Heinlein’s Morality

As one drives through the bushveldt of East Africa it is easy to spot herds of baboons grazing on the ground. But not by looking at the ground. Instead you look up and spot the lookout, an adult male posted on a limb of a tree where he has a clear view all around him — which is why you can spot him; he has to be where he can see a leopard in time to give the alarm. On the ground a leopard can catch a baboon. . . but if a baboon is warned in time to reach the trees, he can out-climb a leopard.

The lookout is a young male assigned to that duty and there he will stay, until the bull of the herd sends up another male to relieve him.

Keep your eye on that baboon; we’ll be back to him.


Take any breed of animal — for example, Tyrannosaurus rex. What is the most basic thing about him? The answer is that Tyrannosaurus rex is dead, gone, extinct.

Which brings us to the second fundamental question: Will Homo sapiens stay alive? Will he survive?

We can answer part of that at once: individually H. sapiens will not survive. It is unlikely that anyone here tonight will be alive eighty years from now; it approaches mathematical certainty that we will all be dead a hundred years from now as even the youngest plebe here would be 118 years old by then – if still alive.

Some men do live that long but the percentage is so microscopic as not to matter. Recent advances in biology suggest that human life may be extended to a century and a quarter, even a century and a half — but this will create more problems than it solves. When a man reaches my age or thereabouts, the last great service he can perform is to die and get out of the way of younger people.

Very well, as individuals we all die. This brings us to the second half of the question: does Homo sapiens as a breed have to die? The answer is: no, it is not unavoidable.

We have two situations, mutually exclusive: mankind surviving, and mankind extinct. With respect to morality, the second situation is a null class. An extinct breed has no behavior, moral or otherwise.

Since survival is the sine qua non, I now define “moral behavior” as “behavior that tends toward survival.” I won’t argue with philosophers or theologians who choose to use the word “moral” to mean something else, but I do not think anyone can define “behavior that tends toward extinction” as being “moral” without stretching the word “moral” all out of shape.

We are now ready to observe the hierarchy of moral behavior from its lowest level to its highest.

The simplest form of moral behavior occurs when a man or other animal fights for his own survival. Do not belittle such behavior as being merely selfish. Of course it is selfish. . . but selfishness is the bedrock on which all moral behavior starts and it can be immoral only when it conflicts with a higher moral imperative. An animal so poor in spirit that he won’t even fight on his own behalf is already an evolutionary dead end; the best he can do for his breed is to crawl off and die, and not pass on his defective genes.

The next higher level is to work, fight, and sometimes die for your own immediate family. This is the level at which six pounds of mother cat can be so fierce that she’ll drive off a police dog. It is the level at which a father takes a moonlighting job to keep his kids in college — and the level at which a mother or father dives into a flood to save a drowning child. . . and it is still moral behavior even when it fails.

The next higher level is to work, fight, and sometimes die for a group larger than the unit family — an extended family, a herd, a tribe — and take another look at that baboon on watch; he’s at that moral level. I don’t think baboon language is complex enough to permit them to discuss such abstract notions as “morality” or “duty” or “loyalty” – but it is evident that baboons do operate morally and do exhibit the traits of duty and loyalty; we see them in action. Call it “instinct” if you like — but remember that assigning a name to a phenomenon does not explain it.

But that baboon behavior can be explained in evolutionary terms. Evolution is a process that never stops. Baboons who fail to exhibit moral behavior do not survive; they wind up as meat for leopards. Every baboon generation has to pass this examination in moral behavior; those who bilge it don’t have progeny. Perhaps the old bull of the tribe gives lessons. . . but the leopard decides who graduates — and there is no appeal from his decision. We don’t have to understand the details to observe the outcome: baboons behave morally — for baboons.

The next level in moral behavior higher than that exhibited by the baboon is that in which duty and loyalty are shown toward a group of your kind too large for an individual to know all of them. We have a name for that. It is called “patriotism.”

Behaving on a still higher moral level were the astronauts who went to the Moon, for their actions tend toward the survival of the entire race of mankind. The door they opened leads to hope that H. sapiens will survive indefinitely long, even longer than this solid planet on which we stand tonight. As a direct result of what they did, it is now possible that the human race will never die.

Many short-sighted fools think that going to the Moon was just a stunt. But the astronauts knew the meaning of what they were doing, as is shown by Neil Armstrong’s first words in stepping down onto the soil of Luna: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

— Robert A. Heinlein, The Pragmatics of Patriotism, a speech given to a class of graduating midshipmen at the US Naval Academy on the 5th of April 1973, this excerpt being taken from its published form in Expanded Universe (Ace Books, 1983)

Heinlein’s morality is thus based on the premise that without survival, there is no morality. If we do not exist, we cannot be moral. This seems fair enough but, of course, if we do not exist, we cannot be immoral either.

Heinlein himself says, “With respect to morality, [an extinct humanity] is a null class”. That is to say, the situation in which humanity no longer exists is neither moral nor immoral. Morality does not make any sense, it has no meaning, if there are no moral agents to make moral or immoral decisions.

However, it does not follow from this that survival is the object of morality.

Suppose you are a hunter and you have been hired by a farmer to shoot foxes on his land. The purpose of your employment is to shoot foxes. Among the many things that you require to shoot foxes is your rifle. If you do not possess a rifle, you will be unable to shoot any foxes. It does not follow from this that your purpose is the possession of a rifle. Your purpose is to shoot foxes. Possession of a rifle is merely a necessary condition for the fulfillment of your purpose.

Just because something is necessary for something else does not imply that the former is the purpose of the latter. Just because survival is necessary for morality does not imply that survival is the purpose of morality.

Heinlein’s deduction that morality is behaviour that tends towards survival is invalid. It would be like deducing that hunting is behaviour that tends towards possession of a rifle.

However, there is another argument here, which Heinlein has conflated with the first. This is the claim that moral behaviour is a product of evolution. He gives the example of moral behaviour among baboons, which he claims is the result of moral baboons being better able to evade leopards, while immoral baboons tend to be eaten before they can pass on their genetic tendency to immorality.

This is an entirely different argument. This is not an attempt to logically deduce morality from physical fact, but rather this is an explanation of the origins of morality. This is a genealogy of morality.

Let us leave aside the accuracy of this genealogy. Let us assume that Heinlein is correct and that a tendency to act morally is an inherited trait. In this case, the purpose of morality certainly is survival, at least long enough to reproduce. If morality is the result of evolutionary pressures, then it must be because morality increases the chances of reproduction.

Incidentally, note that it is not necessary for a moral individual to reproduce himself, it is only necessary that his morality increases the chances of anyone sharing his moral genes to reproduce. Altruism is perfectly consistent with this theory. Furthermore, we can apply the concept of natural selection to cultural units as well as biological units, so human morality may have as much or more to do with memetics as it does with genetics.

This may all be true, but it does not allow us to deduce a code of morality. We have not so much deduced morality as explained it. Now we know where morality comes from, we know why some animals exhibit moral behaviour, but we cannot make any normative deductions from this.

I think Heinlein was aware of this problem. In regard to the moral behaviour of baboons, he said, “Call it ‘instinct’ if you like — but remember that assigning a name to a phenomenon does not explain it.” But if we go on to describe what instinct is, how it arose and how it functions, then it might reasonably be said that we have explained it.

As self-conscious human beings, we are not ruled by instinct alone. Having explained away morality as instinctive behaviour, we are left with no particular reason to follow any particular moral code. That is not the same as being immoral, at least not intentionally, and most people continue to be governed by some form of morality, either genetic or social, but they do so with no real justification.

Lacking a firm ground for one’s moral beliefs may or may not be a bad thing. I find it somewhat unsettling but it would not surprise me to discover that it does not bother most people. Beyond the individual, the basis of one’s morality must have implications for one’s society. Again, my intuition is that a lack of firm ground has deleterious effects. However, this is really only a gut feeling, perhaps just a projection of my own unease.

At the very least, for anyone with more than a superficial interest in ethics, the inability to justify any system of ethics is somewhat unsatisfying. I think Heinlein recognised this, which is why he attempted to bolster his conception of morality by deducing it logically. Sadly, his deduction is invalid.

From Heinlein’s Starship Troopers:

Morals — all correct moral laws — derive from the instinct to survive. Moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level.

Correct morality can only be derived from what man is — not from what do-gooders and well-meaning aunt Nellies would like him to be.

The basis of all morality is duty.

Published in: on May 31, 2009 at 10:21 pm  Comments (9)  


“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So said Sherlock Holmes. It is a fine maxim, particularly for a detective endowed with almost supernatural powers of investigation, but it does assume the validity of the method of elimination. If we employ a method which eliminates all possibilities but one, leaving us a single conclusion that is so outlandish and improbable that it beggars belief, we might question our method before we accept the conclusion.

Thus we may use the consequences of a philosophical argument as a heuristic guide to the argument’s validity. It must be emphasised that such an approach is only a guide; it is an optimisation of the algorithm we use to assess all those philosophies which we encounter. There are so many different philosophical arguments that we do not have the time, or the inclination, to carefully analyse them all. Instead, we use a simple heuristic to choose those worthy of closer investigation and discard those unlikely to be of merit.

I have not taken the time to carefully investigate the philosophy of Jim Jones, as the actions of Jones and his followers are enough to put me off. That is to say, the consequences of his philosophy are such that I can, with a reasonable degree of confidence, dismiss the philosophy itself without actually taking the time to analyse it.

This sort of quick test – a glance at the consequences in lieu of analysis of the substance – is fairly common. It is a sensible and practical way to dismiss the outlandish and thus focus on the reasonable. It is not foolproof – many things that are obvious today were once thought to be ridiculous – but it is pretty good. The outlandish may turn out to be correct but it is not unreasonable to demand more compelling evidence in favour of a very strange claim than one might demand in favour of a commonplace claim.

The success of this method as a heuristic optimisation might suggest its use elsewhere. Perhaps, if the consequences of an argument are in some sense unacceptable, we might reject that argument not because we do not have the time or inclination to investigate but rather despite our investigations. We may be unable to clearly express a logical refutation of the argument and yet nevertheless refute it on the grounds that its conclusion is absurd.

Here we are on dangerous ground. It is necessary to be very cautious when condemning a consequence as unacceptable or absurd. Unacceptable according to whom? Why? Is it as absurd as the idea of a spherical Earth seemed thirty centuries ago?

However, there is still some heuristic value in the approach, as long as we remember that it is but a guide and cannot be conclusive itself. Consider solipsism. Within its own logical framework, it is very hard to disprove solipsism. It is internally consistent and, rather trivially, accords with all experience. However, it is plainly nonsense.

Solipsism is an excellent example of a philosophical position arrived at by following a logical train of thought from plausible assumptions which is nevertheless implausible itself. When confronted by a solipsist we may be unable to logically refute his philosophy but we may still reject it.

Wikipedia puts it thus:

A subjective argument for the implausibility of solipsism is that it goes against the commonly observed tendency for sane adult humans in the western world to interpret the world as external and existing independent of themselves. This attitude, not always held by children, is listed by developmental psychologists as one of the signs of the maturing mind. The principle is deeply held, and well integrated with human languages and other thought processes. However, that humans think this way, even if they must think this way, does not prove something true.

We cannot prove it is false but it is so completely opposed to our most basic modes of thought that even if it were true we must continue as if it were not.

I feel much the same way about nihilism.

Hume is credited as the first philosopher to point out the fallacy of deriving ought from is:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Hume was one of the first philosophers, if not the first philosopher, to develop an entirely naturalistic philosophical system. Naturalistic philosophers hold that all truths are truths of nature: that is to say, nature, the material, physical world is all that there is and thus all true statements are or can be derived from physical facts. Hume rejected the philosophies of his more religiously inclined predecessors, who dealt with metaphysics and invoked the supernatural, in favour of empiricism and naturalism.

As far as I can see, this leaves us with only three possibilities:

  1. Moral propositions cannot be objectively true. At best they can only be true in some subjective, relativistic sense, which is to say that all moralities are equally true, which is the same as saying that none are true, which is to say that there is no morality. This is nihilism.
  2. Hume was wrong to claim that moral propositions, those concerning ought, cannot be deduced from physical propositions, those concerning is. In fact we can use a naturalistic methodology, perhaps the scientific method, to deduce morality.
  3. Hume’s naturalism is wrong. Nature is not all that there is and not all truths are natural truths. Thus ought cannot be derived from statements of physical truth but it can be derived from another truth, for all that is is not physical.

The first option I reject for the same reason that I reject solipsism. I do not do so with the same vehemence that I reject solipsism for I recognise that I am on shakier ground here. However, on balance I believe I am correct to reject any proposition that entails nihilism.

The second option is tricky. A number of people have attempted to deduce morality from physical truth but I have yet to be convinced. Of all the attempts that I have encountered, I am most impressed by that of Robert A. Heinlein. I intend to investigate Heinlein’s morality, as expressed in his speech to graduating midshipmen at the US Naval Academy, published as The Pragmatics of Patriotism, in a later article on this blog. His argument appeals to me greatly but I suspect that it is logically flawed. We shall see.

Which leaves us with the third option. I have been pondering this one for a long time and still don’t know what to say about it. The problem with refuting metaphysical naturalism is that I cannot deny the success of methodological naturalism. The former does not logically follow from the latter, no matter how much some naturalist philosophers might want it to, but unless we augment our naturalistic method with some other method then it might as well do so. If we have no means of determining the truth of a non-physical proposition then it does us little good to claim that some truths are non-physical.

So we may disagree with the naturalist’s assertion that all truths are physical but unless we propose a methodology by which non-physical truths may be discovered then our disagreement is of little consequence. Traditionally, metaphysicians have relied on logic without experimental verification. I believe the argument goes something like this:

All rational philosophies, naturalism included, rely on certain fundamental assumptions. These assumptions, which we might think of as the axioms of a logical system, are not themselves amenable to experimental verification for the obvious reason that the validity of experiment as a means of verification is itself dependant on these axioms. To attempt to prove an axiom by means of itself is trivially invalid: it is circular reasoning.

I am reminded here of the failure of logical positivism. The logical positivists hoped to do away with metaphysics (and all other branches of philosophy that they deemed unscientific) by means of their Verification Principle. This principle held that a proposition is meaningless unless it can be empirically tested; that is, unless it can be verified by experiment. Unfortunately for the hopeful positivists, the principle is, according to itself, completely meaningless: there is no empirical test that might verify such a principle. In their desire to purge philosophy of metaphysics, the positivists ended up promoting a metaphysical principle.

Thus every rational philosophy, even those philosophies that would rather limit themselves to the empirical and naturalistic world of science, must necessarily accept some set of axioms without which logic and rational enquiry are impossible. It is therefore not the case that any rational philosophical system can truthfully claim to be entirely free of metaphysics.

We may therefore argue logically from these axioms themselves, perhaps but not necessarily with the aid of experimental observation, to reach metaphysical conclusions. Such conclusions would not be amenable to experimental verification or falsification (except insofar as they depend in part, as they may, on empirical observation) but we would nevertheless be able to decide between competing metaphysical claims by the method of logical analysis.

It may be noted that physics and metaphysics, on this account, are not so opposed as positivists may assume. The theories of physics, as we have seen, depend on metaphysical axioms no less than any other rational theories. (For example, the validity of deductive inference is assumed, as well as, perhaps, inductive inference.) We may reasonably say that the natural sciences assume a minimal set of axioms and from there on proceed on the basis of empirical verification or falsification, which places them at the extreme of a spectrum whose other extreme consists of solely logical argument with no reference to empirical observation whatsoever.

The above may help to demonstrate the fallacy of deriving metaphysical naturalism from merely methodological naturalism. However, we still face the challenge of deducing metaphysical truths, especially those concerning morality, either from that minimal set of axioms necessary to the natural sciences or from a larger superset consisting of that minimal set along with other axioms that we can reasonably justify.

This is not a simple task but it strikes me as more likely to succeed than the second option given above: the derivation of morality from physical truth alone. The first step, which I shall not attempt today, is surely the enumeration of axioms from which we may later proceed.

Published in: on May 13, 2009 at 12:31 am  Comments (2)