On the Existence of “Moral Blind Spots”

According to Michael Austin, who writes the Ethics for Everyone blog for Psychology Today, we are suffering from “Moral Blind Spots.”  Referring to the morality-based arguments in favor of slavery of an earlier time, he writes,

When I read these arguments and discuss their flaws with students, I’m reminded of something a professor of mine once asked, “What will future generations think about us? What moral blind spots of ours will they see, that we miss?” There are many possibilities, to be sure, but I think that future generations may look back at the disparity of wealth in our world and wonder how we could have missed the injustices that exist related to this.

If future generations are still capable of rational thought, perhaps they will ask a more pertinent question:  In view of the fact that the nature of morality and the ultimate reasons for its existence should have been obvious to our generation, why did so many of our philosophers, professors, and other assorted Ph.D.’s in the social sciences still believe there was some logical basis for making moral judgments of past generations?  Like so many of the other contemporary experts on morality, his work is informed by the tacit assumption that Good and Evil exist, independent of their subjective origins.  Like the others, he throws out a barrage of “shoulds” without troubling himself in the least about establishing their legitimacy, apparently oblivious to the many books discussing the biological origins of morality that have been appearing lately.  Here are some examples from his article:

It is disturbing, shocking, and disappointing to read arguments which include the attempt to defend the indefensible.

The “indefensible” he refers to is slavery.  Austin is not providing us with a description of his subjective moral intuitions in response to a particular stimulus.  Rather, the implication here is that there are objective reasons to consider slavery indefensible, and attempts to defend it as disturbing, shocking, and disappointing.  In short, he is saying that slavery is objectively Evil.  Why?  We are not told.  Nothing could be easier than striking poses in defense of this particular instance of “expertise in morality.”  Does not everyone agree that slavery is Evil?  What could be easier than simply shouting down anyone who disagrees?  They simply reveal themselves as Evil by association.  In reality, slavery is neither Good, nor Evil, because such categories simply don’t exist as things in themselves.  We can certainly say that the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the U.S. today is that slavery is evil.  It was also the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the ante-bellum South that slavery was good.  What we cannot say is that there is some objective basis for deciding which of them is right.  Continuing from the article,

We look back and wonder, “how could educated people believe that slavery was a moral institution?”

Here Austin is assuming that there are objective reasons for considering slavery moral or immoral.  He does not tell us what they are, and for good reason.  There are none.

How could we believe that it is morally permissible for certain parts of the world to have so much, while others, through no fault of their own, die of malaria because they lack access to something as cheap and effective as a bed net or anti-malarial medication.

Here Austin is assuming that there is an objective basis for declaring some things morally permissible, and others not.  Again, he does not trouble himself to explain why.

I pay extra money each month to my satellite tv provider so that I can watch Arsenal on the Fox Soccer Channel, have an occasional overpriced drink at the local coffee shop, and I purchase other things that I don’t really need. To be clear, I don’t think that we should necessarily stop all such spending. What I do think we should consider, however, is the option of curtailing some of this spending and then putting that money to work in ways that can help others who are suffering from treatable illnesses. By making do with a little less, we can help others live. This is not mere charity, it is a matter of justice.

Here, we find a baseless “should” associated with the spending of money in one way as opposed to another, another baseless “should” concerning what it is appropriate for us to consider, and what not, and a declaration that something is a “matter of justice” without the least semblance of an attempt to establish the legitimacy of that assertion.

Morality is a loose description of a collection of behavioral traits, observable in human beings, with analogs in other species.  The ultimate reason for their existence is the evolution of physical traits in the brain and nervous system.  Those traits exist solely because individuals who possessed them were more likely to survive, in times which bear little resemblance to the present, than those who didn’t.  So much is becoming increasingly obvious.  In spite of this, Austin and legions of other modern moralists continue to simply assume the existence of objective morality as a given.  It is nothing of the sort.  Today, objective morality is like a dead man walking.  Perhaps future generations will have the sense to wonder why it is taking the dead man so long to finally collapse.

Of Things that are not Things-in-Themselves

I’ve mentioned subjects that the human brain perceives as objects before.  Examples include Good, Evil, and Rights; entities that cannot possibly exist as other than subjective impressions or intuitions in the minds of individuals, and yet are still perceived as things-in-themselves that have an independent existence of their own.  Edward Fitzgerald put it much more elegantly in his Rubaiyat, that font of wisdom thinly disguised as the translation of the work of a medieval Islamic poet:

The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

Yet, in spite of the fact that no one has yet devised an experiment capable of “seeing” these entities at any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, or measuring their temperature, or detecting their presence via gravitational anomalies, or otherwise demonstrating their independent existence outside of the brains of individuals, we stubbornly insist that they are real.  It’s not hard to understand why Mother Nature has arranged things that way.  Conceived as mere subjective individual whims, categories such as good and evil lose their normative power.  The basis for applying them to others disappears, and they become useless for regulating behavior within or between groups. Perceived in that way, they would never helped us survive. As a consequence, they would never have evolved in the first place.

There are other interesting examples of the same phenomenon. “Value” is one of them. Survivalists and goldbugs favor a monetary system backed by precious metals because it seems to them they have real value, although there is no measurable quality of gold that would make it possible to distinguish its value from that of a common rock. Of course, there’s method in their madness. One could certainly devise a metric to distinguish the scarcity of gold from that of paper. No doubt statisticians could establish a correlation between scarcity and perceived value. Although he never actually spoke of a “labor theory of value,” Karl Marx did derive a “law of value” based on the work of earlier economists. I will leave the hair splitting over the precise manner in which Marx perceived value to the Marxist scholars. However, his many followers based their notion of “surplus value” on his work. They perceived of it as a real thing that the exploiting capitalists stole from the proletariat.

“Science” is another example. In reality it is merely a systematic approach to discovering truth which is usually haphazardly applied by scientists and often doesn’t work in practice. However, it, too, has been transmogrified into an object. One speaks of doing things “for science.” To imply that something is “scientific” is to imply that it is necessarily true, as in “scientific Marxism-Leninism.” Eugenics was scientific in its day, as was the luminiferous ether. “Men of Science” are supposed to “think right” compared to other mere mortals, who should not presume to intrude in their specialized domains. Often these “Men of Science” are, in reality, the prisoners of some fashionable ideology which causes them to imagine things that are palpable nonsense to most people. The Blank Slate dogma is a good example. In my own specialty, computational physics, “Men of Science” often make a cottage industry out of some arcane mathematical approach, and continue to tweak and fiddle with it, milking it for an endless series of papers in prestigious academic journals long after advances in computer power have rendered it completely obsolete. No matter that what they are doing is quite useless; it is, after all, “Science.”

No doubt there are other similar examples, but I will not attempt to catalog them all here. The point is that our brains are designed so that we perceive certain subjective intuitions as objects. Presumably, that trait evolved because it promoted our survival. Unfortunately, it evolved at times that were radically different than the present. It might not be quite as effective at promoting our survival today. The Nazis and the Communists were both completely convinced that they represented the Good, as did the suicide bombers of 911. Those whose tastes run to saving the world based on alternative versions of the Good might do well to keep their example in mind.

On the Moral Goodness of Collaboration with Mass Murderers

Moral intuitions are elements in the behavioral repertoire of human beings.  Their expression differs in detail from one individual to another, but in all cases the ultimate reason for their existence is the fact that our brains acquired the capacity to generate such intuitions through evolution by natural selection.  In other words, those intuitions promoted our survival during times in which our environment and manner of living were very different than they are now.  Strictly speaking, by “us” I mean our genes.  They are the only parts of us that have been continuously alive since the origin of life on earth, and only they have the potential to continue to survive into the indefinite future.  The phenotypes they give rise to possess no such potential immortality, but are born and die within a relatively short time.  Moral intuitions are a property of the phenotype, not the genes themselves.  Just as neither genotypes nor phenotypes can have a purpose, neither can the moral intuitions that are aspects of the phenotype have a purpose.  Things that exist as a result of a long series of random mutations that occurred in a continuously varying environment do not have a purpose.  Purpose implies a conscious creator, but there was no such creator.

Assume for the moment that, aside from philological quibbles, what I have said above is true.  In that case, it is absurd to suppose that the moral intuitions that exist in the mind of an individual of a particular species that was organized by a particular packet of genes can somehow acquire and independent life of their own, acquiring the property of applying not just to that individual, but to other individuals of the same species as well, even if they happen to carry a different packet of genes that provided them with a package of moral intuitions that are substantially different from those of the first individual.  There is no way in which one moral intuition can acquire the quality of being absolutely superior to or better than a different, contradictory moral intuition.  I suspect that, for those readers who happen to be of a religious bent, the above is “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.”  A God solves the legitimacy problem (or seems to) in short order.  Being on what seems to them secure ground, they have no trouble seeing that their secular neighbors are floating in thin air without visible means of support.

However, secular moralists “feel in their bones” that one thing is “truly good” and another “truly evil” in exactly the same way as religious believers.  It is our nature to experience moral intuitions in that way.  They cast about for some basis for the legitimacy of their moral claims, and eventually come up with one, arriving at it with a chain of reasoning that invariably includes the step, “miracle happens.”  If memory serves, it was Nietzsche who said “It is better to have the void for a reason than to be void of reason.”  To disguise the void, secular moralists will often exploit moral intuitions themselves.  They pick some deed that is likely to evoke a powerful moral intuition similar to theirs in whoever it is they are trying to convince, such as female genital mutilation, the racist lynching of innocent blacks, the Holocaust, etc., and insist that it is “truly evil.”  If the listener dares to object, they can always bring virtuous indignation into play, with the implication that the listener must then himself be evil.  Such “logic” is nonsense if what I asked the reader to “assume for a moment” above is actually true.  As an unbeliever, it happens to be my opinion that it actually is true.  If any secular readers disagree, I would certainly be interested in hearing why.

This sort of common if flimsy rationalization of “the good” by polling of moral intuitions leads to some interesting contradictions.  For example, the recent death of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has evoked fawning eulogies from those who saw in him the prophet of a brave new world free of inequality, exploitation and misery.  After all, doesn’t everyone agree that inequality, exploitation and misery are “really evil”?  It has also evoked hostile condemnations from those who considered him one of Stalin’s many apologists and, as such, a collaborator in mass murder.  After all, doesn’t everyone agree that mass murder is “really evil”?  The resolution of the disagreement in the mind of a given individual depends on whether, one the one hand, their preference for living in a world free of mass murderers outweighs their dubious trust in the promoters of future utopias, or, on the other, their belief in some shining “Brave New World” of the future inclines them to dismiss the “breaking of a few eggs to make an omelet” as a necessary evil.

My own moral intuitions happen to place me in the former group.  I have a strong aversion to the Hobsbawms of the world because I agree that they are collaborators in mass murder, and consider their “enlightened” belief in future utopias dangerous delusions.  I disagree, however, with the assertion that Hobsbawm was “truly evil,” meaning objectively evil regardless of the opinion of any individual on the matter.  The typical objection to such a point of view is that it would promote “moral relativism,” and that the resulting moral anarchy would result in the collapse of civilization or something similarly apocalyptic.  In fact, in the unlikely event that most of us did adopt my point of view, we would not all become “moral relativists” because it is not our nature to be moral relativists, and our societies would not descent into amoral anarchy because it is our nature to be moral beings.  Morality isn’t going anywhere simply by virtue of the fact that we finally recognize the truth about what it is. It seems to me that truth has been obvious for some time.  Books about the genetic basis of morality have been rolling off the presses at an ever increasing rate of late.  As research on the genetic origins of morality and the details of its manifestation in the brain continue, the evidence in favor of that truth will become ever weightier.

I personally find general recognition of the truth preferable to the maintenance of what some consider useful lies.  Those who agree with my aversion for the Hobsbawms of the world will find any fears they might have that it would disarm the opposition are misplaced.  It did not disarm me when I volunteered to serve in Vietnam, even though my opinions about morality were the same then as they are now.  My aversion to living in a world run by Hobsbawm and his fellow “enlightened idealists” outweighed my aversion to assuming the personal risk of fighting to defeat them.  I know I am not unique in that regard.  Other than that, I personally foresee positive benefits to living in a world in which there is general recognition of the truth about morality.  For one thing, the pathologically pious and chronically indignant among us who have become an ever greater nuisance of late would be revealed for the ludicrous frauds they really are.  Most of the charlatans posing as “morality experts” would become laughing stocks, encouraging them to seek a more useful mode of making a living.   I certainly “feel” that that would be “truly good” even if I must agree with Hume that reason can provide no basis for my feeling.

On the Legitimacy of Morality

This post is about something that doesn’t exist; the legitimacy of morality.  To the extent that I even thought about the subject as a child, I believed that good was good and evil was evil because God wanted it that way.  Then, at age 12, I became an atheist.  I can’t recall exactly how long it took for me to realize that this had demolished what had previously served, in my case at least, as the basis for the legitimacy of morality.  However, it couldn’t have taken long, because I had already concluded in my early teens that the many people I witnessed around me striking pious poses and making fine shows of their virtuous indignation were simply being silly.  It took me quite some time to realize that they were actually just being human.

As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his book, The Righteous Mind, moral intuitions come first, and their rationalization later.  In fact, this was really just the reassertion of what David Hume had noted more than two centuries earlier;

…reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will.

…it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.

Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is an incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion.

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

Haidt speaks of the “inner lawyer,” who goes to work as soon as we become conscious of a moral “passion,” throwing out a barrage of rationalizations to explain why what we “feel” is good is really good, and what we feel is evil is really evil.  It’s interesting that it’s immediately obvious to religious fundamentalists that these moral claims, when made by their secular counterparts, are floating in thin air, without support.  Secure in the contrivance of a God to secure the legitimacy of their own perception of good and evil, they have no trouble recognizing the baselessness of the moral claims of others.  Secular moralists are not nearly as clear-sighted.  Question the legitimacy of their moral claims, that is, the basis for their assumption that their own perception of good and evil applies to others besides themselves, and they will throw out a smokescreen of rationalizations.  Typical non sequiturs include, “What I claim is good really is good, because all other good people agree with me,” “What I claim is good really is good because it will promote ‘human flourishing’,” “What I claim is good really is good, because the following evils (supply your own laundry list) will not be really evil, whereas all good people recognize they are evil,” and so on.  Often these rationalizations take the form of attempts to evoke congruent moral emotions in others, apparently under the spurious assumption that if everyone agrees that they feel the same moral emotion, then that emotions must be objectively valid.

Any reader who would like to witness such a smokescreen need only question the objective basis for claims that one thing is “good” and another “evil” on the part of those who lack the crutch of a God.  Many such claims may be found on the Internet on any given day.  The chances that they will get a simple answer in the form of “The basis for the legitimacy of my moral claims is x,” are slim and none.

Why bother to object if it is our nature to be self-righteous?  After all, we are moral beings, and we lack the intelligence to rationally analyze every detail of our day-to-day interactions with others.  It seems to me that the history of the 20th century is a case study in the wisdom of bothering to object.  The innate traits that are the ultimate cause of moral behavior evolved at times utterly unlike the present.  In spite of that, for centuries we have attempted to apply morality to situations and human relationships that were absent in our prehistory.  The results were often disastrous, but were particularly devastating in the last century.  Consider, for example, my previous post about the “Defenders of the Faith,” in which I presented examples of two highly intelligent men, both of whom surely believed they were acting on behalf of the “good.”  Objectively, however, they were acting as apologists for the two greatest mass murderers of all time.  There were many thousands like them.  Legions of Communists and legions of Nazis all thought they were fighting a noble battle on behalf of the ultimate good.

The lesson we should take away from this is not that we should avoid the mistakes of the Communists and the Nazis, and charge ahead to discover another “noble cause” that, this time, against all odds, will be “really good.”  Rather, we should drop attempts to come up with new and improved “noble causes” altogether, and be extremely wary of those who promote them.  Morality is the expression of evolved traits.  If that is true, than it is absurd to suppose that it can somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  It is indispensible for regulating the interactions of individuals, because it has no substitute.  For regulating the interactions among modern nation states and similar human groups of unprecedented scope and size, however, I suggest we attempt to use reason.  It is certainly a weak reed to lean on, but it may spare us another dose of powerful totalitarian states that derive their legitimacy from the next wildly popular versions of the “noble Good,” and possess weapons vastly more devastating than those that caused such mayhem in the last century.

Academic Experts on Evil: Essays on the Merits of the Emperor’s New Clothes

In an article entitled “Are Modern Professors Experts on Good and Evil” on the website of the National Association of Scholars, author Bruce Davison writes,

Nowadays the professoriate in many parts of the world is very free with its moral judgments, condemning or applauding various nations, groups, and individuals.  This phenomenon prompts a query about whether academics really have any special insight into the nature of good and evil.

One can formulate an answer to this query in one word:  No!  It is impossible to have any special insight regarding objects that don’t exist.  Davison’s query was prompted by what he heard and saw at the most recent of a series of global conferences on “Perpectives on Evil and Human Wickedness” that have been held annually since 2000.  In glancing through the titles of the papers presented at these conferences, one finds the usual fare; one on the evil of “rogue capitalism,” one on the evil of land mines, several on the evil of Nazism, a smattering of others on the evil of ethnic cleansing, a great many on the various evils perpetrated by Republican administrations in the United States, and so on.  In other words, there’s a lot of stuff on things that “modern professors” generally agree are evil, but, predictably, almost nothing on why they are evil.  The implicit assumptions at such soirees are always that there is such a thing as objective evil, and that the attendees know what it is.  These things must be assumed, because, lacking any basis in reality, they cannot be demonstrated.  Evil is perceived as an object because of subjective processes that take place in the brains of individual human beings.  However, it does not actually exist as an object.  Discussions of the various categories of evil are no more rational than discussions of the various categories of unicorns.

Mr. Davidson takes issue, not with the “modern professors'” assertion that evil exists as a thing in itself, but with their assertions regarding the nature of the thing.  For example, he notes,.

To begin with, I was struck by the conference call for papers on the Internet. It listed people commonly regarded as evil, including Torquemada, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, and…Ronald Reagan. Of course, who can forget Ronald Reagan and his Republican hordes sweeping down from the steppes, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake? Few figures from recent history evoke such terror and loathing—at least, among leftist academics.

In other words, he does not dispute the existence of evil as an object.  Rather he disputes the degree to which Ronald Reagan is associated with that object in comparison with such distinguished historical figures as Hitler and Genghis Khan.  In his opinion, the academics are merely looking in the wrong place for the evil object:

In short, faddish ideological conformity blinds many modern scholars to the obvious and trivializes their treatment of weighty moral issues. Though few at the conference dealt with them, traditional religious teachings often have had more insight into the incorrigible, profound depths of human evil. In contrast, most of the modern professoriate has little other than the feeble tools of psychotherapy and politically correct moralism to work with. As a result, the current academic world has in many ways become an enabler of human evil.

I must admit that I do find the rationale of religious teachings for believing in evil as a thing in itself (do it, or you’ll fry in hell for quintillions of years just for starters), rather more coherent than that of the academics (eat shit; 50 billion flies can’t be wrong).  However, that is merely to compare failures.  Neither argument establishes a basis for the existence of evil as a thing independent of the subjective judgments of individuals, and neither establishes a basis for the legitimacy of applying those judgments to others.

As a consequence, I find the ravings of the pathologically pious from either camp about the evil of this, that, and the other thing, very tiresome.  There is, after all, no rational basis for declamations on the merits of the different breeds of unicorns.  I freely admit that, as Jonathan Haidt points out, self-righteousness is as natural to human beings as spots to a leopard.  I even admit that I occasionally have a marked tendency to be just as self-righteous as all the rest.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Evolutionary Psychology and Group Selection

Steve Davis has recently been championing group selection and lobbing rocks at Richard Dawkins and his fellow gene-centrists over at Science 2.0. He writes with a certain moralistic fervor that ill befits a scientist, but so does Dawkins and a good number of his followers. The problem isn’t that he takes issue with Dawkins and his inclusive fitness orthodoxy. The problem is that he associates evolutionary psychology with that orthodoxy, as if it would evaporate without a kin selection crutch. Not only is that untrue, but it stands the whole history of the science on its head. For example, referring to the book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene by philosopher Mary Midgley in an article entitled “Evolutionary Psychology – As it Should Be,” Davis writes,

Not only does the book have wide implications for debates in evolutionary psychology, it overturns that school of thought completely, as it presents a comprehensive rebuttal of the selfish gene hypothesis on which evolutionary psychology (as we know it) is based.

In a later article entitled “Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics,” he adds,

When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at (anthropologist and anarchist political theorist Peter) Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”)But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought.

and,

As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based.  Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.

Of course the issue of group selection in all its various flavors is actually very complex.  For anyone interested, I recommend the excellent discussion of group selection that illustrates that complexity in J. van der Dennen’s The Origin of War.  However, the real problem with these articles is their association of the entire field of evolutionary psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now.   That association is fundamentally false.  To demonstrate that fact, one need look no further than the first chapter of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  For example, quoting from the book,

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.”  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).

Who were Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt?  Well, to begin with, they all supported the theory of group selection.  They were also the most prominent evolutionary psychologists of their day.  I use the term “evolutionary psychology” in the vernacular, that is, a science based on the hypothesis that there is such a thing as human nature.  The vernacular term that meant the same thing in the heyday of the above three was “ethology.”  Later it became “sociobiology.”  The original sociobiologist was, of course, E. O. Wilson.  He never fully accepted Dawkins’ gene-centric views, and, of course, recently came out of the closet as a firm believer in group selection.  As for The Selfish Gene, it isn’t just about Dawkins theory of gene-centric evolution.  It is also a full-fledged attack on the evolutionary psychologists of its day.  The above quote is hardly unique, and is followed by many others attacking Lorenz and Ardrey for their support of group selection.

Davis’ misconception that there is some kind of an indissoluble bond between evolutionary psychology and Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution is understandable.  EP has come of age during a time when Dawkins opinion represented scientific orthodoxy, and reflects that environment, in a manner no different from any of the other biological sciences.  However, the fact that many evolutionary psychologists happened to also accept gene-centric orthodoxy hardly implies that the whole field is dependent on or derived from that point of view.

Davis’ conflation of kin selection and evolutionary psychology is also understandable in view of the extensive scrubbing of the history of the field.  According to this “history,” as represented, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, what became EP began with a mythical “big bang” with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.  In fact, as far as the reason for that book’s notoriety is concerned, its embrace of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature, it was just an afterthought.  There is nothing in it that was not written more than a decade earlier by the likes of Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, most prominently, Robert Ardrey.  To fact check this statement, one need only read Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves, published in 1968, and still available on Amazon for about a dollar the last time I looked.  I suspect one of the reasons the history of EP has been “revised” is the fact that, when it came to Ardrey’s claim that there is such a thing a human nature, the fundamental theme of all his work, he was right, and the lion’s share of “experts” in the behavioral sciences, at least in the United States, were wrong.  Ardrey, you see, was a mere playwright.  Hence the “big bang” myth.

The claim that the imaginary link with kin selection that Davis refers to does exist with evolutionary psychology “as we know it,” or in its current incarnation, is also wrong.  E. O. Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Martin Nowak are among the most prominent, if not the most prominent, evolutionary psychologists in the field of evolutionary morality as I write this.  All three have come down firmly and publicly in favor of group selection.

Frank Salter’s Ethic

Of all the hopeless new moralities that are being cobbled together to promote “human flourishing” and related chimeras, anthropologist Frank Salter’s adaptive utilitarianism, as set forth in his book On Genetic Interests, at least has the merit of being logically consistent.  It’s premise is that a “good” act is one that increases or protects the fitness of the greater number.  That seems reasonable given that virtually all of our physical and mental traits, including the ones that give rise to morality, only exist because, at least at some time in the past, they enhanced our genetic fitness.  However, Salter’s morality is a non-starter for the same reasons as all the rest.  David Hume pointed them out back in the 18th century:

There has been an opinion very industriously propagated by certain philosophers, that morality is susceptible of demonstration; and tho’ no one has ever been able to advance a single step in those demonstrations; yet ’tis taken for granted, that this science may be brought to an equal certainty with geometry or algebra.

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 moralities 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 the particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of reason…

…reason can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence.  Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable.

Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cites Hume’s dictum that “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,” and reviews recent experimental demonstration of the existence of these “passions,” and the way in which they influence moral judgment.  Noting that there are not just one, but six innate “foundations” of moral judgment, he adds,

…we believe that moral monism – the attempt to ground all morality on a single principle – leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.

It goes without saying that philosophers don’t create moral systems to apply only to themselves.  Unless it is applied to others as well, morality is pointless.  It is the source of moral judgment, and the basis of what Haidt identifies as a very fundamental human behavioral trait; self-righteousness.  That is another Achilles heel of the cobblers of moral systems; all moralities imply self-righteousness, but self-righteousness can never be objectively legitimate.  We all judge others, because it is our nature to do so.  However, the idea that there can ever be some objective basis for those judgments that renders them valid in themselves is nonsense.  We have certainly evolved to experience them as valid in themselves, but that is hardly a proof that they actually are.  In my opinion, that is actually one of the more comforting aspects of the philosophy of Hume and the science of evolutionary morality.  We are no longer burdened by any tiresome obligation to take the pathologically pious among us seriously.  It becomes quite reasonable for us to view them as buffoons.  Of course, in saying that, I am expressing a moral sentiment of my own.

It seems to me Salter’s ideas work much better as a source of a personal sense of purpose than as a source of ethics.  There is no objective reason why we “ought” to do anything.  Our reasons must be entirely subjective.  It may not work for everyone, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t, for that matter, but serving what Salter refers to as my genetic interests works for me.  I find it very satisfying as the “purpose of life.”  While I can hardly provide a rational objective basis for this “ought,” the same could be said of any other “ought” anyone could come up with.  I look at it this way.  I exist because everything about me has promoted my genetic survival.  If my conscious acts and my conscious purpose are not in harmony with the reasons for my existence, I am, in a sense, ill and defective.  The thought of being ill and defective is not pleasing to me.  Hence, my “purpose in life.”  It’s entirely subjective and I can’t reasonably apply it to anyone else, I know, but that’s the beauty of it.  It’s not at all troubling to me that most other people don’t appear to have a similar purpose in life, unless, of course, they happen to be close relatives.

Jonathan Haidt and the New Atheists

Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times.  It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading.  Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism.  As he notes in the review:

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.

But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.

The “unspoken tension” is definitely there.  I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason.  Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion.  He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists.  Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,

These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe.  The other three authors, however, are men of science.

My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw.  “Men of science” indeed!  Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?”  Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?”  I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality.  Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals.  Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism.  As he puts it:

The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2:  Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses).  So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion.  To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers.  Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community.  That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.

This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense.  If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other.  It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.

We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw.  In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story:  By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.”  As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.”  In other words, as Haidt puts it,

The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face:  cooperation without kinship.

He then goes Atran and Henrich one better.  Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution.  Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection.  In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,

In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion.  I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007.  When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not.  Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way.  His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence.  Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection.  Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection.  He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection.  Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around.  However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion.  Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.

I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.”  Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion.  For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group.  For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.”  Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.”  Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.”  He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,

…the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.  Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society.  They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”  However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin.  Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing.  Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.”  Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.”  Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either.  Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot.  In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists.  I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing.  He concludes,

Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations.  We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.  They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank.  Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children.  It seems we’ve come full circle.  Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century.  Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection.  I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices.  However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction.  I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth.  Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.

Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”: Take Two

If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law.  It’s the best book on morality I know of.  Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow.  Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature.  Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”.  He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions.  He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.  According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions.  Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights.  It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette.  It should be read in full.

I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality.  I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations.  It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature.  Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality.  Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.

There is good news and bad news in the book.  The bad news starts early.  In the introduction, Haidt writes,

I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.

I’m afraid he’s right.  I’m certainly no exception to the rule.  The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating.  It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason.  If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears.  In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd.  However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point.  He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right.  It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.

Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse.  I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward.  Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows.  I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.

I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do.  However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it.  Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate.  He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it.  Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth.  For example, in chapter 4 he writes,

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.  We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.  The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology).  They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings.  Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law.  Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing:  summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart.  But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that  some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.  This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply.  I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason.  Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth.  We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments.  Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon.  None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood.  The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless.  There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.

The Implosion of Jonah Lehrer

A couple of years ago Harvard announced an ongoing investigation of evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Marc Hauser for “scientific misconduct” involving the integrity of experimental data.  Hauser wrote books such as Moral Minds for a lay audience as well as numerous papers in academic journals co-authored with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Richard Wrangham.  He resigned his professorship about a year later.

Now another public scientist and intellectual who also specialized in the behavioral sciences has fallen.  Jonah Lehrer was fired from his position at “The New Yorker” after admitting he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.  I can only agree with his editor, David Remnick, that “This is a terrifically sad situation.”  Why someone as ostensibly successful and highly regarded as Lehrer would do such a thing is beyond my comprehension.

One must hope we’re not seeing the start of a trend.  I can think of few things more important than the credibility and integrity of the behavioral sciences, so lately emerged from the debacle of the Blank Slate.  It turns out Lehrer didn’t even need to invent the quotes in question.  According to Randy Lewis writing for the LA Times, Dylan actually did say substantially the same thing in an interview with pop music critic Robert Hilburn in 2004.  Quoting from Lewis’ article,

At one point, he told Hilburn something very close to what Lehrer seemed to have been after: “I’m not good at defining things,” Dylan said in 2004. “Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.”

But he also did open up remarkably about how he viewed the art and craft of songwriting.

“I don’t think in lateral terms as a writer. That’s a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers…. They are so lateral. There’s no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.”

Had he been more thorough in doing the research for his book, perhaps Lehrer could have been able to hold onto the success he seemed so desperately to want that he concocted quotes from the greatest songwriter of the rock era.

It would be nice if the scientists who study our behavior and morality were themselves immune to the human frailties they write about.  Once again, we have seen that they most decidedly are not.  Those who seek Plato’s philosopher kings will have to keep looking.