Escaping nihilism: The reality of moral facts

Even if human beings aren’t cosmic billiard balls or genetic sock puppets, a case for Darwinian nihilism can still be made.  It claims that we may be free, but where morality is concerned we are deluded.  The argument goes something like this.  Moral beliefs and judgments are adaptations pegged to powerful emotions like empathy, contempt, and shame.  Being adaptations, these features of behavior succeed in terms of survival and reproduction, not truth.

Demonstrably, the emotions that drive moral beliefs and judgments correspond to nothing in the world.  Not a molecule of Osama bin Laden’s body changes because I judge him evil.  No principle or relation in nature can be found to justify this judgment.  It, and all morality, is objectively false — at best a useful delusion, evolved to lubricate the gears of social interaction.

If one is to believe the nihilists, there’s no escape.  Attempts by famous neodarwinists to hook a humanist morality to evolution crashed and burned against an insurmountable fallacy.  One can’t get an ought from an is.  The world is innocent of moral values.  The best we can hope for is the “nice nihilism” of Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, who assure us that, even in delusion, we can’t help but be good.  Less nice is the nihilism of Richard Joyce — he has given up on morality altogether, let the chips fall where they may.

I grew up watching a cartoon character called Mr. Magoo, who was so short-sighted he always mistook the object in front of him for something different.  According to the nihilists, we are all Magoos, acting as if we see morality when in fact we are looking at an evolutionary trick.

Our first task is to stretch this idea to its full implications.  Given the logic of Darwinism, all human beliefs and judgments that pertain to the world and our place in it must succeed in terms of survival and reproduction, not truth.  This category embraces scientific beliefs and judgments, including those of neodarwinism.  (Any who doubt that emotions are strongly engaged in science are referred to Ullica Segerstrale’s color commentary of the punch-out between Marxist and Darwinist scientists.)

So is Magooism a universal condition?  Scientists would say no, because scientific beliefs and judgments correspond to a body of objective facts to which anyone can refer.  One can dispute an explanation of the facts, or an occasional factual error, but it is impossible to dismiss the facts of science short of rejecting reality.  Nothing of the sort can be said about morality, which appears to float above the world, disconnected from shared points of reference.

A rescue of morality, then, needs to establish the reality of moral facts, despite their nonexistence in nature.  Stated differently, we require a set of objective facts that are not natural facts.  John Searle has shown that facts fitting this description actually exist, and are easily identifiable.  Searle calls them “social” or “institutional” facts.  Moral reality is an aspect of social reality.

Social reality is built up of institutional facts.  Such facts depend on the community bestowing a certain status function, but are objectively true:  “ontologically subjective, epistemically objective,” in Searle’s catchy phrase.  Thus I am really married to my wife.  This isn’t some subjective feeling of mine — for example, a desire to be married to my wife.  Romeo and Juliet wished to be married, but weren’t.  Nor is it that my wife and I somehow behave in a “married” fashion.  I have known couples who behave exactly like my wife and I, even to saying that they are married — but, objectively, they aren’t.  The status function of being married was never bestowed on them.

Note that not a molecule in either my wife or me changes because of the fact of being married.  No principle or relation in nature need be invoked to justify it.  Yet if someone were to say, “Marriage is just a useful delusion,” it would sound bizarre.  More importantly, it could be refuted from a body of accepted facts.  I can bring out my wedding certificate to show that I really am married.

The same applies to money.  No molecular changes occur when a paper rectangle becomes a dollar.  The paper doesn’t even have the intrinsic value of the status function, but because of the latter it really is worth 100 cents.  If anyone questioned the reality of this, I could take my dollar to the store and buy something worth 100 cents.

The charge of moral Magooism can be deflected by appealing to facts of this kind.  Across the centuries, the community has tagged certain situations “right” and “wrong.”  These situations are highly specific and perfectly real:  for example, an adult abusing a child or gross racial discrimination.  The tagging is conducted as part of an individual’s moral education by a large number of entities:  parents, teachers, peers, TV, literature, laws, etc.

If Antonio Damasio’s “somatic marker” hypothesis is correct, primitive neurological systems are borrowed to implement the tagging — hence the immediate and emotional response to a morally charged situation.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the perceived moral fact is subjective or false, however, any more than a rush of adrenaline and a feeling of fear at the sight of a lion means that the lion is a purely subjective or delusional experience.

Let’s look at examples.  Suppose I went into a room and saw a grown man savagely attacking a small child.  I would feel anger and disgust, and I would think “This is wrong.”  Further, I could confirm the reality of this moral fact.  If I went out and described the situation to a group of ordinary people, their response would be “That’s wrong” — probably followed by “Let’s put a stop to it” and “He should be punished.”  Some might ask for confirmation of the truth of my statement, but I doubt anyone would think, “I have no shared points of reference with that guy.”

If I had described a woman shouting at her son because he disobeyed her, the group’s response would almost certainly be, “That’s too bad, but it’s none of our business.”  Yet suppose Fairfax County, Virginia — where I live — decided to deny fat people the vote.  What should the rest of us do, who don’t fit this description?  Would a single person among us say, “Well, that’s too bad, but it’s none of my business”?

Moral beliefs and judgments correspond to moral facts, and these facts are as real as marriage and money.  Individuals often make mistakes about moral facts, but that’s true about fact-gathering generally.  Karl Popper once wrote that the scientific method was a social process, and the same is true of morality.  The community is far less likely to endorse a moral error for any prolonged length of time.

Community and history are the womb of moral reality.  Contrary to the assumptions of rationalists, morality isn’t received in the form of categorical principles that then are worked down to the token instances.  The process is exactly the reverse.  Across the sweep of history, the moral wisdom of the community has come to judge specific situations and specific behaviors:  some were tagged “noble” and “virtuous,” others “immoral” and “base.”  These judgments are specific but categorical:  they apply to everyone, everywhere.

In the same way, our moral education proceeds situation by situation.  If we were told nothing more than “It’s wrong to steal,” we would paralyzed by questions.  (Is property theft?  Charging interest?  Asking for more than minimum wage?)  Morality is always anchored to the facts of the world, and doesn’t hang on abstractions.

Of course, specific judgments get aggregated into rough general rules or principles.  There are good reasons for this:  the number of possible situations is infinite, while the  community’s ability to tag them is limited.  New situations arise all the time, and disputes will erupt over which are morally significant, and in what way.

The general rules can be useful in narrowing the gap between contending views, or at least in mapping more precisely the moral territory in contention.  But they should not be confused with moral facts, which are always specific, nor should they be considered the equivalent of geometric axioms, from which all rights and wrongs must be derived.

It should be apparent from what has been said that only tradition — the memory of the community — can transform a social situation into a moral fact.  Similarly, the only morality available is traditional morality.  It can be discredited but not replaced.  That’s why the contempt shown by the neodarwinists for convention and religion is so blindly destructive.  They are the true victims of Magooism, as those nice nihilists, Sommers and Rosenberg, have shown.  They believe they see the triumph of science and humanistic ideals, when they are gazing at a moral void.

The moral necessity of tradition raises the specter of a closed society and the persecution of dissidents.  It’s a baseless worry.  Traditions come in many flavors, open and closed — ours is probably the most open ever, and fosters habits of vigorous self-examinationa and self-criticism.  Honest criticism situated within the circle of our way of life would be viewed as one more link in a long chain of similar endeavors.  In other words, it would be traditional.

Nor should there be any doubts about criticizing the status quo.  The most inflexibly traditional societies tend to be fiercest in criticizing the way things are — ancestor worship, after all, forever regrets the steep decline from the golden ages of the past.

But I believe the dependent relation of morality to tradition fatally undermines multiculturalism.  Democracy requires a shared moral structure, to which social and political disputes can be referred.  It is difficult to see how the integrity of a free  community can be maintained, if different segments of the electorate live by, and appeal to, contradictory versions of right and wrong.


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