Tag Archives: evolution

Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring.

Rosenberg argues — and I entirely agree — that our moral senses are part of our human nature. We have a “core morality” programmed into us by evolution to enable us to interact socially and so exploit a cooperative evolutionary niche. Of course evolution doesn’t care about the morality itself, it only cares (metaphorically “cares” of course) about what leads to us leaving more descendants. It follows that (page 286): “there are no facts of the matter about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad”. But it also follows, since humans are highly similar genetically, that “most people naturally buy into the same core morality that makes us tolerably nice to each other”.

Rosenberg then argues, and again I agree, that the fact that we now understand human morality in such terms does not necessarily alter our moral feelings. Understanding why we have such feelings does not revoke those feelings or negate them. That might seem an obvious point, but many people argue that if there is no objective morality, if it really does come down “merely” to human feelings, then “there is no reason why we shouldn’t commit murder or torture children”. But yes, there is a reason, that reason is human feelings!

Quoting Rosenberg (p292):

Scientism is nihilistic, but we are not. The Darwinian process that got us here included steps that selected for a pretty strong commitment to core morality. Even scientism can’t shake our emotions or the moral judgments that they produce. Knowing that morality is only good for our reproductive fitness, and sometimes not so good for us, can’t make us give it up. We are still committed to being nice.

But then comes the argument where I part company with Rosenberg.

But when you combine core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics. In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.

Rosenberg’s argument is based on determinism. None of us have “free will” in the dualistic, contra-causal sense, we are all products of the past and of our environment. Whether we were born into a rich family or a poor one, whether we are born with genes that make us talented or not, whether we grow up in an environment that helps us prosper, are all things that we could not choose. Whether we are a millionaire at age 30, or whether we are stuck in a minimum-wage job, is thus largely a lottery of birth.

Rosenberg then asserts that “core morality tells us that important advantages in life should be distributed in accordance with desert; inequalities should be deserved”. He argues that “core morality” requires that “deserving” acts must result from “free will” (and so cannot be acts determined by the prior state), and thence, since there is no such thing, there cannot be any “morally deserving” acts. Therefore there cannot be any justification for inequalities, and thus they are immoral. Hence the left-wing agenda requiring a much more even distribution of wealth.

I think that this argument is faulty. I think that it fails to distinguish between actual “core morality” and commentary about core morality. Rosenberg and I are agreed that “core morality” is the set of notions programmed into us by evolution to enable cooperative living. But evolutionarily-programmed morality will be feelings about how people act, because it is actions by other people that affect whether we leave descendants. Evolutionarily-programmed morality cannot be about metaphysical notions such as dualism or contra-casual free will, because evolution has no traction on such notions.

If a band of comrades agree to share the proceeds of a hunt, and then one member betrays the group by taking it all, then we have been programmed to have feelings about that act, because it is that act that affects whether the others can feed their children. It matters not to those feelings whether the act was determined, or whether it resulted from dualistic free will. Indeed, since Rosenberg is correct about determinism and the absence of dualistic free will, evolution will have programmed us to have feelings about the treachery even though that treachery was determined!

That follows from Rosenberg’s own logic. Our evolutionarily-programmed, “core morality” feelings must be about actions in a deterministic universe. We have such feelings about how other people act, even though those acts were determined. We thus cannot just decide: “well, since we now understand that the traitor’s actions were determined by prior circumstances, we don’t blame him and don’t feel at all angry”. We are programmed to feel that way about determined acts whether we like it or not. That’s what “core morality” is — it is about a deterministic universe. And, quoting Rosenberg again, we have evolved to have: “. . . a pretty strong commitment to core morality. Even scientism can’t shake our emotions or the moral judgments that they produce”.

The ideas that we have about dualistic free will and the notion that “moral desert” depends on dualistic free will are then commentaries about human morality, they are interpretations that we have developed based on our previous (and wrong) understanding. They are not core morality itself. If we now understand that there is no such thing as dualistic free will then we change the commentary, but we do not radically change core morality. To do the latter would take genetic engineering.

Of course all of our genetic programming plays out through our development and upbringing, and the end product of our genetic recipe is heavily influenced by that environmental interaction. Thus scientific advances can certainly inform and influence our morals and how we feel. There is nothing “set” about core morality, it can indeed be heavily influenced — and obviously has been, if we think about how societal moral codes have changed over the centuries.

But it is not the case that accepting determinism will automatically lead to the radical changes in how people feel that Rosenberg suggests; people who accept determinism don’t automatically vote far left and ask for radical wealth redistribution. Indeed, compared to religiose America, lots of Europeans have accepted many of these ideas. But they tend to vote centrist or soft-left as much as hard left. People seem to be comfortable with a footballer earning much more than they do, even if they believe that his footballing ability is largely a genetic accident of birth. People don’t begrudge a successful entrepreneur getting rich, even if they think that his personality and ability are not “free will” acts. People are content that a lazy person or a spendthrift has little money, even if they think that his nature is not a “free will choice”, but is how he is. People really are making moral judgements about how people act — just as the evolutionary perspective would suggest — and the commentary about “free will” or whatever is secondary to that.

Rosenberg, I suggest, fails to follow his own logic. He never considers how notions of free will and morality would be interpreted in a deterministic world. He starts, correctly, by insisting that our moral senses and feelings are innate and evolved, and that they evolved in a deterministic universe. But then he leaps to the idea that “moral desert” requires dualistic, contra-causal free will. This is utterly at odds with the preceding sentence! This leads him to write (p294): “once you adopt determinism, you have to rethink the de-meritocracy; you can’t treat lawbreakers as morally bad or worthy of punishment”. But this only follows given a notion of “morally bad” derived from dualistic free will. And that’s a theological notion. To atheists and scientismists such as Rosenberg and myself, moral feelings derive from a deterministic world and so are about a deterministic world and apply to a deterministic world! They don’t change when we accept determinism.

The evolutionary argument against moral realism

Having abandoned Divine Command Theory around the age of 12, when I realised that I was an atheist, I then read John Stuart Mill at the impressionable age of 14 and instantly became a utilitarian. I remained so well into adulthood; it seemed obvious that morality was a matter of objective wrong and right, and that utilitarianism — the greatest good of the greatest number — was the way to determine such facts.

Of course I also became aware of the unresolved problems with utilitarianism: there is no way to assess what is “good” except by subjective judgement, and there is no way to aggregate over sentient creatures (should a mouse count equally to a human?) except, again, by subjective judgement. Both of those rather clash with the desired objectivity of the scheme.

Periodically I would try to fix these flaws, but never succeeded. Such mulling led me to the realisation that I didn’t actually know what moral language actually meant. “It is morally right that you do X”, can be re-phrased as “you ought to do X”, but what do those mean? I realised that I didn’t know, and had been proceeding all this time on the basis that what they meant was intuitively obvious and so didn’t need analysis.

But that’s not good enough if we’re trying to solve meta-ethics and understand the very foundations of morality. And so, I eventually arrived at the realisation that the only sensible meaning that can be attached to the moral claim “you ought to do X” is that: at least one human, likely including the speaker, will dislike it if you do not do X. Similarly, “It is morally right that you do X” becomes a declaration that the speaker will approve of you doing X and disapprove of you not doing X. Continue reading

There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!

Whenever I argue that morality is subjective I encounter people who regard that idea as so unpalatable that they are determined that we must find a scheme — somehow, anyhow — in which morality can be regarded as objective. The term “subjective” has such negative connotations. I argue here that such connotations are not justified.

If we ask what morality actually is, the only plausible answer is that morality is about the feelings that humans have about how we act, particularly about how we treat each other. This was proposed by the greatest ever scientist, Charles Darwin, who in Chapter 3 of his Descent of Man stated that that “moral faculties of man have been gradually evolved” and added that “the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts”.

He explains that in social animals such instincts would take the form that in each individual:

… an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other.

The world’s greatest philosopher, David Hume, had earlier arrived at the same conclusion. In his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Hume explained that “morality is determined by sentiment”, saying that “in moral deliberations” the “approbation or blame … cannot be the work of the judgement”, but is instead “an active feeling or sentiment”.

Hume continues:

In these sentiments then, not in a discovery of relations of any kind, do all moral determinations consist. . . .

… we must at last acknowledge, that the crime or immorality is no particular fact or relation, which can be the object of the understanding, but arises entirely from the sentiment of disapprobation, which, by the structure of human nature, we unavoidably feel on the apprehension of barbarity or treachery.

No-one has ever suggested any alternative account of morals that makes the slightest sense. The main alternative suggestion is that morality is about the values and feelings of gods, rather than of humans, but we have neither hide nor hair of any gods, whereas we know that humans exist and evolved.

Given our evolutionary past in a highly social and cooperative ecological niche, we will inevitably have been programmed with moral feelings (feelings about how we act towards each other). Thus morals are rooted in human values and in what we like and dislike. That makes morals, at root, subjective, since the term “subjective” means “based on or influenced by personal feelings, values and opinions”.

Whether an act is regarded as “morally good” or “morally bad” must, in the end, be a statement about how humans feel about the matter. No viable alternative has ever been proposed. Continue reading

Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.

Was the Holocaust evil?

Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.

It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different. Continue reading

On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland

The Christian blogger Anthony Freeland has invited me to debate the topic of whether morals are objective or subjective. Anthony has written the first post, arguing that objective moral values and duties do exist.

I’m arguing that morals are subjective, and will structure this post as a reply to Anthony, though elaborating on my wider views at times (for more of which see these three posts). To start with, I’ll concur with Anthony’s definition of the terms. Subjective morals derive from and are dependent on human feelings and opinion on the matter. Objective moral values and duties need to be independent of human opinion (though, as below, more broadly they need to be independent of the feelings of any sentient being). Continue reading

Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

scientism A common criticism of science is that it must make foundational assumptions that have to be taken on faith. It is, the critic asserts, just one world view among other, equally “valid”, world views that are based on different starting assumptions. Thus, the critic declares, science adopts naturalism as an axiom of faith, whereas a religious view is more complete in that it also allows for supernaturalism.

This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.

Any part of this web of ideas can be examined and replaced, if replacing it improves the overall match to reality. Even basic axioms of maths and logic can be evaluated, and thus they are ultimately accepted for empirical reasons, namely that they model the real world.

This view of knowledge was promoted by the Vienna Circle philosophers such as Otto Neurath, who gave the metaphor of knowledge being a raft floating at sea, where any part of it may be replaced. As worded by Quine: Continue reading

Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense

Whether morality is an objective property of the universe, or instead the subjective opinion of humans, is one of the longest running issues in philosophy. Jerry Coyne recently returned to the theme, arguing that morality was subjective, and, as I usually am, I was surprised by the number of commentators arguing the contrary.

This debate seems hampered by a lack of clarity on what “objective” and “subjective” moralities are. Coyne gave a sensible definition of “objective” morality as being the stance that something can be discerned to be “morally wrong” through reasoning about facts about the world, rather than by reference to human opinion.

If morality were objective, it would have to be conceivable that the statement “George’s actions were wrong and he deserves to be punished” would be true even if every human in the world were of the opinion, “George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable”.

Thus, if morality were an absolute set by a god, something could be immoral even if every human disagreed. If, instead, human feelings and desires are what ultimately count, then that is a subjective morality.

Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality?

Given that an objective morality would be highly undesirable, why do so many philosophers and others continue to try hard to rescue an objective morality? Continue reading