On the Ethical Fantasies of Thomas Henry Huxley

Darwin clearly, albeit briefly, addressed the moral implications of his great theory in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Since that time, there have been few indeed who have fully grasped the significance of what he wrote. To the best of my knowledge, they include only one philosopher of any note; the great Edvard Westermarck. Today his work is unappreciated and largely forgotten. Many public intellectuals and philosophers claim to be subjective moralists, and to accept the Darwinian view of morality. In spite of that, without exception, one finds them making moral judgments that would be absurd in the absence of some objective moral standard.

Their behavior is not without precedent. As it happens, Thomas Henry Huxley, otherwise known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” was also a firm believer in the reality of the mirage. Obviously, Huxley had read Darwin, and was perfectly well aware of the role of natural selection in shaping, not only our physical, but our moral traits as well. In his words, set forth in a lecture entitled Evolution and Ethics, delivered in 1893;

I do not know that any one has taken more pains than I have, during the last thirty years, to insist upon the doctrine, so much reviled in the early part of that period, that man, physical, intellectual, and moral, is as much a part of nature, as purely a product of the cosmic process, as the humblest weed.

Elaborating on the above with regard to morality, he wrote,

The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,” when the “evolution of ethics” would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favor of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track.

Huxley also realized something that I have often pointed out on this blog; that the traits that promoted our survival as hunter-gatherers will not necessarily accomplish the same thing in the societies we live in today. As he put it,

For his successful progress, throughout the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger; his exceptional physical organization; his cunning, his sociability, his curiosity, and his imitativeness; his ruthless and ferocious destructiveness when his anger is roused by opposition.

But, in proportion as men have passed from anarchy to social organization, and in proportion as civilization has grown in worth, these deeply ingrained serviceable qualities have become defects… In fact, civilized man brands all these ape and tiger promptings with the name of sins.

and, finally, tipping his hand,

Whatever differences of opinion may exist among experts, there is a general consensus that the ape and tiger methods of the struggle for existence are not reconcilable with sound ethical principles.

Of course, there can be no “sound ethical principles” in the absence of an objective standard against which these principles may be judged. If there is no such standard, there can be neither sound ethical principles nor unsound ethical principles. Belief in either one can be nothing but an illusion.

Should any doubt remain about Huxley’s faith in the existence of objective good, consider the following remarkable passage:

The struggle for existence, which has done such admirable work in cosmic nature, must, it appears, be equally beneficent in the ethical sphere. Yet if that which I have insisted upon is true; if the cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends; if the imitation of it by man is inconsistent with the first principles of ethics; what becomes of this surprising theory?

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. (!)

Of course, just as there can be no “sound ethical principles” absent an objective standard by which to judge them, there can be no “ethical progress” without such a standard, either. Both are chimeras, spawned even in people as intelligent as Huxley, by the very power of our moral emotions.

In common with such later thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Huxley’s faith in the mirage of objective moral good was so strong that he advocated intervention to actually alter human nature. In his words,

And much may be done to change the nature of man himself. The intelligence which has converted the brother of the wolf into the faithful guardian of the flock ought to be able to do something towards curbing the instincts of savagery in civilized men.

Little more than a decade after Huxley wrote those words, Westermarck demolished the illusion on which they are based in his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral IdeasIn the process he demolished latter day versions of Huxley’s dream, such as Sam Harris’ “objective good” based on the nebulous ideal of “human flourishing,” and also demonstrated the absurdity of the stream of moral judgments passed down by such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt, and E. O. Wilson. These judgments are seldom qualified by the admission that they represent nothing but the expression of personal moral emotions, and beg the question of how they can possibly be justified in the absence of an objective moral standard. Absent such a standard, they are reduced to gibberish.

In fact, Huxley’s “sound ethical principles,” Harris’ “objective morality,” and the pronunciamientos of our latter day “subjective moralists” according to which one person is “good,” and another is “evil” are all spawned by nothing more exalted than the very same moral emotions that Huxley denounced as worthy only of apes and tigers. There is no other basis whatever for these judgments. They are all expressions of emotional traits that evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that individuals, and perhaps small groups, would survive in times radically different from the present. We should keep this salient fact in mind when we assign a purpose to our lives, or consider what overriding goals to strive for.

Today we are confronted with a barrage of freshly minted “moral truths,” concocted by charlatans who happen to be adept at manipulating moral emotions. One might ask the purveyors of these moral nostrums questions such as, “How will behaving according to this ‘moral truth’ enhance the odds that you personally will survive?’ or ‘How will it increase the chances that you will reproduce?’ and, finally, ‘Why should the question of your survival and reproduction be other than a matter of complete indifference to me?'” With all due respect for Huxley’s tenacious defense of Darwin, a more “objective” standard for assessing the validity of these “truths” simply does not exist.