Morality: On Whose Authority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On whose authority?”

 

Evolution, Revolution, and the Moral Philosophy of E. O. Wilson

Human history is a record of the attempts of our species to reconcile behavioral traits that evolved eons ago with rapidly and radically changing environments. Today we can follow the results of our latest experiments on social media as they develop in real time. As we observe the behavior of those around us, ranging as it does from the extravagant to the whimsical to the absurd, one salient fact should be kept in mind. With few exceptions, the actors in this drama don’t have a clue why they are doing the things they do.

We suffer no such confusion when it comes to the behavior of other animals. We don’t imagine that they are acting according to an “objective moral law,” revealed to them by their gods. We don’t imagine that they act the way they do because of a lively interest in the welfare of all chimpanzee kind, or all giraffe kind, or all alligator kind. We don’t imagine that they are motivated by a “culture,” which has somehow magically materialized out of thin air. We don’t imagine that they have nobly decided to dedicate their lives to the “flourishing” of their species. We realize perfectly well that they behave the way they do because that behavior has enabled their ancestors to survive and reproduce. Only when it comes to ourselves do we fall under the spell of such extravagant mirages. We are so addicted to the illusion of our own uniqueness that we have rendered ourselves incapable of grasping the seemingly obvious; that we are no different from them when it comes to the fundamental motivators of our behavior.

No doubt aliens visiting our planet would deem it a great joke that those among us who refer to themselves as “scientists” and “experts” assured us with perfectly straight faces for upwards of half a century that these fundamental motivators, known as “human nature” in the vernacular, didn’t even exist. The fact that the thing they denied was the reason for their denial made it all the more absurd. Our situation today is little better. There is a palpable sense in the air that a system that served us relatively well for many years is collapsing around our ears. A few of the brightest among us realize that the reasons for this are to be found in the human nature that was denied for so many years. They hopefully suggest that overcoming our problems is a mere matter of tweaking the old system here and there to bring it into better harmony with the evolved, emotional behavioral traits that we commonly refer to by that name. I have my doubts.

Consider, for example, the case of E. O. Wilson, one of the “brightest among us” I refer to above. Read the final two chapters of his Consilience, and you will see that Wilson understands perfectly well that human morality is a manifestation of emotional predispositions that evolved eons ago, just as Darwin suggested in his The Descent of Man. He realizes that these predispositions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, and that it is hardly guaranteed that they will produce the same result in the vastly different societies we live in today. He understands that, if the above conclusions are true, then morality must necessarily be subjective, a point of view he refers to as “empiricism.” He calls the opposite point of view, the belief that there is an objective moral law that exists independently of anyone’s opinion on the matter, as “transcendentalism.” He comes down firmly on the side of empiricism. And then he goes completely off the tracks. He tells us what we “ought” to do in a manner that would be completely irrational absent the assumption of “transcendental” morality.

I agree with Wilson (and Darwin) that what he calls the “empiricist” explanation of morality is correct. If so, then the “root cause” of human moral systems, in all their myriad forms, can be traced back to emotional predispositions that exist because they evolved via natural selection. These predispositions evolved in times radically different from the present, and we probably share versions of some them that are little different from those that existed in our pre-human ancestors. I personally conclude from this that, before blindly acting in response to my moral emotions, I need to ask myself if responding in that way is likely to have the same result as it did in the Pleistocene, or if, perhaps, in the context of the very different societies we live in today, it may accomplish exactly the opposite.

I have set goals for myself in life that I consider to be in harmony with the reasons for the existence of my moral emotions. They include my own survival and reproduction, the preservation and continued evolution of my species into forms that are likely to survive in plausible futures and, beyond that, the continued survival of biological life itself. If behaving as I am inclined to behave by virtue of my moral emotions will not serve those goals, but will, in fact, act against or defeat them, I conclude that I need to resist acting blindly in that way. There is no reason at all that any other individual is morally obligated to share my personal goals. However, I have, at least, laid my cards on the table. If someone tells me I am morally obligated to act in a certain way, or in other words that I “ought” to act in that way, I must insist that they also lay their cards on the table. Do they, too, have personal goals in life, and are those goals compatible with my own? If not, and they are simply blindly demanding that others act in ways that satisfy their moral emotions, what makes them think I’m obligated to comply? Unless one believes in a “transcendental” morality, no such obligation can exist. In spite of this, Wilson insists that I, and all the rest of humanity, “ought” to do what he wants.

The ”logic” Wilson marshals in support of this demand is less than compelling. It can be found in “Ethics and Religion,” the next to last chapter of his Consilience. He begins with an attack on G. E. Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy,” which he wrongly interprets as something akin to Hume’s prohibition against hopping over the is/ought divide. He assures us that this fallacy is itself a fallacy, “For if ought is not is, what is?” This non sequitur is what scientists refer to as “hand waving.” The question implies a “transcendental” moral ought, which is impossible if there are no transcendental good and evil. As we read on, we learn how he arrived at this remarkable question. He accomplishes the trick by simply hopping from the categorical ought of morality to the conditional ought of utility. Just as we “ought” to use a hammer rather than a screwdriver to drive a nail, we “ought” to do some things and refrain from doing other things to conform to the moral fashions prevailing among the academic tribe. As he puts it:

Ought is not the translation of human nature but of the public will, which can be make increasingly wise and stable through the understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.

At this point, Wilson’s “ought” no longer has anything to do with the term as we commonly associate it with morality at all. It is completely divorced from its evolutionary origins, and has been re-defined to mean conformity to the “public will” that supposedly exists in societies utterly unlike those in which that evolution took place. Wilson does not feel obligated to explain to us how conforming to the “public will” is likely to enhance the odds of our genetic survival, or his genetic survival, or the continued survival of biological life in general. In fact, he has passed from “empiricism” to “transcendentalism,” promoting a personal version of the “good” which he has convinced himself is “good-in-itself,” but is really just the expression of an ideal that he finds emotionally comforting.

To what end is this “public will” to be made “wise and stable?” Translated to the present, which “public will” are we to prefer? The public will of that half of the population that supports Trump and agrees with his agenda, in the process condemning those who oppose him as evil, or the public will of that half of the population that opposes Trump and all he stands for, in the process condemning those who support him as evil? Wilson doesn’t leave us in suspense. The “public will” he refers to is the one generally supported by tenured university professors. Referring to conservatism he writes,

By that overworked and confusing term I do not mean the pietistic and selfish libertarianism into which much of the American conservative movement has lately descended.

This assertion that “much of the American conservative movement” is morally bad flies in the face of Wilson’s claim that he is a moral “empiricist.” Absent belief in a “transcendental” objective morality, it is mere gibberish. In keeping with the rest of his tribe, Wilson also considers globalism a “transcendental” good-in-itself. In his words,

In the long haul, civilized nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole. In thus globalizing the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind’s noblest and most enduring goals.

This, too, is the affirmation of a purely objective moral code, and flies in the face of the reasons morality evolved to begin with. It decidedly did not evolve to meet the “needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole,” nor did natural selection ever take place at the level of a “global tribe.” In conforming to the moral ideology of his own tribe, Wilson falls into some amusing contradictions. He promotes globalization and open borders as “good,” but then informs us that,

The problem of collective meaning and purpose is both urgent and immediate because, if for no other reason, it determines the environmental ethic. Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself.

He goes on to evoke all the familiar environmental dangers we face, citing among others overpopulation leading to starvation, degradation of the water supply, etc. He is particularly alarmed at the increasing rate of extinction of other species, and of the specter of a world in which biodiversity is a thing of the past. If Wilson is really worried about the environment, why is he such a promoter of globalism and open borders? Think of it. Large portions of the globe in Europe and North America were occupied by peoples with a low birthrate, ensuring gradually sinking populations and a consequent decrease in environmental degradation and the possibility of restoring some level of biological diversity. Instead, in keeping with what Wilson suggested they “ought” to do, they threw open their borders and allowed a massive influx from regions with rapidly increasing populations, thereby rapidly accelerating environmental degradation.

Beyond that, Wilson’s globalist “ought” is a good example of how moral emotions can “malfunction,” outside of the environmental context in which they evolved. His big brain combined with modern means of transportation and communication have enabled him to imagine the existence of a global “tribe.” His moral emotions then suggest to him that no artificial borders “ought” to limit or restrain this “tribe.” The result is a classic morality inversion. From a genetic point of view, the evolved behavioral traits that promoted the survival of small, territorially isolated tribes eons ago now accomplish precisely the opposite when blindly applied to a global “tribe” of over seven billion people.

I don’t mean to pick on Wilson. From my personal point of view he represents the best and the brightest of modern academics. I merely point out that, like the rest of his tribe, and the rest of mankind in general, for that matter, he imagines that he “ought” to promote “human flourishing,” or he “ought” to promote “moral progress,” or he “ought” to promote a “just society.” In the process, he never stops to consider that, absent the motivating power of innate predispositions, it would never occur to him that he “ought” to do anything. In all likelihood those predispositions are similar to those that motivated our human and pre-human ancestors hundreds of thousands and probably millions of years ago. They are the only reason that we imagine that we “ought” to do anything at all. They evolved by natural selection, not because they promoted “human flourishing,” or “moral progress,” but because they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive. Under the circumstances it seems at least reasonable to consider whether the things we imagine we “ought” to do will accomplish the same things today.

There is no reason that anyone “ought not” to devote their lives to “human flourishing,” or that they “ought not” to fight for what they imagine is “moral progress.” I merely suggest that, before blindly pursuing those goals, they consider whether they make any sense at all given the fundamental reasons that we imagine we “ought” to do some things, and “ought not” to do others.

Meanwhile, as a system that seems to have served us well for more than two centuries appears to be collapsing around our ears, we hear suggestions on all sides that we need a revolution, or that we need to demolish the system and replace it with a new one, or that we must have a civil war to destroy those who disagree with us. It can be safely assumed that the people offering these suggestions are at least as clueless as Wilson when it comes to understanding the “root causes” that motivate their behavior. Before we join them in fighting for, and perhaps sacrificing ourselves for, the noble goals they dangle so invitingly in front of our noses, it may behoove us to consider our own goals in life in light of an accurate understanding of the fundamental factors that motivate us to have any goals at all. It may turn out that fighting for “noble causes” is not really the most effective way to achieve those goals after all.

Moral Realism: Philosophers Chasing a Mirage

Darwin isn’t really necessary to debunk moral realism – the notion that objective moral truths exist. Examples of virtuous indignation and moral outrage are certainly abundant enough in modern societies. Examine one such example at your leisure and consider the questions, “Where is the authority for that behavior? What justification do the outraged have for insisting that particular acts or individuals are evil?” In fact, no such authority or justification exists independently of the mere opinion of individuals. Darwin’s great contribution was to explain why we so firmly believe in the illusion of moral truths. The illusion exists because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce, and it is an extremely powerful illusion because it maximized the odds by instilling absolute conviction that the illusion is real.

Many scientists and public intellectuals have accepted the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection. If that’s true, then we’re talking about a natural process that hasn’t been guided by a supernatural being or any other conscious entity. It seems obvious that this excludes the possibility that there are objective moral truths. The reason for the illusion that they exist is clear. There is no reason to continue believing that the illusion is real, especially in view of the fact that no “moral truth objects” have ever been detected. Some among the scientists and public intellectuals mentioned above have admitted as much, claiming to accept the fact that morality is subjective. The incredible power of the illusion is demonstrated by the fact that none of them who are alive today, or at least none that I am aware of, behaves in a way that is in any way comprehensible or rational if they actually believe what they say. All of them claim that certain individuals are immoral, or that we have moral obligations, or that we “ought” to do things they deem good, and “ought not” to do things they deem bad, without the slightest suggestion that all they are really doing is demanding that the rest of us respect and base our own behavior on their emotional whims. They may claim they don’t believe the illusion is real, but every one of them acts as if they firmly believe it is.

As if that weren’t evidence enough of the whimsical nature of our species, there are also philosophers who accept the fact that human morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and yet still insist on the existence of objective moral truths. Two examples of the same may be found in an article entitled Evolution and Moral Realism, that appeared in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science a few years ago. The authors, by the names of Kim Sterelny and Ben Fraser, were a professor and postdoc at the time in the philosophy program of the Australian National University. Wikipedia informs us that the former is the winner of several international prizes. They appear to accept the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolution by natural selection, at least for the sake of argument, but claim that there are moral facts and moral truths in spite of that. Based on his publication list, Sterelny is familiar with the work of Richard Dawkins, and must be familiar with how other authors have both supported and disputed his take on group selection. He seems to understand how natural selection actually works. In spite of that, according to the abstract of the paper in question,

…one important strand in the evolutionary history of moral thinking does support reductive naturalism – moral facts are facts about cooperation, and the conditions and practices that support or undermine it.

We make a positive case that true moral beliefs are a “fuel for success”, a map by which we steer, flexibly, in a variety of social interactions.

The authors leave no doubt about what they mean by “moral facts” and “true moral beliefs” a bit later when they write,

…we shall be arguing, that moral facts are facts about social interactions that support stable cooperation, the moral realist must hold that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, independently of what anyone says, believes, or thinks.

Coming from philosophers, this bit is surprising to say the least. The fact that human beings are predisposed to cooperate with others under certain conditions is a fact. It belongs to the realm of “is.” The claim that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of “ought.” In the rest of the paper the authors attempt to explain this leap from “is” to “ought.” I doubt that Hume would be impressed.

One problem is immediately apparent in the abstract, where the authors claim that facts about cooperation are moral facts because they are a “fuel for success.” Success at what? To be successful, one must have a goal. A goal is something a conscious being desires. Natural selection has no desires, nor does it have any goals. It does not have a function, because a function can also only be assigned by a conscious being. Claiming that natural selection has the goal or the function to promote cooperation is about as rational as claiming that a lump of carbon has the goal or the function to turn into a diamond, and yet the authors make that claim throughout the paper. Consider the following examples:

So one function of moral thinking is to track a class of facts about human social environments.

…a natural notion of moral truth emerges from the idea that normative thought has evolved to mediate stable cooperation.

The moral truths specify maxims that are members of near-optimal normative packages – sets of norms that if adopted, would help generate high levels of appropriately distributed, and hence stable, cooperation profits.

If moral thinking evolved as a tracking device, selected to track and respond to cooperation pitfalls, then the apparently truth-apt character of moral thought and talk would reflect its functional role.

Every one of these statements is incomprehensible absent the existence of some conscious mind directing the process. No such conscious mind exists to give natural selection a function, nor to “mediate stable cooperation,” nor to “generate cooperation profits.” Natural selection is a process that happens by virtue of the fact that some genes are more likely to survive and reproduce than others. A result of natural selection has been the evolution of our species. However, it is completely impossible for that to ever have been its “function,” or its “goal.”

Even if there were a conscious mind to give natural selection a “goal” and a “function,” it would hardly imply a moral obligation to comply with this goal. “Cooperation” might be a useful tool for achieving the hypothetical imperative of “fueling success,” as defined by the authors, but that fact by no means implies a moral, categorical imperative to cooperate in achieving that goal. Is it really necessary to explain to professors of philosophy that there is a difference between the statement that one “ought” to use a hammer to drive a nail, and the statement that one “ought” to act morally? Even the patron saint of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, understood the difference. He knew that there could be no objective, “transcendental” justification for his proposed morality. That’s why he supported the blank slate. He knew that if innate emotions played a major role in motivating morality, then his utilitarian nostrums would be stillborn.

In short, if the authors’ intention was to hop over the is-ought barrier, they’ve stumbled badly. Their notion of “moral truth” begs many other questions. For example, they actually mention the existence of ingroups and outgroups, but don’t explain how outgroups will fit within the rubric of cooperation as moral truth. We all tend to hate and despise those we identify as belonging to our outgroup, however we define it. When it evolved, that tendency typically applied to the neighboring group of hunter gatherers. It insured that we would keep our distance from each other, and avoid over-exploiting the resources in a given territory. Things have changed, of course. We are aware of a great many “groups,” and are capable of perceiving virtually any of them as the outgroup. Regardless of which one we choose, identification and hatred of outgroups remains a characteristic human trait.  Typical university professors are more than likely to perceive Donald Trump and his supporters as outgroup, and yet they make up half the population of the United States, give or take. How will “cooperation” as a moral imperative apply to them? Clearly, the idea that “cooperation” will have the same result globally in groups of hundreds of millions of people today as it did in the Pleistocene can hardly be assumed. Suppose it doesn’t? Will the dependent “moral truths” not evaporate as a result? If moral truth exists as an objective thing, independent of what anyone merely thinks to be good, how is it that this “objective truth” only popped into existence billions of years after the big bang, coincident with the emergence on one planet among trillions of a particular type of animal?

Clearly, the illusion that there are moral truths is an aspect of the innate nature of our species, and that illusion is extremely powerful. It is also a very expedient illusion for professors of philosophy. After all, they are supposed to be experts about good and evil. If good and evil don’t exist, that leaves them experts about nothing. Unfortunately, they don’t exist any more than unicorns and leprechauns. If we exist as a result of natural selection, then the most parsimonious and obvious explanation of morality is that it is a manifestation of emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved, and that the fact of their evolution excludes the possibility that they somehow track or correspond with “moral truths.”

The fact that there are no objective moral truths has no moral implications. It does not imply that we are forbidden to act in harmony with our moral emotions, nor does it imply that we are forbidden to establish a morality and treat it as an absolute, with punishment for those who violate the moral law. It does imply that, depending on what our personal goals happen to be, we should be very careful about how we construct such a morality. There is no guarantee that emotions that helped us reach our goals millions of years ago will have the same effect today.

Corona Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality: “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

The Emerson quote in my title is certainly true in the case of morality. In fact, that’s one of the most important themes of this blog. Michael Huemer put it very well in his “Ethical Intuitionism,” the book I discussed in my last post. As he puts it,

I recently surveyed a class of about forty undergraduates on the subject (of morality, ed.). After explaining the terms “subjective” and “objective”, I asked how many of them believed that “morality is subjective”. Every single person in the room raised their hands, save two – those two were myself and my graduate student teaching assistant. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that it is usually all but impossible to attain universal agreement, in a philosophy class, on anything…

and

None of this seems to stop anyone – whether students, professors, or other intellectuals – from making moral judgments, arguing about what the correct moral views are, or trying to get others to obey the correct moral principles. Even those who declare morality an illusion will often proceed to hold forth on the wrongness of the war in Iraq, or of human cloning, or at least of their boyfriend’s cheating on them. And they seem to expect their arguments to be taken as reasons for other people to act in certain ways. This strikes me as odd. If I thought that the giant rabbit standing in the corner of the room was a hallucination, I don’t think I would hold forth in public about what his favorite food was, plan my actions around his schedule, or expect others to alter their behavior in the light of my claims about him.

How true! And yet I am not aware of a single exception to the behavior Huemer describes among self-described “subjective moralists.” I know of not a single one of them who doesn’t hold forth on what we “ought” to do, or what it is our “moral duty” to do, or how they consider this person morally obnoxious, and that person a paragon of moral virtue. One constantly finds them virtue signaling to demonstrate how “good” they are according to the standards of whatever version of morality currently happens to be fashionable in their ingroup. This certainly seems “odd” on the face of it, because it’s so obviously irrational. However, it’s not really that odd. We greatly overrate the intelligence of our species. To the extent that we reason at all, we often merely rationalize our responses to powerful emotions. Moral emotions are among the most powerful of all.

I’ve certainly devoted a lot of effort to making the case for moral subjectivism, and exploring the origins of morality in emotional predispositions that exist by virtue of natural selection. However, it’s at least as important to point out that these conclusions about morality have consequences. Morality is by no means just about regulating how we decide to behave as individuals. The assumption of a right to dictate behavior to others is an intrinsic element of human morality. As Huemer puts it, we invariably “expect others to alter their behavior” in light of our moral claims. And yet one needn’t know anything about Darwin to realize that no such right exists. When someone holds forth on how others must act to be “good,” or denounces others as “immoral,” one need merely ask oneself the question, “On what authority do they make these claims?” No such authority exists.

If I am right, and morality is a manifestation of emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection, then the assumption of such “rights” and “authorities” must have promoted our survival in the context of the environment that existed when the behavior in question evolved. At the time we lived in small groups of individuals who were all more or less genetically related to us. There would have been little if any disagreement about the moral rules we lived by. Obedience to those rules would have been to the advantage of all the individuals in the group. Assumption of a right to remind others of the moral rules and to insist that they obey them would have promoted not only their survival, but ours as well.

Fast forward to the present. We still behave in the same old way, because it is our nature to behave in that way. However, the consequences are no longer the same. Wherever we turn, from books to movies to the very commercials on TV, we are subjected to a barrage of “oughts.” Everywhere we turn we find furious people attempting to dictate behavior to us and everyone else based on whatever flavor of morality they happen to prefer. They are driven by emotions, and are completely blind to the reasons the emotions exist. In their blindness, they rationalize their demands for obedience. They claim that they are serving some noble cause, whether it be human flourishing, or the workers paradise, or the triumph of some national or ethnic ingroup. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s all self-deception. Before the Nazis took over in Germany, party members would become Communists and vice versa at the drop of a hat. Today we find committed “progressives” casting loving glances at radical Islamists for the same reasons. They quickly recognize another very effective, if different, way to scratch the same moral itch that afflicts them.

As far as Mother Nature is concerned, these people are really telling us something completely different. Even though they don’t realize it, they are saying, “You must behave in a way that promotes my survival and reproduction. It will not promote your survival and reproduction, and won’t benefit you in any other way, either. In fact, it will probably harm you. In spite of that, if you don’t obey me, you are bad. To become good, you must do as I say.” Back in the day that might have made sense. The only people you would have known and interacted with would have been those in your little ingroup, and you would have been related to all of them. Promoting their survival and reproduction would likely have promoted your own as well. Today, not only do their demands not promote your survival and reproduction, they generally do not promote their own survival and reproduction, either. It is hardly a given that actions that have a certain result in one social environment will accomplish the same thing in one that is radically different. It should come as no surprise if they accomplish exactly the opposite.

I can’t tell you that you are bad if you choose to obey the emotionally motivated and arbitrary demands of people that you obey them, even if you are unrelated to them and your obedience will be of no advantage to you whatsoever. I can, however, conclude that you have strange goals in life. Perhaps you simply like to be dominated by others, and your goal is then to die and become extinct. If that is your goal, so be it. I have different goals. My goals are my own survival and reproduction, and the survival of biological life in general. I have those goals, not because they are intrinsically morally good, but because they seem to me compatible with the reasons I and the rest of the life on this planet exist to begin with. What has happened here is awesome. Look at yourself! You, an incredibly complex, intelligent being, have come into being from inanimate matter through a wildly improbable process of evolution. It may be so improbable that we are alone in the universe. The type of a person who can be aware of all that and respond, “It doesn’t matter. Who cares if we all go extinct?” is incomprehensible to me. All I can say is, I’m not like that. It does matter to me. For that reason, I reject the emotionally motivated demands of others that they be allowed to dictate behavior to me, and dismiss their absurd claims that they are acting in the interest of some higher, objective “good” out of hand. I choose to act in ways that are compatible with my own goals in life.

I submit that if you conclude that morality is, indeed, subjective, but treat the fact as if it were of mere academic interest, and go right on playing the same moralistic games as everyone else, you have completely missed the point. That, however, is precisely what we see in the case of every “subjective moralist” I’m aware of.  I personally would prefer that we all see morality for the evolved and potentially highly dangerous phenomenon it actually is. However, in view of the above, for all practical purposes universal, behavior, that isn’t about to happen anytime soon. Virtually every member of our “intelligent” species continues in thrall to emotionally spawned illusions. I can only suggest that, as individuals, we be acutely aware of our situation, whatever our goals happen to be, and act to defend ourselves and whatever we happen to find valuable in life as best we can.

Objective Morality: The “Ethical Intuitionism” Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On the Imagined Existence of Things Unseen

Our species has a whimsical tendency to firmly believe in the existence of imaginary things. If beliefs happen to increase the odds that we will survive, then we believe. Gods, goods, evils, rights, and values are prominent among these imaginary objects. We are often dumbfounded if anyone suggests these objects aren’t real. The fact that we can’t see or detect any of these things existing independently of our minds should be a broad hint that our minds have invented them, but it doesn’t matter. We simply imagine they exist in some higher dimension, inaccessible to our limited human senses, or that a higher power deliberately hides them from us as a test of faith, or that they simply must exist because they present themselves so powerfully to our imaginations.

None of these things exist other than as subjective constructs in our minds. If we are forced to consider the possibility that this may be true, however, we often react with irrational fury, or scorn, or despair. Consider, for example, the following question posed at Yahoo Answers:

If human life evolved without any input from a higher being, then why does human life, or any life, have value?

In fact, human life did evolve without any input from a higher being.  It is entirely plausible that all of the subjective constructs mentioned above, including the impression that value and higher beings exist as objective things, enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Natural selection can account for the existence of subjective impressions, but it cannot account for the existence of objects corresponding to these impressions that somehow exist independently of the minds that generate them. The answer to the question, then, is no. Neither human life nor any other life has value that exists independently of the subjective impressions in conscious minds. Furthermore, the answer is a natural fact. It represents an “is,” not an “ought.” It implies no “ought” one way or another as a matter of objective fact, for the simple reason that no such “oughts” exist.

Of course, this poses a problem for the questioner. It is unlikely that the illusion of value would do much to enhance our odds of survival if all of us recognized it as an illusion. Evidently it has had that result, however, when imagined as a real thing, an object, existing independently of the mind that imagines it. This, of course, is the reason it has never occurred to the questioner that he is quite capable of assigning value to human life or anything else just as he pleases. In reality, this is the way we have always assigned value, but we have been bamboozled by our minds into believing our assignment of value needs a “higher” validation, via a god or some other imaginary flim-flam. Since we imagine value as a thing, it is always necessary for us to come up with some whimsical reason to explain to ourselves how and why the thing actually exists. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The reaction of the questioner to the possibility that the above might be true is typical. He imagines that, if value is just a subjective construct, then we can’t value human life or anything else. You might call it “value nihilism.” However, to embrace “value nihilism,” or “moral nihilism,” for that matter, is to reject Darwin and natural selection. It is tantamount to the suggestion that there is no reason for the existence of subjective constructs such as value, rights, good, and evil. It should be obvious that pieces of paper have no real value. However, if a sufficient number of people share the subjective impression that they are valuable, then they will be very effective as a medium of exchange in spite of that. By the same token, pieces of gold will be ineffective as a medium of exchange if it is generally agreed that they are worthless. Value doesn’t exist as a thing in itself, whether associated with gold or paper, but that doesn’t alter its effectiveness as a subjective result of natural selection.

The same may be said of good and evil. They, too, are subjective impressions that only exist because of the innate predispositions that give rise to them. Like value, they are artifacts of natural selection, and are only effective to the extent that a sufficient number of people agree about what is good and what is evil. That is a fact, an “is,” but the idea that this “is” implies the “ought” of moral nihilism or moral relativity is the purest fantasy. Good and evil aren’t going anywhere. The evolved mental traits that give rise to them spawn a powerful illusion that they are objects, independent of any evolved mental traits. That illusion is just as powerful today as it was eons ago when we were all hunter-gatherers. Let the post-modernists invent as many fairy tales as they like about moral relativity. Then, observe their behavior. They behave as some of the most puritanical moralists in recorded history. Now cast your gaze at the philosophers. Most of them are at least vaguely aware of the connection between morality and natural selection, but it doesn’t matter. The greatest “moral nihilists” among them end by pontificating about our “duties,” and all the things we “ought” to do, completely contradicting all their fine theories. The rest are busy concocting fables to “prove” that the good and evil objects they imagine really do exist.

Since these illusions continue to function just as effectively as they ever have, is there any reason for us to briefly step out of the land of magic into the real world and recognize them for what they really are? There is if we want them to continue to have the same survival benefit as they did in the past. In the modern world the illusions of good and evil have, in effect, become dysfunctional, because they no longer exist in the environment in which they evolved. They will continue to become increasingly dangerous to us, actually posing a threat to our survival, unless we step back, recognize the illusions, and consider how we might go about constructing a moral system that minimizes the danger. By doing so we would not usher in an age of moral nihilism or moral relativity. Moral nihilism and moral relativity are what we have now. The trick is finding a way out of the chaos. My personal preference would be for a morality treated as an absolute, changeable only infrequently according to rules understood and agreed to by all. It seems to me that would be an improvement over the current chaotic process of moving the moral goalposts on an almost daily basis according to the passing whims of whatever ingroup is most adept at manipulating moral emotions that have long since lost their relevance to the environment in which they continue to function.

Again, what I am suggesting here is not some variant of postmodernism. It is more nearly the opposite. I do not believe that truth is socially constructed, or that there is no objective universe existing independently of what I imagine it to be. There are definitely objects and truths out there that exist without regard to whether I believe in them or not. We cannot say with absolute certainty that we know the truth about anything. However, I think we can say it about many things, including things we cannot see, such as subatomic particles, with a high degree of probability that we are right. I have little doubt that atomic bombs actually work, even though I can’t see neutrons. I deem it reasonable to base my actions on what I consider probably true, regardless of the fact that I cannot know that it is true with absolute certainty. I believe in the existence of objects existing independently of my subjective consciousness. It just so happens that the set of those objects does not include unicorns, leprechauns, and Santa Claus, nor does it include value, rights, good and evil. Those things actually are subjective constructs. In my humble opinion, the sooner we come to grips with that reality the better.

Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality

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

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

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

Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

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

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