If we are evolved animals, then it is plausible that we have evolved behavioral traits, and among those traits are a “moral sense.” So much was immediately obvious to Darwin himself. To judge by the number of books that have been published about evolved morality in the last couple of decades, it makes sense to a lot of other people, too. The reason such a sense might have evolved is obvious, especially among highly social creatures such as ourselves. The tendency to act in some ways and not in others enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for those tendencies would survive and reproduce. It is not implausible that this moral sense should be strong, and that it should give rise to such powerful impressions that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” as to produce a sense that “good” and “evil” exist independently as objective things. Such a moral sense is demonstrably very effective at modifying our behavior. It hardly follows that good and evil really are independent, objective things.
If an evolved moral sense really is the “root cause” for the existence of all the various and gaudy manifestations of human morality, is it plausible to believe that this moral sense has somehow tracked an “objective morality” that floats around out there independent of any subjective human consciousness? No. If it really is the root cause, is there some objective mechanism whereby the moral impressions of one human being can leap out of that individual’s skull and gain the normative power to dictate to another human being what is “really good” and “really evil?” No. Can there be any objective justification for outrage? No. Can there be any objective basis for virtuous indignation? No. So much is obvious. Under the circumstances it’s amazing, even given the limitations of human reason, that so many of the most intelligent among it just don’t get it. One can only attribute it to the tremendous power of the moral emotions, the great pleasure we get from indulging them, and the dominant role they play in regulating all human interactions.
These facts were recently demonstrated by the interesting behavior of some of the more prominent intellectuals among us in reaction to some comments at a scientific conference. In case you haven’t been following the story, the commenter in question was Tim Hunt,- a biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for discoveries of protein molecules that control the division (duplication) of cells. At a luncheon during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, he averred that women are a problem in labs because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Hunt’s comment evoked furious moral emotions, not least among atheist intellectuals. According to PZ Myers, proprietor of Pharyngula, Hunt’s comments revealed that he is “bad.” Some of his posts on the subject may be found here, here, and here. For example, according to Myers,
Oh, no! There might be a “chilling effect” on the ability of coddled, privileged Nobel prize winners to say stupid, demeaning things about half the population of the planet! What will we do without the ability of Tim Hunt to freely accuse women of being emotional hysterics, or without James Watson’s proud ability to call all black people mentally retarded?
I thought Hunt’s plaintive whines were a big bowl of bollocks.
All I can say is…fuck off, dinosaur. We’re better off without you in any position of authority.
We can glean additional data in the comments to these posts that demonstrate the human version of “othering.” Members of outgroups, or “others,” are not only “bad,” but also typically impure and disgusting. For example,
Glad I wasn’t the only–or even the first!–to mention that long-enough-to-macramé nose hair. I think I know what’s been going on: The female scientists in his lab are always trying hard to not stare at the bales of hay peeking out of his nostrils and he’s been mistaking their uncomfortable, demure behaviour as ‘falling in love with him’.
However, in creatures with brains large enough to cogitate about what their emotions are trying to tell them, the same suite of moral predispositions can easily give rise to stark differences in moral judgments. Sure enough, others concluded that Myers and those who agreed with him were “bad.” Prominent among them was Richard Dawkins, who wrote in an open letter to the London Times,
Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”
The moral emotions of other Nobel laureates informed them that Dawkins was right. For example, according to the Telegraph,
Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 said that Sir Tim had been “crucified” by ideological fanatics , and castigated UCL for “ousting” him.
Avram Hershko, an Israeli scientist who won the 2004 Nobel prize in chemistry, said he thought Sir Tim was “very unfairly treated.” He told the Times: “Maybe he wanted to be funny and was jet lagged, but then the criticism in the social media and in the press was very much out of proportion. So was his prompt dismissal — or resignation — from his post at UCL .”
All these reactions have one thing in common. They are completely irrational unless one assumes the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things rather than subjective impressions. Or would you have me believe, dear reader, that statements like, “fuck off, dinosaur,” and allusions to crucifixion by “ideological fanatics” engaged in a “baying witch-hunt,” are mere cool, carefully reasoned suggestions about how best to advance the officially certified “good” of promoting greater female participation in the sciences? Nonsense! These people aren’t playing a game of charades, either. Their behavior reveals that they genuinely believe, not only in the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things, but in their own ability to tell the difference better than those who disagree with them. If they don’t believe it, they certainly act like they do. And yet these are some of the most intelligent representatives of our species. One can but despair, and hope that aliens from another planet don’t turn up anytime soon to witness such ludicrous spectacles.
Clearly, we can’t simply dispense with morality. We’re much too stupid to get along without it. Under the circumstances, it would be nice if we could all agree on what we will consider “good” and what “bad,” within the limits imposed by the innate bedrock of morality in human nature. Unfortunately, human societies are now a great deal different than the ones that existed when the predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved, and they tend to change very rapidly. It stands to reason that it will occasionally be necessary to “adjust” the types of behavior we consider “good” and “bad” to keep up as best we can. I personally doubt that the current practice of climbing up on rickety soap boxes and shouting down anathemas on anyone who disagrees with us, and then making the “adjustment” according to who shouts the loudest, is really the most effective way to accomplish that end. Among other things, it results in too much collateral damage in the form of shattered careers and ideological polarization. I can’t suggest a perfect alternative at the moment, but a little self-knowledge might help in the search for one. Shedding the illusion of objective morality would be a good start.