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 Perhaps the gatekeepers who determine what may or may not be published in the academic journals have simply been too hidebound and inflexible to accommodate something so novel.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.

The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore, or Why You Don’t Need to Bother with Aristotle, Hegel, and Kant

G. E. Moore isn’t exactly a household name these days, except perhaps among philosophers.  You may have heard of his most famous concoction, though – the “naturalistic fallacy.”  If we are to believe Moore, not only Aristotle, Hegel and Kant, but virtually every other philosopher you’ve ever heard of got morality all wrong because of it.  He was the first one who ever got it right.  On top of that, his books are quite thin, and he writes in the vernacular.  When you think about it, he did us all a huge favor.  Assuming he’s right, you won’t have to struggle with Kant, whose sentences can run on for a page and a half before you finally get to the verb at the end, and who is comprehensible, even to Germans, only in English translation.  You won’t have to agonize over the correct interpretation of Hegel’s dialectic.  Moore has done all that for you.  Buy his books, which are little more than pamphlets, and you’ll be able to toss out all those thick tomes and learn all the moral philosophy you will ever need in a week or two.

Or at least you will if Moore got it right.  It all hinges on his notion of the “Good-in-itself.”  He claims it’s something like what philosophers call qualia.  Qualia are the content of our subjective experiences, like colors, smells, pain, etc.  They can’t really be defined, but only experienced.  Consider, for example, the difficulty of explaining “red” to a blind person.  Moore’s description of the Good is even more vague.  As he puts it in his rather pretentiously named Principia Ethica,

Let us, then, consider this position.  My point is that ‘good’ is a simple notion, just as ‘yellow’ is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to any one who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.

In other words, you can’t even define good.  If that isn’t slippery enough for you, try this:

They (metaphysicians) have always been much occupied, not only with that other class of natural objects which consists in mental facts, but also with the class of objects or properties of objects, which certainly do not exist in time, are not therefore parts of Nature, and which, in fact, do no exist at all.  To this class, as I have said, belongs what we mean by the adjective “good.” …What is meant by good?  This first question I have already attempted to answer.  The peculiar predicate, by reference to which the sphere of Ethics must be defined, is simple, unanalyzable, indefinable.

Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the Good doesn’t exist.  It just is.  Which brings us to the naturalistic fallacy.  If, as Moore claims, Good doesn’t exist as a natural, or even a metaphysical, object, it can’t be defined with reference to such an object.  Attempts to so define it are what he refers to as the naturalistic fallacy.  That, in his opinion, is why every other moral philosopher in history, or at least all the ones whose names happen to turn up in his books, have been wrong except him.  The fallacy is defined at Wiki and elsewhere on the web, but the best way to grasp what he means is to read his books.  For example,

The naturalistic fallacy always implies that when we think “This is good,” what we are thinking is that the thing in question bears a definite relation to some one other thing.

That fallacy, I explained, consists in the contention that good means nothing but some simple or complex notion, that can be defined in terms of natural qualities.

To hold that from any proposition asserting “Reality is of this nature” we can infer, or obtain confirmation for, any proposition asserting “This is good in itself” is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

In short, all the head scratching of all the philosophers over thousands of years about the question of what is Good has been so much wasted effort.  Certainly, the average layman had no chance at all of understanding the subject, or at least he didn’t until the fortuitous appearance of Moore on the scene.  He didn’t show up a moment too soon, either, because, as he explains in his books, we all have “duties.”  It turns out that, not only did the intuition “Good,” pop up in his consciousness, more or less after the fashion of “yellow,” or the smell of a rose.  He also “intuited” that it came fully equipped with the power to dictate to other individuals what they ought and ought not to do.  Again, I’ll allow the philosopher to explain.

Our “duty,” therefore, can only be defined as that action, which will cause more good to exist in the Universe than any possible alternative… When, therefore, Ethics presumes to assert that certain ways of acting are “duties” it presumes to assert that to act in those ways will always produce the greatest possible sum of good.

But how on earth can we ever even begin to do our duty if we have no clue what Good is?  Well, Moore is actually quite coy about explaining it to us, and rightly so, as it turns out.  When he finally takes a stab at it in Chapter VI of Principia, it turns out to be paltry enough.  Basically, it’s the same “pleasure,” or “happiness” that many other philosophers have suggested, only it’s not described in such simple terms.  It must be part of what Moore describes as an “organic whole,” consisting not only of pleasure itself, for example, but also a consciousness capable of experiencing the pleasure, the requisite level of taste to really appreciate it, the emotional equipment necessary to react with the appropriate level of awe, etc.  Silly old philosophers!  They rashly assumed that, if the Good were defined as “pleasure,” it would occur to their readers that they would have to be conscious in order to experience it without them spelling it out.  Little did they suspect the coming of G. E. Moore and his naturalistic fallacy.

When he finally gets around to explaining it to us, we gather that Moore’s Good is more or less what you’d expect the intuition of Good to be in a well-bred English gentleman endowed with “good taste” around the turn of the 20th century.  His Good turns out to include nice scenery, pleasant music, and chats with other “good” people.  Or, as he put it somewhat more expansively,

We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.


By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

Really?  No one?  One can only surmise that Moore’s circle of acquaintance must have been quite limited.  Unsurprisingly, Beethoven’s Fifth is in the mix, but only, of course, as part of an “organic whole.”  As Moore puts it,

What value should we attribute to the proper emotion excited by hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, if that emotion were entirely unaccompanied by any consciousness, either of the notes, or of the melodic and harmonic relations between them?

It would seem, then, that even if you’re such a coarse person that you can’t appreciate Beethoven’s Fifth yourself, it is still your “duty” to make sure that it’s right there on everyone else’s smart phone.

Imagine, if you will, Mother Nature sitting down with Moore, holding his hand, looking directly into his eyes, and revealing to him in all its majesty the evolution of life on this planet, starting from the simplest, one celled creatures more than four billion years ago, and proceeding through ever more complex forms to the almost incredible emergence of a highly intelligent and highly social species known as Homo sapiens.  It all happened, she explains to him with a look of triumph on her face, because, over all those four billion years, the chain of life remained unbroken because the creatures that made up the links of that chain survived and reproduced.  Then, with a serious expression on her face, she asks him, “Now do you understand the reason for the existence of moral emotions?”  “Of course,” answers Moore, “they’re there so I can enjoy nice landscapes and pretty music.”  (Loud forehead slap)  Mother Nature stands up and walks away shaking her head, consoling herself with the thought that some more advanced species might “get it” after another million years or so of natural selection.

And what of Aristotle, Hegel and Kant?  Throw out your philosophy books and forget about them.  Imagine being so dense as to commit the naturalistic fallacy!


Morality Inversions

The nature of morality and the reason for its existence have been obvious for more than a century and a half.  Francis Hutcheson demonstrated that it must arise from a “moral sense” early in the 18th century.  Hume agreed, and suggested the possibility that there may be a secular explanation for the existence of this moral sense.  Darwin demonstrated the nature of this secular explanation for anyone willing to peak over the blindfold of faith and look at the evidence.  Westermarck climbed up on the shoulders of these giants, gazed about, and summarized the obvious in his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In short, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are subjective artifacts of behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved.  Absent that evolved “moral sense,” morality as we know it would not exist.  It evolved because it happened to increase the probability that the genes responsible for its existence would survive and reproduce.  There exists no mechanism whereby those genes can jump out of the DNA of one individual, grab the DNA of another individual by the scruff of the neck, and dictate what kind of behavior that other DNA should regard as “good” or “evil.”

In the years since Darwin and Westermarck our species has amply demonstrated its propensity to ignore such inconvenient truths.  Once upon a time religion provided some semblance of a justification for belief in an objective “good-in-itself.”  However, latter day “experts” on ethics and morality have jettisoned such anachronisms, effectively sawing off the branch they were sitting on.  Then, with incomparable hubris, they’ve claimed a magical ability to distill objective “goods” and “evils” straight out of the vacuum they were floating in.  In our own time the result is visible as a veritable explosion of abstruse algorithms, incomprehensible to all but a few academic scribblers, for doing just that.  Encouraged by these “experts,” legions of others have indulged themselves in the wonderfully sweet delusion that the particular haphazard grab bag of emotions they happened to inherit from their ancestors provided them with an infallible touchstone for sniffing out “real good” and “real evil.”  The result has been an orgy of secular piety that the religious Puritans of old would have shuddered to behold.

The manifestations of this latter day piety have been bizarre, to say the least.  Instead of promoting genetic survival, they accomplish precisely the opposite.  Genes that are the end result of an unbroken chain of existence stretching back billions of years into the past now seem intent on committing suicide.  It’s not surprising really.  Other genes gave rise to an intelligence capable of altering the environment so fast that the rest couldn’t possibly keep up.  The result is visible in various forms of self-destructive behavior that can be described as “morality inversions.”

A classic example is the belief that it is “immoral” to have children.  Reams of essays, articles, and even books have been written “proving” that, for various reasons, reproduction is “bad-in-itself.”  If one searches diligently for the “root cause” of all these counterintuitive artifacts of human nature, one will always find them resting on a soft bed of moral emotions.  What physical processes in the brain give rise to these moral emotions, and how, exactly, do they predispose us to act in some ways, but not others?  No one knows.  It’s a mystery that will probably remain unsolved until we unravel the secret of consciousness.  One thing we do know, however.  The emotions exist because they evolved, and they evolved because they enhanced the odds that the genes that gave rise to them would reproduce; or at least they did in a particular environment that no longer exists.  In the vastly different environment we have now created for ourselves, however, they are obviously capable of promoting an entirely different end, at least in some cases; self destruction.

Of course, self destruction is not objectively evil because nothing is objectively evil.  Neither is it unreasonable, because, as Hume pointed out, reason by itself cannot motivate us to do anything.  We are motivated by “sentiments” or “passions” that we experience because it is our nature to experience them.  These include the moral passions.  Self destruction is a whim, and reason can be applied to satisfy the whim.  I happen to have a different whim.  I see myself as a link in a vast chain of millions of living organisms, my ancestors, if you will.  All have successfully reproduced, adding another link to the chain.  Suppose I were to fail to reproduce, thus becoming the final link in the chain and announcing, in effect, to those who came before me and made my life possible that, thanks to me, all their efforts had ended in a biological dead end.  In that case I would see myself as a dysfunctional biological unit or, in a word, sick, the victim of a morality inversion.  It follows that I have a different whim; to reproduce.  And so I have.  There can be nothing that renders my whims in any way objectively superior to those of anyone else.  I merely describe them and outline what motivates them.  I’m not disturbed by the fact that others have different whims, and choose self destruction.  After all, their choice to remove themselves from the gene pool and stop taking up space on the planet may well be to my advantage.

Another interesting example of a morality inversion is the deep emotional high so many people in Europe and North America seem to get from inviting a deluge of genetically and culturally alien immigrants to ignore the laws of their countries and move in.  One can but speculate on the reasons that the moral emotions, mediated by culture as they always are, result in such counterintuitive behavior.  There is, of course, such a thing as human altruism, and it exists because it evolved.  However, that evolutionary process took place in an environment that made it likely that such behavior would enhance the chances that the responsible genes would survive.  People lived in relatively small ingroups surrounded by more or less hostile outgroups.  We still categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, but the process has become deranged.  Thanks to our vastly expanded knowledge of the world around us combined with vastly improved means of communication, the ingroup may now be perceived as “all mankind.”

Except, of course, for the ever present outgroup.  The outgroup hasn’t gone anywhere.  It has merely adopted a different form.  Now, instead of the clan in the next territory over, the outgroup may consist of liberals, conservatives, Christians, Moslems, atheists, Jews, blacks, whites, or what have you.  The many possibilities are familiar to anyone who has read a little history.  Obviously, the moral equipment in our brains doesn’t have the least trouble identifying the population of Africa, the Middle East, or Mexico as members of the ingroup, and citizens of one’s own country who don’t quite see them in that light as the outgroup.  In that case, anyone who resists a deluge of illegal immigrants is “evil.”  If they point out that similar events in the past have led to long periods of ethnic and/or religious strife, occasionally culminating in civil war, or any of the other obvious drawbacks of uncontrolled immigration, they are simply shouted down with the epithets appropriate for describing the outgroup, “racist” being the most familiar and hackneyed example.  In short, a morality inversion has occurred.  Moral emotions have become dysfunctional, promoting behavior that will almost certainly be self-destructive in the long run.  I may be wrong of course.  The immigrants now pouring into Europe and North America without apparent limit may all eventually be assimilated into a big, happy, prosperous family.  I seriously doubt it.  Wait and see.

One could cite many other examples.  The faithful, of course, have their own versions, such as removing themselves from the gene pool by acting as human bombs, often taking many others with them in the process.  The “good” in this case is the delusional prospect of enjoying the services of 70 of the best Stepford wives ever heard of in the afterlife.  Regardless, the point is that the evolved emotional baggage that manifests itself in so many forms as human morality has been left in the dust.  It cannot possibly keep up with the frenetic pace of human social and technological progress.  The result is morality inversions; behaviors that accomplish more or less the opposite of what they did in the environment in which they evolved.  Under the circumstances, the practice of allowing people to wallow in their moral emotions, insisting that they have a monopoly on the “good” and anyone who opposes them is “evil” is becoming increasingly problematic.  As noted above, I don’t have a problem with these people voluntarily removing themselves from the gene pool.  I do have a problem with becoming collateral damage.

“Ethics” in the 21st Century

According to the banner on its cover, Ethics is currently “celebrating 125 years.”  It describes itself as “an international journal of social, political, and legal philosophy.”  Its contributors consist mainly of a gaggle of earnest academics, all chasing about with metaphysical butterfly nets seeking to capture that most elusive quarry, the “Good.”  None of them seems to have ever heard of a man named Westermarck, who demonstrated shortly after the journal first appeared that their prey was as imaginary as unicorns, or even Darwin, who was well aware of the fact, but was not indelicate enough to spell it out so blatantly.

The latest issue includes an entry on the “Transmission Principle,” defined in its abstract as follows:

If you ought to perform a certain act, and some other action is a necessary means for you to perform that act, then you ought to perform that other action as well.

As usual, the author never explains how you get to the original “ought” to begin with.  In another article entitled “What If I Cannot Make a Difference (and Know It),” the author begins with a cultural artifact that will surely be of interest to future historians:

We often collectively bring about bad outcomes.  For example, by continuing to buy cheap supermarket meat, many people together sustain factory farming, and the greenhouse gas emissions of millions of individuals together bring about anthropogenic climate change.

and goes on to note that,

Intuitively, these bad outcomes are not just a matter of bad luck, but the result of some sort of moral shortcoming.  Yet in many of these situations, none of the individual agents could have made any difference for the better.

He then demonstrates that, because a equals b, and b equals c, we are still entirely justified in peering down our morally righteous noses at purchasers of cheap meat and emitters of greenhouse gases.  His conclusion in academic-speak:

I have shown how Act Consequentialists can find fault with some agent in all cases where multiple agents who have modally robust knowledge of all the relevant facts gratuitously bring about collectively suboptimal outcomes, even if the agents individually cannot make any difference for the better due to the uncooperativeness of others.

The author does not explain the process by which emotions that evolved in a world without cheap supermarket meat have lately acquired the power to prescribe whether buying it is righteous or not.

It has been suggested by some that trading, the exchange of goods and services, is a defining feature of our species.  In an article entitled “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” the authors conclude that,

In many cases, we are morally obligated to revise our semiotics in order to allow for greater commodification.  We ought to revise our interpretive schemas whenever the costs of holding that schema are significant, without counterweight benefits.  It is itself morally objectionable to maintain a meaning system that imbues a practice with negative meanings when that practice would save or improve lives, reduce or alleviate suffering, and so on.

No doubt that very thought occurred to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, enhancing their overall fitness.  The happy result was the preservation of the emotional baggage that gave rise to it to later inform the pages of Ethics magazine.

In short, “moral progress,” as reflected in the pages of Ethics, depends on studiously ignoring Darwin, averting our eyes from the profane scribblings of Westermarck, pretending that the recent flood of books and articles on the evolutionary origins of morality and the existence of analogs of human morality in many animals are irrelevant, and gratuitously assuming that there really is some “thing” out there for the butterfly nets to catch.  In other words, our “moral progress” has been a progress away from self-understanding.  It saddens me, because I’ve always considered self-understanding a “good.”  Just another one of my whims.

Edvard Westermarck on Morality: The Light Before the Darkness Fell

The nature of morality became obvious to anyone who cared to think about it after Darwin published his great theory, including Darwin himself.  In short, it became clear that the “root causes” of morality were to be found in “human nature,” our specie’s collection of evolved behavioral predispositions.  As the expression of evolved traits, morality has no purpose, unless one cares to use that term as shorthand for the apparent biological function it serves.  It exists because it enhanced the probability that the creatures with the genetic endowment that gave rise to it would survive and reproduce in the conditions that existed when those genes appeared.  As a result, there are no moral “truths.”  Rather, morality is a subjective phenomenon with emotional rather than logical origins.

So much became obvious to many during the decades that following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.  One man spelled out the truth more explicitly, clearly, and convincingly than any other.  That man was Edvard Westermarck.

Westermarck was a Finnish philosopher and sociologist who published his seminal work on morality, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, in 1906.  As we now know in retrospect, the truths in that great book were too much for mankind to bear.  The voices repeating those truths became fewer, and were finally silenced.  The darkness returned, and more than a century later we are still struggling to find our way out of the fog.  It should probably come as no surprise.  It goes without saying that the truth was unpalatable to believers in imaginary super beings.  Beyond that, the truth relegated the work of most of the great moral philosophers of the past to the status  of historical curiosities.  Those who interpreted their thought for the rest of us felt the ground slipping from beneath their feet.  Experts in ethics and morality became the equivalent of experts in astrology, and a step below the level of doctors of chiropracty.  Zealots of Marxism and the other emerging secular versions of religion rejected a truth that exposed the absurdity of attempts to impose new versions of morality from on high.  As for the average individuals of the species Homo sapiens, they rejected the notion that the “Good” and “Evil” objects that their emotions portrayed so realistically, and that moved them so profoundly, were mere fantasies.

The result was more or less predictable.  Westermarck and the rest were shouted down.  The Blank Slate debacle turned the behavioral sciences into so many strongholds of an obscurantist orthodoxy.  The blind exploitation of moral emotions in the name of such newly concocted “Goods” as Nazism and Communism resulted in the deaths of tens of millions, and misery on a vast scale.  The Academy became the spawning ground of a modern, secular version of Puritanism, more intolerant and bigoted than the last.  In the case of Westermarck, the result has, at least, been more amusing.  He has been hidden in plain sight.  On his Wiki page, for example, he is described as one who “studied exogamy and incest taboo.”  To the extent that his name is mentioned at all, it is usually in connection with the Westermarck Effect, according to which individuals in close proximity in the early years of life become sexually desensitized to each other.  So much for the legacy of the man who has a good claim to be the most profound thinker on the subject of morality to appear since the days of Hume.

Let us cut to the chase and consider what Westermarck actually said.  In the first place, he stressed a point often completely overlooked by modern researchers in the behavioral sciences; the complex emotions we now associate with morality did not suddenly appear fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.  Rather, they represent the results of a continuous process of evolution from simpler emotional responses that Westermarck grouped into the categories of “resentment” and “approval.”  These had existed in many animal species long before hominids appeared on the scene.  They were there as a result of natural selection.  As Westermarck put it:

As to their origin, the evolutionist can hardly entertain a doubt. Resentment, like protective reflex action, out of which it has gradually developed, is a means of protection for the animal. Its intrinsic object is to remove a cause of pain, or, what is the same, a cause of danger. Two different attitudes maybe taken by an animal towards another which has made it feel pain: it may either shun or attack its enemy. In the former case its action is prompted by fear, in the latter by anger, and it depends on the circumstances which of these emotions is the actual determinant. Both of them are of supreme importance for the preservation of the species, and may consequently be regarded as elements in the animal’s mental constitution which have been acquired by means of natural selection in the struggle for existence.

From what has been said above it is obvious that moral resentment is of extreme antiquity in the human race, nay that the germ of it is found even in the lower animal world among social animals capable of feeling sympathetic resentment.  The origin of custom as a moral rule no doubt lies in a very remote period of human history.

This is followed by another remarkable passage, which showcases another aspect of Westermarck’s genius that appears repeatedly in his books; his almost incredible erudition.  His knowledge of the intellectual and historical antecedents of his own ideas is not limited to a narrow field, but is all-encompassing, and highly useful to anyone who cares to study the relevant source material on his own:

 This view is not new. More than one hundred and fifty years before Darwin, Shaftesbury wrote of resentment in these words:  ” Notwithstanding its immediate aim be indeed the ill or punishment of another, yet it is plainly of the sort of those [affections] which tend to the advantage “and interest of the self-system, the animal himself; and is withal in other respects contributing to the good and interest of the species.”  A similar opinion is expressed by Butler, according to whom the reason and end for which man was made liable to anger is, that he might be better qualified to prevent and resist violence and opposition, while deliberate resentment “is to be considered as a weapon, put into our hands by nature, against injury, injustice, and cruelty.”  Adam Smith, also, believes that resentment has “been given us by nature for defence, and for defence only,” as being “the safeguard of justice and the I security of innocence.”  Exactly the same view is taken by several modern evolutionists as regards the “end” of resentment, though they, of course, do not rest contented with saying that this feeling has been given us by nature, but try to explain in what way it has developed. “Among members of the same species,” says Mr. Herbert Spencer, “those individuals which have not, in any considerable degree, resented aggressions, must have ever tended to disappear, and to have left behind those which have with some effect made counter-aggressions.”

All these references are accompanied by citations of the works in which they appear in the footnotes.  Westermarck then went on to derive conclusions from the evolutionary origins of morality that are both simple and obvious, but which modern behavioral scientists and philosophers have a daunting capacity to ignore.  He concluded that morality is subjective.  It may be reasoned about, but is the product of emotion, not reason.  It follows that there are no such things as moral “truths,” and that the powerful moral emotions that we so cling to, and that cause the chimeras of “Good” and “Evil” to hover in our consciousness as palpable, independent objects, are, in fact, illusions.  In Westermarck’s own words:

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.

Consider the significance of these passages, almost incredible looking back from a point of view through the Puritanical mist of the 21st century.  In one of the blurbs I ran across while searching the name “Westermarck,” his work was referred to as “outdated.”  I suppose that, in a sense, that conclusion is quite true, but not in the way intended.  I know of not a single modern thinker, scientist, or philosopher who has even come close to Westermarck in the simplicity and clarity with which he presents these conclusions, so obvious to anyone who has read and understood Darwin.  Here are some more passages that reinforce that conclusion:

If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.  It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else.  But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true.  If the word, “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

To put it more bluntly, and to reveal some of my own purely subjective moral emotions in the process, the flamboyant peacocks currently strutting about among us peddling their idiosyncratic flavors of virtuous indignation and moral outrage based on a supposed monopoly on moral “truths” are, in reality, so many charlatans and buffoons.  To take them seriously is to embrace a lie, and one that, as has been clearly and repeatedly demonstrated in the past, and will almost certainly be abundantly demonstrated again in the future, is not only irritating, but extremely dangerous.  The above, by the way, appears in the context of a shattering rebuttal of utilitarianism in Chapter 1 that is as applicable to the modern versions being concocted for our edification by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene as it is to the earlier theories of John Stuart Mill and others.  In reading Westermarck’s book, one is constantly taken aback by insights that are stunning in view of the time at which they were written.  Consider, for example, the following in light of recent research on mirror neurons:

That a certain act causes pleasure or pain to the bystander is partly due to the close association which exists between these feelings and their outward expressions.  The sight of a happy face tends to produce some degree of pleasure in him who sees it.  The sight of the bodily signs of suffering tends to produce a feeling of pain.  In either case the feeling of the spectator is the result of a process of reproduction, the perception of the physical manifestation of the feeling recalling the feeling itself on account of the established association between them.

I fear we will have a very long wait before our species grasps the significance of Westermarck’s ideas and adjusts its perceptions of the nature and significance of morality accordingly.  As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we are far to fond of the delightful joys of self-righteousness to admit the less than exalted truths about its origins without a struggle.  There are some grounds for optimism in the fact that a “Happy Few” are still around who understand that the significance of Westermarck completely transcends anything he had to say about sexual attraction and marriage.  As it happens, Frans de Waal, whose latest book is the subject of one of my recent posts, is one of them.  I personally became aware of him thanks to a reference to his book in Nietzsche’s “Human, All Too Human.”  I don’t think Nietzsche ever quite grasped what Westermarck was saying.  He had too much the soul of an artist and a poet rather than a scientist for that.  Yet, somehow, he had a sixth sense for ferreting out the wheat from the chaff in human thought.  As it happens, I began reading Stendhal, my favorite novelist, thanks to a reference in Nietzsche as well.  I may not exactly be on board as far as his ramblings about morality are concerned, but at least I owe him a tip of the hat for that.  As for Westermarck, I can but hope that many more will read and grasp the significance of his theories.  His book is available free online at Google books for anyone who cares to look at it.

UPDATE:  Apparently I became too “dizzy with success” at discovering Westermarck to notice a “minor” temporal anomaly in the above post.  A commenter just pointed it out to me.  Westermarck wrote his book in 1906, and Nietzsche died in 1900!  He was actually referring to a book by Paul Ree entitled, “The Origin of the Moral Sensations,” which appeared in 1877.  Check Ree’s Wiki page, and you’ll see he’s the guy standing in front of a cart with Nietzsche in the famous picture with Lou Andreas-Salome sitting in the cart holding a whip.  Of course, it’s a spoof on Nietzsche’s famous dictum, “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!”  I was reading the German version of his “Human, all too Human.”  The quote referred to appears in Section 37, as follows:

Welches ist doch der Hauptsatz, zu dem einer der kühnsten und kältesten Denker, der Verfasser des Buches “Über den Ursprung der moralischen Empfindungen” vermöge seiner ein-und durchschneidenden Analysen des menschlichen Handelns gelangt?

In my English version of the book above the quote is translated as,

Which principle did one of the keenest and coolest thinkers, the author of the book On the Origin of the Moral Feelings, arrive at through his incisive and piercing analysis of human actions?

I translated the title on the fly as “On the Origin of the Moral Emotions,” and when you search that title on Bing, the first link that comes up points to Westermarck’s book.  In a word, my discovery of Westermarck was due to serendipity or bungling, take your pick.  The shade of Nietzsche must be chuckling somewhere.  Now I feel obligated to have a look at Ree’s book as well.  I’ll let you know what I think of him in a later post, and I promise not to claim I discovered him thanks to a reference in Aristotle’s “Ethics.”


On the Unbearable Lightness of Objective Morality

There are still objective moralists – lots of them.  Of course, billions of people on the planet are objective moralists because they believe in God, but that’s the trivial case.  I’m not referring to them.  I’m referring to the legions of philosophers, ethicists, and moralists who sawed that particular branch off long ago, and yet imagine they can still sit on it.  It reminds me of an old “Itchy and Scratchy” episode on “The Simpsons.”  Itchy tears out Scratchy’s heart and hands it to him as a valentine.  Scratchy is charmed, and carries on as if nothing were amiss until he happens to read the bold headline in his newspaper, “You Need a Heart to Live!”  So it is with the objective moralists.  They insist that their treasured object needs neither a heart nor a God to exist.  It exists because they say so, and after all, they are the experts.  More importantly, it exists because they would not at all approve of a world in which it didn’t.

An interesting example of the genre recently turned up in the pages of The New Atlantis in the form of an article entitled, The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson.  It was penned by Whitley Kaufman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  Kaufman is also an objective moralist, and his article is intended as a refutation of E. O. Wilson’s “evolutionary ethics.”  He informs us that “the discipline of evolutionary ethics can be divided into two broad camps.”  Supposedly Wilson belongs to the first camp, which “views evolutionary explanations of morality as a way to improve our understanding of what is moral and to put ethical claims on a stronger foundation.”  However, Kaufman finally gets around to telling us where he stands in describing the second camp:

But there is a second, more radical school of thought in evolutionary ethics.  This view holds that evolutionary biology, rather than providing a basis for improving or modernizing ethics, shows that the idea of objective ethical rules is inherently mistaken.

Returning to the same theme a bit later he writes,

…the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims.

That might well be true if there were even the faintest basis for the “objective status of ethical claims.”  In fact, there is none, and Kaufman makes no effort to supply one.  Objective moralists seldom do.  It seems to them that the Good and Evil objects that dance before their eyes are so light that they can float about in the ether without support.  It’s a common illusion among those who have reached terminal velocity as gravity pulls them crashing down to earth.

By all means, read Kaufman’s essay from end to end.  You will search in vain for any justification of the claim that there is such a thing as objective morality.  Instead, you will find a very typical mélange of appeals to emotion, moralistic posing, and insistences that, because the author wouldn’t like it if there were no objective morality, therefore objective morality must exist.

For example, in a section entitled Disquieting Precedents, he dangles familiar bugaboos before our eyes.  They include Social Darwinism, eugenics, and, of course, the Nazis.  These are all, supposedly, the misshapen children of evolutionary ethics.  In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:  I feel really, really strongly that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are evil.  It would be really, really outrageous for anyone to believe that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are good.  Therefore, it follows that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are objectively evil.  Using similar logic, one can easily prove the existence of a God.  After all, if God didn’t exist, we couldn’t go to heaven after we die, the bad people we resent wouldn’t go to hell, and our prayers for our favorite football team would never be answered.  Therefore, there must be a God.

A little later, Kaufman puts this “it just can’t be” argument into an even simpler form.  Taking issue with Wilson he writes,

In his 1986 essay “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” written with philosopher Michael Ruse, he (E. O. Wilson) argues that we now understand that we have been “deceived by our genes” into believing that morality objectively binds us, that there is a real right versus wrong.

This view is best characterized as a form of moral nihilism, the idea that moral obligations do not exist.  Wilson tries to avoid the nihilistic position by insisting that the illusion of right and wrong is so deeply built into us that even recognizing it as an illusion will not likely make a difference in our behavior.  But committed moral nihilists reject this response:  realizing that moral claims are illusions surely means that moral claims are false.  There is, under this view, no real ethical difference between the actions of the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint.

In other words, we have the following additional arguments for objective morality:  a) I don’t like moral nihilists at all, and, since moral nihilists deny the existence of objective right and wrong, therefore objective right and wrong must exist, b) I don’t at all like the idea that there is no objective moral difference between the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint, so there must be an objective moral difference between them, and, c) It would be a great shame if the mirage of a cool spring of water and palm trees shimmering ahead of me on the desert floor weren’t real.  Therefore they must be real.  Do any of these arguments make sense to you?  They certainly don’t to me.  A bit further on Kaufman writes,

There are stronger grounds than Wilson offers, however, for rejecting the moral nihilism that some say is a consequence of evolutionary biology.  Consider an analogy with mathematics and science.  Like our ability to think about the morality of our actions, the cognitive abilities underlying mathematics and science are in some sense products of evolution.  But this fact has no significant implications regarding our ability to objectively study mathematics or physics, and it certainly does not imply that numbers, molecules, or, for that matter, genes, brains, and bodies studied by evolutionary biologists are fictions.  Likewise, the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims… To try to do ethics without genuine values and prescriptive moral principles is like trying to do science without recourse to facts and observations.

There’s a novel proof for you.  Objective Good and Evil must exist because Prof. Kaufman requires them to do his job.  Actually, I’m entirely willing to believe in genuine values and prescriptive moral principles if Professor Kaufman could just catch one in his butterfly net and bring it in for me to observe.  That’s really where his ox is gored.  If there is no objective morality, people like him really have nothing to teach us, other than their opinions tarted up as “objects.”  I’m sorry about that, but the fact doesn’t alter reality one bit.  According to Kaufman,

In order to fully comprehend human nature, there must always be a place for philosophy, history, literary studies, and even theology – disciplines that complement the natural sciences and fill in the picture of the human being as a free and rational agent.

I personally don’t care what discipline my knowledge comes from.  You can call it science, or philosophy, or history, or whatever you like.  But regardless of where it comes from, I must insist that if people make assertions about objects that are supposed to exist independently of their subjective minds, they provide some data, some actual evidence that those objects exist.  Absent such data, but with plenty of data demonstrating that those “objects” are just what E. O. Wilson says they are – subjective illusions – I will continue in the belief that they are just that.

Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for the existence of human morality.  Absent those predispositions, our morality as we know it would cease to exist.  In my opinion, that is the simple truth.  It will remain the truth whether its implications are unpleasant to the Kaufmans of the world or not.  Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are obviously possible, though hardly inevitable, outcomes if people engage in faulty reasoning about what they should do in response to their moral emotions.  If we really want to avoid such outcomes in the future, wouldn’t it be advisable to understand the truth about our moral emotions and where morality comes from?  It seems to me that would be wiser than attempting to ban them by insisting that everyone believe in imaginary objects.  That would amount to insisting that we repeat the same mistakes over again.  After all, there were no stronger believers in objective morality than the Nazis unless, perhaps, it was the Communists.  For them, the ultimate, objective Good was the welfare of the German Volk.  They tolerated no moral relativism on that score whatsoever.  For the Communists, the objective Good was achieving the future classless utopia.  They, too, allowed no moral relativism touching on that ultimate goal.  It seems to me that the lesson we really should have learned from Nazism and Communism is that such illusions of objective Good can be very dangerous, and we should be wary of anyone who comes along trying to peddle a new and improved version.

There is no reason we will cease to be moral beings because we have finally learned to understand morality.  Just as E. O. Wilson said, it is our nature to be moral beings.  If there be moral nihilists who assume they can break the rules because the rules are conventions rather than objects, we will continue to punish them just as we have always punished such moral nihilists in the past.  I, for one, will have no problem with that.  However, it seems to me that the interactions of modern nation states armed with nuclear weapons bear little resemblance to those that prevailed during the long period over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved.  Under the circumstances it seems to me imprudent to regulate those interactions with reference to imaginary Good and Evil objects.  We did, after all, have some rather unpleasant experiences during the last century trying to do just that.  Let us refrain from compounding the error by attempting to repeat those experiments.  I have very little faith in the efficacy of the vaunted intelligence of our species.  However, it seems to me that in such cases we should leave off trying to cobble together new moral systems and actually try to be reasonable.

As for Good and Evil objects, I am not intransigent.  I am entirely willing to believe in them.  All I ask is that Professor Kaufman rope one and show it to me.


On the Origins of Morality

In his book, The Territorial Imperative, that greatest and most ignored of “evolutionary psychologists,” Robert Ardrey, wrote,

To account for man’s undoubted moral nature, a variety of suppositions have been advanced:  that man is at constant war with the evolutionary process; that his mind has delivered him exemption from evolutionary law, and that natural selection takes place now only in the field of ideas; that intervention, divine or cultural, has created a gap between man and other animals.  All or some of these suppositions, to a degree you cannot guess, combine to provide your children with their education and to provide you, in your daily life, with dubious solutions to the problems which surround you.

All, of course, are false.  What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Sir Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.

The Territorial Imperative was published in 1966.  Today, Ardrey’s assertion about the existence of morality in animals does not seem nearly as far fetched as it did then.  See, for example, Wild Justice, by Bekoff and Pierce.  As for Ardrey’s assertion about “a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years,” it sounded even more far fetched in 1966, but he was probably right about that, too.

After all, the predispositions that give rise to the subset of our behavioral traits we associate with morality are just that; a subset of the whole.  They are not necessarily any substantial differences in kind or mechanism between them and any of the rest of the grab bag of mental traits that contribute to what is commonly referred to as “human nature.”  Not having a will or purpose of its own, the process of evolution didn’t somehow decide along the way to create a separate, distinct category for moral behavior, and then completely neglect it until finally deciding to tack it on as an afterthought in modern humans.  The distinction between the behavioral traits associated with morality and the rest is more artificial than natural.

Consider, for example, the ability to distinguish friend from foe, behaving in one way towards the former, and in a starkly different way towards the latter.  It is an ability possessed even by insects.  Presumably, such behavior appeared on the scene before the advent of self-awareness.  Obviously, it persisted thereafter.  It seems plausible that the emotions and other mental machinery responsible for recognizing and favoring friends, already in existence for countless millions of years, eventually became part of the behavioral baggage of intelligent, self-aware creatures.  In such creatures, capable of recalling and examining their own emotions, it is plausible that the “sentiments,” as David Hume put it, associated with this emotional response to friends were conceptualized as “good.”  Conversely, the “sentiments” produced by the mental machinery responsible for recognizing and promoting negative responses towards enemies would have  been conceptualized as “evil.”  I am not claiming that the emergence of what the average philosopher would agree to call “morality” happened in exactly this way.  However, I am suggesting that it may well have emerged as a result of the conscious regard by intelligent creatures of emotions that had already existed for a very long time.

Moral judgments have always been, at bottom emotional.  These emotions are experienced with such force in human beings that the categories they give rise to in our perception, namely, “good” and “evil,” tend to appear to us as objects, or things-in-themselves.  Indeed, only when these categories transcend their emotional origins in the imaginations of individuals to become independent things can one speak of a rational justification for insisting that they apply, not just to the individual who experiences the emotions, but to others as well.  This illusion has obviously worked well enough in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, promoting their survival, else I should not be around to write this.  In our own day, however, it shows every sign of becoming a disastrous liability.

Assuming we value the survival of our species, it is high time we recognized the illusion for what it is.  We should stop, once and for all, cobbling together “scientific” moral systems.  No science can be based on the identification and elaboration of objects that don’t exist.  Recognizing human morality for what it is, including the ultimate evolutionary origins of everything we understand as moral behavior, does not entail any radical change in the “moral landscape.”  We are moral creatures.  We will not jettison moral standards or begin to act amorally because we happen to finally perceive the truth about what morality actually is.  We will not all become “moral relativists,” nor will moral restraints on our behavior suddenly disappear, causing us all to become “bad.”  We are moral animals and will continue to be moral animals.  We will not suddenly stop acting according to our nature any more than a leopard can suddenly shed its spots.  All I am suggesting is that we keep morality within its proper sphere, and recognize it for what it is.  It may be necessary for us to lean on our flimsy powers of reason to regulate our collective actions in spheres where morality doesn’t belong.  However, that is better than leaning on an illusion.


But Wait! There are More “Worries” from The Edge!

I won’t parse all 150+ of them, but here are a few more that caught my eye.

Science writer and historian Michael Shermer, apparently channeling Sam Harris, is worried about the “Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.”  According to Shermer,

…most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

It’s only a mistake to the extent that there’s actually some “high ground” to be conceded.  There is not.  Assuming that Shermer is not referring to the trivial case of discovering mere opinions in the minds of individual humans, neither science nor philosophy is capable determining anything about objects that don’t exist.  Values, morals and ethics do not exist as objects.  They are not things-in-themselves.  They cannot leap out of the skulls of individuals and acquire a reality and legitimacy that transcends individual whim.  Certainly, large groups of individuals who discover that they have whims in common can band together and “scientifically” force their whims down the throats of less powerful groups and individuals, but, as they say, that don’t make it right.

Suppose we experience a holocaust of some kind, and only one human survived the mayhem.  No doubt he would still be able to imagine what it was like when there were large groups of other’s like himself.  He might recall how they behaved, “scientifically” categorizing their actions as “good” or “evil,” according to his own particular moral intuitions.  Supposed, now, that his life also flickered out.  What would be left of his whims?  Would the inanimate universe, spinning on towards its own destiny, care about them one way or the other.  Science can determine the properties and qualities of things.  Where, then, would the “good” and “evil” objects reside?  Would they still float about in the ether as disembodied spirits?  I’m afraid not.  Science can have nothing to say about objects that don’t exist.  Michael Shermer might feel “in his bones” that some version of “human flourishing” is “scientifically good,” but there is no reason at all why I or anyone else should agree with his opinion.  By all means, let us flourish together, if we all share that whim, but surely we can pursue that goal without tacking moral intuitions on to it.  “Scientific” morality is not only naive, but, as was just demonstrated by the Communists and the Nazis, extremely dangerous as well. According to Shermer,

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong…

In fact, if scientists cease looking for and seeking to study objects that plainly don’t exist, it would seem to me more reason for congratulations all around than worry.  Here’s a sample of the sort of “reasoning” Shermer uses to bolster his case:

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.

Forgive me for being blunt, but this is gibberish.  Natural selection can have no target, because it is an inanimate process, and can no more have a purpose or will than a stone.  “Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism – people in this context – is the basis of establishing values and morals”??  Such “reasoning” reminds me of the old “Far Side” cartoon, in which one scientist turns to another and allows that he doesn’t quite understand the intermediate step in his proof:  “Miracle happens.”  If a volcano spits a molten mass into the air which falls to earth and becomes a rock, is not it, in the same sense, the “target” of the geologic processes that caused indigestion in the volcano?  Is not the survival and flourishing of that rock equally a universal “good?”

Of the remaining “worries,” this was the one that most worried me, but there were others.  Kevin Kelly, Editor at Large of Wired Magazine, was worried about the “Underpopulation Bomb.”  Noting the “Ur-worry” of overpopulation, Kelly writes,

While the global population of humans will continue to rise for at least another 40 years, demographic trends in full force today make it clear that a much bigger existential threat lies in global underpopulation.

Apparently the basis of Kelly’s worry is the assumption that, once the earths population peaks in 2050 or thereabouts, the decrease will inevitably continue until we hit zero and die out.  In his words, “That worry seems preposterous at first.”  I think it seem preposterous first and last.

Science writer Ed Regis is worried about, “Being Told That Our Destiny Is Among The Stars.”  After reciting the usual litany of technological reasons that human travel to the stars isn’t likely, he writes,

Apart from all of these difficulties, the more important point is that there is no good reason to make the trip in the first place. If we need a new “Earth 2.0,” then the Moon, Mars, Europa, or other intra-solar-system bodies are far more likely candidates for human colonization than are planets light years away.  So, however romantic and dreamy it might sound, and however much it might appeal to one’s youthful hankerings of “going into space,” interstellar flight remains a science-fictional concept—and with any luck it always will be.

In other words, he doesn’t want to go.  By all means, then, he should stay here.  I and many others, however, have a different whim.  We embrace the challenge of travel to the stars, and, when it comes to human survival, we feel existential Angst at the prospect of putting all of our eggs in one basket.  Whether “interstellar flight remains a science-fiction concept” at the moment depends on how broadly you define “we.”  I see no reason why “we” should be limited to one species.  After all, any species you could mention is related to all the rest.  Interstellar travel may not be a technologically feasible option for me at the moment, but it is certainly feasible for my relatives on the planet, and at a cost that is relatively trivial.  Many simpler life forms can potentially survive tens of thousands of years in interstellar space.  I am of the opinion that we should send them on their way, and the sooner the better.

I do share some of the other worries of the Edge contributors.  I agree, for example, with historian Noga Arikha’s worry about, “Presentism – the prospect of collective amnesia,” or, as she puts it, the “historical blankness” promoted by the Internet.  In all fairness, the Internet has provided unprecedented access to historical source material.  However, to find it you need to have the historical background to know what you’re looking for.  That background about the past can be hard to develop in the glare of all the fascinating information available about the here and now.  I also agree with physicist Anton Zeilinger’s worry about, “Losing Completeness – that we are increasingly losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental, and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.”  It’s an enduring problem.  The name “university” was already a misnomer 200 years ago, and in the meantime the problem has only become worse.  Those who can see the “big picture” and have the talent to describe it to others are in greater demand than ever before.  Finally, I agree with astrophysicist Martin Rees’ worry that, “We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks.”  In particular, I agree with his comment to the effect that,

The ‘anthropocene’ era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, there were several occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward nuclear Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation. Those who lived anxiously through the Cuba crisis would have been not merely anxious but paralytically scared had they realized just how close the world then was to catastrophe.

This threat is still with us.  It is not “in abeyance” because of the end of the cold war, nor does that fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II mean that they will never be used again.  They will.  It is not a question of “if,” but “when.”

The Implosion of Jonah Lehrer

A couple of years ago Harvard announced an ongoing investigation of evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Marc Hauser for “scientific misconduct” involving the integrity of experimental data.  Hauser wrote books such as Moral Minds for a lay audience as well as numerous papers in academic journals co-authored with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Richard Wrangham.  He resigned his professorship about a year later.

Now another public scientist and intellectual who also specialized in the behavioral sciences has fallen.  Jonah Lehrer was fired from his position at “The New Yorker” after admitting he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.  I can only agree with his editor, David Remnick, that “This is a terrifically sad situation.”  Why someone as ostensibly successful and highly regarded as Lehrer would do such a thing is beyond my comprehension.

One must hope we’re not seeing the start of a trend.  I can think of few things more important than the credibility and integrity of the behavioral sciences, so lately emerged from the debacle of the Blank Slate.  It turns out Lehrer didn’t even need to invent the quotes in question.  According to Randy Lewis writing for the LA Times, Dylan actually did say substantially the same thing in an interview with pop music critic Robert Hilburn in 2004.  Quoting from Lewis’ article,

At one point, he told Hilburn something very close to what Lehrer seemed to have been after: “I’m not good at defining things,” Dylan said in 2004. “Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.”

But he also did open up remarkably about how he viewed the art and craft of songwriting.

“I don’t think in lateral terms as a writer. That’s a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers…. They are so lateral. There’s no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.”

Had he been more thorough in doing the research for his book, perhaps Lehrer could have been able to hold onto the success he seemed so desperately to want that he concocted quotes from the greatest songwriter of the rock era.

It would be nice if the scientists who study our behavior and morality were themselves immune to the human frailties they write about.  Once again, we have seen that they most decidedly are not.  Those who seek Plato’s philosopher kings will have to keep looking.