Ethics: A Philosopher Ponders Darwin

Darwin didn’t waste many words on morality when he published The Descent of Man in 1871, but what he did write rendered all the thousands of philosophical tomes that had been previously written on the subject obsolete. In fact, the same can be said for most of the thousands of tomes that have been written on the subject after his time as well. In short, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits that are as much a result of natural selection as our more obvious physical traits. A number of seemingly obvious conclusions follow from this fundamental fact. For example, morality is subjective. Because it is the result of a natural process, it cannot have any goal or purpose. Sentient beings like us can have goals and purposes, but natural processes have none. As Hume pointed out long ago, there is no path from the “is” of natural processes to the “oughts” of morality. Our firm belief that “oughts” are real things that exist independently of what anyone happens to think about them is the result of a powerful illusion that happened to increase the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce.

It seems to me that, in spite of the above, philosophers could still make themselves useful in dealing with the reality of human morality. We really can’t get along without it. The emotions that give rise to it are too powerful for us to ignore. We also lack the intelligence to rationally analyze every move we make in our relations with others of our species. Taking the biological realities of human behavior into account, philosophers might take up the task of suggesting what kind of a morality we might adopt that would minimize friction and maximize cooperation in the societies we live in today, and yet be more or less in harmony with the emotions that are the root cause of our moral behavior. It seems at least plausible that they could come up with an improvement over the chaotic manipulation of moral emotions that we currently rely on to cook up the latest recipes for what we ought and ought not to do. I think that’s what E. O. Wilson had in mind when he suggested that we come up with a “biology of ethics, which will make possible the selection of a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values.”

For some reason, this seemingly obvious suggestion has never been popular with philosophers. Perhaps the gatekeepers who determine what may or may not be published in the academic journals have simply been too hidebound and inflexible to accommodate something so novel. All their epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies never prepared them to deal with something that renders all the “expertise” in morality they’ve spent their careers acquiring as irrelevant as humorism in medicine or the phlogiston theory in chemistry. Many of them realize they can no longer simply ignore Darwin. However, instead of considering some of the more obvious implications for moral philosophy if what he wrote was true, they have seemed more intent on obfuscating the subject under a thick smokescreen of philosophical jargon.

Consider, for example, a recent book on the subject entitled, An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, by Scott M. James. James seems to grasp some of the more obvious implications if our morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection. For example, he writes,

The psychological mechanisms that evolutionary psychologists claim fill the mind did not evolve in response to problems we confront today. They may help in solving similar problems today, but that’s not why we possess them. We possess them because they solved recurrent problems confronting our distant ancestors. And since they haven’t been “selected out” of the population, current populations still possess them. As evolutionary psychologists like to say, our modern skulls house stone-age minds.

James warns his readers against many of the familiar fallacies associated with biological explanations of behavior. These include conflating explanation and justification. The fact that innate tendencies may influence a particular behavior does not imply that the behavior is either good or evil. James also mentions genetic determinism, the false notion that we are forced to act in certain ways and not in others by our genes. Beloved as a strawman by the Blank Slaters of old, no serious evolutionary psychologist has ever claimed anything of the sort. He makes short work of the notion that the diversity of human moralities excludes the influence of evolved behavioral traits. In fact, if Darwin was right, that is exactly what one would expect.

Given this promising start, a scientist might expect James to accept the most “parsimonious” explanation of morality; that Darwin was right about morality, and that’s the end of it. But James is a philosopher, not a scientist. At the end of his book, we gaze from a distance as he wades back into his philosophical swamp. In the final chapter he writes,

Finally, building on the work of others, I have offered a moral constructivist position, according to which moral rightness and wrongness consist in what agents, (from a particular standpoint) would accept as rules to govern behavior. Unlike the other options outlined in this chapter, my position is an explicit attempt at a tracking account. I’m prepared to say that the reason we evolved to make moral judgments has precisely to do with the fact that the preponderance of these judgments were true.

In other words, James is an objective moralist, and seems to believe that natural selection is somehow capable of caring one way or the other about the moral rules he happens to prefer. If Darwin was right, then this is only possible if the “objective moral law” varies drastically from species to species, as noted in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man. A bit later James writes,

My proposal has two parts. The first part involves a refinement of the story we told in part I about how we evolved to think morally. I argue that we developed a special sensitivity to how others would view our behavior (from a particular standpoint). The second part is a metaethical story, that is, a story about what moral judgments are and about what makes true moral judgments true (and, yes, I believe some moral judgments are indeed true). As I argue, these two stories together could be read to imply that the evolution of our particular moral sense was the result of the recognition of facts about hypothetical agreement. An early human, disposed to judge that others could reasonably object to what she was intent on doing and motivated by that judgment, enhanced reproductive fitness partly because such judgments were sometimes true. And this, by the way constitutes a moral realism worthy of the name – or so I maintain.

And so on. James does not explain how his version of “true” moral judgments is compatible with the universal human tendency to identify and hate the members of outgroups, or our tendency to compete for status, regardless of what we deem others might consider “reasonable.” Neither does he explain why, once we are aware of the natural processes that account for our existence, and have formulated personal goals and assigned ourselves a purpose taking that knowledge into account, we should care one way or the other whether our actions conform to what James considers “true” moral rules as we pursue those goals and purposes, unless, of course, James happens to be holding a gun to our heads.

Imagine, if you will a world conference held to formulate a universal system of morality. It goes without saying that anyone suggesting a particular version of morality would be required to reveal what his personal goals in life happen to be, and why he values those goals. In my case, I would explain that my goals include my own survival and reproduction, the survival of my species, and the survival of biological life in general, and that I have those goals because I deem them in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. I would prefer a system of morality that facilitated those goals. James might then step up to the podium and suggest that we adopt his proposed moral rules, because they are “true,” regardless of whether they facilitate anyone else’s personal goals or not. I can only hope that such a proposal would be met with peels of laughter, and deemed grotesquely “unreasonable” by our fellow attendees.

I realize that extravagant “tracking” accounts of morality such as the one proposed by James are far more likely to be published in the journals of philosophy than anything as simple as a straightforward Darwinian explanation. That hardly constitutes a good reason for the rest of us to take them seriously. One must hope that eventually a few philosophers will attempt to wade back out of the swamp. However, given the realities of what constitutes “reasonable” behavior for any philosopher who wants to remain gainfully employed in academia, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Ethics Whimsy

There are many unflattering but appropriate adjectives that describe the current state of our culture. In perusing the pages of the latest issue of Ethics journal, it struck me that one of the better ones is “absurd.” According to a page entitled, “Information for Contributors,”

Ethics publishes both theory and the application of theory to contemporary moral issues.

In fact, Darwin supplied us with what is by far the most significant and salient theory as far as moral issues are concerned. He pointed out that morality is a manifestation of the same evolutionary process that accounts for the rest of our mental and physical characteristics. In doing so, he reduced all the tomes of moral philosophy, whether written before or since, that don’t take that fact into account, to intellectual curiosities. Most of the articles one finds in Ethics refer to Darwin, if at all, as an afterthought. That is not the least of its absurdities. Indeed, assuming our species ever achieves what might be referred to as sanity without a smirk, future cultural anthropologists may find its content amusing, albeit somewhat pathetic.

Consider, for example, the first article in the latest Ethics, entitled Oppressive Double Binds, by Sukaina Hirji. The article addresses the vicissitudes of those who deem themselves oppressed as they deal with “double binds that exist in virtue of oppression.” The author cites as a typical example,

…an untenured professor and the only woman and person of color among the faculty in a philosophy department.

We are informed that such oppressed individuals face inordinate demands on their time from similarly oppressed students who demand mentorship and emotional support. However, time devoted in this way is “emotionally draining and takes significant time away from your own research. You feel trapped.” The author comes up with several similar instances of the “oppressive double binds” faced by such oppressed classes as “trans women and queer femmes.” These, we are assured, “…are a powerful and pervasive mechanism of oppression,” forcing these unfortunates to “become a mechanism in their own oppression.”

As the reader is no doubt aware, trans women are currently a particularly fashionable instance of an “oppressed” group. The author singles them out for particular attention accordingly, noting for example,

For a trans woman to be read as a woman at all in certain communities, she will need to present in an overtly feminine-coded way. However, given the stereotypes about trans women as artificial or constructed, an overtly femme presentation risks being dismissed as “trying too hard” or as “inauthentic.” If a trans woman does not present in an overtly feminine-coded way, her presentation is explained by her not being a “real” woman. In this sort of case, part of what is going on is the intersection of an oppressive norm faced by women in general and an oppressive norm faced by trans women in particular.

Given the many genuine instances of oppression that have occurred within living memory in this century and the last, involving the torture and death of millions, it strikes me personally as obscene to even refer to such trivial stuff as “oppression.” That becomes doubly true in view of the fact that trans women and the other “oppressed classes” referred to by the author have virtually absolute control over the cultural and political agenda in the U.S. and other modern “liberal democracies.”

When it comes to oppression, if the author cares to experience something closer to the real thing, I suggest she submit an article to Ethics denouncing the unfairness to biological females of allowing trans women to participate in women’s sports. She will quickly find that she is no longer on the tenure track, and her future chances of having articles published in Ethics and similar academic journals have become vanishingly small. There will be some compensation, of course, in view of the fact that other “oppressed” people will no longer rely on her for mentoring and emotional support. Should she care to enlighten herself about who are actually the oppressed and who the oppressors today when it comes to trans women, I suggest she read the accounts linked here, here, here, here, and here of people who have been fired, suspended, or cancelled for daring to question the prevailing orthodoxy. They are hardly the only examples.

Anyone seeking even a hint of originality in the remainder of the journal about the nature of human morality, or the reasons for its existence, will do so in vain. According to the abstract of another article,

Nietzsche famously discusses a psychological condition he calls resentiment, a condition involving toxic, vengeful anger.

As an instance of this resentiment, he cites the CNN version of a recent historical event:

…self-styled “white nationalists” marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting variously “you will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” – the background perception being that other racial and ethnic groups were, through an alleged conspiracy, gaining power and status that the white supremacists thought was rightfully theirs.

It never occurs to the author to even mention the fact that there are alternative versions of what went down at Charlottesville, or that the violence may not have been entirely provoked by “white nationalists,” or that any of the marchers were there for reasons other than promoting “white supremacy.” Of course, if he dared to deviate from the official narrative, he, too, might experience something closer to real oppression, and that with alacrity.

One finds the same, dreary, slavish conformity to the currently fashionable version of “objective good” in the remainder of the latest issue of Ethics. For example, from an article entitled Impermissible yet Praiseworthy we read,

Suppose you are morally required to adopt a vegan diet, but you adopt a lacto-vegetarian diet instead. Although what you do is impermissible, blaming you for not going all the way to veganism could be counterproductive. Perhaps the effects of blaming you are even bad enough that we ought not to do so.

I don’t know whether the future anthropologists I referred to earlier will laugh or cry when they read such stuff. One must hope that they will be at least marginally more capable of intelligent and original thought than today’s “experts on ethics.”  As for you, dear reader, spare yourself the pain of seeking knowledge about human morality in modern academic journals. You’ll find as much useful information about the subject in the first chapter of Edvard Westermarck’s The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas published in 1906, as in anything that’s been written since.