The Emerson quote in my title is certainly true in the case of morality. In fact, that’s one of the most important themes of this blog. Michael Huemer put it very well in his “Ethical Intuitionism,” the book I discussed in my last post. As he puts it,
I recently surveyed a class of about forty undergraduates on the subject (of morality, ed.). After explaining the terms “subjective” and “objective”, I asked how many of them believed that “morality is subjective”. Every single person in the room raised their hands, save two – those two were myself and my graduate student teaching assistant. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that it is usually all but impossible to attain universal agreement, in a philosophy class, on anything…
None of this seems to stop anyone – whether students, professors, or other intellectuals – from making moral judgments, arguing about what the correct moral views are, or trying to get others to obey the correct moral principles. Even those who declare morality an illusion will often proceed to hold forth on the wrongness of the war in Iraq, or of human cloning, or at least of their boyfriend’s cheating on them. And they seem to expect their arguments to be taken as reasons for other people to act in certain ways. This strikes me as odd. If I thought that the giant rabbit standing in the corner of the room was a hallucination, I don’t think I would hold forth in public about what his favorite food was, plan my actions around his schedule, or expect others to alter their behavior in the light of my claims about him.
How true! And yet I am not aware of a single exception to the behavior Huemer describes among self-described “subjective moralists.” I know of not a single one of them who doesn’t hold forth on what we “ought” to do, or what it is our “moral duty” to do, or how they consider this person morally obnoxious, and that person a paragon of moral virtue. One constantly finds them virtue signaling to demonstrate how “good” they are according to the standards of whatever version of morality currently happens to be fashionable in their ingroup. This certainly seems “odd” on the face of it, because it’s so obviously irrational. However, it’s not really that odd. We greatly overrate the intelligence of our species. To the extent that we reason at all, we often merely rationalize our responses to powerful emotions. Moral emotions are among the most powerful of all.
I’ve certainly devoted a lot of effort to making the case for moral subjectivism, and exploring the origins of morality in emotional predispositions that exist by virtue of natural selection. However, it’s at least as important to point out that these conclusions about morality have consequences. Morality is by no means just about regulating how we decide to behave as individuals. The assumption of a right to dictate behavior to others is an intrinsic element of human morality. As Huemer puts it, we invariably “expect others to alter their behavior” in light of our moral claims. And yet one needn’t know anything about Darwin to realize that no such right exists. When someone holds forth on how others must act to be “good,” or denounces others as “immoral,” one need merely ask oneself the question, “On what authority do they make these claims?” No such authority exists.
If I am right, and morality is a manifestation of emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection, then the assumption of such “rights” and “authorities” must have promoted our survival in the context of the environment that existed when the behavior in question evolved. At the time we lived in small groups of individuals who were all more or less genetically related to us. There would have been little if any disagreement about the moral rules we lived by. Obedience to those rules would have been to the advantage of all the individuals in the group. Assumption of a right to remind others of the moral rules and to insist that they obey them would have promoted not only their survival, but ours as well.
Fast forward to the present. We still behave in the same old way, because it is our nature to behave in that way. However, the consequences are no longer the same. Wherever we turn, from books to movies to the very commercials on TV, we are subjected to a barrage of “oughts.” Everywhere we turn we find furious people attempting to dictate behavior to us and everyone else based on whatever flavor of morality they happen to prefer. They are driven by emotions, and are completely blind to the reasons the emotions exist. In their blindness, they rationalize their demands for obedience. They claim that they are serving some noble cause, whether it be human flourishing, or the workers paradise, or the triumph of some national or ethnic ingroup. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s all self-deception. Before the Nazis took over in Germany, party members would become Communists and vice versa at the drop of a hat. Today we find committed “progressives” casting loving glances at radical Islamists for the same reasons. They quickly recognize another very effective, if different, way to scratch the same moral itch that afflicts them.
As far as Mother Nature is concerned, these people are really telling us something completely different. Even though they don’t realize it, they are saying, “You must behave in a way that promotes my survival and reproduction. It will not promote your survival and reproduction, and won’t benefit you in any other way, either. In fact, it will probably harm you. In spite of that, if you don’t obey me, you are bad. To become good, you must do as I say.” Back in the day that might have made sense. The only people you would have known and interacted with would have been those in your little ingroup, and you would have been related to all of them. Promoting their survival and reproduction would likely have promoted your own as well. Today, not only do their demands not promote your survival and reproduction, they generally do not promote their own survival and reproduction, either. It is hardly a given that actions that have a certain result in one social environment will accomplish the same thing in one that is radically different. It should come as no surprise if they accomplish exactly the opposite.
I can’t tell you that you are bad if you choose to obey the emotionally motivated and arbitrary demands of people that you obey them, even if you are unrelated to them and your obedience will be of no advantage to you whatsoever. I can, however, conclude that you have strange goals in life. Perhaps you simply like to be dominated by others, and your goal is then to die and become extinct. If that is your goal, so be it. I have different goals. My goals are my own survival and reproduction, and the survival of biological life in general. I have those goals, not because they are intrinsically morally good, but because they seem to me compatible with the reasons I and the rest of the life on this planet exist to begin with. What has happened here is awesome. Look at yourself! You, an incredibly complex, intelligent being, have come into being from inanimate matter through a wildly improbable process of evolution. It may be so improbable that we are alone in the universe. The type of a person who can be aware of all that and respond, “It doesn’t matter. Who cares if we all go extinct?” is incomprehensible to me. All I can say is, I’m not like that. It does matter to me. For that reason, I reject the emotionally motivated demands of others that they be allowed to dictate behavior to me, and dismiss their absurd claims that they are acting in the interest of some higher, objective “good” out of hand. I choose to act in ways that are compatible with my own goals in life.
I submit that if you conclude that morality is, indeed, subjective, but treat the fact as if it were of mere academic interest, and go right on playing the same moralistic games as everyone else, you have completely missed the point. That, however, is precisely what we see in the case of every “subjective moralist” I’m aware of. I personally would prefer that we all see morality for the evolved and potentially highly dangerous phenomenon it actually is. However, in view of the above, for all practical purposes universal, behavior, that isn’t about to happen anytime soon. Virtually every member of our “intelligent” species continues in thrall to emotionally spawned illusions. I can only suggest that, as individuals, we be acutely aware of our situation, whatever our goals happen to be, and act to defend ourselves and whatever we happen to find valuable in life as best we can.