Morality, Reasons, Causes Part I

   Yes, Nature’s road must ever be preferred;
Reason is here no guide, but still a guard:
’Tis hers to rectify, not overthrow,
And treat this passion more as friend than foe:
A mightier power the strong direction sends,
And several men impels to several ends:
Like varying winds, by other passions tossed,
This drives them constant to a certain coast.
Let power or knowledge, gold or glory, please,
Or (oft more strong than all) the love of ease;
Through life ’tis followed, even at life’s expense;
The merchant’s toil, the sage’s indolence,
The monk’s humility, the hero’s pride,
All, all alike, find reason on their side.

              —Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man 1733


We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

—David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature  1739


Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
On this, our weddin’ day

I’m not afraid of death but, oh
What will I do if you leave me?

       —Tex Ritter High Noon 1952



Nature endows us with our “passions”— what we actually care about, what we are passionate about. Given those values, reason enables us to find the scientific means to achieve our goals. Reason cannot determine what our values are. What our values are has been determined by nature, not by reason.

Nature works through evolution, so evolution has caused us to have the values we have. What values we have are an accident of our history on this planet. What we care about—what we think we absolutely must have— is caused by our evolution. Things could have worked out differently; nothing is absolute.

Of course, each person—merchant, sage, monk, hero—thinks only his way can be right. All find reason on their side, when in reality, reason does not and cannot takes sides.

This seems to mean that there is no morality in the objective, absolute, normative sense. All organisms have goals, purposes, projects they care about. Nothing outside of their natural impulses requires any to do anything. Humans, like other organisms, do whatever they do based on whatever they are passionate about. Each thinks they do what they ought to do, but “ought” is just a feeling. The slogan is if you cannot derive “ought” from “is”, and there is only “is”, then there is no “ought”, though there ought to be.





Let’s discuss these and other vital topics with our friend Rick.

RL: Hardwired predispositions of the sort described by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (2012) are the visceral basis for what sounds right/true to us. All cultures start with the same predispositions. The specifics are then defined by memes, which themselves continue to evolve, and gather strength over time.  It feels right— must be true— because the Bible tells me so.

GNS: Yes, humans make up bullshit all the time, even if it expresses deep feeling about the human condition. Sort of the way art does. Merely feeling right cannot be enough to show that the feelings connect to something real. (What would be enough to show that?)

Psychology can explain the feelings of certainty people have, so religious or moral intuitions by themselves don’t have any objective claim to our belief. At the same time, evolutionary explanations of morality can be thought to show that moral principles are not arbitrary, but rather based on fundamental aspects of humans. What Darwin installs must be real, not simply fantasy.

RL: I did run into something new relevant to morality (behavioral dispositions, anyway) in social ants, which were the specialty of EO Wilson.  There’s a large species somewhere that attacks termite hives for a living. Injured soldiers decide their probability for recovery; low enough, they don’t ask for help.  If they think they might make it, they go straight to ICU.  Don’t even need proof of insurance.

GNS: So there is morality in the natural world after all? This looks like evidence of altruism in ants. The badly injured soldiers sacrifice themselves rather than demand the colony expend resources which will probably end up wasted.  Do the soldiers have a moral obligation to sacrifice themselves?

If the cause of morality is evolution, then some kind of proto-morality should be found in animals, who are subject to the same evolutionary pressures as humans.

RL: I recently came across an argument:

The basic idea is simple. In the natural world described by science, there are no moral values. Organisms do whatever they can to survive and that’s that. Some make it, some don’t. Morality, if it exists at all, applies only to what humans do. So for morality to be part of reality, humans must be outside nature, at least partly. Many religions discuss a supernatural realm. However, if it turns out that nothing can be outside the natural world, that there is no supernatural realm, and that therefore humans are part of the natural world, then moral values are mere illusion.

GNS: Science seems to threaten the existence of objective morality. And yet I do not know any scientist who is willing to draw this conclusion. Do you know of one? I do not believe Haidt goes that far. 

A countervailing consideration. Other human stuff which does exist, but not in nature: language, art, religion, math, science. 

Some try to think that morality “emerges” from nature. The concept of emergence can conceal a lot of problems, however.

RL:  The cleverness used in justifications is all in the service of explaining why a position sounds right.  But I assume you’re still much more interested in the pursuit of a refutation of relativism, than in evolutionary social psychology.

GNS: Philosophers need to keep an eye on basic scientific principles.

RL: Thing about Darwin is, he never really tried to take the long view.  If you’re hunter-gathering in a zero sum economy, murder-thy-neighbor works pretty well for you.  Necessary, even.  We’re here because we’re here.  Our understanding of how we got here, however, is incomplete; which might give us pause when we decide to revise those hard wired predispositions.  But then our loyalty thing did arise in that hunter-gatherer context, not in a world where religious wars could be fought with nuclear weapons.  

GNS: Surprising comment. If Darwin didn’t take the long view, who did?

RL:  Might argue about how often the predisposition dictates the behavior, which is then explained after the fact; versus how often the predisposition influences evocation of a rule that gets obeyed. Seems to me that a satisfactory description of any of Haidt’s predispositions would be quite problematic.  Easy enough to give examples of a predisposition in action, but what is it, really?  It occurred to me only recently that those hardwired predispositions are not just influencing actions that will occur, but they also shape perception, prior to conscious awareness.  Incest just feels wrong, before you remember that there’s a rule; and even before that, it doesn’t feel like a good idea in the first place.  Those things gotta be written in some preverbal code, that gets evoked and produces its effects before the rule is remembered, or ever formulated in the first place.  

GNS: Not sure about this. Can you explain this point further? Rules are important. Do rules exist in DNA? or in neural networks?

RL: I’m far from sure about in what sense rules exist in DNA.  Something like, the DNA encodes a predisposition to both the perception and the behavioral response.  But the code doesn’t specify either the perception or the behavior.  If we were to attempt to program such predispositions the old fashioned way, we might make a long list of situations in which we’d want them to apply.  But methinks Darwin did it with something much more concise, that can then generate a broad variety of specific responses, that all dance to the same tune.

GNS: A hard problem indeed. Maybe part of a larger problem of how specific thoughts of any kind can have a physical reality. If you think to yourself,as you did, “all responses dance to the same tune”, there must be in your brain some kind of neuronal activity that says and means “all responses dance to the same tune”. How can neurons—even in large numbers— say and mean things?

RL: I can’t think of any way to get from “is” to “ought” without values.  But if you’ll allow the continued existence of humans as one, we might be able to get somewhere from there.  Might even do better than Darwin. 

GNS: Right, but where do “values” come from? Values certainly exist in the descriptive sense. Humans— like any animal— value this, that, and the other thing. No doubt. But what ought humans to value? What are they morally obligated to value? Those are entirely different questions. Why ought we to value the continued existence of humans above all else? Above justice, fairness, kindness, loyalty, purity, freedom? Can we treat persons as means to that end? Sacrifice the innocent to enhance our continued existence?

Suppose we posit just one value: human well-being. Can science then show the way we ought to behave?  This is the approach taken by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape. Sean Carrol argues this doesn’t change anything. You still cannot derive “ought” from “is”.

RL: The easiest example I can think of is Fairness; that one seems to support the idea that stuff I caught belongs to me, and also that nobody gets it all for himself.  And in fact, among hunter-gatherers, successful hunters share.  

GNS: Do these Fairness principles exist in their own domain, separate from the natural world? Or are you simply describing the way people actually behave, in the manner of anthropology? By itself, that description would not create any duty on anyone to be fair.  

RL: Part of the need for “ought”, methinks, is that we simply cannot accept that there is no way to prove that gassing babies is wrong.  

GNS: This sounds backwards. If “moral values are mere illusion”, then there is nothing wrong (or right) with anything. This bleak conclusion we cannot accept. Therefore the point of moral language—the need for “ought”— is to conceal the real truth. We cannot accept that there is nothing wrong with gassing babies.

Or maybe you mean that that we feel that there ought to be proof that gassing babies is wrong. This feeling is installed by Darwin for his own reasons. However, no such proof is possible, because moral values are mere illusion. Illusions cannot be proven to be true. Moral language helps conceal the heartbreaking gap between Darwin-installed feelings and reality.

RL: I was thinking about is-ought, actually.  One could make a case for Darwin being the default “ought”, in that his hardwired dispositions did get us here, and there is no other set with a comparable pedigree.  I mean, you could say how you think your set would have been better…

But then on the other hand, Darwin didn’t really try to foresee the future. Maybe we could/should try.  Tribalism served us well as hunter gatherers; maybe not such a good idea going forward.  

GNS: By the terms of the is/ought distinction, Darwin cannot be the default “ought”, no matter how good his pedigree. Darwin explains how whatever happened, happened. Nothing about that story dictates anything about what anybody ought to do, then or now.   

Darwin might be an ultimate authority on human nature. The instincts created by millions of years of evolution ought not to be lightly disregarded. Not if we want humans to flourish and be happy. So all we would need is a theory that explains why we must maximize human flourishing and happiness. That would be some form of utilitarianism—greatest good for the greatest number.

Then the problem is to explain exactly why we must we maximize happiness. Of everyone equally? Why isn’t tribalism better? Why can’t we just maximize our own happiness and screw everyone else?

Tribalism is a great idea going forward as long as our tribe wins. Losers get wiped out. That’s evolution. That’s what got us here and nothing else has a comparable pedigree. Who has a better idea going forward? What makes it better?

Were you to pursue utilitarianism, Haidt would say that you are disregarding human nature by over-emphasizing the care module and ignoring the loyalty module. Tribalism is human nature. Of course, nothing Haidt says has anything to do with what anyone ought to do. He’s just describing the way Darwin created us.

RL: I was thinking more along lines of a behavior resulting from some chain of causation, and reasons being the explanation offered.  Honest or not, reasons offered will rarely be comprehensive.  We bring back my omniscient alien, and the reasons will be a sufficient description of  the causes. 

GNS: Social psychology—Haidt, Greene, and everyone else as far as I know— distinguishes between morality in the descriptive sense and in the normative sense. Moral psychology is descriptive. It describes what people actually do and why. No description by itself can tell anyone what they ought to do, as Haidt acknowledges. See Righteous Mind p318. “My definition of morality was designed to be a descriptive definition; it cannot stand alone as a normative definition… I do not know what the best normative ethical theory is…” Not his field. 

RL: Not to defend everything Haidt says in detail, but I do believe there are hardwired moral predispositions.  Behavioral ones, if you would rather. 

GNS: The explanation by evolutionary psychology for moral intuitions makes sense to me. Surely, groups of people in prehistory who had some kind of moral rules survived better than those who didn’t. Worth remembering, however, that this is morality in the descriptive sense, not the normative sense. Maybe these predispositions should not be called “moral”, but rather “social coordination instincts”. Those instincts were adaptive in the same way they are for EO Wilson’s social insects.

Grace Kelly, "High Noon"1952 Universal

RL: Could argue that those predispositions have a more “real” nature than the moral convictions they support.  Any given culture might respond to the same hardwiring with a significantly different set of rules.  Doesn’t make the predispositions any less real…just more difficult to describe.

GNS: Anything Darwin installs is real. Moral convictions would just be the feelings the predispositions give us. Those are real too. But maybe by “convictions” you mean the truth of the moral claims. That might not be real, if moral values are mere illusion. The illusions really exist as illusions, but what the illusions make us think—the content— is false.

RL:  But behavior is not illusion.  It’s events.  And there are rules that shape those events.

GNS: It’s not an illusion that people have moral feelings. Those feelings are real (putting aside issues about consciousness), and in that sense moral values exist. People value what they value. Social psychologists like Haidt can study, analyze, measure, and explain our moral feelings and the behaviors they cause. Psychology could do the same work on other imaginary realms of human myth-making. The myths are real, and reveal real truths about the human mind, even if the gods and goddesses described in the myths are imaginary. Moral values are no illusion is this descriptive sense. None of this is outside nature. This is the nature that Darwin gave us.

RL: Must admit I have not made a coherent case for Darwin as “ought”, but I’m still thinking about it.  “Lightly disregarded” is certainly a caution.  Imagining omniscient aliens coming upon us, and starting from scratch, they’d certainly want to understand the structural role of our existing behavioral dispositions, before they started making suggestions.  

And just in case I haven’t said so explicitly, historically, seems like just about every argument about moral questions that has ever taken place (except for among philosophers, or course), has relied on evoking hardwired predispositions.  When they sound right to us, that’s why.  As I’ve said, the cleverness used in justifications is all in the service of explaining why a position sounds right.  

Tribalism does seem worth reconsideration.  In a zero sum hunter gatherer universe, eliminating competitors for a limited resource makes sense. But in the modern world, tribalism has the potential to fatally disrupt complex societies, even without nukes.

 When those people are seen as threatening, gotta have an AR15 with a bump stock.  When the scientists are on their side, coal rolling is the answer!  (In case you haven’t heard, you can make your diesel pickup spew huge amounts of black soot on pedestrians & cyclists, by merely pulling a lever.  $99.95 installed, at my brother in law’s place.) You wanna be armed when you do that, though.  

Or lets say you know that the other guy won the last election by cheating.. stuffing the electronic ballot box, say.  Anybody who denies that is on the other side.  Militias, maybe?  The main reason you need a gun is to protect yourself and your family… you gonna rely on the cops?  

Many countries in Africa now, and parts of Latin America, the body politic is competing militias.  Join or die.  

12 Uhr Mittags-still-web1


High Noon (1952) is perhaps the quintessential Hollywood morality tale. In a small town in New Mexico, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the retiring sheriff, is marrying Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly, in her first major film role, 28 years younger that Cooper. According to biographer Wendy Leigh, Kelly had romances with both Cooper and director Fred Zinnemann during production.) Amy is a Quaker and a pacifist, having witnessed her father and brother being gunned down. She has talked Will into a quiet life as a shopkeeper in another town. As the happy couple are about to leave, news comes in that a dangerous outlaw is arriving on the noon train. Frank Miller, a man Kane sent to prison for murder and who vowed revenge at his sentencing, has somehow been released and has assembled his old gang. It’s 10:45.

Everyone urges Will and his new bride to get out of town as fast as possible, and at first they do. But Will soon stops. He’s never run away in his life, he tells Amy, and besides, they are vulnerable out on the road alone. Will did not even bring a gun. Will insists on turning back, while Amy threatens to leave on the train without Will if he goes back to town. So the choice facing Will is go off to married life with Grace Kelly or back into town to get shot by outlaws. Will goes back to town.

Will assumes he will be able to to rally armed men to oppose the gang. Instead, he encounters nothing but a series of imaginative excuses the townspeople use to cover their cowardice. Will is a man of action, not words, and he does not try to match their arguments. Every man in town has reason on his side— a reason that sounds good to him— not to help Will. 

Let power or knowledge, gold or glory, please,
Or (oft more strong than all) the love of ease;
Through life ’tis followed, even at life’s expense;
The merchant’s toil, the sage’s indolence,
The monk’s humility, the hero’s pride,
All, all alike, find reason on their side.
–Alexander Pope

To many, High Noon is a simple allegory of good vs. evil, and bravery vs. cowardice. It has been shown many times at the White House. 17 times by Bill Clinton alone. Ronald Reagan cited High Noon as his favorite film, due to the protagonist’s strong commitment to duty and the law. The Left lauded it as an allegory against blacklisting and McCarthyism. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was blacklisted shortly before the film’s release.

By contrast, John Wayne, who was a supporter of  blacklisting and “helped run Foreman out of the country”, told an interviewer that he considered High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”, and later teamed with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo in response. “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon,” Hawks explained. “Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.” (Wikipedia)

Director Fred Zinnemann said “the story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man’s conflict of conscience.” Should Will go back and fight it out? The outlaws have many friends and few in town want a shootout. It’s bad for business. Is this a confrontation between good and evil, or is it personal between Will Kane and Frank Miller? Years earlier, they both were in  love with the owner of the saloon, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). Will at one point seriously considers riding away after all. How much does the town owe Will? Their lives? Or is the town itself at risk for murder and rape, and can only be saved by Will Kane? One of the outlaws displays both considerable interest in both violence and lust.

The movie does a beautiful job of balancing the moral and practical considerations. There are no easy or obvious answers. In the end, Will Kane’s bravery is in his struggle with his feelings—his “passions”— and with what he feels he ought to do, whether ultimately his choices can be justified or not. He goes with his gut. “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”  David Hume. 



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s