Morality and the Floundering Philosophers

In my last post I noted the similarities between belief in objective morality, or the existence of “moral truths,” and traditional religious beliefs. Both posit the existence of things without evidence, with no account of what these things are made of (assuming that they are not things that are made of nothing), and with no plausible explanation of how these things themselves came into existence or why their existence is necessary. In both cases one can cite many reasons why the believers in these nonexistent things want to believe in them. In both cases, for example, the livelihood of myriads of “experts” depends on maintaining the charade. Philosophers are no different from priests and theologians in this respect, but their problem is even bigger. If Darwin gave the theologians a cold, he gave the philosophers pneumonia. Not long after he published his great theory it became clear, not only to him, but to thousands of others, that morality exists because the behavioral traits which give rise to it evolved. The Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck formalized these rather obvious conclusions in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906) and Ethical Relativity (1932). At that point, belief in the imaginary entities known as “moral truths” became entirely superfluous. Philosophers have been floundering behind their curtains ever since, trying desperately to maintain the illusion.

An excellent example of the futility of their efforts may be found online in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in an entry entitled Morality and Evolutionary Biology. The most recent version was published in 2014.  It’s rather long, but to better understand what follows it would be best if you endured the pain of wading through it.  However, in a nutshell, it seeks to demonstrate that, even if there is some connection between evolution and morality, it’s no challenge to the existence of “moral truths,” which we are to believe can be detected by well-trained philosophers via “reason” and “intuition.”  Quaintly enough, the earliest source given for a biological explanation of morality is E. O. Wilson.  Apparently the Blank Slate catastrophe is as much a bugaboo for philosophers as for scientists.  Evidently it’s too indelicate for either of them to mention that the behavioral sciences were completely derailed for upwards of 50 years by an ideologically driven orthodoxy.  In fact, a great many highly intelligent scientists and philosophers wrote a great deal more than Wilson about the connection between biology and morality before they were silenced by the high priests of the Blank Slate.  Even during the Blank Slate men like Sir Arthur Keith had important things to say about the biological roots of morality.  Robert Ardrey, by far the single most influential individual in smashing the Blank Slate hegemony, addressed the subject at length long before Wilson, as did thinkers like Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen.  Perhaps if its authors expect to be taken seriously, this “Encyclopedia” should at least set the historical record straight.

It’s already evident in the Overview section that the author will be running with some dubious assumptions.  For example, he speaks of “morality understood as a set of empirical phenomena to be explained,” and the “very different sets of questions and projects pursued by philosophers when they inquire into the nature and source of morality,” as if they were examples of the non-overlapping magisterial once invoked by Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, if one “understands the empirical phenomena” of morality, then the problem of the “nature and source of morality” is hardly “non-overlapping.”  In fact, it solves itself.  The suggestion that they are non-overlapping depends on the assumption that “moral truth” exists in a realm of its own.  A bit later the author confirms he is making that assumption as follows:

Moral philosophers tend to focus on questions about the justification of moral claims, the existence and grounds of moral truths, and what morality requires of us.  These are very different from the empirical questions pursued by the sciences, but how we answer each set of questions may have implications for how we should answer the other.

He allows that philosophy and the sciences must inform each other on these “distinct” issues.  In fact, neither philosophy nor the sciences can have anything useful to say about these questions, other than to point out that they relate to imaginary things.  “Objects” in the guise of “justification of moral claims,” “grounds of moral truths,” and the “requirements of morality” exist only in fantasy.  The whole burden of the article is to maintain that fantasy, and insist that the mirage is real.  We are supposed to be able to detect that the mirages are real by thinking really hard until we “grasp moral truths,” and “gain moral knowledge.”  It is never explained what kind of a reasoning process leads to “truths” and “knowledge” about things that don’t exist.  Consider, for example, the following from the article:

…a significant amount of moral judgment and behavior may be the result of gaining moral knowledge, rather than just reflecting the causal conditioning of evolution.  This might apply even to universally held moral beliefs or distinctions, which are often cited as evidence of an evolved “universal moral grammar.”  For example, people everywhere and from a very young age distinguish between violations of merely conventional norms and violations of norms involving harm, and they are strongly disposed to respond to suffering with concern.  But even if this partly reflects evolved psychological mechanisms or “modules” governing social sentiments and responses, much of it may also be the result of human intelligence grasping (under varying cultural conditions) genuine morally relevant distinctions or facts – such as the difference between the normative force that attends harm and that which attends mere violations of convention.

It’s amusing to occasionally substitute “the flying spaghetti monster” or “the great green grasshopper god” for the author’s “moral truths.”  The “proofs” of their existence work just as well.  In the above, he is simply assuming the existence of “morally relevant distinctions,” and further assuming that they can be grasped and understood logically.  Such assumptions fly in the face of the work of many philosophers who demonstrated that moral judgments are always grounded in emotions, sometimes referred to by earlier authors as “sentiments,” or “passions,” and it is therefore impossible to arrive at moral truths through reason alone.  Assuming some undergraduate didn’t write the article, one must assume the author had at least a passing familiarity with some of these people.  The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, demonstrated the decisive role of “natural affections” as the origins of moral judgment in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699), even noting in that early work the similarities between humans and the higher animals in that regard.  Francis Hutcheson very convincingly demonstrated the impotence of reason alone in detecting moral truths, and the essential role of “instincts and affections” as the origin of all moral judgment in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728).  Hutcheson thought that God was the source of these passions and affections.  It remained for David Hume to present similar arguments on a secular basis in his A Treatise on Human Nature (1740).

The author prefers to ignore these earlier philosophers, focusing instead on the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has also insisted on the role of emotions in shaping moral judgment.  Here I must impose on the reader’s patience with a long quote to demonstrate the type of “logic” we’re dealing with.  According to the author,

There are also important philosophical worries about the methodologies by which Haidt comes to his deflationary conclusions about the role played by reasoning in ordinary people’s moral judgments.

To take just one example, Haidt cites a study where people made negative moral judgments in response to “actions that were offensive yet harmless, such as…cleaning one’s toilet with the national flag.” People had negative emotional reactions to these things and judged them to be wrong, despite the fact that they did not cause any harms to anyone; that is, “affective reactions were good predictors of judgment, whereas perceptions of harmfulness were not” (Haidt 2001, 817). He takes this to support the conclusion that people’s moral judgments in these cases are based on gut feelings and merely rationalized, since the actions, being harmless, don’t actually warrant such negative moral judgments. But such a conclusion would be supported only if all the subjects in the experiment were consequentialists, specifically believing that only harmful consequences are relevant to moral wrongness. If they are not, and believe—perhaps quite rightly (though it doesn’t matter for the present point what the truth is here)—that there are other factors that can make an action wrong, then their judgments may be perfectly appropriate despite the lack of harmful consequences.

This is in fact entirely plausible in the cases studied: most people think that it is inherently disrespectful, and hence wrong, to clean a toilet with their nation’s flag, quite apart from the fact that it doesn’t hurt anyone; so the fact that their moral judgment lines up with their emotions but not with a belief that there will be harmful consequences does not show (or even suggest) that the moral judgment is merely caused by emotions or gut reactions. Nor is it surprising that people have trouble articulating their reasons when they find an action intrinsically inappropriate, as by being disrespectful (as opposed to being instrumentally bad, which is much easier to explain).

Here one can but roll ones eyes.  It doesn’t matter a bit whether the subjects are consequentialists or not.  Haidt’s point is that logical arguments will always break down at some point, whether they are based on harm or not, because moral judgments are grounded in emotions.  Harm plays a purely ancillary role.  One could just as easily ask why the action in question is considered disrespectful, and the chain of logical reasons would break down just as surely.  Whoever wrote the article must know what Haidt is really saying, because he refers explicitly to the ideas of Hume in the same book.  Absent the alternative that the author simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, we must conclude that he is deliberately misrepresenting what Haidt was trying to say.

One of the author’s favorite conceits is that one can apply “autonomous applications of human intelligence,” meaning applications free of emotional bias, to the discovery of “moral truths” in the same way those logical faculties are applied in such fields as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, etc.  In his words,

We assume in general that people are capable of significant autonomy in their thinking, in the following sense:

Autonomy Assumption: people have, to greater or lesser degrees, a capacity for reasoning that follows autonomous standards appropriate to the subjects in question, rather than in slavish service to evolutionarily given instincts merely filtered through cultural forms or applied in novel environments. Such reflection, reasoning, judgment and resulting behavior seem to be autonomous in the sense that they involve exercises of thought that are not themselves significantly shaped by specific evolutionarily given tendencies, but instead follow independent norms appropriate to the pursuits in question (Nagel 1979).

This assumption seems hard to deny in the face of such abstract pursuits as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, modal metaphysics, or twelve-tone musical composition, all of which seem transparently to involve precisely such autonomous applications of human intelligence.

This, of course, leads up to the argument that one can apply this “autonomy assumption” to moral judgment as well.  The problem is that, in the other fields mentioned, one actually has something to reason about.  In mathematics, for example, one starts with a collection of axioms that are simply accepted as true, without worrying about whether they are “really” true or not.  In physics, there are observables that one can measure and record as a check on whether one’s “autonomous application of intelligence” was warranted or not.  In other words, one has physical evidence.  The same goes for the other subjects mentioned.  In each case, one is reasoning about something that actually exists.  In the case of morality, however, “autonomous intelligence” is being applied to a phantom.  Again, the same arguments are just as strong if one applies them to grasshopper gods.  “Autonomous intelligence” is useless if it is “applied” to something that doesn’t exist.  You can “reflect” all you want about the grasshopper god, but he will still stubbornly refuse to pop into existence.  The exact nature of the recondite logical gymnastics one must apply to successfully apply “autonomous intelligence” in this way is never explained.  Perhaps a Ph.D. in philosophy at Stanford is a prerequisite before one can even dare to venture forth on such a daunting logical quest.  Perhaps then, in addition to the sheepskin, they fork over a philosopher’s stone that enables one to transmute lead into gold, create the elixir of life, and extract “moral truths” right out of the vacuum.

In short, the philosophers continue to flounder.  Their logical demonstrations of nonexistent “moral truths” are similar in kind to logical demonstrations of the existence of imaginary super-beings, and just as threadbare.  Why does it matter?  I can’t supply you with any objective “oughts,” here, but at least I can tell you my personal prejudices on the matter, and my reasons for them.  We are living in a time of moral chaos, and will continue to do so until we accept the truth about the evolutionary origin of human morality and the implications of that truth.  There are no objective moral truths, and it will be extremely dangerous for us to continue to ignore that fact.  Competing morally loaded ideologies are already demonstrably disrupting our political systems.  It is hardly unlikely that we will once again experience what happens when fanatics stuff their “moral truths” down our throats as they did in the last century with the morally loaded ideologies of Communism and Nazism.  Do you dislike being bullied by Social Justice Warriors?  I’m sorry to inform you that the bullying will continue unabated until we explode the myth that they are bearers of “moral truths” that they are justified, according to “autonomous logic” in imposing on the rest of us.  I could go on and on, but do I really need to?  Isn’t it obvious that a world full of fanatical zealots, all utterly convinced that they have a monopoly on “moral truth,” and a perfect right to impose these “truths” on everyone else, isn’t exactly a utopia?  Allow me to suggest that, instead, it might be preferable to live according to a simple and mutually acceptable “absolute” morality, in which “moral relativism” is excluded, and which doesn’t change from day to day in willy-nilly fashion according to the whims of those who happen to control the social means of communication?  As counter-intuitive as it seems, the only practicable way to such an outcome is acceptance of the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved human nature, and of the truth that there are no such things as “moral truths.”

 

The Great European Morality Inversion

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know my take on morality.  It is the manifestation of a subset of our suite of innate behavioral traits.  The traits in question exist because they evolved.  Absent those traits, morality as we know it would not exist.  It follows that attempts to apply moral emotions in order to solve complex problems that arise in an environment that is radically different from the one in which the innate, “root causes” of morality evolved are irrational.  That, however, is precisely how the Europeans are attempting to deal with an unprecedented flood of culturally and genetically alien refugees.  The result is predictable – a classic morality inversion.

The situation is unfolding just as Jonathan Haidt described it in his paper, The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  As he put it,

…moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.

In other words, the “emotional dog” makes the judgment.  Only after the judgment has been made does the “rational tail” begin “wagging the dog,” concocting good sounding “reasons” for the judgment.  One can get a better idea of what’s really going on by tracking down the source of the moral emotions involved.

Let’s consider, then, what’s going on inside the “pro-refugee” brain.  As in every other brain, the moral machinery distinguishes between ingroup and outgroup(s).  In this case these categories are perceived primarily in ideological terms.  The typical pro-refugee individual is often a liberal, as that rather slippery term is generally understood in the context of 21st century western democracies.  Such specimens will occasionally claim that they have expanded their ingroup to include “all mankind,” so that it is no longer possible for them to be “haters.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  It comes with the human behavioral package.

If anything, the modern liberal hates more violently than any other subgroup.  He commonly hates the people within his own culture who disagree with the shibboleths of his ideology.  Those particular “others,” almost always constitute at least a part of his outgroup.  Outside of his own culture, ideology matters much less as a criterion of outgroup identification, as demonstrated, for example, by the odd affinity between many Western liberals and radical Islamists.

Beyond that, however, he is hardly immune from the more traditional forms of tribalism.  For example, European liberals typically hate the United States.  The intensity of that hatred tends to rise and fall over time, but can sometimes reach almost incredible levels.  The most recent eruption occurred around the year 2000.  Interestingly enough, one of the most spectacular examples occurred in Germany, the very country that now takes the cake for moralistic grandstanding in the matter of refugees.  Der Spiegel, its number one news magazine, was certainly in the avant-garde of the orgasm of hatred.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany on the homepage of its website, so filled was it with furious, spittle-flinging rants about the imagined evils of “die Amerikaner.”  However, virtually every other major German “news” outlet, whether it was nominally “liberal” or “conservative,” eventually jointed the howling pack.  The most vicious examples of anti-American hate were typically found in just those publications that are now quick to denounce German citizens who express concern about the overwhelming waves of refugees now pouring into the country as “haters.”

On the other hand, refugees, or at least those of the type now pouring into Europe, seldom turn up in any of these common outgroups of the modern liberal.  They land squarely in his ingroup.  Humans are generally inclined to help ingroup members who, like the refugees, appear to be in trouble.  This is doubly true of the liberal, who piques himself on what he imagines to be his moral superiority.  Furthermore, as the refugees can be portrayed as victims of colonialism and imperialism, one might say they are a “most favored subset” of the ingroup.  Throw in a few pictures of drowned children, impoverished women begging for help, etc., and all the moral ingredients are there to render the liberal an impassioned defender of the masses of humanity drawing a bead on his country.  Nothing gives him more self-righteous joy than imagining himself a “savior.”  This explains the fact that liberals are eternally in the process of “saving” one group of unfortunates or another without ever getting around to accomplishing anything actually recognizable as salvation.  All the pleasure is in the charade.  We find the same phenomenon whether its a matter of “saving” the environment, “saving” the planet from global warming, or “saving” the poor.  For the liberal, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

Which brings us back to the theme of this post.  All the sublime moral emotions now at play in the “salvation” of the refugees have an uncanny resemblance to many other instances of moral behavior as practiced by the modern liberal.  They have a tendency to favor an outcome which is the opposite of what the same moral emotions accomplished at an earlier time, and that led to their preservation by natural selection to begin with.  In a word, as noted above, we are witnessing yet another classic morality inversion.

Why an inversion?  At the most fundamental level, because it will lead to the diminution or elimination of the genes whose survival a similar response once favored.  At the moment, the pro-refugee side is calling the shots.  It controls the governments of all the major European states.  All of them more or less fit the pattern described above, whether they are nominally “liberal” or “conservative.”  Indeed, foremost among them is Germany’s “conservative’ regime, which has positively invited a flood of alien refugees across its borders.  Based on historical precedent, the outcome of all this altruism isn’t difficult to foresee.  In terms of “culture” it will be a future of ethnic and religious strife, possibly leading to civil war.  Genetically, it amounts to an attempt at ethnic suicide.  I am well aware that these outcomes are disputed by those promoting the refugee inundation.  However, I consider it pointless to argue about it.  I am content to let history judge.

While we bide our time waiting for the train wreck to unfold, it may be of interest to examine some of the techniques being used to maintain this remarkable instance of moralistic play-acting.  I take most of my examples from the German media, which includes some of the most avid refugee cheerleaders.  Predictably, outgroup vilification is part of the mix.  As noted above, anyone who objects to the flood of refugees is almost universally denounced as a “hater” by just those people who wear their own virulent hatreds on their sleeves while pretending they don’t exist.  Of course, there are also the usual hackneyed violations of Godwin’s Law.  For example, Jacob Augstein, leftwing stalwart for Der Spiegel, denounces them as “Browns” (i.e., brownshirts, Nazis) in a recent column.  On the “positive” side, the “conservative” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung optimistically suggests that the refugees will promote economic growth.  According to another article in Der Spiegel, the eastern Europeans, who are not quite so refugee-friendly as the Germans, are “blowing their chance.”  The ominous byline reads,

Europe is shrinking.  The demographic downtrend is particularly dramatic in the eastern part of the continent, where the population is literally dying out.  In spite of that, Hungary, Poland and company are resisting immigration.  They will regret it.

In other words, before turning out the lights and committing suicide, the eastern Europeans should make sure an alien culture is in place to take over their territories when they’re gone.  Of course, this flies in the face of the impassioned rhetoric the liberals have been feeding us about the need to reduce the surface population if we are to have an environmentally sustainable planet.

I note in passing that the European elites that are driving this process now seem to have taken a step back from the brink.  They are having second thoughts.  They realize that they don’t have their populations behind them, and that their defiance of popular opinion might eventually threaten their own power.  As a result, the number of news articles about the refugees and their plight is only a shadow of what it was only a few weeks ago.  Mild reservations about refugee wowserism are starting to appear even in such gung-ho forums as Der Spiegel where, as I write this, the lead article on their homepage is entitled “Now Things Are Getting Uncomfortable.”  Ya think!?  The byline reads,

There is a chance in tone in the refugee crisis.  SPD (German Social Democratic Party) chief Gabriel warms about limits to Germany’s ability to absorb refugees.  Minister of the Interior de Maziere deplores the misbehavior of many migrants.  The pressure on Chancellor Merkel is increasing.

“Ought” the Europeans to alter their behavior?  Is what they consider “good” really “evil?”  Are they ignoring the real “goal” of natural selection?  Certainly not, at least from an objective point of view.  There is no objective criterion for determining what anyone “ought” to do, anymore than there is an objective way to distinguish the difference between things, such as good and evil, that have no objective existence.  They are hardly failing to move towards the “goal” of natural selection, since that process does not have either a purpose or a goal.  As you may have gathered, my own subjective whim is to oppose unlimited immigration.  I have, however, not the slightest basis for declaring that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is “evil.”  At best, I can try to explain my own whims.

I’m what you might call a moral compatibilist.  I see myself sitting at the end of a chain of life spawned by genetic material that has evolved over a period of more than three billions years, surviving and reproducing over that incredible gulf of time via an almost infinite array of successive forms, culminating in the species to which I now belong.  I consider the whole process, and the universe I live in, awesome and wonderful.  Subjectively, it seems to me “good” to act in a way that is compatible with the natural processes that have given me life.  It follows that, from my own, individual, subjective point of view, I “should” seek to preserve that life and pass it on into the indefinite future.

I have not the slightest basis for claiming that “my way” is better than the whimsical behavior of those I see around me exultantly pursuing their morality inversions.  At best, I must limit myself to observing that “my way” seems more consistent.

21st Century Moral Philosophy Advances Boldly into the 19th Century

The 19th century?  I might just as well have said the 18th century.  Today’s moral philosophers, gazing timidly about amidst the rubble of the Blank Slate, have only recently realized that one is not rendered grossly and hopelessly immoral by virtue of merely suggesting the possibility that there is such a thing as human nature.  Indeed, some of them have even been daring enough to admit that there might be something to what the evolutionary psychologists have been telling them after all.  In terms of their own specialty, that means they have boldly advanced to the point that they can dare to acknowledge the existence of the “moral sense” that was proposed quite convincingly by Shaftesbury more than 300 years ago, and demonstrated logically by Hutcheson a bit later in a form that no one has come close to refuting to this day.  True, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson thought that God had concocted this “moral sense.”  We didn’t know where it really came from until Darwin came along and gently alluded to it in the context of his great theory, and that was in the 19th century.  One might even labor the point and say that we had to wait until the dawn of the 20th century before Westermarck came along and bluntly pointed out, for the benefit of those too dense to put two and two together,

…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.

Shortly thereafter, of course, the “men of science” concocted the Blank Slate debacle, and the darkness fell.  What we are witnessing today is the desultory attempts of moral philosophers, or at least a few of them, to pick up the pieces.  I recently ran across a link to an example that appeared shortly after the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy at 3 Quarks Daily in an article on moral realism by Mike Lopresto.  Entitled A Darwinian Dilemma for the Realist Theories of Value, by Sharon Street, it appeared in the journal Philosophical Studies back in 2006.  Street opens with the following:

Contemporary realist theories of value claim to be compatible with natural science. In this paper, I call this claim into question by arguing that Darwinian considerations pose a dilemma for these theories.  The main thrust of my argument is this. Evolutionary forces have played a tremendous role in shaping the content of human evaluative attitudes. The challenge for realist theories of value is to explain the relation between these evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes, on the one hand, and the independent evaluative truths that realism posits, on the other. Realism, I argue, can give no satisfactory account of this relation.

A bit later, Street gets around to explaining exactly what she means by “evolutionary forces:”

In his 1990 book Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, Allan Gibbard notes that his arguments “should be read as having a conditional form: If the psychological facts are roughly as I speculate, here is what might be said philosophically.”  I attach a similar caveat to my argument in this paper: If the evolutionary facts are roughly as I speculate, here is what might be said philosophically.  I try to rest my arguments on the least controversial, most well-founded evolutionary speculations possible.  But they are speculations nonetheless, and they, like some of Gibbard’s theorizing in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, fall within a difficult and relatively new subfield of evolutionary biology known as evolutionary psychology.

Obviously, Street still had a lively fear of the anathemas of the Blank Slate priesthood, carefully referring to evolutionary psychology as “mere speculation.”  One can place the collapse of the Blank Slate, at least as far as the popular media are concerned, at around the turn of the century, give or take a few years.  I doubt that she would have dared to write such heresies ten years earlier.  I certainly know of nothing similar that appeared in any of the philosophy rags prior to say, 1995.  Street continues,

According to this subfield, human cognitive traits are (in some cases) just as susceptible to Darwinian explanation as human physical traits are (in some cases). For example, a cognitive trait such as the widespread human tendency to value the survival of one’s offspring may, according to evolutionary psychology, be just as susceptible to evolutionary explanation as physical traits such as our bipedalism or our having opposable thumbs.

Having thus invited the lightening bolts, she then hurries to placate the offended gods of the Blank Slate, citing the familiar flim flam of two of its high priests, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin:

There are many pitfalls that such evolutionary theorizing must avoid, the most important of which is the mistake of assuming that every observable trait (whether cognitive or physical) is an adaptation resulting from natural selection, as opposed to the result of any number of other complex (non-selective or only partially selective) processes that could have produced it.  It is more than I can do here to describe such pitfalls in depth or to defend at length the evolutionary claims that my argument will be based on. Instead, it must suffice to emphasize the hypothetical nature of my arguments, and to say that while I am skeptical of the details of the evolutionary picture I offer, I think its outlines are certain enough to make it well worth exploring the philosophical implications.

To make a long story short, having thus established her own moral purity, Street feels safe enough to follow her “mere speculation” to its logical conclusions.  Noting that there are two “flavors” of moral realists, including the “naturalist” kind, who claim that, while value judgments may have evolutionary roots, natural selection favors “true morality,” and the “non-naturalists,” who deny any such connection, she proceeds to debunk both versions.  Noting the “striking continuity” between the more basic evaluative tendencies in other animals and our own evaluative judgments, she makes short work of the “non-naturalists.”  Somewhat more sophisticated arguments are demanded to deal with the “naturists,” who insist that our evolved natural predispositions “track” actual moral truths.  Street provides them, in very convincing form, in Section 6 of her paper, and I encourage readers who are daunted at the prospect of wading through the entire 48 pages to at least have a look at it.

Now, however, as Alex might have put it in “A Clockwork Orange,” comes the weepy part of the story.  Just as Nietzsche predicted in his Human, All Too Human, having climbed up her philosophical ladder to get a glance at the truth, Street shrinks back from what she sees.  What she sees is that evolved human behavioral predispositions are the root cause of what we refer to as morality, and, as a result, Westermarck was right when he pointed out that moral judgments “fall entirely outside the category of truth.”  In the end, she can’t face the full implications of this truth.  Instead, she temporizes.  In her conclusion she writes,

Now that there are creatures like us with marvelously complicated systems of valuings up and running, it is quite possible to come to value something because one recognizes that it has a value independent of oneself—not in the realist’s sense, but in an antirealist’s more modest sense.  Thus, although valuing ultimately came first, value grew to be able to stand partly on its own.  It grew to achieve its own, limited sort of priority over valuing—a priority that we can understand while at the same time being fully conscious of great biddings from the outside.

Hurrah!  The poor, wooden puppet Pinocchio becomes a real boy after all!  The oppressive and ludicrous piety that prevails in modern academia is vindicated, and philosophers can continue to write blather about how moral emotions can acquire the magical power to jump out of mammal A’s skull, hop onto mammal B’s back, and prescribe to mammal B what he ought and ought not do.  Well, dear reader, we can forgive such regrettable weakness.  After all, many choice jobs in academia would be rendered absurd, and many frail and pious egos would be rendered laughable by a straight up dose of reality.  What of it?  At least we can now utter the phrase “human nature” without fear of being doused with ice water.  At least the philosophers have struggled back into the 19th century, and are almost on the same page with Darwin again.  Better to rejoice in the progress we have made than grieve over the imbecilities we must still endure.

Why are Philosophers Marginalized?

Modern philosophers are a touchy bunch.  They resent their own irrelevance.  The question is, why have they become so marginalized.  After all, it wasn’t always so.  Consider, for example, the immediate and enduring impact of the French philosophes of the 18th century.  I can’t presume to give a complete answer in this blog post, but an article by Uri Bram that recently turned up at Café.com entitled, This Philosopher Wants to Change How You Think About Doing Good might at least contain a few hints.

It’s an account of the author’s encounter with a young philosopher named Will MacAskill who, not uncharacteristically, has a job in the Academy, in his case at Cambridge.  Bram assures us that, “he’s already a superstar among his generation of philosophers.”  We learn he also has, “fondness for mild ales, a rollicking laugh, a warm Scottish accent and a manner that reminds you of the kid everyone likes in senior year of high school—not the popular kid, mind, but the kid everyone actually likes.”  If you get the sinking feeling that you’re about to read a hagiography, you won’t be mistaken.  It reminded me of what Lenin was talking about when he referred to “the silly lives of the saints.”

According to Bram, MacAskill had already sensed the malaise in modern philosophy by the time he began his graduate studies:

 “I kept going to academics and actively trying to find people who were taking these ideas seriously and trying to make a difference, trying to put them into practice,” he says. But (for better or worse), academic philosophy as a whole is not generally focused on having a direct, practical impact.  “Someone studying the philosophy of linguistics or logic is probably doing it as a pure intellectual enterprise,” says MacAskill, “but what surprised me was the extent to which even applied philosophers weren’t having any impact on the world. I spoke to a giant in the field of practical ethics, one of the most successful applied philosophers out there, and asked him what impact he thought he’d had with his work; he replied that someone had once sent him an email saying they’d signed up for the organ donor register based on something he’d written. And that made me sad.”

Then he had an epiphany, inspired by a conversation with fellow graduate student Toby Ord:

One of the things that most impressed MacAskill about Ord was the extent to which the latter was walking the talk on his philosophical beliefs, manifested by his pledge to give away everything he earned above a certain modest threshold to organizations working effectively towards reducing global suffering (a story about Ord in the BBC’s news magazine became a surprise hit in 2010).

Ord, it turns out, was a modern incarnation of Good King Wenceslas, who had pledged to give away a million pounds to charity in the course of his career.  To make a long story short, MacAskill decided to make a similar pledge, and founded an organization with Ord to get other people to do the same.  He has since been going about doing similar good works, while at the same time publishing the requisite number of papers in all the right philosophical journals.

As it happens, I ran across this article thanks to a reference at 3quarksdaily, and my thoughts about it were the same as some of the commenters there.  For example, from one who goes by the name of Lemoncookies,

I see nothing particularly original or profound in this young man’s suggestion, which basically amounts to: give more to charity. Lots of people have made this their clarion call, and lots of people already and will give to charity.

Another named Paul chimes in,

I find the suggestion humorous that a 27-year-old is going “to revolutionize the way you think about doing good.” What effort the philosophers will go to in order to maintain their hegemony on moral reasoning. Unfortunately, I think they missed the boat 150 years ago by ignoring evolution and biology. They have been treading water ever since yet still manage to attract followers.

He really hits the nail on the head with that one.  It’s ludicrous to write hagiographies about people who are doing “good” unless you understand what “good” is, and there has been no excuse for not understanding what “good” is since Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.”  Darwin himself saw the light immediately.  Morality is a manifestation of evolved “human nature.”  It exists purely because the features in the brain that are responsible for that nature happened to improve the odds that the genes responsible for those features would survive and reproduce.  “Good” exists as a subjective perception in the mind of individuals, and there is no way in which it can climb out of the skull of individuals and magically acquire a life of its own.  Philosophers, with a few notable exceptions, have rejected that truth.  That’s one of the reasons, and a big one at that, why they’re marginalized.

It was a truth they couldn’t bear to face.  It’s not really that the truth made philosophy itself irrelevant.  The way to the truth had been pointed out long before Darwin by philosophers of the likes of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume.  At least a part of the problem was that this truth smashed the illusion that philosophers, or anyone else for that matter, could be genuinely better, more virtuous, or more righteous in some objective sense than anyone else.  They’ve been fighting the truth ever since.  The futility of that fight is demonstrated by the threadbare nature of the ideas that have been used to justify it.

For example, there’s “moral realism.”  It goes like this:  Everyone knows that two plus two equals four.  However, numbers do not exist in the material world.  Moral truths don’t exist in the material world either.  Therefore, moral truths are also real.  QED.  Then there’s utilitarianism, which was demolished by Westermarck with the aid of the light provided courtesy of Darwin.  It’s greatest proponent, John Stuart Mill, had the misfortune to write his book about it before the significance of Darwin’s great theory had time to sink in.  If it had, I doubt he would ever have written it.  He was too smart for that.  Sam Harris’ “scientific morality” is justified mainly by bullying anyone who doesn’t go along with charges of being “immoral.”

With the aid of such stuff, modern philosophy has wandered off into the swamp.  Commenter Paul was right.  They need to stop concocting fancy new moral systems once and for all, and do a radical rewind, if not to Darwin, then at least to Westermarck.  They’ll never regain their relevance by continuing to ignore the obvious.

David Gelernter and the Angst of the Philosophers

One can understand the anxiety of the spiritually inclined.  Whether their tastes run to traditional religions or belief in some kind of a teleological life force, their world views have always depended on exploitation of the things we don’t understand.  As the quantity of such things declines, the credibility of their beliefs tends to decline in direct proportion.  Computer scientist David Gelernter, who happens to be a believer of the Jewish persuasion, recently delivered himself of an interesting cri de Coeur in response to this unsettling state of affairs.

In a piece that appeared in Commentary entitled The Closing of the Scientific Mind, Gelernter cuts right to the chase, singling out as the enemy a strawman outgroup known as “scientists.”  These scientists, it would seem, “…have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.”  Furthermore, these same scientists use their “…locker room braggadocio to belittle the spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will.”  In that case I must be poor indeed, as I am familiar with no such discovery that is credible to anyone who believes that claims of truth should be based on actual evidence.  Apparently the braggadocio of the scientists is based, at least in part, on their ignorance, for, as Gelernter assures us, “Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics.”

Where to begin?  At the risk of sounding barrenly scientific, one might ask what Gelernter means by “spirit” when he speaks of “spiritual support.”  Where is the evidence that such an entity even exists, or the proof that the scholarly, artistic, religious, and humanistic work he refers to actually does support it if, in fact, it does exist?  What on earth does he mean by “humanism?”

Of course, the problem here may well be that, like Gelernter’s scientists, I simply don’t understand this work.  I would be the first to agree that it can be highly complex.  For example, my understanding of the detailed and intricate theological arguments in favor of the Trinity are vague indeed, as is my understanding of the reasons the followers of Father Arius reject these arguments.  I know no more than a babe about why one is supposed to risk eternal damnation by either embracing the iconoclast’s rejection of religious images, or the iconodule’s insistence that they remain.  I have no clue about the sophisticated arguments used by Jan Hus to demonstrate the need for Communication in both kinds, nor the equally involved arguments contrived by the Popes to justify decades of warfare in order to restore Communion in one kind only.  However, it is entirely clear to me that all these arguments are vain and senseless if the great Santa Claus in the sky that all these learned debaters appealed to doesn’t actually exist.  In fact, I have concluded as much, and so have not taken the trouble to waste much effort on “understanding this work.”

For such “spiritual and religious discoveries” to be plausible, they must exist in a sphere inaccessible to the prying eyes of mere scientists.  Of course, as mentioned above, Gelernter is a believing Jew, so he has that sphere for starters.  However, he has another one up his sleeve, in the form of the “subjective world.”  As he puts it, nowhere is the bullying of the scientists “…more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.”  As my readers know, I have had much to say about the difference between subjective and objective phenomena, particularly as they relate to morality.  I do not believe in the objective existence of categories such as good, evil, rights, etc., independent of their subjective perception in the mind.  The Darwinian explanation of these subjective phenomena as owing their existence to the fact that the predispositions that are their ultimate cause promoted the survival and procreation of our ancestors at some point in time, with its caveat that they are ultimately explainable in terms of physical phenomena that we don’t currently understand, but that are hardly beyond our very powers of understanding, seems entirely plausible to me.  Of course, as immediately realized by the clerical worthies, both of Darwin’s time and our own, such an explanation has a very corrosive effect on “spiritual and religious discoveries.”  As a result, just as they did and do, Gelernter must reject it as well.

And so he does.  In the article at hand, he bases his rejection of Darwin almost entirely on the work of philosopher Thomas Nagel, with emphasis on his book, Mind & Cosmos, as if Nagel’s opinion on the subject silenced all further debate.  It would seem we must jettison Darwin merely because, in Nagel’s opinion, “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness – the capacity to feel or experience the world.”  I would be the first to admit that we don’t yet understand consciousness.  However, clearly no such conclusion as “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain it” is warranted until we do.  No matter, Gelernter elevates Nagel to the status of a martyr of truth, who has been cruelly persecuted by the “killer hyenas” of science.  As evidence for the existence of the scientific “lynch mob,” he cites a review of Mind & Cosmos that appeared in the May 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong.”

On actually reading the article, I kept wondering what on earth Gelernter meant by his dark references to a “lynch mob.”  By all means, read it yourself.  It’s meager stuff on which to anchor Nagel’s martyrdom.  To all appearances it’s a vanilla book review that actually praises Nagel in places, but concludes that he “went wrong” merely by doing a poor job of marshaling the potentially good arguments in favor of what the reviewer, Michael Chorost, to all appearances considered an entirely plausible point of view.  As Chorost put it,

But Nagel’s goal was valid:  to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task.  A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical:  scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known.  (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and how to make new sciences.)

That doesn’t exactly strike me as the criticism of a “killer hyena.”  Gelernter goes on to cite Ray Kurzweil’s singularity” mumbo-jumbo as an example of how the “scientists,” with their “roboticist” interpretation of the mind and their denial of his “subjective world,” have gone wrong.  In fact, the idea that all “scientists” embrace either Kurzweil’s transhumanist utopia or “roboticist” interpretations of the mind is nonsense.  I certainly don’t.

The rest of Gelernter’s arguments in favor of a “subjective” never-never land, inaccessible to mere scientists and forever inexplicable in terms of crude explanations based on anything as naïve as physics and chemistry, are similarly implausible.  This subjective world is supposed to be capable of spawning “the best and deepest moral laws we know,” although Gelernter never supplies a metric by which we are to measure such quantities as “best” and “deepest,” nor, for that matter, any basis for the existence of such things as “moral laws.”  Presumably they would be beyond the understanding of mere scientists.  Again, the subjective world is to prevent us from becoming “morally wobbly,” and “inhumane.”  It is to supply us with a common appreciation of “scholarship (presumably of the non-scientific kind), art, and spiritual life.”  It will somehow affirm the “sanctity of life,” and will rationalize “all our striving for what is good and just and beautiful and sacred, for what gives meaning to human life, and makes us (as Scripture says) ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ and a little better than the rats and cats,” all of which is “invisible to the roboticist worldview.”

For all this to happen, of course, it is necessary for the “subjective world” to be universal.  I can certainly understand the term “subjective,” but it seems to me to refer to phenomena that go on in the minds of individuals.  Gelernter never supplies us with an explanation of how these phenomena in the minds of individuals, whether scientifically explainable or not, acquire the magical power to leap out of those individual skulls and become independent things with independent normative powers, or, in a word, objects.  Perhaps a good Marxist could interpret it as an instance of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality.

It all reminds me of a quirk of one of my favorite novelists, Stendhal, who couldn’t bear to describe on paper, even in his personal diaries, the consummation of one of his “sublime” love affairs for fear any such crude description would shatter its “beauty.”  I would be the first to admit that those affairs represented a “subjective world” to Stendhal.  For all that, I still have a sneaking suspicion that Darwin might have had something useful to say about them after all.