Tuesday, December 29, 2015

There Is No Moral Sense

In raising objections to objective morality, Coen Hellier makes a claim that, simply put, is false.


Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, said Dobzhansky, and morality certainly makes no sense except as the product of our evolutionary heritage. Our moral sense is one of a number of systems developed by evolution to do a job: the immune systems counters infection, the visual system gives us information about the world, and our moral feelings are there as a social glue to enable us to cooperate with other humans.
There is no moral sense. It does not exist.

A Moral Sense Is Unnecessary

Apparently, this “moral sense” is supposed to “enable us to cooperate with other humans.”

The first thing to note about this so-called “moral sense” is that nature has had no difficulty promoting cooperation among creatures without a moral sense. We would have to go pretty far away from the mainstream to suggest that ants that bring food back to the colony are acting on a sense of duty, or that the bee that gives her life defending the hive has even a crude sense of acting on a moral obligation.

When it comes to cooperating, nature has a far easier way to promote cooperation than to generate a “moral sense”. It can simply cause us to like cooperation, just as it has caused us to like other things that promote our survival as a species – such as eating and having sex.

Eating and sex are simply two examples among many where nature caused in humans certain behavioral dispositions without bringing a “moral sense” into the picture. I know of nobody who requires a sense of duty in order to engage in masturbation or intercourse. Similarly, a sense of duty seldom motivates a person to take another slice of chocolate cake or to pick up some Chinese take-out on the way home.

In fact, we often engage in cooperation without a sense of duty as well. I would argue that most of the time that a parent spends with a child comes, not from a sense of duty, but from a genuine interest in spending time with their child. If my wife were to tell me that the reason that she is visiting me in the hospital is because she senses that it is the right thing to do – as opposed to being there because she wants to comfort and help me – I would worry that our marriage was coming to an end.

So, why bring “moral sense” into the picture in order to promote cooperation? Why not simply cause us to like cooperation and dislike conflict the way that we like to stay snuggled in a warm bed or dislike being very cold or very hot?

Moral Sense and Cooperation

Another question we need to have answered is whether this connection between our “moral sense” is a necessary connection, or merely contingent.

I remember a conversation that I had with a person who sensed that interracial relationships were wrong. Any person who engaged in interracial relationships should be punished. I have known others who felt the same about homosexual relationships. Their moral sense told them that this was wrong as well, and they were willing to put a great deal of effort to thwart homosexual relationships.

These are cases where a moral sense has nothing to do with cooperation.

We can also ask about the huge number of cases in which our moral sense failed to condemn non-cooperation.

For thousands of years – and probably for tens of thousands of years – people accept the moral legitimacy of slavery without question. No society of any size condemned slavery. Even the slaves saw slavery itself as legitimate, though they might have questioned the legitimacy of making them slaves. Historical records give us no examples of anybody raising a moral objection against slavery until the beginning of the enlightenment era in the 1600s.

So, where was our moral sense – our evolved sense of cooperation – during all that time.

The Pace of Change

The history of slavery gives us yet another reason to question the existence of a moral sense.

Once people began to question slavery, it took just a couple of centuries for slavery to be abolished everywhere. This change happened far too quickly to be explained by appeal to evolutionary forces. It clearly was not the case that some genetic mutation in the “moral sense” of somebody in Canterbury which then spread across the whole human race, causing all humans to sense the wrongness of slavery within two centuries. Evolutionary change does not happened that quickly.

What happened is that the aversion to slavery was learned. It did not come to us through our genes. It came to us through our environment. Granted, our genes gave us the biological foundation that allowed us to learn this moral principle. It also gave us a biological foundation that allowed us to ignore the wrongness of slavery for thousands of years. But the disapproval of slavery did not come to us through a moral sense. It came to us from our environment.

If there is one moral principle that can be learned quickly from the environment, then it is almost certainly the case that there are others. In fact, now we need to ask whether there is even one example of a case where a person learned a moral principle through their genes. I would argue that they are all learned through the environment, and that there is no such thing as an evolved moral sense.

The Relation Between an Evolved Sense and Morality

What is this relationship between an evolved sense and morality anyway? Let us assume that we have an evolved sense. What makes it the case that what we sense to be right is right in fact, and what we sense to be wrong is wrong in fact?

I would wager that Hellier would balk at the very idea of something being “right in fact” or “wrong in fact” After all, there is no objective morality.

But, if there is no “right in fact” or “wrong in fact”, then it seems that we are forced into the position that our moral sense can make no error. The very possibility of error requires the existence of an objective morality that does not exist.

So, the people who sensed wrongness in interracial and homosexual relationships could not have been in error. Those who sensed no wrongness in slavery could not have been in error. If our moral sense tells males to murder their step children so that the family’s resources are spent raising only the father’s biological children (as is the case with lions), then the murder of step children would be permissible – even obligatory. If, instead, it gives males a sense of the rightness of mating with their stepdaughters, then this would be right as well, and stepdaughters would have an obligation to submit.

The Euthyphro of Evolved Moral Sense

Actually, what I am using here is the same argument that atheists like to use against divine-command theories of ethics. They refer back to Socrates, who once reportedly asked Euthyphro whether something was good because it was loved by the gods, or if it was loved by the gods because is it good.

I am asking, if we have an evolved moral sense, is something good because we sense it to be good, or do we sense it to be good because it is good?

Well, on an evolutionary account, it cannot be the latter. Our senses are tuned by evolutionary fitness, not a “good” property in the world – unless there is a huge coincidence between goodness in the world and evolutionary survival. Given that many of the factors of evolutionary survival are contingent and not necessary – such as the killing of step children or mating with step daughters – there simply cannot be a coincidence between what is good and what promotes survival.

Hellier actually sees this point and admits to it.
[E]volution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”, it operates according to what helps someone to have more descendants. Thus, even if there were an “absolute” morality, there is no reason to suppose that it would have any connection to our own human sense of morality. Anyone arguing for objective morality by starting with human morality and intuition — which of course is how it is always done — is thus basing their case on a non sequitur. 
Hellier doesn’t recognize that this fact prevents him from choosing that we evolved a disposition to sense something as moral because it is good, and leaves him stuck with the first option – that whatever we sense to be good is good in fact merely because we sense it to be do. 

If our moral sense cannot be in error - if things become moral simply in virtue of the fact that we sense it to be moral – then anything can be moral. If we sense goodness in conquering our neighbors, taking their property, and enslaving them, then this would be good in fact. If we sensed badness in interracial and homosexual relationships, then they would be bad in fact. If we sensed no disapproval in rounding up all of the Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Japanese, Christians, and throwing them into concentration camps, then this would be good in fact.

If there is no external standard that we can use to determine if our moral sense is accurate or not, then it cannot be wrong, no matter what it tells us to do.

Parasites and Predators

Hellier proposed that our evolved moral sense gives us the benefits of cooperation.

I remind Hellier that every predator and parasite that came into existence was also a product of evolution. The lion, that I already mention, that kills its step children, evolved. The lion that attacks, kills, and eats the antelope evolved – and evolved to do a very good job of attacking, killing, and eating antelope. The spider wasp that lays its eggs inside of a living spider that the offspring will then consume evolved. The mosquito – and the malaria that the mosquito transmits from one being to another – evolved.

There is a huge mountain of evidence that evolution implies cooperation. Evolution also implies parasitical and predatory behavior. In fact, all of the parasitical and predatory behavior that we find among humans are just as firmly rooted in our evolved nature as our cooperation.

Now, why are we taking the cooperative elements and calling that “morality,” but not the parasitical or predatory aspects? Why not take the parasitical and predatory aspect and call that “morality”, but not the cooperative aspects?

Ghengis Khan is just as much a product of evolution as Ghandi.

The Evil That Can Be Prevented

In fact, this brings us to the heart of the matter.

Nobody has any reason to be concerned about evils that humans cannot do because they evolved to be incapable of performing those evils. We simply have no reason to get all worked up over harms that humans cannot inflict on others due to evolutionary history.

People are worried about the evils that humans show themselves daily to be very much capable of inflicting on each other.

Answering the question, “What about morality?” by saying “Evolution” amounts to saying, “Oh, don’t worry. Your child will not be raped. You will not be killed or robbed. Nobody is going to try to cheat you out of your money. People are not going to burn down your house out of anger. Your spouse is not going to cheat on you, and your lover will not put you at risk of catching a sexually transmitted disease. Nobody is going to enslave you. Nobody is going to round you up with others of your kind and send you to the gas chambers. Nobody is going to fly an airplane into a building that you happen to be working in, or set off an explosive vest in the market where you are shopping. Nobody is going to invade your city and slay every man, woman, and child. Humans evolved to be cooperative. Humans don’t do these things.”

Evolution has failed – in a big way – to make us cooperative.

If evolution had succeeded then, rather than having a moral sense, we would have no need for morality at all. We would go along happily cooperating with each other without a thought to 'duty' or 'obligation' or 'prohibition' or 'punishment'. We would have no need for those things.

But evolution failed. All of the items I mentioned above can and do happen and, because of this, we have reason to try to find some way to prevent it.

One of the tools we invented - that we created - is 'morality'.

To answer the question, “What about morality?” by saying “Evolution” transmits one fact loud and clear.

You really don’t understand the question.

1 comment:

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

One problem with Coel's blog post, like many discussions that use the phrase "moral sense," is that the phrase is never explicitly defined. It would be nice to know what he means by that phrase.