Posted on May 25th, 2014 2 comments
A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege. Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male. In his words,
There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year… “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.
As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe. His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S. Again quoting Fortgang,
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.
I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter. When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.” For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,
Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.
and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:
What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men, are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.
The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.
Which brings us to the point of this post. Our species isn’t good at nuance. The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context. It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions. That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists. It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way. It exists because it evolved. It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate. That is the only reason for its existence. Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual. It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. That dual nature is not optional. It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.
The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege. It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white. However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society. As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male. Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived. As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species. It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa. Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups. That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”
It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma. Privilege exists. It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy. However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred. The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege. Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.
What “should” we do under the circumstances? There is no objective answer to that question. At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims. In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.” A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves. For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival. Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action. Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me. When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.
On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.” For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair. Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege. I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.
However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race. In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero. Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion. Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries. The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation. I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations. I am satisfied with equality before the law.
Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage. I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.
Posted on March 30th, 2014 2 comments
One of the favorite hobbies of secular philosophers of late has been the fabrication of new and improved systems of morality. Perhaps the best known example is outlined in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. If conscientiously applied, we are promised, they will usher in nebulous utopias in which a common thread is some version of “human flourishing.” We have already completed an experimental investigation of how these fancy theories work in practice. It was called Communism. Many eggs were broken to make that omelet, but the omelet never materialized. That unfortunate experience alone should be enough to dissuade us from poking a stick into the same hornet’s nest again.
The Communists were at least realistic enough to realize that their system wouldn’t work without a radical transformation in human behavior. For that to happen, it was necessary for our behavioral habits to be almost infinitely malleable, a requirement that spawned many of the 20th century versions of the Blank Slate, and perverted the behavioral sciences for more than half a decade. Since it became clear, as Trotsky once put it rather euphemistically just before Stalin had him murdered, that Communism had “ended in a utopia,” most of the “not in our genes” crowd have either mercifully died or been dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world. Practitioners of the behavioral “sciences” are now at least generally agreed as to the truth of the proposition, sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old, that there actually is such a thing as human nature.
That hasn’t deterred the inventers of sure-fire new universal moralities. They seem to think that they can finesse the problem by persuading us that we should just ignore those aspects of our nature that stand in the way of “human flourishing.” It won’t work for them any more than it worked for the Communists. This stubborn fact was demonstrated yet again in rather amusing fashion on the occasion of the publication of a somewhat controversial book in Australia.
The title of the book was The Conservative Revolution by Cory Bernardi. The particular aspect of human nature that its release highlighted was our predisposition to adopt dual systems of morality, in which radically different rules apply depending on whether one is dealing with one’s ingroup or one’s outgroup. Robert Ardrey called the phenomenon the “Amity/Enmity Complex,” and it has played a profound and fundamental role in the endemic warfare our species has engaged in since time immemorial. The philosophy outlined in The Conservative Revolution would be familiar to most southern Republicans in the US. His ingroup is the Australian political right. In other words, he is positioned firmly in the outgroup of the political left. When he published the book, “warfare” was not long in coming.
The reaction of the leftist ingroup in Australia was furious. To characterize it as hysterical frothing at the mouth would be putting it mildly. The data demonstrating this enraged reaction has been kindly collected by the people at Amazon in the form of reader reviews of the book. As I write this, there are 554 of them, and virtually all of them, whether “five star” or “one star,” are literary reflections of a two-year old’s temper tantrum. Here are some excerpts from some of the 421 “one star” reviews:
It’s only 178 pages long, and at the current price of just under $27, it’s quite expensive as well. So already one’s expectations are for a good quality product, given that it costs over 15 cents per page (or 30 cents per sheet, in other words). Just for comparison, my local Woolworths has toilet paper on sale for 20 cents per ONE HUNDRED sheets, or less than 1% the price per sheet of this book!!
It made an excellent liner for my bird cage. I love seeing my rainbow parakeets taking a dump on his head.
The Dark One hungers. In his pit of eternal hatred he squats in the darkness feeding on the screams of the weak. Soon, his blood tide reaches a peak and he will scourge the unbelievers.
…and so on. Here are some of the 105 “five star” reviews:
Many of the rituals I frequently practice – mostly summonings of minor demons – require ‘hate’ as an active ingredient. Before this book, I never really knew what to do. When I attempted to provide the hate myself, I found it difficult to focus and the rituals often went wrong (I even ended up losing a hand once, that was a pain to deal with). After that, I tried kidnapping some of my particularly nasty neighbours, but while that worked considerably better, it certainly wasn’t perfect – often fear would override the hate I needed, and of course I had to kill them afterwards, and disposing of all of the bodies was starting to get really annoying. Then this book came along, and all of the took away all of the hassle of finding hatred.
“Conservative Revolution” is the much-anticipated release by Cory Bestiality, after the success of his collaborative work on the ‘Real Solutions’ pamphlet. Effortlessly blending the Palaeofantasy, Historical Fiction and Political and Philosophical Satire genres, Bestiality creates a largely effective and revealing expose of the fallacies of Christian Fundamentalism and neoconservative ideology. Whilst lacking the insight and depth of ‘Real Solutions’, Bestiality’s new work is clearly inspired by similar writings, from Adolf Hitler’s stirring call to action, “Mein Kampf”, to Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue”
Short and succinct! In just over 100 pages I learned that Adolf Hitler was a very moderate, balanced, caring and compassionate man in comparison to Corey Bernardi.
One wonders that there are so many people in Australia who trouble themselves to write such stuff. It’s certainly a tribute to the power of Ardrey’s “Complex.” The shear irrationality of it is demonstrated by the fact that Bernardi is laughing all the way to the bank. The book has already gone to a second printing, and the publisher is rubbing his hands as copies fly off the book store shelves. The affair is just another data point swimming in an ocean of others, all pointing to a very fundamental truth; the outgroup have ye always with you.
Consider the ingroup responsible for composing most of these furious anathemas. It is the ingroup of the secular left, which lives in more or less the same ideological box in Australia as its analogs in Western Europe and North America. In other words, this stuff is coming from the very ingroup most busily engaged in cobbling together spiffy new moralities which are to be characterized by universal human brotherhood! Sorry my friends – no ingroup without an outgroup. Even if you ushered in the Brave New World of “human flourishing” by exterminating the very significant proportion of the population that agrees with Cory Bernardi, another outgroup would inevitably crop up to take its place. In the absence of an outgroup, it is our nature to simply create another one.
It’s hard to imagine a less promising ingroup to gladden the rest of us with “human flourishing” than the modern secular left. As Catholic philosopher Joseph Bottum notes in his book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, in the US these people are the direct descendants of the Puritans. The overbearing self-righteousness evident in these “book reviews” seems to confirm that assessment. They are saturated with a level of bile and hatred of the “other” that one normally expects to find only among religious fanatics. And according to Bottum, that is basically what they are. His take is summarized in a review of his book by David Goldman:
Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.
Perhaps “human flourishing” would be a bit more plausible if we were all Benjamin Franklins, or Abraham Lincolns, or even Neville Chamberlains. As William Shakespeare put it in Twelfth Night, “Anything but a devil of a Puritan.”
Posted on March 26th, 2014 2 comments
Times have changed in Germany since Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and spoke before 200,000 enraptured fans in Berlin. Only 6,000 turned out to hear him when he returned last year. Meanwhile, the media there, particularly since the recent events in Ukraine, has been resurrecting themes that were familiar during the Cold War. The political left is beginning to turn to Russia, and the political right is decrying the weakness of the Obama Administration. For example, while the overall tone of the main news magazine, Der Spiegel, has been anti-Russian, Jakob Augstein, whose column “When in Doubt, to the Left,” appears there regularly, wrote a couple of days ago:
Media and political pundits want to breathe new life into an old “face of the enemy” (Feindbild): the evil Russian. As far as Russia is concerned, the West is in once again stuck in the same rut as in the cynical days of yesteryear, when US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger publicly expressed his hope that the superpower in the East would go under “with a whimper, not with a bang.” Hillary Clinton just compared Putin to Hitler. That’s how one recommends oneself in the US as a potential Democratic presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the Russia policy of the two East Germans Merkel and (German President) Gauck is as resentful as if they were exploiting their offices for private trauma therapy.
Meanwhile the polls are showing that the public isn’t inclined to tag along. A majority of Germans do not consider Putin unreasonable for viewing the Crimea as a Russian sphere of influence. (As opposed to Putin) the tendency to ignore and violate borders is a characteristic of the West. It constantly seeks to fish in troubled waters (“periklitieren”), to use one of Bismarck’s favorite expressions, outside of its own sphere of influence. Or, more to the point, it claims the whole world as its sphere of interest. That’s just the problem.
The West can never get enough, and is therefore insatiable… The Asians have finally drawn their own conclusions: the lamb must now itself become the wolf.
It’s clear from the reader comments that appeared after a recent Spiegel article on the crisis that Augstein hasn’t misrepresented German attitudes. The article itself, entitled, “The Ukraine: Obama Expresses Scorn for Ukraine as a Regional Power,” includes the understated byline, “This isn’t how de-escalation should look.” Some typical examples:
The ineffectual US President dares to shoot his mouth off like this? He never seems to come up with anything concrete and positive except stupidities… I demand that his Nobel Peace Prize be revoked. (whiteelephant1)
The US is clearly on the path of escalation… It would be nice if the German media would adopt a more critical attitude, and not always just go along with everything the US/EU says. Putin isn’t the danger. The danger comes from those who now sense an opportunity to finish Russia once and for all. That’s what this is really about. (mc6206)
Very nice, Mr. Obama, just keep playing with fire. After all, thank God there’s a buffer zone between Russia and your homeland in case Russia loses its nerve. It’s called EUROPE! (Korf)
If Russia is just a “regional power,” and one has more important problems to deal with, why these hysterical attempts to isolate Russia and portray her in a bad light. Who is supposed to be swallowing such stupidities from Obama? (itf)
Well, we’re not exactly seeing a return to the last super-eruption of anti-Americanism in Germany that reached its climax about 15 years ago, but the honeymoon is clearly over.
UPDATE: Der Spiegel just published its take on an interview with former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt that appeared in the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. Schmidt is a highly intelligent man whose memoirs are well worth reading, and who can hardly be described as anti-American. Der Spiegel headlines the interview, “Former Chancellor Schmidt Defends Putin’s Ukraine Policy.” The byline reads, “Helmut Schmidt finds the actions of Russia in the Crimea ‘completely understandable,’ and considers sanctions ‘dumb stuff’ (dummes Zeug). No doubt the situation in Ukraine is dangerous – however, in the former Chancellor’s opinion, the West is at fault.”
A few excerpts from the article in Der Spiegel:
Schmidt was highly critical of the way in which the Crimea crisis has been handled in the West. He referred to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the USA as “dumb stuff.” In Schmidt’s opinion, attempts to impose further sanctions would be misguided. For the most part they would have merely symbolic value, “but they would affect the West just as much as the Russians.
Schmidt’s words provide support to those taking part in the debate in Germany who favor looking at things from the Russian point of view. Former Chancellor and party colleague Gerhard Schröder recently spoke in similar terms.
According to Schmidt, the situation in Ukraine is “dangerous, because the West has worked itself into a frenzy.” (literally, “has become terribly excited”) As a result, “the overwrought reaction in the West has naturally led to a similar overwrought reaction in Russian public opinion and politics.” Referring to the (reserved) policy of Chancellor Angela Merkel the 95-year old said, “In this case praise for the caution of the German Chancellor is appropriate.”
So far the editorial narrative at Der Spiegel has been mainly anti-Russian. However, there has been a shift to a more circumspect approach lately, with articles critical of right wing nationalists in the current Kiev regime, taking note of western media darling Yulia Timoshenko’s hateful tirade against Putin in an overheard telephone conversation in which she said she was “ready to pick up a machine pistol and shoot this piece of crap in the head,” suggesting the use of nuclear weapons to kill Russians, and so on. It is noteworthy that the German Green Party, which has tacked to the right in recent years, immediately condemned Schmidt’s comments, while the Party of the Left, positioned to the left of the German Socialist Party (SPD), praised his remarks.
Posted on March 2nd, 2014 No comments
The notion that the suite of behavioral traits we associate with morality is dual in nature goes back at least a century. It was first formalized back in the 40’s by Sir Arthur Keith, who wrote,
Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.
Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior. At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.
Robert Ardrey combined the two words and gave them a Freudian twist to come up with a term for the phenomenon. Writing during the heyday of the Blank Slate, long before Sociobiology was even a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, he called it the Amity/Enmity Complex. The truth that it exists is highly corrosive to utopian schemes for “human flourishing” of all stripes, from Communism to the more up-to-date versions favored by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene. As a result, it is also a truth that has been furiously resisted, obvious explanation though it is for the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history as well as such phenomena as racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, etc., all of which are really just different varieties of outgroup identification.
The current situation in Ukraine, dangerous though it is, presents us with a splendid laboratory for studying the Complex. The underlying manifestation is, of course, nationalism, a form of ingroup identification that has been a thorn in our collective sides since the French Revolution. It was the inspiration for the panacea of “national self-determination” after World War I, based on the disastrously flawed assumption that nice, clean national boundaries could be drawn that would all enclose so many pristine, pure ethnic states. In reality, no such pristine territories existed, and “national self-determination” became a vehicle for the persecution of ethnic minorities all over Europe. Human nature hasn’t changed, and it continues to function in the same way today. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian majority ingroup quickly began acting like one. A Jewish community center and synagogue were firebombed. The new rump parliament almost immediately voted to eliminate Russian as an official language, relegating Russian speakers to the status of second class citizens.
Such high-handed actions were virtually ignored in western Europe and the United States, where the collective memory of the Russians as outgroup, still strong more than two decades after the fall of Communism, insured that the Ukrainian nationalists would be perceived as the “good guys.” Oblivious to the fact that they had quite recently established a precedent by collaborating in the chopping off of a piece of Serbia and handing it to an ethnic minority, and ignoring such theoretical niceties as the claim that, if the Ukrainian majority in the west of the country had a right to vote itself special rights in the west of the country, the Russian majority in the east of the country must have similar rights in their territories, they began a war of words against the Russians, claiming that their occupation of the Crimea and protection of the Russian majority there was unheard of.
In a word, there is nothing rational about what is going on in Ukraine unless one takes into account the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our species that predispose us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Such manifestations are hardly unique to Ukraine,. Just look around on the Internet a little. It’s full of a bewildering array of ideological, religious, ethnic, and political ingroups, all busily engaged in cementing “amity” within the group, and all with comment sections full of “enmity” directed at their respective outgroups in the form of furious anathemas and denunciations.
The “Complex” is inseparable from human moral behavior. No morality will ever exist that doesn’t come complete with its own outgroup. Think we can “expand our consciousness” until our ingroup includes all mankind? Dream on! The “other” will always be there. The “Complex” is the main reason that puttering away at new moralities is so dangerous. No matter how idealistic their intentions, the outgroup will always remain. We saw how that worked in the 20th century, with the annihilations of millions in the Jewish outgroup of the Nazis, and millions more in the “bourgeois” outgroup of the Communists. Before we start playing with fire again, it would probably behoove us to finally recognize the ways in which it can burn us.
Posted on February 26th, 2014 No comments
Every day in every way things are getting better and better. Well, all right, maybe that’s a stretch, but now and then, things actually do take a turn for the better, at least from my point of view. Take this interview of Oliver Scott Curry at the This View of Life website, for example. Here’s a young guy who gets human nature, and gets morality, and isn’t in the least bit afraid to talk about them as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing the weather. Have a look at some of the things this guy says:
MICHAEL PRICE (Interviewer): What can evolutionary approaches tell us about human moral systems that other approaches cannot tell us? That is, what unique and novel insights about morality does an evolutionary approach provide?
OLIVER SCOTT CURRY: Well, everything. It can tell us what morality is, where it comes from, and how it works. No other approach can do that. The evolutionary approach tells us that morality is a set of biological and cultural strategies for solving problems of cooperation and conflict. We have a range of moral instincts that are natural selection’s attempts to solve these problems. They are sophisticated versions of the kind of social instincts seen in other species…Above all, the evolutionary approach demystifies morality and brings it down to earth. It tells us that morality is just another adaptation that can be studied in the same way as any other aspect of our biology or psychology.
PRICE: The ordinary view in biology is that adaptations evolve primarily to promote individual fitness (survival and reproduction of self/kin). Do you believe that this view is correct with regard to the human biological adaptations that generate moral rules? Does this view imply that individuals moralize primarily to promote their own fitness interests (as opposed to promoting, e.g., group welfare)? (TVOL editor David Sloan Wilson is one of the foremost advocates of group selection, ed.)
CURRY: No. Adaptations evolve to promote the replication of genes; natural selection cannot work any other way. Genes replicate by means of the effects that they have on the world; these effects include the formation of things like chromosomes, multicellular individuals, and groups. (My understanding is that everyone agrees about this, although there is some debate about whether groups are sufficiently coherent to constitute vehicles .)
PRICE: What work by others on the evolution of morality (or just on morality in general) have you found most enlightening?
CURRY: David Hume’s work has been particularly inspiring. In many ways he is the great-great-great granddaddy of evolutionary psychology. He almost stumbled upon the theory of evolution. He undertook a comparative “anatomy of the mind” that showed “the correspondence of passions in men and animals.” His “bundle theory of the self” hints at massive modularity. His A Treatise of Human Nature  introduced “the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects,” and discusses relatedness, certainty of paternity, coordination and convention, reciprocal exchange, costly signals, dominance and submission, and the origins of property. He even anticipated by-product theories of religion, describing religious ideas as “the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape” . Remarkable.
Remarkable, indeed! Curry just rattles off stuff that’s been hidden in plain sight for the last 100 years, but that would have brought his career to a screeching halt not that long ago. Beginning in the 1920’s, the obscurantists of the Blank Slate controlled the message about human nature in both the scientific and popular media for more than 50 years. They imposed a stifling orthodoxy on the behavioral sciences that rendered much of the work in those fields as useless and irrelevant as the thousands of tomes about Marxism that were published during the heyday of the Soviet Union. Their grip was only broken when a few brave authors stood up to them, and it became obvious to any 10-year-old that their “science” was absurd. This should never, ever be forgotten in our hubris over the triumphs of science. When the “men of science” start declaring that they have a monopoly on the truth, and that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but evil, it’s reasonable to suspect that what they’re promoting isn’t the truth, but an ideological narrative.
It’s refreshing, indeed, to hear from someone who, in spite of the fact that he clearly understands where morality comes from, doesn’t immediately contradict that knowledge by spouting nonsense about moral “truths.” At least in this interview, I find nothing like Sam Harris’ delusions about “scientific moral truths,” or Jonathan Haidt’s delusions about “anthropocentric moral truths, or Joshua Greene’s delusions about “utilitarian moral truths.” I can but hope that Curry will never join them in their wild goose chase after the will-o’-the-wisp of “human flourishing.”
At the end of the interview, Curry reveals that he’s also aware of another aspect of human morality that makes many otherwise sober evolutionary psychologists squirm; our tendency to see the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. When Price questions him about the most important unsolved scientific puzzles in evolutionary moral psychology he replies that one of the questions that keeps him up at night is, “Why are people so quick to divide the world into ‘us and them’? Why not just have a bigger us? (I’d like to see an answer rooted in three-player game theory.)”
Hey, three-player game theory is fine with me, as long as we finally realize that the ingroup-outgroup thing is a fundamental aspect of human moral behavior, and one that it would behoove us to deal with rationally assuming we entertain hopes for the survival of our species. As it happens, that’s easier said than done. The academic milieu that is home to so many of the moral theorists and philosophers of our day has long been steeped in an extremely moralistic culture; basically a secular version of the Puritanism of the 16th and 17th centuries, accompanied by all the manifestations of self-righteous piety familiar to historians of that era. It is arguably more difficult for such people to give up any rational basis for their addiction to virtuous indignation and the striking of highly ostentatious pious poses than it is for them to give up sex. For them, the “real” Good must prevail. As a result we have such gaudy and delusional “solutions” to the problem as Joshua Greene’s proposal that we simply stifle our moral emotions in favor of his “real” utilitarian morality, Sam Harris’ more practical approach of simply dumping everyone who doesn’t accept his “scientific” morality into a brand new outgroup, and various schemes for “expanding” our ingroup to include all mankind.
Sorry, it won’t work. Ingroups and outgroups ain’t goin’ nowhere. Stifle racism, and religious bigotry will take its place. Stifle religious bigotry, and homophobia will jump in to take over. Stifle all those things, and there will always be a few deluded souls around who dare to disagree with you. They, in their turn, will become your new outgroup. The outgroup have ye always with you. Better understand the problem than pretend it’s not there.
As for Curry’s suggestion that we declare Hume the father of evolutionary psychology, nothing could please me more.
Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the “pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on February 6th, 2013 No comments
The importance of self-understanding seems self-evident. Our species is quite capable of committing suicide. If we can learn why it is we tend to behave in some ways and not in others, our chances of avoiding that fate will be much improved. That’s why it’s a matter of no small concern that the behavioral sciences were hijacked over a period of several decades by ideological zealots, who succeeded in imposing the false orthodoxy that human nature doesn’t matter; the so-called Blank Slate. In spite of the obvious significance of these events, very little effort has been devoted to understanding why and how they happened, and how they might be prevented from happening again. I can think of nothing more important for the behavioral sciences to study and understand than the reasons for their own ideologically induced collapse. So far, however, very little is happening along those lines. Anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists are cheerfully churning out books and papers about evolved human nature as if the whole episode never happened, in spite of the fact that much of it took place within living memory.
In fact, the manner in which the false orthodoxy was imposed had nothing to do with science. It was accomplished by people who were, for all practical purposes, religious zealots, using the time-tested methods that have always been used to impose orthodoxy; vilification, psychological terrorism, ad hominem attacks, and self-righteous posing. The only difference between the zealots of the Blank Slate and more traditional religious fanatics was the secular rather than spiritual nature of the gods they served.
I recently ran across an interesting example of genre fossilized on the Internet. It took the form of an attack on Robert Ardrey, bête noir of the Blank Slaters of his day, and the most effective and influential opponent they ever had to deal with. It was couched in the form of a book review written by one Carroll Quigley, a professor of history at Georgetown. The work in question was Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and all the usual gambits are there; the assumption of superior scientific gravitas, the dismissal of opponents as “pop psychologists,” the copious invention of strawmen, topped off with moralistic posing and denunciations of the “sins” of the unbelievers.
Quigley begins with his version of the “pop psychology” canard:
…in this book there is no more science than there is in a comic strip. As an entertainer, Ardrey is the Scheherazade of the present day, telling tales about strange animals, in far off places and in remote times, with every assurance that they are true, but, like the Arabian Nights, it is foolish to worry about how true they are, they are so unbelievable and so glib.
That would have been news to the people whose work Ardrey quoted. They were usually chosen from among the most well-known and respected researchers of their day, who described the behavior of animals that, far from being far off or remote, were often quite common. Geoffrey Gorer, himself a Blank Slater, but one who managed to preserve some semblance of common decency, observed that,
Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.
…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.
It’s not clear why Quigley thought he was qualified to lecture Ardrey on animal behavior in the first place. He certainly had no claim to expertise in the field. However, he so distorted what Ardrey had to say on the subject that his expertise was irrelevant in any case. For example, he writes,
It is true that Ardrey has read a great deal about animal behavior, but he never seems to grasp what it all means, and his biases prevent him from seeing what is really there. For example, he gives the impression that he is constantly exploring Africa, watching lions with George Schaller, or chatting with the world’s greatest experts about elephants. He tells us that he “made a general survey of predatory communities” in Africa in 1968, but his ignorance of lions is so great that he misunderstands most of what he sees, reads, or is told. For example, one afternoon, Ardrey and his wife roused a lioness “a few hundred yards” from a herd of browsing impala. Two of the impala came over to see the lioness as it sought another sleeping place, while the others “never for a moment stopped eating.” Ardrey was amazed at this, but decided that he could not say that the impala were “suicidal” since the lioness was so sleepy. Then he adds, “Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.”
This is typical of the ponderous way Ardrey covers his ignorance. Despite his claims of intimacy with Schaller, who studied lions in Africa over three years, 1966-1969, Ardrey apparently does not know that killing by a lion (1) is not motivated by “antagonism”; (2) almost never takes place in the middle of the day; (3) is never directed at an animal which is looking at the lion; and (4) the attack never is made from a distance of over 40 to 50 yards. Ardrey will find these rules stated by R. D. Estes in Natural History for February and March 1967 or by Schaller in National Geographic for April 1969. The latter says, “The lion must stalk to within a few feet of a potential victim before its rush has much chance of success. Prey animals are fully aware of the lion’s limitations. They have learned how near to a lion they may wander without danger of attack—usually to within about 120 feet. This leads to ludicrous situations . . . A visible lion is a safe lion.” Need I add that Ardrey’s “suicidal” impala were about 500 feet from danger.
To see that this critique is not only preposterous but a deliberate and malicious distortion of what Ardrey actually said, one need only read the passage in question. I found it on page 76 of my hard cover copy of The Social Contract, and it can be seen by clicking on the “Order and Disorder” chapter and scrolling down at the above link to book. It is worth quoting in full:
One afternoon we passed an all-male herd of twenty or twenty-five browsing impala, then a few hundred yards away came on a lioness sleeping under a tree. Approaching her too closely, we disturbed her. She rose, and for the first time was observed by the impala. We could hear the instant far off snort. Now the lioness moved away at deliberate pace toward another tree and another spot of shade. Immediately two impala detached themselves from their fellows and came running after her, sending back to the party repeated warning snorts. When she settled herself again, the two still lingered, watching tensely, giving their occasional snorts. Not until she had most evidently gone back to sleep did they trot away to rejoin their fellows, who never for a moment had stopped eating.
One cannot say that the two impala had accepted risks of a suicidal nature by following a lioness as sleepy as this one. Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.
The observant reader will notice that Ardrey never expressed “amazement,” did not take the possibility seriously that the impala were “suicidal,” obviously had no intent of using the term “antagonism” as a scientifically rigorous description of lion behavior, and nowhere stated the minimum distance between the impala and the lion was either 500 feet or any other distance. He is merely using a personal anecdote to illustrate a point, and nowhere makes any claims, express or implied, about the feeding behavior of lions that would in any way justify Quigley’s gratuitous blather on the subject.
A familiar tactic of the old Blank Slaters was the blowing of smokescreens with scientific jargon. For example, they furiously pounced on anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with human beings. “Instinct,” you see, was reserved for such programmed behavior as the building of nests by insects, and using to refer to open-ended predispositions became an inexcusable sin. Nowadays, of course, “instinct” is back in fashion as a vernacular term, and no one seems particularly confused when it is applied to humans. Here’s Quigley’s version of the smokescreen:
Moreover, this slovenly thinking, which ignores the distinction between animal societies and human societies, also ignores the distinction between social acts and biological actions. Thus he says that “the social life” of a leopard is “limited to a few occasional hours of copulation;” copulation is biological, not social, just as parturition is. The whole book is filled with his confusions of quite distinct things in this way.
I really doubt that anyone, except, perhaps, Quigley, was confused by Ardrey’s “unscientific” use of the term “social life” to describe copulation in leopards. Fortunately, the physicists have not seen fit to go around correcting everyone who doesn’t use terms like “work,” “energy,” “power,” etc., as they are defined in the scientific jargon. The substitution of jargon for the vernacular in this context would likely be similarly unhelpful.
Just as with the polemics exchanged between the iconoclasts and the iconodules, or the believers in Communion in both kinds with the believers in Communion in only one kind, such “reviews” usually conclude with the striking of moralistic poses and the raining down of anathemas on the object of the author’s ire. Quigley’s was no exception. Here is how “science” was enforced by the Blank Slaters:
Fundamentally, Ardrey is a racist, devoted to a belief in human inequality and unfreedom, an enemy of social “disorder” which must be suppressed by authority because man is a predatory, violent, aggressive creature, compelled by irresistible hereditary compulsion to war over territory. These are fascist ideas, and, in this book, Ardrey is doing for America what Treitschke, H. S. Chamberlain, Alfred Rosenberg, and others did for Germany: preparing an intellectual basis for fascist political action.
That Ardrey believed none of the things Quigley attributes to him in the above quote is a fact familiar to anyone who has actually read his books. He was, in fact, a liberal of the far left who nearly became a Communist himself at one point, or at least he was until he became familiar with the real nature of “progressive” ideologues in the school of hard knocks. None of this mattered to the “scientist” Quigley, who was intent on character assassination, not uncovering the truth. Comically enough, this ringing tribute to freedom of thought appeared a few paragraphs after Quigley piously observed that Ardrey seemed to think that the truth was being suppressed by the scientific establishment, and that,
The reasons for this conspiracy are not stated, but it seems to be partly because the established don’t want these brilliant young researchers, whom Ardrey has found, to eclipse them and show them up for the old fuddy-duddies that they are. Partly also for more secret political reasons related to Ardrey’s idea that there is a profoundly unscientific liberal establishment which is based on a number of lies like equality, democracy, and freedom (!) which makes it necessary for them to want to suppress the scientists that Ardrey is reporting on.
Not the least interesting bit in Quigley’s opus is the manner in which he actually slips in the knife, the ideological shibboleth of the Blank Slate cloaked in the mantle of science, quite unobtrusively midway through the review:
Ardrey tries to tell us what man is like. He insists that man is simply an animal (which implies that animals are simply men). This is, of course, contrary to general scientific belief, which holds that man evolved from an animal when his survival shifted from dependence upon inherited behavior to dependence upon learned behavior.
This, of course, is the actual point of all the browbeating and histrionic posing. Failing this “scientific fact” all the cherished utopias of the Blank Slaters collapse like a house of cards. Indeed, the most prominent of them, Communism, collapsed quite spectacularly, exposing Quigley’s “general scientific belief” as one of history’s most successful and damaging hoaxes in the process.
Posted on January 14th, 2013 3 comments
Practitioners of the behavioral sciences will be pleased to know that an official blessing has come down from on high announcing that believers in the existence of human nature are no longer to be considered fascists and racists. Writing for Daily Kos, one Erasmussimo announced the long-expected change in orthodox dogma as follows:
In the 70s and 80s, a strict intolerance for the racist abuse of science mushroomed into something entirely different: an ideological rejection of the notion that genetics played any role in human behavior. This school of thought was so dominant that many scientists were frightened away from any research remotely related to such matters.
But you can’t deny reality. As one scientist wrote, “Evolution didn’t stop at the neck.” Human mental evolution was strongly influenced by selection pressures, which manifested themselves in human behavior. Genetics really does influence behavior, but it took a while for scientists to re-assert that basic principle. Two scientists, Cosmides and Tooby, began an extremely rigorous program of experiments that demonstrated beyond question that there were oddities of human cognition that could not be explained by any environmental factors. They christened their field of research “evolutionary psychology”. For many years they attracted considerable opprobrium, but their research was flawless and now evolutionary psychology is a respected field of research.
Au contraire, my dear Erasmussimo! The reality that “Evolution doesn’t stop at the neck,” was denied quite successfully by psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists alike for a period of several decades, and was the prevailing orthodoxy, not only in the 70’s and 80’s, but in the 50’s and 60’s as well, in spite of that denial being palpably ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old. Indeed, our unfortunate Erasmussimo seems to have compounded his mistake by completely swallowing the Pinker “big bang” myth of evolutionary psychology, according to which the field sprang forth in all its glory from the mind of E. O. Wilson, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. For example,
The eminent scientist E.O.Wilson was the world’s leading authority on the behavior of ants when, in the 1970s, he proposed that evolutionary selection pressures acted on behavior as well as the body, leading to genetic factors in behavior. His work with ants demonstrated the basic concept beyond question, but when he extended his ideas to humans, he triggered a shitstorm of outrage, and was treated quite badly. Wilson’s work was impeccable, but because it was distantly analogous to the racist IQ claims, his ideas (which he termed “sociobiology”) were lumped together with that odious ideology.
As I’ve pointed out before, Pinker’s “big bang” fairy tale can be easily debunked by anyone who takes the trouble to read Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968. A manifesto of the Blank Slaters, the last I looked it was available on Amazon for a mere 46 cents. It documents the fact that there were several thinkers who insisted on the existence of innate human nature long before Wilson, including Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, and that they also had the honor of being denounced as fascists and racists by the politically pure. According to the testimony of the Blank Slaters themselves, however, by far the most prominent among them was not Lorenz but Robert Ardrey, a “mere playwright.” That fact goes far to explain Pinker’s fabrication, which spares the sensitivities and gravitas of his academic tribe. Read Ardrey’s books, along with those of Lorenz and several others who were challenging the prevailing orthodoxy during the 60’s, and it will become abundantly clear that, as far as the overriding theme of innate human nature is concerned, Sociobiology was anything but original.
Be that as it may, it’s still gratifying to know that the authors of the recent stream of books about innate human behavior are not under any immediate threat of falling under the interdict of the secular morality police. Alas, we gather that not all fields of inquiry have been so fortunate from the title of Erasmussimo’s epistle: Racism has a New Name: HBD. For the unitiated, the acronym HBD stands for Human BioDiversity, described by one of its practitioners as follows:
Human biodiversity is an acknowledgment that humans differ from each other in various ways because of our different genotypes. Differences include, but are not limited to, physical appearance, athletic ability, personality, and cognitive abilities.
Those who have sullied themselves by lusting after such forbidden knowledge need not complain that they were unaware that they were inviting excommunication. The anathema from Kos was preceded by numerous rumblings from lesser lights among the secular clergy. See for example, The Perversity of Human Biodiversity, a.k.a. “Scientific” Racism, the Steve Sailer Sucks blog (Steve Sailer is an arch-wizard of HBD, who, BTW, had the effrontery to sass back), the archive for the Human Biodiversity (HBD) Category at the Unamusement Park, etc. In spite of this, apparently not all of them are in immediate danger of secular hellfire. Kos is merciful. As Erasmussimo puts it,
However, riding on the coattails of this respectable (evolutionary psychology) work is the HBD movement, populated mostly by eager amateurs rather than professional scientists. The HBD movement covers a broad range of ideas, from the genuinely scientific to the nakedly racist. At the scientific end of the range we have people like HBD Chick, who aggregate lots of evidence on matters anthropological and genetic as they relate to human behavior. At the other extreme we have Steve Sailor (sic), a conservative who promulgates racist ideas.
And how are we to distinguish who in the HBD movement are dangling like spiders over the flaming pits of hell (to paraphrase Jonathan Edwards), as opposed to those who are granted a respite to get their minds right? As Erasmussimo explains, by their fruit shall ye know them:
There’s an easy way to differentiate the scientific side of HBD from the racist side: fixation on IQ. These people love to wring the IQ data for every ounce of scientific justification they can find for their racism. They analyze IQ scores by race, religion, gender, national origin, and lots of other factors; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them hasn’t calculated the correlation coefficient of IQ score with aversion to broccoli. They triumphantly trumpet the results that support their prejudices and quietly ignore results that undermine their prejudices, such as the finding that national IQ scores are correlated with GDP per capita.
Paradoxically, at least for those unschooled in the holy mysteries, Erasmussimo leaves open the hypothetical possibility that these racists may actually be right:
Finally, I caution the reader to subordinate personal preference for scientific objectivity in this question. I fervently believe that “All men are created equal”, but I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that some men are born with lesser cognitive talents than others. If solid evidence arises that blacks are cognitively less capable than whites, then I shall accept the hypothesis and move on to asking how we reconcile scientific conclusions with political theory. So far, however, the evidence I have seen is completely inadequate to support the hypothesis.
It may not appear immediately obvious how such evidence, in the wildly implausible event that it exists, is to be forthcoming given that anyone who dares to investigate the matter is to be automatically denounced as a racist. However, it’s not that difficult to understand. Voltaire explained it in Candide, where, alluding to the judicial murder of Admiral Byng by the English, he wrote, “There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”
Posted on September 17th, 2012 No comments
According to Wikipedia, Physical Review Letters’ “focus is rapid dissemination of significant, or notable, results of fundamental research on all topics related to all fields of physics. This is accomplished by rapid publication of short reports, called ‘Letters'”. That’s what I always thought, so I was somewhat taken aback to find an article in last week’s issue entitled, “Encouraging Moderation: Clues from a Simple Model of Ideological Conflict.” Unfortunately, you can’t see the whole thing without a subscription, but here’s the abstract:
Some of the most pivotal moments in intellectual history occur when a new ideology sweeps through a society, supplanting an established system of beliefs in a rapid revolution of thought. Yet in many cases the new ideology is as extreme as the old. Why is it then that moderate positions so rarely prevail? Here, in the context of a simple model of opinion spreading, we test seven plausible strategies for deradicalizing a society and find that only one of them significantly expands the moderate subpopulation without risking its extinction in the process.
That’s physics?! Not according to any of the definitions in my ancient copy of Webster’s Dictionary. Evidently some new ones have cropped up since it was published, and nobody bothered to inform me. In any case, tossing in this kind of stuff doesn’t exactly enhance the integrity of the field. If you don’t have access to the paper, I would not encourage you to visit your local university campus to have a look. I doubt the effort would be worth it.
Where should I start? In the first place, the authors simply assume that “moderate” is to be conflated with “good”, without bothering to offer a coherent definition of “moderate.” In the context of U.S. politics, for example, the term is practically useless. People with an ideological ax to grind tend to consider themselves “moderate,” and their opponents “extreme.” Conservatives refer to the mildest of their opponents as “extreme left wing,” and liberals refer to the most milque-toast of their opponents as “ultra right wing.” Consider, for example, a post about the Muhammad film flap that just appeared on a website with the moniker, “The Moderate Voice.” I don’t doubt that it might be termed “moderate” in the academic milieu from which papers such as the one we are discussing usually emanate, but it wouldn’t pass the smell test as such among mainstream conservatives, and has already been dismissed in those quarters as the fumings of the raving extremist hacks of the left. Back in the 30’s, it was a commonplace and decidedly “moderate” opinion among the authors who contributed articles to The New Republic, the American Mercury, the Atlantic, and the other prestigious intellectual journals of the day was that capitalism was breathing its last, and should be replaced with a socialist system of one stripe or another as soon as possible. Obviously, what passes as “moderate” isn’t constant, even over relatively short times. Is the Tea Party Movement moderate? Certainly not as far as most university professors are concerned, but decidedly so among mainstream conservatives.
According to the authors, the types of ideological swings they refer to occur in science as well as politics. One wonders what “moderation” would look like in such cases. Perhaps the textbooks would inform us that only half the species on earth evolved, and God created the rest, or that, while oxygen is necessary to keep a fire burning, phlogiston is necessary to start one, or that only the most visible stars are imbedded in a crystal ball surrounding the earth known as the “firmament,” while the other half are actually many light years away.
Undeterred by such considerations, the authors created a simple mathematical model that is supposed to reflect the dynamics of ideological change. Just as the economic models are all infallible for predicting the behavior of Homo economicus, it is similarly effective at predicting the behavior of what one might call Homo ideologicus. As for Homo sapiens, not so much. There is no attempt whatsoever to incorporate even the most elementary aspects of human nature in the model. It is inhabited by “speakers” and “listeners,” who are identified as either AB, the inhabitants of the moderate middle ground, or A and B, the extemists on either side of it. For good measure, there is also an Ac, inhabited by “committed” and intransigent followers of A. The subpopulations in these groups are, in turn, labeled nA, nB, nAB, and p. Only moderate listeners can be converted to one of the extremes, and vice versa, although we are reliably informed that, for example, the Nazis found some of their most fertile recruiting grounds among the Communists at the opposite extreme, and certainly not just among German moderates. With the assumptions noted above, and setting aside trivialities such as units of measure, the authors come up with “dynamic equations” such as,
nA = (p + nA)nAB – nAnB
nB = nBnAB – (p + nA)n
There are variations, complete with parameters to account for “stubbornness” and “evangelism.” There are any number of counterintuitive assumptions implicit in the models, such as that all speakers are equally effective at convincing others to change sides, opinions about given issues are held independently of opinions about other issues, although this is almost never the case among people who care about the issues one way or the other, that a metric for deciding what is the moderate “good” and what the extreme “evil” will always be available to the philosopher kings who apply the models, etc. The models were tested on “real social networks,” and (surprise, surprise) the curves derived from a judicious choice of nA, nB, etc., were in nice agreement with predictions.
According to the authors,
Since we present no formal evidence that the dynamics of (the equations noted above) do actually occur in practice, our work could alternatively be viewed as posing this model and its subsequent generalizations as interesting in their own right.
While I heartily concur with the first part of the sentence, I suggest that the model and its subsequent generalizations might be of more enduring interest to sociologists than physicists. Perhaps the editors of Phys Rev Letters and their reviewers will consider that possibility the next time a similar paper is submitted, and kindly direct the authors to a more appropriate journal.
Posted on September 12th, 2012 No comments
In an article entitled “Are Modern Professors Experts on Good and Evil” on the website of the National Association of Scholars, author Bruce Davison writes,
Nowadays the professoriate in many parts of the world is very free with its moral judgments, condemning or applauding various nations, groups, and individuals. This phenomenon prompts a query about whether academics really have any special insight into the nature of good and evil.
One can formulate an answer to this query in one word: No! It is impossible to have any special insight regarding objects that don’t exist. Davison’s query was prompted by what he heard and saw at the most recent of a series of global conferences on “Perpectives on Evil and Human Wickedness” that have been held annually since 2000. In glancing through the titles of the papers presented at these conferences, one finds the usual fare; one on the evil of “rogue capitalism,” one on the evil of land mines, several on the evil of Nazism, a smattering of others on the evil of ethnic cleansing, a great many on the various evils perpetrated by Republican administrations in the United States, and so on. In other words, there’s a lot of stuff on things that “modern professors” generally agree are evil, but, predictably, almost nothing on why they are evil. The implicit assumptions at such soirees are always that there is such a thing as objective evil, and that the attendees know what it is. These things must be assumed, because, lacking any basis in reality, they cannot be demonstrated. Evil is perceived as an object because of subjective processes that take place in the brains of individual human beings. However, it does not actually exist as an object. Discussions of the various categories of evil are no more rational than discussions of the various categories of unicorns.
Mr. Davidson takes issue, not with the “modern professors'” assertion that evil exists as a thing in itself, but with their assertions regarding the nature of the thing. For example, he notes,.
To begin with, I was struck by the conference call for papers on the Internet. It listed people commonly regarded as evil, including Torquemada, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, and…Ronald Reagan. Of course, who can forget Ronald Reagan and his Republican hordes sweeping down from the steppes, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake? Few figures from recent history evoke such terror and loathing—at least, among leftist academics.
In other words, he does not dispute the existence of evil as an object. Rather he disputes the degree to which Ronald Reagan is associated with that object in comparison with such distinguished historical figures as Hitler and Genghis Khan. In his opinion, the academics are merely looking in the wrong place for the evil object:
In short, faddish ideological conformity blinds many modern scholars to the obvious and trivializes their treatment of weighty moral issues. Though few at the conference dealt with them, traditional religious teachings often have had more insight into the incorrigible, profound depths of human evil. In contrast, most of the modern professoriate has little other than the feeble tools of psychotherapy and politically correct moralism to work with. As a result, the current academic world has in many ways become an enabler of human evil.
I must admit that I do find the rationale of religious teachings for believing in evil as a thing in itself (do it, or you’ll fry in hell for quintillions of years just for starters), rather more coherent than that of the academics (eat shit; 50 billion flies can’t be wrong). However, that is merely to compare failures. Neither argument establishes a basis for the existence of evil as a thing independent of the subjective judgments of individuals, and neither establishes a basis for the legitimacy of applying those judgments to others.
As a consequence, I find the ravings of the pathologically pious from either camp about the evil of this, that, and the other thing, very tiresome. There is, after all, no rational basis for declamations on the merits of the different breeds of unicorns. I freely admit that, as Jonathan Haidt points out, self-righteousness is as natural to human beings as spots to a leopard. I even admit that I occasionally have a marked tendency to be just as self-righteous as all the rest. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.