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.

Harvey Fergusson on Morality, Free Will, and Human Behavior

Harvey Fergusson does have a Wiki page, but he’s not exactly a household name today. Remembered mostly as a writer of fiction, he produced some great Western novels, and some of the characters in his “Capitol Hill” will still be familiar to anyone who has worked in the nation’s capital to this day. His name turns up in the credits as a screenwriter in a few movies, including “Stand Up and Fight,” starring the inimitable Wallace Beery, and his work even drew a few lines of praise from H. L. Mencken. As it happens, Fergusson wrote some non-fiction as well, including a remarkable book entitled Modern Man.

The main theme of the book is what Fergusson refers to as “the illusion of choice.” As one might expect of a good novelist, his conclusions are based on careful observation of human behavior, both in himself and others, rather than philosophical speculation. In his words,

It struck me sharply how much of the conversation of my typical modern fellow-being was devoted to explaining why he had done what he had done, why he was going to do what he intended, and why he had not done what he had once professed an intention to do. Some of my more sophisticated subjects would describe these explanations, when made by others, as “rationalizations” – a term which is vague but seems always to imply a recognition of the necessarily factitious nature of all such explanations of personal behavior. But I found none who did not take his own explanations of himself with complete seriousness. What is more, I have not found either in conversation or in print any recognition of what seems obvious to me – that these explanations typically have for their effect, if not for their unconscious motive, to sustain what I have termed the illusion of choice. This may be more adequately defined as the illusion that behavior is related more exactly and immediately to the conscious mental processes of the individual than any objective study of the evidence will indicate that it is.

Consider this in light of the following comment by Seth Schwartz who writes one of the Psychology Today blogs:

In a controversial set of experiments, neuroscientist Ben Libet (1985) scanned participants’ brains as he instructed them to move their arm. Libet found that brain activity increased even before participants were aware of their decision to move their arm. Libet interpreted this finding as meaning that the brain had somehow “decided” to make the movement, and that the person became consciously aware of this decision only after it had already been made. Many other neuroscientists have used Libet’s findings as evidence that human behavior is controlled by neurobiology, and that free will does not exist.

Fergusson was not quite as bold as “many other neuroscientists.” He made it quite clear that he wasn’t addressing the question of determinism or free will, but was merely recording his personal observations. In spite of that, he certainly anticipated what Libet and others would later observe in their experiments. What is even more remarkable is how accurately Fergusson describes the behavior of our current crop of public intellectuals.

Consider, for example, the question of morality. Some of them agree with me that moral judgments are subjective, and others insist they are objective. However, their moral behavior has nothing to do with their theoretical pronouncements on the matter. Just as Fergusson predicted, it is more or less identical with the moral behavior of everyone else. They all behave as if they actually believe in the illusion that natural selection has planted in our brains that Good and Evil are real, objective things.  And just as Fergusson suggested, their after-the-fact claims about why they act that way are transparent rationalizations.

In the case of such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt and Jerry Coyne, for example, we commonly find them passing down moral judgments that would be completely incomprehensible absent the tacit assumption of an objective moral law. In common with every other public intellectual I’m aware of, they tell us that one person is bad, and another person is good, as if these things were facts. To all appearances they feel no obligation whatsoever to explain how their “subjective” moral judgments suddenly acquired the power to leap out of their skulls, jump onto the back of some “bad” person, and constrain them to mend their behavior. Like me, the three cited above are atheists, and so must at least acknowledge some connection between our moral behavior and our evolutionary past. Under the circumstances, if one asked them to explain their virtuous indignation, the only possible response that has any connection with the reason moral behavior exists to begin with would be something like, “The ‘bad’ person’s actions are a threat to my personal survival,” or, “The ‘bad’ person is reducing the odds that the genes I carry will reproduce.” In either case, there is no way their moral judgments could have acquired the legitimacy or authority to dictate behavior to the “bad” person, or anyone else. I am not aware of a single prominent intellectual who has ever tried to explain his behavior in this way.

In fact, these people, like almost everyone else on the planet, are blindly responding to moral emotions, after seeking to “interpret” them in light of the culture they happen to find themselves in. In view of the fact that cultures that bear any similarity to the ones in which our moral behavior evolved are more or less nonexistent today, the chances that these “interpretations” will have anything to do with the reason morality exists to begin with are slim. In fact, there is little difference between the “subjective” moralists cited above and such “objective” moralists as Sam Harris in this regard.  Ask them to explain one of their morally loaded pronouncements, and they would likely justify them in the name of some such nebulous “good” as “human flourishing.” After all, “human flourishing” must be “good,” right? Their whole academic and professional tribe agrees that it must be “really good.” To the extent that they feel any constraint to explain themselves at all, our modern “subjective” and “objective” moralists seldom get beyond such flimsy rationalizations.

Is it possible to defend “human flourishing” as a “moral good” that is at least consistent with the reason morality exists to begin with? I think not. To the extent that it is defined at all, “human flourishing” is usually associated with a modern utopia in which everyone is happy and has easy access to food, shelter, and anything else they could wish for. Such a future would be more likely to end in the dystopia comically portrayed in the movie Idiocracy than in the survival of our species. Its predictable end state would be biological extinction. Absent the reason high intelligence and the ability to thrive in diverse environments evolved, those characteristics would no longer be selected. If we use the survival of our species as the ultimate metric, “human flourishing” as commonly understood would certainly be “bad.”

Fergusson was an unusually original thinker, and there are many other thought-provoking passages in his book. Consider, for example, the following:

The basic assumption of conservatism is that “human nature does not change.” But it appears upon examination of the facts that human nature from the functional viewpoint has undergone constant change. Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size, and nature of the human group has changed, and without such change the race could hardly have survived. That human nature will change and is changing seems to be one of the few things we can count upon, and it supports all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.

Here we see Fergusson as a typical denizen of the left of the ideological spectrum of his day. His comment encapsulates the reasons that led to the radical rejection of the existence of human nature, and the disaster in the behavioral sciences we now refer to as the Blank Slate. Like many others, Fergusson suffered from the illusion that “human nature” implies genetic determinism; the notion that our behavior is rigidly programmed by our genes. In fact, I am not aware of a single serious defender of the existence of human nature who has ever been a “genetic determinist.” All have agreed that we are inclined or predisposed to behave in some ways and not in others, but not that we are rigidly forced by our “genes” to do so. Understood in this way, it is clear that evolved human nature is hardly excluded by the fact that “Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size and nature of the human group has changed.” Properly understood, it is entirely compatible with the “changed reactions” Fergusson cited.

In reality, rejection of the existence of human nature did not “support all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.” What it really did was bring any meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences to a screeching halt for more than half a century, effectively blocking the path to any real “hope for the amelioration of human destiny.”

The fact that I don’t always agree with Fergusson does not alter my admiration for him as an original thinker. And by the way, if you happen to live in Maryland, I think you will find “Stand Up and Fight” worthy of a couple hours of your time and a bowl of popcorn.

Why do you do the things you do? Why do you do those things?

If I am to believe the anecdotal evidence I find on the Internet, I am preaching to the choir. Supposedly, the vast majority of educated people in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) countries agree with me that morality is subjective. For example, a professor at California Baptist University reports that, when asked whether morality is objective or subjective, about 95% of students starting his Introduction to Philosophy class answered that it is subjective, at a Christian school, no less! The percentage reported from other polls varies according to the type of people asked, but one often finds a majority claiming that morality is subjective.

This is a very counter-intuitive result if you look at what is happening in our societies. A great number of people may claim to believe that morality is subjective, but the number who appear to have even begun to reason about the implications of that fact is vanishingly small. We find people delivering themselves of furious sermons loaded with appeals to moral emotions in favor of such novel “goods” as the mutilation of children and destruction of their ability to reproduce in order to “trans-gender” them, or denouncing human reproduction itself as morally “evil.” These novelties are invariably presented as if they represented moral truths, with the obvious implication that anyone who disagrees with them is objectively evil. One could cite many more examples, yet if morality is truly subjective, such claims cannot possibly possess either legitimacy or authority. The two examples cited above, along with many others, represent morality inversions. They accomplish exactly the opposite of the evolutionary reasons that morality exists to begin with.

A glance at the debates and discussions on the Internet should be enough to convince anyone that no one really takes the reality of subjective morality seriously. For the most part, these conversations consist of fencing matches with conventional weapons replaced by manipulation of moral emotions. The “moral truths” defended in these debates are almost invariably presented as objective facts. People may claim to believe that morality is subjective, but they seldom if ever behave as if they believe it. I know of not a single exception among living scientists, philosophers, or any other prominent public intellectuals. Every one of them makes moral judgments as if those judgments weren’t just a mere opinion, but expressions of some objective fact. They may realize that morality is an artifact of natural selection, but it doesn’t matter. They condemn this and praise that, for all the world as if Darwin had never existed. The only philosopher I’m aware of who did take Darwin seriously was Edvard Westermarck, and he’s been gone now for more than 80 years.

The behavioral predispositions that eventually manifest themselves as moral behavior after percolating through the skulls of creatures with large brains such as ourselves exist because, in an environment we can safely assume is very different from the one we live in now, they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his “The Selfish Gene,” these predispositions are not selected at the level of political parties, or religious denominations, or ideological factions, but at that of the replicator; the “vehicle” that carries genes from one generation to the next. Under the circumstances, it seems logical to ask anyone seeking to impose their moral judgments on the rest of us, “How will this benefit the genes you’re carrying around?”

There isn’t a morally correct way to answer this question, for the obvious reason that moral categories have no objective existence. There is no “morally good” or “morally bad” answer, because the universe doesn’t care one way or the other. Based on the behavior of our fellow humans, we must assume in virtually every case the answer would be, “I don’t consciously associate my moral judgments with my genes at all. I make them because they make me feel good. I find them emotionally satisfying.” I can’t say in reply, “That’s not the way you ought to decide.” I have not the slightest authority or basis to make such a claim. I can’t tell them that their answer is morally good, or morally bad, because those categories don’t exist as other than subjective opinions. All I can say is that I find it somewhat disturbing that I live on a planet along with upwards of seven billion others who never ask themselves, at a fundamental level, “Why do I do the things I do?”

Ask any of your fellow humans, “How will the moral behavior you advocate enhance the odds that the genes you carry will survive and reproduce?”, and they are likely to respond with a look of blank incomprehension. They might answer that their version of morality is objectively true, but in 5000 years the best philosophers among us have never agreed on what that objective truth is, for the seemingly obvious reason that it doesn’t exist. They might answer that their morality has been handed down to them by a God or gods, but belief in such beings is an illusion, and an embarrassing one for our species at that. They might also answer that they are serving the equally illusory cause of “human flourishing,” but that begs the question of what constitutes human flourishing. There is no objectively right answer. In my personal opinion, human flourishing would mean the survival of my species, and its eventual acquisition of traits that would enhance the odds that its descendants will survive into the indefinite future. To the extent that any attempt is made to define it at all, however, it generally means a future state in which everyone is happy, and has easy access to anything they might need or desire. However, happiness, in common with every other human emotional state, isn’t a good in itself. Like all the rest, it exists by virtue of natural selection. I submit that this commonly accepted version of “human flourishing” would be far more likely to result in our extinction than our continued survival.

I, too, act the way I do because of emotions. As Hume pointed out long ago, pure reason can provide no answer to question of how we ought or ought not to behave. However, I do take into account the reasons my emotions exist to begin with, and seek to behave in ways that are consistent with those reasons. I have no basis for claiming that everyone should share my values, and act the way I do. I merely suggest that they might consider asking themselves why they exist, and choose the goals they set for themselves in light of the answer to that question. Apparently, few people do. Most of us stumble through life, chasing illusions, and seeking to satisfy emotional urges without ever taking into account why those urges exist. In the case of morality, we seek to satisfy them by demanding that others behave in some ways and not in others, in spite of our utter lack of authority for making such claims. In the process, we make ourselves a serious nuisance to others.

I have no easy solution to the problem. All I’ve really done is describe how humans behave in the environment we find ourselves in today. All I can suggest is that you take it into account and deal with it, whatever your goals in life happen to be.

The Anti-Natalist Morality Inversion: A German Vignette

Anti-natalists keep popping up in the news. A recent story about one of them at the website of the German news magazine “Focus” caught my eye because she happens to be from Regensburg. I was stationed there as an Army liaison officer back in the day, a job that involved driving all over Bavaria with a German co-worker, visiting police, border, and administrative officials, and visiting superb bakeries and breweries on the way to maintain our stamina. I couldn’t see my military career getting any better than that, so left the service and attended the University of Regensburg for a semester to satisfy my non-technical minor requirement at the University of Wisconsin, where I would later attend graduate school. The cost was quite affordable in comparison with US universities; 15 marks per semester. I took courses in political science, history, and Chinese. The latter was taught from a Red Chinese textbook. Chairman Mao was still riding high, and we read stories about Lenin’s greatcoat, life in a people’s commune, etc. The university corridors were plastered with competing posters affixed there by the Maoist and pro-Soviet Communist student groups, who apparently considered each other a much greater threat to humanity than any mere capitalists. I played fourth board for the Regensburg chess club, along with several German WWII veterans, and a Polish Jew who had been one of three survivors of a group of nearly 300 prisoners marched out of the Buchenwald concentration camp as US forces approached. There was a remnant of an old Roman wall along one side of my favorite gas station, and I used to drive to work every day over an old stone bridge across the Danube built in the 12th century. I was glad to learn that it has since been closed to vehicular traffic.

But I digress. The anti-natalist in question, one Verena Brunschweiger, was interviewed on the occasion of the publication of her second book on the subject, “The Child-free Rebellion: Why ‘too radical’ is just radical enough.” According to the article, entitled “Child-free Author Again Insists: ‘We have better sex and better relationships,’” the publication of her first book, “Child-free Instead of Childless; A Manifesto,” a year earlier had raised a “shitstorm,” one of those vulgar English terms the Germans delight in using. Her latest was described as more radical than ever in defending her main theme: “Children are the worst thing that one can inflict on the environment.” She elaborates, “Children are the worst climate killers of all, and therefore a child-free life is the only rationally, ethically, and morally acceptable way to avoid the climate disaster (Klimamisere) that the world is heading for.”

She claims that she has been the subject of vicious attacks and even death threats for her opinions in Germany, in spite of the fact that she deems herself a “moderate.” She notes that one finds a much more tolerant atmosphere in other countries, especially the United Kingdom, where one hears calls for a complete ban on births, promoting the goal of the extinction of mankind. When asked about claims she was hostile to children she replied,

I am not against children per se. Children are great. But the steadily increasing population is destroying the planet. That’s the problem… In fact, at one point I considered the possibility of having a child quite seriously. However, I decided against it after seeing a study according to which, for each child we avoid bringing into the world, we will reduce CO2 by 58.6 tons per year.

In response to a question about her concrete demands she replied,
“We need regulations to suppress aggressive language on the Internet, especially by populist and fascist groups. Beyond that, we need to carefully reflect on the implications of our reproductive behavior, instead of simply reacting to emotional biological urges.”

Well, we all spend our lives reacting to emotional biological urges whether we like it or not. They are the root cause and motivating force behind everything we do. If we are to “reflect” about them, it seems the first question we should ask ourselves is, “Why do these emotional urges exist to begin with?” The answer to the question is that they exist because they increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. If we wish to act in harmony with the fundamental reasons that we have any goals to begin with, then obviously our goals in life should include survival and reproduction. That is the choice I have made. There is no objective standard according to which my choice is better or more moral than Brunschweiger’s. No one is “out there,” in the form of a God or any other material or immaterial entity, to make the choice for us. The universe doesn’t care. It is a choice we must all make for ourselves. I merely suggest that, in making the choice, we consider why it is we are motivated to do anything at all. Darwin supplied the answer to that question more than a century and a half ago.

The chances that Brunschweiger has ever gotten around to asking herself the fundamental question noted above are vanishingly small. In fact, she is blindly “reacting to emotional biological urges” in spite of herself. She assures us that sex is better without children, without reflecting on the reasons that the sexual urge exists to begin with. She adds that her “relationships” are better, too, without ever considering why humans bother to relate to each other at all. When it comes to saving the planet and reducing CO2 emissions, her solution of personally having no children is whimsical to the point of being ridiculous. It merely reflects the ideology of her leftist ingroup taken to an extreme. Consider the current situation of her home country, Germany. The current birthrate of German women is below replacement level. In other words, left to itself, the German population would eventually decline of its own accord. If, as Brunschweiger suggests, it is “ethical” and “moral” to save the planet by reducing CO2 emissions, the best thing Germany could do is establish firm, well-defended borders, and prevent any influx of population from countries that are reproducing at a much more rapid rate. However, this solution is the one defended by the “populists” in her outgroup. I suspect the chances that she has ever called for such a rational and realistic approach are very slim.

If we choose to live in harmony with the reasons we exist to begin with, then avoiding “climate disaster” is certainly a worthy goal. However, refusing to reproduce is a completely irrational strategy for achieving that goal. Again, if we choose to live in harmony with the reasons we exist to begin with, our method for “saving the planet” should not be limiting our own reproduction, but limiting the reproduction of the “other.” But doesn’t that imply application of a double standard? Of course! Our species, along with many others, has always applied a double standard. We have always perceived others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. This behavior is innate, for the same reasons that explain all of our other innate behavioral traits. Brunschweiger is hardly immune to this human trait. She helpfully identifies her outgroup for us; “populists and fascists,” meaning anyone who challenges the ideology of her leftist ingroup. Her problem isn’t that her behavior is “abnormal.” Her problem is that she is blindly behaving “normally” in an environment radically different from the one in which her “normal” traits evolved. In her case, the result has been genetic suicide.

How should those of us who have grasped the answer to the fundamental question posed above react to the Brunschweigers of the world? Certainly not with death threats. Assuming we want to live in harmony with that answer, I submit that our reaction should be one benign neglect. Let them commit genetic suicide and remove themselves from the gene pool. The behavioral traits they carry enabled them to survive in environments that existed in the past. However, those traits have been unable to keep up with our species’ self-created and rapidly changing environment. In the environment we find ourselves in today, they have “malfunctioned,” resulting in an outcome the opposite of that which occurred in the past. I have described this kind of behavior elsewhere as a “morality inversion.” They appear to lack a sufficiently strong urge to have children as a “good in itself” to survive. As a result, they represent a liability to the rest of us. I suggest we allow them to go extinct, just as they wish.

On the Imagined Existence of Things Unseen

Our species has a whimsical tendency to firmly believe in the existence of imaginary things. If beliefs happen to increase the odds that we will survive, then we believe. Gods, goods, evils, rights, and values are prominent among these imaginary objects. We are often dumbfounded if anyone suggests these objects aren’t real. The fact that we can’t see or detect any of these things existing independently of our minds should be a broad hint that our minds have invented them, but it doesn’t matter. We simply imagine they exist in some higher dimension, inaccessible to our limited human senses, or that a higher power deliberately hides them from us as a test of faith, or that they simply must exist because they present themselves so powerfully to our imaginations.

None of these things exist other than as subjective constructs in our minds. If we are forced to consider the possibility that this may be true, however, we often react with irrational fury, or scorn, or despair. Consider, for example, the following question posed at Yahoo Answers:

If human life evolved without any input from a higher being, then why does human life, or any life, have value?

In fact, human life did evolve without any input from a higher being.  It is entirely plausible that all of the subjective constructs mentioned above, including the impression that value and higher beings exist as objective things, enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Natural selection can account for the existence of subjective impressions, but it cannot account for the existence of objects corresponding to these impressions that somehow exist independently of the minds that generate them. The answer to the question, then, is no. Neither human life nor any other life has value that exists independently of the subjective impressions in conscious minds. Furthermore, the answer is a natural fact. It represents an “is,” not an “ought.” It implies no “ought” one way or another as a matter of objective fact, for the simple reason that no such “oughts” exist.

Of course, this poses a problem for the questioner. It is unlikely that the illusion of value would do much to enhance our odds of survival if all of us recognized it as an illusion. Evidently it has had that result, however, when imagined as a real thing, an object, existing independently of the mind that imagines it. This, of course, is the reason it has never occurred to the questioner that he is quite capable of assigning value to human life or anything else just as he pleases. In reality, this is the way we have always assigned value, but we have been bamboozled by our minds into believing our assignment of value needs a “higher” validation, via a god or some other imaginary flim-flam. Since we imagine value as a thing, it is always necessary for us to come up with some whimsical reason to explain to ourselves how and why the thing actually exists. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The reaction of the questioner to the possibility that the above might be true is typical. He imagines that, if value is just a subjective construct, then we can’t value human life or anything else. You might call it “value nihilism.” However, to embrace “value nihilism,” or “moral nihilism,” for that matter, is to reject Darwin and natural selection. It is tantamount to the suggestion that there is no reason for the existence of subjective constructs such as value, rights, good, and evil. It should be obvious that pieces of paper have no real value. However, if a sufficient number of people share the subjective impression that they are valuable, then they will be very effective as a medium of exchange in spite of that. By the same token, pieces of gold will be ineffective as a medium of exchange if it is generally agreed that they are worthless. Value doesn’t exist as a thing in itself, whether associated with gold or paper, but that doesn’t alter its effectiveness as a subjective result of natural selection.

The same may be said of good and evil. They, too, are subjective impressions that only exist because of the innate predispositions that give rise to them. Like value, they are artifacts of natural selection, and are only effective to the extent that a sufficient number of people agree about what is good and what is evil. That is a fact, an “is,” but the idea that this “is” implies the “ought” of moral nihilism or moral relativity is the purest fantasy. Good and evil aren’t going anywhere. The evolved mental traits that give rise to them spawn a powerful illusion that they are objects, independent of any evolved mental traits. That illusion is just as powerful today as it was eons ago when we were all hunter-gatherers. Let the post-modernists invent as many fairy tales as they like about moral relativity. Then, observe their behavior. They behave as some of the most puritanical moralists in recorded history. Now cast your gaze at the philosophers. Most of them are at least vaguely aware of the connection between morality and natural selection, but it doesn’t matter. The greatest “moral nihilists” among them end by pontificating about our “duties,” and all the things we “ought” to do, completely contradicting all their fine theories. The rest are busy concocting fables to “prove” that the good and evil objects they imagine really do exist.

Since these illusions continue to function just as effectively as they ever have, is there any reason for us to briefly step out of the land of magic into the real world and recognize them for what they really are? There is if we want them to continue to have the same survival benefit as they did in the past. In the modern world the illusions of good and evil have, in effect, become dysfunctional, because they no longer exist in the environment in which they evolved. They will continue to become increasingly dangerous to us, actually posing a threat to our survival, unless we step back, recognize the illusions, and consider how we might go about constructing a moral system that minimizes the danger. By doing so we would not usher in an age of moral nihilism or moral relativity. Moral nihilism and moral relativity are what we have now. The trick is finding a way out of the chaos. My personal preference would be for a morality treated as an absolute, changeable only infrequently according to rules understood and agreed to by all. It seems to me that would be an improvement over the current chaotic process of moving the moral goalposts on an almost daily basis according to the passing whims of whatever ingroup is most adept at manipulating moral emotions that have long since lost their relevance to the environment in which they continue to function.

Again, what I am suggesting here is not some variant of postmodernism. It is more nearly the opposite. I do not believe that truth is socially constructed, or that there is no objective universe existing independently of what I imagine it to be. There are definitely objects and truths out there that exist without regard to whether I believe in them or not. We cannot say with absolute certainty that we know the truth about anything. However, I think we can say it about many things, including things we cannot see, such as subatomic particles, with a high degree of probability that we are right. I have little doubt that atomic bombs actually work, even though I can’t see neutrons. I deem it reasonable to base my actions on what I consider probably true, regardless of the fact that I cannot know that it is true with absolute certainty. I believe in the existence of objects existing independently of my subjective consciousness. It just so happens that the set of those objects does not include unicorns, leprechauns, and Santa Claus, nor does it include value, rights, good and evil. Those things actually are subjective constructs. In my humble opinion, the sooner we come to grips with that reality the better.

Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality

I recently read a book entitled Nature’s Virtue by James Pontuso, a professor of political science at Hampden-Sydney College. He informs his readers that his goal in writing the book was to demonstrate a foundation for virtue. In his words,

It is in taking up the challenge of anti-foundationalism that I hope this book will contribute to the on-going dialogue about the place of virtue in human life. It will attempt to define virtue in the course of a discussion of its friends and adversaries.

Pontuso then takes us on a rambling discussion of what the postmodernists, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, and several other thinkers had to say about virtue. All this may be enlightening for students of philosophy, but it is neither here nor there as far as establishing a foundation for virtue is concerned. In fact, the last two paragraphs of the book are the closest he comes to “taking up the challenge.” There he writes, Continue reading “Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality”

“Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History

I admire Frans de Waal. One of the reasons is the fact that he knows about Edvard Westermarck. In his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he even refers to him as, “…the Finnish anthropologist who gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality.” In fact, that’s not true. Darwin himself gave us the first ideas about the evolution of human morality, most notably in Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man, and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a host of scientists and philosophers wrote about the subject before Westermarck appeared on the scene. However, as far as I can tell all of them promoted some version of naturalistic fallacy. In other words, they thought that evolution would result in ever “higher” forms of morality, or that it was possible for us to be morally obligated to do some things and refrain from doing others by virtue of natural selection. Westermarck was the first writer of note after Darwin to avoid these fallacies, and no one of any stature with his insight has appeared on the scene since. To that extent, at least, de Waal is right. Unfortunately, he has an unsettling tendency to state his own moral judgments as if they were objective facts. As one might expect, they are virtually identical with the moral judgments of the rest of the academic tribe. Since Westermarck rightly pointed out that those who do this are victims of an illusion in the first chapter of his first book on the subject, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, one wonders whether de Waal understood what he was reading. Continue reading ““Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de Waal; Adventures in the Rearrangement of History”

Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

As I noted in a recent post, (Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective), John Staddon, a Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke, published a very timely and important article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion noting the gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities in secular humanist morality. These included its obvious lack of any visible means of support, even as flimsy as a God, for its claims to authority and legitimacy. My post included a link to a review by Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the Why Evolution is True website and New Atheist stalwart, that called Prof. Staddon’s article the “worst” ever to appear on Quillette, based on the false assumption that he actually did maintain that secular humanism is a religion. In fact, it’s perfectly obvious based on a fair reading of the article that he did nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, Quillette gave Prof. Coyne the opportunity to post a reply to Staddon. His rebuttal, entitled Secular Humanism is Not a Religion, doubled down on the false assertion that Staddon had claimed it is. Then, in a counterblast, entitled Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne, Staddon simply pointed out Prof. Coyne’s already obvious “confusion” about what he had actually written, and elaborated on his contention that secular values depend on faith. As I noted in the following comment I posted at Quillette, I couldn’t agree more: Continue reading “Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette”

Steven Pinker and His Obscurantist “Enlightenment”

Quillette recently hosted an essay by Steven Pinker on his Enlightenment Now a year after its publication. The following is a repost of a comment on the book I left there by way of a review. In the first chapters of the book, Pinker argues that we’ve made lots of progress towards “human flourishing” by applying the principles of the Enlightenment. I don’t take issue here with those claims one way or the other. I do take issue with what he has to say about his favorite flavor of morality, referred to in the book as humanism, as follows:

Pinker extols the merits of science and reason. The problem with “Enlightenment Now” is that it is fundamentally irrational and unscientific. Consider, for example, what he has to say about morality, which he discusses under the rubric of humanism. He agrees with Darwin that it is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “human nature” if you will. If that is the case, then there can be no such thing as objective morality. Darwin practically spoon fed us this truth in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” The illusion that there is an objective morality, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter, complete with objective goods and evils, is as much an illusion as the belief in God, yet Pinker, in spite of accepting the innate basis of morality, makes the fundamentally irrational claim that the illusion is real. Nowhere in the book do we find a disclaimer to the effect that what he has written about morality merely represents his personal opinion. On the contrary, he speaks of it as an objective thing, imposing duties on the rest of us. It comes complete with “moral imperatives” and even an “authority,” based on what Pinker describes in glowing terms as the values of the Enlightenment. These values themselves, however, cannot be distilled from pure reason, any more than a computer can program itself. Hume pointed this out long ago. Try to trace Pinker’s reasons for embracing the values of the Enlightenment back to their “rational” source, reason by reason, and you will find that his reasons only end up chasing their own tails. In the end, those values, too, must have a root cause or source in innate predispositions, or emotions, if you will, that exist by virtue of natural selection. Since these predispositions exist by virtue of a natural process, they cannot have a purpose. They are simply facts of nature. They could not have a purpose of the sort claimed by Pinker unless a God or other creator existed who gave them purpose.

Pinker is well known as an opponent of group selection. He confirms his belief that the emotional roots of morality exist by virtue of natural selection, and are selected at the level of the gene, in the following passage:

Today’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which the unit of selection is the group, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest group in competition with other groups, and humans have been selected to sacrifice their interests for the supremacy of their group. (This contrasts with mainstream evolutionary psychology, in which the unit of selection is the gene.)

He then commits the fundamentally irrational non sequitur of claiming that we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with, and jury-rig it so that it goes well beyond group selection, and promotes “the good of the species!” For example,

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.


Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind.

How can it possibly be deemed “rational” to “reprogram” morality in this way? We are dealing with a manifestation of human nature that evolved at a time radically unlike the present, in which the very existence of “all of humankind” was unknown. It evolved because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Pinker would have us believe that it is “reasonable” to “fool” morality into serving other ends that may well result in outcomes that are not only dangerous, but the very opposite of the survival of those genes. The “other ends” Pinker has in mind are the “values of the Enlightenment,” which he describes in noble, glowing phrases, but which are really just expressions of other emotional predispositions not unlike those that give rise to morality. We can certainly reason about whether we want to promote “the values of the Enlightenment” or not as individuals, but to bowdlerize morality in order to serve those ends, harnessing powerful illusions of “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” which can just as easily promote violence and warfare as they can “the values of the Enlightenment” is nothing short of foolhardy. I suggest that we would all be better served by reducing the scope of such a powerful emotional phenomenon as much as possible.

As far as Pinker’s embrace of “reason” is concerned, consider all the passages in the book in which he condemns Trump and all his works. He would have us believe that Trump is no less than a follower of Hitler and Mussolini, inspired by a careful parsing of the works of Nietzsche. Anyone who supports him, and that would amount to half the population of the United States, give or take, must therefore be either a Nazi or a dupe of the Nazis. In what way does such a claim support the notion of a “rational” dialogue with all these people? I am certainly not in the habit of calmly and rationally discussing things with people who initiate the conversation by claiming I’m a Nazi.

In fact, a major reason Trump was elected, and the main reason a great many voters supported him, was his promise to enforce our immigration laws. Not only was this not irrational, it was actually an embrace of Enlightenment values. Was not one of those values respect for the law? “The rule of law” was deemed so important that it was actually inscribed as a motto on French coins after the Revolution! Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construe the furious attacks on Trump that appear so frequently throughout the book as “reasonable.” They are far better understood as virtue signaling to Pinker’s academic tribe. He has often subjected that tribe to pinpricks here and there, but he is well aware that he dare not attack the fundamental shibboleths that define his tribalist ingroup, and one of those shibboleths is currently blind allegiance to the notion that Trump is a manifestation of pure evil. Respect for the shibboleths of his tribe is how Pinker has managed to avoid being denounced as a heretic and ostracized after the fashion of Charles Murray or James Watson. Need I add that there is nothing “rational” about tribalistic virtue signaling, other than the fact that it is a common trait of our species?

Morality and Reason – Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

Consider the evolution of life from the very beginning. Why did the first stirrings of life – molecules that could reproduce themselves – do what they did? The answer is simple – chemistry. As life forms became more complex, they eventually acquired the ability to exploit external sources of energy, such as the sun or thermal vents, to survive and reproduce. They improved the odds of survival even further by acquiring the ability to move towards or away from such resources. One could easily program a machine to perform such simple tasks. Eventually these nascent life forms increased the odds that they would survive and reproduce even further by acquiring the ability to extract energy from other life forms. These other life forms could only survive themselves by virtue of acquiring mechanisms to defend themselves from these attacks. This process of refining the traits necessary to survive continues to this day. We refer to it as natural selection. Survival tools of astounding complexity have evolved in this way, such as the human brain, with its ability evoke consciousness of such things as the information received from our sense organs, drives such as thirst, hunger, and sexual desire, and our emotional responses to, for example, our own behavior and the behavior of others. Being conscious of these things, it can also reason about them, considering how best to satisfy our appetites for food, water, sex, etc., and how to interpret the emotions we experience as we interact with others of our species.

A salient feature of all these traits, from simple to complex, is the reason they exist to begin with. They exist because at the time and in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that we would survive, or at least they did to the extent that they were relevant to our survival at all. They exist for no other reason. Our emotions and predispositions to behave in some ways and not others are certainly no exception. They are innate, in the sense that their existence depends on genetic programming. Thanks to natural selection, we also possess consciousness and the ability to reason. As a result, we can reason about what these emotions and predispositions mean, and how we should respond to them. They are not rigid instincts, and they do not “genetically determine” our behavior. In the case of a subset of them, we refer to the outcome of this process of reasoning about and seeking to interpret them as morality. It is these emotions and predispositions that are the root cause for the existence of morality. Without them, morality as we know it would not exist. They exist by virtue of natural selection. At some time and in some environment, they promoted our survival and reproduction. It can hardly be assumed that they will accomplish the same result at a later date and in a different environment. In fact, it is quite apparent that in the drastically different environment we live in today, they often accomplish the opposite. For a sizable subset of the human population, morality has become maladaptive.

The remarkable success of our species in expanding from a small cohort of African apes to cover virtually the entire planet is due in large part to our ability to deal with rapid changes in the environment. We can thrive in the tropics or the arctic, and in deserts or rain forests. However, when it comes to morality, we face a very fundamental problem in dealing with such radical changes. Our brain spawns illusions that make it extremely difficult for us to grasp the nature of the problem we are dealing with. We perceive Good, Evil, Rights, etc., as real, objective things. These illusions are extremely powerful, because by being powerful they could most effectively regulate our behavior in ways that promoted survival. Now, in many cases, the illusions have become a threat to our survival, but we can’t shake them, or see them for what they really are. What they are is subjective constructs that are completely incapable of existing independently outside of the minds of individuals. Even those few who claim to see through the illusion are found defending various “Goods,” “Evils,” “Rights,” “Duties,” and other “Oughts” in the very next breath as if they were referring to real, objective things. They often do so in support of behaviors that are palpably maladaptive, if not suicidal.

An interesting feature of such maladaptive behaviors is the common claim that they are justified by “reason.” The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson explained very convincingly why moral claims can’t be based on reason alone almost 300 years ago. As David Hume put it somewhat later, “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.” Reason alone can never do anything but chase its own tail. After all, computers don’t program themselves. There must be something to reason about. In the case of human behavior the chain of reasons can be as long and as elaborate as you please, but must always and invariably originate in an innate predisposition or drive, whether it be hunger, thirst, lust, or what is occasionally referred to as our “moral sense.” Understood in that way, all of our actions are “unreasonable,” because reason can never, ever serve as the cause of our actions itself.  Reasoning about good and evil is equivalent to reasoning about the nature of God. In both cases one is reasoning about imaginary things. Behavior can never be objectively good or evil, because those categories only exist as illusions. It can, however, be objectively described as adaptive or maladaptive, depending on whether it enhances the odds of genetic survival or not.

In the case of morality, maladaptive behavior is seldom limited to a single individual. Morality is always other-regarding. The illusion that Good, Evil, etc., exist as independent, objective things implies that, not just we ourselves, but everyone else “ought” to behave in ways that embrace the “Good,” and resist “Evil.” As a result we assume a “right” to dictate potentially maladaptive and/or suicidal behavior to others. If we are good at manipulating the relevant emotions, those others may quite possibly agree with us. If we can convince them to believe our version of the illusion, they may accept our reasoning about what our moral emotions are “really” trying to tell us, and become convinced that they must act in ways detrimental to their own survival as well. They may clearly see that they are being induced to behave in a way that is not to their advantage, but the illusion would tend to paralyze any attempt to behave differently. The only means of resistance would be to manipulate the moral sense so as to evoke different illusions of what good and evil “really” are.

If, as noted above, there is nothing objectively good or evil about anything, it follows that there is nothing objectively good or evil about any of these behaviors. They are simply biological facts that happen to be observable at a given time and in a given environment. However, whatever one seeks to accomplish in life, they will be more likely to succeed if they base their actions on facts rather than illusions. That applies to the illusions associated with our moral sense as much as to any others. The vast majority of us, including myself, have an almost overwhelming sense that the illusions are real, and that good and evil are objective things. However, it is becoming increasingly dangerous, if not suicidal, to continue to cling to these illusions, assuming one places any value on survival.

Most of us have goals in life. In most cases those goals are based on illusions such as those described above. Human beings tend to stumble blindly through life, without a clue about the fundamental reasons they behave the way they do. Occasionally one sees them jumping off cliffs, stridently insisting that others must jump off the cliff too, because it is “good,” or it is their “duty.” Perhaps Socrates had such behavior in mind when he muttered, “The unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial. Before jumping off a cliff, would it not be wise to closely examine your reasons for doing so, following those reasons to their emotional source, and considering why those emotions exist to begin with? I, too, have goals. Paramount among my personal goals is survival and reproduction. There is nothing intrinsically or objectively better about those goals than anyone else’s, including the goal of jumping off a cliff. I have them because I perceive them to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Those who do not wish to survive and reproduce appear to me to be sick and dysfunctional biological units. I do not care to be such a unit. As corollary goals I wish for the continued evolution of my species to become ever more capable of survival, and beyond that for the continued existence of biological life in general. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are “correct,” or that the goals of others are “wrong.” Mine are just as much expressions of emotion as anyone else’s. Call them whims, if you will, but at least they have the virtue of being whims that aren’t self destructive.

Supposing you have similar goals, I suggest that it would behoove you to shed the illusion of objective morality. That is by no means the same thing as dispensing with morality entirely, nor does it imply that you can’t treat a version of morality you deem conducive to your survival as an absolute. In other words, it doesn’t imply “moral relativism.” It is our nature to perceive whatever version of morality we happen to favor as absolute. Understanding why that is our nature will not result in moral nihilism, but it will have the happy effect of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the moralistic bullies who have always assumed a right to dictate behavior to the rest of us. To understand morality is to realize that the “moral high ground” they imagine they’re standing on doesn’t exist.

It is unlikely that any of us will be able to resist or significantly influence the massive shifts in population, ideology and the other radical changes to the world we live in that are happening at an ever increasing rate merely by virtue of the fact that we recognize morality and the illusions of objective good and evil associated with it for what they really are. However, it seems to me that recognizing the truth will at least enhance our ability to cope with those changes. In other words, it will help us survive, and, after all, survival is the reason that morality exists to begin with.