Posted on May 16th, 2015 2 comments
Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky have a lot in common. Both are familiar public intellectuals, both are atheists, and both are well to the left of center politically. Both are also true believers in the fantasy of objective morality. As I noticed on my latest visit to the Salon website, however, that hasn’t deterred them from hurling anathemas at each other. Harris landed some weak jabs in a recent exchange of verbal fisticuffs, but according to Salon, Chomsky won by a knockout in the later rounds. A complete, blow by blow account may be found on Sam’s website, along with his own post mortem.
Apparently it all began when Harris tried to, in his words, “engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics.” As he wrote on his blog,
For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.
To clear the air, he wrote a pleasant note to Chomsky suggesting that they engage in a public conversation to, “explore these disagreements, clarify any misunderstandings,” and “attempt to find some common ground.” Not one to be taken in by such pleasantries, old pro Chomsky immediately positioned himself on the moral high ground. His tart reply:
Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you. Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false. I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings. If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine. But with sources.
Harris should have known going in that hardcore “progressive” leftists never have friendly differences of opinion with anyone on matters more significant than the weather. Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically tossed into their outgroup, and acquires all the usual characteristics of the denizens thereof. They are, of course, always immoral, and commonly disgusting and mentally incompetent as well. That’s often how Harris portrays those who disagree with him on questions of morality himself. Nevertheless, he walked right into Chomsky’s punch, admitting the possibility that he may have misread him. He merely threw in the caveat that, if so, it could only have happened in a passage in his first book, The End of Faith, as that was the only time he’d ever mentioned Chomsky’s work in writing. That was plenty for Chomsky. In effect, Harris had just handed him the opportunity to pick his own battlefield. He did so with alacrity. As it happens, in the passage in question, Harris had objected to Chomsky’s condemnation of the Clinton Administration’s decision to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in the context of remarks about the 9/11 attacks. As he put it:
Chomsky does not hesitate to draw moral equivalences here: “For the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they routinely have carried out elsewhere.”
Citing the passage in his own work Harris referred to, Chomsky immediately fired back, denying that it had ever been his intent to “draw moral equivalences”:
Let’s turn to what you did say—a disquisition on “moral equivalence.” You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite. I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.
Having thus seized the moral high ground, he proceeded to rain down pious punches on Harris, demonstrating that he was not merely wrong, but grossly immoral. His ensuing replies include such choice examples as,
You also ignored the fact that I had already responded to your claim about lack of intention—which, frankly, I find quite shocking on elementary moral grounds, as I suspect you would too if you were to respond to the question raised at the beginning of my quoted comment.
Harris is willfully blind to the crimes of the Clinton Administration:
And of course they knew that there would be major casualties. They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?
He is morally depraved for abetting this crime:
Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them.
I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.
Chomsky closes on a magnanimous note:
I’ll put aside your apologetics for the crimes for which you and I share responsibility, which, frankly, I find quite shocking, particularly on the part of someone who feels entitled to deliver moral lectures.
Harris is game enough, but staggers on rubbery legs for the rest of the fight. Even in the midst of these blows, he can’t rid himself of the idée fixe that it’s possible to have a polite exchange with someone like Chomsky on differences of opinion about morality. In the post mortem on his website, it’s clear that he still doesn’t know what hit him. It’s virtually impossible to win arguments about objective morality with the likes of Chomsky unless you grasp the fundamental truth that there’s no such thing as objective morality. In fact, the whole debate was about subjective perceptions that are, as Westermarck put it, entirely outside the realm of truth claims.
I can only suggest that next time, instead of getting “down in the weeds,” as he puts it, in a debate with Chomsky about who is “really” the most morally pure, Harris consider the matter pragmatically. In fact, Chomsky is, and always has been, what Lenin referred to as “a useful idiot.” The net effect of all his moralistic hair splitting has been to aid and abet ideologies for which most sane people would just as soon avoid serving as guinea pigs, and to demoralize those who would seek to stand in their way. The most egregious example is probably the moral support he provided for the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia at the very time it was perpetrating what was probably, at least on a per capita basis, the worst act of genocide in human history, resulting in the virtual decapitation of a whole country and the annihilation of a large percentage of its population. There are many accounts of his role in this affair on the Internet, and I invite interested readers to have a look at them. One of the more balanced accounts may be found here. Here, too, Chomsky would run rings around Harris if he attempted to debate his role on moralistic grounds. Here, too, he could claim that he had never deliberately drawn any “moral equivalence,” that he had never intended to support the Khmer Rouge, and that those who suggest otherwise are immoral because of a, b, and c. However, it is a fact that Pol Pot and his cronies made very effective use of his remarks in their propaganda, among other things, predictably exploiting them to draw “moral equivalence” in blithe disregard of Chomsky’s assertions about his “intent.”
In fact, Chomsky has been a virtual poster boy for potential tyrannies of all stripes. One might say he has been an “equal opportunity” useful idiot. Once when I was visiting Germany I happened to glance at the offerings of a local newsstand, and saw the smiling face of none other than Noam Chomsky smiling down at me from the front page of the neo-Nazi “Deutsche National-Zeitung!” In the accompanying article, the fascists cited him as an ideal example of a true American hero. I note in passing that tyrants themselves usually have no illusions about the real nature of such paragons of morality. Once Stalin had successfully exploited them to gain absolute power, he shot or consigned to the Gulag every single one he could lay his hands on.
In a word, I suggest that Sam take some advice that my father once passed down to me regarding such affairs: “Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk.” You don’t need to convince anyone that you’re more morally pure than Chomsky in order to realistically assess the net effect of all his “piety.” You just need to realize that, from a purely subjective point of view, it is “good” to survive.
Posted on April 26th, 2015 1 comment
I would rank the Blank Slate debacle as the greatest scientific disaster of all time. For half a century and more, the “men of science” created and maintained a formidable obstacle in the way of our gaining the self-knowledge as a species that may be critical to our survival. This obstacle was the denial that human behavior is in any way influenced by innate human nature. For the time being, at least, the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been crushed. It would seem however, that the scientific community is still traumatized by the affair. The whimsical “histories” that continue to be concocted of the affair and of the roles of the key players in it is a manifestation thereof.
For example, Robert Ardrey, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday, has been thoroughly vindicated as far as the main theme of all his work is concerned. In spite of that, he is a virtual unperson today. Having shamed the “men of science,” it would seem that it is now beneath their dignity to even take notice of the fact that he ever existed. Meanwhile, Richard Lewontin, one of the high priests of the Blank Slate, is revered, and continues to win prestigious awards as a “great scientist.” Among people who should certainly know better, the mere mention of the fact that he was a kingpin of the Blank Slate orthodoxy is greeted with stunned disbelief.
Recently Lewontin was interviewed by David Sloan Wilson, one of today’s foremost defenders of group selection, a topic with a fascinating history of its own in connection with the Blank Slate. We find that, like the Bourbons who were propped back up as French monarchs by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He has merely become more circumspect about revealing the ideological motivations behind his “science.” This becomes obvious when Wilson gets around to asking Lewontin about the connection between The Spandrels of San Marco, a paper he co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould in 1979, and Sociobiology. Lewontin demurely replies that it may have been “contextually relevant,” but the paper was mainly an attack on naïve adaptationism. Wilson: “I’m interested to know that was the primary motivation for the article, not Sociobiology.” Lewontin: “Yeah.” Balked in this first attempt, later in the interview, Wilson becomes a bit more blunt. (I delete some of the exchange for brevity. I encourage readers to look at the entire interview.)
DSW: Dick, I’d like to spend a little bit of time on Sociobiology and also Evolutionary Psychology, because even though that didn’t motivate the Spandrels paper, it still motivated you to be a critic and Steve too.
RL: Look, when I look at Sociobiology, the book or some of the other books he (E. O. Wilson) has written, it drives me mad. For example, if you read – I’ll take an extremely nasty example because it’s so clear – it is written that aggression is a part of human nature. It says that in the book, it lists features of human nature and aggression is one of them. So then I have said to Ed and others of his school, what do you do about people who have spent almost their entire lives in jail because they refuse to be conscripted into the army? What do you think the answer is? That is their form of aggression.
DSW: Well, OK, that’s facile.
RL: I don’t know what you can do about it. If everything can be said to be a form of aggression, even the refusal to be physically aggressive, what kind of science is that? …Because if everything by definition can be shown to be aggression then it ceases to be a useful concept in our scientific discussions.
As it happens, Lewontin uses the same argument in Not In Our Genes, a book he co-authored with fellow Blank Slaters Steven Rose and Leon Kamin in 1984. It makes no more sense now than it did then. Obviously, what’s still sticking in Lewontin’s craw after all these years is a series of books on the subject of human aggression that appeared back in the 60’s, the most famous of which was “On Aggression,” by Konrad Lorenz, published in the U.S. in 1966. In fact, the notion that the anecdote about an imprisoned pacifist demolishes what Lorenz and others actually wrote about human aggression is the sheerest nonsense. Lorenz and the others never dreamed that any of their theories on the subject precluded the possibility of conscientious objectors in any way, shape or form. In reality Lewontin is refuting, not Lorenz, but his favorite strawman then and now, the “genetic determinist.” Lewontin’s “genetic determinist” is one who believes that “human nature” forces people to behave in certain ways and not in others, regardless of culture or environment. If such beasts exist, they must be as rare as unicorns, because in all my reading I have never encountered one, not even among the most hard-core 19th century social Darwinists. Lewontin imagines them behind every bush. For him, all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists must necessarily be “genetic determinists.”
Lewontin spares Wilson any mention of his obsession with “genetic determinists,” but lays his cards on the table nevertheless. He’s still as much of a Blank Slater as ever. For example, at the end of the interview,
My main complaint is… the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory. I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with, it allows us to claim anything. That’s my problem with Sociobiology. It’s too loose.
Well, not exactly. Readers who really want to crawl into the mind of a Blank Slater should read Not In Our Genes, the book I referred to above. There it will be found that Lewontin’s problem isn’t that Sociobiology is “too loose,” but that he perceives it as an impediment to the glorious socialist revolution. You see, Lewontin is a Marxist, and Not In Our Genes is not a book of science, but a political tract. In its pages one will find over and over and over again the assertion that those who believe in human nature are stooges of the bourgeoisie. Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature are merely so many contrived, ideologically motivated ploys to defend the capitalist status quo and stave off the glorious dawn of socialism. For example, quoting from the book,
Each of us has been engaged… in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself. We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just – a socialist – society. And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.
Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image. The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society. In that struggle we transform our own nature.
Those who possess power and their representatives can most effectively disarm those who would struggle against them by convincing them of the legitimacy and inevitability of the reigning social organization. If what exists is right, then one ought not oppose it; if it exists inevitably, one can never oppose it successfully.
Here, then, we see that Lewontin is being a bit coy when he claims that he only objects to Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature because they are “too loose.” In perusing the book, we find that not only Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, but also Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and W. D. Hamilton are all really just so many hirelings of the capitalist system. No matter that Trivers is a radical leftist, and Ardrey almost became a Communist himself in the 1930’s.
It is amusing to read Lewontin’s pecksniffery about the lack of scientific rigor in the work of these “capitalist stooges,” followed in short order by praise for the “scientific” work of Mao, Marx, and Engels. I can only encourage anyone in need of a good belly laugh to read Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. Therein he will find the great St. Paul of Marxism lecturing the greatest scientists of his day about all the errors he’s discovered in their work because they don’t pay enough attention to the dialectic. Lewontin’s confirmation of one important facet of innate human nature, ingroup/outgroup identification, referred to by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, by his furious ranting against the “bourgeoisie” in a book that claims there is no such thing as human nature would also be amusing, were it not for the fact that 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take, paid with their lives for this particular manifestation of outgroup identification.
If one is determined to cobble together a version of “reality” in which Lewontin figures as a “great scientist” instead of the Blank Slate kingpin he actually was, he will find no better place to look than the pages of Not In Our Genes. It comes complete with sage warnings against running to the opposite extreme of “cultural determinism,” and anathemas against the proponents of tabula rasa. To this I can only reply that nowhere in any of his work has Lewontin ever affirmed the existence of anything resembling the innate predispositions that one normally refers to in the vernacular as human nature, and he has consistently condemned anyone who does as politically suspect. If “good science” were a matter of condemning anyone who disagrees with your version of reality as a hireling of the forces of evil, Lewontin would take the cake.
UPDATE: Whyvert tweeted a link to a great article by Robert Trivers posted at the Unz Review website entitled, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small. Included is a vignette of none other than Richard Lewontin. As it happens, Prof. Trivers was among those singled out by Lewontin as an evil minion of the bourgeoisie in his Not In Our Genes. His article includes some very interesting observations on the disintegrating effects of politics on Lewontin’s scientific career.
Posted on December 7th, 2014 No comments
The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history. For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature. So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day. What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century? After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle. A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill. Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.
Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced. Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.” In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.” The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them. For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man. Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally. Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally. The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but. They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason. As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin. For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,
The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing. A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison. Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience. “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.” This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.
Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself. Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they. This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.
In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely. That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists. They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter. Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them. And for a long time, it worked.
By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin. Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials. Interested readers are encouraged to check the index. As Pinker puts it,
So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”
Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it. For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,
We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.
Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984. What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior? As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.” Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:
Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies. As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.
Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image. The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.
All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.
The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said: “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy. The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.” He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.” What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends. As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.
Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist. Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance. As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday. Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:
The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.
The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism. To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded. To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.
Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.
Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:
More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported. E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others. Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith. It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.
This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate. They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well. There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.” Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters. By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.
It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight. We possess the means of committing suicide as a species. Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate. The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander. In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues. Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology. Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all. For example, again quoting from Lewontin:
Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances. If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.
One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin. What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate. I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real. Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.
It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice. Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”
Posted on December 3rd, 2014 No comments
The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it. For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa. The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available. The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots. In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it. Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam. For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town. The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular. The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.
So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across. Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm. They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam. Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”
An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine, which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.” In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!” Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom. The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.
It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question. We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general. He hardly mentions Christianity. When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story. As Savage puts it,
It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.
As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:
The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.
Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:
Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.
The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era. Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.” Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.” No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin. In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:
The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.” In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.
One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb. Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,
Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.
If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:
Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.
This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.
So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy. He just had a bad environment. See how that works? At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest. In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes. It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise. In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant. Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.
In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated. Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace? I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation. As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves. They’ve all been excommunicated.
Thanks to Tom at Happyjar.com for the cartoon. Check out his store!
Posted on November 1st, 2014 3 comments
Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines. There are page limits, so they have to get to the point. It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage. Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler. His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918. Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean. He should have quit while he was ahead.
Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak. The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli. Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels. Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!” It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself. It was also wrong.
According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse. Man had dared to “revolt against nature.” Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man. At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:
A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation. Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength. But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal. The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…
Spengler went on to explain that,
Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.
No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia. Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history. Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book. It was a rash assumption. Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology. He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all. For example,
The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose. In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot. In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out. Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.
Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book. At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields. He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives. However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”
It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially. Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power. It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time. For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then. No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.
Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later. Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.” As he put it,
Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition. the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.
In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races. They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West. Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:
For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose. This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon. The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close. It will be eaten up from within. When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.
Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that. Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time. Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7). In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:
The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War. This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries. It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.
Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well. Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:
This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work. The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost. Their numbers are their death.
Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:
Only dreamers believe that there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.
One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world. And who can blame them? After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova. When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”
Posted on September 30th, 2014 No comments
One would think that, at the very least, evolutionary psychologists would have jettisoned their belief in objective morality by now. After all, every day new papers are published about the evolutionary roots of morality, the actual loci in the brain that give rise to different types of moral behavior, and the existence in animals of some of the same traits we associate with morality in humans. Now, if morality evolved, it must have done so because it enhanced the odds that the genes responsible for it would survive and reproduce. It cannot somehow acquire a life of its own and decide that it actually has some other “purpose” in mind. The spectacle of human “experts in ethics” arbitrarily reassigning its purpose in that way is even more ludicrous. In spite of all that, faith in the existence of disembodied good and evil persists in the academy, in defiance of all logic, in evolutionary psychology as in other disciplines. It’s not surprising really. For some time now academics of all stripes have been heavily invested in the myth of their own moral superiority. Eliminate objective morality, and the basis of that myth evaporates like a mirage. Self-righteousness and heroin are both hard habits to kick.
Examples aren’t hard to find. An interesting one turned up in the journal Evolutionary Psychology lately. Entitled Evolutionary Awareness and submitted by authors Gregory Gorelick and Todd Shackelford, the abstract reads as follows:
In this article, we advance the concept of “evolutionary awareness,” a metacognitive framework that examines human thought and emotion from a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective. We begin by discussing the evolution and current functioning of the moral foundations on which our framework rests. Next, we discuss the possible applications of such an evolutionarily-informed ethical framework to several domains of human behavior, namely: sexual maturation, mate attraction, intrasexual competition, culture, and the separation between various academic disciplines. Finally, we discuss ways in which an evolutionary awareness can inform our cross-generational activities—which we refer to as “intergenerational extended phenotypes”—by helping us to construct a better future for ourselves, for other sentient beings, and for our environment.
Those who’ve developed a nose for such things can already sniff the disembodied good and evil things-in-themselves levitating behind the curtain. The term “better future” is a dead giveaway. No future can be “better” than any other in an objective sense unless there is some legitimate standard of comparison that doesn’t depend on the whim of individuals. As we read on, our suspicions are amply confirmed. As far as its theme is concerned, the paper is just a rehash of what Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey were suggesting back in the 60’s; that there are such things as innate human behavioral predispositions, that on occasion they have promoted warfare and the other forms of mayhem that humans have indulged in over the millennia, and that it would behoove us to take this fact into account and try to find ways to limit the damage. Unfortunately, they did so at a time when the Blank Slate, probably the greatest scientific imposture ever heard of, was at its most preposterous extreme. They were ridiculed and ignored by the “men of science” and forgotten. Now that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has finally collapsed after reigning supreme for the better part of half a century, their ideas are belatedly being taken seriously again, albeit without ever giving them credit or mentioning their names.
There is, however, an important difference. In reading through the paper, one finds that the authors believe not only in evolved morality, necessarily a subjective phenomenon, but are true believers in a shadowy thing-in-itself that exists alongside of it. This thing is objective morality, as noted above, an independent, and even “scientific,” something that has a “purpose” quite distinct from the reasons that explain the existence of evolved morality. The “purpose” in high fashion at the moment is usually some version of the “human flourishing” ideology advocated by Sam Harris. No evidence has ever been given for this concoction. Neither Sam Harris nor anyone else has ever been able to capture one of these ghostly “goods” or “evils” and submit it for examination in the laboratory. No matter, their existence is accepted as a matter of faith, accompanied by a host of “proofs” similar to those that are devised to “prove” the existence of God.
Let us examine the artifacts of the faith in these ghosts in the paper at hand. As it happens, it’s lousy with them. On page 785, for example, we read,
Because individual choices lead to cultural movements and social patterns (Kenrick, Li, and Butner, 2003), it is up to every individual to accept the responsibility of an evolutionarily-informed ethics.
Really? If so, where does this “responsibility” come from? How does it manage to acquire legitimacy? Reading a bit further on page 785, we encounter the following remarkable passage:
However, as with any intellectually-motivated course of action, developing an evolutionarily-informed ethics entails an intellectual sacrifice: Are we willing to forego certain reproductive benefits or personal pleasures for the sake of building a more ethical community? Such an intellectual endeavor is not just relevant to academic debates but is also of great practical and ethical importance. To apply the paleontologist G. G. Simpson’s (1951) ethical standard of knowledge and responsibility, evolutionary scientists have the responsibility of ensuring that their findings are disseminated as widely as possible. In addition, evolutionarily-minded researchers should expand their disciplinary boundaries to include the application of an evolutionary awareness to problems of ethical and practical importance. Although deciphering the ethical dimension of life’s varying circumstances is difficult, the fact that there are physical consequences for every one of our actions—consequences on other beings and on the environment—means that, for better or worse, we are all players in constructing the future of our society and that all our actions, be they microscopic or macroscopic, are reflected in the emergent properties of our society (Kenrick et al., 2003).
In other words, not only is the existence of this “other” morality simply assumed, but we also find that its “purpose” actually contradicts the reasons that have resulted in the evolution of morality to begin with. It is supposed to be “evolutionarily-informed,” and yet we are actually to “forego certain reproductive benefits” in its name. Later in the paper, on page 804, we find that this apparent faith in “real” good and evil, existing independently of the subjective variety that has merely evolved, is not just a momentary faux pas. In the author’s words,
It is not clear what the effects of being evolutionarily aware of our political and social behaviors will be. At the least, we can raise the level of individual and societal self-awareness by shining the light of evolutionary awareness onto our religious, political, and cultural beliefs. Better still, by examining our ability to mentally time travel from an evolutionarily aware perspective, we might envision more humane futures rather than using this ability to further our own and our offspring’s reproductive interests. In this way, we may be able to monitor our individual and societal outcomes and direct them to a more ethical and well-being-enhancing direction for ourselves, for other species, for our—often fragile—environment, and for the future of all three.
Here the authors leave us in no doubt. They have faith in an objective something utterly distinct from evolved morality, and with entirely different “goals.” Not surprisingly, as already noted above, this “something” actually does turn out to be a version of the “scientific” objective morality proposed by Sam Harris. For example, on page 805,
As Sam Harris suggested in The Moral Landscape (2010), science has the power not only to describe reality, but also to inform us as to what is moral and what is immoral (provided that we accept certain utilitarian ethical foundations such as the promotion of happiness, flourishing, and well-being—all of which fall into Haidt’s (2012) “Care/Harm” foundation of morality).
No rational basis is ever provided, by Harris or anyone else, for how these “certain utilitarian ethical foundations” are magically transmuted from the whims of individuals to independent objects, which then somehow hijack human moral emotions and endow them with a “purpose” that has little if anything to do with the reasons that explain the evolution of those emotions to begin with. It’s all sufficiently absurd on the face of it, and yet understandable. Jonathan Haidt gives a brilliant description of the reasons that self-righteousness is such a ubiquitous feature of our species in The Righteous Mind. As a class, academics are perhaps more addicted to self-righteousness than any other. There are, after all, whole departments of “ethical experts” whose very existence becomes a bad joke unless they can maintain the illusion that they have access to some mystic understanding of the abstruse foundations of “real” good and evil, hidden from the rest of us. The same goes for all the assorted varieties of “studies” departments, whose existence is based on the premise that there is a “good” class that is being oppressed by an “evil” class. At least since the heyday of Communism, academics have cultivated a faith in themselves as the special guardians of the public virtue, endowed with special senses that enable them to sniff out “real” morality for the edification of the rest of us.
In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now (at the end of the decade, ed.) the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.
Of course, this earlier sure-fire prescription for “human flourishing” cost 100 million human lives, give or take, and has hence been abandoned by more forward-looking academics. However, a few hoary leftovers remain on campus, and there is an amusing reminder of the fact in the paper. On page 784 the authors admit that attempts to tinker with human nature in the past have had unfortunate results:
Indeed, totalitarian philosophies, whether Stalinism or Nazism, often fail because of their attempts to radically change human nature at the cost of human beings.
Note the delicate use of the term “Stalinism” instead of Communism. Meanwhile, the proper term is used for Nazism instead of “Hitlerism.” Of course, mass terror was well underway in the Soviet Union under Lenin, long before Stalin took over supreme power, and the people who carried it out weren’t inspired by the “philosophy” of “socialism in one country,” but by a fanatical faith in a brave new world of “human flourishing” under Communism. Nazism in no way sought to “radically change human nature,” but masterfully took advantage of it to gain power. The same could be said of the Communists, the only difference being that they actually did attempt to change human nature once they were in power. I note in passing that some other interesting liberties are taken with history in the paper. For example,
Christianity may have indirectly led to the fall of the Roman Empire by pacifying its population into submission to the Vandals (Frost, 2010), as well as the fall of the early Viking settlers in Greenland to “pagan” Inuit invaders (Diamond, 2005)—two outcomes that collectively highlight the occasional inefficiency (from a gene’s perspective) of cultural evolution.
Of course, the authors apparently only have these dubious speculations second hand from Frost and Diamond, whose comments on the subject I haven’t read, but they would have done well to consider some other sources before setting down these speculations as if they had any authority. The Roman Empire never “fell” to the Vandals. They did sack Rome in 455 with the permission, if not of the people, at least of the gatekeepers, but the reason had a great deal more to do with an internal squabble over who should be emperor than with any supposed passivity due to Christianity. Indeed, the Vandals themselves were Christians, albeit of the Arian flavor, and their north African kingdom was itself permanently crushed by an army under Belisarius sent by the emperor Justinian in 533. Both certainly considered themselves “Romans,” as the date of 476 for the “fall of the Roman Empire” was not yet in fashion at the time. There are many alternative theories to the supposition that the Viking settlements in Greenland “fell to the Inuits,” and to state this “outcome” as a settled fact is nonsense.
But I digress. To return to the subject of objective morality, it actually appears that the authors can’t comprehend the fact that it’s possible to believe anything else. For example, they write,
Haidt’s approach to the study of human morality is non-judgmental. He argues that the Western, cosmopolitan mindset—morally centered on the Care/Harm foundation—is limited because it is not capable of processing the many “moralities” of non-Western peoples. We disagree with this sentiment. For example, is Haidt really willing to support the expansion of the “Sanctity/Degradation” foundation (and its concomitant increase in ethnocentrism and out-group hostility)? As Pinker (2011) noted, “…right or wrong, retracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity entails a reduction of violence” (p. 637).
Here the authors simply can’t grok the fact that Haidt is stating an “is,” not an “ought.” As a result, this passage is logically incomprehensible as it stands. The authors are disagreeing with a “sentiment” that doesn’t exist. They are incapable of grasping the fact that Haidt, who has repeatedly rejected the notion of objective morality, is merely stating a theory, not some morally loaded “should.”
From my own subjective point of view, it is perhaps unfair to single out these two authors. The academy is saturated with similar irrational attempts to hijack morality in the name of assorted systems designed to promote “human flourishing,” in the fond hope that the results won’t be quite so horrific as were experienced under Communism, the last such attempt to be actually realized in practice. The addiction runs deep. Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too hard. After all, the Blank Slate was a similarly irrational addiction, but it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity after a mere half a century, give or take. Perhaps, like the state was supposed to do under Communism, faith in the chimera of objective morality, or at least those versions of it not dependent on the existence of imaginary super-beings, will “whither away” in the next 50 years as well. We can but hope.
Posted on September 22nd, 2014 2 comments
Atheists often scorn those who believe in the God Delusion. The faithful, in turn, scorn those atheists who believe in the Objective Morality Delusion. The scorn is understandable in both cases, but I give the nod to the faithful on this one. Philosophers and theologians have come up with many refined and subtle arguments in favor of the existence of imaginary super beings. The arguments in favor of imaginary objective moralities are threadbare by comparison. I can hardly blame the true believers for laughing at the obvious imposture. They don’t require such a crutch to maintain the illusion of superior virtue. As a result, they see through the charade immediately.
Let me put my own cards on the table. I consider morality to be the expression of a subset of the innate human behavioral traits that exist as a result of evolution by natural selection. It follows that I do not believe that the comments of Darwin, who specifically addressed the subject, can be simply ignored. Neither do I believe that all the books and papers on the evolved wellsprings of morality that have been rolling of the presses lately can be simply ignored. I agree with Hume, who pointed out that reason is a slave of the passions, and with Haidt, who wrote about the emotional dog and its rational tail, and take a dubious view of those who think the points made by either author can be simply ignored. In short, I consider morality a purely subjective phenomenon. There are, of course, many implications of this conclusion that are uncomfortable to the pious faithful and pious atheists alike. However, if what I say is true, their discomfort will not make it untrue.
I’ve discussed the arguments of Sam Harris and several other “objective moralists” in earlier posts. As it happens, Daniel Fincke, another member of the club who writes the Camels with Hammers blog at Patheos.com has just chimed in. Perhaps his comments on the subject will provide some insight into whether the supercilious smiles of the godly are out of place or not.
Fincke has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham, and teaches interactive philosophy classes online. His comments appeared in the context of a pair of responses to Jerry Coyne, who differed with him on the subject at the latest Pennsylvania State Atheists Humanists Conference. According to Fincke,
When we talk about an endeavor being objective in the main or subjective in the main we’re talking about whether there can be objective principles that can often, at least theoretically, lead to determinations independent of our preferences.
Of course, this statement that objective principles are those principles that are objective is somewhat lacking as a rigorous definition, but it’s on the right track. Objective phenomena exist independently of the experiences or impressions in the minds of individuals. Like Harris, Fincke associates morality with “human flourishing”:
As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).
One can almost guess where this is heading without reading the rest. Like so many other “objective moralists,” Fincke will conflate that which is morally good with that which is “good” in the sense that it serves some useful purpose. This gets us nowhere, because it merely begs the question of why the purpose served is itself morally good. In what follows, our suspicions are amply confirmed. For example, Fincke continues,
Morality comes in at the stage of where any people who live lives impacting each other develop implicit or explicit rules and practices and judgments, etc. geared at cooperative living. Each of us has an interest in morality because we are social beings in vital ways.
First, we socially depend for our basic flourishing on a society that is minimally orderly, where people are trustworthy, where we’re not swamped with chaotic violence, etc.
Second, the more others around us are empowered to develop their functioning in their excellent powers is the more that they provide the means of us doing the same. So a society with greater functioning, powerful people is a society where we’ll be enriched by the things they create—be they technological or social—that help us thrive in our abilities.
and so on. In other words, moral rules are “objectively good” only in the sense that one can demonstrate their objective usefulness in advancing some other, higher “good.” According to Fincke, this “higher good” is a “thriving, flourishing power” in each individual which is “beyond his body and beyond his awareness.” Fine, but in that case the burden is still on him to demonstrate the objective nature of this “higher good.” Unfortunately, he shrugs off the burden. According to Fincke, the “higher good” is “objectively good” just because he says so. For example,
So, moral rules and practices and behaviors are a practical project. What objectively constitutes good instances of these are what lead to our objective good of maximally empowered functioning according to the abilities we have and what leads us to coordinate best with others for mutual empowerment on the long term.
…with no explanation of why the “objective good” referred to is objectively good. In a similar vein,
The good of our powers thriving is inherently good for us because we are our powers. And the inherent good of a power thriving is objectively determinable in the sense that it has a characteristic function that makes it the power that it is.
Again, Fincke doesn’t tell us why this “inherent good” is good in any objective sense, and why we should associate it with moral good at all. Apparently we must simply take his word for it that he’s not just expressing a personal whim, but has some mysterious way of knowing that his “good” is both “objective” and “moral.” Normally, when one claims objective existence for something, it must somehow manifest itself outside of the subjective minds of individuals. If one is to believe in such an entity, one requires evidence of its independent existence. That’s the main argument atheists have against the existence of God. There’s no evidence for it. How, then, is it reasonable for those same atheists to claim the objective existence of moral “good” with a similar lack of evidence. The faithful can at least point to faith, and tell us that they believe because of the grace of God. Atheists don’t have that luxury. One of Fincke’s favorite arguments is as follows:
Within this framework we can reason rationally. Does it mean we will always come to conclusive answers? No, of course not. Reasoning involves dealing with the real world and it’s empirical variables. Science can only go so far too, because we’re stuck with contingencies. You need information, sometimes impossible to precisely ascertain information about the future or the expected consequences of one path or another.
That’s quite true, but science has something to back it up that Fincke can’t claim for his objective morality; data in the form of experimentally repeatable evidence. We can be confident in the objective existence of electrons and photons, and on the fact that they don’t depend on our subjective whims for that existence, because we can observe and measure their physical characteristics. To the best of my knowledge, neither Fincke nor Harris nor any of the rest have ever captured an objective “good” in their butterfly nets and produced any data regarding its physical or other qualities and characteristics. If something is supposed to have an objective existence outside of our subjective minds, but we have not the faintest shred of evidence about it, we have only one alternative if we are to believe in it; blind faith.
For Fincke, morality is infinitely malleable. We can make it up as we go along to serve the “ultimate good” as our cultural and social circumstances change:
Morality is a technological endeavor too. It’s one of determining what should be done for us all to live as well as we can collectively and individually. We should, as naturalists who have learned the lessons of empirical thinking in the hard sciences, determine our moral codes and practices according to what serves our purposes best.
Unfortunately, this flies in the face of everything we have been learning recently about the innate wellsprings of morality. It requires that we simply ignore it. The claim that human flourishing is the ultimate good, and that morality is an objective something that exists to serve this end excludes any evolutionary contribution to morality whatsoever. Some claim that evolution may occur as high as the level of groups, but no process or mathematical model has yet been heard of that predicts that it can occur at the level of the human species as a whole.
If Fincke is right, then there can be no analogs of morality in animals, as claimed not only by Darwin, but by many others after him, and as suggested in Wild Justice by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce and in several other recent books on the subject. Objective moral rules as he describes then would only be discoverable by highly intelligent creatures through the exercise of high-powered reasoning that is beyond the capacity of animals or, for that matter even humans other than Fincke and a few other enlightened philosophers, whom we must apparently depend on forevermore to explain things to us. No doubt the popes would all have loved this line of reasoning. These purported rules exist to support an end that can never be the direct result of natural selection, as it only applies at a level where selection does not occur.
Again, if Fincke is right, then the emotions we associate with morality become absurd. After all, what room is there for emotion in deriving perfectly rational “moral rules” from some “objective” ultimate good? Why, indeed, do such reactions as virtuous indignation and moral outrage exist? They are, after all, emotional rather than reasonable, and they can be observed across all cultures. If true moral good is only discoverable by gurus like Fincke, and often contradicts our natural appetites and proclivities, where do these emotions come from? Are they, as we were informed by the Blank Slaters of old, merely learned, along with such things as the pleasure we feel from eating when hungry, and the orgasms we experience during sex? If not, how can we possibly explain their existence? Here’s another excerpt from Fincke’s posts that raises some doubts about his “objective morality.”
People seem to recognize this readily with respect to every art–that doing it in the way that evinces excellent ability and has the result effect of empowering others is obviously desirable over the way that doesn’t–except when it comes to something like ruling or acquiring wealth. In those cases, people start talking like they think mere domination and accumulation is sufficiently desirable. But there’s no reason to think that’s correct. The ruler is a failure if they cannot create a powerful citizenry. What is the intrinsic goodness of merely getting your way compared to the actual creative power, the actual excellent ability, to create greater flourishing through your efforts. The great ruler, by the ruler’s own internal standards of success, should obviously be to rule for generations even beyond death. To do that means to be so shrewd in one’s decisions that what one builds outlives you and thrives beyond your mortal coil. It means to be a contributor to the thriving of your citizens while you’re alive so you can take credit for your role in their thriving (and for as many subsequent generations as possible).
Just because some tyrants realize that’s impossible because they’re incompetent to create that and keep power and so instead choose to rule a graveyard through terror doesn’t mean those tyrants are being rational. They’re functioning badly. They’re epically failing to do the actually powerful task of ruling.
Genghis Khan might beg to differ. In spite of recent attempts to rehabilitate him, it’s not an exaggeration to say he ruled a graveyard through terror throughout much of Asia, and was, therefore, an epic failure according to Fincke. However, he left millions of descendants throughout the continent. He would certainly have regarded this outcome as “good” and “powerful.” It’s a human legacy that will certainly last much longer than the constitution of any state, or the opinion harbored by certain intellectuals in the 21st century concerning “human flourishing.” Indeed, it’s a legacy that has the potential to last for billions of years, as demonstrated by the reality of our own existence as descendants of creatures who lived that long ago in the past. How can we detect or identify an objective rule according to which the great Khan’s good is not really good, but evil? Obviously, what we are looking for here is something more compelling than Fincke’s opinion on the matter. According to Fincke,
…we set up moral systems to regulate and make it so people are able to resist the temptation to think in short term, microlevel, temporarily selfish ways about what is good for them.
Again, if moral systems are just something we “set up” at will to serve Fincke’s “inherent and ultimate good,” then Hume must be wrong. Reason can’t be the slave of the passions. Rather, the passions must be suppressed to serve reason. Morality cannot possibly be associated with evolution in any way, because it would be impossible to “set up” the innate predispositions that would presumably be the result. As it happens, our species already has extensive experience with “setting up” just such a moral system as Fincke describes, based on “science” and devoted to the ultimate goal of “human flourishing.” It was called Communism. It didn’t work. As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.” Am I being paranoid if I would prefer, on behalf of myself and my species, to avoid trying it twice?
In the end, Fincke’s arguments really boil down to a statement of subjective morality in a nutshell: “Human flourishing as defined by me and right-thinking individuals like me is the ultimate good, because I say so.”
Posted on July 27th, 2014 No comments
As Hume pointed out long ago, moral emotions are not derived by reason. They exist a priori. They belong, not at the end, but at the beginning of reason. They are not derived by reason. Rather, they are reasoned about. Given the variations in the innate wellsprings of morality among individuals, huge variations in culture and experience, and the imperfections of human reason, the result has been the vast kaleidoscope of human moralities we see today, with all their remarkable similarities and differences.
Most of us understand the concept Good, and most of us also understand the concept Evil. Good and Evil are subjective entities in the minds of individuals, not fundamentally different from any of our other appetites and whims. However, unlike other whims, such as hunger or sexual desire, it is our nature to perceive them as things, existing independently of our subjective minds. We don’t imagine that, if we are hungry, everyone else in the world must be hungry, too. However, we do imagine that if we perceive something as Good, it must be Good for everyone else as well. That’s where reason comes in. We use it in myriad variations to prop up the delusion that our Good possesses independent legitimacy, and therefore applies to everyone. Familiar variations are the God prop, the “Brave New World of the Future” prop, and the “human flourishing” prop. We commonly find even the most brilliant intellectuals among us attempting to hop over the is/ought divide in this way, differing from the rest of us only in the sophistication of their mirages.
Consider, for example, the case of Herbert Spencer. According to his Wiki entry, he was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century”. He “developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. He was ‘an enthusiastic exponent of evolution’ and even ‘wrote about evolution before Darwin did.’” Unfortunately, there was a problem with his version of the theory. He could never come up with a coherent explanation of what made evolution work. His attempts were usually based on Lamarckian notions of use-inheritance, but he was no more successful than Lamarck in coming up with an actual mechanism for use-inheritance – something that would actually drive the process. When Darwin came up with the actual mechanism, natural selection, Spencer grasped the concept immediately. It certainly influenced his later work, but could not destroy his faith in evolution as a “theory of everything.” For him, evolution was the mystical wellspring of “progress” in all things. Morality and ethics were no exception.
It’s a testimony to the power of the delusion that the truth was actually staring Spencer in the face. Consider, for example, his comments on what he referred to as “animal ethics.” Like Darwin, Spencer was well aware of the analogs to human moral behavior in animals. He wrote about them in the first two chapters of his Justice, published in 1891, long before such ideas were dropped down the memory hole by the Blank Slaters, and more than a century before they were finally disinterred by the animal behaviorists of our own day. Pick out a paragraph here and a phrase there, and Spencer comes across as a perfectly orthodox Darwinian. For example,
Speaking generally, we may say that gregariousness and cooperation more or less active, establish themselves in a species only because they are profitable to it since otherwise survival of the fittest must prevent establishment of them.
For the association to be profitable the acts must be restrained to such extent as to leave a balance of advantage. Survival of the fittest will else exterminate that variety of the species in which association begins.
Thus then it is clear that acts which are conducive to preservation of offspring or of the individual we consider as good relatively to the species and conversely.
In the third chapter of his book, Spencer makes the obvious connection between sub-human and human morality, pointing out that they form a “continuous whole.”
The contents of the last chapter foreshadow the contents of this. As from the evolution point of view human life must be regarded as a further development of sub-human life it follows that from this same point of view human justice must be a further development of sub-human justice. For convenience the two are here separately treated but they are essentially of the same nature and form parts of a continuous whole.
In a word, Spencer seems to realize that morality is an artifact of evolution by natural selection, that it exists because it enhanced the probability that individuals and their offspring would survive, and that its innate origins manifest themselves in sub-human species as well as human beings. In other words, he seems to have identified just those aspects of morality that establish its subjective nature and the absurdity of the notion that it can somehow transcend the minds of one individual acquire independent legitimacy or normative power over other individuals. The truth seems to be staring him in the face, and yet, in the end, he evades it. His illusion that his version of human progress, formulated long before Darwin, really is the Good-in-itself, blinds him to the implications of what he has just written. Before long we find him hopelessly enmeshed in the naturalistic fallacy, busily converting “is” into “ought.” First, we find passages like the following that not only have a suspicious affinity with Spencer’s libertarian ideology, but reveal his continued, post-Darwin faith in Lamarckism:
The necessity for observance of the condition that each member of the group, while carrying on self-sustentation and sustentation of offspring, shall not seriously impede the like pursuits of others makes itself so felt where association is established as to mould the species to it. The mischiefs from time to time experienced when the limits are transgressed continually discipline all in such ways as to produce regard for the limits so that such regard becomes in course of time a natural trait of the species.
A little later, the crossing of the is/ought Rubicon is made quite explicit:
To those who take a pessimist view of animal life in general contemplation of these principles can of course yield only dissatisfaction. But to those who take an optimist view or a meliorist view of life in general, and who accept the postulate of hedonism, contemplation of these principles must yield greater or less satisfaction and fulfilment of them must be ethically approved. Otherwise considered these principles are according to the current belief expressions of the Divine will or else according to the agnostic belief indicate the mode in which works the Unknowable Power throughout the universe, and in either case they have the warrant hence derived.
It’s not that Spencer was a stupid man. In fact, he was brilliant. Among other things, he analyzed the flaws in socialist theory and predicted the outcome of the Communist experiment with amazing prescience long before it was actually tried. Rather, Spencer didn’t see the truth that was staring him in the face because he was human. Like all humans, he suffered from the delusion that his version of the Good must surely be the “real” Good, and rationalized that conclusion. It continues to be similarly rationalized in our own day by our own public intellectuals, in spite of a century and more of great advances in evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and understanding of the innate wellsprings of both human and non-human behavior.
I suppose there’s some solace in the fact that, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the emotional dog continues to wag its rational tail, and not vice versa. It certainly lays to rest fears that some fragile thread of religion or philosophy is all that suspends us over the abyss of moral relativism. We will not become moral relativists because it is not our nature to be moral relativists, even if legions of philosophers declare that we are being unreasonable. On the other hand, there are always drawbacks to not recognizing the truth. We experienced two of those drawbacks in the 20th century in the form of the highly moralistic Nazi and Communist ideologies. Perhaps it would be well for us to recognize the obvious before the next messiah turns up on the scene.
Posted on May 9th, 2014 No comments
There’s been a lot of chatter on the Internet lately about MSNBC host Krystal Ball’s “re-interpretation” of Animal Farm as an anti-capitalist parable. The money quote from her take in the video below:
At its heart, Animal Farm is about tyranny and the likelihood of those in power to abuse that power. It’s clear that tendency is not only found in the Soviet communist experience. In fact, if you read Animal Farm today, it seems to warn not of some now non-existent communist threat but of the power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites and corporations…
As new research shows that we already live a sort of oligarchy that the preferences of the masses literally do not matter and that the only thing that counts is the needs and desires of the elites, Animal Farm is a useful cautionary tale warning of the corruption of concentrated power, no matter in whose hands that power rests.
Well, not exactly, Krystal. As astutely pointed out by CJ Ciaramella at The Federalist,
This is such a willfully stupid misreading that it doesn’t warrant much comment. However, for those who haven’t read Animal Farm since high school, as seems to be the case with Ball: The book is a satire of Soviet Russia specifically and a parable about totalitarianism in general. Every major event in the book mirrors an event in Soviet history, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Trotsky fleeing the country to Stalin’s cult of personality.
Indeed. Animal Farm’s Napoleon as the Koch Brothers? Snowball as Thomas Picketty? I don’t think so. True, you have to be completely clueless about the history of the Soviet Union to come up with such a botched interpretation, but, after all, that’s not too surprising. For citizens of our fair Republic, cluelessness about the history of the Soviet Union is probably the norm. The real irony here is that you also have to be completely clueless about Orwell to bowdlerize Animal Farm into an anti-capitalist parable. If that’s your agenda, why not fish out something more appropriate from his literary legacy. Again, quoting Ciaramella,
What is most impressive, though, is that MSNBC couldn’t locate an appropriate reference to inequality in the works of a lifelong socialist. It’s not as if one has to search hard to find Orwell railing against class divisions. He wrote an entire book, The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible living conditions in the industrial slums of northern England.
Not to mention Down and Out in Paris and London and four volumes of essays full of rants against the Americans for being so backward about accepting the blessings of socialism. Indeed, Orwell, has been “re-interpreted” on the Right just as enthusiastically as on the Left of the political spectrum. For example, from Brendan Bordelon at The Libertarian Republic,
Leaving aside the obvious historical parallels between Animal Farm and the Soviet Union, the inescapable message is that government-enforced equality inevitably leads to oppression and further inequality, as fallible humans (or pigs) use powerful enforcement tools for their own personal gain.
Sorry, Brendan, but that message is probably more escapable than you surmise. Orwell was, in fact, a firm supporter of “government-enforced equality,” at least to the extent that he was a life-long, dedicated socialist. Indeed, he thought the transition to socialism in the United Kingdom was virtually inevitable in the aftermath of World War II.
In short, if you’re really interested in learning what Orwell was trying to “tell” us, whether in Animal Farm or the rest of his work, it’s probably best to read what he had to say about it himself.
Posted on May 2nd, 2014 2 comments
Should there be a death penalty? Of course, the pros and cons are always trotted out after every botched execution. There was more chatter than usual after the last one because it happened to coincide with the publication of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), according to which more than 4% of death row inmates are innocent. We usually decide such questions by consulting our moral emotions. As the highly moral Communists and Nazis demonstrated, that’s not a good idea.
The 4% study recalls the adage, usually attributed to Blackstone, that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Relying on moral emotions alone, one could probably come up with a host of “trolley problems” to demonstrate that Blackstone’s formulation is either “true” or “false.” I take a more practical view of the matter. If I am dead, it won’t matter a bit to me whether I was killed by a criminal or by the state. Assuming there must be a death penalty, then, I would prefer to minimize the odds that I will be killed by either one. In other words, I would favor a policy which minimizes the number of innocent victims, regardless of whether they are killed by the state or by criminals.
In fact, that’s the reason that I oppose the death penalty. Again, my reasons are entirely practical. I want to minimize the odds that I will suffer an untimely death. The state has always been the most prolific and efficient murderer, and the recent trend has not been towards greater compassion. In the twentieth century, for example, at least two states, Cambodia and the Soviet Union, became so adept at mass murder that they effectively beheaded their own populations. I conclude that it would be better to get states out of the execution business once and for all, and I would not be at all squeamish about exploiting moral emotions to accomplish that end. For example, one might come up with something like a version of the Ten Commandments for states, one article of which would be, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” One might establish the “human right” not to be executed. The goal would not be the establishment of some abstract standard of “justice,” but self-preservation, pure and simple.
For the entertainment of my readers, I have included an old episode of “The Outer Limits” that explores the philosophical ramifications of this issue in greater detail. Notice that the bad guy is Bruce Dern. He was fantastic in the lead role of the movie “Nebraska,” that came out a few months ago. Sorry about the commercials.