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”

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”

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”

Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective?

John Staddon, a professor of psychology at Duke, recently published an article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion?  The question of whether secular humanism is a religion is, of course, a matter of how one defines religion. According to Staddon, religions are defined by three elements they possess in common, including,

  1. Belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds, and processes – like God, heaven miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.
  2. Potentially verifiable claims about the real world, such as Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, etc.
  3. Rules for action – prohibitions and requirements – a morality

Many of the commenters on the article leapt to the conclusion that he was answering the question in the affirmative – that secular humanism actually is a religion. In fact, that’s not the case. Staddon actually claims that secular humanism fits only one of the three elements, namely, the third. As he puts it, “In terms of moral rules, secular humanism is indistinguishable from a religion.” However, in his opinion, that’s a very important similarity, because the first two elements have “no bearing on action,” including the very significant matter of action on “legal matters.” That is actually the whole point of the article. Staddon doesn’t attempt to answer the question of whether secular humanism is a religion one way or the other. He limits himself to the claim that, as far as the only element of the three that has a significant bearing on action, including legal action, is concerned, secular humanists are no different from religious believers. He’s right. Continue reading “Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective?”

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

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

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

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

Has It Ever Occurred To You That None Of Us Are Acting Rationally?

Do you imagine that you are acting for the good of all mankind? You are delusional. What is your actual goal when you imagine you are acting for the good of all mankind? Maximization of human happiness? Maximization of the rate at which our species as a whole reproduces? Complete elimination of our species? All of these mutually exclusive goals are deemed by some to be for the “good of all mankind.” How is that possible if there really is such a thing as “the good of all mankind?” The answer is that there is no such thing, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as good, unless one is speaking of a subjective impression.

Look, just stop arguing with me in your mind for a moment and try a thought experiment. Imagine that what I’ve said above about good – that it is merely a subjective impression – is true. In that case, how can we account for the existence of this subjective impression, this overpowering belief that some things are good and other things are evil? It must exist for the same reason that all of our other behavioral predispositions and traits exist – by virtue of natural selection, the same process that accounts for our very existence to begin with. In that case, these subjective impressions, these overpowering beliefs, must exist because, in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. How, then, is it possible for us to imagine that our goal is “the good of all mankind.” Natural selection does not operate at the level of “all mankind.” It operates at the level of the individual and, perhaps, at the level of small groups. If our goal is to act for “the good of the species,” we can only conclude that the behavioral predispositions responsible for this desire have become “dysfunctional,” in the sense that they are no longer likely to promote the survival of the responsible genes. The most plausible reason they have become “dysfunctional” is the fact that they exist in the context of a radically changed environment.

This has some obvious implications as far as the rationality of our behavior is concerned. Try following the reasons you imagine you’re doing what you do down through the accumulated “rational” muck to the emotional bedrock where they originate. You can string as many reasons together as you want, one following the other, and all perfectly rational, but eventually the chain of reasons must lead back to the origin of them all. That origin cannot be the “good in itself,” because such an object does not exist. It is imaginary. In fact, the bedrock we are seeking consists of behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved. As the result of a natural process, they cannot possibly be “rational,” in the sense of having some deeper purpose or meaning more fundamental than themselves. It is evident that these behavioral traits exist because, at least at some point in time and in some environment, they enhanced the odds that the individuals possessing these traits would survive and reproduce. That, however, is not their purpose, or their function, because there was no one around to assign them a purpose or function. They have no purpose or function. They simply are.

That’s what I mean when I say that none of us acts rationally. The sun does not act rationally when it melts solid objects that happen to fall into it. It does not have the purpose or goal of melting them. It simply does. The ocean does not act rationally when it drowns air breathing creatures that are unfortunate enough to sink beneath its surface. Millions of creatures have drowned in the ocean, but the ocean didn’t do it on purpose, nor did it have a goal in doing so. In the same sense, our behavioral traits do not have a goal or purpose when they motivate us to act in one way or another. Just as it is a fact of nature that the sun melts solid objects, and the ocean drowns land creatures, it is a fact of nature that we are motivated to do some things, and avoid others. That is what I mean when I say that our behavior is irrational. I don’t mean that it can’t be explained. I do mean that it has no underlying purpose or goal for doing what it does. Goals and purposes are things we assign to ourselves. They cannot be distilled out of the natural world as independent objects or things in themselves.

Consider what this implies when it comes to all the utopian schemes that have ever been concocted for our “benefit” over the millennia. A goal that many of these schemes have had in common is “moral progress.” It is one of the more prominent absurdities of our day that even those among us who are most confident that Darwin was right, and who have admitted that there is a connection between morality and our innate behavioral predispositions, and who also realize and have often stated publicly that morality is subjective, nevertheless embrace this goal of “moral progress.” This begs the question, “Progress towards what?” Assuming one realizes and has accepted the fact that morality is subjective, it can’t be progress towards any objective Good, existing independently of what anyone thinks about it. It must, then, be progress towards something going on in conscious minds. However, as noted above, conscious minds are a fact of nature, existing by virtue of natural processes that have no function and have no goal. They simply are. Furthermore, our conscious minds are not somehow connected all across the planet in some mystical collective. They all exist independently of each other. They include predispositions that motivate the individuals to whom they belong to have desires and goals. However, those desires and goals cannot possibly exist by virtue of the fact that they benefit all mankind. They exist by virtue of the fact that they enhanced the odds that the responsible genetic material would survive and reproduce. They were selected at the level of the individual, and perhaps of small groups. They were definitely not selected by virtue of any beneficial effect on all mankind.

In other words, when one speaks of “moral progress,” what one is in reality speaking of is progress towards satisfying the whims of some individual. The reason for the existence of these whims has nothing to do with the welfare of all mankind. To the extent that the individual imagines they have some such connection, the whims have become “dysfunctional,” in the sense that they have been redirected towards a goal that is disconnected from the reasons they exist to begin with. Belief in “moral progress,” then, amounts to a blind emotional response to innate whims on the part of individuals who have managed to profoundly delude themselves about exactly what it is they’re up to. The problem, of course, is that they’re not the only ones affected by their delusion. Morality is always aimed at others. They insist that everyone else on the planet must respect their delusion, and allow it to dictate how those others should or should not behave.

This fundamental irrationality applies not just to morality, but to every other aspect of human behavior. Whether it’s a matter of wanting to be “good,” or of “serving mankind,” or accumulating wealth, or having sex, or striving for “success” and recognition, we are never motivated by reason. We are motivated by whims, although we certainly can and do reason about what the whims are trying to tell us. This process of reasoning about whims can result in a bewildering variety of conclusions, most of which have nothing to do with the reasons the whims exist to begin with. You might say that our brains have evolved too quickly. Our innate behavioral baggage has not kept up, and remains appropriate only to environments and forms of society that most of us left behind thousands of years ago. We continue to blindly respond to our emotions without understanding why they exist, pursuing goals that have nothing to do with the reasons they exist. In effect, we are living in an insane asylum.

I am not suggesting that we all stop having goals and aspirations. Life would be extremely boring without them, and they can be just as noble as we please, at least from our own point of view. From my point of view, the fact that creatures like us can exist at all seems wildly improbable, wonderful, and sublime. For all we know, the life we are a part of may exist on only one of the trillions of planets in our universe. I personally deem it precious, and one of my personal goals is that it be preserved. Others may have different goals. I merely suggest that, regardless of what they are, we keep in mind what motivates us to seek them in the first place. I personally would prefer that we avoid botching the wildly improbable, wonderful, and sublime experiment of nature that is us by failing to understand ourselves.

Of Intellectuals, Ideology, and Ingroups

I’ve written much about the ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature. It would be difficult to exaggerate its importance. If you’re not aware of it, you will never understand the species Homo sapiens.  The myriad forms of bigotry that have plagued mankind over the years, our countless wars, such furious animosities as those between the blues and greens of the circus, or those who believed that Christ had only one nature and those who insisted he had two, and such stunning scientific debacles as the Blank Slate – all were profoundly influenced if not directly caused by this aspect of human behavior. I’ve just read a brilliant description of how it works in practice in a book by Norman Podhoretz entitled Breaking Ranks. Podhoretz began as a leftist radical, and ended up as a conservative. He probably never realized exactly what it was he was describing. For all that, he succeeded in describing it beyond all praise.

Podhoretz edited Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. His milieu was that of New York intellectuals. Their ingroup was defined, not by race, religion, or ethnicity, but by ideology. He describes what was going on among them during the emergence of what became known as the “New Left” in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. To read his book is to understand what George Orwell meant when he wrote, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” What Podhoretz describes is stunningly similar to what we see going on all around us today, imagining it is somehow historically unique. Consider, for example, the following passage, in which he describes what happened to those who committed thoughtcrime against the ideological shibboleths that defined his ingroup.

No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though undoubtedly some who lost out on job opportunities or on assignments or on advances from book publishers they might otherwise have had). The sanctions of this particular reign of “terror” were much milder: One’s reputation was besmirched, with unrestrained viciousness in conversation and, when the occasion arose, by means of innuendo in print. People were written off with the stroke of an epithet – “fink” or “racist” or “fascist” as the case might be – and anyone so written off would have difficulty getting a fair hearing for anything he might have to say. Conversely, anyone who went against the Movement party line soon discovered that the likely penalty was dismissal from the field of discussion.

Seeing others ruthlessly dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts. The “terror” in other words, could at its most effective penetrate into the privacy of a person’s mind. But even at its least effective it served to set a very stringent limit on criticism of the radical line on any given issue or at any given moment. A certain area of permissible discussion and disagreement was always staked out, but it was hard to know exactly where the boundaries were; one was always in danger of letting a remark slip across the border and unleashing the “terror” on one’s head. Better, then, not to take a chance. Of course, one could recant and be forgiven; or alternatively one could simply speak one’s mind and let the “terror” do its worst. Yet whatever one chose to do, the problem remained.

Sound familiar? It should. Here’s another bit that should sound just as familiar, recounting a conversation with Podhoretz’s erstwhile friend, Jason Epstein:

I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

Those were halcyon days! Today comparing a (Republican) President to Hitler isn’t even enough to evoke a yawn. Podhoretz’s Making It was decidedly politically incorrect for its day. Here’s what happened when he tried to get his manuscript published:

My agent read the manuscript and decided that she would rather forfeit a substantial commission and a client hitherto considered valuable than represent such a book. My publisher read the manuscript and decided that he would rather lose the substantial advance he had already paid me than put him imprint on such a book. They reacted, as I said at the time, the way their Victorian counterparts might have reacted to a work of sexual pornography. So did another publisher to whom the manuscript was then submitted by my new agent. Nor was the response much better among my friends. Lionel Trilling advised me not to publish it at all, warning that it would take me ten years to live it down. Jason Epstein agreed. No amount of money, he said, was worth what “they” would do to me when this book came out.

That’s how de-platforming worked in those days. I’m sure Milo Yiannopoulos would have a good idea how Podhoretz felt. Eventually, the book was published. Here’s how he describes the response of his ingroup, described as the “Inner Clan”:

In an article about Making It and its reception that was itself none too friendly to the book, Norman Mailer summed up the critical response as “brutal – coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” But, he added, “the public reception of Making It was nevertheless still on the side of charity if one compared the collective hooligan verdict to the earlier fulminations of the Inner Clan.” By the “Inner Clan,” Mailer meant the community of New York intellectuals I myself had called the Family. According to Mailer, what they had been saying in private about Making It even before it was published made the “horrors” of the public reception seem charitable and kind. “Just about everyone in the Establishment” – i.e. the Family – ” was “scandalized, shocked, livid, revolted, appalled, disheartened, and enraged.” They were “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips… No fate could prove undeserved for Norman, said the Family in thin quivering late-night hisses.”

The Gleichschaltung of the equivalent of the MSM of the day proved to be a mere bagatelle. They fell into line as soon as they sensed which way the wind blew. As Podhoretz put it,

…most of them had become fellow travelers of the Movement and so obedient to the radical party line on all issues that they could not even recognize it as a line. (They thought it was the simple truth and self-evident to all reasonable minds.)

The situation in the universities in the 60’s was also uncannily similar to what we see among today’s “snowflakes.” It was worse in those days, though, because “the Youth” was practically deified.

For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively. But there was also a more positive pull in the idea that if so many of the “best” students were becoming radicals, then the new radicalism must surely be that “wave of the future” the Communist party had only seemed to be in the days of one’s own youth.

Podhoretz comments on the Vietnam War are a perfect example of how a policy that had once been open to rational discussion became a defining shibboleth of the ingroup, about which no “deviation” was allowed. The war was actually a legacy of JFK and originally almost universally supported by his liberal followers. He notes that, prior to about 1965,

…there would have been nothing especially outlandish in saying that the “intellectuals” or the “academic community” were an important constituent of the liberal consensus on foreign policy that had in some sense led to American military intervention into Vietnam.

However, beginning in the mid-60’s, there was a drastic shift in the direction of the ideological winds. Eventually, opposition to the war became one of the shibboleths that defined Podhoretz’s ingroup. Defying that shibboleth was heresy, and, then as now, heretics were cast into outer darkness:

In turning against the war, many of these liberal intellectuals no doubt thought that they were responding to the force of evidence and argument, and this may indeed have been the case with some. But I have always found it hard to believe that it was the case with most. In those days the argument over Vietnam in the universities was characterized less by the appeal to evidence and reason than by the shouting of slogans, the mounting of mass demonstrations, and threat and the occasional resort to physical force, and the actuality and ubiquitousness of rhetorical violence and verbal abuse.

…a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak.

Podhoretz noted that the language used against the outgroup became increasingly furious. He added,

Language like that was not meant to persuade, nor could it do so; it could, however, incite supporters and frighten opponents, and that is exactly what it did. Those already convinced were encouraged to believe that no other view deserved to be tolerated; those who still disagreed but who lacked either very powerful conviction or very great courage lapsed into prudent silence.

Then as now, there were those who liked to tickle the dragons tail with an occasional provocative remark. However, that required a fine sense of where the red lines were that couldn’t be crossed, and when a ritual kowtow was in order to appease the gatekeepers of the ingroup. Podhoretz provides us with an example of this behavior in the following remarks about Norman Mailer’s “tail tickling”:

But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

For more modern examples, see what I wrote in my last post about Steven Pinker’s unhinged ranting about Trump in his Enlightenment Now, a book that was supposed to be about “science” and “reason,” and an earlier one I wrote about Prof. Travis Pickering’s “violent agreement” with what Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz wrote about the “hunting hypothesis,” furiously attacking them and then repeating what they’d written earlier virtually word for word without attribution. Pickering was well aware that some of the ancient high priests of the Blank Slate were still around, and they still had plenty of clout when it came to casting out heretics, even if they were forced to throw in the towel on human nature. They have by no means forgotten how Ardrey and Lorenz shamed and humiliated them, and the good professor decided a bit of judicious virtue signaling would be prudent before repeating anything so closely associated with their legacy.

There are many other outstanding examples of how, then as now, the ingroup “sausage” was made. They demonstrate how intellectuals who pique themselves on their devotion to “science” and “reason” can be convinced after the fashion of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 that two plus two really does equal five.  Orwell was a remarkably prescient man. He also wrote, ““If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Now, as in the 60’s, that right is under attack. It is entirely possible that, in the long run, the attackers will win. Communism and Nazism were defeated in the 20th century. Today we take their defeat for granted, as if it were inevitable. It was not inevitable. Our future may well look a great deal more like Communism or Nazism than anything the heroes of the Enlightenment had in mind. If we would avoid such a future, we would do well to understand ourselves. That’s particularly true in the case of what a man named Ardrey once called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”

Steven Pinker and His Obscurantist “Enlightenment”

Quillette recently hosted an essay by Steven Pinker on his Enlightenment Now a year after its publication. The following is a repost of a comment on the book I left there by way of a review. In the first chapters of the book, Pinker argues that we’ve made lots of progress towards “human flourishing” by applying the principles of the Enlightenment. I don’t take issue here with those claims one way or the other. I do take issue with what he has to say about his favorite flavor of morality, referred to in the book as humanism, as follows:

Pinker extols the merits of science and reason. The problem with “Enlightenment Now” is that it is fundamentally irrational and unscientific. Consider, for example, what he has to say about morality, which he discusses under the rubric of humanism. He agrees with Darwin that it is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “human nature” if you will. If that is the case, then there can be no such thing as objective morality. Darwin practically spoon fed us this truth in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” The illusion that there is an objective morality, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter, complete with objective goods and evils, is as much an illusion as the belief in God, yet Pinker, in spite of accepting the innate basis of morality, makes the fundamentally irrational claim that the illusion is real. Nowhere in the book do we find a disclaimer to the effect that what he has written about morality merely represents his personal opinion. On the contrary, he speaks of it as an objective thing, imposing duties on the rest of us. It comes complete with “moral imperatives” and even an “authority,” based on what Pinker describes in glowing terms as the values of the Enlightenment. These values themselves, however, cannot be distilled from pure reason, any more than a computer can program itself. Hume pointed this out long ago. Try to trace Pinker’s reasons for embracing the values of the Enlightenment back to their “rational” source, reason by reason, and you will find that his reasons only end up chasing their own tails. In the end, those values, too, must have a root cause or source in innate predispositions, or emotions, if you will, that exist by virtue of natural selection. Since these predispositions exist by virtue of a natural process, they cannot have a purpose. They are simply facts of nature. They could not have a purpose of the sort claimed by Pinker unless a God or other creator existed who gave them purpose.

Pinker is well known as an opponent of group selection. He confirms his belief that the emotional roots of morality exist by virtue of natural selection, and are selected at the level of the gene, in the following passage:

Today’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which the unit of selection is the group, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest group in competition with other groups, and humans have been selected to sacrifice their interests for the supremacy of their group. (This contrasts with mainstream evolutionary psychology, in which the unit of selection is the gene.)

He then commits the fundamentally irrational non sequitur of claiming that we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with, and jury-rig it so that it goes well beyond group selection, and promotes “the good of the species!” For example,

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.

and,

Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind.

How can it possibly be deemed “rational” to “reprogram” morality in this way? We are dealing with a manifestation of human nature that evolved at a time radically unlike the present, in which the very existence of “all of humankind” was unknown. It evolved because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Pinker would have us believe that it is “reasonable” to “fool” morality into serving other ends that may well result in outcomes that are not only dangerous, but the very opposite of the survival of those genes. The “other ends” Pinker has in mind are the “values of the Enlightenment,” which he describes in noble, glowing phrases, but which are really just expressions of other emotional predispositions not unlike those that give rise to morality. We can certainly reason about whether we want to promote “the values of the Enlightenment” or not as individuals, but to bowdlerize morality in order to serve those ends, harnessing powerful illusions of “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” which can just as easily promote violence and warfare as they can “the values of the Enlightenment” is nothing short of foolhardy. I suggest that we would all be better served by reducing the scope of such a powerful emotional phenomenon as much as possible.

As far as Pinker’s embrace of “reason” is concerned, consider all the passages in the book in which he condemns Trump and all his works. He would have us believe that Trump is no less than a follower of Hitler and Mussolini, inspired by a careful parsing of the works of Nietzsche. Anyone who supports him, and that would amount to half the population of the United States, give or take, must therefore be either a Nazi or a dupe of the Nazis. In what way does such a claim support the notion of a “rational” dialogue with all these people? I am certainly not in the habit of calmly and rationally discussing things with people who initiate the conversation by claiming I’m a Nazi.

In fact, a major reason Trump was elected, and the main reason a great many voters supported him, was his promise to enforce our immigration laws. Not only was this not irrational, it was actually an embrace of Enlightenment values. Was not one of those values respect for the law? “The rule of law” was deemed so important that it was actually inscribed as a motto on French coins after the Revolution! Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construe the furious attacks on Trump that appear so frequently throughout the book as “reasonable.” They are far better understood as virtue signaling to Pinker’s academic tribe. He has often subjected that tribe to pinpricks here and there, but he is well aware that he dare not attack the fundamental shibboleths that define his tribalist ingroup, and one of those shibboleths is currently blind allegiance to the notion that Trump is a manifestation of pure evil. Respect for the shibboleths of his tribe is how Pinker has managed to avoid being denounced as a heretic and ostracized after the fashion of Charles Murray or James Watson. Need I add that there is nothing “rational” about tribalistic virtue signaling, other than the fact that it is a common trait of our species?