On the Illusion of Moral Relativism

As recently as 2009 the eminent historian Paul Johnson informed his readers that he made “…the triumph of moral relativism the central theme of my history of the 20th century, Modern Times, first published in 1983.”  More recently, however, obituaries of moral relativism have turned up here and there.  For example one appeared in The American Spectator back in 2012, fittingly entitled Moral Relativism, R.I.P.  It was echoed a few years later by a piece in The Atlantic that announced The Death of Moral Relativism.”  There’s just one problem with these hopeful announcements.  Genuine moral relativists are as rare as unicorns.

True, many have proclaimed their moral relativism.  To that I can only reply, watch their behavior.  You will soon find each and every one of these “relativists” making morally loaded pronouncements about this or that social evil, wrong-headed political faction, or less than virtuous individual.  In other words, their “moral relativism” is of a rather odd variety that occasionally makes it hard to distinguish their behavior from that of the more zealous moral bigots.  Scratch the surface of any so-called “moral relativist,” and you will often find a moralistic bully.  We are not moral relativists because it is not in the nature of our species to be moral relativists.  The wellsprings of human morality are innate.  One cannot arbitrarily turn them on or off by embracing this or that philosophy, or reading this or that book.

I am, perhaps, the closest thing to a moral relativist you will ever find, but when my moral emotions kick in, I’m not much different from anyone else.  Just ask my dog.  When she’s riding with me she’ll often glance my way with a concerned look as I curse the lax morals of other drivers.  No doubt she’s often wondered whether the canine’s symbiotic relationship with our species was such a good idea after all.  I know perfectly well the kind of people Paul Johnson was thinking of when he spoke of “moral relativists.”  However, I’ve watched the behavior of the same types my whole life.  If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s a pronounced tendency to dictate morality to everyone else.  They are anything but “amoral,” or “moral relativists.”  The difference between them and Johnson is mainly a difference in their choice of outgroups.

Edvard Westermarck may have chosen the title Ethical Relativity for his brilliant analysis of human morality, yet he was well aware of the human tendency to perceive good and evil as real, independent things.  The title of his book did not imply that moral (or ethical) relativism was practical for our species.  Rather, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of our package of innate behavioral predispositions, and that it follows that objective moral truths do not exist.  In doing so he was pointing out a fundamental truth.  Recognition of that truth will not result in an orgy of amoral behavior.  On the contrary, it is the only way out of the extremely dangerous moral chaos we find ourselves in today.

The moral conundrum we find ourselves in is a result of the inability of natural selection to keep up with the rapidly increasingly complexity and size of human societies.  For example, a key aspect of human moral behavior is its dual nature – our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  We commonly associate “good” traits with our ingroup, and “evil” ones with our outgroup.  That aspect of our behavior enhanced the odds that we would survive and reproduce at a time when there was no ambiguity about who belonged in these categories.  The ingroup was our own tribe, and the outgroup was the next tribe over.  Our mutual antagonism tended to make us spread out and avoid starvation due to over-exploitation of a small territory.  We became adept at detecting subtle differences between “us” and “them” at a time when it was unlikely that neighboring tribes differed by anything as pronounced as race or even language.  Today we have given bad names to all sorts of destructive manifestations of outgroup identification without ever grasping the fundamental truth that the relevant behavior is innate, and no one is immune to it.  Racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, you name it.  They’re all fundamentally the same.  Those who condemn others for one manifestation of the behavior will almost invariably be found doing the same thing themselves, the only difference being who they have identified as the outgroup.

Not unexpectedly, behavior that accomplished one thing in the Pleistocene does not necessarily accomplish the same thing today.  The disconnect is often absurd, leading in some cases to what I’ve referred to as morality inversions – moral behavior that promotes suicide rather than survival.  That has not prevented those who are happily tripping down the path to their own extinction from proclaiming their moral superiority and raining down pious anathemas on anyone who doesn’t agree.  Meanwhile, new versions of morality are concocted on an almost daily basis, each one pretending to objective validity, complete with a built in right to dictate “goods” and “bads” that never occurred to anyone just a few years ago.

There don’t appear to be any easy solutions to the moral mess we find ourselves in.  It would certainly help if more of us could accept the fact that morality is an artifact of natural selection, and that, as a consequence, objective good and evil are figments of our imaginations.  Perhaps then we could come up with some version of “absolute” morality that would be in tune with our moral emotions and at the same time allow us to interact in a manner that minimizes both the harm we do to each other and our exposure to the tiresome innovations of moralistic bullies.  That doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon, though.  The careers of too many moral pontificators and “experts on ethics” depend on maintaining the illusion.  Meanwhile, we find evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and neuroscientists who should know better openly proclaiming the innate sources of moral behavior in one breath, and extolling some idiosyncratic version of “moral progress” and “human flourishing” in the next.  As one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have said, it’s just too shy-making.

There is a silver lining to the picture, though.  At least you don’t have to worry about “moral relativism” anymore.



Edvard Westermarck and His Detractors

Judging by the amount of space devoted to him on Wikipedia, Edvard Westermarck was little regarded as a moral philosopher.  Contemporaries such as G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, not to mention such immediate predecessors as John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, made a much bigger splash.  For all that, Westermarck was aware of some simple but very significant truths about morality, and the rest were blind to them.  Apparently you don’t get a lot of space in Wikipedia for being right, or at least not for being right about morality.  When it comes to that subject, people tend to listen only when you say what they want to hear.  Westermarck most definitely did not.

It was no secret to Westermarck that he was stepping on some toes.  He told the legions of moral philosophers and experts on ethics that they were superfluous because they were experts about something that didn’t exist.  He told the legions of religious zealots that the source of their moral dogmas was imaginary.  He told all the rest of us that the “facts” about morality that we “feel in our bones” are illusions.

It is natural for us to perceive Good and Evil as absolute facts.  Morality is a manifestation of evolved traits, and traits evolve because they happen to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them will survive and reproduce.  Obviously, morality is most effective at improving the odds when we perceive Good and Evil, not as subjective entities that we can change from day to day according to our whims of the moment, but as objective things-in-themselves that have a “real existence apart from any reference to a human mind,” as Westermarck put it.  If someone tells us it just ain’t so, our reaction is predictably negative.  He addressed the objections of one such critic, the utilitarian Dr. H. Rashdall in his Ethical Relativity, published in 1932.  According to Dr. Rashdall, the denial of the objective validity of moral judgments,

…is fatal to the deepest spiritual convictions and to the highest spiritual aspirations of the human race.

to which Westermarck replies,

It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief… Another question is whether the ethical subjectivism I am here advocating really is a danger to morality… My moral judgments spring from my own moral consciousness; they judge of the conduct of other men not from their point of view but from mine, not in accordance with their feelings and opinions about right and wrong but according to my own.  And these are not arbitrary.  We approve and disapprove because we cannot do otherwise; our moral consciousness belongs to our mental constitution, which we cannot change as we please.  Can we help feeling pain when the fire burns us?  Can we help sympathizing with our friends?  Are these facts less necessary or less powerful in their consequences, because they fall within the subjective sphere of our experience?  So also, why should the moral law command less obedience because it forms a part of ourselves?

I think this is an excellent response to those who warn that accepting the truth about morality will lead to nihilism and moral chaos.  The subjective nature of moral judgments will hardly alter our tendency to make them.  Westermarck adds,

…it seems to me that ethical subjectivism, instead of being a danger, is more likely to be an advantage to morality.  Could it be brought home to people that there is no absolute standard in morality, they would perhaps be on the one hand more tolerant and on the other hand more critical in their judgments.

It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this last quote.  When it comes to morality, we live in an age of gross intolerance, particularly on the part of the “progressive Left.”  These people pull new “absolute moral truths” out of thin air on a regular basis, and then proceed to stuff them down the throats of the rest of us.  I may not be able to say that such behavior is absolutely “Good,” or absolutely “Evil,” but I personally find it extremely disagreeable.  I think many others would agree with me on that point.  The truth about morality hardly encourages this type of moral bullying.  Rather, it pulls the rug out from under the feet of the bullies.  In fact, they have not the faintest basis for their moral claims.  They can in no way justify elevating what amount to personal whims to the status of absolute moral laws and then insisting that the rest of us respect them.  They manage to get away with it by appealing to subjective moral emotions.  This will only work as long as they can maintain the fantasy, cherished by so many of us, that these emotions somehow relate to real, objective things.  That fantasy is hardly a barrier between us and moral chaos.  It is the reason for moral chaos.  We will never escape the prevailing “moral nihilism” until we accept the truth.

Westermarck had it right in the above quotes.  If all of us were aware of the truth, we would also be aware of the real provenance of moral judgments, and would be more tolerant of the similar judgments of others as a result.  It might finally be possible for us to take a critical look at those judgments, as Westermarck suggests, and come up with a system of morality that best suits the needs of all of us, instead of enabling the moral tyranny of a minority.

So much for the “danger” of Westermarck’s ideas.  If we look at some of the other objections posed by his contemporaries, their claims to “expertise” in matters of morality grow increasingly dubious.  For example, Danish philosopher Harald Höffding argued that, “the subjectivity of our moral valuations does not prevent ethics from being a science any more than the subjectivity of our sensations renders a science of physics impossible, because both are concerned with finding the external facts that correspond to the subjective processes.”  According to this “Höffding’s fallacy,” anything we can imagine must relate to some “external fact.”  Unfortunately, Professor Höffding completely missed the point.  In this case the “external facts” don’t exist.  They are a figment of his imagination.  Westermarck adds,

It may, of course, be a subject for scientific inquiry to investigate the means which are conducive to human happiness or welfare, and the results of such a study may also be usefully applied by moralists, but it forms no more a part of ethics than physics is a part of psychology.  If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

My personal favorite among the critics of Westermarck is G. E. Moore, who became far more highly regarded as an “expert on ethics” by debunking all previous practitioners of the trade as victims of the “naturalistic fallacy,” and being extremely coy about the nature of morality himself.  No one could ever pin him down as to whether Good and Evil were animal, vegetable, or mineral.  From the few broad hints he gave us, it appears that the Good has a remarkable resemblance to what a Victorian rent seeker would consider “nice things,” or at least the ones that they admitted to openly.  In any case, here is Westermarck’s account of Moore’s criticism:

He argues that if one person says “this action is wrong,” and another says of the very same action that it is not wrong, and each of them merely makes a judgment about his own feelings towards it, they are not differing in opinion about it at all, and, generally speaking, there is absolutely no such thing as a difference of opinion upon moral questions.  “If two persons think they differ in opinion on a moral question (and it certainly seems as if they sometimes think so), they are always on this view, making a mistake, and a mistake so gross that it seems hardly possible that they should make it:  a mistake as gross as that which would be involved in thinking that when you say, ‘I did not come from Cambridge today’ you are denying what I say when I say ‘I did.'” This seems to Professor Moore to be a very serious objection to my view.  But let me choose another, analogous case, to illustrate the nature of his argument.  One person says, “This food is disagreeable,” and another says of the very same food that it is not disagreeable.  We should undoubtedly assert that they have different opinions about it.  On Professor Moore’s view this shows that the two persons do not merely judge about their feelings but state that the food really is, or is not, disagreeable, and if they admitted that they only expressed their own feelings – as they most probably would if their statements were challenged – and yet thought that they differed in opinion, they would make a mistake almost too great to be possible.  For my own part I venture to believe that most people would find it absurd if they denied that they had different opinions about the food.

It seems to me that Westermarck could have had a lot more fun with Moore if he had been so inclined.  After all, the point of this flimsy argument, which was taken quite seriously by several other “experts on ethics” at the time, was that moral judgments are not purely subjective in nature.  If it really made any sense, we could magically transform anything we pleased into a real thing.  One could, for example, resurrect the Greek gods out of thin air simply by virtue of believing in them.  If one were merely making a judgment about his own feelings, than, according to Moore, a difference of opinion on the matter would become impossible.  The only alternative is that the Greek gods actually do exist.  To deny it would be tantamount to denying the objective existence of Good and Evil!  I note in passing that Moore’s argument was considered “unanswerable” by W. D. Ross, who added some objections of his own based on a similar conflating of objective facts with subjective feelings.  If you’re interested in more detail, it’s all there in Westermarck’s Ethical Relativity.

When it comes to moral philosophy, fame doesn’t depend on the truth of what you say, but on how well it fits the prevailing narrative.  Then and now, too many people have too much to lose by admitting that Westermarck was right.  Their tedious reading of many dry tomes of moral philosophy would have been for nothing, and their claims to “expertise,” would vanish like the morning fog.  Hence the few lines devoted to him on Wikipedia and elsewhere.  He was right where so many have been wrong, but I doubt that he will get the recognition he deserves anytime soon.  Perhaps, in view of the mountains of bilge that somehow are published as “moral philosophy” these days, it might at least be possible to put his two major books on the subject, Ethical Relativity and The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, back into print.  I would certainly be willing to contribute my widow’s mite to the cause.  I’m not holding my breath, though.

Edvard Westermarck: Getting Morality Right at the Wrong Time

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

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and, regarding the moral philosophy of Kant,

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

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

If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

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

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

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

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

He added,

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

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

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

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

Morality and the Truth as “Nihilism”

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

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

The footnote reads as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G. E. Moore Contra Edvard Westermarck

Many pre-Darwinian philosophers realized that the source of human morality was to be found in innate “sentiments,” or “passions,” often speculating that they had been put there by God.  Hume put the theory on a more secular basis.  Darwin realized that the “sentiments,” were there because of natural selection, and that human morality was the result of their expression in creatures with large brains.  Edvard Westermarck, perhaps at the same time the greatest and the most unrecognized moral philosopher of them all, put it all together in a coherent theory of human morality, supported by copious evidence, in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.

Westermarck is all but forgotten today, probably because his insights were so unpalatable to the various academic and professional tribes of “experts on ethics.”  They realized that, if Westermarck were right, and morality really is just the expression of evolved behavioral predispositions, they would all be out of a job.  Under the circumstances, its interesting that his name keeps surfacing in modern works about evolved morality, innate behavior, and evolutionary psychology.  For example, I ran across a mention of him in famous primatologist Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist.  People like de Waal who know something about the evolved roots of behavior are usually quick to recognize the significance of Westermarck’s work.

Be that as it may, G. E. Moore, the subject of my last post, holds a far more respected place in the pantheon of moral philosophers.  That’s to be expected, of course.  He never suggested anything as disconcerting as the claim that all the mountains of books and papers they had composed over the centuries might as well have been written about the nature of unicorns.  True, he did insist that everyone who had written about the subject of morality before him was delusional, having fallen for the naturalistic fallacy, but at least he didn’t claim that the subject they were writing about was a chimera.

Most of what I wrote about in my last post came from the pages of Moore’s Principia Ethica.  That work was published in 1903.  Nine years later he published another little book, entitled Ethics.  As it happens, Westermarck’s Origin appeared between those two dates, in 1906.  In all likelihood, Moore read Westermarck, because parts of Ethics appear to be direct responses to his book.  Moore had only a vague understanding of Darwin, and the implications of his work on the subject of human behavior.  He did, however, understand Westermarck when he wrote in the Origin,

If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.  It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else.  But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true.  If the word “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

Now that got Moore’s attention.  Responding to Westermarck’s theory, or something very like it, he wrote:

Even apart from the fact that they lead to the conclusion that one and the same action is often both right and wrong, it is, I think, very important that we should realize, to begin with, that these views are false; because, if they were true, it would follow that we must take an entirely different view as to the whole nature of Ethics, so far as it is concerned with right and wrong, from what has commonly been taken by a majority of writers.  If these views were true, the whole business of Ethics, in this department, would merely consist in discovering what feelings and opinions men have actually had about different actions, and why they have had them.  A good many writers seem actually to have treated the subject as if this were all that it had to investigate.  And of course questions of this sort are not without interest, and are subjects of legitimate curiosity.  But such questions only form one special branch of Psychology or Anthropology; and most writers have certainly proceeded on the assumption that the special business of Ethics, and the questions which it has to try to answer, are something quite different from this.

Indeed they have.  The question is whether they’ve actually been doing anything worthwhile in the process.  Note the claim that Westermarck’s views were “false.”  This claim was based on what Moore called a “proof” that it couldn’t be true that appeared in the preceding pages.  Unfortunately, this “proof” is transparently flimsy to anyone who isn’t inclined to swallow it because it defends the relevance of their “expertise.”  Quoting directly from his Ethics, it goes something like this:

  1.  It is absolutely impossible that any one single, absolutely particular action can ever be both right and wrong, either at the same time or at different times.
  2. If the whole of what we mean to assert, when we say that an action is right, is merely that we have a particular feeling towards it, then plainly, provided only we really have this feeling, the action must really be right.
  3. For if this is so, and if, when a man asserts an action to be right or wrong, he is always merely asserting that he himself has some particular feeling towards it, then it absolutely follows that one and the same action has sometimes been both right and wrong – right at one time and wrong at another, or both simultaneously.
  4. But if this is so, then the theory we are considering certainly is not true.  (QED)

Note that this “proof” requires the positive assertion that it is possible to claim that an action can be right or wrong, in this case because of “feelings.”  A second, similar proof, also offered in Chapter III of Ethics, “proves” that an action can’t possible be right merely because one “thinks” it right, either.  With that, Moore claims that he has “proved” that Westermarck, or someone with identical views, must be wrong.  The only problem with the “proof” is that Westermarck specifically pointed out in the passage quoted above that it is impossible to make truth claims about “moral principles.”  Therefore, it is out of the question that he could ever be claiming that any action “is right,” or “is wrong,” because of “feelings” or for any other reason.  In other words, Moore’s “proof” is nonsense.

The fact that Moore was responding specifically to evolutionary claims about morality is also evident in the same Chapter of Ethics.  Allow me to quote him at length.

…it is supposed that there was a time, if we go far enough back, when our ancestors did have different feelings towards different actions, being, for instance, pleased with some and displeased with others, but when they did not, as yet, judge any actions to be right or wrong; and that it was only because they transmitted these feelings, more or less modified, to their descendants, that those descendants at some later stage, began to make judgments of right and wrong; so that, in a sense, or moral judgments were developed out of mere feelings.  And I can see no objection to the supposition that this was so.  But, then, it seems also to be supposed that, if our moral judgments were developed out of feelings – if this was their origin – they must still at this moment be somehow concerned with feelings; that the developed product must resemble the germ out of which it was developed in this particular respect.  And this is an assumption for which there is, surely, no shadow of ground.

In fact, there was a “shadow of ground” when Moore wrote those words, and the “shadow” has grown a great deal longer in our own day.  Moore continues,

Thus, even those who hold that our moral judgments are merely judgments about feelings must admit that, at some point in the history of the human race, men, or their ancestors, began not merely to have feelings but to judge that they had them:  and this along means an enormous change.

Why was this such an “enormous change?”  Why, of course, because as soon as our ancestors judged that they had feelings, then, suddenly those feelings could no longer be a basis for morality, because of the “proof” given above.  Moore concludes triumphantly,

And hence, the theory that moral judgments originated in feelings does not, in fact, lend any support at all to the theory that now, as developed, they can only be judgments about feelings.

If Moore’s reputation among them is any guide, such “ironclad logic” is still taken seriously by todays crop of “experts on ethics.”  Perhaps it’s time they started paying more attention to Westermarck.

Scientific Morality and the Illusion of Progress

British philosophers demonstrated the existence of a “moral sense” early in the 18th century.  We have now crawled through the rubble left in the wake of the Blank Slate debacle and finally arrived once again at a point they had reached more than two centuries ago.  Of course, men like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson thought this “moral sense” had been planted in our consciousness by God.  When Hume arrived on the scene a bit later it became possible to discuss the subject in secular terms.  Along came Darwin to suggest that the existence of this “moral sense” might have developed in the same way as the physical characteristics of our species; via evolution by natural selection.  Finally, a bit less than half a century later, Westermarck put two and two together, pointing out that morality was a subjective emotional phenomenon and, as such, not subject to truth claims.  His great work, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, appeared in 1906.  Then the darkness fell.

Now, more than a century later, we can once again at least discuss evolved morality without fear of excommunication by the guardians of ideological purity.  However, the guardians are still there, defending a form of secular Puritanism that yields nothing in intolerant piety to the religious Puritans of old.  We must not push the envelope too far, lest we suffer the same fate as Tim Hunt, with his impious “jokes,” or Matt Taylor, with his impious shirt.  We cannot just blurt out, like Westermarck, that good and evil are merely subjective artifacts of human moral emotions, so powerful that they appear as objective things.  We must at least pretend that these “objects” still exist.  In a word, we are in a holding pattern.

One can actually pin down fairly accurately the extent to which we have recovered since our emergence from the dark age.  We are, give or take, about 15 years pre-Westermarck.  As evidence of this I invite the reader’s attention to a fascinating “textbook” for teachers of secular morality that appeared in 1891.  Entitled Elements of Ethical Science: A Manual for Teaching Secular Morality, by John Ogden, it taught the subject with all the most up-to-date Darwinian bells and whistles.  In an introduction worthy of Sam Harris the author asks the rhetorical question,

Can pure morality be taught without inculcating religious doctrines, as these are usually interpreted and understood?

and answers with a firm “Yes!”  He then proceeds to identify the basis for any “pure morality:”

Man has inherently a moral nature, an innate moral sense or capacity.  This is necessary to moral culture, since, without the nature or capacity, its cultivation were impossible… This moral nature or capacity is what we call Moral Sense.  It is the basis of conscience.  It exists in man inherently, and, when enlightened, cultivated, and improved, it becomes the active conscience itself.  Conscience, therefore, is moral sense plus intelligence.

The author recognizes the essential role of this Moral Sense as the universal basis of all the many manifestations of human morality, and one without which they could not exist.  It is to the moral sentiments what the sense of touch is to the other senses:

(The Moral Sense) furnishes the basis or the elements of the moral sentiments and conscience, much in the same manner in which the cognitive facilities furnish the data or elements for thought and reasoning.  It is not a sixth sense, but it is to the moral sentiments what touch is to the other senses, a base on which they are all built or founded; a soil into which they are planted, and from which they grow… All the moral sentiments are, therefore, but the concrete modifications of the moral sense, or the applications of it, in a developed form, to the ordinary duties of life, as a sense of justice, of right and wrong, of obligation, duty, gratitude, love, etc., just as seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling are but modified forms of feeling or touch, the basis of all sense.

And here, in a manner entirely similar to so many modern proponents of innate morality, Ogden goes off the tracks.  Like them, he cannot let go of the illusion of objective morality.  Just as the other senses inform us of the existence of physical things, the moral sense must inform us of the existence of another kind of “thing,” a disembodied, ghostly something that floats about independently of the “sense” that “detects” it, in the form of a pure, absolute truth.  There are numerous paths whereby one may, more or less closely, approach this truth, but they all converge on the same, universal thing-in-itself:

…it must be conceded that, while we have a body of incontestable truth, constituting the basis of all morality, still the opinions of men upon minor points are so diverse as to make a uniform belief in dogmatical principles impossible.  The author maintains that moral truths and moral conduct may be reached from different routes or sources; all converging, it is true, to the same point:  and that it savors somewhat of illiberality to insist upon a uniform belief in the means or doctrines whereby we are to arrive at a perfect knowledge of the truth, in a human sense.

The means by which this “absolute truth” acquires the normative power to dictate “oughts” to all and sundry is described in terms just as fuzzy as those used by the moral pontificators of our own day, as if it were ungenerous to even ask the question:

When man’s ideas of right and wrong are duly formulated, recognized and accepted, they constitute what we denominate MORAL LAW.  The moral law now becomes a standard by which to determine the quality of human actions, and a moral obligation demanding obedience to its mandates.  The truth of this proposition needs no further confirmation.

As they say in the academy to supply missing steps in otherwise elegant proofs, it’s “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.”  In those more enlightened times, only fifteen years elapsed before Westermarck demolished Ogden’s ephemeral thing-in-itself, pointing out that it couldn’t be confirmed because it didn’t exist, and was therefore not subject to truth claims.  I doubt that we’ll be able to recover the same lost ground so quickly in our own day.  Secular piety reigns in the academy, in some cases to a degree that would make the Puritans of old look like abandoned debauchees, and is hardly absent elsewhere.  Savage punishment is meted out to those who deviate from moral purity, whether flippant Nobel Prize winners or overly principled owners of small town bakeries.  Absent objective morality, the advocates of such treatment would lose their odor of sanctity and become recognizable as mere absurd bullies.  Without a satisfying sense of moral rectitude, bullying wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.  It follows that the illusion will probably persist a great deal longer than a decade and a half this time around.

Be that as it may, Westermarck still had it right.  The “moral sense” exists because it evolved.  Failing this basis, morality as we know it could not exist.  It follows that there is no such thing as moral truth, or any way in which the moral emotions of one individual can gain a legitimate power to dictate rules of behavior to some other individual.  Until we find our way back to that rather elementary level of self-understanding, it will be impossible for us to deal rationally with our own moral behavior.  We’ll simply have to leave it on automatic pilot, and indulge ourselves in the counter-intuitive hope that it will serve our species just as well now as it did in the vastly different environment in which it evolved.

The Objective Morality Delusion

Human morality is the manifestation of innate behavioral traits in animals with brains large enough to reason about their own emotional reactions.  It exists because those traits evolved.  They did not evolve to serve any purpose, but purely because they happened to enhance the probability that individuals carrying them would survive and reproduce.  In the absence of those traits morality as we know it would not exist.  Darwin certainly suspected as much.  Now, more than a century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species, so much is really obvious.

Scores of books have been published recently on the innate emotional wellsprings of morality.  Its analogs have been clearly identified in other animals.  Its expression has been demonstrated in infants, long before the they could have learned the responses in question via cultural transmission.  Unless all these books are pure gibberish, and all these observations are delusions, morality is ultimately the expression of physical phenomena happening in the brains of individuals.  In other words, it is subjective.  It does not have an independent existence as a thing-in-itself, outside of the minds of individuals.  It follows that it cannot somehow jump out of the skulls of those individuals and gain some kind of an independent, legitimate power to prescribe to other individuals what they should or should not do.

In spite of all that, the faith in objective morality persists, in defiance of the obvious.  The truth is too jarring, too uncomfortable, too irreconcilable with what we “feel,” and so we have turned away from it.  As the brilliant Edvard Westermarck put it 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 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.

It follows that, as Westermarck puts it,

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.

and therefore,

If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.

Westermarck wrote those words in 1906.  More than a century later, we are still whistling past the graveyard of objective morality.  Interested readers can confirm this by a quick trip to their local university library.  Browsing through the pages of Ethics, one of the premier journals devoted to the subject, they will find articles on deontological, consequentialist, and several other abstruse flavors of morality.  They will find a host of helpful recipes for what should or should not be done in a given situation.  They will discover that it is their “duty” to do this, that, or the other thing.  Finally, they will find all of the above ensconced in an almost impenetrable smokescreen of academic jargon.  In a word, most of the learned contributors to Ethics have ignored Westermarck, and are still chasing their tails, doggedly pursuing a “scientific ethics” that will “fix rules for human conduct” once and for all.

Challenge one of these learned philosophers, and their response is typically threadbare enough.  A common gambit is no more complex than the claim that objective morality must exist, because if it didn’t then the things we all know are bad wouldn’t be bad anymore.  An example of the genre recently turned up on the opinion pages of The New York Times, entitled, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.  Its author, Justin McBrayer, an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, opens with the line,

What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

Now, as Westermarck pointed out, it is impossible for things to be “true” if they have no objective existence.  Read the article carefully, and you’ll see that McBrayer doesn’t even attempt to dispute the logic behind Westermarck’s observation.  Rather, he tells him the same thing Socrates’ judges told him as they handed him the hemlock:  “I’m right and you’re wrong because what you claim is true is bad for the children.”  In other words, there must be an objective bad because otherwise it would be bad.   Other than that, the only attempt at an argument in the whole article is the following ad hominem remark about any philosopher who denies the existence of objective morality:

There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare.

In other words, objective morality must be true, because those who deny it are “creatures.”  No doubt, such “defenses” of objective morality have been around since time immemorial.  They certainly were in Westermarck’s day.  His response was as valid then as it is now:

Ethical subjectivism is commonly held to be a dangerous doctrine, destructive to morality, opening the door to all sorts of libertinism.  If that which appears to each man as right or good, stands for that which is right or good; if he is allowed to make his own law, or to make no law at all; then, it is said, everybody has the natural right to follow his caprice and inclinations, and to hinder him from doing so is an infringement on his rights, a constraint with which no one is bound to comply provided that he has the power to evade it.  This inference was long ago drawn from the teaching of the Sophists, and it will no doubt be still repeated as an argument against any theorist who dares to assert that nothing can be said to be truly right or wrong.  To this argument may, first, be objected that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.

Obviously, as Westermarck foresaw, the argument is “still repeated” more than a century later.  In McBrayer’s case, it goes like this:

Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

He adds,

As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

One often hears such remarks about the supposed pervasiveness of moral relativism.  They are commonly based on the fallacy that human morality is the product of human reason rather than human emotion.  The reality is that Mother Nature has been blithely indifferent to the repeated assertions of philosophers that, unless we listen to them, morality will disappear.  She designed morality to work, for better or worse, whether we take the trouble to reason about it or not.  All these fears of moral relativism can’t even pass the “ho ho” test.  They fly in the face of all the observable facts about moral behavior in the real world.  Moral relativism on campus, you say?  Please!  There has never been such a hotbed of extreme, moralistic piety as exists today in academia since the heyday of the Puritans.  No less a comedian than Chris Rock won’t even perform on college campuses anymore because of repeated encounters with the extreme manifestations of priggishness one finds there.  One can’t tell a joke without “offending” someone.

Morality isn’t going anywhere.  It will continue to function just as it always has, oblivious to whether it has the permission of philosophers or not.  As can be seen by the cultural differences in the way that moral emotions are “acted out,” within certain limits morality is malleable.  We have some control over whether it is “acted out” by the immolation of enemy pilots and the beheading and crucifixion of “infidels,” or in forms that promote what Sam Harris might call “human flourishing.”  Regardless of our choice, I suspect that our chances of successfully shaping a morality that most of us would find agreeable will be enhanced if we base our actions on what morality actually is rather than on what we want it to be.