Immigration and the Free-Floating Morality of the Philosophers

The last two issues of the inimitable journal, Ethics, both include articles encapsulating the wisdom of two philosophers regarding the morality of immigration. As usual, neither author makes any attempt to establish the legitimacy, authority, or foundation of the moral principles they deem relevant. Apparently, we are just supposed to swallow whatever moral principles they concoct for us because, after all, they have Ph.D’s in the subject. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just as well, because no legitimacy, authority, or foundation can be established for things that don’t exist. The idea that there are such things as moral principles applicable to immigration in the modern world is absurd.

In fact, as alluded to by Darwin and elaborated by Westermarck, there are no moral principles at all other than the subjective variety spawned by emotions, assuming all sorts of kaleidoscopic forms as they percolate through the skulls of creatures with large brains. The idea that such principles can be true regardless of what anyone thinks of them is an illusion, spawned by the power of the emotions themselves. As Westermarck put it in a nutshell,

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 emotion, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

As might be expected given the ideological dogmas currently fashionable in academia, both of the authors mentioned above favor limited or no restrictions on immigration. Both have derived “moral principles” supporting their opinions. In an article entitled Race beyond Our Borders: Is Racial and Ethnic Immigration Selection Always Morally Wrong? that appeared in the January 2022 issue of Ethics, Sahar Akhtar, currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University, argues in favor of considering global status in determining whether it is moral for states to exclude some categories of people, but welcome others. For example, in the case of Israel, she writes,

We appeal to how the Jewish people were, and sometimes continue to be, subject to significant injustices in numerous states – but, importantly, not to how Jewish people have experienced such injustices within Israel. Given how the Jewish community was regarded as morally inferior in numerous states and systematically targeted and murdered in the Holocaust, it’s plausible that Jews constitute a vulnerable group in the global sense, in terms of the social bases of their self-respect. And Jewish populations might also constitute domestically vulnerable groups within some states today, including the United States, where there has been a recent rise in hate crimes against them. But what is not plausible is that they are vulnerable qua members of Israel. If anything, they are clearly the dominant domestic power in social, economic, and political terms. Thus, to understand why the Law of Return might be justified – however preliminarily – we implicitly refer to the Jewish people’s global status.

Thus, to determine whether it is permissible for them to welcome Jews but reject Moslems, the Jews of Israel are advised that they must consult the Moral Law. As usual, it is simply assumed that the applicable Moral Law exists and isn’t merely a subjective matter of opinion. Of course, it is somewhat obscure, and must be teased out based on a careful reading of the global status versus domestic status tea leaves. In spite of the fact that the leaders of Israel might become a bit impatient awaiting the outcome, this will have the happy effect of keeping a whole battalion of philosophers busy into the indefinite future. In her conclusion, Prof. Akhtar writes,

My goal was not to conclusively argue that certain selective criteria wrong or fail to wrong members or nonmembers, nor was it to argue for the overall (im)permissibility of any policy. My goal was instead mainly to develop the concept of global status and demonstrate its significance for selective immigration. In doing so, I hope to have laid some of the groundwork for applying anti-discrimination duties to states’ admission decisions.

It is certainly well that she didn’t attempt to conclusively demonstrate any of the moral rules applicable to immigration, because none exist. The idea that such things as moral duties exist relevant to a state’s immigration decisions is equally absurd.

The futility of modern philosophy is on full display here. Consider the fact that the physical bases for the existence of human moral behavior in the brain evolved at a time when no one had ever heard of such things as “global status,” or the existence of nation states with populations numbering in the millions, or, for that matter, that some principle of “anti-discrimination” extended to groups outside of one’s own. There is no basis at all for the conclusion that morality is even relevant here. As a general rule, it is always irrational to attempt to decide matters that one has sufficient time to actually think about by instead blindly responding to emotional reactions. That rule applies here, because morality is the outcome of emotional reactions in our species. I have no illusions on the subject. I realize perfectly well that it is the nature of our species to attempt the solution of complex problems via application of emotionally based rules. That doesn’t make it any less irrational.

It would behoove the leaders of Israel, and the rest of us as well, to ignore the “moral rules” concocted by the philosophers in determining national policy. One must consider what one’s ultimate goals are, and reason how one can best achieve them. Obviously, the irrational moral behavior of our species must be taken into account in the process, but that hardly implies a requirement to believe in imaginary “moral principles.” That is doubly true in the case of the rarefied stuff currently emanating from the academic hothouses of philosophy.

One finds the same kind of stuff in the second article, which appeared in the April issue of Ethics. Entitled Relational Equality and Immigration, it was submitted by Daniel Sharp, a postdoc at Maximilian University in Munich. The abstract says it all:

Egalitarians often claim that well-off states’ immigration restrictions create or reinforce objectionable inequality. Standard defenses of this claim appeal to the distributive consequences of exclusion. This article offers a relational egalitarian defense of more open borders. On this view, well-off states’ immigration restrictions are problematic because they accord the citizens of well-off states a troubling form of asymmetric power over the disadvantaged. This creates an objectionably unequal relationship between affluent states’ citizens and disadvantaged immigrants. I show that this argument offers a compelling diagnosis of a central problem with border control, defend the argument against objections, and explore its implications.

In other words, immigration decisions are to be decided based on moral rules that are implicitly assumed to be objectively true, derived from what philosophers agree is “objectionable” and “troubling.” The author imagines we will be “compelled” to agree with his emotional responses to border control.

So much for the futility of modern philosophers. I have no intention of paying any attention to their “compelling” versions of morality until they demonstrate at least a vague knowledge of what morality is and the reasons for its existence. Given the emotional origins of morality, it should never be made the basis of important policy decisions. That is doubly true when it comes to applying it to societies of a kind that didn’t exist when it evolved. It is highly unlikely that making decisions based on moral emotions in the world we live in now will have the same outcome it did in the prehistoric world of our ancestors.

What is the alternative? As I have suggested before, keep morality simple, and restrict it to routine social interactions when rationally analyzing each step we take would be impractical. However, it is not impractical to carefully reason about the decisions we make regarding such matters as border policy. These decisions should be made based on what our ultimate goals happen to be, and our conclusions about how we can best achieve them. If we happen to choose goals in life that are in harmony with the reasons that account for the existence of morality, not to mention the rest of our significant characteristics, then allowing open borders cannot be seen as other than an unmitigated disaster. If, on the other hand, one chooses as an ultimate goal strict adherence to some “moral law” suggested by the equalist dogmas currently fashionable in academia, regardless of how that may happen to affect the odds of one’s own survival, or the survival of one’s children, then the choice regarding borders may well be different.

E. O. Wilson on How to Build a Unicorn

One of E. O. Wilson’s “big ideas” was “Consilience,” which he defines as,

A “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.

Wilson always envisioned this “jumping together” taking place across two broad categories of disciplines; science and the humanities. The idea seems reasonable. Certainly, philosophers would do well to take it seriously. If they did, they might actually make themselves useful. Instead, today we find them ensconced in a thick fog of jargon, producing mountains of papers that are only intelligible to other philosophers, but whose value and relevance to the rest of us is vanishingly small.

However, Wilson had a much grander task in mind for Consilience than that. It would render the humanities capable of accomplishing something that he deemed impossible for the sciences. It would enable them to build a unicorn!

Well, not actually a unicorn, but something just as imaginary; a universal morality that Wilson always carefully refrained from calling a “transcendental,” or objective morality, but one that, for all practical purposes, would be exactly that. Wilson was a brilliant man, but it’s no exaggeration to say that, in assigning this quest for the Holy Grail to the humanities, he wandered off into an intellectual swamp. Consider, for example, the following passage from his “The Origins of Creativity.”

Americans are often reminded that research and development in basic science are good for the nation. That is obviously true. But it is equally true for the humanities, all across their domain from philosophy and jurisprudence to literature and history. They preserve our values. They turn us into patriots and not just cooperating citizens. They make clear why we abide by law built upon moral precepts and do not depend on inspired leadership by autocratic rulers.

If this passage had been published in 1960, it may only have seemed a bit quaint. However, the book actually appeared in 2017 at a time when the Left, broadly construed, had assumed a dominant role in the humanities, at least as far as academia is concerned, and was doing the very opposite of “turning us into patriots and not just cooperating citizens.” The idea that they were producing moral precepts that the rest of us were likely to abide by was a pipe dream. It was then and is now not just quaint, but ridiculous.

In spite of that, as the following passage from the same book makes clear, Wilson still fondly imagined that the humanities would not only find this moral Holy Grail, but that they alone were capable of it.

The human enterprise has been to dominate Earth and everything on it, while remaining constrained by a swarm of competing nations, organized religions, and other selfish collectivities, most of whom are blind to the common good of the species and planet. The humanities alone can correct this imperfection. Being focused on aesthetics and value, they have the power to swerve the moral trajectory into a new mode of reasoning, one that embraces scientific and technological knowledge.

If we’re speaking of the scientific knowledge that those of us who carry an X and a Y chromosome are males, and those who carry two X chromosomes are female, that’s not exactly what’s happening. How did someone as smart as Wilson manage to come up with such nonsense? He certainly had no illusions about the origins of morality. In that regard, his opinions were entirely Darwinian. In “Consilience” he writes,

In simplest terms, the option of ethical foundation is as follows:

I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not,

Versus,

I believe that moral values come from humans alone; God is a separate issue.

Then, to all appearances, Wilson plants himself firmly in the latter category, in the process suggesting something to the philosophers with which I wholeheartedly agree:

The time has come to turn the card face up. Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, are not prone to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility. Rarely do you see an argument that opens with the simple statement: This is my starting point, and it could be wrong. Ethicists instead favor a fretful passage from the particular into the ambiguous, or the reverse, vagueness into hard cases. I suspect that almost all are transcendentalists at heart, but they rarely say so in simple declarative sentences. One cannot blame them very much; it is difficult to explain the ineffable, and the evidently do not wish to suffer the indignity of having their personal beliefs clearly understood. So by and large they steer around the foundation issue altogether.

Precisely! With rare exceptions, that is exactly how the philosophers handle morality today. Just read their journals! One typically finds them insisting on some highly nuanced and abstruse moral innovation as if we are supposed to trust them on this because they are self-declared “experts.” In general, no authority, no basis for the legitimacy, and no foundation is ever given for these newly concocted ethical truisms. Wilson then lays his cards on the table:

That said, I will of course try to be plain about my own position: I am an empiricist… The same evidence, I believe, favors a purely material origin of ethics, and it meets the criterion of consilience. Causal explanations of brain activity and evolution, while imperfect, already cover the most facts known about moral behavior with the greatest accuracy and the smallest number of freestanding assumptions.

The implications of such a statement are seemingly obvious. If morality exists by virtue of evolved behavioral traits, then no matter how powerfully we feel that good and evil must be real, existing independently of what anyone happens to think about them, they simply are not real. Human beings may be powerfully inclined to believe they are real, but they aren’t. They are subjective constructs in the minds of individuals. Because they are constructed in the minds of intelligent beings in an environment utterly unlike the one in which the mental traits that are their root cause evolved, it is predictable that their exact details will vary radically from one individual to another, and that is exactly what we see in fact.

Unfortunately, we must have a morality because it is our nature to have one, and we are not smart enough to get along without one. However, it can never be more than a crutch for regulating our social behavior. It must always be kept in mind that the emotions it must be based on evolved eons ago. They may have been adaptive then, but blindly responding to them today could be extremely dangerous. With that in mind, it seems expedient to keep whatever morality we come up with as simple as possible, while keeping the emotions it is based on, as Wilson puts it, on a “short leash.”

It seems that Prof. Wilson had something quite different in mind. Reading on in “Consilience,” we come across the following remarkable passages:

The general empiricist principle takes this form: Strong innate feeling and historical experience cause certain actions to be preferred; We have experienced them, and weighted their consequences, and agree to conform with codes that express them. Let us take an oath upon the codes, invest our personal honor in them, and suffer punishment for their violation… Ought is not the translation of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through the understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.

In other words, the empiricist Ought is not derived top down from a God after the manner of the transcendentalists, but bottom up, from innate human nature. Oddly enough, even though Wilson concedes that this Ought is a human mental construct, he has invested it with all the trappings of the transcendental Ought, complete with appeals to oaths, personal honor, and the “public will” to prop it up. In effect, he has now brought us full circle, back to the never, never land of “moral truth,” “moral duties,” and “moral progress.” If there is any ambiguity about the matter, the following passage dispels it:

For if ought is not is, what is? To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts. They are unlikely to be ethereal messages outside humanity awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be physical products of the brain and culture.

Amazing! Just like that, Wilson has hopped over Hume’s is/ought chasm and resurrected the Ought unicorn. Instead of building his unicorn from the top down, he’s built it from the bottom up, but it’s still there. Rephrasing his question as “For if a unicorn is not is, what is?”, the answer is quite simple; There are no unicorns! Wilson’s Ought is just as imaginary as that mythical beast, whether its based on human nature or derived from God. The humanities are assigned the formidable task of supplying us with this nonexistent Ought via the magical powers of Consilience.

There’s no surprise here, really. As I’ve often documented on this blog, virtually every behavioral scientist, psychologist, or philosopher who writes about the innate wellsprings of morality in evolved human nature can commonly be found a few scribblings later hurling down moralistic anathemas on some unsuspecting villain. They do this with complete disregard of the fact that, absent objective good and evil, their behavior is completely self-contradictory and illogical. Wilson, brilliant as he was, was no exception. Chalk it up to the power of human nature.

Given the current state of the humanities, I would estimate that the probability is zero that the scales will fall from the eyes of their various practitioners any time in the foreseeable future, causing them to embrace science as set forth in Wilson’s “Consilience” and then proceed to concoct a brand-new morality that is so compelling that the rest of us will stand in line to swear oaths and devote our personal honor to it.

There is no one and nothing out there to assign us a purpose or a goal in life. Each of us must do that for ourselves. I suggest that, whatever goals you choose, you take into account the facts about what human morality is and why it exists when deciding how to achieve those goals. Whatever they are, I suspect that waiting around for the humanities to supply you with a moral code will not be a useful strategy for achieving them. I’m certainly not holding my breath.

An Ironic Biography of E. O. Wilson

It may be a bit ironic that a biography of E. O. Wilson was published by Richard Rhodes, whose most famous book was probably “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” but that’s not the irony I refer to. Rhodes’ book, “Scientist, E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature,” alludes to a much greater irony, and certainly one of the most amusing scientific ironies of all time. It has to do with the historical role assigned to Wilson by one of his peers. To understand it, you need to know a bit more about Wilson and the times he lived in, so let’s take a look at what Rhodes has written about him.

Wilson was a well-known scientist long before 1975, but he first achieved national prominence in that year with the publication of “Sociobiology.” The reason for this was his inclusion in the final chapter of the book of comments to the effect that innate behavioral traits of the kind observed in many animals also occurred in human beings. In other words, he defended the existence of human nature. Rhodes covers the well-known allergic reaction of Wilson’s peers in the behavioral “sciences” of the time in some detail. Unfortunately, his comments on the significance of this reaction, and why it occurred, belong more in the realm of myth than fact.

According to Rhodes,

Ironically, as several scholars have noted, the conflict between Wilson and the Sociobiology Study Group was the opposite of what it seemed. Buried beneath the classic rubble of scholarly attack I the service of career ambition lay a more fundamental disagreement between traditional liberalism and the emerging radicalism of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era. The SSG and its larger affiliation, Science for the People, had emerged from the 1960s New Left as activist groups favoring multiculturalism, the beginning of the movement in support of what the cultural historian Neil Jumonville calls “significant multicultural differences to be preserved and honored between races and ethnicities” – that is, identity politics.

The “Sociobiology Study Group” was an organization founded to attack Wilson for his deviation from the pseudo-religious dogmas of the Blank Slate, which passed as “science” at the time. However, the idea that these dogmas had emerged in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras, or that they weren’t defended just as fanatically by “traditional liberalism” as by the multiculturists of the New Left is nonsense. They were certainly around in the 1920’s as attested by H. M. Parshley in an article entitled “Heredity and the Uplift,” which appeared in the February, 1924 issue of H. L. Mencken’s “The American Mercury.” Describing the “multiculturist” types of his own day, Parshley writes,

The philanthropist, the social worker, too often the sociologist, and always the uplifter have held, to state their views most extremely, that the individual is wholly the product of his circumstances. The child is “plastic.” Placed in Fagin’s clutches he becomes a criminal; but for the curfew she becomes a streetwalker. Surrounded, on the other hand, with swaddling care and subjected to edifying precept and example, with occasional touches of the bastinado, the same lumps of indifferent wax take on in time the form of stock-brokers, and captains of industry, Chautauqua orators and senators, bishops and college presidents. This is the old environmentalist philosophy, which, though largely discredited and discarded by science, still feeds the flames of hope and envy in the breasts of the have-nots and remains the underlying principle of the Uplift.

In other words, the “usual suspects” have been with us since long before the Vietnam era, whether as the multiculturists of today or the Uplift of a century ago. Alas, Parshley’s fond hope that science would rescue us from the environmentalist zealots was sadly mistaken. They established the hegemony of what we now know as the Blank Slate in the behavioral “sciences” for well over half a century, stifling any serious progress towards human self-understanding in the bud. Those interested in confirming this for themselves can consult Carl Degler’s excellent “In Search of Human Nature,” or, if they prefer an account from the point of view of the Blank Slaters themselves, “The Triumph of Evolution,” by Hamilton Cravens.

Rhodes also accepts the now-standard “history” of the Blank Slate, according to which E. O. Wilson was the noble knight in shining armor who single-handedly slew the Blank Slate dragon.  That account is just as mythical. It’s quite true that the only reason for the notoriety of his “Sociobiology” was his defiance of the Blank Slaters. However, by the time his book appeared, the Blank Slate house of cards was already collapsing thanks to the efforts of men like Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and, most significantly, Robert Ardrey. The content of “Sociobiology” that stuck in the craw of the Blank Slaters was little different from what Ardrey had written nearly a decade and a half earlier in such highly popular books as “African Genesis,” and “The Territorial Imperative.” However, Ardrey was an outsider, a “mere playwright.” The academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences needed a fig leaf to demonstrate that their “science” was “self-correcting,” and one of their own was the “real” nemesis of the Blank Slate. Wilson was that fig leaf.

There is ample verification of Ardrey’s role for anyone interested in Blank Slate history as opposed to Blank Slate mythology. See, for example, an invaluable little piece of source material entitled, “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, and available on eBay and elsewhere for a few dollars. It consists of a collection of attacks on Ardrey as well as Konrad Lorenz, with William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” thrown in as an afterthought, apparently for comic effect. These attacks are remarkably similar to those advanced by the Sociobiology Study Group, complete with the now familiar “scientific” arguments that Ardrey and Lorenz were Nazis, fascists, and “extreme right wingers.”

Enter Steven Pinker and his “history” of the Blank Slate, published in 2002. A member of the academic tribe himself, Pinker seized on Wilson, another member of the tribe, as the “dragon slayer” of the Blank Slate. However, to do so, he couldn’t just ignore Ardrey and Lorenz. Somehow, he had to discredit them. He did so in a single paragraph of his book, dismissing them as “totally and utterly wrong,” using as his authority for this remarkable claim a footnote pointing to a passage in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins had, indeed, accused Ardrey and Lorenz of being “totally and utterly wrong,” but not about human nature, the major theme of their work. No, Dawkins had been referring to their advocacy of group selection! That, along with some nonsense about Lorenz’ “hydraulic theory,” which I have disposed of in another post, formed the entire basis for Pinker’s consignment of the role of these two highly significant figures in the history of the Blank Slate to the memory hole!

Now, let us return to Rhodes’ biography. In the final chapters he documents Wilson’s whole-hearted advocacy of an evolutionary mechanism also suggested by Darwin. What was it, you ask? None other than group selection! If you doubt Rhodes, by all means read such Wilson titles as “The Social Conquest of Earth,” “The Meaning of Human Existence,” and “The Origins of Creativity,” in which Wilson emerges as the most determined, uncompromising, and prominent advocate of group selection to appear in the last 50 years! This is the irony I refer to in my title. Pinker is sorely in need of a substitute knight in shining armor.

I revere E. O. Wilson as a great scientist and, when it comes to the subject of human morality, a great philosopher. It is unfortunate that he became an unwilling participant in the bowdlerization of the history of the Blank Slate by Pinker and others. As for Rhodes, I might have wished he’d done a bit more historical homework, but his biography of Wilson is still well worth reading. I noticed little if any diminution in the same clarity and excellence of his writing that I found in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” Given that the man is well into his 80’s, that qualifies him as a rock star in my book.

“Evolutionary Debunking” – Another Philosopher Chimes In

Suppose some analog of Commander Data of Star Trek fame were sent out alone on an interstellar voyage of discovery and encountered our species for the first time. What would he conclude about the phenomenon of human morality? No doubt he would be aware that biological life forms exist by virtue of natural selection, and that characteristics of these life forms that significantly influence the odds of individual survival almost certainly exist by virtue of that natural phenomenon. Noting that the emotional traits responsible for the existence of morality in our species meet this criterion, he would conclude that they evolved in the same way as many of our other significant features. Lacking emotions himself, it would never occur to him that the moral beliefs spawned by these emotions have anything to do with “objective moral truth.” He would not imagine that some things are “really good” and other things are “really bad” because he “felt it in his bones.” Instead, he would correctly conclude that our morality exists as an artifact of emotional traits that exist because they promoted survival.

Obviously, our species lacks the emotional detachment of Commander Data. Unlike him, we experience the powerful emotions responsible for portraying good and evil to us as real things, and most of us firmly believe in these illusions without further ado. The philosophers among us are hardly inclined to dispel the illusions. Jobs in the field are rare outside of the publish or perish world of academia, and the chances that papers stating something as obvious as the above would be accepted in the most prestigious journals are vanishingly small. No, to survive professionally, one must excel at obscuring the truth with an impenetrable fog of academic jargon. There are certainly many philosophers who accept the fact that natural selection has had a profound influence on morality, and some even accept the fact that nothing beyond this natural process is required to account for it. However, as far as I can tell without exception, they then go on to tell us what we “ought” to do as if their personal preferences possessed some magical authority or legitimacy.

In this whimsical atmosphere, philosophers on both sides of the issue have embraced the term “evolutionary debunking” to describe theories that marshal evolutionary arguments to attack systems that either dismiss or qualify the influence of natural selection on morality. It’s an unfortunate choice of words, as it tends to reduce a natural fact of profound importance to the level of a toy that philosophers play with in their academic sandboxes. In fact, experts in evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and related fields are far more likely to make useful contributions to our understanding of the subject than the tribe of professional philosophers. The philosophers’ attacks and counterattacks on each other, couched in the usual obscure jargon, have done more to obfuscate than illuminate the subject.

When we reduce the academic word salad to more comprehensible terms, we often find that the arguments used in these philosophical jousts are surprisingly naïve. Consider, for example, a paper by Katia Vavova entitled “The limits of rational belief revision: A dilemma for the Darwinian debunker,” that appeared in a recent issue of the philosophical journal Nous. In the author’s words,

The dilemma, briefly, is this. Either moral assumptions are legitimate in response to the debunker or they are not. If they are, then learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs may give us good reason to think that our moral beliefs are mistaken. But if moral assumptions really are legitimate, then there are moral claims wee can take for granted and therefore use to self-correct. In this way we may stagger, but needn’t fall from the debunker’s hit. On this horn, we can self-correct and thus alleviate the debunker’s worries.

If, instead, moral assumptions are not legitimate, then we have no moral claims we can use to self-correct. But then, learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs cannot give us reason to think we are mistaken about morality. This is because we cannot get evidence to think that we are mistaken about something that we can make no assumptions about. Evidence is evidence only against a background of beliefs we take for granted, and if no moral assumptions are allowed, then we do not have enough such background. So, we cannot get evidence of our error.

A seemingly obvious weakness of this gambit is that it assumes the existence of that which is to be debunked. It could just as well be used against the debunkers of fairies, hobgoblins, and unicorns. Beliefs about these things can be neither mistaken nor not mistaken, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if Darwin was right about morality, then moral claims are based on an illusion. One can be mistaken or not mistaken about what an illusion looks like to the delusional, but not about what it actually is.

This problem seems so obvious that we are inclined to give Prof. Vavova the benefit of the doubt, and consider the possibility that we are being obtuse, and have missed the point. With that in mind, let us read on to a more precise statement of what she imagines the debunker’s argument to be. Again, in her words,

This, then, is the debunker’s argument:

1. Influence. Evolutionary forces have influenced our moral beliefs.

2. Off-track. Evolutionary forces aim at fitness, not moral truth.

3. Off-track influence. A process that aims at fitness, not moral truth, influenced our moral beliefs.

4. Gap. The true moral beliefs and the adaptive moral beliefs come apart.

5. Bad influence. Our moral beliefs reflect the influence of an epistemically bad process.

6. Plausible Principle. If a belief reflects the influence of an epistemically bad process, then that belief is likely to be mistaken.

7. Mistaken. Our moral beliefs are likely to be mistaken.

Again, this “debunker’s argument” appears to assume the existence of moral truth. However, to the extent that they make any useful point at all, “evolutionary debunking” arguments deny the existence of moral truth. It is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about the nature of things that don’t exist. But wait! Following these seven points we find the remarkable passage:

Notice that this formulation doesn’t assume moral realism: the view that the moral facts are attitude-independent. This is unusual and important. It’s unusual because evolutionary debunking arguments are often run as reductios of realism. It’s important because it shows that one needn’t be a moral realist to be vulnerable to this attack.

Here I can but scratch my head. Again, it is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about nothing. If, on the other hand, Vavova’s formulation doesn’t assume moral realism, then it cannot possibly be an accurate statement of “evolutionary debunking” arguments. If one is not a moral realist, then one is not only not vulnerable to this attack, for all practical purposes one is on the side of the debunkers. What on earth is it the debunkers are trying to debunk if not moral realism? To the extent that “evolutionary debunkers” are trying to debunk something other than that it’s a matter of complete indifference to me whether they succeed or not.

So much for Prof. Vavova’s “debunking of the debunkers.” As I’ve pointed out before, philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if, just for the sake of argument, they accepted the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains. Starting from that axiom, they could then go on to formulate possible courses of action our species might take assuming the axiom were true. That’s basically what E. O. Wilson suggested to the philosophers long ago, and they’ve hated him for it ever since. It would seem that we must leave them in their academic redoubts, writing thick tomes about obsolete moral philosophies, befogging the subject with their jargon, and ornamenting the pages of philosophical journals with papers such as the one described above.

On the Ethical Fantasies of Thomas Henry Huxley

Darwin clearly, albeit briefly, addressed the moral implications of his great theory in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Since that time, there have been few indeed who have fully grasped the significance of what he wrote. To the best of my knowledge, they include only one philosopher of any note; the great Edvard Westermarck. Today his work is unappreciated and largely forgotten. Many public intellectuals and philosophers claim to be subjective moralists, and to accept the Darwinian view of morality. In spite of that, without exception, one finds them making moral judgments that would be absurd in the absence of some objective moral standard.

Their behavior is not without precedent. As it happens, Thomas Henry Huxley, otherwise known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” was also a firm believer in the reality of the mirage. Obviously, Huxley had read Darwin, and was perfectly well aware of the role of natural selection in shaping, not only our physical, but our moral traits as well. In his words, set forth in a lecture entitled Evolution and Ethics, delivered in 1893;

I do not know that any one has taken more pains than I have, during the last thirty years, to insist upon the doctrine, so much reviled in the early part of that period, that man, physical, intellectual, and moral, is as much a part of nature, as purely a product of the cosmic process, as the humblest weed.

Elaborating on the above with regard to morality, he wrote,

The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,” when the “evolution of ethics” would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favor of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track.

Huxley also realized something that I have often pointed out on this blog; that the traits that promoted our survival as hunter-gatherers will not necessarily accomplish the same thing in the societies we live in today. As he put it,

For his successful progress, throughout the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger; his exceptional physical organization; his cunning, his sociability, his curiosity, and his imitativeness; his ruthless and ferocious destructiveness when his anger is roused by opposition.

But, in proportion as men have passed from anarchy to social organization, and in proportion as civilization has grown in worth, these deeply ingrained serviceable qualities have become defects… In fact, civilized man brands all these ape and tiger promptings with the name of sins.

and, finally, tipping his hand,

Whatever differences of opinion may exist among experts, there is a general consensus that the ape and tiger methods of the struggle for existence are not reconcilable with sound ethical principles.

Of course, there can be no “sound ethical principles” in the absence of an objective standard against which these principles may be judged. If there is no such standard, there can be neither sound ethical principles nor unsound ethical principles. Belief in either one can be nothing but an illusion.

Should any doubt remain about Huxley’s faith in the existence of objective good, consider the following remarkable passage:

The struggle for existence, which has done such admirable work in cosmic nature, must, it appears, be equally beneficent in the ethical sphere. Yet if that which I have insisted upon is true; if the cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends; if the imitation of it by man is inconsistent with the first principles of ethics; what becomes of this surprising theory?

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. (!)

Of course, just as there can be no “sound ethical principles” absent an objective standard by which to judge them, there can be no “ethical progress” without such a standard, either. Both are chimeras, spawned even in people as intelligent as Huxley, by the very power of our moral emotions.

In common with such later thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Huxley’s faith in the mirage of objective moral good was so strong that he advocated intervention to actually alter human nature. In his words,

And much may be done to change the nature of man himself. The intelligence which has converted the brother of the wolf into the faithful guardian of the flock ought to be able to do something towards curbing the instincts of savagery in civilized men.

Little more than a decade after Huxley wrote those words, Westermarck demolished the illusion on which they are based in his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral IdeasIn the process he demolished latter day versions of Huxley’s dream, such as Sam Harris’ “objective good” based on the nebulous ideal of “human flourishing,” and also demonstrated the absurdity of the stream of moral judgments passed down by such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt, and E. O. Wilson. These judgments are seldom qualified by the admission that they represent nothing but the expression of personal moral emotions, and beg the question of how they can possibly be justified in the absence of an objective moral standard. Absent such a standard, they are reduced to gibberish.

In fact, Huxley’s “sound ethical principles,” Harris’ “objective morality,” and the pronunciamientos of our latter day “subjective moralists” according to which one person is “good,” and another is “evil” are all spawned by nothing more exalted than the very same moral emotions that Huxley denounced as worthy only of apes and tigers. There is no other basis whatever for these judgments. They are all expressions of emotional traits that evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that individuals, and perhaps small groups, would survive in times radically different from the present. We should keep this salient fact in mind when we assign a purpose to our lives, or consider what overriding goals to strive for.

Today we are confronted with a barrage of freshly minted “moral truths,” concocted by charlatans who happen to be adept at manipulating moral emotions. One might ask the purveyors of these moral nostrums questions such as, “How will behaving according to this ‘moral truth’ enhance the odds that you personally will survive?’ or ‘How will it increase the chances that you will reproduce?’ and, finally, ‘Why should the question of your survival and reproduction be other than a matter of complete indifference to me?'” With all due respect for Huxley’s tenacious defense of Darwin, a more “objective” standard for assessing the validity of these “truths” simply does not exist.

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.