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  • No, All Things are Not Permissible, and All Things are Not Not Permissible

    Posted on July 9th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

    IMHO it is a fact that good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things.  If they do not exist, then the moral properties that depend on them, such as “permissible,” have no objective existence, either.  It follows that it is not even rational to ask the question whether something is permissible or not as an independent fact.  In other words, if there is no such thing as objective morality, then it does not follow that “everything is permissible.”  It also does not follow that “everything is not permissible.”  As far as the universe is concerned, the term “permissible” does not exist.  In other words, there is no objective reason to obey a given set of moral rules, nor is there an objective reason not to obey those rules.

    I note in passing that if the above were not true, and the conclusion that good and evil do not exist as objective things actually did imply that “everything is permissible,” as some insist, it would not alter the facts one bit.  The universe would shrug its shoulders and ask, “So what?”  If the absence of good and evil as objective things leads to conclusions that some find unpleasant, will that alter reality and magically cause them to pop into existence?  That hasn’t worked with a God, and it won’t work with objective good and evil, either.

    I just read a paper by Matt McManus on the Quillette website that nicely, if unintentionally, demonstrates what kind of an intellectual morass one wades into if one insists that good and evil are real, objective things.  It’s entitled Why Should We Be Good?  The first two paragraphs include the following:

    Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ …Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere.  For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty.

    The author goes on to cite what he considers two motivations for the above, one “negative,” and one “positive.”  As he puts it,

    The negative motivation arises from moral dogmatism.  There are those who wish to dogmatically assert their own values without worrying that they may not be as universal as one might suppose… Ethical dogmatists do not want to be confronted with the possibility that it is possible to challenge their values because they often cannot provide good reasons to back them up.

    He adds that,

    The positive motivation was best expressed by Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind.

    Well, I wouldn’t exactly describe Bloom’s book as “positive.”  It struck me as a curmudgeonly rant about how “today’s youth” didn’t measure up to how he thought they “ought” to be.  Be that as it may, the author finally gets to the point:

    The issue I wish to explore is this:  even if we know which values are universal, why should we feel compelled to adhere to them?

    To this I would reply that there are no universal values, and since they don’t exist, they can’t be known.  This reduces the question of why we should feel compelled to adhere to them to nonsense.  In fact, what the author is doing here is outing himself as a dogmatist.  He just thinks he’s better than other dogmatists because he imagines he can “provide good reasons to back up” his personal dogmas.  It turns out his “good reasons” amount to an appeal to authority, as follows:

    Kant argued, very powerfully, that a human being’s innate practical reason begets a universal set of “moral laws” which any rational person knows they must follow.

    Good dogma, no?  After all, who can argue with Kant?  “Obscurely” would probably be a better word than “powerfully.”   Some of his sentences ran on for a page and a half, larded with turgid German philosophical jargon from start to finish.  Philosophers pique themselves on “understanding” him, but seldom manage to get much further than the categorical imperative in practice.  I suspect they’re wasting their time.  McManus assures us that Kant read Hume.  If so, he must not have comprehended what he was reading in passages such as,

    We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason.  Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it: and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound.

    Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such influence.  Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.  Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason…

    What Hume wrote above isn’t just the expression of some personal ideological idiosyncrasy, but the logical conclusion of the thought of a long line of British and Scottish philosophers.  I find his thought on morality “very powerful,” and have seen no evidence that Kant ever seriously addressed his arguments.  We learned where the emotions Hume referred to actually came from in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of Species, more than half a century after Kant’s death.  It’s beyond me how Kant could have “argued powerfully” about a “universal set of moral laws” in spite of his ignorance of the real manner in which they are “begotten.”  No matter, McManus apparently still believes, “because Kant,” that we can “know” some “universal moral law.”  He continues,

    While we might know that these “moral laws” apply universally, why should we feel compelled to obey them?

    According to McManus, the 19th century philosopher Henry Sidgwick made some “profound contributions” to answering this question, which he considered “the profoundest problem in ethics.” Not everyone thought Sidgwick was all that profound.  Westermarck dealt rather harshly with his “profound” thoughts in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In the rest of his article, McManus reviews the thought of several other philosophers on the subject, and finds none of them entirely to his liking.  He finally peters out with nary an answer to the question, “Why should we be good?”  In fact there is no objective answer to the question, because there is no objective good.  McManus’ “dogma with good reasons” is just as imaginary as all the “dogmas without good reasons” at which he turns up his nose.

    The philosophers are in no hurry to wade back out of this intellectual morass.  Indeed, their jobs depend on expanding it.  For those of us who prefer staying out of swamps, however, the solution to McManus’ enigma is simple enough.  Stop believing in the ghosts of objective good and evil.  Accept the fact that what we call morality exists because the innate mental traits that give rise to it themselves exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection.  Then follow that fundamental fact to its logical conclusions.  One of those conclusions is that there is nothing whatsoever objective about morality.  It is a purely subjective phenomenon.  That is simply a fact of nature.  As such, it is quite incapable of rendering “everything permissible,” or “everything not permissible.”  Furthermore, realization of that fact will not change how the questions of what is permissible and what is not permissible are answered.  Those questions will continue to be answered just as they always have been, in the subjective minds of individuals.

    Acceptance of these truths about morality will not result in “moral nihilism,” or “cultural relativity,” or the hegemony of postmodernism.  All of these things can result from our attempts to reason about what our emotions are trying to tell us, but so can moral absolutism.  On the other hand, acceptance of the truth may enable us to avoid some of the real dangers posed by our current “system” of blindly responding to moral emotions, and just as blindly imagining that the result will be “moral progress.”  For example, if morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, those traits must have been selected in times that were very different from the present.  It is highly unlike that blindly following where our emotions seem to be leading us will have the same effect now as it did then.  In fact, those emotions might just as well be leading us over the edge of a cliff.

    If morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, then arbitrarily isolating moral behavior from the rest of our innate behavioral repertoire, sometimes referred to as human nature, can also be misleading.  For example, we have a powerful innate tendency to distinguish others in terms of ingroup and outgroup, applying different versions of morality to each.  This can delude us into seriously believing that vast numbers of the people we live with are “bad.”  In the past, we have often imagined that we must “resist” and “fight back” against these “bad” people, resulting in mayhem that has caused the death of countless millions, and misery for countless millions more.  From my own subjective point of view, it would be better to understand the innate emotional sources of such subjective fantasies, and at least attempt to find a way to avoid the danger they pose.  Perhaps one day enough people will agree with me to make a difference.  The universe doesn’t care one way or the other.

    Nihilism and chaos will not result from acceptance of the truth.  When it comes to morality, nihilism and chaos are what we have now.  I happen to be among those who would prefer some form of “moral absolutism,” even though I realize that its legitimacy must be based on the subjective desires of individuals rather on some mirage of “objective truth.”  I would prefer living under a simple moral code, in harmony with human nature, designed to enable us to live together with a minimum of friction and a maximum of personal liberty.  No rule would be accepted without examining its innate emotional basis, what the emotions in question accomplished at the time they evolved, and whether they would still accomplish the same thing in the different environment we live in now.  Generalities about “moral progress” and “human flourishing” would be studiously ignored.

    I see no reason why the subjective nature of morality would prevent us from adopting such an “absolute morality.”  There would, of course, be no objective reason why we “should be good” according to the rules of such a system.  The reasons would be the same subjective ones that have always been the real basis for all the versions of morality our species has ever come up with.  In the first place, if the system really was in harmony with human nature, then for many of us, our “conscience” would prompt us to “do good.”  Those with a “weak conscience” who ignored the moral law, free riders if you will, would be dealt with much the same way they have always been dealt with.  They would be shamed, punished, and, if necessary, isolated from the rest of society.

    I know, we are very far from realizing this utopia, or even from accepting the most simple truths about morality and what they imply.  I’ve always been one for daydreaming, though.

  • On the Unbearable Lightness of Objective Morality

    Posted on October 14th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    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.