Helian Unbound

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  • Japan and the Eternally Ticking “Demographic Time Bomb”

    Posted on June 24th, 2017 Helian 1 comment

    There are few metaphors more hackneyed than Japan’s “demographic time bomb.”  It is a never-failing source of copy for aspiring journalists on slow news days.  Stories about it keep popping up like so many mushrooms, all bearing more or less the same lugubrious burden.  Recent examples included the following from the Business Insider:

    Experts call situations like Japan’s “demographic time bombs.”  They’re places where fertility rates are falling at the same time that longevity is increasing.  Without young people to support older generations, economies can shrink, putting even more pressure on younger generations to keep families small and budget-friendly.

    Another article that turned up last month at Zero Hedge cited some dire statistical trends:

    Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar.  According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one.  For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging.  The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.”  When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink – or disappear completely.

    In another article in The Economist, ominously entitled “The incredible shrinking country,” the ubiquitous “time bomb” again raises its ugly head:

    A quiet but constant ticking can be heard from the demographic time bomb that sits beneath the worlds third-largest economy.  This week it made a louder tick than usual:  official statistics show that the population declined last year by a record 244,000 people – roughly the population of the London bureau of Hackney… The 2012 government report said that without policy change, by 2110 the number of Japanese could fall to 42.9m, ie just a third of its current population.  It is plausible to think that the country could learn to live with its shrinking population.  But that might mean also embracing a much diminished economic and political role in the world.

    The amazing thing about these repetitious articles is their utter lack of any historical context.  It turns out that Japan’s population has been a “ticking time bomb” for well over a century.  However, back in the day it was ticking in a different direction.  For example, according to an article that appeared in the April, 1904 issue of the British Edinburgh Review, discussing the conflict in the Far East that would soon culminate in the Russo-Japanese war,

    In 1872 the population of Japan amounted to only 33,110,793; in 1900 it was 44,805,937, already too great for her territory.

    A few decades later the “time bomb” was still ticking in drive instead of reverse.  As noted in an article at the website of Australia’s Pacific War Historical Society,

    Between 1918 and 1930, Japan’s population had expanded dramatically and outstripped the capacity of the nation’s resources to support it. To sustain its population blow-out, substantial food imports were essential, but foreign tariffs imposed on its exports of manufactured goods limited the capacity of Japan to pay for its food imports. Japan had tried to deal with its population problem by encouraging emigration of Japanese to countries such as the United States, but had met resistance from Americans who feared the loss of unskilled jobs to cheap immigrant labour.

    This time, of course, the “time bomb” led to Japan’s disastrous decision to attack the United States.  Even after the war there was much wringing of hands about its rapid forward progress.  For example from an article that appeared in the December, 1950 issue of the American Mercury,

    Our exceedingly efficient Public Health and Welfare Division has succeeded in driving down Japan’s death rate from 29.2 per thousand in 1945 to only 10.9 per thousand in 1949.  The birthrate, meanwhile, was rising to 32.8.  Thus, with our help, Japan’s population is now increasing at the rate of 1,800,000 per year.  Every morning there are 5,000 more Japanese than yesterday… How can we say that we have helped Japan when Japan is less self-sufficient today than she has ever been.

    A few thoughts come to mind in light of these rather substantial changes to the nature of the “time bomb” over the years.  It appears that Japan was so desperate about the apparent impossibility of feeding her rapidly expanding population that she was willing to risk war with Russia in 1904 and with the United States in 1941.  In those years her population was around 47 million and 73 million, respectively.  Now her population is 127 million, and suggestions that she supplement her dwindling work force by massive immigration are considered the soul of wisdom.  For example, from an article that appeared in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs,

    Japan must embrace immigration as a solution to its impending fiscal and demographic woes. A declining birthrate is a global trend, as is an ageing population. It will therefore be increasingly difficult for any country to meet all of its labor needs relying solely on the population that exists within its borders. In the case of Japan, more caregivers, nurses, and other providers catering to a graying society will be needed, especially if more women choose to go back to work full-time. The Japanese government will thus inevitably need to consider seriously the possibility of opening its doors to more immigration, rather than just to the highly skilled workers it currently courts. Although the Japanese have been at the forefront of developing robots designed to meet the mounting tsunami of elderly people’s needs, there is a limit to what can be expected from technology, especially when the psychological as well as physical needs of an ageing society are considered.

    This, of course, is one of the standard globalist rationalizations of the suicidal policy of promoting mass immigration.  Heaven forefend that Japan ever sheds her “xenophobia” and concludes that she “must” accept this brilliant “solution” to her “time bomb” problem.  It boggles the mind!  How is it that all the environmental issues raised by mindlessly expanding the already massive population on the relatively small Japanese archipelago have suddenly evaporated?  Is our planet really such a stable place that a country that once despaired about the impossibility of feeding 47 million will now never again have to worry about feeding three times as many or more?  Is it safe for her to assume that climate change and/or political instability will never impair her ability to feed all those millions?  If the assumption that nothing in the world will ever happen to threaten her food supply turns out to be wrong, Japan’s problem of caring for its senior citizens could easily pale compared to the potential problem of mass starvation.  Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine anything more self-destructive than importing a massive population of people who will perceive the existing population of Japan as an outgroup, will be perceived by that population in turn as an outgroup, and will remain unassimilable indefinitely.  Is it really necessary to demonstrate yet again the disastrous results of pretending there’s no such thing as human nature?

    I have an alternative suggestion.  Let the “time bomb” continue to tick in reverse.  It’s unlikely it will remain stuck in that position indefinitely, any more than it remained stuck in fast forward.  If the Japanese are really lucky, perhaps their population will decline to around 30 million, which was more or less what it was for hundreds of years before the Meiji Restoration.  I suspect their islands will be much more pleasant places to live at that level than they would be with the 150 million and up that the helpful people at Georgetown suggest it would take to defuse the “time bomb.”  I doubt that Japan would “lose face” due to declining economic and political clout in the world as a result, even if it mattered whether she “lost face” or not.  As a survivor of the “time bomb” it would be more likely that other countries would look on her as a role model.  She needn’t necessarily worry that such a small population would encourage aggression by her neighbors.  Japan possesses many tons of plutonium, which can be put to other uses than the peaceful production of nuclear power if need be.

  • Of Ingroups and Outgroups and the Hatreds they Spawn

    Posted on June 17th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Did it ever strike you as odd that the end result of Communism, a philosophy that was supposed to usher in a paradise of human brotherhood, was the death of 100 million people, give or take, and the self-decapitation of countries like Cambodia and the former Soviet Union?  Does it seem counter-intuitive that the adherents of a religion that teaches “blessed are the peacemakers” should have launched wars that killed tens of millions?  Is it bewildering than another one, promoted as the “religion of peace,” should have launched its zealots out of Arabia, killing millions more, and becoming the most successful vehicle of colonialism and imperialism ever heard of?  Do you find the theory that human warfare resulted from purely environmental influences that were the unfortunate outcome of the transition to Neolithic economies somewhat implausible?  In fact, all of these “anomalies” are predictable manifestations of what is perhaps both the most important and the most dangerous aspect of innate human behavior; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.

    Our tendency to associate the good with our ingroup, and all that is evil, disgusting and contemptible with outgroups, is a most inconvenient truth for moral philosophy.  You might call it the universal solvent of all moral systems concocted to date.  It is a barrier standing in the way of all attempts to manipulate human moral emotions, to force them to serve a “higher purpose,” or to cajole them into promoting the goal of “human flourishing.”  Because it is such an inconvenient truth it was vehemently denied as one aspect of the Blank Slate catastrophe.  Attempts were made to scare it away by calling it bad names.  Different specific manifestations became racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and so on.  The result was something like squeezing jello.  The harder we squeezed, the faster the behavior slipped through our fingers in new forms.  New outgroups emerged to take the place of the old ones, but the hatred remained, often more virulent than before.

    It is impossible to understand human behavior without first determining who are the ingroups, and who are their associated outgroups.  Consider, for example, recent political events in the United States.  Wherever one looks, whether in news media, social media, on college campuses, or in the “jokes” of comedians, one finds manifestations of a furious hatred directed at Trump and his supporters.  There is jubilation when they are murdered in effigy on stage, or shot in reality on baseball fields.  The ideologically defined ingroup responsible for all this hatred justifies its behavior with a smokescreen of epithets, associating all sorts of “bad” qualities with its outgroup, following a pattern that should be familiar to anyone who has studied a little history.  In fact, their hate is neither rational, nor does it result from any of these “bad” things.  They hate for the same reason that humans have always hated; because they have identified Trump and his supporters as an outgroup.

    Going back several decades, one can see the same phenomenon unfolding under the rubric of the Watergate Affair.  In that case, of course, Nixon and his supporters were the outgroup, and the ingroup can be more specifically identified with the “mainstream media” of the day.  According to the commonly peddled narrative, Nixon was a very bad man who committed very terrible crimes.  I doubt it, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other.  Nixon was deposed in what we are informed was a “triumph of justice” by some heroic reporters.  In fact, it was a successful coup d’état carried out behind a façade of legality.  The idea that what Nixon did or didn’t do had anything to do with it can be immediately exposed as a fiction by anyone who is aware of the type of human behavior described in this post, and who bothers to read through the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times during the 18 months or so the affair lasted.  There he will not find a conscientious attempt to keep readers informed about affairs in the world that might be important to them.  Rather, he will see an unrelenting obsession with Watergate, inexplicable as other than the manifestation of a deep hatred.  The result was a dangerous destabilization of the U.S. government, leading to further attempts to depose legitimately elected Presidents, as we saw in the case of Clinton, and as we now see underway in the case of Trump.  In Nixon’s day the mainstream media controlled the narrative.  They were able to fob off their coup d’état as the triumph of virtue and justice.  That won’t happen this time around.  Now there are powerful voices on the other side, and the outcome of such a “nice and legal” coup d’état carried out against Trump will be the undermining of the trust of the American people in the legitimacy of their political system at best.  At worst, some are suggesting we will find ourselves in the middle of a civil war.

    Those still inclined to believe that the behavior in question really can be explained by the rationalizations used to justify it need only look a bit further back in history.  There they will find descriptions of exactly the same behavior, but rationalized in ways that appear incomprehensible and absurd to modern readers.  For example, read through the accounts of the various heresies that afflicted Christianity over the years.  Few Christians today could correctly identify the “orthodox” number of persons, natures, and wills of the Godhead, or the “orthodox” doctrines regarding the form of Communion or the efficacy of faith, and yet such issues have spawned ingroup/outgroup identification accompanied by the usual hatreds, resulting in numerous orgies of mass murder and warfare.

    I certainly don’t mean to claim that issues and how they are decided never matter in themselves.  However, when it comes to human behavior, their role often becomes a mere pretext, a façade used to rationalize hatred that is actually a manifestation of innate emotional predispositions.  Read the comments following articles about politics and you will get the impression that half the population wakes up in the morning determined to deliberately commit as many bad deeds as they possibly can, and the other half is heroically struggling to stop them and secure the victory of the Good.  Does that really make sense?  Is it really so difficult to see that such a version of reality represents a delusion, explicable only if one accepts human nature for what it is?  Would you understand what’s going on in the world?  Then for starters you need to identify the ingroups and outgroups.  Lacking that fundamental insight, you will be stumbling in the dark.  In the dark it’s very difficult to see that you, too, are a hater, simply by virtue of the fact that you belong to the species Homo sapiens, and to understand why you hate.  Hatred is a destructive force.  It would behoove us to learn to control it no matter what our goals happen to be, but we will have a very difficult time controlling it unless we finally understand why it exists.

  • On the Practicality of Non-Lethal Methods of Updating Morality

    Posted on May 18th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Character is destiny.  Societies tend to thrive when there are well-understood moral rules that are obeyed, or, in cases where they are not obeyed, the disobedient are punished so as to prevent their disobedience from doing harm to others.  There are no objective moral truths, so it follows that the moral rules referred to above cannot be based on such truths.  However, if the statements above are true, they will remain true whether there are objective moral truths or not.

    It does not follow from the absence of objective moral truth that everyone “should” be allowed to rape, murder, and pillage, or do anything they please, for the simple reason that if there are no objective moral truths, there can be no objective “shoulds” either.  It may not be objectively bad to rape, murder, and pillage, but it is not objectively bad for the members of a society to punish or eliminate from that society those who do such things, either.  They do so by establishing moral rules, sometimes made explicit in the form of laws, and sometimes not.

    Moral rules will exist whether the individuals in a given society have religious beliefs or not, whether they believe in the existence of objective moral truths or not, and whether they subscribe to any given philosophy or not.  Our societies have moral rules because it is our nature to experience moral emotions.  These emotions incline us to believe that there are ways that we and others ought to behave, and ways that we and others ought not to behave.  As noted above, these beliefs manifest themselves in the formulation of moral rules.  We experience these rules as absolute, objective things, even though they cannot possibly be absolute, objective things.  At the moment, the contradiction between this emotionally derived belief and reality is becoming increasingly acute.  In the first place, the religious beliefs that once supplied a rationalization for the existence of absolute moral rules are declining in some parts of the world.  It is also difficult to accommodate a belief in objective morality with the increasing realization that moral emotions are innate, and must therefore have evolved.  Finally, thanks to the vast expansion in our ability to examine and communicate with other cultures that has occurred in the last few hundred years, we have learned that, while there are significant commonalities across all moralities, there are also profound differences between them.  If moral rules are objective and absolute, it seems to follow logically that no such differences could exist.

    It is a tribute to the power of our moral emotions that these contradictions have had little impact on our moral behavior.  Most of us still imagine that moral rules are absolute, or at least behave as if they were, regardless.  However, as a result of changes to the social environment such as those referred to above, individuals in our societies experience changes in their perceptions of what their moral emotions are trying to tell them as well.  They imagine that new “objective” moral rules must exist, and that old ones were never valid to begin with.  Occasionally enough of them experience the same illusion to force changes in the moral paradigm.  This process has certainly happened in the past.  Moralities have evolved as new religions became dominant, or new heresies and orthodoxies arose in old ones.  Now, however, it is occurring at an increasingly rapid, if not historically unprecedented rate.  The result has been moral chaos.  Deep fractures are opening in our societies between ingroups that prefer traditional versus those that favor updated versions of “absolute” morality.

    Ingroups of the type referred to above typically define themselves ideologically, on the basis of a particular version of morality.  They recognize others who don’t agree with their ideological narrative not just as individuals who are wrong about particular facts, but as members of outgroups.  It is our nature to experience hatred and disgust in response to outgroups, and to vilify their members.  We seek to arouse moral emotions in others that cause them to hate and despise the outgroup as well.  We see the results of this process in action around us every day.  Obviously, they do not promote social harmony.  History has demonstrated the likely outcomes of the process over and over again.  In the past these have included mass murder and warfare.  We will continue to experience these outcomes until we recognize the problem and come up with more rational ways of dealing with it.  My own preferred method of dealing with it would include coming up with a better way to formulate our “absolute” moralities.

    Through thousands of years of recorded history, we have never come up with a perfect form of government.  It is not to be expected that we will suddenly come up with a perfect way to formulate morality, either.  In fact, it would be impractical to even make the attempt unless the members of society, or at least a majority of them, understood and accepted what morality is, and why it exists.  That knowledge is a precondition if we would escape the prevailing moral chaos.  Supposing that society ever achieves that state of enlightenment, I offer the following suggestions as an Ansatz for establishing a rational morality.  I offer them not as infallible nostrums, but as suggestions.  In the event that a serious attempt is ever made to implement them, experience will certainly make it obvious whether any of them are practical or not, but we have to start somewhere.  With those reservations in mind, here is what I suggest for a possible “morality of the future.”

    It should be minimal, limited to only those situations where it is indispensable.  It is indispensable in situations where it would be impractical to apply careful, logical thought.  Examples are day to day interactions among individuals.

    It would have the support of the majority of those to whom it apples.

    It would maximize the freedom of individuals to pursue whatever goals in life they happen to have, free from harm by others or excessive regimentation by government.

    It would be possible to change it, but only at infrequent though regular intervals, according to an established procedure accepted by a majority.  Changes would not be made without thorough vetting beforehand, nor without the support of a majority of those affected.  Each change would require explicit recognition of the moral emotions driving it, and whether it would enhance the odds of survival of the responsible genes or not.

    It would be in harmony with human nature.  It would not contradict or be in conflict with human moral emotions.

    It would be sequestered from politics and other areas in which the possibility exists to examine different courses of action rationally and evaluate them based on explicit recognition of the behavioral predispositions/emotions driving those courses of action.

    In keeping with human nature, once established, the moral rules would be treated as absolute.  those breaking the rules, that is, acting “immorally,” would be punished in accordance with the severity of the breach.

    The moral emotions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved because they enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Therefore, no decisions affecting society at large would be made without explicit recognition of the impact those decisions will have on the genetic survival of the individuals to whom they apply.  If they will not promote the genetic survival of the members of the society to whom they apply, a rational explanation will be required for why the action is still considered desirable.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions to accomplish political ends would be discouraged and/or punished.  To this end, it would be necessary to suppress the human predisposition to cast every decision and action in moral terms.  In other words, it would be necessary to act against human nature.  Obviously, this could not be done without carefully educating the members of society about the reasons why this is necessary, based on the disconnect between the environment in which the predispositions motivating the behavior in question evolved, and the environment we live in now.  It would be necessary for them to understand that behavior that evolved because it enhanced the odds of survival long ago now is more likely to accomplish the opposite in the radically different societies we live in now.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions with the goal of altering the moral law independently of the established procedures for doing so would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Attempts to harm or shame others by arousing moral emotions other than those explicitly sanctioned by the existing moral law would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Again, these suggestions would fall flat absent recognition of the evolved and innate origins of morality by the people capable of implementing them.  They will certainly require revision in practice, and are not intended as an exhaustive list.  However, I think they represent a step forward from the old fashioned way of updating moralities by mutual vilification, occasionally culminating in mass murder and warfare.  Although the old fashioned way has certainly been effective, at least for some ingroups, I think most of my readers would agree it has been somewhat unpleasant in practice.  Perhaps we can find a better way.

  • Vignette of a Moderate Leftist

    Posted on May 10th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Scott Alexander is a U.S. psychiatrist and proprietor of Slate Star Codex, which he describes as “a blog about science, medicine, philosophy, politics, and futurism.” He considers himself a moderate liberal. In a recent post entitled Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle, he discussed Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology, an article published by David Roberts on Vox, the burden of which was that truth, justice, and moral rectitude are all under assault thanks to the rise of ideological tribalism on the right. In Roberts’ words,

    Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one…Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House…

    Conservative media… profits from… a constant state of mobilized outrage.

    This is the culmination of the right’s long campaign against media: a base that only trusts tribal news from tribal sources.

    I suspect that if Roberts seriously expects us to believe that the traditional media don’t (or at least didn’t used to) support leftist tribal values and goals, that it is uncommon for leftist ideologues to be in a constant state of mobilized outrage, and that leftists commonly seek sources of news outside of their usual echo chambers, then clearly he has a pair of tribalist blinkers ensconced firmly at the end of his own nose. Of course we all do. We are a profoundly tribalist species, perceiving the world in terms of just and good ingroups and evil and deplorable outgroups. But that’s beside the point. The point is that Roberts suffers from the delusion that he’s somehow immune to tribalism. In fact, however, he wears the insignia of his tribe on his sleeve.

    The article is full of ideologically slanted claims about conservative delusions spawned by conservative media misinformation.  Roberts clearly lacks even an elementary capacity to detect the slant in his own sources. To give just one example among the many, he cites “studies” according to which Fox viewers are more misinformed than those who rely on the traditional media. Even a cursory glance at the things they are misinformed about reveals that they are carefully chosen to insure that conservatives are more prone to “delusions.” For example, they were more likely to believe that “’weapons of mass destruction’ had been found in (Iraq) after the U.S. invasion, when they hadn’t,” they “were less likely to say the Earth’s temperature has been rising and less likely to attribute this temperature increase to human activities,” and were liable of a host of false beliefs about Obamacare. I could easily stand these studies on their heads by simply loading the questions with bits cherry-picked from the narratives of the Left instead of the Right. For example, the questions might include, “Are there significant differences in intelligence between different human ethnic groups?” “Is human biodiversity real and significant?” “According to Muslim teaching will most Christians burn in hell forever or not, and are women inferior to men or not?” “Did Michael Brown have his hands up and shout ‘don’t shoot’ when he was killed?”  “Was Hillary Clinton’s use of private computer resources to handle official government business a significant violation of federal regulations and the law?”  And so on.

    Roberts goes on to promote doubling down on his tribe’s warfare against its conservative outgroup under the rubric of a return to the “traditional” techniques of supplying the public with information, concluding with the grim comment that,

    There’s no other choice. In the end, if tribal epistemology wins, journalism loses.

    I have news for Roberts. Tribal epistemology won a long time ago. All the evils he wrings his hands about are the inevitable result of marginalizing and vilifying the tribe that lost.

    Which brings us back to our “moderate” leftist, Scott Alexander. Alexander doesn’t disagree with Roberts about tribalism on the right. He just prefers a different approach to dealing with it. He is St. Francis to Roberts’ Torquemada, if you will. He would rather bring erring conservatives back to the True Faith with a kid glove rather than an iron fist. For example, he suggests that some of the “studies” Roberts relies on to portray conservatives as deplorable might conceivably be affected by a liberal bias. He even admits that mainstream media outlets like CNN “lean liberal,” but claims they are not as liberal as Fox is conservative. That’s debatable. You can demonstrate that to yourself by simply turning on CNN every half hour or so over any six hour period. I can pretty much guarantee that the majority of time, and probably the vast majority of the time, you will be watching something that reflects negatively on Trump. Fox certainly opposed Obama, but was never as afflicted with single-minded hatred as CNN. Alexander thinks that CNN’s bogus pretense of neutrality is a feature, not a bug. I beg to differ. I prefer a news outlet that is open about its agenda to one that blatantly lies about it.

    As we read further into the post, we find Alexander painting a rosy picture of the past. He tells us that there was once some kind of a Golden Age when, “the two parties had much more in common, and (were) able to appeal to shared gatekeeper institutions that both trusted.” Maybe, but it must have been long before my time. Now, however, all that has changed. In his words, “Right now, the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives.” I rather think that “the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives” for a lot longer than he imagines.  Conservatives just weren’t as effective in pushing back then as they are now. Among other things, they lacked the means to do so. Now they have the means. Both Roberts and Alexander agree that this is a deplorable situation. They concur that the outgroup, the “other” tribe is evil, and must be defanged. This ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature, what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” should already be familiar to readers of this blog. The process by which Alexander manages to convince himself that the “other” is, indeed, evil is interesting in itself. He begins by continuing with his “kid glove” approach, debunking Roberts’ claim that, “the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own,” rightly noting that,

    This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy in Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Heterodox Academy, et cetera, which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old… The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternatively pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. They then defected to create their own.

    However, “creating their own” turned out to be the original sin.Here’s how Alexander describes the process:

    A couple of years ago, Reddit decided to ban various undesirables and restrict discussion of offensive topics. A lot of users were really angry about this, and some of them set up a Reddit clone called Voat which promised that everyone was welcome regardless of their opinion.

    What happened was – a small percent of average Reddit users went over, lured by curiosity or a principled commitment to free speech. And also, approximately 100% of Reddit’s offensive undesirables went there, lured by the promise of being able to be terrible and get away with it.

    Even though Voat’s rules were similar to Reddit’s rules before the latter tightened its moderation policies, Voat itself was nothing like pre-tightening Reddit. I checked to see whether it had gotten any better in the last year, and I found the top three stories were:

    SJW Awareness is a Steam curator that warns you about SJW games.

    Africans describe their extortion schemes.  They put babies in ovens and hot showers.  They’re now migrating to EU.

    “The Phantom,” and black serial killer who targeted blond haired white children, has been freed from prison and roaming streets of same city he terrorized.

    The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.

    In the first place, this is anecdotal evidence.In the second, at least two of the above blurbs are true. If Alexander doesn’t think that there are video games that come drenched in crude leftist propaganda, he must not have played many video games. If he did, he probably wouldn’t be too annoyed at discovering that his game was actually a leftist morality play in disguise, but some people are. As can be confirmed on Google, a black serial killer who targeted blonde haired white children actually was freed from prison in the same city where he committed his crimes. I would certainly deem this information useful if I had young children and the killer was released in my neighborhood. It would seem, then, that Alexander doesn’t think Voat is a “terrible place to live” because it is full of lies. Rather, its “seven zillion witches” are publishing truths that clash with Alexander’s preferred narrative, and he equates truth that clash with his narrative as evil.

    After supplying us with this somewhat shaky evidence that Voat is inhabited by witches, Alexander reaches the dubious conclusion that all other right-leaning media outlets must therefore also be inhabited almost exclusively by witches as well. For example, it turns out that Fox was the unholy spawn of a similar process:

    FOX’s slogans are “Fair and Balanced”, “Real Journalism”, and “We Report, You Decide”. They were pushing the “actually unbiased media” angle hard. I don’t know if this was ever true, or if people really believed it. It doesn’t matter. By attracting only the refugees from a left-slanted system, they ensured they would end up not just with conservatives, but with the worst and most extreme conservatives.

    No doubt Alexander would find anyone who kicked at the ideological planks that form the box his tribe lives in “bad” and “extreme.”He challenges some of the more crudely biased “studies” cited by Roberts, but doesn’t neglect to virtue signal to his readers that “Fox is horrible.” Noting that Breitbart, Drudge, and the rest are just as horrible, he adds,

    I think it’s right that this situation is horrible and toxic and destroying the country, and it’s really good that someone has pointed this out and framed it this clearly.

    I don’t see it that way. I could care less whether Alexander’s tribe considers Fox and the rest “horrible.” They’re either making a moral judgment that lacks any legitimate basis and is nothing more significant than an expression of their emotional whims, or they’re suggesting that these alternative media do not supply useful information, which is false. The mainstream media will occasionally lie or manipulate facts to alter their meaning. Usually, however, they simply suppress any news that doesn’t fit their narrative. Conservative media supply these often significant facts, which are only “horrible” because they contradict that narrative. As a result, the United States has a more genuinely free press than many other countries where similarly powerful and influential alternatives are lacking.

    For example, I happen to follow the German media fairly closely. They have no equivalent of Fox, and to an outside observer the media there are as similar to each other as so many peas in a pod, all flogging almost exactly the same political line when it comes to any issue of overriding significance. Among other things, this vanilla approach to journalism convinces citizens that they are much better informed than they actually are. When it comes to the United States, for example, they are fed a dumbed down version of the U.S. mainstream media narrative, typically much cruder and more extreme than anything you’ll find in this country. That’s exactly what we would have here lacking credible alternatives like Fox, Breitbart, Drudge, Instapundit, etc., whether Alexander imagines they’re full of scary witches or not. Alexander concludes his article with the following three paragraphs:

    Look. I read Twitter. I know the sorts of complaints people have about this blog. I’m some kind of crypto-conservative, I’m a traitor to liberalism, I’m too quick to sell out under the guise of “compromise”. And I understand the sentiment. I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.

    And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”

    Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.

    I agree that leftists like Roberts and Alexander are in a hole, but they can’t stop digging. Their ideology constrains them to keep those shovels flying. The only real way to stop would involve them challenging their own ideological preconceptions. However, their tribe is defined by ideology, so to challenge the ideology would mean ostracism – banishment from the tribe. Alexander admits he has already been denounced as a traitor and a sellout merely for advocating a milder approach. The lightening is poised to strike even though he hasn’t dared to lay so much as a finger on the fundamental shibboleths of his ingroup. There is no significant ideological difference at all between Roberts and Alexander. They only differ on how to guide the erring sheep back into the fold of the True Faith. That’s the problem. To actually stop digging, the leftists would have to admit that they may not be 100% right all the time, and that the conservatives may actually be right about some things. They can’t do that because of the way they define membership in their ingroup.  It would be something like St. Francis (or Torquemada) admitting that Christianity is mostly true, but the pagans might have a point about the existence of some of their gods. If the leftists, who are anything but “neutral,” want to lay down their shovels, the only solution is to leave their ingroup. However, it is usually very painful and traumatic for members of our species to do that.  They’re likely to be down there a good, long time.

  • Moral Whimsy

    Posted on May 8th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Human moralities have always been concocted and altered in a chaotic, and sometimes whimsical fashion.  They are all manifestations of innate behavioral predispositions that are probably quite similar across all human populations.  However, in conscious creatures with large brain such as ourselves, these predispositions can be interpreted very differently as a function of environment, culture, and pre-existing versions of morality.  As a result we see wild variations in the “end product” in the form of moral rules.  Moralities have always evolved in this way over time, both now and in the distant past.  In spite of the arbitrary nature of the process, the evanescent “moral laws” that happen to pop up and then disappear from time to time are perceived as objective things, unchanging, and independent of the social/biological process that actually gave rise to them.  This seemingly irrational perception actually makes perfect sense.  Morality exists because the traits responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  It turns out that the most effective way to improve the odds was to program the perception of moral rules as objective things.  However, they are not objective things, but manifestations of subjective emotions.  You might say that we are hard-wired to believe in hallucinations.  The chaotic process of “updating” a given version of morality referred to above happens when different individuals believe in different hallucinations.

    I recently ran across a good example of the process in action in an article in New York Magazine entitled “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.”  The particular moral rule at issue was the degree to which the terms “transgender” and “transracial” can be treated as equivalent.  Rebecca Tuval, an assistant professor (usually a junior, tenure track professor) of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, had recently published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia entitled, “In Defense of Transracialism.”   Perhaps she thought the article was merely harmless padding for her resume, the better to facilitate her eventual promotion to full professor.  It didn’t turn out that way.  A vicious attack on her began in the form of an open letter to Hypatia, now signed by some hundreds of her academic colleagues, expressing “dismay” at the “harms” Tuvel had caused by her inappropriate conflation of the terms noted above.  The witch hunt continued with poison pen attacks posted at the usual social media suspects, culminating in an abject apology by “a majority of Hypatia’s board of associate editors” rivaling anything ever seen in Stalin’s Great Purge Trials.  I half expected to see a paragraph admitting that the journal’s staff had conspired with Trotsky himself to promote the counter-revolutionary plots of the Left Opposition.  A few days later, editor Sally Scholz and Miriam Solomon, president of Hypatia’s board of directors, fired back with disavowals of the disavowal.

    This is basically the manner in which moralities have always (culturally) evolved and changed.  As societies change, the members of particular ingroups, and especially ingroups that define themselves primarily by ideology, may experience strong moral emotions in response to supposed “evils” that were previously matters of indifference.  They then seek to manipulate the moral emotions of others so that they, too, perceive what amounts to an emotional whim as an objective thing.  This “thing” takes the form of an evil that exists independently of the evolved emotional predispositions that actually inspired the perception.  Members of other ingroups with different narratives, or members of the same ingroups responding more strongly to other moral emotions, push back, seeking to manipulate moral emotions in the opposite direction.  Whoever is the most effective manipulator wins, and a new “moral law” is born.

    The whole process is fundamentally irrational.  Why?  Because it amounts to a competition between alternative mirages.  The evolved emotional traits that are responsible for this aspect of human behavior exist because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, they did so at a time that was radically different from the present.  There is no guarantee that they will have the same result today as they did then.  None of this makes any difference to the parties to these disputes as they blindly chase their alternative illusions.  They are seldom aware of the connection between their behavior and its ultimate cause in emotional traits spawned in the process of evolution by natural selection.  The illusion that they are champions of a thing-in-itself called the Good is so powerful that it probably wouldn’t matter even if they did know.

    The above describes the process by which we currently seek to resolve the issues that arise in complex modern civilizations by attempting to satisfy emotional whims that are probably much the same as those experienced by our ancestors in the Pleistocene.  The results are seldom benign.  Sometimes the damage is limited to the destruction of some junior professor’s career.  Sometimes it involves warfare that costs millions their lives.  One can certainly imagine more rational ways of adjudicating among all these emotionally inspired whims.  However, I am not optimistic that one of them will be adopted anytime soon.  We are moralistic creatures to the core.  We are addicted to construing something we want as “the Good,” and then manipulating the moral emotions of others to get it.  The effect “the Good” might actually have on the odds of our genetic survival is normally a matter of utter indifference.  We live in a world of irrational creatures, all seeking to satisfy emotional whims without the least regard for whether they accomplish the same thing as they did when they evolved or not.

    That’s the reality that we must deal with.  All of us must find our own way of coping.  However, as a tip to my readers, I suggest you think twice before publishing in a philosophical journal.  Unless, of course, you actually like to be bullied.

  • The Bomb and the Nuclear Posture Review

    Posted on April 22nd, 2017 Helian No comments

    A Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is a legislatively mandated review, typically conducted every five to ten years.  It assesses such things as the role, safety and reliability of the weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the status of facilities in the nuclear weapons complex, and nuclear weapons policy in areas such as nonproliferation and arms control.  The last one was conducted in 2010.  The Trump Administration directed that another one be conducted this year, and the review is already in its initial stages.  It should be finished by the end of the year.  There is reason for concern about what the final product might look like.

    Trump has made statements to the effect that the U.S. should “expand its nuclear capability,” and that, “We have nuclear arsenals that are in very terrible shape.  They don’t even know if they work.”  Such statements have typically been qualified by his aides.  It’s hard to tell whether they reflect serious policy commitments, or just vague impressions based on a few minutes of conversation with some Pentagon wonk.  In fact, there are deep differences of opinion about these matters within the nuclear establishment.  That’s why the eventual content of the NPR might be problematic.  There have always been people within the nuclear establishment, whether at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency within the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining the stockpile, or in the military, who are champing at the bit to resume nuclear testing.  Occasionally they will bluntly question the reliability of the weapons in our stockpile, even though by that very act they diminish the credibility of our nuclear deterrent.  If Trump’s comments are to be taken seriously, the next NPR may reflect the fact that they have gained the upper hand.  That would be unfortunate.

    Is it really true that the weapons in our arsenal are “in very terrible shape,” and we “don’t even know if they work?”  I doubt it.  In the first place, the law requires that both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense sign off on an annual assessment that certifies the safety and reliability of the stockpile.  They have never failed to submit that certification.  Beyond that, the weapons in our stockpile are the final product of more than 1000 nuclear tests.  They are both safe and robust.  Any credible challenge to their safety and reliability must cite some plausible reason why they might fail.  I know of no such reason.

    For the sake of argument, let’s consider what might go wrong.  Modern weapons typically consist of a primary and a secondary.  The primary consists of a hollow “pit” of highly enriched uranium or plutonium surrounded by high explosive.  Often it is filled with a “boost” gas consisting of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  When the weapon is used, the high explosive implodes the pit, causing it to form a dense mass that is highly supercritical.  At the same time, nuclear fusion takes place in the boost gas, producing highly energetic neutrons that enhance the yield of the primary.  At the right moment an “initiator” sends a burst of neutrons into the imploded pit, setting off a chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion.  Some of the tremendous energy released in this explosion in the form of x-rays then implodes the secondary, causing it, too, to explode, adding to the yield of the weapon.

    What could go wrong?  Of course, explosives are volatile.  Those used to implode the primary might deteriorate over time.  However, these explosives are carefully monitored to detect any such deterioration.  Other than that, the tritium in the boost gas is radioactive, and has a half life of only a little over 12 years.  It will gradually decay into helium, reducing the effectiveness of boosting.  This, too, however is a well understood process, and one which is carefully monitored and compensated for by timely replacement of the tritium.  Corrosion of key parts might occur, but this too, is carefully checked, and the potential sources are well understood.  All these potential sources of uncertainty affect the primary.  However, much of the uncertainty about their effects can be eliminated experimentally.  Of course, the experiments can’t include actual nuclear explosions, but surrogate materials can be substituted for the uranium and plutonium in the pit with similar properties.  The implosion process can then be observed using powerful x-ray or proton beams.  Unfortunately, our experimental capabilities in this area are limited.  We cannot observe the implosion process all the way from the initial explosion to the point at which maximum density is achieved in three dimensions taking “snapshots” at optimally short intervals.  To do that, we would need what has been referred to as an Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.

    We currently have an unmatched suite of above ground experimental facilities for studying the effects of aging on the weapons in our stockpile, including the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z Machine at Sandia National Laboratories, and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT) at Los Alamos.  These give us a very significant leg up on the international competition when it comes to maintaining our stockpile.  That is a major reason why it would be foolish for us to resume nuclear testing.  We would be throwing away this advantage.  Unfortunately, while we once seriously considered building an AHF, basically an extremely powerful accelerator, we never got around to doing so.  It was a serious mistake.  If we had such a facility, it would effectively pull the rug out from under the feet of those who want to resume testing.  It would render all arguments to the effect that “we don’t even know if they work” moot.  We could demonstrate with a very high level of confidence that they will indeed work.

    But that’s water under the bridge.  We must hope that cooler heads prevail, and the NPR doesn’t turn out to be a polemic challenging the credibility of the stockpile and advising a resumption of testing.  We’re likely to find out one way or the other before the end of the year.  Keep your fingers crossed.

  • Morality; Once More From the Top

    Posted on April 2nd, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality.  Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it.  Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality.  They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions.  As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.

    Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning.  According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid.  Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God.  However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.

    Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions.  Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.”  However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.

    Evolution is a natural process.  As such, it has no purpose or goal.  It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.

    The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past.  It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now.  It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.

    Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature.  They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.

    Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do.  That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals.  It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.

    In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity.  They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.

    Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it.  These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways.  In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed.  Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals.  However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.

    Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them.  It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then.  When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past.  One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.

    So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior.  Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small?  The answer lies in morality itself.  More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups.  When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people.  Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality.  Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup.  It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe.  We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing.  The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above.  As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.

    Why do I bother to write about morality?  Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above.  I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject.  One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right.  One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind?  Assuming they exist, can you show one to me?  Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing?  Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”

    The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us.  For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with.  Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path.  Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors.  When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders.  H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift.  From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative.  In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned.  The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful.  As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.

    I know, I’m grasping at straws.  The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck.  He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him.  The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work.  His example is hardly encouraging.  On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing.  Therefore, I will do something.  I will continue to write.

  • A Few Hints from Philip Hone on the Cause of the Civil War

    Posted on March 19th, 2017 Helian No comments


    But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who was Philip Hone?  Well, he was born in 1780, died in 1851, and lived in New York City.  He was the son of a German immigrant who became wealthy in the auction business.  He was active in the Whig Party, and even claimed he supplied it with its name.  However, his real gift to posterity was a very entertaining and informative diary covering the years from 1828 until his death.

    Do you have trouble remembering even the names of all those Presidents who were in office between Monroe and Lincoln, not to mention anything they actually did or stood for?  Philip Hone can help you out.  He knew some of them personally and had much to say about them, both good and bad.  He was as much in awe about the railroad, steamship and telegraph as we are about jet travel and the Internet.  He gives us an insiders look at the economy and culture of New York in the early 19th century, as well as vignettes of some its most distinguished visitors.  He also confirmed what most people other than Marxist historians and southern elementary school teachers have known all along; the Civil War was about slavery.

    It’s odd, really, that so many people are capable of denying something so obvious.  The northerners who lived through the events in question thought the Civil War was about slavery.  The southerners alive at the time thought it was about slavery.  Foreign observers were in virtually unanimous agreement that it was about slavery.  Source literature confirming it is available in abundance.  It doesn’t matter.  As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, ideological narratives, no matter how ludicrous, can trump historical facts with ease.  So it is with slavery and the Civil War.

    I know I’m not likely to open closed minds, but as my own humble contribution to historical integrity, I will help Mr. Hone spread the word.  There are many allusions to the slavery question in his diary.  In the entry for November 17, 1837, we learn that passions were already running high nearly a quarter of a century before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter:

    The terrible abolition question is fated, I fear, to destroy the union of the States, and to endanger the peace and happiness of our western world.  Both parties are getting more and more confirmed in their obstinacy, and more intolerant in their prejudices.  A recent disgraceful affair has occurred in the town of Alton, State of Illinois, which is calculated to excite the most painful feelings in all those who respect the laws and desire the continuance of national peace and union.  Alton is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, and opposite the slave-holding State of Missouri.  An abolition paper was established there, called the “Alton Observer,” which, becoming obnoxious to the slaveholders, was assailed and the establishment destroyed, some time since, by an ungovernable mob; an attempt was recently made to reestablish the paper, which caused another most disgraceful outrage, in which two persons were killed and several wounded.

    In the entry for October 22, 1939, Hone set down his thoughts on the famous “Amistead” incident:

    There is great excitement in relation to the arrest of two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the owners of the revolted slaves who were taken on board the “Amistead,” and are now in prison in Connecticut.  This outrageous proceeding is the work of the abolitionists, who, in their officious zeal, have obtained affidavits from the wretched Africans, who, ignorant of our language, probably knew not what they were swearing about.  These affidavits, charging their owners with assault and battery, were made the grounds of this arrest, and the Spaniards are in prison.  Writs of habeas corpus have been issued, and the subject is now submitted to the judges, who, it is hoped, will see reason to discharge the men who escaped so narrowly from the conspiracy in which the lives of other white men were sacrificed.  The fanatics are working day and night to make this bad matter worse; under the specious cloak of an abstract opposition to slavery, they are blowing up a flame which may destroy the Union, and light up a civil war between men who have no interest so strong as to belong to a brotherhood of patriots.

    Hone disliked slavery, but disliked the abolitionists even more.  To him they represented a gratuitous threat to the Union.  Speaking of the Whig convention to nominate a candidate for President on December 9, 1839, he writes,

    The accursed question (slavery, ed.) is destined to mix up with all national questions, and in the end to alter the essential features of our government, if not to cause a separation of the States and a dissolution of the Union.  The opposition to Mr. Clay from this quarter is so strong, that even if nominated he could not (in the opinion of a majority of the convention) have been elected, and it was perhaps good policy to take (William Henry) Harrison, who may succeed if the friends of Mr. Clay exercise that magnanimity which it appears they could not calculate upon from a portion, at least, of the friends of his rivals.

    Speaking of the famous battle over the right to petition Congress against slavery in 1842, we learn that the South wasn’t the only source of agitation for disunion.  Indeed, it came from none other than a former Yankee President as well – John Quincy Adams:

    The House of Representatives presents every day a scene of violence, personal abuse, and vulgar crimination, almost as bad as those which disgraced the National Assembly of France in the early stages of the “Reign of Terror.”  Mr. Adams, with the most provoking pertinacity, continues to present petitions intended to irritate the Southern members, and by language and manner equally calculated to disgust his friends and exasperate his enemies, and does something every day to alienate the respect which all are disposed to render to his consummate learning and admirable talents… Among other insane movements of the ex-President, he has presented a petition praying for a repeal of the Union, because the petitioners are deprived of the privilege of agitating the terrible question of slavery; and their right to bring forward a proposition so monstrous, and his to be their organ of communication with the Congress of the nation, is enforced with the indomitable obstinacy which marks all his conduct of late.

    As Hone’s life nears its end, references to the “accursed question” become more frequent.  The entries for 1850 include the following:

    The great South Carolina senator (John C. Calhoun, ed.) died in Washington, on Sunday morning, March 31, of a disease of the heart… the South has lost her champion; slavery, its defender; and nullification and (we are compelled to say) disunion, their apologists.

    The dreadful question of slavery which has cast an inextinguishable brand of discord between the North and the South of this hitherto happy land, has taken a tangible and definite shape on the question of the admission of the new State of California into the Union with the Constitution of her own framing and adoption.  The flame is no longer smothered; the fanatics of the North and the disunionists of the South have made a gulf so deep that no friendly foot can pass it; enmity so fierce that reason cannot allay it; unconquerable, sectional jealousy, and the most bitter personal hostility.  A dissolution of the Union, which until now it was treason to think of, much more to utter, is the subject of the daily harangues of the factionists in both Houses of Congress.  Compromise is at an end.

    When will all this end?  I see no remedy!  If California is admitted with the prohibition of slavery which themselves have adopted, or if the national district is freed by the action of Congress from the traffic in human flesh, the South stands ready to retire from the Union, and bloody wars will be the fatal consequence.  White men will cut each others throats, and servile insurrections will render the fertile fields of the South a deserted monument to the madness of man.

    One can find more or less the same sentiments in literally thousands of source documents.  The Civil War was fought over slavery.  I know that learned history professors, Confederate heritage zealots, and southern school teachers will continue to gasp out their denials even if they’re buried beneath a dump truck full of diaries.  I can only offer the humble, and probably futile suggestion, that they return to the real world.

    Aside from his comments on the slavery issue, Hone’s diary is a trove of observations and anecdotes about a great number of other happenings of both historical and personal interest.  For example, for those interested in comparing the news media then and now,

    There is little dependence upon newspapers as a record of facts, any more than in their political dogmas or confessions of faith.  If they do not lie from dishonest motives, their avidity to have something new and in advance of others leads them to take up everything that comes to hand without proper examination, adopting frequently the slightly grounded impressions of their informers for grave truths, setting upon them the stamp of authenticity, and sending them upon the wings of the wind to fill the ears and eyes of the extensive American family of the gullibles.

    Hone was convinced that early instances of election fraud proved that universal suffrage would not work, or at least not in big cities;

    The affair is an unpleasant one… It discloses a disgusting scene of villainy in the conduct of our elections, and proves that universal suffrage will not do for great cities.  It proves also the necessity for a registry law, which is a Whig measure, and has been violently opposed by the very men who are now so sensitive on the subject of illegal voting, when it works against them.

    The astute author has some good words to say about my own alma mater:

    In the list of noble young fellows whose gallant conduct, indomitable bravery, and military accomplishments in the Mexican war redound to the glory of West Point, their military alma-mater, there are several New York boys, sons of our friends and associates, who, if they ever get back, will come to their homes covered with glory, jewels in our city’s treasury, the pride of their parents and the children of the Republic.  These are the fruits of a West Point education.  Shame on the malignant demagogues who have labored to overthrow such an institution!

    Hear, hear!  When it came to sports, they didn’t believe in half measures in those days:

    The amusement of prize-fighting, the disgrace of which was formerly confined to England, to the grief and mortification of the moral and respectable part of her subjects, and the disgust of travelers from other countries, has become one of the fashionable abominations of our loafer-ridden city…  One of those infamous meetings took place yesterday on the bank of the North river in Westchester, the particulars of which are given at length in that precious sheet (The New York Herald, ed.) and others of a similar character.  Two men, named Lilly and McCoy, thumped and battered each other for the gratification of a brutal gang of spectators, until the latter, after one hundred and nineteen rounds, fell dead in the ring, and the other ruffian was smuggled away and made his escape from the hands of insulted justice.

    As they say in the blogosphere, read the whole thing.  You’ll find much similar material as seen from a somewhat different perspective than you’re likely to find in your average high school history book.

  • More Whimsical History of the Blank Slate

    Posted on March 12th, 2017 Helian 10 comments

    As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  The history of the Blank Slate is a perfect illustration of what he meant.  You might say there are two factions in the academic ingroup; those who are deeply embarrassed by the Blank Slate, and those who are still bitterly clinging to it.  History as it actually happened is damaging to both factions, so they’ve both created imaginary versions that support their preferred narratives.  At this point the “official” histories have become hopelessly muddled.  I recently ran across an example of how this affects younger academics who are trying to make sense of what’s going on in their own fields in an article entitled, Sociology’s Stagnation at the Quillette website.  It was written by Brian Boutwell, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University.

    Boutwell cites an article published back in 1990 by sociologist Pierre van den Berghe excoriating the practitioners in his own specialty.  Van den Berghe was one of those rare sociologists who insisted on the relevance of evolved behavioral traits to his field.  He did not mince words.  Boutwell quotes several passages from the article, including the following:

    Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognize it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.

    In response, Boutwell writes,

    Intellectually bankrupt? Those are strong words. Can a field survive like this? It can, and it has. Hundreds of new sociology PhDs are minted every year across the country (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that are conferred as well). How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.

    In other words, Boutwell thinks the prevailing malaise in Sociology continues because sociologists don’t know about Darwin.  He may be right in some cases, but that’s not really the problem.  The problem is that the Blank Slate still prevails in sociology.  It is probably the most opaque of all the behavioral “sciences.”  In fact, it is just an ideological narrative pretending to be a science, just as psychology was back in the day when van den Berghe wrote his article.  Psychologists deal with individuals.  As a result they have to look at behavior a lot closer to the source of what motivates it.  As most reasonably intelligent lay people have been aware for millennia, it is motivated by human nature.  By the end of the 90’s, naturalists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists had heaped up such piles of evidence supporting that fundamental fact that psychologists who tried to prop up the threadbare shibboleths of the Blank Slate ran the risk of becoming laughing stocks.  By 2000 most of them had thrown in the towel.  Not so the sociologists.  They deal with masses of human beings.  It was much easier for them to insulate themselves from the truth by throwing up a smokescreen of “culture.”  They’ve been masturbating with statistics ever since.

    Boutwell thinks the solution is for them to learn some evolutionary biology.  I’m not sure which version of the “history” gave him that idea.  However, if he knew how the Blank Slate really went down, he might change his mind.  Evolutionary biologists and scientists in related fields were part of the heart and soul of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  They knew all about genes, Mendel’s laws, and sexual selection, but it didn’t help.  Darwin?  They simply redacted those parts of his work that affirmed the relationship between natural selection, human nature in general, and morality in particular.  No matter that Darwin himself was perfectly well aware of the connections.  For these “scientists,” an ideological narrative trumped scientific integrity until the mass of evidence finally rendered the narrative untenable.

    Of course, one could always claim that I’m just supporting an ideological narrative of my own.  Unfortunately, that claim would have to explain away a great deal of source material, and because the events in question are so recent, the source material is still abundant and easily accessible.  If Prof. Boutwell were to consult it he would find that evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, geneticists like Richard Lewontin, and many others like them considered the Blank Slate the very “triumph of evolution.”  I suggest that anyone with doubts on that score have a look at a book that bears that title by scientific historian Hamilton Cravens published in 1978 during the very heyday of the Blank Slate.  It is very well researched, cites scores of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and behavioral scientists, and concludes that all the work of these people who were perfectly familiar with Darwin culminated in the triumphant establishment of the Blank Slate as “scientific truth,” or, as announced by the title of his book, “The Triumph of Evolution.”  His final paragraph gives a broad hint about how something so ridiculous could ever have been accepted as an unquestionable dogma.  It reads,

    The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

    Here, unbeknownst to himself, Cravens hit the nail on the head.  Social control was exactly what the Blank Slate was all about.  It was essential that the ideal denizens of the future utopias that the Blank Slaters had in mind for us have enough “malleability” and “plasticity” to play their assigned parts.  “Human nature” in the form of genetically transmitted behavioral predispositions would only gum things up.  They had to go, and go they did.  Ideology trumped and derailed science, and kept it derailed for more than half a century.  As Boutwell has noticed, it remains derailed in sociology and a few other specialties that have managed to develop similarly powerful allergic reactions to the real world.  Reading Darwin isn’t likely to help a bit.

    One of the best books on the genesis of the Blank Slate is In Search of Human Nature, by Carl Degler.  It was published in 1991, well after the grip of the Blank Slate on the behavioral sciences had begun to loosen, and presents a somewhat more sober and realistic portrayal of the affair than Cravens’ triumphalist account.  Among other things it gives an excellent account of the genesis of the Blank Slate.  As portrayed by Degler, in the beginning it hadn’t yet become such a blatant tool for social control.  One could better describe it as an artifact of idealistic cravings.  Then, as now, one of the most important of these was the desire for human equality, not only under the law, but in a much more real, physical sense, among both races and individuals.  If human nature existed and was important, than such equality was out of the question.  Perfect equality was only possible if every human mind started out as a Blank Slate.

    Degler cites the work of several individuals as examples of this nexus between the ideal of equality and the Blank Slate, but I will focus on one in particular; John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism.  One of the commenters to an earlier post suggested that the behaviorists weren’t Blank Slaters.  I think that he, too, is suffering from historical myopia.  Again, it’s always useful to look at the source material for yourself.  In his book, Behaviorism, published in 1924, Watson notes that all human beings breathe, sneeze, have hearts that beat, etc., but have no inherited traits that might reasonably be described as human nature.  In those days, psychologists like William James referred to hereditary behavioral traits as “instincts.”  According to Watson,

    In this relatively simple list of human responses there is none corresponding to what is called an “instinct” by present-day psychologists and biologists.  There are then for us no instincts – we no longer need the term in psychology.  Everything we have been in the habit of calling an “instinct” today is the result largely of training – belongs to man’s learned behavior.

    A bit later on he writes,

    The behaviorist recognizes no such things as mental traits, dispositions or tendencies.  Hence, for him, there is no use in raising the question of the inheritance of talent in its old form.

    In case we’re still in doubt about his Blank Slate bona fides, a few pages later he adds,

    I should like to go one step further now and say, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”  I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.  Please note that when this experiment is made I am to be allowed to specify the way the children are to be brought up and the type of world they have to live in.

    Here, in a nutshell, we can see the genesis of hundreds of anecdotes about learned professors dueling over the role of “nature” versus “nurture,” in venues ranging from highbrow intellectual journals to several episodes of The Three Stooges.  Watson seems to be literally pulling at our sleeves and insisting, “No, really, I’m a Blank Slater.”  Under the circumstances I’m somewhat dubious about the claim that Watson, Skinner, and the rest of the behaviorists don’t belong in that category.

    What motivated Watson and others like him to begin this radical reshaping of the behavioral sciences?  I’ve already alluded to the answer above.  To make a long story short, they wanted to create a science that was “fair.”  For example, Watson was familiar with the history of the Jukes family outlined in an account of a study by Richard Dugdale published in 1877.  It documented unusually high levels of all kinds of criminal behavior in the family.  Dugdale himself insisted on the role of environmental as well as hereditary factors in explaining the family’s criminality, but later interpreters of his work focused on heredity alone.  Apparently Watson considered such an hereditary burden unfair.  He decided to demonstrate “scientifically” that a benign environment could have converted the entire family into model citizens.  Like many other scientists in his day, Watson abhorred the gross examples of racial discrimination in his society, as well as the crude attempts of the Social Darwinists to justify it.  He concluded that “science” must support a version of reality that banished all forms of inequality.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    I could go on and on about the discrepancies one can find between the “history” of the Blank Slate and source material that’s easily available to anyone willing to do a little searching.  Unfortunately, I’ve already gone on long enough for a single blog post.  Just be a little skeptical the next time you read an account of the affair in some textbook.  It ain’t necessarily so.


  • On the Unsubjective Morality and Unscientific Scientism of Alex Rosenberg

    Posted on February 26th, 2017 Helian 7 comments

    In a recent post I pointed out the irrational embrace of objective morality by some public intellectuals in spite of their awareness of morality’s evolutionary roots.  In fact, I know of only one scientist/philosopher who has avoided this non sequitur; Edvard Westermarck.  A commenter suggested that Alex Rosenberg was another example of such a philosopher.  In fact, he’s anything but.  He’s actually a perfect example of the type I described in my earlier post.

    A synopsis of Rosenberg’s philosophy may be found in his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality.  Rosenberg is a proponent of “scientism.”  He notes the previous, pejorative use of the term, but announces that he will expropriate it.  In his words,

    …we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.”  This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today… Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understating is all about.

    Well, I’m “one of us atheists,” and while I would agree that science is the best and most effective method to secure knowledge of anything, I hardly agree that it is the only method, nor do I agree that it is always reliable.  For that matter, I doubt that Rosenberg believes it either.  He dismisses all the humanities with a wave of the hand as alternate ways of knowing, with particular emphasis on history.  In fact, one of his chapters is entitled, “History Debunked.”  In spite of that, his book is laced with allusions to history and historical figures.

    For that matter, we could hardly do without history as a “way of knowing” just what kind of a specimen we’re dealing with.  It turns out that, whether knowingly or not, Rosenberg is an artifact of the Blank Slate.  I reached convulsively for my crucifix as I encountered the telltale stigmata.  As those who know a little history are aware, the Blank Slate was a massive corruption of science involving what amounted to the denial of the existence of human nature that lasted for more than half a century.  It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  It should come as no surprise that Rosenberg doesn’t mention it, and seems blithely unaware that it ever happened.  It flies in the face of the rosy picture of science he’s trying to paint for us.

    We first get an inkling of where Rosenberg fits in the context of scientific history when he refers approvingly to the work of Richard Lewontin, who is described as a “well-known biologist.”  That description is a bit disingenuous.  Lewontin may well be a “well-known biologist,” but he was also one of the high priests of the Blank Slate.  As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate,

    Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the “generalizations of eating, excreting, and sleeping.”  The rest of the slate, presumably, is blank.

    Lewontin embraced “scientific” Marxism, and alluded to the teachings of Marx often in his work.  His “scientific” method of refuting those who disagreed with him was to call them racists and fascists.  He even insisted that a man with such sterling leftist bona fides as Richard Trivers be dismissed as a lackey of the bourgeoisie.  It seems to me these facts are worth mentioning about anyone we may happen to tout as a “scientific expert.”  Rosenberg never gets around to it.

    A bit further on, Rosenberg again refers approvingly to another of the iconic figures of the Blank Slate; B. F. Skinner.  He cites Skinner’s theories as if there had never been anything the least bit controversial about them.  In fact, as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,

    Skinner… preferred language of control and domination.  He spoke of behavioral engineering and manipulation, and not just in relation to animals.  Later in life he sought to turn humans into happy, productive, and “maximally effective” citizens.


    B. F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior.  Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered.  His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century.  Loosening its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

    Behaviorism, with its promise of the almost perfect malleability of behavior in humans and other animals, was a favorite prop of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Such malleability was a prerequisite for the creation of “maximally effective” citizens to occupy the future utopias they were concocting for us.

    Reading on, we find Rosenberg relating another of the favorite yarns of the Blank Slaters of old, the notion that our Pleistocene ancestors’ primary source of meat came from scavenging.  They would scamper out, we are told, and steal choice bones from the kills of large predators, then scamper back to their hiding places and smash the bones with rocks to get at the marrow.  This fanciful theory was much in fashion back in the 60’s when books disputing Blank Slate ideology and insisting on the existence and significance of human nature first started to appear.  These often mentioned aggression as one aspect of human behavior, an assertion that never failed to whip the Blank Slaters into a towering rage.  Hunting, of course, might be portrayed as a form of aggression.  Therefore it was necessary to deny that it ever happened early enough to have an effect on evolved human behavioral traits.  In those days, of course, we were so ignorant of primate behavior that Blank Slater Ashley Montagu was able to write with a perfectly straight face that chimpanzees are,

    …anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is no reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

    We’ve learned a few things in the ensuing years.  Jane Goodall observed both organized hunting behavior and murderous attacks on neighboring bands carried out by these “amiable” creatures.  For reporting these observations she was furiously denounced and insulted in the most demeaning terms.  Meanwhile, chimps have been observed using sticks as thrusting spears, and fire-hardened spears were found associated with a Homo erectus campsite dated to some 400,000 years ago.  There is evidence that stone-tipped spears were used as far back as 500,000 years ago, and much more similar evidence of early hunting behavior has surfaced.  Articles about early hunting behavior have even appeared in the reliably politically correct Scientific American, not to mention that stalwart pillar of progressive ideology, PBS.  In other words, the whole scavenging thing is moot.  Apparently no one bothered to pass the word to Rosenberg.  No matter, he still includes enough evolutionary psychology in his book to keep up appearances.

    In spite of the fact that he writes with the air of a scientific insider who is letting us in on all kinds of revelations that we are to believe have been set in stone by “science” in recent years, and that we should never dare to question, Rosenberg shows similar signs of being a bit wobbly when it comes to actually knowing what he’s talking about elsewhere in the book.  For example, he seems to have a fascination with fermions and bosons, mentioning them often in the book.  He tells us that,

    …everything is made up of these two kinds of things.  Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of.

    Well, not exactly.  If matter isn’t composed of bosons, it will come as news to the helium atoms engaging in one of the neat tricks only bosons are capable of in the Wiki article on superfluidity.  As it happens, one of the many outcomes of the fundamental difference between bosons and fermions is that bosons are usually force carriers, but the notion that it actually is the fundamental difference is just disinformation, and a particularly unfortunate instance thereof at that.  I say that because our understanding of that difference is the outcome of an elegant combination of theoretical insight and mathematics.  I lack the space to go into detail here, but it follows from the indistinguishability of quantum particles.  I suggest that anyone interested in the real difference between bosons and fermions consult an elementary quantum textbook.  These usually boil the necessary math down to a level that should be accessible to any high school graduate who has taken an honors course or two in the subject.

    There are some more indications of the real depth of Rosenberg’s scientific understanding in his description of some of the books he recommends to his readers so they can “come up to speed” with him.  For example, he tells us that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, “…argues for a sophisticated evolutionary account of several cognitive capacities critical for speech.”  Well, not really.  As the title implies Pinker’s The Blank Slate is about The Blank Slate.  I can only conclude that cognitive dissonance must have set in when Rosenberg read it, because that apocalypse in the behavioral sciences doesn’t fit too well in his glowing tale of the triumphant progress of science.  Elsewhere he tells us that,

    At its outset, human history might have been predictable just because the arms races were mainly biological.  That’s what enabled Jared Diamond to figure out how and why western Europeans came to dominate the globe over a period that lasted 8000 years or so in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Diamond is only applying an approach to human history made explicit by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature more than 30 years ago (1978)…”

    Seriously?  Guns, Germs and Steel was actually an attempt to explain differences between human cultures in terms of environmental factors, whereas in On Human Nature Wilson doubled down on his mild assault on the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology, insisting on the existence and significance of evolved human behavioral traits.  I can only conclude that, assuming Rosenberg actually read the books, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading.

    With that let’s consider what Rosenberg has to say about morality.  He certainly seems to “get it” in the beginning of the book.  He describes himself as a “nihilist” when it comes to morality.  I consider that a bad choice of words, but whatever.  According to Rosenberg,

    Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required.  Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong.  More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions.  Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally responsible” is untenable nonsense.  As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.”  That, too, is untenable nonsense.

    Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value.  People think that there are things that are intrinsically valuable, not just as a means to something else:  human life or the ecology of the planet or the master race or elevated states of consciousness, for example.  But nothing can have that sort of intrinsic value – the very kind of value morality requires.  Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.  Therefore, nihilism can’t be accused of advocating the moral goodness of, say, political violence or anything else.

    A promising beginning, no?  Sounds very Westermarckian.  But don’t jump to conclusions!  Before the end of the book we will find Rosenberg doing a complete intellectual double back flip when it comes to this so-called “nihilism.”  We will witness him chanting a few magic words over the ghost of objective morality, and then see it rise zombie-like from the grave he just dug for it.

    Rosenberg begins the pilgrimage from subjectivity to objectivity by evoking what he calls “core morality.”  He presents us with two premises about it, namely,

    First premise:  All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core principles as binding on everyone.


    Second premise:  The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness – for our survival and reproduction.

    Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it, but then we learn some things that appear a bit counterintuitive about core morality.  For example,

    There is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans.  Among competing core moralities, it was the one that somehow came closest to maximizing the average fitness of our ancestors over a long enough period that it became almost universal.  For all we know, the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.  Let’s hope so, at any rate, since core morality is almost surely locked in by now.

    Are you kidding me?  There is not even a remote chance that “the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.”  Here, Rosenberg is whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the role he has in store for his “core morality.”  He is forced to make this patently absurd statement about our supposedly static environment because otherwise “core morality” couldn’t perform its necessary role in bringing the zombie back to life.  How can it perform that neat trick?  Well, according to Rosenberg,

    Along with everyone else, the most scientistic among us accept these core principles as binding. (!!)

    Some nihilism, no?  Suddenly, Rosenberg’s “core morality” has managed to jump right out of his skull onto our backs and is “binding” us!  Of course, it would be too absurd even for Rosenberg to insist that this “binding” feature was still in effect in spite of the radical changes in the environment that have obviously happened since “core morality” supposedly evolved.  Hence, he has to deny the obvious with his ludicrous suggestion that the environment hasn’t changed.  Meanwhile, the distinction noted by Westermarck between that which is thought to be binding, and that which actually is binding, has become very fuzzy.  We are well on the way back to the safe haven of objective morality.

    To sweeten the pill, Rosenberg assures us that core morality is “nice,” and cites all sorts of game theory experiments to prove it.  He wonders,

    Once its saddled with nihilism, can scientism make room for the moral progress that most of us want the world to make?  No problem.

    “Moral progress?”  That is a contradiction in terms unless morality and its rules exist as objective things in themselves.  How is “progress” possible if morality is really an artifact of evolution, and consequently has neither purpose nor goal?  Rosenberg puts stuff like this right in the middle of his pronouncements that morality is really subjective.  You could easily get whiplash reading his book.  The icing on the cake of “niceness” turns out to be altruistic behavior towards non-kin, which is also supposed to have evolved to enhance “fitness.”  Since one rather fundamental difference between the environment “then” and “now” is that “then” humans normally lived in communities of and interacted mainly with only about 150 people, the idea that they were really dealing with non-kin, and certainly any idea that similar behavior must work just as well between nations consisting of millions of not quite so closely related individuals is best taken with a grain of salt.

    Other then a few very perfunctory references, Rosenberg shows a marked reticence to discuss human behavior that is not so nice.  Of course, there is no mention of the ubiquitous occurrence of warfare between human societies since the dawn of recorded time.  After all, that would be history, and hasn’t Rosenberg told us that history is bunk?  He never mentions such “un-nice” traits as ingroup-outgroup behavior, or territoriality.  That’s odd, since we can quickly identify his own outgroup, thanks to some virtue signaling remarks about “Thatcherite Republicans,” and science-challenged conservatives.  As for those who get too far out of line he writes,

    Recall the point made early in this chapter that even most Nazis may have really shared a common moral code with us.  The qualification “most” reflects the fact that a lot of them, especially at the top of the SS, were just psychopaths and sociopaths with no core morality.

    Really?  What qualifies Rosenberg to make such a statement?  Did he examine their brains?  Did neuroscientists subject them to experiments before they died?  It would seem that if we don’t “get our minds right” about core morality we could well look forward to being “cured” the way “psychopaths and sociopaths” were “cured” in the old Soviet Union.

    By the time we get to the end of the book, the subjective façade has been entirely dismantled, and the “core morality” zombie has jettisoned the last of its restraints.  Rosenberg’s continued insistence on the non-existence of objective good and bad has deteriorated to a mere matter of semantics.  Consider, for example, the statement,

    Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not require of us.  Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right – or wrong.  There is no such thing.

    That should be comforting news to the inmates of the asylum who didn’t do what was “required” of them. We learn that,

    Almost certainly, when all these facts are decided, it will turn out that core morality doesn’t contain any blanket prohibition or permission of abortion as such.  Rather, together with the facts that science can at least in principle uncover, core morality will provide arguments in favor of some abortions and against other abortions, depending on the circumstances.

    The pro-life people shouldn’t entirely despair, however, because,

    Scientism allows that sometimes the facts of a case will combine with core morality to prohibit abortion, even when the woman demands it as a natural right.

    That’s about as wild and crazy as Rosenberg gets, though.  In fact, he’s not a scientist but a leftist ideologue, and we soon find him scurrying back to the confines of his ideologically defined ingroup, core morality held firmly under his arm.  He assures us that,

    …when you combine our core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics.  In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.  No wonder most scientists in the United States are Democrats and in the United Kingdom are Labour Party supporters or Liberal Democrats.

    Core morality reaches out its undead hand for the criminal justice system as well:

    There are other parts of core morality that permit or even require locking people up – for example, to protect others and to deter, reform, rehabilitate, and reeducate the wrongdoer.

    That would be a neat trick – reeducating wrongdoers if there really isn’t such a thing as wrong.  No matter, core morality is now not only alive but is rapidly turning into a dictator with “requirements.”

    Core morality may permit unearned inequalities, but it is certainly not going to require them without some further moral reason to do so.  In fact, under many circumstances, core morality is going to permit the reduction of inequalities, for it requires that wealth and income that people have no right to be redistributed to people in greater need.  Scientism assures us that no one has any moral rights.  Between them, core morality and scientism turn us into closet egalitarians.

    Did you get that?  Your “selfish genes” are now demanding that you give away your money to unrelated people even if the chances that this will ever help those genes to survive and reproduce are vanishingly small.  Rosenberg concludes,

    So, scientism plus core morality turn out to be redistributionist and egalitarian, even when combined with free-market economics.  No wonder Republicans in the United States have such a hard time with science.

    Did his outgroup just pop up on your radar screen?  It should have.  At this point any rational consequences of the evolved origins and subjective nature of morality have been shown the door.  The magical combination of scientism and core morality has us in a leftist full nelson.  They “require” us to do the things that Rosenberg considers “nice,” and refrain from doing the things he considers “not nice.”  In principle, he dismisses the idea of free will.  However, in this case we will apparently be allowed just a smidgeon of it if we happen to be “Thatcherite Republicans.”  Just enough to get our minds right and return us to a “nice” deterministic track.

    In a word, Rosenberg is no Westermarck.  In fact, he is a poster boy for leftist ideologues who like to pose as “moral nihilists,” but get an unholy pleasure out of dictating moral rules to the rest of us.  His “scientific” pronouncements are written with all the cocksure hubris characteristic of ideologues, and sorely lack the reticence more appropriate for real scientists.  There is no substantial difference between the illusion that there are objective moral laws, and Rosenberg’s illusion that a “core morality” utterly divorced from its evolutionary origins is capable of dictating what we ought and ought not to do.

    It’s not really that hard to understand.  The ingroup, or tribe, if you will, of leftist ideologues like Rosenberg and the other examples I mentioned in recent posts, lives in a box defined by ideological shibboleths.  Its members can make as many bombastic pronouncements about moral nihilism as they like, but in the end they must either kowtow to the shibboleths or be ostracized from the tribe.  That’s a sacrifice that none of them, at least to the best of my knowledge, has ever been willing to make.  If my readers are aware of any other “counter-examples,” I would be happy to examine them in my usual spirit of charity.