Immigration and the Free-Floating Morality of the Philosophers

The last two issues of the inimitable journal, Ethics, both include articles encapsulating the wisdom of two philosophers regarding the morality of immigration. As usual, neither author makes any attempt to establish the legitimacy, authority, or foundation of the moral principles they deem relevant. Apparently, we are just supposed to swallow whatever moral principles they concoct for us because, after all, they have Ph.D’s in the subject. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just as well, because no legitimacy, authority, or foundation can be established for things that don’t exist. The idea that there are such things as moral principles applicable to immigration in the modern world is absurd.

In fact, as alluded to by Darwin and elaborated by Westermarck, there are no moral principles at all other than the subjective variety spawned by emotions, assuming all sorts of kaleidoscopic forms as they percolate through the skulls of creatures with large brains. The idea that such principles can be true regardless of what anyone thinks of them is an illusion, spawned by the power of the emotions themselves. As Westermarck put it in a nutshell,

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 emotion, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

As might be expected given the ideological dogmas currently fashionable in academia, both of the authors mentioned above favor limited or no restrictions on immigration. Both have derived “moral principles” supporting their opinions. In an article entitled Race beyond Our Borders: Is Racial and Ethnic Immigration Selection Always Morally Wrong? that appeared in the January 2022 issue of Ethics, Sahar Akhtar, currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University, argues in favor of considering global status in determining whether it is moral for states to exclude some categories of people, but welcome others. For example, in the case of Israel, she writes,

We appeal to how the Jewish people were, and sometimes continue to be, subject to significant injustices in numerous states – but, importantly, not to how Jewish people have experienced such injustices within Israel. Given how the Jewish community was regarded as morally inferior in numerous states and systematically targeted and murdered in the Holocaust, it’s plausible that Jews constitute a vulnerable group in the global sense, in terms of the social bases of their self-respect. And Jewish populations might also constitute domestically vulnerable groups within some states today, including the United States, where there has been a recent rise in hate crimes against them. But what is not plausible is that they are vulnerable qua members of Israel. If anything, they are clearly the dominant domestic power in social, economic, and political terms. Thus, to understand why the Law of Return might be justified – however preliminarily – we implicitly refer to the Jewish people’s global status.

Thus, to determine whether it is permissible for them to welcome Jews but reject Moslems, the Jews of Israel are advised that they must consult the Moral Law. As usual, it is simply assumed that the applicable Moral Law exists and isn’t merely a subjective matter of opinion. Of course, it is somewhat obscure, and must be teased out based on a careful reading of the global status versus domestic status tea leaves. In spite of the fact that the leaders of Israel might become a bit impatient awaiting the outcome, this will have the happy effect of keeping a whole battalion of philosophers busy into the indefinite future. In her conclusion, Prof. Akhtar writes,

My goal was not to conclusively argue that certain selective criteria wrong or fail to wrong members or nonmembers, nor was it to argue for the overall (im)permissibility of any policy. My goal was instead mainly to develop the concept of global status and demonstrate its significance for selective immigration. In doing so, I hope to have laid some of the groundwork for applying anti-discrimination duties to states’ admission decisions.

It is certainly well that she didn’t attempt to conclusively demonstrate any of the moral rules applicable to immigration, because none exist. The idea that such things as moral duties exist relevant to a state’s immigration decisions is equally absurd.

The futility of modern philosophy is on full display here. Consider the fact that the physical bases for the existence of human moral behavior in the brain evolved at a time when no one had ever heard of such things as “global status,” or the existence of nation states with populations numbering in the millions, or, for that matter, that some principle of “anti-discrimination” extended to groups outside of one’s own. There is no basis at all for the conclusion that morality is even relevant here. As a general rule, it is always irrational to attempt to decide matters that one has sufficient time to actually think about by instead blindly responding to emotional reactions. That rule applies here, because morality is the outcome of emotional reactions in our species. I have no illusions on the subject. I realize perfectly well that it is the nature of our species to attempt the solution of complex problems via application of emotionally based rules. That doesn’t make it any less irrational.

It would behoove the leaders of Israel, and the rest of us as well, to ignore the “moral rules” concocted by the philosophers in determining national policy. One must consider what one’s ultimate goals are, and reason how one can best achieve them. Obviously, the irrational moral behavior of our species must be taken into account in the process, but that hardly implies a requirement to believe in imaginary “moral principles.” That is doubly true in the case of the rarefied stuff currently emanating from the academic hothouses of philosophy.

One finds the same kind of stuff in the second article, which appeared in the April issue of Ethics. Entitled Relational Equality and Immigration, it was submitted by Daniel Sharp, a postdoc at Maximilian University in Munich. The abstract says it all:

Egalitarians often claim that well-off states’ immigration restrictions create or reinforce objectionable inequality. Standard defenses of this claim appeal to the distributive consequences of exclusion. This article offers a relational egalitarian defense of more open borders. On this view, well-off states’ immigration restrictions are problematic because they accord the citizens of well-off states a troubling form of asymmetric power over the disadvantaged. This creates an objectionably unequal relationship between affluent states’ citizens and disadvantaged immigrants. I show that this argument offers a compelling diagnosis of a central problem with border control, defend the argument against objections, and explore its implications.

In other words, immigration decisions are to be decided based on moral rules that are implicitly assumed to be objectively true, derived from what philosophers agree is “objectionable” and “troubling.” The author imagines we will be “compelled” to agree with his emotional responses to border control.

So much for the futility of modern philosophers. I have no intention of paying any attention to their “compelling” versions of morality until they demonstrate at least a vague knowledge of what morality is and the reasons for its existence. Given the emotional origins of morality, it should never be made the basis of important policy decisions. That is doubly true when it comes to applying it to societies of a kind that didn’t exist when it evolved. It is highly unlikely that making decisions based on moral emotions in the world we live in now will have the same outcome it did in the prehistoric world of our ancestors.

What is the alternative? As I have suggested before, keep morality simple, and restrict it to routine social interactions when rationally analyzing each step we take would be impractical. However, it is not impractical to carefully reason about the decisions we make regarding such matters as border policy. These decisions should be made based on what our ultimate goals happen to be, and our conclusions about how we can best achieve them. If we happen to choose goals in life that are in harmony with the reasons that account for the existence of morality, not to mention the rest of our significant characteristics, then allowing open borders cannot be seen as other than an unmitigated disaster. If, on the other hand, one chooses as an ultimate goal strict adherence to some “moral law” suggested by the equalist dogmas currently fashionable in academia, regardless of how that may happen to affect the odds of one’s own survival, or the survival of one’s children, then the choice regarding borders may well be different.

The Philosophers and the War

Darwin was well aware of the implications of his great theory regarding human morality. As he put it in Chapter IV of his “The Descent of Man,”

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, than any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

He added another passage of critical significance with respect to the notion that “moral truth” has some kind of objective or transcendental existence, and that natural selection has had the felicitous tendency to “track” this moral truth in man:

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though the admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. 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 their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.

Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s brilliant insights. In retrospect, they seem obvious. In his words,

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotions 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 it 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 emotions fall entirely outside the category of truth.

If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth. It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else. But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true. If the word “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

These words were written more than a century ago. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere, with rare exceptions they fell on deaf ears among the tribe of academic and professional philosophers. The result has been the descent of philosophy into the state of utter futility we find it in today. Cloaking the puerility of their work in obscure jargon, modern philosophers assume the existence of “moral truth,” either explicitly or implicitly, and assure us that they are supplying us with the “moral knowledge” necessary to perceive this nonexistent truth. It’s as if a vast army of intellectuals were supplying us with a precise knowledge of the nature of unicorns.

The absurdity of these pretensions becomes obvious when applied to something as concrete as the war in Ukraine. The reactions to that war certainly confirm what another brilliant thinker, Jonathan Haidt, wrote in his “The Righteous Mind”:

Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agenda – to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense. Keep you eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

The modern tribe of philosophers is no exception to the rule. Anyone reading through their reactions to the war looking for insight into the “moral consciousness as a fact” of the two sides, as Westermarck put it, would search in vain. Instead, their contribution has been limited to ensuring that we can correctly distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Consider, for example, the contributions of four philosophers polled on the subject by Justin Weinberg, proprietor of the website “Daily Nous.” The first of them, Saba Bazargan-Forward, writes,

It might seem that the study of war ethics has little to add when it comes to morally evaluating Russia’s war in Ukraine. Consider Vladimir Putin’s motivations for the invasion. His goals might be security-driven, in that he fears NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. Or perhaps a revanchist nostalgia for the Russian empire is what motivates Putin. Or maybe he seeks to re-litigate the outcome of the Cold War. Or maybe Putin fears that the recent liberalization and democratization of Ukraine might spread to Russia, threatening his brand of kleptocratic authoritarianism. What is notable about these (and other) candidate explanations, is that none of them morally justify invading a peaceful, sovereign nation. His purported justifications are risible and fail to withstand even cursory examination. It is luminously obvious that Putin’s war in Ukraine is unjust. Given this, what can the study of war ethics, with its myriad principles, distinctions, and doctrines, possibly add to a moral evaluation of this war? Bringing the study of war ethics to bear on the invasion of Ukraine seems, to borrow a phrase from Hermine Wittgenstein, like using a scalpel to open up crates.

As Westermarck pointed out long ago, there is no such thing as moral truth, and in the absence of moral truth there can be no such thing as moral justification. There is also no basis for the claim that the war is unjust, or that it is just, either, for that matter. This philosopher is a victim of the illusion Westermarck referred to. He believes that emotions that evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago can somehow uncover “moral truths” about a war between societies that are radically different from anything that existed in those ancient times. Is it not abundantly obvious that blindly flailing about in an attempt to apply moral emotions that evolved among hunter-gatherers to conflicts among modern states, some of which are armed with nuclear weapons, is not only absurd, but highly dangerous? And yet modern philosophers, almost without exception, simply assume the existence of “moral truth,” and imagine that their value to society is in providing the rest of us with “moral knowledge” about this “moral truth.” Whimsically enough, this is just as true of those who admit that morality is subjective as of those who continue to insist that it is objective. Consider, for example, the contributions of the three other philosophers consulted by Prof. Weinberg. Jovana Davidovic imagines that her moral emotions have led her to the “truth” that Russian soldiers should lay down their arms:

Encouraging Russian soldiers today to remember what honorable fighting looks like, and put down their arms, is maybe a pie in the sky, but changing our norms regarding equality of combatants and what legitimate fighting in a war looks like, is not. Seeing at least some in the Russian military stand up against this unjust invasion will pay dividends in the days and years to come. Long-lasting peace can only come from respect and reconciliation. And knowing that at least some Russian people and Russian soldiers did the right thing can help sustain a healthy peace one day.

“Honorable fighting,” “unjust invasions,” and “the right thing,” are all emotionally based terms, perfectly familiar and understandable to every human being on the planet, yet entirely outside the realm of truth. We all suffer from the powerful illusion, the “feeling in our bones,” that they must represent some truth, but they simply don’t. Given the evolutionary origins of the emotions that gave rise to these terms, the belief that they represent some “truth” is out of the question.

We find the same assumption of the existence of “moral truth” in the contributions of the other two philosophers consulted by Prof. Weinberg. Christopher Finlay suggests we parse the applicable “moral truths,” to assign weights to equally imaginary “moral duties”:

The tension between a moral duty to protect victims of aggression and the duty to avoid uncontrolled escalation has led some US policy-makers to consider a possible middle way: instead of sending soldiers to Ukraine to thwart Russia’s invasion plans, it might be better to prepare for the eventuality that Ukraine’s regular forces might be defeated and then resist Russia’s occupation by arming Ukrainian guerrillas.

Helen Frowe imagines that her moral emotions are capable of supplying her with “truths” about which wars are “just” and which are “unjust”:

You don’t really need a just war theorist to shed light on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s campaign has already killed or injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Best guesses about the motivation for the war range from Putin’s having read some dodgy history books whilst developing lockdown-induced mental instability to a long-held desire to return Russia to its USSR glory—an agenda now being pursued via a charade of saving people from genocide in a country where no genocide is occurring. Unsurprisingly, neither explanation—nor even their combination—constitutes a just cause for war.

Any determination that a given war is “just” or “unjust” in itself must depend on the existence of some absolute moral standard as a basis for this claim. No such standard exists. It can be hard for us to appreciate the absurdity of such unqualified claims because we are all equipped with moral emotions that are more or less similar to Frowe’s. Her comments seem right, or at least reasonable to most of us, because we all subject to the moral illusions noted by Westermarck. However, consider the implications of what she is saying. Where does one find this absolute moral standard? How did it come into existence? Are we to believe that, at the moment of the big bang, not only neutrons, protons, and photons came flying out, but moral goods and evils as well? If so, given what Darwin said about the bees, isn’t it remarkable that these objects should just happen to “track” the moral emotions of our species, although a myriad of vastly different versions are possible? Supposing these imaginary objective goods and evils do exist, what possible difference could it make to us? If these moral objects are not congruent with the goals we’ve happened to set for ourselves, it would be absurd to pay any attention to them. After all, there is no authority to enforce them.

It’s sad, really. Philosophers could play an important role if they would stop playing the puerile game of searching for “moral truths” and “moral knowledge” and accept morality for what it is; a manifestation of evolved emotional traits that members of our species seek to interpret with our large brains. They could then try to find ways to for us to cope with these powerful emotions in societies that are radically different from the ones in which they evolved.

Seeking to concoct moral “truths” about something as complex as modern warfare is particularly dangerous and self-destructive in a world full of nuclear weapons. Supposing that, in harmony with the reasons we exist to begin with, our goals happen to include survival, it would behoove us in times of war to be as rational as possible, and as vigilant as possible against playing a game of blind man’s bluff with our moral emotions.

On Steven Pinker’s “Rational” Morality

According to the Amazon blurb on “Rationality,” Steven Pinker’s latest book, “Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere, and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress.” In fact, Pinker addresses the issue of morality in the book. However, the degree to which he’s rational about it is open to question. According to Pinker,

One realm that is sometimes excluded from the rational is the moral. Can we ever deduce what’s right or wrong? Can we confirm it with data? It’s not obvious how you could. Many people believe that “you can’t get an ought from an is.” The conclusion is sometimes attributed to the philosopher David Hume. “Tis not contrary to reason.” He famously wrote, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

Pinker then goes on to tell us that, “Philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century took Hume’s argument seriously and struggled with what moral statements could possibly mean if they are not about logic or empirical fact,” and “Hume may have been technically correct when he wrote that it’s not contrary to reason to prefer global genocide to a scratch on one’s pinkie. But his grounds were very, very narrow.” Pinker doesn’t elaborate on the latter statement, probably for the very good reason that it’s nonsense. Hume’s grounds weren’t “narrow” at all. They were a straightforward elaboration of what had already been written on the subject by, among others, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and, more importantly, Francis Hutcheson.

Using Pinker’s prized “rationality,” Hutcheson demonstrated beyond any “rational” doubt that morality can’t be derived from reason, either narrowly or broadly, but must originate from what he referred to as a “moral sense.” His brilliant, “An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense,” includes such amazingly “modern” passages as,

These Moral Perceptions arise in us as necessarily as any other Sensations, nor can we alter, or stop them.

Let us once suppose Affections, Instincts or Desires previously implanted in our Nature: and we shall easily understand the exciting Reasons for Actions.

The Question then is, “Does a Conformity to any Truth make us approve an ultimate End, previously to any moral Sense?” For example, we approve pursuing the publick Good. For what Reason? Or what is the Truth for Conformity to which we call it a reasonable End? I fancy we can find none in these Cases, more than we could give for our liking any pleasant Fruit.

These passages were published in 1728, more than a century before Darwin, so it is not surprising that Hutcheson imagined that God was the source of our moral sense. We now know that it exists as a result of natural selection, because the innate predispositions that give rise to it happened to increase the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce.

Hume presented similar arguments, but with a more secular foundation. Pinker’s attempt to relegate him to the “first half of the twentieth century” is absurd. I can only suggest that he consult “The Righteous Mind,” by his fellow public intellectual, Jonathan Haidt, published as recently as 2012. Therein he will find a significantly more “rational” discussion of Hume. Speaking of individuals in a study who were “morally dumbfounded – rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively,” Haidt wrote,

These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of the emotional reactions. It was reasoning as described by the philosopher David Hume, who wrote in 1739 that “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.

A bit later in the book Haidt writes,

Given Hume’s concerns about the limits of reasoning, he believed that philosophers who tried to reason their way to moral truth without looking at human nature were no better than theologians who thought they could find moral truth revealed in sacred texts. Both were transcendentalists.

Recall, now, that Pinker imagines himself a great fan of the Enlightenment, and even published a book with that title. Haidt continues,

Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project; an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences… Hume got it right. When he died in 1776, he and other sentimentalists had laid a superb foundation for “moral science,” one that has, in my view, been largely vindicated by modern research. You would think, then, that in the decades after his death, the moral sciences progressed rapidly. But you would be wrong. In the decades after Hume’s death the rationalists claimed victory over religion and took the moral sciences off on a two-hundred-year tangent.

Now we find Pinker off on this same tangent, a self-described “rationalist,” rejecting one of the quintessential works of the Enlightenment he claims to champion. In fact, Hume’s relevance to the question of morality is at least as great today as it was a decade ago. Apparently Pinker never actually read Hume, or, if he did, didn’t comprehend what he was reading. Hume, and Hutcheson before him argued very convincingly that you could follow a chain of reasons back as far as you pleased, but you would never find some ultimate reason as the source of human morality, for the very good reason that the foundation of morality lies in human emotions and human nature. Pinker never attempts to challenge these arguments. Instead, he imagines he can hand-wave them out of existence by claiming they’re too “narrow.” The same goes for his fantasy that Hume is no longer relevant “since the first half of the 20th century.”

After his breezy dismissal of Hume, Pinker writes, “In fact, it is not hard to ground morality in reason.” Let’s consider the “rationality” of his arguments in favor of that statement. According to Pinker,

But now let’s just say that we prefer good things to happen to ourselves over bad things. Let’s make a second wild and crazy assumption: that we are social animals who live with other people, rather than Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, so our well-being depends on what others do, like helping us when we are in need and not harming for no good reason.

This changes everything. As soon as we start insisting to others, “Your must not hurt me, or let me starve, or let my children drown,” we cannot also maintain, “But I can hurt you, and let you starve, and let your children drown,” and hope they will take us seriously.

Well, no, they won’t take us seriously, but how does that “change everything?” Why does Pinker imagine there’s any connection between being taken seriously and morality to begin with? He continues,

That is because as soon as I engage you in a rational discussion, I cannot insist that only my interests count just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can insist that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe because I happen to be standing on it. The pronouns I, me, and mine have no logical heft – they flip with each turn in a conversation. And so any argument that privileges my well-being over yours or his or hers, all else being equal, is irrational.

It’s hard to imagine anything more irrational than this. Does Pinker imagine that human beings are no different than the indistinguishable particles of physics? If what Pinker writes is true, then the genes that are responsible for the existence of morality must be completely irrational, because, to the extent that they fail to “insist that only their interests count,” they quickly go extinct. Apparently, we are to forget about the reasons morality exists, and simply agree with Pinker that whatever he personally feels is “fair,” must therefore be moral. QED. Lions must be both irrational and immoral because they kill the cubs sired by others so they can substitute their own. Male gorillas must be irrational and immoral because they kill unprotected infants, a behavior which promotes their own genetic interests, but which Prof. Pinker would doubtless consider manifestly unfair.

Pinker doesn’t entirely ignore the evolutionary origins of morality, writing, for example,

How do rational agents come into existence in the first place? Unless you are talking about disembodied rational angels, they are products of evolution, with fragile, energy-hungry bodies and brains. To have remained alive long enough to enter into a rational discussion, they must have staved off injuries and starvation, goaded by pleasure and pain. Evolution, moreover, works on populations, not individuals, so a rational animal must be part of a community, with all the social ties that impel it to cooperate, protect itself, and mate.

This passage is truly ironic. Some time ago in his bowdlerized history of the Blank Slate, Pinker air brushed out of existence the two men most responsible for the demise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, because they claimed that “evolution acted for the good of the species.” Now we find him making exactly the same claim. Elsewhere he makes it clear that he does not believe that natural selection acts at the level of populations, but so did Ardrey and Lorenz. Is it not, then, “rational” to dismiss Pinker as well, based on his own arguments? Reading on, we find,

When you combine self-interest and sociality with impartiality – the interchangeability of perspectives – you get the core of morality. You get the Golden Rule… Versions of these rules have been independently discovered in Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and other religions and moral codes.

That’s certainly good evidence that human moral emotions tend to be similar across populations, just as one would expect if those emotions exist because they evolved. However, it is hardly rational to conclude that the similarity of these rules somehow means they are objectively true, independently of the emotions responsible for their existence in the first place. Pinker continues,

Impartiality, the main ingredient of morality, is not just a logical nicety. Practically speaking, it also makes everyone, on average, better off. Life presents many opportunities to help someone, or to refrain from hurting them, at a small cost to oneself. So if everyone signs on to helping and not hurting, everyone wins. This does not, of course, mean that people are in fact perfectly moral, just that there’s a rational argument as to why they should be.

Really? Help them do what? Isn’t it wise to consider what their goals happen to be, and whether they either support or diametrically oppose our own before we “help” them accomplish those goals? Does Prof. Pinker seriously believe that everyone on the planet must have the same goals, and they must be identical to his own? Apparently, we are to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with Prof. Pinker on what our goals ought to be as “irrational.”

Indeed, one is at a loss to imagine what species Pinker is thinking about. It can’t be human beings. Regardless of what culture or ethnic group we belong to, we perceive others in turns of ingroups and outgroups. Our species is never “impartial” when it comes to treatment of the “other,” the denizen of the outgroup. That is simply a fact, and to deny it would be the very opposite of rationality. All Pinker is really doing is insisting that the types of behavior he and his academic tribe consider “nice” must therefore magically be “moral,” and to disagree is to be, by definition, “irrational.”

To be “rational,” we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with. To be “rational,” we must abandon the goals we have set for ourselves in life if Prof. Pinker and his tribe don’t deem them “nice,” regardless of whether those goals are in harmony with the genetic origins of morality or not. To be “rational,” we must forget about the relevance of our behavior to either our own genetic survival or the long-term survival and continued evolution of our species. To be “rational,” we must assume that behavioral traits that evolved eons ago, because they happened to promote the survival of individuals living in small groups of hunter gatherers, will automatically be just as “useful” to us today. In the process, we must ignore the fact that, while such individuals may have helped members of their own group, they were generally hostile to individuals in the next group over. It never occurred to them to help these “others.” No, we must limit ourselves to behaviors that Prof. Pinker deems “fair,” on pain of being anathematized as “irrational.”

No thanks, Prof. Pinker. Your version of morality is the very essence of irrationality.

“Evolutionary Debunking” – Another Philosopher Chimes In

Suppose some analog of Commander Data of Star Trek fame were sent out alone on an interstellar voyage of discovery and encountered our species for the first time. What would he conclude about the phenomenon of human morality? No doubt he would be aware that biological life forms exist by virtue of natural selection, and that characteristics of these life forms that significantly influence the odds of individual survival almost certainly exist by virtue of that natural phenomenon. Noting that the emotional traits responsible for the existence of morality in our species meet this criterion, he would conclude that they evolved in the same way as many of our other significant features. Lacking emotions himself, it would never occur to him that the moral beliefs spawned by these emotions have anything to do with “objective moral truth.” He would not imagine that some things are “really good” and other things are “really bad” because he “felt it in his bones.” Instead, he would correctly conclude that our morality exists as an artifact of emotional traits that exist because they promoted survival.

Obviously, our species lacks the emotional detachment of Commander Data. Unlike him, we experience the powerful emotions responsible for portraying good and evil to us as real things, and most of us firmly believe in these illusions without further ado. The philosophers among us are hardly inclined to dispel the illusions. Jobs in the field are rare outside of the publish or perish world of academia, and the chances that papers stating something as obvious as the above would be accepted in the most prestigious journals are vanishingly small. No, to survive professionally, one must excel at obscuring the truth with an impenetrable fog of academic jargon. There are certainly many philosophers who accept the fact that natural selection has had a profound influence on morality, and some even accept the fact that nothing beyond this natural process is required to account for it. However, as far as I can tell without exception, they then go on to tell us what we “ought” to do as if their personal preferences possessed some magical authority or legitimacy.

In this whimsical atmosphere, philosophers on both sides of the issue have embraced the term “evolutionary debunking” to describe theories that marshal evolutionary arguments to attack systems that either dismiss or qualify the influence of natural selection on morality. It’s an unfortunate choice of words, as it tends to reduce a natural fact of profound importance to the level of a toy that philosophers play with in their academic sandboxes. In fact, experts in evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and related fields are far more likely to make useful contributions to our understanding of the subject than the tribe of professional philosophers. The philosophers’ attacks and counterattacks on each other, couched in the usual obscure jargon, have done more to obfuscate than illuminate the subject.

When we reduce the academic word salad to more comprehensible terms, we often find that the arguments used in these philosophical jousts are surprisingly naïve. Consider, for example, a paper by Katia Vavova entitled “The limits of rational belief revision: A dilemma for the Darwinian debunker,” that appeared in a recent issue of the philosophical journal Nous. In the author’s words,

The dilemma, briefly, is this. Either moral assumptions are legitimate in response to the debunker or they are not. If they are, then learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs may give us good reason to think that our moral beliefs are mistaken. But if moral assumptions really are legitimate, then there are moral claims wee can take for granted and therefore use to self-correct. In this way we may stagger, but needn’t fall from the debunker’s hit. On this horn, we can self-correct and thus alleviate the debunker’s worries.

If, instead, moral assumptions are not legitimate, then we have no moral claims we can use to self-correct. But then, learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs cannot give us reason to think we are mistaken about morality. This is because we cannot get evidence to think that we are mistaken about something that we can make no assumptions about. Evidence is evidence only against a background of beliefs we take for granted, and if no moral assumptions are allowed, then we do not have enough such background. So, we cannot get evidence of our error.

A seemingly obvious weakness of this gambit is that it assumes the existence of that which is to be debunked. It could just as well be used against the debunkers of fairies, hobgoblins, and unicorns. Beliefs about these things can be neither mistaken nor not mistaken, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if Darwin was right about morality, then moral claims are based on an illusion. One can be mistaken or not mistaken about what an illusion looks like to the delusional, but not about what it actually is.

This problem seems so obvious that we are inclined to give Prof. Vavova the benefit of the doubt, and consider the possibility that we are being obtuse, and have missed the point. With that in mind, let us read on to a more precise statement of what she imagines the debunker’s argument to be. Again, in her words,

This, then, is the debunker’s argument:

1. Influence. Evolutionary forces have influenced our moral beliefs.

2. Off-track. Evolutionary forces aim at fitness, not moral truth.

3. Off-track influence. A process that aims at fitness, not moral truth, influenced our moral beliefs.

4. Gap. The true moral beliefs and the adaptive moral beliefs come apart.

5. Bad influence. Our moral beliefs reflect the influence of an epistemically bad process.

6. Plausible Principle. If a belief reflects the influence of an epistemically bad process, then that belief is likely to be mistaken.

7. Mistaken. Our moral beliefs are likely to be mistaken.

Again, this “debunker’s argument” appears to assume the existence of moral truth. However, to the extent that they make any useful point at all, “evolutionary debunking” arguments deny the existence of moral truth. It is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about the nature of things that don’t exist. But wait! Following these seven points we find the remarkable passage:

Notice that this formulation doesn’t assume moral realism: the view that the moral facts are attitude-independent. This is unusual and important. It’s unusual because evolutionary debunking arguments are often run as reductios of realism. It’s important because it shows that one needn’t be a moral realist to be vulnerable to this attack.

Here I can but scratch my head. Again, it is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about nothing. If, on the other hand, Vavova’s formulation doesn’t assume moral realism, then it cannot possibly be an accurate statement of “evolutionary debunking” arguments. If one is not a moral realist, then one is not only not vulnerable to this attack, for all practical purposes one is on the side of the debunkers. What on earth is it the debunkers are trying to debunk if not moral realism? To the extent that “evolutionary debunkers” are trying to debunk something other than that it’s a matter of complete indifference to me whether they succeed or not.

So much for Prof. Vavova’s “debunking of the debunkers.” As I’ve pointed out before, philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if, just for the sake of argument, they accepted the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains. Starting from that axiom, they could then go on to formulate possible courses of action our species might take assuming the axiom were true. That’s basically what E. O. Wilson suggested to the philosophers long ago, and they’ve hated him for it ever since. It would seem that we must leave them in their academic redoubts, writing thick tomes about obsolete moral philosophies, befogging the subject with their jargon, and ornamenting the pages of philosophical journals with papers such as the one described above.

Ethics: A Philosopher Ponders Darwin

Darwin didn’t waste many words on morality when he published The Descent of Man in 1871, but what he did write rendered all the thousands of philosophical tomes that had been previously written on the subject obsolete. In fact, the same can be said for most of the thousands of tomes that have been written on the subject after his time as well. In short, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits that are as much a result of natural selection as our more obvious physical traits. A number of seemingly obvious conclusions follow from this fundamental fact. For example, morality is subjective. Because it is the result of a natural process, it cannot have any goal or purpose. Sentient beings like us can have goals and purposes, but natural processes have none. As Hume pointed out long ago, there is no path from the “is” of natural processes to the “oughts” of morality. Our firm belief that “oughts” are real things that exist independently of what anyone happens to think about them is the result of a powerful illusion that happened to increase the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce.

It seems to me that, in spite of the above, philosophers could still make themselves useful in dealing with the reality of human morality. We really can’t get along without it. The emotions that give rise to it are too powerful for us to ignore. We also lack the intelligence to rationally analyze every move we make in our relations with others of our species. Taking the biological realities of human behavior into account, philosophers might take up the task of suggesting what kind of a morality we might adopt that would minimize friction and maximize cooperation in the societies we live in today, and yet be more or less in harmony with the emotions that are the root cause of our moral behavior. It seems at least plausible that they could come up with an improvement over the chaotic manipulation of moral emotions that we currently rely on to cook up the latest recipes for what we ought and ought not to do. I think that’s what E. O. Wilson had in mind when he suggested that we come up with a “biology of ethics, which will make possible the selection of a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values.”

For some reason, this seemingly obvious suggestion has never been popular with philosophers. Perhaps the gatekeepers who determine what may or may not be published in the academic journals have simply been too hidebound and inflexible to accommodate something so novel. All their epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies never prepared them to deal with something that renders all the “expertise” in morality they’ve spent their careers acquiring as irrelevant as humorism in medicine or the phlogiston theory in chemistry. Many of them realize they can no longer simply ignore Darwin. However, instead of considering some of the more obvious implications for moral philosophy if what he wrote was true, they have seemed more intent on obfuscating the subject under a thick smokescreen of philosophical jargon.

Consider, for example, a recent book on the subject entitled, An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, by Scott M. James. James seems to grasp some of the more obvious implications if our morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection. For example, he writes,

The psychological mechanisms that evolutionary psychologists claim fill the mind did not evolve in response to problems we confront today. They may help in solving similar problems today, but that’s not why we possess them. We possess them because they solved recurrent problems confronting our distant ancestors. And since they haven’t been “selected out” of the population, current populations still possess them. As evolutionary psychologists like to say, our modern skulls house stone-age minds.

James warns his readers against many of the familiar fallacies associated with biological explanations of behavior. These include conflating explanation and justification. The fact that innate tendencies may influence a particular behavior does not imply that the behavior is either good or evil. James also mentions genetic determinism, the false notion that we are forced to act in certain ways and not in others by our genes. Beloved as a strawman by the Blank Slaters of old, no serious evolutionary psychologist has ever claimed anything of the sort. He makes short work of the notion that the diversity of human moralities excludes the influence of evolved behavioral traits. In fact, if Darwin was right, that is exactly what one would expect.

Given this promising start, a scientist might expect James to accept the most “parsimonious” explanation of morality; that Darwin was right about morality, and that’s the end of it. But James is a philosopher, not a scientist. At the end of his book, we gaze from a distance as he wades back into his philosophical swamp. In the final chapter he writes,

Finally, building on the work of others, I have offered a moral constructivist position, according to which moral rightness and wrongness consist in what agents, (from a particular standpoint) would accept as rules to govern behavior. Unlike the other options outlined in this chapter, my position is an explicit attempt at a tracking account. I’m prepared to say that the reason we evolved to make moral judgments has precisely to do with the fact that the preponderance of these judgments were true.

In other words, James is an objective moralist, and seems to believe that natural selection is somehow capable of caring one way or the other about the moral rules he happens to prefer. If Darwin was right, then this is only possible if the “objective moral law” varies drastically from species to species, as noted in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man. A bit later James writes,

My proposal has two parts. The first part involves a refinement of the story we told in part I about how we evolved to think morally. I argue that we developed a special sensitivity to how others would view our behavior (from a particular standpoint). The second part is a metaethical story, that is, a story about what moral judgments are and about what makes true moral judgments true (and, yes, I believe some moral judgments are indeed true). As I argue, these two stories together could be read to imply that the evolution of our particular moral sense was the result of the recognition of facts about hypothetical agreement. An early human, disposed to judge that others could reasonably object to what she was intent on doing and motivated by that judgment, enhanced reproductive fitness partly because such judgments were sometimes true. And this, by the way constitutes a moral realism worthy of the name – or so I maintain.

And so on. James does not explain how his version of “true” moral judgments is compatible with the universal human tendency to identify and hate the members of outgroups, or our tendency to compete for status, regardless of what we deem others might consider “reasonable.” Neither does he explain why, once we are aware of the natural processes that account for our existence, and have formulated personal goals and assigned ourselves a purpose taking that knowledge into account, we should care one way or the other whether our actions conform to what James considers “true” moral rules as we pursue those goals and purposes, unless, of course, James happens to be holding a gun to our heads.

Imagine, if you will a world conference held to formulate a universal system of morality. It goes without saying that anyone suggesting a particular version of morality would be required to reveal what his personal goals in life happen to be, and why he values those goals. In my case, I would explain that my goals include my own survival and reproduction, the survival of my species, and the survival of biological life in general, and that I have those goals because I deem them in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. I would prefer a system of morality that facilitated those goals. James might then step up to the podium and suggest that we adopt his proposed moral rules, because they are “true,” regardless of whether they facilitate anyone else’s personal goals or not. I can only hope that such a proposal would be met with peels of laughter, and deemed grotesquely “unreasonable” by our fellow attendees.

I realize that extravagant “tracking” accounts of morality such as the one proposed by James are far more likely to be published in the journals of philosophy than anything as simple as a straightforward Darwinian explanation. That hardly constitutes a good reason for the rest of us to take them seriously. One must hope that eventually a few philosophers will attempt to wade back out of the swamp. However, given the realities of what constitutes “reasonable” behavior for any philosopher who wants to remain gainfully employed in academia, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

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.