Corona and Nassim Taleb: The Tragedy of a Genius in a World of Imbeciles

I don’t pay much attention to Nassim Taleb. I doubt that it’s worth paying attention to anyone who claims that, after carefully pondering the matter, he’s concluded that Claire Lehmann of Quillette is a “neo-Nazi.” He’s also concluded that he’s a genius, and anyone who disagrees with him is an imbecile. Just ask him. Recently, however, he’s become the guru of the most extreme proponents of government lockdowns in response to virus pandemics. Let’s consider what they’re so excited about.

A good summary appears in a gushing article by Yves Smith at the “naked capitalism” website, entitled, “Taleb: The Only Man Who Has A Clue.” Smith does not inform us on what basis he feels himself qualified to dismiss every highly trained virologist and epidemiologist on the planet as “clueless.” Be that as it may, he cites Taleb’s “Systemic Risk Of Pandemic Via Novel Pathogens – Coronavirus: A note,” which summarizes his point of view under the headings, “General Precautionary Principle,” “Spreading Rate,” “Asymmetric Uncertainty,” and “Conclusion.” Let’s consider what he has to say under the first of these:

General Precautionary Principle : The general (non-naive) precautionary principle [3] delineates conditions where actions must be taken to reduce risk of ruin, and traditional cost-benefit analyses must not be used. These are ruin problems where, over time, exposure to tail events leads to a certain eventual extinction. While there is a very high probability for humanity surviving a single such event, over time, there is eventually zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events. While repeated risks can be taken by individuals with a limited life expectancy, ruin exposures must never be taken at the systemic and collective level. In technical terms, the precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.

Extinction? Zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events? Seriously?? There are millions of species on the planet. They all bear genetic material that has been around, in one form or another, for upwards of two billion years. Presumably, unless Taleb is claiming virus pandemics are unique to human beings, many of them have survived repeated exposures to such events. If life on our planet is not capable of surviving repeated exposures to pathogens without implementing Taleb’s nostrums, how is it that any life survives at all? It should all be gone, with the viruses turning out the lights on their way out. In what even remotely rational sense are we “risking ruin” with the coronavirus? We have lived with all kinds of much deadlier diseases throughout most of our history. Many of them have been persistent, and many others have passed over us repeatedly, and yet none of them, not even the Black Death, has managed to “ruin” us. Indeed, if you ask some of the legions of anti-natalists and radical environmentalists out there, this sort of “ruin” is just what the doctor ordered. After all, the global population has grown to the point where we are at least rocking the boat a bit lately.

This begs the question of where you draw the line when it comes to “ruination.” Apparently, we are not sufficiently “ruined” by the yearly visitations of flu. When is a new pathogen serious enough to take the proposed drastic steps? Assuming we do magically find a way to identify this “ruination” line in the sand, is it really probable that our only choices are obeying Taleb or going extinct? I rather suspect that our species, in spite of all the idiots and imbeciles that Taleb has identified among us, is intelligent enough to come up with measures a great deal more effective than lockdowns and wearing masks, if it ever really comes to our staring extinction in the face.

As far as “ruin exposures” go, there are many who believe that the risk at the “collective level” is much greater from shutting down systems as complex as modern economies than it is from COVID-19. No doubt Taleb, who considers himself a genius in economics as well as epidemiology would dismiss this concern with a wave of the hand. I’m not so sure. I rather doubt he’s the only man in the universe who has a clue. He informs us that this “precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.” This is a bit of jargon apparently intended to impress the rubes. I doubt that many of his worshipful fanboys have a clue what “ergodic” even means, and the term is best left in the realm of statistical mechanics in any case.

Speaking of rubes, have a look at the comments by Taleb’s followers on a Twitter thread in which Dr. Phil has the misfortune of being officially added to his list of “imbeciles.” These guys all consider themselves only a peg below Taleb among the ranks of the world’s greatest living geniuses. They must all walk around with permanent scowls on their faces from the stress of living among the rest of us idiots and imbeciles. They all imagine that they’re uttering great profundities as they squawk out variations on his latest tweets like so many parrots. In this case, Dr. Phil was being interviewed by Laura Ingraham, rightly pointing out that we accept significant risks of death from driving, smoking, swimming, etc., without feeling any need to do something as extreme as locking down the economy. Taleb tweeted the interview with the snarky comment, “Drowning in swimming pools is extremely contagious and multiplicative.” All of his acolytes thought this was most profound, but in fact it is a matter of complete indifference. Dr. Phil was making a point about acceptance of the risk of death. The fact that COVID-19 happens to be contagious just adds another number to factor in when quantifying risk. Overall risks can be calculated and compared regardless of whether one of them derives from a contagious disease or not.

I started to have my doubts about Taleb when I started wading through the grab bag of banalities in his third book, “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms.” Anyone whose tastes run to that sort of thing would be well advised to forget Taleb and buy a copy of Rochefoucauld’s maxims instead. They’re both more intelligent and more entertaining. One of them happens to be most appropriate in this case: “Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.” In Taleb’s opinion, Claire Lehmann is a neo-Nazi, Bjorn Lomborg is a right-wing, sociopathic quack, and Dr. Phil is an imbecile. He’s entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine too. In my opinion, he’s an over-inflated windbag.

Corona Comments

There are no objective oughts, no objective goods, no objective values, and no objective moral virtues. That is a simple statement of fact, and implies nothing whatsoever regarding how we ought to behave. Facts bear no implications about what we should do, except as means to an end. We must decide for ourselves what ends to seek. Objective facts may then inform us what we “should” do if we want to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
Whatever the goals we set for ourselves happen to be, in large measure if not totally, they are a response to our “nature”; predispositions that are as much innate as our arms and legs. These predispositions are similar but not identical among human individuals, and they exist by virtue of natural selection. In other words, at some point and in some environment, they promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors. It cannot be assumed that their influence on our behavior will have that result in the very different environment most of us live in today.

Our nature does not determine our behavior, in the sense that it does not dictate what we must do in this or that situation. Rather, it inclines us to act in some ways, and not in others. It is fundamentally emotional, in humans as well as in other animals. We happen to have very large brains, and so can ponder over what our emotions are trying to tell us. We can reason about how we ought to respond to them. However, our reason is far from infallible. As the reasoning process becomes more complex, the outcome regarding what we “ought” to do will vary increasingly among individuals. This is doubly true by virtue of the fact that most individuals respond to their emotions blindly, never considering or taking into account why those emotions exist to begin with.

The above is illustrated by the response of our societies to the spread of COVID-19. The situation is anomalous, in that few of us have experienced anything like it. As a result, an appropriate response to it is not neatly packaged among our preferred or habitual responses to everyday occurrences. One result of this is that we find unusual differences of opinion about how we should react to the virus, even among those whose ideology, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” was formerly a reliable predicter of what their response to a given situation would be. Two factions have formed; those who tend to agree that we ought to take extreme measures to control the spread of the virus, and those who tend to believe that this “cure” is worse than the disease. At the moment the former faction has the upper hand, although the latter hasn’t been silenced completely.

Both factions present their arguments as if they are defending an objective truth. In fact, that is impossible, because objective “oughts” do not exist. What they are really defending is something they want, or value, and what they want or value represents their response to emotions that exist because they evolved. That statement applies not just to our response to a virus, but to every other form of conscious human behavior.

Emotional responses are bound to vary to some extent across populations that have been widely separated by time and space, but they tend to be quite similar, as one would expect of traits that happen to promote survival in a given species. Fear and avoidance of death is one trait almost all of us have in common. The emotional root cause of this fear probably hasn’t changed much, but in creatures with large brains such as ourselves, our behavior isn’t rigidly determined by our genes. We think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and how we should behave in response. Needless to say, we don’t always all come to the same conclusions, regardless of how similar the underlying emotions happen to be.

In the modern human societies that exist in western Europe and North America, fear of death may well be a greater motivator than ever before. We have few children, and can reasonably expect that those children will survive to adulthood. That was not the case in societies that are more typical of our past, where a large fraction of children didn’t survive past their first few years. Death was not exactly welcomed, but we were more likely to accept it as a matter of course. Now we are more inclined to treat it as an unmitigated calamity, and one that must be staved off as long as possible at all costs. In the case of the virus, it almost seems some of us believe they will be immortal if only they can avoid catching it. Under the circumstances, such drastic steps as shutting down complex modern economies appear to be completely rational. We hand wave away any negative affect this may have on our own and future generations by simply assuming that the global economy will quickly recover afterwards. If we follow the chain of logic that is used to justify this behavior to its ultimate source, we will always find an emotion. The emotion is followed blindly, without regard for the reason it exists to begin with. That reason is that it once enhanced the odds of survival and reproduction of the genes that give rise to it. The question of whether it will have the same result if blindly reacted to in a completely different environment is treated as if it were entirely irrelevant.

In the case of the virus, our innate fear of death has triumphed over all other emotions. We don’t take into account the fact that, while that fear exists for a reason, the programmed death of our physical bodies and consciousness occurs for exactly the same reason. Our fear of death and our programmed death both promote the survival of our genes. Our genes don’t protect us from death indefinitely. Rather, they insure that we will die, but at a time that is optimum for insuring that they will not die. They have been around, in different forms but in an unbroken chain, for more than two billion years. For all practical purposes, they are potentially immortal. I happen to share the goal of my genes. That goal is no more intrinsically good or virtuous than someone else’s goal to accomplish the opposite. However, it does seem to me to have the virtue of being in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with, and to be formed in full awareness of why the emotions that motivate it exist to begin with as well.

It does not seem “better” to me to be blindly blown about by the shifting winds of my emotions in a completely different environment than the one in which they evolved. The blind fear of death can be and often is trumped by an equally blind response to other emotions. Consider, for example, such slogans as “Death before dishonor,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “A fate worse than death.” Those who coined these slogans and those who were moved by them were no hypocrites. In the past we can find myriad examples of such individuals laying down their lives in defense of their principles. These principles were based on other innate emotions than fear of death, perhaps including hatred of the outgroup, or territoriality, or the struggle for status. Thus, while emotions are the basis of all our actions, they can motivate goals that are diametrically opposed to each other in different situations. I merely suggest that, instead of reacting to them blindly, we may find it useful to consider why they exist to begin with. That seems to me particularly true in the case of events as profound as global pandemics.

Objective Morality: The “Ethical Intuitionism” Gambit

Does it make any difference whether morality is objective or subjective? I think the answer to that question is certainly “yes”. If morality is objective, than it is our duty to obey the moral law no matter what. If we don’t, we are bad by definition. To the extent that other people understand the moral law better than we do, or are more virtuous than we are, they have an indubitable right to dictate to us how we ought to behave, and to vilify us if we don’t do as they tell us. If, on the other hand, morality is subjective, then it must be an artifact of natural selection. It could not be otherwise with emotionally motivated behavioral traits that clearly have a profound influence on whether we will survive or not. At least it could not be otherwise assuming there is no God, and that Hume and others before him were right in claiming that morality is not accessible via pure reason. For reasons I have outlined elsewhere, I think both of these assumptions are true. If morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection, then it follows that it can hardly be blindly assumed that what promoted our survival in the past when the traits in question evolved will continue to promote our survival in the present. In fact, it is quite possible that some of them have become dangerous in the environment we live in now. In that case no one has a right to dictate how we ought or ought not to behave based on their subjective version of morality. Instead of helpfully informing us what we need to do to be good, such people may actually pose a threat to us, to the extent that we value our own survival. These are only a few of the issues that depend on the answer to this question.

As my readers know, I believe that morality is subjective. Many philosophers disagree with me. One such is Prof. Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. Huemer, who has a blog by the name of Fake Nous, supports a version of objective morality known as ethical intuitionism, which is also the title of a book he has written about the subject. His claim is that we are “justified” in assuming there is an objective moral law because it “appears” to our intuition, and we should trust appearances absent convincing evidence that they are wrong. I think that, in examining this version of objective morality, it will be possible to expose some of the weaknesses common to them all.

According to Huemer, the morality object does not exist in the realm of objects that can “appear” to our usual five senses, either directly or via scientific instruments. Of course, this must be true, as no one has yet succeeded in snagging a good or evil object and putting it on display in a museum for the rest of us to admire. However, things in the extrasensory realm where the morality object exists do appear to our intuition. According to Huemer, that’s how we recognize its reality.

Of course, an obvious objection to Huemer’s claim that we are as justified in believing in objects that “appear” to our intuitions as in objects that appear to our senses is that claims based on such “appearances” are not falsifiable by the conventional scientific method of checking them via repeatable experiments.  However, setting that aside for the moment, let’s examine the credibility of this claim starting from the very beginning. For all practical purposes, the very beginning was the Big Bang. Physicists have given us plausible explanations of how everything we can detect in the observable universe came into existence in the aftermath of the Big Bang. I can accept the existence of quarks, photons, and quantum fields, because their “appearance” has been confirmed many times over in repeatable experiments, and they are accessible to my senses, either directly, or via scientific instruments. However, I find it incredible that this cataclysmic event also spit out a moral law object, which now somehow permeates all space. I am not at all trying to be funny here. If this thing the philosophers refer to exists, there must be some explanation of how it came to exist. What is it?

However, let us assume for the moment that the moral law object did somehow come into existence. Presumably this must have been before the evolution of human beings, else we couldn’t possibly have evolved the capacity to detect it with our intuitions. Absent some other plausible path to the existence in our brains of something as sophisticated as an “intuition” sense capable of enabling us to detect the moral law object, this ability must necessarily be a result of natural selection. Of course, natural selection doesn’t automatically choose the Good. It chooses whatever promotes our survival. If Huemer is right, then we must have somehow acquired, not only the ability to detect the moral law object via intuition, but virtually at the same time a predisposition to act in accordance with the moral law. By a wonderful coincidence, it also just so happened that acting in this way promoted the survival of creatures such as ourselves, although it would more likely have resulted in the immediate demise of other life forms. Darwin mentions bees, for example.

Our eyes and ears have taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve. How is it that a “sense” capable of detecting the moral law object evolved so quickly? It couldn’t have happened in creatures less intelligent than ourselves, because they have no morality, at least as it is described by Huemer, nor any need for an intuition capable of detecting it. The initial appearance of this “sense” in our species and its subsequent evolution to such a state of perfection must have happened rapidly indeed.

Huemer dismisses natural selection as an explanation of subjective morality because, in his words, it is “not impressive.” As can be seen above, however, he cannot simply hand wave natural selection out of existence. He claims we possess an intuition capable of detecting morality objects. How did we acquire this intuition absent natural selection? If Huemer wants to claim that God did it, well and good, we can debate the existence of God. However, I doubt he wants to go there. There is no mention of God in his book. Absent God, what other path to the acquisition of such a complex ability exists, other than natural selection? Huemer will have to be “impressed” by natural selection at some point, whether he likes it or not.

Assuming Darwin was right about natural selection, isn’t it simpler and more rational to accept that innate behavior, including the predispositions that give rise to morality, evolved directly because it happened to promote survival, resulting in our associating “good” with behavior that promoted our survival and “bad” with behavior that didn’t? The alternative proposed by Huemer is that we first evolved the ability to detect the moral law, only then followed by the evolution of awareness that the moral law was trying to get us to do something followed by a predisposition to believe it was “good” to follow the moral law and “bad” not to follow it, along with the remarkable coincidence that all this promoted our survival. Does this sound even remotely plausible to you? Then, to use one of the author’s favorite clichés, I have some bridges to sell you.

I submit that every version of objective morality that doesn’t rely on the intervention of supernatural beings suffers from the same implausibility as Huemer’s system, for more or less the same reasons. That’s why I believe that morality is subjective. Huemer notes in his book that I am hardly alone in this regard. There are legions of people who describe themselves as subjective moralists. However, as he also correctly points out, it doesn’t make any difference. When it comes to their actual moral behavior, they act in ways that are inexplicable absent the implied assumption of objective morality. I know of not a single exception to this rule among philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals of note. Every one of them treats their idiosyncratic moral judgments as if they automatically apply to others without so much as blinking an eye. That is actually a major theme of this blog. However, I’ve rambled on long enough, and will take up the matter in my next post.

On the Poverty of (Moral) Philosophy

I’m not an anti-philosopher. Given the goals individuals set for themselves, philosophers can suggest alternative paths for reaching those goals, and provoke thought on whether the goals are worthwhile. Potentially, they could do the same for societies. Perhaps most importantly, they could suggest ways in which societies might construct systems of morality in pursuit of the common goals the members of society might set for themselves. These might include, for example, maximizing harmony and minimizing harm to individuals. Obviously, any effective system of morality must never lose sight of the reasons morality exists to begin with, and the limitations imposed by human nature. Contemporary philosopher’s, and particularly those in academia, are woefully failing at that task.

Darwin gave us a perfectly clear explanation of morality in his “The Descent of Man” almost a century and a half ago. He noted it was a natural phenomenon, and a result of natural selection. It promoted survival and reproduction by spawning a powerful illusion that good and evil exist as objective things, even though they are actually subjective and might be imagined very differently if they evolved in another intelligent species.

The philosophers still haven’t caught up. Indeed, they seem to be falling further behind all the time. True, they give a perfunctory nod to Darwin, but then they carry on with their philosophizing, for all the world as if the implications of what he taught us don’t matter. It stands to reason. After all, they’ve invested a great deal of time slogging through tomes of moral philosophy that are now of little more than historical interest. Their claims to expertise, not to mention their jobs, depend on propping up the illusion that the subject is incredibly complicated, accessible only to gatekeepers like themselves, possessed of the unique insight gleaned from these books, and mastery of the “philosophical method” of divining truth. The “philosophical method” consists of constructing long chains of reasons befogged by abstruse jargon that is a time-tested method of wading off into intellectual swamps. It was used long ago by the fathers of the church to acquaint us with fact that God has three persons, Christ has two wills and two natures, and similar “truths.” Today the philosophers use it to devise similar “mysteries” about morality.

There are other factors muddying the water as well. Just as earlier generations of philosophers were often forced to limit their speculations within the bounds imposed by Christian and other religious dogmas, modern philosophers are constrained by the dogmas that currently enjoy hegemony in academia. Their ingroup is defined by ideology, and they dare not step outside the bounds imposed by that ideology lest they be cast into outer darkness. For many years that ideology included a blanket denial that such a thing as human nature even exists. Absent acceptance that it does exist, it is impossible to understand human morality. When it comes to morality, the effect of this ideologically imposed constraint was, and continues to be, devastating.

The above can be illustrated by considering the work of those philosophers who, in the process of applying their idiosyncratic methods, have come closest to recognizing the implications of what Darwin wrote so long ago. Many of them are what’s known in the business as “error theorists.” Error theorists claim, quite accurately, that there are no moral facts. Just as statements about the length of a unicorn’s color are neither true nor false, because they describe something that doesn’t exist, error theorists insist that the same is true of claims about good and evil. They, too, can neither be true nor false, because they purport to describe moral facts, which are no more real than unicorns. This seems to fly in the face of the conviction that so many of us have that moral facts do exist, and are true or false regardless of what anyone’s subjective opinion happens to be on the subject. Darwin explained why this is true. The human behavioral traits we associate with morality exist by virtue of natural selection. They enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. The firm conviction, commonly associated with powerful emotions, that some things are truly morally good, and others truly morally evil, is just what one would expect. We did not survive by virtue of imagining that someone who stole from us, or lied to us, or attempted to kill us, had different subjective opinions then us about these things, and that perhaps we could sit down with them and have a rational discussion about it. We survived by virtue of truly believing that such individuals are evil, to be resisted regardless of what their personal opinions on the subject happened to be.

In short, Darwin provided a simple, rational explanation of human morality as we experience it. It is completely self-consistent, in that it requires nothing beyond natural selection for that explanation. For our philosophical error theorists, however, such simple explanations of morality are treated with great diffidence, almost as if they were embarrassing. They do not sufficiently exploit the idiosyncratic paths to the “truth” favored by philosophers. They are not sufficiently befogged by jargon, or obscured by long chains of complex syllogisms.

A philosopher by the name of Jonas Olson has supplied an excellent example of the above in a book fittingly entitled, “Moral Error Theory.” Olson begins as follows:

Virtually any area of philosophy is haunted by a sceptical spectre. In moral philosophy its foremost incarnation has for some time been the moral error theorist, who insists that ordinary moral thought and discourse involve untenable ontological commitments and that, as a consequence, ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue.

In fact, among the myriad abstruse theories concocted by modern philosophers to address morality, “error theory” comes closest to agreeing with some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin wrote about the subject long ago. One such implication is indeed that ordinary moral beliefs and claims are uniformly untrue, for the obvious reason that beliefs and claims about anything that doesn’t exist are uniformly untrue. It would seem that it is too obvious for the philosophers. After all, what can the role of philosophers be in explaining things that are simple and obvious. It is essential for them to complicate simple things and befog them with thick layers of jargon if they are to justify their existence. In the case of “error theory,” they have succeeded splendidly.

According to Olson, for example, one cannot even take up the subject of error theory without being familiar with a grab bag of related philosophical esoterica. As he informs us,

The focus on the semantics of moral judgements and the ontology or moral properties, which make it possible and meaningful to distinguish moral error theory from subjectivism, relativism, non-cognitivism and other theories on which morality is not primarily to be discovered but somehow invented, is fairly recent in the history of philosophical theorizing about morality.

Far from something that follows simply from what Darwin wrote about morality, error theory must be propped up with arguments so abstruse that only certified Ph.D.’s in philosophy can understand them. One such rarified construct is the “argument from queerness.” This argument is usually attributed to J. L. Mackie, who claimed that objective values can’t exist, because, if they did, they would be very queer. As he put it, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities…of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” According to Olson, this argument, and not Darwin, “has now become central to the debate about moral error theory, and about metaethics at large.” He continues, “I shall argue that there are four distinct queerness arguments and thus four distinct versions of the argument from queerness.” As if that weren’t enough, Olson assures us that “oughts” can somehow be distilled out of error theory, all with complex philosophical pedigrees of their own. He has his own favorite among them, adding, “Here I challenge moral abolitionism and moral fictionalism, and defend an alternative view, which I call moral conservationism.” As we shall see, Olson’s moral conservatism is just as naïve as the competing schemes proposed by modern philosophers.

One of these is the brainchild of Richard Joyce, who is perhaps foremost among modern philosophers in his embrace of human nature as the source of morality. In his “The Myth of Morality” there is an entire chapter devoted to “Morality and Evolution.” In the first paragraph of this chapter he writes,

A proponent of an error theory – especially when the error is being attributed to a common, familiar way of talking – owes us an account of why we have been led to commit such a fundamental, systematic mistake. In the case of morality, I believe, the answer is simple: natural selection. We have evolved to categorize aspects of the world using moral concepts. Natural selection has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, demands which it does not make.

Unfortunately, the chapter referred to only appears after five earlier chapters devoted to abstruse discussions of “error theory.” Heaven forefend that I should ever be classed as an “error theorist,” with all the accompanying philosophical flotsam. In it and later chapters, there is no mention of earlier thinkers who were most consistent in applying Darwin’s thought, such as Westermarck and Keith. I doubt that Joyce has even heard of either of them. According to Joyce, natural selection has only endowed us with traits that are “good” according to the ideology of his academic ingroup. It is our nature to be “sympathetic,” and “cooperative.” Perhaps, but it is also our nature to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, and to hate and despise that latter. As recent political events have amply demonstrated, this is especially true of Joyce’s ingroup. Amusingly, he actually dismisses Herbert Spencer, the first major philosopher to note the existence and significance of ingroups and outgroups, as follows:

An evolutionary success theory holds that the kind of fact in virtue of which such (moral) judgments are true is, in some manner, a fact about human evolution. The first and probably most famous proponent of this kind of theorizing was Herbert Spencer, but – with his misguided assumptions that natural selection leads to heterogeneity and improvement, with his crass application of the model onto the class struggle – he need not detain us.

It’s quite true that Spencer was more follower of Lamarck than Darwin when it comes to evolution, but that would hardly justify such a high-handed dismissal of a man who, if he was not infallible, was a profound thinker. Here Joyce is actually demonstrating just the sort of ingroup/outgroup behavior Spencer wrote about. The notion that Spencer was guilty of a “crass application of the model onto the class struggle” is nonsense, and a latter-day invention of Joyce’s leftist ingroup. They also invented his so-called “social Darwinism,” which would have been quite a trick, since he wasn’t a Darwinist to begin with. In fact, the burr Spencer stuck under their saddle was entirely different. He wrote a book debunking socialism decades before the Russian Revolution, predicting with uncanny accuracy that socialist regimes would tend to deteriorate into a brutal form of authoritarianism we later became familiar with as “Stalinism.” They never forgave him for this all too accurate prediction.

In any case, based on his decidedly un-Darwinian portrayal of “morality by natural selection,” which omits anything his ingroup would find objectionable about human nature, Joyce proposes that we all adopt what he is pleased to call “moral fictionalism.” As he describes it, it entails a form of moral doublethink, in which we pretend to firmly believe the moral law, until philosophers like him decide a course correction is necessary. Of course, if we actually take Darwin seriously, no such enforced doublethink is necessary, since perception of the moral law as absolute and objectively true comes as naturally to our species as hunger and thirst. Nowhere does Joyce suggest that there is anything about those aspects of our innate mental equipment we usually include in the “morality” grab bag that it might not be wise for us to blindly include in his “fictionalism.”

One finds the same kind of naivete in the competing “moral conservationism” paradigm preferred by Olson. This would entail “preservation of ordinary (faulty) moral thought and discourse. Olson elaborates,

According to moral conservationism, there is no need for self-surveillance to prevent slips from pretence moral belief (associated with Joyce’s fictionalism, ed.) and pretence moral assertion into genuine moral belief and genuine moral assertion, and there are consequently no associated costs of instability. Moral belief is to be embraced rather than resisted.

Is it really necessary to point out the naivete of this policy of “non-resistance” in blindly applying moral predispositions that evolved in the Pleistocene to regulate the utterly different societies that exist today? I maintain that such naivete is a predictable result of treating natural selection as a side issue and occasionally useful prop, and then proceeding to ignore it in favor of applying such abstruse stuff as Mackie’s “argument from queerness,” which actually comes in several different flavors, to prop up “error theory” instead. So much for the “usefulness” of two of the modern academic philosophers who have actually come closest to understanding what Darwin tried to tell us. From there things only get worse – often much worse.

It would be better to simply stick to Darwin. Westermarck did this back in 1906 in his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” but has been ignored in favor of philosophers who have been leading us into intellectual swamps with their obscure arguments and incomprehensible jargon ever since. Today we have reached a point where moral philosophers are really only capable of communicating with each other, have devised a myriad competing schools of thought about morality, each propped up by long chains of “rational” arguments of the type that are comprehensible only to them, and which have zero chance of any useful application. On top of that, they are irrelevant. The moral behavior of today’s academic philosophers is not predicted by their arcane theories, but by the ideology of their ingroup. In moral practice, as opposed to moral theory, they are as similar as so many peas in a pod. Their moral practice is determined, not by their theories, but by the dogmas of their ingroup.

The above has actually been evident for some time. Consider, for example, how academic and professional philosophers reacted to the grotesque atrocities of the likes of Stalin and Pol Pot. Apparently, their fine moral theories were far more likely to inform them that they should collaborate with these mass murderers rather than condemn them on moral grounds. On the other hand, we often find them hurling down their moral anathemas on the likes of Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves. I submit that Washington and Jefferson both did more for the welfare of all mankind by any rational standard than any combination of 10,000 social justice warriors one could collect. Today we find them strangely silent on issues that might place them outside the ideological box they live in. For example, I am aware of no proponent of the myriad objective or subjective moral systems on tap today who has so much as raised a finger against the poisoning and mutilation of children in the name of “transgendering” them. Since morality only exists by virtue of the fact that it has enhanced the odds that individuals would successfully reproduce, failure to even speculate on the moral significance of this destruction of the ability to reproduce in children seems somewhat inconsistent to say the least.
I submit that philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if they would accept the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and seriously consider the implications of that fact. If Darwin was right, then there is no need for “arguments from queerness” to support “error theory.” The same conclusions follow naturally. It becomes perfectly obvious why we experience moral rules as mind independent even though they aren’t, and why it is just as irrational to noodle about whether some action is “truly good” or “truly evil” as it is to create fine theories to decide the question of whether a unicorn’s fur is blue or green. If Darwin was right, then there is neither a need nor any evidence for the claim that evolved morality tracks “true morality.” Such theories should be relegated to the philosophical garbage bin where they belong. If Darwin was right, then it is easy to grasp the reasons for the dual, ingroup/outgroup aspects of human morality, a factor that the theories of the philosophers typically simply ignore. If Darwin was right, then the reasons why we hardly limit our version of morality to ourselves, but attempt to dictate behavior to others as well, also become obvious. This, too, the philosophers have an unsettling tendency to overlook.

The above are seemingly obvious implications of the origins of morality in natural selection. With the brilliant exceptions of Westermarck and a few others, philosophers have studiously avoided noticing the obvious. Instead, we find them following paths made up of long chains of reasons. As we know from long experience, unless they can be checked by repeatable experiments, these paths lead deep into intellectual swamps. To follow them is to demonstrate a gross lack of awareness of the limitations of human intelligence. Today we find the professional and academic philosophers among us floundering about in those swamps, spouting their obscure theories in jargon that renders them incomprehensible to the rest of us. In short, they have succeeded in rendering themselves irrelevant to anyone but themselves. It’s sad. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality

I recently read a book entitled Nature’s Virtue by James Pontuso, a professor of political science at Hampden-Sydney College. He informs his readers that his goal in writing the book was to demonstrate a foundation for virtue. In his words,

It is in taking up the challenge of anti-foundationalism that I hope this book will contribute to the on-going dialogue about the place of virtue in human life. It will attempt to define virtue in the course of a discussion of its friends and adversaries.

Pontuso then takes us on a rambling discussion of what the postmodernists, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, and several other thinkers had to say about virtue. All this may be enlightening for students of philosophy, but it is neither here nor there as far as establishing a foundation for virtue is concerned. In fact, the last two paragraphs of the book are the closest he comes to “taking up the challenge.” There he writes, Continue reading “Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality”

Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

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

As the title of her article would imply, Prof. Vavova focuses on arguments against the existence of objective moral truths based on the Theory of Evolution. In fact, Darwin’s theory is hardly necessary to debunk moral objectivity. If objective moral truths exist independently of what anyone merely thinks to be true, they can’t be nothing. They must be something. Dworkin was obviously aware of this problem in the article I referred to in my last post. He was also aware that no one has ever detected moral objects in a form accessible to our familiar senses. He referred derisively to the notion that the existed as moral particles, or “morons,” or as “morality fields” accessible to the laws of physics. To overcome this objection, however, he was forced to rely on the even more dubious claim that moral truths exist in some sort of transcendental plane of their own, floating about as unphysical spirits. Continue reading “Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn”

Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

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

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

Morality and Reason – Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

Consider the evolution of life from the very beginning. Why did the first stirrings of life – molecules that could reproduce themselves – do what they did? The answer is simple – chemistry. As life forms became more complex, they eventually acquired the ability to exploit external sources of energy, such as the sun or thermal vents, to survive and reproduce. They improved the odds of survival even further by acquiring the ability to move towards or away from such resources. One could easily program a machine to perform such simple tasks. Eventually these nascent life forms increased the odds that they would survive and reproduce even further by acquiring the ability to extract energy from other life forms. These other life forms could only survive themselves by virtue of acquiring mechanisms to defend themselves from these attacks. This process of refining the traits necessary to survive continues to this day. We refer to it as natural selection. Survival tools of astounding complexity have evolved in this way, such as the human brain, with its ability evoke consciousness of such things as the information received from our sense organs, drives such as thirst, hunger, and sexual desire, and our emotional responses to, for example, our own behavior and the behavior of others. Being conscious of these things, it can also reason about them, considering how best to satisfy our appetites for food, water, sex, etc., and how to interpret the emotions we experience as we interact with others of our species.

A salient feature of all these traits, from simple to complex, is the reason they exist to begin with. They exist because at the time and in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that we would survive, or at least they did to the extent that they were relevant to our survival at all. They exist for no other reason. Our emotions and predispositions to behave in some ways and not others are certainly no exception. They are innate, in the sense that their existence depends on genetic programming. Thanks to natural selection, we also possess consciousness and the ability to reason. As a result, we can reason about what these emotions and predispositions mean, and how we should respond to them. They are not rigid instincts, and they do not “genetically determine” our behavior. In the case of a subset of them, we refer to the outcome of this process of reasoning about and seeking to interpret them as morality. It is these emotions and predispositions that are the root cause for the existence of morality. Without them, morality as we know it would not exist. They exist by virtue of natural selection. At some time and in some environment, they promoted our survival and reproduction. It can hardly be assumed that they will accomplish the same result at a later date and in a different environment. In fact, it is quite apparent that in the drastically different environment we live in today, they often accomplish the opposite. For a sizable subset of the human population, morality has become maladaptive.

The remarkable success of our species in expanding from a small cohort of African apes to cover virtually the entire planet is due in large part to our ability to deal with rapid changes in the environment. We can thrive in the tropics or the arctic, and in deserts or rain forests. However, when it comes to morality, we face a very fundamental problem in dealing with such radical changes. Our brain spawns illusions that make it extremely difficult for us to grasp the nature of the problem we are dealing with. We perceive Good, Evil, Rights, etc., as real, objective things. These illusions are extremely powerful, because by being powerful they could most effectively regulate our behavior in ways that promoted survival. Now, in many cases, the illusions have become a threat to our survival, but we can’t shake them, or see them for what they really are. What they are is subjective constructs that are completely incapable of existing independently outside of the minds of individuals. Even those few who claim to see through the illusion are found defending various “Goods,” “Evils,” “Rights,” “Duties,” and other “Oughts” in the very next breath as if they were referring to real, objective things. They often do so in support of behaviors that are palpably maladaptive, if not suicidal.

An interesting feature of such maladaptive behaviors is the common claim that they are justified by “reason.” The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson explained very convincingly why moral claims can’t be based on reason alone almost 300 years ago. As David Hume put it somewhat later, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason alone can never do anything but chase its own tail. After all, computers don’t program themselves. There must be something to reason about. In the case of human behavior the chain of reasons can be as long and as elaborate as you please, but must always and invariably originate in an innate predisposition or drive, whether it be hunger, thirst, lust, or what is occasionally referred to as our “moral sense.” Understood in that way, all of our actions are “unreasonable,” because reason can never, ever serve as the cause of our actions itself.  Reasoning about good and evil is equivalent to reasoning about the nature of God. In both cases one is reasoning about imaginary things. Behavior can never be objectively good or evil, because those categories only exist as illusions. It can, however, be objectively described as adaptive or maladaptive, depending on whether it enhances the odds of genetic survival or not.

In the case of morality, maladaptive behavior is seldom limited to a single individual. Morality is always other-regarding. The illusion that Good, Evil, etc., exist as independent, objective things implies that, not just we ourselves, but everyone else “ought” to behave in ways that embrace the “Good,” and resist “Evil.” As a result we assume a “right” to dictate potentially maladaptive and/or suicidal behavior to others. If we are good at manipulating the relevant emotions, those others may quite possibly agree with us. If we can convince them to believe our version of the illusion, they may accept our reasoning about what our moral emotions are “really” trying to tell us, and become convinced that they must act in ways detrimental to their own survival as well. They may clearly see that they are being induced to behave in a way that is not to their advantage, but the illusion would tend to paralyze any attempt to behave differently. The only means of resistance would be to manipulate the moral sense so as to evoke different illusions of what good and evil “really” are.

If, as noted above, there is nothing objectively good or evil about anything, it follows that there is nothing objectively good or evil about any of these behaviors. They are simply biological facts that happen to be observable at a given time and in a given environment. However, whatever one seeks to accomplish in life, they will be more likely to succeed if they base their actions on facts rather than illusions. That applies to the illusions associated with our moral sense as much as to any others. The vast majority of us, including myself, have an almost overwhelming sense that the illusions are real, and that good and evil are objective things. However, it is becoming increasingly dangerous, if not suicidal, to continue to cling to these illusions, assuming one places any value on survival.

Most of us have goals in life. In most cases those goals are based on illusions such as those described above. Human beings tend to stumble blindly through life, without a clue about the fundamental reasons they behave the way they do. Occasionally one sees them jumping off cliffs, stridently insisting that others must jump off the cliff too, because it is “good,” or it is their “duty.” Perhaps Socrates had such behavior in mind when he muttered, “The unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial. Before jumping off a cliff, would it not be wise to closely examine your reasons for doing so, following those reasons to their emotional source, and considering why those emotions exist to begin with? I, too, have goals. Paramount among my personal goals is survival and reproduction. There is nothing intrinsically or objectively better about those goals than anyone else’s, including the goal of jumping off a cliff. I have them because I perceive them to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Those who do not wish to survive and reproduce appear to me to be sick and dysfunctional biological units. I do not care to be such a unit. As corollary goals I wish for the continued evolution of my species to become ever more capable of survival, and beyond that for the continued existence of biological life in general. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are “correct,” or that the goals of others are “wrong.” Mine are just as much expressions of emotion as anyone else’s. Call them whims, if you will, but at least they have the virtue of being whims that aren’t self destructive.

Supposing you have similar goals, I suggest that it would behoove you to shed the illusion of objective morality. That is by no means the same thing as dispensing with morality entirely, nor does it imply that you can’t treat a version of morality you deem conducive to your survival as an absolute. In other words, it doesn’t imply “moral relativism.” It is our nature to perceive whatever version of morality we happen to favor as absolute. Understanding why that is our nature will not result in moral nihilism, but it will have the happy effect of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the moralistic bullies who have always assumed a right to dictate behavior to the rest of us. To understand morality is to realize that the “moral high ground” they imagine they’re standing on doesn’t exist.

It is unlikely that any of us will be able to resist or significantly influence the massive shifts in population, ideology and the other radical changes to the world we live in that are happening at an ever increasing rate merely by virtue of the fact that we recognize morality and the illusions of objective good and evil associated with it for what they really are. However, it seems to me that recognizing the truth will at least enhance our ability to cope with those changes. In other words, it will help us survive, and, after all, survival is the reason that morality exists to begin with.

Touching on the Dangers of Living Among the Morally Delusional

A major theme of all I have written about morality is that it is subjective. Assuming I am right, this fact has major implications regarding human behavior. It follows, for example, that good and evil do not exist as objective things. Since they are almost universally imagined to actually be objective things, it follows that good and evil are subjective illusions. This begs the question of why the illusions exist. The obvious reason is that they exist by virtue of natural selection. As a result of the natural process of evolution we have brains that construct these illusions because, at some time and in some environment that was likely vastly different from the present, the illusions happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. They are an aspect of human nature, if you will, and one that gives rise to what we commonly refer to as morality. Absent this particular aspect of human nature, morality as we know it would not exist.

Morality predisposes us to imagine that we ought to do some things, and ought not to do others. However, since the mental traits responsible for morality are the result of a natural process, it is impossible that there can be anything that we ought or ought not to do from an objective point of view. To imagine otherwise is to fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy. However, a life lived in complete indifference to what we ought or ought not to do would certainly be boring, and probably impossible for creatures such as ourselves, with a powerful predisposition to imagine that good and evil are real things. The question is, how do we come up with our oughts and ought nots? More broadly speaking, how do we come up with a “meaning of life” to which all of our other oughts and ought nots would presumably be subordinated? The obvious answer is that we assign these things to ourselves.

From a purely personal point of view I consider it expedient to consider rationally this matter of what ultimate goals to assign myself, and what I ought and ought not to do in pursuit of these goals. I have decided that my own personal goals should include survival and reproduction. There is no objective reason for pursuing such a goal, anymore than there is an objective reason for pursuing any other goal. I have chosen these goals because of my conclusion that virtually all of my essential physical and mental traits exist because they enhanced the odds that I would survive and reproduce. I prefer to act in a way that is in harmony with the natural processes that are responsible for my existence. If I were to do otherwise, I would have the impression that I had become “sick” or “dysfunctional” as a biological unit. In keeping with this goal, I have the additional goals of ensuring the survival of my species, and promoting its continued evolution to become ever more capable of surviving in any environment it is likely to encounter, and of ensuring the survival of biological life itself. I consider these additional goals reasonable because I deem them preconditions for my original goal of survival and reproduction, extended into the indefinite future. None of these goals are justifiable from an objective point of view, independent of my subjective mind. It is impossible for any goal to have that attribute. Call them whims, if you will, but there you have them. I have laid my cards on the table.

I would certainly like to see the other members of my species lay their cards on the table in a similar fashion, but that is not likely to happen. The problem is that almost all of them are delusional. They actually believe that the illusions of good and evil are real. Many of them also believe that their meaning and purpose are supplied by imaginary gods that don’t actually exist. Unfortunately, all this has a severe impact, not just on themselves, but on those around them as well. It can do a lot of what those others may perceive, and what I personally certainly perceive, as harm.

Consider, for example, the case of morality. There has always been widespread recognition of the harm done by those who blindly follow their moral whims. Shakespeare referred to them as “devils of Puritans.” More recently, they have been contemptuously referred to as the Uplift, or do gooders, or Social Justice Warriors. Seldom if ever, however, has anyone been able to put their finger on the reason why the behavior of such people is dangerous and harmful. The main reason for this is that they have always suffered from the same delusion as the do gooders. They, too, have imagined that good and evil exist as objective things. They merely believe in different versions of these imaginary things. As a result, they cannot simply point out that the pathologically pious among us are blindly following an emotional whim that is harmful to the rest of us. They are generally reduced to coming up with an alternative grab bag of goods and evils, and engaging in futile arguments over whose grab bag is better. Since the do gooders are generally a great deal more adept at manipulating moral emotions, they commonly win these arguments.

Consider what the outcome of this state of affairs has been concerning, for example, the integrity of national borders. In recent years, much of Europe, North American, and parts of east Asia had reached a state of affairs in which the birthrates of the indigenous populations was below replacement level. Eventually, this would have caused their populations to begin shrinking. In some cases they have already begun to shrink. From my personal point of view, this is an extremely good state of affairs. I would be the first to admit that alarmists have exaggerated many of the environmental problems we face. However, considering that earth is the only boat we have to live in at the moment, why rock it? Virtually every environmental problem you could name would go away with substantial reductions in population. With fewer others to compete with for limited resources, there would be more elbow room for my descendants. We are told that the economy will only be good as long as the population continually increases. Obviously, this can’t go on forever. The planet can only sustain so many people, and its limits are already being strained in many areas. To the extent that survival is a goal we have in common, it would be much better, not only for me, but for our species in general, if at least a few enclaves could be preserved with sustainable populations. Worrying about or tweaking the economy amounts to little more than an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We have far more substantial problems to worry about.

However, we are told by the pathologically pious that we cannot continue to protect these potentially sustainable enclaves of ours because it is immoral. We must open our borders and allow anyone who pleases to move in, because this is the “moral” thing to do. The result is not hard to foresee. The amount of environmental damage these immigrants will cause will be vastly greater than if they had stayed in their own countries. Our population will no longer begin decreasing to more sustainable levels. Those coming in are culturally and ethnically different from the population already here. In view of the invariable human tendency to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, this will inevitably lead to social tension, perhaps culminating in civil war.  Even in terms of the economy, there is no evidence that allowing cheap labor to flood across the border, placing huge demands on our health, educational, and social welfare resources, will have a beneficial effect, even in the short term. Our population will begin to look more and more like the populations of South American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela that have been notably unsuccessful in sustaining a level of affluence similar to the one we enjoy, in spite of their control over vast natural resources. These obvious objections are commonly rationalized away with specious arguments in the interest of doing “good.”

If I were to ask those who support such a destructive policy to justify their claim that it must be done because it is moral, they would be incapable of responding with a coherent answer. If they actually understood what morality is, the best reply they could give me would be that they want to do it to satisfy an emotional whim. However, that emotional whim evolved at a time when our species never had to deal with such issues. Attempting to solve the complex issues we are faced with now by doing whatever happens to be most emotionally satisfying is not only stupid, but self-destructive. Unfortunately, those who seek to blindly satisfy their emotional whims in this way apply them not just to themselves, but to the rest of us as well. Unless they are allowed to dictate to us what we “ought” or “ought not” to do, not only in the matter of borders, but in everything else, then they will deem us “evil,” and seek to force their emotionally motivated solutions to all the world’s problems down our collective throats.

Unless we wake up and realize what morality actually is, those who hardly have our welfare or interests at heart will continue to manipulate it to lead us around by the nose. Unfortunately, I don’t see our species waking up any time soon. Our situation will remain as it is. Whatever goals and purposes we happen to assign ourselves, we must learn to deal with it. 

Morality Whimsy: Darwin and the Latter Day Philosophers

It’s hard to imagine how Darwin could have explained morality more clearly, given the Victorian context in which he wrote.  In Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man he said in so many words that it is a subjective manifestation of human nature. However, as I pointed out in my last post, even the philosophers of the 19th century who understood natural selection couldn’t draw the obvious conclusions.  None of them could free themselves of the illusion that Good and Evil are real, objective things, existing independently of human minds.  This was reflected in the various systems of “evolutionary morality” they proposed. They typically assumed that evolved morality had a goal, or purpose, which was usually some version of human flourishing, moral perfection, or “the good of the species.”  To all appearances, it never occurred to any of them that, as a natural process, evolution by natural selection cannot have a goal or a purpose.  In the 20th century, moral philosophers began to accept some of the more obvious implications of Darwinism.  In spite of that, they remained spellbound by the power of the illusion.  The only significant exception I’m aware of was Edvard Westermarck, who pointed out some of the obvious implications of Darwin’s claim that morality exists by virtue of evolved behavioral traits as far back as 1906.  He was forgotten, and we haven’t recovered the lost ground since.

Today we know a lot more about the mechanics of natural selection than they did in the 19th century.  The study of morality suffered as much as any of the other behavioral sciences during the Blank Slate debacle, but we seem to be on the path to recovery, at least for the time being. Today many scientists and philosophers are at least vaguely aware of the fact, obvious as it was to Darwin, that human morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits. Some of them have even drawn some of the more obvious conclusions from that fact. However, we live in a highly moralistic era, especially in academia, and what we find written about morality today reflects this moralistic culture.

To illustrate how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go, let’s consider the work of the philosopher Michael Ruse, one of the current crop of evolutionary moralists. He has written much on the subject, but I will focus on a paper he co-authored with E. O. Wilson back in 1986 entitled Moral Philosophy as Applied Science and the book Taking Darwin Seriously, published in 1999. First, the good news. Ruse does take Darwin seriously when it comes to the illusion of objective morality:

…human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey.

We believe that implicit in the scientific interpretation of moral behavior is a conclusion of central importance to philosophy, namely that there can be no genuinely objective external ethical premises. Everything that we know about the evolutionary process indicates that no such extrasomatic guides exist.

As these passages imply, Ruse also rejected the Blank Slate:

The evidence from both genetic and cognitive studies demonstrates decisively that the human brain is not a tabula rasa.

The following passage just repeats what Darwin wrote over a century ago in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man:

It is easy to conceive of an alien intelligent species evolving rules its members consider highly moral but which are repugnant to human beings, such as cannibalism, incest, the love of darkness and decay, parricide, and the mutual eating of faeces. Many animal species perform some or all of these things, with gusto and in order to survive. If human beings had evolved from a stock other than savanna-dwelling, bipedal, carnivorous man-apes we might do the same, feeling inwardly certain that such behaviors are natural and correct. In short, ethical premises are the peculiar products of genetic history. And they can be understood solely as mechanisms that are adaptive for the species that possess them. It follows that the ethical code of one species cannot be translated into that of another. No abstract moral principles exist outside the particular nature of individual species.

Ruse explicitly rejects the currently fashionable philosophical conceit that evolved morality somehow tracks “true” morality:

It is thus entirely correct to say that ethical laws can be changed, at the deepest level, by genetic evolution. This is obviously quite inconsistent with the notion of morality as a set of objective, eternal verities. Morality is rooted in contingent human nature, through and through.

Nor is it possible to uphold the true objectivity of morality by believing in the existence of an ultimate code, such that what is considered right corresponds to what is truly right – that the thoughts produced by the epigenetic rules parallel external premises.

Here “epigenetic rules” is a term Ruse and Wilson coined referring to the innate predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality. In other words, they’re what the 19th century philosophers referred to as “instincts.” It was an unfortunate choice in view of the current bitter disputes about the significance of epigenetic inheritance. They would have done better to stick with the terms already in use.

So where is the fly in this promising ointment? To begin, Ruse isn’t quite on board with his own philosophy. In spite of his insistence on the subjective nature of morality, we constantly find him signaling to his morality-drenched academic peers that he’s “really good.” He suffers from the same morality addiction as the rest of them. Indeed, to get that monkey off his back, he would have to jump right out of his academic ingroup. For example,

Like Huxley, I find these views (Social Darwinism)  taken to the extreme to be morally repellant. They are the epitome of all that is immoral, and anything but a guide to proper behavior… This philosophy I believe (generally) to be grossly immoral.

Children with the disease (Tay-Sachs) develop at first in a normal manner. Then at six months they start to collapse into zombies, and die by the age of four. I see nothing immoral about detecting and aborting such children. In fact, I believe we have a positively moral obligation to do so.

John Stuart Mill’s campaign for women’s rights was a good thing, as was Bertrand Russell’s opposition to nuclear weapons.

What we have in the case of Darwinian ethics is a denial of objectivity, which is surely a denial of metaphysical reality by another name, and an affirmation of subjectivity, which is no less a commitment to common sense, in which the subject plays an active creative part. If anything is common sense, it is that rape is simply, totally, wrong.

In spite of having affirmed that morality is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “epigenetic rules,” Ruse can find nothing wrong with applying it to decide all sorts of issues that could not possibly have contributed to the evolution of those rules. Consider, for example, this passage, which also includes virtue signaling in the form of a wink and a nod to his liberal ingroup.

Darwinism is anything but a gospel for the extreme conservative. Apart from anything else, no one is saying that there are humans towards whom we have no sense of moral obligation whatsoever. Furthermore, the pretense that we need not bother about the Third World is self-refuting. If we ignore it, then through such effects as overpopulation, we shall soon find that it raises all sorts of difficult moral issues which do directly impinge on us.

In case we are left in any doubt about Ruse’s actual commitment to objective morality under a veneer of subjectivism, he adds,

My only hope is to have shown that a Darwinian approach to morality does not call for a repudiation of standards and values cherished by decent people of all nations.

It is beyond me where in Ruse’s philosophy one can find a definition of “decent people.” Indeed, his philosophy excludes the possibility that one can make unqualified reference to “decent people” unless “decency” exists as an independent object. In other words, his use of the term is a blatant non sequitur. All this makes no sense at all unless we are aware that Ruse imagines he has found a way to skip blithely around Hume’s is/ought barrier. It goes something like this:

If morality means anything, it means being prepared to hold out a helping hand to others. Christians, utilitarians, Kantians, and everyone else come together on this.

I guess I’m not one of the above. To me, morality refers to social behavior that is ultimately the result of evolved behavioral traits. The above is yet another example of Ruse’s tendency to objectivize a possible manifestation of that behavior as “good.” Next, we are optimistically informed that a universal human morality is possible based on the dubious assumption that there are no differences in the evolved traits on which it is based among human populations:

When it comes to general shared moral principles, the Darwinian stands firm. Humans share a common moral understanding. This universality is guaranteed by the shared genetic background of every member of Homo sapiens. The differences between us are far outweighed by the similarities. We (virtually) all have hands, eyes, ears, noses, and the same ultimate awareness. That is part of being human. There is, therefore, absolutely nothing arbitrary about morality, considered from the human perspective.

All this is so much hand waving. Given the evidence of vast differences in moral rules and behavior across human populations, the idea that there is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it is nonsense. No matter. Apparently based on this axiom of universality, a miracle happens. Ruse cuts the Gordian knot, and walks right around the is/ought barrier!

To use an American sporting metaphor, the Darwinian does an end-run around the is/ought barrier. He/she realizes that you cannot go through it, but argues that you can go around it, giving morality all of the justificatory insight possible.

In fact, all the “justificatory insight possible” amounts to zero. There is no plausible reason for the claim that the implausible assumption of universal “epigenetic rules” relevant to morality enables an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier. In other words, Ruse is just another modern philosopher attempting to have his cake and eat it, too.

Unfortunately, Ruse has left out a few things in his “universal moral understanding.” Among them is the outgroup. He never mentions its existence in any of his work I’ve read so far, and yet, if there is any universal aspect of human moral behavior, that is one of them.  If what Ruse has written above about skipping around the is/ought barrier is true, then it becomes our duty to hate the outgroup with a blind, irrational fury. Beyond that, he never seriously takes into account the vast difference between the environment in which we now live, and the one in which the predispositions responsible for moral behavior evolved. If he did, it would immediately reduce his notion that morality is an appropriate tool for deciding issues about how to deal with the Third World to an absurdity.

Perhaps the most significant thing of all that Ruse has left out of his philosophizing is a very fundamental feature of human morality. We do not apply it to ourselves alone. We apply it to others as well. To the extent that one imagines that he has done an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier, he also imagines that he has acquired the right to dictate behavior to others. After all, who are we to dispute such a noted philosopher’s take on what our “universal human morality” consists of? That is my biggest problem with our latter day “evolutionary moralists.” In reality, they are just as addicted to objective morality as their 19th century precursors, and just as intent on explaining to the rest of us what we “ought” to do.

Do you like to have others dictate to you what you ought and ought not to do? I don’t. I know that we require some form of morality, because as a species we are too stupid to do without it. Under the circumstances, I prefer to keep it as simple as possible, and to reduce its sphere of influence as much as possible. It strikes me that expanding that sphere to include “the Third World,” or anything of the sort, is not only absurd, but extremely dangerous. I cannot give you any objective reason why you ought not to grovel before people who presume to dictate to you what you ought or ought not to do. I can only inform you that I prefer not to grovel myself. That, it seems to me, is one of the great advantages of grasping the truth about the subjective nature of morality. That truth does not imply moral chaos, or the impossibility of a society with “absolute” moral rules. It merely provides some insight into what such an “absolute” morality might look like in the context of whatever goals or purpose you’ve established for yourself in life.

In my next post I will review the work of another modern “evolutionary moralist” who, predictably, has been no more capable of shaking the objective morality illusion than Ruse. Things haven’t changed much since the 19th century. The symptoms of the addiction have just become more subtle.