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.”