Posted on March 21st, 2012 No comments
The Grey Lady, sporting as ever, has called on carnivores the world over to explain “why it’s ethical to eat meat.” The editors have even convened a panel of experts to judge the expected flood of entries, more or less similar in its makeup to the panel the Devil called together to hear Daniel Webster. As my more astute readers will have gathered, the tacit premise of this contest is the existence of a legitimate, universal ethics object upon which the judging will presumably be based. I am far too diffident to elevate my own particular genetically programmed inclinations to such an estate. However, I encourage those readers who consider themselves the gold standard in such matters to have at it. First prize is underwhelming – you get to be named and publicly shamed by the learned panel in the pages of the NYT – but you can at least win a set of knives if you post your entry here.
Posted on March 20th, 2012 No comments
The old eugenicists thought government should steer the future course of human evolution. If a recent interview published in The Atlantic is any indication, sometimes it’s good to be careful what you wish for. The interview is with one S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University, and has the intriguing title, “How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.” The plot thickens in the byline, which reads, ”From drugs to help you avoid eating meat to genetically engineered cat-like eyes to reduce the need for lighting, a wild interview about changes humans could make to themselves to battle climate change.” The bit about eating meat is a good one. Those who are too fond of a carniverous lifestyle are to swallow pills that will induce nausea each time they eat a steak, “which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating.” Apparently the good professor has watched A Clockwork Orange one too many times. As for the cat-eye thing, he isn’t kidding. As he puts it,
…we looked into cat eyes, the technique of giving humans cat eyes or of making their eyes more catlike. The reason is, cat eyes see nearly as well as human eyes during the day, but much better at night. We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global energy usage considerably. Maybe even by a shocking percentage.
I would certainly be interested in seeing a computational study demonstrating a reduction in global energy usage via genetically engineering cat-eyes “by a shocking percentage.” Another of the professor’s great ideas is to leverage the wonders of modern genetics to create shorter humans, based on the assumption that they would have a smaller carbon footprint. We are not informed whether the algorithm used to arrive at this conclusion took account of the possibility that short people might do even more damage to the environment by attempting to overcompensate for their parents dumb decision to produce a litter of runts. They might, for example, have a marked tendency to buy much larger cars, eat large quantities of red meat to enhance their growth unless given especially large doses of nausea inducing drugs, or, as in the cases of Napoleon and Joseph Stalin, their tastes might run to things that are even more harmful for the environment.
The rest of the article contains more similar great ideas, and I will leave the interested reader to peruse them on his own. Mercifully, Prof. Liao assures us that, “We are interested only in voluntary modifications.” If that’s the case, by all means, let Prof. Liao and his like-minded colleagues tinker with the genes of their offspring as they choose. The most likely outcome will be that they and their cat-eyed offspring will go extinct, reducing their carbon footprint to zero, to the great relief of Mother Gaia.
I note in passing that, as is usually the case with the tribe of experts in ethics currently plying their trade in our academies of higher learning, the assumption implicit in all of Prof. Liao’s pronouncements on the subject is that an “ethics object,” the veritable “Good in itself,” is floating about in the ether, free of any base evolutionary origins, and perfectly discernible in all its nuances to anyone possessed of the necessary academic gravitas. I’m sure he’s as innocent of any coherent explanation of why one environmentally relevant behavior is “really Good,” and another is “really Evil” as any of his scholarly forebears since the time of Plato. Get a clue, my dear Prof. Liao. All those noble sentiments of right and justice that seem so real to you, so independent of your own mind, do not exist outside of your own mind. They are utterly dependent on it for their existence, an existence that is purely subjective. They were hard-wired there by Mother Nature in just that way for one reason and one reason only – because your ancestors who were fortunate enough to have similar programming had the good fortune to survive.
Well, be that as it may, that particular bit of news, becoming ever more difficult to ignore as the evolutionary psychologists continue to busily ply their trade, is most unwelcome to the “experts” in ethics. You might say it’s bad for the bottom line. No matter, let us be charitable to Prof. Liao. According to Google Scholar he has published a sufficient number of papers to be at least respectable, and has a tolerable if not imposing record of citation. If you feel that’s sufficient to trust him on the matter, by all means, take a closer look at the feasibility of spawning a brood of cat-eyed children. Barnum and Bailey will love you for it.
Posted on March 18th, 2012 No comments
Freedom of religion in the United States has always been a matter of freedom for me, but not for thee. True, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most influential of our founding fathers, favored the complete separation of church and state, but they belonged to a minority. The majority went along with the language of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but only as a form of armed truce. Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hardly in favor of full religious liberty. They favored the First Amendment prohibition, not because of an altruistic desire to proclaim complete liberty of conscience as a human right, but of the great diversity of Protestant sects in the country at the time, and their desire to insure that there would be no interference with the one they happened to favor.
As may be seen in the records of both the Great Convention and the state ratifying conventions, the clause was accepted with mixed feelings. The fears of many others were expressed by a farmer at the Massachusetts convention, who “shuddered at the idea that Roman Catholics, Pagans and Papists might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” Furthermore, at a time when State sovereignty was taken a great deal more seriously than it is now, the States did not consider the federal prohibition a barrier to their own establishment of any religion they happened to prefer. Several of them actually had State religions at the time the Constitution was ratified. There also existed support of the clergy by general taxation, provision for religious instruction, religious tests for office, and all the other traditional accompaniments of an established religion.
As one might expect from their strong religious tradition, Protestant Christianity was established in practically every one of the New England states. Legally binding tithes existed in Vermont until 1808, the more “liberal” constitution of Connecticut of 1818 provided, “No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship… And each and every society of denominations of Christians in this State shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights and privileges.” Maryland allowed taxation to support Christianity as long as no sect was favored, and no Jew could hold an office in the state until 1851. It was an idiosyncrasy of that State’s law that a Negro’s testimony was admissible in court against a Jew, but not against a Christian. Massachusetts confined the equal protection of the laws to Protestant Christians until 1833, a Pennsylvania court held that “Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the Common Law of Pennsylvania,” and so on, and so on. Indeed, the disabilities applied to Catholics and Jews in this land of “religious freedom” remained in force in some states long after those sects had achieved full emancipation in Great Britain in spite of its established church.
As for atheists, the idea that freedom of religion applied to them in the United States has always been a myth. In most States they were incompetent to testify until the last decade of the 19th century. As for the guarantee of religious liberty in the Constitution, it was intended, according to one state court, “to prevent persecution by punishing anyone for his religious opinions, however erroneous they might be. But an atheist is without any religion, true or false. The disbelief in the existence of any God is not a religious but an anti-religious sentiment.”
And so it is that, at least in some sense, right wing evangelicals are quite right when they declare that the United States is a “Christian nation.” They are in fine company in that regard, as the “Christian nation” meme was also commonly found in the pamphlets of the Ku Klux Klan in its heyday. True freedom of religion has never existed in this country, and those who are most prone to make pious speeches about defending the ideal of Liberty are typically the first to deny its substance. It should therefore come as no surprise that atheists should still be fighting against their relegation to the status of second class citizens in the “under God” clause of the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.
The justices of the Supreme Court used all the familiar specious arguments in upholding that blatant denial of full citizenship to atheists in 2004 that earlier courts had used to condone prayer in the public schools. As in that earlier battle, they claimed that children who objected could choose not to recite the pledge, completely ignoring the stigma such children would bear by segregating themselves in that way. Today we might say that, by so doing, they would publicly proclaim their adherence to an outgroup, deliberately inviting the hostility of the Christian ingroup. In view of the Supreme Court’s ruling that there is a de facto established church in this country after all, atheists have now turned to the states for relief. As noted in an article in The Atlantic,
So the American Humanist Association has mounted a state constitutional challenge to the pledge in Massachusetts state court. On behalf of an anonymous Godless couple (Jane and John Doe) and their three children, the AHA argues that mentioning God in the pledge violates guarantees of religious equality in the state constitution.
While I am not optimistic, I certainly hope Jane and John Doe win the day. I would cringe with shame for my species if aliens really did visit this planet and discover that, not only do a majority of its human inhabitants still believe in imaginary magical beings, but that belief in the same is actually still enshrined in the law of many of the states into which we are organized. Beyond that, as one who volunteered to serve this country in Vietnam at a time when it was anything but popular to do so, it would please me if soldiers of a later day, at least, could pledge their allegiance to their country according to the established formula without at the same time falsely declaring their belief in a fantasy.
Posted on March 13th, 2012 No comments
An interesting skirmish has been going on recently between noted proponent of the theory of group selection David Sloan Wilson and Jerry Coyne, bête noir of the Intelligent Designers. It started when Wilson posted an article on his website entitled When Richard Dawkins is not an Evolutionist. It appears that, in Wilson’s opinion, Dawkins wanders from the straight and narrow path of a true evolutionist 1) In his discussion of religion in The God Delusion, and 2) In his opinion of the role of selfish genes in relation to group theory.
Jerry Coyne immediately fired back with a somewhat overwrought rebuttal on his blog. I won’t go into the details of the controversy here, and, for the record, I agree with Coyne in most of his reply, except for his tendency to “soften” Dawkins’ comments about group selection in The Selfish Gene. Here’s what Coyne wrote:
Yes, genes are replicators, but no, Dawkins never claimed that their status as selfish replicators somehow rules out group selection. What he claimed, in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, was that successful replicators must share the same vehicle if they are to be successful in the future. Usually that vehicle is the body of an individual organism, which is used by the replicators to propagate themselves. Dawkins’s argument against the efficacy of group selection was that this form of selection is usually unsuccessful because groups are vulnerable to subversion from within by those selfish replicators.
Evidently Coyne didn’t read The Selfish Gene very closely, or he’s been unduly influenced by Dawkins’ recent rowback in the matter of group selection. Here, Wilson is right. In fact, Dawkins rejected group selection root and branch. For example, quoting from the book in the context of a discussion of the importance of selfishness and altruism,
“These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s “On Aggression,” Ardrey’s “The Social Contract,” and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s “Love and Hate.” The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).”
It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that the bald statement that the theory of group selection is “totally and utterly wrong” is somehow compatible with forthright acceptance of group selection, albeit in limited circumstances. If that’s what Dawkins meant to say, he certainly had a roundabout way of doing it. This particular quote has an interesting history, by the way. It was used by Steven Pinker in his book, The Blank Slate, to dismiss the entire intellectual legacy of Robert Ardrey root and branch, in a single sentence, even though group selection was never more than a sidelight in his work. In other words, Pinker was capable of writing a thick tome purporting to be about the Blank Slate while managing to ignore the role of the most significant opponent of Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday in all but a single sentence. Certainly a virtuoso performance.
And how do I know that Ardrey was the Blank Slate’s most significant opponent? As readers of my earlier posts are aware, you certainly don’t have to take my word for it. It’s all nicely documented in an invaluable little book published in 1968 by the Blank Slaters themselves, entitled Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, and still available at Amazon for about a buck. For example, from an essay in the book by Geoffrey Gorer,
Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser or the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.
Of course, today Ardrey, is an unperson, thanks in part, as noted above, to Dawkins’ hard over position on group selection. After all, Ardrey was a mere playwright, and to admit the crucial role he played would be to offend the academic gravitas of any number of worthy professors emeritus who really had been “totally and utterly wrong” about human nature when Ardrey was right.
But I digress. Allow me to quote a couple of other passages from “The Selfish Gene” to clear up any remaining doubt about Dawkins’ unequivocal rejection of group selection in that book:
To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals. This is the theory of ‘group selection’, long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open in a famous book by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, and popularized by Robert Ardrey in the Social Contract.
Not much wiggle room there, either, is there, unless Dawkins meant to inform his readers that he is not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory? Here’s another remarkable example:
Robert Ardrey, in ‘The Social Contract,’ used the group-selection theory to account for the whole of social order in general. He clearly sees man as a species that has strayed from the path of animal righteousness. Ardrey at least did his homework. His decision to disagree with orthodox theory was a conscious one, and for this he deserves credit.
Here I really don’t know what on earth Dawkins was talking about. He was either deliberately lying, or he never actually read “The Social Contract.” The idea that Ardrey used that book, “to account for the whole of social order in general” is the purest fantasy.
In a word, anyone who takes the trouble to read The Selfish Gene can see that Coyne is on very thin ice in his attempts to dumb down Dawkins’ position on group selection when he wrote the book. By all means, check all the references to group selection in the index if you like, but you’ll find it’s not really necessary to read past the first chapter to see that Wilson is entirely justified in claiming that, “A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection.”
Posted on March 12th, 2012 No comments
Is veganism, or vegetarianism raised to the level of an ideology, if you will, good or evil? The vegans themselves would certainly insist on the latter. For example, from the website of one vegan organization we learn,
Veganism, the natural extension of vegetarianism, is an integral component of a cruelty-free lifestyle. Living vegan provides numerous benefits to animals’ lives, to the environment, and to our own health–through a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Another informs us of an interesting variation on the human predisposition to apply different moral rules to ingroups and outgroups; speciesism.
There are different ways of looking at speciesism. It can be viewed as an individually held prejudice, an individual action (discrimination) or a system of oppression. It can also be seen as an ideology that works on a much more fundamental level to create what we see as reality. Sociologist David Nibert describes speciesism as a system of shared beliefs that give rise to and reinforce prejudice and discrimination against nonhuman animals. A central part of his argument is that “humans tend to disperse, eliminate, or exploit a group they perceive to be unlike themselves when it is in their economic interests to do so.” Unequal power leads to oppression, and ideologies such as speciesism help condition all members of society, including members of the oppressed, to see this as normal and legitimate.
Presumably we are not to view lions and tigers and bears as oppressors because, unlike us, they have not tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, as I have pointed out in numerous previous posts, there are no such things as objective good and evil. We only perceive them as objects because Mother Nature rightly concluded that these categories would be quite useless to creatures of our limited intelligence unless we did preceive them in that way. In reality they are subjective mental constructs, so it is quite impossible for me or anyone else to say that veganism is “really good,” or “really evil.” We can, however, consider veganism in the context of the reasons morality exists to begin with.
Morality is a human behavioral trait. Unless one accepts the mathematically impossible conclusion that its existence is a mere coincidence, it is an evolved trait, and it evolved because it promoted our survival. If so, it would seem reasonable to consider things that promote our survival “good,” and somewhat counterintuitive to consider things that promote the opposite as other than evil. Does veganism promote our survival? Of course not!
It doesn’t even promote our survival in the here and now. Consider, for example, the recent case of a baby that had the poor judgment to be born to vegan parents who fed it soy milk and apple juice for its own “good.” Unfortunately, this diet led to the child’s early demise. What, then, of the human “ground state,” which has been one of semi-starvation throughout our history? Will it promote our survival to avoid certain especially calorie-rich types of food if we happen to have the misfortune of being around during one of these all-to-prevalent “ground states?” I think not. In other words, while it is certainly natural enough to consider veganism good for a species as intellectually limited as our own, it really stands morality on its head. Instead of promoting our survival, it achieves the opposite.
Heaven forefend that I should ever attempt to concoct some new objective good. However, I have an aversion to “moralities” that tend to accomplish the very opposite of what morality evolved to promote in the first place. To the extent that they promote our destruction rather than our survival, they are a sickness, and the thought that my species is sick does not please me. Call it a whim, but, in that sense, veganism is certainly not “good,” as far as I am concerned. As for you, dear reader, the implication seems to be that you can still enjoy an occasional steak and continue to sleep the sleep of the just.
Posted on March 10th, 2012 1 comment
In 1920, the famous Marxist Rosa Luxemburg wrote,
Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. The essence of political freedom depends not on the fanatics of ‘justice’, but rather on all the invigorating, beneficial, and detergent effects of dissenters. If ‘freedom’ becomes ‘privilege’, the workings of political freedom are broken.
In 2012, speaking of Clear Channel Communications, which provides a variety of programs, including the Rush Limbaugh show, to the Armed Forces Network, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said,
I would hope the people that run it see just how offensive this is and drop it on their own volition. I think that is probably an issue that should be left to the folks that run that network. … In other words, I’d love to see them drop it, but I don’t think I’d legislate it.
Gee, thanks Carl! No doubt tears of gratitude should be running down our cheeks. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of “progress” people are talking about in the context of “progressive” politicians like Levin, now you know. When it comes to realizing that there’s no such thing as freedom of speech unless it applies to people who don’t think just like him, Levin doesn’t have a clue . It was obvious enough almost 100 years ago, and to a Marxist, no less, but apparently Levin is a slow learner.
And what of Limbaugh? The Left, in one of their signature fits of contrived virtuous indignation, is trying to silence him for a remark about a woman that pales to utter insignificance in comparison to the misogynistic bile their own paladins have poured on conservative women. Why does it matter? Because, whether you like his politics or not, Limbaugh has probably done more for genuine freedom of speech than anyone else in this country since H. L. Mencken resigned as editor of the American Mercury. Before Limbaugh came along, individuals could say pretty much whatever they wanted. However, the mainstream media had a virtual monopoly on what a Marxist like Luxemburg might call the “social means of communication.” In other words, they controlled the “voices” that could actually be heard by a significant audience, and they saw to it that the ideological message that voice promoted had a relentless slant to the left. Limbaugh was the first to succeed in making a genuine crack in that monopoly. His lead was followed by numerous other conservative talk show hosts, and, eventually, Foxnews.
The country is better off for it. Thanks to Limbaugh and others like him, freedom of speech really means something in this country. Compare our situation with that of any major country in Europe, and you’ll begin to understand why there’s reason to be grateful. Consider Germany, for example. I happen to follow the media there rather closely. They have big media on the “right,” like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and big media on the “left,” like Der Spiegel, but they have nothing like Limbaugh or Foxnews. As a result, the message as far as anything that really matters is concerned is surprisingly uniform.
For example, anti-Americanism in the media there expands and subsides, much as it does in other European countries. During the most recent extreme, from about the last few years of the Clinton Administration through the first few years of the Bush Administration, anti-American hate reached truly astounding levels. Occasionally, it was hard to find any German news on Der Spiegel’s website because the available space was all taken up with ranting diatribes against the evil Americans. It didn’t matter whether you read Der Spiegel, or boulevard mags like Stern, or wannabees like Focus, or the FAZ on the moderate right, or the Deutsche National Zeitung on the brown-shirted fringe, or even if you only watched the news on TV. The relentless, mindless anti-American bile was everywhere.
To their credit, a good number of Germans tried to push back. Unfortunately, the only “voice” they had was a few little blogs. So it is with most major ideological issues. There are nuances and differences in tone between the “left” and the “right,” but the overall message is surprisingly uniform, particularly in the broadcast media. Limbaugh put an end to that in this country. When there is a slant to the news, it is immediately called out and recognized as such by loud and strong voices, regardless of whether it happens to be to the left or the right. Hack politicians like Levin have always found that kind of genuine freedom uncomfortable.
One could cite many examples of the allergic reaction of the old media in Europe to the possibility that anyone who doesn’t “think right” might be heard by a significant audience. The recent vicious “legal” persecution of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands comes to mind. In the UK, the old media used their political water boys to resist erosion of their control of the message by Fox News, and Iranian Press TV was banned for “breaching the broadcasting code.” They cheered loudly when the government went to the extreme of banning 16 people with some semblance of a public voice, including US radio talk show host Michael Savage, from entering the country. If nothing else, Savage would have been a useful anodyne against the BBC’s relentless slanting of the news against Israel. The UK once allowed pacifists a voice in her public media even as her troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk and she fought on alone against Hitler. Obviously, times have changed.
In a word, be happy if Rush Limbaugh really irritates you. If you can still hear him it means there’s still some semblance of freedom of speech in this country.
Posted on March 6th, 2012 No comments
Times have changed! The behavioral sciences have done a full intellectual double back flip. Evolutionary psychology, once anathema to all right thinkers in the field in its various earlier incarnations as ethology, the new biology, sociobiology, etc., has finally banished the blank slate obscurantists and gained acceptance, even among the most pious leftists in academia. So complete has been the paradigm shift among the orthodox gentry of the field that the stunning recognition that there actually is such a thing as human nature has appeared in – a diet book!
This is no ordinary diet book, mind you. It’s a diet book, entitled The Six-Week Cure for the Middle-Aged Middle, whose authors, Michael and Mary Eades, write and co-produce Lo Carb CookwoRx, a nationally televised show on PBS, a staunch bastion of the Blank Slate no more than 15 years ago. Allow me to quote a few lines:
According to (Naomi) Wolf and others of her opinion, there is no universal standard for human beauty. Were we not programmed by advertisers and the entertainment industry, we would find a fat man or woman just as attractive and desirable as a thin one. We disagree. Years of serious scientific study, across numerous disciplines, prove otherwise. Our attraction to a pretty face and a flat belly is in our genes and is an atavistic throwback to a time when such features represented health and the ability to reproduce.
Our ideas of beauty are not driven by Madison Avenue, but by the microchip in our DNA, placed there by Mother Nature using her most indispensable tool: natural selection.
About forty years ago researchers started applying the laws of natural selection, not just to physical adaptations, but to mental adaptations as well. Evolutionary psychologists realized that animals born with instinctive fears – for example, fear of falling or fear of snakes or fear of the dark – had a greater likelihood of surviving and passing on those inbred fears to their progeny. In the same way, desires were genetically hardwired. Those who developed the instinct to search for mates using looks and/or body size and shape as indicators of good reproductive health were more likely to populate the world with their offspring who carried those same genes.
It’s really stunning to read stuff like this, in a diet book no less, if you’ve been following developments in the field that is now known as Evolutionary Psychology since the day that Robert Ardrey published African Genesis. It comes complete with an allusion to the quaint historical mythology today’s evolutionary psychologists have created to restore some semblance of academic gravitas to the field, epitomized by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. According to this mythology, referred to in the third quote above, the universe was once void and without form, ruled by the chaos of the Blank Slate. Then E. O. Wilson said, “Let there be light!” and, lo, there was light! And E. O. Wilson saw the light, that it was good, and he called it Sociobiology. And “just so,” dear reader, Evolutionary Psychology emerged from the outer darkness like Athena from the mind of Zeus. That’s what the authors mean with their reference to “40 years ago.” I’ve got news for them. They’ll find it in the pages of Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, or Carveth Read’s The Origin of Man and his Superstitions, or in the essays of Sir Arthur Keith, or in the books of the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, or in the pages of On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz.
You see, Drs. Eades, human nature isn’t really a discovery of the last 40 years at all. Indeed, it’s not out of the question that a “Happy Few” speculated about its existence, even before the time of Darwin!
Posted on March 1st, 2012 2 comments
The stuff you find in academic and professional journals runs the gamut. Sometimes it’s good science and sometimes it’s bad science. Occasionally, it’s abject drivel. A piece of the latter just turned up in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supposedly one of the nation’s elite scientific journals. Entitled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior, it claims, among other things, that “Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower class individuals,” and “Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.” Unfortunately, only the abstract is available online. PNAS is hiding the rest behind their copyright fence, but you can “rent” the article for a nominal fee at Deepdyve.
The title of the article gives a broad hint about the quality of the rest of the piece. It simply assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist; an objective ethics. The authors don’t refer to “our ethics,” or, as Marx might have put it, “proletarian ethics,” or “the ethics currently prevailing among professors at the University of California at Berkeley,” the source of the “studies.” No, they simply make the bald assumption that Good and Evil exist as objective things. Perhaps it will finally start to dawn on you, dear reader, why I am always harping about the nature of morality in this blog. Among other things, understanding the distinction between subjective and objective “ethics” may prevent you from publicly making an ass of yourself in academic journals.
It is, of course, obvious that individuals of our species, like those of thousands of others, recognize differences in status, and that, in all these species, there are behavioral differences between high and low status individuals. However, authors of articles documenting these differences in, for example, European jackdaws or hamadryas baboons, don’t commonly coach their readers to distinguish which of the animals are Good and which Evil. Suppose, however, we ignore for the moment the author’s conflating of behavioral traits in Homo sapiens with their own subjective moral judgments, and consider the quality of the article aside from this rather glaring fault.
In one of the studies, the authors investigated whether upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection with stop signs on all sides. They began by making the rather dubious assumption that “upper-class drivers” are identical with those who drive nice cars. To ”prove” this assumption, they refer to a “pop sci” book entitled Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy In An Era of Excess, written by Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell whose subjective moral predispositions, if we can judge by the reviewer comments at the Amazon link, are entirely similar to their own. “Observers” stood near the intersection, “coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn.” To add weight to the claim that such behavior is “unethical,” they helpfully note that, such behavior “defies the California Vehicle Code.” Sure enough, “A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic, b = 0.36, SE b = 0.18, P < 0.05.” I will not cavil at the fact that such observations were made. After all, who would dare to doubt a binary logistic regression? One can, however, question the bias of the observers. What were their attitudes towards “high status individuals?” Was any attempt made to determine whether they were more likely to conclude that nice cars had cut them off than clunkers in identical situations? Do the authors give us any hint at all that they have ever heard of such a thing as a double blind procedure? None of the above.
There are similar rather obvious faults in the rest of the seven studies. One of them at least provides comic relief by measuring whether rich people are more likely (no kidding!) to steal candy from a baby, or, as the authors put it, “individually wrapped candies, ostensibly for children in a nearby laboratory.” All of them contain statements such as, “Greed, in turn, is a robust determinant of unethical behavior,” “These results suggest that upper-class individuals are more likely to exhibit tendencies to act unethically compared with lower-class individuals,” “These results further suggest that more favorable attitudes toward greed among members of the upper class explain, in part, their unethical tendencies,” etc., with the implicit assumption that “ethics” is some objective, scientifically quantifiable thing-in-itself, hovering out there in the ether independent of the subjective judgments of mere mortals.
One wonders about the quality of peer review of stuff like this. Far from any shred of intellectual honesty or scientific integrity, it appears the PNAS reviewers lacked even something as elementary as common sense. Did it never occur to them to consider such obvious indicators of the association of social class with “unethical behavior” as the population of our prisons? Presumably, most of the inmates have committed offenses even more serious than “defying the California Vehicle Code.” What is the distribution of “rich” and “poor” among them? Ah, but I forget! All those people are in prison to begin with because of the exploitation and injustices of rich people! We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?
Apart from the wretched nature of the “science” in these articles, one wonders whether the authors ever considered the results of similar jihads against “rich people” in the past. They used to be called “bourgeoisie,” and mountains of similar “scientific studies” demonstrated that these “bourgeoisie” were also “unethical.” Once all was said and done, 100 million of the “bourgeoisie” had been murdered to atone for their lack of ethics. Do we really want to go there again? To judge from these “studies,” a good number of us do. It would certainly bring a smile to the faces of some of those earlier “scientists,” now no doubt ascended to that great Workers Paradise in the Sky.