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  • Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

    Posted on July 13th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

    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. His explanations of how these spirits manage to acquire the normative power to render some of us here below objectively “good,” and others objectively “evil,” were even more vague. As I pointed out, entirely similar arguments can be used to “prove” the existence of unicorns. Evolution isn’t necessary to debunk Dworkin’s theory of “morality spirits.” Vavova avoids this problem by being, or pretending to be, blithely unaware of any need to explain the mode of existence of the moral objects she so confidently insists are real.

    In fact, Darwins’ theory cannot disprove the existence of moral objects on its own. It can, however, explain why it is that so many human beings persist in believing in such extravagant entities. In the process, it even further undermines the already flimsy arguments in their favor. Prof. Vavova seems aware of this at some level, because she persistently refuses to even seriously engage arguments to the effect that the objects she believes in so firmly simply don’t exist. Thus, in much of her paper we find her tilting against such windmills as the notion that moral beliefs traceable to the influence of natural selection are “off track” from “true” moral beliefs. The possibility that these “true” moral beliefs are nonexistent is rejected out of hand. She claims she is justified in rejecting this possibility because,

    Since it targets all of our moral beliefs, we are left knowing nothing about morality. But how can we tell if we are likely to be mistaken about morality, if we know nothing about it?

    Yes, and how can we tell if we are likely to be mistaken about unicorns, if we know nothing about them? Consider, for a moment, just how absurd this argument really is. We are supposed to believe that, unless we can assume the existence of moral truths, we can know nothing about morality. Most of us certainly experience moral emotions, and can be profoundly affected by them. It is hardly necessary for us to assume the existence of moral truths before we can question why those emotions exist and, given the reasons for their existence, whether they reflect what is objectively true, or what is subjectively imagined to be true. We can localize where in the brain these emotions arise, and we can study the chemical and electrical phenomena that accompany them. In other words, it is perfectly obvious that we can know a great deal more about morality than “nothing” without assuming the existence of objective moral truths. I am not cherry picking from Vavova’s text here. One can find similar passages throughout her article. For example,

    But we cannot determine if we are likely to be mistaken about morality if we can make no assumptions at all about what morality is like.

    and,

    Likewise, I cannot show that I am not hopeless at understanding right and wrong without being allowed to make some assumptions about what is right and wrong.

    Really? We can know nothing about morality unless we assume the existence of objects that, as Dworkin pointed out, don’t exist in a form accessible either to our senses, or to any of the intricate scientific instruments we have created as extensions of those senses, but in the realm of spirits? Vavova justifies such dubious claims as follows:

    Unless we are skeptics, we should grant that sensory perception is a perfectly good belief-forming method. Ceteris paribus, if you perceive that p, you are rational in concluding that p. Do we have good reason to think that perception would lead us to true beliefs about our surroundings? Not if “good” reason is understood as an appropriately independent reason: for if we set aside all that is in question, we must set aside all beliefs gained by perception. Without those, we cannot evaluate the rationality of beliefs formed by perception.

    Here Vavova is conflating the perception of objects with the existence of objects. We are all capable of perceiving mirages, but we are not forced to admit that, by virtue of that perception, the mirage must be real. Indeed, we have very reliable ways of demonstrating that mirages are not real that are in no way “independent” of our senses. One does not “set aside all beliefs gained by perception” by virtue of realizing that mirages aren’t real. We have developed many reliable ways to evaluate the rationality of beliefs about objects that exist independently of ourselves if those objects are accessible to our senses. As Dworkin pointed out, moral objects cannot possibly be so accessible. Our senses can tell us nothing about the characteristics of such objects, or even whether they exist at all. Evolution by natural selection, on the other hand, can give us a very good explanation of why we perceive the existence of these objects, and at the same time makes it extremely implausible that they actually do exist. It would be necessary for them to exist by virtue of some reason having nothing to do with natural selection, to exist in a form undetectable by our senses, and be somehow a necessary outcome of the existence of the universe itself. I am more ready to believe in unicorns and the reality of mirages than in such whimsical objects.

    In the world we live in, one becomes a respected philosopher by insisting on the existence of unicorns, and writing papers that appear in prestigious academic journals describing exactly how they must be fed and cared for. I, on the other hand, am quite convinced that there are no unicorns. It seems to me that evolution by natural selection provides very compelling reasons why the moral equivalent of unicorns are imagined to exist, and at the same time renders the probability that these objects actually do exist vanishingly small. Of course, there are also very compelling reasons why our philosophers and “experts on morality” persist in continuing the charade. After all, their livelihoods, reputations, and claims to “expertise” depend on it. Then again, none of my thoughts on the subject has appeared in journals of philosophy. I write a blog with a handful of readers. Who are you going to believe?

  • Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

    Posted on June 28th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

    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.

    I have reviewed some of the many schemes for propping up the illusion that appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, supposedly based on Darwin’s work itself. These were commonly based on the fallacy that evolution always results in “progress” from the “lower” and more primitive to the “higher” and more noble, and would finally ascend to identity with moral truth itself. Absurd as they were, these ideas at least accepted the existence of human nature. Debunking them was merely a matter of pointing out that evolution is a natural phenomenon that, by its very nature, cannot recognize the difference between “higher” and “lower,” and cannot possibly result in “progress” towards things that don’t exist.
    By the time Westermarck put the final nail in the coffin of these imaginative schemes, however, a deus ex machina had appeared to rescue the illusion in the form of the Blank Slate. For half a century the “experts” and “men of science” insisted on the absurd but ideologically expedient notion that there is no such thing as human nature. What Darwin had said on the subject was ignored. With human nature safely swept under the rug, there could no longer be an objection to the illusion of objective moral truths based on naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality. Eventually, the Blank Slate orthodoxy collapsed, and human nature could no longer be ignored. “Evolutionary debunking arguments” began to appear, once again pointing out the connection between natural selection and the existence of the emotions that generations of earlier philosophers had demonstrated were an essential “root cause” of morality. Once again, latter day philosophers faced an existential challenge. They had to find more creative ways to prop up the illusion.

    Enter the unicorn. As things now stand, the philosophers have met the challenge, at least in their imaginations. Even the “evolutionary debunkers” among them have come up with “anti-realist” versions of “moral truth” that leave the illusion virtually untouched. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for lay people to understand or assess the logic behind these ideas because philosophers are fond of cloaking them in a virtually impenetrable fog of academic jargon. In order to kick out the props holding up the illusion, one must devote some time to learning the jargon. I don’t speak the jargon myself, but have developed at least a rudimentary ability to understand it. I will try to translate at least part of one of the more prominent attempts to defend objective morality for the edification of my readers. It appeared in a paper entitled Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It, published in 1996 by Ronald Dworkin in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. The paper was actually debunked quite effectively in a paper by Prof. James Allan of the University of Queensland entitled Truth’s Empire – A Reply to Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It. By all means, read both if you have the time and don’t mind wading through the jargon. I will limit myself to what I consider a few of the more remarkable features of Dworkin’s article in this post.

    Perhaps most remarkable of all is Dworkin’s tactic of placing his unicorn high on a shelf, obscured by jargon, and unreachable by naturalistic arguments. It’s actually a version of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria Argument (NOMA), used to protect religion on a similar shelf. According to Dworkin, morality is so hermetically sealed off from the rest of reality that it is impossible to even deny the existence of moral truths from outside the realm of morality itself. Merely stating that you don’t believe in the existence of objective moral truths becomes a “moral argument!” He invents the term “archimedeans” for those who imagine they are arguing against a belief from outside the “realm” of that belief itself, and further claims that it is impossible to do so in the case of morality. As he puts it,

    Any successful – really, any intelligible – argument that evaluative propositions are neither true nor false must be internal to the evaluative domain rather than Archimedean about it.

    This comment is only comprehensible if one grasps the truly radical nature of Dworkin’s unicorn. It doesn’t exist in the physical world, accessible to our familiar senses. My readers may recall that I’ve suggested to the true believers in objective Goods and objective Evils that they capture one for me and present it to me nicely mounted on a board. Dworkin reacts with disgust to the notion that his unicorn could be such a mundane creature, noting,

    The idea of a direct impact between moral properties and human beings supposes that the universe houses, among its numerous particles of energy and matter, some special particles – morons – whose energy and momentum establish fields that at once constitute the morality or immorality, or virtue or vice, of particular human acts and institutions and also interact in some way with human nervous systems so as to make people aware of the morality and immorality or of the virtue or vice. We might call this picture the “moral-field” thesis. If it is intelligible, it is also false.

    However, there is an unavoidable consequence to making the “morons” disappear. In Dworkin’s words,

    The powerful consequence is this. Morality is a distinct, independent dimension of our experience, and it exercises its own sovereignty. We cannot argue ourselves free of it by its own leave, except, as it were, by making our peace with it… We cannot climb outside of morality to judge it from some external archimedean tribunal.

    In other words, we cannot deny the existence of unicorns from outside the world of unicorns! Let’s be clear about this. Dworkin is actually claiming that morality exists in some kind of a transcendental spirit world, inaccessible not only to our physical senses but to even the most sensitive scientific instruments. If one can swallow that, then hand-waving Darwinian arguments out of existence becomes a mere bagatelle. For example, according to Dworkin,

    Perhaps much of the contemporary philosophical skepticism has its forgotten source in exactly this logic: It may all be a lingering residue of the defeat of crude anthropomorphic religion. How else can we explain the widespread but plainly mistaken assumption that a successful Darwinian explanation of moral concern – that human animals with such a concern were more likely to survive – would have skeptical implications?

    Indeed, a powerful innate belief in unicorns cannot be defeated by Darwinian arguments if the unicorns don’t exist in a world accessible to Darwin, but in a spirit world of their own. The spirit world argument is hardly unique to Dworkin. Similar arguments aren’t difficult to find in the journals of philosophy.

    Dworkin doesn’t limit himself to the NOMA argument. He also tries the ad hominem gambit of conflating the claim that there are no objective moral truths with such whimsical and passing philosophical fads as post-modernism, anti-foundationalism, and related efforts to deny the very existence of objective truth. He also claims that disbelief in objective morality is “dangerous,” as if truth could be manufactured at will as a means of making us “safe.” It’s hardly worth wasting a torpedo on such flimsy arguments.

    If we are to believe the philosophers themselves, the number of “realists” like Dworkin is increasing among them. It hardly seems to matter, though. Even the “anti-realists,” such as J. L. Mackie and “evolutionary debunker” Sharon Street assume the existence of “moral truth” even as they reject arguments in favor of “objective moral truth.” I have yet to figure out in what sense they consider the distinction relevant. The jargon becomes unusually opaque when they try to explain it. They write long papers and even books explaining why there are no objectively true answers to moral questions, and conclude by explaining to the rest of us what our “duties” and “obligations” are, and what we “ought” and “ought not” to do. I personally have no intention of allowing either “realists” or “anti-realists” to dictate behavior to me based on their conclusions about what their moral emotions are trying to tell them.

    The “unicorn criterion” is interesting from a historical as well as a philosophical point of view. There was a rich literature devoted to the implications of Darwinism for morality before the Blank Slate debacle, but to all appearances it has all evaporated as if swallowed by a black hole. I have never yet seen anything by a modern “evolutionary debunker” attributing any of his ideas to a pre-Blank Slate philosopher in general or Edvard Westermarck in particular. Other than Darwin himself, they are seldom even mentioned. Perhaps it would be useful for the philosophers to learn some philosophy.

  • More Fun with “Ethics” Journal; Of Moral Realism and Evolutionary Debunking

    Posted on April 12th, 2016 Helian 3 comments

    Moral realism died with Darwin.  He was perfectly well aware that there is such a thing as human nature, and that morality is a manifestation thereof.  He also had an extremely pious wife and lived in Victorian England, so was understandably reticent about discussing the subject.  However, in one of his less guarded moments he wrote (in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex),

    If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker bees, think it a sacred duty to kill there brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.

    Assuming he believed his own theory, Darwin was merely stating the obvious.  Francis Hutcheson had demonstrated more than a century earlier that morality is a manifestation of innate moral sentiments.  He was echoed by David Hume, who pointed out that morality could not be derived from pure reason operating alone, and suggested that other than divine agencies might explain the existence of the sentiments in question.  Darwin supplied the final piece of the puzzle, discovering what that agency was.

    Many writers discussed the evolutionary origins of morality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Few, however, were prepared to accept the conclusion that logically followed; the non-existence of objective Good and Evil, independent of any human opinion on the matter.  One of the few who did accept that conclusion, and outline its implications, was Edvard Westermarck, in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906), and Ethical Relativity (1932).  Westermarck was well aware that, although Good and Evil are not real, objective things, human moral emotions are easily strong enough to portray them as such to our imaginations.  They are so strong, in fact, that, more than a century after Westermarck took up the subject, the illusion is still alive and well, not only in the public at large, but even among the “experts on ethics.”

    Or at least that is the impression one gets on glancing through the pages of the academic journal Ethics.  There one commonly finds papers by learned professors who doggedly promote the notion of “moral realism,” and the objective existence of Good and Evil, presumably either as “spirits” or in some higher dimension beyond the ken of our best scientific instruments.  True, their jobs and social gravitas depend on how well they can maintain the charade, but I get the distinct impression that some of them actually believe what they write.  Lately, however, they have begun to feel the heat, in the form of what is referred to in the business as “evolutionary debunking.”

    The obvious implication of Darwin’s theory is that the innate predispositions responsible for human morality evolved, and the various and occasionally gaudy ways in which those predispositions manifest themselves in our behavior is pretty much what one would expect when those emotions are mediated and interpreted in the minds of creatures with large brains.  The existence of Good and Evil as independent things is about as likely as the existence of fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  How is it, then, that the “experts on ethics” haven’t closed up shop and moved on to less futile occupations?  To answer that question, we must again refer to the pages of Ethics.

    Two articles that appeared in the most recent issue demonstrate the degree to which the shock waves from the collapse of the Blank Slate have penetrated into even the darkest and most remote nooks of academia.  The first, by Tomas Bogardus, is entitled “Only All Naturalists Should Worry About Only One Evolutionary Debunking Argument.”  It begins with the rhetorical question, “Do the facts of evolution undermine moral realism.”  You think you know the answer, don’t you, dear reader?  But wait!  Before you jump to conclusions, you should be aware that the bar is set fairly high for “evolutionary debunking” arguments.  You may agree with me that the existence of pink unicorns is improbable, but can you absolutely prove it?  That’s the kind of standard we’re talking about.  It’s not necessary for today’s crop of moral realists to explain the mode of existence of such imaginary categories as Good and Evil.  It’s not necessary for them to explain the mysteries of their creation.  It’s not necessary for them to explain how moral emotions turned up in human brains, or why the possibility of their evolutionary origins is irrelevant, or how they manage to jump from the skull of one human being onto the back of another with ease.  No, “evolutionary debunking” requires that you absolutely prove that there are no pink unicorns.

    Let’s refer to Prof. Bogardus’ paper to see how this works in practice.  According to the author, one species of evolutionary debunking arguments runs as follows:

    Our moral faculty was naturally selected to produce adaptive moral beliefs, and not naturally selected to produce true moral beliefs.

    Therefore, it is false that:  had the moral truths been different, and had we formed our moral beliefs using the same method we actually used, or moral beliefs would have been different.

    Therefore, our moral beliefs are not sensitive

    Therefore, our moral beliefs do not count as knowledge

    In other words, nothing as tiresome as demonstrating that moral realism is the least bit plausible is necessary to defeat evolutionary debunking arguments.  All that’s necessary is to show that any of the “therefores” in the above “argument” is at all shaky.  In that case, then the pink unicorn must still be out there roaming around.  Prof. Bogardus reviews other evolutionary debunking arguments, and ends his paper on the hopeful note that one of them, which he describes as the “Argument from Symmetry,” may actually be bulletproof, if only to the assaults of the “Naturalists.”  (It turns out there are other, less vulnerable tribes of moral realists, such as “Rationalists,” and “Divine Revelationists.)  I’m not as sanguine as the good professor.  I suspect that proving a negative will be difficult even with the “Argument from Symmetry.”

    In another paper, entitled “Reductionist Moral Realism and the Contingency of Moral Evolution,” author Max Barkhausen reveals some of the astounding intellectual double back flips moral realists routinely perform in order to accept both the evolution of moral emotions and the existence of objective Good and Evil at the same time.  For example, one strategy, which he attributes to philosophers Frank Jackson and Philip Pettit and aptly refers to as “Panglossianism,” posits that, while human morality does indeed have evolutionary roots, by pure coincidence the end product just happened to agree with “true” morality.  Such luck!  Barkhausen assures us that his paper debunks such notions, and I am content to take him at his word.

    Here again, however, there is no hint of a suggestion that those who posit the existence of Good and Evil as objective things existing independently of human minds lay their cards on the table and reveal what substance those things consist of, or defend the alternative belief that things can consist of nothing, or suggest what experiments might be performed to actually snag a “Good” or “Evil” as it floats about, whether in the material world or the realm of ghosts.  The only standard they are held to is the mere avoidance of absolute proof that their pink unicorns are a figment of their imagination.  It stands to reason.  After all, as far as the “experts on ethics” are concerned, the closest thing to “absolute Good” they will ever encounter is a tenured position with a substantial and regular paycheck.  They would have to sacrifice that particular “absolute Good” if they were ever required to stop waving their hands about objective morality and either explain to the rest of us the mode of existence of these “objects” they’ve been imagining all these years, or admit the sterility of their “expertise.”  Barkhausen admits as much, concluding with the sentence,

    I believe that it will be a great challenge to construct a meta-ethical theory that accommodates both contingency and our intuitions about objectivity and mind-independence.  How to reconcile the two is, no doubt, and issue that merits further thought.

    Yes, and no doubt the effort to do so will be a virtually inexhaustible topic for the papers in journals like Ethics that are the coin of the realm in academia.  On the other hand, admitting the obvious – that objectivity and mind-independence are illusions – would tend to bring the whole, futile exercise to a screeching halt.

    I note in passing that the jargon in use to prop up the illusion is becoming increasingly arcane and abstruse.  If you’re masochistic enough to try to read these journals for yourself, be sure to bring along your secret decoder ring.  There’s no better way to defend your academic turf than to deny access to anyone who hasn’t mastered the lingo.

    Westermarck had it right.  Back in 1906 he wrote,

    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.

    No “moral progress” will be possible until we recognize that salient fact.  It’s hard to construe what one finds in the pages of journals like Ethics as “progress” by any rational definition of the term in any case.  In the papers referred to above, for example, cultural evolution is referred to as something entirely independent of biological evolution, instead of the manifestation of biological evolution that it actually is.  There are constant references to the “function” of morality, as if morality had a “purpose.”  One cannot speak of a purpose or a function of something that exists because it happened to increase the odds that particular genes would survive and reproduce.  “Function” implies a creator with conscious intent, and nothing of the sort is involved in the process of evolution by natural selection.  Such terms may be useful as a form of shorthand for describing what actually happened, but only if one is careful to avoid misunderstanding of the sense in which they are being used.  When used carelessly in discussions of moral realism, they serve mainly to distract and obfuscate.

    What is really necessary for “moral progress?”  For starters, we need to understand why morality exists, and the subjective nature of its existence.  We need to understand that it evolved, at least for the most part, in times vastly different from the present.  We need to stop pretending that morality’s only “function” is to promote intergroup and intragroup cooperation.   Altruism has a real subjective existence in our brains, but so do outgroup identification, hatred, rage and “aggression.”  These “immoral” tendencies are seldom mentioned in the pages of Ethics, but we ignore them at our peril.  As long as we continue to ignore them, it is premature to speak of “progress.”