Objective Morality: The “Ethical Intuitionism” Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Imagined Existence of Things Unseen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality

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

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

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

Good News! Academics Prove Trump is Reducing Prejudice

As I noted in my last post, we have an innate tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroup and outgroup(s), and to apply different versions of morality to each. We associate the ingroup with good, and the outgroup with evil. There was no ambiguity about the identity of the outgroup when this behavior evolved. It was commonly just the closest group to ours. As a result, any subtle but noticeable difference between “us” and “them” was adequate for distinguishing ingroup from outgroup. Today, however, we are aware not only of the next group over, but of a vast number of other human beings with whom we share our planet. Our ingroup/outgroup behavior persists in spite of that. We still see others as either “us” or “them,” often with disastrous results. You might say the trait in question has become dysfunctional. It is unlikely to enhance our chances of survival the way it did in the radically different environment in which it evolved. In modern societies it spawns a myriad forms of prejudice, any one of which can potentially pose an existential threat to large numbers of people. It causes us to stumble from one disaster to another. We respond by trying to apply bandages, in the form of “evil” labels, for the types of prejudice that appear to cause the problem, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc. It is a hopeless game. New forms of prejudice will always pop up to replace the old ones. The only practical way to limit the damage is to understand the underlying innate behavior responsible for all of them. We are far from achieving this level of self-understanding.

Consider, for example, Continue reading “Good News! Academics Prove Trump is Reducing Prejudice”

Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex

Sir Arthur Keith was the first to formulate a coherent theoretical explanation for the dual nature of human morality; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different versions of morality pertaining to each. As he put it,

A tribesman’s sympathies lie within the compass of his own tribe; beyond his tribe, begin his antipathies; he discriminates in favor of his own tribe and against all others. This means also that the tribesman has two rules of behavior, one towards those of his group and another to the members of other groups. He has a dual code of morality: a code of “amity” for his fellows; a code of indifference, verging into “enmity,” towards members of other groups or tribe.

According to Keith, this aspect of our behavior played a critical role in our evolution:

I shall seek to prove… that obedience to the dual code is an essential factor in group evolution. Without it there could have been no human evolution.

We are all still tribesmen today. We just have a vastly expanded set of criteria for deciding who belongs to our “tribe,” and who doesn’t. Of course, given the radically different environment we live in today, it can hardly be assumed that the behavior in question will enhance the odds of our survival as it did in the distant past. Indeed, various versions of the behavior have been deemed harmful, and therefore “evil,” including racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. All are manifestations of the same basic behavior. Human beings are typically found justifying their own irrational hatred by claiming that the “other” is guilty of one of these “officially recognized” forms of irrational hatred. Unaware of the underlying behavior, they are incapable of recognizing that they are just as “tribal” as those they attack. Continue reading “Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex”

Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

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

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

Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

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

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

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

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

Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

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

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

E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter

There are but 125 very sparsely filled pages in Genesis, E. O. Wilson’s latest. The book is really little more than a pamphlet. The few reviews one finds online are dismissive in their brevity. Perhaps it’s best described as a farewell letter from the grand old man. If so, the loss will be great. I know of no one who can fill his shoes. Wilson is an independent, courageous thinker who is refreshingly free of the now ubiquitous habit of larding his books with virtue signaling to his academic tribe. He can also occasionally be quite blunt. For example, in Genesis,

The following can be posed with near certainty. Every part of the human body and mind has a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. And all of it, so far as we can tell by continuing scientific examination, originated through evolution by natural selection.

No mealy-mouthed nonsense there about “spandrels,” or “exaptations.” Wilson has always been forthright about insisting on the obvious. Continue reading “E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter”