Questions about Morality
Here are some questions that have come up about my morality paper and my attempts to answer them.
I take issue with the assertion that morality is primarily a means of using the people around us to our advantage, individually or collectively.
If this is your view, then it seems to me that the burden of proof is on you to establish how a behavior could have evolved in a species of organism that is not directed at this ends, or something like it. I would, like any life scientist, assume that any organismic behavior is supported by the competitive effects of the history of sequences in its genome. How can genes have been naturally selected that did not cause, in some way, their own propagation, mostly by advancing the interests of the survival and reproduction of the organism that carries them? Morality, however it is defined, is a word that refers to a dimension of behavior, the behavior of a living thing or a population of them. I’m just trying to find an explanation for that behavior that doesn’t contradict evolutionary theory. You may believe that utilitarianism is flawed, which I would wholly agree with, but perhaps you feel it is flawed because it is not universal enough. But everything that affects the competition of DNA is not universal but contingent and immediate. Only events that actually happen are salient to the survival of DNA.
There is a strain of this argument that sees humans as the only species that can “rise above’ our genes through the evolution of culture. This doesn’t seem persuasive to me at all, not because it doesn’t give humans enough credit, but because it doesn’t give nonhumans enough credit. All intelligent animals have cultures, and all of these cultures evolve. To see cultural and genetic evolution as separate in humans would mean that somehow, the entire structure of millions of years of evolution had predisposed our bodies to responses that were contrary to the responses that evolution favored. How could this possibly happen? Only if culture had immediately, and permanently, destroyed our organic bodies and replaced them with something new could we have suddenly become immune to the effects of our evolutionary heritage. This claim is tantamount to denying scientific materialism itself, the idea that all phenomena are brought about by material causes, not supernatural ones.
The assertion that morality has ‘progressed’ with technology begs for justification.
It has become common lately to deny that there is in fact any moral progress at all. It is certainly very hard to really imagine times and places other than our own, and what it would have been like to live in them. I am just arguing that in general, life on earth has improved for the average person by our own criteria, and that this improvement has sped up lately. In order for this statement to be wrong, it’s not enough to identify one or more worrying trends, or find an example from our contemporary world where something awful is happening. In order for that statement to be wrong you would have to deny that across the world and for all humans, living longer lives, preventing epidemic disease, avoiding all-out war, eradicating widespread famine, reducing violent crime, advancing the rights of minorities and women, spreading literacy, and increasing household wealth either has not occurred, or it isn’t what we actually wanted. This perspective seems to me to be wildly out of touch with what basic needs human desire to satisfy first and foremost. If you are eager for facts, Stephen Pinker’s books Better Angels and Enlightenment Now are exhaustive lists of improving trends that would have to be completely fabricated for this idea to be wrong.
Another puzzling form of that argument is to say that there has been progress, but it can somehow be disentangled from the technologies that brought it about. I think I am understanding this from your claim that technology is a “neutral force” requiring morality to direct for the good. This argument seems unaware that the world operates as an interconnected whole, and there is no way to disentangle a technology from the motivations of the people that use and develop it. Nuclear weapons are a perfect example. Many people seem not to consider that it is possible that we have behaved in quite a different way towards one another since the invention of weapons that could, theoretically, exterminate us all. That these weapons exist, for them, is separate from all the talks and negotiations, arms control treaties, international governing bodies, and global market forces that have prevented the weapons from ever exploding in anger in the many years since 1948. It seems to go unnoticed that our behavior, in all its aspects, is always a compensatory mechanism for the threats that face us, and that as those threats have grown more remote and theoretical the immediate, practical, physical gratification of our basic needs has continued to advance in rapid improvements.
In this profoundly pessimistic, but common worldview, the world is morally worse off today because nuclear war or climate change or runaway viruses will make our planet unlivable in the distant future, even if today the production of energy fuels a worldwide boom in living standards and rights for the poor. In order to take this view seriously we have to discount all the reactions that humans are likely to have to our predicament, and insist that these theoretical far-away catastrophes are inevitable. We would have to insist that even though today’s humans are wealthier, healthier, smarter, and have access to all the libraries of congress in their pants pockets, they will nevertheless prove less able to productively solve problems for themselves than any previous generation. We would have to take tomorrow’s problems as real today, and today’s solutions to yesterday’s problems as somehow unreal. It’s as if the most potent motivational forces (technological and moral) that have ever existed for our species are entirely invisible, because you can’t see their consequences yet. Problems always come before solutions, that’s the only possible arrangement.
Blaise Pascal said that “knowledge is like a sphere, the larger it grows the greater its contact with the unknown.” Our problems are more visible to us today because we know more. This does not mean that we are less likely to solve them. It’s just the reverse. We are far more likely to solve not only the problems we already know about, but many more that we are totally unaware of. The internet was not invented to “solve the problem” of ignorance. It developed out of contingent needs and was utilized in contingent ways by individuals for solving all their independent problems, and collectively, this was an explosion of knowledge, creativity, and freedom. The future will bring more of these explosions, in faster and faster succession, because they are driven by the competitive effects of information in living systems.
What about wealth inequality? Surely that isn’t an effect of moral progress?
This is a great point. It runs entirely against the pessimistic grain of modern social analysis to question the destructive moral influence of wealth inequality. But that is exactly what I am doing. We conceive of wealth as a form of power over other people, over their bodies, and this description of it seems accurate especially if we are reviewing the historical uses of wealth. But we should be suspicious of this description, especially since it seems more true the further back in history we look. Early humans seem to have had very little power over one another, before wealth existed. Hunter gatherers lived in small groups, so one member’s power may have been very limited. But the size of the group says nothing about how much compulsive control or power the leader may have wielded. Wealth in early civilizations, the ones that arose soon after agriculture was invented, was indeed characterized by the leader’s unfettered physical control over his subject’s bodies. The Aztec king was able not only to demand tributes of human bodies for sacrifice to the gods, but able to compel over a hundred thousand families to give up virgin daughters to be locked in harems, guarded by men who had been compelled to be castrated, and raped at will by their leader. Though this may be the most extreme example, similar compulsive servitude, slavery and abuse was almost universal across the early agricultural civilizations of Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and China. The pharaohs and the sultans and the emperors were no Boy Scouts.
Contrast this type of compulsion with the extreme physical constraints imposed by our civilizations on the behavior of our leaders toward the weak and vulnerable. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and many other powerful men have nearly or totally lost their sources of influence for having been exposed using their wealth or position to compel women to sexual favors against their will. In contrast to the libertine rapists of antiquity, our leaders are compelled to remain as chaste as the proverbial Caesar’s wife. Donald Trump was rightfully decried for his insensitive comments about women. John Edwards lost his bid for the presidency due to a scandal involving a mistress. Even the celebrated WWII leader Gen. George Patton was nearly decommissioned for slapping a wounded soldier in an army hospital.
In the other extreme, the most poor and benighted humans on earth are now looked after voluntarily in large measure by the largess of philantropists, enormously wealthy people from developed countries like Bill Gates and George Soros. There is no one so poor or reviled in many countries that they are not now granted basic rights to free speech, fair trials, and the franchise. The compulsions the state and the leaders once exercised to “disappear” dissidents and enemies have evaporated, replaced by armies of fuel-hungry netizens waiting to record any false move a powerful man may make, and bring him low.
What is wealth, if it cannot compel others bodies to servitude or death, as it once did? My answer is that wealth is a measure not of the growth of power but of opportunities. Money is the token we exchange for things we want, for things we love. This means that the accumulation of money in certain legal rights (for this is what a wealthy person has, a set of legal rights to property) is a measure of the ability of those rights to provide something that many people desire. Desires are infinite, while bodies are finite. This is why wealth can grow exponentially while the wealthy yet become more and more constrained in how they can use, or abuse, others.
This is not an extractive process, but a creative process. The enrichment of the 1% has not empoverished the 99%, but rather enriched them as well over the long and short run. People give up their money voluntarily, not under fraud or coercion (except to the healthcare industry.) Arguing the opposite is common, but it is a form of arguing that poor people don’t know what they are doing, that they are fools or dupes. They are neither of these. They are organisms like the rest of us, trying to maintain homeostasis and solve their problems to the best of their abilities. To say that, on the whole, the poor are victimized by the operation of profitable businesses in their communities has the whole situation backwards. The poor are victimized by the lack of profitable business operations in their communities.
None of this means that I am opposed to taxation, or redistribution, or anything of the sort. I acknowledge that it is in the interest of society to establish taxes and thereby build solutions for market failures like education, research, public health, sanitation, transportation, and so on. In fact this is imperative. No one is likely to bring taxation to a halt, because it supports rather than undermines the freedom and wealth accumulation that we all desire.
The larger consequences of this are explored in my paper on equalitarianism, and the competition of information in living systems.