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?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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