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 (10)  

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sorry, but it is your logic that is incorrect. Rifles are not necessary to hunting, but survival is necessary to morality.

  2. You’ve missed the point. I do not claim that survival is not necessary to morality. In fact, I claim the exact opposite: survival is clearly necessary to morality. I made that claim quite explicitly and more than once: how you have interpreted my writing to claim the opposite I do not know. (Also, I think you’ll find that shooting a fox without a gun is quite difficult.)

  3. If you were a hunter without a gun, you would not have been unable to shoot foxes. The Farmer, having his own moral code, would have recognized this and would not have hired *you”, lest he act in a manner inconsistent with his own morality. You, a hunter without a gun, would have acted immorally by offering to shoot foxes without a gun. It would have been an impossibility and your subsequent actions, whatever they were, would not have contributed to food production/survival of the community and thus, would have been immoral in Heinlein’s eyes.

    Heinlan was correct.

  4. I have noticed that my analogies often seem to confuse more than they elucidate. Sorry about that. In this case, you seem to have assumed a whole society of moral farmers concerned with food production, which was not my intent. I was just trying to give an example of the difference between necessity and purpose.

    Forget about the hunter and the farmer. That was an example, not an argument. The point is that A can be necessary for B without A being the purpose of B.

  5. So far you have offered no proof. Since Heinlein offered a great deal why would anyone want to take your word for it?

  6. Proof of what? Heinlein did not offer any proof that A being necessary for B implies that A is the purpose of B.

    You cannot live without breathing oxygen. Is the purpose of your life to breathe oxygen? You cannot run without legs. Is the purpose of running to have legs? Surely it is obvious that necessity and purpose are two different things?

  7. Without oxygen, I assure you, your only purpose is to obtain some. However, neither breathing nor running is analogous to morality. I begin to see why you have found your analogies to be confusing.

    Why don’t you try proving that the extinction of the human race is moral behavior for a human?

  8. Why on earth would I want to prove that the extinction of the human race is moral behaviour?

    I fear we are arguing at cross purposes. I cannot understand what your comments have to do with either my original blog post or my later comments. Maybe you are disagreeing with something that I didn’t say. What is it that you think I have said?

  9. You nerds, Stafford Beer said it best: the purpose of a system is what it does.

  10. Perhaps in order to clear up the confusion in the comment section, you could explain what you think the purpose of morality is if not to enhance the chances of survival of a group.

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