Formic metaethical handwringing

Sisters, ethics and metaethics have been challenged of late by findings of Leafcutter IV’s caste of natural philosophers. There can hardly be an intellectual caste that has not heard these findings, but let us summarize them briefly.

Sea voyages by mobile colonies have brought to light the curious geographic distribution of non-hymenopteral species, a distribution that hints at their common ancestry in a time of differently-positioned continents. For example, one finds a “belt” of fern species across the southeastern continent which, if the continent were rotated 60 degrees clockwise, ends up continuous with a similar such belt on the southwestern continent though the species are subtly different.

Meanwhile, we find a fossil record of arthropods going back to the Cretaceous, which is continuous with itself and with modern arthropods such as ourselves. In addition, evidence from the mammalian species such as whales shows “vestigial” bones serving no function for aquatic life, but homologous to similar such bones in land mammals such as camels.

These and other lines of evidence compel the belief that all life on earth, including (most controversially) Myrmecia regnans itself, shares a common ancestor in the distant past. The explanation offered by Leafcutter IV’s natural philosopher subjects is that species change by (1) random birth differences (in M. regnans, between Queens and between drones), (2) filtered by the non-random vicissitudes of life, death, and reproduction. This process has come to be called “differential regicide”.

It is not our purpose to argue in detail for this view of natural history; rather, we take it as given and point out consequences for metaethics.

Before these insights became widely known, philosopher castes had developed a special distaste for what Grasshewer XIII’s thinkers memorably called “nature fealty”. As they put it:

It often happens that we read some tract upon the topic of how fealty should be done to our Queens and their subjects, wherein the authors after a series of statements using the copula ‘is’ and speaking of states of affairs in nature, march effortlessly and without explanation into an imperious ‘must’. We must realize that the connection never follows as a matter of course but is to be argued for.

However, in formulating the case against nature fealty, Grasshewer XIII’s subjects did not reckon on how their principle might undermine the foundations of ethics in an age in which the factual origin of M. regnans’s moral feeling is beginning to be perceived.

To take a concrete example: no duty is so sacred to a caste of myrmides as that of defending their Monarch. Many ethical philosophers would call this obvious or at least axiomatic: any argument you might use to defend it would rely on axioms if anything less certain than the imperative of defending one’s Queen.

It is also easy to perceive how such a heritable sense of duty, instilled by birth in the proto-minds of elements and in the minds of the castes they supervene on, promotes the survival of Royal Lineages with strong senses of duty. We grant that this is a mere speculation on the origin of such a sense, yet it is a powerfully plausible one. Let us take it, as well, as a given.

Now the challenge which the new natural philosophy poses to ethics is to say why such an understanding does not essentially explain away Royal fealty. After all, if fealty only happens to be the most sacred duty in our minds, put there by accident by the more or less anarchic forces of differential regicide, then how can we possibly say that fealty is legitimate in any non-arbitrary sense? We could, by sheer historical accident, have gone the way of the solitary albatrosses, in which case our moral law would put the interests of a single element ahead of loyalty to any Monarch! Such imaginings are not pleasant, and frankly reek of sedition.

It is obvious that no caste of philosophers would actually endorse such a vulgar ethic, and that the eternal values of fealty and self-sacrifice remain strong. What has been dissolved, however, is the sense among philosophers that the moral law can be justified on its own terms.

Previous to our understanding of the roots of fealty in differential regicide, we could hold out hope that fealty was the result of some process of universal reason, such that any account of fealty would be intrinsically motivating. (Such argument types are common as regards matters of simple rationality: for example, anyone who understands the meaning of modus ponens cannot fail to wish not to violate it.)

Now it appears we must be content with an explanation of why elements and castes do show fealty that does not, itself, motivate fealty. This leaves the task of motivating fealty for another argument to perform, but such arguments are wanting in plausibility.


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