Edvard Westermarck: Getting Morality Right at the Wrong Time

Morality evolved.  More precisely, the emotional and behavioral traits that are the reason morality exists evolved.  Darwin was perfectly well aware of this fact and its implications.  For example, he wrote,

If . . . 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 in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

The moral implications of his great theory Darwin alluded to in the above passage seem obvious.  It shouldn’t take a man as brilliant as him to grasp them, and yet I know of only one published author after Darwin who clearly understood what he was saying; Edvard Westermarck.

Westermarck wrote two great books about morality; The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, published in 1906, and Ethical Relativity, in 1932.  In them he elaborated on the ideas Darwin only mentioned in passing, following them to their logical conclusions.  In the process he avoided the error made by a myriad other authors who wrote before and after him about the connection between evolution by natural selection and morality.  That error was the conclusion that this connection somehow established the legitimacy of some old or new versions of Good and Evil, or that it implied some kind of an objective “ought.”  Westermarck got it right, and yet he is nearly forgotten today.  Apparently his message was something mankind didn’t want to hear.  He also happened along at the wrong time, writing some very inconvenient truths just as the behavioral sciences were in the process of being hijacked by the ideological narrative that we know as the Blank Slate.

Westermarck realized that if morality exists as a result of natural selection, it can have no purpose in itself.  If something has a purpose, then it must have been created by a conscious entity.  Morality wasn’t.  It exists as a result of natural processes that occurred unguided by any conscious mind.  It follows that Good and Evil describe subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and not objective things that exist independently thereof.  As subjective entities they cannot possibly acquire a legitimate right to prescribe what anyone ought or ought not to do.

Recording and explaining such simple truths requires neither a great deal of space nor the lavish application of philosophical jargon.  Westermarck accomplished the task in the first chapter of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  It seems to me that if you read that chapter, you either get it or you don’t.  From a logical point of view the subject just isn’t that complicated.  It’s only “hard” because it flies in the face of what we “feel,” and isn’t compatible with the way most of us want things to be.  There’s no subject in the world more difficult to keep an open mind about than morality, but unless you do, you’ll never “get it.”  However, if you can clear that hurdle, the rest is obvious.  In his Ethical Relativity, written more than a quarter of a century later, Westermarck elaborated on the chapter referred to above, and answered some of the critics who had attacked his ideas in the intervening years Here is a taste of what he had to say:

In spite of the fervor with which the objectivity of moral judgments has been advocated by the exponents of normative ethics there is much diversity of opinion with regard to the principles underlying the various systems.  This discord is as old as ethics itself.  But while the evolution of other sciences has shown a tendency to increasing agreement on points of fundamental importance, the same can hardly be said to have been the case in the history of ethics, where the spirit of controversy has been much more conspicuous than the endeavor to add new truths to results already reached.  Of course, if moral values are objective, only one of the conflicting theories can possibly be true.  Each founder of a new theory hopes that it is he who has discovered the unique jewel of moral truth, and is naturally anxious to show that other theories are only false stones.  But he must also by positive reasons make good his claim to the precious find.

None of the various theories of normative science can be said to have proved its case; none of them has proved that moral judgments possess objective validity, that there is anything truly good or bad, right or wrong, that moral principles express anything more than the opinions of those who believe in them.

The quantitative differences of moral estimates are plainly due to the emotional origin of all moral concepts… After what has been said above the answer to the all-important question, so frequently ignored by writers on ethics, why moral judgments are passed on conduct and character is not far to seek.  These judgments spring from moral emotions.

and, regarding the moral philosophy of Kant,

But with the deepest regard for the tremendous earnestness of his purpose, I cannot but think that his struggle to harmonize the moral experience of mankind with his own rational deductions has been a colossal failure.  I have tried to show that in his alleged dictates of reason the emotional background is transparent throughout, and if I have succeeded in such a attempt in the case of the greatest of all moral rationalists, I flatter myself with the belief that I have, in no small measure, given additional strength to the main contentions in this book:  that the moral consciousness is ultimately based on emotions, that the moral judgment lacks objective validity, that the moral values are not absolute but relative to the emotions they express.

Regarding the “experts on ethics,” both modern and ancient, Westermarck wrote,

If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” 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.

There are some surprisingly “modern” ideas in his later book.  Consider, for example, what Jonathan Haidt wrote about The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.  In a paper of that name and in his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt presented “…the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.”  Here is what Westermarck had to say on the subject:

I have thus arrived at the conclusion that neither the attempts of moral philosophers or theologians to prove the objective validity of moral judgments, nor the common sense assumption to the same effect, give us any right at all to accept such a validity as a fact.  So far, however, I have only tried to show that it has not been proved; now I am prepared to take a step further and assert that it cannot exist.  The reason for this is that in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Westermarck chose the title “Ethical Relativity” for his second book on the subject.  It is perfectly clear what he meant.  However, while moral rules may be relative from an objective point of view, it is not our nature to perceive them that way.  We perceive them as absolutes, just as one might expect given their evolutionary origin.  They are most effective in enhancing the odds that we will survive and reproduce when we perceive them in that way.  Human beings can come up with a great variety of moral systems in spite of the common evolutionary origin of them all.  However, whatever that “relative” system happens to be, we will perceive its rules as absolutes.  The idea that our societies will collapse into moral nihilism and anarchy because of the scribblings of philosophers is nonsense.  As Westermarck put it,

I think that ethical writers are often inclined to overrate the influence of moral theory upon moral practice.

He added,

It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.  The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true.

However, he cited some very good reasons for believing that knowing the truth about ourselves is a great deal less dangerous than preserving our ignorance.  I agree with him.  If our species ever existed in a period of moral anarchy and nihilism, it is now.  Accepting the truth about morality and acting on it are the way out of the chaos, not into it.

Some authors pay lip service to the influence of evolution on morality, but haven’t been able to shed the illusion that somehow, somewhere out there, objective morality exists.  Others admit that, as a manifestation of evolved traits, morality must be subjective, but in the very next paragraph or the very next breathe they lapse back into full Social Justice Warrior mode.  With a wink and a nod they use time-honored virtue signaling techniques to assure us that they belong to the right ingroup.  They leave us in no doubt that they understand the difference between mere subjective morality and the “real thing.”  Some have even gone so far as to advocate a program of eugenics, or perhaps adventures with CRISPR, to “adjust” morality so that it agrees with the “real thing.”

At least to the extent that it’s possible for morally obsessed creatures like ourselves, Westermarck avoided these pitfalls.  He didn’t try to hide from the implications of his own thought, nor did he write them down and then hide his head and flee from them in the very next paragraph.  He was honest.  He was a light in the darkness.  I hope that someday we will find our way back to the light.


Why Did They Vote The Way They Voted?

Ask anyone who voted in the recent election why they voted the way they did, and they are sure to have some answer.  They will give you some reason why they considered one candidate good, and/or the other candidate bad.  Generally, these answers will be understandable in the context of the culture in which they were made, even if you don’t agree with them.  The question is, how much sense do they really make when you peel off all the obscuring layers of culture and penetrate to the emotions that are the ultimate source of all these “logical” explanations.  There are those who are convinced that their answer to this question is so far superior to that of the average voter that they should have more votes, or even that the average voter should have no vote at all.  Coincidentally, the “average voter” is almost always one who doesn’t vote the same way they do.

Claire Lehman recently wrote an interesting essay on the subject at the Quillette website.  Her description of these self-appointed “superior voters” might have been lifted from the pages of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.  In that book Haidt uses his parable of the elephant and its rider to describe the process of moral judgment.  It begins with a split-second positive or negative moral intuition, which Haidt describes as the “elephant” suddenly leaning to the left or the right.  Instead of initiating or guiding this snap judgment, the “rider” uses “reason” to justify it.  In other words, he serves as an “inner lawyer,” rationalizing whatever path the elephant happened to take.  Here’s how Lehman describes these “riders”:

This is one reason why charges of wholesale ignorance are so obtuse. “High information” people ignore evidence if it conflicts with their preferred narrative all the time. And while it may be naïve for voters to believe the promises of Trump and the Brexit campaigners — it has also been profoundly naïve for the cosmopolitan classes to believe that years of forced internationalism and forced political correctness were never going to end with a large scale backlash.

In fact, high information people are likely to be much better at coming up with rationalisations as to why their preferred ideology is not only best, but in the national interest. And high information rationalisers are probably more likely to put forward theories about how everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, and is not deserving of the right to vote.

As a representative example of how these people think, she quotes the philosopher John Brennan:

And while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation bias and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I — a chaired professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses — have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them.

It would seem “some degree of confirmation bias” is something of an understatement.  What, exactly, does “superior political judgment” consist of.  In the end it must amount to a superior ability to recognize and realize that which is “Good” for society at large.  The problem is that this “Good” is a fantasy.  All it really describes is the direction in which the elephant is leaning in the minds of individuals.

There can be no rational or legitimate basis for things that don’t exist.  It is instructive to consider the response of secular philosophers like Brennan if you ask them to supply this nonexistent basis for the claim that their version of “Good” is really good.  The most common one will be familiar to readers of secular moralist Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.  Whatever political or social nostrum they happen to propose is good because it will lead to human flourishing.  Human flourishing is good because it will lead to the end of war.  The end of war is good because it will result in the end of pain and suffering.  And so on.  In other words, the response will consist of circular logic.  What they consider good is good because it is good.  Question any of the steps in this logical syllogism, and their response will typically be to bury you under a heap of negative moral intuitions, again, exactly as described by Haidt.  How can you be so vile as to favor the mass slaughter of innocent civilians?  How can you be so ruthless and uncaring as to favor female genital mutilation?  How can you be so evil as to oppose the brotherhood of all mankind?  Such “logic” hardly demonstrates the existence of the “Good” as an objective thing-in-itself.  It merely confirms the eminently predictable fact that, at least within a given culture, most elephants will tend to lean the same way.

Philosophers like Brennan either do not realize or do not grasp the significance of the fact that, in the end, their “superior political judgment” is nothing more sublime than an artifact of evolution by natural selection.  They epitomize the truth of the Japanese proverb, “Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass.”  In the end such judgments invariably boil down to the moral intuitions that lie at their source, and it is quite impossible for the moral intuitions of one individual to be superior to those of another in any objective sense.  The universe at large doesn’t care in the slightest whether humans “flourish” or not.  That hardly means that it is objectively “bad” to act on, passionately care about, or seek to realize ones individual moral whims.  It can be useful, however, to keep the source of those whims in perspective.

One can consider, for example, whether the “rational” manner in which one goes about satisfying a particular whim is consistent with the reasons the whim exists to begin with.  The “intuitions” Haidt speaks of exist because they evolved, and they evolved because they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for programming them would survive and reproduce.  This fundamental fact is ignored by the Brennans of the world.  What they call “superior political judgment” really amounts to nothing more than blindly seeking to satisfy these “intuitional” artifacts of evolution.  However, the environment in which they are acting is radically different from the one in which the intuitions in question evolved.  As a result, their “judgments” often seem less suited to insuring the survival and reproduction of the responsible genes than to accomplishing precisely the opposite.

For example, the question of whether international borders should exist and be taken seriously or not was fundamental to the decision of many to vote one way or the other in the recent U.S. presidential election.  Lehman quotes Sumantra Maitra on this issue as follows:

[T]his revolutionary anti-elitism one can see, is not against the rich or upper classes per se, it is against the liberal elites, who just “know better” about immigration, about intervention and about social values. What we have seen is a “burn it all down” revenge vote, against sententious, forced internationalism, aided with near incessant smug lecturing from the cocooned pink haired urban bubbles. Whether it’s good or bad, is for time to decide. But it’s a fact and it might as well be acknowledged.

It is quite true that “forced internationalism” has been experienced by the populations of many so-called democracies without the formality of a vote.  However, it is hardly an unquestionable fact that this policy will increase the odds that the genes responsible for the moral whims of the populations affected, or any of their other genes, will survive and reproduce.  In fact, it seems far more likely that it will accomplish precisely the opposite.

A fundamental reason for the above conclusion is the existence of another artifact of evolution that the Brennans of the world commonly ignore; the universal human tendency to categorize others into ingroup and outgroups.  I doubt that there are many human individuals on the planet whose mental equipment doesn’t include recognition of an outgroup.  Outgroups are typically despised.  They are considered disgusting, unclean, immoral, etc.  In a word, they are hated.  For the Brennans of the world, hatred is “bad.”  As a result, they are very reticent about recognizing and confronting their own hatreds.  However, they are perfectly obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to look for them.  As it happens, they can be easily found in Lehman’s essay.  For example,

Bob Geldof calls Brexit voters the “army of stupid”. US philosopher Jason Brennan describes Trump voters as “ignorant, irrational, misinformed, nationalists.”

She quotes the following passage which appeared in Haaertz:

But there is one overarching factor that everyone knows contributed most of all to the Trump sensation. There is one sine qua non without which none of this would have been possible. There is one standalone reason that, like a big dodo in the room, no one dares mention, ironically, because of political correctness. You know what I’m talking about: Stupidity. Dumbness. Idiocy. Whatever you want to call it: Dufusness Supreme.

In other words, the hatreds of the “superior voters” are quite healthy and robust.  The only difference between their outgroup and some of the others to which familiar names have been attached is that, instead of being defined based on race, ethnicity, or religion, it is defined based on ideology.  They hate those who disagree with their ideological narrative.  Outgroup identification is usually based on easily recognizable differences.  Just as ideological differences are easily recognized, so are cultural and ethnic differences.  As a result, multi-culturalism does not promote either human brotherhood or human flourishing.  It is far more likely to promote social unrest and, eventually, civil war.  In fact, it has done just that countless times in the past, as anyone who has at least a superficial knowledge of the history of our species is aware.  Civil war is unlikely to promote the survival of the human beings effected, nor of the genes they carry.  “Low information voters” appear to be far more capable of appreciating this fundamental fact than the Brennans of the world who despise them.  The predictable result of the “superior judgments” of self-appointed “high information voters” is likely to be the exact opposite of those that resulted in the existence of the fundamental whims that account for the existence of the “superior judgments” to begin with.

It is useless to argue that human beings “ought” not to hate.  They will hate whether they “ought” to or not.  We will be incapable of avoiding in the future the disastrous outcomes that have so often been the result of this salient characteristic of our species in the past if we are not even capable of admitting its existence.  When Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz insisted half a century ago that the existence of ingroups and outgroups, what Ardrey called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” is real, and made a few suggestions about what we might do to mitigate the threat this aspect of our behavior now poses to our species in a world full of nuclear weapons, they were shouted down as “fascists.”  In the ensuing years the “experts” have finally managed to accept the fundamental theme of their work; the existence and significance of human nature.  They have not, however, been capable of looking closely enough in the mirror to recognize their own outgroups.  Those who spout slogans like “Love Trumps Hate” are often the biggest, most uncontrolled and most dangerous haters of all, for the simple reason that their ideology renders them incapable of recognizing their own hatreds.

There is nothing objectively good about one version or another of “human flourishing,” and there is nothing objectively bad about social unrest and civil war.  However I, for one, would prefer to avoid the latter.  Call it a whim if you will, but at least it isn’t 180 degrees out of step with the reason for the whim’s existence.  We are often assured that flooding our countries with unassimilable aliens will be “good for the economy.”  It seems to me that the “good of the economy” can be taken with a grain of salt when compared with the “bad of civil war.”  It is hard to imagine what can be fundamentally “good” about a “good economy” that threatens the genetic survival of the existing population of a country.  I would prefer to dispense with the “good of the economy” and avoid rocking the boat.  By all means, call the “low information voters” racist, bigoted, misogynistic and xenophobic until you’re blue in the face.  The fact that one was “good” rather than “bad” in these matters will make very little difference to the rest of the universe if one fails to survive.

I have no idea what the final outcome of the Trump Presidency will be.  However, I think “low information voters” had reasons for voting for him that make a great deal more sense than those given by their “superiors.”  One does not necessarily become more rational or more intelligent by virtue of having a Ph.D. or reading a lot of books.

donkey-and-books

Moral Emotions and Moral Truth

There are moral emotions.  There is no such thing as moral truth.

The above are fundamental facts.  We live in a world of moral chaos because of our failure to accept them and grasp their significance.

Eighteenth century British philosophers demonstrated that emotions are the source of all moral judgments.  “Pure reason” is incapable of anything but chasing its own tail.  Darwin revealed the origin of the emotions as the result of evolution by natural selection.  It was left for the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck to draw the obvious conclusion; that there is no such thing as moral truth.

David Hume is often given the credit for identifying emotions or, as he put it, “passions,” as the source of moral judgments.  According to Hume,

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.

However, when he wrote the above, Hume was really just repeating the earlier work of Francis Hutcheson.  It was Hutcheson who demonstrated the emotional origin of moral judgments beyond any serious doubt.  I encourage modern readers who are interested in the subject to read his books on the subject.  I have quoted him at length in earlier posts, and I will do so again here.  Here is what he had to say about the power of “pure reason” to isolate moral truth:

If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.

There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object.  This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike:  Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action:  Both propositions are equally true.

But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.

Hutcheson followed up this critique of reason with some comments about the role of “human nature” as the origin and inspiration of all moral judgment that might almost have come from a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology, and that are truly stunning considering that they were written early in the 18th century.  Again quoting the Ulster Scots/British philosopher as well as my own comments from an earlier post:

Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.

If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:

Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature:  and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.”  He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.

Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time.  As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:

Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition.  Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe:  Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed:  And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.

He concludes,

Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections?  …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire?  And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation.  A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.

The fact that Hutcheson believed that God was the origin of the emotions in question in no way detracts from the power of his logic about the essential role of the emotions themselves.  No modern philosopher sitting on the shoulders of Darwin has ever spoken more brilliantly or more clearly.

In considering the relevance of the above to the human condition, one must keep in mind the fact that any boundary between moral emotions and other emotions is artificial.  Nature created no such boundaries, and they are an artifact of the human tendency to categorize.  Of all the emotions not normally included in the category of moral emotions, the most significant may well be our tendency to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Our outgroup includes people we consider “deplorable.”  They are commonly perceived as evil, and are usually associated with other negative qualities.  For example, they may be considered impure, disgusting, contemptible, infidels, etc.  Outgroup identification is universal, although the degree to which it is present may vary significantly from one individual to the next, like any other subjective mental predisposition.  If one would explore and learn to understand his moral consciousness, he would do well to begin by asking the question, “What is my outgroup?”  The “deplorables” will always be there.

Consider the implications of the above.  Follow the abstruse reasoning of the “experts on ethics,” to its source, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

Follow the arcane logic of theologians touching on the moral implications of this or that excerpt from the holy scriptures, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

When bathroom warriors, or anti-culture appropriators, or the unmaskers of inappropriate Halloween costumes rain down their anathemas on anyone who happens to disagree with them, consider what motivates their behavior, and yet again you will find emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.

Stand in a crowd of Communists as they sing the Internationale, or of Nazis dreaming noble dreams of the liberation of Aryans everywhere from the powers of darkness as they sing the Horst Wessel Song, and you will find that the emotions those songs evoke evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  You won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup, either of Communists or Nazis.  Millions of them were murdered in the name of these two manifestations of higher morality.

We live in a time of moral chaos because these truths have been too hard for us to bear.  As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we tend to invoke our inner moral lawyer whenever we happen to disagree with someone else about what ought to be.  We consult our moral emotions, and seek to justify ourselves by evoking similar moral emotions in others.  In the process we bamboozle ourselves and others into believing that those emotions relate to real things that we commonly refer to as good and evil, that are imagined to have an independent existence of their own.  They don’t.  They are merely illusions spawned by emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.

In a word, what we are doing is blindly following and reacting to emotional whims, even though it is questionable whether doing so will have the same result as it did when those whims evolved.  For that matter, we don’t even care.  As long as we can satisfy whims that evolved in the Pleistocene, it matters not at all to us that they will accomplish precisely the opposite in the 21st century to what they did then.  The result is what I have referred to as a morality inversion.  Instead of promoting our survival, the emotions in question promote behavior that accomplishes the opposite in the radically different environment we live in today.  It matters not a bit.  As long as we “feel in our bones” that the actions in question are “Good,” we cheerfully commit suicide, whether by donning a suicide belt or deciding that it must be “immoral” to have children.  We imagine that these actions are “noble” and “morally pure” even though all we have really done is satisfy atavistic whims without the least regard for why those whims exist to begin with, and whether responding to them is likely to accomplish the same thing now as it did millions of years ago or not.

Again, we live in a world of moral chaos because we have been unable to face the truth, simple and obvious as it is.  There is nothing “bad” about that, nor is there anything “good” about it.  It is just the way things are.  I personally would prefer that we face the truth.  Perhaps then it would occur to us that, since we can hardly do without morality, we would be well advised to come up with a simple moral system that maximizes the ability of each of us to pursue whatever whims we happen to find important with as little fear of possible of being threatened, vilified, or otherwise subjected to the penalties that are typically the lot of outgroups.  If we faced the truth about the real subjective origins of what have seemed objective moral certainties to so many of us in the past, perhaps at least some of us would be more reticent about seeking to impose their own versions of morality on those around them.  If we faced the truth, perhaps we would realize that our universal tendency to blindly vilify and condemn outgroups represents an existential threat to us all, and that the threat must be recognized and controlled.

These are things that I would like to see.  Of course, they represent nothing more significant than my own whims.

George Gissing, G. E. Moore, and the “Good in Itself”

A limited number of common themes are always recognizable in human moral behavior.  However, just as a limited number of atoms can combine to form a vast number of different molecules, so those themes can combine to form a vast variety of different moral systems.  Those systems vary not only from place to place, but in the same place over time.  A striking example of the latter may be found in the novels of George Gissing, most of which were published in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Gissing was a deep-dyed Victorian conservative of a type that would be virtually unrecognizable to the conservatives of today.  George Orwell admired him, and wrote a brief but brilliant essay about him that appears in In Front of Your Nose, the fourth volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters.  Orwell described him as one of the greatest British novelists because of the accuracy with which he portrayed the poverty, sordid social conditions, and sharp caste distinctions in late Victorian England.  Orwell was generous.  Gissing condemned socialism, particularly in his novel Demos, whereas Orwell was a lifelong socialist.

According to the subtitle of the novel, it is “A story of English socialism.”  Socialism was becoming increasingly fashionable in those days, but Gissing wasn’t a sympathizer.  He wanted to preserve everything just as it had been at some halcyon time in the past.  Hubert Eldon, the “hero” of the novel, wouldn’t pass for one in our time.  Today he would probably be seen as a rent-seeking parasite. He was apparently unsuited for any kind of useful work, and spent most of his time gazing at pretty pictures in European art galleries when he wasn’t in England.  When he was home his favorite pastime was to admire the country scenery near the village of Wanley, where he lived with his mother.

Eldon was expecting to inherit a vast sum of money from his brother’s father-in-law, a self-made industrialist named Richard Mutimer.  He could then marry the pristine Victorian heroine, Adela Waltham, who also lived in the village.  However, to everyone’s dismay, the old man dies intestate, and the lion’s share of the money goes to a distant relative, also named Richard Mutimer, who happens to be a socialist workingman.  The younger Mutimer uses the money to begin tearing the lovely valley apart in order to build mines and steel mills for a model socialist community.  Adela’s mother, a firm believer in the ennobling influence of money, insists that she marry Mutimer.  Dutiful daughter that she is, she obeys, even though she loves Eldon.  In the end, Mutimer is conveniently killed off.  The old man’s will is miraculously found and it turns out Eldon inherits the money after all.  This “hero” doesn’t shrink from dismantling the socialist community that had been started by his rival, even though he knew it would throw the breadwinners of many families out of work. He thought it was too ugly, and wanted to return the landscape to its original beauty.  Obviously, the author thought he was being perfectly reasonable even though, as he mentioned in passing, former workers in a socialist community would likely be blacklisted and unable to find work elsewhere.  It goes without saying that the “hero” gets the girl in the end.

One of the reasons Orwell liked Gissing so much was the skill with which he documented the vast improvement in the material welfare of the average citizen that had taken place in England over the comparatively horrific conditions that prevailed in the author’s time. Unfortunately, that improvement could never have taken place without the sacrifice of many pleasant country villages like Wanley. Gissing was nothing if not misanthropic, and probably would have rejected such progress even if he could have imagined it. In fact old Mutimer was the first one to think of mining the valley, and the author speaks of the idea as follows:

It was of course a deplorable error to think of mining in the beautiful valley which had once been the Eldon’s estate. Richard Mutimer could not perceive that. He was a very old man, and possibly the instincts of his youth revived as his mind grew feebler; he imagined it the greatest kindness to Mrs. Eldon and her son to increase as much as possible the value of the property he would leave at his death. They, of course, could not even hint to him the pain with which they viewed so barbarous a scheme; he did not as much as suspect a possible objection.

Gissing not only accepted the rigid class distinctions of his day, but positively embraced them.  In describing the elder Mutimer he writes,

Remaining the sturdiest of Conservatives, he bowed in sincere humility to those very claims which the Radical most angrily disallows: birth, hereditary station, recognised gentility – these things made the strongest demand upon his reverence. Such an attitude was a testimony to his own capacity for culture, since he knew not the meaning of vulgar adulation, and did in truth perceive the beauty of those qualities to which the uneducated Iconoclast is wholly blind.

The author leaves no doubt about his rejection of “progress” and his dim view of the coming 20th century in the following exchange between Eldon and his mother about the socialist Mutimer:

“Shall I tell you how I felt in talking with him?  I seemed to be holding a dialogue with the 20th century, and you may think what that means.”

“Ah, it’s a long way off, Hubert.”

“I wish it were farther.  The man was openly exultant; He stood for Demos grasping the scepter.  I am glad, mother, that you leave Wanley before the air is poisoned.”

“Mr. Mutimer does not see that side of the question?”

“Not he!  Do you imagine the twentieth century will leave one green spot on the earth’s surface?”

“My dear, it will always be necessary to grow grass and corn.”

“By no means; depend upon it.  Such things will be cultivated by chemical processes.  There will not be one inch left to nature; the very oceans will somehow be tamed, the snow mountains will be leveled.  And with nature will perish art.  What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?”

Mrs. Eldon sighed gently.

“I shall not see it.”

Well, the twentieth century did turn out pretty badly, especially for socialism, but not quite that badly.  Of course, one can detect some of the same themes in this exchange that one finds in the ideology of 21st century “Greens.”  However, I think the most interesting affinity is between the sentiments in Gissing’s novels and the moral philosophy of G. E. Moore.  I touched on the subject in an earlier post .  Moore was the inventor of the “naturalistic fallacy,” according to which all moral philosophers preceding him were wrong, because they insisted on defining “the Good” with reference to some natural object.  Unfortunately, Moore’s own version of “the Good” turned out to be every bit as slippery as any “sophisticated Christian’s” version of God.  It was neither fish nor fowl, mineral nor vegetable.

When Moore finally got around to giving us at least some hint of exactly what he was talking about in his Principia Ethica, we discovered to our surprise that “the Good” had nothing to do with the heroism of the Light Brigade, or Horatius at the Bridge.  It had nothing to do with loyalty or honor.  It had nothing to do with social justice or the brotherhood of man.  Nor did it have anything to do with honesty, justice, or equality.  In fact, Moore’s version of “the Good” turned out to be a real thigh slapper.  It consisted of the “nice things” that appealed to English country gentlemen at more or less the same time that Gissing was writing his novels. It included such things as soothing country scenery, enchanting music, amusing conversations with other “good” people, and perhaps a nice cup of tea on the side.  As Moore put it,

We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

and,

By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve doubted it. Not only have I doubted it, but I consider the claim absurd.  Those words were written in 1903.  By that time a great many people were already aware of the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection.  That connection was certainly familiar to Darwin himself, and a man named Edvard Westermarck spelled out the seemingly obvious implications of that connection in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas a few years later, in 1906.  Among those implications was the fact that the “good in itself” is pure fantasy.  “Good” and “evil” are subjective artifacts that are the result of the behavioral predispositions we associate with morality filtered through the minds of creatures with large brains.  Nature played the rather ill-natured trick of portraying them to us as real things because that’s the form in which they happened to maximize the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive and reproduce. (That, by the way, is why it is highly unlikely that “moral relativity” will ever be a problem for our species.)  The fact that Moore was capable of writing such nonsense more than 40 years after Darwin appeared on the scene suggests that he must have lived a rather sheltered life.

In retrospect, it didn’t matter.  Today Moore is revered as a great moral philosopher, and Westermarck is nearly forgotten.  It turns out that the truth about morality was very inconvenient for the “experts on ethics.”  It exposed them as charlatans who had devoted their careers to splitting hairs over the fine points of things that didn’t actually exist.  It popped all their pretentions to superior wisdom and virtue like so many soap bubbles.  The result was predictable.  They embraced Moore and ignored Westermarck.  In the process they didn’t neglect to spawn legions of brand new “experts on ethics” to take their places when they were gone.  Thanks to their foresight we find the emperor’s new clothes are gaudier than ever in our own time.

The work of George Gissing is an amusing footnote to the story.  We no longer have to scratch our heads wondering where on earth Moore came up with his singular notions about the “Good in itself.”  It turns out the same ideas may be found fossilized in the works of a Victorian novelist.  The “experts on ethics” have been grasping at a very flimsy straw indeed!

George Gissing
George Gissing

The “Moral Progress” Delusion

“Moral progress” is impossible.  It is a concept that implies progress towards a goal that doesn’t exist.  We exist as a result of evolution by natural selection, a process that has simply happened.  Progress implies the existence of an entity sufficiently intelligent to formulate a goal or purpose towards which progress is made.  No such entity has directed the process, nor did one even exist over most of the period during which it occurred.  The emotional predispositions that are the root cause of what we understand by the term “morality” are as much an outcome of natural selection as our hands or feet.  Like our hands and feet, they exist solely because they have enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce.  There is increasing acceptance of the fact that morality owes its existence to evolution by natural selection among the “experts on ethics” among us.  However, as a rule they have been incapable of grasping the obvious implication of that fact; that the notion of “moral progress” is a chimera.  It is a truth that has been too inconvenient for them to bear.

It’s not difficult to understand why.  Their social gravitas and often their very livelihood depend on propping up the illusion.  This is particularly true of the “experts” in academia, who often lack marketable skills other than their “expertise” in something that doesn’t exist.  Their modus operandi consists of hoodwinking the rest of us into believing that satisfying some whim that happens to be fashionable within their tribe represents “moral progress.”  Such “progress” has no more intrinsic value than a five year old’s progress towards acquiring a lollipop.  Often it can be reasonably expected to lead to outcomes that are the opposite of those that account for the existence of the whim to begin with, resulting in what I have referred to in earlier posts as a morality inversion.  Propping up the illusion in spite of recognition of the evolutionary roots of morality in a milieu that long ago dispensed with the luxury of a God with a big club to serve as the final arbiter of what is “really good” and “really evil” is no mean task.  Among other things it requires some often amusing intellectual contortions as well as the concoction of an arcane jargon to serve as a smokescreen.

Consider, for example, a paper by Professors Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell entitled Toward a Naturalistic Theory of Moral ProgressIt turned up in the journal Ethics, that ever reliable guide to academic fashion touching on the question of “human flourishing.”  Far from denying the existence of human nature after the fashion of the Blank Slaters of old, the authors positively embrace it.  They cheerfully admit its relevance to morality, noting in particular the existence of a predisposition in our species to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups; what Robert Ardrey used to call the Amity/Enmity Complex.  Now, if these things are true, and absent the miraculous discovery of any other contributing “root cause” for morality other than evolution by natural selection, whether in this world or the realm of spirits, it follows logically that “progress” is a term that can no more apply to morality than it does to evolution by natural selection itself.  It further follows that objective Good and objective Evil are purely imaginary categories.  In other words, unless one is merely referring to the scientific investigation of evolved behavioral traits, “experts on ethics” are experts about nothing.  Their claim to possess a philosopher’s stone pointing the way to how we should act is a chimera.  For the last several thousand years they have been involved in a sterile game of bamboozling the rest of us, and themselves to boot.

Predictly, the embarrassment and loss of gravitas, not to mention the loss of a regular paycheck, implied by such a straightforward admission of the obvious has been more than the “experts” could bear.  They’ve simply gone about their business as if nothing had happened, and no one had ever heard of a man named Darwin.  It’s actually been quite easy for them in this puritanical and politically correct age, in which the intellectual life and self-esteem of so many depends on maintaining a constant state of virtuous indignation and moral outrage.  Virtuous indignation and moral outrage are absurd absent the existence of an objective moral standard.  Since nothing of the sort exists, it is simply invented, and everyone stays outraged and happy.

In view of this pressing need to prop up the moral fashions of the day, then, it follows that no great demands are placed on the rigor of modern techniques for concocting real Good and real Evil.  Consider, for example, the paper referred to above.  The authors go to a great deal of trouble to assure their readers that their theory of “moral progress” really is “naturalistic.”  In this enlightened age, they tell us, they will finally be able to steer clear of the flaws that plagued earlier attempts to develop secular moralities.  These were all based on false assumptions “based on folk psychology, flawed attempts to develop empirically based psychological theories, a priori speculation, and reflections on history hampered both by a lack of information and inadequate methodology.”  “For the first time,” they tell us, “we are beginning to develop genuinely scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through the development of empirical psychological theories that take evolutionary biology seriously.”  This begs the question, of course, of how we’ve managed to avoid acquiring “scientific knowledge about human nature” and “taking evolutionary biology seriously” for so long.  But I digress.  The important question is, how do the authors manage to establish a rational basis for their “naturalistic theory of moral progress” while avoiding the Scylla of “folk psychology” on the one hand and the Charybdis of “a priori speculation” on the other?  It turns out that the “basis” in question hardly demands any complex mental gymnastics.  It is simply assumed!

Here’s the money passage in the paper:

A general theory of moral progress could take a more a less ambitious form.  The more ambitious form would be to ground an account of which sorts of changes are morally progressive in a normative ethical theory that is compatible with a defensible metaethics… In what follows we take the more modest path:  we set aside metaethical challenges to the notion of moral progress, we make no attempt to ground the claim that certain moralities are in fact better than others, and we do not defend any particular account of what it is for one morality to be better than another.  Instead, we assume that the emergence of certain types of moral inclusivity are significant instances of moral progress and then use these as test cases for exploring the feasibility of a naturalized account of moral progress.

This is indeed a strange approach to being “naturalistic.”  After excoriating the legions of thinkers before them for their faulty mode of hunting the philosopher’s stone of “moral progress,” they simply assume it exists.  It exists in spite of the elementary chain of logic leading inexorably to the conclusion that it can’t possibly exist if their own claims about the origins of morality in human nature are true.  In what must count as a remarkable coincidence, it exists in the form of “inclusivity,” currently in high fashion as one of the shibboleths defining the ideological box within which most of today’s “experts on ethics” happen to dwell.  Those who trouble themselves to read the paper will find that, in what follows, it is hardly treated as a mere modest assumption, but as an established, objective fact.  “Moral progress” is alluded to over and over again as if, by virtue this original, “modest assumption,” the real thing somehow magically popped into existence in the guise of “inclusivity.”

Suppose we refrain from questioning the plot, and go along with the charade.  If inclusivity is really to count as moral progress, than it must not only be desirable in certain precincts of academia, but actually feasible.  However if, as the authors agree, humans are predisposed to perceive others of their species in terms of ingroups and outgroups, the feasibility of inclusivity is at least in question.  As the authors put it,

Attempts to draw connections between contemporary evolutionary theories of morality and the possibility of inclusivist moral progress begin with the standard evolutionary psychological assertion that the main contours of human moral capacities emerged through a process of natural selection on hunter-gatherer groups in the Pleistocene – in the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA)… The crucial claim, which leads some thinkers to draw a pessimistic inference about the possibility of inclusivist moral progress, is that selection pressures in the EEA favored exclusivist moralisties.  These are moralities that feature robust moral commitments among group members but either deny moral standing to outsiders altogether, relegate out-group members to a substantially inferior status, or assign moral standing to outsiders contingent on strategic (self-serving) considerations.

No matter, according to the authors, this flaw in our evolved moral repertoire can be easily fixed.  All we have to do is lift ourselves out of the EEA, achieve universal prosperity so great and pervasive that competition becomes unnecessary, and the predispositions in question will simply fade away, more or less like the state under Communism.  Invoking that wonderful term “plasticity,” which seems to pop up with every new attempt to finesse human behavioral traits out of existence, they write,

According to an account of exclusivist morality as a conditionally expressed (adaptively plastic) trait, the suite of attitudes and behaviors associated with exclusivist tendencies develop only when cues that were in the past highly correlated with out-group threat are detected.

In other words, it is the fond hope of the authors that, if only we can make the environment in which inconvenient behavioral predispositions evolved disappear, the traits themselves will disappear as well!  They go on to claim that this has actually happened, and that,

…exclusivist moral tendencies are attenuated in populations inhabiting environments in which cues of out-group threat are absent.

Clearly we have seen a vast expansion in the number of human beings that can be perceived as ingroup since the Pleistocene, and the inclusion as ingroup of racial and religious categories that once defined outgroups.  There is certainly plasticity in how ingroups and outgroups are actually defined and perceived, as one might expect of traits evolved during times of rapid environmental change in the nature of the “others” one happened to be in contact with or aware of at any given time.  However, this hardly “proves” that the fundamental tendency to distinguish between ingroups and outgroups itself will disappear or is likely to disappear in response to any environmental change whatever.  Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to refer to the paper itself.

Clearly the authors imagine themselves to be “inclusive,” but is that really the case?  Hardly!  It turns out they have a very robust perception of outgroup.  They’ve merely fallen victim to the fallacy that it “doesn’t count” because it’s defined in ideological rather than racial or religious terms.  Their outgroup may be broadly defined as “conservatives.”  These “conservatives” are mentioned over and over again in the paper, always in the guise of the bad guys who are supposed to reject inclusivism and resist “moral progress.”  To cite a few examples,

We show that although current evolutionary psychological understandings of human morality do not, contrary to the contentions of some authors, support conservative ethical and political conclusions, they do paint a picture of human morality that challenges traditional liberal accounts of moral progress.

…there is no good reason to believe conservative claims that the shift toward greater inclusiveness has reached its limit or is unsustainable.

These “evoconservatives,” as we have labeled them, infer from evolutionary explanations of morality that inclusivist moralities are not psychologically feasible for human beings.

At the same time, there is strong evidence that the development of exclusivist moral tendencies – or what evolutionary psychologists refer to as “in-group assortative sociality,” which is associated with ethnocentric, xenophobic, authoritarian, and conservative psychological orientations – is sensitive to environmental cues…

and so on, and so on.  In a word, although the good professors are fond of pointing with pride to their vastly expanded ingroup, they have rather more difficulty seeing their vastly expanded outgroup as well, more or less like the difficulty we have seeing the nose at the end of our face.  The fact that the conservative outgroup is perceived with as much fury, disgust, and hatred as ever a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan felt for blacks or Catholics can be confirmed by simply reading through the comment section of any popular website of the ideological Left.  Unless professors employed by philosophy departments live under circumstances more reminiscent of the Pleistocene than I had imagined this bodes ill for their theory of “moral progress” based on “inclusivity.”  More evidence that this is the case is easily available to anyone who cares to look for “diversity” in the philosophy department of the local university in the form of a professor who can be described as conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

I note in passing another passage in the paper that demonstrates the fanaticism with which the chimera of “moral progress” is pursued in some circles.  Again quoting the authors,

Some moral philosophers whom we have elsewhere called “evoliberals,” have tacitly affirmed the evo-conservative view in arguing that biomedical interventions that enhance human moral capacities are likely to be crucial for major moral progress due to evolved constraints on human moral nature.

In a word, the delusion of moral progress is not necessarily just a harmless toy for the entertainment of professors of philosophy, at least as far as those who might have some objection to “biomedical interventions” carried out be self-appointed “experts on ethics” are concerned.

What’s the point?  The point is that we are unlikely to make progress of any kind without first accepting the truth about our own nature, and the elementary logical implications of that truth.  Darwin saw them, Westermarck saw them, and they are far more obvious today than they were then.  We continue to ignore them at our peril.

The God Myth and the “Humanity Can’t Handle The Truth” Gambit

Hardly a day goes by without some pundit bemoaning the decline in religious faith.  We are told that great evils will inevitably befall mankind unless we all believe in imaginary super-beings.  Of course, these pundits always assume a priori that the particular flavor of religion they happen to favor is true.  Absent that assumption, their hand wringing boils down to the argument that we must all somehow force ourselves to believe in God whether that belief seems rational to us or not.  Otherwise, we won’t be happy, and humanity won’t flourish.

An example penned by Dennis Prager entitled Secular Conservatives Think America Can Survive the Death of God that appeared recently at National Review Online is typical of the genre.  Noting that even conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly secular, he writes that,

They don’t seem to understand that the only solution to many, perhaps most, of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian religion.

In another article entitled If God is Dead…, Pat Buchanan echoes Prager, noting, in a rather selective interpretation of history, that,

When, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West embraced Christianity as a faith superior to all others, as its founder was the Son of God, the West went on to create modern civilization, and then went out and conquered most of the known world.

The truths America has taught the world, of an inherent human dignity and worth, and inviolable human rights, are traceable to a Christianity that teaches that every person is a child of God.

Today, however, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and slowly dying in America, Western culture grows debased and decadent, and Western civilization is in visible decline.

Both pundits draw attention to a consequence of the decline of traditional religions that is less a figment of their imaginations; the rise of secular religions to fill the ensuing vacuum.  The examples typically cited include Nazism and Communism.  There does seem to be some innate feature of human behavior that predisposes us to adopt such myths, whether of the spiritual or secular type.  It is most unlikely that it comes in the form of a “belief in God” or “religion” gene.  It would be very difficult to explain how anything of the sort could pop into existence via natural selection.  It seems reasonable, however, that less specialized and more plausible behavioral traits could account for the same phenomenon.  Which begs the question, “So what?”

Pundits like Prager and Buchanan are putting the cart before the horse.  Before one touts the advantages of one brand of religion or another, isn’t it first expedient to consider the question of whether it is true?  If not, then what is being suggested is that mankind can’t handle the truth.  We must be encouraged to believe in a pack of lies for our own good.  And whatever version of “Judeo-Christian religion” one happens to be peddling, it is, in fact, a pack of lies.  The fact that it is a pack of lies, and obviously a pack of lies, explains, among other things, the increasingly secular tone of conservative pundits so deplored by Buchanan and Prager.

It is hard to understand how anyone who uses his brain as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull can still take traditional religions seriously.  The response of the remaining true believers to the so-called New Atheists is telling in itself.  Generally, they don’t even attempt to refute their arguments.  Instead, they resort to ad hominem attacks.  The New Atheists are too aggressive, they have bad manners, they’re just fanatics themselves, etc.  They are not arguing against the “real God,” who, we are told, is not an object, a subject, or a thing ever imagined by sane human beings, but some kind of an entity perched so high up on a shelf that profane atheists can never reach Him.  All this spares the faithful from making fools of themselves with ludicrous mental flip flops to explain the numerous contradictions in their holy books, tortured explanations of why it’s reasonable to assume the “intelligent design” of something less complicated by simply assuming the existence of something vastly more complicated, and implausible yarns about how an infinitely powerful super-being can be both terribly offended by the paltry sins committed by creatures far more inferior to Him than microbes are to us, and at the same time incapable of just stepping out of the clouds for once and giving us all a straightforward explanation of what, exactly, he wants from us.

In short, Prager and Buchanan would have us somehow force ourselves, perhaps with the aid of brainwashing and judicious use of mind-altering drugs, to believe implausible nonsense, in order to avoid “bad” consequences.  One can’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand.  Our species is a great deal less intelligent than many of us seem to think.  We use our vaunted reason to satisfy whims we take for noble causes, without ever bothering to consider why those whims exist, or what “function” they serve.  Some of them apparently predispose us to embrace ideological constructs that correspond to spiritual or secular religions.  If we use human life as a metric, P&B would be right to claim that traditional spiritual religions have been less “bad” than modern secular ones, costing only tens of millions of lives via religious wars, massacres of infidels, etc., whereas the modern secular religion of Communism cost, in round numbers, 100 million lives, and in a relatively short time, all by itself.  Communism was also “bad” to the extent that we value human intelligence, tending to selectively annihilate the brightest portions of the population in those countries where it prevailed.  There can be little doubt that this “bad” tendency substantially reduced the average IQ in nations like Cambodia and the Soviet Union, resulting in what one might call their self-decapitation.  Based on such metrics, Prager and Buchanan may have a point when they suggest that traditional religions are “better,” to the extent that one realizes that one is merely comparing one disaster to another.

Can we completely avoid the bad consequences of believing the bogus “truths” of religions, whether spiritual or secular?  There seems to be little reason for optimism on that score.  The demise of traditional religions has not led to much in the way of rational self-understanding.  Instead, as noted above, secular religions have arisen to fill the void.  Their ideological myths have often trumped reason in cases where there has been a serious confrontation between the two, occasionally resulting in the bowdlerization of whole branches of the sciences.  The Blank Slate debacle was the most spectacular example, but there have been others.  As belief in traditional religions has faded, we have gained little in the way of self-knowledge in their wake.  On the contrary, our species seems bitterly determined to avoid that knowledge.  Perhaps our best course really would be to start looking for a path back inside the “Matrix,” as Prager and Buchanan suggest.

All I can say is that, speaking as an individual, I don’t plan to take that path myself.  I has always seemed self-evident to me that, whatever our goals and aspirations happen to be, we are more likely to reach them if we base our actions on an accurate understanding of reality rather than myths, on truth rather than falsehood.  A rather fundamental class of truths are those that concern, among other things, where those goals and aspirations came from to begin with.  These are the truths about human behavior; why we want what we want, why we act the way we do, why we are moral beings, why we pursue what we imagine to be noble causes.  I believe that the source of all these truths, the “root cause” of all these behaviors, is to be found in our evolutionary history.  The “root cause” we seek is natural selection.  That fact may seem inglorious or demeaning to those who lack imagination, but it remains a fact for all that.  Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications.  I think we will all be better off if we do.

Morality and the Truth as “Nihilism”

When the keepers of the official dogmas in the Academy encounter an inconvenient truth, they refute it by calling it bad names.  For example, the fact of human biodiversity is “racist,” and the fact of human nature was “fascist” back in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  I encountered another example in “Ethics” journal in one of the articles I discussed in a recent post; Only All Naturalists Should Worry About Only One Evolutionary Debunking Argument, by Tomas Bogardus.  It was discretely positioned in a footnote to the following sentence:

Do these evolutionary considerations generate an epistemic challenge to moral realism, that is, the view that evaluative properties are mind-independent features of reality and we sometimes have knowledge of them?

The footnote reads as follows:

As opposed to nihilism – on which there are no moral truths – and subjectivist constructivism or expressivism, on which moral truths are functions of our evaluative attitudes themselves.

This “scientific” use of the pejorative term “nihilism” to “refute” the conclusion that there are no moral truths fits the usual pattern.  According to its Wiki blurb, the term “nihilism” was used in a similar manner when it was first coined by Friedrich Jacobi to “refute” disbelief in the transcendence of God.  Wiki gives a whole genealogy of the various uses of the term.  However, the most common image the term evokes is probably one of wild-eyed, bomb hurling 19th century Russian radicals.  No matter.  If something is true, it will remain true regardless of how often it is denounced as racist, fascist, or nihilist.

At this point in time, the truth about morality is sufficiently obvious to anyone who cares to think about it.  It is a manifestation of behavioral predispositions that evolved at times very different from the present.  It has no purpose.  It exists because the genes responsible for its existence happened to improve the odds that the package of genes to which they belonged would survive and reproduce.  That truth is very inconvenient.  It reduces the “expertise” of the “experts on ethics,” an “expertise” that is the basis of their respect and authority in society, and not infrequently of their gainful employment as well, to an expertise about nothing.  It also exposes that which the vast majority of human beings “know in their bones” to be true as an illusion.  For all that, it remains true.

To the extent that the term “nihilist” has any meaning in the context of morality at all, it suggests that the world will dissolve in moral chaos unless some basis for objective morality can be extracted from the vacuum.  Rape, murder and mayhem will prevail when we all realize we’ve been hoodwinked by the philosophers all these years, and there really is no such basis.  The truth is rather more prosaic.  Human beings will behave morally regardless of the intellectual fashions prevailing among the philosophers because it is their nature to act morally.

Moral chaos will not result from mankind finally learning the “nihilist” truth about morality.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a state of moral chaos worse than the one we’re already in.  Chaos doesn’t exist because of a gradually spreading understanding of the subjective roots of morality.  Rather, it exists as a byproduct of continued attempts to prop up the façade of moral realism.  The current “bathroom wars” are an instructive if somewhat ludicrous example.  They demonstrate both the strong connection between custom and morality, and the typical post hoc rationalization of moral “truths” described by Jonathan Haidt in his paper, The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.

Edvard Westermarck explored the custom/morality connection in his Ethical Relativity, an indispensable text for anyone interested in the subject of moral behavior.  According to Westermarck,

Customs are not merely public habits – the habits of a certain circle of men, a racial or national community, a rank or class of society – but they are at the same time rules of conduct.  As Cicero observes, the customs of a people “are precepts in themselves.”  We say that “custom commands,” or “custom demands,” and even when custom simply allows the commission of a certain class of actions, it implicitly lays down the rule that such actions are not to be interfered with.  And the rule of custom is conceived of as a moral rule, which decides what is right and wrong.

However, the rule of custom can be challenged.  Westermarck noted that, as societies became more complex,

Individuals arose who found fault with the moral ideas prevalent in the community to which they belonged, criticizing them on the basis of their own individual feelings… In the course of progressive civilization the moral consciousness has tended towards a greater equalization of rights, towards an expansion of the circle within which the same moral rules are held applicable.  And this process has been largely due to the example of influential individuals and their efforts to raise public opinion to their own standard of right.

As Westermarck points out, in both cases the individuals involved are responding to subjective moral emotions, yet in both cases they suffer from the illusion that their emotions somehow correspond to objective facts about good and evil.  In the case of the bathroom wars, the defenders of custom rationalize their disapproval after the fact by evoking lurid pictures of perverts molesting little girls.  The problem is that, at least to the best of my knowledge, there is no data indicating that anything of the sort involving a transgender person has ever happened.  On the other side, the LGBT community points to this disconnect without realizing that they are just as deluded in their belief that their preferred bathroom rules are distilled straight out of objective Good and Evil.  In fact, they are nothing but personal preferences, with no more legitimate normative authority than the different rules preferred by others.  It seems to me that the term “nihilism” is better applied to this absurd state of affairs than to a correct understanding of what morality is and why it exists.

Suppose that in some future utopia the chimera of “moral realism” were finally exchanged for such a correct understanding, at least by most of us.  It would change very little.  Our moral emotions would still be there, and we would respond to them as we always have.  “Moral relativism” would be no more prevalent than it is today, because it is not our nature to be moral relativists.  However, we might have a fighting chance of coming up with a set of moral “customs” that most of us could accept, along with a similarly accepted way to change them if necessary.  I would certainly prefer such a utopia to the moral obscurantism that prevails today.  If nothing else it would tend to limit the moral exhibitionism and virtuous grandstanding that led directly to the ideological disasters of the 20th century, and yet still pass as the “enlightened” way to alter the moral rules that apply in bathrooms and elsewhere.  Perhaps in such a utopia “nihilism” would be rejected even more firmly than it is today, because people would finally realize that, in spite of the subjective, emotional source of all moral rules, human societies can’t exist without them.

Was Hitler Evil?

No.

Commenter Christian asked whether I would make an exception for the Führer in the post Is Trump Evil?  I would not.  Questions of good or evil are not subject to truth claims, period!

Let me say some things up front about the implications of this claim.  The fact that Hitler was not evil does not imply that he was good.  It does not imply moral relativism.  It does not imply the impossibility of moral standards that are perceived and treated as absolute.  It does not imply that all of us “should” be able to do whatever we feel like.  Nor does it imply that the many soldiers, including my father, who put themselves in harm’s way to smash Hitler’s armies were acting in vain, or that the sacrifice of those who fell fighting him was irrational or absurd.  What the claim does imply is that the source of moral claims is not to be sought floating about in the form of some kind of an independent thing, but in the subjective emotions of individuals.

Let’s consider whether the claim that Hitler was evil is rational or not.  That claim is very different from the claim that Hitler is thought to be evil.  In other words, it implies nothing about subjective emotions, but implies that Hitler was evil independent of them, or of anything that goes on in the minds of individuals.  How could that be?  If so, some agency independent of the mind must exist as a basis for the claim.  Otherwise it is based on nothing.  I don’t believe in a God or gods.  However, it has been suggested that, if one exists, objective good and evil can be determined by His opinion on the matter.  This claim was debunked more than two millennia ago in Plato’s Euthyphro.  What else might be floating around in the aether that could serve as a basis for truth claims about morality?  Something made of matter as we know it?  I find it very hard to make such a connection, although I am always open to suggestions.  Something made of energy?  As Einstein pointed out, the two are convertible, so that doesn’t get us anywhere.

If it doesn’t consist of either matter or energy, where, then, are we to look for the source of this elusive grounding of moral claims?  In the spirit world?  By all means, if you think it’s reasonable to believe in things for which there is no credible evidence.  What other “thing” or “entity” could there possibly be that could fill the need?  Again, I’m open to suggestions, but I’m not aware of anything of the sort, and I’m not prepared to accept the argument that there is an objective basis for morality, but that the basis is nothing.

Consider moral emotions.  They are certainly capable of explaining why some things or individuals are thought to be evil.  However, analogs of these emotions are to be found in other animals.  It seems reasonable to suppose that their existence in both human beings and other species can be explained by natural selection.  In other words, the existence of the genes responsible for spawning the relevant behavioral predispositions apparently increased the probability that those genes would survive and reproduce, or at least that they did at the time that the genes first appeared.  Mathematical models seem to confirm this conclusion, and great heaps of books and papers have been published based on it.  However, if there is an objective basis for moral claims, presumably it must be independent these randomly selected emotional predispositions.  The “real” good and “real” evil must either have no connection to them, or there must be some reason why randomly evolved genes not only improve the odds of survival, but at the same time mysteriously conform to objective moral standards.  This conclusion seems neither rational nor plausible to me.  What does seem a great deal more rational and plausible is what Edvard Westermarck wrote on the subject more than a century ago:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is that the moral concepts are based upon emotions and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

Consider the case of individual Nazis.  Goebbels is a good example, as, unlike Hitler, he left extensive diaries.  Read them, and you will discover an individual not unlike those who are occasionally described as “social justice warriors” in our own time.  He was an activist who sacrificed his time and occasionally his health in the fight to right what seemed to him a terrible injustice; the “enslaving” of the German people by the Treaty of Versailles.  He was hardly a man who woke up every morning scratching his head wondering what evil deed he could do that day.  Rather, he was firmly convinced he was fighting for the good, in the form of the liberation of the German people from the clutches of those who he imagined sought to enslave and crush them.  He was a convinced socialist, well to the left of Hitler in that regard.  He honored and loved his family, and believed firmly in the Christian God, frequently invoking His aid in the diaries.  He often railed at the “gypsy life” he lived before the Nazis came to power, constantly traveling here and there for speeches and demonstrations, and bewailed his rundown condition because of constant overwork.  He fantasized about running off to Switzerland with one of his many lady loves.  His strong sense of duty, however, held him to his work in pursuit of what he firmly believed was the “good.”

Clearly, then, Goebbels was incapable of distinguishing between “good and evil” as they are commonly defined today, at least, in the U.S. and much of Europe.  The same may be said of Hitler, who was a very similar type, dedicated to what he imagined was a noble and highly ethical cause, as can be seen in the pages of his Mein Kampf.  If he actually was “evil,” then, we must conclude, based at least on the standards prevailing in U.S. courts of law, that he was less “evil” than those who know the difference between right and wrong.  If we were to insist on the existence of objective morality, we could go on multiplying these “extenuating circumstances” indefinitely, having a fine time in the process debating the precise level of Hitler’s criminal liability for his deeds in terms of “real” good and “real” evil.  I submit that it would be more reasonable, not to mention less mentally taxing, to simply admit the obvious; that the categories “real” good and “real” evil are chimeras.

Which brings us back to my earlier comments about moral relativity.  I do not believe that it is possible for one individual to be more objectively good or more objectively evil than another.  In spite of that, I make moral judgments about other drivers on the road all the time.  We make moral judgments because it is our nature to make moral judgments.  For the most part, at least, it is not our nature to be “moral relativists,” and all the scribblings of all the philosophers on the planet won’t alter human nature, as the Communists, among others, discovered at great cost, both to themselves and the rest of us.  The fact that Hitler and the rest of the Nazis weren’t objectively evil does not somehow render the fight against Nazism irrational or impermissible.  As Hume pointed out long ago, we are motivated to do things by emotion, not reason, and reason must ever be the slave of emotion.

Most of us have an emotional attachment to staying alive, and to ensuring the survival of those we love.  If Nazis or anyone else wanted to kill or enslave us or them, there is no objective reason why we should resist.  However, in my case and, I think, in most others, it would be my nature to resist, and just as there is no objective reason why I should, there is also no objective reason why I should not.  It might occur to me in the process that my reaction to the emotional desire to resist was in harmony with the reasons that the desire existed in the first place, namely, because it increased the odds of genetic survival.  In my case, this would increase my will to resist, especially in the world of today where so many actions in response to moral emotions seem better calculated to result in genetic suicide.  In the process of resisting, I would hardly dispense with such powerful weapons as moral emotions merely because I am aware of the non-existence of objective good and evil.  On the contrary, I would exploit every opportunity to portray my enemy as evil, and there would be nothing either contradictory or objectively “wrong” about doing so.

As for absolute morality, no such thing is possible in an objective sense, but it is certainly possible in a subjective sense.  There is no objective reason whatsoever why we should not come up with a version of morality consistent with our nature, seek to live by it, and punish those who don’t.  Eventually, we would tend to imagine compliance with those moral rules to be “really good” and failure to comply with them to be “really evil,” because that is our nature.  I personally would prefer living under such a system, assuming we were vigilant in preventing morality from overstepping its bounds.

As for the Nazis, it will greatly facilitate the historical task of understanding what manner of people they were and why they did what they did if we go into it unencumbered with fantasies about objective good and evil.  Communism was actually a very similar phenomenon.  Its most substantial difference from Nazism was probably the mere substitution of “bourgeoisie” for Jews as the outgroup of choice.  The fool’s errand of trying to pigeonhole the Nazis on some imaginary moral scale did not help us to avoid Communism, nor is it likely to help us avoid similar historical blunders in the future.  It would be better to actually understand the emotional nature of individuals like Hitler and Goebbels, which is probably a great deal more similar to the emotional nature of the rest of us than we care to admit, and how it motivated them to do what they did.  Or at least it would be better for those of us who would prefer to avoid another dose of Communism or Nazism.

Is Trump Evil?

No.

The question itself is absurd.  It implies the existence of things – objective good and evil – that are purely imaginary.  Good and evil seem to be real, but they are actually only words we assign to subjective emotional responses.  Darwin was aware of the fact, as demonstrated in his writings.  Westermarck stated it as a scientific theory in his Ethical RelativityArthur Keith and others before him noted critical aspect of human morality that is commonly ignored to this day; its dual nature.  Robert Ardrey referred to it as the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” noting that we categorize others into ingroups, with which we associate “good” qualities, and outgroups, with which we associate “evil.”  Denial of the dual nature of morality has been one of the more damaging legacies of the Blank Slate.  Among other things, it has obscured the reasons for the existence of such variants of outgroup identification as racism, religious bigotry, and anti-Semitism.  In the process, it has obscured from the consciousness of those who are loudest in condemning these “evils” that they, too, have outgroups, which they commonly hate more bitterly and irrationally than those they accuse of such sins.

The current attempts in the UK to establish a travel ban on Donald Trump are a good illustration of the absurdities that are commonly the result of failure to recognize the simple truths stated above.  As I write this, 570,000 Brits have signed a petition calling for such a ban.  In response, the British parliament has begun debating the issue.  All this is justified on moral grounds.  Ask one of the petition signers why, exactly, Trump is evil, and typical responses would include the claim that he is a racist, a religious bigot, spreads “hate-speech,” etc.  If one were to continue the line of questioning, asking why racism is bad, they might respond that it leads to inequality.  Ask them why equality is good, and they might start losing patience with the questioner because, in fact, they don’t know.  None of these saintly petition signers has the faintest clue why Trump is “really evil.”  It’s no wonder.  Legions of philosophers have been trying to catch the gaudy butterflies of “good” and “evil” for the last few millennia.  They have failed for a very good reason.  The butterflies don’t exist.

Let us attempt to bring the debate back into the real world.  Trump wants to expel illegal immigrants from the U.S., and end immigration of Muslims.  These are not irrational goals.  As history demonstrates, they are both legally and physically possible.  In both cases, they would recognize the existence of human nature in general, and our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups in particular.  They will result in the exclusion from the country of people who have historically perceived the lion’s share of the existing population of the United States as an outgroup.  In the case of Moslems, their holy book, the Quran, includes many passages forbidding friendship with Christians and condemning those with commonly held Christian beliefs to burn in hell for eternity.  In the case of Hispanics, they come from cultures that have historically perceived North Americans as exploiters and imperialist aggressors.  Both of these groups, in turn, are typically perceived by Americans as belonging to outgroups.  Allowing them to remain in or enter the country has already resulted in civil strife.  If history is any guide, there is a non-trivial possibility that the eventual result will be civil war.  These are outcomes that most current US citizens would prefer to avoid.  They are being told, however, that to avoid being “racist,” or “bigoted,” or, in fine, “immoral,” they must accept these outcomes.  In other words, to be “good,” they must practice an absurd form of altruism, in which they must make tangible sacrifices, even though the chances that they will ever receive anything back in return are nil.  Otherwise, they will be “evil.”  This unusual form of moral behavior is not encountered elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

Moral emotions certainly do not exist to promote “good” and defeat “evil.”  They exist solely because, at points in time that were utterly unlike the present, they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for spawning them would survive and reproduce.  Importing civil strife and, potentially, civil war, are not good strategies for promoting genetic survival.  The subjective desire to direct moral emotions in order to accomplish goals that are in harmony with the reasons those emotions exist to begin with is neither “good” nor “evil.”  However, as long as one recognizes the necessarily subjective nature of those goals, there is no basis for the claim that pursuing them is irrational.  In short, expelling illegal immigrants and banning Muslim immigration are not “evil,” because there is no such thing as “evil,” beyond its subjective and dependent existence in the consciousness of individuals.  They are, however, rational, in the sense that they are legal and achievable, and are also in harmony with the goal of genetic, not to mention cultural survival.  Most US citizens seem to recognize this fact at some conscious or subconscious level.  This explains their support for Trump, and what one might call their immune response to a deluge of culturally alien immigrants, whether legal or illegal.  As so often happens, many of those who don’t “get it” are intellectuals, who have a disconcerting tendency to bamboozle themselves with ideological concoctions from which they imagine they can distill the “good,” often at the expense of others not afflicted with a similar talent for self-delusion.

The petition signers, on the other hand, would be somewhat embarrassed if asked to justify their condemnation of Trump on grounds other than such imaginary categories as “good” and “evil.”  Perhaps they might argue that he is acting against the “brotherhood of man,” and that the “brotherhood of man” is a rational goal because it would reduce or eliminate inter-species warfare and other forms of violence, goals which are also in harmony with genetic survival.  To this, one need merely respond, “Look in the mirror.”  There, if they look closely, they will see the reflection of their own hatreds, and of their own outgroups.  They are no more immune to human nature than the racists and bigots they so piously condemn.  After their own fashion, like virtually every other human being on the planet, they are “racists and bigots” themselves.  The only difference between them and those they condemn is in the choice of outgroup.  Their own hatreds expose the “brotherhood of man” as a fantasy.

In short, all these Brits who imagine themselves dwelling on pinnacles of righteousness don’t oppose Trump’s policies on rational grounds.  They oppose him because they hate him, and they hate him because he is included in their outgroup, and must, therefore, be “immoral.”  In that they are similar to American Trump-haters.  Typical Brits, on the other hand, have many other hatreds in common.  Many of them have a long and abiding hatred of Americans.  Going back to the years just after we gained our independence, one may consult the pages of the British Quarterly Review, probably their most influential journal during the first half of the 19th century.  There you will find nothing but scorn for Americans and their “silly paper Constitution.”  As anyone who has read a little history is aware, little changed between then and the most recent orgasm of anti-American hatred in Europe, in which the Brits were eager participants.  It’s ironic that these hatemongers are now sufficiently droll to accuse others of “hate-speech.”  Ideologues may be defined as those who identify their in- and outgroups according to ideological criteria.  In common with ideologues everywhere, British ideologues hatred of the “other,” so defined, is as virulent as the hatreds of any racist ever heard of.  In other words, to judge by their “racism,” they are at least as “evil” as the outgroups they condemn.  The only difference is that their hatred is aroused by “races” that differ from them in political alignment rather than skin color.  It is this variant of “racism” that they are now directing at Trump.

If Trump does become President, it would not be surprising to see him retaliate against the British hatemongers, if not in response to moral emotions, perhaps as a mere matter of self-defense.  To begin, for example, he might expel the British scientists who are now so ubiquitous at our national weapons laboratories, with free access to both our classified nuclear weapons information and to expensive experimental facilities, to the construction and maintenance of which they have contributed little if anything.  Beyond that, we might deliver some broad hints as to the violation of the Monroe Doctrine posed by their occupation of the Malvinas Islands, accompanied by some judicious arming of Argentina.

None of what I have written above implies nihilism, or moral relativism, nor does it exclude the possibility of an absolute morality.  I merely recognize the fact that good and evil are not objective things, and draw the obvious conclusions.  Facts are not good or evil.  They are simply facts.

 

On the “Evil” of Colonialism

There are few better demonstrations of the fact that the term Homo sapiens is an oxymoron then the results of our species’ attempts to “interpret” the innate emotional responses that are the source of all the gaudy manifestations of human morality.  Moral emotions exist.  Evolution by natural selection is the reason for their existence.  If they did not exist, there would be no morality as we know it.  In other words, the only reason for the illusion that Good and Evil are objects, things-in-themselves that don’t depend on any mind, human or otherwise, for their existence, is the fact that, over some period of time, that illusion made it more likely that the genes responsible for spawning it would survive and reproduce.  Recently it has been amply demonstrated that, over a different period of time, under different conditions, the very same emotions spawned by the very same genes can accomplish precisely the opposite.  In other words, they can promote their own destruction.  Mother Nature, it would seem, has a fondness for playing practical jokes.

The elevation of colonialism in some circles to the status of Mother of all Evils is a case in point.  It has long been the “root cause” of choice for all sorts of ills.  Prominent among them lately has been Islamic terrorism, as may be seen here, here, here and here.  Even prominent politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, and we find them engaged in the ludicrous pursuit of explaining to Islamic terrorists, who have been educated in madrassas and know the Quran by heart, that they are not “real Moslems.”  It must actually be quite frustrating for the terrorists, who have insisted all along that they are acting on behalf of and according to the dictates of their religion.  It also begs the question of how, if Islam is a “religion of peace,” all of north Africa, much of the Middle East outside of Arabia, Turkey, significant parts of Europe, Iran, etc., formerly parts of the Christian Roman Empire or the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, ever became Moslem.  Of course, it was accomplished by military force, and the ensuing colonization of these countries resulted in the destruction of the “indigenous” cultures and traditions that were overrun.  Interestingly, we seldom find this Moslem version of colonialism treated as a form of immorality.  Apparently we are to assume that there is a statute of limitations on the application of the relevant moral principles.

Be that as it may, in bygone days colonialism was often also invoked as the “root cause” for the promiscuous massacres of the Communists, and is the “root cause” of choice for the ills, real or imagined, of all sorts of minorities as well.  I have long maintained that Good and Evil have no objective existence.  However, whether one agrees with that assertion or not, it seems only reasonable that the terms at least be defined in a way that is consistent with their evolutionary roots.  In that case, the notion that colonialism was evil becomes absurd.  It is yet another example of a morality inversion, characterized by the whimsical tendency of human moral emotions to stand on their heads in response to sufficiently drastic changes to the external environment.

What were the actual results of colonialism?  We will limit our examination to white colonialism, as colonialism by other ethnic groups, although of frequent occurrence in the past, is not generally held to be such an “evil.”  Rather, colonialism as practiced by other than whites is deemed a mere expression of “culture.”  It would therefore be “racist” to consider it evil.  In the first place, then, white colonialism has led to a vast expansion in the area of the planet inhabited primarily by whites.  They are now the dominant ethnic groups on whole continents that they never knew existed little over half a century ago.  This must certainly be considered good if we are to define the Good consistently with the “root causes” of morality itself.  Interestingly, colonialism was also good in this way for other ethnic groups.  Sub-Saharan blacks, for example, now have a prominent presence over wide territories that they never would have seen in the absence of the white practice of carrying slaves to their colonies.  It is unlikely that, if faced with the choice, blacks would trade a world that never experienced white colonialism with the more “evil” world we actually inhabit.

Even if one chooses to divorce morality entirely from its evolutionary roots, and assume that Good and Evil are independent entities floating about in the luminiferous aether with no biological strings attached whatsoever, it is not entirely obvious that white colonialism was an unmitigated evil.  Indeed, if we are to accept the modern secular humanist take on objective morality, as outlined, for example, in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, it would seem that the opposite is the case.  According to this version of morality, “human flourishing” is the summum bonum.  I would maintain that a vastly greater number of humans are flourishing today because of white colonialism than would otherwise be the case.  Thanks to white colonialism, the continents on which its impact was greatest now support much larger populations of healthier people who live for longer times on average, and are less likely to die violent deaths than if it had not occurred.  This, of course, is not necessarily true of every race involved.  The aborigines of Tasmania, for example, were entirely wiped out, and there has probably been a significant decline in the population of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America.  However, the opposite has been the case in Africa and India.  In any case, if we are to believe the ideological shibboleths that often emanate from the same ideological precincts that gave rise to the latest versions of morality based on “human flourishing,” all these distinctions by race don’t matter, because race is a mere social construct.

I often wonder what makes modern secular Puritans imagine that they will be judged any differently by future generations than they are in the habit of judging the generations of the past.  After all, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain, France, and the other major colonialist countries did not imagine that they were being deliberately immoral during the heyday of colonialism.  On what basis is it justified to judge others out of the context of their time?  No one has ever come up with a rational answer to that question, for the very good reason that no such basis is possible.

The proponents of colonialism left behind a great many books on the subject.  Typically, they perceived colonialism as a benign pursuit that benefited the colonial peoples as much as the colonizers.  There is an interesting chapter on the subject in Volume XII (The Latest Age) of the Cambridge Modern History (Chapter XX, The European Colonies), first published in 1910.  In reading it, one finds no hint of evidence that the author of the chapter, a university professor who no doubt considered himself enlightened according to the standards of the time, perceived colonialism as other than a benign force, and an expression of the energy and economic growth of the colonizing countries.  Some typical passages include,

The few years under present consideration form a brief period in this long process (of European colonization since the 15th century).  Yet they have seen an awakened interest in colonization and an extension of the field of enterprise which give them a unique significance.  The comparative tranquility of domestic and foreign affairs in most countries of Europe has favoured a great outburst of colonizing energy, for which the growth of population and industry has provided the principal motive.  The growth of population has swollen the stream of emigration; the expansion of industry has increased the desire to control sources of supply for raw materials and markets for finished products.  A rapid improvement in means of communication and transport has facilitated intercourse between distant parts of the world.  A vast store of accumulated wealth in old countries has been available for investment in the new.

In other words, colonization was considered a manifestation of social progress.  The rights of indigenous peoples were not simply ignored as is so often claimed today.  It was commonly believed, and not without reason, that they, too, benefited from colonization.  Epidemic diseases were controlled, pervasive intertribal warfare and the slave trade were ended, and the brutal mistreatment of women was discouraged.  On the other hand, the abuse of native populations was also recognized.  Quoting again from a section of the book dealing with the Belgian Congo, the author writes,

Its history would be a fine tale of European energy applied to the development of a tropical country, had not the work been marred by a cruel spirit of exploitation gaining the upper hand.  The first ten years of its existence were a period of great activity, during which a marvelous change came over the land.  Splendid pioneering work was done.  Experienced missionaries and travelers explored the great streams.  The drink traffic, the slave trade, and cannibalism, were much diminished.  The ancient Arab dominion in Central Africa was overthrown after a hard and costly struggle (1890-3).  Routes of communication were opened, and railway building commenced…

But it was by its treatment of the native peoples that the Congo State attained that evil eminence which accumulating proof shows it to have well deserved.  The system of administration lent itself to abuses.  Large powers were devolved upon men not always adequately paid or capable of bearing their responsibilities.  The supervision of their activities in the interior was impossible from places so distant as Boma and Brussels.  The native was wronged by the disregard of his system of land ownership and of the tribal rights to hunt and gather produce in certain areas, as well as by a system of compulsory labor in the collection of produce on behalf of the State, enforced by barbarous punishments and responsible for continual and devastating warfare… Finally, the Belgian Parliament taking up the question, the Congo State was in 1908 transferred to Belgium, and its rulers have thus become responsible to the public opinion of a nation.

Except, perhaps, during the most active periods of European competition for colonies during the last half of the 19th century, eventual independence was recognized not merely as an ideal but as practically inevitable.  In the last paragraph of the chapter the author writes,

(Great Britain’s) colonial policy has been inspired by an understanding and a wise recognition of facts.  Settlers in new countries form societies; such societies, as their strength grows, desire the control of their own life; common interests draw contiguous societies together, and union creates and fosters the sense of nationality.  Perceiving the course of this development, the mother country has continually readjusted the ties that bound her to her colonies, so that they might be appropriate to the stage of growth which each colony had reached.  Wherever possible, she has conceded to them the full control of their own affairs; and she has encouraged contiguous colonies to unite, so that in dimensions, resources, population, and economic strength, the indispensable material foundations of a self-governing state could be formed.

The author closes with sentiments that are likely to shock modern university professors out of their wits:

Slowly the British empire is shaping itself into a league of Anglo-Saxon peoples, holding under its sway vast tropical dependencies as well as many small communities of mixed race.  Strong bonds of common loyalty, race, and history, as well as the need of cooperation for defense, unite the white peoples.  But the course of progress has carried the empire to an unfamiliar point in political development.  Loose and elastic in its structure, it may well take a new shape under the influence of external pressure, political and economic.

In other words, the author did not share the modern penchant among the “Anglo-Saxons” for committing ethnic suicide.  In our own day, of course, while it is still perfectly acceptable for every other ethnic group on the planet to speak in a similar fashion, it has become a great sin for whites to do so.  Far be it for me to challenge this development on moral grounds, for the simple reason that there are no moral grounds one way or the other.  Similarly, this post is in no way intended to morally condone or serve as a form of moral apologetics for colonialism.  There exists no objective basis for morally judging colonialism, or anything else, for that matter.  I merely point out that the moral standards relating to colonialism have evolved over time.  Beyond that, one might add that colonialism accomplished ends in harmony with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral emotions to begin with, whereas the manipulation of those emotions to condemn colonialism on illusory moral grounds accomplishes precisely the opposite.  That is not at all the same thing as claiming that colonialism was Good, and anti-colonialism is evil.  It is merely stating a fact.

One can certainly choose to oppose, and even actively fight against, colonialism, or anything else to which one happens to have an aversion.  I merely suggest that, before one does so, one have a reasonably accurate understanding of the emotions that are the cause of the aversion, and why they exist.  Moral emotions seem to point to objective things, Good and Evil, that are perceived as real, but aren’t.  I don’t wish to imply that no one should ever act.  I merely suggest that, before they do, they should understand the illusion.