Morality and the Epiphany of Joshua Greene

The manifestations of morality are complex, but its origins are simple.  Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for its existence.  In all of its many facets and forms, it only exists because of them, and would not exist without them.  Those behavioral traits evolved without a goal, and without a purpose.  They exist because they happened to increase our chances of surviving and procreating at a time when our mode of existence as well as our social and physical environment were radically different from what they are now.

There are certain obvious implications of these simple facts.  Perhaps the most obvious is that we are unlikely to achieve any desirable end by blindly following our moral intuitions in a world which has become so different from the one in which those intuitions evolved.  In the first instance, this applies to the individual goals of surviving and procreating, which at least have something to do with the reasons that morality exists in the first place, but even more obviously to those goals, such as the promotion of “human flourishing,” which do not.  The 20th century supplied us with abundant experimental data to establish these facts.  Two highly moralistic secular creeds of that era devoted to the cause of “human flourishing” are particularly noteworthy; Communism and Nazism.  Both produced huge crops of moralistic idealists, and both resulted in levels of mass slaughter unprecedented in the bloody history of our species that preceded them.

There was nothing accidental or improbable about these disastrous outcomes.  A detailed understanding of the workings of human moral predispositions and emotions must await a vastly expanded understanding of the brain, but certain of their more obvious qualities can be sketched with broad brush strokes.  Among other things, human moral systems invariably include the perception of ingroups and outgroups.  To the best of my knowledge, this truth was first formally stated by Sir Arthur Keith, was treated as a commonplace by Robert Ardrey, but has only finally begun to penetrate the collective consciousness of the intellectual elite among us in the last 15 years or so.  It is one of the main reasons why attempts to promote social ideals by tinkering with morality are not just unlikely to succeed, but downright dangerous.

Which brings us back to the title of this post.  In an article at entitled “Deep Pragmatism,” by moral psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene, we can almost literally watch the scales falling from his eyes.  Here are some of the more interesting bits:

Another possibility is that what we’re seeing here are the limitations of intuitive human morality; that we evolved in a world in which we didn’t deal with people on the other side of the world—the world was our group. We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. The people on the other side of the hill—they’re the competition. We have heartstrings that you can tug, but you can’t tug them from very far away. There’s not necessarily a moral reason why we’re like this, it’s a tribal reason. We’re designed to be good to the people within our group to solve the tragedy of the commons, but we’re not designed for the tragedy of common sense morality. We’re not designed to find a good solution between our well-being and their well-being. We’re really about me and about us, but we’re not so much about them.

Another, in my view, more plausible possibility is that we’re seeing the limitations of our moral instincts. That, again, our moral heart strings, so to speak, were designed to be tugged, but not from very far away. But it’s not for a moral reason. It’s not because it’s good for us to be that way. It’s because caring about ourselves and our small little tribal group helped us survive, and caring about the other groups—the competition—didn’t help us survive. If anything, we should have negative attitudes towards them. We’re competing with them for resources.

what this suggests that if you agree that the well-being, the happiness of people on the other side of the world is just as important as the happiness of people here—we may be partial to ourselves, and to our family, and to our friends, but if you don’t think that objectively we’re any better or more important or that our lives are any more valuable than other people’s lives—then, we can’t trust our instincts about this, and we have to shift ourselves into manual mode.

To bring this all full circle—two kinds of problems, two kinds of thinking. We’ve got individuals getting together as groups—me versus us—and there we want to trust those gut reactions, we want to trust the gut reactions that say, “Be nice, be cooperative, put your money into the pool, and help the group out,” and we’re pretty good at that. When it comes to us versus them—to distrusting people who are different from us, who are members of other racial groups or ethnic groups, when it comes to helping people who really could benefit enormously from our resources but who don’t have a kind of personal connection to us, us versus them, their interests versus our interests, or their interests versus my interests, or their values versus my values—our instincts may not be so reliable; that’s when we need to shift into manual mode.

Maybe a discussion for another time is: Should we trust those instincts that tell us that we shouldn’t be going for the greater good? Is the problem with our instincts or is the problem with the philosophy? What I argue is that our moral instincts are not as reliable as we think, and that when our instincts work against the greater good, we should put them aside at least as much as we can. If we want to have a global philosophy—one that we could always sign onto, regardless of which moral tribes we’re coming from—it’s going to require us to do things that don’t necessarily feel right in our hearts. Either it’s asking too much of us, or it feels like it’s asking us to do things that are wrong—to betray certain ideals, but that’s the price that we’ll have to pay if we want to have a kind of common currency; if we want to have a philosophy that we can all live by.

In a word, instead of continuing our attempts to blindly apply evolved behavioral traits to the solution of problems that have nothing to do with their evolutionary origins, perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to address them rationally for a change.  It’s very encouraging to occasionally run across such recognition of the obvious by thinkers as well-regarded as Prof. Greene.  It’s not out of the question that, as the thinking class continues to digest the implications of the biological origins of morality, we will see much more of the same.  Such optimism may well be unwarranted.  After all, the academy is filled with “experts” on morality and ethics, not to mention a host of professional philosophers, whose self-respect and livelihood depend on successfully bamboozling the rest of us into believing that they actually know something about “good” and “evil,” that is, objects that exist only in their imaginations.  On the other hand, change happens.  The behavioral sciences were dominated by the Blank Slate orthodoxy for decades, and yet today one can actually suggest that there is such a thing as human nature without being shouted down as a fascist.

As I have pointed out before, understanding the nature and origins of morality will not cause us all to suddenly start dancing naked in the streets.  It is our nature to be moral creatures, and we will continue to be moral creatures.  It is not in our nature to be “moral relativists,” and we will not all become moral relativists.  It is no more possible for us to jettison morality than for a leopard to change its spots.  We may, however, find it useful to restrict morality to its proper sphere of regulating our day to day interactions with other individuals, and seek to come up with moral system(s) that are simple, in harmony with our innate behavioral traits, and that enable us to live together and pursue our individual goals as comfortably and with as little friction as possible.  Meanwhile, we should be wary of those who seek to exploit moral emotions to achieve social ideals, promote holy causes, and peddle political nostrums.


On the Relevance of Science to Morality

In a critique of the recent Pinker essay on “scientism,” Jalees Rehman writes,

While a question such as “Can issues of morality be answered by scientific experiments?” may be important, introducing the term “scientism” with all its baggage distracts from addressing the question in a rational manner.

He certainly has a point, but what about the question itself?  Can issues of morality be answered by scientific experiments?  One answer to the question, as absurd as it is famous, was given by Steven Jay Gould.  He claimed that science can’t answer moral questions because science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria,” and issues of morality belong in the magisterium of religion.    This “solution” relies on two separate fallacies of objectification; that there is a “science” object, and that separate, independent objects known as “issues of morality” also exist.  In the first place, there is no such thing as a science “thing,” and in the second, good and evil have no independent existence as things-in-themselves.

In fact, issues of morality can’t be answered by scientific experiments because there are no such entities as issues of morality.  Experiments can’t examine things that don’t exist.  No one has ever invented a butterfly net good enough to capture so much as a single “good” or “evil” as it floats about through the ether.  It turns out that they are more elusive by far than magnetic monopoles, for the very good reason that they don’t exist.  It’s amazing how few evolutionary psychologists and others who appear to accept the evolutionary origin of moral emotions fail to grasp this fundamental fact.  Moral emotions are part of the behavioral repertoire of several species of animals, including human beings.  As such they cannot somehow transcend their fundamental nature as emotions in the minds of individual animals and acquire some sort of independent legitimacy.  It is a testament to the power of these emotions that these seemingly obvious implications of their evolutionary origins are so often simply overlooked.  It is not uncommon to find people who should know better alluding to a transcendental morality complete with “good” and “evil” objects in the very context of discussions of those origins.

A typical example appears in an essay by Michael Price on the This View of Life website of group selection proponent David Sloan Wilson.  In an essay entitled “Why Evolutionary Science Is The Key To Moral Progress” he writes,

We’d be better able to move on from these disputes in productive ways—and thus to make moral progress—if we could better understand our own moral beliefs. But how can we do this when our beliefs seem so opaque to introspection? It’s easy to feel passionate about our beliefs, but how can we see behind our emotions, to find out where our beliefs came from and whether they are leading us to where we want to go? Evolutionary science provides the key to such moral progress.

When I say that evolutionary science is the key to moral progress, there’s at least one thing I don’t mean and two things I do mean.

What I don’t mean is that the evolutionary process itself can provide guidance about right or wrong. If something increased or increases reproductive fitness, does that mean we should judge it as morally good? Of course not; I agree with philosophers who identify such thinking as a flawed ‘appeal to nature’ or ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Consider behavioral outputs of what are probably evolved psychological adaptations: many of these (e.g. xenophobia) could usually be considered bad, whereas many others (e.g. parental investment) could usually be considered good. By the same token, many behaviors that are probably by-products of evolved adaptations (e.g. reading and mathematics) could be judged as good, whereas many others (e.g. crippling drug addiction) could be judged as bad. Suffice it to say: whether or not a behavior is adaptive, or whether it is the product or by-product of an evolved adaptation, implies nothing about its moral value.

Here, in the very context of a discussion of “evolved psychological adaptations,” we have an explicit statement of faith in the objective existence of such mystical entities as “good,” “bad,” “moral progress,” and “moral value.”

Obviously, Price does not consider it in the least necessary to explain his bald assumption that such objects actually exist independently of his own subjective perceptions.  However, he can get away with this rational disconnect, because he can safely assume that his readers experience similar subjective perceptions.  They, too, perceive “good,” “bad,” etc., as things.  They do so, not because they really are objects and things-in-themselves, but because their perception as such has enhanced the probability that the individuals who experience them in that way will survive and reproduce.  As far as evolution by natural selection is concerned, that’s all that matters.  Evolution is a process, not a thing, and as such is not equipped to appreciate the rational inconsistency of “seeing” things that don’t exist.

Which brings us back to the title of this essay.  Is science relevant to morality?  Assuming we are not too finicky about the meaning of the word “science,” we can say that it is relevant to understanding the nature of moral emotions, and the reasons for their existence.  However, when it comes to understanding “good” and “evil” as things, science is, indeed, useless.  It is not possible to investigate objects that don’t exist using the scientific or any other method.

On the Origins of Morality

In his book, The Territorial Imperative, that greatest and most ignored of “evolutionary psychologists,” Robert Ardrey, wrote,

To account for man’s undoubted moral nature, a variety of suppositions have been advanced:  that man is at constant war with the evolutionary process; that his mind has delivered him exemption from evolutionary law, and that natural selection takes place now only in the field of ideas; that intervention, divine or cultural, has created a gap between man and other animals.  All or some of these suppositions, to a degree you cannot guess, combine to provide your children with their education and to provide you, in your daily life, with dubious solutions to the problems which surround you.

All, of course, are false.  What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Sir Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.

The Territorial Imperative was published in 1966.  Today, Ardrey’s assertion about the existence of morality in animals does not seem nearly as far fetched as it did then.  See, for example, Wild Justice, by Bekoff and Pierce.  As for Ardrey’s assertion about “a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years,” it sounded even more far fetched in 1966, but he was probably right about that, too.

After all, the predispositions that give rise to the subset of our behavioral traits we associate with morality are just that; a subset of the whole.  They are not necessarily any substantial differences in kind or mechanism between them and any of the rest of the grab bag of mental traits that contribute to what is commonly referred to as “human nature.”  Not having a will or purpose of its own, the process of evolution didn’t somehow decide along the way to create a separate, distinct category for moral behavior, and then completely neglect it until finally deciding to tack it on as an afterthought in modern humans.  The distinction between the behavioral traits associated with morality and the rest is more artificial than natural.

Consider, for example, the ability to distinguish friend from foe, behaving in one way towards the former, and in a starkly different way towards the latter.  It is an ability possessed even by insects.  Presumably, such behavior appeared on the scene before the advent of self-awareness.  Obviously, it persisted thereafter.  It seems plausible that the emotions and other mental machinery responsible for recognizing and favoring friends, already in existence for countless millions of years, eventually became part of the behavioral baggage of intelligent, self-aware creatures.  In such creatures, capable of recalling and examining their own emotions, it is plausible that the “sentiments,” as David Hume put it, associated with this emotional response to friends were conceptualized as “good.”  Conversely, the “sentiments” produced by the mental machinery responsible for recognizing and promoting negative responses towards enemies would have  been conceptualized as “evil.”  I am not claiming that the emergence of what the average philosopher would agree to call “morality” happened in exactly this way.  However, I am suggesting that it may well have emerged as a result of the conscious regard by intelligent creatures of emotions that had already existed for a very long time.

Moral judgments have always been, at bottom emotional.  These emotions are experienced with such force in human beings that the categories they give rise to in our perception, namely, “good” and “evil,” tend to appear to us as objects, or things-in-themselves.  Indeed, only when these categories transcend their emotional origins in the imaginations of individuals to become independent things can one speak of a rational justification for insisting that they apply, not just to the individual who experiences the emotions, but to others as well.  This illusion has obviously worked well enough in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, promoting their survival, else I should not be around to write this.  In our own day, however, it shows every sign of becoming a disastrous liability.

Assuming we value the survival of our species, it is high time we recognized the illusion for what it is.  We should stop, once and for all, cobbling together “scientific” moral systems.  No science can be based on the identification and elaboration of objects that don’t exist.  Recognizing human morality for what it is, including the ultimate evolutionary origins of everything we understand as moral behavior, does not entail any radical change in the “moral landscape.”  We are moral creatures.  We will not jettison moral standards or begin to act amorally because we happen to finally perceive the truth about what morality actually is.  We will not all become “moral relativists,” nor will moral restraints on our behavior suddenly disappear, causing us all to become “bad.”  We are moral animals and will continue to be moral animals.  We will not suddenly stop acting according to our nature any more than a leopard can suddenly shed its spots.  All I am suggesting is that we keep morality within its proper sphere, and recognize it for what it is.  It may be necessary for us to lean on our flimsy powers of reason to regulate our collective actions in spheres where morality doesn’t belong.  However, that is better than leaning on an illusion.


Morality: Making Simple Things Complicated

I believe in keeping up interstellar appearances.  If aliens from outer space ever do visit us, I don’t want to be embarrassed.  For example, it would be nice if they concluded that, given the rather short time since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we are actually rather smart.  As things now stand, that’s most unlikely.  What is likely is that they’ll have a hearty laugh at our expense, especially when they discover that we refer to ourselves as “Man the Wise.”  In the first place, a large majority of us still believe in imaginary super-beings who plan to boil us in hell for billions and trillions of years for the paltry sins they knew we were predestined to commit and couldn’t possibly avoid during our brief lives, or who are divided up into a complicated mélange of “spirit” and human-like sexual characteristics.  In the second, they will notice that, even though we have known about evolution for more than a century and a half, we still ascribe all sorts of supernatural qualities to morality as well.  Shameful!  The snickers and knowing glances at interstellar cocktail parties will be unbearable.

It may be that a benign zoologist or two among them will observe what orgasmic pleasure we get out of striking self-righteous poses, and how addicted we are to imagining ourselves as “good” and the others as “evil,” and will frown at all this levity at our expense.  Such delicious pleasures are easy to rationalize, and hard to part with.  Besides, surely some of the very interstellar wags who laugh the loudest at our expense belong to species that commited follies in their “gilded youth” that were just as bad, if not worse.  Still, I’m keeping a paper bag handy to put over my head at need if the time comes.

The God thing is bad enough, but, as the sympathetic zoologists might point out, at least it’s understandable.  Our species has an inordinate fear of dying and, since we’ve also managed the whimsical trick of identifying our consciousness, an entirely secondary entity that exists because it promoted genetic survival, with our “selves,” we imagine there’s no way out.  We either have to face the fact that we’re going to “depart from among men,” as the historian Procopius always put it, or – we have to invent an imaginary super-being to save us.

The morality thing is a different matter.  We don’t keep up that charade to avoid death.  We just do it because it’s fun.  Members of our species love to imagine themselves as noble heroes in a never-ending battle against evil.  It “promotes high self-esteem.”  It enables us to do remarkably selfish things in the name of selflessness.  It even diverts our attention from our impending end and, when combined with the God illusion, offers an illusory way of escaping it.  Dealing with people who are enamored of their own righteousness is always an inconvenience.  Occasionally it’s much worse than that.  They become psychopathic, manage to convince others that they’re right, and commit mass murder as a way of eliminating the evil people.  It turns out that the God nexus isn’t even necessary.  Even people who avoid that first illusion usually fall victim to the second – that Good and Evil are real things, objects in themselves.

The rationalization of the illusion is always flimsy enough.  In the case of religious believers, we have been provided with an example by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  It goes like this:

If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

Objective moral values do exist.

Therefore, God exists.

This is a farrago of nonsense.  What does the existence of a super-being have to do with objective morality?  Certainly, he can fry us in hell for billions and trillions of years for daring to disagree with him, but in the end, his opinion of good and evil is just that – an opinion.  His opinion is no more legitimate than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that he can either torture us forever on the one hand, or shack us up with 72 virgins on the other.  In other words, there is no way in which moral values can become objects just because he wants it that way.  The existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of objective moral values.

As for the second component of the syllogism, it is a statement of faith, not fact.  If objective moral values really do exist, how is it that, after all these thousands of years, we are still waiting for one of the moralists to catch one in his butterfly net and show it to us, neatly mounted on a pin?  As for the third component, it evaporates without the first two.

The attempts of the atheists are just as persistent, and just as absurd.  They often take the form of conflating a utilitarian ought with a moral ought.  A typical example that is actually offered as a “rebuttal” to the Christian syllogism above recently appeared at Secular Outpost.  The author, Bradley Bowen, starts out reasonably enough, noting that,

One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2).  If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.

Then, however, he begins wading into the swamp:

Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1).  Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values.  I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE (Craig) argument.

Religious people have a way of becoming very acute logicians when it comes to assessing the moral illusions of atheists.  William Lane Craig is no exception.  Bowen quotes him as follows:

I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.  What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists?  I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists.  Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction.  Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.

Reasonable enough.  Here, of course, it is obvious that Craig is referring to justice as an objective moral good.  He also points out the simple and seemingly obvious fact, at least since the days of Darwin, that, absent a God, moral values are “properties of persons.”  Well put!  While human morality can manifest itself in countless varieties of rules, systems, and laws depending on time and circumstances, the ultimate reason for its existence is a “property of persons.”  In all its variations, it represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits.  Absent those ultimate causes, carried about in the genetic material of each “person,” morality as most people understand the term would disappear.

Bowen, however, kicks against the goads.  For him, dispensing with “objective moral values” would be as hard as giving up chocolate, or even sex.  It would take all the joy out of life.  To preserve them, he comes up with a “proof” just as chimerical as Craig’s syllogism.  In essence, it is just a crude and transparent attempt to ignore the word “objective.”  According to Bowen,

Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR (Atheistic Moral Realism) believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see.  Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true.  It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.

It is not hard to see at all.  If justice does not exist independently of humans or persons, then it is subjective, not objective.  Bowen has simply decided to ignore the term “objective.”  This becomes more clear in the following:

I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons.  If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity.  However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.

In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as “green.”  No doubt if we were smart enough, we could dissect all the molecules, hormones, and atomic interactions that account for the impression “green.”  However, if there is really any distinction between subjective and objective at all, green remains subjective.  In other words, it is the impression left on the mind of an individual by certain real things, in this case, photons.  It is, however, not the things themselves.  Bowen is left with the burden of demonstrating how justice and all the rest of his moral subjects are magically transformed into objects.  That, after all, is the whole point of Craig’s use of the term “objective.”  How does justice, as described by Bowen, acquire the ability to leap out of his skull, or of any other skull for that matter, and become an “object.”  By what mysterious process does it acquire that legitimacy?

No, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have more bad news for you.  Not only is there not a Santa Claus, but there is no God, and no objective morality.  Don’t despair, though.  Santa Claus was certainly a grievous loss, but we’d all be much better off without the other two.  In the end, lies are liabilities.  “God” motivates us to fly airplanes full of people into tall buildings, and “objective morality” convinces us that we are perfectly justified in murdering millions of people because they are Jews or “bourgeoisie.”

Well, in spite of these rather obvious drawbacks, just as we are certainly descended from apes, most of us are certainly still absurd enough to believe in Gods and “objective morality.”  When it comes to potential interstellar visitors, I can but paraphrase Darwin’s apocryphal noble lady and hope that these absurdities don’t become generally known.  I’m still keeping my paper bag handy, though.

So What Does Evolved Morality have to do with Banks?

New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.”  According to Boehm,

In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.

Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.

All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.

Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.

However, something has gone terribly wrong.  International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it.  As Boehm puts it,

What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.

I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior.  My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system?  There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them.  Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way.  However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous.  If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system.  However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.

Boehm continues,

Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.

It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy.  The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous.  Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism?  Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences?  Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation.  However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place.  Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality.  And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup.  There is no Good without Evil.  Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us.  Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation?  Hardly!  One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.

I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions.  I am, after all, human too.  However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it.  What’s that you say?  It can’t happen here?  You have a very short historical memory!  By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful.  However, let’s leave morality out of it.  Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.”  Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.

Jared Diamond and the Anthropologists: The Wrath of Razib Khan

Razib Khan, who writes Discover Magazine’s Gene Expression blog, has been a bit testy lately about some unusually vile ad hominem attacks being directed at Jared Diamond by some of the usual suspects among the pathologically pious faction of cultural anthropologists and miscellaneous self-appointed saviors of indigenous peoples.  It seems that Diamond, author of such bestsellers as Guns, Germs, and Steel, and by all accounts safely on the left of the ideological spectrum, has been unmasked as a closet colonialist, imperialist, admirer of Cecil Rhodes, and pawn of evil global corporations.  Razib’s response to all this:

 I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated.

I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology.

and, more poetically,

Many cultural anthropologists  believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.

I wouldn’t go quite that far, and, in fact, the people at Survival International who were responsible for giving Razib the final nudge over the top don’t actually claim to be cultural anthropologists, but I must admit it’s a nice turn of phrase.  You can read the rest of what he had to say here and here.  While I, too, have taken a rather dim view of Diamond’s books, I can only heartily agree with Razib when he says,

Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies.

And with that lengthy preamble, let me finally get to the point of this post.  It has to do with something else Razib wrote in the articles linked above, namely,

As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter.

To this, a commenter replied,

There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.

I side with Razib on this one.  Appeasement has never worked against self-righteous ideological zealots of any stripe.  To this, an insightful reader who’s been following my blog for a while might reply, “But how can you favor responding to morally based attacks with morally based attacks?  You don’t believe in morality!”  Of course, that’s not quite accurate.  I do believe in morality as the expression of subjective emotions whose existence ultimately depends on evolved behavioral traits.  I don’t believe in transcendental morality, e.g., the existence of Good and Evil as objects, or things in themselves.  For that reason I see the morally loaded attacks on Diamond that Khan objects to for what they really are; a self-righteous and self-interested display of moral emotions that have become disconnected from the “purpose” those emotions evolved to serve; the propagation and survival of the genes of the phenotypes from which the attacks are emanating.  Or, to put it in the vernacular, they are absurd.  They are being mounted by people who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of something that doesn’t exist; objective Good.  They are not mounted because they are really likely to save anyone, but because they give pleasure to those who pose as saviors.

In spite of that, they are potentially very effective, are demonstrably very destructive, and are certainly not to be defeated by calm, scientific refutation.  One must fight fire with fire, or accept defeat.  Call it doublethink if you will.  Essentially, I am advocating the use of a weapon whose existence is based on the premise that there is such a thing as objective Good, when there quite clearly is not.  However, we are a moral species, and these battles are carried out in the realm of moral emotions, not reason.  Jonathan Haidt even goes so far as to suggest that our rational minds themselves only exist to serve as advocates for those emotions.  This is not a question of moral “shoulds,” but of mere practicality.  Those who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of the Good in itself are not to be dissuaded by calm logic.  Let history judge.  How often were the fanatical zealots of such spiritual religions as Christianity and Islam, or such secular religions as Communism and Nazism, persuaded they were wrong by patient, reasoned argument?  All of them were extremely effective at exploiting moral emotions as a weapon.  One can either pick up that weapon and fight back, or sit back and await the pleasure of one’s enemies.


Whither Morality?

Morality evolved!  One can quibble about the precise meaning of those two words, but the sentence remains true regardless.  Absent genetically programmed and heritable physical characteristics of the human brain, morality as commonly understood would not exist.  It follows that good and evil have no existence other than as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.

So much is obvious.  It will become increasingly obvious as long as researchers remain free to study that incredibly complex biological computer, the brain, and the genetic processes that bring it into existence.  So much is, however, also inconvenient.  It is our nature to derive a great deal of pleasure from self-righteousness and virtuous indignation.  However, if good and evil do not exist as independent objects, the rational bases for self-righteousness and virtuous indignation, or, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the rational tail that wags the emotional dog, disappear.  They remain interesting and worthy of study as emotional phenomena.  However, the notion that they actually have some genuine rational justification becomes absurd.

Similarly, if there are no good and evil objects, the bases for the claims of hosts of philosophers, theologians, and assorted experts on morality of every stripe that they understand those objects better than the rest of us evaporate as well.  As a result, as has so often happened with such inconvenient truths in the past, this one faces and will continue to face bitter opposition from those who, for the reasons alluded to above, prefer an alternate version of reality.  Like the Blank Slaters of old who denied human nature because it relegated all their fine utopias to the scrap heap, they can be relied on to resist and obfuscate our efforts to gain understanding of the physical, emotional and genetic bases of morality.  They realize perfectly well that such understanding renders them superfluous.  Recently, their efforts to stem the tide of increasing knowledge have met with a distinct lack of success, even in academia.  One must hope they will remain similarly ineffectual in the future, or at least one must hope so to the extent that one believes that an accurate understanding of ourselves will have some bearing on our future survival.

That belief has not always found ready acceptance, even among very intelligent people.  For example, a great number of thinkers who doubted the truths of established religion themselves have objected to passing the word on to the “rabble,” fearing that, lacking a reason to be “good,” they would certainly embrace “evil.”  Similarly, in our own day, many shrink from rejecting a transcendent Good-in-itself because they fear it will promote amorality and moral relativism.  In fact, accepting the truth about morality will not result in amorality or moral relativism because it is not our nature to be amoral or morally relativistic.  We are no more likely to change our moral nature than we are to sprout fins and take to the water, or return to walking on all fours, in response to learning the truth about what that moral nature really is, and how it came into being.

That is not to imply that such self-understanding will be useless.  For example, it may occur to us to shape a morality that is simple, in harmony with our nature, and that promotes our happiness and discourages us from harming each other as effectively as possible.   It may also occur to us to limit morality to spheres in which it can reasonably be expected to promote useful ends.  Given the fact that morality is fundamentally an emotional rather than a rational phenomenon, it is unlikely those spheres to which our frail reason might better be applied, such as national politics, international relations, and other aspects of our current reality that didn’t exist when morality evolved, will be included.  This remains true even though attempts to apply reason to such spheres without taking the moral nature, not to mention the other behavioral characteristics of our species into account are bound to fail.  For example, the creation of laws that injure the average individual’s sense of justice will likely be useless, regardless of how reasonable they might seem to be on other grounds.

Having accepted the origins of morality, let us not shrink from accepting its reality as well.  In particular, we should not pretend that it is invariably our nature to be “nice,” and that all “non-niceness” derives exclusively from culture and environment.  Just as it is our nature to belong to and seek acceptance by our ingroup, it is also our nature to hate and despise outgroups.  It is not possible to suppress or stifle that aspect of our nature.  We will always seek and find an outgroup.  Consider the behavior of the very liberals and progressives who occasionally suggest chimerical schemes such as expanding our ingroup to include all mankind.  Nothing could exceed the spite and fury of their denunciations of those who disagree with them, such as gun rights advocates, Christian fundamentalists, opponents of gay marriage, etc.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  Our goal should be to stop ignoring this truth, in spite of the fact that all human history is a testament to it, and in spite of the further fact that it is such an obvious explanation for so much about us that otherwise seems incomprehensible, and seek ways of dealing with it so as to minimize the mayhem it has so frequently caused in the past.

Guns and Morality

Sam Harris has just posted an article on his blog supporting gun ownership.  While he does so with certain caveats (he supports “sensible” gun control, and is “outraged” over the political influence of the National Rifle Association) his position puts him squarely at odds with liberals in general and liberal atheists like himself in particular.  This is interesting in view of the fact that Harris claims the ability to “scientifically” discern the difference between Good and Evil.  After all, opposition to gun ownership is fundamentally a moral issue as far as most liberals are concerned.

Consider, for example, the position of Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the “Why Evolution is True” blog, and, like Harris, a liberal atheist.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, unlike Harris, Coyne claims that he does not agree that there are “scientifically establishable truths about ethics,” and asserts that moral judgments are subjective matters of opinion.  In practice, however, that matters not a bit.  He almost invariably writes as if there were.  His position on gun control is a case in point.  For example, a couple of posts later he states that theologian William Lane Craig should “rot in hell” for differing with him on the Newtown massacre.  He does not elaborate on whether, like Christian and Moslem fundamentalists, he believes that Mr. Craig should rot in hell for billions and trillions of years just for starters, or, as befits a more enlightened, liberal point of view, his term should only last for a few millennia, or even centuries.  Regardless, it would seem that Coyne’s “mere opinion” has somehow jumped out of his skull, thrown off its subjective strings, and become a normative object, complete with plenary power to judge whether opinions are good or evil, and consign the bearers of the latter to the eternal fire.  As anyone who consults his blog can see, he reacts with similarly furious virtuous indignation to anyone else who disagrees with him concerning gun control.  I suspect that most liberal atheists, who are just as cocksure as Coyne that they are the bearers of moral truth, come down squarely in his corner on the matter.

In a word, gun control is a profoundly moral issue as far as Harris’ fellow liberals are concerned.  However, in spite of his assurances in The Moral Landscape that “science” can decide which side is good and which evil, he hardly mentions morality in his post.  There is good reason for that.  Good and evil are judgments based on subjective moral emotions, not scientific facts.  Those moral emotions exist in the first place for reasons that are completely unrelated to the regulation of firearms.  In other words, morality is irrelevant to the issue, other than to the extent that human behavioral traits must be taken into account in deciding matters of state policy.  At some level, Harris is aware of the fact.  He knows that Coyne and like-minded liberals, and not he, are standing on the “moral high ground” on the issue of gun control.  In other words, it is far easier for them than for him to arouse moral emotions to support their point of view.  That is why he has chosen to couch the issue in almost purely rationalistic terms.

For example, most people would prefer that their family members not be murdered or become victims of violent attack.  Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that the right to keep and bear arms is likely to minimize the probability of these contingencies.  Most people would prefer that they and their family members not become victims of a massacre perpetrated by a psychopath with a firearm.  Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that a blanket ban on firearms would be an ineffective way to minimize this contingency.  And so on.  I applaud him for this approach.  It has always been my opinion that it is best to decide matters of public policy in this way, and, to the extent possible, minimize the pernicious influence of moral emotions on those decisions.  There is no reason to believe that moral emotions are likely to be helpful in deciding matters that have nothing to do with the ultimate reason for their existence.  There is no better way to illustrate this point than to compare Harris’ reasoned arguments with the morally loaded ones of Coyne and his other liberal opponents.  As Harris rightly observes, they are marked by an astounding level of ignorance, both of the arguments of their opponents, which are generally presented in a crudely bowdlerized form that demonstrates a lack of any serious attempt to study them in depth, and of firearms in general.  As Harris puts it:

I have read articles in which literally everything said about firearms and ballistics has been wrong. I have heard major newscasters mispronounce the names of every weapon and weapons manufacturer more challenging than “Colt.” I can only imagine the mirth it has brought gun-rights zealots to see “automatic” and “semi-automatic” routinely confused, or to hear a major news anchor ominously declare that the shooter had been armed with a “Sig Sauzer” pistol. This has been more than embarrassing. It has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying.

Detailed knowledge of a subject is superfluous to those whose goal is not to decide matters of fact, but to arouse moral emotions.

Morality and the Dilemma of the Pious Atheists

If Jonathan Haidt is right, we are a pathologically pious species, with logical minds that evolved mainly to serve our innate self-righteousness.  Contemplate the behavior of modern atheists, and it seems plausible enough.  After all, they realize, or at least the more intelligent among them do, that we are an evolved species.  If they’ve looked at any of the recent flood of books on the subject, they also realize that our morality is the expression, not of the opinion of some supernatural being, but of evolved behavioral traits.  It exists because it promoted our survival at times when our mode of existence and environment were radically different from what they are now.  Good and evil are not objects and things-in-themselves.  Rather, they are subjective perceptions in the minds of individuals.  As such, they have no existence independent of those minds.  The odd thing (or perhaps the predictable thing, given the nature of our  species) is that these perfectly straightforward, rational conclusions seem to matter hardly at all.

Consider, for example, the case of Jerry Coyne, like me, an atheist, and a latter day Darwin’s bulldog.    He rejected the notion of objective Good and Evil in a recent post on his blog.  For  example,

Now, I maintain that there is no objective morality: that morality is a guide for how people should get along in society, and that what is “moral” comports in general with the rules we need to live by in a harmonious society—one with greater “well being,” as Harris puts it.  A society in which half the inhabitants are dispossessed because they lack a Y chromosome is not a society brimming with well being, and I wouldn’t want to live in it.  And yes, what promotes “well being” can in principle be established empirically. But that still presumes that the best society is one that promotes the greatest “well being,” and that is an opinion, not a fact.

And yes, of course moral judgments can hinge on matters of real scientific truth! If you think that abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, that’s something that science can, in principle, find out. But in the end that still depends on an opinion: causing a fetus pain, even though doing so comports with the mother’s wishes, is immoral.  Just because a disagreement is “substantive” (whatever that means) does not mean that it can be resolved by determining objective truths.

Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong—that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong.  And those reasons are based on opinions.

Here we have an “is”:  Moral judgments are based on subjective perceptions or, if you will, opinions.  Nowhere does Coyne address the problem of “ought”:  how these subjective judgments might acquire the power to leap out of the brain of one individual and become applicable to other individuals as well, whether that other individual likes it or not.  Yet a couple of posts later, his own judgments have magically acquired that power! Referring to a little girl who was bitten by a dolphin at Seaword, he writes,

I’m sorry the little girl was bitten, but that’s only the human side of the equation. What about the sufferings (yes, I think they suffer) of animals like dolphins, sea otters, and beluga whales forced to endlessly swim in circles in small tanks? (I once was moved almost to tears by watching an otter do this at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. I filed a complaint with a person in charge, but they completely ignored me.)  As a biologist, this outrages me.

Let us make no mistake here: this is not about conservation, and only pretends to be about education. In the end, it’s all about money.

This begs the question, “So what?”  Of course, Coyne could always beg off by claiming that he was merely describing his own, personal state of mind.  To that, I would reply, “Nonsense!”  His “outrage” is not a clinical description of his subjective state of mind at a particular moment, but a moral judgment directed at the “person in charge.” His comment that the behavior he is outraged about is “all about money” is not just a neutered opinion, but a moral judgment.  How is it that Coyne’s state of mind has acquired this power over others?  In fact, if we are to believe what he has written on the subject himself, no such path to power and legitimacy exists.  The “person in charge” cannot be bound by Coynes “opinion,” any more than the managers of Seaworld and the Shedd Aquarium.  In spite of that, he has elevated his own perceptions of good and evil to the status of the very “objective truths” he denied a couple of posts earlier, as binding on others as on himself.

I don’t mean to single out Coyne.  His irrational behavior is pervasive, and predictable, given the nature of our species.  I, too, experience outrage at the maltreatment of animals.  Rationally, however, I realize that my outrage is a mental phenomenon that is in no way connected to a “Good” that exists independently, outside of my own brain.  The fact that Good and Evil don’t exist as independent objects in no way depends on acceptance of the hypothesis that human morality represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits, or on acceptance of the theory of evolution.  It does not even depend on whether a God exists or not.  A hypothetical super-being might have the power to fry me in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years for failing to share his opinion, but his opinion, his “subject,” would not become an “object” for all that.

Why do I bother to bring this up?  I certainly am not immune to the “Coyne syndrome,” as readers of my blog will be quick to detect.  However, having long ago concluded that there is no rational basis for self-righteousness, I find it very tiresome, at least in others.  Beyond this personal whim, there is the matter of survival.  If, in fact, morality exists because it evolved, and it evolved because it promoted our survival, it would be somewhat incongruous if it became the ultimate cause of our extinction.  In the last century alone, the Communists murdered tens of millions for what they saw as the highest of moral reasons, and when Hitler exterminated the Jews, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, he believed he was doing “the Lord’s work.”  Under the circumstances, it seems to me that it would behoove us as a species to cultivate a lively awareness of the subjective nature of morality.  We must apply morality in our routine interactions with other individuals, because there is no alternative.  We should be leery of applying it outside of that sphere, or at least those of us should who, like me, subjectively prefer that our species not become extinct.

Of Things that are not Things-in-Themselves

I’ve mentioned subjects that the human brain perceives as objects before.  Examples include Good, Evil, and Rights; entities that cannot possibly exist as other than subjective impressions or intuitions in the minds of individuals, and yet are still perceived as things-in-themselves that have an independent existence of their own.  Edward Fitzgerald put it much more elegantly in his Rubaiyat, that font of wisdom thinly disguised as the translation of the work of a medieval Islamic poet:

The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

Yet, in spite of the fact that no one has yet devised an experiment capable of “seeing” these entities at any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, or measuring their temperature, or detecting their presence via gravitational anomalies, or otherwise demonstrating their independent existence outside of the brains of individuals, we stubbornly insist that they are real.  It’s not hard to understand why Mother Nature has arranged things that way.  Conceived as mere subjective individual whims, categories such as good and evil lose their normative power.  The basis for applying them to others disappears, and they become useless for regulating behavior within or between groups. Perceived in that way, they would never helped us survive. As a consequence, they would never have evolved in the first place.

There are other interesting examples of the same phenomenon. “Value” is one of them. Survivalists and goldbugs favor a monetary system backed by precious metals because it seems to them they have real value, although there is no measurable quality of gold that would make it possible to distinguish its value from that of a common rock. Of course, there’s method in their madness. One could certainly devise a metric to distinguish the scarcity of gold from that of paper. No doubt statisticians could establish a correlation between scarcity and perceived value. Although he never actually spoke of a “labor theory of value,” Karl Marx did derive a “law of value” based on the work of earlier economists. I will leave the hair splitting over the precise manner in which Marx perceived value to the Marxist scholars. However, his many followers based their notion of “surplus value” on his work. They perceived of it as a real thing that the exploiting capitalists stole from the proletariat.

“Science” is another example. In reality it is merely a systematic approach to discovering truth which is usually haphazardly applied by scientists and often doesn’t work in practice. However, it, too, has been transmogrified into an object. One speaks of doing things “for science.” To imply that something is “scientific” is to imply that it is necessarily true, as in “scientific Marxism-Leninism.” Eugenics was scientific in its day, as was the luminiferous ether. “Men of Science” are supposed to “think right” compared to other mere mortals, who should not presume to intrude in their specialized domains. Often these “Men of Science” are, in reality, the prisoners of some fashionable ideology which causes them to imagine things that are palpable nonsense to most people. The Blank Slate dogma is a good example. In my own specialty, computational physics, “Men of Science” often make a cottage industry out of some arcane mathematical approach, and continue to tweak and fiddle with it, milking it for an endless series of papers in prestigious academic journals long after advances in computer power have rendered it completely obsolete. No matter that what they are doing is quite useless; it is, after all, “Science.”

No doubt there are other similar examples, but I will not attempt to catalog them all here. The point is that our brains are designed so that we perceive certain subjective intuitions as objects. Presumably, that trait evolved because it promoted our survival. Unfortunately, it evolved at times that were radically different than the present. It might not be quite as effective at promoting our survival today. The Nazis and the Communists were both completely convinced that they represented the Good, as did the suicide bombers of 911. Those whose tastes run to saving the world based on alternative versions of the Good might do well to keep their example in mind.