‘He is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.’
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, Act II
I spent most of my early years growing up in Brooklyn, but my parents rented a chalet in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Every winter we would spend a week at the chalet. Why? Nobody knew. None of us skiied, hiked, or otherwise explored the outdoors. Mostly we sat inside, watched Macgyver, and drank Sanka. I ocassionally escaped this grim ritual to ramble around the wilderness, enjoying the ease of traipsing across a frozen, snow-covered river. It was a fast way to cover a lot of ground through the forest. In temperatures of twenty below zero, I never hesitated to step on the ice. I knew that science was based on real objective truths about the universe, not opinions. Each time I planted my foot on the frozen water, I was willing to bet my life that the laws of thermodynamics governing phase transitions would hold true. I would bet my life on these laws in upstate New York, on the moon, and even on the planet Alpha Centauri.
Yet some people, even now, share Plato’s strange idea that morality constitutes an objective truth, chin-to-chin with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
But before we burrow down that rabbit hole, we should exorcise any semantic demons and answer the simple question: what is morality?
According to Google (and, let’s face it, Google KNOWS), morals are ‘concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.’ Unfortunately, Google also defines ‘good’ as ‘that which is morally right.’
Well, this is kind of circular.
Perhaps Wikipedia can do better. It defines morality as ‘the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper. Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion or culture, or it can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness.’
In other words, morality can be just about anything that involves a standard of behavior. There is no cut-and-dry definition; morality is like a headache, you know it when you feel it.
As a scientist whose sole objective is the creation of artificial super-intelligence, I take a special interest in the subject of morality. After all, my work involves serious existential risks, largely unappreciated by the masses. A super-intelligent machine would possess an intellect orders of magnitude more powerful than the smartest person on the planet. Such an intellect would represent the difference between Einstein and a jellyfish. This monumental consciousness may not be friendly, any more than our forebears were friendly to Woolly Mammoth or Neanderthals, both of which we promptly drove extinct. Paired with molecular nanotechnology, such a colossal intellect would possess the ability to wipe us out. And the machine would not harbor any cuddly notions of morality, Plato be damned.
Philosophers have been fumbling with morality since at least the fourth century BC in Greece, when Athenians began trading by ship, bumping into new customs and traditions. If a different moral code worked better elwsehere, they wondered, what made theirs so special? And so the luminaries of the age – Socrates and Plato – began to ruminate on morality, concluding that there are objective ethical truths that apply to everyone. Plato, being Plato, argues in The Republic that acting morally is in one’s self-interest because the ‘just’ person is happier than the ‘unjust’ person. Yet plenty of bandits were mighty happy; Stalin and Pol Pot were grinning like the Cheshire Cat all the way to their graves.
The morality debate divides neatly into two distinct camps; those folks who, like Plato, believe in the objective, universal independence of moral values, whether bestowed by God or not, and those who believe that morals are human constructions.
Let us put paid to this silly notion of objective, universal morality once and for all with a simple thought experiment.
Imagine an alien civilization comes to visit earth. Perhaps they decide to wipe us out, perhaps to trade with us. Can we suppose that they would share our moral values? If morality is universal, then it is universal throughout the cosmos – that is what universal means. It is a fair bet that these aliens would agree on most of our mathematical precepts (of course their formalism would differ), and a near certainty that they would agree on our laws of physics, because gravity has the same affect on Alpha Centauri as it does on earth. Special Relativity is a universal truth, or as near to universal truth as we can muster. But would murder be ‘wrong’ on Alpha Centauri? Would you agree to visit their home planet, confident that their sense of morality matched your own, secure in the belief that hunger or curiousity would not prompt them to pair your marinated flesh with some fava beans and a fine Chianti? Or repartition your atoms for some more efficient use? I sure as Hell would not bet my own life on ET’s morality – though I would happily trudge across any of their frozen rivers.
The fact that we apply morals only to humans makes the argument for universal morality ipso facto absurd. Consider the Ichneumon wasp, which paralyzes a caterpillar and lays eggs in its body so her hatchlings can slowly eat it alive from the inside out. This is ‘morally right’ for the wasp, of course, but the caterpillar might disagree.
Why don’t we apply morals to animals – what makes the human animal so special that some objective moral umbrella must cover our actions? An opportunistic male chimpanzee will often kill a baby chimp to bring its mother into estrus, hoping to mate with her. Murder is supposedly ‘wrong,’ but we don’t strap the killer chimp into the electric chair even for the gruesome ‘crime’ of infanticide. If the police swooped in to arrest the beast, the chimp’s lawyer could argue that the 2% DNA difference between simian and homo sapien sapien disqualifies the animal from being subject to our notions of morality. Such a defense only succeeds because the gap between man and ape is still relatively large – but this is a mere accident of history!
What changes would we make to our moral codes if the intermediates between human and ape – the so-called ‘missing link’ – had not died off? Would our morals apply to almost-humans? Would an animal which shared 99% of our DNA be held accountable to human moral standards? How about 99.5%? If the long line of intermediates between human and chimp still roamed the earth, the moral umbrella must become arbitary and blurred. What would morality look like had our ancestors not committed the first genocide in history – against the Neanderthals? Or was that not genocide because the victims were not homo sapiens sapiens?
So much for universal morality, Mr. Plato.
And then came Aristotle with his ‘Nichomachean Ethics.’ He defines eudaimonia – human flourishing or happiness – as the goal of life, believing that living a virtuous, moral life is necessary to achieve such happiness. So his entire argument for morality reduces to an axiom – that the purpose of life is happiness. I dispute the axiom; goodbye Aristotle.
For the next thousand years, the Church usurped the role of moral philosopher – and naturally the clergy redefined morality to mean whatever was good for the Church. Morality became a weapon wielded by the pulpit to ensure complacent behavior among the hoi polloi.
One day the Devil called on God and said ‘let’s make a bet, you and I, for the soul of a man.’ And from the heavens they gazed down on Job, a good and prosperous family man, a devout man, a moral man. And the Devil says ‘I will change his mind and make him curse your name, God.’ So the devil goes to work. He destroys Job’s herds and ruins his fields. He plagues him with lesions. But Job’s love for God endures and his morality is incorruptible. All should ‘fear the Lord and depart from evil’ no matter what unfortunate circumstances befall them. Which is another way of saying Love Thy Master, even if he is an asshole. And the Master of the day? The Church itself, of course.
Beginning around 10,000 years ago when hunter-gatherers in the Middle East retired their spears for spades, the population soared as agriculture spread from the fertile crescent to China and meso-america. Families settled small plots of land, villages bloomed, and specialization of labor divided the populace into craftsmen, traders, farmers, soldiers and merchants. Nascent agricultural societies grew increasingly hierarchical as chiefdoms and then city-states and finally nation-states thrived on burgeoning agricultural surpluses. It wasn’t long before the wealthy elites, the priestly castes, and the heritary rulers seized power throughout the world. The ancient moral codes which had enabled Pleistocene men and women to survive and reproduce on the African savannah were quickly transformed into coercive laws, always to the advantage of the ruling elite. The rulers found it easier to control the masses if the laws came not from mortal men but from God, so the Almighty became the legislator of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ lending Divine authority to human ethics. Of course it just so happened that what was morally ‘right’ also happened to be good for the folks in power.
Yet while the Church was struggling to maintain its grip on Christendom through propagation of its Divine moral codes, the worldly philosophers of the Enlightenment were desperately trying to snatch morality away from God.
According to the brightest of these philosophers, David Hume, reason is merely the slave of the passions, and the ‘Humean Creature’ comes fully equipped with a moral sense that operates without conscious thought. Reason follows, belatedly and reluctantly, in the wake of moral judgments. Hume claimed that we attain moral sentiments from an ‘immediate feeling and finer internal sense,’ not by a ‘chain of argument and induction.’
Yet the moral philosophers were unsatisfied, flocking instead to Emmanuel Kant, who carried the torch for Plato by attempting to deduce an objective foundation for ethics. Kant claimed that moral requirements are founded on an objective standard of rationality. He even whipped out an important sounding name, dubbing the foundation of morality the ‘categorical imperative.’ Immoral behavior violates the sacred CI and is therefore irrational. Kant argued that acting morally meant acting from a sense of duty.
Kant said that ‘nothing in the world – indeed nothing even beyond the world – can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except good will.’ And who has ‘good will?’ Anyone who acts out of ‘respect for the moral law,’ according to Kant. And people act out of respect for the moral law when they act because they have a duty to do so.
The illustrious Mr. Kant says that what is inherently good – or moral – is a ‘good will.’ And a ‘good will’ acts for the sake of duty alone. But what exactly is a ‘good will,’ and how can we know what our ‘duty’ is? Kant has a ready answer; duty is when someone acts in accordance with moral law. It sounds circular, and it is circular. We are right back where we started with no clearer understanding of morality, duty, good will or anything else.
And so Kant’s deontological ethics was born chasing its tail.
Then there was John Stuart Mill, who, unlike Kant, was perfectly clear about what morality was. But there was a problem; Mill’s notion of morality ran directly contrary to human nature.
According to Mill’s concept of utilitarianism, the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. And what is utility? That’s hard to say, exactly, but Mill speculated that ‘utility’ centered on the well-being of sentient entities. Jeremy Bentham, the original founder of the utilitarian school of thought to which Mill subscribed, offered a more precise definition; utility was the ‘aggregate pleasure’ after deducting suffering of all involved in any behavior or action. Aggregate pleasure, huh? Bentham was suffering from a twitch of physics envy, attempting to quantify morality with a sprinkling of mathematics.
For Mill and Bentham, the idea of utilitarianism was simple; the guidelines for moral discourse were pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. That which increases happiness in the world is good, and that which increases suffering is bad. The purpose of a moral code is to maximize the world’s total happiness and minimize suffering.
In Mill’s view, no person’s happiness is special, which is prima facie an evolutionary heresy. Surely your happiness is special – so special, in fact, that it is specifically meant to impede the happiness of others. Happiness inspires selfish pre-occupation.
Mill makes the critical distinction that a moral good is something which raises the total happiness ‘currency’ in the world, not necessarily the individual’s own happiness, putting utilitarianism at odds with human nature and even more at odds with those notorious selfish genes.
If you are an individualist, you are already reaching for your knives. And Max Stirner is clawing at his casket. Why should you, as a rational self-interested agent, care about the world’s total happiness or the suffering of a million starving children in Africa?
The answer is; you should not! Unless, of course, you agree to an unwritten moral contract.
When John Rawls resurrected the old Hobbesian notion of the social contract in the middle of the twentieth century, David Gauthier stretched the Hobbesian view to its logical conclusion; a moral contract.
According to Gauthier’s idea of moral contractarianism, moral constraints are justified because they make us all better off. In other words, we are playing a non-zero-sum game in which we all benefit by agreeing to certain standards of behavior, such as not lopping off each others’ heads (something the Jihadis seem to forget), not raping each others’ daughters, not stealing others’ horses, and – most importantly – not sleeping with each others’ wives. In Texas, that can get you killed.
According to moral contractarianism, morality derives its normative force from mutual agreement on ethical behavior – in other words, a contract to behave in a certain way.
Moral contractarianism seems like an Alice in Wonderland phenomenon; you believe in good and evil and I agree to believe in them too. Individuals benefit by maintaining commitment to publicly justify the standards of morality to which each will be held. If you believe that it is bad to steal and I believe that it is bad to steal, then presumably nobody steals. In this view, good moral thinking boils down to a form of subtle means-end reasoning exemplified by the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Accrdoing to Jan Narveson, we are all motivated to accept morality ‘first because we are vulnerable to the depredations of others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation with others.’ Yes, but … who exactly are those ‘others’? Drumroll please. And the answer is: your own in-group! The moral contract does not apply across the world, perhaps not even across the frozen river.
In the Good Samaritan story from the Bible, a lawyer approaches Jesus with a question about how to get into Heaven. But the lawyer was more interested in testing Jesus than in learning from him. So Jesus asks the lawyer what he thinks the answer is. The lawyer considers this for a moment and then responds ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus nods his head solemnly in agreement. But the lawyer, now perhaps concerned about the number of people he is on the hook to love, leans forward sheepishly and asks Jesus ‘Uhh, who is my neighbor?’
And there’s the rub; the moral contract does not extend from sea to shining sea; it applies only to our in-group. This makes good evolutionary sense; why would we act morally towards members of a distant tribe who may be competitors in the savage fight for natural resources? Morality evolved to facilitate cooperation within the group, not outside of it.
Obviously if we apply our moral codes only to our in-group, then morality is not universal at all, as Kant and Plato claimed, but just another evolutionary tool in our arsenal for competition in the fight to survive and reproduce.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I had some friends who had never heard of Thomas Hobbes or the social contract. In fact they violated society’s moral contract every chance they got. Although I grew up in an orthodox Jewish community, I found my Jewish peers dull, so I rolled with the latin crew, and many of my friends were stick-up kids. They would sneak through Spanish Harlem at night, identify some punk slinging dope on a street corner, put a gun (sometimes fake, often real) to his head, and steal his dope. They called it ‘rip and run.’ The stick-up kids didn’t think much about the subject of morality, but if they had, they would have realized that their actions could be judged ‘bad’ from the perspective of the drug dealer, who lost his cash and drugs. But they themselves would judge their actions ‘good,’ since the successful heist enabled them to get high and buy some swag. So the question is whether the act of robbery is bad, ipso facto, or whether the act can only be considered good or bad relative to the actors involved. And how would society view their actions? Robbery is generally considered ‘bad,’ but robbing a drug dealer might be doing society a solid; the drug dealer could be put out of business for want of cash, resulting in fewer hard drugs floating around the ghetto. Were the stick-up kids doing society a favor, and therefore morally right? More importantly: Can an action be morally right even when the motivation (thievery) is morally wrong?
Plato would have said that the act is bad – period. It violates the Form of the Good. Rawls and Gauthier, as contractarians, would argue that the act is ‘bad’ because it violates the generally-agreed moral contract in our society prohibiting theft. John Stuart Mill might be forced to concede the act was good if we persuaded him that robbing drug dealers results in a decrease in hard drugs on the street, thus reducing addiction rates, thereby increasing the total happiness currency. Nietzsche would say the act was neither good nor bad – it is just a matter of perspective. And Kant would be foaming at the mouth; he would rant about the Categorical Imperative of those troublemakers and then storm off.
While Hume, Kant and the other Enlightenment darlings squabbled over the meaning and function of morality, the Church – and its new partner, government – continued to wield morality as a weapon to tame the masses. In fact, as the burgeoning Industrial Revolution gave rise to abominable Dickensian slums, the Church and government had even more reason to indoctrinate the masses in the morality of obedience and a strict code of social conduct, if only to keep them docile and weak.
Small wonder that the draconian moral codes characterizing the Victorian era in England corresponded with the desperate, filthy conditions and potential civil unrest in the rapidly-industrializing inner cities. Victorian morality was characterized by sexual prudishness and a strict code of social conduct. Men were not even allowed to enjoy sex, supposedly cutting holes in the bedsheets to avoid profligate physical contact during intercourse; sex was a regrettable, but necessary act for the continuation of the species, something to be endured. Orgasm was a burden. Obedience, hard work, and acceptance of suffering were all morally paramount in Victorian society. Not surpisingly, the Victorian era was dominated by noblesse oblige, the idea that wealthy elites had a responsibility – even a duty – to take care of society as a whole. These wealthy elites, most of them tied to the Church and government, propagated morality as a tool for manipulating the lower classes.
The average citizen of Victorian England believed that the morality of the period was objective, universal, absolute. Gratuitous sex and homosexuality was wrong, amoral. Yet today we accept, even embrace, sexual libertines. Fifty Shades of Gray sells a million copies. We tolerate all manner of social behavior which would have been unconsciounably amoral during the Victorian era – including homosexuality. Take that, Plato!
Morality is a weapon, and it doesn’t matter what the morality-du-jour is, so long as it serves the purpose of the Church, or the government, or the aristocracy, or some other master. In the words of Deng Xiaoping: ‘it does not matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.’ And morality definitely catches mice.
Then along came Charles Darwin, upsetting more than a few Victorian apple carts. Darwin’s discovery of evolution plucked morality from the grasp of the worldly philosophers and dropped it square in the lap of scientists.
Darwinism rocked Victorian England like a Biblical flood. Ideals were smashed; the Principle of Mediocrity reared its ugly head, crushing our cherished human pride. Exalted man became the third chimpanzee, from Tarzan to Thomas Malthus in the swat of an evolutionary tail. The special place of mankind in the cosmos, celebrated by Ptolemy with the Earth as the center of the universe, and drilled into popular culture by the Church, had finally collapsed in a heap of gorilla dung. Old ideas were swept aside, new ideas ushered in. Homocentric pride reeled; Darwin huffed, puffed, and he blew their house down.
Darwin believed that human morality emerged from the social instincts of other animals, a view supported by modern primatological research. All species follow descriptive rules of behaviour with conspecifics, but primates demonstrate signs of nascent prescriptive rules, which Franz De Waal defines as rules that individuals ‘have learned to respect because of active reinforcement by others.’ As De Waal observes in Chimpanzee Politics, chimpanzee troupes develop and enforce behavioral norms for many forms of interaction, including mating and playing. When a chimp breaks one of these rules, others will signal the aggrieved chimp, who may then take action against the transgressor. This isn’t morality, exactly, but it is something like it. The main difference between chimp and human moral codes is that chimpanzee norms work at the level of private relationships, whereas human societies are characterized by a constant and vigilant discussion of norms and a third-party enforcer – the Church, the Inquisitors, the cops, whomever. Boehm and Dunbar have even suggested that language evolved mainly to fulfill the need for gossip, which enables us to keep track of who did what to whom, who is in and who is out, who can be trusted, and who should be punished – much like an episode of Survivor.
Darwin, however, went off his rocker in the Descent of Man; he should have gone back to studying barnacles. To be fair, he was desperate to convince his eminent friends and critics, such as Alfred Wallace and Charles Lyell, that the theories of natural selection and sexual selection can explain ALL of human behavior, including our exalted moral faculties. Darwin’s account of morality, if we take him seriously on his own terms, makes no sense. Worse, it is a study in pure contradiction. By Darwin’s own admission, there is no teleology to natural selection, yet inherent in his explanation of the evolution of morality is an end-goal of sympathy, a trait which in fact works directly against natural selection! Darwin writes that ‘No tribe could hold together if murder, robbery, treachery, etc were common.’ And furtheremore, ‘Actions regarded by savages, and were probably so regarded by primeval man, are good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe – not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe.’
Houston, we have a problem. The notion of ‘group selection’ was born because Darwin could not accept the implications of his own theory!
Group selection was famously disproved in the 20th century by Robert Trivers and W.D. Hamilton. Worse, Darwin seems to have become confused about cause and affect. There is no universal standard of morality, such as sympathy, that will stop some primeval tribe from exterminating some other tribe. The very fact of extirmination is the cause of the evolution of morality, not the result of it! Struggle and conflict allowed superior (ie, victorious) moral traits to flourish, and inferior moral traits to vanish. A superior moral trait is one which has contributed to the survival of a particular race or tribe, whether we consider that trait ‘nice’ or ‘nasty.’ Infanticide, slavery, extreme aggression, brutality – these have all been ‘morally right’ for many tribes in the sense that they facilitated the survival of the tribe under harsh conditions. Of course, natural selection engineered morality, but it did not engineer a universal morality. Morality exists relative to the conditions of the society. That is the critical insight Darwin missed – or chose to ignore.
Darwin loathed the obvious conclusions of his own theory, so he desperately sought justification of a natural moral code based on ‘sympathy,’ ignoring the glaring contradiction. He made the mistake of confusing an ‘ought’ with an ‘is,’ a common faux-pas known as the Naturalistic Fallacy.
The philosopher David Hume warned of this back in 1740, more than a hundred years before Darwin:
‘In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning … when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.’
The Naturalistic Fallacy has claimed its share of victims, quite literally. George Price set out to disprove the unpleasant moral implications of Darwinism (the ones Darwin fudged with his appeal to ‘sympathy’), but became convinced of its truth, working with JM Keynes to develop the algebra known as the Price Equation, before succumbing to depression induced by a feeling of worthlessness that Darwinism engenders; he died by his own hand, penniless and miserable in a cheap motel room. Had he been focusing more on the ‘ought’ and less on the ‘is,’ the razorblades might not have cut so deep.
Darwinian theory shined a light on morality, but it wasn’t quite the spotlight that was hoped for. Problems of morality persisted, awaiting Mendel’s discovery of genes.
According to Edward O. Wilson, ethics emerge organically from genetics. Morals are sociocultural correlates of behavior hardwired by evolution. ‘The genes hold culture on a leash,’ explains Wilson. ‘The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.’ Wilson, in fact, wants to snatch morality once and for all from the greedy grip of those worldly philosophers. ‘Scientists and humanists,’ says Wilson, ‘should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.’ Needless to say, philosophers like Daniel Dennett are not so enthused about handing an entemologist, however eminent, the keys to the castle.
Richard Feynman would seem to agree; he argues that science is the wrong tool for understanding morality. Feyman writes:
‘The common human problem, the big question, alwyasi is ‘should I do this?’. It is a question of action. ‘What should I do? Should I do this?’ And how can we answer such a question? We can divide it into two parts. We can say, ‘If I do this what will happen?’ That doesn’t tell me whether I should do this. We still have another part, which is ‘Well, do I want that to happen?’ In other words, the first question – ‘If I do this what will happen?’ – is at least susceptible to scientific investgatioin; in fact, it is a typical scientific question. IT doesn’t mean we know what will happen. Far from it. We never know what is going to happen. The science is very rudimentary. But, at least it t is in the realm of science we have a method to deal with it. The methid is ‘Try it and aee’ – we talked about that – and accumulate the information and so on. And so the questioni ‘If I do it what will happen?’ is a typically scientific question. But the question ‘Do I want this to happe’ – in the ultimate moment – is not. Well, you say, if I do this, I see that everybody is killed, and, of course, I don’t want that. Well, how do you know you don’t want people killed? You see, at the end you must have some ultimate judgment. … You could take a different example. You caould say, of r instance, ‘If I follow this economic policy, I see there is going to be a depression, and , of course, I don’t want a depression.’ Wait. You see, only knowing that it is a depression doesn’t tell you that you do not want it. You have then to judge whether the feelings of power you would get form this, whether the importance of the country moving in this direction is better than the cost of the people who are suffering. Or maybe there would be osome sufferers and not others. And so there must at the end be some ultimate judgment somewhere along the line as to what is valuable, whether people are valuable, whether life is valuable. Deep in the end – you may follow the argument of what will happen further and further along – but iultmiately you have to decide ‘ Yeah, IU want that’ or ‘No, I don’t.’ And the judgment there is of a different nature. I do not see how by knowing what will happen alone it is possible to know if ultimately you want the last of the things. I believe, therefore, that it is impossible to decide moral questions by the scienfif technique, and that the two things are independent.’ (The Meaning of it All, 19, Feynmann)
So the eminent physicist claims morality remains outside the realm of science, while the eminent biologist insists morality is a purely scientific matter – the philisophers must wait their turn. Who is right?
I think they are both a little wrong.
Humans are pre-programmed for morality, just as we are pre-programmed for language. But the capacity for morality tells us nothing about what specific morals we might hold, just as the capacity for language tells us nothing about what language we might speak. We are ethical beings by nature; we evaluate our behavior as either moral or immoral, right or wrong, as a consequence of our large neocortex, which offers the ability for abstract thought and self-awareness. So the capacity for morality is a product of evolution, but specific moral codes are products of cultural rather than biological evolution. Our biological nature has pre-programmed us with the urge to judge others’ behavior as good or bad, right or wrong.
Now we are approaching the heart and soul of morality; consensus. Morals are a cultural/societal consensus of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – that is to say, what is right or wrong for that particular society. So morals necessarily vary by time and location. Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is morally ‘right’ to stone your daughter to death if she brought dishonor to the family. During the first half of the Twentieth Century in England, homophobia was morally ‘wrong,’ and it cost Alan Turing both his job and his life. A mere fifty years hence, it is homophobes who find themselves on the wrong end of morality.
Specific morals represent a rudimentary dichotomy between different weightings of actions. Consider a psychopath who murders a child; we assign an arbitrary value to the consequences of the psychopath’s behavior – positive for the outcome of life to the child, negative for the outcome of death. But these values we assign to outcomes are necessarily arbitrary; they have no basis in objective science. They are opinions.
Or maybe something worse than opinions; according to social intuitionists, a moral judgment is merely a kneejerk reaction to a stimulus.
In the writings of modern social intuitionists, the Humean Creature has risen from the grave like Lazarus. According to the social intuitionist model of morality, moral judgments occur intuitively and almost instantly, whereas moral reasoning is an ex-post-facto process used to influence the judgments of others. Moral reasoning is prosecutorial; the moralist attempts to bolster her initial intuitive reaction with arguments, rather than examining whether her morality rang true. This was almost exactly what Hume claimed hundreds of years earlier, only to be rebuffed in favor the incomprehensible Kant.
Social intuitionists have shown that much of what we consider ‘morally wrong’ is actually morally ambiguous given more consideration. In 1993, Haidt, Koller and Dias found evidence for the social intuitionist interpretation of morality. They devised carefully constructed stories that were designed to be offensive yet harmless, such as eating one’s recently-deceased pet dog, cleaning one’s toilet with the national flag, or eating a chicken carcass one has just masturbated with (an unappetizing morsel to say the least). Most people who heard the stories agreed that no actual suffering was caused by the actions described (a nod to Bentham!), yet they still claimed the actions were morally wrong. ‘It is just wrong to have sex with a chicken,’ blurted out one horrified participant. But why? Unable to come up with a rational response, many people throw up their hands in dismay and respond ‘I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.’ The psychologists coined the term ‘moral dumbfounding’ to describe how participants in the study would stutter, laugh and express surprise at their total inability to find reasons to justify their moral position, even as they steadfastly refused to amend their initial moral judgment.
Sex, in fact, seemed to be a source of tremendous moral confusion, which is perhaps why the Church has played this card so strongly throughout the ages. Sex among kin is particularly touchy.
Out of curiousity, I once asked my friend how he would feel if I suggested he bed his twin sister. This peculiar specimen is an anarchist petty criminal with a hopelessly de-magnetized moral compass and a self-proclaimed rational amoralist. What a combination! Nonethless, he said he would feel like ‘smacking me in the face’ when I suggested he lay with his sister – apparently consanguinous relationships are not his cup of tea. Incest is generally considered ‘morally wrong,’ but why? The evolutionary explanation is known as the Westermarck Effect, which programs feelings of extreme asexuality between opposite-sex children who grow up together. The Westermarck Effect holds true whether the children are related or not, explaining why teenage boys and girls raised on an Israeli kibbutz seldom sleep together. The moral repulsion toward incest is an evolutionary adaptation which prevents us from mating with close relatives because incest produces genetic deformities in the offspring. That is all morality is; evolutionary sleight-of-hand to direct our behavior in ways that benefit our selfish genes. ‘But what is wrong with sleeping with your sister?’ I badgered my friend. ‘What if you wore a condom? What if you got yourself snipped? What if there was no possible chance of a pregnancy?’ He fumbled unsucessfully for an answer; he simply ‘felt’ that it was wrong in some way. Evolution has hardwired us to make important decisions by ‘feeling’ rather than by thinking. Logically, there would be no reason not to sleep with a close relative if we took pregancy or emotional harm off the table.
If I had a sister, I would be willing to give it a go – but all in the name of science, of course.
Consider this passage which psychologists read to a group of subjects:
‘Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?’
For most people, this is nearly as awful as chicken sex. Participants who heard this story immediately claimed that it was ‘wrong’ for the siblings to have coitus – and then they began searching for reasons to justify their intuitive moral response. (Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy, 2000). They pointed out the potential effects of inbreeding, only to recall that the siblings had used multiple forms of birth control. They argued that Julie and Mark would be emotionally damaged, even though the story emphasizes that no harm came to them whatsoever – in fact the experience strengthened their relationship. Then comes the inevitable ‘I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.’ Moral dumbfounding strikes again.
The central tenet of the social intuitionist model is that moral judgment is caused by quick moral intuitions, followed by slow, rational, ex-post-facto moral reasoning. And these quick moral intuitions are, in fact, indistinguishable from emotions.
So what is morality, finally, and how does it work? I will answer this question without beating around the kantian bush. Morality is not universal, as Plato argued, but neither is it completely subjective, as postmodern social constructionists would have us believe. The moral sense is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us play a non-zero-sum game with our in-group by agreeing to certain standards of behavior – a moral contract – that benefit most members of the in-group. We have a genetic predisposition towards moral action, but those specific moral actions are learned at a young age based on the community – the in-group – in which we grow up. The way this evolutionary adaptation works is through a social intuition in which quick moral judgments, indistuinguishable from emotions, are followed by slow, rational, ex-post-facto moral reasoning. Social intuitionists have got it mostly right, but they fail to clarify that the moral intuition fails miserably when dealing with a member of the out-group. So that is morality laid bare, stripped of its colorful feathers – just another Darwinian tool, like altruism or jealousy, to help us survive and pass on our genes.
Specific morals are specifically human constructs; in other words, opinions. As tribes grew into cities and cities grew into nation-states, most of these opinions were propagated by power elites, such as the Church, to control and dominate the masses, exploiting the human innate moral sense. Science holds a monopoly on objective truths; morality is nothing like that. I will walk across a frozen river because I am willing to bet my life that the laws of physics hold true for phase changes. I will fly in an airplane because I believe the laws of aerodynamics are good approximations of objective reality. But I will not conform my behavior simply because some bearded philosopher in his ivory tower declaims that such-and-such an action is good or bad, right or wrong, based on semantics and flowery prose. I will not predicate my life on the teachings of a wise man or a holy man who proclaims morality from on high, with nothing more substantial than arguments, semantics, and vague notions of right and wrong. I am willing to bet my life on science because the theories of science can be measured, tested, and quantified; the moral sentiments can never be subjected to so much rigor. They were always, and always will be, a wisp of dust in the wind. Some philosopher’s musings. Some religious man’s polemic. Some ruler’s dictum.
Nietzsche knew all of this, of course. In Beyond Good and Evil, he coined the term ‘perspectivism,’ which is the philosophical outlook that all ideations take place from unique perspectives, rendering many different possible conceptual schemes in which judgment of truth or value becomes entirely subjective. In Nietzsche’s world, objective metaphysics does not exist; there is no notion of a ‘thing-in-itself,’ no inkling of objective facts.
This capacity for morality – for gullibility, weakness – is hardcoded into us, not for the benefit of our selves, but for the benefit of our selfish genes.
Morality did not come from on high, prescribed by some Almighty Creator, nor did it come from on low, written into the laws of the universe. Instead, it emerged from the purposeless, teleologically empty process of natural selection. The Blind Watchmaker created morality, and it is as blind as he is.
Think of it: billions of humans gallavanting around the planet under the hypnotic sway of their own morality, many of these moral codes partly or completely different and all logically imcompatible with one another: ‘My morality is the real morality; yours is false, inferior, and justifies your imprisonment, exile, torture or death.’ And you are one of these people, living your life trapped in a logical absurdity.
by JESSE JAMES