Posted on March 30th, 2010 No comments
James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory, drew a baleful stare from Instapundit this morning for claiming, as Glenn put it, that “We need to get rid of ‘obstructions’ like democracy to deal with global warming,” in an interview for the Guardian. Dr. Lovelock’s actual remarks weren’t quite so blunt:
Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.
In fact, the Guardian article left me with a rather favorable impression. I don’t take Lovelock’s Gaia theory seriously, but it’s really more an expression of the man’s “spirituality” than an attempt at rigorous science. Apparently he was grasping for some kind of straw to fill his need for something “greater than himself,” but that’s not an uncommon human foible, even among people as intelligent as Lovelock. And he is intelligent. One can tell that by the fact that he thinks outside of the box. He’s not wearing any of the usual ideological straightjackets. Consider, for example, the last three paragraphs of the article:
Lovelock says the events of the recent months have seen him warming to the efforts of the “good” climate sceptics: “What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think: ‘Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?’ If you don’t have that continuously, you really are up the creek. The good sceptics have done a good service, but some of the mad ones I think have not done anyone any favours. You need sceptics, especially when the science gets very big and monolithic.”
Lovelock, who 40 years ago originated the idea that the planet is a giant, self-regulating organism – the so-called Gaia Theory – added that he has little sympathy for the climate scientists caught up in the UEA email scandal. He said he had not read the original emails – “I felt reluctant to pry” – but that their reported content had left him feeling “utterly disgusted”.
“Fudging the data in any way whatsoever is quite literally a sin against the holy ghost of science,” he said. “I’m not religious, but I put it that way because I feel so strongly. It’s the one thing you do not ever do. You’ve got to have standards.”
Obviously, he’s not a hidebound ideologue busily embellishing his “climate denier” demon. Rather, he’s apparently made a conscientious attempt to think a few things through without balking at the preconceived shibboleths he encountered along the way. As we gather from Instapundit’s stern disapproval, one such shibboleth was democracy.
It’s difficult to deny that democracy has its faults. As Winston Churchill put it, ” No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In the end, it may turn out to be a self-annihilating form of government. In our own day we see it incapable of resisting infiltration by people whose culture may be hostile to its existence, or of resisting the rise of a bloated state power whose coexistence with Liberty is out of the question.
Other than that, it is also true that, as Lovelock claims, democracies are in the habit of setting aside their political ideals in time of war. If the effects of global warming become as severe as a major war, the overriding imperative of survival may, indeed, require that “democracy be put on hold.” If so, the question will become, “Who gets to play dictator?” I personally would prefer the CEO of some oil company to a coalition of Greenpeace, PETA, and Code Pink, but that’s just a matter of personal taste.
Lovelock makes another comment in the article that I find spot on:
I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change. The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.
His interviewer bowdlerizes this to ” Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change from radically impacting on our lives over the coming decades,” in typical journalistic fashion, but the statement is, nonetheless, true. We are not intelligent enough to avoid the chaos and catastrophe that will surely be our future lot in one form or another if we remain as we are. We can try to avoid the worst by taking control of our own evolution, or we can sit and wait. Evolution will not stand still, regardless. Perhaps the result will be the same. Assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves completely, above average intelligence will surely be a factor in deciding who will survive the wrath to come. If we prove incapable of making ourselves smarter, nature will do it for us. It will just be a great deal more painful.
Posted on March 29th, 2010 2 comments
Memes; it’s amazing how fast they spread these days. Today’s meme du jour was “Afghan Corruption.” You couldn’t miss it. I happened to stroll past the newspaper stand at the local drugstore, and saw the headline, “In Afghan trip, Obama presses Karzai on graft” on the grey lady. The Wapo chimed in with, “Obama presses Karzai for cooperation; U.S. wants government cleanup in Afghanistan.” There was a picture of Obama wearing the stern face he likely uses to lecture his children accompanied by a chastened Karzai. Beneath this some “news analysis” bearing the headline, “For the U.S., Afghan corruption is an elusive target,” was thrown in for good measure. I almost swallowed my gum when I saw that Newsweek had an “Afghan Corruption” cover, in perfect harmony with the dailies. Now that was fast! Sure enough, when I got back to my computer I found “Obama calls on Karzai to push reforms” on the front page of the LA Times, and so on down the list of the usual suspects.
I can only recommend that Karzai get over the humiliation of being treated like a schoolboy instead of the leader of an independent state. He’ll have to get used to it. It’s one of those “change” things that comes with the new dispensation. Benjamin Netanyahu could have told him. If the US happens to have a firm grip on your country’s balls, you’ll just need to deal with being humiliated and treated with contempt.
Meanwhile, he might consider polishing up his resume. As those governments of yesteryear sanguine enough to trust the United States as an ally have learned, charges of “corruption” are the traditional rationalization for throwing our “friends” under the bus as we, once again, skedaddle. This time around, I’m sure Obama is in no mood to be trifled with. He needs big dough to finance health care “reform” and “job creation.” Where’s it to come from if we don’t extract ourselves from all these silly wars? And, after all, he’s been conscientious, hasn’t he? He already tried the surge thing. The stage will soon be set for him to exit, stage left.
Posted on March 28th, 2010 No comments
As far as the species is concerned, it’s a personal problem. The rest of the universe doesn’t care one way or the other. There is no objective reason why we should survive. Basically, it depends on our own whims, and there’s no reason to suggest that any one person’s whim should carry more weight than another’s.
My own whim is in favor of survival. I can give no objective reason for preferring it to the alternative. However, the thought has occurred to me that we only exist in the first place because we have been good at surviving. If I were to prefer not to survive, then, from a biological point of view I would be dysfunctional, and I find that thought distressing. Subjective as it is, I can think of no more fundamental “good” than survival. It may not be a good in itself, but, as a subjective good, it trumps all the rest. After all, our very perception of good and evil, and the way in which we experience these categories, are themselves artifacts of evolution. They exist for no other reason whatsoever than the role they have played in promoting our survival. In that sense, then, all other goods and all other evils, fundamentally irrational emotional entities that they are, are ancillary to survival. Survival, then, becomes the subjective “good of goods.”
Again, I am by no means claiming that survival is good in itself. I am merely describing my own, personal emotional response to the circumstances I find myself in. To put it in the broadest possible terms, I desire the survival of the life I carry, regardless of the manner in which it evolves in the future to accomplish that end. It has been alive for billions of years. In that sense, it is really who “I” am, as opposed to the consciousness writing these lines. It would distress me to know that, after all those eons of survival, its fate was only to be extinguished in a universe that doesn’t care.
Posted on March 27th, 2010 2 comments
The allergic response of the “progressive” left, those great self-proclaimed vindicators of “the people,” to the only genuine popular movement most of them have ever seen has been a remarkable spectacle. If their blogs are any indication, every tea partier with a homemade sign is a racist, Nazi,and potential assassin with overactive saliva glands. They’ve been waving the bloody shirt non-stop since the health care bill passed, regaling us with hair raising tales of gratuitous vandalism and murderous threats. Instapundit was all over the story last week, with lots of good links to related stories. Examples of the usual ostentatious pious posing on the left can be found here, here, here and here, and reactions on the right here, here, here and here. The “violent mobs” meme was ubiquitous in the MSM and, of course, on NPR, where I noticed they were flogging it relentlessly every half hour or so as I drove to work. (I often wonder whether these people actually believe their own cant and think they’re just reporting the news. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?) Greg Gutfeld has a post about the selective outrage on the left today that hits the nail on the head. His take:
It goes like this: for the media, anger is only okay if its targets meet their stereotypical, romanticized criteria. Meaning: the corporation, the conservative, the daddy who never loved them.
Here’s a list of people doing angry things the media is okay with:
-People calling Bush a Nazi
-Students and non students rioting on college campuses
-Animal rights freaks dousing rich folks with paint
-Actors wishing average folks would get rectal cancer
-Bureaucrats labeling military vets as potential violent right wing extremists
-Radical environmentalists advocating violence against loggers
-Pranksters throwing pies at conservative commentators (you know, somehow they never pie Michael Moore, which makes him sad; he likes pie)
But this health care bill anger is different from all that – not just because it’s right, but because it involves Obama. And being angry at Obama is like being mad at Santa Claus. How can you be mad at Santa, when he brings us so many gifts?
And so, this anger is scary! It’s a mark of incivility! It’s deadly!
In case you’re an NPR reporter and therefore have no clue what Greg is talking about, I suggest you follow some of Instapundit’s links to accounts of threats and violence directed against people you don’t happen to agree with. You can find examples here, here, here and here. Now check your archives and find out how obsessive you were about reporting on those stories. Any questions? If you want to see what real political intimidation looks like, take a gander at what your pals in Canada have been up to.
Of course, when it comes to the health care bill, the ranting on the right has been at least as loud as that on the left. Sean Hannity has been making Nathan Hale speeches for months about how the “Louisiana Purchase,” the “Cornhusker Kickback,” and all the related traditional wheeling and dealing in Congress make the health care bill the “most corrupt” ever. I can only suggest that Sean get a grip and Google Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier, or perhaps read a little about the history of the big railroads and their penchant for political manipulation in their heyday.
Indeed, when it comes to pious posing from the moral high ground, the right seems to have achieved parity with the left. We’ve become a mutual demonization society. In some sense that’s a good thing, because it demonstrates that in the US, unlike, for example, in Europe, the right has regained a public voice in the form of talk radio, influential bloggers, and Foxnews. The days when the left had such a monopoly over the public media that they could simply destroy people who criticized them the way they did Richard Nixon are long gone. Now the right can answer tit for tat, and they are in no mood to be intimidated with the “violent demonstrators” gambit. Who knows, perhaps cooler heads on both sides will eventually become bored with mutual villification and we will see a gradual easing of the current polarization between left and right. I’m not holding my breath, though.
Meanwhile, we must grin and bear the burden of another massive government entitlement program. Obama assures us that it will “cut the deficit.” If it does, it will certainly be a historical first. I’m not holding my breath for that, either. On the other hand, it’s unlikely to cause the collapse of the economy the right seems so worried about any time soon. Other countries have dealt with and continue to deal with much heavier public debts than ours, although we certainly appear to be catching up with them. A more likely outcome than the “train wreck” expected on the right is economic malaise similar to that in Japan accompanied by gradually increasing taxation in one form or another and an increasingly discouraging outlook for anyone contemplating any kind of private economic venture. I can’t rule out one of Nassim Taleb’s “black swans,” but I suspect that the American people will simply accept the continuing metastasization of big government and adapt to the resultant loss of liberty as best they can, just as they have accepted the gradual and continued morphing of our so-called ”system of justice” into an abomination in which the only “winners” of legal battles in the courts can be the lawyers. The train wreck may be coming, but it’s still a long way off.
Posted on March 21st, 2010 1 comment
In 1778, while serving as Minister of the Continental Congress to the French government, Benjamin Franklin received an insulting anonymous letter from some British “gentlemen,” expressing contempt for the American Revolution and the scorn felt by ruling elites in all ages for the common people. His answer was interesting in the context of the current debate over nationalized health care. An excerpt:
The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.
We’ve wandered far from the vision of our Founding Fathers, haven’t we? They valued Liberty. Today the sine qua non is Security, not Liberty, whether for “liberals” or “conservatives.” The left would secure Security with state power. The right would secure it with torture, indefinite detention without trial, and the assumption that “terrorists” are guilty until proven innocent.
Posted on March 21st, 2010 No comments
The Slant; it’s as obvious from the stories they don’t cover as from the ones they do. For example, for the legacy media, political demonstrations exist in what quantum physicists would call a “virtual state.” They don’t become “real” until, like Schrödinger’s famous cat, they are “measured” by the media. Once they are measured, they become “real.” If they are not measured, they never happened.
Posted on March 16th, 2010 No comments
Times are hard in the news business, and editors can’t afford to be too finicky when the bottom line is at stake. A tried and true nostrum for sagging readership and circulation numbers is the ubiquitous practice of flogging some controversy in the hopes of inspiring outrage based on a half-baked understanding of the relevant facts. An interesting example of the genre turned up on the FOXNews website yesterday, apparently based on a feed from AP. The headline of the article in question reads, “Church Fights Back After Arizona Town Bans Home Bible Study.” According to the article, the Alliance Defense Fund “has filed an appeal with the town of Gilbert, contending its code violates the U.S. Constitution.” Related discussion of the matter can be found here and here. An article on the ADF website claims,
In November 2009, Oasis of Truth Church was ordered in a letter from a Gilbert code compliance officer to stop church meetings in Pastor Joe Sutherland’s home, based on the town’s Land Development Code. The officer was not responding to a complaint, but to signs he came across near Sutherland’s home about the meetings.
The town contends that, under its zoning code, churches within its borders cannot have any home meetings of any size, including Bible studies, three-person church leadership meetings, and potluck dinners. This ban is defended based upon traffic, parking, and building safety concerns. However, nothing in its zoning code prevents weekly Cub Scouts meetings, Monday Night Football parties with numerous attendees, or large business parties from being held on a regular basis in private homes. In fact, the zoning code explicitly allows some day cares to operate from homes.
The ADF doesn’t elaborate on the basis of its claim that “the town contends” these things, but the letter referred to certainly doesn’t go into such elaborate detail. An interesting artifact of the bureaucratic mind in its own right, it reads,
On 11/23/09, I noticed a number of signs in Riggs Rd., near your house. They were advertising church services in a nearby residence. At that time, I followed the signs, but failed to identify your house.
From the information on the signs, I discovered from your website that you are holding religious assemblies at your home which is residential, Single Family (zoned SF-7).
The Town’s Land Development Code, Section 2.103, C (and Table), prohibits the use of single family residential structures for Religious Assemblies, Small Scale.
At this time, this letter will serve as a ten day written notice to quit such use.
Now, the lust of the religiously inclined for martyrdom goes with the territory, but it turns out that our good Code Compliance Inspector II was not actually channeling the Emperor Nero. He was merely executing the zoning algorithm as set forth in the Gilbert Land Development Code after the robotic fashion of good bureaucrats everywhere. As usual in such matters, it never occurred to him to consider such extraneous matters as the intent and purpose of the code, which was presumably to prevent undue noise, disturbance, and traffic congestion in residential areas.
In fact the Gilbert Code does not single out Christians for special persecution. Rather, the relevant section reads as follows:
4.505 Religious Assembly
Religious assemblies are not exempt from the requirements of the Zoning Code.
Request for Determination. If a religious assembly use believes any requirement of the Zoning Code imposes a substantial burden on its exercise of its religion, the religious assembly use shall submit to the Zoning Administrator a written statement as to why any requirement imposes a substantial burden on its exercise of religion and a description of any requested accommodation. The Zoning Administrator shall review the statement and determine:
1. Whether the proposed use is a religious assembly use under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act;
2. Whether the requirement imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the religious assembly use;
3. If the requirement imposes a substantial burden, whether the requirement furthers a compelling governmental interest of the Town, and if so, whether it is the least restrictive requirement necessary to further that compelling governmental interest; and
4. The nature and extent of any accommodation, waiver, or adjustment to a requirement of the Zoning Code, if any.
In other words, according to the plain wording of the Code, religious organizations are not given special license to cause noise and disturbance in residential neighborhoods, but must obey the same rules as everyone else. However, far from being singled out for oppression, they are granted special indulgence if the zoning laws “impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.” Assuming the city fathers are not all so utterly lacking in common sense as their Code Compliance Inspector II, one must assume the members of the Oasis of Truth Church would have been granted such an indulgence had they applied for it. Apparently, the thought never occurred to them. They were too busy savoring the sweetness of martyrdom. As for the unfortunate Inspector, there is no evidence at all that he was possessed of a demonic hatred of Christians. Rather, what set him off were the signs, against which the provisions of the Code are particularly strict and explicit.
Well, no doubt the zoning laws of Gilbert will be reworked, and the Code Compliance Inspector II will be reprogrammed with a modified algorithm. However, as long as Code Compliance Inspector II’s are not all philosopher kings, and news editors still have to worry about meeting the payroll, we can expect more of the same.
Posted on March 14th, 2010 No comments
Historical revisionists abound in our day. From 911 Truthers to Holocaust deniers, they are out there busily plying their trade, re-crafting historical events to make them fit whatever narrative happens to tickle their fancy. Many of them end up actually believing their modified versions of reality. Instead of seeking the truth, they imagine they already “know” the truth before they start the search. As a result, they become victims of what philosopher Nassim Taleb calls “confirmation bias.” In his words, “By a mental mechanism I call naive empiricism, we have a natural tendency to look for instances that confirm our story and our vision of the world – these instances are always easy to find. Alas, with tools, and fools, anything can be easy to find. You take past instances that corroborate your theories and you treat them as evidence.”
The US Civil War must certainly rank near the top when it comes to “most revised” historical events. It has been sliced and diced to fit the narratives of everyone from southern schoolmarms in the 1920′s, whose continued employment depended on their ability to demonstrate to their students that their heroic granddads were fighting for a cause more noble than chattel slavery, to Marxist “historians,” eager to “corroborate their theories” regarding the nuances of class structure in the antebellum North and South. Like all recent historical revisionists, they have a problem; there are mounds of source material out there for anyone who cares to take the time to fact check their pet theories. I just ran across some telling examples thereof in an old copy of the “Edinburgh Review,” published in 1860. One appears in an article on the subject of serf emancipation in Russia, and reads as follows:
The subject of serf-emancipation in Russia is a very interesting one to the civilized world generally, and particularly those nations in Europe and America who have been or are vexed by the calamity of Negro slavery. Those who have abolished that slavery speak confidently of the practicability of emancipating the serfs of Russia; while, in the United States, where the very existence of the Republic now immediately depends on the approaching settlement of the slavery question, the two sections of the nation are respectively triumphing in the avowed intention of the Russian Emperor to emancipate the serfs, and in the obvious difficulty which attends the operation.
In a later article about the presidency of Mr. Buchanan, one finds much more in a similar vein. For example:
Buchanan was elected in the interest of the (slaveholding) minority; and he lost no time in intimating that his policy would be regulated in favour of that interest. If this appears astonishing, we can only remind our readers that the Republican Party of the present day was then in its infancy; and that of the 20,000,000 of non-slaveholders, the larger portion were politically paralyzed by fear; – fear of an explosion of the Union; fear for their commerce; fear of the disgrace of civil war.
On Mr. Buchanan’s accession to office, therefore, the struggles of many parties had just been converted into a distinct and circumscribed conflict between two, – the Northern and Southern or the Anti-slavery and Pro slavery parties.
Several Southern States had, throughout the Presidential election, propounded schemes of marching on Washington, in case of Colonel Fremont’s (Republican Presidential candidate in 1856) success, seizing the archives, and assuming the government and bringing the political quarrel to the issue of civil war.
By the testimony of all parties, the election orators of the South were answerable for the disorders of the autumn and winter of 1857. They had made speeches to multitudes throughout the Slave States, in which they had dwelt on the certainty of the abolition of slavery if Fremont were elected. They insisted on the menacing appearance of the Republican party, and the necessity of every Southern man exerting himself, if the planters would not see the property and their domestic authority wrenched from their grasp.
We see in Southern newspapers white and black lists of Northern mercantile firms, the members of which are set down by guess as pro or anti-slavery;… The mails are searched for matter of an incendiary (anti-slavery) character.
The North protests against the pro-slavery legislation of late years, and supplies an organisation to agitate for the dissolution and reconstitution of the Union; and at the same time several Southern States are openly proposing to secede from the Union.
Thus far, recent Presidents have lent their whole force to the attempt to spread the fatal institution of slavery over the whole Union; and the question now is whether this policy shall be pushed forward or reversed. This alternative has swallowed up all political subdivisions, and has left the stage clear for the conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties on a definite question.
It is universally known that the Democratic party, deeply divided before, gave way altogether at the Charleston Convention; and that the slaveholders who do not look beyond preserving slavery or perishing in the attempt to secede from the Union have nominated a candidate in the person of Mr. Breckinridge.
and finally, there are these prophetic words;
The “irrepressible conflict” indicated by Mr. Seward must be encountered and dealt with in one way or another. The Slave Statesmen persist in supposing this to mean civil war thrust upon the South by a tyrannical majority in the North; while the North always understood the expression to refer to the eternal opposition of the principles of free and despotic institutions. The man who might so preside over the struggle as to bring it to a favorable issue would be the true comrade of Washington. Such a man is nowhere recognised at present.
Now we recognize that man.
The Edinburgh Review was the premier “liberal” British journal of the first half of the 19th century, but one can find similar allusions to the possibility that the American Union may break apart over the issue of slavery in its “conservative” twin, the Quarterly Review. The Americans themselves were no more confused about the matter before the war than the Europeans. Read the texts of the state and county proclamations calling for secession in the South, and the decisive significance of slavery is obvious. Here’s an example from one Virginia county’s Call for Secession:
Owing to a spirit of pharasaical fanaticism prevailing in the North in reference to the institution of slavery, incited by foreign emissaries and fostered by corrupt political demagogues in search of power and place, a feeling has been aroused between the people of the two sections, of what was once a common country, which of itself would almost preclude the administration of a united government in harmony.
John C. Calhoun, perhaps the greatest southern politician of them all, began his final speech before the Senate in 1850 with the line, “I have, senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion.” When it came to the significance of slavery, politicians in the North were in cordial agreement with Calhoun. Read the northern newspapers of the time, and you’ll find they’re no more “confused” about the role of slavery in the breakup of the Union than their colleagues in the South. In short, then, European liberals believed the decisive issue was slavery, European conservatives believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the North believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the South believed the decisive issue was slavery, and virtually anyone else alive at the time who happened to take a passing interest in the subject believed the decisive issue was slavery, albeit southern planters occasionally embellished their pronunciamentos with references to such noble causes as “states’ rights” and “liberty,” perhaps with some perfunctory grumbling about the tariff thrown in for good measure.
One can but lament the fact that the southern schoolmarms and Marxist scholars of the 20th century were born too late to explain the “real” reasons for the Civil War to this benighted generation. The process goes on in our own day. Consider, for example, the periodic European outbursts of anti-Americanism, the most recent, and probably the most violent of which began metastasizing following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reached a peak of almost incredible obsessiveness and fury at some point in the Bush Administration. To any nascent Ph.D. in sociology who cares to study the phenomena, I suggest finding all the references to US historical events in the top two or three news magazines or newspapers in a broad sample of western European states during the decade from, say, 1998 to 2008. Categorize them into the categories “negative” and “positive,” and see what you find. I rather suspect that all but a vanishingly small remnant will “confirm their story and their vision of the world” that the United States is an evil empire.
Would you study history? Don’t fail to look at the source material. If your history was written by a journalist, heaven help you.
Posted on March 10th, 2010 No comments
To decide what role morality should play in our lives, it is more important to understand why it exists than to understand precisely what it is. I can discuss the sky with a five year old and be quite confident she knows what I’m talking about even if the chances that she understands the nature of the electromagnetic scattering phenomena that account for its blue color are vanishingly small. In the same way, I can be confident in discussing morality with any reasonably intelligent human being that they know what I’m talking about without being unduly concerned about whether they have read what Aristotle, Saint Augustine, and Freud had to say about it.
Morality exists because it evolved. It evolved because it improved the chances that we would survive, or, more precisely, that the genetic material we carry would survive. It has no purpose, any more than our eyes, ears or teeth have a purpose. “Purpose” implies an intelligent builder. There was no intelligent builder, and therefore no purpose. Eyes, ears and teeth exist because human beings are more likely to survive with them than without them. So it is with morality.
As a complex evolved trait, morality is likely to have a long evolutionary history. The human eye didn’t suddenly pop into existence thanks to some remarkable random mutation that resulted in an “eye gene.” Similarly, the evolutionary changes relevant to the expression of morality are not the result of a sudden mutation in anatomically modern humans that resulted in a “morality gene.” Just as many other animals are sensitive to light, many other animals exhibit behavior analogous to moral behavior in human beings, elicited by the same types of physical processes in the brain as occur in our own brains. Just as the eye didn’t evolve overnight, so morality has likely been a work in progress for a very long period of time – certainly tens of millions and more likely hundreds of millions of years.
One day in the not too distant future, we may discover the extent to which the physical processes in the brain responsible for human morality have evolved fairly recently in terms of evolutionary timescales; say, in the last three or four million years. The answer to that question should be very interesting. It may be that they have evolved very little, and that the complex moral systems we are so proud of are merely the result of our greatly expanded cognitive abilities attempting to analyze and rationalize emotional responses that are, perhaps, little changed from the time we shared a common ancestor with the apes.
Be that as it may, we can say with great confidence that the traits responsible for the expression of morality evolved long before the emergence of large nation states, whether ancient or modern. The most important recent changes likely took place during a time when we existed as small bands of hunter gatherers, all of whose members were genetically related to each other to some extent.
All this begs the question of what role a trait that evolved because it promoted our survival long ago should continue to play today in a world in which our modes of social organization, not to mention our ability to destroy each other, have undergone radical change in what amounts to, in terms of evolutionary time scales, the blink of an eye.
We certainly can’t abolish morality. We are moral creatures, and the emotional processes in the brain associated with morality will strongly influence our behavior in any case. Exactly how different individuals respond in similar situations will vary depending on factors such as culture, education, and rational analysis, but I suspect the function of the basic wiring in the brain responsible for eliciting the response, the “moral center” of the brain, if you will, will be similar from individual to individual. For example, “liberals” and “conservatives” will differ over such things as what types of behavior they consider good and evil, and who belongs in their “in-group” as opposed to their “out-group,” but look at a sample of the comments on a blog with either orientation, and you will see that the emotional nature of the responses to morally loaded situations is similar in either case. If a neuroscientist were to scan the brain of an individual from either side as it responded to the stimulus of some “hot button” issue of the day, I doubt whether he could tell the difference.
We behave morally in social situations because it is our nature to do so. We could not routinely substitute rational thought for moral emotions in deciding how to act or how to respond in our common day to day interactions with other human beings even if we wanted to. Even if we could somehow disconnect ourselves from our emotional brain, we simply lack the mental power necessary for anything that intellectually demanding. Thus, the fear that people will become amoral if they don’t have some “reason” to act morally, in the form of a religion, or philosophy, or respect for tradition, is ill-founded. We act morally because it is our nature to act morally. Such “reasons” can have a limited influence on exactly how we act in given situations, but we will hardly become amoral in their absence.
That may be a comforting thought, but it has its drawbacks. Assuming the ultimate goal of the individual is still to survive, it is hardly clear that the best way to accomplish that goal is to respond blindly to emotions that evolved because they happened to promote survival under conditions that no longer exist. There is no compelling reason to expect that they will continue to promote our survival in the radically different world of today. For example, it is generally considered good to fight evil. However, mankind’s most notorious icons of evil thought they were doing just that. Name any one of them you choose; Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, you name the villain. None of them were deliberately doing things they considered evil just because they wanted to be evil. On the contrary, they thought they were doing good, eliminating evil threats to the welfare of whomever they considered the “chosen people.” There exists no objective reason for asserting that they were doing anything else.
Similarly, when it comes to behavior we associate with “doing good,” the reasons for the evolution of the positive emotional response we derive from such actions often no longer exist. In small groups of hunter-gatherers, sacrificing resources for the good of others in the group promoted the survival of genetically related individuals who were likely to return the favor. In modern nation states with populations of tens or hundreds of millions, sacrificing resources for the good of others can make us feel good in exactly the same way. However, the individuals who benefit from this behavior are much less likely to be related to us, and the chance that they may someday return the favor may be vanishingly small. When the governments of modern nation states force their citizens to engage in this sort of “good” behavior, it is reasonable for them to ask whether the state exists to serve the interests of the people who live in it, or the people exist to serve the interests of the state.
Many of our best thinkers have suggested that the best way out of these and similar dilemmas is to create a new morality, tailor made to accomplish whatever noble ends they have in mind in the modern world. The problem with this is that it is not possible to mold human emotional responses like so much clay. Human nature is not infinitely flexible. As the Communists recently discovered, it is not possible to arbitrarily create new goods and new evils and then simply “reeducate” human beings to accommodate them.
We must act morally in our day to day relationships with other individuals because, given our nature, there is no alternative. If we must have a “new morality,” then, let it apply to these relationships. Let us keep it as simple as possible, as much in harmony with our nature as possible, and with the general goal of promoting harmony and preventing individuals from harming their neighbors. When it comes to such things as the relations between modern states, however, I am not convinced that relying on a tool as ancient, blunt, and out of its proper element as morality is advisable. It may well be better to decide what goals we really want to accomplish in the long term, and then pursue those goals with our limited powers of reason, such as they are.
We face many fateful decisions about our future that have no easy answers. Our continued survival is anything but assured. For better or worse, though, we must make those decisions. If we want to get it right, we had best learn to understand ourselves.
Posted on March 7th, 2010 No comments
There is no justification of morality. Period. That’s the bottom line.
Before one sets forth boldly to justify morality, it is always a good idea to first acquire an understanding of what it is. Morality is a human trait resulting from predispositions hard-wired in the brain. The exact manner in which it manifests itself in the form of behavior and perceptions is influenced to some extent by the environment. Human beings are an evolved life form. Therefore, traits such as hands, feet, eyes, ears, and morality exist because, at least at some point, they promoted our survival.
Eyes did not suddenly spring into being in perfect form as a result of some remarkable chance mutation. Their development can be traced back over hundreds of millions of years, presumably to the emergence of light sensitive cells on some primitive life form. The same may be said of morality. It is a manifestation of physical processes that take place in the brain. Related physical processes take place in the brains of other animals, as they did in the brains of our ancestors going back tens of millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions, of years.
Until quite recently, our ancestors did not have the mental equipment necessary to speculate wisely about Kant and Schopenhauer. Morality would not have promoted our survival if it had taken the form of a predisposition to read tomes of philosophy, and then draw our own conclusions. It promotes our survival by modifying our social behavior in a much more efficient manner, and one that worked for our animal ancestors as well as it does for us today. It causes us to act according to moral rules or imperatives that we obey without thinking about them. Other primates don’t have the luxury of thinking about why they act morally. They just do it. We can think about it, and the results have been very interesting.
On evolutionary time scales, human intelligence evolved with great speed. There may have been some alterations in the mental wiring responsible for moral behavior during the process, but it’s most unlikely the related changes took place in perfect harmony. We still experience morality in the same way as other primates, in the form of imperatives, or absolute rules. As a result, it seems to us that those rules must have an objective existence of their own, independent of the mental processes that give rise to them. For thousands of years philosophers have been seeking this object, this holy grail – in vain. Even though we experience it that way, morality as an objective thing does not exist. The holy grail was never there. Morality exists, but its existence is in the form of physical processes in our brains, not as an object with an independent existence of its own. Because morality is not an object, attempts to give it objective legitimacy – to “justify” it – are necessarily in vain. One cannot “justify” behavioral traits that evolved in response to a social environment that no longer exists. At best, one can understand what they are and why they are there.
It occurred to Darwin that the behavioral traits associated with morality had evolved, and many thinkers since his time have come to the same conclusion. It was, however, a conclusion that seemed to fly in the face of any number of ideological narratives, not to mention most of the world’s organized religions. As a result, it has taken us a long time to accept the obvious. However, our knowledge has continued to expand, and recent scientific advances, particularly in the form of powerful tools that allow us to watch the brain in action, and the ability to unravel the human genome, have made it increasingly difficult to deny any genetic component to morality. The idea has gone mainstream.
All this comes as bad news to those philosophers who have devoted their careers to the search for the holy grail of objective justification. It completely upsets their apple cart of nicely arranged epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies. In spite of that, they no longer have the luxury of pretending that the idea doesn’t exist. One way or another, they have to address it. One can find an interesting response to this troubling state of affairs by Jan Gorecki, one of the guild of grail seekers, in his book, “Justifying Ethics; Human Rights & Human Nature.”
Gorecki is aware of the idea that morality is there as an adaptive function. He is also perceptive enough to grasp the implications of that idea. Speaking of the genetic explanation of morality he writes,
If true, it precludes not only the validity of the functional justification, but also of all other traditionally claimed justifications. Within the view of the world and of ethics accepted by proponents of this explanation, there is no room for such normmaking facts as divine will, intuitionist ontology, existence of pure reason as the source of ethics, or of human nature understood otherwise than as a genetic fitness implement. That is why no proponent of the genetic explanation supports any kind of objective justification of morality; they understand that, once their explanation is considered true, all justifications fail.
Precisely! I couldn’t have said it any better myself. What’s even more remarkable is the way that Gorecki, in spite of this realization, manages to maintain the precarious balance of his own particular apple cart. Here are some relevant quotes:
… the very idea of morality being with us as an adaptive tool is enigmatic… In a living organism, the adaptive emergence of various organs is reasonably clear in the light of natural selection. But how can anyone explain, short of a miracle, an analogous role of moral evaluations in human society? (!)
Morality is, from this perspective, just one such technique. It is claimed that the human ability to ontogenetically develop the specifically human moral experiences emerged as a mutation over five million years ago, among hunters-gatherers living in small, endogamously breeding kinship bands. By providing a strong altruistic and cooperative motivation, this ability enhanced the inclusive fitness of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!)
This brings us to the basic question: is the genetic explanation true? The question cannot be answered in a publicly convincing way. It may well be true; it is possible that whatever exists is matter, that life can be reduced to physicochemical processes and mind to physiology, and that human morality is there since it promotes replication of the carriers of the “moral gene.” (!!!)
During this discussion, Gorecki cites several of the works of E.O. Wilson, such as “Sociobiology,” and “On Human Nature.” It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If professional philosophers can so grossly misunderstand ideas as they are set forth by one who writes as clearly and elegantly as E.O. Wilson, are we really to believe that they understand Kant, who wrote in obscure German sentences a page and a half long?
The rest is predictable. Gorecki buries his head in the sand, and insists that the rest of us do likewise;
…the belief “that human values are determined or fixed genetically…is doubtful to say the least,” and possibly untestable. (It’s certainly doubtful in the form he understands it.) Thus, we are not, and may never be, able to determine whether the genetic explanation of ethics is true. This indeterminacy is most relevant for our analysis; unproved and uncertain, the genetic explanation cannot be used for rebuttal of the functional justification (and other justifications) of morality.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s a time tested way of denying the obvious, if the obvious happens to conflict with a cherished world view. Just hold the obvious to an impossible standard of proof, and then pretend it’s rational to ignore it by virtue of the fact that it can’t be proved. Of course, one can always close ones eyes, hold ones hands firmly over ones ears, and declare that anything one doesn’t want to believe “can’t be proved.” For that matter, it would be true. Infirm creatures that we are, with a limited, and generally grossly overestimated, ability to reason, we can’t “prove” anything. We must act according to probabilities. It is highly probable, and becoming increasingly so as our knowledge expands, that morality is an evolved trait. Failure to grasp the implications of that knowledge, and to act on them, is risky now, and will become increasingly risky in a world in which our powers of self-destruction expand with each passing day. Assuming we value our own survival, we had best learn to know ourselves.