Posted on February 5th, 2016 No comments
Commenter Christian asked whether I would make an exception for the Führer in the post Is Trump Evil? I would not. Questions of good or evil are not subject to truth claims, period!
Let me say some things up front about the implications of this claim. The fact that Hitler was not evil does not imply that he was good. It does not imply moral relativism. It does not imply the impossibility of moral standards that are perceived and treated as absolute. It does not imply that all of us “should” be able to do whatever we feel like. Nor does it imply that the many soldiers, including my father, who put themselves in harm’s way to smash Hitler’s armies were acting in vain, or that the sacrifice of those who fell fighting him was irrational or absurd. What the claim does imply is that the source of moral claims is not to be sought floating about in the form of some kind of an independent thing, but in the subjective emotions of individuals.
Let’s consider whether the claim that Hitler was evil is rational or not. That claim is very different from the claim that Hitler is thought to be evil. In other words, it implies nothing about subjective emotions, but implies that Hitler was evil independent of them, or of anything that goes on in the minds of individuals. How could that be? If so, some agency independent of the mind must exist as a basis for the claim. Otherwise it is based on nothing. I don’t believe in a God or gods. However, it has been suggested that, if one exists, objective good and evil can be determined by His opinion on the matter. This claim was debunked more than two millennia ago in Plato’s Euthyphro. What else might be floating around in the aether that could serve as a basis for truth claims about morality? Something made of matter as we know it? I find it very hard to make such a connection, although I am always open to suggestions. Something made of energy? As Einstein pointed out, the two are convertible, so that doesn’t get us anywhere.
If it doesn’t consist of either matter or energy, where, then, are we to look for the source of this elusive grounding of moral claims? In the spirit world? By all means, if you think it’s reasonable to believe in things for which there is no credible evidence. What other “thing” or “entity” could there possibly be that could fill the need? Again, I’m open to suggestions, but I’m not aware of anything of the sort, and I’m not prepared to accept the argument that there is an objective basis for morality, but that the basis is nothing.
Consider moral emotions. They are certainly capable of explaining why some things or individuals are thought to be evil. However, analogs of these emotions are to be found in other animals. It seems reasonable to suppose that their existence in both human beings and other species can be explained by natural selection. In other words, the existence of the genes responsible for spawning the relevant behavioral predispositions apparently increased the probability that those genes would survive and reproduce, or at least that they did at the time that the genes first appeared. Mathematical models seem to confirm this conclusion, and great heaps of books and papers have been published based on it. However, if there is an objective basis for moral claims, presumably it must be independent these randomly selected emotional predispositions. The “real” good and “real” evil must either have no connection to them, or there must be some reason why randomly evolved genes not only improve the odds of survival, but at the same time mysteriously conform to objective moral standards. This conclusion seems neither rational nor plausible to me. What does seem a great deal more rational and plausible is what Edvard Westermarck wrote on the subject more than a century ago:
As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.
The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is that the moral concepts are based upon emotions and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.
Consider the case of individual Nazis. Goebbels is a good example, as, unlike Hitler, he left extensive diaries. Read them, and you will discover an individual not unlike those who are occasionally described as “social justice warriors” in our own time. He was an activist who sacrificed his time and occasionally his health in the fight to right what seemed to him a terrible injustice; the “enslaving” of the German people by the Treaty of Versailles. He was hardly a man who woke up every morning scratching his head wondering what evil deed he could do that day. Rather, he was firmly convinced he was fighting for the good, in the form of the liberation of the German people from the clutches of those who he imagined sought to enslave and crush them. He was a convinced socialist, well to the left of Hitler in that regard. He honored and loved his family, and believed firmly in the Christian God, frequently invoking His aid in the diaries. He often railed at the “gypsy life” he lived before the Nazis came to power, constantly traveling here and there for speeches and demonstrations, and bewailed his rundown condition because of constant overwork. He fantasized about running off to Switzerland with one of his many lady loves. His strong sense of duty, however, held him to his work in pursuit of what he firmly believed was the “good.”
Clearly, then, Goebbels was incapable of distinguishing between “good and evil” as they are commonly defined today, at least, in the U.S. and much of Europe. The same may be said of Hitler, who was a very similar type, dedicated to what he imagined was a noble and highly ethical cause, as can be seen in the pages of his Mein Kampf. If he actually was “evil,” then, we must conclude, based at least on the standards prevailing in U.S. courts of law, that he was less “evil” than those who know the difference between right and wrong. If we were to insist on the existence of objective morality, we could go on multiplying these “extenuating circumstances” indefinitely, having a fine time in the process debating the precise level of Hitler’s criminal liability for his deeds in terms of “real” good and “real” evil. I submit that it would be more reasonable, not to mention less mentally taxing, to simply admit the obvious; that the categories “real” good and “real” evil are chimeras.
Which brings us back to my earlier comments about moral relativity. I do not believe that it is possible for one individual to be more objectively good or more objectively evil than another. In spite of that, I make moral judgments about other drivers on the road all the time. We make moral judgments because it is our nature to make moral judgments. For the most part, at least, it is not our nature to be “moral relativists,” and all the scribblings of all the philosophers on the planet won’t alter human nature, as the Communists, among others, discovered at great cost, both to themselves and the rest of us. The fact that Hitler and the rest of the Nazis weren’t objectively evil does not somehow render the fight against Nazism irrational or impermissible. As Hume pointed out long ago, we are motivated to do things by emotion, not reason, and reason must ever be the slave of emotion.
Most of us have an emotional attachment to staying alive, and to ensuring the survival of those we love. If Nazis or anyone else wanted to kill or enslave us or them, there is no objective reason why we should resist. However, in my case and, I think, in most others, it would be my nature to resist, and just as there is no objective reason why I should, there is also no objective reason why I should not. It might occur to me in the process that my reaction to the emotional desire to resist was in harmony with the reasons that the desire existed in the first place, namely, because it increased the odds of genetic survival. In my case, this would increase my will to resist, especially in the world of today where so many actions in response to moral emotions seem better calculated to result in genetic suicide. In the process of resisting, I would hardly dispense with such powerful weapons as moral emotions merely because I am aware of the non-existence of objective good and evil. On the contrary, I would exploit every opportunity to portray my enemy as evil, and there would be nothing either contradictory or objectively “wrong” about doing so.
As for absolute morality, no such thing is possible in an objective sense, but it is certainly possible in a subjective sense. There is no objective reason whatsoever why we should not come up with a version of morality consistent with our nature, seek to live by it, and punish those who don’t. Eventually, we would tend to imagine compliance with those moral rules to be “really good” and failure to comply with them to be “really evil,” because that is our nature. I personally would prefer living under such a system, assuming we were vigilant in preventing morality from overstepping its bounds.
As for the Nazis, it will greatly facilitate the historical task of understanding what manner of people they were and why they did what they did if we go into it unencumbered with fantasies about objective good and evil. Communism was actually a very similar phenomenon. Its most substantial difference from Nazism was probably the mere substitution of “bourgeoisie” for Jews as the outgroup of choice. The fool’s errand of trying to pigeonhole the Nazis on some imaginary moral scale did not help us to avoid Communism, nor is it likely to help us avoid similar historical blunders in the future. It would be better to actually understand the emotional nature of individuals like Hitler and Goebbels, which is probably a great deal more similar to the emotional nature of the rest of us than we care to admit, and how it motivated them to do what they did. Or at least it would be better for those of us who would prefer to avoid another dose of Communism or Nazism.
Posted on January 31st, 2016 2 comments
The question itself is absurd. It implies the existence of things – objective good and evil – that are purely imaginary. Good and evil seem to be real, but they are actually only words we assign to subjective emotional responses. Darwin was aware of the fact, as demonstrated in his writings. Westermarck stated it as a scientific theory in his Ethical Relativity. Arthur Keith and others before him noted critical aspect of human morality that is commonly ignored to this day; its dual nature. Robert Ardrey referred to it as the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” noting that we categorize others into ingroups, with which we associate “good” qualities, and outgroups, with which we associate “evil.” Denial of the dual nature of morality has been one of the more damaging legacies of the Blank Slate. Among other things, it has obscured the reasons for the existence of such variants of outgroup identification as racism, religious bigotry, and anti-Semitism. In the process, it has obscured from the consciousness of those who are loudest in condemning these “evils” that they, too, have outgroups, which they commonly hate more bitterly and irrationally than those they accuse of such sins.
The current attempts in the UK to establish a travel ban on Donald Trump are a good illustration of the absurdities that are commonly the result of failure to recognize the simple truths stated above. As I write this, 570,000 Brits have signed a petition calling for such a ban. In response, the British parliament has begun debating the issue. All this is justified on moral grounds. Ask one of the petition signers why, exactly, Trump is evil, and typical responses would include the claim that he is a racist, a religious bigot, spreads “hate-speech,” etc. If one were to continue the line of questioning, asking why racism is bad, they might respond that it leads to inequality. Ask them why equality is good, and they might start losing patience with the questioner because, in fact, they don’t know. None of these saintly petition signers has the faintest clue why Trump is “really evil.” It’s no wonder. Legions of philosophers have been trying to catch the gaudy butterflies of “good” and “evil” for the last few millennia. They have failed for a very good reason. The butterflies don’t exist.
Let us attempt to bring the debate back into the real world. Trump wants to expel illegal immigrants from the U.S., and end immigration of Muslims. These are not irrational goals. As history demonstrates, they are both legally and physically possible. In both cases, they would recognize the existence of human nature in general, and our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups in particular. They will result in the exclusion from the country of people who have historically perceived the lion’s share of the existing population of the United States as an outgroup. In the case of Moslems, their holy book, the Quran, includes many passages forbidding friendship with Christians and condemning those with commonly held Christian beliefs to burn in hell for eternity. In the case of Hispanics, they come from cultures that have historically perceived North Americans as exploiters and imperialist aggressors. Both of these groups, in turn, are typically perceived by Americans as belonging to outgroups. Allowing them to remain in or enter the country has already resulted in civil strife. If history is any guide, there is a non-trivial possibility that the eventual result will be civil war. These are outcomes that most current US citizens would prefer to avoid. They are being told, however, that to avoid being “racist,” or “bigoted,” or, in fine, “immoral,” they must accept these outcomes. In other words, to be “good,” they must practice an absurd form of altruism, in which they must make tangible sacrifices, even though the chances that they will ever receive anything back in return are nil. Otherwise, they will be “evil.” This unusual form of moral behavior is not encountered elsewhere in the animal kingdom.
Moral emotions certainly do not exist to promote “good” and defeat “evil.” They exist solely because, at points in time that were utterly unlike the present, they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for spawning them would survive and reproduce. Importing civil strife and, potentially, civil war, are not good strategies for promoting genetic survival. The subjective desire to direct moral emotions in order to accomplish goals that are in harmony with the reasons those emotions exist to begin with is neither “good” nor “evil.” However, as long as one recognizes the necessarily subjective nature of those goals, there is no basis for the claim that pursuing them is irrational. In short, expelling illegal immigrants and banning Muslim immigration are not “evil,” because there is no such thing as “evil,” beyond its subjective and dependent existence in the consciousness of individuals. They are, however, rational, in the sense that they are legal and achievable, and are also in harmony with the goal of genetic, not to mention cultural survival. Most US citizens seem to recognize this fact at some conscious or subconscious level. This explains their support for Trump, and what one might call their immune response to a deluge of culturally alien immigrants, whether legal or illegal. As so often happens, many of those who don’t “get it” are intellectuals, who have a disconcerting tendency to bamboozle themselves with ideological concoctions from which they imagine they can distill the “good,” often at the expense of others not afflicted with a similar talent for self-delusion.
The petition signers, on the other hand, would be somewhat embarrassed if asked to justify their condemnation of Trump on grounds other than such imaginary categories as “good” and “evil.” Perhaps they might argue that he is acting against the “brotherhood of man,” and that the “brotherhood of man” is a rational goal because it would reduce or eliminate inter-species warfare and other forms of violence, goals which are also in harmony with genetic survival. To this, one need merely respond, “Look in the mirror.” There, if they look closely, they will see the reflection of their own hatreds, and of their own outgroups. They are no more immune to human nature than the racists and bigots they so piously condemn. After their own fashion, like virtually every other human being on the planet, they are “racists and bigots” themselves. The only difference between them and those they condemn is in the choice of outgroup. Their own hatreds expose the “brotherhood of man” as a fantasy.
In short, all these Brits who imagine themselves dwelling on pinnacles of righteousness don’t oppose Trump’s policies on rational grounds. They oppose him because they hate him, and they hate him because he is included in their outgroup, and must, therefore, be “immoral.” In that they are similar to American Trump-haters. Typical Brits, on the other hand, have many other hatreds in common. Many of them have a long and abiding hatred of Americans. Going back to the years just after we gained our independence, one may consult the pages of the British Quarterly Review, probably their most influential journal during the first half of the 19th century. There you will find nothing but scorn for Americans and their “silly paper Constitution.” As anyone who has read a little history is aware, little changed between then and the most recent orgasm of anti-American hatred in Europe, in which the Brits were eager participants. It’s ironic that these hatemongers are now sufficiently droll to accuse others of “hate-speech.” Ideologues may be defined as those who identify their in- and outgroups according to ideological criteria. In common with ideologues everywhere, British ideologues hatred of the “other,” so defined, is as virulent as the hatreds of any racist ever heard of. In other words, to judge by their “racism,” they are at least as “evil” as the outgroups they condemn. The only difference is that their hatred is aroused by “races” that differ from them in political alignment rather than skin color. It is this variant of “racism” that they are now directing at Trump.
If Trump does become President, it would not be surprising to see him retaliate against the British hatemongers, if not in response to moral emotions, perhaps as a mere matter of self-defense. To begin, for example, he might expel the British scientists who are now so ubiquitous at our national weapons laboratories, with free access to both our classified nuclear weapons information and to expensive experimental facilities, to the construction and maintenance of which they have contributed little if anything. Beyond that, we might deliver some broad hints as to the violation of the Monroe Doctrine posed by their occupation of the Malvinas Islands, accompanied by some judicious arming of Argentina.
None of what I have written above implies nihilism, or moral relativism, nor does it exclude the possibility of an absolute morality. I merely recognize the fact that good and evil are not objective things, and draw the obvious conclusions. Facts are not good or evil. They are simply facts.
Posted on October 2nd, 2015 5 comments
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know my take on morality. It is the manifestation of a subset of our suite of innate behavioral traits. The traits in question exist because they evolved. Absent those traits, morality as we know it would not exist. It follows that attempts to apply moral emotions in order to solve complex problems that arise in an environment that is radically different from the one in which the innate, “root causes” of morality evolved are irrational. That, however, is precisely how the Europeans are attempting to deal with an unprecedented flood of culturally and genetically alien refugees. The result is predictable – a classic morality inversion.
…moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.
In other words, the “emotional dog” makes the judgment. Only after the judgment has been made does the “rational tail” begin “wagging the dog,” concocting good sounding “reasons” for the judgment. One can get a better idea of what’s really going on by tracking down the source of the moral emotions involved.
Let’s consider, then, what’s going on inside the “pro-refugee” brain. As in every other brain, the moral machinery distinguishes between ingroup and outgroup(s). In this case these categories are perceived primarily in ideological terms. The typical pro-refugee individual is often a liberal, as that rather slippery term is generally understood in the context of 21st century western democracies. Such specimens will occasionally claim that they have expanded their ingroup to include “all mankind,” so that it is no longer possible for them to be “haters.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The outgroup have ye always with you. It comes with the human behavioral package.
If anything, the modern liberal hates more violently than any other subgroup. He commonly hates the people within his own culture who disagree with the shibboleths of his ideology. Those particular “others,” almost always constitute at least a part of his outgroup. Outside of his own culture, ideology matters much less as a criterion of outgroup identification, as demonstrated, for example, by the odd affinity between many Western liberals and radical Islamists.
Beyond that, however, he is hardly immune from the more traditional forms of tribalism. For example, European liberals typically hate the United States. The intensity of that hatred tends to rise and fall over time, but can sometimes reach almost incredible levels. The most recent eruption occurred around the year 2000. Interestingly enough, one of the most spectacular examples occurred in Germany, the very country that now takes the cake for moralistic grandstanding in the matter of refugees. Der Spiegel, its number one news magazine, was certainly in the avant-garde of the orgasm of hatred. It was often difficult to find any news about Germany on the homepage of its website, so filled was it with furious, spittle-flinging rants about the imagined evils of “die Amerikaner.” However, virtually every other major German “news” outlet, whether it was nominally “liberal” or “conservative,” eventually jointed the howling pack. The most vicious examples of anti-American hate were typically found in just those publications that are now quick to denounce German citizens who express concern about the overwhelming waves of refugees now pouring into the country as “haters.”
On the other hand, refugees, or at least those of the type now pouring into Europe, seldom turn up in any of these common outgroups of the modern liberal. They land squarely in his ingroup. Humans are generally inclined to help ingroup members who, like the refugees, appear to be in trouble. This is doubly true of the liberal, who piques himself on what he imagines to be his moral superiority. Furthermore, as the refugees can be portrayed as victims of colonialism and imperialism, one might say they are a “most favored subset” of the ingroup. Throw in a few pictures of drowned children, impoverished women begging for help, etc., and all the moral ingredients are there to render the liberal an impassioned defender of the masses of humanity drawing a bead on his country. Nothing gives him more self-righteous joy than imagining himself a “savior.” This explains the fact that liberals are eternally in the process of “saving” one group of unfortunates or another without ever getting around to accomplishing anything actually recognizable as salvation. All the pleasure is in the charade. We find the same phenomenon whether its a matter of “saving” the environment, “saving” the planet from global warming, or “saving” the poor. For the liberal, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.
Which brings us back to the theme of this post. All the sublime moral emotions now at play in the “salvation” of the refugees have an uncanny resemblance to many other instances of moral behavior as practiced by the modern liberal. They have a tendency to favor an outcome which is the opposite of what the same moral emotions accomplished at an earlier time, and that led to their preservation by natural selection to begin with. In a word, as noted above, we are witnessing yet another classic morality inversion.
Why an inversion? At the most fundamental level, because it will lead to the diminution or elimination of the genes whose survival a similar response once favored. At the moment, the pro-refugee side is calling the shots. It controls the governments of all the major European states. All of them more or less fit the pattern described above, whether they are nominally “liberal” or “conservative.” Indeed, foremost among them is Germany’s “conservative’ regime, which has positively invited a flood of alien refugees across its borders. Based on historical precedent, the outcome of all this altruism isn’t difficult to foresee. In terms of “culture” it will be a future of ethnic and religious strife, possibly leading to civil war. Genetically, it amounts to an attempt at ethnic suicide. I am well aware that these outcomes are disputed by those promoting the refugee inundation. However, I consider it pointless to argue about it. I am content to let history judge.
While we bide our time waiting for the train wreck to unfold, it may be of interest to examine some of the techniques being used to maintain this remarkable instance of moralistic play-acting. I take most of my examples from the German media, which includes some of the most avid refugee cheerleaders. Predictably, outgroup vilification is part of the mix. As noted above, anyone who objects to the flood of refugees is almost universally denounced as a “hater” by just those people who wear their own virulent hatreds on their sleeves while pretending they don’t exist. Of course, there are also the usual hackneyed violations of Godwin’s Law. For example, Jacob Augstein, leftwing stalwart for Der Spiegel, denounces them as “Browns” (i.e., brownshirts, Nazis) in a recent column. On the “positive” side, the “conservative” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung optimistically suggests that the refugees will promote economic growth. According to another article in Der Spiegel, the eastern Europeans, who are not quite so refugee-friendly as the Germans, are “blowing their chance.” The ominous byline reads,
Europe is shrinking. The demographic downtrend is particularly dramatic in the eastern part of the continent, where the population is literally dying out. In spite of that, Hungary, Poland and company are resisting immigration. They will regret it.
In other words, before turning out the lights and committing suicide, the eastern Europeans should make sure an alien culture is in place to take over their territories when they’re gone. Of course, this flies in the face of the impassioned rhetoric the liberals have been feeding us about the need to reduce the surface population if we are to have an environmentally sustainable planet.
I note in passing that the European elites that are driving this process now seem to have taken a step back from the brink. They are having second thoughts. They realize that they don’t have their populations behind them, and that their defiance of popular opinion might eventually threaten their own power. As a result, the number of news articles about the refugees and their plight is only a shadow of what it was only a few weeks ago. Mild reservations about refugee wowserism are starting to appear even in such gung-ho forums as Der Spiegel where, as I write this, the lead article on their homepage is entitled “Now Things Are Getting Uncomfortable.” Ya think!? The byline reads,
There is a chance in tone in the refugee crisis. SPD (German Social Democratic Party) chief Gabriel warms about limits to Germany’s ability to absorb refugees. Minister of the Interior de Maziere deplores the misbehavior of many migrants. The pressure on Chancellor Merkel is increasing.
“Ought” the Europeans to alter their behavior? Is what they consider “good” really “evil?” Are they ignoring the real “goal” of natural selection? Certainly not, at least from an objective point of view. There is no objective criterion for determining what anyone “ought” to do, anymore than there is an objective way to distinguish the difference between things, such as good and evil, that have no objective existence. They are hardly failing to move towards the “goal” of natural selection, since that process does not have either a purpose or a goal. As you may have gathered, my own subjective whim is to oppose unlimited immigration. I have, however, not the slightest basis for declaring that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is “evil.” At best, I can try to explain my own whims.
I’m what you might call a moral compatibilist. I see myself sitting at the end of a chain of life spawned by genetic material that has evolved over a period of more than three billions years, surviving and reproducing over that incredible gulf of time via an almost infinite array of successive forms, culminating in the species to which I now belong. I consider the whole process, and the universe I live in, awesome and wonderful. Subjectively, it seems to me “good” to act in a way that is compatible with the natural processes that have given me life. It follows that, from my own, individual, subjective point of view, I “should” seek to preserve that life and pass it on into the indefinite future.
I have not the slightest basis for claiming that “my way” is better than the whimsical behavior of those I see around me exultantly pursuing their morality inversions. At best, I must limit myself to observing that “my way” seems more consistent.
Posted on August 16th, 2015 1 comment
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have just published an article in The Atlantic entitled The Coddling of the American Mind that illustrates yet another pathological artifact of the bitter determination of our species to preserve the fantasy of objective morality. They describe the current attempts of university students to enforce ideological orthodoxy by vilifying “microaggressions” against the true faith and insisting on “trigger warnings” to insure the pure in heart will not be traumatized by allusions to Crimethink.
Haidt has done some brilliant work on the nature of human morality, and his The Righteous Mind is a must read for anyone with a serious interest in understanding the subject. Lukianoff is the CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which supports free-speech rights on campus. According to his own account, his interest in the subject was catalyzed by his personal struggle with depression.
According to the article,
A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.
The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 80s and 90s. That movement sought to restrict speech… but it also challenged the literary, philosophical and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.
Which brings them to the theme of their article – that this “vindictive protectiveness,” as they call it is not protecting students from psychological harm, but is actually causing it. The rest of the article mainly consists of the claim that modern students are really the victims of some of the dozen “common cognitive distortions” that are listed at the end of the article, and suggests that “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which helped Lukianoff overcome his own struggle with severe depression, might be something they should try as well.
Maybe, but I suspect that the real motivation behind this latest “movement” has no more to do with “preventing psychological harm” than “preventing discomfort or giving offense” were the real motivations behind the PC movement, which, BTW, is at least as active now as it was in the 80s and 90s. Rather, these phenomena are best understood as modern versions of the ancient game of moralistic one-upmanship. In other words, they’re just a mundane form of status seeking behavior. As usual, by taking them seriously one just plays into the hands of the status seekers.
If you’d like to see what the phenomenon looked like in the 60’s, and didn’t happen to be around at the time, I recommend you have a look at the movie Getting Straight, starring Elliot Gould and Candice Bergen. It’s all about the campus revolutions of the incredibly narcissistic and self-righteous Baby Boomers who were the “youth” of the time. Encouraged by their doting parents, they imagined themselves the bearers of all worldly wisdom, guaranteed to be the creators of a future utopia. Their doting (and despised) parents, of the generation that transcended the Great Depression, defeated the Nazis and fascists in World War II, and fended off Communism long enough for it to collapse of its own “internal contradictions” so their children had the opportunity to stage cathartic but entirely safe “revolutions,” are uniformly portrayed as idiots, standing in the way of “progress.” The “student revolutionaries” in the film are every bit as pious as their modern analogs, and have equally idiotic demands. The Brave New World will apparently only be possible if they are allowed to have coed dorms and gender and ethnic studies programs at every university, presumably to insure they will have no marketable skills, and so will be able to continue the “revolution” after they graduate. The amusing thing about the film, especially in retrospect, is that its creators weren’t intentionally creating a comedy. They actually took themselves seriously.
For earlier versions of “vindictive protectiveness” most of us must turn to the history books. The great Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, devoted a great deal of his time and energy to fighting its manifestation as the “Uplift” of his own day. Many examples may be found in his six volumes of Prejudices, or his autobiographical Trilogy. The latest version, BTW, has string bookmarks, just like the old family Bibles. I’m sure the old infidel would have been amused.
Shakespeare loathed the “vindictive protectiveness” of his day, which came in its first really modern version; Puritanism. See, for example, his Twelfth Night, which scorns the “morally righteous” of his day as personified by that “devil of a Puritan,” Malvolio. For cruder, less culturally evolved versions, one can go back to the Blues and Greens of the Byzantine circus, or the Christian squabbles over assorted flavors of heresy in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries.
In a word, there is nothing new under the sun. I’m sure Haidt realizes this. After all, he devotes much of The Righteous Mind to describing and analyzing the phenomenon. He plays along with the “cognitive behavioral therapy” stuff, because that’s what blows his co-author’s hair back, but still gets enough in between the lines to describe what is really going on. For example, from the article,
A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.
And that really is, and always has been, the crux of the problem. Nothing can be “objectively wrong.” The origin of all these sublime and now microscopically distilled moral emotions will probably eventually be found in the ancient portions of our brains that we share with every other mammal, and probably the reptiles as well. This “root cause” of moral behavior exists because it evolved. It did not evolve because of its efficacy in fending off microaggressions, or to insure that Mesozoic mammals would be sure to issue trigger warnings. No, it evolved for the somewhat unrelated reason that it happened to increase the odds that certain “selfish genes,” or perhaps “selfish groups,” if you believe E. O. Wilson, would survive, and pass on the relevant DNA to latter day animals with big brains, namely, us. We get into trouble like this by over-thinking what our reptile brains are trying to tell us. The problem will never go away until our self-knowledge develops to the point that we finally grasp this essential truth. Until that great day dawns, we will have to grin and bear the annoyance of dealing with the pathologically and delicately self-righteous among us. Roll out the fainting couches!
Posted on June 21st, 2015 33 comments
If we are evolved animals, then it is plausible that we have evolved behavioral traits, and among those traits are a “moral sense.” So much was immediately obvious to Darwin himself. To judge by the number of books that have been published about evolved morality in the last couple of decades, it makes sense to a lot of other people, too. The reason such a sense might have evolved is obvious, especially among highly social creatures such as ourselves. The tendency to act in some ways and not in others enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for those tendencies would survive and reproduce. It is not implausible that this moral sense should be strong, and that it should give rise to such powerful impressions that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” as to produce a sense that “good” and “evil” exist independently as objective things. Such a moral sense is demonstrably very effective at modifying our behavior. It hardly follows that good and evil really are independent, objective things.
If an evolved moral sense really is the “root cause” for the existence of all the various and gaudy manifestations of human morality, is it plausible to believe that this moral sense has somehow tracked an “objective morality” that floats around out there independent of any subjective human consciousness? No. If it really is the root cause, is there some objective mechanism whereby the moral impressions of one human being can leap out of that individual’s skull and gain the normative power to dictate to another human being what is “really good” and “really evil?” No. Can there be any objective justification for outrage? No. Can there be any objective basis for virtuous indignation? No. So much is obvious. Under the circumstances it’s amazing, even given the limitations of human reason, that so many of the most intelligent among it just don’t get it. One can only attribute it to the tremendous power of the moral emotions, the great pleasure we get from indulging them, and the dominant role they play in regulating all human interactions.
These facts were recently demonstrated by the interesting behavior of some of the more prominent intellectuals among us in reaction to some comments at a scientific conference. In case you haven’t been following the story, the commenter in question was Tim Hunt,- a biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for discoveries of protein molecules that control the division (duplication) of cells. At a luncheon during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, he averred that women are a problem in labs because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Hunt’s comment evoked furious moral emotions, not least among atheist intellectuals. According to PZ Myers, proprietor of Pharyngula, Hunt’s comments revealed that he is “bad.” Some of his posts on the subject may be found here, here, and here. For example, according to Myers,
Oh, no! There might be a “chilling effect” on the ability of coddled, privileged Nobel prize winners to say stupid, demeaning things about half the population of the planet! What will we do without the ability of Tim Hunt to freely accuse women of being emotional hysterics, or without James Watson’s proud ability to call all black people mentally retarded?
I thought Hunt’s plaintive whines were a big bowl of bollocks.
All I can say is…fuck off, dinosaur. We’re better off without you in any position of authority.
We can glean additional data in the comments to these posts that demonstrate the human version of “othering.” Members of outgroups, or “others,” are not only “bad,” but also typically impure and disgusting. For example,
Glad I wasn’t the only–or even the first!–to mention that long-enough-to-macramé nose hair. I think I know what’s been going on: The female scientists in his lab are always trying hard to not stare at the bales of hay peeking out of his nostrils and he’s been mistaking their uncomfortable, demure behaviour as ‘falling in love with him’.
However, in creatures with brains large enough to cogitate about what their emotions are trying to tell them, the same suite of moral predispositions can easily give rise to stark differences in moral judgments. Sure enough, others concluded that Myers and those who agreed with him were “bad.” Prominent among them was Richard Dawkins, who wrote in an open letter to the London Times,
Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”
The moral emotions of other Nobel laureates informed them that Dawkins was right. For example, according to the Telegraph,
Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 said that Sir Tim had been “crucified” by ideological fanatics , and castigated UCL for “ousting” him.
Avram Hershko, an Israeli scientist who won the 2004 Nobel prize in chemistry, said he thought Sir Tim was “very unfairly treated.” He told the Times: “Maybe he wanted to be funny and was jet lagged, but then the criticism in the social media and in the press was very much out of proportion. So was his prompt dismissal — or resignation — from his post at UCL .”
All these reactions have one thing in common. They are completely irrational unless one assumes the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things rather than subjective impressions. Or would you have me believe, dear reader, that statements like, “fuck off, dinosaur,” and allusions to crucifixion by “ideological fanatics” engaged in a “baying witch-hunt,” are mere cool, carefully reasoned suggestions about how best to advance the officially certified “good” of promoting greater female participation in the sciences? Nonsense! These people aren’t playing a game of charades, either. Their behavior reveals that they genuinely believe, not only in the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things, but in their own ability to tell the difference better than those who disagree with them. If they don’t believe it, they certainly act like they do. And yet these are some of the most intelligent representatives of our species. One can but despair, and hope that aliens from another planet don’t turn up anytime soon to witness such ludicrous spectacles.
Clearly, we can’t simply dispense with morality. We’re much too stupid to get along without it. Under the circumstances, it would be nice if we could all agree on what we will consider “good” and what “bad,” within the limits imposed by the innate bedrock of morality in human nature. Unfortunately, human societies are now a great deal different than the ones that existed when the predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved, and they tend to change very rapidly. It stands to reason that it will occasionally be necessary to “adjust” the types of behavior we consider “good” and “bad” to keep up as best we can. I personally doubt that the current practice of climbing up on rickety soap boxes and shouting down anathemas on anyone who disagrees with us, and then making the “adjustment” according to who shouts the loudest, is really the most effective way to accomplish that end. Among other things, it results in too much collateral damage in the form of shattered careers and ideological polarization. I can’t suggest a perfect alternative at the moment, but a little self-knowledge might help in the search for one. Shedding the illusion of objective morality would be a good start.
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 4th, 2015 No comments
If you’re worried that the demise of religion implies the demise of morality, I suggest you search the term “Memories Pizza.” As it happens, Memories Pizza is (or was) a small business in the town of Walkerton, Indiana. By all accounts, its owners had never refused to serve gays, or uttered a harsh word about the gay community. Then, however, a reporter by the name of Alyssa Marino strolled in fishing for a story about Indiana’s recently enacted “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Apparently attracted by the signage in the restaurant that made it obvious that the owners were Christians, Marino asked the proprietor a question that had never come up in the decade the business had been in business, and was unlikely to come up in the future; Would the business cater a gay wedding. The reply: “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no.” Marino promptly wrote a story about her visit under the headline, “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service.” This was a bit disingenuous, to say the least. As Robbie Soave at Hit and Run put it,
That headline implies two things that are false. The O’Connors had no intention of becoming the first Michiana business to do anything discriminatory with respect to gay people; they had merely answered a hypothetical question about what would happen if a gay couple asked them to cater a wedding. And the O’Connors had every intention of providing regular service to gay people—just not their weddings.
No matter, the story went viral, provoking a furious (and threatening) response from the gay ingroup. Hundreds of reviews suddenly appeared on Yelp, with comments such as,
I you like your pizza with a side of bigoted hatred and ignorance this is the spot for you. If you’re not a piece of trash I would stay away.
This is an excellent place to bring back that old time, nostalgia feeling. For those who want to experience what life was like under Jim Crow, this is the place for you!
Terrible place, owners chose to be heterosexual. The biggest bigots are the most closeted. No gay man or woman is going to order pizza for a wedding. These people should be put out of business. O yeah, I’m going to kill your Jesus. Try and stop me.
and, finally, the apocalyptic,
DO NOT EAT HERE – The owners are hateful bigots who twist the meaning of Christianity to satisfy their own insecurities by indoctrinating their children with hate, further poisoning our world and future generations.
Who’s going to Walkerton, IN t0 burn down #memoriespizza w me?
Of course, all this was treated as a mere bagatelle by the mainstream media. After all, the owners were nothing but a couple of hinds in flyover country, and Christians to boot. If victims can’t be portrayed as leftist martyrs, what’s the point of protecting them? Regardless of which “side” you choose, the story certainly demonstrates an important truth, and for the umpteenth time: God or no God, morality isn’t going anywhere.
Whether you agree with the gay activists or not, it is abundantly clear that their responses are instances of moral behavior. Furthermore, they demonstrate the dual nature of human morality, characterized by radically different types of moral responses to others depending on whether they are perceived to belong to one’s ingroup or outgroup. They also clearly demonstrate the human tendency to interpret moral emotions as representations of objective things, commonly referred to as Good and Evil, which are imagined to exist independently of the subjective minds that give rise to them. In the minds of the gays, the attitude of the Memories Pizza folks towards gay marriage isn’t just an expression of one of many coequal cultural alternatives. It can’t be dismissed as a mere difference of opinion. It doesn’t reflect the interpretation of one of many possible moralities, all equally valid relative to each other. No, clearly, in the minds of the gays, the owners have violated THE moral law. Otherwise their response, as reflected in tweets, e-mails and threats, would be inexplicable.
What rational basis is there for this furious reaction? As far as I can tell, none. Certainly, the gays cannot rely on holy scripture to legitimize their outrage. In spite of whimsical attempts at Biblical exegesis by the gay community, both the Bible and the Quran are quite explicit and blunt in their condemnations of gay behavior. The compassionate and merciful God of the Quran even threatens those who ignore the prohibition with quintillions of years in hell experiencing what ISIS recently inflicted on a Jordanian pilot for a few seconds, and that just for starters. I find no other sanction, whether in religion or philosophy, for the conclusion that opposition to gay marriage is not only wrong, but is actually absolutely evil. In other words, the behavior of the gay activists is completely irrational. It is also completely normal.
The evolved behavioral traits that are the “root cause” of moral behavior exist because they happened to increase the odds that those who were “wired” for such traits would be more likely to survive and reproduce. Mother Nature saw to it that moral emotions would be powerful, experienced as reflections of absolutes, and perceived as the independently existing “things,” Good and Evil. She didn’t bother with anything other than the big picture, the gross effect. As a result she treated such ostensibly comical manifestations of morality as the raining down of pious anathemas on devout Christians, who tend to be relatively successful at reproduction, by gays, who normally don’t reproduce at all, with a grain of salt, confident (and rightly so) that the vast majority of humans would be too stupid to perceive their own absurdity.
In a word, fears that the demise of religion implies the demise of morality are overblown. It will continue to exist in its manifold “different but similar” manifestations, regardless of whether it enjoys the sanction of religious scripture or the scribbling of philosophers. Morality is hardly infinitely malleable, but it can be shaped to some extent. It would probably behoove us to do so, making it quite clear in the process to what sorts of behavior it does and does not apply. The list should be kept as short and simple as possible, consonant with keeping the interactions of individuals as harmonious and productive as possible.
Back in the day, the religious types whose tastes ran to foisting Prohibition on an unwilling nation used to promote the idea of “one morality.” It probably wasn’t such a bad idea in itself, although I personally would likely have taken exception to the particular flavor they had in mind. I would favor a “one morality” that was free of religious influence, and that would apply in situations that the long experience of our species has taught us will arouse moral emotions in any case. Beyond that, it would apply to as limited an additional subset of behaviors as possible. Finally, this “one morality” would make it crystal clear that subjecting any other forms of behavior to moral judgment is itself immoral.
There could be no ultimate sanction or source of legitimacy for such a “one morality” than there could be for any other kind, by virtue of the very nature of morality itself. However, if it were properly formulated, it would be experienced as an absolute, just like all the rest, regardless of all the fashionable blather about moral relativism. There would, of course, always be those who question why they “ought” to do one thing, and “ought not” to do another. As a society, we would do well to see to it that the answer is just what Mother Nature “intended”: You “ought” to do what is “right,” because you will find the consequences of doing what is “right” a great deal more agreeable than doing what is “wrong.”
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 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.”