There are Atheists, and then there are Atheists

As an atheist, I tend to be annoyed by prominent public moralistic posing by other atheists. A particularly egregious example thereof were the billboards recently put up around Charlotte, NC mocking Obama’s Christianity and Romney’s Mormonism ahead of the Democratic and Republican Party conventions.  Aside from the fact that “atheist moralist” is an oxymoron, they don’t even seem to serve any utilitarian purpose, such as promoting public acceptance of atheists, or inspiring people to actually reason about their religious beliefs.  Rather, they are the human equivalent of a troop of atheist howler monkeys rushing to the boundaries of their territory and loudly berating the religious howler monkeys on the other side.  All these people, who refer to themselves as American Atheists, really accomplish with such antics is to reinforce the ideological barriers between their ingroup and the ingroups of their religious opponents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should probably use the term “spiritual religious opponents” in place of “religious opponents.”  I suspect most of these atheists are just as religious as the Mormons and Christians they scorn.  Their religion just happens to be secular, with a secular God replacing the spiritual one, but otherwise entirely equivalent to the traditional variety.  The distinction between spiritual and secular religions is entirely artificial.  I strongly doubt that there is any innate wiring in the human brain that somehow distinguishes between the two.  Public atheists do tend to be strongly religious in that way.  I would just prefer that they don’t drag me into their ingroup by implying that, because I, too, am an American atheist, I am also one of them.

Other than being annoying, these billboards are also absurd.  As I pointed out earlier, “atheist moralist” is an oxymoron.  As the proponents of spiritual religions, who never seem to realize they are in the same boat, are fond of pointing out, atheists have no legitimate objective basis for claiming one thing is Good and another Evil whatsoever.  And yet these billboards make just such a claim.  Moral anathemas are hurled down on the Mormons because they are “bigots,” and on the Christians because they “promote hate.”  As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, such self-righteous moral judgments are entirely typical of our species.  They are also rationally insupportable.  These atheists are trying to fly without even bothering to don the imaginary spiritual wings of the Christians and Mormons they condemn.

I note in passing that I’m not the only atheist outlier.  For example, while most of the other atheists I know tend to gravitate to the left of the political spectrum, there are conservative atheists as well, and they even have blogs.  The “American Atheists” might want to note in passing the next time they get the itch to launch a billboard campaign that they don’t represent all American atheists.  Meanwhile, no doubt to the relief of right-thinking atheists everywhere, the old ones have been taken down.

Evolutionary Psychology and Group Selection

Steve Davis has recently been championing group selection and lobbing rocks at Richard Dawkins and his fellow gene-centrists over at Science 2.0. He writes with a certain moralistic fervor that ill befits a scientist, but so does Dawkins and a good number of his followers. The problem isn’t that he takes issue with Dawkins and his inclusive fitness orthodoxy. The problem is that he associates evolutionary psychology with that orthodoxy, as if it would evaporate without a kin selection crutch. Not only is that untrue, but it stands the whole history of the science on its head. For example, referring to the book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene by philosopher Mary Midgley in an article entitled “Evolutionary Psychology – As it Should Be,” Davis writes,

Not only does the book have wide implications for debates in evolutionary psychology, it overturns that school of thought completely, as it presents a comprehensive rebuttal of the selfish gene hypothesis on which evolutionary psychology (as we know it) is based.

In a later article entitled “Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics,” he adds,

When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at (anthropologist and anarchist political theorist Peter) Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”)But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought.

and,

As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based.  Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.

Of course the issue of group selection in all its various flavors is actually very complex.  For anyone interested, I recommend the excellent discussion of group selection that illustrates that complexity in J. van der Dennen’s The Origin of War.  However, the real problem with these articles is their association of the entire field of evolutionary psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now.   That association is fundamentally false.  To demonstrate that fact, one need look no further than the first chapter of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  For example, quoting from the book,

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.”  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).

Who were Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt?  Well, to begin with, they all supported the theory of group selection.  They were also the most prominent evolutionary psychologists of their day.  I use the term “evolutionary psychology” in the vernacular, that is, a science based on the hypothesis that there is such a thing as human nature.  The vernacular term that meant the same thing in the heyday of the above three was “ethology.”  Later it became “sociobiology.”  The original sociobiologist was, of course, E. O. Wilson.  He never fully accepted Dawkins’ gene-centric views, and, of course, recently came out of the closet as a firm believer in group selection.  As for The Selfish Gene, it isn’t just about Dawkins theory of gene-centric evolution.  It is also a full-fledged attack on the evolutionary psychologists of its day.  The above quote is hardly unique, and is followed by many others attacking Lorenz and Ardrey for their support of group selection.

Davis’ misconception that there is some kind of an indissoluble bond between evolutionary psychology and Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution is understandable.  EP has come of age during a time when Dawkins opinion represented scientific orthodoxy, and reflects that environment, in a manner no different from any of the other biological sciences.  However, the fact that many evolutionary psychologists happened to also accept gene-centric orthodoxy hardly implies that the whole field is dependent on or derived from that point of view.

Davis’ conflation of kin selection and evolutionary psychology is also understandable in view of the extensive scrubbing of the history of the field.  According to this “history,” as represented, for example, in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, what became EP began with a mythical “big bang” with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.  In fact, as far as the reason for that book’s notoriety is concerned, its embrace of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature, it was just an afterthought.  There is nothing in it that was not written more than a decade earlier by the likes of Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, most prominently, Robert Ardrey.  To fact check this statement, one need only read Man and Aggression, a collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves, published in 1968, and still available on Amazon for about a dollar the last time I looked.  I suspect one of the reasons the history of EP has been “revised” is the fact that, when it came to Ardrey’s claim that there is such a thing a human nature, the fundamental theme of all his work, he was right, and the lion’s share of “experts” in the behavioral sciences, at least in the United States, were wrong.  Ardrey, you see, was a mere playwright.  Hence the “big bang” myth.

The claim that the imaginary link with kin selection that Davis refers to does exist with evolutionary psychology “as we know it,” or in its current incarnation, is also wrong.  E. O. Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Martin Nowak are among the most prominent, if not the most prominent, evolutionary psychologists in the field of evolutionary morality as I write this.  All three have come down firmly and publicly in favor of group selection.

Frank Salter’s Ethic

Of all the hopeless new moralities that are being cobbled together to promote “human flourishing” and related chimeras, anthropologist Frank Salter’s adaptive utilitarianism, as set forth in his book On Genetic Interests, at least has the merit of being logically consistent.  It’s premise is that a “good” act is one that increases or protects the fitness of the greater number.  That seems reasonable given that virtually all of our physical and mental traits, including the ones that give rise to morality, only exist because, at least at some time in the past, they enhanced our genetic fitness.  However, Salter’s morality is a non-starter for the same reasons as all the rest.  David Hume pointed them out back in the 18th century:

There has been an opinion very industriously propagated by certain philosophers, that morality is susceptible of demonstration; and tho’ no one has ever been able to advance a single step in those demonstrations; yet ’tis taken for granted, that this science may be brought to an equal certainty with geometry or algebra.

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

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

…reason can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence.  Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable.

Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cites Hume’s dictum 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,” and reviews recent experimental demonstration of the existence of these “passions,” and the way in which they influence moral judgment.  Noting that there are not just one, but six innate “foundations” of moral judgment, he adds,

…we believe that moral monism – the attempt to ground all morality on a single principle – leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.

It goes without saying that philosophers don’t create moral systems to apply only to themselves.  Unless it is applied to others as well, morality is pointless.  It is the source of moral judgment, and the basis of what Haidt identifies as a very fundamental human behavioral trait; self-righteousness.  That is another Achilles heel of the cobblers of moral systems; all moralities imply self-righteousness, but self-righteousness can never be objectively legitimate.  We all judge others, because it is our nature to do so.  However, the idea that there can ever be some objective basis for those judgments that renders them valid in themselves is nonsense.  We have certainly evolved to experience them as valid in themselves, but that is hardly a proof that they actually are.  In my opinion, that is actually one of the more comforting aspects of the philosophy of Hume and the science of evolutionary morality.  We are no longer burdened by any tiresome obligation to take the pathologically pious among us seriously.  It becomes quite reasonable for us to view them as buffoons.  Of course, in saying that, I am expressing a moral sentiment of my own.

It seems to me Salter’s ideas work much better as a source of a personal sense of purpose than as a source of ethics.  There is no objective reason why we “ought” to do anything.  Our reasons must be entirely subjective.  It may not work for everyone, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t, for that matter, but serving what Salter refers to as my genetic interests works for me.  I find it very satisfying as the “purpose of life.”  While I can hardly provide a rational objective basis for this “ought,” the same could be said of any other “ought” anyone could come up with.  I look at it this way.  I exist because everything about me has promoted my genetic survival.  If my conscious acts and my conscious purpose are not in harmony with the reasons for my existence, I am, in a sense, ill and defective.  The thought of being ill and defective is not pleasing to me.  Hence, my “purpose in life.”  It’s entirely subjective and I can’t reasonably apply it to anyone else, I know, but that’s the beauty of it.  It’s not at all troubling to me that most other people don’t appear to have a similar purpose in life, unless, of course, they happen to be close relatives.

Dawkins and Wilson and Haidt; A Matter of Religion

In chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt addresses the topic of religion:

In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology:  Morality binds and blinds.  Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible.  They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.

Among the “scientists who misunderstand,” Haidt specifically singles out the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.  Group selectionist David Sloan Wilson recently wrote a similar critique of Dawkins in The Skeptic, claiming that Dawkins was “not an evolutionist” when discussing religion.  In Wilson’s words,

Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare…  How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.

I have some problems of my own with The God Delusion, such as its anti-American tone in general and its obsession with religious fundamentalists in the U.S., usually referred to by Dawkins as the “American Taliban” in particular.  He even went so far as to repeat the old urban myth about how Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.  However, it seemed to me that Dawkins was right as far as Wilson’s criticism was concerned.  My impression was that the book really was concerned mainly with the question of whether or not there actually is a God, and that, as Dawkins said, he was therefore not obligated to digress on the evolutionary origins of religion.  This impression was reinforced by Wilson’s review in The Skeptic, in which he wrote,

For religion, however, he (Dawkins) argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.

I thought when I read this, and still think that the issue of adaptation was beside the point.  Dawkins was addressing the issue of whether God exists, and not the adaptive value of religion.  This impression was reinforced by the fact that, immediately after the passage quoted above, Wilson continued with a long, rambling defense of group selection.  It reminded me of Maslow’s hammer:  “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Wilson was simply betraying a tendency to see everything in terms of his favorite area of expertise, whether it was really germane or not.

Enter Jonathan Haidt, who takes issue with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists for similar reasons, but does a better job of explaining exactly what it is he’s getting at.  As he puts it,

But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion – and understand its relationship to morality and politics – we must first describe it accurately… Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball.  You’ve got to broaden the inquiry.  You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.

Now we at least have a better idea of why Wilson and Haidt are rejecting the arguments of the New Atheists.  As Haidt puts it, they are like Plato and other rationalist philosophers who thought that reason should control the passions, as opposed to the view of Hume (and Haidt) that reason is really just a servant of the intuitions.  Beyond that, they are using contrived arguments to explain away the evolutionary origins of religion.  According to Haidt and Wilson, religion exists as a manifestation of evolved mental traits, and those traits were selected because they increased the fitness, not of individuals, but of groups.  In other words, Haidt’s recent comments in favor of group selection are no fluke.  Group selection actually plays a fundamental role in his theoretical understanding of religion as an adaptive trait, and not cultural group selection, but genetic group selection.  Chapter 11 actually includes a spirited defense of Wilson, noting that his,

…great achievement was to merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences:  Darwin and (Emile) Durkheim… In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the ways that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

At this point, Haidt begins performing some remarkable intellectual double back flips.  If religion really is an adaptive trait, apparently he feels it necessary to demonstrate that it is also really “good”.  For example, we learn that,

 …John Calvin developed a strict and demanding form of Christianity that suppressed free riding and facilitated trust and commerce in sixteenth century Geneva.

There is no mention of Calvin torturing a religious opponent to death in a slow fire made of green wood with a wreath strewn with sulfur around his head.  Haidt tells us that the 911 bombers were really motivated by nationalism, not religion.  (Remember the yarns about how zealots of a secular religion, Communism, such as Ho chi Minh and Castro, were also supposed to be “nationalists.”  And, of course, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, either.)  But, as “the most revealing example” of the benign effects of religion, Haidt cites Wilson’s example of “the case of water temples among Balinese rice farmers in the centuries before Dutch colonization.”

It seems to me that, if the New Atheists are guilty of an error of omission for focusing on the existence of God and ignoring the nature of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, Haidt must also be guilty of an error of omission by focusing on Balinese rice farmers and ignoring the slaughter of the Crusades, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women as “witches,” the brutal military conquest of north Africa, Spain, and large areas of the Middle East and Europe in the name of Islam, pogroms that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the centuries, the additional hundreds of thousands of dead in the Hussite wars, the constant bloody internal conflicts in numerous medieval states over the minutiae of religious doctrine, and so on and so on and so on.  We can certainly discuss whether such “evils” of religion are outweighed by the “goods” cited by Wilson and others, but if Haidt is really the “man of science” he claims to be, it is not acceptable to ignore them.

One might similarly praise the advantages of war, which is as likely as religion to be a manifestation of evolved human mental traits.  It also fosters within-group charity, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and any number of other “goods,” which are cataloged by German General Friedrich von Bernhardi in his seminal work on the subject, “Germany and the Next War.”  Are not objections to the effect that it is occasionally very bloody and destructive just more instances of “misconceptions” inspired by the thought of Plato and other rationalist philosophers?

Call me an incorrigible rationalist if you like, but it seems to me that it does actually matter whether God exists or not.  What if, as Haidt suggests, religion is not only an evolutionary adaptation, but one that is, on balance, useful and benign?  Does that really render the question of whether God exists or not irrelevant?  Is it really a “rationalist delusion” to consider the evidence for and against that hypothesis without dragging evolution and group selection into the discussion?  Is reality so irrelevant to the human condition that it is acceptable to encourage people to associate in groups and act based on belief in things that are not only palpably untrue, but silly?  If the truth doesn’t matter, what is the point of even writing books about morality?  Would Prof. Haidt have us believe that The Righteous Mind is a mere product of his intuitions?  I suspect that, whatever our goals happen to be, we are more likely to achieve them if we base our actions on that which is true than on that which is not.  I am just as dubious as Haidt about the power of human reason.  However, I prefer continuing to grope for the truth with that reason, however weak it might be, to embracing intuitions that require belief in things that are false, whether they enhanced the fitness of our species in times utterly unlike the present or not.

Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”: Take Two

If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law.  It’s the best book on morality I know of.  Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow.  Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature.  Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”.  He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions.  He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.  According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions.  Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights.  It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette.  It should be read in full.

I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality.  I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations.  It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature.  Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality.  Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.

There is good news and bad news in the book.  The bad news starts early.  In the introduction, Haidt writes,

I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.

I’m afraid he’s right.  I’m certainly no exception to the rule.  The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating.  It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason.  If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears.  In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd.  However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point.  He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right.  It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.

Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse.  I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward.  Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows.  I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.

I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do.  However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it.  Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate.  He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it.  Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth.  For example, in chapter 4 he writes,

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.  We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.  The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology).  They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings.  Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law.  Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing:  summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart.  But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that  some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.  This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply.  I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason.  Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth.  We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments.  Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon.  None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood.  The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless.  There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.

What is the Proper Sphere of Morality?

I have often discussed what the proper sphere of morality is not.  My conclusions are based on the conclusion that morality depends ultimately for its existence on mental traits that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they resulted in increased fitness in the context of those times.  If that conclusion is true, then it follows that attempts to apply morality to entities that didn’t exist in those times, such as modern nation states, are irrational.  Given the nature of moral emotions, they are also predictable, but that is beside the point.

What, then, is the proper sphere of morality?  We certainly can’t dispense with it entirely, any more than a zebra can dispense with its stripes.  We are moral creatures because that is how we evolved.  It is our nature to experience moral emotions, and it is natural for our actions to be influenced by moral sentiments.  There is, indeed, no alternative to morality in regulating our routine, day to day interactions with other human beings.  We lack the mental capacity to logically analyze all those interactions in real time and arrive at well-reasoned decisions to regulate our own behavior, according to some complex algorithm, like so many biological supercomputers.  The proper sphere of morality is, then, that in which it cannot be dispensed with; our routine interactions with other human beings as individuals or small groups.

As we know from observing its manifestations in diverse human societies, moral behavior is not uniform, but can vary greatly under the influence of culture and education, even though the same evolved traits, or at least similar evolved traits, are the ultimate cause of all these variations.  I suggest, then, that, within the constraints imposed by our nature, moral rules be kept as simple as possible and, to the extent possible, serve to promote harmony and eliminate friction in our societies.

And what of the interactions of nations, political parties, super-national organizations, and other modern social entities to which morality is irrelevant because it evolved at a time when nothing like them existed?  We should seek to apply our powers of reason to regulate their actions and interactions in the pursuit of rationally arrived at and generally agreed on goals.  I know, human reason is a weak reed to lean on, and keeping morality out of such spheres will always be difficult because it is not “natural” for us to ignore and/or suppress our moral emotions.  However, if our history teaches us anything at all, it should be that there are consequences to the irrational application of morality in spheres irrelevant to its reasons for existence, and those consequences can be not just harmful, but devastating.  Consider the history of the 20th century, for example.  Communism and Nazism were no less moral and ethical systems because few people today would consider them “good.”  The “good” systems of tomorrow may well become the Nazism and Communism of the day after tomorrow.  Moral emotions have always been far more effective than dispassionate reason at justifying mass murder.  “Good” always implies an “evil” to go along with it, and we will never succeed in distilling it out of any future moral system, no matter how “enlightened.”  Millions of Jews and “bourgeoisie” were murdered in the name of fighting “evil.”  New outgroups will inevitably take their place in the moral systems of the future.

Let’s not go there again.  If we at least try to let reason be our guide, at best we stand a fighting chance of avoiding future Holocausts and the World Wars of the 20th century, only fought this time with massive arsenals of nuclear weapons.  At worst, we may at least avoid the inconvenience of having to take all manner of self-righteous posing and ostentations virtuous indignation seriously.

Morality and the John Stuart Mill Syndrome

John Stuart Mill recognized the subjective nature of morality, contrasting his own opinion with those who believed that good and evil were objective “things in themselves.” As he put it,

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

In spite of this, one constantly runs into artifacts of the implicit assumption that morality really does correspond to an object, a real thing. Consider, for example, the following excerpt concerning the basis of right and wrong:

A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it. The difficulty is not avoided by having recourse to the popular theory of a natural faculty, a sense of instinct, informing us of right and wrong. For – besides that the existence of such a moral instinct is itself one of the matters in dispute – those believers in it who have any pretensions to philosophy, have been obliged to abandon the idea that it discerns what is right or wrong in the particular case in hand, as our other senses discern the sight or sound actually present. Our moral faculty, according to those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not the perception of it in the concrete.

The implication here is, of course, that there actually is something concrete to find.  Weight is added to that impression by the following passage, in which, after noting the failure of philosophers to discover a universal morality in spite of more than 2000 years of effort, Mill suggests that whatever consistency we have finally attained on the subject is due to a “standard not recognized.”

To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine.  It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.

To the extent that such a standard exists, and is not due to innate human nature, it must be an objective thing it itself.  Mill was a brilliant man.  He had, however, the great misfortune of writing before the theories of Darwin could inform his work.  He was not a “Blank Slater” in the 20th century sense of the term, that is, an ideologue who insisted that he could not be wrong about innate human nature, and that anyone who maintained the contrary was morally or politically suspect.  He was aware he might be wrong about the matter, and admitted as much.

But I digress.  The point of this post is that, in spite of admitting the subjective nature of moral systems, Mill believed that, once the rational basis for the “utility” of his system of utilitarianism, or, as he put it, “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” had been accepted, It would somehow also acquire legitimacy.  In other words, it would become a valid basis for judging the actions, not just of himself and those who agreed with him, but everyone else, as well.  In short, it would become an objective thing.

We have learned a lot since then.  “Innate human nature” is now accepted as if there had never been any dispute about the matter, and, if the works of the likes of Jonathan Haidt, Frans de Waal, and Richard Wrangham are any guide, the ultimate reasons for the existence of morality are to be found in that nature.  As Mill would have agreed, it is entirely subjective.  It seems abundantly obvious that, given its nature and origins, morality cannot possibly acquire anything like universal legitimacy.  That, however, is a truth that our modern experts in ethics have found too hard to bear.  In a sense, it puts them out of business.  What good is their expertise if there is no universal standard to discover?  What becomes of the delicious joy of virtuous indignation and the divine pleasure of moral outrage once the absolute standard those joys depend on evaporates?

For example, consider an essay penned by Michael Price, a professor of psychology, in “From Darwin to Eternity,” a blog he writes for Psychology Today.  Entitled “Morality:  What is it Good for?,” the article makes all the requisite nods to human nature.  For example,

Human moral systems are ultimately biological:  they are generated by brains, and brains are composed of mechanisms that evolve by standard Darwinian natural selection.  Like all biological adaptations (such as hearts, uteruses, and hands), these mechanisms solve problems related to individual survival and reproduction.  The moral judgments of individuals can generally be regarded as the primary products, or else as the by-products, of these mechanisms.

and, fending off in advance the charge of genetic determinism beloved of the old Blank Slaters,

Some psychological adaptations for morally-relevant behavior solve problems that exist in virtually all human environments (for instance, the problem of avoiding inbreeding).  Others are solutions to problems that are more severe in some environments than others, and this is a major reason why – despite the fact that human nature is fundamentally the same cross-culturally – some aspects of moral systems vary significantly across cultures.  For example, in environments in which access to resources depends especially heavily on success in war – such as among the tribal communities of highland New Guinea, or the fiefdoms of medieval Europe – people are relatively likely to endorse military virtues like fierceness and valor and to disparage cowardice.

Prof. Price concludes with some reflections on what he calls “cultural group selection”:

Historically, groups with relatively empowering moral systems have tended to supplant groups with relatively enfeebling moral systems, and also to be imitated by weaker groups who wish to emulate their success.  Through these processes, winning moral formulas have tended to spread at the expense of losing ones.  From this perspective, the crucible of intergroup competition plays a key role in determining which moral systems flourish and which ones perish.  This view does not necessarily imply anything cynical about morality:  there’s no reason at all from biology that this competition must be violent (and indeed, Pinker argues persuasively in his recent book (The Better Angels of our Nature) that it has become much less violent over time), and nonviolent, productive competition can lead to a rising tide of benefits for humanity in general.

“Benefits for humanity?”  Where have we heard that before?  You guessed it.  In the end it’s not about gaining a rational understanding of human moral emotions and accommodating them as best we can in a rapidly changing world.  It’s about inventing a better mousetrap:

What this view does imply is that morality ought to be less about passionate expressions of outrage, and more about designing a value system that will enable societal success in a constantly changing and eternally competitive world.

And so, after all these assurances about the subjective nature of morality as a consequence of the evolved mental characteristics of a certain biological species with large brains, the Good Object begins to emerge from the shadows once again, hazy but palpable.  From its admittedly humble origins as an odd collection of behavioral traits that happened to contribute to the fitness of ancient groups of hunter gatherers, an infant “value system” emerges, a Thing that, if it survives to adulthood, will seek to acquire legitimacy by “enabling societal success” along the way.  In a word, we’ve come full circle, back to John Stuart Mill.  Undeterred by the dubious success of innovative “value systems” like Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, we merely need to persevere.  With luck, we’ll cobble together an entirely new one that will finally “enable societal success” without the creation of another luckless outgroup like the Jews or the bourgeoisie along the way, and with none of the other traditional unfortunate side effects that have inevitably accompanied mankind’s previous efforts to apply morality to modern societies.  No thanks.  We’ve been down that path before.

I don’t mean to pick on Professor Price.  What public intellectual doesn’t share his penchant for concocting gaudy new moralities that will usher in a Brave New World of “human flourishing?”  We find even the new atheists ostentatiously striking pious poses and raining down indignant anathemas on the morally suspect.  Nothing is harder to shake off and leave behind than the odor of sanctity.  I suspect, however, that we must if we ever really want to flourish.