Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

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

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

Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

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

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

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

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

Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

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

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

Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

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

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

E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter

There are but 125 very sparsely filled pages in Genesis, E. O. Wilson’s latest. The book is really little more than a pamphlet. The few reviews one finds online are dismissive in their brevity. Perhaps it’s best described as a farewell letter from the grand old man. If so, the loss will be great. I know of no one who can fill his shoes. Wilson is an independent, courageous thinker who is refreshingly free of the now ubiquitous habit of larding his books with virtue signaling to his academic tribe. He can also occasionally be quite blunt. For example, in Genesis,

The following can be posed with near certainty. Every part of the human body and mind has a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. And all of it, so far as we can tell by continuing scientific examination, originated through evolution by natural selection.

No mealy-mouthed nonsense there about “spandrels,” or “exaptations.” Wilson has always been forthright about insisting on the obvious. Continue reading “E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter”

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?”

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

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

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

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

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.

The Blank Slate and the Great Group Selection Scam

“Group Selection” has certainly been good for something. Steven Pinker seized on the term to rationalize dropping those who played the greatest role in demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy down the memory hole in the fairy tale he served up as the “history” of the affair. His version had the great advantage of sparing the feelings of the academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences, by assuring them that their “science” had been self-correcting after all. In fact, it didn’t self-correct on its own for over half a century. As so often happens, it took outsiders to finally break the Blank Slate spell and extract the behavioral sciences from the swamp they had been floundering in for so long. They included ethologists and behavioral geneticists who were supposed to be confining their attention to animals. Perhaps the greatest of them all was the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, an outsider par excellence. Enter Richard Dawkins, who observed that some of the most important of these dismantlers of the Blank Slate were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection. No matter that the theme of their work had been the existence and importance of human nature, and not group selection. Pinker seized on Dawkins’ convenient phrase, and declared that they had all been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, without even bothering to mention that Dawkins criticism had been limited to group selection.

It gets worse. It is hardly clear that the very term “group selection” as used by generations of earlier thinkers since Darwin even meant what Dawkins claimed it did. You see, there’s “group selection,” and then there’s “group selection.” The term can mean different things to different people. No doubt a great many thinkers since Darwin would  have been furious to learn that Dawkins had gratuitously foisted his definition on them. Many of them meant nothing of the sort. They certainly included Konrad Lorenz, one of the men specifically called out by Dawkins. Lorenz liked to speak of traits as being “good for the species.” Indeed, there can be little doubt that our hands, with their nice, opposable thumbs, and the eyes that present us with a 3-dimensional view of the world are “good for our species.” That rather obvious observation hardly implies that these handy traits were actually selected at the level of the species. Lorenz never suggested any such thing. Indeed, elsewhere he wrote very clearly that selection takes place at the level of the individual, not at that of the species. In spite of that, Dawkins insisted in putting words in his mouth, and Pinker was only too happy to use Dawkins as his “authority” on the matter.

If you’d like to read a brief but concise account of the use of the term over the years, take a look at Section 1.2.5 (“Group Selection”) in the first volume of Johan van der Dennen’s The Origin of War, which is available free online. As he puts it,

Group selection is one of the most confused and confusing topics in modern evolutionary biology. It is part of an ongoing and sometimes acrimonious, controversy over the “level-of-selection.” the term “group selection” is used in a dazzling number of different meanings. One generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that a trait may evolve for the benefit or the “greater good” of the group or species, but at the expense of the individual gene carrier.

Dawkins wrongly implies that this “strict” version of the definition is the only one around, but that’s hardly the case. Van der Dennen continues,

The other generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that in the course of human evolution, groups have competed with one another – some groups subjugating other groups, some groups absorbing and assimilating other groups, some groups even eliminating other groups altogether – and that these events must have had an impact on the gene pools and (the direction of) human evolution. As applied to the human species, therefore, group selection may be eminently possible, “since one group of humans can consciously organize their altruistic behaviors and wipe out a rival group.” …This latter meaning of the term “group selection” is probably what Darwin envisaged when attempting to explain human morality (which posed a serious problem for his theory).

Darwin suggested a solution to the problem as follows:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

In other words, “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection” was certainly plausible if the traits in question could somehow arise via natural selection. Darwin was puzzled about how these traits could evolve to begin with, given that they imparted only “a slight or no advantage” to individuals. This, of course, is already quite different from Dawkins’ “strict definition,” according to which “group selection” means traits that are only useful to the group, but actually harmful to individuals within the group. As it happens, Sir Arthur Keith, whose work I discussed in my last post, also commonly used “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection.” Indeed, he referred to his “new theory of human evolution,” the subject of a book with that title published in 1948, as “group theory.” Heaven forefend that Pinker should immediately pounce on poor Sir Arthur and declare him “totally and utterly wrong” with the rest.  In fact, like Lorenz, he also made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t using the term in the strict sense implied by Dawkins. But most importantly, he suggested an answer to Darwin’s puzzle. According to Keith, the traits commonly associated with group selection could very definitely be strongly selected at the level of the individual.  In other words, they were not necessarily harmful to the individual at all.

According to Keith, life in small groups in close proximity to each other had a forcing effect on human evolution. In his words, “it favored rapid evolutionary change.” As noted in my last post, he considered our common tendency to perceive others in the context of ingroups and outgroups as key to this effect. In his words,

It will this be seen that I look on the duality of human nature as an essential part of the machinery of human evolution. It is the corner-stone of my mosaic edifice… We may assume, therefore, that in the very earliest stages of man’s evolution, even in his simian stages, “human nature” was already converted into an instrument for securing group isolation.

According to Keith, in the context of isolated, competing groups, the factors which favored the survival of groups were also strongly selected at the level of the individual. As he put it, “Individual and group selection went on hand in hand.” Obviously, he was not using the term “group selection” in the sense suggested by Dawkins. In the following chapters, he discusses many aspects of human morality and human nature and the reasons they would have been strongly selected at the level of the individual in the context of his “group theory.” These included many aspects of human behavior that we can all observe for ourselves, assuming we are not blinded by ideological dogmas, such as the desire to appear morally “good” in the eyes of others in the group, the desire to achieve high status in the group, the desire to appear attractive to the opposite sex, etc. As Keith pointed out, all of these “good” traits would contribute strongly both to the “selection” of the group in competition with other groups, and at the same time would strongly increase the odds that the individual would survive and reproduce within the group.

Darwin and Keith were hardly the only ones to use the “other generic meaning” of group selection. Indeed, use of the term in that sense may be considered the default until V. C. Wynne-Edwards finally showed up in the early 60’s with a version that really does fit the “strict” definition preferred by Dawkins. Whether that version ever actually happened to a significant extent is still the subject of bitter disputes. The point is that use of the term by no means implies acceptance of the “strict” version. It goes without saying that it is also no excuse for rearranging history.