Evolution, Revolution, and the Moral Philosophy of E. O. Wilson

Human history is a record of the attempts of our species to reconcile behavioral traits that evolved eons ago with rapidly and radically changing environments. Today we can follow the results of our latest experiments on social media as they develop in real time. As we observe the behavior of those around us, ranging as it does from the extravagant to the whimsical to the absurd, one salient fact should be kept in mind. With few exceptions, the actors in this drama don’t have a clue why they are doing the things they do.

We suffer no such confusion when it comes to the behavior of other animals. We don’t imagine that they are acting according to an “objective moral law,” revealed to them by their gods. We don’t imagine that they act the way they do because of a lively interest in the welfare of all chimpanzee kind, or all giraffe kind, or all alligator kind. We don’t imagine that they are motivated by a “culture,” which has somehow magically materialized out of thin air. We don’t imagine that they have nobly decided to dedicate their lives to the “flourishing” of their species. We realize perfectly well that they behave the way they do because that behavior has enabled their ancestors to survive and reproduce. Only when it comes to ourselves do we fall under the spell of such extravagant mirages. We are so addicted to the illusion of our own uniqueness that we have rendered ourselves incapable of grasping the seemingly obvious; that we are no different from them when it comes to the fundamental motivators of our behavior.

No doubt aliens visiting our planet would deem it a great joke that those among us who refer to themselves as “scientists” and “experts” assured us with perfectly straight faces for upwards of half a century that these fundamental motivators, known as “human nature” in the vernacular, didn’t even exist. The fact that the thing they denied was the reason for their denial made it all the more absurd. Our situation today is little better. There is a palpable sense in the air that a system that served us relatively well for many years is collapsing around our ears. A few of the brightest among us realize that the reasons for this are to be found in the human nature that was denied for so many years. They hopefully suggest that overcoming our problems is a mere matter of tweaking the old system here and there to bring it into better harmony with the evolved, emotional behavioral traits that we commonly refer to by that name. I have my doubts.

Consider, for example, the case of E. O. Wilson, one of the “brightest among us” I refer to above. Read the final two chapters of his Consilience, and you will see that Wilson understands perfectly well that human morality is a manifestation of emotional predispositions that evolved eons ago, just as Darwin suggested in his The Descent of Man. He realizes that these predispositions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, and that it is hardly guaranteed that they will produce the same result in the vastly different societies we live in today. He understands that, if the above conclusions are true, then morality must necessarily be subjective, a point of view he refers to as “empiricism.” He calls the opposite point of view, the belief that there is an objective moral law that exists independently of anyone’s opinion on the matter, as “transcendentalism.” He comes down firmly on the side of empiricism. And then he goes completely off the tracks. He tells us what we “ought” to do in a manner that would be completely irrational absent the assumption of “transcendental” morality.

I agree with Wilson (and Darwin) that what he calls the “empiricist” explanation of morality is correct. If so, then the “root cause” of human moral systems, in all their myriad forms, can be traced back to emotional predispositions that exist because they evolved via natural selection. These predispositions evolved in times radically different from the present, and we probably share versions of some them that are little different from those that existed in our pre-human ancestors. I personally conclude from this that, before blindly acting in response to my moral emotions, I need to ask myself if responding in that way is likely to have the same result as it did in the Pleistocene, or if, perhaps, in the context of the very different societies we live in today, it may accomplish exactly the opposite.

I have set goals for myself in life that I consider to be in harmony with the reasons for the existence of my moral emotions. They include my own survival and reproduction, the preservation and continued evolution of my species into forms that are likely to survive in plausible futures and, beyond that, the continued survival of biological life itself. If behaving as I am inclined to behave by virtue of my moral emotions will not serve those goals, but will, in fact, act against or defeat them, I conclude that I need to resist acting blindly in that way. There is no reason at all that any other individual is morally obligated to share my personal goals. However, I have, at least, laid my cards on the table. If someone tells me I am morally obligated to act in a certain way, or in other words that I “ought” to act in that way, I must insist that they also lay their cards on the table. Do they, too, have personal goals in life, and are those goals compatible with my own? If not, and they are simply blindly demanding that others act in ways that satisfy their moral emotions, what makes them think I’m obligated to comply? Unless one believes in a “transcendental” morality, no such obligation can exist. In spite of this, Wilson insists that I, and all the rest of humanity, “ought” to do what he wants.

The ”logic” Wilson marshals in support of this demand is less than compelling. It can be found in “Ethics and Religion,” the next to last chapter of his Consilience. He begins with an attack on G. E. Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy,” which he wrongly interprets as something akin to Hume’s prohibition against hopping over the is/ought divide. He assures us that this fallacy is itself a fallacy, “For if ought is not is, what is?” This non sequitur is what scientists refer to as “hand waving.” The question implies a “transcendental” moral ought, which is impossible if there are no transcendental good and evil. As we read on, we learn how he arrived at this remarkable question. He accomplishes the trick by simply hopping from the categorical ought of morality to the conditional ought of utility. Just as we “ought” to use a hammer rather than a screwdriver to drive a nail, we “ought” to do some things and refrain from doing other things to conform to the moral fashions prevailing among the academic tribe. As he puts it:

Ought is not the translation of human nature but of the public will, which can be make increasingly wise and stable through the understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.

At this point, Wilson’s “ought” no longer has anything to do with the term as we commonly associate it with morality at all. It is completely divorced from its evolutionary origins, and has been re-defined to mean conformity to the “public will” that supposedly exists in societies utterly unlike those in which that evolution took place. Wilson does not feel obligated to explain to us how conforming to the “public will” is likely to enhance the odds of our genetic survival, or his genetic survival, or the continued survival of biological life in general. In fact, he has passed from “empiricism” to “transcendentalism,” promoting a personal version of the “good” which he has convinced himself is “good-in-itself,” but is really just the expression of an ideal that he finds emotionally comforting.

To what end is this “public will” to be made “wise and stable?” Translated to the present, which “public will” are we to prefer? The public will of that half of the population that supports Trump and agrees with his agenda, in the process condemning those who oppose him as evil, or the public will of that half of the population that opposes Trump and all he stands for, in the process condemning those who support him as evil? Wilson doesn’t leave us in suspense. The “public will” he refers to is the one generally supported by tenured university professors. Referring to conservatism he writes,

By that overworked and confusing term I do not mean the pietistic and selfish libertarianism into which much of the American conservative movement has lately descended.

This assertion that “much of the American conservative movement” is morally bad flies in the face of Wilson’s claim that he is a moral “empiricist.” Absent belief in a “transcendental” objective morality, it is mere gibberish. In keeping with the rest of his tribe, Wilson also considers globalism a “transcendental” good-in-itself. In his words,

In the long haul, civilized nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole. In thus globalizing the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind’s noblest and most enduring goals.

This, too, is the affirmation of a purely objective moral code, and flies in the face of the reasons morality evolved to begin with. It decidedly did not evolve to meet the “needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole,” nor did natural selection ever take place at the level of a “global tribe.” In conforming to the moral ideology of his own tribe, Wilson falls into some amusing contradictions. He promotes globalization and open borders as “good,” but then informs us that,

The problem of collective meaning and purpose is both urgent and immediate because, if for no other reason, it determines the environmental ethic. Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself.

He goes on to evoke all the familiar environmental dangers we face, citing among others overpopulation leading to starvation, degradation of the water supply, etc. He is particularly alarmed at the increasing rate of extinction of other species, and of the specter of a world in which biodiversity is a thing of the past. If Wilson is really worried about the environment, why is he such a promoter of globalism and open borders? Think of it. Large portions of the globe in Europe and North America were occupied by peoples with a low birthrate, ensuring gradually sinking populations and a consequent decrease in environmental degradation and the possibility of restoring some level of biological diversity. Instead, in keeping with what Wilson suggested they “ought” to do, they threw open their borders and allowed a massive influx from regions with rapidly increasing populations, thereby rapidly accelerating environmental degradation.

Beyond that, Wilson’s globalist “ought” is a good example of how moral emotions can “malfunction,” outside of the environmental context in which they evolved. His big brain combined with modern means of transportation and communication have enabled him to imagine the existence of a global “tribe.” His moral emotions then suggest to him that no artificial borders “ought” to limit or restrain this “tribe.” The result is a classic morality inversion. From a genetic point of view, the evolved behavioral traits that promoted the survival of small, territorially isolated tribes eons ago now accomplish precisely the opposite when blindly applied to a global “tribe” of over seven billion people.

I don’t mean to pick on Wilson. From my personal point of view he represents the best and the brightest of modern academics. I merely point out that, like the rest of his tribe, and the rest of mankind in general, for that matter, he imagines that he “ought” to promote “human flourishing,” or he “ought” to promote “moral progress,” or he “ought” to promote a “just society.” In the process, he never stops to consider that, absent the motivating power of innate predispositions, it would never occur to him that he “ought” to do anything. In all likelihood those predispositions are similar to those that motivated our human and pre-human ancestors hundreds of thousands and probably millions of years ago. They are the only reason that we imagine that we “ought” to do anything at all. They evolved by natural selection, not because they promoted “human flourishing,” or “moral progress,” but because they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive. Under the circumstances it seems at least reasonable to consider whether the things we imagine we “ought” to do will accomplish the same things today.

There is no reason that anyone “ought not” to devote their lives to “human flourishing,” or that they “ought not” to fight for what they imagine is “moral progress.” I merely suggest that, before blindly pursuing those goals, they consider whether they make any sense at all given the fundamental reasons that we imagine we “ought” to do some things, and “ought not” to do others.

Meanwhile, as a system that seems to have served us well for more than two centuries appears to be collapsing around our ears, we hear suggestions on all sides that we need a revolution, or that we need to demolish the system and replace it with a new one, or that we must have a civil war to destroy those who disagree with us. It can be safely assumed that the people offering these suggestions are at least as clueless as Wilson when it comes to understanding the “root causes” that motivate their behavior. Before we join them in fighting for, and perhaps sacrificing ourselves for, the noble goals they dangle so invitingly in front of our noses, it may behoove us to consider our own goals in life in light of an accurate understanding of the fundamental factors that motivate us to have any goals at all. It may turn out that fighting for “noble causes” is not really the most effective way to achieve those goals after all.

Morality and Social Chaos: Can You Hear Darwin Now?

When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, it immediately rendered all previous theories and systems of morality obsolete. If he was right, then everything about us, or at least everything with a significant impact on our odds of survival, exists by virtue of natural selection. Our innate behavioral traits, some of which give rise to what we commonly refer to as morality, are no exception.  For the most part, the philosophers didn’t notice, or didn’t grasp the significance of what Darwin had revealed. Many of them continued to devote whole careers to things as futile as explicating the obscure tomes of Kant, or inventing intricate theories to “prove” the existence of something as imaginary as objective morality. Others concocted whole new theories of morality supposedly based on “evolution.” Virtually all of them imagined that “evolution” was actively striving to make progress towards the goal of a “higher” morality, thereby demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the significance of the term “natural” in natural selection. Darwin himself certainly didn’t fail to grasp the moral implications of his theory. He tried to spell it out for us in his “The Descent of Man” as follows:

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

To read Darwin is to wonder at his brilliance. He was well aware of the dual nature of human morality long before Herbert Spencer undertook a systematic study of the phenomena, or Sir Arthur Keith published his theory of in-groups and out-groups:

But these feelings and services (altruistic behavior, ed.) are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association.

He exposed the imbecility of the notion that natural selection “tracks” some imaginary objective moral law in a few sentences:

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

It is a tribute to the tremendous power of the evolved moral sense described by Darwin that it spawns a powerful illusion that Good and Evil are real things, that somehow exist independently of what anyone’s mere opinion of them happens to be. The illusion has been so powerful that even his clear and direct explanation of why it isn’t real was powerless to dispel it. Only one philosopher of note, Edvard Westermarck, proved capable of grasping the full import of what Darwin had written. Today one can complete an undergraduate degree in philosophy without ever seeing his name mentioned, even as a footnote, in the textbooks and anthologies.

We live in a world full of others of our kind, all of whom are chasing this illusion. They feel they “ought” to do things because they are good, noble, just, and moral. Using their big brains, they come up with all sorts of fanciful whims about what these things are that they “ought” to do. The reasons they use to arrive at these notions may be as complex as you please, but if you follow the chain of reasons to the end, you will always find they lead back to emotions. Those emotions spawn the illusion of the Good, and they exist by virtue of natural selection.

Do you feel a powerful impulse to join a Black Lives Matter demonstration? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you imagine that you can serve the Good by pulling down statues? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think that the people who are doing these things are Evil, and should be destroyed? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think we need a revolution or a civil war to insure the victory of the Good. You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Have you considered the fact that the panacea you imagine will result from a successful revolution or civil war will inevitably be just as “unnatural” for our species as the system it replaces? We are simply not adapted to live in the massive societies we are forced to live in today if we want to survive, no matter how cleverly they are organized. The best we can hope for is that they be so structured as to minimize the inconvenience of living in them.

As for the emotions referred to above, we may find it useful to keep in mind the fact that they exist because they happened to motivate behaviors that increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive in an environment populated by small, widely dispersed groups of hunter-gatherers. Today, in a radically different environment, those same emotions still motivate our behavior. However, the odds that this will have the same effect now as they did then in promoting gene survival are vanishingly small.

What are the implications of all this at the level of the individual?  For starters, it is neither Good nor Evil to rush around blindly responding to emotions by pulling down statues, joining demonstrations, organizing revolutions, or joining in civil wars. The obvious reason for this is that Good and Evil are terms for categories that simply don’t exist. They are imagined to exist. I merely suggest that individuals may want to stand back for a moment and consider whether, in their frantic efforts to promote the Good, they are accomplishing anything remotely connected to the reasons they imagine such a thing as the Good exists to begin with. The illusion of Good exists because it once promoted survival. As they pursue this mirage, individuals may want to consider whether their behavior will have a similar result today.

It is up to individuals to choose what their goals in life will be. No God or objective moral law can make the choice for them, because these things don’t exist. Supposing you’ve read Darwin, and understand that the sole reason for the existence of the emotions that motivate your behavior is the fact that, once upon a time, long, long ago, they happened to increase the odds that the genes you carry would survive. You can still choose to respond to those emotions in ways that make you happy, or in ways that make you feel good and noble, even if your behavior doesn’t improve the odds that you will survive, and may actually be suicidal. With a little effort, you may even still be able to delude yourself into believing that you really are fighting for the Good. Realizing that you are a link in a chain of living creatures that has existed unbroken for upwards of two billion years, you can make a conscious decision to be the final link. You can go through life imagining that you are as noble as Don Quixote, and then die, fully aware that you represent a biological dead end. None of these choices would be immoral. All I can say about them is that I don’t personally find them attractive.

I happen to have different goals. My goals are personal survival, and beyond that the continued survival of my species, and its continued evolution into forms that will promote the survival of biological life in general. To reach these goals, I realize it will occasionally be necessary to second guess my emotions, and to choose to act against the way they incline me to act. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are better than the goal of living a happy life, or of devoting my life to fighting on behalf of the illusion of Good. All I can say is that they are my goals, which I have chosen because they happen to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Darwin explained those reasons to us. Perhaps it’s time to start listening to him.

The Atlantic Monthly Ponders: Where Will It End?

Today we are witnessing extreme examples of moral nihilism. By moral nihilism I mean the concoction of novel “moral laws” in rapid succession, combined with the expection and demand that everyone else respect and obey these new “laws.” Moral nihilism is often associated with moral subjectivity. The opposite is the case. The current chaos in our cities is a direct manifestation of objective morality. It requires the assumption that one is acting on behalf of some objective “good,” existing independently of anyone’s mere opinion. It is an illusion spawned by the very power of our moral emotions, and one that we must shed if we are ever to make anything that can be accurately described as “moral progress.” Absent objective morality, the very notion of judging people who lived centuries ago by the moral fashions prevailing today becomes absurd.

The fundamental lie of objective morality is commonly used to justify all kinds of ancillary lies. Indeed, the illusion often promotes a sincere belief that the lies are true. One of the best antidotes is historical source material, taken straight up rather than filtered by some academic historian to fit a preferred narrative. I found a good example bearing on our current situation in the pages of the December, 1857 issue of the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Where Will It End?” (To see the article, click on the link that appears when you click on the first link).

The “it” referred to was slavery, and the question was to be emphatically answered in a few years. Among the lies that this article demolishes, along thousands of other articles like it that appeared in contemporary books, newspapers, and magazines, is the argument, beloved of Marxists, Confederate Heritage zealots, and 19th century British aristocrats alike, that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. By all means, read the whole thing, and you’ll see what I mean. However, its value hardly ends there. Let’s take a look at some of the more striking excerpts. The first explodes the leftist narrative that the country was built on the backs of slaves:

When the eyes of the thoughtful inquirer turn from the general prospect of the national greatness and strength, to the geographical divisions of the country… He beholds the Southern region, embracing within its circuit three hundred thousand more square miles than the domain of the North, dowered with a soil incomparably more fertile, watered by mighty rivers fit to float the argosies of the world, placed nearer the sun and canopied by more propitious skies, with every element of prosperity and wealth showered upon it with Nature’s fullest and most unwithdrawing hand, and sees that, notwithstanding all this, the share of public wealth and strength drawn thence is almost inappreciable, by the side of what is poured into the common stock by the strenuous sterility of the North. With every opportunity and means that Nature can supply for commerce, with navigable rivers searching its remotest corners, with admirable harbors in which the navies of the world might ride, with the chief articles of export for its staple productions, it still depends upon its Northern partner to fetch and carry all that it produces, and the little that it consumes. Possessed of all the raw materials of manufactures and the arts, its inhabitants look to the North for everything they need from the cradle to the coffin. Essentially agricultural in its constitution, with every blessing Nature can bestow upon it, the gross value of all its productions is less by millions than that of the simple grass of the field gathered into northern barns. With all the means and materials of wealth, the South is poor. With every advantage for gathering strength and self-reliance, it is weak and dependent. Why this difference between the two?

The author doesn’t leave us guessing. The answer is slavery. Far from being the economic dynamo on the back of which the evil whites stood to build their empire, it hobbled and impoverished them for the benefit of a few. In his words,

The key of the enigma is to be found in the constitution of human nature. A man in fetters cannot do the task-work that one whose limbs are unshackled looks upon as a pastime… Hence the difference so often noticed between tracts lying side by side, separated only by a river or an imaginary line; on one side of which, thrift and comfort and gathering wealth, growing villages, smiling farms, convenient habitations, school-houses and churches make the landscape beautiful; while on the other, slovenly husbandry, dilapidated mansions, sordid huts, perilous wastes, horrible roads, the rare spire, and rarer village school betray all the nakedness of the land. It is the magic of motive that calls forth all this wealth and beauty to bless the most sterile soil stirred by willing and intelligent labor; while the reversing of that spell scatters squalor and poverty and misery over lands endowed by Nature with the highest fertility, spreading their leprous infection from the laborer to his lord.

In the next passage we find a denunciation of slavery similar to those penned by a myriad other authors in the decades leading up to the Civil War:

That the denial of his natural and civil rights to the laborer who sows and reaps the harvests of the Southern country should be avenged upon his enslaver in the scanty yielding of the earth, and in the unthrift, the vices, and the wretchedness which are the only crops that spring spontaneously from soil blasted by slavery is nothing strange. It is only the statement of the truism in moral and in political economy, that true prosperity can never grow up from wrong and wickedness.

There is a striking similarity among virtually all of these authors; they are all white. Similar denunciations of slavery in the literature of any other race or culture are virtually nonexistent in comparison. We don’t know when or where the first incidence of human slavery occurred, but we do know who put a stop to it, and they happened to have white skin. Absent the battle waged by whites against slavery, first with the pen and then with the sword, the chances that slavery would be considered anything but a benign social institution today are vanishingly small. This fact alone exposes the gross racism of today’s pious social justice warriors.

The article also exposes the racism inherent in the claim that all whites are born tainted with the original sin of slavery. As the author points out,

The entire sum of all who have any direct connection with slavery, as owners or hirers, is less than three hundred and fifty thousand, – not half as many as the inhabitants of the single city of New York.

The white population of the country at the time the article was written was about 25 million. Slave owners and hirers made up little more than one percent of the total, especially when one deducts women and children from the total. As the author points out, the remaining white population of the South was impoverished by slavery, not enriched by it. He notes that the increasing desperation of the slave oligarchy is driven in part by growing signs of resistance among poor whites:

It rages, for its time is short. And its rage is the fiercer because of the symptoms of rebellion against its despotism which it discerns among the white men of the South, who from poverty or from principle have no share in its sway. When we speak of the South as distinguished from the North by elements of inherent hostility, we speak only of the governing faction, and not of the millions of nominally free men who are scarcely less its thralls than the black slaves themselves… That such a tyranny should excite an antagonistic spirit of resistance is inevitable from the constitution of man and the character of God. The sporadic cases of protest and of resistance to the slaveholding aristocracy, which lift themselves occasionally above the dead level of the surrounding despotism, are representative cases… The unity of interest of the non-slaveholders of the South with the people of the Free States is perfect, and it must one day combine them in a unity of action.

Just as many of us have underestimated the recently demonstrated willingness of many of our fellow citizens to grovel and humiliate themselves for such sins as telling the truth and mildly challenging leftist dogmas, the author underestimated the willingness of southern whiles to fight for the oligarchs who impoverished them. The Civil War demonstrated the southern oligarchy’s ability use their nearly unchallenged control of the social media of their day to influence and manipulate the behavior and opinions of the population. The techniques they used will sound eerily familiar to 21st century readers:

There must be intelligence enough among the non-slaveholding whites to see the difference there is between themselves and persons of the same condition in the Free States. Why have they no free schools?… Why are they hindered from taking such newspapers as they please? Why are they subjected to censorship of the press, which dictates to them what they may or may not read, and which punishes booksellers with exile and ruin for keeping for sale what they want to buy? Why must Northern publishers expurgate and emasculate the literature of the world before it is permitted to reach them?… The slaveholders, having the wealth, and nearly all the education that the South can boast of, employ these mighty instruments of power to create the public sentiment and to control the public affairs of their region, so as best to secure their own supremacy. No word of dissent to the institutions under which they live, no syllable of dissatisfaction, even, with any of the excesses they stimulate, can be breathed in safety. A Christian minister in Tennessee relates an act of fiendish cruelty inflicted upon a slave by one of the members of his church, and he is forced to leave his charge, if not to fly the country. Another in South Carolina presumes to express in conversation his disapprobation of the murderous assault of Brooks on Senator Sumner, and his pastoral relations are broken up on the instant, as if he had been guilty of gross crime or flagrant heresy. Professor Hedrick, in North Carolina, ventures to utter a preference for the Northern candidate in the last presidential campaign, and he is summarily ejected from his chair, and virtually banished from his native State. Mr. Underwood of Virginia dares to attend the convention of the party he preferred, and he is forbidden to return to his home on pain of death. The blackness of darkness and the stillness of death are thus forced to brood over that land which God formed so fair, and made to be so happy.

Do you notice any similarity between the tactics of 19th century slave owners and 21st century social justice warriors? You should! Source literature is a wonderful thing. It transports you to a different world where you can watch the narratives that pass for “history” pop like soap bubbles before you eyes. The author concludes,

Thus the ideal of a true republic, of a government of laws made and executed by the people of which bards have sung and prophets dreamed, and for which martyrs have suffered and heroes died, may yet be possible to us, and the great experiment of this Western World be indeed a Model, instead of a Warning to the nations.

It was whites who first raised a moral challenge to slavery, and finally put an end to it. Their reward has been blanket condemnation as a race for the sins of a tiny minority. No, dear author, your hopes were vain. The monuments to the martyrs and heroes you refer to are being defaced and pulled down as I write this. We did not become a Model for others. We certainly became a Warning.

Moral Realism: Philosophers Chasing a Mirage

Darwin isn’t really necessary to debunk moral realism – the notion that objective moral truths exist. Examples of virtuous indignation and moral outrage are certainly abundant enough in modern societies. Examine one such example at your leisure and consider the questions, “Where is the authority for that behavior? What justification do the outraged have for insisting that particular acts or individuals are evil?” In fact, no such authority or justification exists independently of the mere opinion of individuals. Darwin’s great contribution was to explain why we so firmly believe in the illusion of moral truths. The illusion exists because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce, and it is an extremely powerful illusion because it maximized the odds by instilling absolute conviction that the illusion is real.

Many scientists and public intellectuals have accepted the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection. If that’s true, then we’re talking about a natural process that hasn’t been guided by a supernatural being or any other conscious entity. It seems obvious that this excludes the possibility that there are objective moral truths. The reason for the illusion that they exist is clear. There is no reason to continue believing that the illusion is real, especially in view of the fact that no “moral truth objects” have ever been detected. Some among the scientists and public intellectuals mentioned above have admitted as much, claiming to accept the fact that morality is subjective. The incredible power of the illusion is demonstrated by the fact that none of them who are alive today, or at least none that I am aware of, behaves in a way that is in any way comprehensible or rational if they actually believe what they say. All of them claim that certain individuals are immoral, or that we have moral obligations, or that we “ought” to do things they deem good, and “ought not” to do things they deem bad, without the slightest suggestion that all they are really doing is demanding that the rest of us respect and base our own behavior on their emotional whims. They may claim they don’t believe the illusion is real, but every one of them acts as if they firmly believe it is.

As if that weren’t evidence enough of the whimsical nature of our species, there are also philosophers who accept the fact that human morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and yet still insist on the existence of objective moral truths. Two examples of the same may be found in an article entitled Evolution and Moral Realism, that appeared in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science a few years ago. The authors, by the names of Kim Sterelny and Ben Fraser, were a professor and postdoc at the time in the philosophy program of the Australian National University. Wikipedia informs us that the former is the winner of several international prizes. They appear to accept the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolution by natural selection, at least for the sake of argument, but claim that there are moral facts and moral truths in spite of that. Based on his publication list, Sterelny is familiar with the work of Richard Dawkins, and must be familiar with how other authors have both supported and disputed his take on group selection. He seems to understand how natural selection actually works. In spite of that, according to the abstract of the paper in question,

…one important strand in the evolutionary history of moral thinking does support reductive naturalism – moral facts are facts about cooperation, and the conditions and practices that support or undermine it.

We make a positive case that true moral beliefs are a “fuel for success”, a map by which we steer, flexibly, in a variety of social interactions.

The authors leave no doubt about what they mean by “moral facts” and “true moral beliefs” a bit later when they write,

…we shall be arguing, that moral facts are facts about social interactions that support stable cooperation, the moral realist must hold that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, independently of what anyone says, believes, or thinks.

Coming from philosophers, this bit is surprising to say the least. The fact that human beings are predisposed to cooperate with others under certain conditions is a fact. It belongs to the realm of “is.” The claim that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of “ought.” In the rest of the paper the authors attempt to explain this leap from “is” to “ought.” I doubt that Hume would be impressed.

One problem is immediately apparent in the abstract, where the authors claim that facts about cooperation are moral facts because they are a “fuel for success.” Success at what? To be successful, one must have a goal. A goal is something a conscious being desires. Natural selection has no desires, nor does it have any goals. It does not have a function, because a function can also only be assigned by a conscious being. Claiming that natural selection has the goal or the function to promote cooperation is about as rational as claiming that a lump of carbon has the goal or the function to turn into a diamond, and yet the authors make that claim throughout the paper. Consider the following examples:

So one function of moral thinking is to track a class of facts about human social environments.

…a natural notion of moral truth emerges from the idea that normative thought has evolved to mediate stable cooperation.

The moral truths specify maxims that are members of near-optimal normative packages – sets of norms that if adopted, would help generate high levels of appropriately distributed, and hence stable, cooperation profits.

If moral thinking evolved as a tracking device, selected to track and respond to cooperation pitfalls, then the apparently truth-apt character of moral thought and talk would reflect its functional role.

Every one of these statements is incomprehensible absent the existence of some conscious mind directing the process. No such conscious mind exists to give natural selection a function, nor to “mediate stable cooperation,” nor to “generate cooperation profits.” Natural selection is a process that happens by virtue of the fact that some genes are more likely to survive and reproduce than others. A result of natural selection has been the evolution of our species. However, it is completely impossible for that to ever have been its “function,” or its “goal.”

Even if there were a conscious mind to give natural selection a “goal” and a “function,” it would hardly imply a moral obligation to comply with this goal. “Cooperation” might be a useful tool for achieving the hypothetical imperative of “fueling success,” as defined by the authors, but that fact by no means implies a moral, categorical imperative to cooperate in achieving that goal. Is it really necessary to explain to professors of philosophy that there is a difference between the statement that one “ought” to use a hammer to drive a nail, and the statement that one “ought” to act morally? Even the patron saint of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, understood the difference. He knew that there could be no objective, “transcendental” justification for his proposed morality. That’s why he supported the blank slate. He knew that if innate emotions played a major role in motivating morality, then his utilitarian nostrums would be stillborn.

In short, if the authors’ intention was to hop over the is-ought barrier, they’ve stumbled badly. Their notion of “moral truth” begs many other questions. For example, they actually mention the existence of ingroups and outgroups, but don’t explain how outgroups will fit within the rubric of cooperation as moral truth. We all tend to hate and despise those we identify as belonging to our outgroup, however we define it. When it evolved, that tendency typically applied to the neighboring group of hunter gatherers. It insured that we would keep our distance from each other, and avoid over-exploiting the resources in a given territory. Things have changed, of course. We are aware of a great many “groups,” and are capable of perceiving virtually any of them as the outgroup. Regardless of which one we choose, identification and hatred of outgroups remains a characteristic human trait.  Typical university professors are more than likely to perceive Donald Trump and his supporters as outgroup, and yet they make up half the population of the United States, give or take. How will “cooperation” as a moral imperative apply to them? Clearly, the idea that “cooperation” will have the same result globally in groups of hundreds of millions of people today as it did in the Pleistocene can hardly be assumed. Suppose it doesn’t? Will the dependent “moral truths” not evaporate as a result? If moral truth exists as an objective thing, independent of what anyone merely thinks to be good, how is it that this “objective truth” only popped into existence billions of years after the big bang, coincident with the emergence on one planet among trillions of a particular type of animal?

Clearly, the illusion that there are moral truths is an aspect of the innate nature of our species, and that illusion is extremely powerful. It is also a very expedient illusion for professors of philosophy. After all, they are supposed to be experts about good and evil. If good and evil don’t exist, that leaves them experts about nothing. Unfortunately, they don’t exist any more than unicorns and leprechauns. If we exist as a result of natural selection, then the most parsimonious and obvious explanation of morality is that it is a manifestation of emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved, and that the fact of their evolution excludes the possibility that they somehow track or correspond with “moral truths.”

The fact that there are no objective moral truths has no moral implications. It does not imply that we are forbidden to act in harmony with our moral emotions, nor does it imply that we are forbidden to establish a morality and treat it as an absolute, with punishment for those who violate the moral law. It does imply that, depending on what our personal goals happen to be, we should be very careful about how we construct such a morality. There is no guarantee that emotions that helped us reach our goals millions of years ago will have the same effect today.

Morality: “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

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…

and

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.

Objective Morality: The “Ethical Intuitionism” Gambit

Does it make any difference whether morality is objective or subjective? I think the answer to that question is certainly “yes”. If morality is objective, than it is our duty to obey the moral law no matter what. If we don’t, we are bad by definition. To the extent that other people understand the moral law better than we do, or are more virtuous than we are, they have an indubitable right to dictate to us how we ought to behave, and to vilify us if we don’t do as they tell us. If, on the other hand, morality is subjective, then it must be an artifact of natural selection. It could not be otherwise with emotionally motivated behavioral traits that clearly have a profound influence on whether we will survive or not. At least it could not be otherwise assuming there is no God, and that Hume and others before him were right in claiming that morality is not accessible via pure reason. For reasons I have outlined elsewhere, I think both of these assumptions are true. If morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection, then it follows that it can hardly be blindly assumed that what promoted our survival in the past when the traits in question evolved will continue to promote our survival in the present. In fact, it is quite possible that some of them have become dangerous in the environment we live in now. In that case no one has a right to dictate how we ought or ought not to behave based on their subjective version of morality. Instead of helpfully informing us what we need to do to be good, such people may actually pose a threat to us, to the extent that we value our own survival. These are only a few of the issues that depend on the answer to this question.

As my readers know, I believe that morality is subjective. Many philosophers disagree with me. One such is Prof. Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. Huemer, who has a blog by the name of Fake Nous, supports a version of objective morality known as ethical intuitionism, which is also the title of a book he has written about the subject. His claim is that we are “justified” in assuming there is an objective moral law because it “appears” to our intuition, and we should trust appearances absent convincing evidence that they are wrong. I think that, in examining this version of objective morality, it will be possible to expose some of the weaknesses common to them all.

According to Huemer, the morality object does not exist in the realm of objects that can “appear” to our usual five senses, either directly or via scientific instruments. Of course, this must be true, as no one has yet succeeded in snagging a good or evil object and putting it on display in a museum for the rest of us to admire. However, things in the extrasensory realm where the morality object exists do appear to our intuition. According to Huemer, that’s how we recognize its reality.

Of course, an obvious objection to Huemer’s claim that we are as justified in believing in objects that “appear” to our intuitions as in objects that appear to our senses is that claims based on such “appearances” are not falsifiable by the conventional scientific method of checking them via repeatable experiments.  However, setting that aside for the moment, let’s examine the credibility of this claim starting from the very beginning. For all practical purposes, the very beginning was the Big Bang. Physicists have given us plausible explanations of how everything we can detect in the observable universe came into existence in the aftermath of the Big Bang. I can accept the existence of quarks, photons, and quantum fields, because their “appearance” has been confirmed many times over in repeatable experiments, and they are accessible to my senses, either directly, or via scientific instruments. However, I find it incredible that this cataclysmic event also spit out a moral law object, which now somehow permeates all space. I am not at all trying to be funny here. If this thing the philosophers refer to exists, there must be some explanation of how it came to exist. What is it?

However, let us assume for the moment that the moral law object did somehow come into existence. Presumably this must have been before the evolution of human beings, else we couldn’t possibly have evolved the capacity to detect it with our intuitions. Absent some other plausible path to the existence in our brains of something as sophisticated as an “intuition” sense capable of enabling us to detect the moral law object, this ability must necessarily be a result of natural selection. Of course, natural selection doesn’t automatically choose the Good. It chooses whatever promotes our survival. If Huemer is right, then we must have somehow acquired, not only the ability to detect the moral law object via intuition, but virtually at the same time a predisposition to act in accordance with the moral law. By a wonderful coincidence, it also just so happened that acting in this way promoted the survival of creatures such as ourselves, although it would more likely have resulted in the immediate demise of other life forms. Darwin mentions bees, for example.

Our eyes and ears have taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve. How is it that a “sense” capable of detecting the moral law object evolved so quickly? It couldn’t have happened in creatures less intelligent than ourselves, because they have no morality, at least as it is described by Huemer, nor any need for an intuition capable of detecting it. The initial appearance of this “sense” in our species and its subsequent evolution to such a state of perfection must have happened rapidly indeed.

Huemer dismisses natural selection as an explanation of subjective morality because, in his words, it is “not impressive.” As can be seen above, however, he cannot simply hand wave natural selection out of existence. He claims we possess an intuition capable of detecting morality objects. How did we acquire this intuition absent natural selection? If Huemer wants to claim that God did it, well and good, we can debate the existence of God. However, I doubt he wants to go there. There is no mention of God in his book. Absent God, what other path to the acquisition of such a complex ability exists, other than natural selection? Huemer will have to be “impressed” by natural selection at some point, whether he likes it or not.

Assuming Darwin was right about natural selection, isn’t it simpler and more rational to accept that innate behavior, including the predispositions that give rise to morality, evolved directly because it happened to promote survival, resulting in our associating “good” with behavior that promoted our survival and “bad” with behavior that didn’t? The alternative proposed by Huemer is that we first evolved the ability to detect the moral law, only then followed by the evolution of awareness that the moral law was trying to get us to do something followed by a predisposition to believe it was “good” to follow the moral law and “bad” not to follow it, along with the remarkable coincidence that all this promoted our survival. Does this sound even remotely plausible to you? Then, to use one of the author’s favorite clichés, I have some bridges to sell you.

I submit that every version of objective morality that doesn’t rely on the intervention of supernatural beings suffers from the same implausibility as Huemer’s system, for more or less the same reasons. That’s why I believe that morality is subjective. Huemer notes in his book that I am hardly alone in this regard. There are legions of people who describe themselves as subjective moralists. However, as he also correctly points out, it doesn’t make any difference. When it comes to their actual moral behavior, they act in ways that are inexplicable absent the implied assumption of objective morality. I know of not a single exception to this rule among philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals of note. Every one of them treats their idiosyncratic moral judgments as if they automatically apply to others without so much as blinking an eye. That is actually a major theme of this blog. However, I’ve rambled on long enough, and will take up the matter in my next post.

Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn

In my last post I noted that the arguments in an article by Ronald Dworkin defending the existence of objective moral truths could be used equally well to defend the existence of unicorns. Dworkin is hardly unique among modern philosophers in this respect. Prof. Katia Vavova of Mt. Holyoke College also defended objective morality in an article entitled Debunking Evolutionary Debunking published in 2014 in the journal Oxford Studies in Metaethics. According to Prof. Vavova’s version of the argument, it is impossible to accurately describe the characteristics of unicorns without assuming the existence of unicorns. Therefore, we must assume the existence of unicorns. QED

As the title of her article would imply, Prof. Vavova focuses on arguments against the existence of objective moral truths based on the Theory of Evolution. In fact, Darwin’s theory is hardly necessary to debunk moral objectivity. If objective moral truths exist independently of what anyone merely thinks to be true, they can’t be nothing. They must be something. Dworkin was obviously aware of this problem in the article I referred to in my last post. He was also aware that no one has ever detected moral objects in a form accessible to our familiar senses. He referred derisively to the notion that the existed as moral particles, or “morons,” or as “morality fields” accessible to the laws of physics. To overcome this objection, however, he was forced to rely on the even more dubious claim that moral truths exist in some sort of transcendental plane of their own, floating about as unphysical spirits. Continue reading “Morality: Another Shade of Unicorn”

Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion

Darwin eliminated any rational basis for belief in objective moral truths when he revealed the nature of morality as a fundamentally emotional phenomenon and the reasons for its existence as a result of evolution by natural selection. Edvard Westermarck spelled out the implications of Darwin’s work for those with minds open enough to accept the truth. Their number has always been exceedingly small. The power of the illusion of the objective existence of good and evil has blinded most of us to facts that seem almost trivially obvious.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, and we have never been determined to believe anything more tenaciously than the illusion of moral truth. We have invented countless ways to prop it up and deny the obvious. Philosophers have always been among the most imaginative inventors. It stands to reason. After all, they have the most to lose if the illusion vanishes; their moral authority, their claims to expertise about things that don’t exist, and their very livelihoods. I’ve found what I call the “unicorn criterion” one of the most effective tools for examining these claims. It amounts to simply assuming that, instead of instilling in our brains the powerful illusion of objective good and evil, natural selection had fitted each of us out with an overpowering illusion that unicorns are real. Then, simply substitute unicorns for moral truths in the arguments of the objective moralists. If the argument is as good for the former as it is for the latter, it seems probable to me that both arguments are wrong. Continue reading “Morality, Philosophy, and the Unicorn Criterion”

On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck

The illusion of objective morality is amazingly powerful. The evidence is now overwhelming that morality is a manifestation of emotions, and that these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that there can be no such thing as objective moral truths. The brilliant Edvard Westermarck explained why more than a century ago in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of 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.

Westermarck, in turn, was merely pointing out some of the more obvious implications of what Darwin had written about morality in his The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Today Westermarck is nearly forgotten, what Darwin wrote about morality is ignored as if it didn’t exist, and the illusion is as powerful and persistent as it was more than a century ago. Virtually every human being on the planet either believes explicitly in objective moral truths, or behaves as if they did regardless of whether they admit to believing in them or not. Continue reading “On the Illusion of Objective Morality; We Should Have Listened to Westermarck”

More Fun with Moral Realism

What is moral realism?  Edvard Westermarck provided a good definition in the first paragraph of his Ethical Relativity:

Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity.  The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.  The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

Westermarck dismissed moral realism as a chimera.  So do I.  Indeed, in view of what we now know about the evolutionary origins of moral emotions, the idea strikes me as ludicrous.  It is, however, treated as matter-of-factly as if it were an unquestionable truth, and not only in the general public.  Philosophers merrily discuss all kinds of moral conundrums and paradoxes in academic journals, apparently in the belief that they have finally uncovered the “truth” about such matters, to all appearances with no more fear of being ridiculed than the creators of the latest Paris fashions.  The fact is all the more disconcerting if one takes the trouble to excavate the reasons supplied for this stubborn belief that subjective emotional constructs in the minds of individuals actually relate to independent things.  Typically, they are threadbare almost beyond belief.

Recently I discussed the case of G. E. Moore, who, after dismissing the arguments of virtually everyone who had attempted a “proof” of moral realism before him as fatally flawed by the naturalistic fallacy, supplied a “proof” of his own.  It turned out that the “objective good” consisted of those things that were most likely to please an English country gentleman.  The summum bonum was described as something like sitting in a cozy house with a nice glass of wine while listening to Beethoven.  The only “proof” supplied for the independent existence of this “objective good” was Moore’s assurance that he was an expert in such matters, and that it was obvious to him that he was right.

I recently uncovered another such “proof,” this time concocted in the fertile imagination of the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö. It turned up in an interview on the website of 3:AM Magazine under the title, The Hedonistic Utilitarian.  In response to interviewer Richard Marshall’s question,

Why are you a moral realist and what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

Tännsjö replies,

I am indeed a moral realist.  In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one.  There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualization.  My main argument in defense of the position is this.  It is true (independently of our conceptualization) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth).  But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualization, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true.  We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise.

In reading this, I was reminded of PFC Littlejohn, who happened to serve in my unit when I was a young lieutenant in the Army.  Whenever I happened to pull his leg more egregiously than even he could bear, he would typically respond, “You must be trying to bullshit me, sir!”  Apparently Tännsjö doesn’t consider Darwin’s theory, or Darwin’s own opinion regarding the origin of the moral emotions, or the flood of books and papers on the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, or the convincing arguments for the selective advantage of just such an emotional response as he describes, or the utter lack of evidence for the physical existence of “moral truths” independent of our “thought and conceptualization,” as sufficiently strong reasons “to think otherwise.”  Tännsjö continues,

Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see.  It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualization) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest.  It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons.  If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is righty to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well.

Yes, in the same sense that deontic logic is necessary to determine whether it is true or false that there are fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  No deontic logic is necessary here – just the realization that Tännsjö is trying to make truth claims about something that is not subject to truth claims.  The claim that it is objectively “not wrong” to do what he describes is as much a truth claim, and therefore just as irrational, as the claim that it is wrong.  As for his equally irrational worries about “moral nihilism,” his argument is similar to those of the religious true believers who think that, because they find a world without a God unpalatable, one must therefore perforce pop into existence.  Westermarck accurately described the nature of Tännsjö’s “proof” in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, where he wrote,

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 objectivise 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.

Today, Westermarck is nearly forgotten, while G. E. Moore is a household name among moral philosophers.  The Gods and angels of traditional religions seem to be in eclipse in Europe and North America, but “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen” are still with us, transmogrified into the ghosts and goblins of moral realism.  We find atheist social justice warriors hurling down their anathemas and interdicts more furiously than anything ever dreamed of by the Puritans and Pharisees of old, supremely confident in their “objective” moral purity.

And what of moral nihilism?  Dream on!  Anyone who seriously believes that anything like moral nihilism can result from the scribblings of philosophers has either been living under a rock, or is constitutionally incapable of observing the behavior of his own species.  Human beings will always behave morally.  The question is, what kind of a morality can we craft for ourselves that is both in harmony with our moral emotions, that does the least harm, and that most of us can live with.  I personally would prefer one that is based on an accurate understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.

Do I think that anything of the sort is on the horizon in the foreseeable future?  No.  When it comes to belief in religion and/or moral realism, one must simply get used to living in Bedlam.