Michael Huemer thinks there are objective moral truths, because we’ve been moving in toward a particular coherent ethical perspective for the past few centuries, and for all we know this could be because that ethical perspective is Objective Truth.
Achitophel: That’s a pretty uncharitable way of putting it.
Berenice: But does this view really deserve more charity? Suppose I said that in the past, almost nobody wore ties. Now lots of people do. This is probably because ties are the objectively correct fashion choice.
Achitophel: What if people in a dozen different civilizations independently converged on wearing ties? Wouldn’t that provide much stronger evidence?
Berenice: People in a dozen different civilizations have converged on wearing ties. Go to France, Russia, China, or Nigeria, and chances are that the most important people you meet there will be wearing ties. Sure, the convergence isn’t independent, but neither was the convergence in values. You don’t think that India becoming a bicameral parliamentary democracy with a bill of rights had anything to do with Britain being a bicameral parliamentary democracy with a bill of rights?!
Achitophel: You’re trying to make it sound like imperial Britain forced their values down India’s throat. And maybe they did. But how come things like representative government, human rights, and decreased torture took off in a bunch of countries that were never colonized at all?
Berenice: Which countries?
Achitophel: Japan? Russia? China?
Berenice: Japan requires an overly restrictive definition of “never colonized”. And China and Russia require a frankly insane definition of “representative government, human rights, and decreased torture taking off”.
Achitophel: Not in an absolute sense! Relative to before!
Berenice: Give me the Yongle Emperor over Mao any day of the week.
Achitophel: Mao was bad. But he pretended not to be. He didn’t say “Let’s go kill a bunch of people because killing is glorious.” He said “We shouldn’t kill people, but sometimes we have to.” He didn’t say “You’re all my slaves, because I have divine right.” He said “We’re all going to work towards freedom together, but the best way to do that is by doing what I say.” He still had more liberal values than the Yongle Emperor, he just did evil despite them.
Berenice: I feel like this is an odd distinction to insist upon when you are sitting atop a pile of skulls.
Achitophel: And Xi is better than Mao.
Berenice: Not too different from Yongle, honestly.
Achitophel: All right. Fine. Let’s forget about independent development by different civilizations. Let’s say we’re mostly talking about the West – which remember, is still a lot of different countries. Britain. France. Germany. Italy –
Berenice: I am aware which countries are in the West.
Achitophel: These countries all converged on the same couple of values. And those values were all coherent with one another. It seems pretty clear that “emancipation of slaves”, “”freedom of speech”, “decolonization”…
Berenice: Wait a second. Sure, we’ve done a lot of decolonizing the past fifty years. But we did a lot of colonizing the five hundred years before that. In fact, around 1450 the West switched from barely colonizing at all, to colonizing lots of stuff all the time. If Huemer had lived in 1750, wouldn’t he have argued that the arc of the moral universe is long but it tends toward colonialism? And then declared colonialism an objectively correct moral truth?
Achitophel: Stop interrupting! “Emancipation”, “freedom of speech”, “decolonization”, “women’s rights”, and “democratic governance” are all kind of in the same moral direction, so to speak. Do you agree that Western values, today, not in 1750, TODAY, are all going in a certain coherent direction instead of varying randomly?
Berenice: You know, it’s not just ties.
Berenice: If you think about it, practically every item of clothing has become less ornate. Think of Louis XIV in his huge expensive wig, his shiny blue fleur-de-lis filled fur robes, his carefully sculpted gold cane, his bejeweled ceremonial sword, his shiny red heels encrusted with diamonds, his gigantic outrageous hat, all sorts of weird neckbands and armbands. The Yongle Emperor would have had a more Chinese style, but it wouldn’t have been so different in conception. But nowadays nobody does that, not even the rich people who could afford it. The only time you’ll get shiny jewel-filled robes and fifty different things going around your neck is when somebody wants to look old-fashioned and traditional, like a Pope or Cardinal. And this is true everywhere. De Gaulle dressed more simply than Louis, and Mao dressed more simply than the Yongle Emperor. And when we picture the future, everyone’s dressed in featureless skin-tight suits. Evidence for objectively correct fashion?
Achitophel: There’s probably some driving force that made simplicity of clothing desirable, and which applied equally everywhere. For example, ornate clothing was a good signal of wealth back in Louis’ time. But after the Industrial Revolution, anyone could wear ornate clothing. Once the middle-class starts showing up to their bear-baitings in ornate fleur-de-lis gowns, wearing it just meant you were too clueless to know that it had no value anymore. So countersignaling took over – haven’t we talked about this before? The clothing thing isn’t because of some objectively correct fashion choice, it’s just a side effect of increasing wealth?
Berenice: Ding ding ding! Gold star for you! But why don’t you follow your theory to its logical conclusion and realize that the change in morality is also an effect of increasing wealth? Robin Hanson has just written about this in response to Huemer. Here, I’ll quote him for you:
One of the two main factors by which national values vary correlates strongly with average national wealth. At each point in time, richer nations have more of this factor, over time nations get more of it as they get richer, and when a nation has an unusual jump in wealth it gets an unusual jump in this factor. And this favor explains an awful lot of the value choices Huemer seeks to explain. All this even though people within a nation that have these values more are not richer on average.
The usual view in this field is that the direction of causation here is mostly from wealth to this value factor. This makes sense because this is the usual situation for variables that correlate with wealth. For example, if length of roads or number of TVs correlate with wealth, that is much more because wealth causes roads and TVs, and much less because roads and TV cause wealth. Since wealth is the main “power” factor of a society, this main factor tends to cause other small things more than they cause it.
This seems obviously correct to me and I don’t know why you and Huemer can’t see it.
Achitophel: You didn’t quote Huemer’s response! Here:
Perhaps there is a gene that inclines one toward illiberal beliefs if one’s society as a whole is primitive and poor, but inclines one toward liberal beliefs if one’s society is advanced and prosperous. Again, it is unclear why such a gene would be especially advantageous, as compared with a gene that causes one to be liberal in all conditions, or illiberal in all conditions. Even if such a gene would be advantageous, there has not been sufficient opportunity for it to be selected, since for almost all of the history of the species, human beings have lived in poor, primitive societies.
Berenice: Which gene that inclines us to take an airplane when we want to get somewhere quickly, but inclines us to take the bus if economy is more important? Is it DRD4 or SERT? I always forget that one.
Achitophel: You’re saying that it isn’t genetic.
Berenice: Or differently genetic, or complicatedly genetic, or gene-environmental-interactionic. This is what Robin Hanson says:
Well if you insist on explaining things in terms of genes, everything is “unclear”; we just don’t have good full explanations to take us all the way from genes to how values vary with cultural context. I’ve suggested that we industry folks are reverting to forager values in many ways with increasing wealth, because wealth cuts the fear that made foragers into farmers. But you don’t have to buy my story to find it plausible that humans are just built so that their values vary as their society gets rich.
Achitophel: That’s your argument? “We just don’t have good full explanations to take us all the way from genes to how values vary with cultural context?” Your whole point is just an argument from ignorance? Forgive me if I wait until you can come up with a plausible mechanism.
Berenice: You want plausible mechanisms? I’ve got your plausible mechanism RIGHT HERE. To put it in Haidtian terms, the Purity moral foundation, plus a sort of ethnocentrism that corresponds roughly to his Loyalty and Authority moral foundations, are carefully evolutionarily regulated by the prevalence of disease. Purity is the most obvious, given that the disgust reflex is obviously an evolutionary defense against pathogens. The reason you’re grossed out at the thought of touching feces, blood, or rats is that they’re full of plague; the reason you’re even more grossed out by the thought of eating them is that eating things is an even better way to get plague than touching things. Likewise, the best reason to avoid strangers is that they might have strange germs; about twenty million Native Americans who learned that lesson the hard way. Humans have an evolved behavior of upping their levels of purity and ethnocentrism under germ threat. Invent sanitation and antibiotics, eliminate most germs, and people naturally tend toward lower purity-concern and ethnocentrism. You get less racism, more sex, nontraditional families, cultural mixing, and all that good stuff. That’s why you get great correlations between the levels of pathogens in a region and the moderrness of their values. Go somewhere cold and lifeless like Sweden and you’ll get a liberal utopia. Go to a jungle in the Congo full of creepy-crawlies and everyone will be slashing everyone else with machetes. Really, read the article!
Achitophel: You think antebellum Southerners didn’t like black people because they thought they had cooties? Forgive me if the whole enslavement thing doesn’t seem to follow.
Berenice: I’m not saying that’s the only explanation or even the main explanation. You asked for a possible mechanism. I gave you one.
Achitophel: Fine. Give me a mechanism that explains slavery, then. And don’t you dare say it’s not the main explanation afterwards. Give me the best you’ve got.
Berenice: Have you ever noticed how much more virtuous rich people are than poor people? Poor people shoplift all the time, but rich people almost never do.
Achitophel: I don’t know where you’re going with this, but rich people commit white-collar crime and defraud people out of millions of dollars.
Berenice: Which just goes to show their moral superiority all the more! The poor person sells his principles for a dollar; the rich person holds fast until the temptation becomes absolutely overwhelming.
Achitophel: Shut up and make your point.
Berenice: A lot of moral decisions are a conflict between a principle and a temptation. People with fewer temptations have an easy time looking more principled. Not shoplifting is easy for a rich person, not because they’re more virtuous, but because they’re not in a position where they gain anything by doing so.
Achitophel: And this relates to slavery how?
Berenice: I would argue that we have many different drives and needs, some of which can be raw materials for making morality. Compassion is a drive. Xenophobia’s also a drive. Either one can be emphasized or deemphasized based on what’s useful or practical. If the most important thing for you is coming up with an excuse to enslave other people to make cotton, you might cultivate this primitive xenophobia into a complicated system of institutionalized racism that becomes the value system of your entire culture. If you’re not doing that, maybe compassion wins out. I mean, isn’t it interesting that all of the moral decent liberal people were north of a certain imaginary line, and all of the immoral bigoted people were south of it? And that imaginary line just happened to separate the climate where you could grow cotton from the one where you couldn’t? I’d argue instead that given a sufficiently lucrative deal with the Devil, the South took it. The Devil didn’t make the North an offer, and so they courageously refused to yield to this total absence of temptation.
Achitophel: You make the Southerners sound pretty Machiavellian.
Berenice: No more than the rest of us. I expect that once somebody invents vatburgers, we’ll all gain an sudden respect for animal rights, and recoil in horror that we ever engaged in factory farming. Until then, we come up with various moral justifications for the thing we’re not going to stop doing.
Achitophel: So liberal values are real morality, and older values are just excuses to justify greed?
Berenice: Not necessarily greed. “Necessity” is too strong, “convenience” is too weak, but somewhere in between the two. Back in the old days nobody really knew what STDs were. They just knew if you had sex too many times, you would break out in a horrible pox and die. And so would anyone else you had sex with, no matter how otherwise-pure they were themselves. Under those circumstances, having a very sex-negative morality where the promiscuous people are shunned and driven from society is a basic concession to the survival instinct. You’d be insane not to. But once we figured out testing and pencillin, the reasoning behind that morality died out and we stopped trying to cultivate those values. The sex-negative morality isn’t trying to justify greed. It’s making basic concessions necessary for survival. And you know what? If we suddenly had a zombie apocalypse and all of the gains of civilization evaporated, we’d be back to the old illiberal morality in the blink of an eye.
Achitophel: It still sounds kind of liberal modern values are the real morality, and other values are just sort of necessary evils.
Berenice: I think it’s more symmetrical than that. A lot of modern values would disappear if we stopped facing modern problems. We worry a lot about racial sensitivity, but if we ever got a society where racism was as thoroughly neutralized as syphilis, we’d probably drop that value pretty quickly too. If we ever totally conquer poverty, so that everyone’s got more than enough, maybe we’ll even stop worrying about compassion and fairness. Likewise, a lot of the democratic values – freedom of speech, freedom from slavery, equality, etc – are based on most countries being democracies which in turn is based on the historical situation. One of the big shifts was from the medieval system of “mostly super-well-trained professional warriors ie knights matter in projecting military force” to “any warm body with a gun matters”. That gave the common people a new level of power and probably led to democracy and the democratic virtues of equality and freedom. Likewise, technology has connected the world to the degree where different races and cultures and ideas are frantically mixing and mutating, making things like tolerance and freedom of thought much more relevant.
Achitophel: What about not torturing people? What about trying to solve poverty?
Berenice: So we’re too egalitarian to worry much about Authority and Loyalty. We’ve got too many antibiotics and contraceptives to care about Purity. But Care/Harm and Fairness seem as relevant as ever. Maybe even moreso. Given the advances in journalism, communication, and art, we have the ability to learn about and appreciate the struggles of others in a way we never have before.
Achitophel: That sounds a little forced. I could come up with a counter-story where given the worldwide increase in wealth and our lack of real-life exposure to any starving people or smallpox victims, the Care foundation atrophies away, but given our increasing crowding and exposure to superplagues like HIV and Ebola, Purity becomes obsessively important.
Berenice: *shrug* Maybe Care/Harm really is just the fundamental moral foundation, and the others are epiphenomena to be abandoned as we outgrow them. How does that saying go? – “The last enemy to be destroyed is submaximal global utility; destroying Death just buys us more time.”
Achitophel: So you kind of agree with Huemer after all?
Berenice: Perish the thought! Huemer thinks that this change in values proves there’s an objective morality and we’re moving toward it. The strongest claim I would dare is that one of these axes has always been the one that, all else being equal, would dominate the balance – and this is just the first time all else has been equal.