Harvey Fergusson on Morality, Free Will, and Human Behavior

Harvey Fergusson does have a Wiki page, but he’s not exactly a household name today. Remembered mostly as a writer of fiction, he produced some great Western novels, and some of the characters in his “Capitol Hill” will still be familiar to anyone who has worked in the nation’s capital to this day. His name turns up in the credits as a screenwriter in a few movies, including “Stand Up and Fight,” starring the inimitable Wallace Beery, and his work even drew a few lines of praise from H. L. Mencken. As it happens, Fergusson wrote some non-fiction as well, including a remarkable book entitled Modern Man.

The main theme of the book is what Fergusson refers to as “the illusion of choice.” As one might expect of a good novelist, his conclusions are based on careful observation of human behavior, both in himself and others, rather than philosophical speculation. In his words,

It struck me sharply how much of the conversation of my typical modern fellow-being was devoted to explaining why he had done what he had done, why he was going to do what he intended, and why he had not done what he had once professed an intention to do. Some of my more sophisticated subjects would describe these explanations, when made by others, as “rationalizations” – a term which is vague but seems always to imply a recognition of the necessarily factitious nature of all such explanations of personal behavior. But I found none who did not take his own explanations of himself with complete seriousness. What is more, I have not found either in conversation or in print any recognition of what seems obvious to me – that these explanations typically have for their effect, if not for their unconscious motive, to sustain what I have termed the illusion of choice. This may be more adequately defined as the illusion that behavior is related more exactly and immediately to the conscious mental processes of the individual than any objective study of the evidence will indicate that it is.

Consider this in light of the following comment by Seth Schwartz who writes one of the Psychology Today blogs:

In a controversial set of experiments, neuroscientist Ben Libet (1985) scanned participants’ brains as he instructed them to move their arm. Libet found that brain activity increased even before participants were aware of their decision to move their arm. Libet interpreted this finding as meaning that the brain had somehow “decided” to make the movement, and that the person became consciously aware of this decision only after it had already been made. Many other neuroscientists have used Libet’s findings as evidence that human behavior is controlled by neurobiology, and that free will does not exist.

Fergusson was not quite as bold as “many other neuroscientists.” He made it quite clear that he wasn’t addressing the question of determinism or free will, but was merely recording his personal observations. In spite of that, he certainly anticipated what Libet and others would later observe in their experiments. What is even more remarkable is how accurately Fergusson describes the behavior of our current crop of public intellectuals.

Consider, for example, the question of morality. Some of them agree with me that moral judgments are subjective, and others insist they are objective. However, their moral behavior has nothing to do with their theoretical pronouncements on the matter. Just as Fergusson predicted, it is more or less identical with the moral behavior of everyone else. They all behave as if they actually believe in the illusion that natural selection has planted in our brains that Good and Evil are real, objective things.  And just as Fergusson suggested, their after-the-fact claims about why they act that way are transparent rationalizations.

In the case of such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt and Jerry Coyne, for example, we commonly find them passing down moral judgments that would be completely incomprehensible absent the tacit assumption of an objective moral law. In common with every other public intellectual I’m aware of, they tell us that one person is bad, and another person is good, as if these things were facts. To all appearances they feel no obligation whatsoever to explain how their “subjective” moral judgments suddenly acquired the power to leap out of their skulls, jump onto the back of some “bad” person, and constrain them to mend their behavior. Like me, the three cited above are atheists, and so must at least acknowledge some connection between our moral behavior and our evolutionary past. Under the circumstances, if one asked them to explain their virtuous indignation, the only possible response that has any connection with the reason moral behavior exists to begin with would be something like, “The ‘bad’ person’s actions are a threat to my personal survival,” or, “The ‘bad’ person is reducing the odds that the genes I carry will reproduce.” In either case, there is no way their moral judgments could have acquired the legitimacy or authority to dictate behavior to the “bad” person, or anyone else. I am not aware of a single prominent intellectual who has ever tried to explain his behavior in this way.

In fact, these people, like almost everyone else on the planet, are blindly responding to moral emotions, after seeking to “interpret” them in light of the culture they happen to find themselves in. In view of the fact that cultures that bear any similarity to the ones in which our moral behavior evolved are more or less nonexistent today, the chances that these “interpretations” will have anything to do with the reason morality exists to begin with are slim. In fact, there is little difference between the “subjective” moralists cited above and such “objective” moralists as Sam Harris in this regard.  Ask them to explain one of their morally loaded pronouncements, and they would likely justify them in the name of some such nebulous “good” as “human flourishing.” After all, “human flourishing” must be “good,” right? Their whole academic and professional tribe agrees that it must be “really good.” To the extent that they feel any constraint to explain themselves at all, our modern “subjective” and “objective” moralists seldom get beyond such flimsy rationalizations.

Is it possible to defend “human flourishing” as a “moral good” that is at least consistent with the reason morality exists to begin with? I think not. To the extent that it is defined at all, “human flourishing” is usually associated with a modern utopia in which everyone is happy and has easy access to food, shelter, and anything else they could wish for. Such a future would be more likely to end in the dystopia comically portrayed in the movie Idiocracy than in the survival of our species. Its predictable end state would be biological extinction. Absent the reason high intelligence and the ability to thrive in diverse environments evolved, those characteristics would no longer be selected. If we use the survival of our species as the ultimate metric, “human flourishing” as commonly understood would certainly be “bad.”

Fergusson was an unusually original thinker, and there are many other thought-provoking passages in his book. Consider, for example, the following:

The basic assumption of conservatism is that “human nature does not change.” But it appears upon examination of the facts that human nature from the functional viewpoint has undergone constant change. Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size, and nature of the human group has changed, and without such change the race could hardly have survived. That human nature will change and is changing seems to be one of the few things we can count upon, and it supports all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.

Here we see Fergusson as a typical denizen of the left of the ideological spectrum of his day. His comment encapsulates the reasons that led to the radical rejection of the existence of human nature, and the disaster in the behavioral sciences we now refer to as the Blank Slate. Like many others, Fergusson suffered from the illusion that “human nature” implies genetic determinism; the notion that our behavior is rigidly programmed by our genes. In fact, I am not aware of a single serious defender of the existence of human nature who has ever been a “genetic determinist.” All have agreed that we are inclined or predisposed to behave in some ways and not in others, but not that we are rigidly forced by our “genes” to do so. Understood in this way, it is clear that evolved human nature is hardly excluded by the fact that “Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size and nature of the human group has changed.” Properly understood, it is entirely compatible with the “changed reactions” Fergusson cited.

In reality, rejection of the existence of human nature did not “support all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.” What it really did was bring any meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences to a screeching halt for more than half a century, effectively blocking the path to any real “hope for the amelioration of human destiny.”

The fact that I don’t always agree with Fergusson does not alter my admiration for him as an original thinker. And by the way, if you happen to live in Maryland, I think you will find “Stand Up and Fight” worthy of a couple hours of your time and a bowl of popcorn.

Why do you do the things you do? Why do you do those things?

If I am to believe the anecdotal evidence I find on the Internet, I am preaching to the choir. Supposedly, the vast majority of educated people in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) countries agree with me that morality is subjective. For example, a professor at California Baptist University reports that, when asked whether morality is objective or subjective, about 95% of students starting his Introduction to Philosophy class answered that it is subjective, at a Christian school, no less! The percentage reported from other polls varies according to the type of people asked, but one often finds a majority claiming that morality is subjective.

This is a very counter-intuitive result if you look at what is happening in our societies. A great number of people may claim to believe that morality is subjective, but the number who appear to have even begun to reason about the implications of that fact is vanishingly small. We find people delivering themselves of furious sermons loaded with appeals to moral emotions in favor of such novel “goods” as the mutilation of children and destruction of their ability to reproduce in order to “trans-gender” them, or denouncing human reproduction itself as morally “evil.” These novelties are invariably presented as if they represented moral truths, with the obvious implication that anyone who disagrees with them is objectively evil. One could cite many more examples, yet if morality is truly subjective, such claims cannot possibly possess either legitimacy or authority. The two examples cited above, along with many others, represent morality inversions. They accomplish exactly the opposite of the evolutionary reasons that morality exists to begin with.

A glance at the debates and discussions on the Internet should be enough to convince anyone that no one really takes the reality of subjective morality seriously. For the most part, these conversations consist of fencing matches with conventional weapons replaced by manipulation of moral emotions. The “moral truths” defended in these debates are almost invariably presented as objective facts. People may claim to believe that morality is subjective, but they seldom if ever behave as if they believe it. I know of not a single exception among living scientists, philosophers, or any other prominent public intellectuals. Every one of them makes moral judgments as if those judgments weren’t just a mere opinion, but expressions of some objective fact. They may realize that morality is an artifact of natural selection, but it doesn’t matter. They condemn this and praise that, for all the world as if Darwin had never existed. The only philosopher I’m aware of who did take Darwin seriously was Edvard Westermarck, and he’s been gone now for more than 80 years.

The behavioral predispositions that eventually manifest themselves as moral behavior after percolating through the skulls of creatures with large brains such as ourselves exist because, in an environment we can safely assume is very different from the one we live in now, they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his “The Selfish Gene,” these predispositions are not selected at the level of political parties, or religious denominations, or ideological factions, but at that of the replicator; the “vehicle” that carries genes from one generation to the next. Under the circumstances, it seems logical to ask anyone seeking to impose their moral judgments on the rest of us, “How will this benefit the genes you’re carrying around?”

There isn’t a morally correct way to answer this question, for the obvious reason that moral categories have no objective existence. There is no “morally good” or “morally bad” answer, because the universe doesn’t care one way or the other. Based on the behavior of our fellow humans, we must assume in virtually every case the answer would be, “I don’t consciously associate my moral judgments with my genes at all. I make them because they make me feel good. I find them emotionally satisfying.” I can’t say in reply, “That’s not the way you ought to decide.” I have not the slightest authority or basis to make such a claim. I can’t tell them that their answer is morally good, or morally bad, because those categories don’t exist as other than subjective opinions. All I can say is that I find it somewhat disturbing that I live on a planet along with upwards of seven billion others who never ask themselves, at a fundamental level, “Why do I do the things I do?”

Ask any of your fellow humans, “How will the moral behavior you advocate enhance the odds that the genes you carry will survive and reproduce?”, and they are likely to respond with a look of blank incomprehension. They might answer that their version of morality is objectively true, but in 5000 years the best philosophers among us have never agreed on what that objective truth is, for the seemingly obvious reason that it doesn’t exist. They might answer that their morality has been handed down to them by a God or gods, but belief in such beings is an illusion, and an embarrassing one for our species at that. They might also answer that they are serving the equally illusory cause of “human flourishing,” but that begs the question of what constitutes human flourishing. There is no objectively right answer. In my personal opinion, human flourishing would mean the survival of my species, and its eventual acquisition of traits that would enhance the odds that its descendants will survive into the indefinite future. To the extent that any attempt is made to define it at all, however, it generally means a future state in which everyone is happy, and has easy access to anything they might need or desire. However, happiness, in common with every other human emotional state, isn’t a good in itself. Like all the rest, it exists by virtue of natural selection. I submit that this commonly accepted version of “human flourishing” would be far more likely to result in our extinction than our continued survival.

I, too, act the way I do because of emotions. As Hume pointed out long ago, pure reason can provide no answer to question of how we ought or ought not to behave. However, I do take into account the reasons my emotions exist to begin with, and seek to behave in ways that are consistent with those reasons. I have no basis for claiming that everyone should share my values, and act the way I do. I merely suggest that they might consider asking themselves why they exist, and choose the goals they set for themselves in light of the answer to that question. Apparently, few people do. Most of us stumble through life, chasing illusions, and seeking to satisfy emotional urges without ever taking into account why those urges exist. In the case of morality, we seek to satisfy them by demanding that others behave in some ways and not in others, in spite of our utter lack of authority for making such claims. In the process, we make ourselves a serious nuisance to others.

I have no easy solution to the problem. All I’ve really done is describe how humans behave in the environment we find ourselves in today. All I can suggest is that you take it into account and deal with it, whatever your goals in life happen to be.

On the Irrelevance of Objective Morality

I don’t believe in objective morality. In other words, I don’t believe in the independent existence of the categories, “good” and “evil,” nor do I believe that we ought to do some things and ought not to do others by virtue of some moral law that exists as a thing in itself, independent of what anyone merely thinks ought or ought not to be done. I consider the above to be simple facts. As such they don’t imply anything whatever about how we ought or ought not to behave.

Of course, many people disagree with me. Given what morality actually is, that is entirely predictable. It is basically a manifestation of innate behavioral predispositions in creatures with large brains. Those predispositions exist by virtue of natural selection. They enhanced the odds that we would survive and reproduce by spawning a powerful illusion that some behaviors are good and others evil, regardless of what anyone’s opinion about them happens to be. Belief in objective morality is just that; an illusion. It’s an interesting fact that many atheists, who imagine they’ve freed themselves of religious illusions, nevertheless embrace this illusion that good and evil exist as real things. I submit that, if what they believe is true, and there actually is an objective moral law, then it is entirely irrelevant.

Most atheists, including myself, consider evolution by natural selection to be the most plausible explanation for the existence of all the diverse forms of life on our planet. If that theory is true, then we exist because our ancestors were successful at carrying the packets of genes responsible for programming the development of their physical bodies from one generation to the next. Of course, these genes have undergone many changes over the eons, and yet they have existed in an unbroken chain for a period of over two billion years. Each of the physical bodies they spawned in the process only existed for an insignificant fraction of that time, and that will be true of each of us as well. Seen from that perspective, you might say that “we” are our genes, not our conscious minds. They have existed for an unimaginably long time, and are potentially immortal, whereas our conscious selves come and go in the blink of an eye by comparison.

This process that explains our existence has neither a purpose nor a goal. It does not reflect a design, because there is no designer, nor do we or anything about us have a “function,” because a function implies the existence of such a designer. We simply exist as a result of a natural process that would appear to be very improbable, and yet is possible given conditions that are just right on one of the trillions of planets in our vast universe.

Under the circumstances, we must decide for ourselves what goal or purpose we are to have in life. The universe certainly hasn’t assigned one to us, but life would be rather boring without one. This begs the question of what that goal or purpose should be. There is no right or correct choice, because the universe doesn’t care one way or the other. In making it we are completely on our own. I personally have made my goals in life my own survival and reproduction, and the preservation of biological life in general into the indefinite future. It seems to me these goals are in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. They are not better or worse than anyone else’s goals, for the simple reason that there is no basis for making that judgment. They are, however, my goals, and I will pursue and defend them accordingly.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there is an objective morality, and moral goods and evils exist as real things. Suppose someone were to point out to me that my goals in life are bad according to that objective moral standard. My reply would be, “So what?” No God or other conscious entity is out there, monitoring whether I conform to the moral law or not. The universe has no conscious mind, and so is incapable of punishing or rewarding my behavior. For the same reason it is also completely incapable of assigning that responsibility to others of my species. Any atheist who believes differently is not really an atheist at all, because a universe or some entity in the universe capable of assigning purpose is, for all practical purposes, a God.

Suppose some defender of the objective moral law were to claim that my personal goals were only achievable if I behaved in obedience to that law. In the first place, I would respond that it is remarkable indeed that the objective moral law just happens to be the exact way I should behave in order to achieve my personally assigned goals. In the second, I would take note of the fact that no reliable way has yet been discovered of detecting what the objective moral law actually is. A bewildering array of different moralities exist, and new ones are concocted every day, all claiming to be the “real” moral law. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that it would be much simpler for me to pursue my goals directly rather than trying to pick the “real” objective moral law from among the myriad versions on tap, in the hope that being “good” according to the version I choose will have the indirect effect of promoting my chosen goals.

In short, the question of whether there is an objective morality “out there” or not is a matter of complete indifference. If such an entity does exist, we have been singularly incompetent at detecting what it is, and, as far as the universe is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether we conform to it or not. The universe isn’t keeping score.

Academic Follies: Chasing the Mirage of Objective Morality

The human mind is beset by no more powerful illusion than the belief in objective morality; that good and evil exist as things, independent of how or what we imagine them to be. One of the more whimsical proofs of this is the obvious survival of the illusion in the minds of those who, to all appearances, realize that morality exists because it evolved, and even claim to believe that it is subjective. For example, our purported experts in the behavioral sciences are all afflicted by the mirage, as far as I know without exception, and regardless of what they happen to say about it.

Examples of the above anomaly are particularly easy to find in the case of the denizens of academia. They may pledge their allegiance to Darwin, but they belong to an ingroup that requires their actual allegiance to a moral code that is subject to change from day to day, but is de rigueur regardless. The synthesis of this clash of thesis and antitheses is what George Orwell referred to as “doublethink.” These worthies may claim that morality is subjective, but accept the “objective” moral law of their ingroup without question. We find them declaring that one type of behavior is morally abhorrent, and another kind is “good,” to all appearances blithely unaware that there is anything even remotely contradictory in their behavior.

If Darwin was right, and morality is subjective, then there can be no truly evil or truly good individuals, because no such categories exist. Just as there are no preferred inertial reference frames in an Einsteinian universe, there are no preferred moral reference frames in the moral universe. An individual can certainly say that one thing is good and another evil according to his personal moral reference frame, but he can never claim that one thing is absolutely good and another absolutely evil. In spite of that, academic “experts” make such claims all the time. Under the circumstances, if one of them says that this behavior is morally good, and that behavior is morally unethical, it begs the question of why? Logically, the only possible answer must be that the one conforms to their personal moral reference frame, and the other violates it. Under the circumstances one might point out that morality only exists because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce, albeit in an environment radically different than the one we live in now. One might then ask, “How does the ‘bad’ thing in question diminish the chances that you will reproduce?”, or “How does the ‘good’ thing in question enhance the odds that you will survive?”

Of course, if one actually asked such questions, one would be met with looks of blank incomprehension. When it comes to morality, academics are just like everyone else. They behave the way they do because it feels good. They act that way because they are inclined by their emotions to act that way. They don’t presume to analyze their behavior any more deeply than that.

I recently read a book that is an excellent example of what I’ve written above. Entitled “A Natural History of Human Morality,” by Michael Tomasello, it claims to be about the evolution of human morality, which is described as “a uniquely human version of cooperation.” The book relentlessly emphasizes what the author imagines to be the “good” aspects of human moral behavior, and glosses over the “bad.” Improbable as it seems, there is nothing in the book to suggest that an evolved trait like morality might not promote the same outcome in the environment of today as it did 100,000 years ago. All that has been neatly taken care of by “gene-culture co-evolution.” We can look forward to a future where our innate altruism has won the day, and mankind lives happily ever after. It goes without saying that the prominent ingroup/outgroup aspect of our behavior is glossed over in spite of its rather too obvious manifestation, for example, in the bitter hatred and contempt of garden variety academics for Trump and all his supporters. Presumably, the future altruistic utopia must await the “liquidation of the Deplorables as a class,” to paraphrase Comrade Stalin.

One need only read the “Conclusion” of this brief book to dispel any doubt about the author’s firm faith in objective Good, existing somewhat incongruously in his mind with his equally firm but logically completely incompatible belief that morality is an evolved behavior. Ingroup/outgroup behavior is certainly mentioned, but is ascribed to such “objective evils” as colonialism:

In addition, there are many other conflicts between different ethnic groups that for various reasons (quite often involving outside influences, e.g., colonialism) have been forced to coexist under the same political umbrella. These are again instances of in-group/out-group conflicts, but again it is almost certain that those involved in them are doing many moral things with their compatriots on a daily basis. And despite all this, it is still the case that warlike conflicts, as well as many other types of violence, are historically on the wane. (Pinker, 2011).

Here one might ask the author what on earth he means by a “moral thing” if there is no such thing as objective Good. Is not loyalty to one’s group and defense of it against evil outsiders a “moral thing?” We learn that the equalist dogmas currently prevailing in academia also belong in the class of “objective Goods.” For example, according to the author,

A final criticism of too much rosiness is that we have posited a sense of equivalence among persons as foundational to human morality. Those who are used to thinking in terms of recorded human history will point out that it is only with the Enlightenment that social theorists in Western societies began promoting the idea of all individuals as in some sense equal, with equal rights. This is of course true in terms of explicit political thinking about the social contract after the rise of civil societies in the past ten thousand years. But the hunter-gatherer societies that existed for the immediately preceding period – for more than ten times that long – were by all indications highly egalitarian (Boehm, 1999).

Where to begin? In the first place, nature does not recognize any objective standard of “rosiness.” However, the author does not qualify the first sentence in the above quote by noting that he is only referring to his own personal moral standards when he claims that “equivalence among persons” is “rosy.” It is stated as an objective fact. Violence may or may not be declining in modern human societies, but no explanation is given for that trend one way or another in terms of evolved human behavioral traits as manifested in modern societies, and, again, there is no objective reason to claim that this development is “rosy” or “not rosy.” It is, of course, just another statement of one of the author’s personal subjective preferences stated as an “objective Good.” It is also one which can quickly become an anachronism with a push of the nuclear button. Nature doesn’t care in the least whether humans are violent or not. As far as equalist dogmas go, one is treading on thin ice with the claim that hunter-gatherer societies “were by all indications highly egalitarian.” They were only “highly egalitarian” according to safely orthodox academics whose evidence for making such claims is questionable, to put it mildly. As we saw, for example, in the case of Napoleon Chagnon, anyone who dares to question such “scientific findings” can expect to be subjected to furious attacks. The author apparently hasn’t noticed. Finally, we read,

No, it is a miracle that we are moral, and it did not have to be that way. It just so happens that, on the whole, those of us who made mostly moral decisions most of the time had more babies. And so, again, we should simply marvel and celebrate the fact that, mirabile dictu (and Nietzsche notwithstanding), morality appears to be somehow good for our species, our cultures, and ourselves – at least so far.

Is it really necessary for me to point out how and where the author refers to “good” as if it were an objective thing in this paragraph? When the author says “we are moral,” he means that we act in a way that is objectively good. He says we should all “marvel and celebrate the fact,” a statement that would be completely irrational if he were only stating a personal, subjective preference. What possible reason could the rest of us have for celebrating his interpretation of what his personal emotions are trying to tell him? Morality could not be unequivocally good for our species unless there were an unequivocal, that is, objective good. No such object exists.  As far as babies are concerned, there is today a demonstrable lack of them among the “good” in the author’s ingroup. I suggest he travel to Utah or Idaho, and note that the opposite is true of the Mormons, a different ingroup that is presumably “not so good” from his point of view.

I note in passing the fashion among modern academics to take passing slaps at Nietzsche, a philosopher who most of them don’t even begin to understand, who in fact can’t be understood outside of the context of his times, and who was anything but “amoral.” His sin was apparently disagreeing with them about what is “good”.

In short, the author is similar to every other modern academic intellectual I’m aware of in that, regardless of what he claims about the nature of morality, he behaves and speaks as if good and evil were objective things. Why is this important? Look around! The author and others like him have virtually complete control over the “moral landscape” as it exists in academia, social and legacy media, the entertainment industry, and among our current rulers. They present their personal moral prejudices as if there were some kind of objective authority and legitimacy behind them, when in fact there is none whatsoever. Based on this false assumption of authority, they are in the habit of denouncing and attacking anyone who disagrees with them. Do you like to be denounced and pushed around? Attacks on others based on a false assumption of moral authority are certainly irrational, but there is nothing objectively “bad” about them. I simply happen to have a personal aversion to them. That’s why I persist in pointing out the lack of legitimacy and authority for such attacks by those making them. Do you have an aversion to being pushed around as well? If so, I suggest you do the same.

Morality in the Age of Trump

When it comes to morality, you might say Trump’s presidency was a “study” on a vast scale. If there are aliens out there watching us, I’m sure they found it instructive as far as that aspect of human behavior is concerned.

I haven’t posted for a while, so let’s recapitulate what morality actually is. In fact, it’s exactly what Darwin said it was; a manifestation in a highly intelligent animal of innate behavioral traits similar to those observed in many other species. Those traits exist by virtue of natural selection; they happened to improve the odds that the individual bearing the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Edvard Westermarck pointed out some of the more significant implications of this fact in his “Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” published in 1906. More than a century has passed since his book appeared, and no one has improved on it since. Some of the more significant passages are as follows:

The moral concepts are essentially generalizations of tendencies in certain phenomena to call forth moral emotions.

We are not willing to admit that our moral convictions are a mere matter of taste, and we are inclined to regard convictions differing from our own as errors.

The error we commit by attributing objectivity to moral estimates becomes particularly conspicuous when we consider that these estimates have not only a certain quality, but a certain quantity. There are different degrees of badness and goodness, a duty may be more or less stringent, a merit may be smaller or greater. These quantitative differences are due to the emotional origin of all moral concepts.

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.

The “enthusiasts” Westermarck referred to flourished in the era of Trump, and were as delusional as ever. This was particularly true in the case of the ubiquitous ingroup/outgroup aspect of human morality first noted by Herbert Spencer, and discussed in depth by Sir Arthur Keith in his “A New Theory of Human Evolution.” For four years the headlines of the media controlled by Trump’s enemies were dominated on an almost daily basis by furious denunciations of the President as a morally bad man. Look through these headlines and you will find virtually every negative attribute commonly attributed to the “other” since the dawn of recorded history. Trump was an outsider. As such, it was easy for Washington insiders of both parties to perceive him as “other,” and relegate him to their respective outgroups. Some of the most furious denunciations of Trump as a “bad” man came from within his own party.

It is noteworthy that ingroup/outgroup behavior, along with all of the other traits we commonly lump together under the rubric of morality, evolved at a time radically different from the present. Presumably, when it evolved it tended to discourage small groups of hunter-gatherers from clustering too close to each other, and exhausting the resources available in a given area. Obviously, it no longer serves the same purpose in modern societies. Among other things, it has been a prime motivator for the warfare that has so frequently blighted our history, the source of endless bloodshed over arcane differences of opinion in matters of religion that are now long forgotten, and the motivator of mass murder against convenient outgroups such as the Jews in the case of the Nazis, and the “bourgeoisie” in the case of the Communists. This is hardly the only aspect of human moral behavior that accomplishes more or less the opposite in modern societies from what it did in the time of our stone age ancestors.

It would seem to be high time for us to finally accept and come to grips with the emotional nature of our morality, but there are few signs of that happening. Many modern philosophers and intellectuals claim to believe that morality is subjective. I am not aware of a single one who acts as if they believe it. What we actually observe among them is a tribute to the power of our moral emotions.

In the case of Trump, one would expect that prominent intellectuals who are convinced defenders of the theory of evolution by natural selection, claim to be aware of the Darwinian origins of morality and, hence, its subjective nature, and have, in some cases, actually written books about the subject, would at least be somewhat reticent to publish moral judgments of anyone as if they were stating objective facts. Chimerically, in the case of Trump, we see precisely the opposite. Consider, for example, the case of Richard Dawkins, who admitted the evolutionary origins of morality in his “The Selfish Gene.” According to Dawkins,

Is Twitter’s ban of Trump a worrying Free Speech issue? On reflection I think not because

(a) Trump went far beyond expression of opinion (which should be protected) to outright lies, demonstrable falsehoods. Falsehoods, moreover which were calculated to

(b) incite violence.

Dawkins pronounces this moral judgment of Trump as if it were objectively true that Trump is evil. He does not qualify it as a personal opinion, but demands that Trump be punished. Obviously, as a prominent atheist, Dawkins lacks even the fig leaf of a God as an authority for stating his emotional reaction to Trump as a moral “fact.” The rationalizations on which he bases his judgment are garden variety instances of outgroup identification; that the “other” is a liar, and incites violence. Ironically, such charges are actually more credible in the case of Dawkins himself.

For example, in his The God Delusion he repeats the “demonstrable lie” that Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, ever said, “We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.” Indeed, even the false quote is wrong. The “correct” original claim is that Watt said, “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” In fact, Watt never said any such thing, and Bill Moyers and others who have repeated the claim have been forced to retract it. It is hard to believe that Dawkins isn’t aware of this “demonstrable lie,” yet as far as I know he has never corrected it. As far as “inciting violence” is concerned, Dawkins’ repeated description of evangelicals in the U.S. as the “American Taliban” are ostensibly far better calculated to inspire violence against them than anything Trump ever said.

According to Jerry Coyne, another prominent Darwinian who has publicly stated his belief that morality is subjective,

Though there are arguments on both sides, I tend to approve of both the House impeaching Trump and the Senate trying him, even though they won’t secure a conviction. The symbolic act is a powerful one, which, though it may be divisive, will only divide those who support America’s democratic values from those who support fascism. Congress needs to make a statement, and impeachment, even without conviction, is a statement.

Here, Coyne not only claims that Trump is evil without qualification as a matter of objective fact, but makes a similar claim about the tens of millions who support him. They are all “fascists.”

Jonathan Haidt, the most “conservative” of all the prominent supposedly Darwinian moralists, is no exception. In his words,

The psychologists I spoke to before Trump was elected overwhelmingly said that the diagnosis they would make based on what they saw is narcissistic personality disorder. And I think we’ve seen that continuously since his election, that he tends to make everything about him. And so that is pretty much the opposite of ethical leadership, where it needs to be about the team and our shared interest. I don’t see much of a chance of us really coming together and overcoming our differences before the election. Or, basically, as long as Trump is in office.

Here, Haidt states that Trump is “unethical” as an objective fact, a claim that flies in the face of what he has written about morality in “The Righteous Mind,” and “The Happiness Hypothesis.”

In short, however one cares to judge him, Trump has done a wonderful job of exposing the difference between what the most prominent “subjective moralists” among our public intellectuals say about morality, and how they actually apply it. Just as Westermarck pointed out long ago, moral judgments are based on an illusion, but it is a very powerful illusion. It is powerful enough to inspire the Dawkins, Coynes and Haidts of the world to issue moral judgments in ways that would be completely irrational absent the implicit assumption that good and evil are real, objective things.

Suppose these gentry actually wanted to be consistent with what they’ve said about morality in their judgments of Trump. They would have to say something like, “I realize that my moral emotions exist because they enhanced the odds that my ancestors would survive in the days when they were hunter-gatherers. After due consideration, I’ve decided that I want to act in a way that is consistent with the reason that these emotions exist to begin with. I believe Trump is a threat to my genetic survival for reasons a, b, and c. Therefore, I’ve decided to resist him by pretending that he is a “truly bad” man. Alternatively, they might say, “I know why my moral emotions exist. However, after due consideration, I’ve decided that doesn’t matter to me, and I just want to be happy. Pretending that the illusions spawned by my moral emotions are real makes me happy. I enjoy experiencing the illusion that Trump is an objectively bad man. Therefore, I’ve decided to pretend that it’s actually true.

Obviously, no such statements have ever been heard of from any public intellectual, and I expect none will be made anytime soon. We will continue to live in the same old, familiar world of moral chaos, where new moral fashions are invented on the fly, and then paraded about as if they represented some kind of objective truth. As usual, the winners at this game will be those who are the cleverest at manipulating moral emotions. I need hardly add that the game is a dangerous one, given that the emotions in question are more than likely to accomplish the opposite in the world we live in today to what they accomplished when they evolved. Deal with it, my friends. When it comes to morality, the Darwinians have forgotten all about Darwin.

Morality: On Whose Authority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On whose authority?”

 

The Blank Slate: A Stroll through the Valley of the Rubies

It is unlikely that an accurate history of the Blank Slate affair will ever be written. Historians of science commonly have at least some connection to the academic and professional tribe of scientists. That tribe is understandably coy about admitting that they almost unanimously propped up something as absurd as the denial of human nature for over half a century. Legitimate research was replaced by ideologically motivated dogmas, resulting in what was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. Those who would understand what happened will need the patience to wade through the source material. One of the best pieces thereof I’ve ever run across is Defenders of the Truth – The Sociology Debate, by Ullica Segerstrale.

Segerstrale describes herself as a sociologist, but she’s also what used to be called a “crack reporter” in days of old when genuine reporters were not yet extinct. Somehow, she managed to acquire easy access to most of the key players on both sides, and she was an acute and knowledgeable observer. The result was a genuine treasure trove of information about the affair.

Of course, the most well-known account of the Blank Slate is Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. Unfortunately, that history almost completely ignores the two individuals who played the most important role in smashing of the Blank Slate hegemony; Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz. Ignoring the role of these two in what purports to be a history of the Blank Slate is equivalent to leaving Darwin out of a history of the Theory of Evolution. Of the two, Ardrey was the most significant, and he was an outsider, a “mere playwright,” who mortally offended the academics and professionals by making their denial of human nature a laughing stock among intelligent lay people. They haven’t forgotten the shame and humiliation of being exposed as charlatans to this day. As a result, apparently out of solidarity with his tribe, Pinker saw fit to airbrush both Ardrey and Lorenz out of history.

Instead of praising them for their role in smashing the Blank Slate, Pinker dismissed Ardrey and Lorenz in a single paragraph of his book. The passage, referring to Man and Aggression, a collection of reviews edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and a superb piece of source material in its own right, is as follows:

In fact, they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)

This passage is so absurd on the face of it that Pinker must have simply assumed that no one would ever bother to question it. In the case of his own academic tribe, of course, he was right. That doesn’t alter the fact that he was playing fast and loose with the truth. In the first place, the claim that Lorenz’ comparison of aggression in some animals to a simple hydraulic device was an “archaic theory” is utter nonsense. It was not a “theory” to begin with, but a model, and anyone can confirm that the model is both apt and accurate by repeating Lorenz’ experiments themselves. As for Ardrey, the idea that he “believed” in this “archaic theory” is also nonsense. Perhaps he referred to it in passing at some point, but as far as I can tell he never even mentioned it.

Pinker’s passage about the “far stronger criticism” by the “sociobiologists themselves,” must be one of the most ludicrous and also one of the most ironic comments that has ever appeared in what purports to be a history of science. As I have pointed out elsewhere, when Dawkins claimed that Ardrey and Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong,” he wasn’t even referring to any of the central themes of the Blank Slate debate. He was referring to group selection! Dawkins never even declared his support for “sociobiology” until long after publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology. A more apt choice for one of the “sociobiologists themselves” would be none other than Wilson himself. In fact, Pinker portrayed Wilson as the greatest hero of the Blank Slate affair, the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. Here’s the irony: As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Wilson came out as a strong supporter of (you guessed it) group selection, in some of his later books! This begs the question of whether Pinker knew that his “hero,” Wilson, by far the most important of the “sociobiologists themselves,” was a supporter of group selection much earlier, at the time he published “The Blank Slate.” If so, he must have been at least as “totally and utterly wrong” as Ardrey and Lorenz. And this brings us back to Segerstrale’s book.

Several passages in Defenders of the Truth make it perfectly clear that Wilson’s support for group selection was common knowledge at least as far back as the publication of Sociobiology! For example,

…Wilson inherited his mentors’ fondness for holistic explanations, substituting the old metaphysical holism with a ‘new holism’ based on communication theory, and gave much more prominence to ‘group selection’ explanations that did some of his English colleagues (like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene).

So while Dawkins in The Selfish Gene fully embraced kin selection, Wilson’s particular brand of sociobiology regarded kin selection as just one of the many possible mechanisms for altruistic behavior, on a par with group selection.

According to (evolutionary biologist Irven) Devore, when writing the book (Sociobiology) Wilson had not really appreciated the importance of Hamilton’s kin-selection theory; he was thinking more in terms of group selection.

It is hard to imagine that Pinker, who considered himself expert enough on the subject to write a book about the Blank Slate, could possibly have been unaware of Wilson’s support for group selection at the time he published. Under the circumstances, it is hard to construe his claim that Ardrey and Lorenz should be erased from history because of their support for group selection as other than a ludicrous smear, apparently intended to placate an academic and professional tribe that for more than half a century had propped up theories of human behavior that any reasonably intelligent ten year old must have realized were nonsense.

Apparently, Noam Chomsky realized they were nonsense as well. Segerstale’s book includes an interesting first-had account of the debate that ensued at a conclave of Blank Slaters who referred to themselves as the Sociobiology Study Group when Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin, who had invited Chomsky, tried to Shanghai him into supporting the cause. Chomsky begged to differ and, as Segerstrale records,

What was worse, Chomsky could not just be dismissed – his radical credentials were impeccable, and he had been a left-wing activist longer than most people present. Adding salt to the wound, Chomsky even stated that he thought it important for political radicals to postulate a relatively fixed human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society. We need a clear view of human needs in order to know what kind of society we want, Chomsky proclaimed. Not surprisingly, under these conditions, no Chomsky critique of sociobiology emerged.

The hegemony of the Blank Slate at the time was no secret to Chomsky, and perhaps he considered his defiance an act of despair. According to Segerstrale,

For Chomsky, finding out about human nature constituted the most interesting challenge there was. Surprisingly, however, he said that he doubted that science would be able to say much about it – he suggested that we might rather try to find the answer to human nature in literature.

Gems like this are strewn throughout the book. It shows that Chomsky believed the sciences were so hobbled by the Blank Slate dogmas that they were incapable of shedding light on the secrets of human behavior. Those who would seek them out would be better advised to look for them in the writings of such acute observers of the human condition as novelists (and playwrights).

This and much more invaluable source material may be found in the pages of “Defenders of the Truth” by those who seek a deeper understanding of the Blank Slate than is to be found in Pinker’s bowdlerized account. By blocking our path to self-understanding, no perversion of the sciences has ever been more destructive and dangerous to our species. It is well worth learning something about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality and Social Chaos: Can You Hear Darwin Now?

When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, it immediately rendered all previous theories and systems of morality obsolete. If he was right, then everything about us, or at least everything with a significant impact on our odds of survival, exists by virtue of natural selection. Our innate behavioral traits, some of which give rise to what we commonly refer to as morality, are no exception.  For the most part, the philosophers didn’t notice, or didn’t grasp the significance of what Darwin had revealed. Many of them continued to devote whole careers to things as futile as explicating the obscure tomes of Kant, or inventing intricate theories to “prove” the existence of something as imaginary as objective morality. Others concocted whole new theories of morality supposedly based on “evolution.” Virtually all of them imagined that “evolution” was actively striving to make progress towards the goal of a “higher” morality, thereby demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the significance of the term “natural” in natural selection. Darwin himself certainly didn’t fail to grasp the moral implications of his theory. He tried to spell it out for us in his “The Descent of Man” as follows:

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitable acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

To read Darwin is to wonder at his brilliance. He was well aware of the dual nature of human morality long before Herbert Spencer undertook a systematic study of the phenomena, or Sir Arthur Keith published his theory of in-groups and out-groups:

But these feelings and services (altruistic behavior, ed.) are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association.

He exposed the imbecility of the notion that natural selection “tracks” some imaginary objective moral law in a few sentences:

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. 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 their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

It is a tribute to the tremendous power of the evolved moral sense described by Darwin that it spawns a powerful illusion that Good and Evil are real things, that somehow exist independently of what anyone’s mere opinion of them happens to be. The illusion has been so powerful that even his clear and direct explanation of why it isn’t real was powerless to dispel it. Only one philosopher of note, Edvard Westermarck, proved capable of grasping the full import of what Darwin had written. Today one can complete an undergraduate degree in philosophy without ever seeing his name mentioned, even as a footnote, in the textbooks and anthologies.

We live in a world full of others of our kind, all of whom are chasing this illusion. They feel they “ought” to do things because they are good, noble, just, and moral. Using their big brains, they come up with all sorts of fanciful whims about what these things are that they “ought” to do. The reasons they use to arrive at these notions may be as complex as you please, but if you follow the chain of reasons to the end, you will always find they lead back to emotions. Those emotions spawn the illusion of the Good, and they exist by virtue of natural selection.

Do you feel a powerful impulse to join a Black Lives Matter demonstration? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you imagine that you can serve the Good by pulling down statues? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think that the people who are doing these things are Evil, and should be destroyed? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think we need a revolution or a civil war to insure the victory of the Good. You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Have you considered the fact that the panacea you imagine will result from a successful revolution or civil war will inevitably be just as “unnatural” for our species as the system it replaces? We are simply not adapted to live in the massive societies we are forced to live in today if we want to survive, no matter how cleverly they are organized. The best we can hope for is that they be so structured as to minimize the inconvenience of living in them.

As for the emotions referred to above, we may find it useful to keep in mind the fact that they exist because they happened to motivate behaviors that increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive in an environment populated by small, widely dispersed groups of hunter-gatherers. Today, in a radically different environment, those same emotions still motivate our behavior. However, the odds that this will have the same effect now as they did then in promoting gene survival are vanishingly small.

What are the implications of all this at the level of the individual?  For starters, it is neither Good nor Evil to rush around blindly responding to emotions by pulling down statues, joining demonstrations, organizing revolutions, or joining in civil wars. The obvious reason for this is that Good and Evil are terms for categories that simply don’t exist. They are imagined to exist. I merely suggest that individuals may want to stand back for a moment and consider whether, in their frantic efforts to promote the Good, they are accomplishing anything remotely connected to the reasons they imagine such a thing as the Good exists to begin with. The illusion of Good exists because it once promoted survival. As they pursue this mirage, individuals may want to consider whether their behavior will have a similar result today.

It is up to individuals to choose what their goals in life will be. No God or objective moral law can make the choice for them, because these things don’t exist. Supposing you’ve read Darwin, and understand that the sole reason for the existence of the emotions that motivate your behavior is the fact that, once upon a time, long, long ago, they happened to increase the odds that the genes you carry would survive. You can still choose to respond to those emotions in ways that make you happy, or in ways that make you feel good and noble, even if your behavior doesn’t improve the odds that you will survive, and may actually be suicidal. With a little effort, you may even still be able to delude yourself into believing that you really are fighting for the Good. Realizing that you are a link in a chain of living creatures that has existed unbroken for upwards of two billion years, you can make a conscious decision to be the final link. You can go through life imagining that you are as noble as Don Quixote, and then die, fully aware that you represent a biological dead end. None of these choices would be immoral. All I can say about them is that I don’t personally find them attractive.

I happen to have different goals. My goals are personal survival, and beyond that the continued survival of my species, and its continued evolution into forms that will promote the survival of biological life in general. To reach these goals, I realize it will occasionally be necessary to second guess my emotions, and to choose to act against the way they incline me to act. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are better than the goal of living a happy life, or of devoting my life to fighting on behalf of the illusion of Good. All I can say is that they are my goals, which I have chosen because they happen to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Darwin explained those reasons to us. Perhaps it’s time to start listening to him.

Moral Realism: Philosophers Chasing a Mirage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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