“Evolutionary Debunking” – Another Philosopher Chimes In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, then, is the debunker’s argument:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Harvey Fergusson on Morality, Free Will, and Human Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Follies: Chasing the Mirage of Objective Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality in the Age of Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(b) incite violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality: On Whose Authority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On whose authority?”

 

Morality and Social Chaos: Can You Hear Darwin Now?

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

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

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

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

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

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

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

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

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

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