The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Can Darwinism Make Us Morally Better?

    Posted on August 19th, 2017 Helian No comments

    No.  Morality is, indeed, a manifestation of evolved traits, but, objectively speaking, that very fact reduces the term “morally better” to an absurdity.  However, the default position of modern intellectuals, even if they accept the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, is that it is still possible to be “morally better” or “morally worse.”  They treat this assumption as a matter of objective fact, independent of the subjective opinions of individuals.  As a case in point, consider an article by Michael Price entitled How Evolutionary Science Can Make Us Morally Better.  Its byline reads “Using Darwinism to resolve moral conflicts.”

    Price certainly knows that the brain exists because it evolved.  He also knows that moral judgments are manifestations of emotions that are generated in that evolved brain.  For example, echoing Jonathan Haidt, he writes,

    Given that morality is so important, you’d think we’d want to make sure that we were doing it right. That is, you’d think that we would insist on knowing why we have the beliefs that we have, how those beliefs came into being, who they benefit, and where they are likely to lead us. Very often, however, our moral judgments are based primarily on our immediate emotional reactions to the behavior of others, and our attempts to justify our judgments are just post hoc rationalizations of these emotions.

    In spite of this, Price insists on the existence of “moral progress.”  As he puts it,

    We’d be better able to move on from these disputes in productive ways—and thus to make moral progress—if we could better understand our own moral beliefs. But how can we do this when our beliefs seem so opaque to introspection? It’s easy to feel passionate about our beliefs, but how can we see behind our emotions, to find out where our beliefs came from and whether they are leading us to where we want to go? Evolutionary science provides the key to such moral progress.

    This begs the question, “progress towards what?”  Evolution is not a conscious thing that sets goals for itself.  Function or goal implies consciousness, but evolution is merely a natural process.  To speak of its goal or function is absurd.  Price admits as much, writing,

    What I don’t mean is that the evolutionary process itself can provide guidance about right or wrong. If something increased or increases reproductive fitness, does that mean we should judge it as morally good? Of course not; I agree with philosophers who identify such thinking as a flawed “appeal to nature” or “naturalistic fallacy.”

    How, then, are we to identify the goals towards which moral progress is to occur?  According to Price, we should just make them up:

    So if the evolutionary process provides zero guidance about right and wrong, how do we know what our moral beliefs should be? It’s up to us. We have to do our best to agree about what our goals as a society should be, and then advocate and enforce moral norms based on how useful we think they will be for accomplishing these goals. Which brings me to the first way in which evolutionary science is the key to moral progress: the better we understand human nature, the better we can design moral systems that encourage expression of our “good” evolved psychological adaptations while discouraging expression of our “bad” ones. A moral system will succeed not by attempting to ignore or override evolved human nature, but rather by strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others.

    “Our goals as a society?”  That sounds very noble, but morality didn’t evolve for the good of society.  What Price is suggesting here is that we manipulate moral emotions to accomplish goals that have nothing to do with the reasons that the traits responsible for the existence of morality evolved to begin with.  Where do “our goals” actually come from?  Scrape away the philosophical jargon, and you’ll always find some emotional whim as the actual basis for the existence of “our goals.”  Such whims are no different than the emotional responses responsible for the existence of morality.  They exist as a result of natural selection, and they were selected because they happened to promote the survival and reproduction of genes in individuals.  They can hardly be expected to accomplish the same things now as they did in the radically different environment in which they evolved, and yet satisfying these whims is represented as “moral progress!”

    In fact, we know the outcome of Price’s prescription for achieving “moral progress,” because it’s already been tried many times.  We are not all identical when it comes to moral emotions.  It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the expression of moral emotions that all human populations have in common, but particular aspects of those emotions can vary significantly between individuals, and between populations.  It follows that we will never agree on what our “goals as a society” should be.  Some subset of the individuals in a society may agree on the goals of “moral progress,” but what of those who don’t?  Inevitably, they will be the evil ones, the “deplorables,” the outgroup whose opinions can be ignored because they are “morally bad.”  What happens to those who are “morally bad?”  In the twentieth century, familiar outgroups included the Jews and the “bourgeoisie.”  The members of these outgroups were murdered.  “Strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others” didn’t prevent these slaughters, and there is no reason to believe that the outcome of playing with fire in the form of manipulating moral emotions to achieve “moral progress” will be any different in the future.

    This dual nature of human morality based on our universal and powerful tendency to perceive others in terms of  ingroups and outgroups is reason enough in itself to reject the notion of “moral progress.”  We have tried to outlaw various manifestations of the behavior by giving them bad names, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and so on.  The result of such attempts has invariably been the creation of yet more outgroups.  The hatred doesn’t disappear.  Instead, it simply pops up again, even more virulent than before, but directed at some alternative outgroup that hasn’t yet been declared off limits.  The furious hatred of the Left for Trump and his supporters is a case in point.  The outgroup, furious at what it deems unfair vilification, hates back with equal fury.  Seeking to apply morality to modern political decisions involving millions of people in this way will always result in such new forms of vilification, creating legions of “villains,” and inspiring hatred of these “villains” in legions of others, who the “villains” will then cordially hate back.

    Such problems are exacerbated by the way in which the vast majority of human beings perceive moral rules.   Regardless of whether psychologists and philosophers grasp their subjective nature or not, and in spite of the fact that we are now seeing them change rapidly and drastically, literally before our eyes, most of us still manage to convince ourselves that moral rules are fixed, objective laws, independent of what any individual thinks about them.  It is unlikely that this aspect of our behavior will change anytime soon.  As a result, once Price and the other proponents of “moral progress” discover they have actually created a monster, it will be a great deal more difficult than they think to “de-emphasize” the monster and make it go away.

    What of the reason given for creating the monster in the first place?  In fact, it boils down to a desire to satisfy emotional urges common to some subset of individuals.  These urges are given pretty names and fobbed off as noble attempts to achieve “progress” towards such fine goals as “human flourishing.”  Regardless of whether they pay lip service to the evolved nature of moral emotions or not, the proponents of these goals promote them as and, to all appearances themselves believe that they are, self-justifying things in themselves, independent of the outcomes of natural selection.  However, if we examine the underlying urges more closely, we notice that they exist for the very same reasons that all of our less “noble” urges exist.  Those reasons have nothing to do with interactions between huge numbers of people in modern states, and certainly have nothing to do with some “common goal” towards which we are supposed to “progress.”  They are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are mere facts of nature.  The very perception that such urges can be transmogrified into “common goals,” which can then be achieved by manipulating moral behavior is really just a symptom of the dysfunction of the innate basis of those urges in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which that basis evolved.

    We can certainly seek to agree on common goals, but I doubt that construing differences of opinion on the subject in terms of a battle of Good versus Evil is likely to be helpful.  Any goal or aspiration will inevitably have an emotional basis.  As was demonstrated long ago by the likes of Hutcheson and Hume, they can’t spring from pure logic.  Indeed, reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined.  It is essential that we continue to learn as much as we can about the innate basis of our emotions if we are to avoid the danger of blindly responding them out of the context of environment in which they evolved.

    The term “moral progress” invariably assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist in reality; an objective moral imperative.  This is true whether those who promote such “progress” are aware of it or not, and whether they admit it or not.  The more fanatically one pursues this chimera, the more dangerous he becomes to others.  It is time to jettison the term once and for all.

    Supposing we do?  Won’t that leave us ideologically disarmed in a world full of fanatics?  After all, fanatics have been very successful, if not in achieving their ostensible goals, at least in achieving power, especially in the face of indifferent resistance by those not inspired by a holy cause of their own.  Must we, too, embrace a lie, or be overrun?  I don’t think so.  We can make it our “holy cause” to resist any other “holy cause” based on an assumption of moral righteousness.  To understand human morality is to understand the mortal danger that self-righteous fanatics pose to the rest of us.  Our “holy cause” should be to resist Social Justice Warriors, religious fanatics, ideological zealots, and anyone else who feels their own righteousness entitles them to harm others.

    We certainly cannot jettison morality entirely.  It is our nature to be moral beings, and we perceive moral rules not in relative, but in absolute terms.  We need to come up with a “moral law” that is in harmony with our moral emotions, that facilitates the day to day interactions of individuals, is enforced by punishment of those who disobey it, but is at the same time limited in its applicability to the minimum possible sphere of human relationships.  Political decisions affecting millions must certainly take moral emotions into account, but they should never be dictated by them, and they should be informed by a lively appreciation of the danger those emotions pose.  “Moral progress” achieved by empowering the pathologically self-righteous among us will forever be an oxymoron.

  • “Dangerous” by Milo Yiannopoulos; A Review

    Posted on July 16th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Back in February the legacy media was gloating over the demise of Milo Yiannopoulos.  Apparently the Left’s faux outrage machine had successfully smeared him over some unguarded comments he made about his sexual relationships as a young teenager.  These were construed as “support for pedophilia,” which they decidedly were not as anyone can see who listens to what he actually said.  No matter, Simon and Schuster cancelled his book deal, CPAC rescinded their speaking invitation, and even Breitbart caved, accepting his resignation as their technical editor.  It would seem Milo’s enemies gloated too soon.  He self-published his book, which currently sits at number two on the New York Times list of best sellers for combined ebook and print nonfiction.

    What to make of Milo, his book, and the public reaction to it?  When it comes to human behavior, the answer is always the same; go back to Darwin.  Forget the futile game of arguing about who is “good” and who is “evil.”  These categories exist only as subjective mental constructs, and are manifestations of emotions, not reason.  In short, they are figments of our imaginations.  Instead, look for the evolved emotional traits and predispositions that are driving the behavior.

    For starters, it’s always a good idea to look at ingroups and their associated outgroups.  They are a universal and fundamental aspect of human behavior, and they will always be there, along with all their associated loyalties and hatreds, as well as the dual system of morality human beings apply depending on whether they are speaking of one or the other.  They are also one of the most “dysfunctional” aspects of human behavior.  The innate traits responsible evolved at a time when the ingroup consisted of the relatively small group of hunter-gatherers to which one belonged, and the outgroup almost automatically became a similar group living in the next territory over.  At that time ingroup/outgroup behavior obviously increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, our brains became bigger, and we began associating in ever larger groups.  Our powers of imagination expanded with our brains, and we became capable of identifying our ingroups and outgroups based not merely on physical proximity, but on race, religion, class, ethnicity, ideology and a host of other criteria.  There is no reason to believe that such “modified” versions of the behavior will accomplish the same thing now that they did then.  In fact, there is good reason to believe they will accomplish exactly the opposite.

    In this case, Milo makes it easy for us to identify the relevant ingroups.  They are each identified in the title of a chapter of his book, and Milo has the honor of belonging squarely in the outgroup of every one of them.  They include feminists (chapter 4), Black Lives Matter (chapter 5), Muslims (chapter 9), and so on.  Many of them either overlap or have some affinity with the most significant of them all, the Progressive Left (chapter 1).  The Progressive Left is an ingroup that defines itself according to ideology.  In other words, the boundaries of its “territory” consist of a set of ideological shibboleths.  As set forth by a member of this ingroup in a review of Dangerous, these shibboleths are supposed to promote a “fair, multicultural, egalitarian society.”  A fundamental theme of Milo’s book is that, in fact, the Progressive Left is creating a profoundly unfair, divisive society that, far from being egalitarian, is based on a rigid hierarchy of identity groups.  In his words,

    We live in an age where one side of the political spectrum would like all debate, all challenge to their viewpoints, all diversity of thought to be snuffed out.  Why?  Because they’re scared.  Scared that their political, social and cultural consensus, carefully constructed and nurtured over the past few years, with its secular religions of feminism, enforced diversity, multiculturalism, and casual hatred for straight, white men, is built on a foundation of sand.

    The response of the Left to this assault on its ideology has been typical of ingroup responses that transcend species.  They have made a furious rush to defend their ideologically defined territory, filled with rage towards this presumptuous outgrouper, for all the world like a pack of howler monkeys defending its turf.  In a word, Milo is right.  They do hate him.  Leftist reviews of the book include such well-reasoned responses as,

    America now faces greater problems than the mean-spirited shitposts of a preening hack.

    Why any troll, racist, sexist, or teenager would pay for the version of Dangerous this draft presents when it exists on 4chan in endless supply is a mystery. At least the hatred there is more interesting.

    He’s a clickbait grifter who has made a name for himself spewing hate speech.

    Read them and you will find claims that the book is boring (it’s not), that it’s not selling (it sold out almost immediately on Amazon), that it discusses issues that are so yesterday (they aren’t yesterday for people who don’t happen to be obsessed with social media), and, of course, the de rigueur claims that the book is racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and so on.  What you won’t find, or at least I haven’t found so far, are well-reasoned arguments against any of the major themes of the book.  That’s not surprising.  The Left has now controlled the media, the academy, and the arts for so long that its ability to engage in rational argument has begun to atrophy.  Instead, it seeks to bully, vilify, and bludgeon its opponents into submission.  Conscious of its power, it has become increasingly authoritarian.  Hence its fury at the “deplorables” who dared to defy it in the recent election, and its determination to refuse legitimacy to the results of that defiance.

    Allow me to provide a brief tutorial on how such a rational argument might actually look.  In his book, Milo cites statistics according to which blacks are responsible for a disproportionate level of violence and crime in our society.  A rational response would be that the statistics are wrong, and that levels of violence and crime among blacks are comparable to those among other ethnic groups.  Concerning the gender pay gap Milo writes,

    Study after study show the wage gap shrinks to nonexistence when relevant, non-sexist factors like chosen career paths, chosen work hours and chosen career discontinuity are taken into account.  They key word is chosen… The wage gap is almost entirely explained by women’s choices.  Men prefer technical jobs; women prefer people-oriented professions.

    As Christina Hoff Sommers says, “Want to close the wage gap?  Step one:  Change your major from feminist dance therapy to electrical engineering.”

    A rational response would be to cite studies that demonstrate a systematic pay gap between men and women in identical jobs, or evidence of verifiable attempts to discourage women from choosing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.  Regarding Islam, Milo writes,

    Islam is not like other religions.  It’s more inherently prescriptive and it’s much more political.  That’s why I, a free speech fundamentalist, still support banning the burka and restricting Islamic immigration… Everywhere Islam exists you find political tyranny.  Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion, which is why limits on it are perfectly compatible with religious freedom and the First Amendment… Every noble principle the Left claims to uphold, from rights for women to gay liberation, even diversity itself, dies on the altar of its sycophantic defense of Islam.

    A rational response would be to demonstrate that the Muslim religion doesn’t inject itself into politics, that the states in which it prevails tend to be secular democracies, that Muslim theocracies are tolerant of gays, and they promote equal rights for women.  I have seen no such responses in any of the many attacks on Yiannopoulos and his book.  Instead, they tend to confirm his claim that,

    The practitioners of the new political correctness are not equipped for a world in which individuals can disagree with what is deemed appropriate thought.  They rely on silencing the opposition with hysterics, instead of winning with superior ideas… Purposefully or unwittingly, a generation of Americans now exists that is terrified of critical thinking.

    In other words, the Progressive Left seldom meets the arguments of Yiannopoulos or anyone else head on.  Instead they rely on the illusion that they occupy the moral high ground, and seek to vilify and anathematize their opponents.  Unfortunately, outside of the subjective consciousness of individuals, there is no such thing as a moral high ground.  Claims to moral superiority can never be objectively legitimate.  They exist in a realm of fantasy where good and evil exist as independent things.

    In spite of the Left’s anathemas, Dangerous is well worth reading.  Yiannopoulos is a very intelligent man, and his book reflects the fact.  He is well aware of the role of innate emotions and predispositions as drivers of human behavior.  In particular, he is aware of the fundamental importance of ingroup/outgroup behavior, or what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”  As he writes in Dangerous,

    Since the 1970s, social psychologists have been aware that emphasizing differences between groups leads to mistrust and hostility.  In a series of landmark experiments, the psychologist Henri Tajfel found that even wearing different-colored shirts was enough for groups to begin displaying signs of mistrust.  So guess what happens when you tell everyone that their worth, their ability, their right to speak on certain subjects and – shudder – their “privilege” is, like original sin, based on what they were born with, rather than any choices they’ve made or who they are?

    Like the men’s health gap, the black murder gap is very real, and simply isn’t discussed by black activists.  I suspect it’s a matter of tribalism, or ingroup/outgroup psychology, a common occurrence in politics.  Like feminists who blame their everyday grievances on an invisible “patriarchy,” or Wi-Fi enabled Waffen-SS wannabes who think Jews are responsible for everything bad, or Democrats who blame the Russians for Hillary losing the election to Daddy.  It’s very easy to dodge responsibility if you have a boogeyman to lump the blame on.

    These quotes reflect a level of awareness that most leftists never reach.  They also allude to the reason that the utopias they are in the habit of concocting for us have never worked.  An ingroup can be as egalitarian as it pleases, but the assumption that the identity groups they invite to inhabit their multicultural world will necessarily be similarly altruistic is delusional.  Ingroups and outgroups will always exist, and they will always hate each other, as demonstrated by the bitter hatreds leftists themselves tend to wear on their sleeves.  Until the innate behavioral traits responsible for ingroup/outgroup behavior and the dual morality inevitably associated with it are understood, accepted, and a way is found to effectively control them, they will continue to be as dangerous as ever.

    The book is an interesting read for many other reasons.  Its detractors dismiss discussions of such controversies as Gamergate as water under the bridge, but they should be of interest to readers who aren’t obsessed with the very latest twists and turns in the culture wars.  Such readers may also have heard little or nothing of the many contemporary thinkers mentioned in the book who, like Yiannopoulos, are challenging the dogmas of his opponents.  Their work is seldom found in newspaper columns, and the book is a useful guide on where to look for them in contemporary social media.  Other than that it includes some thought provoking comments on Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream from culture,” the reasons for the counterintuitive nexus between the Progressive Left and radical Islam, the remarkable cultural similarity between current “conservative” and “liberal” elites outside of superficial political differences revealed to the surprise of many in the recent election, the many contradictions between the avowed ideals of the Progressive Left and the other “haters” called out in the book and the various forms of racism, sexism and bigotry they practice in the real world, and so on.

    Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is something it has in common with virtually every other similar work you’re likely to find, whether it comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.  It tries to counter claims of moral superiority with claims of its own moral superiority.  One can “win” such a contest by being more effective at manipulating moral emotions than ones opponents, but in the end it is an irrational, dangerous, and futile game.  Consider what is actually being manipulated – innate emotions and predispositions that have no intrinsic purpose or function, but exist merely because they happened to improve the odds that certain genes would survive and reproduce.  There is certainly no guarantee that they will even accomplish the same thing in an environment so radically different from the one in which they evolved as the one we live in today.  On top of that, those who seek to manipulate them often do so in pursuit of goals that have little if any connection to the reasons they exist to begin with.

    The only way our species will ever manage to get off of this merry-go-round is by finally learning to understand the fundamental drivers of behavior, moral and otherwise.  An individual who is fully conscious of the nature of the emotions that are the motivators for all the goals and aspirations he sets for himself in life will also be an individual who is capable of discarding the illusion of objective moral laws as a rationalization for those goals and aspirations.  I don’t oppose the Progressive Left because it’s immoral.  In the end, I oppose it for the same reasons that are actually motivating Milo.  I don’t like to be bullied by people who assume they have some imaginary “moral authority” to tell me how I should behave and think.  We could “win” by beating the leftists at their own game, and seizing the “moral high ground.”  It would be a hollow victory, though.  As has happened so often in the past, we would end up by becoming clones of the monster we had just slain.  We need to stop playing the game.  There has to be a better way.

  • Of Ingroups and Outgroups and the Hatreds they Spawn

    Posted on June 17th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Did it ever strike you as odd that the end result of Communism, a philosophy that was supposed to usher in a paradise of human brotherhood, was the death of 100 million people, give or take, and the self-decapitation of countries like Cambodia and the former Soviet Union?  Does it seem counter-intuitive that the adherents of a religion that teaches “blessed are the peacemakers” should have launched wars that killed tens of millions?  Is it bewildering than another one, promoted as the “religion of peace,” should have launched its zealots out of Arabia, killing millions more, and becoming the most successful vehicle of colonialism and imperialism ever heard of?  Do you find the theory that human warfare resulted from purely environmental influences that were the unfortunate outcome of the transition to Neolithic economies somewhat implausible?  In fact, all of these “anomalies” are predictable manifestations of what is perhaps both the most important and the most dangerous aspect of innate human behavior; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.

    Our tendency to associate the good with our ingroup, and all that is evil, disgusting and contemptible with outgroups, is a most inconvenient truth for moral philosophy.  You might call it the universal solvent of all moral systems concocted to date.  It is a barrier standing in the way of all attempts to manipulate human moral emotions, to force them to serve a “higher purpose,” or to cajole them into promoting the goal of “human flourishing.”  Because it is such an inconvenient truth it was vehemently denied as one aspect of the Blank Slate catastrophe.  Attempts were made to scare it away by calling it bad names.  Different specific manifestations became racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and so on.  The result was something like squeezing jello.  The harder we squeezed, the faster the behavior slipped through our fingers in new forms.  New outgroups emerged to take the place of the old ones, but the hatred remained, often more virulent than before.

    It is impossible to understand human behavior without first determining who are the ingroups, and who are their associated outgroups.  Consider, for example, recent political events in the United States.  Wherever one looks, whether in news media, social media, on college campuses, or in the “jokes” of comedians, one finds manifestations of a furious hatred directed at Trump and his supporters.  There is jubilation when they are murdered in effigy on stage, or shot in reality on baseball fields.  The ideologically defined ingroup responsible for all this hatred justifies its behavior with a smokescreen of epithets, associating all sorts of “bad” qualities with its outgroup, following a pattern that should be familiar to anyone who has studied a little history.  In fact, their hate is neither rational, nor does it result from any of these “bad” things.  They hate for the same reason that humans have always hated; because they have identified Trump and his supporters as an outgroup.

    Going back several decades, one can see the same phenomenon unfolding under the rubric of the Watergate Affair.  In that case, of course, Nixon and his supporters were the outgroup, and the ingroup can be more specifically identified with the “mainstream media” of the day.  According to the commonly peddled narrative, Nixon was a very bad man who committed very terrible crimes.  I doubt it, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other.  Nixon was deposed in what we are informed was a “triumph of justice” by some heroic reporters.  In fact, it was a successful coup d’état carried out behind a façade of legality.  The idea that what Nixon did or didn’t do had anything to do with it can be immediately exposed as a fiction by anyone who is aware of the type of human behavior described in this post, and who bothers to read through the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times during the 18 months or so the affair lasted.  There he will not find a conscientious attempt to keep readers informed about affairs in the world that might be important to them.  Rather, he will see an unrelenting obsession with Watergate, inexplicable as other than the manifestation of a deep hatred.  The result was a dangerous destabilization of the U.S. government, leading to further attempts to depose legitimately elected Presidents, as we saw in the case of Clinton, and as we now see underway in the case of Trump.  In Nixon’s day the mainstream media controlled the narrative.  They were able to fob off their coup d’état as the triumph of virtue and justice.  That won’t happen this time around.  Now there are powerful voices on the other side, and the outcome of such a “nice and legal” coup d’état carried out against Trump will be the undermining of the trust of the American people in the legitimacy of their political system at best.  At worst, some are suggesting we will find ourselves in the middle of a civil war.

    Those still inclined to believe that the behavior in question really can be explained by the rationalizations used to justify it need only look a bit further back in history.  There they will find descriptions of exactly the same behavior, but rationalized in ways that appear incomprehensible and absurd to modern readers.  For example, read through the accounts of the various heresies that afflicted Christianity over the years.  Few Christians today could correctly identify the “orthodox” number of persons, natures, and wills of the Godhead, or the “orthodox” doctrines regarding the form of Communion or the efficacy of faith, and yet such issues have spawned ingroup/outgroup identification accompanied by the usual hatreds, resulting in numerous orgies of mass murder and warfare.

    I certainly don’t mean to claim that issues and how they are decided never matter in themselves.  However, when it comes to human behavior, their role often becomes a mere pretext, a façade used to rationalize hatred that is actually a manifestation of innate emotional predispositions.  Read the comments following articles about politics and you will get the impression that half the population wakes up in the morning determined to deliberately commit as many bad deeds as they possibly can, and the other half is heroically struggling to stop them and secure the victory of the Good.  Does that really make sense?  Is it really so difficult to see that such a version of reality represents a delusion, explicable only if one accepts human nature for what it is?  Would you understand what’s going on in the world?  Then for starters you need to identify the ingroups and outgroups.  Lacking that fundamental insight, you will be stumbling in the dark.  In the dark it’s very difficult to see that you, too, are a hater, simply by virtue of the fact that you belong to the species Homo sapiens, and to understand why you hate.  Hatred is a destructive force.  It would behoove us to learn to control it no matter what our goals happen to be, but we will have a very difficult time controlling it unless we finally understand why it exists.

  • Vignette of a Moderate Leftist

    Posted on May 10th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Scott Alexander is a U.S. psychiatrist and proprietor of Slate Star Codex, which he describes as “a blog about science, medicine, philosophy, politics, and futurism.” He considers himself a moderate liberal. In a recent post entitled Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle, he discussed Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology, an article published by David Roberts on Vox, the burden of which was that truth, justice, and moral rectitude are all under assault thanks to the rise of ideological tribalism on the right. In Roberts’ words,

    Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one…Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House…

    Conservative media… profits from… a constant state of mobilized outrage.

    This is the culmination of the right’s long campaign against media: a base that only trusts tribal news from tribal sources.

    I suspect that if Roberts seriously expects us to believe that the traditional media don’t (or at least didn’t used to) support leftist tribal values and goals, that it is uncommon for leftist ideologues to be in a constant state of mobilized outrage, and that leftists commonly seek sources of news outside of their usual echo chambers, then clearly he has a pair of tribalist blinkers ensconced firmly at the end of his own nose. Of course we all do. We are a profoundly tribalist species, perceiving the world in terms of just and good ingroups and evil and deplorable outgroups. But that’s beside the point. The point is that Roberts suffers from the delusion that he’s somehow immune to tribalism. In fact, however, he wears the insignia of his tribe on his sleeve.

    The article is full of ideologically slanted claims about conservative delusions spawned by conservative media misinformation.  Roberts clearly lacks even an elementary capacity to detect the slant in his own sources. To give just one example among the many, he cites “studies” according to which Fox viewers are more misinformed than those who rely on the traditional media. Even a cursory glance at the things they are misinformed about reveals that they are carefully chosen to insure that conservatives are more prone to “delusions.” For example, they were more likely to believe that “’weapons of mass destruction’ had been found in (Iraq) after the U.S. invasion, when they hadn’t,” they “were less likely to say the Earth’s temperature has been rising and less likely to attribute this temperature increase to human activities,” and were liable of a host of false beliefs about Obamacare. I could easily stand these studies on their heads by simply loading the questions with bits cherry-picked from the narratives of the Left instead of the Right. For example, the questions might include, “Are there significant differences in intelligence between different human ethnic groups?” “Is human biodiversity real and significant?” “According to Muslim teaching will most Christians burn in hell forever or not, and are women inferior to men or not?” “Did Michael Brown have his hands up and shout ‘don’t shoot’ when he was killed?”  “Was Hillary Clinton’s use of private computer resources to handle official government business a significant violation of federal regulations and the law?”  And so on.

    Roberts goes on to promote doubling down on his tribe’s warfare against its conservative outgroup under the rubric of a return to the “traditional” techniques of supplying the public with information, concluding with the grim comment that,

    There’s no other choice. In the end, if tribal epistemology wins, journalism loses.

    I have news for Roberts. Tribal epistemology won a long time ago. All the evils he wrings his hands about are the inevitable result of marginalizing and vilifying the tribe that lost.

    Which brings us back to our “moderate” leftist, Scott Alexander. Alexander doesn’t disagree with Roberts about tribalism on the right. He just prefers a different approach to dealing with it. He is St. Francis to Roberts’ Torquemada, if you will. He would rather bring erring conservatives back to the True Faith with a kid glove rather than an iron fist. For example, he suggests that some of the “studies” Roberts relies on to portray conservatives as deplorable might conceivably be affected by a liberal bias. He even admits that mainstream media outlets like CNN “lean liberal,” but claims they are not as liberal as Fox is conservative. That’s debatable. You can demonstrate that to yourself by simply turning on CNN every half hour or so over any six hour period. I can pretty much guarantee that the majority of time, and probably the vast majority of the time, you will be watching something that reflects negatively on Trump. Fox certainly opposed Obama, but was never as afflicted with single-minded hatred as CNN. Alexander thinks that CNN’s bogus pretense of neutrality is a feature, not a bug. I beg to differ. I prefer a news outlet that is open about its agenda to one that blatantly lies about it.

    As we read further into the post, we find Alexander painting a rosy picture of the past. He tells us that there was once some kind of a Golden Age when, “the two parties had much more in common, and (were) able to appeal to shared gatekeeper institutions that both trusted.” Maybe, but it must have been long before my time. Now, however, all that has changed. In his words, “Right now, the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives.” I rather think that “the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives” for a lot longer than he imagines.  Conservatives just weren’t as effective in pushing back then as they are now. Among other things, they lacked the means to do so. Now they have the means. Both Roberts and Alexander agree that this is a deplorable situation. They concur that the outgroup, the “other” tribe is evil, and must be defanged. This ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature, what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” should already be familiar to readers of this blog. The process by which Alexander manages to convince himself that the “other” is, indeed, evil is interesting in itself. He begins by continuing with his “kid glove” approach, debunking Roberts’ claim that, “the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own,” rightly noting that,

    This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy in Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Heterodox Academy, et cetera, which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old… The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternatively pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. They then defected to create their own.

    However, “creating their own” turned out to be the original sin.Here’s how Alexander describes the process:

    A couple of years ago, Reddit decided to ban various undesirables and restrict discussion of offensive topics. A lot of users were really angry about this, and some of them set up a Reddit clone called Voat which promised that everyone was welcome regardless of their opinion.

    What happened was – a small percent of average Reddit users went over, lured by curiosity or a principled commitment to free speech. And also, approximately 100% of Reddit’s offensive undesirables went there, lured by the promise of being able to be terrible and get away with it.

    Even though Voat’s rules were similar to Reddit’s rules before the latter tightened its moderation policies, Voat itself was nothing like pre-tightening Reddit. I checked to see whether it had gotten any better in the last year, and I found the top three stories were:

    SJW Awareness is a Steam curator that warns you about SJW games.

    Africans describe their extortion schemes.  They put babies in ovens and hot showers.  They’re now migrating to EU.

    “The Phantom,” and black serial killer who targeted blond haired white children, has been freed from prison and roaming streets of same city he terrorized.

    The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.

    In the first place, this is anecdotal evidence.In the second, at least two of the above blurbs are true. If Alexander doesn’t think that there are video games that come drenched in crude leftist propaganda, he must not have played many video games. If he did, he probably wouldn’t be too annoyed at discovering that his game was actually a leftist morality play in disguise, but some people are. As can be confirmed on Google, a black serial killer who targeted blonde haired white children actually was freed from prison in the same city where he committed his crimes. I would certainly deem this information useful if I had young children and the killer was released in my neighborhood. It would seem, then, that Alexander doesn’t think Voat is a “terrible place to live” because it is full of lies. Rather, its “seven zillion witches” are publishing truths that clash with Alexander’s preferred narrative, and he equates truth that clash with his narrative as evil.

    After supplying us with this somewhat shaky evidence that Voat is inhabited by witches, Alexander reaches the dubious conclusion that all other right-leaning media outlets must therefore also be inhabited almost exclusively by witches as well. For example, it turns out that Fox was the unholy spawn of a similar process:

    FOX’s slogans are “Fair and Balanced”, “Real Journalism”, and “We Report, You Decide”. They were pushing the “actually unbiased media” angle hard. I don’t know if this was ever true, or if people really believed it. It doesn’t matter. By attracting only the refugees from a left-slanted system, they ensured they would end up not just with conservatives, but with the worst and most extreme conservatives.

    No doubt Alexander would find anyone who kicked at the ideological planks that form the box his tribe lives in “bad” and “extreme.”He challenges some of the more crudely biased “studies” cited by Roberts, but doesn’t neglect to virtue signal to his readers that “Fox is horrible.” Noting that Breitbart, Drudge, and the rest are just as horrible, he adds,

    I think it’s right that this situation is horrible and toxic and destroying the country, and it’s really good that someone has pointed this out and framed it this clearly.

    I don’t see it that way. I could care less whether Alexander’s tribe considers Fox and the rest “horrible.” They’re either making a moral judgment that lacks any legitimate basis and is nothing more significant than an expression of their emotional whims, or they’re suggesting that these alternative media do not supply useful information, which is false. The mainstream media will occasionally lie or manipulate facts to alter their meaning. Usually, however, they simply suppress any news that doesn’t fit their narrative. Conservative media supply these often significant facts, which are only “horrible” because they contradict that narrative. As a result, the United States has a more genuinely free press than many other countries where similarly powerful and influential alternatives are lacking.

    For example, I happen to follow the German media fairly closely. They have no equivalent of Fox, and to an outside observer the media there are as similar to each other as so many peas in a pod, all flogging almost exactly the same political line when it comes to any issue of overriding significance. Among other things, this vanilla approach to journalism convinces citizens that they are much better informed than they actually are. When it comes to the United States, for example, they are fed a dumbed down version of the U.S. mainstream media narrative, typically much cruder and more extreme than anything you’ll find in this country. That’s exactly what we would have here lacking credible alternatives like Fox, Breitbart, Drudge, Instapundit, etc., whether Alexander imagines they’re full of scary witches or not. Alexander concludes his article with the following three paragraphs:

    Look. I read Twitter. I know the sorts of complaints people have about this blog. I’m some kind of crypto-conservative, I’m a traitor to liberalism, I’m too quick to sell out under the guise of “compromise”. And I understand the sentiment. I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.

    And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”

    Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.

    I agree that leftists like Roberts and Alexander are in a hole, but they can’t stop digging. Their ideology constrains them to keep those shovels flying. The only real way to stop would involve them challenging their own ideological preconceptions. However, their tribe is defined by ideology, so to challenge the ideology would mean ostracism – banishment from the tribe. Alexander admits he has already been denounced as a traitor and a sellout merely for advocating a milder approach. The lightening is poised to strike even though he hasn’t dared to lay so much as a finger on the fundamental shibboleths of his ingroup. There is no significant ideological difference at all between Roberts and Alexander. They only differ on how to guide the erring sheep back into the fold of the True Faith. That’s the problem. To actually stop digging, the leftists would have to admit that they may not be 100% right all the time, and that the conservatives may actually be right about some things. They can’t do that because of the way they define membership in their ingroup.  It would be something like St. Francis (or Torquemada) admitting that Christianity is mostly true, but the pagans might have a point about the existence of some of their gods. If the leftists, who are anything but “neutral,” want to lay down their shovels, the only solution is to leave their ingroup. However, it is usually very painful and traumatic for members of our species to do that.  They’re likely to be down there a good, long time.

  • Moral Whimsy

    Posted on May 8th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Human moralities have always been concocted and altered in a chaotic, and sometimes whimsical fashion.  They are all manifestations of innate behavioral predispositions that are probably quite similar across all human populations.  However, in conscious creatures with large brain such as ourselves, these predispositions can be interpreted very differently as a function of environment, culture, and pre-existing versions of morality.  As a result we see wild variations in the “end product” in the form of moral rules.  Moralities have always evolved in this way over time, both now and in the distant past.  In spite of the arbitrary nature of the process, the evanescent “moral laws” that happen to pop up and then disappear from time to time are perceived as objective things, unchanging, and independent of the social/biological process that actually gave rise to them.  This seemingly irrational perception actually makes perfect sense.  Morality exists because the traits responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  It turns out that the most effective way to improve the odds was to program the perception of moral rules as objective things.  However, they are not objective things, but manifestations of subjective emotions.  You might say that we are hard-wired to believe in hallucinations.  The chaotic process of “updating” a given version of morality referred to above happens when different individuals believe in different hallucinations.

    I recently ran across a good example of the process in action in an article in New York Magazine entitled “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.”  The particular moral rule at issue was the degree to which the terms “transgender” and “transracial” can be treated as equivalent.  Rebecca Tuval, an assistant professor (usually a junior, tenure track professor) of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, had recently published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia entitled, “In Defense of Transracialism.”   Perhaps she thought the article was merely harmless padding for her resume, the better to facilitate her eventual promotion to full professor.  It didn’t turn out that way.  A vicious attack on her began in the form of an open letter to Hypatia, now signed by some hundreds of her academic colleagues, expressing “dismay” at the “harms” Tuvel had caused by her inappropriate conflation of the terms noted above.  The witch hunt continued with poison pen attacks posted at the usual social media suspects, culminating in an abject apology by “a majority of Hypatia’s board of associate editors” rivaling anything ever seen in Stalin’s Great Purge Trials.  I half expected to see a paragraph admitting that the journal’s staff had conspired with Trotsky himself to promote the counter-revolutionary plots of the Left Opposition.  A few days later, editor Sally Scholz and Miriam Solomon, president of Hypatia’s board of directors, fired back with disavowals of the disavowal.

    This is basically the manner in which moralities have always (culturally) evolved and changed.  As societies change, the members of particular ingroups, and especially ingroups that define themselves primarily by ideology, may experience strong moral emotions in response to supposed “evils” that were previously matters of indifference.  They then seek to manipulate the moral emotions of others so that they, too, perceive what amounts to an emotional whim as an objective thing.  This “thing” takes the form of an evil that exists independently of the evolved emotional predispositions that actually inspired the perception.  Members of other ingroups with different narratives, or members of the same ingroups responding more strongly to other moral emotions, push back, seeking to manipulate moral emotions in the opposite direction.  Whoever is the most effective manipulator wins, and a new “moral law” is born.

    The whole process is fundamentally irrational.  Why?  Because it amounts to a competition between alternative mirages.  The evolved emotional traits that are responsible for this aspect of human behavior exist because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, they did so at a time that was radically different from the present.  There is no guarantee that they will have the same result today as they did then.  None of this makes any difference to the parties to these disputes as they blindly chase their alternative illusions.  They are seldom aware of the connection between their behavior and its ultimate cause in emotional traits spawned in the process of evolution by natural selection.  The illusion that they are champions of a thing-in-itself called the Good is so powerful that it probably wouldn’t matter even if they did know.

    The above describes the process by which we currently seek to resolve the issues that arise in complex modern civilizations by attempting to satisfy emotional whims that are probably much the same as those experienced by our ancestors in the Pleistocene.  The results are seldom benign.  Sometimes the damage is limited to the destruction of some junior professor’s career.  Sometimes it involves warfare that costs millions their lives.  One can certainly imagine more rational ways of adjudicating among all these emotionally inspired whims.  However, I am not optimistic that one of them will be adopted anytime soon.  We are moralistic creatures to the core.  We are addicted to construing something we want as “the Good,” and then manipulating the moral emotions of others to get it.  The effect “the Good” might actually have on the odds of our genetic survival is normally a matter of utter indifference.  We live in a world of irrational creatures, all seeking to satisfy emotional whims without the least regard for whether they accomplish the same thing as they did when they evolved or not.

    That’s the reality that we must deal with.  All of us must find our own way of coping.  However, as a tip to my readers, I suggest you think twice before publishing in a philosophical journal.  Unless, of course, you actually like to be bullied.

  • Morality; Once More From the Top

    Posted on April 2nd, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality.  Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it.  Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality.  They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions.  As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.

    Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning.  According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid.  Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God.  However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.

    Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions.  Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.”  However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.

    Evolution is a natural process.  As such, it has no purpose or goal.  It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.

    The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past.  It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now.  It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.

    Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature.  They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.

    Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do.  That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals.  It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.

    In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity.  They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.

    Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it.  These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways.  In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed.  Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals.  However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.

    Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them.  It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then.  When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past.  One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.

    So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior.  Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small?  The answer lies in morality itself.  More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups.  When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people.  Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality.  Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup.  It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe.  We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing.  The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above.  As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.

    Why do I bother to write about morality?  Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above.  I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject.  One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right.  One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind?  Assuming they exist, can you show one to me?  Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing?  Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”

    The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us.  For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with.  Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path.  Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors.  When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders.  H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift.  From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative.  In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned.  The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful.  As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.

    I know, I’m grasping at straws.  The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck.  He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him.  The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work.  His example is hardly encouraging.  On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing.  Therefore, I will do something.  I will continue to write.

  • On the Unsubjective Morality and Unscientific Scientism of Alex Rosenberg

    Posted on February 26th, 2017 Helian 7 comments

    In a recent post I pointed out the irrational embrace of objective morality by some public intellectuals in spite of their awareness of morality’s evolutionary roots.  In fact, I know of only one scientist/philosopher who has avoided this non sequitur; Edvard Westermarck.  A commenter suggested that Alex Rosenberg was another example of such a philosopher.  In fact, he’s anything but.  He’s actually a perfect example of the type I described in my earlier post.

    A synopsis of Rosenberg’s philosophy may be found in his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality.  Rosenberg is a proponent of “scientism.”  He notes the previous, pejorative use of the term, but announces that he will expropriate it.  In his words,

    …we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.”  This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today… Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understating is all about.

    Well, I’m “one of us atheists,” and while I would agree that science is the best and most effective method to secure knowledge of anything, I hardly agree that it is the only method, nor do I agree that it is always reliable.  For that matter, I doubt that Rosenberg believes it either.  He dismisses all the humanities with a wave of the hand as alternate ways of knowing, with particular emphasis on history.  In fact, one of his chapters is entitled, “History Debunked.”  In spite of that, his book is laced with allusions to history and historical figures.

    For that matter, we could hardly do without history as a “way of knowing” just what kind of a specimen we’re dealing with.  It turns out that, whether knowingly or not, Rosenberg is an artifact of the Blank Slate.  I reached convulsively for my crucifix as I encountered the telltale stigmata.  As those who know a little history are aware, the Blank Slate was a massive corruption of science involving what amounted to the denial of the existence of human nature that lasted for more than half a century.  It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  It should come as no surprise that Rosenberg doesn’t mention it, and seems blithely unaware that it ever happened.  It flies in the face of the rosy picture of science he’s trying to paint for us.

    We first get an inkling of where Rosenberg fits in the context of scientific history when he refers approvingly to the work of Richard Lewontin, who is described as a “well-known biologist.”  That description is a bit disingenuous.  Lewontin may well be a “well-known biologist,” but he was also one of the high priests of the Blank Slate.  As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate,

    Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the “generalizations of eating, excreting, and sleeping.”  The rest of the slate, presumably, is blank.

    Lewontin embraced “scientific” Marxism, and alluded to the teachings of Marx often in his work.  His “scientific” method of refuting those who disagreed with him was to call them racists and fascists.  He even insisted that a man with such sterling leftist bona fides as Richard Trivers be dismissed as a lackey of the bourgeoisie.  It seems to me these facts are worth mentioning about anyone we may happen to tout as a “scientific expert.”  Rosenberg never gets around to it.

    A bit further on, Rosenberg again refers approvingly to another of the iconic figures of the Blank Slate; B. F. Skinner.  He cites Skinner’s theories as if there had never been anything the least bit controversial about them.  In fact, as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,

    Skinner… preferred language of control and domination.  He spoke of behavioral engineering and manipulation, and not just in relation to animals.  Later in life he sought to turn humans into happy, productive, and “maximally effective” citizens.

    and

    B. F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior.  Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered.  His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century.  Loosening its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

    Behaviorism, with its promise of the almost perfect malleability of behavior in humans and other animals, was a favorite prop of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Such malleability was a prerequisite for the creation of “maximally effective” citizens to occupy the future utopias they were concocting for us.

    Reading on, we find Rosenberg relating another of the favorite yarns of the Blank Slaters of old, the notion that our Pleistocene ancestors’ primary source of meat came from scavenging.  They would scamper out, we are told, and steal choice bones from the kills of large predators, then scamper back to their hiding places and smash the bones with rocks to get at the marrow.  This fanciful theory was much in fashion back in the 60’s when books disputing Blank Slate ideology and insisting on the existence and significance of human nature first started to appear.  These often mentioned aggression as one aspect of human behavior, an assertion that never failed to whip the Blank Slaters into a towering rage.  Hunting, of course, might be portrayed as a form of aggression.  Therefore it was necessary to deny that it ever happened early enough to have an effect on evolved human behavioral traits.  In those days, of course, we were so ignorant of primate behavior that Blank Slater Ashley Montagu was able to write with a perfectly straight face that chimpanzees are,

    …anything but irascible.  All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is no reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

    We’ve learned a few things in the ensuing years.  Jane Goodall observed both organized hunting behavior and murderous attacks on neighboring bands carried out by these “amiable” creatures.  For reporting these observations she was furiously denounced and insulted in the most demeaning terms.  Meanwhile, chimps have been observed using sticks as thrusting spears, and fire-hardened spears were found associated with a Homo erectus campsite dated to some 400,000 years ago.  There is evidence that stone-tipped spears were used as far back as 500,000 years ago, and much more similar evidence of early hunting behavior has surfaced.  Articles about early hunting behavior have even appeared in the reliably politically correct Scientific American, not to mention that stalwart pillar of progressive ideology, PBS.  In other words, the whole scavenging thing is moot.  Apparently no one bothered to pass the word to Rosenberg.  No matter, he still includes enough evolutionary psychology in his book to keep up appearances.

    In spite of the fact that he writes with the air of a scientific insider who is letting us in on all kinds of revelations that we are to believe have been set in stone by “science” in recent years, and that we should never dare to question, Rosenberg shows similar signs of being a bit wobbly when it comes to actually knowing what he’s talking about elsewhere in the book.  For example, he seems to have a fascination with fermions and bosons, mentioning them often in the book.  He tells us that,

    …everything is made up of these two kinds of things.  Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of.

    Well, not exactly.  If matter isn’t composed of bosons, it will come as news to the helium atoms engaging in one of the neat tricks only bosons are capable of in the Wiki article on superfluidity.  As it happens, one of the many outcomes of the fundamental difference between bosons and fermions is that bosons are usually force carriers, but the notion that it actually is the fundamental difference is just disinformation, and a particularly unfortunate instance thereof at that.  I say that because our understanding of that difference is the outcome of an elegant combination of theoretical insight and mathematics.  I lack the space to go into detail here, but it follows from the indistinguishability of quantum particles.  I suggest that anyone interested in the real difference between bosons and fermions consult an elementary quantum textbook.  These usually boil the necessary math down to a level that should be accessible to any high school graduate who has taken an honors course or two in the subject.

    There are some more indications of the real depth of Rosenberg’s scientific understanding in his description of some of the books he recommends to his readers so they can “come up to speed” with him.  For example, he tells us that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, “…argues for a sophisticated evolutionary account of several cognitive capacities critical for speech.”  Well, not really.  As the title implies Pinker’s The Blank Slate is about The Blank Slate.  I can only conclude that cognitive dissonance must have set in when Rosenberg read it, because that apocalypse in the behavioral sciences doesn’t fit too well in his glowing tale of the triumphant progress of science.  Elsewhere he tells us that,

    At its outset, human history might have been predictable just because the arms races were mainly biological.  That’s what enabled Jared Diamond to figure out how and why western Europeans came to dominate the globe over a period that lasted 8000 years or so in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Diamond is only applying an approach to human history made explicit by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature more than 30 years ago (1978)…”

    Seriously?  Guns, Germs and Steel was actually an attempt to explain differences between human cultures in terms of environmental factors, whereas in On Human Nature Wilson doubled down on his mild assault on the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology, insisting on the existence and significance of evolved human behavioral traits.  I can only conclude that, assuming Rosenberg actually read the books, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading.

    With that let’s consider what Rosenberg has to say about morality.  He certainly seems to “get it” in the beginning of the book.  He describes himself as a “nihilist” when it comes to morality.  I consider that a bad choice of words, but whatever.  According to Rosenberg,

    Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required.  Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong.  More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions.  Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally responsible” is untenable nonsense.  As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.”  That, too, is untenable nonsense.

    Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value.  People think that there are things that are intrinsically valuable, not just as a means to something else:  human life or the ecology of the planet or the master race or elevated states of consciousness, for example.  But nothing can have that sort of intrinsic value – the very kind of value morality requires.  Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.  Therefore, nihilism can’t be accused of advocating the moral goodness of, say, political violence or anything else.

    A promising beginning, no?  Sounds very Westermarckian.  But don’t jump to conclusions!  Before the end of the book we will find Rosenberg doing a complete intellectual double back flip when it comes to this so-called “nihilism.”  We will witness him chanting a few magic words over the ghost of objective morality, and then see it rise zombie-like from the grave he just dug for it.

    Rosenberg begins the pilgrimage from subjectivity to objectivity by evoking what he calls “core morality.”  He presents us with two premises about it, namely,

    First premise:  All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core principles as binding on everyone.

    and

    Second premise:  The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness – for our survival and reproduction.

    Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it, but then we learn some things that appear a bit counterintuitive about core morality.  For example,

    There is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans.  Among competing core moralities, it was the one that somehow came closest to maximizing the average fitness of our ancestors over a long enough period that it became almost universal.  For all we know, the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.  Let’s hope so, at any rate, since core morality is almost surely locked in by now.

    Are you kidding me?  There is not even a remote chance that “the environment to which our core morality constitutes an adaptation is still with us.”  Here, Rosenberg is whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the role he has in store for his “core morality.”  He is forced to make this patently absurd statement about our supposedly static environment because otherwise “core morality” couldn’t perform its necessary role in bringing the zombie back to life.  How can it perform that neat trick?  Well, according to Rosenberg,

    Along with everyone else, the most scientistic among us accept these core principles as binding. (!!)

    Some nihilism, no?  Suddenly, Rosenberg’s “core morality” has managed to jump right out of his skull onto our backs and is “binding” us!  Of course, it would be too absurd even for Rosenberg to insist that this “binding” feature was still in effect in spite of the radical changes in the environment that have obviously happened since “core morality” supposedly evolved.  Hence, he has to deny the obvious with his ludicrous suggestion that the environment hasn’t changed.  Meanwhile, the distinction noted by Westermarck between that which is thought to be binding, and that which actually is binding, has become very fuzzy.  We are well on the way back to the safe haven of objective morality.

    To sweeten the pill, Rosenberg assures us that core morality is “nice,” and cites all sorts of game theory experiments to prove it.  He wonders,

    Once its saddled with nihilism, can scientism make room for the moral progress that most of us want the world to make?  No problem.

    “Moral progress?”  That is a contradiction in terms unless morality and its rules exist as objective things in themselves.  How is “progress” possible if morality is really an artifact of evolution, and consequently has neither purpose nor goal?  Rosenberg puts stuff like this right in the middle of his pronouncements that morality is really subjective.  You could easily get whiplash reading his book.  The icing on the cake of “niceness” turns out to be altruistic behavior towards non-kin, which is also supposed to have evolved to enhance “fitness.”  Since one rather fundamental difference between the environment “then” and “now” is that “then” humans normally lived in communities of and interacted mainly with only about 150 people, the idea that they were really dealing with non-kin, and certainly any idea that similar behavior must work just as well between nations consisting of millions of not quite so closely related individuals is best taken with a grain of salt.

    Other then a few very perfunctory references, Rosenberg shows a marked reticence to discuss human behavior that is not so nice.  Of course, there is no mention of the ubiquitous occurrence of warfare between human societies since the dawn of recorded time.  After all, that would be history, and hasn’t Rosenberg told us that history is bunk?  He never mentions such “un-nice” traits as ingroup-outgroup behavior, or territoriality.  That’s odd, since we can quickly identify his own outgroup, thanks to some virtue signaling remarks about “Thatcherite Republicans,” and science-challenged conservatives.  As for those who get too far out of line he writes,

    Recall the point made early in this chapter that even most Nazis may have really shared a common moral code with us.  The qualification “most” reflects the fact that a lot of them, especially at the top of the SS, were just psychopaths and sociopaths with no core morality.

    Really?  What qualifies Rosenberg to make such a statement?  Did he examine their brains?  Did neuroscientists subject them to experiments before they died?  It would seem that if we don’t “get our minds right” about core morality we could well look forward to being “cured” the way “psychopaths and sociopaths” were “cured” in the old Soviet Union.

    By the time we get to the end of the book, the subjective façade has been entirely dismantled, and the “core morality” zombie has jettisoned the last of its restraints.  Rosenberg’s continued insistence on the non-existence of objective good and bad has deteriorated to a mere matter of semantics.  Consider, for example, the statement,

    Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not require of us.  Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right – or wrong.  There is no such thing.

    That should be comforting news to the inmates of the asylum who didn’t do what was “required” of them. We learn that,

    Almost certainly, when all these facts are decided, it will turn out that core morality doesn’t contain any blanket prohibition or permission of abortion as such.  Rather, together with the facts that science can at least in principle uncover, core morality will provide arguments in favor of some abortions and against other abortions, depending on the circumstances.

    The pro-life people shouldn’t entirely despair, however, because,

    Scientism allows that sometimes the facts of a case will combine with core morality to prohibit abortion, even when the woman demands it as a natural right.

    That’s about as wild and crazy as Rosenberg gets, though.  In fact, he’s not a scientist but a leftist ideologue, and we soon find him scurrying back to the confines of his ideologically defined ingroup, core morality held firmly under his arm.  He assures us that,

    …when you combine our core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics.  In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.  No wonder most scientists in the United States are Democrats and in the United Kingdom are Labour Party supporters or Liberal Democrats.

    Core morality reaches out its undead hand for the criminal justice system as well:

    There are other parts of core morality that permit or even require locking people up – for example, to protect others and to deter, reform, rehabilitate, and reeducate the wrongdoer.

    That would be a neat trick – reeducating wrongdoers if there really isn’t such a thing as wrong.  No matter, core morality is now not only alive but is rapidly turning into a dictator with “requirements.”

    Core morality may permit unearned inequalities, but it is certainly not going to require them without some further moral reason to do so.  In fact, under many circumstances, core morality is going to permit the reduction of inequalities, for it requires that wealth and income that people have no right to be redistributed to people in greater need.  Scientism assures us that no one has any moral rights.  Between them, core morality and scientism turn us into closet egalitarians.

    Did you get that?  Your “selfish genes” are now demanding that you give away your money to unrelated people even if the chances that this will ever help those genes to survive and reproduce are vanishingly small.  Rosenberg concludes,

    So, scientism plus core morality turn out to be redistributionist and egalitarian, even when combined with free-market economics.  No wonder Republicans in the United States have such a hard time with science.

    Did his outgroup just pop up on your radar screen?  It should have.  At this point any rational consequences of the evolved origins and subjective nature of morality have been shown the door.  The magical combination of scientism and core morality has us in a leftist full nelson.  They “require” us to do the things that Rosenberg considers “nice,” and refrain from doing the things he considers “not nice.”  In principle, he dismisses the idea of free will.  However, in this case we will apparently be allowed just a smidgeon of it if we happen to be “Thatcherite Republicans.”  Just enough to get our minds right and return us to a “nice” deterministic track.

    In a word, Rosenberg is no Westermarck.  In fact, he is a poster boy for leftist ideologues who like to pose as “moral nihilists,” but get an unholy pleasure out of dictating moral rules to the rest of us.  His “scientific” pronouncements are written with all the cocksure hubris characteristic of ideologues, and sorely lack the reticence more appropriate for real scientists.  There is no substantial difference between the illusion that there are objective moral laws, and Rosenberg’s illusion that a “core morality” utterly divorced from its evolutionary origins is capable of dictating what we ought and ought not to do.

    It’s not really that hard to understand.  The ingroup, or tribe, if you will, of leftist ideologues like Rosenberg and the other examples I mentioned in recent posts, lives in a box defined by ideological shibboleths.  Its members can make as many bombastic pronouncements about moral nihilism as they like, but in the end they must either kowtow to the shibboleths or be ostracized from the tribe.  That’s a sacrifice that none of them, at least to the best of my knowledge, has ever been willing to make.  If my readers are aware of any other “counter-examples,” I would be happy to examine them in my usual spirit of charity.

  • 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.

  • The “Moral Philosophers” and the “Power of the Air”

    Posted on January 30th, 2017 Helian 11 comments

    In Ephesians 2:2 we read,

    Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.

    Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul.  They are not atheists after all.  They, too, believe in “the power of the air.”  It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.”  It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do.  Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity.  Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors.  According to Daniel Dennett,

    Regretfull Trump voters:  It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on.  Act now.  Every day you wait adds guilt.

    Richard Dawkins chimes in:

    “Make America great again?”  Obama’s America already WAS great.  And now look what you’ve got!  A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.

    Sam Harris piles on:

    I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy.  Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.

    Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:

    Presidents can revise immigration policies.  But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.

    I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases.  Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense.  Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?”  Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?”  Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?”  I think not.   Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”

    What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species.  Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup?  It’s there in all its glory.  Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury.  Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives.  The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!”  It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong.  No!  By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”

    This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like.  Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God.  This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed.  It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them.  We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist.  None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire.  They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”

    In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature.  Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species.  How much smarter than the rest can we really be?  The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds.  We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions.  One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon.  At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.

  • Why Did They Vote The Way They Voted?

    Posted on December 4th, 2016 Helian 2 comments

    Ask anyone who voted in the recent election why they voted the way they did, and they are sure to have some answer.  They will give you some reason why they considered one candidate good, and/or the other candidate bad.  Generally, these answers will be understandable in the context of the culture in which they were made, even if you don’t agree with them.  The question is, how much sense do they really make when you peel off all the obscuring layers of culture and penetrate to the emotions that are the ultimate source of all these “logical” explanations.  There are those who are convinced that their answer to this question is so far superior to that of the average voter that they should have more votes, or even that the average voter should have no vote at all.  Coincidentally, the “average voter” is almost always one who doesn’t vote the same way they do.

    Claire Lehman recently wrote an interesting essay on the subject at the Quillette website.  Her description of these self-appointed “superior voters” might have been lifted from the pages of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.  In that book Haidt uses his parable of the elephant and its rider to describe the process of moral judgment.  It begins with a split-second positive or negative moral intuition, which Haidt describes as the “elephant” suddenly leaning to the left or the right.  Instead of initiating or guiding this snap judgment, the “rider” uses “reason” to justify it.  In other words, he serves as an “inner lawyer,” rationalizing whatever path the elephant happened to take.  Here’s how Lehman describes these “riders”:

    This is one reason why charges of wholesale ignorance are so obtuse. “High information” people ignore evidence if it conflicts with their preferred narrative all the time. And while it may be naïve for voters to believe the promises of Trump and the Brexit campaigners — it has also been profoundly naïve for the cosmopolitan classes to believe that years of forced internationalism and forced political correctness were never going to end with a large scale backlash.

    In fact, high information people are likely to be much better at coming up with rationalisations as to why their preferred ideology is not only best, but in the national interest. And high information rationalisers are probably more likely to put forward theories about how everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, and is not deserving of the right to vote.

    As a representative example of how these people think, she quotes the philosopher John Brennan:

    And while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation bias and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I — a chaired professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses — have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them.

    It would seem “some degree of confirmation bias” is something of an understatement.  What, exactly, does “superior political judgment” consist of.  In the end it must amount to a superior ability to recognize and realize that which is “Good” for society at large.  The problem is that this “Good” is a fantasy.  All it really describes is the direction in which the elephant is leaning in the minds of individuals.

    There can be no rational or legitimate basis for things that don’t exist.  It is instructive to consider the response of secular philosophers like Brennan if you ask them to supply this nonexistent basis for the claim that their version of “Good” is really good.  The most common one will be familiar to readers of secular moralist Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.  Whatever political or social nostrum they happen to propose is good because it will lead to human flourishing.  Human flourishing is good because it will lead to the end of war.  The end of war is good because it will result in the end of pain and suffering.  And so on.  In other words, the response will consist of circular logic.  What they consider good is good because it is good.  Question any of the steps in this logical syllogism, and their response will typically be to bury you under a heap of negative moral intuitions, again, exactly as described by Haidt.  How can you be so vile as to favor the mass slaughter of innocent civilians?  How can you be so ruthless and uncaring as to favor female genital mutilation?  How can you be so evil as to oppose the brotherhood of all mankind?  Such “logic” hardly demonstrates the existence of the “Good” as an objective thing-in-itself.  It merely confirms the eminently predictable fact that, at least within a given culture, most elephants will tend to lean the same way.

    Philosophers like Brennan either do not realize or do not grasp the significance of the fact that, in the end, their “superior political judgment” is nothing more sublime than an artifact of evolution by natural selection.  They epitomize the truth of the Japanese proverb, “Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass.”  In the end such judgments invariably boil down to the moral intuitions that lie at their source, and it is quite impossible for the moral intuitions of one individual to be superior to those of another in any objective sense.  The universe at large doesn’t care in the slightest whether humans “flourish” or not.  That hardly means that it is objectively “bad” to act on, passionately care about, or seek to realize ones individual moral whims.  It can be useful, however, to keep the source of those whims in perspective.

    One can consider, for example, whether the “rational” manner in which one goes about satisfying a particular whim is consistent with the reasons the whim exists to begin with.  The “intuitions” Haidt speaks of exist because they evolved, and they evolved because they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for programming them would survive and reproduce.  This fundamental fact is ignored by the Brennans of the world.  What they call “superior political judgment” really amounts to nothing more than blindly seeking to satisfy these “intuitional” artifacts of evolution.  However, the environment in which they are acting is radically different from the one in which the intuitions in question evolved.  As a result, their “judgments” often seem less suited to insuring the survival and reproduction of the responsible genes than to accomplishing precisely the opposite.

    For example, the question of whether international borders should exist and be taken seriously or not was fundamental to the decision of many to vote one way or the other in the recent U.S. presidential election.  Lehman quotes Sumantra Maitra on this issue as follows:

    [T]his revolutionary anti-elitism one can see, is not against the rich or upper classes per se, it is against the liberal elites, who just “know better” about immigration, about intervention and about social values. What we have seen is a “burn it all down” revenge vote, against sententious, forced internationalism, aided with near incessant smug lecturing from the cocooned pink haired urban bubbles. Whether it’s good or bad, is for time to decide. But it’s a fact and it might as well be acknowledged.

    It is quite true that “forced internationalism” has been experienced by the populations of many so-called democracies without the formality of a vote.  However, it is hardly an unquestionable fact that this policy will increase the odds that the genes responsible for the moral whims of the populations affected, or any of their other genes, will survive and reproduce.  In fact, it seems far more likely that it will accomplish precisely the opposite.

    A fundamental reason for the above conclusion is the existence of another artifact of evolution that the Brennans of the world commonly ignore; the universal human tendency to categorize others into ingroup and outgroups.  I doubt that there are many human individuals on the planet whose mental equipment doesn’t include recognition of an outgroup.  Outgroups are typically despised.  They are considered disgusting, unclean, immoral, etc.  In a word, they are hated.  For the Brennans of the world, hatred is “bad.”  As a result, they are very reticent about recognizing and confronting their own hatreds.  However, they are perfectly obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to look for them.  As it happens, they can be easily found in Lehman’s essay.  For example,

    Bob Geldof calls Brexit voters the “army of stupid”. US philosopher Jason Brennan describes Trump voters as “ignorant, irrational, misinformed, nationalists.”

    She quotes the following passage which appeared in Haaertz:

    But there is one overarching factor that everyone knows contributed most of all to the Trump sensation. There is one sine qua non without which none of this would have been possible. There is one standalone reason that, like a big dodo in the room, no one dares mention, ironically, because of political correctness. You know what I’m talking about: Stupidity. Dumbness. Idiocy. Whatever you want to call it: Dufusness Supreme.

    In other words, the hatreds of the “superior voters” are quite healthy and robust.  The only difference between their outgroup and some of the others to which familiar names have been attached is that, instead of being defined based on race, ethnicity, or religion, it is defined based on ideology.  They hate those who disagree with their ideological narrative.  Outgroup identification is usually based on easily recognizable differences.  Just as ideological differences are easily recognized, so are cultural and ethnic differences.  As a result, multi-culturalism does not promote either human brotherhood or human flourishing.  It is far more likely to promote social unrest and, eventually, civil war.  In fact, it has done just that countless times in the past, as anyone who has at least a superficial knowledge of the history of our species is aware.  Civil war is unlikely to promote the survival of the human beings effected, nor of the genes they carry.  “Low information voters” appear to be far more capable of appreciating this fundamental fact than the Brennans of the world who despise them.  The predictable result of the “superior judgments” of self-appointed “high information voters” is likely to be the exact opposite of those that resulted in the existence of the fundamental whims that account for the existence of the “superior judgments” to begin with.

    It is useless to argue that human beings “ought” not to hate.  They will hate whether they “ought” to or not.  We will be incapable of avoiding in the future the disastrous outcomes that have so often been the result of this salient characteristic of our species in the past if we are not even capable of admitting its existence.  When Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz insisted half a century ago that the existence of ingroups and outgroups, what Ardrey called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” is real, and made a few suggestions about what we might do to mitigate the threat this aspect of our behavior now poses to our species in a world full of nuclear weapons, they were shouted down as “fascists.”  In the ensuing years the “experts” have finally managed to accept the fundamental theme of their work; the existence and significance of human nature.  They have not, however, been capable of looking closely enough in the mirror to recognize their own outgroups.  Those who spout slogans like “Love Trumps Hate” are often the biggest, most uncontrolled and most dangerous haters of all, for the simple reason that their ideology renders them incapable of recognizing their own hatreds.

    There is nothing objectively good about one version or another of “human flourishing,” and there is nothing objectively bad about social unrest and civil war.  However I, for one, would prefer to avoid the latter.  Call it a whim if you will, but at least it isn’t 180 degrees out of step with the reason for the whim’s existence.  We are often assured that flooding our countries with unassimilable aliens will be “good for the economy.”  It seems to me that the “good of the economy” can be taken with a grain of salt when compared with the “bad of civil war.”  It is hard to imagine what can be fundamentally “good” about a “good economy” that threatens the genetic survival of the existing population of a country.  I would prefer to dispense with the “good of the economy” and avoid rocking the boat.  By all means, call the “low information voters” racist, bigoted, misogynistic and xenophobic until you’re blue in the face.  The fact that one was “good” rather than “bad” in these matters will make very little difference to the rest of the universe if one fails to survive.

    I have no idea what the final outcome of the Trump Presidency will be.  However, I think “low information voters” had reasons for voting for him that make a great deal more sense than those given by their “superiors.”  One does not necessarily become more rational or more intelligent by virtue of having a Ph.D. or reading a lot of books.

    donkey-and-books