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  • Good News! Academics Prove Trump is Reducing Prejudice

    Posted on August 13th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

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

    Consider, for example, a “scientific” paper written by Daniel Hopkins and Samantha Washington of the University of Pennsylvania entitled The Rise of Trump, the Fall of Prejudice?, that recently appeared on the website of the Social Science Research Network. It came complete with all the scholarly trimmings, including 27 references to other papers. The authors present us with the happy news that a survey they conducted indicates that, in spite of the fact that Trump is a racist, racial prejudice among white Americans has actually fallen during his presidency. In fact, the paper is an excellent example of yet another manifestation of outgroup prejudice, in this case based on ideology rather than race, and affecting the authors of the paper rather than the population sample they studied. Like many other academics, the authors belong to an ingroup defined by unquestioning adherence to an ideological narrative. Like every other ingroup, this one has an outgroup, consisting of anyone who seriously challenges the narrative. Trump, of course, has done just that, and currently serves as the ingroup’s villain-in-chief. As such, he is deemed “bad,” and “immoral” after the fashion of all such villains – guilty of all the ingroup’s favorite sins, including, among others, racism.

    This charge of racism cannot even be questioned by anyone who wants to remain a member in good standing of the academic tribe in question. I doubt that the authors have ever wandered far enough outside of their milieu to run into anyone who does question it. It is simply assumed. Thus, as the very first sentence of the paper, we find the following “scientific” statement:

    In his campaign and first few years in office, Donald Trump consistently defied contemporary norms by using explicit, negative rhetoric targeting ethnic/racial minorities.

    This rather striking claim seems to fly in the face of the explicit statements Trump has actually made condemning racism and racists. It is, however, a fundamental basis of the paper. If it is untrue, then the author’s claims are nonsense. In spite of this rather obvious fact, they do not appear to attach any great importance to backing up the claim. The evidence they present to support it is of the flimsiest. For example, we are told that Trump termed immigrants from Mexico “rapists.” In fact, he never said anything of the sort. He did say that some of the immigrants are rapists, but in view of the fact that there are millions of them, that statement must not only be true, but trivially so. The authors go on to claim that Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration, but that claim, too, is transparently false. He never called for any such thing. Continuing with their “evidence,” the authors tell us that Trump “initially declined to renounce a former KKK leader.” It is hard to see how failure to renounce a supporter can be construed as “explicit racist rhetoric.” Indeed, it is hard to see how it can serve as evidence of racism at all, since those who have not only not renounced but have positively embraced such notorious racists as Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan are not themselves considered racist as a result. As their final piece of “evidence,” the authors tell us that Trump said that,

    …there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent confrontation between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

    In the first place, as anyone knows who has made even a cursory study of the affair, the claim that all those who attended were white supremacists other than the “protesters” is ridiculous. They were a small minority. As for the “protesters,” the authors somehow fail to mention that many of them were Antifa who came with the deliberate goal of provoking violence. In fact, Trump clearly excluded white supremacists from those he described as “fine people.” Here is what he actually said:

    Excuse me, they (the attendees, ed.) didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people who were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group who were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.

    I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come wit the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats – you had a lot of bad people in the other group too.

    It would seem that, in view of the President’s actual remarks, in a paper that claims to be “scientific,” the burden of proof is on the authors to explain how that counts as “explicit racist rhetoric.” However, I doubt that they’ve ever even come in contact with anyone who dared to challenge this propaganda hoax. They simply swallow it as true because all of their colleagues have done the same, because it is presented as true in all the “news” outlets they are likely to read, and daring to challenge it would result in quick ostracism from their ingroup.

    In short, what the authors have presented as evidence of Trump’s “explicit racist rhetoric” really amounts to a grab bag of ideological shibboleths derived from the narrative that defines their ingroup. Using an assumption based entirely on this threadbare “evidence,” they tell us that they want to “ask a straightforward question,” namely:

    Did Trump’s candidacy, rhetoric, and positions on racially inflected issues influence non-Hispanic white Americans’ prejudice against Blacks or Hispanics?

    They tell us their data for answering this question was acquired using,

    …a novel, 13-wave panel survey conducted with a nationally representative population of American adults between 2007 and 2018. This panel’s demographics match those of the target population closely. Our panel enables us to identify individual-level shifts in white respondents’ prejudice and related racial attitudes.

    A seemingly obvious problem here is the possibility that many factors other than Trump may affect racial prejudice. The authors seem to be aware of this objection, writing,

    To be sure, changes in expressed prejudices in this period might be the product of factors other than Trump.

    No kidding?! The very notion that one can simply assume that Trump has dwarfed all other influences on prejudice in what is supposed to pass as a “scientific” paper reveals the degree to which the authors’ leftist ingroup has become obsessed with him. During the period in question, there has been a massive increase in the use of such racially charged terms as “white privilege” and “white supremacy,” a series of savage punishments in the form of loss of livelihood and vilification in the increasingly ubiquitous social media for anything that can be construed as “prejudice,” and the use of the term “racism” to smear anyone guilty of virtually any heresy against the narrative of this ideologically defined ingroup that now controls the media and the entertainment industry as well as academia. And yet all these and many other potentially significant factors are hand-waved out of existence and ignored. Throughout the rest of the paper it is simply assumed that Trump is the only factor that matters. There is no metric for testing this assumption against the possibility that Trump is only one factor among many or, indeed, that he has had no significant influence on prejudice at all. For that matter, there is not even a convincing argument in favor of the claim that the questions asked in the survey are a valid measure of degrees or amounts of prejudice. Beyond that, the authors do not even entertain the possibility that the assumptions they make in the paper are actually expressions of their own prejudice, although they practically wear that prejudice on their sleeves. What they’ve composed isn’t a work of science, but a badge to identify their own ingroup.

    Apparently, the authors are at least aware of the hypothesis that innate behavioral traits have something to do with prejudice. They write,

    Extensive recent scholarship starts from the presupposition that prejudice is a fixed predisposition that can be activated. Here, we question that presumption by examining whether Trump’s rhetoric heightened prejudice or inter-group animosity among white Americans.

    Here one can but shake one’s head. The stuff they have concocted about the supposed connection between Trump and prejudice is neither here nor there as far as the question of innate human behavior is concerned, because the fundamental assumption upon which it is based is false. As for predispositions, they are just that – predispositions. As such they are by the very definition of the term not “fixed,” as if they were rigid instincts. Indeed, the term only came into general use as a result of the bogus quibble of the Blank Slaters of yore that “instincts” referred exclusively to the rigid or “fixed” innate programming of insects and other simple life forms, even though that claim was pure nonsense. In other words, it was a response to the Blank Slaters’ “genetic determinism” strawman. We may be predisposed to act in certain ways in response to given situations, but our “genes” do not force us to act one way or the other. We can and regularly do override our predispositions. It is this fact that is responsible for the very existence and common use of the term. Predispositions cannot be “fixed,” and I know of no serious scientist who claims that they are “fixed.” They do not program us to have certain forms of prejudice throughout life, based on our early indoctrination. Given the reasons the underlying behavior evolved to begin with, one would expect the opposite – that ingroup/outgroup behavior itself is innate, but that the cues by which we distinguish between the two are malleable, and can change in response to changes in the nature of the groups we happen to be in contact with or are aware of.

    In short, if this paper is any indication, we are far indeed from achieving a useful level of self-understanding as far as the issue of prejudice is concerned. We will continue to flounder in the dark, playing the futile game of slapping “evil” labels on each new version of human prejudice as it arises, remaining blind to our own prejudices in the process, until we finally understand what lies at the root of the problem. However, as can be confirmed by consulting your search engine of choice, that hasn’t stopped anyone from using this “scientific study” to prop up whatever narrative they happen to prefer. Steven Pinker has cited it as yet another triumphant vindication of his mantra that, “every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.” Others have cited it as proof that the bad orange man’s attempts to promote white supremacy have failed, that prejudice was worse under that bad Obama than under Trump, etc. I personally feel something more akin to despair over the realization that anyone can take this kind of stuff seriously.

  • Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex

    Posted on July 30th, 2019 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

    Manifestations of this behavior are easier to recognize in the distant past, now that the criteria that once distinguished ingroup from outgroup no longer arouse the same furious passions as they once did. Some excellent examples may be found in the work of Procopius, a very entertaining byzantine historian who served as an advisor to the great general Belisarius during the reign of Justinian I. Perhaps the best of these is the rivalry between the Blues and Greens of the circus. According to Procopius,

    In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into the Blue and Green factions; but within comparatively recent times it has come about that, for the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games, they spend their money and abandon their bodies to the most cruel tortures, and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death. And they fight against their opponents knowing not for what end they imperil themselves, but knowing well that, even if they overcome their enemy in the fight, the conclusion of the matter for them will be to be carried off straightway to the prison, and finally, after suffering extreme torture, to be destroyed. So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colors be brothers or any other kin. They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction”; for so they name the bands of partisans. And even women join with them in this unholy strife, and they not only follow the men, but even resist them if opportunity offers, although they neither go to the public exhibitions at all, nor are they impelled by any other cause; so that I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul. This, then, is pretty well how matters stand among the people of each and every city.

    “A disease of the soul,” indeed! It’s too bad Procopius didn’t know about Darwin. He was a brilliant man. If he’d known about natural selection it may well have dawned on him what was going on. Is it really that hard to recognize the behavior he describes among the Blues and Greens of our own day? He had no more patience with the abstruse doctrinal disputes of the Christian divines than with the factions of the circus. The fine points of dogma that distinguished ingroup from outgroup in these disagreements were once the cause of much bloodshed, including outright warfare. Today few remember them outside of theological seminaries. Here’s Procopius’ account of one such dispute:

    …there came from Byzantium to the chief priest of Rome two envoys, Hypatius, the priest of Ephesus, and Demetrius, from Philippi in Macedonia, to confer about a tenet of faith, which is a subject of disagreement and controversy among the Christians. As for the points in dispute, although I know them well, I shall by no means make mention of them; for I consider it a sort of insane folly to investigate the nature of God, enquiring of what sort it is. For man cannot, I think, apprehend even human affairs with accuracy, much less those things which pertain to the nature of God. As for me, therefore, I shall maintain a discreet silence concerning these matters, with the sole object that old and venerable beliefs may not be discredited. For I, for my part, will say nothing whatever about God save that He is altogether good and has all things in His power. But let each one say whatever he thinks he knows about these matters, both priest and layman.

    Elsewhere he recounts how, with the exception of a single company led by a Goth named Amalafridus who had been appointed a Roman commander, an army sent by Justinian to aid his Lombard allies against their enemies was actually diverted to deal with a war that had broken out over a similar dispute:

    …not a man of that army reached the Lombards except this Amalafridas with his command. For the others, by direction of the emperor, stopped at the city of Ulpiana in Illyricum, since a civil war had arisen among the inhabitants of that place concerning those matters over which the Christians fight among themselves.

    In short, the ingroup/outgroup aspect of our behavior so well described by Sir Arthur Keith was just as prevalent in Procopius’ day as it is now, and the denizens of our modern “factions” are just as convinced as the Blues and Greens of the circus that their enthusiasms and hatreds are perfectly rational. I have my doubts.

    There is no moral to Procopius’ story. What he describes about human behavior is an “is,” not an “ought.” However, it can occasionally be useful to be aware of things that are true.

  • Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

    Posted on July 13th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

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

    As the title of her article would imply, Prof. Vavova focuses on arguments against the existence of objective moral truths based on the Theory of Evolution. In fact, Darwin’s theory is hardly necessary to debunk moral objectivity. If objective moral truths exist independently of what anyone merely thinks to be true, they can’t be nothing. They must be something. Dworkin was obviously aware of this problem in the article I referred to in my last post. He was also aware that no one has ever detected moral objects in a form accessible to our familiar senses. He referred derisively to the notion that the existed as moral particles, or “morons,” or as “morality fields” accessible to the laws of physics. To overcome this objection, however, he was forced to rely on the even more dubious claim that moral truths exist in some sort of transcendental plane of their own, floating about as unphysical spirits. His explanations of how these spirits manage to acquire the normative power to render some of us here below objectively “good,” and others objectively “evil,” were even more vague. As I pointed out, entirely similar arguments can be used to “prove” the existence of unicorns. Evolution isn’t necessary to debunk Dworkin’s theory of “morality spirits.” Vavova avoids this problem by being, or pretending to be, blithely unaware of any need to explain the mode of existence of the moral objects she so confidently insists are real.

    In fact, Darwins’ theory cannot disprove the existence of moral objects on its own. It can, however, explain why it is that so many human beings persist in believing in such extravagant entities. In the process, it even further undermines the already flimsy arguments in their favor. Prof. Vavova seems aware of this at some level, because she persistently refuses to even seriously engage arguments to the effect that the objects she believes in so firmly simply don’t exist. Thus, in much of her paper we find her tilting against such windmills as the notion that moral beliefs traceable to the influence of natural selection are “off track” from “true” moral beliefs. The possibility that these “true” moral beliefs are nonexistent is rejected out of hand. She claims she is justified in rejecting this possibility because,

    Since it targets all of our moral beliefs, we are left knowing nothing about morality. But how can we tell if we are likely to be mistaken about morality, if we know nothing about it?

    Yes, and how can we tell if we are likely to be mistaken about unicorns, if we know nothing about them? Consider, for a moment, just how absurd this argument really is. We are supposed to believe that, unless we can assume the existence of moral truths, we can know nothing about morality. Most of us certainly experience moral emotions, and can be profoundly affected by them. It is hardly necessary for us to assume the existence of moral truths before we can question why those emotions exist and, given the reasons for their existence, whether they reflect what is objectively true, or what is subjectively imagined to be true. We can localize where in the brain these emotions arise, and we can study the chemical and electrical phenomena that accompany them. In other words, it is perfectly obvious that we can know a great deal more about morality than “nothing” without assuming the existence of objective moral truths. I am not cherry picking from Vavova’s text here. One can find similar passages throughout her article. For example,

    But we cannot determine if we are likely to be mistaken about morality if we can make no assumptions at all about what morality is like.

    and,

    Likewise, I cannot show that I am not hopeless at understanding right and wrong without being allowed to make some assumptions about what is right and wrong.

    Really? We can know nothing about morality unless we assume the existence of objects that, as Dworkin pointed out, don’t exist in a form accessible either to our senses, or to any of the intricate scientific instruments we have created as extensions of those senses, but in the realm of spirits? Vavova justifies such dubious claims as follows:

    Unless we are skeptics, we should grant that sensory perception is a perfectly good belief-forming method. Ceteris paribus, if you perceive that p, you are rational in concluding that p. Do we have good reason to think that perception would lead us to true beliefs about our surroundings? Not if “good” reason is understood as an appropriately independent reason: for if we set aside all that is in question, we must set aside all beliefs gained by perception. Without those, we cannot evaluate the rationality of beliefs formed by perception.

    Here Vavova is conflating the perception of objects with the existence of objects. We are all capable of perceiving mirages, but we are not forced to admit that, by virtue of that perception, the mirage must be real. Indeed, we have very reliable ways of demonstrating that mirages are not real that are in no way “independent” of our senses. One does not “set aside all beliefs gained by perception” by virtue of realizing that mirages aren’t real. We have developed many reliable ways to evaluate the rationality of beliefs about objects that exist independently of ourselves if those objects are accessible to our senses. As Dworkin pointed out, moral objects cannot possibly be so accessible. Our senses can tell us nothing about the characteristics of such objects, or even whether they exist at all. Evolution by natural selection, on the other hand, can give us a very good explanation of why we perceive the existence of these objects, and at the same time makes it extremely implausible that they actually do exist. It would be necessary for them to exist by virtue of some reason having nothing to do with natural selection, to exist in a form undetectable by our senses, and be somehow a necessary outcome of the existence of the universe itself. I am more ready to believe in unicorns and the reality of mirages than in such whimsical objects.

    In the world we live in, one becomes a respected philosopher by insisting on the existence of unicorns, and writing papers that appear in prestigious academic journals describing exactly how they must be fed and cared for. I, on the other hand, am quite convinced that there are no unicorns. It seems to me that evolution by natural selection provides very compelling reasons why the moral equivalent of unicorns are imagined to exist, and at the same time renders the probability that these objects actually do exist vanishingly small. Of course, there are also very compelling reasons why our philosophers and “experts on morality” persist in continuing the charade. After all, their livelihoods, reputations, and claims to “expertise” depend on it. Then again, none of my thoughts on the subject has appeared in journals of philosophy. I write a blog with a handful of readers. Who are you going to believe?

  • Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

    Posted on June 28th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

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

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

    I have reviewed some of the many schemes for propping up the illusion that appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, supposedly based on Darwin’s work itself. These were commonly based on the fallacy that evolution always results in “progress” from the “lower” and more primitive to the “higher” and more noble, and would finally ascend to identity with moral truth itself. Absurd as they were, these ideas at least accepted the existence of human nature. Debunking them was merely a matter of pointing out that evolution is a natural phenomenon that, by its very nature, cannot recognize the difference between “higher” and “lower,” and cannot possibly result in “progress” towards things that don’t exist.
    By the time Westermarck put the final nail in the coffin of these imaginative schemes, however, a deus ex machina had appeared to rescue the illusion in the form of the Blank Slate. For half a century the “experts” and “men of science” insisted on the absurd but ideologically expedient notion that there is no such thing as human nature. What Darwin had said on the subject was ignored. With human nature safely swept under the rug, there could no longer be an objection to the illusion of objective moral truths based on naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality. Eventually, the Blank Slate orthodoxy collapsed, and human nature could no longer be ignored. “Evolutionary debunking arguments” began to appear, once again pointing out the connection between natural selection and the existence of the emotions that generations of earlier philosophers had demonstrated were an essential “root cause” of morality. Once again, latter day philosophers faced an existential challenge. They had to find more creative ways to prop up the illusion.

    Enter the unicorn. As things now stand, the philosophers have met the challenge, at least in their imaginations. Even the “evolutionary debunkers” among them have come up with “anti-realist” versions of “moral truth” that leave the illusion virtually untouched. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for lay people to understand or assess the logic behind these ideas because philosophers are fond of cloaking them in a virtually impenetrable fog of academic jargon. In order to kick out the props holding up the illusion, one must devote some time to learning the jargon. I don’t speak the jargon myself, but have developed at least a rudimentary ability to understand it. I will try to translate at least part of one of the more prominent attempts to defend objective morality for the edification of my readers. It appeared in a paper entitled Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It, published in 1996 by Ronald Dworkin in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. The paper was actually debunked quite effectively in a paper by Prof. James Allan of the University of Queensland entitled Truth’s Empire – A Reply to Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It. By all means, read both if you have the time and don’t mind wading through the jargon. I will limit myself to what I consider a few of the more remarkable features of Dworkin’s article in this post.

    Perhaps most remarkable of all is Dworkin’s tactic of placing his unicorn high on a shelf, obscured by jargon, and unreachable by naturalistic arguments. It’s actually a version of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria Argument (NOMA), used to protect religion on a similar shelf. According to Dworkin, morality is so hermetically sealed off from the rest of reality that it is impossible to even deny the existence of moral truths from outside the realm of morality itself. Merely stating that you don’t believe in the existence of objective moral truths becomes a “moral argument!” He invents the term “archimedeans” for those who imagine they are arguing against a belief from outside the “realm” of that belief itself, and further claims that it is impossible to do so in the case of morality. As he puts it,

    Any successful – really, any intelligible – argument that evaluative propositions are neither true nor false must be internal to the evaluative domain rather than Archimedean about it.

    This comment is only comprehensible if one grasps the truly radical nature of Dworkin’s unicorn. It doesn’t exist in the physical world, accessible to our familiar senses. My readers may recall that I’ve suggested to the true believers in objective Goods and objective Evils that they capture one for me and present it to me nicely mounted on a board. Dworkin reacts with disgust to the notion that his unicorn could be such a mundane creature, noting,

    The idea of a direct impact between moral properties and human beings supposes that the universe houses, among its numerous particles of energy and matter, some special particles – morons – whose energy and momentum establish fields that at once constitute the morality or immorality, or virtue or vice, of particular human acts and institutions and also interact in some way with human nervous systems so as to make people aware of the morality and immorality or of the virtue or vice. We might call this picture the “moral-field” thesis. If it is intelligible, it is also false.

    However, there is an unavoidable consequence to making the “morons” disappear. In Dworkin’s words,

    The powerful consequence is this. Morality is a distinct, independent dimension of our experience, and it exercises its own sovereignty. We cannot argue ourselves free of it by its own leave, except, as it were, by making our peace with it… We cannot climb outside of morality to judge it from some external archimedean tribunal.

    In other words, we cannot deny the existence of unicorns from outside the world of unicorns! Let’s be clear about this. Dworkin is actually claiming that morality exists in some kind of a transcendental spirit world, inaccessible not only to our physical senses but to even the most sensitive scientific instruments. If one can swallow that, then hand-waving Darwinian arguments out of existence becomes a mere bagatelle. For example, according to Dworkin,

    Perhaps much of the contemporary philosophical skepticism has its forgotten source in exactly this logic: It may all be a lingering residue of the defeat of crude anthropomorphic religion. How else can we explain the widespread but plainly mistaken assumption that a successful Darwinian explanation of moral concern – that human animals with such a concern were more likely to survive – would have skeptical implications?

    Indeed, a powerful innate belief in unicorns cannot be defeated by Darwinian arguments if the unicorns don’t exist in a world accessible to Darwin, but in a spirit world of their own. The spirit world argument is hardly unique to Dworkin. Similar arguments aren’t difficult to find in the journals of philosophy.

    Dworkin doesn’t limit himself to the NOMA argument. He also tries the ad hominem gambit of conflating the claim that there are no objective moral truths with such whimsical and passing philosophical fads as post-modernism, anti-foundationalism, and related efforts to deny the very existence of objective truth. He also claims that disbelief in objective morality is “dangerous,” as if truth could be manufactured at will as a means of making us “safe.” It’s hardly worth wasting a torpedo on such flimsy arguments.

    If we are to believe the philosophers themselves, the number of “realists” like Dworkin is increasing among them. It hardly seems to matter, though. Even the “anti-realists,” such as J. L. Mackie and “evolutionary debunker” Sharon Street assume the existence of “moral truth” even as they reject arguments in favor of “objective moral truth.” I have yet to figure out in what sense they consider the distinction relevant. The jargon becomes unusually opaque when they try to explain it. They write long papers and even books explaining why there are no objectively true answers to moral questions, and conclude by explaining to the rest of us what our “duties” and “obligations” are, and what we “ought” and “ought not” to do. I personally have no intention of allowing either “realists” or “anti-realists” to dictate behavior to me based on their conclusions about what their moral emotions are trying to tell them.

    The “unicorn criterion” is interesting from a historical as well as a philosophical point of view. There was a rich literature devoted to the implications of Darwinism for morality before the Blank Slate debacle, but to all appearances it has all evaporated as if swallowed by a black hole. I have never yet seen anything by a modern “evolutionary debunker” attributing any of his ideas to a pre-Blank Slate philosopher in general or Edvard Westermarck in particular. Other than Darwin himself, they are seldom even mentioned. Perhaps it would be useful for the philosophers to learn some philosophy.

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

    Posted on June 9th, 2019 Helian 3 comments

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

    I focus on emotional expressions, body language, and social dynamics. These are so similar between humans and other primates that my skill applies equally to both, although my work mostly concerns the latter.

    Emotions, in turn, are of overriding importance if we would understand, not only animal behavior, but the human condition:

    Our judicial systems channel feelings of bitterness and revenge into just punishment, and our health care systems have their roots in compassion. Hospitals (from the Latin hospitalis, or “hospitable”) started out as religious charities run by nuns and only much later became secular institutions operated by professionals. In fact, all our most cherished institutions and accomplishments are tightly interwoven with human emotions and would not exist without them.

    He believes this is also true of a critical aspect of human behavior; our morality. I agree. De Waal draws a sharp distinction between emotions and feelings. As he puts it,

    Triggered by certain stimuli and accompanied by behavioral changes, emotions are detectable on the outside in facial expression, skin color, vocal timbre, gestures, odor, and so on. Only when the person experiencing these changes becomes aware of them do they become feelings, which are conscious experiences. We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings.

    De Waal is certainly aware of who the Blank Slaters were, the kind of “science” they did, and the gross disconnect between their egalitarian rhetoric and the reality of their behavior. A self-described hippy in the 70’s, his studies led him to collect extensive data on social hierarchy and the wielding of power among apes. He couldn’t avoid noticing the same behaviors in his own leftist ingroup:

    It came down to the staple of the observer: pattern recognition. I started to notice rampant jockeying for position, coalition formation, currying of favors, and political opportunism – in my own environment. And I don’t mean among just among the older generation. The student movement had its own alpha males, power struggles, groupies, and jealousies. In fact, the more promiscuous we became, the more sexual jealousy reared its ugly head. My ape study gave me the right distance to analyze these patterns, which were plain as day if you looked for them. Student leaders ridiculed and isolated potential challengers and stole everybody’s girlfriend while at the same time preaching the wonders of egalitarianism and tolerance. There was an enormous mismatch between what my generation wanted to be, as expressed in our passionate political oratory, and how we actually behaved. We were in total denial!

    A bit further in the book he adds,

    Human hierarchies can be quite apparent, but we don’t always recognize them as such, and academics often act as if they don‘t exist… Given a choice between manifest human behavior and trendy psychological constructs, the social sciences always favor the latter.

    He recounts an encounter between Paul Ekman, a colleague who studied the connection between emotions and facial expressions, and a typical Blank Slater, an anthropologist who insisted that human emotions and their expression were infinitely malleable. According to de Waal,

    Expecting to find cabinets full of field notes, films, and photographs of human body language, Ekman asked if he could get a look at his records. To his astonishment, the answer was that none existed. The anthropologist claimed that all his data were in his head.

    What I find the most remarkable thing about the book is that, in spite of these broad hints about how things were back in the day, he can’t bring himself to admit the full extent of the carnage. He seldom, if ever, uses the term Blank Slate, and never mentions the rather salient fact that the Blank Slate orthodoxy brought meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences, intimately connected as they are with his own discipline, to a screeching halt for more than half a century. He must be aware of the truth. De Waal is 70 years old, and must have noticed what was going on around him as a young Ph.D. student. He must have been aware that anyone who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy was furiously attacked, and was likely to have his career destroyed or derailed. It gets worse. Beyond avoiding the “indelicacy” of mentioning painful truths about the “integrity” of the behavioral sciences, shameful as they must be to de Waal and the rest of the academic tribe, he actually trots out mythical versions of the “history” of the Blank Slate. He is hardly unique in this respect. Of one thing we can be sure. Whatever fairy tale eventually emerges as the preferred “history” of the Blank Slate, any resemblance between it and the truth will be purely incidental. Let’s look at some examples. According to de Waal,

    In sociobiological depictions of nature as a dog-eat-dog place, all behavior boiled down to selfish genes, and self-serving tendencies were invariably attributed to “the law of the strongest.” Genuine kindness was out of the question, because no organism would be so stupid as to ignore danger in order to assist another. If such behavior did occur, it must be either a mirage or a product of “misfiring” genes. The infamous summary line of this era, “Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed,” was quoted over and over with a certain amount of glee: altruism, it said, must be a sham.

    Here we see a typical and fundamental aspect of the revised “history” – the smearing of those who were right about human nature when virtually the entire academic tribe was wrong. In the lay vernacular of the 60’s and early 70’s, the academic specialty most closely associated with this lonely group was ethology. It became “sociobiology” after the publication of the book of that name by E. O. Wilson in 1975. Did “sociobiologists” really depict nature as a dog-eat-dog place? One would think that the first place to look for an answer would be in the writings of Wilson, the greatest sociobiologist of them all. Wilson sees nature as the very opposite of a dog-eat-dog place. He is probably the most prominent proponent around of the idea that altruism plays a highly important role in the natural world, and that it exists mainly by virtue of group selection. Two other highly regarded sociobiologists, Robert Trivers and Richard Alexander, independently proposed explanations of apparently unreciprocated altruism back in the mid-80’s. The most recognizable proponent of selfish genes, of course, is Richard Dawkins, who published The Selfish Gene back in 1976. However, he was no sociobiologist. His book included attacks on sociobiologists in general and Wilson in particular for defending altruism in the natural world.

    In short, de Waal’s “dog-eat-dog” fantasy is just that – a fantasy. This begs the question, “Why?” Why is it that a respected public intellectual would claim to “remember” something that even a cursory glance at the source material reveals as pure nonsense? Readers of this blog can probably guess the answer – the Blank Slate. This “memory” and others like it can only be explained if one knows the history of the affair.

    By the 1960’s, the vast majority of scientists and professionals in the behavioral sciences had already been claiming that there is no such thing as human nature for several decades. This nonsense, laughable to any reasonably intelligent child, was the product of ideological imperatives that required perfectly plastic, malleable human beings to serve as denizens of the various utopias that were in fashion at the time. It was propped up by vilifying anyone who demurred as a racist, fascist, fanatical right-winger, etc., and letting them know that their careers would be destroyed if they persisted. As a result, it took an outsider, someone the Blank Slaters couldn’t destroy, to begin kicking out the props that supported the Blank Slate façade, thereby initiating its slow but inexorable collapse. The outsider who eventually turned up was Robert Ardrey, and he accomplished the feat by publishing a series of four highly popular books that defended the existence and importance of human nature, and exposed what had been going on in the behavioral “sciences” to intelligent lay people. The “men of science” were furious at Ardrey for exposing and humiliating them. They haven’t forgiven him to this day, and they still can’t admit that he was right and they were wrong. Instead of simply admitting as much, they have concluded that they can better preserve the “integrity” of their field by concocting an alternative “history” of the affair out of whole cloth. According to the current version of this “history,” Ardrey and others who began chiming in with the same message after he had broken the ice were “bad men,” and the “men of science” have now exposed their “errors.” Lately the “men of science” have actually had the gall to claim that the Blank Slate never happened, that it was all a “straw man.” De Waal’s dubious “memories” are best understood in the context of this campaign to rearrange history. Another example occurs in Chapter V:

    The first animal emotion studied – the only one that mattered to biologists in the 1960s and ‘70s – was aggression. In those days, every debate about human evolution boiled down to the aggressive instinct.

    This “memory,” too, is utter nonsense, as anyone can confirm by consulting the still plentiful source material. The “debate” in those days wasn’t over whether “aggression” was a human instinct, but over the question of whether innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature,” if you will, existed at all. It’s inconceivable that de Waal isn’t aware of this fact, and yet nowhere in his book does he so much as mention the Blank Slate. The number of biologists in the 60’s, particularly in the United States, who explicitly embraced the claim that human nature even existed was extremely small. Among those who did, the idea they claimed that aggression was the only animal emotion that mattered is ridiculous. Their work was collected and summarized by Ardrey in his books, including African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, both of which appeared in the 60s. In both there are extensive descriptions of many aspects of animal behavior other than aggression, including altruism and moral behavior, as well as the claim that these forms of behavior also existed in human beings. That was the real subject of debate.

    Whence, then, the “aggression” canard? It can best be understood as a Blank Slate strawman. The few who dared challenge the Blank Slate orthodoxy hardly ignored forms of behavior other than aggression. However, they didn’t ignore the fact of aggression, either. It was, of course, the theme of On Aggression, published by Konrad Lorenz in 1966. Even that book, however, discussed many other forms of animal behavior. The Blank Slaters seized on the topic because aggression could be portrayed as “bad.” They then tossed in the bogus strawman that their opponents believed that aggression was a rigid, “genetically determined” behavior, forcing humans and other primates to behave like “killer apes.” This transparent lie has been propped up by the academic tribe ever since. Unfortunately, de Waal compounds the lie with statements such as,

    There is one domain, though, in which aggression is common and reconciliation rare, making for decidedly different outcomes. This domain received enormous attention in 1966 when Konrad Lorenz argued in On Aggression that we have an aggressive drive that may lead to warfare, hence that war is part of human biology.

    Both Lorenz and Ardrey discussed aspects of human nature that “may lead to warfare.” Neither one of them ever claimed that it followed that war is some rigid, genetically determined part of human biology. Both were perfectly well aware that anything like modern warfare was impossible before the technology necessary to support it became available. What they did do is suggest that some aspects of innate human behavior might have something to do with the prevalence of warfare throughout recorded history and, if so, it would behoove us to understand what those aspects are, as a means of preventing warfare in the future. This suggestion can only be portrayed as “wrong” or “irrational” if one rejects the claim that innate human behavior exists at all or, in other words, if one has swallowed the dogmas of the Blank Slate. If de Waal really believes that Lorenz ever claimed that “war is part of human biology,” let him cite line and verse. Otherwise he should retract this patently false statement. A bit later, de Waal doubles down, presenting his version of that favorite Blank Slate canard, the “killer ape theory,” as follows:

    In the 1970s, however, came the first shocking field reports of chimpanzees killing each other, hunting monkeys, eating meat, and so on. And even though killing of other species was never the issue, the chimpanzee observations were used to make the point that our ancestors must have been murderous monsters. Incidents of chimps killing their leaders, such as described above, are exceptional compared to what they do to members of other groups for whom they reserve their most brutal violence. As a result, ape behavior moved from serving as an argument against Lorenz’s position to becoming exhibit A in its favor.

    This certainly conforms to the current version of the academic tribe’s narrative, but it is far from the truth. “Lorenz position” was never, ever, that “our ancestors must have been murderous monsters,” another lie among the many invented by the Blank Slaters. It wasn’t Ardrey’s position, either, as I’ve documented in my post about Travis Pickering’s book, Rough and Tumble. Indeed, the “murderous monster” lie, otherwise known as the “killer ape theory,” was much more commonly used to smear Ardrey than Lorenz. What Ardrey claimed is that our ape ancestors hunted. The Blank Slaters furiously denied this, although we now know that it was quite probably true. He also claimed that, since they hunted, they must also have killed, which the Blank Slaters also furiously denied, but which is also quite probably true. The only other significant aspect of the killer ape theory is that our ancestors killed like “murderous monsters,” that they were always furious and enraged when they killed. Neither Ardrey nor Lorenz believed this. Indeed, as I’ve documented elsewhere, they believed exactly the opposite. We encounter more of the same when de Waal gets around to describing the behavior of our more peace-loving relatives, the bonobos. According to the author,

    They are simply too peaceful, too matriarchal, and too gentle to fit the popular storyline of human evolution, which turns on conquest, male dominance, hunting and warfare… Our hippie cousins are invariably hailed as delightful, then quickly marginalized.

    To this I can only wonder, “Where have you been?” I’ve been reading stories about how wonderful and peaceful bonobos are nonstop for at least the last ten years. They’ve been anything but marginalized. The amusing thing is that they occasionally slip off their pedestal, especially in discussions of their “feminist” proclivities. I was at a talk by a woman who had spent much time observing bonobos in the field. She described how two dominant females treated a male who got out of line. They viciously attacked him and, as she triumphantly declared, tore his testicles almost completely off! De Waal continues,

    Of all the apes, the bonobo looks most like Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), down to its general body proportions, long legs, grasping feet, and even brain size. But instead of offering a new perspective stressing humanity’s gentle and empathetic potential long with that of one of its closest relatives, anthropologists gave us only hand-wringing about how atypical Ardi was – how could we have had such a gentle ancestor? Presenting Ardi as an anomaly and a mystery kept intact the prevailing macho storyline.

    Seriously? The anthropologists have become a gang of warmongers, male chauvinists, and killer ape aficionadoes, and I didn’t even notice? I can only suggest that de Waal read Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Society by Alice Dreger. Therein he will learn that the “science” of anthropology has long been more about insuring that reports from the field reflect how leftist academics imagine human beings should be than about how they actually are. It should be an epiphany for him.  We find another quaint throwback to the strawmen of the Blank Slaters near the beginning of Chapter 6, where we find the comment,

    Emotion-based reactions have this gigantic advantage over reflex-like behavior: they pass through a filter of experience and learning known as appraisal. I wish early ethologists had thought of this, instead of clinging to the instinct concept, which is now largely outdated. Instincts are knee-jerk reactions which are pretty useless in an ever-changing world. Emotions are much more adaptable, because they operate like intelligent instincts.

    Here, again, we must charitably assume that de Waal has never read what the early ethologists actually wrote. From Darwin on, when they spoke of instincts, they made it perfectly clear that they weren’t referring to “knee-jerk reactions,” but to what de Waal calls emotions. Every scientist I’m aware of who ever wrote about “human instincts” was careful to point out that, in our species, they were much less rigid, much more subject to what de Waal calls “feelings,” and much more amenable to conscious restraint than in other animals, and that, for that matter, they weren’t “knee-jerk reactions” in many other animals as well. In fact, the “knee-jerk reaction” was yet another favorite canard of the Blank Slaters of old. They, of course, insisted that human beings, not to mention apes have no instincts. See, for example, the comments to that affect in Man and Aggression, by Ashley Montagu, one of the more invaluable pieces of source material from the heyday of the Blank Slate. Apparently they imagined this piece of nonsense would become more palatable if they redefined “instinct” to refer exclusively to rigid and unlearned types of behavior such as one finds, for example, in insects, in spite of the fact that they knew perfectly well it was never used in that sense when applied to human beings. As can also be seen by referring to Man and Aggression, this pathetic gambit was aimed mainly at Robert Ardrey, who had used the term as commonly understood in African Genesis. In his later works he was at pains to refer to human instincts as “open-ended” or as “innate predispositions” to make it perfectly clear what he was talking about. If de Waal seriously believes that “instinct” has always meant “knee-jerk reaction,” I can only suggest he pick up a copy of one of Darwin’s books. Darwin often used the term, and made it perfectly clear that he was not referring to a “knee-jerk reaction” when he applied it to human beings in, for example, his The Descent of Man.

    It’s sad, really. If de Waal had tried to publish Mama’s Last Hug back in the mid-70’s, the Blank Slaters would have furiously denounced him as a racist and fascist, in league with the likes of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz just as they did to E. O. Wilson when he published Sociobiology back in 1975. Is it really too much to ask that de Waal take a look at what the old ethologists and sociobiologists actually wrote, instead of propping up ludicrous myths about them? If he did, he would notice that their hypotheses were actually virtually identical to those he supports today. De Waal knows all about the connections between emotions and human behavior, and has embraced the truth that human morality is rooted in emotion. Why then this bowing and scraping to the ancient Blank Slaters, who vilified and attempted to destroy anyone who proposed similar ideas a few decades ago. Why this gleeful collaboration in the bowdlerization of history? Do the Blank Slaters of old still wield that much power in academia? Is de Waal that fearful of being ostracized from his academic tribe?

    It’s even more sad that de Waal isn’t the only one actively engaged in making up an alternative history out of whole cloth. Many others are busily engaged in the project as well, and the “men of science” will very likely succeed in “adjusting” history to spare their amour propre and the humiliation of admitting that they were consistently and almost uniformly dead wrong about something as critical to our very survival as an understanding of our own nature for more than half a century. Apparently, when it comes to “selfish genes,” they have more than their share.

  • Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

    Posted on June 5th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

    It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

    This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not.

    This criterion certainly seems relevant to the question of designer babies. Let us focus on just one of the possible applications of the technologies that are now available or soon will be available, namely intelligence. There is no question that natural selection has heavily favored higher intelligence in the evolution of our ancestors over the last few million years. It seems reasonable to assume that it will continue to have a selective advantage in the future, at least in the long term. However, in the case of designer babies, there will be a radical change in the method of selection. It will occur on a much shorter time scale, and will be artificial rather than natural. Some articles by Brian Wang that recently appeared on the Nextbigfuture website provide insight into just how short that timescale will be. For example, according to an article entitled Future of Gene Sequencing, Genome Editing and Intelligence Enhancement, the heritability of human intelligence is likely from 50% – 80%. To date the increasingly powerful tool of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) has identified the source of 21% – 22% of this heritability, associated with a very large number of genes, each having a small effect. According to Wang, techniques such as embryo selection and gene editing combined with continued advances in our ability to pin down the genetic sources of heritability will make it possible to achieve average IQ gains of as much as 25 to 30 points within the next decade. In separate articles he notes that Human Gene Editing of Embryos Will Be Safe and Effective Within Two Years, and that shortcuts to higher intelligence may be achieved by adding genes to our DNA as opposed to modifying existing ones. He adds that “armies of students” at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen are now developing these and related technologies.

    Supposing Wang’s estimates of the speed of technological advances that will enable enhanced intelligence are anywhere near accurate, application of the criterion described above becomes relatively straightforward. Let us assume that no attempt is made to alter the emotions that motivate our behavior in a similarly radical fashion. In that case, we will continue to perceive others in terms of “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup. Intelligence will become an increasingly important criterion for distinguishing between the two. The intelligent ingroup may deem it useful to keep some of the less intelligent outgroup around as workers to perform the decreasing number of menial jobs that can’t be done more efficiently by robots, or as pets. Beyond that, it is difficult to imagine that they would perceive them as other than a useless burden and a threat to the environment and hence the sustainability of life on our planet if allowed to survive in large numbers. The chances that they would concern themselves with the “human flourishing” of the outgroup are vanishingly small. In the long term, it seems probable that the intelligent ingroup would survive, and the more “virtuous” outgroup, having rejected the relevant technologies as “immoral,” would perish.

    If, then, we choose to apply the criterion of survival to deciding how to act in response to our emotions, so that our behavior is “in harmony” with the reasons the emotions exist to begin with, then we “should” embrace the rapid development and application of intelligence enhancing technologies. If we choose to ignore the survival criterion, we may reject these technologies. There is no objective reason for preferring survival to the alternative. We may, for example, prefer to be happy as long as we’re around to survival in the long term, or we may decide that our moral emotions point to the “true good” and the “true evil,” and that it is better to be “good” than to survive. Nature doesn’t care one way or the other, and there is no objective basis for making these decisions. In the end, it boils down to whether your personal emotional whims include assigning value to such things as survival, reproduction, the survival of biological life in general, etc. or not.

  • Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

    Posted on May 2nd, 2019 Helian 6 comments

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

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

    I’m sure Prof. Staddon doesn’t need my sympathy, but I sympathize with him nonetheless. He wrote an article in which he clearly does not claim that secular humanism is a religion. Prof. Coyne then falsely accused him of claiming that secular humanism is a religion, using this false accusation as the basis for his assertion that the article was “the worst ever” to appear at Quillette. Prof. Staddon responded by stating very politely what should have been obvious to anyone who gave his original article a fair reading in the first place – that Prof. Coyne’s response was based on a false premise. It would be nice if Prof. Coyne would now simply admit the truth and apologize but, human nature being what it is, I strongly doubt that will happen.

    IMHO Prof. Staddon’s article is one of the best that’s ever appeared at Quillette, not the worst. It addresses a very fundamental problem; the tendency of secular humanists to insist on tinkering with the law based on novel and constantly mutating versions of morality that lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide them with any reasonable claim to legitimacy or authority. This tendency is certainly predictable for our species, but it is also irrational. In fact, it is simply one aspect of an even bigger problem; our inability to understand and rationally respond to our moral nature.

    Secular humanist apologists among the commenters assure us that their moral claims are not similar to religious moral claims, because they are more rational and flexible. They can be refined and make progress towards the “Good.” Unfortunately, this “Good” of theirs doesn’t exist. It is an illusion. All they are really saying is, “Unlike religious morality, my version of morality is rational and flexible, and so can be refined and make progress towards satisfying my emotional whims.” That’s all their “Good” actually is, and yet they seriously believe it automatically possesses a magical authority to dictate behavior to others via the law.

    Lost in such claims is the very fact that morality is rooted in emotions, and wouldn’t exist, at least as we know it, absent these emotions. The claims are based on the assumption that the emotional basis of morality can simply be ignored, and “oughts” and “ought nots” tinkered and cobbled together as if these emotional constraints didn’t exist at all. In other words, secular humanism is just a warmed over version of John Stuart Mill’s Blank Slate utilitarianism, and just as chimerical.

    I’m afraid Prof. Staddon has Darwin on his side on this one. Just read Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” If that’s not clear enough for you, read the first chapter of Westermarck’s “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.” If that’s not enough, read Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” and, if you still don’t get it, all I can suggest is that you start wading through the ocean of books that have been rolling off the presses lately about “evolved morality,” and the expression of morality in animals. Consider the obvious implications if morality is an expression of evolved emotions. Natural selection is just that, a natural process. It does not make progress towards anything, nor does it have any goal or function in mind. It has no mind. The same applies to morality if it is the result of that natural process. In short, Darwinism and secular humanism are mutually exclusive and the latter is really nothing but an expression of blind faith, just as Prof. Staddon claims. Emotional whims have no intrinsic authority whatsoever, and yet, as he points out, secular humanists persist in claiming that the law must be based on these whims. When one considers that the emotions involved evolved in times radically different from the present, it should be abundantly obvious that it can’t be assumed that they will even have the same results now as they did then. Furthermore, there is no basis whatsoever for the claim that those results, namely, survival and reproduction of the relevant genes, are “Good in themselves.” The secular humanist rationale for meddling with the law is based on a fantasy. It is not only irrational, but potentially dangerous as well.

    Of course, secular humanists aren’t the only ones who are delusional about morality. Virtually everyone else on the planet is as well. The illusion that good and evil are real things, existing independently of anyone’s opinion about them, is a powerful and pervasive aspect of human nature. It is so powerful that, when it is challenged, we defend and rationalize the illusion, refusing to even consider the seemingly obvious and elementary reasons that it is just that – an illusion. Many “get” the connection between evolution by natural selection and the existence of morality. In spite of that, they are incapable of putting two and two together and accepting the implications of that connection. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist by virtue of natural selection, it is simply impossible for the illusions of good and evil spawned by these emotions to be true. As he put it,

    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.

    Prof. Coyne is typical of secular humanists in general. In one breath he claims that he realizes that morality is subjective, and in the next he leaps to the defense of the chimera! This glaring non sequitur is treated as if there were nothing incongruous or absurd about it at all. In defending his chimera, he resorts to typical rationalizations, which can also be found sprinkled among the comments to the articles referred to above. For example, he writes,

    But religious morality has three features that differentiate it from morality deriving from secular humanism. First, the diversity of morality among secular humanists is far wider than that of followers of a given religion: beyond adherence to the Golden Rule, secular humanists vary dramatically in what they consider moral.

    This is entirely beside the point. The number of versions of morality one can find among the various secular humanist ingroups is irrelevant. What is relevant is that both religious believers and humanists defend their goods and evils as if they were real, objective things, regardless of whether they claim to believe in the subjectivity of morality or not. Prof. Coyne goes on,

    Further, much of a religion’s morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims… In contrast, the morality of secular humanists derives from rational consideration about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but ultimately grounded on a secular preference (i.e., “I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.”). Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    As noted by Darwin, Westermarck, Hume, Hutcheson, and many others, these “secular preferences” are actually emotions, irrational by their very nature. If the moral pretensions of humanists are “ultimately grounded” on emotions, they cannot be “largely based on reason” at the same time. They are based on emotions, period! “Reason” comes in when, like everyone else, humanists attempt to figure out what their emotions are trying to tell them. This “rational” process inevitably fails, because the emotions in question are artifacts of a natural process. As such, they cannot possibly be trying to tell them anything. Coyne then recites the usual nonsensical circular argument humanists are fond of using to justify their moral claims:

    I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.

    which boils down to, “My version of the Good is that which maximizes the Good.” Coyne continues,

    Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    Really!? Is it “science” when mom and pop bakeries are threatened with destruction unless they act in ways that violate the proprietors’ religious beliefs, based on novel rules that didn’t exist when they opened their businesses? Is it “science” when parents are threatened with heavy fines, jail, and the state kidnapping of their children unless they agree to have them poisoned, mutilated, and neutered in order to promote “transgender rights?” Is it “science” when the careers of legitimate scientists are arbitrarily destroyed by baying mobs for being insufficiently “woke” about the latest dictates of political correctness? Is it “science” when the literature and other cultural icons of a people are destroyed because of some humanist’s delusion that they don’t “maximize well-being”? Is it “scientific” to propose versions of morality that blithely ignore such fundamental aspects of human morality as its dual nature – our universal tendency to apply different versions of morality to ingroups and outgroups? To this I can only respond, try reading and actually comprehending Prof. Staddon’s argument in his original article about the arbitrary manner in which humanist moral pretensions are actually transformed into law. Is there really anything “scientific” about it? Is there some regular process by which the opinions of all regardless of the version of morality they happen to embrace are taken into account? Is there any suggestion that those who insist that others obey laws based on their moral claims be required to clearly state the emotions that are the “ultimate grounding” for those claims, and explain whether or not the laws will accomplish anything even close to the reasons that account for the fact that the emotions in question exist to begin with? No, no, and again, no! The idea that there is anything remotely “scientific” about the way the moral sausage is prepared in our societies is utterly ludicrous. I think that is what Prof. Staddon was actually trying to say. In his words,

    I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion.

    This seems perfectly obvious to me, but apparently not to Prof. Coyne. He continues,

    Thus everyone in the world becomes religious, save for sociopaths and the few who disdain all morality.

    No, secular humanists to not “become religious” by virtue of the fact that there are similarities between their behavior and that of religious believers. And “everyone” does not belong to one of these two categories. Darwin was not a sociopath, and Westermarck did not disdain all morality, and yet neither of them seems to have suffered from the illusion that their moral emotions should be consulted in formulating the law.

    Prof. Staddon has a point, and a very important one. Our moral emotions, the real “ultimate basis” of our morality, are relics of an environment that no longer exists. It is extremely unlikely that blindly consulting them to formulate the laws and other rules that regulate human behavior in a completely different environment will have the same result that it did when the emotions in question evolved. I would go even further than Prof. Staddon. He claimed that secular humanists don’t believe in “invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.” In fact, they do believe that imaginary things, namely, Good and Evil, have an objective existence independent of anyone’s mere opinion about them. Many of them claim to be subjective moralists, but, for all practical matters, if not in theory, subjective morality and secular humanism are mutually exclusive. It is not rational to insist that the law be based on one’s emotions, and yet, as Prof. Staddon points out, that is precisely what we commonly find them doing. Far from respecting alternative opinions about morality, they perceive anyone who disagrees with them according to the familiar practice of our species – as outgroup. That is yet another characteristic they share with religious believers.

    If, as Darwin insisted, human morality is ultimately based on emotions, and those emotions exist by virtue of natural selection, then it is impossible to derive “moral truths” based on reason. That, however, is the secular humanist agenda. It is an agenda that depends on ignoring the reasons that the emotions in question exist to begin with, on insisting that they can be “reprogrammed” to apply to social realities that didn’t exist at the time they evolved, and being willfully blind to inconvenient truths about human morality, such as its dual quality of applying radically differently rules to ingroups and outgroups. It is on such palpably false assumptions that the rules and laws that regulate behavior in our societies are made. Nothing that I, Prof. Staddon, or anyone else says is likely to change that fact any time in the foreseeable future. However, whatever your personal goals happen to be, it would probably be expedient to take it into account as you pursue them.

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

    Posted on April 21st, 2019 Helian 5 comments

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

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

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

    In fact, I would go even further. I would throw in the first element as well. Secular humanists do believe in invisible or hidden things. Whether they admit it or not, they perceive good and evil as real things, and they act, often very passionately, as if they believe they are real things. In fact, to be a secular humanist is to believe in these illusions. Based on these fantasies, secular humanists assume a right to dictate to others how they should or should not behave, and what the law that applies not just to themselves, but to everyone else, should be.

    As Staddon points out, this is a problem, because, even though secular humanists are at least as passionate and fanatical in defense of their moral illusions as the religious, “secular morality is not written down in a single identifiable source. It is not easily accessible.” That’s for sure! It also has the unsettling habit of changing from one day to the next, and is often defended as “the truth” in spite of that. Secular humanist morality has also become almost completely disconnected from the reasons that the emotions that give rise to it exist to begin with. I know of not a single humanist out there who could give a coherent, rational answer to the question of why they hold their moral beliefs, and what those moral beliefs have to do with the reasons they exist. “Coherent” and “rational” are the key words here. In other words, in general they are ignorant of the fact that the existence of morality is explained by natural selection, they are incapable of explaining whether their version of morality will accomplish ends similar to those that account for the existence of morality to begin with, and they are incapable of citing any authority for their morality’s unsettling ability to jump out of their skull, fasten itself on someone else’s back, and begin dictating how they ought or ought not to behave.

    Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the excellent Why Evolution is True website and one of the most effective debunkers of the God myth around, was infuriated by the article, blasting back at it with one of his own entitled, “The worst article to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a religion. Apparently he thought his ox had been gored, and ended up writing one of his own “worst articles” as a result. In the first place, he, too, jumped to the conclusion that Staddon actually did claim that secular humanism is a religion. As noted above, that’s not true. More importantly, however, Prof. Coyne completely missed the point about the third “element,” the one about morality. The point is, quoting Staddon, that when it comes to morality, secular humanists “…have just as many ‘unprovable beliefs'” as religious believers. The only difference between them is that seculars lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide an authority for their beliefs. Their “authority” is simply assumed, floating out there in the vacuum somewhere. In spite of that, again quoting Staddon, “…many passionate, ‘religious’ beliefs of secular candidates (for political office, ed.) go undetected and unquestioned. Thus they become law by stealth.”

    That is, in fact, a major theme of this blog. From my own point of view, it’s bad enough that secular humanists have delusional beliefs about morality that are no different in kind from the superstitions of religious believers. The real problem is, however, that they insist on forcing the rest of us to pretend their illusions are true, and intimidating us into acting and speaking as if they were true. As Staddon notes, they also insist on giving their illusions, which have no natural authority whatever beyond their own emotional whims, the force of law.

    According to Prof. Coyne, “…there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond ‘Do what benefits other people.'” It’s beyond me how anyone with any experience of the real world can believe something so preposterous. There may not be “a” morality of secular humanism. There are, in fact, a variety, generally quite similar, but, whatever the details, they are often passionately defended. They are also very well defined. Secular humanists tend to belong to ingroups that are defined by ideological shibboleths, many of them consisting of moral “goods” and “bads.” The fact that, as Prof. Coyne puts it, “…secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule,” is completely beside the point.

    Prof. Coyne himself is no exception. He claims to believe that morality is subjective. Many other secular humanists do as well. In fact, secular humanism and subjective morality are mutually exclusive. Read some of the articles on his website. He makes moral judgments all the time. If pressed, he will claim that they are just his opinion, but he never states them that way. He claims to be a scientist and an atheist. If so, his behavior, in common with that of every other secular humanist I’m aware of, is fundamentally irrational.

    As Darwin, Westermarck, and many others before them pointed out, morality is by its very nature an expression of emotions. Where do those emotions come from, and why do they exist? If one is truly an atheist and a scientist worthy of the name, one must admit they exist by virtue of natural selection. How does natural selection work? When it comes to morality, does it work by selecting for actions that “benefit other people”? No, it doesn’t work by selecting for those things, or for anything even close to them. Among other things, it has selected for hatred of outgroups, a trait that all human beings have in common. Secular humanists are fond of ignoring that trait, although their hatred of outgroups, generally consisting of people who disagree with them about what “ought” to be, is often deeper and more bitter than the outgroup hatred of religious people. Have a look, for example, at Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, one of Prof. Coyne’s favorite fellow secular humanists. Therein you will find expressions of hatred directed at Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and Friedrich Nietzsche on the other that utterly fly in the face of the claim that secular humanism is all about “benefiting others.” If one is to take Pinker seriously, one must believe that people like Trump and Nietzsche wake up every morning wracking their brains to come up with a list of bad deeds they can do that day. Are we to seriously believe that there is nothing even remotely coercive in such shaming and vilification by prominent public intellectuals? When it comes to the law, are we to believe that such whimsical pronunciamientos have never had any effect on legislation regarding, for example, gay marriage, who may use what bathrooms, and who must bake what sort of cakes for whom?

    Natural selection, the source of the emotions that account for the existence of morality, is a natural process that favors traits that enhance the odds that the genes responsible for those traits will survive and reproduce. Moral emotions are included among those traits. When someone tells us that they want to “benefit other people,” or they want to “create a harmonious world,” they are telling us, after devoting more or less thought to the subject, what they think their moral emotions are trying to tell them. They are utterly wrong. That is not what their moral emotions are trying to tell them. To the extent that their moral emotions are trying to “tell” them anything, it is “Survive and reproduce!” When secular humanists tell us that they want to “benefit other people” and “create a harmonious world,” they are actually blindly responding to emotions in ways whose connection with the reason the emotions exist to begin with is purely coincidental. When they attempt to force the rest of us to swallow their prescriptions for “benefiting other people,” and “creating a harmonious world,” is it unreasonable for the rest of us to ask, “On what authority?” and to demand that they explain why we should be constrained to pay attention to any of their dyfunctional emotional whims whatsoever? What on earth gives them the right to arbitrarily reprogram human morality, and then bully the rest of us and denounce us as “evil” if we don’t blindly follow suit? That, in a nutshell, is the secular humanist agenda. I know of not a single one who isn’t on board with that agenda, and certainly none of them of any prominence is an exception to the rule.

    It is questions like these that Staddon is actually posing in his Quillette article, and that is the reason why it is anything but “the worst” they’ve ever published. We can’t ignore human moral emotions, whether we’re speaking of the law or of simple rules and conventions relating to social behavior. However, it seems to me there must be some better way of establishing those laws and conventions then simply allowing whatever ingroup happens to be best at manipulating emotions to dictate them to the rest of us. We might start by actually seeking to understand our moral behavior, including the potential dangers it poses. It might also behoove us to pose the question to anyone seeking to “improve” our social or legal rules, “How will the change affect the odds that the genes you carry will survive and reproduce? If it will not enhance those odds, why do you want to make the change?” Circular answers such as “It will do good” will not be accepted. I’m sorry, Prof. Coyne, but this time you got it wrong. You missed the point of the article, and if you think your version of morality is truly “subjective,” you have some explaining to do.

     

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

    Posted on April 4th, 2019 Helian 3 comments

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

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

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

    There are many, for example, who claim to accept the fact that morality is subjective. If that were the case, however, it would be irrational for them to argue that one should do one thing and should not do another thing without qualification. That, however, is precisely what every single “subjective moralist” I’ve ever heard, ever read, or was ever aware of actually does. If anyone knows of an exception, I would be pleased to hear about it. The delusional belief in objective moral truths is evidently far more difficult to shed than the “God delusion.” Consider, for example, the case of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is, of course, one of the most prominent “New Atheists.” It’s also clear that he is aware that our moral emotions exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. He made that perfectly clear as early as the publication of “The Selfish Gene” more than four decades ago. In spite of that, Dawkins constantly turns up on Twitter condemning some “evil,” or promoting some “good,” for all the world as if they were objective things. He is not alone in committing this glaring non sequitur. Everyone else on the planet who has ever passed as a New Atheist does exactly the same thing. Even Westermarck was no exception, closing his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas with the paragraph,

    I have here pointed out only the most general changes to which the moral ideas have been subject in the course of progressive civilization; the details have been dealt with each in their separate place. There can be no doubt that changes also will take place in the future, and that similar causes will produce similar effects. We have every reason to believe that the altruistic sentiment will continue to expand, and that those moral commandments which are based on it will undergo a corresponding expansion; that the influence of reflection upon moral judgments will steadily increase; that the influence of sentimental antipathies and likings will diminish; and that in its relation to morality religion will be increasingly restricted to emphasizing ordinary moral rules, and less preoccupied with inculcating special duties to the deity.

    In other words he felt obligated to reassure his readers that, in spite of his revolutionary Darwinian approach to morality, they needn’t worry; society would continue to make “moral progress” towards what everyone knows is “really good.” This incredibly tenacious belief in “moral progress,” a delusion not only of the new atheists, but of Westermarck himself, persists in spite of the seemingly obvious fact that, if there are no moral truths, there can be no moral progress. There is simply nothing to progress towards. If morality is an artifact of natural selection, it cannot possibly have a goal or anything of the sort towards which “progress” can be made. What passes for “moral progress” can never be anything more than progress towards satisfying the emotionally driven whims of individuals, no matter how many individuals happen to share the same whim. It is progress towards a mirage, and a dangerous mirage at that.

    The virtually universal belief, whether admitted or not, that the mirage is real, is remarkable in view of all we have learned about the workings of the human mind in the last century and a half. In light of that knowledge, the fact that morality is subjective should be obvious. It doesn’t even take Darwin to demonstrate the fact. Simply observe some ranting social justice warrior during one of their fits of virtuous indignation and ask yourself the question, “What authority entitles them to make these moral judgments.” In every case, the answer is the same. They possess no such authority. They simply assume it. If challenged, of course, they would seldom admit as much. The God authority has become unfashionable, but they can be relied on to come up with another one, even more absurd. Often, they simply rely on some version of the circular argument that what they claim is good is really good because it can be derived from some other good that is “obviously” really good. A rich array of such specious arguments have been invented to prop up the illusion, each more threadbare than the last. Most of us are incapable of even considering the possibility that morality is subjective, far less the implications of that fact. If the possibility is suggested, a typical response it to grasp at one of these arguments as a drowning man grasps a straw, and defend it to the end. No attempt is made to rationally consider the arguments in favor of subjective morality. Instead, one simply assumes they must be wrong, and then proceeds to rationalize the assumption. Anything to avoid facing the truth.

    If morality were objective it would necessarily exist in some form independent of the minds of individuals. No such object has ever been detected, for the obvious reason that no such object exists. Amazingly, this rather salient fact doesn’t seem to matter at all. As Westermarck put it,

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

    The illusion is so powerful that our finest scientists and our most brilliant intellectuals appear powerless to resist it even today. We behold all mankind blindly chasing a chimera, far from realizing that it’s a chimera, and incapable of rationally considering the implications of the natural process that created such a realistic illusion to begin with. This, in a nutshell, is the default state of our species. Our behavior is fundamentally irrational. The only general advice I can give individuals, whatever their personal goals happen to be, is Adapt. Your fellow human beings are likely to continue to act irrationally for the foreseeable future.

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

    Posted on March 12th, 2019 Helian 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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