Posted on October 18th, 2014 3 comments
The nature of morality became obvious to anyone who cared to think about it after Darwin published his great theory, including Darwin himself. In short, it became clear that the “root causes” of morality were to be found in “human nature,” our specie’s collection of evolved behavioral predispositions. As the expression of evolved traits, morality has no purpose, unless one cares to use that term as shorthand for the apparent biological function it serves. It exists because it enhanced the probability that the creatures with the genetic endowment that gave rise to it would survive and reproduce in the conditions that existed when those genes appeared. As a result, there are no moral “truths.” Rather, morality is a subjective phenomenon with emotional rather than logical origins.
So much became obvious to many during the decades that following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. One man spelled out the truth more explicitly, clearly, and convincingly than any other. That man was Edvard Westermarck.
Westermarck was a Finnish philosopher and sociologist who published his seminal work on morality, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, in 1906. As we now know in retrospect, the truths in that great book were too much for mankind to bear. The voices repeating those truths became fewer, and were finally silenced. The darkness returned, and more than a century later we are still struggling to find our way out of the fog. It should probably come as no surprise. It goes without saying that the truth was unpalatable to believers in imaginary super beings. Beyond that, the truth relegated the work of most of the great moral philosophers of the past to the status of historical curiosities. Those who interpreted their thought for the rest of us felt the ground slipping from beneath their feet. Experts in ethics and morality became the equivalent of experts in astrology, and a step below the level of doctors of chiropracty. Zealots of Marxism and the other emerging secular versions of religion rejected a truth that exposed the absurdity of attempts to impose new versions of morality from on high. As for the average individuals of the species Homo sapiens, they rejected the notion that the “Good” and “Evil” objects that their emotions portrayed so realistically, and that moved them so profoundly, were mere fantasies.
The result was more or less predictable. Westermarck and the rest were shouted down. The Blank Slate debacle turned the behavioral sciences into so many strongholds of an obscurantist orthodoxy. The blind exploitation of moral emotions in the name of such newly concocted “Goods” as Nazism and Communism resulted in the deaths of tens of millions, and misery on a vast scale. The Academy became the spawning ground of a modern, secular version of Puritanism, more intolerant and bigoted than the last. In the case of Westermarck, the result has, at least, been more amusing. He has been hidden in plain sight. On his Wiki page, for example, he is described as one who “studied exogamy and incest taboo.” To the extent that his name is mentioned at all, it is usually in connection with the Westermarck Effect, according to which individuals in close proximity in the early years of life become sexually desensitized to each other. So much for the legacy of the man who has a good claim to be the most profound thinker on the subject of morality to appear since the days of Hume.
Let us cut to the chase and consider what Westermarck actually said. In the first place, he stressed a point often completely overlooked by modern researchers in the behavioral sciences; the complex emotions we now associate with morality did not suddenly appear fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, they represent the results of a continuous process of evolution from simpler emotional responses that Westermarck grouped into the categories of “resentment” and “approval.” These had existed in many animal species long before hominids appeared on the scene. They were there as a result of natural selection. As Westermarck put it:
As to their origin, the evolutionist can hardly entertain a doubt. Resentment, like protective reflex action, out of which it has gradually developed, is a means of protection for the animal. Its intrinsic object is to remove a cause of pain, or, what is the same, a cause of danger. Two different attitudes maybe taken by an animal towards another which has made it feel pain: it may either shun or attack its enemy. In the former case its action is prompted by fear, in the latter by anger, and it depends on the circumstances which of these emotions is the actual determinant. Both of them are of supreme importance for the preservation of the species, and may consequently be regarded as elements in the animal’s mental constitution which have been acquired by means of natural selection in the struggle for existence.
From what has been said above it is obvious that moral resentment is of extreme antiquity in the human race, nay that the germ of it is found even in the lower animal world among social animals capable of feeling sympathetic resentment. The origin of custom as a moral rule no doubt lies in a very remote period of human history.
This is followed by another remarkable passage, which showcases another aspect of Westermarck’s genius that appears repeatedly in his books; his almost incredible erudition. His knowledge of the intellectual and historical antecedents of his own ideas is not limited to a narrow field, but is all-encompassing, and highly useful to anyone who cares to study the relevant source material on his own:
This view is not new. More than one hundred and fifty years before Darwin, Shaftesbury wrote of resentment in these words: ” Notwithstanding its immediate aim be indeed the ill or punishment of another, yet it is plainly of the sort of those [affections] which tend to the advantage “and interest of the self-system, the animal himself; and is withal in other respects contributing to the good and interest of the species.” A similar opinion is expressed by Butler, according to whom the reason and end for which man was made liable to anger is, that he might be better qualified to prevent and resist violence and opposition, while deliberate resentment “is to be considered as a weapon, put into our hands by nature, against injury, injustice, and cruelty.” Adam Smith, also, believes that resentment has “been given us by nature for defence, and for defence only,” as being “the safeguard of justice and the I security of innocence.” Exactly the same view is taken by several modern evolutionists as regards the “end” of resentment, though they, of course, do not rest contented with saying that this feeling has been given us by nature, but try to explain in what way it has developed. “Among members of the same species,” says Mr. Herbert Spencer, “those individuals which have not, in any considerable degree, resented aggressions, must have ever tended to disappear, and to have left behind those which have with some effect made counter-aggressions.”
All these references are accompanied by citations of the works in which they appear in the footnotes. Westermarck then went on to derive conclusions from the evolutionary origins of morality that are both simple and obvious, but which modern behavioral scientists and philosophers have a daunting capacity to ignore. He concluded that morality is subjective. It may be reasoned about, but is the product of emotion, not reason. It follows that there are no such things as moral “truths,” and that the powerful moral emotions that we so cling to, and that cause the chimeras of “Good” and “Evil” to hover in our consciousness as palpable, independent objects, are, in fact, illusions. In Westermarck’s own words:
As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.
The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is that the moral concepts are based upon emotions and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.
Consider the significance of these passages, almost incredible looking back from a point of view through the Puritanical mist of the 21st century. In one of the blurbs I ran across while searching the name “Westermarck,” his work was referred to as “outdated.” I suppose that, in a sense, that conclusion is quite true, but not in the way intended. I know of not a single modern thinker, scientist, or philosopher who has even come close to Westermarck in the simplicity and clarity with which he presents these conclusions, so obvious to anyone who has read and understood Darwin. Here are some more passages that reinforce that conclusion:
If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth. It has been said by Bentham and others that moral principles cannot be proved because they are first principles which are used to prove everything else. But the real reason for their being inaccessible to demonstration is that, owing to their very nature, they can never be true. If the word, “Ethics,” then, is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.
To put it more bluntly, and to reveal some of my own purely subjective moral emotions in the process, the flamboyant peacocks currently strutting about among us peddling their idiosyncratic flavors of virtuous indignation and moral outrage based on a supposed monopoly on moral “truths” are, in reality, so many charlatans and buffoons. To take them seriously is to embrace a lie, and one that, as has been clearly and repeatedly demonstrated in the past, and will almost certainly be abundantly demonstrated again in the future, is not only irritating, but extremely dangerous. The above, by the way, appears in the context of a shattering rebuttal of utilitarianism in Chapter 1 that is as applicable to the modern versions being concocted for our edification by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene as it is to the earlier theories of John Stuart Mill and others. In reading Westermarck’s book, one is constantly taken aback by insights that are stunning in view of the time at which they were written. Consider, for example, the following in light of recent research on mirror neurons:
That a certain act causes pleasure or pain to the bystander is partly due to the close association which exists between these feelings and their outward expressions. The sight of a happy face tends to produce some degree of pleasure in him who sees it. The sight of the bodily signs of suffering tends to produce a feeling of pain. In either case the feeling of the spectator is the result of a process of reproduction, the perception of the physical manifestation of the feeling recalling the feeling itself on account of the established association between them.
I fear we will have a very long wait before our species grasps the significance of Westermarck’s ideas and adjusts its perceptions of the nature and significance of morality accordingly. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we are far to fond of the delightful joys of self-righteousness to admit the less than exalted truths about its origins without a struggle. There are some grounds for optimism in the fact that a “Happy Few” are still around who understand that the significance of Westermarck completely transcends anything he had to say about sexual attraction and marriage. As it happens, Frans de Waal, whose latest book is the subject of one of my recent posts, is one of them. I personally became aware of him thanks to a reference to his book in Nietzsche’s “Human, All Too Human.” I don’t think Nietzsche ever quite grasped what Westermarck was saying. He had too much the soul of an artist and a poet rather than a scientist for that. Yet, somehow, he had a sixth sense for ferreting out the wheat from the chaff in human thought. As it happens, I began reading Stendhal, my favorite novelist, thanks to a reference in Nietzsche as well. I may not exactly be on board as far as his ramblings about morality are concerned, but at least I owe him a tip of the hat for that. As for Westermarck, I can but hope that many more will read and grasp the significance of his theories. His book is available free online at Google books for anyone who cares to look at it.
UPDATE: Apparently I became too “dizzy with success” at discovering Westermarck to notice a “minor” temporal anomaly in the above post. A commenter just pointed it out to me. Westermarck wrote his book in 1906, and Nietzsche died in 1900! He was actually referring to a book by Paul Ree entitled, “The Origin of the Moral Sensations,” which appeared in 1877. Check Ree’s Wiki page, and you’ll see he’s the guy standing in front of a cart with Nietzsche in the famous picture with Lou Andreas-Salome sitting in the cart holding a whip. Of course, it’s a spoof on Nietzsche’s famous dictum, “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!” I was reading the German version of his “Human, all too Human.” The quote referred to appears in Section 37, as follows:
Welches ist doch der Hauptsatz, zu dem einer der kühnsten und kältesten Denker, der Verfasser des Buches “Über den Ursprung der moralischen Empfindungen” vermöge seiner ein-und durchschneidenden Analysen des menschlichen Handelns gelangt?
In my English version of the book above the quote is translated as,
Which principle did one of the keenest and coolest thinkers, the author of the book On the Origin of the Moral Feelings, arrive at through his incisive and piercing analysis of human actions?
I translated the title on the fly as “On the Origin of the Moral Emotions,” and when you search that title on Bing, the first link that comes up points to Westermarck’s book. In a word, my discovery of Westermarck was due to serendipity or bungling, take your pick. The shade of Nietzsche must be chuckling somewhere. Now I feel obligated to have a look at Ree’s book as well. I’ll let you know what I think of him in a later post, and I promise not to claim I discovered him thanks to a reference in Aristotle’s “Ethics.”
Posted on October 12th, 2014 No comments
Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist is interesting for several reasons. As the title of this post suggests, it demonstrates the disconnect between the theory and practice of morality in the academy. It’s one of the latest brickbats in the ongoing spat between the New Atheists and the “accommodationist” atheists. It documents the current progress of the rearrangement of history in the behavioral sciences in the aftermath of the Blank Slate debacle. It’s a useful reality check on the behavior of bonobos, the latest “noble savage” among the primates. And, finally, it’s an entertaining read.
In theory, de Waal is certainly a subjective moralist. As he puts it, “the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom up approach” to morality, as opposed to the top down approach: “The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover.” The “bottom” de Waal refers to are evolved emotional traits. In his words,
The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.
My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other. This approach deserves attention at a time in which even avowed atheists are unable to wean themselves from a semireligious morality, thinking that the world would be a better place if only a white-coated priesthood could take over from the frocked one.
So far, so good. I happen to be a subjective moralist myself, and agree with de Waal on the origins of morality. However, reading on, we find confirmation of a prediction made long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche. In Human, All Too Human, he noted the powerful human attachment to religion and the “metaphysics” of the old philosophers. He likened the expansion of human knowledge to a ladder, or tree, up which humanity was gradually climbing. As we reached the top rungs, however, we would begin to notice that the old beliefs that had supplied us with such great emotional satisfaction in the past were really illusions. At that point, our tendency would be to recoil from this reality. The “tree” would begin to grow “sprouts” in reverse. We would balk at “turning the last corner.” Nietzsche imagined that developing a new philosophy that could accommodate the world as it was instead of the world as we wished it to be would be the task of “the great thinkers of the next century.” Alas, a century is long past since he wrote those words, yet to all appearances we are still tangled in the “downward sprouts.”
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the academy, where a highly moralistic secular Puritanism prevails. Top down, objective morality is alive and well, and the self-righteous piety of the new, secular priesthood puts that of the old-fashioned religious Puritans in the shade. All this modern piety seems to be self-supporting, levitating in thin air, with none of the props once supplied by religion. As de Waal puts it,
…the main ingredients of a moral society don’t require religion, since they come from within.
Clearly, de Waal can see where morality comes from, and how it evolved, and why it exists, but, even with these insights, he too recoils from “climbing the last rungs,” and “turning the final corner.” We find artifacts of the modern objective morality prevalent in the academy scattered throughout his book. For example,
Science isn’t the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the “naturalistic fallacy” and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been much involved in the genocidal machine, conducting unimaginable experiments.
American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics. They advocated racist immigration laws and forced sterilization of the deaf, blind, mentally ill, and physically impaired, as well as criminals and members of minority races.
I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden.
One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good. I happen to belong to the first camp.
None of these statements make any sense in the absence of objective good and evil. If, as de Waal claims repeatedly elsewhere in his book, morality is ultimately an expression of emotions or “gut feelings,” analogs of which we share with many other animals, and which exist because they evolved, then the notions that scientists are or were evil, period, or that science itself can be morally impure, period, or that humans can be good, period, or evil, period, are obvious non sequiturs. De Waal has climbed up the ladder, peaked at what lay just beyond the top rungs, and jumped back down onto Nietzsche’s “backward growing sprouts.” Interestingly enough, in spite of that de Waal admires the strength of one who was either braver or more cold-blooded, and kept climbing; Edvard Westermarck. But I will have more to say of him later.
The Bonobo and the Atheist is also interesting from a purely historical point of view. The narrative concocted to serve as the “history” of the behavioral sciences continues to be adjusted and readjusted in the aftermath of the Blank Slate catastrophe, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. As usual, the arch-villain is Robert Ardrey, who committed the grave sin of being right about human nature when virtually all the behavioral scientists and professionals, at least in the United States, were wrong. Imagine the impertinence of a mere playwright daring to do such a thing! Here’s what de Waal has to say about him:
Confusing predation with aggression is an old error that recalls the time that humans were seen as incorrigible murderers on the basis of signs that our ancestors ate meat. This “killer ape” notion gained such traction that the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey showed one hominin bludgeoning another with a zebra femur, after which the weapon, flung triumphantly into the air, turned into an orbiting spacecraft. A stirring image, but based on a single puncture wound in the fossilized skull of an ancestral infant, known as the Taung Child. It’s discoverer had concluded that our ancestors must have been carnivorous cannibals, an idea that the journalist Robert Ardrey repackaged in African Genesis by saying that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels. It is now considered likely, however, that the Taung Child had merely fallen prey to a leopard or eagle.
I had to smile when I read this implausible yarn. After all, anyone can refute it by simply looking up the source material, not to mention the fact that there’s no lack of people who’ve actually read Ardrey, and are aware that the “Killer Ape Theory” is a mere straw man concocted by his enemies. De Waal is not one of them. Not only has he obviously not read Ardrey, but he probably knows of him at all only at third or fourth hand. If he had, he’d realize that he was basically channeling Ardrey in the rest of his book. Indeed, much of The Bonobo and the Atheist reads as if it had been lifted from Ardrey’s last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, complete with the ancient origins of morality, Ardrey’s embrace of de Waal’s theme that humans are genuinely capable of altruism and cooperation, resulting in part, as also claimed by de Waal, from his adoption of a hunting lifestyle, and his rejection of what de Waal calls “Veneer Theory,” the notion that human morality is merely a thin veneer covering an evil and selfish core. For example, according to de Waal,
Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution. The big-game hunting of our ancestors required even tighter cooperation.
This conclusion is familiar to those who have actually read Ardrey, but was anathema to the “Men of Science” as recently as 15 years ago. Ardrey was, of course, never a journalist, and his conclusion that Australopithecine apes had hunted was based, not on the “single puncture wound” in the Taung child’s skull, but mainly on the statistical anomaly of numbers of a particular type of bone that might have been used as a weapon found in association with the ape remains far in excess of what would be expected if they were there randomly. To date, no one has ever explained that anomaly, and it remains carefully swept under the rug. In a word, the idea that Ardrey based his hypothesis entirely “on a single puncture wound” is poppycock. In the first place, there were two puncture wounds, not one. Apparently, de Waal is also unaware that Raymond Dart, the man who discovered this evidence, has been rehabilitated, and is now celebrated as the father of cave taphonomy, whereas those who disputed his conclusions about what he had found, such as C. K. Brain, who claimed that the wounds were caused by a leopard, are now in furious rowback mode. For example, from the abstract of a paper in which Brain’s name appears at the end of the list of authors,
The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.
Meanwhile, we find that none other than Stephen Jay Gould has been transmogrified into a “hero.” As documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Gould was basically a radical Blank Slater, unless one cares to give him a pass because he grudgingly admitted that, after all, eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating might not be purely learned behaviors, after all. The real Steven Jay Gould rejected evolutionary psychology root and branch, and was a co-signer of the Blank Slater manifesto that appeared in the New York Times in response to claims about human nature as reserved as those of E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology. He famously invented the charge of “just so stories” to apply to any and all claims for the existence of human behavioral predispositions. Now, in The Bonobo and the Atheist, we find Gould reinvented as a good evolutionary psychologist. His “just so stories” only apply to the “excesses” of evolutionary psychology. We find the real Gould, who completely rejected the idea of “human nature,” softened to a new, improved Gould who merely “vehemently resisted the idea that every single human behavior deserves an evolutionary account.” If anyone was a dyed-in-the-wool habitue of the Blank Slate establishment in its heyday, it was Gould, but suddenly we learn that “Several skirmishes between him and the evolutionary establishment unfolded in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1997.” I can only suggest that anyone who honestly believes that a new “establishment” had already replaced the Blank Slate prior to 1997 should read Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, published as recently as last year. No matter, according to de Waal, “The greatest public defender of evolution this country has ever known was Stephen Jay Gould.”
Perhaps one can best understand the Gould panegyrics in connection with another of the major themes of de Waal’s book; his rejection of Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists. De Waal is what New Atheist Jerry Coyne would refer to as an “accommodationist,” that is, an atheist who believes that the atheist lions should lie down with the religious sheep. As it happens, Gould was the Ur-accommodationist, and inventor of the phrase “nonoverlapping magisterial,” or NOMA to describe his claim that science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge. One can find a good summary of the objections to NOMA from the likes of “New Atheists” Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Coyne on Prof. Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, for example, here and here.
It’s hard to understand de Waal’s bitter opposition to atheist activism as other than yet another example of Nietzsche’s “climbing down onto the backward pointing shoots.” Indeed, as one might expect from such instances of “turning back,” it’s not without contradictions. For example, he writes,
Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black.
And yet he objects to the same kind of activism among atheists that has been the most effective antidote to such bigotry directed at, for example, gays and blacks. For some reason, atheists are just supposed to smile and take it. De Waal accuses Dawkins, Harris and the rest of being “haters,” but I know of not a single New Atheist that term can really be accurately applied to, and certainly not to the likes of Dawkins, Harris or Coyne. Vehement, on occasion, yes, but haters of the religious per se? I don’t think so. De Waal agrees with David Sloan Wilson that “religion” evolved. I can certainly believe that predispositions evolved that have the potential to manifest themselves as religion, but “religion” per se, complete with imaginary spiritual beings? Not likely. Nevertheless, De Waal claims it is part of our “social skin.” And yet, in spite of this claim that religion “evolved,” a bit later we find him taking note of a social phenomenon that apparently directly contradicts this conclusion:
The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naively ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches.”
Apparently, then, “evolved religion” only infected a portion of our species in northern Europe, and they all moved to the United States. Finally, in his zeal to defend religion, de Waal comes up with some instances of “moral equivalence” that are truly absurd. For example,
I am as sickened (by female genital mutilation, ed.) as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.
As it happens I know of several instances in which my undergraduate classmates voluntarily had themselves circumcised, not for any religious motive, but because otherwise their girlfriends wouldn’t agree to oral sex. One wonders whether de Waal can cite similar instances involving FGM.
Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Anyone who believes in a “bottom up” version of subjective morality can’t be all bad, according to my own subjective judgment, of course. Indeed, de Waal even has the audacity to point out that bonobos, those paragons of primate virtue extolled so often as role models for our own species do, occasionally fight. Along with Jonathan Haidt, he’s probably the closest thing to a “kindred spirit” I’m likely to find in academia. The icing on the cake is that he is aware of and admires the brilliant work of Edvard Westermarck on morality. What of Westermarck, you ask. Well, I’ll take that up in another post.
Posted on October 4th, 2014 No comments
No doubt the outcome of the Nazi unpleasantness resulted in attitude adjustment in Germany on a rather large scale. Clearly, however, it didn’t teach the Germans humility. At a time when a secular mutation of Puritanism has become the dominant ideology in much of Europe and North America, the Germans take the cake for pathological piety. Not that long ago the fashionable evil de jour was the United States, and anti-American hate mongering in the German media reached levels that would make your toes curl. In the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the following Bush administrations it was often difficult to find anything about Germany on the home pages of popular German news magazines like Der Spiegel because the available space was taken up by furious rants against the United States for the latest failures to live up to German standards of virtue. Eventually the anti-American jihad choked on its own excess, and other scapegoats were found. Clearly, however, German puritanism is still alive and well. An amusing example just turned up in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline, “Merkel adviser lashes Abbott’s ‘suicide strategy’ on coal.” The advisor in question was one Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chancellor Merkel’s lead climate advisor. A picture of him posing as the apotheosis of smugness accompanies the article, according to which he,
…attacked Australia’s complacency on global warming and described the Abbott government’s championing of the coal industry as an economic “suicide strategy”.
Alas, we learn that Schellnhuber’s anathemas also fell on our neighbor to the north. The SMH quotes him as saying,
Similar to Canada, Australia for the time being is not part of the international community which is cooperating to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions.
Tears run down our cheeks as Schellnhuber describes Australia’s fall from grace:
…it had been disappointing to see Australia’s retreat on climate policy after it became “the darling of the world” when Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2007.
As readers who were around at the time may recall, the Kyoto Protocol conformed perfectly to German standards of “fairness.” It would have required states like The United States and Canada to meet exactly the same percentage reduction in emissions from the base year 1990 as the countries in the European Union, in spite of the fact that their economies had expanded at a faster rate than most of Europe’s during the period, they did not enjoy the same access to cheap, clean-burning natural gas as the Europeans in those pre-fracking days, and, “fairest” of all, they weren’t the beneficiaries of massive emission reductions from the closing of obsolete east European factories following the demise of Communism. In other words, it was “fair” for the US and Canada to shed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in order to meet grossly disproportionate emissions standards while Germany and the rest of the Europeans cheered from the sidelines.
What is one to think of this latest instance of ostentatious German piety? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. For one thing, the apparent concern about climate change in Germany is about 99% moralistic posing and 1% real. Solzhenitsyn used a word in The First Circle that describes the phenomenon very well; sharashka. Basically, it’s a lie so big that even those telling it eventually begin to believe it. The German decision to shut down their nuclear power plants demonstrated quite clearly that they’re not serious about fighting global warming. Base load sources of energy are needed for when renewables are unavailable because the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Practical alternatives for filling in the gaps include nuclear and fossil fuel. Germany has rejected the former and chosen one of the dirtiest forms of the latter; coal-fired plants using her own sources of lignite. She plans to build no less than 26 of them in the coming years!
It’s stunning, really. These plants will pump millions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that wouldn’t have been there if Germany had kept her nuclear plants on line. Not only that, they represent a far greater radioactive danger than nuclear plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium. The extent of German chutzpah is further demonstrated by a glance at recent emission numbers. Germany is now the worst polluter in the EU. Her CO2 emissions have risen substantially lately, due mainly to those new lignite plants beginning to come on line. Coal-generated energy in Germany is now around 50% of the mix, the highest it’s been since 1990. Even as the German government shook its collective head at the sinful Australians, telling them to mend their evil ways or bear the guilt for wars and revolution, not to mention the bleaching of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef, her own CO2 emission rose 1.5% in 2013 over the previous year, while Australia’s fell by 0.8% in the same period!
In a word, dear reader, for the German “Greens,” the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.
Posted on September 30th, 2014 No comments
One would think that, at the very least, evolutionary psychologists would have jettisoned their belief in objective morality by now. After all, every day new papers are published about the evolutionary roots of morality, the actual loci in the brain that give rise to different types of moral behavior, and the existence in animals of some of the same traits we associate with morality in humans. Now, if morality evolved, it must have done so because it enhanced the odds that the genes responsible for it would survive and reproduce. It cannot somehow acquire a life of its own and decide that it actually has some other “purpose” in mind. The spectacle of human “experts in ethics” arbitrarily reassigning its purpose in that way is even more ludicrous. In spite of all that, faith in the existence of disembodied good and evil persists in the academy, in defiance of all logic, in evolutionary psychology as in other disciplines. It’s not surprising really. For some time now academics of all stripes have been heavily invested in the myth of their own moral superiority. Eliminate objective morality, and the basis of that myth evaporates like a mirage. Self-righteousness and heroin are both hard habits to kick.
Examples aren’t hard to find. An interesting one turned up in the journal Evolutionary Psychology lately. Entitled Evolutionary Awareness and submitted by authors Gregory Gorelick and Todd Shackelford, the abstract reads as follows:
In this article, we advance the concept of “evolutionary awareness,” a metacognitive framework that examines human thought and emotion from a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective. We begin by discussing the evolution and current functioning of the moral foundations on which our framework rests. Next, we discuss the possible applications of such an evolutionarily-informed ethical framework to several domains of human behavior, namely: sexual maturation, mate attraction, intrasexual competition, culture, and the separation between various academic disciplines. Finally, we discuss ways in which an evolutionary awareness can inform our cross-generational activities—which we refer to as “intergenerational extended phenotypes”—by helping us to construct a better future for ourselves, for other sentient beings, and for our environment.
Those who’ve developed a nose for such things can already sniff the disembodied good and evil things-in-themselves levitating behind the curtain. The term “better future” is a dead giveaway. No future can be “better” than any other in an objective sense unless there is some legitimate standard of comparison that doesn’t depend on the whim of individuals. As we read on, our suspicions are amply confirmed. As far as its theme is concerned, the paper is just a rehash of what Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey were suggesting back in the 60’s; that there are such things as innate human behavioral predispositions, that on occasion they have promoted warfare and the other forms of mayhem that humans have indulged in over the millennia, and that it would behoove us to take this fact into account and try to find ways to limit the damage. Unfortunately, they did so at a time when the Blank Slate, probably the greatest scientific imposture ever heard of, was at its most preposterous extreme. They were ridiculed and ignored by the “men of science” and forgotten. Now that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has finally collapsed after reigning supreme for the better part of half a century, their ideas are belatedly being taken seriously again, albeit without ever giving them credit or mentioning their names.
There is, however, an important difference. In reading through the paper, one finds that the authors believe not only in evolved morality, necessarily a subjective phenomenon, but are true believers in a shadowy thing-in-itself that exists alongside of it. This thing is objective morality, as noted above, an independent, and even “scientific,” something that has a “purpose” quite distinct from the reasons that explain the existence of evolved morality. The “purpose” in high fashion at the moment is usually some version of the “human flourishing” ideology advocated by Sam Harris. No evidence has ever been given for this concoction. Neither Sam Harris nor anyone else has ever been able to capture one of these ghostly “goods” or “evils” and submit it for examination in the laboratory. No matter, their existence is accepted as a matter of faith, accompanied by a host of “proofs” similar to those that are devised to “prove” the existence of God.
Let us examine the artifacts of the faith in these ghosts in the paper at hand. As it happens, it’s lousy with them. On page 785, for example, we read,
Because individual choices lead to cultural movements and social patterns (Kenrick, Li, and Butner, 2003), it is up to every individual to accept the responsibility of an evolutionarily-informed ethics.
Really? If so, where does this “responsibility” come from? How does it manage to acquire legitimacy? Reading a bit further on page 785, we encounter the following remarkable passage:
However, as with any intellectually-motivated course of action, developing an evolutionarily-informed ethics entails an intellectual sacrifice: Are we willing to forego certain reproductive benefits or personal pleasures for the sake of building a more ethical community? Such an intellectual endeavor is not just relevant to academic debates but is also of great practical and ethical importance. To apply the paleontologist G. G. Simpson’s (1951) ethical standard of knowledge and responsibility, evolutionary scientists have the responsibility of ensuring that their findings are disseminated as widely as possible. In addition, evolutionarily-minded researchers should expand their disciplinary boundaries to include the application of an evolutionary awareness to problems of ethical and practical importance. Although deciphering the ethical dimension of life’s varying circumstances is difficult, the fact that there are physical consequences for every one of our actions—consequences on other beings and on the environment—means that, for better or worse, we are all players in constructing the future of our society and that all our actions, be they microscopic or macroscopic, are reflected in the emergent properties of our society (Kenrick et al., 2003).
In other words, not only is the existence of this “other” morality simply assumed, but we also find that its “purpose” actually contradicts the reasons that have resulted in the evolution of morality to begin with. It is supposed to be “evolutionarily-informed,” and yet we are actually to “forego certain reproductive benefits” in its name. Later in the paper, on page 804, we find that this apparent faith in “real” good and evil, existing independently of the subjective variety that has merely evolved, is not just a momentary faux pas. In the author’s words,
It is not clear what the effects of being evolutionarily aware of our political and social behaviors will be. At the least, we can raise the level of individual and societal self-awareness by shining the light of evolutionary awareness onto our religious, political, and cultural beliefs. Better still, by examining our ability to mentally time travel from an evolutionarily aware perspective, we might envision more humane futures rather than using this ability to further our own and our offspring’s reproductive interests. In this way, we may be able to monitor our individual and societal outcomes and direct them to a more ethical and well-being-enhancing direction for ourselves, for other species, for our—often fragile—environment, and for the future of all three.
Here the authors leave us in no doubt. They have faith in an objective something utterly distinct from evolved morality, and with entirely different “goals.” Not surprisingly, as already noted above, this “something” actually does turn out to be a version of the “scientific” objective morality proposed by Sam Harris. For example, on page 805,
As Sam Harris suggested in The Moral Landscape (2010), science has the power not only to describe reality, but also to inform us as to what is moral and what is immoral (provided that we accept certain utilitarian ethical foundations such as the promotion of happiness, flourishing, and well-being—all of which fall into Haidt’s (2012) “Care/Harm” foundation of morality).
No rational basis is ever provided, by Harris or anyone else, for how these “certain utilitarian ethical foundations” are magically transmuted from the whims of individuals to independent objects, which then somehow hijack human moral emotions and endow them with a “purpose” that has little if anything to do with the reasons that explain the evolution of those emotions to begin with. It’s all sufficiently absurd on the face of it, and yet understandable. Jonathan Haidt gives a brilliant description of the reasons that self-righteousness is such a ubiquitous feature of our species in The Righteous Mind. As a class, academics are perhaps more addicted to self-righteousness than any other. There are, after all, whole departments of “ethical experts” whose very existence becomes a bad joke unless they can maintain the illusion that they have access to some mystic understanding of the abstruse foundations of “real” good and evil, hidden from the rest of us. The same goes for all the assorted varieties of “studies” departments, whose existence is based on the premise that there is a “good” class that is being oppressed by an “evil” class. At least since the heyday of Communism, academics have cultivated a faith in themselves as the special guardians of the public virtue, endowed with special senses that enable them to sniff out “real” morality for the edification of the rest of us.
In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now (at the end of the decade, ed.) the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.
Of course, this earlier sure-fire prescription for “human flourishing” cost 100 million human lives, give or take, and has hence been abandoned by more forward-looking academics. However, a few hoary leftovers remain on campus, and there is an amusing reminder of the fact in the paper. On page 784 the authors admit that attempts to tinker with human nature in the past have had unfortunate results:
Indeed, totalitarian philosophies, whether Stalinism or Nazism, often fail because of their attempts to radically change human nature at the cost of human beings.
Note the delicate use of the term “Stalinism” instead of Communism. Meanwhile, the proper term is used for Nazism instead of “Hitlerism.” Of course, mass terror was well underway in the Soviet Union under Lenin, long before Stalin took over supreme power, and the people who carried it out weren’t inspired by the “philosophy” of “socialism in one country,” but by a fanatical faith in a brave new world of “human flourishing” under Communism. Nazism in no way sought to “radically change human nature,” but masterfully took advantage of it to gain power. The same could be said of the Communists, the only difference being that they actually did attempt to change human nature once they were in power. I note in passing that some other interesting liberties are taken with history in the paper. For example,
Christianity may have indirectly led to the fall of the Roman Empire by pacifying its population into submission to the Vandals (Frost, 2010), as well as the fall of the early Viking settlers in Greenland to “pagan” Inuit invaders (Diamond, 2005)—two outcomes that collectively highlight the occasional inefficiency (from a gene’s perspective) of cultural evolution.
Of course, the authors apparently only have these dubious speculations second hand from Frost and Diamond, whose comments on the subject I haven’t read, but they would have done well to consider some other sources before setting down these speculations as if they had any authority. The Roman Empire never “fell” to the Vandals. They did sack Rome in 455 with the permission, if not of the people, at least of the gatekeepers, but the reason had a great deal more to do with an internal squabble over who should be emperor than with any supposed passivity due to Christianity. Indeed, the Vandals themselves were Christians, albeit of the Arian flavor, and their north African kingdom was itself permanently crushed by an army under Belisarius sent by the emperor Justinian in 533. Both certainly considered themselves “Romans,” as the date of 476 for the “fall of the Roman Empire” was not yet in fashion at the time. There are many alternative theories to the supposition that the Viking settlements in Greenland “fell to the Inuits,” and to state this “outcome” as a settled fact is nonsense.
But I digress. To return to the subject of objective morality, it actually appears that the authors can’t comprehend the fact that it’s possible to believe anything else. For example, they write,
Haidt’s approach to the study of human morality is non-judgmental. He argues that the Western, cosmopolitan mindset—morally centered on the Care/Harm foundation—is limited because it is not capable of processing the many “moralities” of non-Western peoples. We disagree with this sentiment. For example, is Haidt really willing to support the expansion of the “Sanctity/Degradation” foundation (and its concomitant increase in ethnocentrism and out-group hostility)? As Pinker (2011) noted, “…right or wrong, retracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity entails a reduction of violence” (p. 637).
Here the authors simply can’t grok the fact that Haidt is stating an “is,” not an “ought.” As a result, this passage is logically incomprehensible as it stands. The authors are disagreeing with a “sentiment” that doesn’t exist. They are incapable of grasping the fact that Haidt, who has repeatedly rejected the notion of objective morality, is merely stating a theory, not some morally loaded “should.”
From my own subjective point of view, it is perhaps unfair to single out these two authors. The academy is saturated with similar irrational attempts to hijack morality in the name of assorted systems designed to promote “human flourishing,” in the fond hope that the results won’t be quite so horrific as were experienced under Communism, the last such attempt to be actually realized in practice. The addiction runs deep. Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too hard. After all, the Blank Slate was a similarly irrational addiction, but it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity after a mere half a century, give or take. Perhaps, like the state was supposed to do under Communism, faith in the chimera of objective morality, or at least those versions of it not dependent on the existence of imaginary super-beings, will “whither away” in the next 50 years as well. We can but hope.
Posted on September 27th, 2014 No comments
Readers who loath the modern joyless version of Puritanism, shorn of its religious impedimenta, that has become the dominant dogma of our time, and would like to escape for a while to a happier time in which ostentatious public piety was not yet de rigueur are in luck. An expanded version of H. L. Mencken’s “Days” trilogy has just been published, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rogers. It includes Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, and certainly ranks as one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written. The latest version actually contains a bonus for Mencken fans. As noted in the book’s Amazon blurb,
…unknown to the legions of Days books’ admirers, Mencken continued to add to them after publication, annotating and expanding each volume in typescripts sealed to the public for twenty-five years after his death. Until now, most of this material—often more frank and unvarnished than the original Days books—has never been published. (This latest version contains) nearly 200 pages of previously unseen writing, and is illustrated with photographs from Mencken’s archives, many taken by Mencken himself.
Infidel that he was, the Sage of Baltimore would have smiled to see the hardcover version. It comes equipped with not one, but two of those little string bookmarks normally found in family Bibles. I’ve read an earlier version of the trilogy, but that was many years ago. I recalled many of Mencken’s anecdotes as I encountered them again, and perhaps with a bit more insight. I know a great deal more about the author than I did the first time through, not to mention the times in which he lived. There’ve been some changes made since then, to say the least. For example, Mencken recalls that maids were paid $10 a month plus room and board in the 1880’s, but no less than $12 a month from about 1890 on. Draught beer was a nickel, and a first class businessman’s lunch at a downtown hotel with soup, a meat dish, two side dishes, pie and coffee, was a quarter. A room on the “American plan,” complete with three full meals a day, was $2.50.
Mencken was already beginning to notice the transition to today’s “kinder, gentler” mode of raising children in his later days, but experienced few such ameliorations in his own childhood. Children weren’t “spared the rod,” either by their parents or their teachers. Mencken recalls that the headmaster of his first school, one Prof. Friedrich Knapp, had a separate ritual for administering corporal punishment to boys and girls, and wore out a good number of rattan switches in the process. Even the policemen had strips of leather dangling from their clubs, with which they chastised juveniles who ran afoul of the law. Parents took all this as a matter of course, and the sage never knew any of his acquaintance to complain. When school started, the children were given one dry run on the local horse car accompanied by their parents, and were sent out on their own thereafter. Of course, Mencken and his sister got lost on their first try, but were set on the right track by a policeman and some Baltimore stevedores. No one thought of such a thing as supervising children at play. One encounters many similar changes in the social scene as one progresses through the trilogy, but the nature of the human beast hasn’t changed much. All the foibles and weaknesses Mencken describes are still with us today. He was, of course, one of the most prominent atheists in American history, and often singled out the more gaudy specimens of the faithful for special attention. His description of the Scopes monkey trial in Heathen Days is a classic example. I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the New Atheists. In his words,
No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it. There were no converts from the faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics. To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.
Of course, if one possesses the wit of a Mencken or a Voltaire, one has the luxury of fighting the bigotry and fanaticism coming from the other side very effectively without using the same weapons.
I certainly encourage those who haven’t read Mencken to pick up a copy of this latest release of his work. Those interested in more detail about the content may consult the work of professional reviewers that I’m sure will soon appear. I will limit myself to one more observation. It never fails that when some new bit of Menckeniana appears, the self-appointed guardians of the public virtue climb up on their soapboxes and condemn him as a racist. Anyone who reads the Days will immediately see where this charge comes from. Mencken makes free use of the N word and several other terms for African-Americans that have been banned from the lexicon over the ensuing years. No matter that he didn’t use more flattering terms to describe other subgroups of the population, and certainly not of the white “boobeoisie,” of the cities, or the “hinds,” and “yokels” of the country.
Nothing could be more untrue or unfair than this charge of “racism,” but, alas, to give the lie to it one must actually read Mencken’s work, and few of the preening moralists of our own day are willing to go to the trouble. That’s sad, because none of them have contributed anywhere near as much as Mencken to the cause of racial equality. He did that by ignoring the racist conventions of his own day and cultivating respect for black thinkers and intellectuals by actively seeking them out and publishing their work, most notably in the American Mercury, which he edited from its inception in 1924 until he turned over the reigns to Charles Angoff in 1933. He didn’t publish them out of condescension or pity, or as their self-appointed savior, or out of an inordinate love of moralistic grandstanding of the sort that has become so familiar in our own day. He paid them a much higher favor. He published them because, unlike so many others in his own time, he was not blind to their intellectual gifts, and rightly concluded that their work was not only worthy of, but would enhance the value of the Mercury, one of the premier intellectual, political and literary journals of the time. As a result, the work of a host of African-American intellectuals, professionals, and poets appeared in Mencken’s magazine, eclipsing the Nation, The New Republic, The Century, or any other comparable journal of the day in that regard. All this can be easily fact-checked, because every issue of the Mercury published during Mencken’s tenure as editor can now be read online. For example, there are contributions by W. E. B. Dubois in the issue of October 1924, a young poet named Countee P. Cullen in November 1924, newspaper reporter and editor Eugene Gordon in June 1926, James Weldon Johnson, diplomat, author, lawyer, and former leader of the NAACP in April 1927, George Schuyler, author and social commentator in December 1927, Langston Hughes, poet, author, and activist in November 1933, and many others.
Most issues of the Mercury included an Americana section devoted to ridiculing absurdities discovered in various newspapers and other publications listed by state. Mencken used it regularly to heap scorn on genuine racists. For example, from the March 1925 issue:
Effects of the war for democracy among the Tar Heels, as reported in a dispatch from Goldsboro:
Allen Moses and his wife, wealthy Negroes, left here in Pullman births tonight for Washington and New York. This is the first time in the history of this city that Negroes have “had the nerve,” as one citizen expressed it, to buy sleeper tickets here. White citizens are aroused, and it is said the Ku Klux Klan will be asked to give Moses a warm reception on his return.
From the May 1926 issue:
The rise of an aristocracy among the defenders of 100% Americanism, as revealed by a dispatch from Durham:
“According to reports being circulated here the Ku Klux Klan has added a new wrinkle to its activities and are now giving distinguished service crosses to member of the hooded order of the reconstruction days. In keeping with this new custom, it is reported that two Durham citizens were recipients of this honor recently. The medal, as explained by the honorable klansman making the award, is of no intrinsic value, ‘but the sentiment attached to it and the heart throbs that go with it are as measureless as the sands of the sea.'”
From the August 1928 issue:
District of Columbia
The Hon. Cole L. Blease, of South Carolina, favors his colleagues in the Senate with a treatise on southern ethics:
“There are not enough marines in or outside of the United States Army or Navy, in Nicaragua, and all combined, to make us associate with niggers. We never expect to. We never have; but we treat them fairly. If you promise one of the $5 for a days work, if he does the days work, I believe you should pay him.”
So much for the alleged “racism” of H. L. Mencken. It reminds me of a poster that was prominently displayed in an office I once worked in. It bore the motto, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Posted on September 23rd, 2014 No comments
We live in a dauntingly complex world. Progress in the world of science is relevant to all of us, yet it is extremely difficult, although certainly not impossible, for the intelligent layperson to gain a useful understanding of what is actually going on. I say “not impossible” because I believe it’s possible for non-experts to gain enough knowledge to usefully contribute to the conversation about the technological and social relevance of a given scientific specialty, if not of its abstruse details, assuming they are willing to put in the effort. Indeed, when it comes to social relevance it’s not out of the question for them to become more knowledgeable than the scientists themselves, narrowly focused as they often are on a particular specialty.
To illustrate my point, I invite my readers to take a look at a post that recently appeared on the blog LLNL – The True Story. LLNL, or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is one of the nation’s three major nuclear weapons research laboratories. It is also home of the National Ignition Facility, which, as its name implies, was designed to achieve fusion “ignition” by focusing a giant assembly of 192 powerful laser beams on tiny targets containing a mixture of deuterium and tritium fuel. The process itself is called inertial confinement fusion, or ICF. Ignition is variously defined, but as far as the NIF is concerned LLNL officially accepted the definition as fusion energy out equal to total laser energy in, in the presence of members of a National Academy of Sciences oversight committee. This is a definition that puts it on a level playing field with the competing magnetic confinement approach to fusion.
According to the blurb that appears on the home page of LLNL – The True Story, its purpose is “for LLNL present and past employees, friends of LLNL and anyone impacted by the privatization of the Lab to express their opinions and expose the waste, wrongdoing and any kind of injustice against employees and taxpayers by LLNS/DOE/NNSA.” The post in question is entitled ICF Program is now Officially Owned by WCI (Weapons and Concepts Integration). It’s certainly harmless enough as it stands, consisting only of the line,
ICF program is now officially owned by WCI. A step forward or an attempt to bury it out of sight?
This is followed by an apparently broken link to the story referred to. This gist can probably be found here. Presumably the author suspects LLNL might want to “bury it out of sight” because the first attempt to achieve ignition, known as the National Ignition Campaign, or NIC, failed to achieve its goal. What’s really of interest is not the post itself, but the comments following it. The commenters are all listed as “anonymous,” but given the nature of the blog we can probably assume that most of them are scientists of one tribe or another. Let’s take a look at what they have to say. According to the first “anonymous,”
If (takeover of NIF by WCI) is an attempt to keep funding flowing by switching milestones from energy independence to weapons research. “Contingency Plan B”.
Another “anonymous” writes in a similar vein:
Reading between the lines it is clear that the new energy source mission of the NIF is over and now it’s time to justify the unjustifiable costs by claiming it’s a great too for weapons research.
Perhaps the second commenter would have done better to read the lines as they stand rather than between them. In that case he would have noticed that energy independence was never an official NIF milestone, not to mention its “mission.” NIF was funded for the purpose of weapons research from the start. This fact was never in any way a deep, dark secret, and has long been obvious to anyone willing to take the trouble to consult the relevant publicly accessible documents. The Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee, a Federal Advisory Committee that met intermittently in the early to mid-90’s, and whose member included a bevy of heavyweights in plasma physics and related specialties, was certainly aware of the fact, and recommended funding of the facility with the single dissenting vote of Tim Coffey, then Director of the Naval Research Laboratory, based on that awareness.
Be that as it may, the claim that the technology could also end our dependence on fossil fuel, often made by the NIF’s defenders, is credible. By “credible” I mean that many highly capable scientists have long held and continue to hold that opinion. As it happens, I don’t. Assuming we find a way to achieve ignition and high gain in the laboratory, it will certainly become scientifically feasible to generate energy with ICF power plants. However, IMHO it will never be economically feasible, for reasons I have outline in earlier posts. Regardless, from a public relations standpoint, it was obviously preferable to evoke the potential of the NIF as a clean source of energy rather than a weapons project designed to maintain the safety and reliability of our nuclear arsenal, as essential as that capability may actually be. In spite of my own personal opinion on the subject, these claims were neither disingenuous nor mere “hype.”
Another “anonymous” writes,
What’s this user facility bullshit about? Only Livermore uses the facility. Cost recovery demands that a university would have to pay $1 million for a shot. How can it be a user facility if it’s run by the weapons program? This isn’t exactly SLAC we’re talking about.
Here, again, the commenter is simply wrong. Livermore is not the only user of NIF, and it is, in fact, a user facility. Users to date include a team from MIT headed by Prof. Richard Petrasso. I’m not sure how the users are currently funded, but in the past funds for experiments on similar facilities were allocated through a proposal process, similar to that used to fund other government-funded academic research. The commenter continues,
By the way, let’s assume NIF wants to be a “user facility” for stockpile stewardship. Since ignition is impossible, the EOS (Equation of State, relevant to the physics of nuclear weapons, ed.) work is garbage, and the temperatures are not relevant to anything that goes bang, what use is this machine?
NIF does not “want to be a user facility for stockpile stewardship.” Stress has always been on high energy density physics (HEDP), which has many other potential applications besides stockpile stewardship. I was not surprised that NIF did not achieve ignition immediately. In fact I predicted as much in a post on this blog two years before the facility became operational. However, many highly competent scientists disagreed with me, and for credible scientific reasons. The idea that ignition is “impossible” just because it wasn’t achieved in the first ignition campaign using the indirect drive approach is nonsense. Several other credible approaches have not yet even been tried, including polar direct drive, fast ignitor, and hitting the targets with green (frequency doubled) rather than blue (frequency tripled) light. The latter approach would enable a substantial increase in the available laser energy on target. The EOS work is not garbage, as any competent weapons designer will confirm as long as they are not determined to force the resumption of nuclear testing by hook or by crook, and some of the best scientists at Livermore confirmed long ago that the temperatures achievable on the NIF are indeed relevant to things that go bang, whether it achieves ignition or not. In fact, the facility allows us to access physical conditions that can be approached in the laboratory nowhere else on earth, giving us a significant leg up over the international competition in maintaining a safe and reliable arsenal, as long as testing is not resumed.
Anonymous number 4 chimes in,
I love this quote (apparently from the linked article, ed.):
“the demonstration of laboratory ignition and its use to support the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) is a major goal for this program”
Hey guys, this has already failed. Why are we still spending money on this? A lot of other laboratories could use the $$. You’re done.
The quote this “anonymous” loves is a simple statement of fact. For the reasons already cited, the idea that ignition on the NIF is hopeless is nonsense. The (very good) reason we’re still spending money on the project is that NIF is and will continue into the foreseeable future to be one of the most capable and effective above ground experimental (AGEX) facilities in the world. It can access physical conditions relevant to nuclear weapons regardless of whether it achieves ignition or not. For that reason it is an invaluable tool for maintaining our arsenal unless one’s agenda happens to be the resumption of nuclear testing. Hint: The idea that no one in DOE, NNSA, or the national weapons laboratories wants to resume testing belongs in the realm of fantasy. Consider, for example, what the next “anonymous” is actually suggesting:
Attempting to get funding for NIF and computations’s big machines was made easier by claiming dual purposes but I always felt that the real down and dirty main purpose was weapons research. If you want to get support from the anti-weapon Feinstein/Boxer/Pelosi contingent you need to put the “energy” lipstick on the pig. Or we could go back to testing. Our cessation of testing doesn’t seem to have deterred North Korea and Iran that much.
Yes, Virginia, even scientists occasionally do have agendas of their own. What can I say? To begin, I suppose, that one should never be intimidated by the pontifications of scientists. The specimens on display here clearly don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Any non-technical observer of middling intelligence could become more knowledgeable than they are on the topics they’re discussing by devoting a few hours to researching them on the web. As to how the non-technical observer is to acquire enough knowledge to actually know that he knows more than the scientific specialists, I can offer no advice, other than to head to your local university and acquire a Ph.D. I am, BTW, neither employed by nor connected in any other way with LLNL.
Posted on September 22nd, 2014 2 comments
Atheists often scorn those who believe in the God Delusion. The faithful, in turn, scorn those atheists who believe in the Objective Morality Delusion. The scorn is understandable in both cases, but I give the nod to the faithful on this one. Philosophers and theologians have come up with many refined and subtle arguments in favor of the existence of imaginary super beings. The arguments in favor of imaginary objective moralities are threadbare by comparison. I can hardly blame the true believers for laughing at the obvious imposture. They don’t require such a crutch to maintain the illusion of superior virtue. As a result, they see through the charade immediately.
Let me put my own cards on the table. I consider morality to be the expression of a subset of the innate human behavioral traits that exist as a result of evolution by natural selection. It follows that I do not believe that the comments of Darwin, who specifically addressed the subject, can be simply ignored. Neither do I believe that all the books and papers on the evolved wellsprings of morality that have been rolling of the presses lately can be simply ignored. I agree with Hume, who pointed out that reason is a slave of the passions, and with Haidt, who wrote about the emotional dog and its rational tail, and take a dubious view of those who think the points made by either author can be simply ignored. In short, I consider morality a purely subjective phenomenon. There are, of course, many implications of this conclusion that are uncomfortable to the pious faithful and pious atheists alike. However, if what I say is true, their discomfort will not make it untrue.
I’ve discussed the arguments of Sam Harris and several other “objective moralists” in earlier posts. As it happens, Daniel Fincke, another member of the club who writes the Camels with Hammers blog at Patheos.com has just chimed in. Perhaps his comments on the subject will provide some insight into whether the supercilious smiles of the godly are out of place or not.
Fincke has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham, and teaches interactive philosophy classes online. His comments appeared in the context of a pair of responses to Jerry Coyne, who differed with him on the subject at the latest Pennsylvania State Atheists Humanists Conference. According to Fincke,
When we talk about an endeavor being objective in the main or subjective in the main we’re talking about whether there can be objective principles that can often, at least theoretically, lead to determinations independent of our preferences.
Of course, this statement that objective principles are those principles that are objective is somewhat lacking as a rigorous definition, but it’s on the right track. Objective phenomena exist independently of the experiences or impressions in the minds of individuals. Like Harris, Fincke associates morality with “human flourishing”:
As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).
One can almost guess where this is heading without reading the rest. Like so many other “objective moralists,” Fincke will conflate that which is morally good with that which is “good” in the sense that it serves some useful purpose. This gets us nowhere, because it merely begs the question of why the purpose served is itself morally good. In what follows, our suspicions are amply confirmed. For example, Fincke continues,
Morality comes in at the stage of where any people who live lives impacting each other develop implicit or explicit rules and practices and judgments, etc. geared at cooperative living. Each of us has an interest in morality because we are social beings in vital ways.
First, we socially depend for our basic flourishing on a society that is minimally orderly, where people are trustworthy, where we’re not swamped with chaotic violence, etc.
Second, the more others around us are empowered to develop their functioning in their excellent powers is the more that they provide the means of us doing the same. So a society with greater functioning, powerful people is a society where we’ll be enriched by the things they create—be they technological or social—that help us thrive in our abilities.
and so on. In other words, moral rules are “objectively good” only in the sense that one can demonstrate their objective usefulness in advancing some other, higher “good.” According to Fincke, this “higher good” is a “thriving, flourishing power” in each individual which is “beyond his body and beyond his awareness.” Fine, but in that case the burden is still on him to demonstrate the objective nature of this “higher good.” Unfortunately, he shrugs off the burden. According to Fincke, the “higher good” is “objectively good” just because he says so. For example,
So, moral rules and practices and behaviors are a practical project. What objectively constitutes good instances of these are what lead to our objective good of maximally empowered functioning according to the abilities we have and what leads us to coordinate best with others for mutual empowerment on the long term.
…with no explanation of why the “objective good” referred to is objectively good. In a similar vein,
The good of our powers thriving is inherently good for us because we are our powers. And the inherent good of a power thriving is objectively determinable in the sense that it has a characteristic function that makes it the power that it is.
Again, Fincke doesn’t tell us why this “inherent good” is good in any objective sense, and why we should associate it with moral good at all. Apparently we must simply take his word for it that he’s not just expressing a personal whim, but has some mysterious way of knowing that his “good” is both “objective” and “moral.” Normally, when one claims objective existence for something, it must somehow manifest itself outside of the subjective minds of individuals. If one is to believe in such an entity, one requires evidence of its independent existence. That’s the main argument atheists have against the existence of God. There’s no evidence for it. How, then, is it reasonable for those same atheists to claim the objective existence of moral “good” with a similar lack of evidence. The faithful can at least point to faith, and tell us that they believe because of the grace of God. Atheists don’t have that luxury. One of Fincke’s favorite arguments is as follows:
Within this framework we can reason rationally. Does it mean we will always come to conclusive answers? No, of course not. Reasoning involves dealing with the real world and it’s empirical variables. Science can only go so far too, because we’re stuck with contingencies. You need information, sometimes impossible to precisely ascertain information about the future or the expected consequences of one path or another.
That’s quite true, but science has something to back it up that Fincke can’t claim for his objective morality; data in the form of experimentally repeatable evidence. We can be confident in the objective existence of electrons and photons, and on the fact that they don’t depend on our subjective whims for that existence, because we can observe and measure their physical characteristics. To the best of my knowledge, neither Fincke nor Harris nor any of the rest have ever captured an objective “good” in their butterfly nets and produced any data regarding its physical or other qualities and characteristics. If something is supposed to have an objective existence outside of our subjective minds, but we have not the faintest shred of evidence about it, we have only one alternative if we are to believe in it; blind faith.
For Fincke, morality is infinitely malleable. We can make it up as we go along to serve the “ultimate good” as our cultural and social circumstances change:
Morality is a technological endeavor too. It’s one of determining what should be done for us all to live as well as we can collectively and individually. We should, as naturalists who have learned the lessons of empirical thinking in the hard sciences, determine our moral codes and practices according to what serves our purposes best.
Unfortunately, this flies in the face of everything we have been learning recently about the innate wellsprings of morality. It requires that we simply ignore it. The claim that human flourishing is the ultimate good, and that morality is an objective something that exists to serve this end excludes any evolutionary contribution to morality whatsoever. Some claim that evolution may occur as high as the level of groups, but no process or mathematical model has yet been heard of that predicts that it can occur at the level of the human species as a whole.
If Fincke is right, then there can be no analogs of morality in animals, as claimed not only by Darwin, but by many others after him, and as suggested in Wild Justice by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce and in several other recent books on the subject. Objective moral rules as he describes then would only be discoverable by highly intelligent creatures through the exercise of high-powered reasoning that is beyond the capacity of animals or, for that matter even humans other than Fincke and a few other enlightened philosophers, whom we must apparently depend on forevermore to explain things to us. No doubt the popes would all have loved this line of reasoning. These purported rules exist to support an end that can never be the direct result of natural selection, as it only applies at a level where selection does not occur.
Again, if Fincke is right, then the emotions we associate with morality become absurd. After all, what room is there for emotion in deriving perfectly rational “moral rules” from some “objective” ultimate good? Why, indeed, do such reactions as virtuous indignation and moral outrage exist? They are, after all, emotional rather than reasonable, and they can be observed across all cultures. If true moral good is only discoverable by gurus like Fincke, and often contradicts our natural appetites and proclivities, where do these emotions come from? Are they, as we were informed by the Blank Slaters of old, merely learned, along with such things as the pleasure we feel from eating when hungry, and the orgasms we experience during sex? If not, how can we possibly explain their existence? Here’s another excerpt from Fincke’s posts that raises some doubts about his “objective morality.”
People seem to recognize this readily with respect to every art–that doing it in the way that evinces excellent ability and has the result effect of empowering others is obviously desirable over the way that doesn’t–except when it comes to something like ruling or acquiring wealth. In those cases, people start talking like they think mere domination and accumulation is sufficiently desirable. But there’s no reason to think that’s correct. The ruler is a failure if they cannot create a powerful citizenry. What is the intrinsic goodness of merely getting your way compared to the actual creative power, the actual excellent ability, to create greater flourishing through your efforts. The great ruler, by the ruler’s own internal standards of success, should obviously be to rule for generations even beyond death. To do that means to be so shrewd in one’s decisions that what one builds outlives you and thrives beyond your mortal coil. It means to be a contributor to the thriving of your citizens while you’re alive so you can take credit for your role in their thriving (and for as many subsequent generations as possible).
Just because some tyrants realize that’s impossible because they’re incompetent to create that and keep power and so instead choose to rule a graveyard through terror doesn’t mean those tyrants are being rational. They’re functioning badly. They’re epically failing to do the actually powerful task of ruling.
Genghis Khan might beg to differ. In spite of recent attempts to rehabilitate him, it’s not an exaggeration to say he ruled a graveyard through terror throughout much of Asia, and was, therefore, an epic failure according to Fincke. However, he left millions of descendants throughout the continent. He would certainly have regarded this outcome as “good” and “powerful.” It’s a human legacy that will certainly last much longer than the constitution of any state, or the opinion harbored by certain intellectuals in the 21st century concerning “human flourishing.” Indeed, it’s a legacy that has the potential to last for billions of years, as demonstrated by the reality of our own existence as descendants of creatures who lived that long ago in the past. How can we detect or identify an objective rule according to which the great Khan’s good is not really good, but evil? Obviously, what we are looking for here is something more compelling than Fincke’s opinion on the matter. According to Fincke,
…we set up moral systems to regulate and make it so people are able to resist the temptation to think in short term, microlevel, temporarily selfish ways about what is good for them.
Again, if moral systems are just something we “set up” at will to serve Fincke’s “inherent and ultimate good,” then Hume must be wrong. Reason can’t be the slave of the passions. Rather, the passions must be suppressed to serve reason. Morality cannot possibly be associated with evolution in any way, because it would be impossible to “set up” the innate predispositions that would presumably be the result. As it happens, our species already has extensive experience with “setting up” just such a moral system as Fincke describes, based on “science” and devoted to the ultimate goal of “human flourishing.” It was called Communism. It didn’t work. As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.” Am I being paranoid if I would prefer, on behalf of myself and my species, to avoid trying it twice?
In the end, Fincke’s arguments really boil down to a statement of subjective morality in a nutshell: “Human flourishing as defined by me and right-thinking individuals like me is the ultimate good, because I say so.”
Posted on July 27th, 2014 No comments
As Hume pointed out long ago, moral emotions are not derived by reason. They exist a priori. They belong, not at the end, but at the beginning of reason. They are not derived by reason. Rather, they are reasoned about. Given the variations in the innate wellsprings of morality among individuals, huge variations in culture and experience, and the imperfections of human reason, the result has been the vast kaleidoscope of human moralities we see today, with all their remarkable similarities and differences.
Most of us understand the concept Good, and most of us also understand the concept Evil. Good and Evil are subjective entities in the minds of individuals, not fundamentally different from any of our other appetites and whims. However, unlike other whims, such as hunger or sexual desire, it is our nature to perceive them as things, existing independently of our subjective minds. We don’t imagine that, if we are hungry, everyone else in the world must be hungry, too. However, we do imagine that if we perceive something as Good, it must be Good for everyone else as well. That’s where reason comes in. We use it in myriad variations to prop up the delusion that our Good possesses independent legitimacy, and therefore applies to everyone. Familiar variations are the God prop, the “Brave New World of the Future” prop, and the “human flourishing” prop. We commonly find even the most brilliant intellectuals among us attempting to hop over the is/ought divide in this way, differing from the rest of us only in the sophistication of their mirages.
Consider, for example, the case of Herbert Spencer. According to his Wiki entry, he was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century”. He “developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. He was ‘an enthusiastic exponent of evolution’ and even ‘wrote about evolution before Darwin did.’” Unfortunately, there was a problem with his version of the theory. He could never come up with a coherent explanation of what made evolution work. His attempts were usually based on Lamarckian notions of use-inheritance, but he was no more successful than Lamarck in coming up with an actual mechanism for use-inheritance – something that would actually drive the process. When Darwin came up with the actual mechanism, natural selection, Spencer grasped the concept immediately. It certainly influenced his later work, but could not destroy his faith in evolution as a “theory of everything.” For him, evolution was the mystical wellspring of “progress” in all things. Morality and ethics were no exception.
It’s a testimony to the power of the delusion that the truth was actually staring Spencer in the face. Consider, for example, his comments on what he referred to as “animal ethics.” Like Darwin, Spencer was well aware of the analogs to human moral behavior in animals. He wrote about them in the first two chapters of his Justice, published in 1891, long before such ideas were dropped down the memory hole by the Blank Slaters, and more than a century before they were finally disinterred by the animal behaviorists of our own day. Pick out a paragraph here and a phrase there, and Spencer comes across as a perfectly orthodox Darwinian. For example,
Speaking generally, we may say that gregariousness and cooperation more or less active, establish themselves in a species only because they are profitable to it since otherwise survival of the fittest must prevent establishment of them.
For the association to be profitable the acts must be restrained to such extent as to leave a balance of advantage. Survival of the fittest will else exterminate that variety of the species in which association begins.
Thus then it is clear that acts which are conducive to preservation of offspring or of the individual we consider as good relatively to the species and conversely.
In the third chapter of his book, Spencer makes the obvious connection between sub-human and human morality, pointing out that they form a “continuous whole.”
The contents of the last chapter foreshadow the contents of this. As from the evolution point of view human life must be regarded as a further development of sub-human life it follows that from this same point of view human justice must be a further development of sub-human justice. For convenience the two are here separately treated but they are essentially of the same nature and form parts of a continuous whole.
In a word, Spencer seems to realize that morality is an artifact of evolution by natural selection, that it exists because it enhanced the probability that individuals and their offspring would survive, and that its innate origins manifest themselves in sub-human species as well as human beings. In other words, he seems to have identified just those aspects of morality that establish its subjective nature and the absurdity of the notion that it can somehow transcend the minds of one individual acquire independent legitimacy or normative power over other individuals. The truth seems to be staring him in the face, and yet, in the end, he evades it. His illusion that his version of human progress, formulated long before Darwin, really is the Good-in-itself, blinds him to the implications of what he has just written. Before long we find him hopelessly enmeshed in the naturalistic fallacy, busily converting “is” into “ought.” First, we find passages like the following that not only have a suspicious affinity with Spencer’s libertarian ideology, but reveal his continued, post-Darwin faith in Lamarckism:
The necessity for observance of the condition that each member of the group, while carrying on self-sustentation and sustentation of offspring, shall not seriously impede the like pursuits of others makes itself so felt where association is established as to mould the species to it. The mischiefs from time to time experienced when the limits are transgressed continually discipline all in such ways as to produce regard for the limits so that such regard becomes in course of time a natural trait of the species.
A little later, the crossing of the is/ought Rubicon is made quite explicit:
To those who take a pessimist view of animal life in general contemplation of these principles can of course yield only dissatisfaction. But to those who take an optimist view or a meliorist view of life in general, and who accept the postulate of hedonism, contemplation of these principles must yield greater or less satisfaction and fulfilment of them must be ethically approved. Otherwise considered these principles are according to the current belief expressions of the Divine will or else according to the agnostic belief indicate the mode in which works the Unknowable Power throughout the universe, and in either case they have the warrant hence derived.
It’s not that Spencer was a stupid man. In fact, he was brilliant. Among other things, he analyzed the flaws in socialist theory and predicted the outcome of the Communist experiment with amazing prescience long before it was actually tried. Rather, Spencer didn’t see the truth that was staring him in the face because he was human. Like all humans, he suffered from the delusion that his version of the Good must surely be the “real” Good, and rationalized that conclusion. It continues to be similarly rationalized in our own day by our own public intellectuals, in spite of a century and more of great advances in evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and understanding of the innate wellsprings of both human and non-human behavior.
I suppose there’s some solace in the fact that, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the emotional dog continues to wag its rational tail, and not vice versa. It certainly lays to rest fears that some fragile thread of religion or philosophy is all that suspends us over the abyss of moral relativism. We will not become moral relativists because it is not our nature to be moral relativists, even if legions of philosophers declare that we are being unreasonable. On the other hand, there are always drawbacks to not recognizing the truth. We experienced two of those drawbacks in the 20th century in the form of the highly moralistic Nazi and Communist ideologies. Perhaps it would be well for us to recognize the obvious before the next messiah turns up on the scene.
Posted on May 26th, 2014 3 comments
If Hollywood is any guide, we can put a fork in the Blank Slate. I refer, of course, to the delusional orthodoxy that was enforced by the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century, according to which there is no such thing as human nature. Consider, for example, the movie Divergent. It belongs to the dystopian genre beloved of American audiences, and is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. A semblance of order has been restored by arranging the surviving population into five factions based on what the evolutionary psychologists might call their innate predispositions. They include Candor, whose supreme values are honesty and trustworthiness, and from whose ranks come the legal scholars and lawyers. The brave and daring are assigned to the Dauntless faction, and become the defenders of the little city-state. At the opposite extreme is Amity, the home of those who value kindness, forgiveness and trust, and whose summum bonum is peace. Their admiration for self-reliance suits them best for the agricultural chores. Next comes Abnegation, composed of the natural do-gooders of society. So selfless that they can only bear to look in a mirror for a few seconds, they are deemed so incorruptible that they are entrusted with the leadership and government of the city. Finally, the intelligent and curious are assigned to the Erudite faction. They fill such roles as doctors, scientists, and record-keepers. They are also responsible for technological advances, which include special “serums,” some of which are identified with particular factions. One of these is a “simulation serum,” used to induce imaginary scenarios that test a subject’s aptitude for the various factions.
As it happens, the simulation serum doesn’t always work. When the heroine, Tris, takes the test, she discovers that she can “finesse” the simulation. She is a rare instance of an individual whose nature does not uniquely qualify her for any faction, but who is adaptable enough to fit adequately into several of them. In other words, she is a “Divergent,” and as such, a free thinker and a dire threat to anyone who might just happen to have plans to misuse the serums to gain absolute control over the city.
Alas, there’s trouble in paradise. The “factions” are groups, and where there are groups, there are ingroups and outgroups. Sure enough, each “in-faction” has its own “out-faction.” This aspect of the plot is introduced matter-of-factly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And, of course, since it can be assumed that the audience will consist largely of the species Homo sapiens, it is. Most of us, with the exception of a few aging behavioral scientists, are familiar with the fact that it is our nature to apply different versions of morality depending on whether we are dealing with one of “us” or one of the “others.” It turns out that Abnegation is the outgroup of Erudite, who consider them selfish poseurs, and weak and cowardly to boot. That being the case, it follows that Abnegation is completely unsuited to run the government of Chicago or any other post-apocalyptic city state. That role should belong to Erudite.
Which brings us, of course, to the “bad guy.” You’ll never guess who the bad guy is, so I’ll just spill the beans. It’s none other than Kate Winslet! She plays the cold and nefarious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews. These smarties are planning to overthrow Abnegation and seize control for themselves with the aid of the martial Dauntless, whose members have been conveniently mind-controlled with the aid of one of Erudite’s serums. Eventually, Jeanine unmasks Tris and her amorous partner, Four, as Divergents. And with them in her power, she treats them to a remarkable soliloquy, which nearly caused me to choke on my butter-slathered popcorn. Once Erudite is in the saddle, she explains, they will eliminate human nature. Using a combination of re-education a la Joseph Stalin and mind control drugs, all citizens will become latter day versions of Homo sovieticus, perfectly adapted to fit into the Brave New World planned by the Erudites. The utopia envisioned by generations of Blank Slaters will be realized at last!
There’s no need for me to reveal any more of the plot. It’s a very entertaining movie so, by all means, see it yourself. Suffice it to say that, if Hollywood now associates the denial of human nature with evil bad guys, then the Blank Slate must be stone cold dead. Or at least it is with the exception of a few ancient Blank Slater bats still hanging in the more dark and obscure belfries of academia.
For the benefit of the history buffs among my readers, I note in passing that Hollywood never quite succumbed to Gleichschaltung. They were always just a bit out of step, even in the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Consider, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs. It was directly inspired by the work of none other than that greatest of bête noires of the Blank Slaters, Robert Ardrey. The first to taste of the forbidden fruit was Strother Martin, best known for his portrayal of the sadistic “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is a failure to communicate”). He, in turn, passed on Ardrey’s African Genesis to Peckinpah, with the remark that the two seemed to share similar attitudes about violence in human beings. Peckinpah was fascinated, and later said,
Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire tremendously. I read him after Wild Bunch and have reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where it’s at, Baby. Man is violent by nature, and we have to learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive.
That statement, rough around the edges though it is, actually shows more insight into the thought of Ardrey than that revealed by about 99.9% of the learned book reviewers and “Men of Science” who have deigned to comment on his work in the ensuing 45 years. Specifically, Peckinpah understood that Ardrey was no “genetic determinist,” and that he believed that aggressive human predispositions could be controlled by environment, or “culture.” As it happens, that is a theme he elaborated on repeatedly in every one of his books. The theme of Straw Dogs was taken directly out of The Territorial Imperative. According to Ardrey,
There is a law of territorial behavior as true of the single roebuck defending his private estate as it is of a band of howling monkeys defending its domain held in common. Huxley long ago observed that any territory is like a rubber disc: the tighter it is compressed, the more powerful will be the pressure outward to spring it back into shape. A proprietor’s confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder’s at its lowest. Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest.
In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s diminutive hero, timid mathematician David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, travels from the sheltered campus of an American university to be with his young wife, Amy, in her native village in England. To make a long story short, she is raped by three of the locals. Eventually, these muscular miscreants are joined by other townspeople in besieging Sumner in his territory, his house, in the mistaken belief that he is knowingly harboring a murderer. Ardrey’s territorial boost takes over with a vengeance, and Sumner draws on unimagined reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness to annihilate the attackers one by one. As badly behind the PC curve as any Disney film, Hollywood eventually repented and in 2000 churned out an alternative version of Straw Dogs, in which all the violent behavior was “learned.” By then, however, getting in step meant getting out of step. Even the Public Broadcasting Network had given the Blank Slate the heave ho years earlier.
Straw Dogs was hardly the first time Hollywood took up the subject of nature versus nurture. For those whose tastes run more to the intellectual and profound, I have attached a short film below dealing with that theme that predates Peckinpah by almost a quarter of a century.
Posted on May 25th, 2014 2 comments
A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege. Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male. In his words,
There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year… “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.
As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe. His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S. Again quoting Fortgang,
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.
I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter. When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.” For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,
Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.
and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:
What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men, are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.
The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.
Which brings us to the point of this post. Our species isn’t good at nuance. The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context. It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions. That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists. It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way. It exists because it evolved. It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate. That is the only reason for its existence. Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual. It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. That dual nature is not optional. It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.
The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege. It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white. However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society. As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male. Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived. As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species. It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa. Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups. That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”
It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma. Privilege exists. It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy. However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred. The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege. Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.
What “should” we do under the circumstances? There is no objective answer to that question. At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims. In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.” A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves. For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival. Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action. Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me. When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.
On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.” For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair. Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege. I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.
However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race. In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero. Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion. Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries. The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation. I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations. I am satisfied with equality before the law.
Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage. I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.