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  • 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.”

  • More Fun with Moral Realism

    Posted on January 16th, 2016 Helian No comments

    What is moral realism?  Edvard Westermarck provided a good definition in the first paragraph of his Ethical Relativity:

    Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity.  The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.  The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

    Westermarck dismissed moral realism as a chimera.  So do I.  Indeed, in view of what we now know about the evolutionary origins of moral emotions, the idea strikes me as ludicrous.  It is, however, treated as matter-of-factly as if it were an unquestionable truth, and not only in the general public.  Philosophers merrily discuss all kinds of moral conundrums and paradoxes in academic journals, apparently in the belief that they have finally uncovered the “truth” about such matters, to all appearances with no more fear of being ridiculed than the creators of the latest Paris fashions.  The fact is all the more disconcerting if one takes the trouble to excavate the reasons supplied for this stubborn belief that subjective emotional constructs in the minds of individuals actually relate to independent things.  Typically, they are threadbare almost beyond belief.

    Recently I discussed the case of G. E. Moore, who, after dismissing the arguments of virtually everyone who had attempted a “proof” of moral realism before him as fatally flawed by the naturalistic fallacy, supplied a “proof” of his own.  It turned out that the “objective good” consisted of those things that were most likely to please an English country gentleman.  The summum bonum was described as something like sitting in a cozy house with a nice glass of wine while listening to Beethoven.  The only “proof” supplied for the independent existence of this “objective good” was Moore’s assurance that he was an expert in such matters, and that it was obvious to him that he was right.

    I recently uncovered another such “proof,” this time concocted in the fertile imagination of the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö. It turned up in an interview on the website of 3:AM Magazine under the title, The Hedonistic Utilitarian.  In response to interviewer Richard Marshall’s question,

    Why are you a moral realist and what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

    Tännsjö replies,

    I am indeed a moral realist.  In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one.  There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualization.  My main argument in defense of the position is this.  It is true (independently of our conceptualization) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth).  But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualization, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true.  We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise.

    In reading this, I was reminded of PFC Littlejohn, who happened to serve in my unit when I was a young lieutenant in the Army.  Whenever I happened to pull his leg more egregiously than even he could bear, he would typically respond, “You must be trying to bullshit me, sir!”  Apparently Tännsjö doesn’t consider Darwin’s theory, or Darwin’s own opinion regarding the origin of the moral emotions, or the flood of books and papers on the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, or the convincing arguments for the selective advantage of just such an emotional response as he describes, or the utter lack of evidence for the physical existence of “moral truths” independent of our “thought and conceptualization,” as sufficiently strong reasons “to think otherwise.”  Tännsjö continues,

    Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see.  It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualization) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest.  It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons.  If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is righty to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well.

    Yes, in the same sense that deontic logic is necessary to determine whether it is true or false that there are fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  No deontic logic is necessary here – just the realization that Tännsjö is trying to make truth claims about something that is not subject to truth claims.  The claim that it is objectively “not wrong” to do what he describes is as much a truth claim, and therefore just as irrational, as the claim that it is wrong.  As for his equally irrational worries about “moral nihilism,” his argument is similar to those of the religious true believers who think that, because they find a world without a God unpalatable, one must therefore perforce pop into existence.  Westermarck accurately described the nature of Tännsjö’s “proof” in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, where 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 objectivise 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.

    Today, Westermarck is nearly forgotten, while G. E. Moore is a household name among moral philosophers.  The Gods and angels of traditional religions seem to be in eclipse in Europe and North America, but “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen” are still with us, transmogrified into the ghosts and goblins of moral realism.  We find atheist social justice warriors hurling down their anathemas and interdicts more furiously than anything ever dreamed of by the Puritans and Pharisees of old, supremely confident in their “objective” moral purity.

    And what of moral nihilism?  Dream on!  Anyone who seriously believes that anything like moral nihilism can result from the scribblings of philosophers has either been living under a rock, or is constitutionally incapable of observing the behavior of his own species.  Human beings will always behave morally.  The question is, what kind of a morality can we craft for ourselves that is both in harmony with our moral emotions, that does the least harm, and that most of us can live with.  I personally would prefer one that is based on an accurate understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.

    Do I think that anything of the sort is on the horizon in the foreseeable future?  No.  When it comes to belief in religion and/or moral realism, one must simply get used to living in Bedlam.