On the Unsubjective Morality and Unscientific Scientism of Alex Rosenberg

In a recent post I pointed out the irrational embrace of objective morality by some public intellectuals in spite of their awareness of morality’s evolutionary roots.  In fact, I know of only one scientist/philosopher who has avoided this non sequitur; Edvard Westermarck.  A commenter suggested that Alex Rosenberg was another example of such a philosopher.  In fact, he’s anything but.  He’s actually a perfect example of the type I described in my earlier post.

A synopsis of Rosenberg’s philosophy may be found in his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality.  Rosenberg is a proponent of “scientism.”  He notes the previous, pejorative use of the term, but announces that he will expropriate it.  In his words,

…we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.”  This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today… Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understating is all about.

Well, I’m “one of us atheists,” and while I would agree that science is the best and most effective method to secure knowledge of anything, I hardly agree that it is the only method, nor do I agree that it is always reliable.  For that matter, I doubt that Rosenberg believes it either.  He dismisses all the humanities with a wave of the hand as alternate ways of knowing, with particular emphasis on history.  In fact, one of his chapters is entitled, “History Debunked.”  In spite of that, his book is laced with allusions to history and historical figures.

For that matter, we could hardly do without history as a “way of knowing” just what kind of a specimen we’re dealing with.  It turns out that, whether knowingly or not, Rosenberg is an artifact of the Blank Slate.  I reached convulsively for my crucifix as I encountered the telltale stigmata.  As those who know a little history are aware, the Blank Slate was a massive corruption of science involving what amounted to the denial of the existence of human nature that lasted for more than half a century.  It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  It should come as no surprise that Rosenberg doesn’t mention it, and seems blithely unaware that it ever happened.  It flies in the face of the rosy picture of science he’s trying to paint for us.

We first get an inkling of where Rosenberg fits in the context of scientific history when he refers approvingly to the work of Richard Lewontin, who is described as a “well-known biologist.”  That description is a bit disingenuous.  Lewontin may well be a “well-known biologist,” but he was also one of the high priests of the Blank Slate.  As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate,

Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the “generalizations of eating, excreting, and sleeping.”  The rest of the slate, presumably, is blank.

Lewontin embraced “scientific” Marxism, and alluded to the teachings of Marx often in his work.  His “scientific” method of refuting those who disagreed with him was to call them racists and fascists.  He even insisted that a man with such sterling leftist bona fides as Richard Trivers be dismissed as a lackey of the bourgeoisie.  It seems to me these facts are worth mentioning about anyone we may happen to tout as a “scientific expert.”  Rosenberg never gets around to it.

A bit further on, Rosenberg again refers approvingly to another of the iconic figures of the Blank Slate; B. F. Skinner.  He cites Skinner’s theories as if there had never been anything the least bit controversial about them.  In fact, as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,

Skinner… preferred language of control and domination.  He spoke of behavioral engineering and manipulation, and not just in relation to animals.  Later in life he sought to turn humans into happy, productive, and “maximally effective” citizens.

and

B. F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior.  Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered.  His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century.  Loosening its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

Behaviorism, with its promise of the almost perfect malleability of behavior in humans and other animals, was a favorite prop of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Such malleability was a prerequisite for the creation of “maximally effective” citizens to occupy the future utopias they were concocting for us.

Reading on, we find Rosenberg relating another of the favorite yarns of the Blank Slaters of old, the notion that our Pleistocene ancestors’ primary source of meat came from scavenging.  They would scamper out, we are told, and steal choice bones from the kills of large predators, then scamper back to their hiding places and smash the bones with rocks to get at the marrow.  This fanciful theory was much in fashion back in the 60’s when books disputing Blank Slate ideology and insisting on the existence and significance of human nature first started to appear.  These often mentioned aggression as one aspect of human behavior, an assertion that never failed to whip the Blank Slaters into a towering rage.  Hunting, of course, might be portrayed as a form of aggression.  Therefore it was necessary to deny that it ever happened early enough to have an effect on evolved human behavioral traits.  In those days, of course, we were so ignorant of primate behavior that Blank Slater Ashley Montagu was able to write with a perfectly straight face that chimpanzees are,

…anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is no reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

We’ve learned a few things in the ensuing years.  Jane Goodall observed both organized hunting behavior and murderous attacks on neighboring bands carried out by these “amiable” creatures.  For reporting these observations she was furiously denounced and insulted in the most demeaning terms.  Meanwhile, chimps have been observed using sticks as thrusting spears, and fire-hardened spears were found associated with a Homo erectus campsite dated to some 400,000 years ago.  There is evidence that stone-tipped spears were used as far back as 500,000 years ago, and much more similar evidence of early hunting behavior has surfaced.  Articles about early hunting behavior have even appeared in the reliably politically correct Scientific American, not to mention that stalwart pillar of progressive ideology, PBS.  In other words, the whole scavenging thing is moot.  Apparently no one bothered to pass the word to Rosenberg.  No matter, he still includes enough evolutionary psychology in his book to keep up appearances.

In spite of the fact that he writes with the air of a scientific insider who is letting us in on all kinds of revelations that we are to believe have been set in stone by “science” in recent years, and that we should never dare to question, Rosenberg shows similar signs of being a bit wobbly when it comes to actually knowing what he’s talking about elsewhere in the book.  For example, he seems to have a fascination with fermions and bosons, mentioning them often in the book.  He tells us that,

…everything is made up of these two kinds of things.  Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of.

Well, not exactly.  If matter isn’t composed of bosons, it will come as news to the helium atoms engaging in one of the neat tricks only bosons are capable of in the Wiki article on superfluidity.  As it happens, one of the many outcomes of the fundamental difference between bosons and fermions is that bosons are usually force carriers, but the notion that it actually is the fundamental difference is just disinformation, and a particularly unfortunate instance thereof at that.  I say that because our understanding of that difference is the outcome of an elegant combination of theoretical insight and mathematics.  I lack the space to go into detail here, but it follows from the indistinguishability of quantum particles.  I suggest that anyone interested in the real difference between bosons and fermions consult an elementary quantum textbook.  These usually boil the necessary math down to a level that should be accessible to any high school graduate who has taken an honors course or two in the subject.

There are some more indications of the real depth of Rosenberg’s scientific understanding in his description of some of the books he recommends to his readers so they can “come up to speed” with him.  For example, he tells us that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, “…argues for a sophisticated evolutionary account of several cognitive capacities critical for speech.”  Well, not really.  As the title implies Pinker’s The Blank Slate is about The Blank Slate.  I can only conclude that cognitive dissonance must have set in when Rosenberg read it, because that apocalypse in the behavioral sciences doesn’t fit too well in his glowing tale of the triumphant progress of science.  Elsewhere he tells us that,

At its outset, human history might have been predictable just because the arms races were mainly biological.  That’s what enabled Jared Diamond to figure out how and why western Europeans came to dominate the globe over a period that lasted 8000 years or so in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Diamond is only applying an approach to human history made explicit by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature more than 30 years ago (1978)…”

Seriously?  Guns, Germs and Steel was actually an attempt to explain differences between human cultures in terms of environmental factors, whereas in On Human Nature Wilson doubled down on his mild assault on the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology, insisting on the existence and significance of evolved human behavioral traits.  I can only conclude that, assuming Rosenberg actually read the books, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading.

With that let’s consider what Rosenberg has to say about morality.  He certainly seems to “get it” in the beginning of the book.  He describes himself as a “nihilist” when it comes to morality.  I consider that a bad choice of words, but whatever.  According to Rosenberg,

Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required.  Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong.  More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions.  Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally responsible” is untenable nonsense.  As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.”  That, too, is untenable nonsense.

Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value.  People think that there are things that are intrinsically valuable, not just as a means to something else:  human life or the ecology of the planet or the master race or elevated states of consciousness, for example.  But nothing can have that sort of intrinsic value – the very kind of value morality requires.  Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.  Therefore, nihilism can’t be accused of advocating the moral goodness of, say, political violence or anything else.

A promising beginning, no?  Sounds very Westermarckian.  But don’t jump to conclusions!  Before the end of the book we will find Rosenberg doing a complete intellectual double back flip when it comes to this so-called “nihilism.”  We will witness him chanting a few magic words over the ghost of objective morality, and then see it rise zombie-like from the grave he just dug for it.

Rosenberg begins the pilgrimage from subjectivity to objectivity by evoking what he calls “core morality.”  He presents us with two premises about it, namely,

First premise:  All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core principles as binding on everyone.

and

Second premise:  The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness – for our survival and reproduction.

Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it, but then we learn some things that appear a bit counterintuitive about core morality.  For example,

There is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans.  Among competing core moralities, it was the one that somehow came closest to maximizing the average fitness of our ancestors over a long enough period that it became almost universal.  For all we know, the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.  Let’s hope so, at any rate, since core morality is almost surely locked in by now.

Are you kidding me?  There is not even a remote chance that “the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.”  Here, Rosenberg is whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the role he has in store for his “core morality.”  He is forced to make this patently absurd statement about our supposedly static environment because otherwise “core morality” couldn’t perform its necessary role in bringing the zombie back to life.  How can it perform that neat trick?  Well, according to Rosenberg,

Along with everyone else, the most scientistic among us accept these core principles as binding. (!!)

Some nihilism, no?  Suddenly, Rosenberg’s “core morality” has managed to jump right out of his skull onto our backs and is “binding” us!  Of course, it would be too absurd even for Rosenberg to insist that this “binding” feature was still in effect in spite of the radical changes in the environment that have obviously happened since “core morality” supposedly evolved.  Hence, he has to deny the obvious with his ludicrous suggestion that the environment hasn’t changed.  Meanwhile, the distinction noted by Westermarck between that which is thought to be binding, and that which actually is binding, has become very fuzzy.  We are well on the way back to the safe haven of objective morality.

To sweeten the pill, Rosenberg assures us that core morality is “nice,” and cites all sorts of game theory experiments to prove it.  He wonders,

Once its saddled with nihilism, can scientism make room for the moral progress that most of us want the world to make?  No problem.

“Moral progress?”  That is a contradiction in terms unless morality and its rules exist as objective things in themselves.  How is “progress” possible if morality is really an artifact of evolution, and consequently has neither purpose nor goal?  Rosenberg puts stuff like this right in the middle of his pronouncements that morality is really subjective.  You could easily get whiplash reading his book.  The icing on the cake of “niceness” turns out to be altruistic behavior towards non-kin, which is also supposed to have evolved to enhance “fitness.”  Since one rather fundamental difference between the environment “then” and “now” is that “then” humans normally lived in communities of and interacted mainly with only about 150 people, the idea that they were really dealing with non-kin, and certainly any idea that similar behavior must work just as well between nations consisting of millions of not quite so closely related individuals is best taken with a grain of salt.

Other then a few very perfunctory references, Rosenberg shows a marked reticence to discuss human behavior that is not so nice.  Of course, there is no mention of the ubiquitous occurrence of warfare between human societies since the dawn of recorded time.  After all, that would be history, and hasn’t Rosenberg told us that history is bunk?  He never mentions such “un-nice” traits as ingroup-outgroup behavior, or territoriality.  That’s odd, since we can quickly identify his own outgroup, thanks to some virtue signaling remarks about “Thatcherite Republicans,” and science-challenged conservatives.  As for those who get too far out of line he writes,

Recall the point made early in this chapter that even most Nazis may have really shared a common moral code with us.  The qualification “most” reflects the fact that a lot of them, especially at the top of the SS, were just psychopaths and sociopaths with no core morality.

Really?  What qualifies Rosenberg to make such a statement?  Did he examine their brains?  Did neuroscientists subject them to experiments before they died?  It would seem that if we don’t “get our minds right” about core morality we could well look forward to being “cured” the way “psychopaths and sociopaths” were “cured” in the old Soviet Union.

By the time we get to the end of the book, the subjective façade has been entirely dismantled, and the “core morality” zombie has jettisoned the last of its restraints.  Rosenberg’s continued insistence on the non-existence of objective good and bad has deteriorated to a mere matter of semantics.  Consider, for example, the statement,

Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not require of us.  Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right – or wrong.  There is no such thing.

That should be comforting news to the inmates of the asylum who didn’t do what was “required” of them. We learn that,

Almost certainly, when all these facts are decided, it will turn out that core morality doesn’t contain any blanket prohibition or permission of abortion as such.  Rather, together with the facts that science can at least in principle uncover, core morality will provide arguments in favor of some abortions and against other abortions, depending on the circumstances.

The pro-life people shouldn’t entirely despair, however, because,

Scientism allows that sometimes the facts of a case will combine with core morality to prohibit abortion, even when the woman demands it as a natural right.

That’s about as wild and crazy as Rosenberg gets, though.  In fact, he’s not a scientist but a leftist ideologue, and we soon find him scurrying back to the confines of his ideologically defined ingroup, core morality held firmly under his arm.  He assures us that,

…when you combine our core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics.  In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.  No wonder most scientists in the United States are Democrats and in the United Kingdom are Labour Party supporters or Liberal Democrats.

Core morality reaches out its undead hand for the criminal justice system as well:

There are other parts of core morality that permit or even require locking people up – for example, to protect others and to deter, reform, rehabilitate, and reeducate the wrongdoer.

That would be a neat trick – reeducating wrongdoers if there really isn’t such a thing as wrong.  No matter, core morality is now not only alive but is rapidly turning into a dictator with “requirements.”

Core morality may permit unearned inequalities, but it is certainly not going to require them without some further moral reason to do so.  In fact, under many circumstances, core morality is going to permit the reduction of inequalities, for it requires that wealth and income that people have no right to be redistributed to people in greater need.  Scientism assures us that no one has any moral rights.  Between them, core morality and scientism turn us into closet egalitarians.

Did you get that?  Your “selfish genes” are now demanding that you give away your money to unrelated people even if the chances that this will ever help those genes to survive and reproduce are vanishingly small.  Rosenberg concludes,

So, scientism plus core morality turn out to be redistributionist and egalitarian, even when combined with free-market economics.  No wonder Republicans in the United States have such a hard time with science.

Did his outgroup just pop up on your radar screen?  It should have.  At this point any rational consequences of the evolved origins and subjective nature of morality have been shown the door.  The magical combination of scientism and core morality has us in a leftist full nelson.  They “require” us to do the things that Rosenberg considers “nice,” and refrain from doing the things he considers “not nice.”  In principle, he dismisses the idea of free will.  However, in this case we will apparently be allowed just a smidgeon of it if we happen to be “Thatcherite Republicans.”  Just enough to get our minds right and return us to a “nice” deterministic track.

In a word, Rosenberg is no Westermarck.  In fact, he is a poster boy for leftist ideologues who like to pose as “moral nihilists,” but get an unholy pleasure out of dictating moral rules to the rest of us.  His “scientific” pronouncements are written with all the cocksure hubris characteristic of ideologues, and sorely lack the reticence more appropriate for real scientists.  There is no substantial difference between the illusion that there are objective moral laws, and Rosenberg’s illusion that a “core morality” utterly divorced from its evolutionary origins is capable of dictating what we ought and ought not to do.

It’s not really that hard to understand.  The ingroup, or tribe, if you will, of leftist ideologues like Rosenberg and the other examples I mentioned in recent posts, lives in a box defined by ideological shibboleths.  Its members can make as many bombastic pronouncements about moral nihilism as they like, but in the end they must either kowtow to the shibboleths or be ostracized from the tribe.  That’s a sacrifice that none of them, at least to the best of my knowledge, has ever been willing to make.  If my readers are aware of any other “counter-examples,” I would be happy to examine them in my usual spirit of charity.

Edvard Westermarck: Getting Morality Right at the Wrong Time

Morality evolved.  More precisely, the emotional and behavioral traits that are the reason morality exists evolved.  Darwin was perfectly well aware of this fact and its implications.  For example, he wrote,

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

The moral implications of his great theory Darwin alluded to in the above passage seem obvious.  It shouldn’t take a man as brilliant as him to grasp them, and yet I know of only one published author after Darwin who clearly understood what he was saying; Edvard Westermarck.

Westermarck wrote two great books about morality; The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, published in 1906, and Ethical Relativity, in 1932.  In them he elaborated on the ideas Darwin only mentioned in passing, following them to their logical conclusions.  In the process he avoided the error made by a myriad other authors who wrote before and after him about the connection between evolution by natural selection and morality.  That error was the conclusion that this connection somehow established the legitimacy of some old or new versions of Good and Evil, or that it implied some kind of an objective “ought.”  Westermarck got it right, and yet he is nearly forgotten today.  Apparently his message was something mankind didn’t want to hear.  He also happened along at the wrong time, writing some very inconvenient truths just as the behavioral sciences were in the process of being hijacked by the ideological narrative that we know as the Blank Slate.

Westermarck realized that if morality exists as a result of natural selection, it can have no purpose in itself.  If something has a purpose, then it must have been created by a conscious entity.  Morality wasn’t.  It exists as a result of natural processes that occurred unguided by any conscious mind.  It follows that Good and Evil describe subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and not objective things that exist independently thereof.  As subjective entities they cannot possibly acquire a legitimate right to prescribe what anyone ought or ought not to do.

Recording and explaining such simple truths requires neither a great deal of space nor the lavish application of philosophical jargon.  Westermarck accomplished the task in the first chapter of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  It seems to me that if you read that chapter, you either get it or you don’t.  From a logical point of view the subject just isn’t that complicated.  It’s only “hard” because it flies in the face of what we “feel,” and isn’t compatible with the way most of us want things to be.  There’s no subject in the world more difficult to keep an open mind about than morality, but unless you do, you’ll never “get it.”  However, if you can clear that hurdle, the rest is obvious.  In his Ethical Relativity, written more than a quarter of a century later, Westermarck elaborated on the chapter referred to above, and answered some of the critics who had attacked his ideas in the intervening years Here is a taste of what he had to say:

In spite of the fervor with which the objectivity of moral judgments has been advocated by the exponents of normative ethics there is much diversity of opinion with regard to the principles underlying the various systems.  This discord is as old as ethics itself.  But while the evolution of other sciences has shown a tendency to increasing agreement on points of fundamental importance, the same can hardly be said to have been the case in the history of ethics, where the spirit of controversy has been much more conspicuous than the endeavor to add new truths to results already reached.  Of course, if moral values are objective, only one of the conflicting theories can possibly be true.  Each founder of a new theory hopes that it is he who has discovered the unique jewel of moral truth, and is naturally anxious to show that other theories are only false stones.  But he must also by positive reasons make good his claim to the precious find.

None of the various theories of normative science can be said to have proved its case; none of them has proved that moral judgments possess objective validity, that there is anything truly good or bad, right or wrong, that moral principles express anything more than the opinions of those who believe in them.

The quantitative differences of moral estimates are plainly due to the emotional origin of all moral concepts… After what has been said above the answer to the all-important question, so frequently ignored by writers on ethics, why moral judgments are passed on conduct and character is not far to seek.  These judgments spring from moral emotions.

and, regarding the moral philosophy of Kant,

But with the deepest regard for the tremendous earnestness of his purpose, I cannot but think that his struggle to harmonize the moral experience of mankind with his own rational deductions has been a colossal failure.  I have tried to show that in his alleged dictates of reason the emotional background is transparent throughout, and if I have succeeded in such a attempt in the case of the greatest of all moral rationalists, I flatter myself with the belief that I have, in no small measure, given additional strength to the main contentions in this book:  that the moral consciousness is ultimately based on emotions, that the moral judgment lacks objective validity, that the moral values are not absolute but relative to the emotions they express.

Regarding the “experts on ethics,” both modern and ancient, Westermarck wrote,

If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

There are some surprisingly “modern” ideas in his later book.  Consider, for example, what Jonathan Haidt wrote about The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.  In a paper of that name and in his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt presented “…the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.”  Here is what Westermarck had to say on the subject:

I have thus arrived at the conclusion that neither the attempts of moral philosophers or theologians to prove the objective validity of moral judgments, nor the common sense assumption to the same effect, give us any right at all to accept such a validity as a fact.  So far, however, I have only tried to show that it has not been proved; now I am prepared to take a step further and assert that it cannot exist.  The reason for this is that in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Westermarck chose the title “Ethical Relativity” for his second book on the subject.  It is perfectly clear what he meant.  However, while moral rules may be relative from an objective point of view, it is not our nature to perceive them that way.  We perceive them as absolutes, just as one might expect given their evolutionary origin.  They are most effective in enhancing the odds that we will survive and reproduce when we perceive them in that way.  Human beings can come up with a great variety of moral systems in spite of the common evolutionary origin of them all.  However, whatever that “relative” system happens to be, we will perceive its rules as absolutes.  The idea that our societies will collapse into moral nihilism and anarchy because of the scribblings of philosophers is nonsense.  As Westermarck put it,

I think that ethical writers are often inclined to overrate the influence of moral theory upon moral practice.

He added,

It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.  The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true.

However, he cited some very good reasons for believing that knowing the truth about ourselves is a great deal less dangerous than preserving our ignorance.  I agree with him.  If our species ever existed in a period of moral anarchy and nihilism, it is now.  Accepting the truth about morality and acting on it are the way out of the chaos, not into it.

Some authors pay lip service to the influence of evolution on morality, but haven’t been able to shed the illusion that somehow, somewhere out there, objective morality exists.  Others admit that, as a manifestation of evolved traits, morality must be subjective, but in the very next paragraph or the very next breathe they lapse back into full Social Justice Warrior mode.  With a wink and a nod they use time-honored virtue signaling techniques to assure us that they belong to the right ingroup.  They leave us in no doubt that they understand the difference between mere subjective morality and the “real thing.”  Some have even gone so far as to advocate a program of eugenics, or perhaps adventures with CRISPR, to “adjust” morality so that it agrees with the “real thing.”

At least to the extent that it’s possible for morally obsessed creatures like ourselves, Westermarck avoided these pitfalls.  He didn’t try to hide from the implications of his own thought, nor did he write them down and then hide his head and flee from them in the very next paragraph.  He was honest.  He was a light in the darkness.  I hope that someday we will find our way back to the light.


George Gissing, G. E. Moore, and the “Good in Itself”

A limited number of common themes are always recognizable in human moral behavior.  However, just as a limited number of atoms can combine to form a vast number of different molecules, so those themes can combine to form a vast variety of different moral systems.  Those systems vary not only from place to place, but in the same place over time.  A striking example of the latter may be found in the novels of George Gissing, most of which were published in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Gissing was a deep-dyed Victorian conservative of a type that would be virtually unrecognizable to the conservatives of today.  George Orwell admired him, and wrote a brief but brilliant essay about him that appears in In Front of Your Nose, the fourth volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters.  Orwell described him as one of the greatest British novelists because of the accuracy with which he portrayed the poverty, sordid social conditions, and sharp caste distinctions in late Victorian England.  Orwell was generous.  Gissing condemned socialism, particularly in his novel Demos, whereas Orwell was a lifelong socialist.

According to the subtitle of the novel, it is “A story of English socialism.”  Socialism was becoming increasingly fashionable in those days, but Gissing wasn’t a sympathizer.  He wanted to preserve everything just as it had been at some halcyon time in the past.  Hubert Eldon, the “hero” of the novel, wouldn’t pass for one in our time.  Today he would probably be seen as a rent-seeking parasite. He was apparently unsuited for any kind of useful work, and spent most of his time gazing at pretty pictures in European art galleries when he wasn’t in England.  When he was home his favorite pastime was to admire the country scenery near the village of Wanley, where he lived with his mother.

Eldon was expecting to inherit a vast sum of money from his brother’s father-in-law, a self-made industrialist named Richard Mutimer.  He could then marry the pristine Victorian heroine, Adela Waltham, who also lived in the village.  However, to everyone’s dismay, the old man dies intestate, and the lion’s share of the money goes to a distant relative, also named Richard Mutimer, who happens to be a socialist workingman.  The younger Mutimer uses the money to begin tearing the lovely valley apart in order to build mines and steel mills for a model socialist community.  Adela’s mother, a firm believer in the ennobling influence of money, insists that she marry Mutimer.  Dutiful daughter that she is, she obeys, even though she loves Eldon.  In the end, Mutimer is conveniently killed off.  The old man’s will is miraculously found and it turns out Eldon inherits the money after all.  This “hero” doesn’t shrink from dismantling the socialist community that had been started by his rival, even though he knew it would throw the breadwinners of many families out of work. He thought it was too ugly, and wanted to return the landscape to its original beauty.  Obviously, the author thought he was being perfectly reasonable even though, as he mentioned in passing, former workers in a socialist community would likely be blacklisted and unable to find work elsewhere.  It goes without saying that the “hero” gets the girl in the end.

One of the reasons Orwell liked Gissing so much was the skill with which he documented the vast improvement in the material welfare of the average citizen that had taken place in England over the comparatively horrific conditions that prevailed in the author’s time. Unfortunately, that improvement could never have taken place without the sacrifice of many pleasant country villages like Wanley. Gissing was nothing if not misanthropic, and probably would have rejected such progress even if he could have imagined it. In fact old Mutimer was the first one to think of mining the valley, and the author speaks of the idea as follows:

It was of course a deplorable error to think of mining in the beautiful valley which had once been the Eldon’s estate. Richard Mutimer could not perceive that. He was a very old man, and possibly the instincts of his youth revived as his mind grew feebler; he imagined it the greatest kindness to Mrs. Eldon and her son to increase as much as possible the value of the property he would leave at his death. They, of course, could not even hint to him the pain with which they viewed so barbarous a scheme; he did not as much as suspect a possible objection.

Gissing not only accepted the rigid class distinctions of his day, but positively embraced them.  In describing the elder Mutimer he writes,

Remaining the sturdiest of Conservatives, he bowed in sincere humility to those very claims which the Radical most angrily disallows: birth, hereditary station, recognised gentility – these things made the strongest demand upon his reverence. Such an attitude was a testimony to his own capacity for culture, since he knew not the meaning of vulgar adulation, and did in truth perceive the beauty of those qualities to which the uneducated Iconoclast is wholly blind.

The author leaves no doubt about his rejection of “progress” and his dim view of the coming 20th century in the following exchange between Eldon and his mother about the socialist Mutimer:

“Shall I tell you how I felt in talking with him?  I seemed to be holding a dialogue with the 20th century, and you may think what that means.”

“Ah, it’s a long way off, Hubert.”

“I wish it were farther.  The man was openly exultant; He stood for Demos grasping the scepter.  I am glad, mother, that you leave Wanley before the air is poisoned.”

“Mr. Mutimer does not see that side of the question?”

“Not he!  Do you imagine the twentieth century will leave one green spot on the earth’s surface?”

“My dear, it will always be necessary to grow grass and corn.”

“By no means; depend upon it.  Such things will be cultivated by chemical processes.  There will not be one inch left to nature; the very oceans will somehow be tamed, the snow mountains will be leveled.  And with nature will perish art.  What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?”

Mrs. Eldon sighed gently.

“I shall not see it.”

Well, the twentieth century did turn out pretty badly, especially for socialism, but not quite that badly.  Of course, one can detect some of the same themes in this exchange that one finds in the ideology of 21st century “Greens.”  However, I think the most interesting affinity is between the sentiments in Gissing’s novels and the moral philosophy of G. E. Moore.  I touched on the subject in an earlier post .  Moore was the inventor of the “naturalistic fallacy,” according to which all moral philosophers preceding him were wrong, because they insisted on defining “the Good” with reference to some natural object.  Unfortunately, Moore’s own version of “the Good” turned out to be every bit as slippery as any “sophisticated Christian’s” version of God.  It was neither fish nor fowl, mineral nor vegetable.

When Moore finally got around to giving us at least some hint of exactly what he was talking about in his Principia Ethica, we discovered to our surprise that “the Good” had nothing to do with the heroism of the Light Brigade, or Horatius at the Bridge.  It had nothing to do with loyalty or honor.  It had nothing to do with social justice or the brotherhood of man.  Nor did it have anything to do with honesty, justice, or equality.  In fact, Moore’s version of “the Good” turned out to be a real thigh slapper.  It consisted of the “nice things” that appealed to English country gentlemen at more or less the same time that Gissing was writing his novels. It included such things as soothing country scenery, enchanting music, amusing conversations with other “good” people, and perhaps a nice cup of tea on the side.  As Moore put it,

We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

and,

By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve doubted it. Not only have I doubted it, but I consider the claim absurd.  Those words were written in 1903.  By that time a great many people were already aware of the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection.  That connection was certainly familiar to Darwin himself, and a man named Edvard Westermarck spelled out the seemingly obvious implications of that connection in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas a few years later, in 1906.  Among those implications was the fact that the “good in itself” is pure fantasy.  “Good” and “evil” are subjective artifacts that are the result of the behavioral predispositions we associate with morality filtered through the minds of creatures with large brains.  Nature played the rather ill-natured trick of portraying them to us as real things because that’s the form in which they happened to maximize the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive and reproduce. (That, by the way, is why it is highly unlikely that “moral relativity” will ever be a problem for our species.)  The fact that Moore was capable of writing such nonsense more than 40 years after Darwin appeared on the scene suggests that he must have lived a rather sheltered life.

In retrospect, it didn’t matter.  Today Moore is revered as a great moral philosopher, and Westermarck is nearly forgotten.  It turns out that the truth about morality was very inconvenient for the “experts on ethics.”  It exposed them as charlatans who had devoted their careers to splitting hairs over the fine points of things that didn’t actually exist.  It popped all their pretentions to superior wisdom and virtue like so many soap bubbles.  The result was predictable.  They embraced Moore and ignored Westermarck.  In the process they didn’t neglect to spawn legions of brand new “experts on ethics” to take their places when they were gone.  Thanks to their foresight we find the emperor’s new clothes are gaudier than ever in our own time.

The work of George Gissing is an amusing footnote to the story.  We no longer have to scratch our heads wondering where on earth Moore came up with his singular notions about the “Good in itself.”  It turns out the same ideas may be found fossilized in the works of a Victorian novelist.  The “experts on ethics” have been grasping at a very flimsy straw indeed!

George Gissing
George Gissing

Moral Nihilism, Moral Chaos, and Moral Truth

The truth about morality is both simple and obvious.  It exists as a result of evolution by natural selection.  From that it follows that it cannot possibly have a purpose or goal, and from that it follows that one cannot make “progress” towards fulfilling that nonexistent purpose or reaching that nonexistent goal.  Simple and obvious as it is, no truth has been harder for mankind to accept.

The reason for this has to do with the nature of moral emotions themselves.  They portray Good and Evil to us as real things that exist independent of human consciousness, when in fact they are subjective artifacts of our imaginations.  That truth has always been hard for us to accept.  It is particularly hard when self-esteem is based on the illusion of moral superiority.  That illusion is obviously alive and well at a time when a large fraction of the population is capable of believing that another large fraction is “deplorable.”  The fact that the result of indulging such illusions in the past has occasionally and not infrequently been mass murder suggests that, as a matter of public safety, it may be useful to stop indulging them.

The “experts on ethics” delight in concocting chilling accounts of what will happen if we do stop indulging them.  We are told that a world without objective moral truths will be a world of moral nihilism and moral chaos.  The most obvious answer to such fantasies is, “So what?”  Is the truth really irrelevant?  Are we really expected to force ourselves to believe in lies because that truth is just to scary for us to face?  Come to think of it, what, exactly, do we have now if not moral nihilism and moral chaos?

We live in a world in which every two bit social justice warrior can invent some new “objective evil,” whether “cultural appropriation,” failure to memorize the 57 different flavors or gender, or some arcane “micro-aggression,” and work himself into a fine fit of virtuous indignation if no one takes him seriously.  The very illusion that Good and Evil are objective things is regularly exploited to justify the crude bullying that is now used to enforce new “moral laws” that have suddenly been concocted out of the ethical vacuum.  The unsuspecting owners of mom and pop bakeries wake up one morning to learn that they are now “deplorable,” and so “evil” that their business must be destroyed with a huge fine.

We live in a world in which hundreds of millions believe that other hundreds of millions who associate the word “begotten” with the “son of God,” or believe in the Trinity, are so evil that they will certainly burn in hell forever.  These other hundreds of millions believe that heavenly bliss will be denied to anyone who doesn’t believe in a God with these attributes.

We live in a world in which the regime in charge of the most powerful country in the world believes it has such a monopoly on the “objective Good” that it can ignore international law, send its troops to occupy parts of another sovereign state, and dictate to the internationally recognized government of that state which parts of its territory it is allowed to control, and which not.  It persists in this dubious method of defending the “Good” even though it risks launching a nuclear war in the process.  The citizens in that country who happen to support one candidate for President don’t merely consider the citizens who support the opposing candidate wrong.  They consider them objectively evil according to moral “laws” that apparently float about as insubstantial spirits, elevating themselves by their own bootstraps.

We live in a world in which evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and neuroscientists who are perfectly well aware of the evolutionary roots of morality nevertheless persist in cobbling together new moral systems that lack even so much as the threadbare semblance of a legitimate basis.  The faux legitimacy that the old religions at least had the common decency to supply in the form of imaginary gods is thrown to the winds without a thought.  In spite of that these same scientists expect the rest of us to take them seriously when they announce that, at long last, they’ve discovered the philosopher’s stone of objective Good and Evil, whether in the form of some whimsical notion of “human flourishing,” or perhaps a slightly retouched version of utilitarianism.  In almost the same breath, they affirm the evolutionary basis of morality, and then proceed to denounce anyone who doesn’t conform to their newly minted moral “laws.”  When it comes to morality, it is hard to imagine a more nihilistic and chaotic world.

I find it hard to believe that a world in which the subjective nature and rather humble evolutionary roots of all our exalted moral systems were commonly recognized, along with the obvious implications of these fundamental truths, could possibly be even more nihilistic and chaotic than the one we already live in.  I doubt that “moral relativity” would prevail in such a world, for the simple reason that it is not in our nature to be moral relativists.  We might even be able to come up with a set of “absolute” moral rules that would be obeyed, not because humanity had deluded itself into believing they were objectively true, but because of a common determination to punish free riders and cheaters.  We might even be able to come up with some rational process for changing and adjusting the rules when necessary by common consent, rather than by the current “enlightened” process of successful bullying.

We would all be aware that even the most “exalted” and “noble” moral emotions, even those accompanied by stimulating music and rousing speeches, have a common origin; their tendency to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive in a Pleistocene environment.  Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to doubt, not only their ability to detect “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” but the wisdom of paying any attention to them at all.  Instead of swallowing the novel moral concoctions of pious charlatans without a murmur, we would begin to habitually greet them with the query, “Exactly what innate whim are you trying to satisfy?”  We would certainly be very familiar with the tendency of every one of us, described so eloquently by Jonathan Haidt in his “The Righteous Mind,” to begin rationalizing our moral emotions as soon as we experience them, whether in response to “social injustice” or a rude driver who happened to cut us off on the way to work.  We would realize that that very tendency also exists by virtue of evolution by natural selection, not because it is actually capable of unmasking social injustice, or distinguishing “evil” from “good” drivers, but merely because it improved our chances of survival when there were no cars, and no one had ever heard of such a thing as social justice.

I know, I’m starting to ramble.  I’m imagining a utopia, but one can always dream.

“On Aggression” Revisited

Once upon a time, half a century ago and more, several authors wrote books according to which certain animals, including human beings, are, at least in certain circumstances, predisposed to aggressive behavior.  Prominent among them was On Aggression, published in English in 1966 by Konrad Lorenz.  Other authors included Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969) and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, co-authored with Tiger, 1971).  The most prominent and widely read of all was the inimitable Robert Ardrey (African Genesis, 1961, The Territorial Imperative, 1966, The Social Contract, 1970, and The Hunting Hypothesis, 1976).  Why were these books important, or even written to begin with?  After all, the fact of innate aggression, then as now, was familiar to any child who happened to own a dog.  Well, because the “men of science” disagreed.  They insisted that there were no innate tendencies to aggression, in man or any of the other higher animals.  It was all the fault of unfortunate cultural developments back around the start of the Neolithic era, or of the baneful environmental influence of “frustration.”

Do you think I’m kidding?  By all means, read the source literature! For example, according to a book entitled Aggression by “dog expert” John Paul Scott published in 1958 by the University of Chicago Press,

All research findings point to the fact that there is no physiological evidence of any internal need or spontaneous driving force for fighting; that all stimulation for aggression eventually comes from the forces present in the external environment.

A bit later, in 1962 in a book entitled Roots of Behavior he added,

All our present data indicate that fighting behavior among the higher mammals, including man, originates in external stimulation and that there is no evidence of spontaneous internal stimulation.

Ashley Montagu added the following “scientific fact” about apes (including chimpanzees!) in his “Man and Aggression,” published in 1968:

The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrison on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

When Goodall dared to contradict Montagu and report what she had actually seen, she was furiously denounced in vile attacks by the likes of Brian Deer, who chivalrously recorded in an artical published in the Sunday Times in 1997,

…the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.

This remarkable transformation from Montagu’s expert in the field to Deer’s “former waitress” was typical of the way “science” was done by the Blank Slaters in those days.  This type of “science” should be familiar to modern readers, who have witnessed what happens to anyone who dares to challenge the current climate change dogmas.

Fast forward to 2016.  A paper entitled The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature.  The first figure in the paper has the provocative title, “Evolution of lethal aggression in non-human mammals.”   It not only accepts the fact of “spontaneous internal stimulation” of aggression without a murmur, but actually quantifies it in no less than 1024 species of mammals!  According to the abstract,

Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%.

All this and more is set down in the usual scientific deadpan without the least hint that the notion of such a “significant phylogenetic component” was ever seriously challenged.  Unfortunately the paper itself is behind Nature’s paywall, but a there’s a free review with extracts from the paper by Ed Yong on the website of The Atlantic, and Jerry Coyne also reviewed the paper over at his Why Evolution is True website.  Citing the paper Yong notes,

It’s likely that primates are especially violent because we are both territorial and social—two factors that respectively provide motive and opportunity for murder.  So it goes for humans.  As we moved from small bands to medium-sized tribes to large chiefdoms, our rates of lethal violence increased.

“Territorial and social!?”  Whoever wrote such stuff?  Oh, now I remember!  It was a guy named Robert Ardrey, who happened to be the author of The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract.  Chalk up another one for the “mere playwright.”  Yet again, he was right, and almost all the “men of science” were wrong.  Do you ever think he’ll get the credit he deserves from our latter day “men of science?”  Naw, neither do I.  Some things are just too embarrassing to admit.

The “Moral Progress” Delusion

“Moral progress” is impossible.  It is a concept that implies progress towards a goal that doesn’t exist.  We exist as a result of evolution by natural selection, a process that has simply happened.  Progress implies the existence of an entity sufficiently intelligent to formulate a goal or purpose towards which progress is made.  No such entity has directed the process, nor did one even exist over most of the period during which it occurred.  The emotional predispositions that are the root cause of what we understand by the term “morality” are as much an outcome of natural selection as our hands or feet.  Like our hands and feet, they exist solely because they have enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce.  There is increasing acceptance of the fact that morality owes its existence to evolution by natural selection among the “experts on ethics” among us.  However, as a rule they have been incapable of grasping the obvious implication of that fact; that the notion of “moral progress” is a chimera.  It is a truth that has been too inconvenient for them to bear.

It’s not difficult to understand why.  Their social gravitas and often their very livelihood depend on propping up the illusion.  This is particularly true of the “experts” in academia, who often lack marketable skills other than their “expertise” in something that doesn’t exist.  Their modus operandi consists of hoodwinking the rest of us into believing that satisfying some whim that happens to be fashionable within their tribe represents “moral progress.”  Such “progress” has no more intrinsic value than a five year old’s progress towards acquiring a lollipop.  Often it can be reasonably expected to lead to outcomes that are the opposite of those that account for the existence of the whim to begin with, resulting in what I have referred to in earlier posts as a morality inversion.  Propping up the illusion in spite of recognition of the evolutionary roots of morality in a milieu that long ago dispensed with the luxury of a God with a big club to serve as the final arbiter of what is “really good” and “really evil” is no mean task.  Among other things it requires some often amusing intellectual contortions as well as the concoction of an arcane jargon to serve as a smokescreen.

Consider, for example, a paper by Professors Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell entitled Toward a Naturalistic Theory of Moral ProgressIt turned up in the journal Ethics, that ever reliable guide to academic fashion touching on the question of “human flourishing.”  Far from denying the existence of human nature after the fashion of the Blank Slaters of old, the authors positively embrace it.  They cheerfully admit its relevance to morality, noting in particular the existence of a predisposition in our species to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups; what Robert Ardrey used to call the Amity/Enmity Complex.  Now, if these things are true, and absent the miraculous discovery of any other contributing “root cause” for morality other than evolution by natural selection, whether in this world or the realm of spirits, it follows logically that “progress” is a term that can no more apply to morality than it does to evolution by natural selection itself.  It further follows that objective Good and objective Evil are purely imaginary categories.  In other words, unless one is merely referring to the scientific investigation of evolved behavioral traits, “experts on ethics” are experts about nothing.  Their claim to possess a philosopher’s stone pointing the way to how we should act is a chimera.  For the last several thousand years they have been involved in a sterile game of bamboozling the rest of us, and themselves to boot.

Predictly, the embarrassment and loss of gravitas, not to mention the loss of a regular paycheck, implied by such a straightforward admission of the obvious has been more than the “experts” could bear.  They’ve simply gone about their business as if nothing had happened, and no one had ever heard of a man named Darwin.  It’s actually been quite easy for them in this puritanical and politically correct age, in which the intellectual life and self-esteem of so many depends on maintaining a constant state of virtuous indignation and moral outrage.  Virtuous indignation and moral outrage are absurd absent the existence of an objective moral standard.  Since nothing of the sort exists, it is simply invented, and everyone stays outraged and happy.

In view of this pressing need to prop up the moral fashions of the day, then, it follows that no great demands are placed on the rigor of modern techniques for concocting real Good and real Evil.  Consider, for example, the paper referred to above.  The authors go to a great deal of trouble to assure their readers that their theory of “moral progress” really is “naturalistic.”  In this enlightened age, they tell us, they will finally be able to steer clear of the flaws that plagued earlier attempts to develop secular moralities.  These were all based on false assumptions “based on folk psychology, flawed attempts to develop empirically based psychological theories, a priori speculation, and reflections on history hampered both by a lack of information and inadequate methodology.”  “For the first time,” they tell us, “we are beginning to develop genuinely scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through the development of empirical psychological theories that take evolutionary biology seriously.”  This begs the question, of course, of how we’ve managed to avoid acquiring “scientific knowledge about human nature” and “taking evolutionary biology seriously” for so long.  But I digress.  The important question is, how do the authors manage to establish a rational basis for their “naturalistic theory of moral progress” while avoiding the Scylla of “folk psychology” on the one hand and the Charybdis of “a priori speculation” on the other?  It turns out that the “basis” in question hardly demands any complex mental gymnastics.  It is simply assumed!

Here’s the money passage in the paper:

A general theory of moral progress could take a more a less ambitious form.  The more ambitious form would be to ground an account of which sorts of changes are morally progressive in a normative ethical theory that is compatible with a defensible metaethics… In what follows we take the more modest path:  we set aside metaethical challenges to the notion of moral progress, we make no attempt to ground the claim that certain moralities are in fact better than others, and we do not defend any particular account of what it is for one morality to be better than another.  Instead, we assume that the emergence of certain types of moral inclusivity are significant instances of moral progress and then use these as test cases for exploring the feasibility of a naturalized account of moral progress.

This is indeed a strange approach to being “naturalistic.”  After excoriating the legions of thinkers before them for their faulty mode of hunting the philosopher’s stone of “moral progress,” they simply assume it exists.  It exists in spite of the elementary chain of logic leading inexorably to the conclusion that it can’t possibly exist if their own claims about the origins of morality in human nature are true.  In what must count as a remarkable coincidence, it exists in the form of “inclusivity,” currently in high fashion as one of the shibboleths defining the ideological box within which most of today’s “experts on ethics” happen to dwell.  Those who trouble themselves to read the paper will find that, in what follows, it is hardly treated as a mere modest assumption, but as an established, objective fact.  “Moral progress” is alluded to over and over again as if, by virtue this original, “modest assumption,” the real thing somehow magically popped into existence in the guise of “inclusivity.”

Suppose we refrain from questioning the plot, and go along with the charade.  If inclusivity is really to count as moral progress, than it must not only be desirable in certain precincts of academia, but actually feasible.  However if, as the authors agree, humans are predisposed to perceive others of their species in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the feasibility of inclusivity is at least in question.  As the authors put it,

Attempts to draw connections between contemporary evolutionary theories of morality and the possibility of inclusivist moral progress begin with the standard evolutionary psychological assertion that the main contours of human moral capacities emerged through a process of natural selection on hunter-gatherer groups in the Pleistocene – in the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA)… The crucial claim, which leads some thinkers to draw a pessimistic inference about the possibility of inclusivist moral progress, is that selection pressures in the EEA favored exclusivist moralisties.  These are moralities that feature robust moral commitments among group members but either deny moral standing to outsiders altogether, relegate out-group members to a substantially inferior status, or assign moral standing to outsiders contingent on strategic (self-serving) considerations.

No matter, according to the authors, this flaw in our evolved moral repertoire can be easily fixed.  All we have to do is lift ourselves out of the EEA, achieve universal prosperity so great and pervasive that competition becomes unnecessary, and the predispositions in question will simply fade away, more or less like the state under Communism.  Invoking that wonderful term “plasticity,” which seems to pop up with every new attempt to finesse human behavioral traits out of existence, they write,

According to an account of exclusivist morality as a conditionally expressed (adaptively plastic) trait, the suite of attitudes and behaviors associated with exclusivist tendencies develop only when cues that were in the past highly correlated with out-group threat are detected.

In other words, it is the fond hope of the authors that, if only we can make the environment in which inconvenient behavioral predispositions evolved disappear, the traits themselves will disappear as well!  They go on to claim that this has actually happened, and that,

…exclusivist moral tendencies are attenuated in populations inhabiting environments in which cues of out-group threat are absent.

Clearly we have seen a vast expansion in the number of human beings that can be perceived as ingroup since the Pleistocene, and the inclusion as ingroup of racial and religious categories that once defined outgroups.  There is certainly plasticity in how ingroups and outgroups are actually defined and perceived, as one might expect of traits evolved during times of rapid environmental change in the nature of the “others” one happened to be in contact with or aware of at any given time.  However, this hardly “proves” that the fundamental tendency to distinguish between ingroups and outgroups itself will disappear or is likely to disappear in response to any environmental change whatever.  Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to refer to the paper itself.

Clearly the authors imagine themselves to be “inclusive,” but is that really the case?  Hardly!  It turns out they have a very robust perception of outgroup.  They’ve merely fallen victim to the fallacy that it “doesn’t count” because it’s defined in ideological rather than racial or religious terms.  Their outgroup may be broadly defined as “conservatives.”  These “conservatives” are mentioned over and over again in the paper, always in the guise of the bad guys who are supposed to reject inclusivism and resist “moral progress.”  To cite a few examples,

We show that although current evolutionary psychological understandings of human morality do not, contrary to the contentions of some authors, support conservative ethical and political conclusions, they do paint a picture of human morality that challenges traditional liberal accounts of moral progress.

…there is no good reason to believe conservative claims that the shift toward greater inclusiveness has reached its limit or is unsustainable.

These “evoconservatives,” as we have labeled them, infer from evolutionary explanations of morality that inclusivist moralities are not psychologically feasible for human beings.

At the same time, there is strong evidence that the development of exclusivist moral tendencies – or what evolutionary psychologists refer to as “in-group assortative sociality,” which is associated with ethnocentric, xenophobic, authoritarian, and conservative psychological orientations – is sensitive to environmental cues…

and so on, and so on.  In a word, although the good professors are fond of pointing with pride to their vastly expanded ingroup, they have rather more difficulty seeing their vastly expanded outgroup as well, more or less like the difficulty we have seeing the nose at the end of our face.  The fact that the conservative outgroup is perceived with as much fury, disgust, and hatred as ever a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan felt for blacks or Catholics can be confirmed by simply reading through the comment section of any popular website of the ideological Left.  Unless professors employed by philosophy departments live under circumstances more reminiscent of the Pleistocene than I had imagined this bodes ill for their theory of “moral progress” based on “inclusivity.”  More evidence that this is the case is easily available to anyone who cares to look for “diversity” in the philosophy department of the local university in the form of a professor who can be described as conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

I note in passing another passage in the paper that demonstrates the fanaticism with which the chimera of “moral progress” is pursued in some circles.  Again quoting the authors,

Some moral philosophers whom we have elsewhere called “evoliberals,” have tacitly affirmed the evo-conservative view in arguing that biomedical interventions that enhance human moral capacities are likely to be crucial for major moral progress due to evolved constraints on human moral nature.

In a word, the delusion of moral progress is not necessarily just a harmless toy for the entertainment of professors of philosophy, at least as far as those who might have some objection to “biomedical interventions” carried out be self-appointed “experts on ethics” are concerned.

What’s the point?  The point is that we are unlikely to make progress of any kind without first accepting the truth about our own nature, and the elementary logical implications of that truth.  Darwin saw them, Westermarck saw them, and they are far more obvious today than they were then.  We continue to ignore them at our peril.

Frans de Waal on Animal Smartness and the Rehabilitation of Konrad Lorenz

It’s heartening to learn that there is a serious basis for recent speculation to the effect that the science of animal cognition may gradually advance to a level long familiar to any child with a pet dog.  Frans de Waal breaks the news in his latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?  In answer to his own question, de Waal writes,

The short answer is “Yes, but you’d never have guessed.”  For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals.  Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve “folk” nonsense.  We, the scientists, knew better!  We never went in for any of this “my dog is jealous” stuff, or “my cat knows what she wants,” let alone anything more complicated, such as that animals might reflect on the past or feel one another’s pain… The two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.  While each school fought the other and deemed it too narrow, they shared a fundamentally mechanistic outlook:  there was no need to worry about the internal lives of animals, and anyone who did was anthropomorphic, romantic and unscientific.

Did we have to go through this bleak period?  In earlier days, the thinking was noticeably more liberal.  Charles Darwin wrote extensively about human and animal emotions, and many a scientist in the nineteenth century was eager to find higher intelligence in animals.  It remains a mystery why these efforts were temporarily suspended, and why we voluntarily hung a millstone around the neck of biology.

Here I must beg to differ with de Waal.  It is by no means a “mystery.”  This “mechanization” of animals in the sciences was more or less contemporaneous with the Blank Slate debacle, and was motivated by more or less the same ideological imperatives.  I invite readers interested in the subject to consult the first few chapters of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published as far back as 1961.  Noting a blurb in Scientific American by Marshall Sahlins, more familiar to later readers as a collaborator in the slander of Napoleon Chagnon, to the effect that,

There is a quantum difference, at points a complete opposition, between even the most rudimentary human society and the most advanced subhuman primate one.  The discontinuity implies that the emergence of human society required some suppression, rather than direct expression, of man’s primate nature.  Human social life is culturally, not biologically determined.

Ardrey, that greatest of all debunkers of the Blank Slate, continues,

Dr. Sahlins’ conclusion is startling to no one but himself.  It is a scientific restatement, 1960-style, of the philosophical conclusion of an eighteenth-century Neapolitan monk (Giambattista Vico, ed.):  Society is the work of man.  It is just another prop, fashioned in the shop of science’s orthodoxies from the lumber of Zuckerman’s myth, to support the fallacy of human uniqueness.

The Zuckerman Ardrey refers to is anthropologist Solly Zuckerman.  I invite anyone who doubts the fanaticism with which “science” once insisted on the notion of human uniqueness alluded to in de Waal’s book to read some of Zuckerman’s papers.  For example, in The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, he writes,

It is now generally recognized that anthropomorphic preoccupations do not help the critical development of knowledge, either in fields of physical or biological inquiry.

He exulted in the great “advances” science had made in correcting the “mistakes” of Darwin:

The Darwinian period, in which animal behavior as a distinct study was born, was one in which anthropomorphic interpretation flourished.  Anecdotes were regarded in the most generous light, and it was believed that many animals were highly rational creatures, possessed of exalted ethical codes of social behavior.

According to Zuckerman, “science” had now discovered that the very notion of animal “intelligence” was absurd.  As he put it,

Until 1890, the study of the social behavior of mammals developed hand in hand with the study of their “intelligence,” and both subjects were usually treated in the same books.

Such comments, which are ubiquitous in the literature of the Blank Slate era, make it hard to understand how de Waal can still be “mystified” about the motivation for the “scientific” denial of animal intelligence.  Be that as it may, he presents a wealth of data derived from recent experiments and field studies debunking all the lingering rationale for claims of human uniqueness one by one, whether it be the ability to experience emotion, a “theory of mind,” social problem solving ability, ability to contemplate the past and future, or even consciousness.  In the process he documents the methods “science” used to hermetically seal itself off from reality, such as the invention of pejorative terms like “anthropomorphism” to denounce and dismiss anyone who dared to challenge the human uniqueness orthodoxy, and the rejection of all evidence not supplied by members of the club as mere “anecdotes.”  In the process he notes,

Needing a new term to make my point, I invented anthropodenial, which is the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that “science” consists of fanatically rejecting similarities between human and animal behavior that are obvious to everyone but “scientists” as “anthropomorphism” and “anecdotes” and assuming a priori that they’re of no significance until it can be absolutely proven that everyone else was right all along.  This does not strike me as a “parsimonious” approach.

Not the least interesting feature of de Waal’s latest is his “rehabilitation” of several important debunkers of the Blank Slate who were unfortunate enough to publish before the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  According to the fairy tale that currently passes for the “history” of the Blank Slate, before 1975 “darkness was on the face of the deep.”  Only then did Wilson appear on the scene as the heroic slayer of the Blank Slate dragon.  A man named Robert Ardrey was never heard of, and anyone mentioned in his books as an opponent of the Blank Slate before the Wilson “singularity” is to be ignored.  The most prominent of them all, a man on whom the anathemas of the Blank Slaters often fell, literally in the same breath as Ardrey, was Konrad Lorenz.  Sure enough, in Steven Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the Blank Slate, Lorenz is dismissed, in the same paragraph with Ardrey, no less, as “totally and utterly wrong,” and a delusional believer in “archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure.”  De Waal’s response must be somewhat discomfiting to the promoters of Pinker’s official “history.”  He simply ignores it!

Astoundingly enough, de Waal speaks of Lorenz as one of the great founding fathers of the modern sciences of animal behavior and cognition.  In other words, he tells the truth, as if it had never been disputed in any bowdlerized “history.”  Already at the end of the prologue we find the matter-of-fact observation that,

…behavior is, as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it, the liveliest aspect of all that lives.

Reading on, we find that this mention of Lorenz wasn’t just an anomaly designed to wake up drowsy readers.  In the first chapter we find de Waal referring to the field of phylogeny,

…when we trace traits across the evolutionary tree to determine whether similarities are due to common descent, the way Lorenz had done so beautifully for waterfowl.

A few pages later he writes,

The maestro of observation, Konrad Lorenz, believed that one could not investigate animals effectively without an intuitive understanding grounded in love and respect.

and notes, referring to the behaviorists, that,

The power of conditioning is not in doubt, but the early investigators had totally overlooked a crucial piece of information.  They had not, as recommended by Lorenz, considered the whole organism.

And finally, in a passage that seems to scoff at Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” nonsense, he writes,

Given that the facial musculature of humans and chimpanzees is nearly identical, the laughing, grinning, and pouting of both species likely goes back to a common ancestor.  Recognition of the parallel between anatomy and behavior was a great leap forward, which is nowadays taken for granted.  We all now believe in behavioral evolution, which makes us Lorenzians.

Stunning, really for anyone who’s followed what’s been going on in the behavioral and animal sciences for any length of time.  And that’s not all.  Other Blank Slate debunkers who published long before Wilson, like Niko Tinbergen and Desmond Morris, are mentioned with a respect that belies the fact that they, too, were once denounced by the Blank Slaters as right wing fascists and racists in the same breath with Lorenz.  I have a hard time believing that someone as obviously well read as de Waal has never seen Pinker’s The Blank Slate.  I honestly don’t know what to make of the fact that he can so blatantly contradict Pinker, and yet never trouble himself to mention even the bare existence of such a remarkable disconnect.  Is he afraid of Pinker?  Does he simply want to avoid hurting the feelings of another member of the academic tribe?  I must leave it up to the reader to decide.

And what of Ardrey, who brilliantly described both “anthropodenial” and the reasons that it was by no means a “mystery” more than half a century before the appearance of de Waal’s latest book?  Will he be rehabilitated, too?  Don’t hold your breath.  Unlike Lorenz, Tinbergen and Morris, he didn’t belong to the academic tribe.  The fact that it took an outsider to smash the Blank Slate and give a few academics the courage to finally stick their noses out of the hole they’d dug for themselves will likely remain deep in the memory hole. It happens to be a fact  that is just too humiliating and embarrassing for them to ever admit.  It would seem the history of the affair can be adjusted, but it will probably never be corrected.

More Fun with “Ethics” Journal; Of Moral Realism and Evolutionary Debunking

Moral realism died with Darwin.  He was perfectly well aware that there is such a thing as human nature, and that morality is a manifestation thereof.  He also had an extremely pious wife and lived in Victorian England, so was understandably reticent about discussing the subject.  However, in one of his less guarded moments he wrote (in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex),

If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker bees, think it a sacred duty to kill there brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.

Assuming he believed his own theory, Darwin was merely stating the obvious.  Francis Hutcheson had demonstrated more than a century earlier that morality is a manifestation of innate moral sentiments.  He was echoed by David Hume, who pointed out that morality could not be derived from pure reason operating alone, and suggested that other than divine agencies might explain the existence of the sentiments in question.  Darwin supplied the final piece of the puzzle, discovering what that agency was.

Many writers discussed the evolutionary origins of morality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Few, however, were prepared to accept the conclusion that logically followed; the non-existence of objective Good and Evil, independent of any human opinion on the matter.  One of the few who did accept that conclusion, and outline its implications, was Edvard Westermarck, in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906), and Ethical Relativity (1932).  Westermarck was well aware that, although Good and Evil are not real, objective things, human moral emotions are easily strong enough to portray them as such to our imaginations.  They are so strong, in fact, that, more than a century after Westermarck took up the subject, the illusion is still alive and well, not only in the public at large, but even among the “experts on ethics.”

Or at least that is the impression one gets on glancing through the pages of the academic journal Ethics.  There one commonly finds papers by learned professors who doggedly promote the notion of “moral realism,” and the objective existence of Good and Evil, presumably either as “spirits” or in some higher dimension beyond the ken of our best scientific instruments.  True, their jobs and social gravitas depend on how well they can maintain the charade, but I get the distinct impression that some of them actually believe what they write.  Lately, however, they have begun to feel the heat, in the form of what is referred to in the business as “evolutionary debunking.”

The obvious implication of Darwin’s theory is that the innate predispositions responsible for human morality evolved, and the various and occasionally gaudy ways in which those predispositions manifest themselves in our behavior is pretty much what one would expect when those emotions are mediated and interpreted in the minds of creatures with large brains.  The existence of Good and Evil as independent things is about as likely as the existence of fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  How is it, then, that the “experts on ethics” haven’t closed up shop and moved on to less futile occupations?  To answer that question, we must again refer to the pages of Ethics.

Two articles that appeared in the most recent issue demonstrate the degree to which the shock waves from the collapse of the Blank Slate have penetrated into even the darkest and most remote nooks of academia.  The first, by Tomas Bogardus, is entitled “Only All Naturalists Should Worry About Only One Evolutionary Debunking Argument.”  It begins with the rhetorical question, “Do the facts of evolution undermine moral realism.”  You think you know the answer, don’t you, dear reader?  But wait!  Before you jump to conclusions, you should be aware that the bar is set fairly high for “evolutionary debunking” arguments.  You may agree with me that the existence of pink unicorns is improbable, but can you absolutely prove it?  That’s the kind of standard we’re talking about.  It’s not necessary for today’s crop of moral realists to explain the mode of existence of such imaginary categories as Good and Evil.  It’s not necessary for them to explain the mysteries of their creation.  It’s not necessary for them to explain how moral emotions turned up in human brains, or why the possibility of their evolutionary origins is irrelevant, or how they manage to jump from the skull of one human being onto the back of another with ease.  No, “evolutionary debunking” requires that you absolutely prove that there are no pink unicorns.

Let’s refer to Prof. Bogardus’ paper to see how this works in practice.  According to the author, one species of evolutionary debunking arguments runs as follows:

Our moral faculty was naturally selected to produce adaptive moral beliefs, and not naturally selected to produce true moral beliefs.

Therefore, it is false that:  had the moral truths been different, and had we formed our moral beliefs using the same method we actually used, or moral beliefs would have been different.

Therefore, our moral beliefs are not sensitive

Therefore, our moral beliefs do not count as knowledge

In other words, nothing as tiresome as demonstrating that moral realism is the least bit plausible is necessary to defeat evolutionary debunking arguments.  All that’s necessary is to show that any of the “therefores” in the above “argument” is at all shaky.  In that case, then the pink unicorn must still be out there roaming around.  Prof. Bogardus reviews other evolutionary debunking arguments, and ends his paper on the hopeful note that one of them, which he describes as the “Argument from Symmetry,” may actually be bulletproof, if only to the assaults of the “Naturalists.”  (It turns out there are other, less vulnerable tribes of moral realists, such as “Rationalists,” and “Divine Revelationists.)  I’m not as sanguine as the good professor.  I suspect that proving a negative will be difficult even with the “Argument from Symmetry.”

In another paper, entitled “Reductionist Moral Realism and the Contingency of Moral Evolution,” author Max Barkhausen reveals some of the astounding intellectual double back flips moral realists routinely perform in order to accept both the evolution of moral emotions and the existence of objective Good and Evil at the same time.  For example, one strategy, which he attributes to philosophers Frank Jackson and Philip Pettit and aptly refers to as “Panglossianism,” posits that, while human morality does indeed have evolutionary roots, by pure coincidence the end product just happened to agree with “true” morality.  Such luck!  Barkhausen assures us that his paper debunks such notions, and I am content to take him at his word.

Here again, however, there is no hint of a suggestion that those who posit the existence of Good and Evil as objective things existing independently of human minds lay their cards on the table and reveal what substance those things consist of, or defend the alternative belief that things can consist of nothing, or suggest what experiments might be performed to actually snag a “Good” or “Evil” as it floats about, whether in the material world or the realm of ghosts.  The only standard they are held to is the mere avoidance of absolute proof that their pink unicorns are a figment of their imagination.  It stands to reason.  After all, as far as the “experts on ethics” are concerned, the closest thing to “absolute Good” they will ever encounter is a tenured position with a substantial and regular paycheck.  They would have to sacrifice that particular “absolute Good” if they were ever required to stop waving their hands about objective morality and either explain to the rest of us the mode of existence of these “objects” they’ve been imagining all these years, or admit the sterility of their “expertise.”  Barkhausen admits as much, concluding with the sentence,

I believe that it will be a great challenge to construct a meta-ethical theory that accommodates both contingency and our intuitions about objectivity and mind-independence.  How to reconcile the two is, no doubt, and issue that merits further thought.

Yes, and no doubt the effort to do so will be a virtually inexhaustible topic for the papers in journals like Ethics that are the coin of the realm in academia.  On the other hand, admitting the obvious – that objectivity and mind-independence are illusions – would tend to bring the whole, futile exercise to a screeching halt.

I note in passing that the jargon in use to prop up the illusion is becoming increasingly arcane and abstruse.  If you’re masochistic enough to try to read these journals for yourself, be sure to bring along your secret decoder ring.  There’s no better way to defend your academic turf than to deny access to anyone who hasn’t mastered the lingo.

Westermarck had it right.  Back in 1906 he wrote,

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

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

No “moral progress” will be possible until we recognize that salient fact.  It’s hard to construe what one finds in the pages of journals like Ethics as “progress” by any rational definition of the term in any case.  In the papers referred to above, for example, cultural evolution is referred to as something entirely independent of biological evolution, instead of the manifestation of biological evolution that it actually is.  There are constant references to the “function” of morality, as if morality had a “purpose.”  One cannot speak of a purpose or a function of something that exists because it happened to increase the odds that particular genes would survive and reproduce.  “Function” implies a creator with conscious intent, and nothing of the sort is involved in the process of evolution by natural selection.  Such terms may be useful as a form of shorthand for describing what actually happened, but only if one is careful to avoid misunderstanding of the sense in which they are being used.  When used carelessly in discussions of moral realism, they serve mainly to distract and obfuscate.

What is really necessary for “moral progress?”  For starters, we need to understand why morality exists, and the subjective nature of its existence.  We need to understand that it evolved, at least for the most part, in times vastly different from the present.  We need to stop pretending that morality’s only “function” is to promote intergroup and intragroup cooperation.   Altruism has a real subjective existence in our brains, but so do outgroup identification, hatred, rage and “aggression.”  These “immoral” tendencies are seldom mentioned in the pages of Ethics, but we ignore them at our peril.  As long as we continue to ignore them, it is premature to speak of “progress.”

More Fun with Moral Realism

What is moral realism?  Edvard Westermarck provided a good definition in the first paragraph of his Ethical Relativity:

Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity.  The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.  The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

Westermarck dismissed moral realism as a chimera.  So do I.  Indeed, in view of what we now know about the evolutionary origins of moral emotions, the idea strikes me as ludicrous.  It is, however, treated as matter-of-factly as if it were an unquestionable truth, and not only in the general public.  Philosophers merrily discuss all kinds of moral conundrums and paradoxes in academic journals, apparently in the belief that they have finally uncovered the “truth” about such matters, to all appearances with no more fear of being ridiculed than the creators of the latest Paris fashions.  The fact is all the more disconcerting if one takes the trouble to excavate the reasons supplied for this stubborn belief that subjective emotional constructs in the minds of individuals actually relate to independent things.  Typically, they are threadbare almost beyond belief.

Recently I discussed the case of G. E. Moore, who, after dismissing the arguments of virtually everyone who had attempted a “proof” of moral realism before him as fatally flawed by the naturalistic fallacy, supplied a “proof” of his own.  It turned out that the “objective good” consisted of those things that were most likely to please an English country gentleman.  The summum bonum was described as something like sitting in a cozy house with a nice glass of wine while listening to Beethoven.  The only “proof” supplied for the independent existence of this “objective good” was Moore’s assurance that he was an expert in such matters, and that it was obvious to him that he was right.

I recently uncovered another such “proof,” this time concocted in the fertile imagination of the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö. It turned up in an interview on the website of 3:AM Magazine under the title, The Hedonistic Utilitarian.  In response to interviewer Richard Marshall’s question,

Why are you a moral realist and what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

Tännsjö replies,

I am indeed a moral realist.  In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one.  There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualization.  My main argument in defense of the position is this.  It is true (independently of our conceptualization) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth).  But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualization, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true.  We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise.

In reading this, I was reminded of PFC Littlejohn, who happened to serve in my unit when I was a young lieutenant in the Army.  Whenever I happened to pull his leg more egregiously than even he could bear, he would typically respond, “You must be trying to bullshit me, sir!”  Apparently Tännsjö doesn’t consider Darwin’s theory, or Darwin’s own opinion regarding the origin of the moral emotions, or the flood of books and papers on the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, or the convincing arguments for the selective advantage of just such an emotional response as he describes, or the utter lack of evidence for the physical existence of “moral truths” independent of our “thought and conceptualization,” as sufficiently strong reasons “to think otherwise.”  Tännsjö continues,

Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see.  It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualization) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest.  It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons.  If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is righty to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well.

Yes, in the same sense that deontic logic is necessary to determine whether it is true or false that there are fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  No deontic logic is necessary here – just the realization that Tännsjö is trying to make truth claims about something that is not subject to truth claims.  The claim that it is objectively “not wrong” to do what he describes is as much a truth claim, and therefore just as irrational, as the claim that it is wrong.  As for his equally irrational worries about “moral nihilism,” his argument is similar to those of the religious true believers who think that, because they find a world without a God unpalatable, one must therefore perforce pop into existence.  Westermarck accurately described the nature of Tännsjö’s “proof” in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, where he wrote,

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

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

Today, Westermarck is nearly forgotten, while G. E. Moore is a household name among moral philosophers.  The Gods and angels of traditional religions seem to be in eclipse in Europe and North America, but “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen” are still with us, transmogrified into the ghosts and goblins of moral realism.  We find atheist social justice warriors hurling down their anathemas and interdicts more furiously than anything ever dreamed of by the Puritans and Pharisees of old, supremely confident in their “objective” moral purity.

And what of moral nihilism?  Dream on!  Anyone who seriously believes that anything like moral nihilism can result from the scribblings of philosophers has either been living under a rock, or is constitutionally incapable of observing the behavior of his own species.  Human beings will always behave morally.  The question is, what kind of a morality can we craft for ourselves that is both in harmony with our moral emotions, that does the least harm, and that most of us can live with.  I personally would prefer one that is based on an accurate understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.

Do I think that anything of the sort is on the horizon in the foreseeable future?  No.  When it comes to belief in religion and/or moral realism, one must simply get used to living in Bedlam.

Of Ants and Men: More PBS Adventures in Rearranging Blank Slate History

The history of the rise and fall of the Blank Slate is fascinating, and not only as an example of the pathological derailment of whole branches of science in favor of ideological dogmas.  The continuing foibles of the “men of science” as they attempt to “readjust” that history are nearly as interesting in their own right.  Their efforts at post-debacle damage control are a superb example of an aspect of human nature at work – tribalism.  There is much at stake for the scientific “tribe,” not least of which is the myth of the self-correcting nature of science itself.  What might be called the latest episode in the sometimes shameless, sometimes hilarious bowdlerization of history just appeared in the form of another PBS special; E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  You can watch it online by clicking on the link.

Before examining the latest twists in this continuously evolving plot, it would be useful to recap what has happened to date.  There is copious source material documenting not only the rise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy to hegemony in the behavioral sciences, but also the events that led to its collapse, not to mention the scientific apologetics that followed its demise.  In its modern form, the Blank Slate manifested itself as a sweeping denial that innate behavioral traits, or “human nature,” had anything to do with human behavior beyond such basic functions as breathing and the elimination of waste.  It was insisted that virtually everything about our behavior was learned, and a reflection of “culture.”  By the early 1950’s its control of the behavioral sciences was such that any scientist who dared to publish anything in direct opposition to it was literally risking his career.  Many scientists have written of the prevailing atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and through the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s there was little in the way of “self-correction” emanating from within the scientific professions themselves.

The “correction,” when it came, was supplied by an outsider – a playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey who had taken an interest in anthropology.  Beginning with African Genesis in 1961, he published a series of four highly popular books that documented the copious evidence for the existence of human nature, and alerted a wondering public to the absurd extent to which its denial had been pursued in the sciences.  It wasn’t a hard sell, as that absurdity was obvious enough to any reasonably intelligent child.  Following Ardrey’s lead, a few scientists began to break ranks, particularly in Europe where the Blank Slate had never achieved a level of control comparable to that prevailing in the United States.  They included the likes of Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression, first published in German in 1963), Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969), and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, 1971, with Lionel Tiger).  The Blank Slate reaction to these works, not to mention the copious coverage of Ardrey and the rest that began appearing in the popular media, was furious.  Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater rants directed mainly at Ardrey and Lorenz, with novelist William Golding thrown in for good measure, is an outstanding piece of historical source material documenting that reaction.  Edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, it typifies the usual Blank Slate MO – attacks on straw men combined with accusations of racism and fascism.  That, of course, remains the MO of the “progressive” Left to this day.

The Blank Slaters could intimidate the scientific community, but not so the public at large.  Thanks to Ardrey and the rest, by the mid-70s the behavioral sciences were in danger of becoming a laughing stock.  Finally, in 1975, E. O. Wilson broke ranks and published Sociobiology, a book that was later to gain a notoriety in the manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate out of all proportion to its real significance.  Of the 27 chapters, 25 dealt with animal behavior.  Only the first and last chapters focused on human behavior.  Nothing in those two chapters, nor in Wilson’s On Human Nature, published in 1978, could reasonably be described as other than an afterthought to the works of Ardrey and others that had appeared much earlier as far as human nature is concerned.  Its real novelty wasn’t its content, but the fact that it was the first popular science book asserting the existence and importance of human nature by a scientist in the United States that reached a significant audience.  This fact was well known to Wilson, not to mention his many Blank Slate detractors.  In their diatribe Against Sociobiology, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1975 they wrote, “From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

As we know in retrospect, the Blank Slaters were facing a long, losing battle against recognition of the obvious.  By the end of the 1990s, even the editors at PBS began scurrying off the sinking ship.  Finally, in the scientific shambles left in the aftermath of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, Steven Pinker published his The Blank Slate.  It was the first major attempt at historical revisionism by a scientist, and it contained most of the fairytales about the affair that are now widely accepted as fact.  I had begun reading the works of Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest in the early 70s, and had followed the subsequent unraveling of the Blank Slate with interest.  When I began reading The Blank Slate, I assumed I would find a vindication of the seminal role they had played in the 1960s in bringing about its demise.  I was stunned to find that, instead, as far as Pinker was concerned, the 60s never happened!  Ardrey was mentioned only a single time, and then only with the assertion that “the sociobiologists themselves” had declared him and Lorenz “totally and utterly” wrong!  The “sociobiologist” given as the source for this amazing assertion was none other than Richard Dawkins!  Other than the fact that Dawkins was never a “sociobiologist,” and especially not in 1972 when he published The Selfish Gene, the book from which the “totally and utterly wrong” quote was lifted, he actually praised Ardrey in other parts of the book.  He never claimed that Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong” because they defended the importance of innate human nature, in Ardrey’s case the overriding theme of all his work.  Rather, Dawkins limited that claim to their support of group selection, a fact that Pinker never gets around to mentioning in The Blank Slate.  Dropping Ardrey, Lorenz and the rest down the memory hole, Pinker went on to assert that none other than Wilson had been the real knight in shining armor who had brought down the Blank Slate.  As readers who have followed this blog for a while are aware, the kicker came in 2012, in the form of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth.  In the crowning (and amusing) irony of this whole shabby affair, Wilson outed himself as more “totally and utterly wrong” than Ardrey and Lorenz by a long shot.  He wholeheartedly embraced – group selection!

Which finally brings me to the latest episode in the readjustment of Blank Slate history.  It turned up recently in the form of a PBS special entitled, E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.  It’s a testament to the fact that Pinker’s deification of Wilson has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  The only problem is that now it appears he is in danger of being tossed on the garbage heap of history himself.  You see, the editors at the impeccably politically correct PBS picked up on the fact that, at least according to Wilson, group selection is responsible for the innate wellsprings of selflessness, love of others, at least in the ingroup, altruism, and all the other endearing characteristics that make the hearts of the stalwart leftists who call the tune at PBS go pitter-pat.  Pinker, on the other hand, for reasons that should be obvious by now, must continue to reject group selection, lest his freely concocted “history” become a laughing stock.  To see how all this plays out circa 2015, let’s take a closer look at the video itself.

Before I begin, I wish to assure the reader that I have the highest respect for Wilson himself.  He is a great scientist, and his publication of Sociobiology was an act of courage regardless of its subsequent exploitation by historical revisionists.  As we shall see, he has condoned the portrayal of himself as the “knight in shining armor” invented by Pinker, but that is a forgivable lapse by an aging scientist who is no doubt flattered by the “legacy” manufactured for him.

With that, on to the video.  It doesn’t take long for us to run into the first artifact of the Wilson legend.  At the 3:45 minute mark, none other than Pinker himself appears, informing us that Wilson, “changed the intellectual landscape by challenging the taboo against discussing human nature.”  He did no such thing.  Ardrey had very effectively “challenged the taboo” in 1961 with his publication of African Genesis, and many others had challenged it in the subsequent years before publication of Sociobiology.  Pinker’s statement isn’t even accurate in terms of U.S. scientists, as several of them in peripheral fields such as political science, had insisted on the existence and importance of human nature long before 1975, and others, like Tiger and Fox, although foreign born, had worked at U.S. universities.  At the 4:10 mark Gregory Carr chimes in with the remarkable assertion that,

 If someone develops a theory about human nature or biodiversity, and in common living rooms across the world, it seems like common sense, but in fact, a generation ago, we didn’t understand it, it tells you that that person, in this case Ed Wilson, has changed the way all of us view the world.

One can but shake one’s head at such egregious nonsense.  In the first place, Wilson didn’t “develop a theory about human nature.”  He simply repeated hypotheses that Darwin himself and many others since him had developed.  There is nothing of any significance about human nature in any of his books that cannot also be found in the works of Ardrey.  People “in common living rooms” a generation ago understood and accepted the concept of human nature perfectly well.  The only ones who were still delusional about it at the time were the so-called “experts” in the behavioral sciences.  Many of them were also just as aware as Wilson of the absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, but were too intimidated to challenge them.

My readers should be familiar by now with such attempts to inflate Wilson’s historical role, and the reasons for them.  The tribe of behavioral scientists has never been able to bear the thought that their “science” was not “self-correcting,” and they would probably still be peddling the Blank Slate dogmas to this day if it weren’t for the “mere playwright,” Ardrey.  All their attempts at historical obfuscation won’t alter that fact, and source material is there in abundance to prove it to anyone who has the patience to search it out and look at it.  We first get an inkling of the real novelty in this particular PBS offering at around minute 53:15, when Wilson, referring to eusociality in ant colonies, remarks,

This capacity of an insect colony to act like a single super-organism became very important to me when I began to reconsider evolutionary theory later in my career.  It made me wonder if natural selection could operate not only on individuals and their genes, but on the colony as a whole.  That idea would create quite a stir when I published it, but that was much later.

Which brings us to the most amusing plot twist in this whole, sorry farce; PBS’ wholehearted embrace of group selection.  Recall that Pinker’s whole rationalization for ignoring Ardrey was based on some good things Ardrey had to say about group selection in his third book, The Social Contract.  The subject hardly ever came up in his interviews, and was certainly not the central theme of all his books, which, as noted above, was the existence and significance of human nature.  Having used group selection to declare Ardrey an unperson, Pinker then elevated Wilson to the role of the “revolutionary” who was the “real destroyer” of the Blank Slate in his place.  Wilson, in turn, in what must have seemed to Pinker a supreme act of ingratitude, embraced group selection more decisively than Ardrey ever thought of doing, making it a central and indispensable pillar of his theory regarding the evolution of eusociality.  Here’s how the theme plays out in the video.

Wilson at 1:09:50

Humans don’t have to be taught to cooperate.  We do it instinctively.  Evolution has hardwired us for cooperation.  That’s the key to eusociality.

Wilson at 1:13:40

Thinking on this remarkable fact (the evolution of eusociality) has made me reconsider in recent years the theory of natural selection and how it works in complex social animals.

Pinker at 1:18:50

Starting in the 1960s, a number of biologists realized that if you think rigorously about what natural selection does, it operates on replicators. Natural selection, Darwin’s theory, is the theory of what happens when you have an entity that can make a copy of itself, and so it’s very clear that the obvious target of selection in Darwin’s theory is the gene. That became close to a consensus among evolutionary biologists, but I think it’s fair to say that Ed Wilson was always ambivalent about that turn in evolutionary theory.

1:19:35 Wilson:

I never doubted that natural selection works on individual genes or that kin selection is a reality, but I could never accept that that is the whole story. Our group instincts, and those of other eusocial species, go far beyond the urge to protect our immediate kin. After a lifetime studying ant societies, it seemed to me that the group must also have an important role in evolution, whether or not its members are related to each other.

1:20:15 Jonathan Haidt:

So there’ve been a few revolutions in evolutionary thinking. One of them happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it was really captured in Dawkins famous book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ where if you just take the gene’s eye view, you have the simplest elements, and then you sort of build up from there, and that works great for most animals, but Ed was studying ants, and of course you can make the gene’s eye view work for ants, but when you’re studying ants, you don’t see the ant as the individual, you don’t see the ant as the organism, you see the colony or the hive as the entity that really matters.

At 1:20:55 Wilson finally spells it out:

Once you see a social insect colony as a superorganism, the idea that selection must work on the group as well as on the individual follows very naturally. This realization transformed my perspective on humanity, too. So I proposed an idea that goes all the way back to Darwin. It’s called group selection.

1:22:20 Haidt:

Ed was able to see group selection in action. It’s just so clear in the ants, the bees, the wasps, the termites and the humans.” Wilson: “The fact of group selection gives rise to what I call multilevel evolution, in which natural selection is operating both at the level of the individual and the level of the group… And that got Ed into one of the biggest debates of his career, over multilevel selection, or group selection.

1:23:20 Pinker:

Ed Wilson did not give up the idea that selection acted on groups, while most of his fellow biologists did. Then several decades later, revived that notion in a full-throated manifesto, which I think it would be an understatement to say that he did not convince his fellow biologists.

At this point, a picture of Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, appears on the screen, shortly followed by stills of a scowling Richard Dawkins.  Then we see an image of the cover of his The Selfish Gene.  The film describes Dawkins furious attack on Wilson for daring to promote group selection.

1:24:10 Wilson:

The brouhaha over group selection has brought me into conflict with defenders of the old faith, like Richard Dawkins and many others who believe that ultimately the only thing that counts in the evolution of complex behavior, is the gene, the selfish gene. They believe the gene’s eye view of social evolution can explain all of our groupish behavior. I do not.

And finally, at 1:25, after Wilson notes Pinker is one of his opponents, Pinker reappears to deny the existence of group selection:

Most people would say that, if there’s a burning building, and your child is in one room and another child is in another room, then you are entitled to rescue your child first, right?  There is  a special bond between, say, parents and children.  This is exactly what an evolutionary biologist would predict because any gene that would make you favor your child will have a copy of itself sitting in the body of that child.  By rescuing your child the gene for rescuing children, so to speak, will be helping a copy of itself, and so those genes would proliferate in the population.  Not just the extreme case of saving your child from a burning building but for being generous and loyal to your siblings, your very close cousins.  The basis of tribalism, kinship, family feelings, have a perfectly sensible sensible evolutionary basis.  (i.e., kin selection)

At this point one can imagine Pinker gazing sadly at the tattered remains of his whole, manufactured “history” of the Blank Slate lying about like a collapsed house of cards, faced with the bitter realization that he had created a monster.  Wilson’s group selection schtick was just too good for PBS to pass up.  I seriously doubt whether any of their editors really understand the subject well enough to come up with a reasoned opinion about it one way or the other.  However, how can you turn your nose up at group selection if, as Wilson claims, it is responsible for altruism and all the other “good” aspects of our nature, whereas the types of selection favored by Pinker, not to mention Dawkins, are responsible for selfishness and all the other “bad” parts of our nature?

And what of Ardrey, whose good words about group selection no longer seem quite as “totally and utterly wrong” as Pinker suggested when he swept him under the historical rug?  Have the editors at PBS ever even heard of him?  We know very well that they have, and that they are also perfectly well aware of his historical significance, because they went to the trouble of devoting a significant amount of time to him in another recent special covering the discovery of Homo naledi.  It took the form of a bitter denunciation of Ardrey for supporting the “Killer Ape Theory,” a term invented by the Blank Slaters of yore to ridicule the notion that pre-human apes hunted and killed during the evolutionary transition from ape to man.  This revealing lapse demonstrated the continuing strength of the obsession with the “unperson” Ardrey, the man who was “totally and utterly wrong.”  That obsession continues, not only among ancient, unrepentant Blank Slaters, but among behavioral scientists in general who happen to be old enough to know the truth about what happened in the 15 years before Wilson published Sociobiology, in spite of Pinker’s earnest attempt to turn that era into an historical “Blank Slate.”

Dragging in Ardrey was revealing because, in the first place, it was irrelevant in the context of a special about Homo naledi.  As far as I know, no one has published any theories about the hunting behavior of that species one way or the other.  It was revealing in the second place because of the absurdity of bringing up the “Killer Ape Theory” at all.  That straw man was invented back in the 60s, when it was universally believed, even by Ardrey himself, that chimpanzees were, as Ashley Montagu put it, “non-aggressive vegetarians.”  That notion, however, was demolished by Jane Goodall, who observed chimpanzees both hunting and killing, not to mention their capacity for extremely aggressive behavior.  Today, few people like to mention the vicious, ad hominem attacks she was subjected to at the time for publishing those discoveries, although those attacks, too, are amply documented for anyone who cares to look for them.  In the ensuing years, even the impeccably PC Scientific American has admitted the reality of hunting behavior in early man.  In other words, the “Killer Ape Theory” debate has long been over, and Ardrey, who spelled out his ideas on the subject in his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, won it hands down.

Why does all this matter?  It seems to me the integrity of historical truth is worth defending in its own right.  Beyond that, there is much to learn from the Blank Slate affair and its aftermath regarding the integrity of science itself.  It is not invariably self-correcting.  It can become derailed, and occasionally outsiders must play an indispensable role in putting it back on the tracks.  Ideology can trump reason and common sense, and it did in the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century.  Science is not infallible.  In spite of that, it is still the best way of ferreting out the truth our species has managed to come up with so far.  We can’t just turn our back on it, because, at least in my opinion, all of the alternatives are even worse.  As we do science, however, it would behoove us to maintain a skeptical attitude and watch for signs of ideology leaking through the cracks.

I note in passing that excellent readings of all of Ardrey’s books are now available at Audible.com.