On the Poverty of (Moral) Philosophy

I’m not an anti-philosopher. Given the goals individuals set for themselves, philosophers can suggest alternative paths for reaching those goals, and provoke thought on whether the goals are worthwhile. Potentially, they could do the same for societies. Perhaps most importantly, they could suggest ways in which societies might construct systems of morality in pursuit of the common goals the members of society might set for themselves. These might include, for example, maximizing harmony and minimizing harm to individuals. Obviously, any effective system of morality must never lose sight of the reasons morality exists to begin with, and the limitations imposed by human nature. Contemporary philosopher’s, and particularly those in academia, are woefully failing at that task.

Darwin gave us a perfectly clear explanation of morality in his “The Descent of Man” almost a century and a half ago. He noted it was a natural phenomenon, and a result of natural selection. It promoted survival and reproduction by spawning a powerful illusion that good and evil exist as objective things, even though they are actually subjective and might be imagined very differently if they evolved in another intelligent species.

The philosophers still haven’t caught up. Indeed, they seem to be falling further behind all the time. True, they give a perfunctory nod to Darwin, but then they carry on with their philosophizing, for all the world as if the implications of what he taught us don’t matter. It stands to reason. After all, they’ve invested a great deal of time slogging through tomes of moral philosophy that are now of little more than historical interest. Their claims to expertise, not to mention their jobs, depend on propping up the illusion that the subject is incredibly complicated, accessible only to gatekeepers like themselves, possessed of the unique insight gleaned from these books, and mastery of the “philosophical method” of divining truth. The “philosophical method” consists of constructing long chains of reasons befogged by abstruse jargon that is a time-tested method of wading off into intellectual swamps. It was used long ago by the fathers of the church to acquaint us with fact that God has three persons, Christ has two wills and two natures, and similar “truths.” Today the philosophers use it to devise similar “mysteries” about morality.

There are other factors muddying the water as well. Just as earlier generations of philosophers were often forced to limit their speculations within the bounds imposed by Christian and other religious dogmas, modern philosophers are constrained by the dogmas that currently enjoy hegemony in academia. Their ingroup is defined by ideology, and they dare not step outside the bounds imposed by that ideology lest they be cast into outer darkness. For many years that ideology included a blanket denial that such a thing as human nature even exists. Absent acceptance that it does exist, it is impossible to understand human morality. When it comes to morality, the effect of this ideologically imposed constraint was, and continues to be, devastating.

The above can be illustrated by considering the work of those philosophers who, in the process of applying their idiosyncratic methods, have come closest to recognizing the implications of what Darwin wrote so long ago. Many of them are what’s known in the business as “error theorists.” Error theorists claim, quite accurately, that there are no moral facts. Just as statements about the length of a unicorn’s color are neither true nor false, because they describe something that doesn’t exist, error theorists insist that the same is true of claims about good and evil. They, too, can neither be true nor false, because they purport to describe moral facts, which are no more real than unicorns. This seems to fly in the face of the conviction that so many of us have that moral facts do exist, and are true or false regardless of what anyone’s subjective opinion happens to be on the subject. Darwin explained why this is true. The human behavioral traits we associate with morality exist by virtue of natural selection. They enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. The firm conviction, commonly associated with powerful emotions, that some things are truly morally good, and others truly morally evil, is just what one would expect. We did not survive by virtue of imagining that someone who stole from us, or lied to us, or attempted to kill us, had different subjective opinions then us about these things, and that perhaps we could sit down with them and have a rational discussion about it. We survived by virtue of truly believing that such individuals are evil, to be resisted regardless of what their personal opinions on the subject happened to be.

In short, Darwin provided a simple, rational explanation of human morality as we experience it. It is completely self-consistent, in that it requires nothing beyond natural selection for that explanation. For our philosophical error theorists, however, such simple explanations of morality are treated with great diffidence, almost as if they were embarrassing. They do not sufficiently exploit the idiosyncratic paths to the “truth” favored by philosophers. They are not sufficiently befogged by jargon, or obscured by long chains of complex syllogisms.

A philosopher by the name of Jonas Olson has supplied an excellent example of the above in a book fittingly entitled, “Moral Error Theory.” Olson begins as follows:

Virtually any area of philosophy is haunted by a sceptical spectre. In moral philosophy its foremost incarnation has for some time been the moral error theorist, who insists that ordinary moral thought and discourse involve untenable ontological commitments and that, as a consequence, ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue.

In fact, among the myriad abstruse theories concocted by modern philosophers to address morality, “error theory” comes closest to agreeing with some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin wrote about the subject long ago. One such implication is indeed that ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue, for the obvious reason that beliefs and claims about anything that doesn’t exist are uniformly untrue. It would seem that it is too obvious for the philosophers. After all, what can the role of philosophers be in explaining things that are simple and obvious. It is essential for them to complicate simple things and befog them with thick layers of jargon if they are to justify their existence. In the case of “error theory,” they have succeeded splendidly.

According to Olson, for example, one cannot even take up the subject of error theory without being familiar with a grab bag of related philosophical esoterica. As he informs us,

The focus on the semantics of moral judgements and the ontology or moral properties, which make it possible and meaningful to distinguish moral error theory from subjectivism, relativism, non-cognitivism and other theories on which morality is not primarily to be discovered but somehow invented, is fairly recent in the history of philosophical theorizing about morality.

Far from something that follows simply from what Darwin wrote about morality, error theory must be propped up with arguments so abstruse that only certified Ph.D.’s in philosophy can understand them. One such rarified construct is the “argument from queerness.” This argument is usually attributed to J. L. Mackie, who claimed that objective values can’t exist, because, if they did, they would be very queer. As he put it, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities…of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” According to Olson, this argument, and not Darwin, “has now become central to the debate about moral error theory, and about metaethics at large.” He continues, “I shall argue that there are four distinct queerness arguments and thus four distinct versions of the argument from queerness.” As if that weren’t enough, Olson assures us that “oughts” can somehow be distilled out of error theory, all with complex philosophical pedigrees of their own. He has his own favorite among them, adding, “Here I challenge moral abolitionism and moral fictionalism, and defend an alternative view, which I call moral conservationism.” As we shall see, Olson’s moral conservatism is just as naïve as the competing schemes proposed by modern philosophers.

One of these is the brainchild of Richard Joyce, who is perhaps foremost among modern philosophers in his embrace of human nature as the source of morality. In his “The Myth of Morality” there is an entire chapter devoted to “Morality and Evolution.” In the first paragraph of this chapter he writes,

A proponent of an error theory – especially when the error is being attributed to a common, familiar way of talking – owes us an account of why we have been led to commit such a fundamental, systematic mistake. In the case of morality, I believe, the answer is simple: natural selection. We have evolved to categorize aspects of the world using moral concepts. Natural selection has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, demands which it does not make.

Unfortunately, the chapter referred to only appears after five earlier chapters devoted to abstruse discussions of “error theory.” Heaven forefend that I should ever be classed as an “error theorist,” with all the accompanying philosophical flotsam. In it and later chapters, there is no mention of earlier thinkers who were most consistent in applying Darwin’s thought, such as Westermarck and Keith. I doubt that Joyce has even heard of either of them. According to Joyce, natural selection has only endowed us with traits that are “good” according to the ideology of his academic ingroup. It is our nature to be “sympathetic,” and “cooperative.” Perhaps, but it is also our nature to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, and to hate and despise that latter. As recent political events have amply demonstrated, this is especially true of Joyce’s ingroup. Amusingly, he actually dismisses Herbert Spencer, the first major philosopher to note the existence and significance of ingroups and outgroups, as follows:

An evolutionary success theory holds that the kind of fact in virtue of which such (moral) judgments are true is, in some manner, a fact about human evolution. The first and probably most famous proponent of this kind of theorizing was Herbert Spencer, but – with his misguided assumptions that natural selection leads to heterogeneity and improvement, with his crass application of the model onto the class struggle – he need not detain us.

It’s quite true that Spencer was more follower of Lamarck than Darwin when it comes to evolution, but that would hardly justify such a high-handed dismissal of a man who, if he was not infallible, was a profound thinker. Here Joyce is actually demonstrating just the sort of ingroup/outgroup behavior Spencer wrote about. The notion that Spencer was guilty of a “crass application of the model onto the class struggle” is nonsense, and a latter-day invention of Joyce’s leftist ingroup. They also invented his so-called “social Darwinism,” which would have been quite a trick, since he wasn’t a Darwinist to begin with. In fact, the burr Spencer stuck under their saddle was entirely different. He wrote a book debunking socialism decades before the Russian Revolution, predicting with uncanny accuracy that socialist regimes would tend to deteriorate into a brutal form of authoritarianism we later became familiar with as “Stalinism.” They never forgave him for this all too accurate prediction.

In any case, based on his decidedly un-Darwinian portrayal of “morality by natural selection,” which omits anything his ingroup would find objectionable about human nature, Joyce proposes that we all adopt what he is pleased to call “moral fictionalism.” As he describes it, it entails a form of moral doublethink, in which we pretend to firmly believe the moral law, until philosophers like him decide a course correction is necessary. Of course, if we actually take Darwin seriously, no such enforced doublethink is necessary, since perception of the moral law as absolute and objectively true comes as naturally to our species as hunger and thirst. Nowhere does Joyce suggest that there is anything about those aspects of our innate mental equipment we usually include in the “morality” grab bag that it might not be wise for us to blindly include in his “fictionalism.”

One finds the same kind of naivete in the competing “moral conservationism” paradigm preferred by Olson. This would entail “preservation of ordinary (faulty) moral thought and discourse. Olson elaborates,

According to moral conservationism, there is no need for self-surveillance to prevent slips from pretence moral belief (associated with Joyce’s fictionalism, ed.) and pretence moral assertion into genuine moral belief and genuine moral assertion, and there are consequently no associated costs of instability. Moral belief is to be embraced rather than resisted.

Is it really necessary to point out the naivete of this policy of “non-resistance” in blindly applying moral predispositions that evolved in the Pleistocene to regulate the utterly different societies that exist today? I maintain that such naivete is a predictable result of treating natural selection as a side issue and occasionally useful prop, and then proceeding to ignore it in favor of applying such abstruse stuff as Mackie’s “argument from queerness,” which actually comes in several different flavors, to prop up “error theory” instead. So much for the “usefulness” of two of the modern academic philosophers who have actually come closest to understanding what Darwin tried to tell us. From there things only get worse – often much worse.

It would be better to simply stick to Darwin. Westermarck did this back in 1906 in his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” but has been ignored in favor of philosophers who have been leading us into intellectual swamps with their obscure arguments and incomprehensible jargon ever since. Today we have reached a point where moral philosophers are really only capable of communicating with each other, have devised a myriad competing schools of thought about morality, each propped up by long chains of “rational” arguments of the type that are comprehensible only to them, and which have zero chance of any useful application. On top of that, they are irrelevant. The moral behavior of today’s academic philosophers is not predicted by their arcane theories, but by the ideology of their ingroup. In moral practice, as opposed to moral theory, they are as similar as so many peas in a pod. Their moral practice is determined, not by their theories, but by the dogmas of their ingroup.

The above has actually been evident for some time. Consider, for example, how academic and professional philosophers reacted to the grotesque atrocities of the likes of Stalin and Pol Pot. Apparently, their fine moral theories were far more likely to inform them that they should collaborate with these mass murderers rather than condemn them on moral grounds. On the other hand, we often find them hurling down their moral anathemas on the likes of Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves. I submit that Washington and Jefferson both did more for the welfare of all mankind by any rational standard than any combination of 10,000 social justice warriors one could collect. Today we find them strangely silent on issues that might place them outside the ideological box they live in. For example, I am aware of no proponent of the myriad objective or subjective moral systems on tap today who has so much as raised a finger against the poisoning and mutilation of children in the name of “transgendering” them. Since morality only exists by virtue of the fact that it has enhanced the odds that individuals would successfully reproduce, failure to even speculate on the moral significance of this destruction of the ability to reproduce in children seems somewhat inconsistent to say the least.
I submit that philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if they would accept the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and seriously consider the implications of that fact. If Darwin was right, then there is no need for “arguments from queerness” to support “error theory.” The same conclusions follow naturally. It becomes perfectly obvious why we experience moral rules as mind independent even though they aren’t, and why it is just as irrational to noodle about whether some action is “truly good” or “truly evil” as it is to create fine theories to decide the question of whether a unicorn’s fur is blue or green. If Darwin was right, then there is neither a need nor any evidence for the claim that evolved morality tracks “true morality.” Such theories should be relegated to the philosophical garbage bin where they belong. If Darwin was right, then it is easy to grasp the reasons for the dual, ingroup/outgroup aspects of human morality, a factor that the theories of the philosophers typically simply ignore. If Darwin was right, then the reasons why we hardly limit our version of morality to ourselves, but attempt to dictate behavior to others as well, also become obvious. This, too, the philosophers have an unsettling tendency to overlook.

The above are seemingly obvious implications of the origins of morality in natural selection. With the brilliant exceptions of Westermarck and a few others, philosophers have studiously avoided noticing the obvious. Instead, we find them following paths made up of long chains of reasons. As we know from long experience, unless they can be checked by repeatable experiments, these paths lead deep into intellectual swamps. To follow them is to demonstrate a gross lack of awareness of the limitations of human intelligence. Today we find the professional and academic philosophers among us floundering about in those swamps, spouting their obscure theories in jargon that renders them incomprehensible to the rest of us. In short, they have succeeded in rendering themselves irrelevant to anyone but themselves. It’s sad. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

Darwin eliminated any rational basis for belief in objective moral truths when he revealed the nature of morality as a fundamentally emotional phenomenon and the reasons for its existence as a result of evolution by natural selection. Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s work for those with minds open enough to accept the truth. Their number has always been exceedingly small. The power of the illusion of the objective existence of good and evil has blinded most of us to facts that seem almost trivially obvious.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, and we have never been determined to believe anything more tenaciously than the illusion of moral truth. We have invented countless ways to prop it up and deny the obvious. Philosophers have always been among the most imaginative inventors. It stands to reason. After all, they have the most to lose if the illusion vanishes; their moral authority, their claims to expertise about things that don’t exist, and their very livelihoods. I’ve found what I call the “unicorn criterion” one of the most effective tools for examining these claims. It amounts to simply assuming that, instead of instilling in our brains the powerful illusion of objective good and evil, natural selection had fitted each of us out with an overpowering illusion that unicorns are real. Then, simply substitute unicorns for moral truths in the arguments of the objective moralists. If the argument is as good for the former as it is for the latter, it seems probable to me that both arguments are wrong. Continue reading “Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion”

“Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History

I admire Frans de Waal. One of the reasons is the fact that he knows about Edvard Westermarck. In his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he even refers to him as, “…the Finnish anthropologist who gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality.” In fact, that’s not true. Darwin himself gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality, most notably in Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man, and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a host of scientists and philosophers wrote about the subject before Westermarck appeared on the scene. However, as far as I can tell all of them promoted some version of naturalistic fallacy. In other words, they thought that evolution would result in ever “higher” forms of morality, or that it was possible for us to be morally obligated to do some things and refrain from doing others by virtue of natural selection. Westermarck was the first writer of note after Darwin to avoid these fallacies, and no one of any stature with his insight has appeared on the scene since. To that extent, at least, de Waal is right. Unfortunately, he has an unsettling tendency to state his own moral judgments as if they were objective facts. As one might expect, they are virtually identical with the moral judgments of the rest of the academic tribe. Since Westermarck rightly pointed out that those who do this are victims of an illusion in the first chapter of his first book on the subject, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, one wonders whether de Waal understood what he was reading. Continue reading ““Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History”

Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

As I noted in a recent post, (Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective), John Staddon, a Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke, published a very timely and important article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion noting the gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities in secular humanist morality. These included its obvious lack of any visible means of support, even as flimsy as a God, for its claims to authority and legitimacy. My post included a link to a review by Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the Why Evolution is True website and New Atheist stalwart, that called Prof. Staddon’s article the “worst” ever to appear on Quillette, based on the false assumption that he actually did maintain that secular humanism is a religion. In fact, it’s perfectly obvious based on a fair reading of the article that he did nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, Quillette gave Prof. Coyne the opportunity to post a reply to Staddon. His rebuttal, entitled Secular Humanism is Not a Religion, doubled down on the false assertion that Staddon had claimed it is. Then, in a counterblast, entitled Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne, Staddon simply pointed out Prof. Coyne’s already obvious “confusion” about what he had actually written, and elaborated on his contention that secular values depend on faith. As I noted in the following comment I posted at Quillette, I couldn’t agree more: Continue reading “Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette”

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

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

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

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

Morality Whimsy: What the Philosophers “Learned” from Darwin

When he published The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin practically spoon fed the rest of us the truth about human morality. He explained that it was as much a result of evolution by natural selection as any of our more obvious physical features. Similar versions of the heritable mental traits responsible for its existence are also present in other animals. The only difference between us and them is our ability to contemplate what we experience as a result of those traits with our large brains, and communicate our thoughts to others. As the result of a natural process, morality is not fixed, and could potentially be entirely different in other animals that might eventually happen to acquire levels of intelligence close to our own. In other words, it is a purely subjective phenomenon that does not “track” some imaginary “true” version of objective moral law. As a natural phenomenon, there is no reason to expect that it is striving towards some imaginary goal, such as human perfection or ideal virtue. It’s hard to imagine how Darwin could have expressed these facts in simpler or more straightforward terms.

If Darwin’s claim that morality is derived from heritable mental traits that exist by virtue of natural selection is right, it follows that it is not a perfectly malleable manifestation of environment or culture. Human beings cannot be programmed by learning or environment to adopt completely arbitrary versions of morality. It also follows that humans will perceive moral rules as absolutes. Furthermore, human beings are social animals. If morality exists by virtue of evolved mental traits, it follows that it enhances the probability of the survival and reproduction of the responsible genes in a group environment. It would hardly be effective in doing so if it predisposed us to believe that certain of our behaviors are “good” and others “evil” merely as individuals, but that no such rules or categories apply to the behavior of others. In that case altruism would certainly be a losing strategy in the struggle for survival. However, altruism exists. It follows that we must perceive the moral “rules” not only as absolute, and not only as applying to ourselves, but to everyone else as well. In short, belief in objective morality is an entirely predictable illusion, but an illusion regardless. If it were not an illusion, Darwin’s comment that completely different versions of morality could evolve for different intelligent species would necessarily be false. Whatever else one thinks of objective morality, it is certainly un-Darwinian.

In the years that followed, Darwin’s great theory spawned a host of different versions of “evolutionary morality.” One cannot but experience a sinking feeling in reading through them. Not a single one of the authors had a clue what Darwin was talking about. As far as I can tell, every single one of the systems of “evolutionary morality” concocted in the 19th century was based on the assumption of objective moral law. Evolution was merely the “natural” process of mankind’s progress towards the “goal” of compliance with this objective law, and the outcome of this “natural” process would be (of course) human moral perfection, in harmony with assorted versions of “true” morality. In other words, the power of the illusion asserted itself with a vengeance. “Man the wise” proved incapable of putting two and two together. Instead we clung to the old, familiar mirage that good and evil exist as objective things, just as our minds have always portrayed them to us.

One can confirm the above by reviewing some representative samples of the early versions of evolutionary morality. Many of them were described by Charles Mallory Williams in his A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution, published in 1893. By that time such systems were hardly a novelty. As Williams put it,

Now every year and almost every month brings with it a fresh supply of books, pamphlets and magazine articles on The Evolution of Morality. So many are the waters which now pour themselves into this common stream that the current threatens soon to become too deep and swift for any but the most expert swimmers.

Noting that it was already impossible to do justice to all the theories in a single book, Williams limited himself to reviewing the systems proposed by the most prominent authors in the field. These included Ernst Haeckel, who suggested substituting a “nature religion” based on evolution for the old “church religions.” According to Haeckel,

The greatest rudeness and barbarity of custom often goes hand in hand with the absolute dominion of an all-powerful church; in confirmation of which assertion one need only remember the Middle Ages. On the other hand, we behold the highest standard of perfection attained by men who have severed connection with every creed. Independent of every confession of faith, there lives in the breast of every human being the germ of a pure nature religion; this is indissolubly bound up with the noblest sides of human life. Its highest commandment is love, the restraint of our natural egoism for the benefit of our fellow-men, and for the good of human society, whose members we are.

The very un-Darwinian assumptions that evolution had resulted in a moral sense that was in tune with some version of ideal goodness, referred to by Haeckel as “a pure nature religion,” and that this moral sense existed to serve “the good of human society,” or the good of the species, are characteristic of all the early versions of “evolutionary morality.” For example, from the system proposed by Herbert Spencer,

From the fundamental laws of life and the conditions of social existence are inducible certain imperative limitations to individual action – limitations which are essential to a perfect life, individual and social, or in other words essential to the greatest possible happiness. And these limitations following inevitably as they do from undeniable first principles deep as the nature of life itself constitute what we may distinguish as absolute morality… In the ideal state towards which evolution tends, any falling short of function implies deviation from perfectly moral conduct.

Spencer’s friend, John Fiske, imagined that Darwin, “properly understood” pointed in a similar direction:

Man is slowly passing from a primitive social state, in which he was little better than a brute, toward an ultimate social state in which his character shall have become so transformed that nothing of the brute can be detected in it. The “original sin” of theology is the brute inheritance, which is being gradually eliminated; and the message of Christianity: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” will be realized in the state of universal peace towards which mankind is tending. Strife and Sorrow shall disappear. Peace and Love shall reign supreme. The goal of evolution is the perfecting of man, whereby we see, more than ever, that he is the chief object of divine care, the fruition of that creative energy which is manifested throughout the knowable universe.

Another Englishman, Alfred Barratt, proposed an even more confused version of “Darwinian morality:”

The Moral Sense therefore is merely one of the emotions, though the last of all in the order of evolution. It can only claim a life of some two or three centuries, (!) and there are even some who still doubt its existence. Man, at any rate, is the only animal who possesses it in its latest development, for even in horses and dogs we cannot believe that it has passed the intentional or conscious stage. Good with them has no artificial meaning; it is simply identical with the greatest pleasure. Only by complete and perfect obedience to all emotions can perfect freedom from regret be obtained in the gratification of all desire. Man is at present passion’s slave because he is so only in part, for the cause of repentance is never the attainment of some pleasure, but always the non-attainment of more; not the satisfaction of one desire, but the inability to satisfy all. The highest virtue, therefore, consists in being led not by one desire but by all in the complete organization of the Moral Nature.

According to the abstruce version of “Darwinism” proposed by Austrian philosopher Bartolomäus von Carneri, evolution had a “goal.” Happily, it was “the perfection of man.”

When we do away with all concessions to one sided extravagant desires, abstain from placing mind above the universal law of causality, and are content with the facts made known to us by science, we perceive that the absolute True, Beautiful, and Good bears the character of the Universal. In this universal character it has always finally found expression in human life and in this character it will always find expression… There is no absolute Evil in contrast to the absolute Good. Evil is negative. The perfection of man is identical with the attainment of absolute Good through evolution.

So much for “evolutionary morality” in the 19th century.  None of these philosophers had a clue that they were spouting nonsense that flew in the face of what Darwin had actually said about morality.  None of them so much as stopped to think that there is no path from a natural process such as evolution by natural selection to objective “oughts.”  They could not free themselves of the powerful illusion that good and evil are real things. It took a critic of Darwin who rejected the idea that evolution had anything to do with morality to see the blatant fallacies at the bottom of all these systems of “evolutionary morality.” Such a man was Jacob Gould Schurman, who took occasion to point out some of the gaping holes in all these fine theories in his The Ethical Import of Darwinism, published in 1888. The diehard Schurman commented bitterly that,

It is a historical fact that no one nowadays seems to doubt the validity of the general theory of evolution. However, the same cannot be said of natural selection.

He cited several prominent contemporary scientists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, who rejected Darwin’s theory either in whole or in part. Noting that “Darwin is certainly the father of evolutionary ethics,” Schurman then continued with a scathing attack on the whole idea, pointing out gaping holes in the above theories of “evolutionary morality” that are just as applicable to the tantrums of modern SJWs. For example,

It is worse than idle for mechanical evolutionists to talk of the reason or end or ground of morality.

The mental and moral faculties are both reduced to the rank of natural phenomena.

The absolute ought cannot be the product of (evolution).

Will not evolution, then, as thus interpreted, work revolution in our views of the moral nature of man, since it implies that morality is not grounded in the nature of things, but something purely relative to man’s circumstances; a happy device whereby man’s ancestors managed to cohere in a united society, and so kill out rival and disunited groups.

Exactly! If Darwin was right, then the claims of any system of “evolutionary morality” to represent objective moral truths must be dismissed as absurd. It is impossible for objective Good and Evil to be “grounded in the nature of things” if morality is the outcome of a random natural process. Indeed, it is not out of the question that intelligent life may already have evolved on other planets by a process similar to the one that occurred on earth, resulting in entirely different versions of good and evil.  It is a tribute to the power of the illusions that our evolved “moral sense” spawns in our brains that it is only obvious to those who disagree with our preferred version of “moral truth” that we are delusional.

Today we suffer from an infestation of secular “Social Justice Warriors,” who are in the habit of delivering themselves of bombastic moral pronunciamientos, and become furious when the rest of us pay no attention to them. Only Christians and other theists appear capable of noticing that they lack any basis for the legitimacy of their moral claims. In fact, they are behaving just as Darwin would have predicted, blindly responding to innate moral emotions, oblivious to the fact that the consequences of doing so today are highly unlikely to be the same as those that applied in the radically different world in which those emotions evolved. Just as the Darwin critic Schurman immediately recognized that the evolutionary moralists’ fantastic notion that they had discovered a philosopher’s stone to prop up their “absolute ought” was absurd, today’s theists can immediately see that the fine “objective truths” in which secular humanists imagine they’ve arrayed their moralistic emperor are purely figments of their imaginations.  Their emperor is naked.

As far as “evolutionary morality” is concerned, little has changed since the 19th century.  “Evolutionary moralists” flourish even more luxuriantly now than they did then.  Some of them even deny the existence of objective moral truths.  None that I am aware of are to be taken seriously when they make that claim.  In nearly the same breath in which they announce their belief in subjective morality, they will launch into a morally drenched rant against conservatives, or populists, or nationalists, or capitalists, or whoever else has the honor of belonging to their outgroup.  They do this without the least explanation, as if there were nothing at all contradictory about it.  They announce that there are no moral truths, and then proceed to furiously defend whatever flavor of moral truth they happen to prefer. Nothing could be further from their minds than explaining just how they imagine the particular “moral truths” they endorse will enhance the odds that the responsible genes they happen to carry will survive and reproduce. Only the great Edvard Westermarck popped for a brief moment out of the prevailing fog and followed the teachings of Darwin to their logical conclusion.  He was quickly forgotten.

Why is all this important?  I can only answer that question from a personal point of view.  It may not be important to some people.  That said, it is important to me because I find it expedient to know and base my actions and decisions on the truth.  I can’t say with absolute certainty whether anything is true or not, so I settle for what I consider probably true, and I deem it highly probable that there is no such thing as objective moral truth.

Some have argued that acknowledging this particular truth will harm society, because it will lead to moral relativism and moral chaos.  Human history in general, and the historical facts I have cited above in particular, demonstrate that this conclusion is false.  In view of what Darwin wrote about morality, it would seem perfectly clear and perfectly obvious that no system of objective morality can be based on his theory of evolution by natural selection.  This was abundantly clear to many of his opponents.  It remains obvious to the theists who reject his theory today.  However, almost to a man, those who considered themselves “Darwinians” and proposed systems of morality supposedly based on his theory concluded that there are objective moral truths, and that it is the “goal” of evolution to realize these truths! I can think of no rational explanation for this fact other than the existence of a powerful, innate human predisposition to perceive moral rules as independent, objective facts.  The power of this common illusion is demonstrated by the fact that highly intelligent “Darwinian” moral philosophers could not wean themselves from it even after Darwin had, for all practical purposes, told them point blank that they were fooling themselves.  In short, our species faces no danger from moral relativism.  The opposite is true. We are moral absolutists by nature, and will continue to be moral absolutists regardless of the scribblings of philosophers.  The real danger we face is our tendency to blindly follow the promptings of our “moral sense” in an environment that is radically different from the one in which that moral sense evolved.

Demonstrating the truth of the above couldn’t be simpler. Just gather up as many evolutionary moralists, postmodernists, and self-proclaimed believers in subjective morality as you please. Then take a close look at what they’ve actually written.  You’ll quickly find that every single one of them has made and continues to make morally loaded pronouncements that make no sense whatever absent the implicit assumption that there are objective moral truths.  They will announce that someone in their outgroup is immoral, or that we “ought” to do something, not merely as a matter of utility, but because it is the “right” thing to do, or that we have a “duty” to do something and refrain from doing something else.  They will proclaim their desire for “moral progress” or “human flourishing” without feeling in the least embarrassed by their failure to explain how “moral progress” or “human flourishing” will promote the survival of the genes that are the ultimate reason they find these nebulous utopias so attractive to begin with.

I, too, am human, and tend to wander off into such irrationalities myself sometimes.  However, if challenged, I will at least admit that I am merely expressing whims spawned by my own “moral sense,” and that I know of no legitimate basis whatever for claiming that my whims have some magical power to dictate to others what they ought or ought not to do.

We are not threatened by moral relativism.  We are threatened by the pervasive illusion that the objects we refer to as good and evil are real, and that we and the members of our ingroup have a monopoly on the knowledge of what these imaginary objects look like.  We cannot free ourselves of this illusion.  We are moral absolutists by nature.  Under the circumstances, it might behoove us to construct an “absolute morality” that is as benign, useful, and unobtrusive as possible.  If nothing else, it would pull the rug out from under the feet of the pious bullies and self-appointed moral dictators that I personally find an insufferable blight on modern society.  With luck, it might even encourage some of our benighted fellow creatures, who are now rushing down “morally pure” paths to extinction, to think twice about the wisdom of what they are doing, or as least to refrain from insisting that the rest of us accompany them on the journey.

Darwin and Morality

It’s not necessary to read all of Darwin’s books and manuscripts to learn what he had to say about morality.  Just read Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man.  If you haven’t seen those pages yet, they may be a revelation to you, because later generations of behavioral “scientists” have been very coy about mentioning them.  They are decidedly out of step with the socialist and egalitarian ideologies that it became the goal of the 20th century behavioral “sciences” to “prove” as corollaries of the Blank Slate.  As such they represent a high point in mankind’s search for truth and self-understanding.  When it comes to morality, that search was quickly derailed by a combination of ideologically corrupted “science” and sellers of philosophical snake oil.  Nearly a century and a half later, it remains derailed.  There is little reason to hope that it will recover anytime soon.

The things Darwin had to say about morality were remarkably bold, given that he lived in Victorian England, and was married to an extremely pious Christian wife.  Indeed, the first sentences of the chapter in question can be seen as reflection of this less than ideal environment:

I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.  This sense, as (Sir James) Mackintosh remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance.

Later authors have attempted to use this passage to prop up their artificial taboo against “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, it is best understood as a brief genuflection to the prevailing “moral landscape.”  In this heavily cherry-picked chapter, it’s best to read the whole thing. Darwin was anything but a carbon copy of the “co-discoverer” of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who believed in evolution below the neck, but substituted spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo for the origin of the human mind and conscience.  Darwin considered the human brain, mind, and moral sense as much the result of natural evolution as the rest of us.  He realized that the same emotions responsible for the moral sense in humans exists in other animals as well. We are exceptional only in our ability to think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and our ability to use language to communicate our thoughts to others.  Darwin hardly considered this an unbridgeable gap, and thought it entirely possible that similarly advanced minds could evolve in other animals.  As he put it,

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would 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.

So much for human exceptionalism!

For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways.

In the above we find Darwin clearly distinguishing between the fixed instincts of, for example, insects, and the more “malleable” behavioral predispositions existing in humans and other social mammals. In other words, here Darwin is preemptively debunking the favorite mantra of later generations of Blank Slaters that acceptance of evolved behavioral traits amounts to “genetic determinism.”

But these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association… We have now seen that actions are regarded by savages, and were probably so regarded by primeval man, as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe, – not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe. This conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community.

In other words, there are ingroups and outgroups, a fact that it took nearly half a century for Sir Arthur Keith to resurrect and state as a coherent hypothesis. Modern philosophers and behavioral scientists alike have fallen into the extremely dangerous habit of ignoring this aspect of human moral behavior, preferring to emphasize our “altruism” instead.

Secondly, as soon as the mental faculties had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual; and that feeling of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly recalled.

In other words, instead of being some unique human trait that suddenly evolved out of nothing, morality exists in nascent form in many other animals.  The “unique” features of human morality are merely artifacts of these preexisting traits in creatures with unusually high intelligence.

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

How can one read such passages without admiring the genius of Darwin?  No one else in his time even came close to writing anything of such brilliance and insight.  Consider what is packed into the last of these short passages alone: 1) A blunt denial of human exceptionalism, 2) A debunking of objective morality, and 3) Dismissal of theories that existed then as now that “objective moral truth” somehow manages to “track” morality rooted in mental traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Darwin goes on to cite many examples of analogs of human moral behavior in other animals, noting that,

Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with (Louis) Agassiz that dogs possess something very like a conscience.

As if in answer to later generations of behaviorists clutching their box mazes with their theories of “conditioning” he writes,

In many instances, however, it is probable that instincts are persistently followed from the mere force of inheritance, without the stimulus of either pleasure or pain.  A young pointer, when it first scents game, apparently cannot help pointing. A squirrel in a cage who pats the nuts which it cannot eat as if to bury them in the ground, can hardly be thought to act thus, either from pleasure or pain. Hence the common assumption that men must be impelled to every action by experiencing some pleasure or pain may be erroneous.

Far from believing that evolution by natural selection would result in a universal moral sense, identical in all races, Darwin concluded that the obvious differences in human moral behavior confirmed his theory.  As he put it,

Except through the principle of the transmission of moral tendencies, we cannot understand the differences believed to exist in this respect between the various races of mankind.

There is much more in this short chapter bearing on the evolution of human morality. It is truly a must read for anyone interested in the subject.  In addition to what he wrote about evolved behavioral traits in man and animals in The Descent of Man, Darwin also wrote a chapter on the subject intended for publication in The Origin of Species.  Unfortunately, the full manuscript did not appear in that book.  However, Darwin passed it along with much other related material accumulated during the course of his life to his young collaborator, George Romanes.  Romanes published the full chapter, along with much of the other material he had received from Darwin, in his Mental Evolution in Animals, which appeared shortly after Darwin’s death. The book is available online, and may be found by clicking the link on the title.

Many authors published theories of morality, supposedly based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, beginning shortly after publication of The Origin of Species.  Almost all of them promoted some theory of objective morality, and either ignored or completely failed to grasp the significance of what Darwin had written on the subject.  Edvard Westermarck appeared like a ray of light in the fog, publishing his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906.  Among major philosophers, he alone appeared to grasp the implications of what Darwin had written about morality.  Like the fourth chapter of The Descent of Man, his book was forgotten, and no philosopher or scientist has appeared in the century plus since then who appears to grasp not only what Darwin wrote about the evolved roots of morality, but also the implications of what he wrote regarding the question of objective morality.  The lucubrations of some of these “evolutionary moralists” are interesting in their own right, but I must leave them for a later post.

No, All Things are Not Permissible, and All Things are Not Not Permissible

IMHO it is a fact that good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things.  If they do not exist, then the moral properties that depend on them, such as “permissible,” have no objective existence, either.  It follows that it is not even rational to ask the question whether something is permissible or not as an independent fact.  In other words, if there is no such thing as objective morality, then it does not follow that “everything is permissible.”  It also does not follow that “everything is not permissible.”  As far as the universe is concerned, the term “permissible” does not exist.  In other words, there is no objective reason to obey a given set of moral rules, nor is there an objective reason not to obey those rules.

I note in passing that if the above were not true, and the conclusion that good and evil do not exist as objective things actually did imply that “everything is permissible,” as some insist, it would not alter the facts one bit.  The universe would shrug its shoulders and ask, “So what?”  If the absence of good and evil as objective things leads to conclusions that some find unpleasant, will that alter reality and magically cause them to pop into existence?  That hasn’t worked with a God, and it won’t work with objective good and evil, either.

I just read a paper by Matt McManus on the Quillette website that nicely, if unintentionally, demonstrates what kind of an intellectual morass one wades into if one insists that good and evil are real, objective things.  It’s entitled Why Should We Be Good?  The first two paragraphs include the following:

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ …Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere.  For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty.

The author goes on to cite what he considers two motivations for the above, one “negative,” and one “positive.”  As he puts it,

The negative motivation arises from moral dogmatism.  There are those who wish to dogmatically assert their own values without worrying that they may not be as universal as one might suppose… Ethical dogmatists do not want to be confronted with the possibility that it is possible to challenge their values because they often cannot provide good reasons to back them up.

He adds that,

The positive motivation was best expressed by Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind.

Well, I wouldn’t exactly describe Bloom’s book as “positive.”  It struck me as a curmudgeonly rant about how “today’s youth” didn’t measure up to how he thought they “ought” to be.  Be that as it may, the author finally gets to the point:

The issue I wish to explore is this:  even if we know which values are universal, why should we feel compelled to adhere to them?

To this I would reply that there are no universal values, and since they don’t exist, they can’t be known.  This reduces the question of why we should feel compelled to adhere to them to nonsense.  In fact, what the author is doing here is outing himself as a dogmatist.  He just thinks he’s better than other dogmatists because he imagines he can “provide good reasons to back up” his personal dogmas.  It turns out his “good reasons” amount to an appeal to authority, as follows:

Kant argued, very powerfully, that a human being’s innate practical reason begets a universal set of “moral laws” which any rational person knows they must follow.

Good dogma, no?  After all, who can argue with Kant?  “Obscurely” would probably be a better word than “powerfully.”   Some of his sentences ran on for a page and a half, larded with turgid German philosophical jargon from start to finish.  Philosophers pique themselves on “understanding” him, but seldom manage to get much further than the categorical imperative in practice.  I suspect they’re wasting their time.  McManus assures us that Kant read Hume.  If so, he must not have comprehended what he was reading in passages such as,

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason.  Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it: and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound.

Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such influence.  Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.  Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason…

What Hume wrote above isn’t just the expression of some personal ideological idiosyncrasy, but the logical conclusion of the thought of a long line of British and Scottish philosophers.  I find his thought on morality “very powerful,” and have seen no evidence that Kant ever seriously addressed his arguments.  We learned where the emotions Hume referred to actually came from in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of Species, more than half a century after Kant’s death.  It’s beyond me how Kant could have “argued powerfully” about a “universal set of moral laws” in spite of his ignorance of the real manner in which they are “begotten.”  No matter, McManus apparently still believes, “because Kant,” that we can “know” some “universal moral law.”  He continues,

While we might know that these “moral laws” apply universally, why should we feel compelled to obey them?

According to McManus, the 19th century philosopher Henry Sidgwick made some “profound contributions” to answering this question, which he considered “the profoundest problem in ethics.” Not everyone thought Sidgwick was all that profound.  Westermarck dealt rather harshly with his “profound” thoughts in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In the rest of his article, McManus reviews the thought of several other philosophers on the subject, and finds none of them entirely to his liking.  He finally peters out with nary an answer to the question, “Why should we be good?”  In fact there is no objective answer to the question, because there is no objective good.  McManus’ “dogma with good reasons” is just as imaginary as all the “dogmas without good reasons” at which he turns up his nose.

The philosophers are in no hurry to wade back out of this intellectual morass.  Indeed, their jobs depend on expanding it.  For those of us who prefer staying out of swamps, however, the solution to McManus’ enigma is simple enough.  Stop believing in the ghosts of objective good and evil.  Accept the fact that what we call morality exists because the innate mental traits that give rise to it themselves exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection.  Then follow that fundamental fact to its logical conclusions.  One of those conclusions is that there is nothing whatsoever objective about morality.  It is a purely subjective phenomenon.  That is simply a fact of nature.  As such, it is quite incapable of rendering “everything permissible,” or “everything not permissible.”  Furthermore, realization of that fact will not change how the questions of what is permissible and what is not permissible are answered.  Those questions will continue to be answered just as they always have been, in the subjective minds of individuals.

Acceptance of these truths about morality will not result in “moral nihilism,” or “cultural relativity,” or the hegemony of postmodernism.  All of these things can result from our attempts to reason about what our emotions are trying to tell us, but so can moral absolutism.  On the other hand, acceptance of the truth may enable us to avoid some of the real dangers posed by our current “system” of blindly responding to moral emotions, and just as blindly imagining that the result will be “moral progress.”  For example, if morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, those traits must have been selected in times that were very different from the present.  It is highly unlike that blindly following where our emotions seem to be leading us will have the same effect now as it did then.  In fact, those emotions might just as well be leading us over the edge of a cliff.

If morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, then arbitrarily isolating moral behavior from the rest of our innate behavioral repertoire, sometimes referred to as human nature, can also be misleading.  For example, we have a powerful innate tendency to distinguish others in terms of ingroup and outgroup, applying different versions of morality to each.  This can delude us into seriously believing that vast numbers of the people we live with are “bad.”  In the past, we have often imagined that we must “resist” and “fight back” against these “bad” people, resulting in mayhem that has caused the death of countless millions, and misery for countless millions more.  From my own subjective point of view, it would be better to understand the innate emotional sources of such subjective fantasies, and at least attempt to find a way to avoid the danger they pose.  Perhaps one day enough people will agree with me to make a difference.  The universe doesn’t care one way or the other.

Nihilism and chaos will not result from acceptance of the truth.  When it comes to morality, nihilism and chaos are what we have now.  I happen to be among those who would prefer some form of “moral absolutism,” even though I realize that its legitimacy must be based on the subjective desires of individuals rather on some mirage of “objective truth.”  I would prefer living under a simple moral code, in harmony with human nature, designed to enable us to live together with a minimum of friction and a maximum of personal liberty.  No rule would be accepted without examining its innate emotional basis, what the emotions in question accomplished at the time they evolved, and whether they would still accomplish the same thing in the different environment we live in now.  Generalities about “moral progress” and “human flourishing” would be studiously ignored.

I see no reason why the subjective nature of morality would prevent us from adopting such an “absolute morality.”  There would, of course, be no objective reason why we “should be good” according to the rules of such a system.  The reasons would be the same subjective ones that have always been the real basis for all the versions of morality our species has ever come up with.  In the first place, if the system really was in harmony with human nature, then for many of us, our “conscience” would prompt us to “do good.”  Those with a “weak conscience” who ignored the moral law, free riders if you will, would be dealt with much the same way they have always been dealt with.  They would be shamed, punished, and, if necessary, isolated from the rest of society.

I know, we are very far from realizing this utopia, or even from accepting the most simple truths about morality and what they imply.  I’ve always been one for daydreaming, though.

Please, Leave Me Out of Your Philosophical Pigeonholes

Yes, I know it is human nature to categorize virtually everything. As I noted in my last post, it reduces complexity to manageable levels. When it comes to worldviews and philosophies, we categorize them into schools of thought. I hope my readers will resist the tendency to stuff me into one of these pigeonholes. For better or worse, it seems to me I don’t belong in any of them.

The fundamental truth I defend is the non-existence of objective morality. That does not mean, however, that I belong in the postmodernist category. Postmodernists may claim that moral truths are social constructs, but that doesn’t prevent them from furiously defending their own preferred version as their “truth,” or defending the alternative preferred versions of certain fashionable identity groups as “true” for those groups. I am not a postmodernist because I reject claims by any individual or group whatsoever that they have a legitimate right to apply their moral rules to me, whether they are socially constructed or not. Postmodernists act as if they had this right to dictate to others, regardless of what they say about “moral relativity.”

Neither does the fact that I deny the existence of objective morality mean I am a “moral nihilist.” In fact, we actually live in a state of moral nihilism and chaos today for the very reason that we insist on the believing the illusion that there are objective moral truths. Human beings have an overwhelming innate tendency to believe that their idiosyncratic versions of “good” and “evil” represent “truths.” For the most part, they will continue to believe that regardless of what anyone happens to write on the subject. My personal preference would be to live in a world where such an “absolute” morality prevails. However, this “absolute” system would be constructed in full knowledge of the fact that it represented a necessary and useful expedient, and most decidedly not that it reflected objective moral truths. It would be possible to alter and amend this “absolute” system when necessary, but by a means more rational than the current method of allowing those bullies who throw the most flamboyant moralistic temper tantrums to set it up as they please. I propose such a system not because I think we “ought” to do it as a matter of objective fact, but merely because I would personally find it expedient as a means of pursuing the goals I happen to have in life, and believe that others may agree it would be expedient as far as they’re concerned as well.

Finally, the fact that I deny the existence of objective morality most decidedly does not mean that I belong in the “error theory” category with the likes of J. L. Mackie. Mackie claimed he denied the objective existence of moral properties. However, he also claimed that we “ought” to do some things, and had a “duty” to do others. I consider this nonsense, and a complete contradiction of his claims about the non-existence of objective good and evil. I recently ran across a paper that illustrates very nicely why I would prefer to stay out of this particular pigeonhole. The paper in question was written by Prof. Bart Streumer of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and is entitled The Unbelievable Truth about Morality. The opening paragraph of the paper reads as follows:

Have you ever suspected that even though we call some actions right and other actions wrong, nothing is really right or wrong? If so, there is a philosophical theory that agrees with you: the error theory. According to the error theory, moral judgments are beliefs that ascribe moral properties to actions or to people, but these properties do not exist. The error theory therefore entails that all moral judgments are false. Just as atheism says that God does not exist and that all religious beliefs are false, the error theory says that moral properties do not exist and that all moral judgments are false.

That may seem to be a concise statement of my own beliefs regarding objective moral claims, but hold onto your hat. In what follows the author comes up with a number of highly dubious conclusions about the supposed implications of “error theory.” In the end he runs completely off the track into the same swamp we were in before, and something indistinguishable from objective morality still prevails. In closing, he triumphantly informs us of his amazing discovery that “error theory” doesn’t “undermine morality!”

I’m not going to review the entire paper in detail. Interested readers are welcome to do that on their own. Instead I will focus on some of the things the author imagines follow from error theory. These include the notion that a “part” of error theory is “cognitivism.” A “cognitivist” is one who claims that moral judgments are “beliefs.” According to the author, there is a whole “school” of “cognitivists,” countered by another whole “school” of “non-cognitivists.” In his words,

Opponents of cognitivism, who are known as non-cognitivists, deny that these judgments are beliefs. They instead take moral judgments to be non-cognitive attitudes, such as feelings of approval or disapproval.

Really? Have philosophers now become that ignorant of philosophy? Whatever happened to the likes of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume? They claimed that moral beliefs and moral “feelings of approval or disapproval” were inextricably bound together, that the former were the result of reasoning about the latter, and that moral beliefs are, in fact, impossible without these “feelings.” The very idea that human beings are capable of blindly responding to emotions without forming beliefs about what they imply is referred to by behavioral scientists as “genetic determinism,” and the term “genetic determinist” itself is used merely as a pejorative to describe someone who believes in an impossible fantasy. If we are to credit the author, such specimens actually exist somewhere in the dank halls of academia.

It would seem, then, that I can’t be an “error theorist,” because I find this false dichotomy between “cognitivism” and “non-cognitivism” absurd, regardless of the author’s claims about how fashionable it is among the philosophers. Not only does the author fail to mention the work of important philosophers who would have deemed this dichotomy nonsense, but he fails to mention any connection between morality and evolution by natural selection. Is he ignorant of a discipline known as evolutionary psychology? Is he completely oblivious to what the neuroscientists have been telling us lately? If “error theory” rejects the objective existence of moral properties, shouldn’t a paper on the subject at least discuss in passing what reasons there might be for the nearly universal belief in such imaginary objects?  Natural selection is certainly among the more plausible explanations.

In what follows, we finally discover the connection between this remarkable dichotomy and the “unbelievable truth” mentioned in the article’s title. According to the paper, an objection to error theory is as follows:

If the error theory is true, all moral judgments are false.
It is wrong to torture babies for fun.
So the judgment that it is wrong to torture babies for fun is true.
So at least one moral judgment is true.
So the error theory is false.

The author allows that this is a tough one for error theorists. In his words,

…this objection is hard to answer for error theorists. It is overwhelmingly plausible that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. Error theorists could deny that this entails that the judgment that it is wrong to torture babies for fun is true. But they can only deny this if they endorse non-cognitivism about this judgment, and non-cognitivism conflicts with the error theory. It therefore seems that error theorist must answer this objection by denying that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. But then we should ask what is more plausible: that the error theory is true, or that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. This objection therefore seems to show that we should reject the error theory.

Now do you see where the false dichotomy comes in? Why on earth should it be “overwhelmingly plausible” that it is wrong to torture babies for fun, regardless of what any individual happens to think about the matter, but as a matter of objective fact? Where is the basis for this “fact?” How did that basis acquire an independent and legitimate authority to dictate to human beings what they ought and ought not to do? How did it come into existence to begin with? Unless one can answer these questions, there is no reason to believe in the existence of objective moral truths, and therefore no rational explanation for the conclusion that any moral claim whatsoever is “overwhelmingly plausible.” It makes as much sense as the claim that there must be unicorns because one really, really believes deep down that it is “overwhelmingly plausible” that there are unicorns. It is only “overwhelmingly plausible” that it is wrong to torture babies because most of us have a very powerful “feeling” that it is wrong. But (aha, oho!) “error theorists” are prohibited from referencing that feeling in denying this “truth” because that would be “non-cognitivism” and they can’t be “non-cognitivists!”

The rest of the paper goes something like this: Error theory is true. However, if error theory is true, then the claim that it is wrong to torture babies is false, and that is unbelievable. Therefore, error theory is both true and unbelievable. The conclusion:  “Our inability to believe this general error theory therefore prevents it from undermining morality.”  Whatever. One thing that the paper very definitely shows is that I am not an “error theorist.”

What the “tortured babies” argument really amounts to is the claim that truth can be manufactured out of the vacuum by effective manipulation of moral emotions. It’s just another version of the similar arguments Sam Harris uses to prop up his equally bogus claim that there are objective moral truths. I note in passing the author’s claim that J. L. Mackie was the first philosopher to defend the error theory. That may be true as far as the description of error theory presented in the paper is concerned. However, a far more coherent argument to the effect that objective moral properties do not exist was published by Edvard Westermarck more than 70 years earlier. Perhaps it would be helpful if philosophers would at least reference his work in future discussions of error theory and related topics instead of continuing to ignore him.

But to return to the moral of the story, not only am I not a postmodernist, a moral nihilist, or a moral relativist, I am not an “error theorist” either. I certainly believe that there are facts about the universe, and that they will stubbornly remain facts regardless of whether any conscious being chooses to believe they are facts or not. I simply don’t believe that these facts include objective moral truths. Apparently, at the risk of overdramatizing myself, I must conclude that I represent a church of one. I hope not but, in any case, when it comes to pigeonholing, please don’t round me up as one of the “usual suspects.”

Morality and the Floundering Philosophers

In my last post I noted the similarities between belief in objective morality, or the existence of “moral truths,” and traditional religious beliefs. Both posit the existence of things without evidence, with no account of what these things are made of (assuming that they are not things that are made of nothing), and with no plausible explanation of how these things themselves came into existence or why their existence is necessary. In both cases one can cite many reasons why the believers in these nonexistent things want to believe in them. In both cases, for example, the livelihood of myriads of “experts” depends on maintaining the charade. Philosophers are no different from priests and theologians in this respect, but their problem is even bigger. If Darwin gave the theologians a cold, he gave the philosophers pneumonia. Not long after he published his great theory it became clear, not only to him, but to thousands of others, that morality exists because the behavioral traits which give rise to it evolved. The Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck formalized these rather obvious conclusions in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906) and Ethical Relativity (1932). At that point, belief in the imaginary entities known as “moral truths” became entirely superfluous. Philosophers have been floundering behind their curtains ever since, trying desperately to maintain the illusion.

An excellent example of the futility of their efforts may be found online in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in an entry entitled Morality and Evolutionary Biology. The most recent version was published in 2014.  It’s rather long, but to better understand what follows it would be best if you endured the pain of wading through it.  However, in a nutshell, it seeks to demonstrate that, even if there is some connection between evolution and morality, it’s no challenge to the existence of “moral truths,” which we are to believe can be detected by well-trained philosophers via “reason” and “intuition.”  Quaintly enough, the earliest source given for a biological explanation of morality is E. O. Wilson.  Apparently the Blank Slate catastrophe is as much a bugaboo for philosophers as for scientists.  Evidently it’s too indelicate for either of them to mention that the behavioral sciences were completely derailed for upwards of 50 years by an ideologically driven orthodoxy.  In fact, a great many highly intelligent scientists and philosophers wrote a great deal more than Wilson about the connection between biology and morality before they were silenced by the high priests of the Blank Slate.  Even during the Blank Slate men like Sir Arthur Keith had important things to say about the biological roots of morality.  Robert Ardrey, by far the single most influential individual in smashing the Blank Slate hegemony, addressed the subject at length long before Wilson, as did thinkers like Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen.  Perhaps if its authors expect to be taken seriously, this “Encyclopedia” should at least set the historical record straight.

It’s already evident in the Overview section that the author will be running with some dubious assumptions.  For example, he speaks of “morality understood as a set of empirical phenomena to be explained,” and the “very different sets of questions and projects pursued by philosophers when they inquire into the nature and source of morality,” as if they were examples of the non-overlapping magisterial once invoked by Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, if one “understands the empirical phenomena” of morality, then the problem of the “nature and source of morality” is hardly “non-overlapping.”  In fact, it solves itself.  The suggestion that they are non-overlapping depends on the assumption that “moral truth” exists in a realm of its own.  A bit later the author confirms he is making that assumption as follows:

Moral philosophers tend to focus on questions about the justification of moral claims, the existence and grounds of moral truths, and what morality requires of us.  These are very different from the empirical questions pursued by the sciences, but how we answer each set of questions may have implications for how we should answer the other.

He allows that philosophy and the sciences must inform each other on these “distinct” issues.  In fact, neither philosophy nor the sciences can have anything useful to say about these questions, other than to point out that they relate to imaginary things.  “Objects” in the guise of “justification of moral claims,” “grounds of moral truths,” and the “requirements of morality” exist only in fantasy.  The whole burden of the article is to maintain that fantasy, and insist that the mirage is real.  We are supposed to be able to detect that the mirages are real by thinking really hard until we “grasp moral truths,” and “gain moral knowledge.”  It is never explained what kind of a reasoning process leads to “truths” and “knowledge” about things that don’t exist.  Consider, for example, the following from the article:

…a significant amount of moral judgment and behavior may be the result of gaining moral knowledge, rather than just reflecting the causal conditioning of evolution.  This might apply even to universally held moral beliefs or distinctions, which are often cited as evidence of an evolved “universal moral grammar.”  For example, people everywhere and from a very young age distinguish between violations of merely conventional norms and violations of norms involving harm, and they are strongly disposed to respond to suffering with concern.  But even if this partly reflects evolved psychological mechanisms or “modules” governing social sentiments and responses, much of it may also be the result of human intelligence grasping (under varying cultural conditions) genuine morally relevant distinctions or facts – such as the difference between the normative force that attends harm and that which attends mere violations of convention.

It’s amusing to occasionally substitute “the flying spaghetti monster” or “the great green grasshopper god” for the author’s “moral truths.”  The “proofs” of their existence work just as well.  In the above, he is simply assuming the existence of “morally relevant distinctions,” and further assuming that they can be grasped and understood logically.  Such assumptions fly in the face of the work of many philosophers who demonstrated that moral judgments are always grounded in emotions, sometimes referred to by earlier authors as “sentiments,” or “passions,” and it is therefore impossible to arrive at moral truths through reason alone.  Assuming some undergraduate didn’t write the article, one must assume the author had at least a passing familiarity with some of these people.  The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, demonstrated the decisive role of “natural affections” as the origins of moral judgment in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699), even noting in that early work the similarities between humans and the higher animals in that regard.  Francis Hutcheson very convincingly demonstrated the impotence of reason alone in detecting moral truths, and the essential role of “instincts and affections” as the origin of all moral judgment in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728).  Hutcheson thought that God was the source of these passions and affections.  It remained for David Hume to present similar arguments on a secular basis in his A Treatise on Human Nature (1740).

The author prefers to ignore these earlier philosophers, focusing instead on the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has also insisted on the role of emotions in shaping moral judgment.  Here I must impose on the reader’s patience with a long quote to demonstrate the type of “logic” we’re dealing with.  According to the author,

There are also important philosophical worries about the methodologies by which Haidt comes to his deflationary conclusions about the role played by reasoning in ordinary people’s moral judgments.

To take just one example, Haidt cites a study where people made negative moral judgments in response to “actions that were offensive yet harmless, such as…cleaning one’s toilet with the national flag.” People had negative emotional reactions to these things and judged them to be wrong, despite the fact that they did not cause any harms to anyone; that is, “affective reactions were good predictors of judgment, whereas perceptions of harmfulness were not” (Haidt 2001, 817). He takes this to support the conclusion that people’s moral judgments in these cases are based on gut feelings and merely rationalized, since the actions, being harmless, don’t actually warrant such negative moral judgments. But such a conclusion would be supported only if all the subjects in the experiment were consequentialists, specifically believing that only harmful consequences are relevant to moral wrongness. If they are not, and believe—perhaps quite rightly (though it doesn’t matter for the present point what the truth is here)—that there are other factors that can make an action wrong, then their judgments may be perfectly appropriate despite the lack of harmful consequences.

This is in fact entirely plausible in the cases studied: most people think that it is inherently disrespectful, and hence wrong, to clean a toilet with their nation’s flag, quite apart from the fact that it doesn’t hurt anyone; so the fact that their moral judgment lines up with their emotions but not with a belief that there will be harmful consequences does not show (or even suggest) that the moral judgment is merely caused by emotions or gut reactions. Nor is it surprising that people have trouble articulating their reasons when they find an action intrinsically inappropriate, as by being disrespectful (as opposed to being instrumentally bad, which is much easier to explain).

Here one can but roll ones eyes.  It doesn’t matter a bit whether the subjects are consequentialists or not.  Haidt’s point is that logical arguments will always break down at some point, whether they are based on harm or not, because moral judgments are grounded in emotions.  Harm plays a purely ancillary role.  One could just as easily ask why the action in question is considered disrespectful, and the chain of logical reasons would break down just as surely.  Whoever wrote the article must know what Haidt is really saying, because he refers explicitly to the ideas of Hume in the same book.  Absent the alternative that the author simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, we must conclude that he is deliberately misrepresenting what Haidt was trying to say.

One of the author’s favorite conceits is that one can apply “autonomous applications of human intelligence,” meaning applications free of emotional bias, to the discovery of “moral truths” in the same way those logical faculties are applied in such fields as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, etc.  In his words,

We assume in general that people are capable of significant autonomy in their thinking, in the following sense:

Autonomy Assumption: people have, to greater or lesser degrees, a capacity for reasoning that follows autonomous standards appropriate to the subjects in question, rather than in slavish service to evolutionarily given instincts merely filtered through cultural forms or applied in novel environments. Such reflection, reasoning, judgment and resulting behavior seem to be autonomous in the sense that they involve exercises of thought that are not themselves significantly shaped by specific evolutionarily given tendencies, but instead follow independent norms appropriate to the pursuits in question (Nagel 1979).

This assumption seems hard to deny in the face of such abstract pursuits as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, modal metaphysics, or twelve-tone musical composition, all of which seem transparently to involve precisely such autonomous applications of human intelligence.

This, of course, leads up to the argument that one can apply this “autonomy assumption” to moral judgment as well.  The problem is that, in the other fields mentioned, one actually has something to reason about.  In mathematics, for example, one starts with a collection of axioms that are simply accepted as true, without worrying about whether they are “really” true or not.  In physics, there are observables that one can measure and record as a check on whether one’s “autonomous application of intelligence” was warranted or not.  In other words, one has physical evidence.  The same goes for the other subjects mentioned.  In each case, one is reasoning about something that actually exists.  In the case of morality, however, “autonomous intelligence” is being applied to a phantom.  Again, the same arguments are just as strong if one applies them to grasshopper gods.  “Autonomous intelligence” is useless if it is “applied” to something that doesn’t exist.  You can “reflect” all you want about the grasshopper god, but he will still stubbornly refuse to pop into existence.  The exact nature of the recondite logical gymnastics one must apply to successfully apply “autonomous intelligence” in this way is never explained.  Perhaps a Ph.D. in philosophy at Stanford is a prerequisite before one can even dare to venture forth on such a daunting logical quest.  Perhaps then, in addition to the sheepskin, they fork over a philosopher’s stone that enables one to transmute lead into gold, create the elixir of life, and extract “moral truths” right out of the vacuum.

In short, the philosophers continue to flounder.  Their logical demonstrations of nonexistent “moral truths” are similar in kind to logical demonstrations of the existence of imaginary super-beings, and just as threadbare.  Why does it matter?  I can’t supply you with any objective “oughts,” here, but at least I can tell you my personal prejudices on the matter, and my reasons for them.  We are living in a time of moral chaos, and will continue to do so until we accept the truth about the evolutionary origin of human morality and the implications of that truth.  There are no objective moral truths, and it will be extremely dangerous for us to continue to ignore that fact.  Competing morally loaded ideologies are already demonstrably disrupting our political systems.  It is hardly unlikely that we will once again experience what happens when fanatics stuff their “moral truths” down our throats as they did in the last century with the morally loaded ideologies of Communism and Nazism.  Do you dislike being bullied by Social Justice Warriors?  I’m sorry to inform you that the bullying will continue unabated until we explode the myth that they are bearers of “moral truths” that they are justified, according to “autonomous logic” in imposing on the rest of us.  I could go on and on, but do I really need to?  Isn’t it obvious that a world full of fanatical zealots, all utterly convinced that they have a monopoly on “moral truth,” and a perfect right to impose these “truths” on everyone else, isn’t exactly a utopia?  Allow me to suggest that, instead, it might be preferable to live according to a simple and mutually acceptable “absolute” morality, in which “moral relativism” is excluded, and which doesn’t change from day to day in willy-nilly fashion according to the whims of those who happen to control the social means of communication?  As counter-intuitive as it seems, the only practicable way to such an outcome is acceptance of the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved human nature, and of the truth that there are no such things as “moral truths.”