Posted on July 27th, 2014 No comments
As Hume pointed out long ago, moral emotions are not derived by reason. They exist a priori. They belong, not at the end, but at the beginning of reason. They are not derived by reason. Rather, they are reasoned about. Given the variations in the innate wellsprings of morality among individuals, huge variations in culture and experience, and the imperfections of human reason, the result has been the vast kaleidoscope of human moralities we see today, with all their remarkable similarities and differences.
Most of us understand the concept Good, and most of us also understand the concept Evil. Good and Evil are subjective entities in the minds of individuals, not fundamentally different from any of our other appetites and whims. However, unlike other whims, such as hunger or sexual desire, it is our nature to perceive them as things, existing independently of our subjective minds. We don’t imagine that, if we are hungry, everyone else in the world must be hungry, too. However, we do imagine that if we perceive something as Good, it must be Good for everyone else as well. That’s where reason comes in. We use it in myriad variations to prop up the delusion that our Good possesses independent legitimacy, and therefore applies to everyone. Familiar variations are the God prop, the “Brave New World of the Future” prop, and the “human flourishing” prop. We commonly find even the most brilliant intellectuals among us attempting to hop over the is/ought divide in this way, differing from the rest of us only in the sophistication of their mirages.
Consider, for example, the case of Herbert Spencer. According to his Wiki entry, he was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century”. He “developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. He was ‘an enthusiastic exponent of evolution’ and even ‘wrote about evolution before Darwin did.’” Unfortunately, there was a problem with his version of the theory. He could never come up with a coherent explanation of what made evolution work. His attempts were usually based on Lamarckian notions of use-inheritance, but he was no more successful than Lamarck in coming up with an actual mechanism for use-inheritance – something that would actually drive the process. When Darwin came up with the actual mechanism, natural selection, Spencer grasped the concept immediately. It certainly influenced his later work, but could not destroy his faith in evolution as a “theory of everything.” For him, evolution was the mystical wellspring of “progress” in all things. Morality and ethics were no exception.
It’s a testimony to the power of the delusion that the truth was actually staring Spencer in the face. Consider, for example, his comments on what he referred to as “animal ethics.” Like Darwin, Spencer was well aware of the analogs to human moral behavior in animals. He wrote about them in the first two chapters of his Justice, published in 1891, long before such ideas were dropped down the memory hole by the Blank Slaters, and more than a century before they were finally disinterred by the animal behaviorists of our own day. Pick out a paragraph here and a phrase there, and Spencer comes across as a perfectly orthodox Darwinian. For example,
Speaking generally, we may say that gregariousness and cooperation more or less active, establish themselves in a species only because they are profitable to it since otherwise survival of the fittest must prevent establishment of them.
For the association to be profitable the acts must be restrained to such extent as to leave a balance of advantage. Survival of the fittest will else exterminate that variety of the species in which association begins.
Thus then it is clear that acts which are conducive to preservation of offspring or of the individual we consider as good relatively to the species and conversely.
In the third chapter of his book, Spencer makes the obvious connection between sub-human and human morality, pointing out that they form a “continuous whole.”
The contents of the last chapter foreshadow the contents of this. As from the evolution point of view human life must be regarded as a further development of sub-human life it follows that from this same point of view human justice must be a further development of sub-human justice. For convenience the two are here separately treated but they are essentially of the same nature and form parts of a continuous whole.
In a word, Spencer seems to realize that morality is an artifact of evolution by natural selection, that it exists because it enhanced the probability that individuals and their offspring would survive, and that its innate origins manifest themselves in sub-human species as well as human beings. In other words, he seems to have identified just those aspects of morality that establish its subjective nature and the absurdity of the notion that it can somehow transcend the minds of one individual acquire independent legitimacy or normative power over other individuals. The truth seems to be staring him in the face, and yet, in the end, he evades it. His illusion that his version of human progress, formulated long before Darwin, really is the Good-in-itself, blinds him to the implications of what he has just written. Before long we find him hopelessly enmeshed in the naturalistic fallacy, busily converting “is” into “ought.” First, we find passages like the following that not only have a suspicious affinity with Spencer’s libertarian ideology, but reveal his continued, post-Darwin faith in Lamarckism:
The necessity for observance of the condition that each member of the group, while carrying on self-sustentation and sustentation of offspring, shall not seriously impede the like pursuits of others makes itself so felt where association is established as to mould the species to it. The mischiefs from time to time experienced when the limits are transgressed continually discipline all in such ways as to produce regard for the limits so that such regard becomes in course of time a natural trait of the species.
A little later, the crossing of the is/ought Rubicon is made quite explicit:
To those who take a pessimist view of animal life in general contemplation of these principles can of course yield only dissatisfaction. But to those who take an optimist view or a meliorist view of life in general, and who accept the postulate of hedonism, contemplation of these principles must yield greater or less satisfaction and fulfilment of them must be ethically approved. Otherwise considered these principles are according to the current belief expressions of the Divine will or else according to the agnostic belief indicate the mode in which works the Unknowable Power throughout the universe, and in either case they have the warrant hence derived.
It’s not that Spencer was a stupid man. In fact, he was brilliant. Among other things, he analyzed the flaws in socialist theory and predicted the outcome of the Communist experiment with amazing prescience long before it was actually tried. Rather, Spencer didn’t see the truth that was staring him in the face because he was human. Like all humans, he suffered from the delusion that his version of the Good must surely be the “real” Good, and rationalized that conclusion. It continues to be similarly rationalized in our own day by our own public intellectuals, in spite of a century and more of great advances in evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and understanding of the innate wellsprings of both human and non-human behavior.
I suppose there’s some solace in the fact that, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the emotional dog continues to wag its rational tail, and not vice versa. It certainly lays to rest fears that some fragile thread of religion or philosophy is all that suspends us over the abyss of moral relativism. We will not become moral relativists because it is not our nature to be moral relativists, even if legions of philosophers declare that we are being unreasonable. On the other hand, there are always drawbacks to not recognizing the truth. We experienced two of those drawbacks in the 20th century in the form of the highly moralistic Nazi and Communist ideologies. Perhaps it would be well for us to recognize the obvious before the next messiah turns up on the scene.
Posted on May 26th, 2014 3 comments
If Hollywood is any guide, we can put a fork in the Blank Slate. I refer, of course, to the delusional orthodoxy that was enforced by the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century, according to which there is no such thing as human nature. Consider, for example, the movie Divergent. It belongs to the dystopian genre beloved of American audiences, and is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. A semblance of order has been restored by arranging the surviving population into five factions based on what the evolutionary psychologists might call their innate predispositions. They include Candor, whose supreme values are honesty and trustworthiness, and from whose ranks come the legal scholars and lawyers. The brave and daring are assigned to the Dauntless faction, and become the defenders of the little city-state. At the opposite extreme is Amity, the home of those who value kindness, forgiveness and trust, and whose summum bonum is peace. Their admiration for self-reliance suits them best for the agricultural chores. Next comes Abnegation, composed of the natural do-gooders of society. So selfless that they can only bear to look in a mirror for a few seconds, they are deemed so incorruptible that they are entrusted with the leadership and government of the city. Finally, the intelligent and curious are assigned to the Erudite faction. They fill such roles as doctors, scientists, and record-keepers. They are also responsible for technological advances, which include special “serums,” some of which are identified with particular factions. One of these is a “simulation serum,” used to induce imaginary scenarios that test a subject’s aptitude for the various factions.
As it happens, the simulation serum doesn’t always work. When the heroine, Tris, takes the test, she discovers that she can “finesse” the simulation. She is a rare instance of an individual whose nature does not uniquely qualify her for any faction, but who is adaptable enough to fit adequately into several of them. In other words, she is a “Divergent,” and as such, a free thinker and a dire threat to anyone who might just happen to have plans to misuse the serums to gain absolute control over the city.
Alas, there’s trouble in paradise. The “factions” are groups, and where there are groups, there are ingroups and outgroups. Sure enough, each “in-faction” has its own “out-faction.” This aspect of the plot is introduced matter-of-factly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And, of course, since it can be assumed that the audience will consist largely of the species Homo sapiens, it is. Most of us, with the exception of a few aging behavioral scientists, are familiar with the fact that it is our nature to apply different versions of morality depending on whether we are dealing with one of “us” or one of the “others.” It turns out that Abnegation is the outgroup of Erudite, who consider them selfish poseurs, and weak and cowardly to boot. That being the case, it follows that Abnegation is completely unsuited to run the government of Chicago or any other post-apocalyptic city state. That role should belong to Erudite.
Which brings us, of course, to the “bad guy.” You’ll never guess who the bad guy is, so I’ll just spill the beans. It’s none other than Kate Winslet! She plays the cold and nefarious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews. These smarties are planning to overthrow Abnegation and seize control for themselves with the aid of the martial Dauntless, whose members have been conveniently mind-controlled with the aid of one of Erudite’s serums. Eventually, Jeanine unmasks Tris and her amorous partner, Four, as Divergents. And with them in her power, she treats them to a remarkable soliloquy, which nearly caused me to choke on my butter-slathered popcorn. Once Erudite is in the saddle, she explains, they will eliminate human nature. Using a combination of re-education a la Joseph Stalin and mind control drugs, all citizens will become latter day versions of Homo sovieticus, perfectly adapted to fit into the Brave New World planned by the Erudites. The utopia envisioned by generations of Blank Slaters will be realized at last!
There’s no need for me to reveal any more of the plot. It’s a very entertaining movie so, by all means, see it yourself. Suffice it to say that, if Hollywood now associates the denial of human nature with evil bad guys, then the Blank Slate must be stone cold dead. Or at least it is with the exception of a few ancient Blank Slater bats still hanging in the more dark and obscure belfries of academia.
For the benefit of the history buffs among my readers, I note in passing that Hollywood never quite succumbed to Gleichschaltung. They were always just a bit out of step, even in the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Consider, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs. It was directly inspired by the work of none other than that greatest of bête noires of the Blank Slaters, Robert Ardrey. The first to taste of the forbidden fruit was Strother Martin, best known for his portrayal of the sadistic “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is a failure to communicate”). He, in turn, passed on Ardrey’s African Genesis to Peckinpah, with the remark that the two seemed to share similar attitudes about violence in human beings. Peckinpah was fascinated, and later said,
Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire tremendously. I read him after Wild Bunch and have reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where it’s at, Baby. Man is violent by nature, and we have to learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive.
That statement, rough around the edges though it is, actually shows more insight into the thought of Ardrey than that revealed by about 99.9% of the learned book reviewers and “Men of Science” who have deigned to comment on his work in the ensuing 45 years. Specifically, Peckinpah understood that Ardrey was no “genetic determinist,” and that he believed that aggressive human predispositions could be controlled by environment, or “culture.” As it happens, that is a theme he elaborated on repeatedly in every one of his books. The theme of Straw Dogs was taken directly out of The Territorial Imperative. According to Ardrey,
There is a law of territorial behavior as true of the single roebuck defending his private estate as it is of a band of howling monkeys defending its domain held in common. Huxley long ago observed that any territory is like a rubber disc: the tighter it is compressed, the more powerful will be the pressure outward to spring it back into shape. A proprietor’s confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder’s at its lowest. Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest.
In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s diminutive hero, timid mathematician David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, travels from the sheltered campus of an American university to be with his young wife, Amy, in her native village in England. To make a long story short, she is raped by three of the locals. Eventually, these muscular miscreants are joined by other townspeople in besieging Sumner in his territory, his house, in the mistaken belief that he is knowingly harboring a murderer. Ardrey’s territorial boost takes over with a vengeance, and Sumner draws on unimagined reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness to annihilate the attackers one by one. As badly behind the PC curve as any Disney film, Hollywood eventually repented and in 2000 churned out an alternative version of Straw Dogs, in which all the violent behavior was “learned.” By then, however, getting in step meant getting out of step. Even the Public Broadcasting Network had given the Blank Slate the heave ho years earlier.
Straw Dogs was hardly the first time Hollywood took up the subject of nature versus nurture. For those whose tastes run more to the intellectual and profound, I have attached a short film below dealing with that theme that predates Peckinpah by almost a quarter of a century.
Posted on May 25th, 2014 2 comments
A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege. Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male. In his words,
There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year… “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.
As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe. His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S. Again quoting Fortgang,
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.
I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter. When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.” For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,
Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.
and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:
What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men, are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.
The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.
Which brings us to the point of this post. Our species isn’t good at nuance. The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context. It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions. That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists. It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way. It exists because it evolved. It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate. That is the only reason for its existence. Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual. It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. That dual nature is not optional. It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.
The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege. It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white. However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society. As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male. Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived. As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species. It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa. Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups. That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”
It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma. Privilege exists. It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy. However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred. The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege. Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.
What “should” we do under the circumstances? There is no objective answer to that question. At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims. In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.” A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves. For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival. Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action. Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me. When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.
On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.” For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair. Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege. I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.
However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race. In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero. Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion. Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries. The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation. I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations. I am satisfied with equality before the law.
Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage. I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.
Posted on May 14th, 2014 No comments
You can still get in trouble for saying things that are true, or, for that matter, even obvious. Consider, for example, Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. I haven’t yet read the book, so have no comment on whether any of the specific hypotheses therein are scientifically credible or not. However, according to the blurb at Amazon, the theme of the book is that there actually is such a thing as human biodiversity (hbd). So much is, of course, not only true, but obvious. The problem is that such truths have implications. If there are significant genetic differences between human groups, then it is unlikely that the influence of those differences on the various metrics of human “success” will be zero. In other words, we are dealing with a truth that is not only inconvenient, but immoral. It violates the principle of equality.
It is only to be expected that there will be similarities between the reaction to this particular immoral truth and those that have been observed in response to other immoral truths in the past. Typical reactions among those whose moral emotions have been aroused by such truths have been denial, vilification of the messenger, and the invention of straw men that are easier targets than the truth itself. All these reactions occurred in response to what is probably the most familiar example of an immoral truth; the fact that genes influence behavior, or, if you will, that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” In that case, denial took the form of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, which perverted and derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century. The messengers were condemned, not only with the long since hackneyed accusation of racism, but with a host of other political and moral shortcomings. The most familiar straw man was, of course, the “genetic determinist.”
Predictably, the response to Wade’s book has been similar. Not so predictable has been the muted nature of that response. Compared to the vicious attacks on the messengers who debunked the Blank Slate, it has been pianissimo, and even apologetic. It would almost seem as if the current paragons of moral purity among us have actually been chastened by the collapse of that quasi-religious orthodoxy. Allow me to illustrate with an example from the past. It took the form of a response to the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975. Entitled Against “Sociobiology”, it appeared in the New York Review of Books shortly after Wilson’s book was published. As it happens, it didn’t have just one author. It had a whole gang, including such high priests of the Blank Slate as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The message, of course, was that all right-thinking people agreed that the book should be on the proscribed list, and not just a mere individual. Anathemas were rained down on the head of Wilson with all the pious self-assurance of those who were cocksure they controlled the message of “science.” For example,
The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.
Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.
and, of course, the de rigueur association of Wilson with the Nazis:
These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.
Now, fast forward the better part of four decades and consider a similar diatribe by one of the current crop of the self-appointed morally pure. The paragon of righteousness in question is Andrew Gelman, and the title of his bit is The Paradox of Racism. True, Gelman doesn’t leave us in suspense about whether he’s in the ranks of the just and good or not. He can’t even wait until he’s past the title of his article to accuse Wade of racism. However, having established his bona fides, he adopts a conciliatory, and almost apologetic tone. For example,
Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics.
Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.
That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.
Obviously, Gelman hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years. Here we find him peering back over his shoulder, appearing for all the world as if he’s afraid the truth might catch up with him. He’s aware of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, perhaps the greatest debunking of the infallible authority of “science” of all time. He allows that we might not merely be dealing with a racist individual here, but a racist truth. He even acknowledges that, in that case, something might actually be done about it, implicitly dropping the “genetic determinism” canard:
Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.
Indeed, unlike the authors of the earlier paper, Gelman can’t even bring himself to summon up the ghost of Hitler. He concludes,
Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.
In a word, Gelman’s remarks are rather more nuanced than the fulminations of his predecessors. Am I making too much of this apparent change of tone? I don’t think so. True, there are still plenty of fire-breathing Blank Slaters lurking in the more obscure echo chambers of academia, but, like the Communists, they are doing us the favor of gradually dying off. Their latter day replacements, having seen whole legions of behavioral “scientists” exposed as charlatans, are rather less self-assured in their virtuous indignation. Some of them have even resorted to admitting that, while it may be true that there is such a thing as human biodiversity, the masses should be sheltered from that truth. Predictably, they have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the forbidden knowledge.
I note in passing the historical value of the attack on Wilson mentioned above. Like many similar bits and pieces of source material published in the decade prior to 1975, still easily accessible to anyone who cares to do a little searching, it blows the modern mythology concocted by the evolutionary psychologists to account for the origins of their science completely out of the water. According to that mythology, it all began with the “big bang” of Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology. The whole yarn may be found summarized in a nutshell in the textbook Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss. According to Buss, Sociobiology was “monumental in both size and scope.” It “synthesized under one umbrella a tremendous diversity of scientific endeavors and gave the emerging field (sociobiology) a visible name.” And so on and so on. At least that’s the version in my 2009 edition of the book. “History” might have changed a bit since Wilson’s embrace of group selection in his The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012. We’ll have to wait and see when the next edition of the textbook is published.
Be that as it may, the fact is that the reason for the original notoriety of Sociobiology, and the reason it is not virtually forgotten today, had nothing to do with all the good stuff Wilson packed into the middle 25 chapters of his book that was subsequently the subject of Buss’ panegyrics. That reason was Wilson’s insistence in the first and last of his 27 chapters that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” There was nothing in the least novel, original, or revolutionary in that insistence. In fact, it was merely a repetition of what other authors had been writing for more than a decade. Those authors were neither obscure nor ignored, and were recognized by Blank Slaters like Gould and Lewontin as their most influential and effective opponents. They, and not any novel “scientific synthesis,” were the reason that such worthies paid any attention to Wilson’s book at all. And, much as I admire the man, they, and not Wilson, were most influential in unmasking the absurdities of the Blank Slate, causing it to stumble and eventually collapse. Those facts were certainly no secret to the authors of the article. Allow me to quote them by way of demonstration:
From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.
Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information.
The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology.
In a word, the Blank Slaters themselves certainly perceived nothing “novel” in Sociobiology. By the time it was published the hypotheses about human nature they objected to in its content were already old hat. They were merely trying to silence yet another voice proclaiming the absence of the emperor’s new clothes. Again, just do a little searching through the historical source material and you’ll find that the loudest and most influential voice of all, and the one that drew the loudest bellows of rage from the Blank Slaters, belonged to one of Wilson’s predecessors mentioned by name in the above quotes; Robert Ardrey. Of course, Ardrey was a “mere playwright,” and it’s a well-known fact that, once one has been a playwright, one is automatically disqualified from becoming a scientist or writing anything that counts as science ever after. Add to that the fact that Ardrey was right when all the scientists with their Ph.D.’s were wrong about human nature, and I think it’s obvious why making him anything like the “father of evolutionary psychology” would be in bad taste. Wilson fits that role nicely, or at least he did until his flirtation with group selection escalated into a full scale romance. Ergo, Ardrey was declared “totally and utterly wrong,” became an unperson, and Wilson stepped up to fill his ample shoes. Alas, if past history is any guide, I fear that it eventually may become necessary to drop poor Nick down the memory hole as well. True, at least the man isn’t a playwright, but he isn’t sporting a Ph.D., either. Really, how “scientific” can you be if you don’t have a Ph.D.? In any case, the mythology that passes for the history of evolutionary psychology began “just so.”
Posted on May 9th, 2014 No comments
There’s been a lot of chatter on the Internet lately about MSNBC host Krystal Ball’s “re-interpretation” of Animal Farm as an anti-capitalist parable. The money quote from her take in the video below:
At its heart, Animal Farm is about tyranny and the likelihood of those in power to abuse that power. It’s clear that tendency is not only found in the Soviet communist experience. In fact, if you read Animal Farm today, it seems to warn not of some now non-existent communist threat but of the power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites and corporations…
As new research shows that we already live a sort of oligarchy that the preferences of the masses literally do not matter and that the only thing that counts is the needs and desires of the elites, Animal Farm is a useful cautionary tale warning of the corruption of concentrated power, no matter in whose hands that power rests.
Well, not exactly, Krystal. As astutely pointed out by CJ Ciaramella at The Federalist,
This is such a willfully stupid misreading that it doesn’t warrant much comment. However, for those who haven’t read Animal Farm since high school, as seems to be the case with Ball: The book is a satire of Soviet Russia specifically and a parable about totalitarianism in general. Every major event in the book mirrors an event in Soviet history, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Trotsky fleeing the country to Stalin’s cult of personality.
Indeed. Animal Farm’s Napoleon as the Koch Brothers? Snowball as Thomas Picketty? I don’t think so. True, you have to be completely clueless about the history of the Soviet Union to come up with such a botched interpretation, but, after all, that’s not too surprising. For citizens of our fair Republic, cluelessness about the history of the Soviet Union is probably the norm. The real irony here is that you also have to be completely clueless about Orwell to bowdlerize Animal Farm into an anti-capitalist parable. If that’s your agenda, why not fish out something more appropriate from his literary legacy. Again, quoting Ciaramella,
What is most impressive, though, is that MSNBC couldn’t locate an appropriate reference to inequality in the works of a lifelong socialist. It’s not as if one has to search hard to find Orwell railing against class divisions. He wrote an entire book, The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible living conditions in the industrial slums of northern England.
Not to mention Down and Out in Paris and London and four volumes of essays full of rants against the Americans for being so backward about accepting the blessings of socialism. Indeed, Orwell, has been “re-interpreted” on the Right just as enthusiastically as on the Left of the political spectrum. For example, from Brendan Bordelon at The Libertarian Republic,
Leaving aside the obvious historical parallels between Animal Farm and the Soviet Union, the inescapable message is that government-enforced equality inevitably leads to oppression and further inequality, as fallible humans (or pigs) use powerful enforcement tools for their own personal gain.
Sorry, Brendan, but that message is probably more escapable than you surmise. Orwell was, in fact, a firm supporter of “government-enforced equality,” at least to the extent that he was a life-long, dedicated socialist. Indeed, he thought the transition to socialism in the United Kingdom was virtually inevitable in the aftermath of World War II.
In short, if you’re really interested in learning what Orwell was trying to “tell” us, whether in Animal Farm or the rest of his work, it’s probably best to read what he had to say about it himself.
Posted on May 8th, 2014 No comments
The vindication just keeps coming for the unpersons of the Blank Slate. First Robert Ardrey’s “Territorial Imperative” is confirmed in an article in the journal International Security. The authors actually deign to mention Ardrey, but claim that, even though their “novel ideas” are all remarkably similar to the main themes of a book he published almost half a century ago, it doesn’t count. You see, unlike all the other scientists who ever lived, Ardrey wasn’t infallible, so he can be ignored, and his legacy appropriated at will. Shortly thereafter, Ardrey’s “Hunting Hypothesis” is confirmed yet again, and in the pages of Scientific American, no less! The article in question bears the remarkably Ardreyesque title How Hunting Made Us Human. It does not mention Ardrey.
Now another major theme from the work of yet another unperson whose life work and legacy don’t count because Richard Dawkins said he was “totally and utterly wrong” has been (yet again) confirmed! The unperson in question is Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel laureate who dared to suggest that genes might have some influence on human aggression in his book, On Aggression, published back in 1966. According to the authors of a recent Penn State study there is now some doubt about whether Lorenz was “totally and utterly wrong” after all. Here are some blurbs from an account in the Penn State News:
Aggression-causing genes appeared early in animal evolution and have maintained their roles for millions of years and across many species, even though animal aggression today varies widely from territorial fighting to setting up social hierarchies, according to researchers from Iowa State University, Penn State and Grand Valley State University.
If these “mean genes” keep their roles in different animals and in different contexts, then perhaps model organisms — such as bees and mice — can provide insights into the biological basis of aggression in all animals, including humans, the researchers said.
Do you think Lorenz will get any credit? Dream on! After all, he wasn’t infallible (what was it he was wrong about now? The “hydraulic theory” or something), and it’s a “well known fact,” as Stalin always used to say, that any scientist who wasn’t as infallible as the Almighty should be ignored and forgotten and his work freely appropriated. Or at least that’s the rule generally applied by the modern “historians” of the Blank Slate to scientists whose existence is “inconvenient” to their narrative.
BTW, the title typically used for articles about the study is very amusing. In most cases, it’s simply copied from the one used in the Penn State News; “Wasps use ancient aggression genes to create social groups”. Move along people! There’s nothing interesting here. It’s just a dull study about wasps.
No matter, studies on the influence of genes on human behavior continue to stream out of the Academy, demonstrating that, for the most part, such work can now be done without fear of retribution. That, and not any vindicated or unvindicated scientific hypothesis, is the real legacy of Ardrey, Lorenz, and the other great unpersons of the Blank Slate.
Posted on May 4th, 2014 No comments
Massimo Pigliucci recently posted an article at his Scientia Salon website exploring the connection between the philosophy of David Hume and the concept of human nature. Entitled Human Nature, a Humean Take, it’s an interesting artifact of current perceptions in academia of human nature in general and the Blank Slate episode in particular. Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. He prides himself on the latter specialty, and will occasionally use it as a bludgeon against his intellectual opponents. His article begins with the following:
Human nature is a funny thing. Some scientists, like biologist E.O. Wilson and linguist Steven Pinker are pretty convinced it is a real thing, and that it seriously constrains what we are going to do with our lives (the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology as it was known in its first incarnation, is predicated on it).
Then again, plenty of philosophers I have talked to in recent years seem to be genuinely surprised that one could still talk about such a thing in all seriousness. Surely that quaint idea went out the window after decades of criticism of genetic determinism, they say. This, of course, despite the fact that there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy of perfectly comprehensible talk about human nature.
The first of these two paragraphs is amusing because one of Pigliucci’s pet peeves is “scientism,” and he has singled out Pinker for criticism as one of the foremost proponents of that ideology. In spite of that, here we find him rattling off Pinker’s “Big Bang” revision of the history of the Blank Slate as if there was nothing in the least controversial about it. Score one for Pinker. His fairy tale is all there, complete with the guileless assertion that “sociobiology” was the first incarnation of the discipline of evolutionary psychology. Of course, as anyone who’s been around long enough is aware, EP didn’t begin with the “Big Bang” of E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology. “Ethology” was the vernacular term of choice for what later became evolutionary psychology more than a decade before sociobiology was ever heard of. To swallow Pinker’s version of history, you have to perform a lobotomy on the 20th century, deleting a period of about a decade and a half starting around 1960, and pretend that the contributions of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, last but by no means least, that greatest of all the unpersons of evolutionary psychology, the “playwright,” Robert Ardrey, were either insignificant or, as Richard Dawkins put it in The Selfish Gene, “totally and utterly wrong.”
In the second paragraph of the above quote, we find Pigliucci all unaware that the “philosophers” who were “genuinely surprised” that there is, in fact, an entire academic discipline that does take the notion of human nature “in all seriousness,” are actually leftover Blank Slaters of a type it’s becoming increasingly hard to find outside of the academic echo chamber. He also seems unaware that the “decades of criticism of genetic determinism,” really amounted to nothing more than the deification of a propaganda slogan. For all I know, there may actually be “genetic determinists,” but if so, they must be as rare as hen’s teeth. I’ve never actually seen one. If any of my readers ever happen to run across the genuine article in a circus sideshow or some similar venue, I would be most grateful if they’d spread the word.
Indeed, even people like Pinker seem to be sending somewhat mixed messages about the whole concept: on the one hand he vehemently (and justly) attacks the idea of a “blank slate” (though I don’t actually know too many people who hold onto it in anything like the original, strong, Lockeian version. On the other hand, however, he claims — huge data sets in hand — that human beings have been able to yield to the “better angels” of our nature and have progressively built societies characterized by less and less violence.
This is certainly an odd assertion, following on the heels of his assertions that he knows other philosophers who don’t believe in human nature. I daresay that their version of the “blank slate” is likely to be a great deal “stronger” than Locke’s. In the first place, it’s ridiculous to link the “blank slatism” of Locke with that of such later thinkers as John Stuart Mill, or the “blank slatism” of Mill with that of such latter day ideologues as Ashley Montagu or Richard Lewontin. To do so denies to each of them their right to be taken seriously as individual thinkers. Locke’s “blank slatism” followed from his religious principles. Mill’s is probably best described as due to the misfortune of writing his Utilitarianism before his thought could be informed by Darwin’s great theory. For many of the 20th century versions, “blank slatism” was a necessary prop for the assorted utopian social schemes they happened to favor. Locke’s version was probably not as “strong” as theirs, or, for that matter, as that of Pigliucci’s “philosophers.” For example, quoting Locke,
Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing.
Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men’s appetites.
One can find a whole menagerie of latter day Blank Slaters whose versions are a great deal “stronger” than this by thumbing through the pages of Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968. As for the claim that Pinker is sending a “mixed message” in his The Better Angels of our Nature, it’s nonsense unless you believe that one must either be a Blank Slater or one of those unicorn-like Genetic Determinists. Apparently Pigliucci really believes these two extremes are the norm, and imagines himself in the benevolent role of providing adult supervision. For example,
Because of my original training as an evolutionary biologist interested in nature-nurture issues, I guess I never understood the (alleged) dichotomy. My basic take is that human behavioral traits (“human nature”) are the result of a continuous and inextricable interaction between our genes and our environments — which means that it makes no sense to ask what percentage of what we do is “caused” by genes and what percentage by the environment. If you add the well established concept, in evolutionary biology, of phenotypic plasticity — the idea that different sets of genes help produce wider or narrower ranges of behaviors in response to the quality of environmental inputs, and that the majority of these environmental inputs are nowadays the result of cultural forces — you’ve got a fairly solid framework to argue that yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable.
You might think that this would reassure both the scientists who insists (rightly) that human beings are not infinitely malleable blank slates, and the humanists who are (again, rightly) weary of the sinister socio-political implications of strong biological determinism. Everybody wins, can we go home now?
In fact, as far as human nature is concerned, no such dichotomy has ever existed outside of the fevered imaginations of Pigliucci’s Blank Slate “philosophers.” If he would trouble himself to read the first chapter of any undergraduate Evolutionary Psychology textbook, he will notice that the point is usually forcefully made that no such dichotomy exists. Certainly such Pinkerian unpersons as Lorenz and Ardrey constantly insisted there was no such dichotomy, as did E. O. Wilson. When Pigliucci claims that “percentages make no sense,” he is simply misrepresenting the claims of the users of the mathematical techniques he alludes to. Finally, when he claims that, “yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable,” he reveals a deep misunderstanding of what is actually meant by the term, “human nature.” The term is both meaningless and useless unless one is referring to a bag of behavioral traits whose ultimate cause is to be found in our genes. The fact that the expression of those traits can take on an infinity of different forms does not imply any change in that ultimate cause. The only way in which “human nature” can change is via genetic change.
Which brings us to David Hume. He was a brilliant thinker, and what he had to say about human nature is one of the best refutations of “scientism” I am aware of. Anyone who thinks science has made philosophy irrelevant needs to read him. The question is, why was he relevant? I think the best answer to that question was given by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind. Indeed, Haidt is now at NYU, and Pigliucci could do worse than to jump on the subway and ride down to the other end of Manhattan for a visit. Here’s what Haidt has to say about Hume in a sub-heading entitled The Birth of Moral Science beginning on page 114 of the hardcover version of his book:
Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project: an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences. His first great work, A Treatise of Human Nature, had this subtitle: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. Hume believed that “moral science” had to begin with careful inquiry into what humans are really like. And when he examined human nature – in history, in political affairs, and among his fellow philosophers – he saw that “sentiment” (intuition) is the driving force of our moral lives, whereas reasoning is biased and impotent, fit primarily to be a servant of the passions. He also saw a diversity of virtues, and he rejected attempts by some of his contemporaries to reduce all of morality to a single virtue such as kindness, or to do away with virtues and replace them with a few moral laws.
Haidt continues with a quote of the great philosopher himself,
Morality is nothing in the abstract Nature of Things, but is entirely relative to the S3entiment or mental Taste of each particular Being; in the same Manner as the Distinctions of sweet and bitter, hot and cold, arise from the particular feeling of each Sense or Organ. Moral Perceptions therefore, ought not to be class’d with the Operations of Understanding, but with the Tastes or Sentiments.
For someone writing long before Darwin, it’s hard to think of anyone, philosopher or scientist, who came up with an insight more brilliant than that. For the reasons for that statement, by all means, read Haidt’s book. Unfortunately, Pigliucci, who piques himself on his profound philosophical insight, can’t leave it at that. He insists on teasing something more out of Hume. Eventually, after ruminations which I leave the interested reader to peruse for himself, he gets from point A, the actual writings of Hume, to point B, which he states as follows:
At any rate, the basic, somewhat Humean (or Hume-inspired) outline of what I’m thinking about is that human nature — i.e., what it is to be human, as opposed to, say, being chimpanzee — evolves both genetically and culturally, with the two constantly interacting with each other, and yet, I think, with the cultural component becoming more and more independent of the genetic one.
One must hope that Hume would have disavowed this fanciful interpretation of his work. The “cultural component” would not exist without its genetic ultimate cause. This amounts to the same thing as claiming that, because culture has enabled our legs to perform intricate and unprecedented dances, and to jump unprecedented distances, and to climb Mount Everest, our legs are therefore becoming independent of their genetic origins. In other words, it’s nonsense. Pigliucci continues,
Consider, as a controversial example, Pinker’s own theory in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence has more or less steadily gone down throughout human history (yes, despite two world wars in the 20th century!) at the least in part because of our ability to talk to each other and originate and spread (philosophical) ideas about democracy, justice, and so on. If Pinker’s outline is even remotely close to the truth, then we have a situation where pre-existing feelings of intra-group fairness and cooperation, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, gradually, via cultural evolution, got more elaborated and became applied more broadly, generating what Peter Singer refers to as our enlarging circle of empathy and moral concern.
The idea is that if, indeed, we are making moral progress (as Singer suggests, and as Pinker-style data seem to confirm), then this in an important sense counts as a change in human nature, but it is one achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.
In other words, by enlisting Hume in a cause I daresay the great philosopher would have strenuously objected to were he still among us, Pigliucci ends by claiming that there actually is something as un-Humean as “moral progress,” and that the fictional existence of such a thing counts as a “change in human nature.” He tops it off with the non sequitur that this “change in human nature” is “achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.
What can I say? I suppose that, first of all, I must congratulate Steven Pinker. His imaginary “history” of the Blank Slate has apparently been swallowed, even by someone who is one of his most eloquent academic opponents. In other words, his fiction is well on the way to becoming the “truth.” And who is likely to ever question the “truth?” After all, most serious history is now written by academics, and what academic is ever likely to draw down the ire of the rest of his tribe by insisting that the “men of science” were full of crap for more than half a decade, but were finally forced to admit they were wrong by a playwright? Good luck with that.
Other than that, apparently the concept of “human nature,” a vernacular term understood by virtually every member of our species above the age of 10 as something constant and unchanging in our behavioral repertoire, is not so understood in academia, or at least not universally. It remains to find a ten-year-old with sufficient influence and charm to explain the concept to the academics.
Posted on May 2nd, 2014 2 comments
Should there be a death penalty? Of course, the pros and cons are always trotted out after every botched execution. There was more chatter than usual after the last one because it happened to coincide with the publication of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), according to which more than 4% of death row inmates are innocent. We usually decide such questions by consulting our moral emotions. As the highly moral Communists and Nazis demonstrated, that’s not a good idea.
The 4% study recalls the adage, usually attributed to Blackstone, that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Relying on moral emotions alone, one could probably come up with a host of “trolley problems” to demonstrate that Blackstone’s formulation is either “true” or “false.” I take a more practical view of the matter. If I am dead, it won’t matter a bit to me whether I was killed by a criminal or by the state. Assuming there must be a death penalty, then, I would prefer to minimize the odds that I will be killed by either one. In other words, I would favor a policy which minimizes the number of innocent victims, regardless of whether they are killed by the state or by criminals.
In fact, that’s the reason that I oppose the death penalty. Again, my reasons are entirely practical. I want to minimize the odds that I will suffer an untimely death. The state has always been the most prolific and efficient murderer, and the recent trend has not been towards greater compassion. In the twentieth century, for example, at least two states, Cambodia and the Soviet Union, became so adept at mass murder that they effectively beheaded their own populations. I conclude that it would be better to get states out of the execution business once and for all, and I would not be at all squeamish about exploiting moral emotions to accomplish that end. For example, one might come up with something like a version of the Ten Commandments for states, one article of which would be, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” One might establish the “human right” not to be executed. The goal would not be the establishment of some abstract standard of “justice,” but self-preservation, pure and simple.
For the entertainment of my readers, I have included an old episode of “The Outer Limits” that explores the philosophical ramifications of this issue in greater detail. Notice that the bad guy is Bruce Dern. He was fantastic in the lead role of the movie “Nebraska,” that came out a few months ago. Sorry about the commercials.
Posted on April 29th, 2014 No comments
You might say Leon Trotsky was the “best” of the old Bolsheviks. He was smart, was familiar with the work of a host of important thinkers beyond the usual Marx and Hegel, and wrote in a style that was a great deal more entertaining than the cock-sure, “scientific” certainties of Lenin or the quasi-liturgical screeds of Stalin. He also had a very rational understanding of morality, right up to the point where his embrace of Marxism forced him to stumble across the is-ought divide. He set down his essential thought on the subject in an essay entitled Their Morals and Ours, which appeared in the June 1938 edition of The New International.
Trotsky begins by jettisoning objective morality, summarizing in a nutshell a truth that is perfectly obvious to religious believers but that atheist moralists so often seem unable to grasp:
Let us admit for the moment that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means. Then it is evidently necessary to seek criteria outside of historical society and those ends which arise in its development. But where? If not on earth, then in the heavens. In divine revelation popes long ago discovered faultless moral criteria. Petty secular popes speak about eternal moral truths without naming their original source. However, we are justified in concluding: since these truths are eternal, they should have existed not only before the appearance of half-monkey-half-man upon the earth but before the evolution of the solar system. Whence then did they arise? The theory of eternal morals can in nowise survive without god.
It is a tribute to the power of human moral emotions that the Sam Harris school of atheists continue doggedly concocting “scientific” theories of morality in spite of this simple and seemingly self-evident truth. It follows immediately on rejection of the God hypothesis. In spite of that, legions of atheists reject it because they “feel in their bones” that the chimeras of Good and Evil that Mother Nature has seen fit to dangle before their eyes must be real. It just can’t be that all their noble ideals are mere artifacts of evolution, and so they continue tinkering on their hopeless systems as the “ignorant” religious fundamentalists smirk in the background.
The very title of Trotsky’s essay reveals that he understood another fundamental aspect of human morality – its dual nature. In spite of approaching the subject via Marx instead of Darwin, he understood the difference between ingroups and outgroups. In the jargon of Marxism, these became “classes.” Thus, Trotsky’s ingroup was the proletariat, and his outgroup the bourgeoisie, and he found the notion that identical moral criteria should be applied to “oppressors” and “oppressed” alike absurd:
Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.
Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution.
Trotsky was quite familiar with Darwinian explanations of morality. One might say that, like so many Marxists who came after him, he was a “Blank Slater,” but certainly not in the same rigid, dogmatic sense as the later versions who denied the very existence of human behavioral predispositions. He allowed that there might be such a thing as “human nature,” but only to the extent that it didn’t get in the way of the proper development of “history.” For example,
But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.
He didn’t realize that these “elementary moral precepts” were just as capable of accommodating the Marxist “classes” as ingroups and outgroups as they are of enabling more “natural” perceptions of one’s own clan of hunter-gatherers and the next one over in the same roles. His conclusion that these “precepts” were relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things was reinforced by the fact that he was also familiar with and had a predictable allergic reaction to the work of those who derived imaginary, quasi-objective and un-Marxist “natural laws” from “human nature”:
Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type, in so far as they do not confine themselves to rationalist utilitarianism, the ethics of bourgeois bookkeeping, appear conscious or unconscious students of Viscount Shaftesbury, who at the beginning of the 18th century deduced moral judgments from a special “moral sense” supposedly once and for all given to man.
The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer, since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of a gregarious animal, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society torn by classes.
Other than the concocters of “natural law,” there was another powerful barrier in the way of Trotsky’s grasping the fundamental significance of his “elementary moral precepts” – his own, powerful moral emotions. According to his autobiography, these manifested themselves at a very young age as powerful reactions to what he perceived as the oppression of the weak by the strong. As Jonathan Haidt might have predicted, they were concentrated in the “Care/harm,” “Liberty/oppression,” and “Fairness/cheating” “foundations” of morality described in his The Righteous Mind as characteristic of the ideologues of the Left. It was inconceivable to Trotsky that the ultimate cause of these exalted emotions was to be found in a subset of the evolved behavioral traits of our species that have no “purpose,” and exist purely because they happened to increase the odds that his ancestors would survive and reproduce. And so it was that, as noted above, he skipped cheerfully across the is-ought divide, hardly noticing that he’d even crossed the line. At the end of the essay we discover that this sober rejecter of all absolute and objective moralities has somehow discovered a magical philosopher’s stone that enabled him to distinguish “higher” from “lower” moralities:
To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party, since the party embodies in his consciousness the very highest tasks and aims of mankind… Does it not seem that “amoralism” in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?
Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will – only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!
Let us say that it provided Trotsky with moral satisfaction, and leave it at that. It is certainly easier to forgive him for such a non sequitur than the more puritanical among the New Atheists of today, who have witnessed the collapse of the Blank Slate, can have no excuse for failing to understand where morality “comes from,” and yet still insist on edifying the rest of us with their freshly minted universal and “scientific” moral systems.
As it happens, there is a poignant footnote to Trotsky’s essay. Even at the time he wrote it, he probably knew in his heart of hearts that his earthly god had failed. By then, he could only maintain his defiant faith in Marxism by some convoluted theoretical revisions that must have seemed implausible to a man of his intelligence. According to the dogma of his “Fourth International,” the Bolshevik coup of 1917 had, indeed, been a genuine proletarian revolution. However, soon after seizing power, the proletariat had somehow gone to sleep, and allowed the sly bourgeoisie to regain control, using Stalin as their tool. The historical precedent for this remarkable historical double back flip was the Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution. As all good Marxists know, this had ended in the defeat of Robespierre and the Jacobins, who were the “real revolutionaries,” by the dark minions of the ancien regime. A more realistic interpretation of the events of 9 Thermidor is that it was a logical response on the part of perfectly sensible men to the realization that, if they did nothing, they were sure to be the next victims of Madame Guillotine. No matter, like the pastor of some tiny fundamentalist sect who insists that only his followers are “true Christians,” and only they will go to heaven, Trotsky insisted that only his followers were the “true revolutionaries” of 1917.
The fact that he took such license with Marxist dogma didn’t prevent Trotsky from grasping what was going on in the 1930′s much more clearly than the “parlor pink” Stalinist apologists of the time. Here’s what he had to say about he Duranty school of Stalinist stooges:
The King’s Counselor, Pritt, who succeeded with timeliness in peering under the chiton of the Stalinist Themis and there discovered everything in order, took upon himself the shameless initiative. Romain Rolland, whose moral authority is highly evaluated by the Soviet publishing house bookkeepers, hastened to proclaim one of his manifestos where melancholy lyricism unites with senile cynicism. The French League for the Rights of Man, which thundered about the “amoralism of Lenin and Trotsky” in 1917 when they broke the military alliance with France, hastened to screen Stalin’s crimes in 1936 in the interests of the Franco-Soviet pact. A patriotic end justifies, as is known, any means. The Nation and The New Republic closed their eyes to Yagoda’s exploits since their “friendship” with the U.S.S.R. guaranteed their own authority. Yet only a year ago these gentlemen did not at all declare Stalinism and Trotskyism to be one and the same. They openly stood for Stalin, for his realism, for his justice and for his Yagoda. They clung to this position as long as they could.
Until the moment of the execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the others, the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure, though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the revolutionists in the U.S.S.R. In this sense The Nation and The New Republic, not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the pen, fully responded to the interests of “democratic” imperialism. The execution of the generals alarmed the bourgeoisie, compelling them to understand that the advanced disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus lightened the tasks of Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado. The New York Times cautiously but insistently began to correct its own Duranty.
Those who don’t understand what Trotsky is getting at with his imputations of Stalinism regarding The Nation and The New Republic need only read a few back issues of those magazines from the mid to late 1930′s. It won’t take them long to get the point.
Even if the gallant old Bolshevik still firmly believed in his own revisions of Marxism in 1938, there can be little doubt that the scales had fallen from his eyes shortly before Stalin had him murdered in 1940. By then, World War II was already underway. In an essay that appeared in his last book, a collection of essays entitled In Defense of Marxism, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.
The assassin who ended Trotsky’s life with an ice pick was perhaps the most merciful of Stalin’s many executioners. There could have been little joy for the old Bolshevik in witnessing the bloody dictator’s triumph in 1945, and the final collapse of all his glorious dreams.
Posted on April 16th, 2014 2 comments
One Thomas Rodham Wells, who apparently fancies himself a philosopher, has posted an article entitled Is Parenthood Morally Respectable? over at 3quarksdaily. It explains to the rest of us benighted souls why it’s immoral to have children, except in situations where the number is limited to one, and the prospective parents’ motives in having children are scrutinized for moral purity, presumably by a board of philosophers appointed by Wells. Such tracts have been popping up in increasing numbers lately, mainly emanating from the left of the ideological spectrum. I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see them. They’re the ultimate expressions of what one might call a morality inversion – morality as a negation of the very basis of morality itself. Moral objections to parenthood are hardly the only manifestations of such suicidal inversions observable in modern society. For example, often the very same people who consider parenthood “evil” also consider unlimited illegal immigration “good.” I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised. Jury-rigging a large brain on a creature with a pre-existing set of behavioral traits, and then expecting the moral emotions to catch up with the change overnight would be a dubious proposition even in a static environment. Plump that creature down in the environment of today, radically different as it is from the one in which its moral equipment evolved, and such “anomalies” are only to be expected.
On the other hand, Darwin happened. He certainly had no trouble making the connection between his revolutionary theory and moral behavior. It was immediately obvious to him that morality exists because it evolved. The connection has been just as obvious to many others who have come and gone in the intervening century and a half. In this post-Blank Slate era the fact should be as obvious as the nose on your face. It should serve as a check on the intellectual hubris of our species that, in spite of that, so many of us still don’t get it.
I won’t go into too much detail about how Wells rationalized himself into a morality inversion. It’s the usual stuff. Parenthood is selfish because it imposes social costs on those who choose not to have children. Parenthood is irresponsible because the carbon footprint of children will melt the planet. Parenthood is unfair because the burden of other people’s children on the childless don’t outweigh their advantages. And so on, and so on. As usual, all this completely misses the point. The “point” is that the ultimate reason that morality exists to begin with, and absent which it would not exist, is that it increased the probability that individuals of our species would survive and have children who would also survive. In other words, using morality to encourage genetic suicide is manifestly absurd. It is basically the same thing as using one’s evolved hand to shoot oneself, or using one’s evolved feet to jump off a cliff. One can only conclude that, in the midst of all his complex moral reasoning, Wells never bothered to consider why, exactly, there is such a thing as morality.
Should one go to the trouble of pointing all this out to him? Why on earth for! The rest of us should be overjoyed that he and as many others like him as possible are delusional. If anything, we should encourage them to remain delusional. If they have no children, we won’t have to feed them, educate them, the planet may not melt after all, and, best of all, there will be more room for our children. As for me pointing this out to my readers, I admit, it does seem somewhat counterintuitive. On the other hand, so far there aren’t enough of you to seriously risk melting the planet, and if you’re smart enough to “get it” it’s probably worth my while to keep you around to provide a little quality genetic diversity in any case.