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  • Morality and “Hardwired Behavior”

    Posted on April 29th, 2010 Helian 4 comments

    “Hardwired Behavior” is one of the many books dealing with innate human behavioral traits that have been popping up like mushrooms lately. Like many of the others, it focuses on morality and moral behavior. Perhaps the most interesting thing about all these books is not that so many of them are being published, but that they are being published at all. Three or four decades ago, the authors of books like this would have been vilified as “fascists,” scorned as “pop ethologists,” and dismissed as delusional right wingers. Marxists and other ideologues would have shouted “Not in our Genes,” determined that no truth that contradicted their narratives would ever see the light of day. In the intervening years those shouts have been drowned by a deluge of facts, thanks in large part to the rapid advance of brain imaging technology. The ideologues who sought to rearrange reality to conform to their preconceived notions have gone the way of the Intelligent Design crowd, who would alter the speed of light, shorten the age of the earth to 6000 years, and redefine the word “firmament” to make the “truth” fit the Book of Genesis. The basic fact of innate human behavior has been obvious to anyone with an open mind since at least the days of Darwin. Now it is a fact that can no longer be denied, or at least not by anyone interested in maintaining some semblance of intellectual credibility.

    “Hardwired Behavior” stands out somewhat from the rest of the pack in that the author, Laurence Tancredi, is both a lawyer and a psychiatrist, with expertise in neuroscience thrown in for good measure, and so approaches the subject as one who has seen some of the extremes of human behavior, and has devoted a great deal of thought to the interesting ramifications of our new insights into the workings of the human mind as they relate to our system of justice. Take, for example, the question of moral culpability. Tancredi describes cases in which heinous crimes were committed by people who do not fit the legal definition of criminal insanity, and yet whose actions, at least in his opinion, were motivated by emotional impulses that “trumped rational control.”   He describes the notion that moral choices may be biologically driven as a “revolutionary concept,” which it decidedly is not, at least in terms of the length of time the idea has been around.  Be that as it may, what Tancredi calls the “mad versus bad” distinction inherent in current legal theory is becoming increasingly blurred in the light of our expanding understanding of the mind.  In fact, the very distinction between good and evil has always been a subjective one.  That, however, doesn’t alter the fact that we perceive the distinction as absolute, and, given our nature, have no alternative but to act within the context of moral rules.  Under the circumstances, the notion of moral culpability, whether fiction or not, may be one we cannot dispense with from a legal point of view.

    Tancredi is apparently aware of the earlier suppression of the very ideas he presents as such commonplaces.  See, for example, the discussion on pages 21 to 24 of his book under the subheading, “From Mind to Brain:  Completing the Circuit.”  He begins by defining the term “physicalism” in the broad sense of characteristics that are “innate to humankind,” and describes its long intellectual history.  He then suggests that the scientific revolution of the 19th century, with its insistence on intellectual rigor and the scientific method, “…brought about major changes in our perception of morality.  Natural law, or anything resembling a naturally endowed moral sense was discarded as fundamentally wrong.”  This is an absurd yarn, but an interesting one nonetheless.  It amounts to a rationalization of the ideologically motivated suppression of theories of innate behavior, including moral behavior, as something that was done in the name of “science.”  The reality, apparent enough to anyone who cares to go back and look at the source material, amply documented in the books of Robert Ardrey, is that these theories were immediately plausible to a host of scientists, including Darwin himself, that they have actually been not only plausible but obvious, at least since his time, and that they were suppressed, not for any “scientific” reason, but because they flew in the face of preferred ideological narratives that required humans to be other than they actually are.  Look at the nature of the opposition to such ideas 40 or 50 years ago.  That opposition, in the case of Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and many others did not take the form of dispassionate scientific debate.  Almost invariably, it was accompanied by demonization, vilification and ridicule.

    That deep lacunae exist in Tancredi’s perception of the nature of this debate is apparent from the statement, “The idea that biology was basic to human behavior and the workings of social groups didn’t reappear in a major way until E. O. Wilson published his book “Sociobiology” in the mid-1970s.”  Thus, with a wave of the hand, the works of the likes of Ardrey and Lorenz are brushed aside as if they never existed.  In fact, as a work of popular science, “Sociobiology” was a mere afterthought to such works as “African Genesis,” “The Territorial Imperative,” and “On Aggression.”  The idea that it was somehow more significant than these earlier works in opening people’s minds could only be taken seriously by navel gazers in the ivory towers of academia.  Wilson is a brilliant thinker whose work has enlightened many.  Ardrey, however, playwright, statistician, and “pop ethologist” that he was, was a greater still.  He took little trouble to jump through all the hoops that would have made him socially acceptable in the hallowed halls of academia, but the man was a genius, with a rare gift for seeing the big picture and revealing it to others.  “African Genesis,” published in 1961, already contained most of his fundamental worldview, and his works are full of accounts of the work of other brilliant scientists, including a host of animal behaviorists whose elegant work can only inspire wonder that so many of the modern workers in the field can somehow never trouble themselves to mention them.  To the extent that Ardrey is mentioned at all today, his work is usually distorted and bowdlerized as the “Killer Ape Theory.”  Here, in a nutshell, is what Ardrey said:  “Innate predispositions have a profound influence on human behavior.”  Here, in a nutshell, is what his many academic opponents said:  “Human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture, and is “Not in our Genes.”  Ardrey was right, and they were wrong.  Obviously, academia is still having a very hard time swallowing that unpleasant fact.  As a result, instead of having the simple decency and intellectual honesty to admit that he was right, they ignore him.

    Well, those of us who lived through those times know the truth, and, in any case, a man like Ardrey would surely have welcomed the victory of his ideas more than his personal vindication.  It’s unfortunate he couldn’t live to see that victory.  We are left to contemplate the implications of this whole affair for the advance of human knowledge.  Once again, we have seen the limitations of our intelligence.  Once again, we have witnessed our uncanny ability to deny the world as it is when it doesn’t conform to the world the way we want it to be.  We have learned little from the experience.  Now we see the ideological battle lines being drawn once again over the issue of global warming.  Ideological in-groups that would surely have been familiar to Ardrey dominate the debate on both sides of the issue.  They have already convinced themselves that they are bearers of ultimate truth, and that their opponents are criminals or fools.  They will filter the facts accordingly until a bludgeon in the form of another ice age or sea levels up to our necks comes along to knock them back to their senses.  Meanwhile, let us cross our fingers and hope for the best.

  • Is there a VAT in Your Future?

    Posted on April 24th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The dead tree media are more about narratives than news these days, but occasionally narratives can be interesting in their own right. They can be good bellwethers if you want to know which way the political winds are blowing. Take, for example, an article about the value-added tax in last Wednesday’s Washington Post. Other than telegraphing the Administration’s thinking on the subject, it was a masterful example of the current journalistic state of the art in presenting editorials as news.

    True, the title larded it on a little thickly. In the paper version it was “Experts say Washington is too quick to dismiss a value-added tax.” I see the Internet has toned it down a notch to the somewhat more subtle, “VAT’s benefits outweighed by politics, experts say.” In journalistic parlance, an “expert” is someone with a modicum of academic gravitas who will reliably spout a given propaganda line if the narrative of the day requires it. Any news organization worth its salt keeps a stable of them on hand suitable for any occasion. Germany’s Spiegel magazine has one of the world’s greatest menageries, including my personal favorite, “peace researchers,” (Friedensforscher), whose ostensible purpose is to promote hatred of the United States. In the case at hand, the choice of “experts” would seem to indicate that the WaPo’s editors, and therefore the Administration, have concluded that the American people need another regressive tax to go along with legalized gambling. No surprise there. Soaking the rich never works. They’re too good at fighting back.

    Scanning through the first few paragraphs, we learn that the President’s press secretary, always good for a laugh, has told reporters, “This is not something the President has proposed, nor is it under consideration.” The Republicans, we are informed, don’t want to raise taxes either, even though they “howled about cuts to Medicare in the recent healthcare overhaul.” (Only Republicans “howl.” Democrats “object.”) Sure enough, the right’s movers and shakers on talk radio defended Medicare as if it were some kind of sacred cow, in the midst of their ringing denunciations of nationalized health care. Of course, we also have the Republicans to thank for the massive new prescription drug entitlement, a fact the article doesn’t even bother to mention.

    Cutting to the chase, we arrive at the “zinger” paragraph at the end, where the editors always provide a pithy synopsis of the narrative for those too dense to figure it out from the rest of the text.  In this case it is provided by “expert” Bruce Bartlett, a historian, all the more legit because, as we are informed, he was a domestic policy adviser in the Reagan administration:

    “I think we have to remember that low taxes or tax rates are not an end in themselves; they are the means to an end, which is higher growth and greater prosperity,” Bartlett wrote on the blog Capital Gains and Games. “In this sense, I think right wingers pay far too much attention to the negative economic consequences of taxation while essentially ignoring the negative economic consequences of exremely large deficits.”

    Assuming the Democrats and Republicans are really the only players that matter, I can’t fault the WaPo’s logic here.  After all, when Republicans accuse Democrats of deficit spending, it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Of course, the article studiously avoided even the slightest mention of another, seemingly significant, player, if the latest Rasmussen poll is any guide; the Tea Party Movement.  This seems a little odd, considering that the explosive growth of government and the accompanying deficits are the main reasons the movement exists to begin with.  Do the editors consider the Tea Partiers insignificant?  Why, then, have they been shaking with fear for the last month about the way the movement is “fomenting violence?”

    Be that as it may, it would seem that (surprise, surprise) the Administration has changed its tune, and that with alacrity.  In fact on the very day the article appeared, the AP ran a story with the headline, “Obama suggests value-added tax may be an option.”  Robert Gibbs must have been stunned!

    Well, this is a democracy, and the American people did vote for these people.   Government bennies don’t grow on trees.  Eventually, they must be paid for.  As for those who actually believed Obama when he said he wouldn’t raise taxes on 95% of us, the only advice I can give them is, “open your mouth and close your eyes…”

  • Insight of the Day…

    Posted on April 23rd, 2010 Helian No comments

    “Don’t want things you treasure satirized? Just issue a “prediction” and — voila! Meanwhile, note how entirely real radical Muslim threats and violence are treated as just part of the weather — something you have to adapt to — while nonexistent Tea Party violence is an existential threat to the Republic.” Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.

    In other words, never accuse anyone of fomenting violence unless you’re sure they’re nonviolent.

  • Morality, Survival, and the Carbon Footprint of Children

    Posted on April 22nd, 2010 Helian No comments

    According to an article that appeared recently in the New York Times, “having children is the surest way to send your carbon footprint soaring.” The basis for this claim is a study by statisticians at Oregon State University, who “concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives – things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.” Lisa Hymas of appeared on MSNBC (see below) to spell out the implications of the study for those dimmer bulbs not in the habit of reading the grey lady. In a word, they should follow her good example and commit genetic suicide in order to save the planet.

    As I have occasionally pointed out, morality is a behavioral trait that exists only because it has promoted our survival in the past. The good-in-itself does not exist. The Oregon Study and Ms. Hymas’ reaction to it are excellent illustrations of the reasons why failure to grasp these truths can be a liability. To the extent that morality does not promote our survival, not as a species, but as individuals, it is utterly and completely pointless. There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive. To the extent that the emotional predispositions hard-wired in our brains that express themselves as what we know as morality lead us to conclude, for example, that we should blow ourselves up so we can go to heaven, or drink poisoned Kool-aid with a similar end in view, or fail to have children in order to save the planet, they have become dysfunctional. They no longer serve the only conceivable end for moral behavior that can in any way be considered legitimate – they no longer promote our survival.

    That said, I have no ax to grind with Ms. Hymas. I am entirely content that she should not have children. After all, my own children are more likely to thrive in a world uncluttered by her children’s messy carbon droppings.  As the good people at Oregon State point out, “Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth,… Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”  However, one doesn’t avoid “exponential population growth,” by failing to have one’s own children.  One accomplishes such things by, for example, publishing studies that convince large numbers of other people that it is virtuous not to have children, taking care that one’s own children don’t read the studies.  One then proceeds to have as many children as possible, aware that, final links in an unbroken chain of life going back billions of years that we all are, it would be rather absurd, not to mention ungenerous to those life forms that have kept the chain unbroken all those years, to end their existence and ours after a pointless life by fading into oblivion for a reason as frivolous as leaving a reduced carbon footprint.

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  • Sedition on the Left and Right

    Posted on April 21st, 2010 Helian No comments

    In listening to Carter’s improbable nostrums for bringing peace to the Middle East, or Clinton’s latest attempts to breathe new life into the Alien and Sedition Acts, one can only admire the wisdom of the American people in limiting Presidents to eight years in office.  Do you wonder why the existence of Foxnews, talk radio, and freedom of speech in the blogosphere is a good thing?  Here’s a data point for you.  If it weren’t for them, there would be no counter to the Left’s latest attempts to limit the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances to those who agree with them.  These people need to revise the bumper stickers on their Volvos to “Question the Questioning of Authority.”  As for the Administration’s legacy media poodles, I can only suggest that they go to the next big “peace” demonstration and look around.  If they’re really worried about demonstrators who promote acts of violence, it might occur to them to consider what all those people in black hoods are there for.

  • H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and the “Progressives”

    Posted on April 18th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    Given the number of links Instapundit posts every day, it should come as no surprise if he hits an occasional sour note. A recent specimen thereof turned up an article that convinced me that Prof. Reynolds made a good choice when he favored law over American literature in his choice of academic careers.

    The article in question gathers up a batch of famous American authors, bowdlerizes them and strips off their individuality in the process of mashing them all together to create a strawman that they all are supposed to represent, and then uses the strawman to “demonstrate” that all these great thinkers were really just the intellectual forefathers of today’s “progressive” left. The author, Fred Siegel, represents the rather counter-intuitive point of view that this process of distorting the work and denying the individual relevance of a whole cohort of the greatest writers America has ever produced is to be understood under the rubric of fighting “anti-Americanism.”

    Siegel cites a little known American critic, Bernard DeVoto, as the godfather of this notion that most of the great American authors of the early 20th century were really just a bunch of anti-Americans, as similar to each other as so many peas in a pod. As he puts it in the article,

    Weaned on the work of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw and their loathing for conventional mores, Lewis and his confreres became the dominant force in American letters, and their views went largely unchallenged in the literary world. It was left to a critic named Bernard DeVoto to issue the first serious and meaningful challenge to their worldview—the opening salvo in a brave and lonely battle that still resonates, even though DeVoto and the book in which he took up arms for the United States against its own intellectuals are both forgotten.

    I won’t take issue with Mr. DeVoto here, because I’ve never read his work, but the sketch of the man presented by Prof. Siegel is unattractive enough.  He condemns the authors in question for, among a host of other sins, claiming that “the prosperity of the 1920s had invalidated capitalism,” for presenting “the Puritan and the Pioneer,” as villains, “whom they believed were the source of America’s dreary commercial culture,” and whose “supposed individualism was one of the coterie’s bêtes noires,” for glorifying Europe as a utopia for writers, artists, and the rest of the gentry of culture, for portraying businessmen as “impotent, barely able to reproduce,” and even “inferior to animals,” and, in a word, being generally “vitriolic in their criticisms of the United States.”

    The article concludes with the observation that,

    Today that spirit can be found in precincts both high and low—from the hallways of academe to late-night infotainment comics such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who traffic in a knowing snarkiness that confers an unearned sense of superiority on their viewers. Now, as then, angered by the impertinence of the masses in their increasing rejection of the hope and change promised them in 2008, liberals, as in the title of a recent article in the online magazine Slate, raise themselves up by shouting, “Down with the People!”

    With that, the process of rendering a whole generation of American authors into a uniform soup and serving them up as the precursors of today’s liberals is complete.  Apparently we are to understand that we can simply dismiss them all without taking the trouble to read them because we already “know” where they stand, none of them had anything worthwhile to say, and, in any case, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.  By taking this attitude we demonstrate that we ourselves are just and good, and free of the taints of arrogance, impertinence, and “an unearned sense of superiority.”

    Again, DeVoto may be an interesting and worthwhile writer in his own right.  However, the notions Siegel ascribes to him are pure bunk.  To see why, let’s take a closer look at Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, the two authors he singles out for special criticism as archetypes of the evil American authors of yesteryear.  Both of them are well worth reading.  They will certainly rub many modern readers the wrong way, but they were both interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking.  Both of them were harsh in their criticisms of various aspects of American life, but to describe them as “anti-American” is ridiculous.  I say that as one who has devoted considerable attention to the subject over the last decade or so.  The phenomenon is certainly real.  Do a web search and you can turn up some of the related comments I’ve left at Davids Medienkritik, a now inactive website that took issue with the recent remarkable eruption of anti-Americanism in the German media.  The real thing is a blind, mindless hatred, entirely akin to such related phenomena as anti-Semitism and racism.  However, reasoned criticism of America, however harsh, is not anti-Americanism.  For that matter, to the extent that it inspires us to think about and deal with real problems, it’s pro-American.  I hardly agree with everything Mencken and Lewis had to say on the subject, but to claim it was thoughtless or inspired by hate is nonsense. 

    As for DeVoto’s specific criticisms, he is supposed to have claimed that the authors on his literary blacklist believed that “the prosperity of the 1920s had invalidated capitalism.”  In response to that claim in the case of Mencken and Lewis, I can only reply, “read their work.”  Mencken was a libertarian to the core.  Nothing could be more absurd than the claim that he somehow resembled the “progressive” liberals of today.  He rejected anything associated with what he called the “Uplift,” and today’s liberals are quintessential representatives of what he meant by the term; those among us who are constantly engaged in striking ostentatious poses as saviors of mankind.  Far from being in any way their intellectual precursor, his response to them would have surely been allergic.  Mencken believed in Liberty, and specifically those liberties set forth in the Bill of Rights.  In keeping with that belief, he opposed suppression of the points of view of Communists, anarchists, or anyone else.  He was one of the greatest editors this country has produced, and the “American Mercury,” which he edited from 1924 to 1933, included essays by capitalists and anti-capitalists as well.  However, Mencken himself finally rejected Communism at a time when many American intellectuals were embracing it, likening it to a form of religious fanaticism, whose leaders were akin to so many popes, bishops and priests.  Coming from a staunch atheist, this hardly seems an “invalidation of capitalism.”  

    As for Lewis, I suggest the novel “Dodsworth” to the interested reader.  It’s hero is one of the captains of American industry.  Anyone who thinks that he was portrayed as “impotent and barely able to reproduce” or “inferior to the animals” is in for a big surprise.

    Next let’s take up the charge that the two presented “the Puritan and the Pioneer” as villains.  While Mencken may have been an atheist, he is often quoted as having said, “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”  He generally took issue, not with religion or “Puritans” per se, but with those who exploited religion to justify the usurpation of the liberties of others, or to attempt to use the power of the state to police their morality, or to suppress freedom of thought.  Therefore, he reserved his special ire for Methodist bishops, who he blamed for foisting Prohibition on the American people, figures like Anthony Comstock, who wanted the state to police morality, and evangelical politicians like William Jennings Bryan, who sought to suppress the teaching of evolution and other scientific theories.  As for the notion that he harbored an animus against the pioneers, nothing could be more absurd.  Just read a few copies of the American Mercury and you’ll generally find fulsome praise of the pioneers’ spirit of liberty, creativity, and resourcefulness.  Mencken may not have written these articles, but he was a very careful editor, choosing, for example, pieces that lauded the founding fathers of old El Paso, the remarkable quality of the writing in some of the earliest periodicals to appear in San Francisco, and the spirit of freedom among the American loggers who worked the forests at the fringe of advancing civilization. 

    As for Lewis, the type he pilloried in “Elmer Gantry” might certainly be described as “religious,” but only in the sense that televangelists like Robert Tilton and Jim Bakker are “religious.”  Where, exactly, in his work DeVoto finds any condemnation of pioneers as such I can’t imagine, unless one considers the citizens of Gopher Prairie in his novel Main Street “pioneers.”

    Nothing could be more far-fetched than the idea that individualism was a bête noire for either Lewis or Mencken.  The struggle of individuals to assert themselves against the social forces of conformity is a constant theme of Lewis’ novels.  Whether Carroll Kennicott in Main Street asserting her right to organize parties and furnish her house as she pleases, regardless of how “everyone else” does it, Martin Arrowsmith pushing back against the medical and scientific establishment, or Dodsworth promoting automobile designs that stood out from the pack, individualism was always one of his highest virtues.  As for Mencken, ultimate individual that he was, the idea that he rejected individualism doesn’t pass the “ho ho” test.

    Prof. Siegel would have us believe that Devoto “issued the first serious and meaningful challenge to their worldview.”  To the extent that he’s referring to Mencken and Lewis, anyone who takes the time to read the contemporary literary criticism will quickly realize this claim is nonsense.  We are told that he fought “a brave and lonely battle” in opposing them, but whether Siegel is referring to the past or the present, that claim doesn’t hold water either.  One of the most important biographies of Lewis, Mark Schorer’s “Sinclair Lewis; An American Life,” which appeared shortly after Devoto’s heyday, damned him with faint praise.  The most significant reference I’ve seen to Mencken in the popular media in the last decade or so referred to the “racism” supposedly exposed in some newly discovered letters.  Given the fact that Mencken was probably the most effective opponent of racism in this country in the first half of the 20th century, hardly ever failed to hammer the Ku Klux Klan and related excrescences in a single issue of the American Mercury, and provided a mainstream forum for W.E.B. Dubois and many other African American intellectuals that put him head and shoulders above the rest of the editors of his day, one can but shake one’s head when reading such stupidities.

    There can be nothing more anti-American than gathering a host of America’s best authors, stripping them of their originality, and then accusing them of anti-Americanism, associating them in the process with a modern ideology with which they have nothing in common.  Take a look at the list of best sellers, whether fiction or non-fiction, and it may occur to you, as it does to me, that it’s a wasteland out there.  Do yourself a favor and read some of the authors on DeVoto’s blacklist.  You may not agree with what they have to say, but they’ll make you think.

    H. L. Mencken

    H. L. Mencken

  • The Tea Parties and Human Nature

    Posted on April 17th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Liberty Leading the People

    Liberty Leading the People

    The Amity/Enmity Complex is real. The term refers to the dual nature of human morality. Search the listings of any of the major book sellers, and you’ll see that the long and bitter resistance of the Marxists and other ideologues to the notion of innate human behavior, including moral behavior, has effectively ended.

    The ideologues have been overwhelmed by a deluge of facts from the emerging fields of neuroscience and brain imaging. They have been forced to accept the vindication of Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, E.O. Wilson, and all the other old ethologists and sociobiologists, although they seldom have the grace to mention their names. A sea change has occurred in acceptance of the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior in the last two decades, but the old “nurture is everything” behaviorists still cling stubbornly to a few intellectual redoubts. Among these is the notion that morality, while it may be hard wired in the brain, is actually evolving towards the “real good,” which commonly includes such things as universal human brotherhood and abhorrence of anything which might injure the “rights” of any life form, whether bird, beast or “other.” Unfortunately, it ain’t so.

    Human brains are wired for a dual system of morality, one that applies to those perceived as the “in-group” and a sharply different one for those in the “out-group.” All sorts of negative characteristics are reserved for the latter. They are unclean, harmful, unjust, “immoral,” and generally evil. Eventually, some bright young neuroscientist will ignore the tabus of her elders and start systematically searching for the traces of the Complex among her fMRI and CEEG scans, and she will find them, because they are there. The Amity/Enmity Complex has always been as obvious as the noses at the end of our faces, just as the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior has been obvious to anyone with reasonable intelligence and an open mind since the days of Darwin. Human history is one, long testimony to its existence. The emergence of the Tea Party movement has provided us with some particularly striking examples of the Complex in action.

    Consider, for example, the reaction on the left of the political divide among the “progressives” and liberals, those great champions of the will of the “people.” We’ve just seen exactly what limitations apply to their definition of the “people.” Anyone who disagrees with them is not included.

    The Tea Party phenomenon is the only instance of the emergence of genuine mass popular movement most of them have ever witnessed. According to the latest Rasmussen survey, 24% of American voters now say they are part of the movement. Unfortunately, their views do not coincide with those of their leftist opponents. The response of the “progressives” has been to excise this particular bloc of the people with a meat cleaver.

    The psychological gymnastics used to accomplish the job are classic examples of out-group identification. See, for example, the “astroturfing” meme at Daily Kos, some of the many attempts to associate the movement with violent extremists here, here, here and here, the Tea Partiers as “frauds” at Huffpo, and a particularly amusing example of the many attempts to associate the movement with racism by erstwhile warmonger Jonathan Chaitt, which includes the rather striking non sequitur,

    The Tea Party is not racist. But it is an almost entirely white movement, largely driven by a sense that the government is taking money away from people like them and giving it to people unlike them, with ‘them’ understood in a racial context.

    Heap the numerous attempts by these professionally pious and virtuous lovers of the “people” to discredit the movement with deceptions and smears on top of the rest, and you have a textbook case of the Enmity half of the Amity/Enmity Complex.

    Far be it from me to claim that the leftists’ ideological clones on the right are any different. I merely use the Tea Party movement as a particularly striking, and therefore educational, example of an aspect of human moral behavior that the recent spate of books on the subject continue to leave out. One must hope that continuing advances in neuroscience will force them to pull their heads from the sand in the not too distant future. True, the Amity/Enmity Complex is an embarrassing aspect of our behavior, but it is also a particularly dangerous one to ignore.

  • Hamid Karzai and the Media’s Self Caricature

    Posted on April 8th, 2010 Helian No comments

    As you may recall, I commented a week ago on the remarkably rapid spread of the “Afghan corruption” meme in the legacy media following Obama’s brief visit to the country, with the ostensible purpose of dressing down and publicly humiliating its president, Hamid Karzai. In the interim the Afghan President has let it be known that he was less than pleased at being treated like a lackey by, among other things, adducing a highly public irritation at excessive foreign interference in his country’s affairs, and mooting the intriguing possibility of jumping ship to the Taliban. Of course, all this was highly predictable assuming Karzai had more spine than a wet noodle, which he apparently does. Obama’s media poodles are certainly aware of this, making their “interpretation” of the Afghan president’s reaction all the more comical.

    For example, CNN’s Jack Cafferty is “shocked, shocked” at Karzai’s recent behavior, opining, “with friends like this, who needs enemies.” One of his more clairvoyant commenters chimed in, “Get out of that country and Iraq. Bring our boys home and fight terrorism from within our own country by protecting it from outsiders and keeping a close eye on who we already have living here.” It must be great for Jack to have readers who pick up on the narrative that quickly.

    Over at MSNBC, Mark Rosenball gives his readers a multiple choice quiz on what’s wrong with the Afghan president. Knowing how perceptive my readers are, I’ll bet you can guess the right answer without even seeing the rest. That’s right! The correct answer is: C. Karzai is on drugs.

    Of course, in every business there’s always that 5% who just never get the word. In journalism it’s usually the guys who write the Op-Ed page. If memory serves, H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, referred to them as being one rung lower on the ladder than writers of obituaries. Sure enough, there was a piece entitled “The Karzai Problem” right at the top of the Wapo editorials on Tuesday that blurted out, “Hamid Karzai is proving, at least, that public acrimony between the U.S. and Afghan presidents will not be a one-way street… The question remains whether airing these differences in public helps or hurts the U.S. mission in Afghanistan… and it’s hard to see how public disparagement of Mr. Karzai helps.” How that got by all those layers of editors is beyond me, but the “Independent Newspaper” got back in step with alacrity. The very next day they rediscovered the essential truth that “Karzai is a bad partner,” and doubled down on the “corruption” meme.

    Well, the national value added tax idea went over like a lead balloon, wars are expensive, and the Administration has to scare up some cash one way or another. So long, Hamid. It’s been nice knowin’ ya.


  • The Nuclear Posture Review and the Future of the Arsenal

    Posted on April 7th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The right and the left in this country have achieved a state of MAD (Mutually Assured Demonization). The recent attempts by the legacy media to whip up hysteria over threats of violence to those who voted for the health bill is a case in point. There was a time, not that long ago, when these “objective journalists” would have gotten away with it. There was no comparably audible public voice on the right to oppose them. Now there is, in the form of talk radio, powerful blogs, and Foxnews. Result: They only succeeded in, once again, making themselves look silly. The Right was in their face immediately, pointing out, among other things, the gross hypocrisy in the double standard they applied to violence and threats of violence depending on whether they come from the right or the left.

    Overall, this form of MAD is a good thing. The sanctimonious, condescending attitude of the journalists of yesteryear was getting very old by the time Rush Limbaugh finally appeared on the scene. However, it does have its drawbacks, in the form of increasing levels of political polarization and the associated pious posing on both the right and the left. Indeed, when it comes to the ostentatious striking of sanctimonious public poses, the right has, at long last, achieved parity with the left. Reasoned debate becomes difficult when both sides are only interested in occupying the moral high ground.

    Consider, for example, the right’s overwrought response to the latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR is a document submitted to Congress each year by the Department of Defense setting forth what the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy should be. The latest version contains a watered down “no first use” provision according to which we won’t respond with nuclear weapons even if attacked with chemical and biological weapons, with the caveat that for nations that don’t play according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, everything is still on the table. Some of the other more significant provisions include:

    • The United States will not conduct nuclear testing, and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

    • The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.

    • The Administration will study options for ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of nuclear warheads on a case-by-case basis, consistent with the congressionally mandated Stockpile Management Plan. The full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.

    The response Tunku Daravarajan at The Daily Beast:

    I despair of this latest episode of gestural theater designed to make the U.S. look exquisitely reasonable (should we call it “Jimmy-Cartesian”?), but which in truth results in the U.S. looking flaccid, or worse, complacent. After all, who gains from a presidential posture that has, in effect, stigmatized our most potent deterrent? In terms of foreign policy—or, better put, foreign clout—the U.S. is going through a startling period of auto-emasculation.

    and from Roger Simon at PajamasMedia:

    Like some looney member of Code Pink, our president is abandoning the nuclear deterrent adhered to by every American president since Truman. And he is doing it in a manner that makes absolutely no sense… What are we to make of this and the man who is adopting this policy? Does he hate us? Does he hate this country? What would he do if there was, for example, a massive small pox attack on the U.S.? Send in the infantry? Call in the Marines? Try to reason with whoever did it and recommend they negotiate as the fatal disease spreads to millions of people?… Now I detest nuclear weapons as much as the next person, but this approach seems — I hate to repeat myself, but I will — deranged.

    Now let’s think about this for a moment. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the ultimate reason for having a nuclear arsenal in the first place is to protect our security. What if Tunku and Roger, being human, and therefore not infallible, are wrong? What if, just hypothetically, the policy set forth in the NPR really will make us more safe, and the policy they prefer less safe. They have not limited themselves to a reasoned response to the NPR, setting forth, in their opinions, why they think it will not enhance our safety. Rather, they have villified the people who support it, accusing them, not only of being wrong, but of being crazy. When you demonize people, you make it very difficult for them to respond to your objections in a reasoned manner. Being human, they are more likely to strike back, trading tit for tat. I would even go so far as to say that, in some cases, that is the only rational way to respond. It seems rather obvious that convergence to correct policy decisions is not a likely outcome of this process of mutual demonization.

    That is the reason that, as I have maintained elsewhere, when it comes to policy decisions as weighty as those relating to nuclear policy, moralistic posing, with all the associated pushing of emotional hot buttons, should be set aside in favor of some semblance of rational discussion. The goal here, I assume, is to survive. Let us, then, dispassionately consider what we should best do in order to survive.

    According to Steve Schippert ant Liberty Pundits, the NPR not only does not serve that goal but is, in fact, pointless.  In his words:

    There is none, really. Not beyond rhetoric and “historic” moments and – dare the Los Angeles Times say it – a “manifesto.”

    No point at all – but for one critical aspect lost in all of the arguing back and forth. Clarity is dead. Nuance and the foolish self-assurance of perceived superior intellectual and/or moral capacity have rightly replaced clear understanding.

    Admitting in advance my own fallibility, I beg to differ. In the first place, we have kept the nuclear genie in the bottle now for going on 65 years. I am far from believing that an all out nuclear exchange would result in the extinction of humanity, or anything close to it. It is, nevertheless, an understatement to say that it would be extremely destructive. That being the case, it would be well if, to the extent possible, we maintained a taboo on the first use of nuclear weapons.

    Any first user of nuclear weapons likely would become and, it seems to me, should become, an international pariah. Roger paints a nightmare scenario in which millions of people are dying in a biological attack while our hands are tied. Given the known effects of the releases of biological and chemical agents to date, the chances of something like that happening are vanishingly small. If it did, the NPR would become a moot point, just as all our loud protestations against unrestricted submarine warfare prior to our entry into WWI became a moot point for our own submarine forces in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. A far more likely first use scenario would be an attempt at eliminating enemy stocks of biological or chemical weapons with a nuclear bunker buster, either preemptively or after an ineffective and very ill-considered attack on the United States with such weapons. This kind of first use would be very attractive to many in the nuclear weapons community. It would, however, do anything but promote our national security. Rather, it would end the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons, greatly increasing the chances that we, in turn, would become the victims of a really devastating attack, not with ineffective chemical or biological agents, but with nuclear weapons.

    I also agree with the other sections of the NPR that are major departures from past policy, or, at least, have been represented as such. One of these is the provision that the United States will not conduct nuclear testing. Again, there are many in the weapons community who would love to resume testing, basing their arguments on insuring the reliability of the stockpile. It would also help the national weapons laboratories solve the demographic problem they face with the retirement or impending retirement of most of the physicists and other technical experts who have actually taken part in nuclear tests, and the difficulty of attracting talented scientists to careers as custodians of an aging pile of nuclear weapons. It would also play directly into the hands of our enemies.

    The United States has a huge advantage over potential nuclear rivals in its possession of above ground experimental facilities (known in the business as AGEX) second to none in the world. From the massive National Ignition Facility, with its ability to focus 192 powerful laser beams on a tiny point, to the Z pulsed power machine capable of producing bursts of X-rays at levels far beyond those of any comparable facility on the planet, to a host of other smaller but still highly impressive and technologically advanced experimental facilities, we can approach the physical conditions that exist within exploding nuclear devices more closely and for longer periods of time than any other nation can even dream of. To resume nuclear testing would be to stupidly throw away this huge advantage. At the same time, it would give our enemies all the moral authority they needed to resume testing or develop nuclear weapons themselves.

    The decision to set in concrete in the NPR the decision not to develop new nuclear weapons is also a good one. The idea that the United States would do such a thing is anything but implausible. On the contrary, the National Nuclear Security Administration has been agitating for years to get the go-ahead to build the Reliable Replacement Warhead. When Congress wisely told them, not only no, but hell no, they kept up the pressure regardless. Congress has taken a lot of bad raps lately. They deserve a lot of credit for derailing NNSA’s determination to go ahead with the RRW. In the first place, the weapons in our stockpile are not fragile and unreliable. Any enemy that assumed so would be making a very grave mistake. In the second, if we developed the RRW, the pressure to test it would likely become irresistible. The idea of developing a nuclear weapon without testing it would never have passed the “ho-ho” test at the weapons labs back in the 70’s and 80’s. The claim that we wouldn’t need to test the RRW is likely wishful thinking. Again, all the objections to a resumption of nuclear testing I have cited above would apply. Finally, by building a new type of nuclear weapon we would once again sacrifice the moral high ground, handing our enemies all the justification they needed for building new weapons themselves. Again, we would sacrifice major advantages, simply to acquire a weapon that would be somewhat cheaper to maintain than those in the existing stockpile. For obvious reasons, the weapons designers at the labs would love it. For the rest of us, it would make no sense at all.

    I am hardly in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, I am in favor of maintaining a powerful arsenal and assuring that the resources we need to keep it safe and reliable will always be available. However, the latest NPR is a reasoned response to the nuclear myopia that would have us sacrifice real advantages in return for extremely dubious returns. As such, it deserves our support.


  • Frans de Waal and Moral Mysticism

    Posted on April 6th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Go to the website of any of the major booksellers and do a search with the keywords “evolution” and “morality” and you will find an avalanche of books about the biological origins of morality. Acceptance of the connection between these two words implies the slaughter of any number of ideological sacred cows, not the least of which was Communism, but these books generally mention the bitter, decades-long battle the ideologues waged against that acceptance only in passing, if at all. In fact, the connection between evolution and morality has always obvious to anyone with an open mind since at least the days of Darwin, but, of course, such people are rare, especially in academia. In the end, thanks in large measure to advanced neurological imaging and a host of other emerging assistive tools, the weight of evidence finally buried the ideologues.

    They may have been buried, but they didn’t go away. The context has certainly changed, but the ideological struggle continues. Read any of the books mentioned above and you are sure to find some trace of it. An interesting example for those whose tastes don’t run to long tomes is a brief work by Frans de Waal entitled, “Primates and Philosophers.” De Waal is a professor at Emory specializing in the field of animal behavior. In Part I of his book he takes issue with “veneer theory,” something of a straw man whose proponents supposedly believe that humans are consciously competitive and selfish creatures, with morality merely a “a thin crust underneath of which boil antisocial, amoral, and egoistic passions.” Part II consists of critical comments supplied by Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer, academics specializing in the area of evolutionary psychology, philosophy, and bioethics. Wright is author of the recent bestseller, “The Evolution of God.” The final section of the book consists of De Waal’s response.

    As we learn in an introduction to the book written by Josiah Ober and Stephen Macedo, de Waal and his commenters all “accept the standard scientific account of biological evolution as based on random natural selection,” and “None suggests that there is any reason to suppose that humans are different in their metaphysical essence from other animals, or at least, none base their arguments on the idea that humans uniquely possess a transcendent soul.” However, immediately following these caveats, we are also informed that “A second important premise that is shared by de Waal and all four of his commentators is that moral goodness is something real, about which it is possible to make truth claims… The two basic premises of evolutionary science and moral reality establish the boundaries of the debate over the origins of goodness as it is set forth in this book.”

    I actually find it stunning that comments like that could appear in a book by a bevy of perfectly respectable professors as if it were a commonplace, not even worthy of further discussion. One recalls the comment by E.O. Wilson in his book, “Consilience,” that if these people really believe that “moral goodness is something real,” they should “lay their cards on the table” and explain why. I find myself reaching for the works of John Stuart Mill to reassure myself that, even though, like the rest of us, he experienced morality as a transcendental reality, he, too, grasped the irrationality of genuinely believing in that reality. Let me lay my cards on the table. Moral goodness is not something real. The idea that it is real is irrational and basically absurd.

    If it is real, pray tell, what is the nature of its existence? Anything that is real in itself cannot depend on human minds for its existence. In what sense, then, would morality exist in a lifeless universe? It would, of course, cease to exist, because it is, in fact, a subjective construct of the human brain. There is no rational justification for morality as a real thing.

    I know, I am wasting my breath here. After all, how likely is it that people who have spent their whole lives laboriously absorbing the tomes of Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer will suddenly realize that, while these works may be interesting intellectual curiousities, the idea that they can serve as guides to “real goodness” is nonsense? I suppose I should be content to have witnessed the remarkable paradigm shift in the acceptance of the notion of morality as an evolved trait in my lifetime. It was always a stretch to believe that all the philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists who have spent their lives on the quest for the holy grail of “real moral goodness” would suddenly see the light when they grasped the connection between morality and evolution and stop cobbling away on their transcendentalist theories. The only problem is that this cobbling away is dangerous.

    It is dangerous because, to the extent that these people concoct this or that gaudy chimera of the “good in itself,” they will ignore or reject truths about human beings that are in conflict with it. These notions prevent us from knowing ourselves, and, unless we know ourselves, unless we thoroughly understand our own nature and learn to control it, we ourselves will always pose the greatest threat to our own survival.

    Read the book, and you’ll see the latest version of the “New Soviet Man” these true believers are aiming at. In their Brave New World, human beings will have finally grasped the “fact” that “society” includes all mankind, and universal brotherhood will prevail. It’s merely a question of recognizing “true goodness” followed by a little judicious “reasoning,” to the effect that, because a equals b and b equals c that, (surprise, surprise) we have really been evolving towards that “true goodness” all this time, and are perfectly suited for it, and, voila, the new straightjacket is ready.

    To his credit, de Waal does take a brief peek at the emperor’s new clothes. As he puts it,

    It should further be noted that the evolutionary pressures responsible for our moral tendencies may not all have been nice and positive. After all, morality is very much an in-group phenomenon. Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside… Obviously, the most potent force to bring out a sense of community is enmity toward outsiders. It forces unity among elements that are normally at odds. This may not be visible at the zoo, but it is definitely a factor for chimpanzees in the wild, which show lethal intercommunity violence… In the course of human evolution, out-group hostility enhanced in-group solidarity to the point that morality emerged.

    It mystifies me that anyone can grasp all these things and yet still, against all odds, fail to see the light. In almost the next sentence, however, we witness the good professor stumbling over the edge of a very familiar cliff;

    Humans go much further in all of this than the apes, which is why we have moral systems and apes do not. And so, the profound irony is that our noblest achievement – morality – has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior – warfare.

    I have some suggestions of my own. Let us reject the straightjacket once and for all. Let us finally jettison the intellectually bankrupt notion of the “good in itself.” Let us embrace morality as something fundamental about us that will always play a decisive role in our day-to-day relationships with other human beings. At the same time, let us grasp the fact that certain aspects of our nature have been and will continue to be highly destructive in the modern world, and represent, even now, a threat to our survival, and will continue to pose such a threat unless and until we learn to understand and control them. Let us give over the chasing of gaudy moral butterflies. Our intellectual powers are limited, but, if we are to survive, we must at least try to apply them.