Posted on April 22nd, 2017 No comments
A Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is a legislatively mandated review, typically conducted every five to ten years. It assesses such things as the role, safety and reliability of the weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the status of facilities in the nuclear weapons complex, and nuclear weapons policy in areas such as nonproliferation and arms control. The last one was conducted in 2010. The Trump Administration directed that another one be conducted this year, and the review is already in its initial stages. It should be finished by the end of the year. There is reason for concern about what the final product might look like.
Trump has made statements to the effect that the U.S. should “expand its nuclear capability,” and that, “We have nuclear arsenals that are in very terrible shape. They don’t even know if they work.” Such statements have typically been qualified by his aides. It’s hard to tell whether they reflect serious policy commitments, or just vague impressions based on a few minutes of conversation with some Pentagon wonk. In fact, there are deep differences of opinion about these matters within the nuclear establishment. That’s why the eventual content of the NPR might be problematic. There have always been people within the nuclear establishment, whether at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency within the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining the stockpile, or in the military, who are champing at the bit to resume nuclear testing. Occasionally they will bluntly question the reliability of the weapons in our stockpile, even though by that very act they diminish the credibility of our nuclear deterrent. If Trump’s comments are to be taken seriously, the next NPR may reflect the fact that they have gained the upper hand. That would be unfortunate.
Is it really true that the weapons in our arsenal are “in very terrible shape,” and we “don’t even know if they work?” I doubt it. In the first place, the law requires that both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense sign off on an annual assessment that certifies the safety and reliability of the stockpile. They have never failed to submit that certification. Beyond that, the weapons in our stockpile are the final product of more than 1000 nuclear tests. They are both safe and robust. Any credible challenge to their safety and reliability must cite some plausible reason why they might fail. I know of no such reason.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider what might go wrong. Modern weapons typically consist of a primary and a secondary. The primary consists of a hollow “pit” of highly enriched uranium or plutonium surrounded by high explosive. Often it is filled with a “boost” gas consisting of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen. When the weapon is used, the high explosive implodes the pit, causing it to form a dense mass that is highly supercritical. At the same time, nuclear fusion takes place in the boost gas, producing highly energetic neutrons that enhance the yield of the primary. At the right moment an “initiator” sends a burst of neutrons into the imploded pit, setting off a chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion. Some of the tremendous energy released in this explosion in the form of x-rays then implodes the secondary, causing it, too, to explode, adding to the yield of the weapon.
What could go wrong? Of course, explosives are volatile. Those used to implode the primary might deteriorate over time. However, these explosives are carefully monitored to detect any such deterioration. Other than that, the tritium in the boost gas is radioactive, and has a half life of only a little over 12 years. It will gradually decay into helium, reducing the effectiveness of boosting. This, too, however is a well understood process, and one which is carefully monitored and compensated for by timely replacement of the tritium. Corrosion of key parts might occur, but this too, is carefully checked, and the potential sources are well understood. All these potential sources of uncertainty affect the primary. However, much of the uncertainty about their effects can be eliminated experimentally. Of course, the experiments can’t include actual nuclear explosions, but surrogate materials can be substituted for the uranium and plutonium in the pit with similar properties. The implosion process can then be observed using powerful x-ray or proton beams. Unfortunately, our experimental capabilities in this area are limited. We cannot observe the implosion process all the way from the initial explosion to the point at which maximum density is achieved in three dimensions taking “snapshots” at optimally short intervals. To do that, we would need what has been referred to as an Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.
We currently have an unmatched suite of above ground experimental facilities for studying the effects of aging on the weapons in our stockpile, including the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z Machine at Sandia National Laboratories, and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT) at Los Alamos. These give us a very significant leg up on the international competition when it comes to maintaining our stockpile. That is a major reason why it would be foolish for us to resume nuclear testing. We would be throwing away this advantage. Unfortunately, while we once seriously considered building an AHF, basically an extremely powerful accelerator, we never got around to doing so. It was a serious mistake. If we had such a facility, it would effectively pull the rug out from under the feet of those who want to resume testing. It would render all arguments to the effect that “we don’t even know if they work” moot. We could demonstrate with a very high level of confidence that they will indeed work.
But that’s water under the bridge. We must hope that cooler heads prevail, and the NPR doesn’t turn out to be a polemic challenging the credibility of the stockpile and advising a resumption of testing. We’re likely to find out one way or the other before the end of the year. Keep your fingers crossed.
Posted on April 2nd, 2017 5 comments
It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality. Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it. Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality. They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions. As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.
Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning. According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid. Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God. However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in. With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.
Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions. Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.” However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.
Evolution is a natural process. As such, it has no purpose or goal. It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.
The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past. It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now. It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.
Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature. They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.
Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy. In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do. That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals. It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.
In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity. They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.
Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it. These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways. In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed. Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals. However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.
Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them. It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then. When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past. One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.
So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior. Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small? The answer lies in morality itself. More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups. When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people. Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality. Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup. It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe. We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing. The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above. As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.
Why do I bother to write about morality? Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above. I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject. One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right. One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind? Assuming they exist, can you show one to me? Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing? Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”
The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us. For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with. Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path. Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors. When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders. H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift. From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative. In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned. The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful. As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.
I know, I’m grasping at straws. The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck. He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him. The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work. His example is hardly encouraging. On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing. Therefore, I will do something. I will continue to write.
Posted on March 19th, 2017 No comments
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Who was Philip Hone? Well, he was born in 1780, died in 1851, and lived in New York City. He was the son of a German immigrant who became wealthy in the auction business. He was active in the Whig Party, and even claimed he supplied it with its name. However, his real gift to posterity was a very entertaining and informative diary covering the years from 1828 until his death.
Do you have trouble remembering even the names of all those Presidents who were in office between Monroe and Lincoln, not to mention anything they actually did or stood for? Philip Hone can help you out. He knew some of them personally and had much to say about them, both good and bad. He was as much in awe about the railroad, steamship and telegraph as we are about jet travel and the Internet. He gives us an insiders look at the economy and culture of New York in the early 19th century, as well as vignettes of some its most distinguished visitors. He also confirmed what most people other than Marxist historians and southern elementary school teachers have known all along; the Civil War was about slavery.
It’s odd, really, that so many people are capable of denying something so obvious. The northerners who lived through the events in question thought the Civil War was about slavery. The southerners alive at the time thought it was about slavery. Foreign observers were in virtually unanimous agreement that it was about slavery. Source literature confirming it is available in abundance. It doesn’t matter. As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, ideological narratives, no matter how ludicrous, can trump historical facts with ease. So it is with slavery and the Civil War.
I know I’m not likely to open closed minds, but as my own humble contribution to historical integrity, I will help Mr. Hone spread the word. There are many allusions to the slavery question in his diary. In the entry for November 17, 1837, we learn that passions were already running high nearly a quarter of a century before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter:
The terrible abolition question is fated, I fear, to destroy the union of the States, and to endanger the peace and happiness of our western world. Both parties are getting more and more confirmed in their obstinacy, and more intolerant in their prejudices. A recent disgraceful affair has occurred in the town of Alton, State of Illinois, which is calculated to excite the most painful feelings in all those who respect the laws and desire the continuance of national peace and union. Alton is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, and opposite the slave-holding State of Missouri. An abolition paper was established there, called the “Alton Observer,” which, becoming obnoxious to the slaveholders, was assailed and the establishment destroyed, some time since, by an ungovernable mob; an attempt was recently made to reestablish the paper, which caused another most disgraceful outrage, in which two persons were killed and several wounded.
In the entry for October 22, 1939, Hone set down his thoughts on the famous “Amistead” incident:
There is great excitement in relation to the arrest of two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the owners of the revolted slaves who were taken on board the “Amistead,” and are now in prison in Connecticut. This outrageous proceeding is the work of the abolitionists, who, in their officious zeal, have obtained affidavits from the wretched Africans, who, ignorant of our language, probably knew not what they were swearing about. These affidavits, charging their owners with assault and battery, were made the grounds of this arrest, and the Spaniards are in prison. Writs of habeas corpus have been issued, and the subject is now submitted to the judges, who, it is hoped, will see reason to discharge the men who escaped so narrowly from the conspiracy in which the lives of other white men were sacrificed. The fanatics are working day and night to make this bad matter worse; under the specious cloak of an abstract opposition to slavery, they are blowing up a flame which may destroy the Union, and light up a civil war between men who have no interest so strong as to belong to a brotherhood of patriots.
Hone disliked slavery, but disliked the abolitionists even more. To him they represented a gratuitous threat to the Union. Speaking of the Whig convention to nominate a candidate for President on December 9, 1839, he writes,
The accursed question (slavery, ed.) is destined to mix up with all national questions, and in the end to alter the essential features of our government, if not to cause a separation of the States and a dissolution of the Union. The opposition to Mr. Clay from this quarter is so strong, that even if nominated he could not (in the opinion of a majority of the convention) have been elected, and it was perhaps good policy to take (William Henry) Harrison, who may succeed if the friends of Mr. Clay exercise that magnanimity which it appears they could not calculate upon from a portion, at least, of the friends of his rivals.
Speaking of the famous battle over the right to petition Congress against slavery in 1842, we learn that the South wasn’t the only source of agitation for disunion. Indeed, it came from none other than a former Yankee President as well – John Quincy Adams:
The House of Representatives presents every day a scene of violence, personal abuse, and vulgar crimination, almost as bad as those which disgraced the National Assembly of France in the early stages of the “Reign of Terror.” Mr. Adams, with the most provoking pertinacity, continues to present petitions intended to irritate the Southern members, and by language and manner equally calculated to disgust his friends and exasperate his enemies, and does something every day to alienate the respect which all are disposed to render to his consummate learning and admirable talents… Among other insane movements of the ex-President, he has presented a petition praying for a repeal of the Union, because the petitioners are deprived of the privilege of agitating the terrible question of slavery; and their right to bring forward a proposition so monstrous, and his to be their organ of communication with the Congress of the nation, is enforced with the indomitable obstinacy which marks all his conduct of late.
As Hone’s life nears its end, references to the “accursed question” become more frequent. The entries for 1850 include the following:
The great South Carolina senator (John C. Calhoun, ed.) died in Washington, on Sunday morning, March 31, of a disease of the heart… the South has lost her champion; slavery, its defender; and nullification and (we are compelled to say) disunion, their apologists.
The dreadful question of slavery which has cast an inextinguishable brand of discord between the North and the South of this hitherto happy land, has taken a tangible and definite shape on the question of the admission of the new State of California into the Union with the Constitution of her own framing and adoption. The flame is no longer smothered; the fanatics of the North and the disunionists of the South have made a gulf so deep that no friendly foot can pass it; enmity so fierce that reason cannot allay it; unconquerable, sectional jealousy, and the most bitter personal hostility. A dissolution of the Union, which until now it was treason to think of, much more to utter, is the subject of the daily harangues of the factionists in both Houses of Congress. Compromise is at an end.
When will all this end? I see no remedy! If California is admitted with the prohibition of slavery which themselves have adopted, or if the national district is freed by the action of Congress from the traffic in human flesh, the South stands ready to retire from the Union, and bloody wars will be the fatal consequence. White men will cut each others throats, and servile insurrections will render the fertile fields of the South a deserted monument to the madness of man.
One can find more or less the same sentiments in literally thousands of source documents. The Civil War was fought over slavery. I know that learned history professors, Confederate heritage zealots, and southern school teachers will continue to gasp out their denials even if they’re buried beneath a dump truck full of diaries. I can only offer the humble, and probably futile suggestion, that they return to the real world.
Aside from his comments on the slavery issue, Hone’s diary is a trove of observations and anecdotes about a great number of other happenings of both historical and personal interest. For example, for those interested in comparing the news media then and now,
There is little dependence upon newspapers as a record of facts, any more than in their political dogmas or confessions of faith. If they do not lie from dishonest motives, their avidity to have something new and in advance of others leads them to take up everything that comes to hand without proper examination, adopting frequently the slightly grounded impressions of their informers for grave truths, setting upon them the stamp of authenticity, and sending them upon the wings of the wind to fill the ears and eyes of the extensive American family of the gullibles.
Hone was convinced that early instances of election fraud proved that universal suffrage would not work, or at least not in big cities;
The affair is an unpleasant one… It discloses a disgusting scene of villainy in the conduct of our elections, and proves that universal suffrage will not do for great cities. It proves also the necessity for a registry law, which is a Whig measure, and has been violently opposed by the very men who are now so sensitive on the subject of illegal voting, when it works against them.
The astute author has some good words to say about my own alma mater:
In the list of noble young fellows whose gallant conduct, indomitable bravery, and military accomplishments in the Mexican war redound to the glory of West Point, their military alma-mater, there are several New York boys, sons of our friends and associates, who, if they ever get back, will come to their homes covered with glory, jewels in our city’s treasury, the pride of their parents and the children of the Republic. These are the fruits of a West Point education. Shame on the malignant demagogues who have labored to overthrow such an institution!
Hear, hear! When it came to sports, they didn’t believe in half measures in those days:
The amusement of prize-fighting, the disgrace of which was formerly confined to England, to the grief and mortification of the moral and respectable part of her subjects, and the disgust of travelers from other countries, has become one of the fashionable abominations of our loafer-ridden city… One of those infamous meetings took place yesterday on the bank of the North river in Westchester, the particulars of which are given at length in that precious sheet (The New York Herald, ed.) and others of a similar character. Two men, named Lilly and McCoy, thumped and battered each other for the gratification of a brutal gang of spectators, until the latter, after one hundred and nineteen rounds, fell dead in the ring, and the other ruffian was smuggled away and made his escape from the hands of insulted justice.
As they say in the blogosphere, read the whole thing. You’ll find much similar material as seen from a somewhat different perspective than you’re likely to find in your average high school history book.
Posted on March 12th, 2017 10 comments
As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The history of the Blank Slate is a perfect illustration of what he meant. You might say there are two factions in the academic ingroup; those who are deeply embarrassed by the Blank Slate, and those who are still bitterly clinging to it. History as it actually happened is damaging to both factions, so they’ve both created imaginary versions that support their preferred narratives. At this point the “official” histories have become hopelessly muddled. I recently ran across an example of how this affects younger academics who are trying to make sense of what’s going on in their own fields in an article entitled, Sociology’s Stagnation at the Quillette website. It was written by Brian Boutwell, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University.
Boutwell cites an article published back in 1990 by sociologist Pierre van den Berghe excoriating the practitioners in his own specialty. Van den Berghe was one of those rare sociologists who insisted on the relevance of evolved behavioral traits to his field. He did not mince words. Boutwell quotes several passages from the article, including the following:
Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognize it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.
In response, Boutwell writes,
Intellectually bankrupt? Those are strong words. Can a field survive like this? It can, and it has. Hundreds of new sociology PhDs are minted every year across the country (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that are conferred as well). How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.
In other words, Boutwell thinks the prevailing malaise in Sociology continues because sociologists don’t know about Darwin. He may be right in some cases, but that’s not really the problem. The problem is that the Blank Slate still prevails in sociology. It is probably the most opaque of all the behavioral “sciences.” In fact, it is just an ideological narrative pretending to be a science, just as psychology was back in the day when van den Berghe wrote his article. Psychologists deal with individuals. As a result they have to look at behavior a lot closer to the source of what motivates it. As most reasonably intelligent lay people have been aware for millennia, it is motivated by human nature. By the end of the 90’s, naturalists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists had heaped up such piles of evidence supporting that fundamental fact that psychologists who tried to prop up the threadbare shibboleths of the Blank Slate ran the risk of becoming laughing stocks. By 2000 most of them had thrown in the towel. Not so the sociologists. They deal with masses of human beings. It was much easier for them to insulate themselves from the truth by throwing up a smokescreen of “culture.” They’ve been masturbating with statistics ever since.
Boutwell thinks the solution is for them to learn some evolutionary biology. I’m not sure which version of the “history” gave him that idea. However, if he knew how the Blank Slate really went down, he might change his mind. Evolutionary biologists and scientists in related fields were part of the heart and soul of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. They knew all about genes, Mendel’s laws, and sexual selection, but it didn’t help. Darwin? They simply redacted those parts of his work that affirmed the relationship between natural selection, human nature in general, and morality in particular. No matter that Darwin himself was perfectly well aware of the connections. For these “scientists,” an ideological narrative trumped scientific integrity until the mass of evidence finally rendered the narrative untenable.
Of course, one could always claim that I’m just supporting an ideological narrative of my own. Unfortunately, that claim would have to explain away a great deal of source material, and because the events in question are so recent, the source material is still abundant and easily accessible. If Prof. Boutwell were to consult it he would find that evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, geneticists like Richard Lewontin, and many others like them considered the Blank Slate the very “triumph of evolution.” I suggest that anyone with doubts on that score have a look at a book that bears that title by scientific historian Hamilton Cravens published in 1978 during the very heyday of the Blank Slate. It is very well researched, cites scores of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and behavioral scientists, and concludes that all the work of these people who were perfectly familiar with Darwin culminated in the triumphant establishment of the Blank Slate as “scientific truth,” or, as announced by the title of his book, “The Triumph of Evolution.” His final paragraph gives a broad hint about how something so ridiculous could ever have been accepted as an unquestionable dogma. It reads,
The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society. Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.
Here, unbeknownst to himself, Cravens hit the nail on the head. Social control was exactly what the Blank Slate was all about. It was essential that the ideal denizens of the future utopias that the Blank Slaters had in mind for us have enough “malleability” and “plasticity” to play their assigned parts. “Human nature” in the form of genetically transmitted behavioral predispositions would only gum things up. They had to go, and go they did. Ideology trumped and derailed science, and kept it derailed for more than half a century. As Boutwell has noticed, it remains derailed in sociology and a few other specialties that have managed to develop similarly powerful allergic reactions to the real world. Reading Darwin isn’t likely to help a bit.
One of the best books on the genesis of the Blank Slate is In Search of Human Nature, by Carl Degler. It was published in 1991, well after the grip of the Blank Slate on the behavioral sciences had begun to loosen, and presents a somewhat more sober and realistic portrayal of the affair than Cravens’ triumphalist account. Among other things it gives an excellent account of the genesis of the Blank Slate. As portrayed by Degler, in the beginning it hadn’t yet become such a blatant tool for social control. One could better describe it as an artifact of idealistic cravings. Then, as now, one of the most important of these was the desire for human equality, not only under the law, but in a much more real, physical sense, among both races and individuals. If human nature existed and was important, than such equality was out of the question. Perfect equality was only possible if every human mind started out as a Blank Slate.
Degler cites the work of several individuals as examples of this nexus between the ideal of equality and the Blank Slate, but I will focus on one in particular; John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism. One of the commenters to an earlier post suggested that the behaviorists weren’t Blank Slaters. I think that he, too, is suffering from historical myopia. Again, it’s always useful to look at the source material for yourself. In his book, Behaviorism, published in 1924, Watson notes that all human beings breathe, sneeze, have hearts that beat, etc., but have no inherited traits that might reasonably be described as human nature. In those days, psychologists like William James referred to hereditary behavioral traits as “instincts.” According to Watson,
In this relatively simple list of human responses there is none corresponding to what is called an “instinct” by present-day psychologists and biologists. There are then for us no instincts – we no longer need the term in psychology. Everything we have been in the habit of calling an “instinct” today is the result largely of training – belongs to man’s learned behavior.
A bit later on he writes,
The behaviorist recognizes no such things as mental traits, dispositions or tendencies. Hence, for him, there is no use in raising the question of the inheritance of talent in its old form.
In case we’re still in doubt about his Blank Slate bona fides, a few pages later he adds,
I should like to go one step further now and say, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years. Please note that when this experiment is made I am to be allowed to specify the way the children are to be brought up and the type of world they have to live in.
Here, in a nutshell, we can see the genesis of hundreds of anecdotes about learned professors dueling over the role of “nature” versus “nurture,” in venues ranging from highbrow intellectual journals to several episodes of The Three Stooges. Watson seems to be literally pulling at our sleeves and insisting, “No, really, I’m a Blank Slater.” Under the circumstances I’m somewhat dubious about the claim that Watson, Skinner, and the rest of the behaviorists don’t belong in that category.
What motivated Watson and others like him to begin this radical reshaping of the behavioral sciences? I’ve already alluded to the answer above. To make a long story short, they wanted to create a science that was “fair.” For example, Watson was familiar with the history of the Jukes family outlined in an account of a study by Richard Dugdale published in 1877. It documented unusually high levels of all kinds of criminal behavior in the family. Dugdale himself insisted on the role of environmental as well as hereditary factors in explaining the family’s criminality, but later interpreters of his work focused on heredity alone. Apparently Watson considered such an hereditary burden unfair. He decided to demonstrate “scientifically” that a benign environment could have converted the entire family into model citizens. Like many other scientists in his day, Watson abhorred the gross examples of racial discrimination in his society, as well as the crude attempts of the Social Darwinists to justify it. He concluded that “science” must support a version of reality that banished all forms of inequality. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I could go on and on about the discrepancies one can find between the “history” of the Blank Slate and source material that’s easily available to anyone willing to do a little searching. Unfortunately, I’ve already gone on long enough for a single blog post. Just be a little skeptical the next time you read an account of the affair in some textbook. It ain’t necessarily so.
Posted on February 26th, 2017 5 comments
In a recent post I pointed out the irrational embrace of objective morality by some public intellectuals in spite of their awareness of morality’s evolutionary roots. In fact, I know of only one scientist/philosopher who has avoided this non sequitur; Edvard Westermarck. A commenter suggested that Alex Rosenberg was another example of such a philosopher. In fact, he’s anything but. He’s actually a perfect example of the type I described in my earlier post.
A synopsis of Rosenberg’s philosophy may be found in his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality. Rosenberg is a proponent of “scientism.” He notes the previous, pejorative use of the term, but announces that he will expropriate it. In his words,
…we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.” This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today… Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understating is all about.
Well, I’m “one of us atheists,” and while I would agree that science is the best and most effective method to secure knowledge of anything, I hardly agree that it is the only method, nor do I agree that it is always reliable. For that matter, I doubt that Rosenberg believes it either. He dismisses all the humanities with a wave of the hand as alternate ways of knowing, with particular emphasis on history. In fact, one of his chapters is entitled, “History Debunked.” In spite of that, his book is laced with allusions to history and historical figures.
For that matter, we could hardly do without history as a “way of knowing” just what kind of a specimen we’re dealing with. It turns out that, whether knowingly or not, Rosenberg is an artifact of the Blank Slate. I reached convulsively for my crucifix as I encountered the telltale stigmata. As those who know a little history are aware, the Blank Slate was a massive corruption of science involving what amounted to the denial of the existence of human nature that lasted for more than half a century. It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. It should come as no surprise that Rosenberg doesn’t mention it, and seems blithely unaware that it ever happened. It flies in the face of the rosy picture of science he’s trying to paint for us.
We first get an inkling of where Rosenberg fits in the context of scientific history when he refers approvingly to the work of Richard Lewontin, who is described as a “well-known biologist.” That description is a bit disingenuous. Lewontin may well be a “well-known biologist,” but he was also one of the high priests of the Blank Slate. As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate,
Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the “generalizations of eating, excreting, and sleeping.” The rest of the slate, presumably, is blank.
Lewontin embraced “scientific” Marxism, and alluded to the teachings of Marx often in his work. His “scientific” method of refuting those who disagreed with him was to call them racists and fascists. He even insisted that a man with such sterling leftist bona fides as Richard Trivers be dismissed as a lackey of the bourgeoisie. It seems to me these facts are worth mentioning about anyone we may happen to tout as a “scientific expert.” Rosenberg never gets around to it.
A bit further on, Rosenberg again refers approvingly to another of the iconic figures of the Blank Slate; B. F. Skinner. He cites Skinner’s theories as if there had never been anything the least bit controversial about them. In fact, as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,
Skinner… preferred language of control and domination. He spoke of behavioral engineering and manipulation, and not just in relation to animals. Later in life he sought to turn humans into happy, productive, and “maximally effective” citizens.
B. F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior. Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered. His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century. Loosening its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.
Behaviorism, with its promise of the almost perfect malleability of behavior in humans and other animals, was a favorite prop of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Such malleability was a prerequisite for the creation of “maximally effective” citizens to occupy the future utopias they were concocting for us.
Reading on, we find Rosenberg relating another of the favorite yarns of the Blank Slaters of old, the notion that our Pleistocene ancestors’ primary source of meat came from scavenging. They would scamper out, we are told, and steal choice bones from the kills of large predators, then scamper back to their hiding places and smash the bones with rocks to get at the marrow. This fanciful theory was much in fashion back in the 60’s when books disputing Blank Slate ideology and insisting on the existence and significance of human nature first started to appear. These often mentioned aggression as one aspect of human behavior, an assertion that never failed to whip the Blank Slaters into a towering rage. Hunting, of course, might be portrayed as a form of aggression. Therefore it was necessary to deny that it ever happened early enough to have an effect on evolved human behavioral traits. In those days, of course, we were so ignorant of primate behavior that Blank Slater Ashley Montagu was able to write with a perfectly straight face that chimpanzees are,
…anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is no reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.
We’ve learned a few things in the ensuing years. Jane Goodall observed both organized hunting behavior and murderous attacks on neighboring bands carried out by these “amiable” creatures. For reporting these observations she was furiously denounced and insulted in the most demeaning terms. Meanwhile, chimps have been observed using sticks as thrusting spears, and fire-hardened spears were found associated with a Homo erectus campsite dated to some 400,000 years ago. There is evidence that stone-tipped spears were used as far back as 500,000 years ago, and much more similar evidence of early hunting behavior has surfaced. Articles about early hunting behavior have even appeared in the reliably politically correct Scientific American, not to mention that stalwart pillar of progressive ideology, PBS. In other words, the whole scavenging thing is moot. Apparently no one bothered to pass the word to Rosenberg. No matter, he still includes enough evolutionary psychology in his book to keep up appearances.
In spite of the fact that he writes with the air of a scientific insider who is letting us in on all kinds of revelations that we are to believe have been set in stone by “science” in recent years, and that we should never dare to question, Rosenberg shows similar signs of being a bit wobbly when it comes to actually knowing what he’s talking about elsewhere in the book. For example, he seems to have a fascination with fermions and bosons, mentioning them often in the book. He tells us that,
…everything is made up of these two kinds of things. Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of.
Well, not exactly. If matter isn’t composed of bosons, it will come as news to the helium atoms engaging in one of the neat tricks only bosons are capable of in the Wiki article on superfluidity. As it happens, one of the many outcomes of the fundamental difference between bosons and fermions is that bosons are usually force carriers, but the notion that it actually is the fundamental difference is just disinformation, and a particularly unfortunate instance thereof at that. I say that because our understanding of that difference is the outcome of an elegant combination of theoretical insight and mathematics. I lack the space to go into detail here, but it follows from the indistinguishability of quantum particles. I suggest that anyone interested in the real difference between bosons and fermions consult an elementary quantum textbook. These usually boil the necessary math down to a level that should be accessible to any high school graduate who has taken an honors course or two in the subject.
There are some more indications of the real depth of Rosenberg’s scientific understanding in his description of some of the books he recommends to his readers so they can “come up to speed” with him. For example, he tells us that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, “…argues for a sophisticated evolutionary account of several cognitive capacities critical for speech.” Well, not really. As the title implies Pinker’s The Blank Slate is about The Blank Slate. I can only conclude that cognitive dissonance must have set in when Rosenberg read it, because that apocalypse in the behavioral sciences doesn’t fit too well in his glowing tale of the triumphant progress of science. Elsewhere he tells us that,
At its outset, human history might have been predictable just because the arms races were mainly biological. That’s what enabled Jared Diamond to figure out how and why western Europeans came to dominate the globe over a period that lasted 8000 years or so in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Diamond is only applying an approach to human history made explicit by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature more than 30 years ago (1978)…”
Seriously? Guns, Germs and Steel was actually an attempt to explain differences between human cultures in terms of environmental factors, whereas in On Human Nature Wilson doubled down on his mild assault on the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology, insisting on the existence and significance of evolved human behavioral traits. I can only conclude that, assuming Rosenberg actually read the books, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading.
With that let’s consider what Rosenberg has to say about morality. He certainly seems to “get it” in the beginning of the book. He describes himself as a “nihilist” when it comes to morality. I consider that a bad choice of words, but whatever. According to Rosenberg,
Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required. Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong. More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally responsible” is untenable nonsense. As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.” That, too, is untenable nonsense.
Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value. People think that there are things that are intrinsically valuable, not just as a means to something else: human life or the ecology of the planet or the master race or elevated states of consciousness, for example. But nothing can have that sort of intrinsic value – the very kind of value morality requires. Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself. Therefore, nihilism can’t be accused of advocating the moral goodness of, say, political violence or anything else.
A promising beginning, no? Sounds very Westermarckian. But don’t jump to conclusions! Before the end of the book we will find Rosenberg doing a complete intellectual double back flip when it comes to this so-called “nihilism.” We will witness him chanting a few magic words over the ghost of objective morality, and then see it rise zombie-like from the grave he just dug for it.
Rosenberg begins the pilgrimage from subjectivity to objectivity by evoking what he calls “core morality.” He presents us with two premises about it, namely,
First premise: All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core principles as binding on everyone.
Second premise: The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness – for our survival and reproduction.
Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it, but then we learn some things that appear a bit counterintuitive about core morality. For example,
There is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans. Among competing core moralities, it was the one that somehow came closest to maximizing the average fitness of our ancestors over a long enough period that it became almost universal. For all we know, the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us. Let’s hope so, at any rate, since core morality is almost surely locked in by now.
Are you kidding me? There is not even a remote chance that “the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.” Here, Rosenberg is whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the role he has in store for his “core morality.” He is forced to make this patently absurd statement about our supposedly static environment because otherwise “core morality” couldn’t perform its necessary role in bringing the zombie back to life. How can it perform that neat trick? Well, according to Rosenberg,
Along with everyone else, the most scientistic among us accept these core principles as binding. (!!)
Some nihilism, no? Suddenly, Rosenberg’s “core morality” has managed to jump right out of his skull onto our backs and is “binding” us! Of course, it would be too absurd even for Rosenberg to insist that this “binding” feature was still in effect in spite of the radical changes in the environment that have obviously happened since “core morality” supposedly evolved. Hence, he has to deny the obvious with his ludicrous suggestion that the environment hasn’t changed. Meanwhile, the distinction noted by Westermarck between that which is thought to be binding, and that which actually is binding, has become very fuzzy. We are well on the way back to the safe haven of objective morality.
To sweeten the pill, Rosenberg assures us that core morality is “nice,” and cites all sorts of game theory experiments to prove it. He wonders,
Once its saddled with nihilism, can scientism make room for the moral progress that most of us want the world to make? No problem.
“Moral progress?” That is a contradiction in terms unless morality and its rules exist as objective things in themselves. How is “progress” possible if morality is really an artifact of evolution, and consequently has neither purpose nor goal? Rosenberg puts stuff like this right in the middle of his pronouncements that morality is really subjective. You could easily get whiplash reading his book. The icing on the cake of “niceness” turns out to be altruistic behavior towards non-kin, which is also supposed to have evolved to enhance “fitness.” Since one rather fundamental difference between the environment “then” and “now” is that “then” humans normally lived in communities of and interacted mainly with only about 150 people, the idea that they were really dealing with non-kin, and certainly any idea that similar behavior must work just as well between nations consisting of millions of not quite so closely related individuals is best taken with a grain of salt.
Other then a few very perfunctory references, Rosenberg shows a marked reticence to discuss human behavior that is not so nice. Of course, there is no mention of the ubiquitous occurrence of warfare between human societies since the dawn of recorded time. After all, that would be history, and hasn’t Rosenberg told us that history is bunk? He never mentions such “un-nice” traits as ingroup-outgroup behavior, or territoriality. That’s odd, since we can quickly identify his own outgroup, thanks to some virtue signaling remarks about “Thatcherite Republicans,” and science-challenged conservatives. As for those who get too far out of line he writes,
Recall the point made early in this chapter that even most Nazis may have really shared a common moral code with us. The qualification “most” reflects the fact that a lot of them, especially at the top of the SS, were just psychopaths and sociopaths with no core morality.
Really? What qualifies Rosenberg to make such a statement? Did he examine their brains? Did neuroscientists subject them to experiments before they died? It would seem that if we don’t “get our minds right” about core morality we could well look forward to being “cured” the way “psychopaths and sociopaths” were “cured” in the old Soviet Union.
By the time we get to the end of the book, the subjective façade has been entirely dismantled, and the “core morality” zombie has jettisoned the last of its restraints. Rosenberg’s continued insistence on the non-existence of objective good and bad has deteriorated to a mere matter of semantics. Consider, for example, the statement,
Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not require of us. Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right – or wrong. There is no such thing.
That should be comforting news to the inmates of the asylum who didn’t do what was “required” of them. We learn that,
Almost certainly, when all these facts are decided, it will turn out that core morality doesn’t contain any blanket prohibition or permission of abortion as such. Rather, together with the facts that science can at least in principle uncover, core morality will provide arguments in favor of some abortions and against other abortions, depending on the circumstances.
The pro-life people shouldn’t entirely despair, however, because,
Scientism allows that sometimes the facts of a case will combine with core morality to prohibit abortion, even when the woman demands it as a natural right.
That’s about as wild and crazy as Rosenberg gets, though. In fact, he’s not a scientist but a leftist ideologue, and we soon find him scurrying back to the confines of his ideologically defined ingroup, core morality held firmly under his arm. He assures us that,
…when you combine our core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics. In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda. No wonder most scientists in the United States are Democrats and in the United Kingdom are Labour Party supporters or Liberal Democrats.
Core morality reaches out its undead hand for the criminal justice system as well:
There are other parts of core morality that permit or even require locking people up – for example, to protect others and to deter, reform, rehabilitate, and reeducate the wrongdoer.
That would be a neat trick – reeducating wrongdoers if there really isn’t such a thing as wrong. No matter, core morality is now not only alive but is rapidly turning into a dictator with “requirements.”
Core morality may permit unearned inequalities, but it is certainly not going to require them without some further moral reason to do so. In fact, under many circumstances, core morality is going to permit the reduction of inequalities, for it requires that wealth and income that people have no right to be redistributed to people in greater need. Scientism assures us that no one has any moral rights. Between them, core morality and scientism turn us into closet egalitarians.
Did you get that? Your “selfish genes” are now demanding that you give away your money to unrelated people even if the chances that this will ever help those genes to survive and reproduce are vanishingly small. Rosenberg concludes,
So, scientism plus core morality turn out to be redistributionist and egalitarian, even when combined with free-market economics. No wonder Republicans in the United States have such a hard time with science.
Did his outgroup just pop up on your radar screen? It should have. At this point any rational consequences of the evolved origins and subjective nature of morality have been shown the door. The magical combination of scientism and core morality has us in a leftist full nelson. They “require” us to do the things that Rosenberg considers “nice,” and refrain from doing the things he considers “not nice.” In principle, he dismisses the idea of free will. However, in this case we will apparently be allowed just a smidgeon of it if we happen to be “Thatcherite Republicans.” Just enough to get our minds right and return us to a “nice” deterministic track.
In a word, Rosenberg is no Westermarck. In fact, he is a poster boy for leftist ideologues who like to pose as “moral nihilists,” but get an unholy pleasure out of dictating moral rules to the rest of us. His “scientific” pronouncements are written with all the cocksure hubris characteristic of ideologues, and sorely lack the reticence more appropriate for real scientists. There is no substantial difference between the illusion that there are objective moral laws, and Rosenberg’s illusion that a “core morality” utterly divorced from its evolutionary origins is capable of dictating what we ought and ought not to do.
It’s not really that hard to understand. The ingroup, or tribe, if you will, of leftist ideologues like Rosenberg and the other examples I mentioned in recent posts, lives in a box defined by ideological shibboleths. Its members can make as many bombastic pronouncements about moral nihilism as they like, but in the end they must either kowtow to the shibboleths or be ostracized from the tribe. That’s a sacrifice that none of them, at least to the best of my knowledge, has ever been willing to make. If my readers are aware of any other “counter-examples,” I would be happy to examine them in my usual spirit of charity.
Posted on February 18th, 2017 8 comments
A few years ago I moved into an almost entirely Mormon neighborhood. It turns out that Mormons are a great deal more tolerant than the average atheist Social Justice Warrior. As a result I was able to learn some things about them that certainly won’t be news to other Mormons, but may interest the readers of this blog.
One day, shortly after my arrival, I was chatting with my next door neighbor, and she mentioned that some of the neighbors in our age group were in the habit of getting together socially every other week, and wondered if I would like to tag along. I said, “Sure.” She suggested I ride along with her and her husband, as the group rotated from house to house, and they knew the neighborhood. Well, when we were underway, she casually slipped me a large Bible. It turns out that the “social gathering” was what the Mormons call Family Home Evening, or FHE. The host is responsible for coming up with a program that relates to the church in some way. This time around it involved each guest reading passages from the Bible with a common theme, which the group would then discuss. At other times the Book of Mormon or other Mormon religious books might be substituted for the Bible. Once we were to act out different parables, and the others would try to guess what they were. On another occasion there was a presentation about the Mormon system of indexing genealogical records, and how volunteers might help with the process. I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable with any of this, as I attended Sunday School regularly and went to church camps as a child, and still know my Bible fairly well.
After the first meeting I e-mailed my neighbor to thank her for taking me to FHE, but told her that I had no intention of changing my religion. I quoted my favorite Bible passage, Ephesians 2: 8-9 in self defense. It goes like this:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: It is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
I strongly recommend it to my fellow atheists. It’s great for warding off pesky proselytizers. After all, if you’ve read the Bible and have an open mind, then nothing more can be done for you by human agency. The rest depends on God, “lest any man should boast.” It usually works, but not this time. It turns out my neighbor was something of an activist in the Mormon community, and was bound and determined to make sure that when “grace” came, I would be standing close enough to the source to notice it. She said that I’d made a very favorable impression on the other neighbors, and they would be very disappointed if I stopped coming to FHE. They knew I wasn’t a Mormon, but it didn’t matter.
Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and I agreed to keep coming. I must admit with a certain degree of shame that I never flat out said I was an atheist. I mentioned that an ancestor had been a Baptist preacher, and I think they took me for some kind of a hard core Protestant, probably with a distinct Calvinist bent. As an extenuating circumstance I might mention that I’m not much of a cook, and delicious snacks were served at the end of each meeting. I’m not talking potato chips. I’m not sure if “my” FHE was typical, but these people were real gourmets. They laid out some goodies that gladdened my heart, and were a welcome relief from the hamburgers and bologna sandwiches that were my usual fare. It’s possible my FHE was an outlier in things other than food as well. My boss was a Mormon, and seemed surprised when he heard that I attended. He said I’d better watch out. I was getting pretty close to the fire!
In the meetings that followed I always felt accepted by the group, and never “othered” for not being a Mormon. None of them ever came to my door to engage in spiritual arm twisting (that was limited to the local Jehovah’s Witnesses), nor was I ever subjected to any heavy-handed attempts at conversion. They did let me know on occasion that, if I had any questions about the church, they would be glad to answer them. They also encouraged me to come to church to see what it was like, and always invited me to other Mormon social affairs. These included a barn dance, “Trick or Trunk,” a convenient substitute for trick or treating on Halloween at which candy is passed out from the trunks of cars parked side by side, Christmas dinner at the church, a Christmas pageant, etc. The atmosphere at these affairs always reminded me of the church I grew up in during the 50’s and 60’s. Now it is a typical mainstream Protestant church, attended mainly by people who appear to be well over 70, but in those days it was a great deal more vibrant, with a big congregation that included many children. So it was in the Mormon church. There were members of all ages, and there must have been 50 boys and girls in the children’s choir. In a word, you didn’t get the feeling that the church was dying.
I did attend church on one occasion, and it was quite different from a typical Protestant service. To begin, there are no regular pastors. Everything is done by lay people. The church services last about three hours. Ours was divided into a general service, another lesson delivered by one of the lay people, and another period in which the men and women were divided into separate groups. Of course, there’s also Sunday school for the children.
Each church is attended by one or more “wards,” and there are several wards in a “stake.” Each ward has a lay “Bishop,” who is appointed for a period of five years, give or take. The stake is headed by a lay “President,” also appointed for a limited time. These part time clergymen aren’t paid, don’t get to wear any gorgeous vestments, and certainly nothing like the Pope’s Gucci slippers, but they still have all the counseling, visiting, and other duties of more conventional clergy. I was familiar with both my ward Bishop and stake President. Both were intelligent and capable professional men. They were respected by the rest of the congregation, but the ones I knew weren’t patronizing or in any way “stuck up.” They were just members of the congregation at the service I attended, but perhaps they occasionally play a more active role.
Hard core Mormons give ten percent of their gross income to the church. I’m not sure what percentage is “hard core,” and I’m also not sure what the church does with all the money. That question has probably been asked ever since the days of Joseph Smith. I suspect the IRS is reasonably well informed, but otherwise they keep financial matters pretty close to the vest. In any case, only members who tithe are allowed to attend services at or be married in a Mormon Temple.
Mormons are a great deal more “moral” when it comes to reproduction than the average atheist. In other words, their behavior in such matters is consistent with what the relevant predispositions accomplished at the time they evolved. For example, the lady who tossed the Bible in my lap had 11 children and 37 grandchildren. Large families were the rule in our neighborhood. I can’t really understand the objections of the “anti-breeders” to such behavior in a country where the population would be declining if it weren’t for massive illegal immigration. In any case, all those grandchildren and great grandchildren will have inherited the earth long after the mouths of those who criticized their ancestors have been stopped with dust.
The people in my ward included some who were brought up in the Mormon faith, and some, including my zealous neighbor lady, who had been converted later in life. Among the former there were some older people who still had a lively memory of the days when polygamy was a great deal more common than it is now. They recall that there were federal “revenuers” who were on the lookout for such arrangements just as their more familiar peers were snooping after moonshine stills. A neighbor, aged about 80, recounted a story of one such family she had heard as a child. A baby had been born to a man with several wives, but died soon after birth. The “revenuers” were aware of the fact. Soon, however, the stork arrived again, and this time delivered a healthy baby. Shortly thereafter the man was sitting at the dinner table holding the new arrival when he was warned that inspectors were on the way to pay him a visit. He took it on the lam out the back door, and hid in the family cemetery were the first child was buried. When the inspectors arrived, they asked the wife who happened to be in the house where they could find her husband. With a downcast look she replied, “He’s up in the cemetery with the baby.” That statement was, of course, perfectly true. The embarrassed “revenuers” muttered their condolences and left!
I must say I had to clench my teeth occasionally on listening to some of the passages from the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, there’s really nothing there that’s any more fantastic than the similar stories you can read in the Bible, or the lives of the saints. In any case, what they believe strikes me as a great deal less dangerous than the equally fantastic belief held by the “men of science” for half a century that there is no such thing as human nature, not to mention “scientific” Marxism-Leninism. According to some atheists, indoctrinating children with stories from the Bible and the Book of Mormon constitutes “child abuse.” I have my doubts given the fact that they seem to accomplish those most “moral” of all goals, survival and reproduction, a great deal better than most of my fellow infidels. Many of my fellow atheists have managed to convince themselves that they’ve swallowed the “red pill,” but in reality they’re just as delusional as the Mormons, and their delusions are arguably more destructive. I personally would rather see my children become Mormons than dour, barren, intolerant, and ultra-Puritanical Social Justice Warriors, striding down the path to genetic suicide with a self-righteous scowl. I would also much rather live among spiritual Mormons than secular Communists.
As one might expect, there were many non-Mormons in the local community who “othered” the Mormons, and vice versa. Nothing is more natural for our species than to relegate those who are in any way different to the outgroup. For example, Mormons, were supposed to stick together and favor each other in business dealings, government appointments, etc. Unfortunately, there has never been a population of humans who consider themselves members of the same group that has not done precisely the same, at least to some extent. Mormon religious beliefs were considered “crazy,” as opposed, apparently, to such “perfectly sane” stories as Noah’s ark, the loaves and the fishes, the magical conversion of bread and wine to flesh and blood, etc. Mormons were supposed to imagine that they wore “magic clothes.” In reality the Mormons don’t consider such garments any more “magical” than a nun’s habit or a Jew’s yarmulke.
In general, I would prefer that people believe the truth. I am an atheist, and don’t believe in the existence of any God or gods. I’m not an “accommodationist,” and I don’t buy Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” On the other hand, when people treat me with kindness and generosity, as I was treated in the Mormon community, I’m not in the habit of responding with stones and brickbats, either. The hard core Hobbesians out there will claim that all that kindness sprang from selfish motives, but hard core Hobbesians must also perforce admit that neither they nor anyone else acts any differently.
If you want to get a fictional “taste” of what Mormons are like, I recommend the film “Once I was a Beehive.” You can rent it at Amazon. It’s about a teenage girl whose mom remarries to a Mormon. The flavor of the Mormon community pictured in the film reflects my own impressions pretty accurately. The Mormon Bishop, in particular, is very typical and true to life.
As for me, in the fullness of time I left the land of the Mormons and now live among the heathen once again. None of them has seen fit to follow me and pull me back from the fiery furnace by the scruff of my neck. It may be that they finally realized I was a hopeless case, doomed to sizzle over the coals in the hereafter for the edification of the elect. I’m afraid they’re right about that. If they do come after me they’ll find me armed with my copy of Ephesians, as stubborn as ever.
Posted on February 12th, 2017 3 comments
In our last episode I pointed out that, while some of the most noteworthy public intellectuals of the day occasionally pay lip service to the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, they act and speak as if they believed the opposite. If morality is an expression of evolved traits, it is necessarily subjective. The individuals mentioned speak as if, and probably believe, that it is objective. What do I mean by that? As the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck put it,
The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise (his Ethical Relativity, ed.) implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong. It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.
All of the individuals mentioned in my last post are aware that there is a connection between morality and its evolutionary roots. If pressed, some of them will even admit the obvious consequence of this fact; that morality must be subjective. However, neither they nor any other public intellectual that I am aware of actually behaves or speaks as if that consequence meant anything or, indeed, as if it were even true. One can find abundant evidence that this is true simply by reading their own statements, some of which I quoted. For example, according the Daniel Dennett, Trump supporters are “guilty.” Richard Dawkins speaks of the man in pejorative terms that imply a moral judgment rather than rational analysis of his actions. Sam Harris claims that Trump is “unethical,” and Jonathan Haidt says that he is “morally wrong,” without any qualification to the effect that they are just making subjective judgments, and that the subjective judgments of others may be different and, for that matter, just as “legitimate” as theirs.
A commenter suggested that I was merely quoting tweets, and that the statements may have been taken out of context, or would have reflected the above qualifications if more space had been allowed. Unfortunately, I have never seen a single example of an instance where one of the quoted individuals made a similar statement, and then qualified it as suggested. They invariably speak as if they were stating objective facts when making such moral judgments, with the implied assumption that individuals who don’t agree with them are “bad.”
A quick check of the Internet will reveal that there are legions of writers out there commenting on the subjective nature of morality. Not a single one I am aware of seems to realize that, if morality is subjective, their moral judgments lack any objective normative power or legitimacy whatsoever when applied to others. Indeed, one commonly finds them claiming that morality is subjective, and as a consequence one is “morally obligated” to do one thing, and “morally obligated” not to do another, in the very same article, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are stating a glaring non sequitur.
None of this should be too surprising. We are not a particularly rational species. We give ourselves far more credit for being “wise” than is really due. Most of us simply react to atavistic urges, and seek to satisfy them. Our imaginations portray Good and Evil to us as real, objective things, and so we thoughtlessly assume that they are. It is in our nature to be judgmental, and we take great joy in applying these imagined standards to others. Unfortunately, this willy-nilly assigning of others to the above imaginary categories is very unlikely to accomplish the same thing today as it did when the responsible behavioral predispositions evolved. I would go further. I would claim that this kind of behavior is not only not “adaptive.” In fact, it has become extremely dangerous.
The source of the danger is what I call “ideophobia.” So far, at least, it hasn’t had a commonly recognized name, but it is by far the most dangerous form of all the different flavors of “bigotry” that afflict us today. By “bigotry” I really mean outgroup identification. We all do it, without exception. Some of the most dangerous manifestations of it exist in just those individuals who imagine they are immune to it. All of us hate, despise, and are disgusted by the individuals in whatever outgroup happens to suit our fancy. The outgroup may be defined by race, religion, ethnic group, nationality, and even sex. I suspect, however, that by far the most common form of outgroup (and ingroup) identification today is by ideology.
Members of ideologically defined ingroups have certain ideas and beliefs in common. Taken together, they form the intellectual shack the ingroup in question lives in. The outgroup consists of those who disagree with these core beliefs, and especially those who define their own ingroup by opposing beliefs. Ideophobes hate and despise such individuals. They indulge in a form of bigotry that is all the more dangerous because it has gone so long without a name. Occasionally they will imagine that they advocate universal human brotherhood, and “human flourishing.” In reality, “brotherhood” is the last thing ideophobes want when it comes to “thought crime.” They do not disagree rationally and calmly. They hate the “other,” to the point of reacting with satisfaction and even glee if the “other” suffers physical harm. They often imagine themselves to be great advocates of diversity, and yet are blithely unaware of the utter lack of it in the educational, media, entertainment, and other institutions they control when it comes to diversity of opinion. As for the ideological memes of the ingroup, they expect rigid uniformity. What Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Haidt thought they were doing was upholding virtue. What they were really doing is better called “virtue signaling.” They were assuring the other members of their ingroup that they “think right” about some of its defining “correct thoughts,” and registering the appropriate allergic reaction to the outgroup.
I cannot claim that ideophobia is objectively immoral. I do believe, however, that it is extremely dangerous, not only to me, but to everyone else on the planet. I propose that it’s high time that we recognized the phenomenon as a manifestation of human nature that has long outlived its usefulness. We need to recognize that ideophobia is essentially the same thing as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, or what have you. The only difference is in the identifying characteristics of the outgroup. The kind of behavior described is a part of what we are, and will remain a part of what we are. That does not mean that it can’t be controlled.
What evidence do I have that this type of behavior is dangerous? There were two outstanding examples in the 20th century. The Communists murdered 100 million people, give or take, weighted in the direction of the most intelligent and capable members of society, because they belonged to their outgroup, commonly referred to as the “bourgeoisie.” The Nazis murdered tens of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and members of any other ethnicity that they didn’t recognize as belonging to their own “Aryan” ingroup. There are countless examples of similar mayhem, going back to the beginnings of recorded history, and ample evidence that the same thing was going on much earlier. As many of the Communists and Nazis discovered, what goes around comes around. Millions of them became victims of their own irrational hatred.
No doubt Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Haidt and legions of others like them see themselves as paragons of morality and rationality. I have my doubts. With the exception of Haidt, they have made no attempt to determine why those they consider “deplorables” think the way they do, or to calmly analyze what might be their desires and goals, and to search for common ground and understanding. As for Haidt, his declaration that the goals of his outgroup are “morally wrong” flies in the face of all the fine theories he recently discussed in his The Righteous Mind. I would be very interested to learn how he thinks he can square this circle. Neither he nor any of the others have given much thought to whether the predispositions that inspire their own desires and goals will accomplish the same thing now as when they evolved, and appear unconcerned about the real chance that they will accomplish the opposite. They have not bothered to consider whether it even matters, and why, or whether the members of their outgroup may be acting a great deal more consistently in that respect than they do. Instead, they have relegated those who disagree with them to the outgroup, slamming shut the door on rational discussion.
In short, they have chosen ideophobia. It is a dangerous choice, and may turn out to be a very dangerous one, assuming we value survival. I personally would prefer that we all learn to understand and seek to control the worst manifestations of our dual system of morality; our tendency to recognize ingroups and outgroups and apply different standards of good and evil to individuals depending on the category to which they belong. I doubt that anything of the sort will happen any time soon, though. Meanwhile, we are already witnessing the first violent manifestations of this latest version of outgroup identification. It’s hard to say how extreme it will become before the intellectual fashions change again. Perhaps the best we can do is sit back and collect the data.
Posted on January 30th, 2017 11 comments
In Ephesians 2:2 we read,
Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.
Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul. They are not atheists after all. They, too, believe in “the power of the air.” It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.” It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do. Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity. Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors. According to Daniel Dennett,
Regretfull Trump voters: It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on. Act now. Every day you wait adds guilt.
Richard Dawkins chimes in:
“Make America great again?” Obama’s America already WAS great. And now look what you’ve got! A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.
Sam Harris piles on:
I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy. Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.
Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:
Presidents can revise immigration policies. But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.
I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases. Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense. Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?” Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?” Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?” I think not. Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”
What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species. Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup? It’s there in all its glory. Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury. Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives. The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!” It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong. No! By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”
This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like. Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God. This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed. It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them. We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist. None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire. They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”
In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature. Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species. How much smarter than the rest can we really be? The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds. We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions. One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon. At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.
Posted on January 15th, 2017 No comments
I’ve just read the unclassified version of the U.S. Intelligence community’s report on “Russian hacking,” entitled, “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution.” A pdf version is available online, and I hope my readers will have a look at it. It is almost unbelievably lame.
The document begins with the assurance that it is an unclassified version of a “highly classified assessment.” This, of course, begs the question of how some of this “highly classified” information was leaked to the press. I personally think this is the most important take-away from the whole “Russian hacking” flap. Our intelligence community in general and the CIA in particular are still infested with leakers who apparently had their fingers crossed behind their backs when they swore to protect this “highly classified information.” Any potential human intelligence source who seriously expects them to protect his or her identity must have a death wish.
As we read on, we learn about the “analytic process” that was used to produce the report, its scope, the sources of information used, etc. Eventually, we come to a section entitled “Key Judgments.” We shudder as we learn that,
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
If the goal of the document was really to inform our political leaders, it’s odd that no attempt was made to put the above in context. By “context” I mean the “clear preferences” of other government leaders. For example, French President Hollande revealed his “clear preference” by announcing that Trump gave him a “retching feeling.” Then British Prime Minister David Cameron publicly announced his opinion that Trump is “divisive, stupid, and wrong.” The British Parliament seriously debated banning Trump from travel to the UK because of his “hate speech.” The President of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz, declared that “Trump is a problem for the whole world.” Germany’s Economy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, called Trump a threat, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly praised Hillary Clinton. Mexico’s President Nieto didn’t stick at violating Godwin’s Law, comparing Trump to Hitler. Apparently, these expressions of “clear preferences” by other government leaders are not considered a threat by the people who run our intelligence agencies, because their “clear preferences” were for the correct candidate. In short, then, such a preference was only deemed objectionable if it happened to be for Trump.
As far as actual “hacking” is concerned, the content of the document is of the flimsiest. Basically, it was supposed to have consisted of “intrusions into US state and local electoral boards,” which were apparently conducted for the purpose of collecting information and had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the election. In addition to that, as we all know, the Russians were supposed to have gained access to the DNC emails, and have passed damaging information therein to WikiLeaks. According to the document, “Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.” In other words, the “hacked” information was true, and should have been reported by our own media, but wasn’t, because it didn’t fit the narrative. Apparently the message here is that the U.S. voting public should have been “protected” from the truth, but was “unfairly” subjected to it by those nefarious Russians.
Beyond that we have the assurances of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks that the information involved was so poorly protected that it could have been hacked by a 14-year old; no Russian meddling was necessary. Given Hillary’s adventures with classified State Department information on her personal server, I suspect there’s little reason to doubt the WikiLeaks version. I note in passing that the “progressive Left” considered Assange such a hero that they saw fit to release a movie about his exploits (Underground; The Julian Assange Story – 2012), and another in which he played a major role (The Fifth Estate – 2013). No doubt they’re feeling very ill-used at this point. They never suspected that Assange would be capable of divulging information that didn’t fit the “correct” narrative. In any case, paltry as it is, that’s the extent of the actual “hacking” alluded to in the document.
Reading on, we finally discover the identity of the “real culprit.” It turns out to be none other than RT America, a Russian funded news channel. Much of the document proper and a whole, five page appendix are devoted almost entirely to RT! We shudder to learn that “RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton throughout the US presidential campaign was consistently negative.” It devoted extensive coverage to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, that known bastion of right wing conservatives and Trump deplorables. It dared to mention the existence of election fraud and voting machine vulnerabilities in the U.S. Even more damning is the document’s assurance that RT ran “anti-fracking programming highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.” As we all know, Hillary and the “progressive Left” have always been “yuge” supporters of fracking. NOT!!!
No kidding, dear reader, the meat of this “assessment” is nothing but a rant about RT’s vile criminal act of exercising its right to freedom of speech. When I was done reading it I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The entire mainstream media in the U.S. was utterly in the tank for Hillary from the start. I have never come across a single article about Trump therein that couldn’t be characterized as “negative.” The same can be said of another “state-funded news channel,” the BBC. There was a negative article about Trump on the BBC website every single day I happened to look for the last three months before the election. The same can certainly also be said of both the English and German versions of the German media. I follow it daily, and never found anything therein about Trump that could not be characterized as “negative.” What can I say? To outweigh all that, RT America must be a more effective propaganda tool than anything ever heard of since the days of Barnum and Bailey! Hitler himself would have been green with envy!
Apparently this is the sort of drivel we’ve been getting for the $80 billion we invest in our intelligence services every year. It would seem they’ve degenerated into hidebound bureaucracies that are no longer even capable of being embarrassed by the transparent stupidity of such “highly classified” assessments. It could hardly hurt to start over from scratch. We might ask the Russians for help with that. I suggest we take the 1918 Cheka as a model. I’ve heard that their methods were somewhat harsh, but by all accounts they were able to collect intelligence that was actually worthy of the name, and at bargain basement prices. We could use a man like Felix Dzerzhinsky again! Someone should tell Trump.
UPDATE: Mild-mannered Czech physicist Lubos Motl has a similar take at The Reference Frame.
Posted on January 9th, 2017 2 comments
Judging by the amount of space devoted to him on Wikipedia, Edvard Westermarck was little regarded as a moral philosopher. Contemporaries such as G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, not to mention such immediate predecessors as John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, made a much bigger splash. For all that, Westermarck was aware of some simple but very significant truths about morality, and the rest were blind to them. Apparently you don’t get a lot of space in Wikipedia for being right, or at least not for being right about morality. When it comes to that subject, people tend to listen only when you say what they want to hear. Westermarck most definitely did not.
It was no secret to Westermarck that he was stepping on some toes. He told the legions of moral philosophers and experts on ethics that they were superfluous because they were experts about something that didn’t exist. He told the legions of religious zealots that the source of their moral dogmas was imaginary. He told all the rest of us that the “facts” about morality that we “feel in our bones” are illusions.
It is natural for us to perceive Good and Evil as absolute facts. Morality is a manifestation of evolved traits, and traits evolve because they happen to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them will survive and reproduce. Obviously, morality is most effective at improving the odds when we perceive Good and Evil, not as subjective entities that we can change from day to day according to our whims of the moment, but as objective things-in-themselves that have a “real existence apart from any reference to a human mind,” as Westermarck put it. If someone tells us it just ain’t so, our reaction is predictably negative. He addressed the objections of one such critic, the utilitarian Dr. H. Rashdall in his Ethical Relativity, published in 1932. According to Dr. Rashdall, the denial of the objective validity of moral judgments,
…is fatal to the deepest spiritual convictions and to the highest spiritual aspirations of the human race.
to which Westermarck replies,
It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief… Another question is whether the ethical subjectivism I am here advocating really is a danger to morality… My moral judgments spring from my own moral consciousness; they judge of the conduct of other men not from their point of view but from mine, not in accordance with their feelings and opinions about right and wrong but according to my own. And these are not arbitrary. We approve and disapprove because we cannot do otherwise; our moral consciousness belongs to our mental constitution, which we cannot change as we please. Can we help feeling pain when the fire burns us? Can we help sympathizing with our friends? Are these facts less necessary or less powerful in their consequences, because they fall within the subjective sphere of our experience? So also, why should the moral law command less obedience because it forms a part of ourselves?
I think this is an excellent response to those who warn that accepting the truth about morality will lead to nihilism and moral chaos. The subjective nature of moral judgments will hardly alter our tendency to make them. Westermarck adds,
…it seems to me that ethical subjectivism, instead of being a danger, is more likely to be an advantage to morality. Could it be brought home to people that there is no absolute standard in morality, they would perhaps be on the one hand more tolerant and on the other hand more critical in their judgments.
It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this last quote. When it comes to morality, we live in an age of gross intolerance, particularly on the part of the “progressive Left.” These people pull new “absolute moral truths” out of thin air on a regular basis, and then proceed to stuff them down the throats of the rest of us. I may not be able to say that such behavior is absolutely “Good,” or absolutely “Evil,” but I personally find it extremely disagreeable. I think many others would agree with me on that point. The truth about morality hardly encourages this type of moral bullying. Rather, it pulls the rug out from under the feet of the bullies. In fact, they have not the faintest basis for their moral claims. They can in no way justify elevating what amount to personal whims to the status of absolute moral laws and then insisting that the rest of us respect them. They manage to get away with it by appealing to subjective moral emotions. This will only work as long as they can maintain the fantasy, cherished by so many of us, that these emotions somehow relate to real, objective things. That fantasy is hardly a barrier between us and moral chaos. It is the reason for moral chaos. We will never escape the prevailing “moral nihilism” until we accept the truth.
Westermarck had it right in the above quotes. If all of us were aware of the truth, we would also be aware of the real provenance of moral judgments, and would be more tolerant of the similar judgments of others as a result. It might finally be possible for us to take a critical look at those judgments, as Westermarck suggests, and come up with a system of morality that best suits the needs of all of us, instead of enabling the moral tyranny of a minority.
So much for the “danger” of Westermarck’s ideas. If we look at some of the other objections posed by his contemporaries, their claims to “expertise” in matters of morality grow increasingly dubious. For example, Danish philosopher Harald Höffding argued that, “the subjectivity of our moral valuations does not prevent ethics from being a science any more than the subjectivity of our sensations renders a science of physics impossible, because both are concerned with finding the external facts that correspond to the subjective processes.” According to this “Höffding’s fallacy,” anything we can imagine must relate to some “external fact.” Unfortunately, Professor Höffding completely missed the point. In this case the “external facts” don’t exist. They are a figment of his imagination. Westermarck adds,
It may, of course, be a subject for scientific inquiry to investigate the means which are conducive to human happiness or welfare, and the results of such a study may also be usefully applied by moralists, but it forms no more a part of ethics than physics is a part of psychology. If the word “ethics” 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.
My personal favorite among the critics of Westermarck is G. E. Moore, who became far more highly regarded as an “expert on ethics” by debunking all previous practitioners of the trade as victims of the “naturalistic fallacy,” and being extremely coy about the nature of morality himself. No one could ever pin him down as to whether Good and Evil were animal, vegetable, or mineral. From the few broad hints he gave us, it appears that the Good has a remarkable resemblance to what a Victorian rent seeker would consider “nice things,” or at least the ones that they admitted to openly. In any case, here is Westermarck’s account of Moore’s criticism:
He argues that if one person says “this action is wrong,” and another says of the very same action that it is not wrong, and each of them merely makes a judgment about his own feelings towards it, they are not differing in opinion about it at all, and, generally speaking, there is absolutely no such thing as a difference of opinion upon moral questions. “If two persons think they differ in opinion on a moral question (and it certainly seems as if they sometimes think so), they are always on this view, making a mistake, and a mistake so gross that it seems hardly possible that they should make it: a mistake as gross as that which would be involved in thinking that when you say, ‘I did not come from Cambridge today’ you are denying what I say when I say ‘I did.'” This seems to Professor Moore to be a very serious objection to my view. But let me choose another, analogous case, to illustrate the nature of his argument. One person says, “This food is disagreeable,” and another says of the very same food that it is not disagreeable. We should undoubtedly assert that they have different opinions about it. On Professor Moore’s view this shows that the two persons do not merely judge about their feelings but state that the food really is, or is not, disagreeable, and if they admitted that they only expressed their own feelings – as they most probably would if their statements were challenged – and yet thought that they differed in opinion, they would make a mistake almost too great to be possible. For my own part I venture to believe that most people would find it absurd if they denied that they had different opinions about the food.
It seems to me that Westermarck could have had a lot more fun with Moore if he had been so inclined. After all, the point of this flimsy argument, which was taken quite seriously by several other “experts on ethics” at the time, was that moral judgments are not purely subjective in nature. If it really made any sense, we could magically transform anything we pleased into a real thing. One could, for example, resurrect the Greek gods out of thin air simply by virtue of believing in them. If one were merely making a judgment about his own feelings, than, according to Moore, a difference of opinion on the matter would become impossible. The only alternative is that the Greek gods actually do exist. To deny it would be tantamount to denying the objective existence of Good and Evil! I note in passing that Moore’s argument was considered “unanswerable” by W. D. Ross, who added some objections of his own based on a similar conflating of objective facts with subjective feelings. If you’re interested in more detail, it’s all there in Westermarck’s Ethical Relativity.
When it comes to moral philosophy, fame doesn’t depend on the truth of what you say, but on how well it fits the prevailing narrative. Then and now, too many people have too much to lose by admitting that Westermarck was right. Their tedious reading of many dry tomes of moral philosophy would have been for nothing, and their claims to “expertise,” would vanish like the morning fog. Hence the few lines devoted to him on Wikipedia and elsewhere. He was right where so many have been wrong, but I doubt that he will get the recognition he deserves anytime soon. Perhaps, in view of the mountains of bilge that somehow are published as “moral philosophy” these days, it might at least be possible to put his two major books on the subject, Ethical Relativity and The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, back into print. I would certainly be willing to contribute my widow’s mite to the cause. I’m not holding my breath, though.