slate was the denial of human nature.  Obviously other mammals have a “nature.”  Clearly, the claim that dogs and cats must “learn” all their behavior from their “culture” was never going to fly.  Not so human beings.  Once upon a time the Blank Slaters claimed that everything in the human behavioral repertoire, with the possible exception of breathing, urinating, and defecating, was learned.  They even went so far as to include sex.  Even orgasms had to be “learned.”  It follows that the gulf between humans and animals had to be made as wide as possible.

Fast forward to about the year 2000.  As far as their denial of human nature was concerned, the Blank Slaters had lost control of the popular media.  To an increasing extent, they were also losing control of the message in academia.  Books and articles about innate human behavior began pouring from the presses, and people began speaking of human nature as a given.  The Blank Slaters had lost that battle.  The main reason for their “anthropomorphism” phobia had disappeared.  In the more sequestered field of “animal nature,” however, they could carry on as if nothing had happened without making laughing stocks of themselves.  No one was paying any attention except a few animal rights activists.  And carry on they did, with the same “scientific” methods they had used in the past.  Allow me to quote from Panksepp & Biven again to give you a taste of what I’m talking about:

It is noteworthy that Walter Hess, who first discovered the RAGE system in the cat brain in the mid-1930s (he won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949), using localized stimulation of the hypothalamus, was among the first to suggest that the behavior was “sham rage.”  He confessed, however, in writings published after his retirement (as noted in Chapter 2:  e.g., The Biology of Mind [1964]), that he had always believed that the animals actually experienced true anger.  He admitted to having shared sentiments he did not himself believe.  Why?  He simply did not want to have his work marginalized by the then-dominant behaviorists who had no tolerance for talk about emotional experiences.  As a result, we still do not know much about how the RAGE system interacts with other cognitive and affective systems of the brain.

In an earlier chapter on The Evolution of Affective Consciousness they added,

In his retirement he admitted regrets about having been too timid, not true to his convictions, to claim that his animals had indeed felt real anger.  He confessed that he did this because he feared that such talk would lead to attacks by the powerful American behaviorists, who might thereby also marginalize his more concrete scientific discoveries.  To a modest extent, he tried to rectify his “mistake” in his last book, The Biology of Mind, but this work had little influence.

So much for the “self-correcting” nature of science.  It is anything but that when poisoned by ideological dogmas.  Panksepp and Biven conclude,

But now, thankfully, in our enlightened age, the ban has been lifted.  Or has it?  In fact, after the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s, the behaviorist bias has largely been retained but more implicitly by most, and it is still the prevailing view among many who study animal behavior.  It seems the educated public is not aware of that fact.  We hope the present book will change that and expose this residue of behaviorist fundamentalism for what it is:  an anachronism that only makes sense to people who have been schooled within a particular tradition, not something that makes any intrinsic sense in itself!  It is currently still blocking a rich discourse concerning the psychological, especially the affective, functions of animal brains and human minds.

This passage is particularly interesting because it demonstrates, as can be seen from the passage about “the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s,” that the authors were perfectly well aware of the larger battle with the Blank Slate orthodoxy over human nature.  However, that rather opaque allusion is about as close as they came to referring to it in the book.  One can hardly blame them for deciding to fight one battle at a time.  There is one interesting connection that I will point out for the cognoscenti.  In Chapter 6, Beyond Instincts, they write,

The genetically ingrained emotional systems of the brain reflect ancestral memories – adaptive affective functions of such universal importance for survival that they were built into the brain, rather than having to be learned afresh by each generation of individuals.  These genetically ingrained memories (instincts) serve as a solid platform for further developments in the emergence of both learning and higher-order reflective consciousness.

Compare this with a passage from the work of the brilliant South African naturalist Eugene Marais, which appeared in his The Soul of the Ape, written well before his death in 1936, but only published in 1969:

…it would be convenient to speak of instinct as phyletic memory.  There are many analogies between memory and instinct, and although these may not extend to fundamentals, they are still of such a nature that the term phyletic memory will always convey a clear understanding of the most characteristic attributes of instinct.

As it happens, the very charming and insightful introduction to The Soul of the Ape when it was finally published in 1969 was written by none other than Robert Ardrey!  He had an uncanny ability to find and appreciate the significance of the work of brilliant but little-known researchers like Marais.

As for Panksepp, I can only apologize for taking so long to discover him.  If nothing else, his work and teachings reveal that this is no time for complacency.  True, the Blank Slaters have been staggered, but they haven’t been defeated quite yet.  They’ve merely abandoned the battlefield and retreated to what would seem to be their last citadel; the field of animal behavior.  Unfortunately there is no Robert Ardrey around to pitch them headlong out of that last refuge, but they face a different challenge now.  They can no longer pretend to hold the moral high ground.  Their denial that animals can experience and remember their emotions in the same way as humans leaves the door wide open for the abuse of animals, both inside and outside the laboratory.  It is to be hoped that more animal rights activists like Temple Grandin will start paying attention.  I may not agree with them about eating red meat, but the maltreatment of animals, justified by reference to a bogus ideological dogma, is something that can definitely excite my own RAGE emotions.  I will have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder with them in this fight.

On the Red Meat Morality Inversion

Dwight Furrow recently posted an article at 3 Quarks Daily entitled “In Defense of Eating Meat.”  His first paragraph reads,

There are many sound arguments for drastically cutting back on our consumption of meat—excessive meat consumption wastes resources, contributes to climate change, and has negative consequences for health. But there is no sound argument based on the rights of animals for avoiding meat entirely.

As far as the first sentence is concerned, I have no problem with rationally discussing the pros and cons of meat consumption as long as the emotional whims behind the reasons are laid on the table.  I certainly agree with the second sentence, for the same reason cited by Westermarck more than a century ago; there is no such thing as objective morality, and it is therefore not subject to truth claims.  Furrow “kind of” sees it that way, but not quite.  Indeed, the core of his argument is very revealing.  It exposes all the ambivalence of the modern moral philosopher who understands the evolutionary origins of morality, but can’t bear to accept the consequences of that truth.  It reads as follows:

Singer’s argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using “rights” talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.  The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings. Rights, then, are entitlements that determine what a right-holder may demand of others that we decide to honor in order to maintain the requisite level of social trust.

We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don’t eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals.

Lovers of boneless ribeye steaks may well wish to simply accept this as it stands.  Any port in a storm, right?  Unfortunately, I’m a bit more fastidious than that.  Before plunging ahead, however, a bit of background on the debate might be useful.  Perhaps the best known crusader against the consumption of red meat is Peter Singer.  His Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, published in 1975, has been, as Wiki puts it, “a formative influence on leaders of the modern animal liberation movement.”  His arguments are based on his conclusion that the particular flavor of utilitarianism he favored at the time constituted an objective guide for establishing the legitimacy of truth claims about the rights of animals.  As Furrow points out, the basic claim of the Utilitarians is that “only overall consequences matter in assessing the moral quality of an action.”  The most coherent statement of this philosophy was probably John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, published in 1863.  That was probably too early for the moral consequences of Darwin’s Origin, published in 1859, to sink in.  I seriously doubt that Mill himself would have been a Utilitarian if he had lived a century later.  He was too smart for that.  Mill explicitly denied any belief in objective morality, noting that mankind had been struggling to find such an objective standard since the time of Socrates.  In his words,

To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine. It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.

I think Mill would have grasped where the “standard not recognized” really came from if there had been time for the consequences of Darwin’s great theory to really dawn on him.  Not so Singer, who apparently either never read or never appreciated Mill’s own reservations about his moral philosophy when he wrote his book, and treated utilitarianism as some kind of a moral gold standard.

Which brings us back to Furrow’s counter-arguments.  Note in the above quote that he recognizes that morality is both subjective and an “evolutionary development.”  From that point, however, he wanders off into an intellectual swamp.  If morality is an evolutionary development, then it is quite out of the question that it arose, “…because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.”  Evolution is not driven by needs, nor does it serve any purpose.  Robert Ardrey put it very succinctly in his bon mot, “Birds do not fly because they have wings.  They have wings because they fly.”  According to Furrow, “The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation.”  No, evolution didn’t somehow create an “institution of morality” consisting of “a set of considerations.”  Rather, it resulted in a set of behavioral responses in the form of emotions and feelings.  In other words, it produced the “moral sense” whose existence was demonstrated by Francis Hutcheson a century and a half before Darwin.  These emotions and feelings have their analogs in other animals.  We can only “consider” what they might mean after we have experienced them.  Had we not experienced them to begin with there would be nothing to consider, and therefore no morality.  Morality is a fundamentally emotional behavioral phenomena, and not some cognitively distilled laundry list of legalistic prescriptions for developing trust so we can cooperate with each other.

Furrow goes on to claim that animals cannot have rights because our “flourishing” does not depend on trusting them.  However, that can only be true if it is also true that the “purpose” of morality and therefore the “goal” of evolution was to promote “human flourishing,” which is nonsense.  “Rights” are subjective emotional constructs that we commonly delude ourselves into perceiving as real things.  It follows that any metric of their objective legitimacy when applied to animals is entirely equivalent to their objective legitimacy when applied to humans; zero.

My own opinion on the eating of red meat is not based on any claim that I understand the “purpose” of moral emotions better than Singer.  Rather, it is based on the observation that morality exists because it has made our genetic survival more probable.  It therefore seems to me that interpreting our moral emotions in a way that makes our survival less likely is a characteristic of a dysfunctional biological unit.  In other words, it is what I call a morality inversion.  Establishing artificial moral taboos against the eating of red meat or any other food that might increase our chances of survival in the event that there’s not enough food to go around strikes me as just such a morality inversion.  It is based on the wildly improbable assumption that there will always be enough food to go around, in spite of the continuing increase of the human population, and in spite of the fact that such a state of affairs has often been more the exception rather than the rule throughout human history.  In other words, it amounts to turning morality against itself.

There is nothing objectively wrong about morality inversions.  It’s just that an aversion to them happens to be one of my personal whims.  I like the idea of my own continued genetic survival and the continued survival of the human race because it seems to me to be in harmony with the reasons we happen to exist to begin with.  As a result, I have a negative emotional response to moral systems that accomplish the opposite.  In other words, according to my cognitive interpretation of my own subjective moral emotions, eating red meat is “good,” and morally induced vegetarianism is “evil.”  As I said, it’s just a whim, but I see no reason why my whims should take a back seat to anyone else’s, and that’s all Singer’s infinitesimally elaborated version of utilitarianism really amounts to.  Indeed, I’m encouraged by the hope that there are others who also place a certain value on survival, and therefore share my whims.  I note in passing that they by no means coincide with the notion of “human flourishing” that currently prevails in the academy.

 

More Ardreyania, with Pinker and CRISPR

Robert Ardrey is the one man the “men of science” in the behavioral disciplines would most like to see drop down the memory hole for good.  Mere playwright that he was, he was presumptuous enough to be right about the existence of human nature when all of them were wrong, and influential enough to make them a laughing stock among educated laypeople for denying it.  They’ve gone to great lengths to make him disappear ever since, even to the extreme of creating an entire faux “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  I, however, having lived through the events in question, and still possessed of a vestigial respect for the truth, will continue to do my meager best to set the record straight.  Indeed, dear reader, I descended into the very depths to glean material for this post, so you won’t have to.  In fine, I unearthed an intriguing Ardrey interview in the February 1971 issue of Penthouse.

The interview was conducted in New York by Harvey H. Segal, who had served on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1968 to 1969, and was an expert on corporate economics.  The introductory blurb noted the obvious to anyone who wasn’t asleep at the time; that the main theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature.

Equipped only with common sense, curiosity, and a practiced pen, Robert Ardrey shouldered his way into the study of human nature and has given a new direction to man’s thinking about man.

and

An impact on this scale is remarkable for any writer, but in Ardrey’s case it has the added quality of being achieved in a second career.

As usual, in this interview as in every other contemporary article and review of his work that I’ve come across, there is no mention of his opinion on group selection.  It will be recalled that Ardrey’s favorable take on this entirely ancillary subject in his book The Social Contract was seized on by Steven Pinker as the specious reason he eventually selected to announce that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong.”  There is much of interest in the interview but, as it happens, Ardrey’s final few remarks bear on the subject of my last post; artificial manipulation of human DNA.

In case you haven’t read it, that post discussed some remarks on the ethical implications of human gene manipulation by none other than – Steven Pinker.  According to Pinker the moral imperative for the bioethicists who were agonizing over possible applications of such DNA-altering tools as CRISPR-Cas9 was quite blunt; “Get out of the way.”  Their moral pecksniffery should not be allowed to derail the potential of these revolutionary tools for curing or alleviating a great number of genetically caused diseases and disorders or its promise of “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing.”  Pinker dismisses concerns about the possible misuse of the technology as follows:

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

That smacks a bit of what the German would call “Verharmlosung” – insisting that something is harmless when it really isn’t.  Tools like CRISPR certainly have the potential for altering DNA in ways not necessarily intended to merely cure disease.  For example, many intelligence related genes have already been found, and new ones are being found on a regular basis.  Alterations in genes that influence human behavior are also possible.  Ardrey had a somewhat more sober take on the subject in the interview referred to above.  For example,

Segal:  What about the possibility of altering the brain and human instincts through new advances in genetics, DNA and the like?

Ardrey:  I don’t have much faith.  Altering of the human being is something to approach with the greatest apprehension because it depends on what kind of human being you want.  It is not so long since H. J. Muller, one of the greatest American geneticists and one of the first eugenicists, was saying that we have to eliminate aggression.  But now there is (Konrad) Lorenz who says that aggression is the basis of almost all life.  Reconstruction of the human being by human beings is too close to domestication, like control of the breeding of animals.  Muller’s plan for the human future was dealing with sheep.  I happen to be one who works best at being something other than a sheep, and I think most people do.

and a bit later, on the prospect of curing disease:

I see some important things that might be done with DNA on a very simple scale, such as repairing an error in, say, a hemophiliac – one of those genetic errors that appear at random every so often.  But that is making a thing normal.  It is not impossible that some genetically-caused disease, particularly if it has a one-gene basis, might be fixed.  But genes are like a club or political party with all sorts of jostling and jockeying between them.  You change one and a bell rings at the other end of the line.

I tend to agree with Ardrey that there is a strong possibility that CRISPR and similar tools will be misused.  However, I also agree with Pinker that the bioethicists are only likely to succeed in stalling the truly beneficial applications, and the most “moral” course for them will be to step aside.  The dangers are there, but they are dangers the bioethicists are most unlikely to have the power to do anything about.

At the individual level, parents interested in enhancing the intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks of their offspring will seize the opportunity to do so, taking the moralists with a grain of salt in the process, and if the technology is there, the opportunity to create “designer babies” will be there as well for those rich enough to afford it.  Even more worrisome is the potential misuse of the technology by state actors.  As Ardrey pointed out, they may well take a much greater interest in the ancient bits of the brain that control our feelings, moods and behavior than in the more recently added cortical enhancements responsible for our relatively high intelligence.

In a word, what we face is less a choice than a fait accompli.  Like nuclear weapons, the technology will eventually be applied in ways the bioethicists are likely to find very disturbing.  It’s not a question of if, but when.  The end result of this new era of artificially accelerated evolution will certainly be interesting for those lucky enough to be around to witness it.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

Steven Pinker on “The moral imperative for bioethics”

According to Steven Pinker in The moral imperative for bioethics, an opinion piece he recently wrote for the Boston Globe,

…the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.  Get out of the way.

I would strengthen that a bit to something like, “Stop the mental masturbation and climb back into the real world.”  At some level Pinker is aware of the fact that bioethicists and other “experts” in morality are not nearly as useful to the rest of us as they think they are.  He just doesn’t understand why.  As a result he makes the mistake of conceding the objective relevance of morality in solving problems germane to the field of biotechnology.  The fundamental problem is that these people are chasing after imaginary objects, things that aren’t real.  They have bamboozled the rest of us into taking them seriously because we have been hoodwinked by our emotional baggage just as effectively as they have.  There is no premium on reality as far as evolution is concerned.  There is a premium on survival.  We perceive “good” and “evil” as real objects, not because they actually are real objects, but because our ancestors were more likely to pass on the relevant genes if they perceived these fantasies as real things.  Bioethics is just one of the many artifacts of this delusion.

Consider what the bioethicists are really claiming.  They are saying that mental impressions that exist because they happened to improve the evolutionary fitness of a species of advanced, highly social, bipedal apes correspond to real things, commonly referred to as “good” and “evil,” that have some kind of an objective existence independent of the minds of those creatures.  Not only that, but if one can but capture these objects, which happen to be extremely elusive and slippery, one can apply them to make decisions in the field of biotechnology, which didn’t exist when the mental equipment that gives rise to the impressions in question evolved.  Consider these extracts from the online conversation:

Carl Elliot, at his blog, Fear and Loathing in Bioethics,

Forget Tuskegee. Forget Willowbrook and Holmesburg Prison. Pay no attention to the research subjects who died at Kano, Auckland Women’s Hospital or the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Never mind about Jesse Gelsinger, Ellen Roche, Nicole Wan, Tracy Johnson or Dan Markingson. According to Steven Pinker, “we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.”  So bioethicists should just shut up about abuses and let smart people like him get on with their work.

Pinker:

Indeed, biotechnology has moral implications that are nothing short of stupendous. But they are not the ones that worry the worriers.

Julian Savulescu at the Practical Ethics website:

What we need is less obstruction of good and ethical research, as Pinker correctly observes, and more vigilance at picking up unethical research. This requires competent, professional and trained bioethicists and improvement of ethics review processes.

Daniel K. Sokol, also at Practical Ethics:

The idea that research that has the potential to cause harm should be subject to ethical review should not be controversial in the 21st century. The words “this project has been reviewed and approved by the Research Ethics Committee” offers some reassurance that the welfare of participants has been duly considered. The thought of biomedical research without ethical review is a frightening one.

Pinker:

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.”

One imagines oneself in Bedlam.  These people are all trying to address what most people would agree is a real problem.  They understand that most people don’t want to be victims of anything like the Tuskegee experiments.  They also grasp the fact that most people would prefer to live longer, healthier lives.  True, these, too, are merely subjective goals, whims if you will, but they are whims that most of us will agree with.  The whims aren’t the problem.  The problem is that we are trying to apply a useless tool to reach the goals; human moral emotions.  We are trying to establish truths by consulting emotions to which no truth claims can possibly apply.  Stuart Rennie got it right in spite of himself in his attack on Pinker at his Global Bioethics Blog:

My first reaction was: how is this new bioethics skill taught? Should there be classes that teach it in a stepwise manner, i.e. where you first learn not to butt in, then how to just step a bit aside, followed by somewhat getting out of the way, and culminating in totally screwing off? What would the syllabus look like? Wouldn’t avoiding bioethics class altogether be a sign of success?

Pinker, too, iterates to an entirely rational final sentence in his opinion piece:

Biomedical research will always be closer to Sisyphus than a runaway train — and the last thing we need is a lobby of so-called ethicists helping to push the rock down the hill.

I, too, would prefer not to be a Tuskegee guinea pig.  I, too, would like to live longer and be healthier.  I simply believe that emotional predispositions that exist because they happen to have been successful in regulating the social interactions within and among small groups of hunter-gatherers millennia ago, are unlikely to be the best tools to achieve those ends.

bedlam

Morality Inversions

The nature of morality and the reason for its existence have been obvious for more than a century and a half.  Francis Hutcheson demonstrated that it must arise from a “moral sense” early in the 18th century.  Hume agreed, and suggested the possibility that there may be a secular explanation for the existence of this moral sense.  Darwin demonstrated the nature of this secular explanation for anyone willing to peak over the blindfold of faith and look at the evidence.  Westermarck climbed up on the shoulders of these giants, gazed about, and summarized the obvious in his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In short, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are subjective artifacts of behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved.  Absent that evolved “moral sense,” morality as we know it would not exist.  It evolved because it happened to increase the probability that the genes responsible for its existence would survive and reproduce.  There exists no mechanism whereby those genes can jump out of the DNA of one individual, grab the DNA of another individual by the scruff of the neck, and dictate what kind of behavior that other DNA should regard as “good” or “evil.”

In the years since Darwin and Westermarck our species has amply demonstrated its propensity to ignore such inconvenient truths.  Once upon a time religion provided some semblance of a justification for belief in an objective “good-in-itself.”  However, latter day “experts” on ethics and morality have jettisoned such anachronisms, effectively sawing off the branch they were sitting on.  Then, with incomparable hubris, they’ve claimed a magical ability to distill objective “goods” and “evils” straight out of the vacuum they were floating in.  In our own time the result is visible as a veritable explosion of abstruse algorithms, incomprehensible to all but a few academic scribblers, for doing just that.  Encouraged by these “experts,” legions of others have indulged themselves in the wonderfully sweet delusion that the particular haphazard grab bag of emotions they happened to inherit from their ancestors provided them with an infallible touchstone for sniffing out “real good” and “real evil.”  The result has been an orgy of secular piety that the religious Puritans of old would have shuddered to behold.

The manifestations of this latter day piety have been bizarre, to say the least.  Instead of promoting genetic survival, they accomplish precisely the opposite.  Genes that are the end result of an unbroken chain of existence stretching back billions of years into the past now seem intent on committing suicide.  It’s not surprising really.  Other genes gave rise to an intelligence capable of altering the environment so fast that the rest couldn’t possibly keep up.  The result is visible in various forms of self-destructive behavior that can be described as “morality inversions.”

A classic example is the belief that it is “immoral” to have children.  Reams of essays, articles, and even books have been written “proving” that, for various reasons, reproduction is “bad-in-itself.”  If one searches diligently for the “root cause” of all these counterintuitive artifacts of human nature, one will always find them resting on a soft bed of moral emotions.  What physical processes in the brain give rise to these moral emotions, and how, exactly, do they predispose us to act in some ways, but not others?  No one knows.  It’s a mystery that will probably remain unsolved until we unravel the secret of consciousness.  One thing we do know, however.  The emotions exist because they evolved, and they evolved because they enhanced the odds that the genes that gave rise to them would reproduce; or at least they did in a particular environment that no longer exists.  In the vastly different environment we have now created for ourselves, however, they are obviously capable of promoting an entirely different end, at least in some cases; self destruction.

Of course, self destruction is not objectively evil because nothing is objectively evil.  Neither is it unreasonable, because, as Hume pointed out, reason by itself cannot motivate us to do anything.  We are motivated by “sentiments” or “passions” that we experience because it is our nature to experience them.  These include the moral passions.  Self destruction is a whim, and reason can be applied to satisfy the whim.  I happen to have a different whim.  I see myself as a link in a vast chain of millions of living organisms, my ancestors, if you will.  All have successfully reproduced, adding another link to the chain.  Suppose I were to fail to reproduce, thus becoming the final link in the chain and announcing, in effect, to those who came before me and made my life possible that, thanks to me, all their efforts had ended in a biological dead end.  In that case I would see myself as a dysfunctional biological unit or, in a word, sick, the victim of a morality inversion.  It follows that I have a different whim; to reproduce.  And so I have.  There can be nothing that renders my whims in any way objectively superior to those of anyone else.  I merely describe them and outline what motivates them.  I’m not disturbed by the fact that others have different whims, and choose self destruction.  After all, their choice to remove themselves from the gene pool and stop taking up space on the planet may well be to my advantage.

Another interesting example of a morality inversion is the deep emotional high so many people in Europe and North America seem to get from inviting a deluge of genetically and culturally alien immigrants to ignore the laws of their countries and move in.  One can but speculate on the reasons that the moral emotions, mediated by culture as they always are, result in such counterintuitive behavior.  There is, of course, such a thing as human altruism, and it exists because it evolved.  However, that evolutionary process took place in an environment that made it likely that such behavior would enhance the chances that the responsible genes would survive.  People lived in relatively small ingroups surrounded by more or less hostile outgroups.  We still categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, but the process has become deranged.  Thanks to our vastly expanded knowledge of the world around us combined with vastly improved means of communication, the ingroup may now be perceived as “all mankind.”

Except, of course, for the ever present outgroup.  The outgroup hasn’t gone anywhere.  It has merely adopted a different form.  Now, instead of the clan in the next territory over, the outgroup may consist of liberals, conservatives, Christians, Moslems, atheists, Jews, blacks, whites, or what have you.  The many possibilities are familiar to anyone who has read a little history.  Obviously, the moral equipment in our brains doesn’t have the least trouble identifying the population of Africa, the Middle East, or Mexico as members of the ingroup, and citizens of one’s own country who don’t quite see them in that light as the outgroup.  In that case, anyone who resists a deluge of illegal immigrants is “evil.”  If they point out that similar events in the past have led to long periods of ethnic and/or religious strife, occasionally culminating in civil war, or any of the other obvious drawbacks of uncontrolled immigration, they are simply shouted down with the epithets appropriate for describing the outgroup, “racist” being the most familiar and hackneyed example.  In short, a morality inversion has occurred.  Moral emotions have become dysfunctional, promoting behavior that will almost certainly be self-destructive in the long run.  I may be wrong of course.  The immigrants now pouring into Europe and North America without apparent limit may all eventually be assimilated into a big, happy, prosperous family.  I seriously doubt it.  Wait and see.

One could cite many other examples.  The faithful, of course, have their own versions, such as removing themselves from the gene pool by acting as human bombs, often taking many others with them in the process.  The “good” in this case is the delusional prospect of enjoying the services of 70 of the best Stepford wives ever heard of in the afterlife.  Regardless, the point is that the evolved emotional baggage that manifests itself in so many forms as human morality has been left in the dust.  It cannot possibly keep up with the frenetic pace of human social and technological progress.  The result is morality inversions; behaviors that accomplish more or less the opposite of what they did in the environment in which they evolved.  Under the circumstances, the practice of allowing people to wallow in their moral emotions, insisting that they have a monopoly on the “good” and anyone who opposes them is “evil” is becoming increasingly problematic.  As noted above, I don’t have a problem with these people voluntarily removing themselves from the gene pool.  I do have a problem with becoming collateral damage.