Mankind’s Two Greatest Illusions

As the novelist and philosopher Harvey Fergusson once wrote, most people don’t think, they believe. It must be true, given the irrational things so many of us are convinced of. Of these, the two most familiar and universal are belief in God (or gods) and belief in the existence of a moral law, or good and evil, regardless of anyone’s opinion about them. We may not be as bright as many of us imagine we are as a species, but the stubborn belief in these two great illusions would still be difficult to fathom, absent mental traits that strongly incline us to accept them.

Mental traits, like most of our other characteristics that can significantly impact the probability that we will survive long enough to pass on our genes, exist by virtue of natural selection. It is most unlikely that such a natural process directly programmed us to believe in a spirit world or gods. However, since we are social animals, we may be inclined to defer to and adulate the leader of our group. Combine that with a natural fear of death and speculation about an afterlife as a possible way to avoid it, and the tendency to believe in spiritual supreme leaders seems natural enough. Since we find the alternative unpalatable, we simply accept that belief. It becomes a matter of faith.

Unfortunately, if we actually think about what belief in any of the familiar versions of God actually implies, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have put our faith in a fairy tale. If such a God actually exists, there must be a far greater gulf between him and us than between us and an amoeba. In spite of that, God is supposed to experience human-like emotions towards each one of these sub-amoebas. There are eight billion of them, give or take, and we imagine he takes a personal interest in every one of them, but particularly in ourselves. The sheer computational power of such an entity would necessarily be immense. Such beliefs also beg the question of why this entity would have any emotions at all. He is supposed to love, feel compassion, be wrathful, become angry, etc. We can explain the existence of these emotions in human beings because of their selective advantage and trace the locations where they actually originate in our brains. What possible use they could be to an incredibly intelligent and powerful supreme being is never explained.

This God is supposed to monitor the behavior of each one of the eight billion of us, not to mention those who have come before, and then punish or reward us in the afterlife based on that behavior. Since he created us, and is all-knowing, he must have been perfectly well aware of how each one of us would behave, and what paltry “sins” we would commit during our brief lifespans. In spite of this, he sees fit to subject some of the amoebae to appalling tortures for these predetermined and unavoidable “sins,” not just for a day, or a week, but for all eternity. Any human being who would even think of such a thing would rightly be deemed the vilest of tyrants. In spite of this, we fawn on this God, and describe him as compassionate! Is it possible to imagine anything more absurd? If a God does exist, then we must hope that he will find something less boring to occupy his time than concerning himself so intimately with the fates of his eight billion pet amoebae. It’s shameful that human beings believe in such grotesque fairy tales.

The other great illusion is, of course, one I’ve addressed many times before on this blog. It is the belief that a moral law exists “out there,” independently of anyone’s mere opinion about it. We are so inclined by our mental architecture to believe that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” that even the few of us who understand the evolutionary origins of these beliefs are apparently helpless to avoid behaving as if they were true regardless. We find the very same scientists and philosophers among us who claim they accept the origins and subjective nature of morality turning around and in the very next breath condemning some individual as morally evil, and another as morally good, without the slightest qualification or allusion to the subjective nature of their judgment, as if it were really true. They act for all the world as if this absurd non sequitur required no explanation at all.

All this is certainly understandable in creatures as powerfully inclined to believe that whatever idiosyncratic moral rules we happen to believe in are true in themselves, but it would probably be helpful to us all to peek beyond the curtain occasionally. Morality exists because the mental traits responsible for its existence evolved. Absent the process of natural selection that gave rise to it, morality as we know it would not exist. That fact does not imply any “ought” whatsoever. It is simply a natural truth. It does not imply that all things “ought” to be permissible, or that all things “ought not” to be permissible. It does not in any way prevent human beings from constructing moral systems in harmony with their moral nature, including formulation of “absolute” moral rules with punishment for infraction of those rules.  It does imply that creatures of such limited intelligence as ourselves can’t get by without moral rules, and it would therefore behoove us to understand the truth about morality and come up with rational ways to construct our moral systems.

One would think that initiatives in this direction would naturally suggest themselves to our troupe of professional philosophers, but anyone who believes that is grasping at a very slim straw. For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, philosophers are just as inclined to insist on the existence of an objective moral law as the Pope is to insist on the existence of God. I ran across an interesting artifact of this reality recently in the philosophical journal NousThe article in question, The limits of rational belief revision: A dilemma for the Darwinian debunker, by Katia Vavova, actually appeared in the September, 1921 issue, but I just got around to reading it. The title seems promising enough and seems to suggest that the author has at least some inkling of the implications of what Darwin wrote about morality. Unfortunately, it turns out that is not the case.

According to Vavova,

The crux is this: in evaluating the debunker’s challenge, either we are allowed to make moral assumptions, or we are not. If we are, then we can answer the challenge: if we are not, then the challenge doesn’t arise.

In a nutshell, Vavova claims that there are two possibilities; either we can make moral assumptions, or we cannot.  If we are allowed to make moral assumptions, and Darwinian tendencies incline us away from these “true” assumptions, then all we have to do is nudge them back so they align properly with them. If on the other hand, we can make no such assumptions, she claims,

If morality could be about anything, then we have no idea what morality is about. And if we have no idea what morality is about, then we cannot get good reason to think we are mistaken about morality.

As a result,

Debunkers and opponents are at an impasse: they cannot agree on the rules of the game. I have argued that whatever these rules, the evolutionary debunker’s attempt to undermine our moral beliefs fails. It fails either because we have hope of self-correction, or because we get no evidence of error.

Here we can apply the familiar facepalm slap meme. The unspoken assumption is that the philosopher’s Holy Grail of true morality is out there. The evolutionary debunkers are merely an irrelevant distraction in our quest for this Holy Grail. No, I’m sorry Ms. Vavova, but you’ve completely missed the point. The point of what Darwin said about morality isn’t that we need to alter our strategy in our quest for the Holy Grail. The point was that there is no Holy Grail to be found.

If you read the stuff in the contemporary journals of ethics and philosophy, you’ll find that, with few exceptions, Ms. Vavova’s assumption is universal. Today’s philosophers are playing a game of splitting hairs in ways that are ever more incomprehensible to anyone else in a futile game of pretending to guide us towards “true morality.” There is seldom if ever any attempt to explain what it is that lends this hair splitting even a semblance of legitimacy or authority.

In short, there is no God or related spirits of any kind, and there is also no such thing as “true morality.” These are our two greatest illusions. No one or thing is out there to assign purpose or meaning to your life. To the extent that it has either, you must assign them yourself. As for the “moral landscape,” it is characterized today by utter nihilism and chaos thanks to our bitter refusal to even attempt to understand ourselves. I rather doubt that any great leader or revolution will guide us out of the chaos. They will only succeed in substituting one chaos for another. It seems we are thrown back on our own resources as individuals in deciding how to live our lives. I can only hope, dear reader, that you make a happy choice.

E. O. Wilson on How to Build a Unicorn

One of E. O. Wilson’s “big ideas” was “Consilience,” which he defines as,

A “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.

Wilson always envisioned this “jumping together” taking place across two broad categories of disciplines; science and the humanities. The idea seems reasonable. Certainly, philosophers would do well to take it seriously. If they did, they might actually make themselves useful. Instead, today we find them ensconced in a thick fog of jargon, producing mountains of papers that are only intelligible to other philosophers, but whose value and relevance to the rest of us is vanishingly small.

However, Wilson had a much grander task in mind for Consilience than that. It would render the humanities capable of accomplishing something that he deemed impossible for the sciences. It would enable them to build a unicorn!

Well, not actually a unicorn, but something just as imaginary; a universal morality that Wilson always carefully refrained from calling a “transcendental,” or objective morality, but one that, for all practical purposes, would be exactly that. Wilson was a brilliant man, but it’s no exaggeration to say that, in assigning this quest for the Holy Grail to the humanities, he wandered off into an intellectual swamp. Consider, for example, the following passage from his “The Origins of Creativity.”

Americans are often reminded that research and development in basic science are good for the nation. That is obviously true. But it is equally true for the humanities, all across their domain from philosophy and jurisprudence to literature and history. They preserve our values. They turn us into patriots and not just cooperating citizens. They make clear why we abide by law built upon moral precepts and do not depend on inspired leadership by autocratic rulers.

If this passage had been published in 1960, it may only have seemed a bit quaint. However, the book actually appeared in 2017 at a time when the Left, broadly construed, had assumed a dominant role in the humanities, at least as far as academia is concerned, and was doing the very opposite of “turning us into patriots and not just cooperating citizens.” The idea that they were producing moral precepts that the rest of us were likely to abide by was a pipe dream. It was then and is now not just quaint, but ridiculous.

In spite of that, as the following passage from the same book makes clear, Wilson still fondly imagined that the humanities would not only find this moral Holy Grail, but that they alone were capable of it.

The human enterprise has been to dominate Earth and everything on it, while remaining constrained by a swarm of competing nations, organized religions, and other selfish collectivities, most of whom are blind to the common good of the species and planet. The humanities alone can correct this imperfection. Being focused on aesthetics and value, they have the power to swerve the moral trajectory into a new mode of reasoning, one that embraces scientific and technological knowledge.

If we’re speaking of the scientific knowledge that those of us who carry an X and a Y chromosome are males, and those who carry two X chromosomes are female, that’s not exactly what’s happening. How did someone as smart as Wilson manage to come up with such nonsense? He certainly had no illusions about the origins of morality. In that regard, his opinions were entirely Darwinian. In “Consilience” he writes,

In simplest terms, the option of ethical foundation is as follows:

I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not,

Versus,

I believe that moral values come from humans alone; God is a separate issue.

Then, to all appearances, Wilson plants himself firmly in the latter category, in the process suggesting something to the philosophers with which I wholeheartedly agree:

The time has come to turn the card face up. Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, are not prone to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility. Rarely do you see an argument that opens with the simple statement: This is my starting point, and it could be wrong. Ethicists instead favor a fretful passage from the particular into the ambiguous, or the reverse, vagueness into hard cases. I suspect that almost all are transcendentalists at heart, but they rarely say so in simple declarative sentences. One cannot blame them very much; it is difficult to explain the ineffable, and the evidently do not wish to suffer the indignity of having their personal beliefs clearly understood. So by and large they steer around the foundation issue altogether.

Precisely! With rare exceptions, that is exactly how the philosophers handle morality today. Just read their journals! One typically finds them insisting on some highly nuanced and abstruse moral innovation as if we are supposed to trust them on this because they are self-declared “experts.” In general, no authority, no basis for the legitimacy, and no foundation is ever given for these newly concocted ethical truisms. Wilson then lays his cards on the table:

That said, I will of course try to be plain about my own position: I am an empiricist… The same evidence, I believe, favors a purely material origin of ethics, and it meets the criterion of consilience. Causal explanations of brain activity and evolution, while imperfect, already cover the most facts known about moral behavior with the greatest accuracy and the smallest number of freestanding assumptions.

The implications of such a statement are seemingly obvious. If morality exists by virtue of evolved behavioral traits, then no matter how powerfully we feel that good and evil must be real, existing independently of what anyone happens to think about them, they simply are not real. Human beings may be powerfully inclined to believe they are real, but they aren’t. They are subjective constructs in the minds of individuals. Because they are constructed in the minds of intelligent beings in an environment utterly unlike the one in which the mental traits that are their root cause evolved, it is predictable that their exact details will vary radically from one individual to another, and that is exactly what we see in fact.

Unfortunately, we must have a morality because it is our nature to have one, and we are not smart enough to get along without one. However, it can never be more than a crutch for regulating our social behavior. It must always be kept in mind that the emotions it must be based on evolved eons ago. They may have been adaptive then, but blindly responding to them today could be extremely dangerous. With that in mind, it seems expedient to keep whatever morality we come up with as simple as possible, while keeping the emotions it is based on, as Wilson puts it, on a “short leash.”

It seems that Prof. Wilson had something quite different in mind. Reading on in “Consilience,” we come across the following remarkable passages:

The general empiricist principle takes this form: Strong innate feeling and historical experience cause certain actions to be preferred; We have experienced them, and weighted their consequences, and agree to conform with codes that express them. Let us take an oath upon the codes, invest our personal honor in them, and suffer punishment for their violation… Ought is not the translation of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through the understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.

In other words, the empiricist Ought is not derived top down from a God after the manner of the transcendentalists, but bottom up, from innate human nature. Oddly enough, even though Wilson concedes that this Ought is a human mental construct, he has invested it with all the trappings of the transcendental Ought, complete with appeals to oaths, personal honor, and the “public will” to prop it up. In effect, he has now brought us full circle, back to the never, never land of “moral truth,” “moral duties,” and “moral progress.” If there is any ambiguity about the matter, the following passage dispels it:

For if ought is not is, what is? To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts. They are unlikely to be ethereal messages outside humanity awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be physical products of the brain and culture.

Amazing! Just like that, Wilson has hopped over Hume’s is/ought chasm and resurrected the Ought unicorn. Instead of building his unicorn from the top down, he’s built it from the bottom up, but it’s still there. Rephrasing his question as “For if a unicorn is not is, what is?”, the answer is quite simple; There are no unicorns! Wilson’s Ought is just as imaginary as that mythical beast, whether its based on human nature or derived from God. The humanities are assigned the formidable task of supplying us with this nonexistent Ought via the magical powers of Consilience.

There’s no surprise here, really. As I’ve often documented on this blog, virtually every behavioral scientist, psychologist, or philosopher who writes about the innate wellsprings of morality in evolved human nature can commonly be found a few scribblings later hurling down moralistic anathemas on some unsuspecting villain. They do this with complete disregard of the fact that, absent objective good and evil, their behavior is completely self-contradictory and illogical. Wilson, brilliant as he was, was no exception. Chalk it up to the power of human nature.

Given the current state of the humanities, I would estimate that the probability is zero that the scales will fall from the eyes of their various practitioners any time in the foreseeable future, causing them to embrace science as set forth in Wilson’s “Consilience” and then proceed to concoct a brand-new morality that is so compelling that the rest of us will stand in line to swear oaths and devote our personal honor to it.

There is no one and nothing out there to assign us a purpose or a goal in life. Each of us must do that for ourselves. I suggest that, whatever goals you choose, you take into account the facts about what human morality is and why it exists when deciding how to achieve those goals. Whatever they are, I suspect that waiting around for the humanities to supply you with a moral code will not be a useful strategy for achieving them. I’m certainly not holding my breath.

The Philosophers and the War

Darwin was well aware of the implications of his great theory regarding human morality. As he put it in Chapter IV of his “The Descent of Man,”

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

He added another passage of critical significance with respect to the notion that “moral truth” has some kind of objective or transcendental existence, and that natural selection has had the felicitous tendency to “track” this moral truth in man:

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though the admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.

Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s brilliant insights. In retrospect, they seem obvious. In his words,

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotions makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so it the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotions fall entirely outside the category of truth.

If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth. It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else. But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true. If the word “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

These words were written more than a century ago. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere, with rare exceptions they fell on deaf ears among the tribe of academic and professional philosophers. The result has been the descent of philosophy into the state of utter futility we find it in today. Cloaking the puerility of their work in obscure jargon, modern philosophers assume the existence of “moral truth,” either explicitly or implicitly, and assure us that they are supplying us with the “moral knowledge” necessary to perceive this nonexistent truth. It’s as if a vast army of intellectuals were supplying us with a precise knowledge of the nature of unicorns.

The absurdity of these pretensions becomes obvious when applied to something as concrete as the war in Ukraine. The reactions to that war certainly confirm what another brilliant thinker, Jonathan Haidt, wrote in his “The Righteous Mind”:

Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agenda – to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense. Keep you eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

The modern tribe of philosophers is no exception to the rule. Anyone reading through their reactions to the war looking for insight into the “moral consciousness as a fact” of the two sides, as Westermarck put it, would search in vain. Instead, their contribution has been limited to ensuring that we can correctly distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Consider, for example, the contributions of four philosophers polled on the subject by Justin Weinberg, proprietor of the website “Daily Nous.” The first of them, Saba Bazargan-Forward, writes,

It might seem that the study of war ethics has little to add when it comes to morally evaluating Russia’s war in Ukraine. Consider Vladimir Putin’s motivations for the invasion. His goals might be security-driven, in that he fears NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. Or perhaps a revanchist nostalgia for the Russian empire is what motivates Putin. Or maybe he seeks to re-litigate the outcome of the Cold War. Or maybe Putin fears that the recent liberalization and democratization of Ukraine might spread to Russia, threatening his brand of kleptocratic authoritarianism. What is notable about these (and other) candidate explanations, is that none of them morally justify invading a peaceful, sovereign nation. His purported justifications are risible and fail to withstand even cursory examination. It is luminously obvious that Putin’s war in Ukraine is unjust. Given this, what can the study of war ethics, with its myriad principles, distinctions, and doctrines, possibly add to a moral evaluation of this war? Bringing the study of war ethics to bear on the invasion of Ukraine seems, to borrow a phrase from Hermine Wittgenstein, like using a scalpel to open up crates.

As Westermarck pointed out long ago, there is no such thing as moral truth, and in the absence of moral truth there can be no such thing as moral justification. There is also no basis for the claim that the war is unjust, or that it is just, either, for that matter. This philosopher is a victim of the illusion Westermarck referred to. He believes that emotions that evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago can somehow uncover “moral truths” about a war between societies that are radically different from anything that existed in those ancient times. Is it not abundantly obvious that blindly flailing about in an attempt to apply moral emotions that evolved among hunter-gatherers to conflicts among modern states, some of which are armed with nuclear weapons, is not only absurd, but highly dangerous? And yet modern philosophers, almost without exception, simply assume the existence of “moral truth,” and imagine that their value to society is in providing the rest of us with “moral knowledge” about this “moral truth.” Whimsically enough, this is just as true of those who admit that morality is subjective as of those who continue to insist that it is objective. Consider, for example, the contributions of the three other philosophers consulted by Prof. Weinberg. Jovana Davidovic imagines that her moral emotions have led her to the “truth” that Russian soldiers should lay down their arms:

Encouraging Russian soldiers today to remember what honorable fighting looks like, and put down their arms, is maybe a pie in the sky, but changing our norms regarding equality of combatants and what legitimate fighting in a war looks like, is not. Seeing at least some in the Russian military stand up against this unjust invasion will pay dividends in the days and years to come. Long-lasting peace can only come from respect and reconciliation. And knowing that at least some Russian people and Russian soldiers did the right thing can help sustain a healthy peace one day.

“Honorable fighting,” “unjust invasions,” and “the right thing,” are all emotionally based terms, perfectly familiar and understandable to every human being on the planet, yet entirely outside the realm of truth. We all suffer from the powerful illusion, the “feeling in our bones,” that they must represent some truth, but they simply don’t. Given the evolutionary origins of the emotions that gave rise to these terms, the belief that they represent some “truth” is out of the question.

We find the same assumption of the existence of “moral truth” in the contributions of the other two philosophers consulted by Prof. Weinberg. Christopher Finlay suggests we parse the applicable “moral truths,” to assign weights to equally imaginary “moral duties”:

The tension between a moral duty to protect victims of aggression and the duty to avoid uncontrolled escalation has led some US policy-makers to consider a possible middle way: instead of sending soldiers to Ukraine to thwart Russia’s invasion plans, it might be better to prepare for the eventuality that Ukraine’s regular forces might be defeated and then resist Russia’s occupation by arming Ukrainian guerrillas.

Helen Frowe imagines that her moral emotions are capable of supplying her with “truths” about which wars are “just” and which are “unjust”:

You don’t really need a just war theorist to shed light on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s campaign has already killed or injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Best guesses about the motivation for the war range from Putin’s having read some dodgy history books whilst developing lockdown-induced mental instability to a long-held desire to return Russia to its USSR glory—an agenda now being pursued via a charade of saving people from genocide in a country where no genocide is occurring. Unsurprisingly, neither explanation—nor even their combination—constitutes a just cause for war.

Any determination that a given war is “just” or “unjust” in itself must depend on the existence of some absolute moral standard as a basis for this claim. No such standard exists. It can be hard for us to appreciate the absurdity of such unqualified claims because we are all equipped with moral emotions that are more or less similar to Frowe’s. Her comments seem right, or at least reasonable to most of us, because we all subject to the moral illusions noted by Westermarck. However, consider the implications of what she is saying. Where does one find this absolute moral standard? How did it come into existence? Are we to believe that, at the moment of the big bang, not only neutrons, protons, and photons came flying out, but moral goods and evils as well? If so, given what Darwin said about the bees, isn’t it remarkable that these objects should just happen to “track” the moral emotions of our species, although a myriad of vastly different versions are possible? Supposing these imaginary objective goods and evils do exist, what possible difference could it make to us? If these moral objects are not congruent with the goals we’ve happened to set for ourselves, it would be absurd to pay any attention to them. After all, there is no authority to enforce them.

It’s sad, really. Philosophers could play an important role if they would stop playing the puerile game of searching for “moral truths” and “moral knowledge” and accept morality for what it is; a manifestation of evolved emotional traits that members of our species seek to interpret with our large brains. They could then try to find ways to for us to cope with these powerful emotions in societies that are radically different from the ones in which they evolved.

Seeking to concoct moral “truths” about something as complex as modern warfare is particularly dangerous and self-destructive in a world full of nuclear weapons. Supposing that, in harmony with the reasons we exist to begin with, our goals happen to include survival, it would behoove us in times of war to be as rational as possible, and as vigilant as possible against playing a game of blind man’s bluff with our moral emotions.

“Evolutionary Debunking” – Another Philosopher Chimes In

Suppose some analog of Commander Data of Star Trek fame were sent out alone on an interstellar voyage of discovery and encountered our species for the first time. What would he conclude about the phenomenon of human morality? No doubt he would be aware that biological life forms exist by virtue of natural selection, and that characteristics of these life forms that significantly influence the odds of individual survival almost certainly exist by virtue of that natural phenomenon. Noting that the emotional traits responsible for the existence of morality in our species meet this criterion, he would conclude that they evolved in the same way as many of our other significant features. Lacking emotions himself, it would never occur to him that the moral beliefs spawned by these emotions have anything to do with “objective moral truth.” He would not imagine that some things are “really good” and other things are “really bad” because he “felt it in his bones.” Instead, he would correctly conclude that our morality exists as an artifact of emotional traits that exist because they promoted survival.

Obviously, our species lacks the emotional detachment of Commander Data. Unlike him, we experience the powerful emotions responsible for portraying good and evil to us as real things, and most of us firmly believe in these illusions without further ado. The philosophers among us are hardly inclined to dispel the illusions. Jobs in the field are rare outside of the publish or perish world of academia, and the chances that papers stating something as obvious as the above would be accepted in the most prestigious journals are vanishingly small. No, to survive professionally, one must excel at obscuring the truth with an impenetrable fog of academic jargon. There are certainly many philosophers who accept the fact that natural selection has had a profound influence on morality, and some even accept the fact that nothing beyond this natural process is required to account for it. However, as far as I can tell without exception, they then go on to tell us what we “ought” to do as if their personal preferences possessed some magical authority or legitimacy.

In this whimsical atmosphere, philosophers on both sides of the issue have embraced the term “evolutionary debunking” to describe theories that marshal evolutionary arguments to attack systems that either dismiss or qualify the influence of natural selection on morality. It’s an unfortunate choice of words, as it tends to reduce a natural fact of profound importance to the level of a toy that philosophers play with in their academic sandboxes. In fact, experts in evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and related fields are far more likely to make useful contributions to our understanding of the subject than the tribe of professional philosophers. The philosophers’ attacks and counterattacks on each other, couched in the usual obscure jargon, have done more to obfuscate than illuminate the subject.

When we reduce the academic word salad to more comprehensible terms, we often find that the arguments used in these philosophical jousts are surprisingly naïve. Consider, for example, a paper by Katia Vavova entitled “The limits of rational belief revision: A dilemma for the Darwinian debunker,” that appeared in a recent issue of the philosophical journal Nous. In the author’s words,

The dilemma, briefly, is this. Either moral assumptions are legitimate in response to the debunker or they are not. If they are, then learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs may give us good reason to think that our moral beliefs are mistaken. But if moral assumptions really are legitimate, then there are moral claims wee can take for granted and therefore use to self-correct. In this way we may stagger, but needn’t fall from the debunker’s hit. On this horn, we can self-correct and thus alleviate the debunker’s worries.

If, instead, moral assumptions are not legitimate, then we have no moral claims we can use to self-correct. But then, learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs cannot give us reason to think we are mistaken about morality. This is because we cannot get evidence to think that we are mistaken about something that we can make no assumptions about. Evidence is evidence only against a background of beliefs we take for granted, and if no moral assumptions are allowed, then we do not have enough such background. So, we cannot get evidence of our error.

A seemingly obvious weakness of this gambit is that it assumes the existence of that which is to be debunked. It could just as well be used against the debunkers of fairies, hobgoblins, and unicorns. Beliefs about these things can be neither mistaken nor not mistaken, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if Darwin was right about morality, then moral claims are based on an illusion. One can be mistaken or not mistaken about what an illusion looks like to the delusional, but not about what it actually is.

This problem seems so obvious that we are inclined to give Prof. Vavova the benefit of the doubt, and consider the possibility that we are being obtuse, and have missed the point. With that in mind, let us read on to a more precise statement of what she imagines the debunker’s argument to be. Again, in her words,

This, then, is the debunker’s argument:

1. Influence. Evolutionary forces have influenced our moral beliefs.

2. Off-track. Evolutionary forces aim at fitness, not moral truth.

3. Off-track influence. A process that aims at fitness, not moral truth, influenced our moral beliefs.

4. Gap. The true moral beliefs and the adaptive moral beliefs come apart.

5. Bad influence. Our moral beliefs reflect the influence of an epistemically bad process.

6. Plausible Principle. If a belief reflects the influence of an epistemically bad process, then that belief is likely to be mistaken.

7. Mistaken. Our moral beliefs are likely to be mistaken.

Again, this “debunker’s argument” appears to assume the existence of moral truth. However, to the extent that they make any useful point at all, “evolutionary debunking” arguments deny the existence of moral truth. It is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about the nature of things that don’t exist. But wait! Following these seven points we find the remarkable passage:

Notice that this formulation doesn’t assume moral realism: the view that the moral facts are attitude-independent. This is unusual and important. It’s unusual because evolutionary debunking arguments are often run as reductios of realism. It’s important because it shows that one needn’t be a moral realist to be vulnerable to this attack.

Here I can but scratch my head. Again, it is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about nothing. If, on the other hand, Vavova’s formulation doesn’t assume moral realism, then it cannot possibly be an accurate statement of “evolutionary debunking” arguments. If one is not a moral realist, then one is not only not vulnerable to this attack, for all practical purposes one is on the side of the debunkers. What on earth is it the debunkers are trying to debunk if not moral realism? To the extent that “evolutionary debunkers” are trying to debunk something other than that it’s a matter of complete indifference to me whether they succeed or not.

So much for Prof. Vavova’s “debunking of the debunkers.” As I’ve pointed out before, philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if, just for the sake of argument, they accepted the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains. Starting from that axiom, they could then go on to formulate possible courses of action our species might take assuming the axiom were true. That’s basically what E. O. Wilson suggested to the philosophers long ago, and they’ve hated him for it ever since. It would seem that we must leave them in their academic redoubts, writing thick tomes about obsolete moral philosophies, befogging the subject with their jargon, and ornamenting the pages of philosophical journals with papers such as the one described above.

Ethics: A Philosopher Ponders Darwin

Darwin didn’t waste many words on morality when he published The Descent of Man in 1871, but what he did write rendered all the thousands of philosophical tomes that had been previously written on the subject obsolete. In fact, the same can be said for most of the thousands of tomes that have been written on the subject after his time as well. In short, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits that are as much a result of natural selection as our more obvious physical traits. A number of seemingly obvious conclusions follow from this fundamental fact. For example, morality is subjective. Because it is the result of a natural process, it cannot have any goal or purpose. Sentient beings like us can have goals and purposes, but natural processes have none. As Hume pointed out long ago, there is no path from the “is” of natural processes to the “oughts” of morality. Our firm belief that “oughts” are real things that exist independently of what anyone happens to think about them is the result of a powerful illusion that happened to increase the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce.

It seems to me that, in spite of the above, philosophers could still make themselves useful in dealing with the reality of human morality. We really can’t get along without it. The emotions that give rise to it are too powerful for us to ignore. We also lack the intelligence to rationally analyze every move we make in our relations with others of our species. Taking the biological realities of human behavior into account, philosophers might take up the task of suggesting what kind of a morality we might adopt that would minimize friction and maximize cooperation in the societies we live in today, and yet be more or less in harmony with the emotions that are the root cause of our moral behavior. It seems at least plausible that they could come up with an improvement over the chaotic manipulation of moral emotions that we currently rely on to cook up the latest recipes for what we ought and ought not to do. I think that’s what E. O. Wilson had in mind when he suggested that we come up with a “biology of ethics, which will make possible the selection of a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values.”

For some reason, this seemingly obvious suggestion has never been popular with philosophers. Perhaps the gatekeepers who determine what may or may not be published in the academic journals have simply been too hidebound and inflexible to accommodate something so novel. All their epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies never prepared them to deal with something that renders all the “expertise” in morality they’ve spent their careers acquiring as irrelevant as humorism in medicine or the phlogiston theory in chemistry. Many of them realize they can no longer simply ignore Darwin. However, instead of considering some of the more obvious implications for moral philosophy if what he wrote was true, they have seemed more intent on obfuscating the subject under a thick smokescreen of philosophical jargon.

Consider, for example, a recent book on the subject entitled, An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, by Scott M. James. James seems to grasp some of the more obvious implications if our morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection. For example, he writes,

The psychological mechanisms that evolutionary psychologists claim fill the mind did not evolve in response to problems we confront today. They may help in solving similar problems today, but that’s not why we possess them. We possess them because they solved recurrent problems confronting our distant ancestors. And since they haven’t been “selected out” of the population, current populations still possess them. As evolutionary psychologists like to say, our modern skulls house stone-age minds.

James warns his readers against many of the familiar fallacies associated with biological explanations of behavior. These include conflating explanation and justification. The fact that innate tendencies may influence a particular behavior does not imply that the behavior is either good or evil. James also mentions genetic determinism, the false notion that we are forced to act in certain ways and not in others by our genes. Beloved as a strawman by the Blank Slaters of old, no serious evolutionary psychologist has ever claimed anything of the sort. He makes short work of the notion that the diversity of human moralities excludes the influence of evolved behavioral traits. In fact, if Darwin was right, that is exactly what one would expect.

Given this promising start, a scientist might expect James to accept the most “parsimonious” explanation of morality; that Darwin was right about morality, and that’s the end of it. But James is a philosopher, not a scientist. At the end of his book, we gaze from a distance as he wades back into his philosophical swamp. In the final chapter he writes,

Finally, building on the work of others, I have offered a moral constructivist position, according to which moral rightness and wrongness consist in what agents, (from a particular standpoint) would accept as rules to govern behavior. Unlike the other options outlined in this chapter, my position is an explicit attempt at a tracking account. I’m prepared to say that the reason we evolved to make moral judgments has precisely to do with the fact that the preponderance of these judgments were true.

In other words, James is an objective moralist, and seems to believe that natural selection is somehow capable of caring one way or the other about the moral rules he happens to prefer. If Darwin was right, then this is only possible if the “objective moral law” varies drastically from species to species, as noted in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man. A bit later James writes,

My proposal has two parts. The first part involves a refinement of the story we told in part I about how we evolved to think morally. I argue that we developed a special sensitivity to how others would view our behavior (from a particular standpoint). The second part is a metaethical story, that is, a story about what moral judgments are and about what makes true moral judgments true (and, yes, I believe some moral judgments are indeed true). As I argue, these two stories together could be read to imply that the evolution of our particular moral sense was the result of the recognition of facts about hypothetical agreement. An early human, disposed to judge that others could reasonably object to what she was intent on doing and motivated by that judgment, enhanced reproductive fitness partly because such judgments were sometimes true. And this, by the way constitutes a moral realism worthy of the name – or so I maintain.

And so on. James does not explain how his version of “true” moral judgments is compatible with the universal human tendency to identify and hate the members of outgroups, or our tendency to compete for status, regardless of what we deem others might consider “reasonable.” Neither does he explain why, once we are aware of the natural processes that account for our existence, and have formulated personal goals and assigned ourselves a purpose taking that knowledge into account, we should care one way or the other whether our actions conform to what James considers “true” moral rules as we pursue those goals and purposes, unless, of course, James happens to be holding a gun to our heads.

Imagine, if you will a world conference held to formulate a universal system of morality. It goes without saying that anyone suggesting a particular version of morality would be required to reveal what his personal goals in life happen to be, and why he values those goals. In my case, I would explain that my goals include my own survival and reproduction, the survival of my species, and the survival of biological life in general, and that I have those goals because I deem them in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. I would prefer a system of morality that facilitated those goals. James might then step up to the podium and suggest that we adopt his proposed moral rules, because they are “true,” regardless of whether they facilitate anyone else’s personal goals or not. I can only hope that such a proposal would be met with peels of laughter, and deemed grotesquely “unreasonable” by our fellow attendees.

I realize that extravagant “tracking” accounts of morality such as the one proposed by James are far more likely to be published in the journals of philosophy than anything as simple as a straightforward Darwinian explanation. That hardly constitutes a good reason for the rest of us to take them seriously. One must hope that eventually a few philosophers will attempt to wade back out of the swamp. However, given the realities of what constitutes “reasonable” behavior for any philosopher who wants to remain gainfully employed in academia, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Ethics Whimsy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Ethical Fantasies of Thomas Henry Huxley

Darwin clearly, albeit briefly, addressed the moral implications of his great theory in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Since that time, there have been few indeed who have fully grasped the significance of what he wrote. To the best of my knowledge, they include only one philosopher of any note; the great Edvard Westermarck. Today his work is unappreciated and largely forgotten. Many public intellectuals and philosophers claim to be subjective moralists, and to accept the Darwinian view of morality. In spite of that, without exception, one finds them making moral judgments that would be absurd in the absence of some objective moral standard.

Their behavior is not without precedent. As it happens, Thomas Henry Huxley, otherwise known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” was also a firm believer in the reality of the mirage. Obviously, Huxley had read Darwin, and was perfectly well aware of the role of natural selection in shaping, not only our physical, but our moral traits as well. In his words, set forth in a lecture entitled Evolution and Ethics, delivered in 1893;

I do not know that any one has taken more pains than I have, during the last thirty years, to insist upon the doctrine, so much reviled in the early part of that period, that man, physical, intellectual, and moral, is as much a part of nature, as purely a product of the cosmic process, as the humblest weed.

Elaborating on the above with regard to morality, he wrote,

The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,” when the “evolution of ethics” would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favor of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track.

Huxley also realized something that I have often pointed out on this blog; that the traits that promoted our survival as hunter-gatherers will not necessarily accomplish the same thing in the societies we live in today. As he put it,

For his successful progress, throughout the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger; his exceptional physical organization; his cunning, his sociability, his curiosity, and his imitativeness; his ruthless and ferocious destructiveness when his anger is roused by opposition.

But, in proportion as men have passed from anarchy to social organization, and in proportion as civilization has grown in worth, these deeply ingrained serviceable qualities have become defects… In fact, civilized man brands all these ape and tiger promptings with the name of sins.

and, finally, tipping his hand,

Whatever differences of opinion may exist among experts, there is a general consensus that the ape and tiger methods of the struggle for existence are not reconcilable with sound ethical principles.

Of course, there can be no “sound ethical principles” in the absence of an objective standard against which these principles may be judged. If there is no such standard, there can be neither sound ethical principles nor unsound ethical principles. Belief in either one can be nothing but an illusion.

Should any doubt remain about Huxley’s faith in the existence of objective good, consider the following remarkable passage:

The struggle for existence, which has done such admirable work in cosmic nature, must, it appears, be equally beneficent in the ethical sphere. Yet if that which I have insisted upon is true; if the cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends; if the imitation of it by man is inconsistent with the first principles of ethics; what becomes of this surprising theory?

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. (!)

Of course, just as there can be no “sound ethical principles” absent an objective standard by which to judge them, there can be no “ethical progress” without such a standard, either. Both are chimeras, spawned even in people as intelligent as Huxley, by the very power of our moral emotions.

In common with such later thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Huxley’s faith in the mirage of objective moral good was so strong that he advocated intervention to actually alter human nature. In his words,

And much may be done to change the nature of man himself. The intelligence which has converted the brother of the wolf into the faithful guardian of the flock ought to be able to do something towards curbing the instincts of savagery in civilized men.

Little more than a decade after Huxley wrote those words, Westermarck demolished the illusion on which they are based in his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral IdeasIn the process he demolished latter day versions of Huxley’s dream, such as Sam Harris’ “objective good” based on the nebulous ideal of “human flourishing,” and also demonstrated the absurdity of the stream of moral judgments passed down by such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt, and E. O. Wilson. These judgments are seldom qualified by the admission that they represent nothing but the expression of personal moral emotions, and beg the question of how they can possibly be justified in the absence of an objective moral standard. Absent such a standard, they are reduced to gibberish.

In fact, Huxley’s “sound ethical principles,” Harris’ “objective morality,” and the pronunciamientos of our latter day “subjective moralists” according to which one person is “good,” and another is “evil” are all spawned by nothing more exalted than the very same moral emotions that Huxley denounced as worthy only of apes and tigers. There is no other basis whatever for these judgments. They are all expressions of emotional traits that evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that individuals, and perhaps small groups, would survive in times radically different from the present. We should keep this salient fact in mind when we assign a purpose to our lives, or consider what overriding goals to strive for.

Today we are confronted with a barrage of freshly minted “moral truths,” concocted by charlatans who happen to be adept at manipulating moral emotions. One might ask the purveyors of these moral nostrums questions such as, “How will behaving according to this ‘moral truth’ enhance the odds that you personally will survive?’ or ‘How will it increase the chances that you will reproduce?’ and, finally, ‘Why should the question of your survival and reproduction be other than a matter of complete indifference to me?'” With all due respect for Huxley’s tenacious defense of Darwin, a more “objective” standard for assessing the validity of these “truths” simply does not exist.

Harvey Fergusson on Morality, Free Will, and Human Behavior

Harvey Fergusson does have a Wiki page, but he’s not exactly a household name today. Remembered mostly as a writer of fiction, he produced some great Western novels, and some of the characters in his “Capitol Hill” will still be familiar to anyone who has worked in the nation’s capital to this day. His name turns up in the credits as a screenwriter in a few movies, including “Stand Up and Fight,” starring the inimitable Wallace Beery, and his work even drew a few lines of praise from H. L. Mencken. As it happens, Fergusson wrote some non-fiction as well, including a remarkable book entitled Modern Man.

The main theme of the book is what Fergusson refers to as “the illusion of choice.” As one might expect of a good novelist, his conclusions are based on careful observation of human behavior, both in himself and others, rather than philosophical speculation. In his words,

It struck me sharply how much of the conversation of my typical modern fellow-being was devoted to explaining why he had done what he had done, why he was going to do what he intended, and why he had not done what he had once professed an intention to do. Some of my more sophisticated subjects would describe these explanations, when made by others, as “rationalizations” – a term which is vague but seems always to imply a recognition of the necessarily factitious nature of all such explanations of personal behavior. But I found none who did not take his own explanations of himself with complete seriousness. What is more, I have not found either in conversation or in print any recognition of what seems obvious to me – that these explanations typically have for their effect, if not for their unconscious motive, to sustain what I have termed the illusion of choice. This may be more adequately defined as the illusion that behavior is related more exactly and immediately to the conscious mental processes of the individual than any objective study of the evidence will indicate that it is.

Consider this in light of the following comment by Seth Schwartz who writes one of the Psychology Today blogs:

In a controversial set of experiments, neuroscientist Ben Libet (1985) scanned participants’ brains as he instructed them to move their arm. Libet found that brain activity increased even before participants were aware of their decision to move their arm. Libet interpreted this finding as meaning that the brain had somehow “decided” to make the movement, and that the person became consciously aware of this decision only after it had already been made. Many other neuroscientists have used Libet’s findings as evidence that human behavior is controlled by neurobiology, and that free will does not exist.

Fergusson was not quite as bold as “many other neuroscientists.” He made it quite clear that he wasn’t addressing the question of determinism or free will, but was merely recording his personal observations. In spite of that, he certainly anticipated what Libet and others would later observe in their experiments. What is even more remarkable is how accurately Fergusson describes the behavior of our current crop of public intellectuals.

Consider, for example, the question of morality. Some of them agree with me that moral judgments are subjective, and others insist they are objective. However, their moral behavior has nothing to do with their theoretical pronouncements on the matter. Just as Fergusson predicted, it is more or less identical with the moral behavior of everyone else. They all behave as if they actually believe in the illusion that natural selection has planted in our brains that Good and Evil are real, objective things.  And just as Fergusson suggested, their after-the-fact claims about why they act that way are transparent rationalizations.

In the case of such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt and Jerry Coyne, for example, we commonly find them passing down moral judgments that would be completely incomprehensible absent the tacit assumption of an objective moral law. In common with every other public intellectual I’m aware of, they tell us that one person is bad, and another person is good, as if these things were facts. To all appearances they feel no obligation whatsoever to explain how their “subjective” moral judgments suddenly acquired the power to leap out of their skulls, jump onto the back of some “bad” person, and constrain them to mend their behavior. Like me, the three cited above are atheists, and so must at least acknowledge some connection between our moral behavior and our evolutionary past. Under the circumstances, if one asked them to explain their virtuous indignation, the only possible response that has any connection with the reason moral behavior exists to begin with would be something like, “The ‘bad’ person’s actions are a threat to my personal survival,” or, “The ‘bad’ person is reducing the odds that the genes I carry will reproduce.” In either case, there is no way their moral judgments could have acquired the legitimacy or authority to dictate behavior to the “bad” person, or anyone else. I am not aware of a single prominent intellectual who has ever tried to explain his behavior in this way.

In fact, these people, like almost everyone else on the planet, are blindly responding to moral emotions, after seeking to “interpret” them in light of the culture they happen to find themselves in. In view of the fact that cultures that bear any similarity to the ones in which our moral behavior evolved are more or less nonexistent today, the chances that these “interpretations” will have anything to do with the reason morality exists to begin with are slim. In fact, there is little difference between the “subjective” moralists cited above and such “objective” moralists as Sam Harris in this regard.  Ask them to explain one of their morally loaded pronouncements, and they would likely justify them in the name of some such nebulous “good” as “human flourishing.” After all, “human flourishing” must be “good,” right? Their whole academic and professional tribe agrees that it must be “really good.” To the extent that they feel any constraint to explain themselves at all, our modern “subjective” and “objective” moralists seldom get beyond such flimsy rationalizations.

Is it possible to defend “human flourishing” as a “moral good” that is at least consistent with the reason morality exists to begin with? I think not. To the extent that it is defined at all, “human flourishing” is usually associated with a modern utopia in which everyone is happy and has easy access to food, shelter, and anything else they could wish for. Such a future would be more likely to end in the dystopia comically portrayed in the movie Idiocracy than in the survival of our species. Its predictable end state would be biological extinction. Absent the reason high intelligence and the ability to thrive in diverse environments evolved, those characteristics would no longer be selected. If we use the survival of our species as the ultimate metric, “human flourishing” as commonly understood would certainly be “bad.”

Fergusson was an unusually original thinker, and there are many other thought-provoking passages in his book. Consider, for example, the following:

The basic assumption of conservatism is that “human nature does not change.” But it appears upon examination of the facts that human nature from the functional viewpoint has undergone constant change. Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size, and nature of the human group has changed, and without such change the race could hardly have survived. That human nature will change and is changing seems to be one of the few things we can count upon, and it supports all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.

Here we see Fergusson as a typical denizen of the left of the ideological spectrum of his day. His comment encapsulates the reasons that led to the radical rejection of the existence of human nature, and the disaster in the behavioral sciences we now refer to as the Blank Slate. Like many others, Fergusson suffered from the illusion that “human nature” implies genetic determinism; the notion that our behavior is rigidly programmed by our genes. In fact, I am not aware of a single serious defender of the existence of human nature who has ever been a “genetic determinist.” All have agreed that we are inclined or predisposed to behave in some ways and not in others, but not that we are rigidly forced by our “genes” to do so. Understood in this way, it is clear that evolved human nature is hardly excluded by the fact that “Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size and nature of the human group has changed.” Properly understood, it is entirely compatible with the “changed reactions” Fergusson cited.

In reality, rejection of the existence of human nature did not “support all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.” What it really did was bring any meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences to a screeching halt for more than half a century, effectively blocking the path to any real “hope for the amelioration of human destiny.”

The fact that I don’t always agree with Fergusson does not alter my admiration for him as an original thinker. And by the way, if you happen to live in Maryland, I think you will find “Stand Up and Fight” worthy of a couple hours of your time and a bowl of popcorn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Irrelevance of Objective Morality

I don’t believe in objective morality. In other words, I don’t believe in the independent existence of the categories, “good” and “evil,” nor do I believe that we ought to do some things and ought not to do others by virtue of some moral law that exists as a thing in itself, independent of what anyone merely thinks ought or ought not to be done. I consider the above to be simple facts. As such they don’t imply anything whatever about how we ought or ought not to behave.

Of course, many people disagree with me. Given what morality actually is, that is entirely predictable. It is basically a manifestation of innate behavioral predispositions in creatures with large brains. Those predispositions exist by virtue of natural selection. They enhanced the odds that we would survive and reproduce by spawning a powerful illusion that some behaviors are good and others evil, regardless of what anyone’s opinion about them happens to be. Belief in objective morality is just that; an illusion. It’s an interesting fact that many atheists, who imagine they’ve freed themselves of religious illusions, nevertheless embrace this illusion that good and evil exist as real things. I submit that, if what they believe is true, and there actually is an objective moral law, then it is entirely irrelevant.

Most atheists, including myself, consider evolution by natural selection to be the most plausible explanation for the existence of all the diverse forms of life on our planet. If that theory is true, then we exist because our ancestors were successful at carrying the packets of genes responsible for programming the development of their physical bodies from one generation to the next. Of course, these genes have undergone many changes over the eons, and yet they have existed in an unbroken chain for a period of over two billion years. Each of the physical bodies they spawned in the process only existed for an insignificant fraction of that time, and that will be true of each of us as well. Seen from that perspective, you might say that “we” are our genes, not our conscious minds. They have existed for an unimaginably long time, and are potentially immortal, whereas our conscious selves come and go in the blink of an eye by comparison.

This process that explains our existence has neither a purpose nor a goal. It does not reflect a design, because there is no designer, nor do we or anything about us have a “function,” because a function implies the existence of such a designer. We simply exist as a result of a natural process that would appear to be very improbable, and yet is possible given conditions that are just right on one of the trillions of planets in our vast universe.

Under the circumstances, we must decide for ourselves what goal or purpose we are to have in life. The universe certainly hasn’t assigned one to us, but life would be rather boring without one. This begs the question of what that goal or purpose should be. There is no right or correct choice, because the universe doesn’t care one way or the other. In making it we are completely on our own. I personally have made my goals in life my own survival and reproduction, and the preservation of biological life in general into the indefinite future. It seems to me these goals are in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. They are not better or worse than anyone else’s goals, for the simple reason that there is no basis for making that judgment. They are, however, my goals, and I will pursue and defend them accordingly.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there is an objective morality, and moral goods and evils exist as real things. Suppose someone were to point out to me that my goals in life are bad according to that objective moral standard. My reply would be, “So what?” No God or other conscious entity is out there, monitoring whether I conform to the moral law or not. The universe has no conscious mind, and so is incapable of punishing or rewarding my behavior. For the same reason it is also completely incapable of assigning that responsibility to others of my species. Any atheist who believes differently is not really an atheist at all, because a universe or some entity in the universe capable of assigning purpose is, for all practical purposes, a God.

Suppose some defender of the objective moral law were to claim that my personal goals were only achievable if I behaved in obedience to that law. In the first place, I would respond that it is remarkable indeed that the objective moral law just happens to be the exact way I should behave in order to achieve my personally assigned goals. In the second, I would take note of the fact that no reliable way has yet been discovered of detecting what the objective moral law actually is. A bewildering array of different moralities exist, and new ones are concocted every day, all claiming to be the “real” moral law. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that it would be much simpler for me to pursue my goals directly rather than trying to pick the “real” objective moral law from among the myriad versions on tap, in the hope that being “good” according to the version I choose will have the indirect effect of promoting my chosen goals.

In short, the question of whether there is an objective morality “out there” or not is a matter of complete indifference. If such an entity does exist, we have been singularly incompetent at detecting what it is, and, as far as the universe is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether we conform to it or not. The universe isn’t keeping score.