The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Morality and the Ideophobes

    Posted on February 12th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    In our last episode I pointed out that, while some of the most noteworthy public intellectuals of the day occasionally pay lip service to the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, they act and speak as if they believed the opposite.  If morality is an expression of evolved traits, it is necessarily subjective.  The individuals mentioned speak as if, and probably believe, that it is objective.  What do I mean by that?  As the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck put it,

    The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise (his Ethical Relativity, ed.) implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.

    All of the individuals mentioned in my last post are aware that there is a connection between morality and its evolutionary roots.  If pressed, some of them will even admit the obvious consequence of this fact; that morality must be subjective.  However, neither they nor any other public intellectual that I am aware of actually behaves or speaks as if that consequence meant anything or, indeed, as if it were even true.  One can find abundant evidence that this is true simply by reading their own statements, some of which I quoted.  For example, according the Daniel Dennett, Trump supporters are “guilty.”  Richard Dawkins speaks of the man in pejorative terms that imply a moral judgment rather than rational analysis of his actions.  Sam Harris claims that Trump is “unethical,” and Jonathan Haidt says that he is “morally wrong,” without any qualification to the effect that they are just making subjective judgments, and that the subjective judgments of others may be different and, for that matter, just as “legitimate” as theirs.

    A commenter suggested that I was merely quoting tweets, and that the statements may have been taken out of context, or would have reflected the above qualifications if more space had been allowed.  Unfortunately, I have never seen a single example of an instance where one of the quoted individuals made a similar statement, and then qualified it as suggested.  They invariably speak as if they were stating objective facts when making such moral judgments, with the implied assumption that individuals who don’t agree with them are “bad.”

    A quick check of the Internet will reveal that there are legions of writers out there commenting on the subjective nature of morality.  Not a single one I am aware of seems to realize that, if morality is subjective, their moral judgments lack any objective normative power or legitimacy whatsoever when applied to others.  Indeed, one commonly finds them claiming that morality is subjective, and as a consequence one is “morally obligated” to do one thing, and “morally obligated” not to do another, in the very same article, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are stating a glaring non sequitur.

    None of this should be too surprising.  We are not a particularly rational species.  We give ourselves far more credit for being “wise” than is really due.  Most of us simply react to atavistic urges, and seek to satisfy them.  Our imaginations portray Good and Evil to us as real, objective things, and so we thoughtlessly assume that they are.  It is in our nature to be judgmental, and we take great joy in applying these imagined standards to others.  Unfortunately, this willy-nilly assigning of others to the above imaginary categories is very unlikely to accomplish the same thing today as it did when the  responsible behavioral predispositions evolved.  I would go further.  I would claim that this kind of behavior is not only not “adaptive.”  In fact, it has become extremely dangerous.

    The source of the danger is what I call “ideophobia.”  So far, at least, it hasn’t had a commonly recognized name, but it is by far the most dangerous form of all the different flavors of “bigotry” that afflict us today.  By “bigotry” I really mean outgroup identification.  We all do it, without exception.  Some of the most dangerous manifestations of it exist in just those individuals who imagine they are immune to it.  All of us hate, despise, and are disgusted by the individuals in whatever outgroup happens to suit our fancy.  The outgroup may be defined by race, religion, ethnic group, nationality, and even sex.  I suspect, however, that by far the most common form of outgroup (and ingroup) identification today is by ideology.

    Members of ideologically defined ingroups have certain ideas and beliefs in common.  Taken together, they form the intellectual shack the ingroup in question lives in.  The outgroup consists of those who disagree with these core beliefs, and especially those who define their own ingroup by opposing beliefs.  Ideophobes hate and despise such individuals.  They indulge in a form of bigotry that is all the more dangerous because it has gone so long without a name.  Occasionally they will imagine that they advocate universal human brotherhood, and “human flourishing.”  In reality, “brotherhood” is the last thing ideophobes want when it comes to “thought crime.”  They do not disagree rationally and calmly.  They hate the “other,” to the point of reacting with satisfaction and even glee if the “other” suffers physical harm.  They often imagine themselves to be great advocates of diversity, and yet are blithely unaware of the utter lack of it in the educational, media, entertainment, and other institutions they control when it comes to diversity of opinion.  As for the ideological memes of the ingroup, they expect rigid uniformity.  What Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Haidt thought they were doing was upholding virtue.  What they were really doing is better called “virtue signaling.”  They were assuring the other members of their ingroup that they “think right” about some of its defining “correct thoughts,” and registering the appropriate allergic reaction to the outgroup.

    I cannot claim that ideophobia is objectively immoral.  I do believe, however, that it is extremely dangerous, not only to me, but to everyone else on the planet.  I propose that it’s high time that we recognized the phenomenon as a manifestation of human nature that has long outlived its usefulness.  We need to recognize that ideophobia is essentially the same thing as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, or what have you.  The only difference is in the identifying characteristics of the outgroup.  The kind of behavior described is a part of what we are, and will remain a part of what we are.  That does not mean that it can’t be controlled.

    What evidence do I have that this type of behavior is dangerous?  There were two outstanding examples in the 20th century.  The Communists murdered 100 million people, give or take, weighted in the direction of the most intelligent and capable members of society, because they belonged to their outgroup, commonly referred to as the “bourgeoisie.”  The Nazis murdered tens of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and members of any other ethnicity that they didn’t recognize as belonging to their own “Aryan” ingroup.  There are countless examples of similar mayhem, going back to the beginnings of recorded history, and ample evidence that the same thing was going on much earlier.  As many of the Communists and Nazis discovered, what goes around comes around.  Millions of them became victims of their own irrational hatred.

    No doubt Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Haidt and legions of others like them see themselves as paragons of morality and rationality.  I have my doubts.  With the exception of Haidt, they have made no attempt to determine why those they consider “deplorables” think the way they do, or to calmly analyze what might be their desires and goals, and to search for common ground and understanding.  As for Haidt, his declaration that the goals of his outgroup are “morally wrong” flies in the face of all the fine theories he recently discussed in his The Righteous Mind.  I would be very interested to learn how he thinks he can square this circle.  Neither he nor any of the others have given much thought to whether the predispositions that inspire their own desires and goals will accomplish the same thing now as when they evolved, and appear unconcerned about the real chance that they will accomplish the opposite.  They have not bothered to consider whether it even matters, and why, or whether the members of their outgroup may be acting a great deal more consistently in that respect than they do.  Instead, they have relegated those who disagree with them to the outgroup, slamming shut the door on rational discussion.

    In short, they have chosen ideophobia.  It is a dangerous choice, and may turn out to be a very dangerous one, assuming we value survival.  I personally would prefer that we all learn to understand and seek to control the worst manifestations of our dual system of morality; our tendency to recognize ingroups and outgroups and apply different standards of good and evil to individuals depending on the category to which they belong.  I doubt that anything of the sort will happen any time soon, though.  Meanwhile, we are already witnessing the first violent manifestations of this latest version of outgroup identification.  It’s hard to say how extreme it will become before the intellectual fashions change again.  Perhaps the best we can do is sit back and collect the data.

     

    3 responses to “Morality and the Ideophobes” RSS icon

    • Is there any way at all to avoid to divide world to ingroups and outgroups? Original idea of Buddhism , Christianity , Islam and Communism was universal brotherhood of all humanity, and you know how it ended.

      Other way is to identify only with myself and live only for myself, but this means to belong to “ingroup” of one and to see the rest of the world as one big “outgroup”.

    • A quick check of the Internet will reveal that there are legions of writers out there commenting on the subjective nature of morality. Not a single one I am aware of seems to realize that, if morality is subjective, their moral judgments lack any objective normative power or legitimacy whatsoever when applied to others. Indeed, one commonly finds them claiming that morality is subjective, and as a consequence one is “morally obligated” to do one thing, and “morally obligated” not to do another, in the very same article, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are stating a glaring non sequitur.

      I value certain things. If I truly value those things, then certain actions are more rational than other actions. If my instinct for self preservation causes me to value my continued existence, then attempting to pick a fistfight with a grizzly bear is not the most rational behaviour. If my aesthetic preferences cause me to value one artwork over another, then choosing the one that provokes feelings of disgust in its apprehension is not the most rational behaviour. If my moral emotions cause me to value certain social and economic arrangements put in place by certain policies of governments across the world, then neglecting to protest their removal or reversal is not the most rational behaviour. I’m “obligated” in this sense to act a certain way, and to encourage others to also act a certain way, as to do otherwise would be, well, stupid.

      None of this requires a belief on my part that the underlying structure of the universe somehow agrees with those values, nor an estimation that those who disagree with me are automatically “evil”. I could just be signalling my virtue, of course: I’ll leave that determination up to you.

      Members of ideologically defined ingroups have certain ideas and beliefs in common. Taken together, they form the intellectual shack the ingroup in question lives in. The outgroup consists of those who disagree with these core beliefs, and especially those who define their own ingroup by opposing beliefs. Ideophobes hate and despise such individuals. They indulge in a form of bigotry that is all the more dangerous because it has gone so long without a name. Occasionally they will imagine that they advocate universal human brotherhood, and “human flourishing.” In reality, “brotherhood” is the last thing ideophobes want when it comes to “thought crime.” They do not disagree rationally and calmly. They hate the “other,” to the point of reacting with satisfaction and even glee if the “other” suffers physical harm. They often imagine themselves to be great advocates of diversity, and yet are blithely unaware of the utter lack of it in the educational, media, entertainment, and other institutions they control when it comes to diversity of opinion. As for the ideological memes of the ingroup, they expect rigid uniformity. What Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Haidt thought they were doing was upholding virtue. What they were really doing is better called “virtue signaling.” They were assuring the other members of their ingroup that they “think right” about some of its defining “correct thoughts,” and registering the appropriate allergic reaction to the outgroup.

      I can’t stop you reading malign intent into the actions of an outgroup, of course, but I would point out that “ideophobes” are found in every belief system to some extent. They’re a feature of authoritarianism – the extent to which believers will express “piety”, attack outsiders and enforce behaviour. Good luck finding a political party, social movement or sports team worldwide or across history that doesn’t have an authoritarian subset. They’re a facet of our evolved nature, remember?

      I’m gathering from all this that you aren’t the biggest fan of Wittgenstein. When Dennett, Harris and others choose to use words such as “immoral” or “unethical” they do so, I believe, for the same reason that someone might describe a piece of art as “beautiful”. True, beauty doesn’t “exist” as a thing, only residing within human minds as a by-product of an evolved sense of aesthetics, but the use of the word is still useful, despite the fact that it is based on, effectively, nothing. True, some may completely lack a sense of aesthetics, others may profoundly disagree that the use of the term applies to the particular artwork, but the term “beauty” still has use in that context as a broadly understood category. One does not commonly have to make ontological statements to describe a sunset.

      The fact that they make this calculation may simply be due to the fact that they perceive those who voted Trump to possess at least some of the moral precepts they share, not that they all closet moral realists or spend their free rubbing their moustaches and gloating over their innate superiority while “upholding virtue”: they may well be moral realists (Harris certainly is), but again, objective morality is not really required here, just a perceived overlap of values. What these overlaps may be is something you would doubtless have to ask them – a modicum of self interest and a minimum of regard for the future of the USA and the wider world at large would be my guess. This seems to me to be the opposite of any “phobic” attitude – they’re effectively (and naively, I believe) taking it on faith that it might be possible to prick the moral emotions of Trump voters and overcome their in-group bias. For the record, I believe it’s far more likely to further polarise opinions. They are, after all, considered part of the out-group of the people they’re trying to convince: cognitive dissonance reduction is the more likely outcome.

    • @Zenit

      We are all predisposed to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. I think there is at least hope of avoiding the disastrous outcomes we have experienced by responding blindly to that predisposition in the past. However, we can only “tame” this aspect of our nature if we accept it and understand it, instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist.

      @Daniel

      It would be “stupid” to feed “obligated” to respond to all your moral whims without bothering to consider what that will accomplish, and whether it will be at all consistent with the reasons the whims exist to begin with. Blindly following moral whims is not the same as fighting a grizzly bear for your life. Such whims always involve others. In particular they involve them by seeking to manipulate them, and by attempting to dictate to them that they must act one way and not another, or they will be evil, and therefore deserving of punishment.

      In my experience, moral condemnations do not constitute an attempt to “explore common ground.” They seldom are consciously subjective, and, in the event that they ever are, they constitute an attempt to exploit the emotions of others in order to manipulate them. People generally perceive moral rules as absolutes, with an independent existence of their own. I doubt that Dennett, Dawkins, and the rest perceive them in any other way when they speak of them the way they did. I do not concede to anyone the right to manipulate me or dictate to me merely because they want to satisfy moral whims, especially when it’s clear they do not understand why those whims exist to begin with, and are convinced that they correspond to imaginary “independent things” that actually exist only in their imaginations. Let them put their cards on the table. Let them drop the charade that they have some kind of a legitimate right to morally condemn others, and explain how they expect the satisfaction of their moral whims will accomplish anything that I might consider either to my advantage, or to the advantage of anyone else. That seems to me to be the “reasonable” thing to do. On the other hand, blindly expecting others to take my whims seriously and allow their actions to be dictated by them strikes me as very unreasonable indeed.


    Leave a reply