The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Morality and the Spiritualism of the Atheists

    Posted on May 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    I’m an atheist.  I concluded there was no God when I was 12 years old, and never looked back.  Apparently many others have come to the same conclusion in western democratic societies where there is access to diverse opinions on the subject, and where social sanctions and threats of force against atheists are no longer as intimidating as they once were.  Belief in traditional religions is gradually diminishing in such societies.  However, they have hardly been replaced by “pure reason.”  They have merely been replaced by a new form of “spiritualism.”  Indeed, I would maintain that most atheists today have as strong a belief in imaginary things as the religious believers they so often despise.  They believe in the “ghosts” of good and evil.

    Most atheists today may be found on the left of the ideological spectrum.  A characteristic trait of leftists today is the assumption that they occupy the moral high ground. That assumption can only be maintained by belief in a delusion, a form of spiritualism, if you will – that there actually is a moral high ground.  Ironically, while atheists are typically blind to the fact that they are delusional in this way, it is often perfectly obvious to religious believers.  Indeed, this insight has led some of them to draw conclusions about the current moral state of society similar to my own.  Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that atheists have no objective basis for claiming that one thing is “good” and another thing is “evil.”  For example, as noted by Tom Trinko at American Thinker in an article entitled “Imagine a World with No Religion,”

    Take the Golden Rule, for example. It says, “Do onto others what you’d have them do onto you.” Faithless people often point out that one doesn’t need to believe in God to believe in that rule. That’s true. The problem is that without God, there can’t be any objective moral code.

    My reply would be, that’s quite true, and since there is no God, there isn’t any objective moral code, either.  However, most atheists, far from being “moral relativists,” are highly moralistic.  As a consequence, they are dumbfounded by anything like Trinko’s remark.  It pulls the moral rug right out from under their feet.  Typically, they try to get around the problem by appealing to moral emotions.  For example, they might say something like, “What?  Don’t you think it’s really bad to torture puppies to death?”, or, “What?  Don’t you believe that Hitler was really evil?”  I certainly have a powerful emotional response to Hitler and tortured puppies.  However, no matter how powerful those emotions are, I realize that they can’t magically conjure objects into being that exist independently of my subjective mind.  Most leftists, and hence, most so-called atheists, actually do believe in the existence of such objects, which they call “good” and “evil,” whether they admit it explicitly or not.  Regardless, they speak and act as if the objects were real.

    The kinds of speech and actions I’m talking about are ubiquitous and obvious.  For example, many of these “atheists” assume a dictatorial right to demand that others conform to novel versions of “good” and “evil” they may have concocted yesterday or the day before.  If those others refuse to conform, they exhibit all the now familiar symptoms of outrage and virtuous indignation.  Do rational people imagine that they are gods with the right to demand that others obey whatever their latest whims happen to be?  Do they assume that their subjective, emotional whims somehow immediately endow them with a legitimate authority to demand that others behave in certain ways and not in others?  I certainly hope that no rational person would act that way.  However, that is exactly the way that many so-called atheists act.  To the extent that we may consider them rational at all, then, we must assume that they actually believe that whatever versions of “good” or “evil” they happen to favor at the moment are “things” that somehow exist on their own, independently of their subjective minds.  In other words, they believe in ghosts.

    Does this make any difference?  I suggest that it makes a huge difference.  I personally don’t enjoy being constantly subjected to moralistic bullying.  I doubt that many people enjoy jumping through hoops to conform to the whims of others.  I submit that it may behoove those of us who don’t like being bullied to finally call out this type of irrational, quasi-religious behavior for what it really is.

    It also makes a huge difference because this form of belief in imaginary objects has led us directly into the moral chaos we find ourselves in today.  New versions of “absolute morality” are now popping up on an almost daily basis.  Obviously, we can’t conform to all of them at once, and must therefore put up with the inconvenience of either keeping our mouths shut or risk being furiously condemned as “evil” by whatever faction we happen to offend.  Again, traditional theists are a great deal more clear-sighted than “atheists” about this sort of thing.  For example, in an article entitled, “Moral relativism can lead to ethical anarchy,” Christian believer Phil Schurrer, a professor at Bowling Green State University, writes,

    …the lack of a uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong based on Natural Law leads to the moral anarchy we see today.

    Prof. Schurrer is right about the fact that we live in a world of moral anarchy.  I also happen to agree with him that most of us would find it useful and beneficial if we could come up with a “uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong.”  Where I differ with him is on the rationality of attempting to base that standard on “Natural Law,” because there is no such thing.  For religious believers, “Natural Law” is law passed down by God, and since there is no God, there can be no “Natural Law,” either.  How, then, can we come up with such a uniform moral code?

    I certainly can’t suggest a standard based on what is “really good” or “really bad” because I don’t believe in the existence of such objects.  I can only tell you what I would personally consider expedient.  It would be a standard that takes into account what I consider to be some essential facts.  These are as follows.

    • What we refer to as morality is an artifact of “human nature,” or, in other words, innate predispositions that affect our behavior.
    • These predispositions exist because they evolved by natural selection.
    • They evolved by natural selection because they happened to improve the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce at the time and in the environment in which they evolved.
    • We are now living at a different time, and in a different environment, and it cannot be assumed that blindly responding to the predispositions in question will have the same outcome now as it did when those predispositions evolved.  Indeed, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that such behavior can be extremely dangerous.
    • Outcomes of these predispositions include a tendency to judge the behavior of others as “good” or “evil.”  These categories are typically deemed to be absolute, and to exist independently of the conscious minds that imagine them.
    • Human morality is dual in nature.  Others are perceived in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different standards applying to what is deemed “good” or “evil” behavior towards those others depending on the category to which they are imagined to belong.

    I could certainly expand on this list, but the above are certainly some of the most salient and essential facts about human morality.  If they are true, then it is possible to make at least some preliminary suggestions about how a “uniform standard” might look.  It would be as simple as possible.  It would be derived to minimize the dangers referred to above, with particular attention to the dangers arising from ingroup/outgroup behavior.  It would be limited in scope to interactions between individuals and small groups in cases where the rational analysis of alternatives is impractical due to time constraints, etc.  It would be in harmony with innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature.”  It is our nature to perceive good and evil as real objective things, even though they are not.  This implies there would be no “moral relativism.”  Once in place, the moral code would be treated as an absolute standard, in conformity with the way in which moral standards are usually perceived.  One might think of it as a “moral constitution.”  As with political constitutions, there would necessarily be some means of amending it if necessary.  However, it would not be open to arbitrary innovations spawned by the emotional whims of noisy minorities.

    How would such a system be implemented?  It’s certainly unlikely that any state will attempt it any time in the foreseeable future.  Perhaps it might happen gradually, just as changes to the “moral landscape” have usually happened in the past.  For that to happen, however, it would be necessary for significant numbers of people to finally understand what morality is, and why it exists.  And that is where, as an atheist, I must part company with Mr. Trinko, Prof. Schurrer, and the rest of the religious right.  Progress towards a uniform morality that most of us would find a great deal more useful and beneficial than the versions currently on tap, regardless of what goals or purposes we happen to be pursuing in life, cannot be based on the illusion that a “natural law” exists that has been handed down by an imaginary God, any more than it can be based on the emotional whims of leftist bullies.  It must be based on a realistic understanding of what kind of animals we are, and how we came to be.  However, such self knowledge will remain inaccessible until we shed the shackles of religion.  Perhaps, as they witness many of the traditional churches increasingly becoming leftist political clubs before their eyes, people on the right of the political spectrum will begin to find it less difficult to free themselves from those shackles.  I hope so.  I think that an Ansatz based on simple, traditional moral rules, such as the Ten Commandments, is more likely to lead to a rational morality than one based on furious rants over who should be allowed to use what bathrooms.  In other words, I am more optimistic that a useful reform of morality will come from the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum, as it now stands.  Most leftists today are much too heavily invested in indulging their moral emotions to escape from the world of illusion they live in.  To all appearances they seriously believe that blindly responding to these emotions will somehow magically result in “moral progress” and “human flourishing.”  Conservatives, on the other hand, are unlikely to accomplish anything useful in terms of a rational morality until they free themselves of the “God delusion.”  It would seem, then, that for such a moral “revolution” to happen, it will be necessary for those on both the left and the right to shed their belief in “spirits.”

     

  • On the Illusion of Moral Relativism

    Posted on April 8th, 2018 Helian No comments

    As recently as 2009 the eminent historian Paul Johnson informed his readers that he made “…the triumph of moral relativism the central theme of my history of the 20th century, Modern Times, first published in 1983.”  More recently, however, obituaries of moral relativism have turned up here and there.  For example one appeared in The American Spectator back in 2012, fittingly entitled Moral Relativism, R.I.P.  It was echoed a few years later by a piece in The Atlantic that announced The Death of Moral Relativism.”  There’s just one problem with these hopeful announcements.  Genuine moral relativists are as rare as unicorns.

    True, many have proclaimed their moral relativism.  To that I can only reply, watch their behavior.  You will soon find each and every one of these “relativists” making morally loaded pronouncements about this or that social evil, wrong-headed political faction, or less than virtuous individual.  In other words, their “moral relativism” is of a rather odd variety that occasionally makes it hard to distinguish their behavior from that of the more zealous moral bigots.  Scratch the surface of any so-called “moral relativist,” and you will often find a moralistic bully.  We are not moral relativists because it is not in the nature of our species to be moral relativists.  The wellsprings of human morality are innate.  One cannot arbitrarily turn them on or off by embracing this or that philosophy, or reading this or that book.

    I am, perhaps, the closest thing to a moral relativist you will ever find, but when my moral emotions kick in, I’m not much different from anyone else.  Just ask my dog.  When she’s riding with me she’ll often glance my way with a concerned look as I curse the lax morals of other drivers.  No doubt she’s often wondered whether the canine’s symbiotic relationship with our species was such a good idea after all.  I know perfectly well the kind of people Paul Johnson was thinking of when he spoke of “moral relativists.”  However, I’ve watched the behavior of the same types my whole life.  If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s a pronounced tendency to dictate morality to everyone else.  They are anything but “amoral,” or “moral relativists.”  The difference between them and Johnson is mainly a difference in their choice of outgroups.

    Edvard Westermarck may have chosen the title Ethical Relativity for his brilliant analysis of human morality, yet he was well aware of the human tendency to perceive good and evil as real, independent things.  The title of his book did not imply that moral (or ethical) relativism was practical for our species.  Rather, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of our package of innate behavioral predispositions, and that it follows that objective moral truths do not exist.  In doing so he was pointing out a fundamental truth.  Recognition of that truth will not result in an orgy of amoral behavior.  On the contrary, it is the only way out of the extremely dangerous moral chaos we find ourselves in today.

    The moral conundrum we find ourselves in is a result of the inability of natural selection to keep up with the rapidly increasingly complexity and size of human societies.  For example, a key aspect of human moral behavior is its dual nature – our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  We commonly associate “good” traits with our ingroup, and “evil” ones with our outgroup.  That aspect of our behavior enhanced the odds that we would survive and reproduce at a time when there was no ambiguity about who belonged in these categories.  The ingroup was our own tribe, and the outgroup was the next tribe over.  Our mutual antagonism tended to make us spread out and avoid starvation due to over-exploitation of a small territory.  We became adept at detecting subtle differences between “us” and “them” at a time when it was unlikely that neighboring tribes differed by anything as pronounced as race or even language.  Today we have given bad names to all sorts of destructive manifestations of outgroup identification without ever grasping the fundamental truth that the relevant behavior is innate, and no one is immune to it.  Racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, you name it.  They’re all fundamentally the same.  Those who condemn others for one manifestation of the behavior will almost invariably be found doing the same thing themselves, the only difference being who they have identified as the outgroup.

    Not unexpectedly, behavior that accomplished one thing in the Pleistocene does not necessarily accomplish the same thing today.  The disconnect is often absurd, leading in some cases to what I’ve referred to as morality inversions – moral behavior that promotes suicide rather than survival.  That has not prevented those who are happily tripping down the path to their own extinction from proclaiming their moral superiority and raining down pious anathemas on anyone who doesn’t agree.  Meanwhile, new versions of morality are concocted on an almost daily basis, each one pretending to objective validity, complete with a built in right to dictate “goods” and “bads” that never occurred to anyone just a few years ago.

    There don’t appear to be any easy solutions to the moral mess we find ourselves in.  It would certainly help if more of us could accept the fact that morality is an artifact of natural selection, and that, as a consequence, objective good and evil are figments of our imaginations.  Perhaps then we could come up with some version of “absolute” morality that would be in tune with our moral emotions and at the same time allow us to interact in a manner that minimizes both the harm we do to each other and our exposure to the tiresome innovations of moralistic bullies.  That doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon, though.  The careers of too many moral pontificators and “experts on ethics” depend on maintaining the illusion.  Meanwhile, we find evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and neuroscientists who should know better openly proclaiming the innate sources of moral behavior in one breath, and extolling some idiosyncratic version of “moral progress” and “human flourishing” in the next.  As one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have said, it’s just too shy-making.

    There is a silver lining to the picture, though.  At least you don’t have to worry about “moral relativism” anymore.

     

     

  • More Egg on Pinker’s Face: E. O. Wilson’s “The Origins of Creativity”

    Posted on March 12th, 2018 Helian No comments

    If you’re expecting a philosophical epiphany, E. O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity isn’t for you. His theme is that science and the humanities can form a grandiose union leading to a “third enlightenment” if only scholars in the humanities would come up to speed with advances in the sciences via “thorough application of five disciplines – paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.”  Good luck with that.  We can smile and nod as the old man rambles on about his latest grand, intellectual scheme, though.  He isn’t great because of such brainstorms.  He’s great because he combines courage and common sense with an ability to identify questions that are really worth asking.  That’s what you’ll discover if you read his books, and that’s why they’re well worth reading.  You might even say he’s succeeded in realizing his own dream to some extent, because reading Wilson is like reading a good novel.  You constantly run across anecdotes about interesting people, tips about unfamiliar authors who had important things to say, and thought provoking comments about the human condition.  For example, in “The Origins of Creativity” you’ll find a portrayal of the status games played by Harvard professors, his take on why he thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, his reasons for asserting that, when it comes to the important questions facing humanity, “the grail to be sought is the nature of consciousness, and how it originated,” and some interesting autobiographical comments to boot.

    Those who love to explore the little ironies of history will also find some interesting nuggets in Wilson’s latest. The history I’m referring to is, of course, that of the Blank Slate.  For those who haven’t heard of it, it was probably the greatest perversion of science of all time.  For more than half a century, a rigid orthodoxy was imposed on the behavioral sciences according to which there is no such thing as human nature, that at birth our minds are “blank slates,” and that all human behavior is learned.  This dogma, transparently ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child, has always been attractive to those whose tastes run to utopian schemes that require human behavior to be a great deal more “malleable” than it actually is.  Communism, fashionable during the heyday of the Blank Slate, is a case in point.

    Where does Wilson fit in?  Well, in 1975, he published Sociobiology, in a couple of chapters of which he suggested that there may actually be such a thing as human nature, and it may actually be important.  In doing so he became the first important member of the academic tribe to break ranks with the prevailing orthodoxy.  By that time, however, the Blank Slate had already long been brilliantly debunked and rendered a laughing stock among intelligent lay people by an outsider; a man named Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey wrote a series of books on the subject beginning with African Genesis in 1961.  He had been seconded by other authors, such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  Eventually, the behavioral “scientists” were forced to throw in the towel and jettison the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  However, it was much to humiliating for them to admit the truth – that they had all been exposed as charlatans by Ardrey, a man who had spent much of his life as a “mere playwright.”  Instead, they anointed Wilson, a member of their own tribe, as the great hero who had demolished the Blank Slate.  This grotesque imposture was enshrined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which now passes as the official “history” of the affair.

    Where does the irony come in?  Well, Pinker needed some plausible reason to ignore Ardrey.  The deed was done crudely enough.  He simply declared that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” based on the authority of a comment to that effect in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In the process, he didn’t mention exactly what it was that Ardrey was supposed to have been “totally and utterly wrong” about.  After all, to all appearances the man had been “totally and utterly” vindicated.  As it happens, Dawkins never took issue with the main theme of all of Ardrey’s books; that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important and essential to understanding the human condition.  He merely asserted in a single paragraph of the book that Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been wrong in endorsing group selection, the notion that natural selection can operate at the level of the group as well as of the individual or gene.  In other words, Pinker’s whole, shabby rationale for dismissing Ardrey was based on his support for group selection, an issue that was entirely peripheral to the overall theme of all Ardrey’s work.  Now for the irony – in his last three books, including his latest, Wilson has come out unabashedly and whole heartedly in favor of (you guessed it) group selection!

    In The Origins of Creativity Wilson seems to be doing his very best to rub salt in the wound.  In his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey had elaborated on the theory, also set forth in all his previous books, that the transition from ape to man had been catalyzed by increased dependence on hunting and meat eating.  The Blank Slaters long insisted that early man had never been guilty of such “aggressive” behavior, and that if he had touched meat at all, it must have been acquired by scavenging.  They furiously attacked Ardrey for daring to suggest that he had hunted.  If you watch the PBS documentary on the recent discovery of the remains of Homo naledi, you’ll see that the ancient diehards among them have never given up this dogma.  They insist that Homo naledi was a vegetarian even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one had even contended that he wasn’t, going so far as to actually call out the “unperson” Ardrey by name.  The realization that they were still so bitter after all these years brought a smile to my face.  What really set them off was Ardrey’s support for a theory first proposed by Raymond Dart that hunting had actually begun very early, in the pre-human species Australopithecus africanus. Well, if they were still mad at Ardrey, they’ll be livid when they read what Wilson has to say on the subject in his latest, such as,

    By a widespread consensus, the scenario drawn by scientists thus far begins with the shift by one of the African australopiths away from a vegetarian diet to one rich in cooked meat.  The event was not a casual change as in choosing from a menu, nor was it a mere re-wiring of the palate.  Rather the change was a full hereditary makeover in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.

    and

    This theoretical reconstruction has gained traction from fossil remains and the lifestyles of contemporary hunter-gatherers.  Meat from larger prey was shared, as it is by wolves, African wild dogs, and lions.  Given, in addition, the relatively high degree of intelligence possessed by large, ground-dwelling primates in general, the stage was then set in prehuman evolution for an unprecedented degree of cooperation and division of labor.

    Here, Wilson almost seems to be channeling Ardrey.  But wait, there’s more.  This one is for the real historical connoisseurs out there.  As noted above, in the bit from The Selfish Gene Pinker used for his clumsy attempt to airbrush Ardrey out of history, Dawkins condemned two others for the sin of supporting group selection as well; Konrad Lorenz and Austrian ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  I suspect Lorenz was a bit too close to Ardrey for comfort, as the two were often condemned by the Blank Slaters in the same breath, but, sure enough, Eibl-Eibesfeldt makes a couple of cameo appearances in Wilson’s latest book!  For example, in chapter 12,

    During his classic field research in the 1960s, the German anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt demonstrated in minute detail that people in all societies, from primitive and preliterate to modern and urbanized, use the same wide range of paralinguistic signals.  These entail mostly facial expressions, denoting variously fear, pleasure, surprise, horror, and disgust.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt lived with his subjects and further, to avoid self-conscious behavior, filmed them in their daily lives with a right-angle lens, by which the subject is made to think that the camera is pointed elsewhere.  His general conclusion was that paralinguistic signals are hereditary traits shared by the whole of humanity.

    Brilliant, but according to Pinker this, too, must be “totally and utterly wrong,” since Eibl-Eibesfeldt is mentioned in the very same sentence in Dawkins’ book that he used to redact Ardrey from history!  At least it’s nice to see this bit of vindication for at least one of Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” trio.  I suspect Wilson is perfectly well aware of the dubious nature of Pinker’s “history,” but I doubt if he will ever have anything to say about Lorenz, not to mention Ardrey.  He has too much interest in preserving his own legacy for that.  I can’t really blame a man his age for wanting to go down in history as the heroic knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He actually tries to push the envelope a bit in his latest with comments like,

    At first thought, this concept of kin selection, extended beyond nepotism to cooperation and altruism within an entire group, appears to have considerable merit.  I said so when I first synthesized the discipline of sociobiology in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet it is deeply flawed.

    During Ardrey’s day, the scientific discipline most often associated in the lay vernacular with resistance to the Blank Slate was ethology.  A few years after Wilson published his book with that title in 1975, it became sociobiology.  Now evolutionary psychology has displaced both of them.  I’m not sure what Wilson means by “sociobiology” here, but I’ve never seen anything he published prior to 1975 that comes close to being a forthright defense of the existence and importance of human nature.  Ardrey and others had published pretty much everything of real significance he had to say on the subject more than a decade earlier.

    Be that as it may, I have no reservations about recommending “The Origins of Creativity” to my readers.  True, I’m a bit skeptical about his latest project for a grand unification of science and the humanities, and the book is really little more than a pamphlet.  For all that, reading him is like having a pleasant conversation with someone who is very wise about the ways of the world, knows about the questions that are important for us to ask, and can tell you a lot of things that are worth knowing.

  • On the Purpose of Life

    Posted on January 29th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

    There is no purpose to your life other than the purpose you choose to give it.

    Is your goal the brotherhood of all mankind?  Is your goal human flourishing?  Is your goal a just and democratic society?  Is your goal to serve some God or gods?  The first cause of all of these goals, and any others you can think of, may be found in innate emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  They did not evolve for a purpose.  They exist because at some time that was likely quite different from the present, they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  They are the foundation that gives rise to every single human aspiration, no matter how noble or sublime that aspiration is imagined to be.

    There is no objective reason why the goals and aspirations of a Plato or a Kant are more worthy, more legitimate, or more morally good than the goals and purposes of a thief or a murderer.  In the end, every human being on the planet is merely seeking to satisfy emotional whims that he has interpreted or tried to make sense of in one way or another.  Any individual’s assumption that his goals are intrinsically superior to or more right and proper in themselves than the goals of others is a delusion.  The universe doesn’t care.

    What does that imply concerning what our goals should be, or what we really ought to do?  Nothing!  Nothing, that is, unless we are speaking of what some individual should do or ought to do to satisfy some idiosyncratic whim that cannot possibly be objectively more legitimate or praiseworthy than the whim of any other individual.

    How, then, do we choose what are goals and purposes will be.  After all, we will have them regardless, because it is our nature to have them.  In the end, all of us must decide for ourselves.  However, in choosing them I personally think it is useful to be aware of the above fundamental facts.  The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, chasing mirages, clueless as to what is really motivating us and why.  Again, purely from my personal point of view, that does not seem an attractive alternative.  Blind stumbling tends to be self-destructive, not to mention inconvenient to others.  I personally find it incongruous and disturbing to witness the spectacle of emotions and passions inspiring people to pursue ends that are the precise opposite of the ends that account for the existence of those emotions and passions to begin with.

    I personally pursue goals and purposes that seem to me in harmony with the fundamental reason that my goals and purposes exist to begin with.  In other words, my basic goal in life has been to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that, I seek first to promote the survival of my species, and beyond that the survival of biological life in general.  These goals seem noble and sublime enough to me personally.  Our very existence seems to me improbable and awe-inspiring.  Think of how complex and intelligent we are, and of all our highly developed senses and abilities.  Look in a mirror and consider the fact that a creature like you could have evolved from inanimate matter.  Think of the mind-boggling length of time it took for that to happen, and the conditions that were necessary for it to occur in the first place.  Stunning!  We are all final links in an unbroken chain of life that began with direct ancestors that existed billions of years ago.  There are millions of links in the chain, and all of those links succeeded in generating new links, so that the chain would remain unbroken through all that incredible gulf of time.  Under the circumstances, my personal purpose seems obvious to me.  Don’t break the chain!

    There is no objective reason why these purposes of mine are any more good, legitimate, or worthy than any alternatives whatsoever.  They are not intrinsically better than the purposes of an anti-natalist, a suicide bomber, or a celibate priest.  However, for personal reasons, I would prefer that, as others pursue their purposes, they at least be aware of what is actually motivating them.  It might lead them to consider whether blindly breaking the chain, destroying themselves and harming others in the process, is really a goal worth pursuing after all.

  • On the Need to Suppress Freedom of Speech in the Interest of “Moral Progress”

    Posted on August 24th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    In my last post I noted that, objectively speaking, there can be no such thing as “moral progress,” and that pursuing such a nonexistent thing as a goal is potentially dangerous.  The reasons for this have to do with the way some of our innate behavioral traits manifest themselves in environments unlike the ones in which they evolved.  As I pointed out in the post,

    It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the expression of moral emotions that all human populations have in common, but particular aspects of those emotions can vary significantly between individuals, and between populations.  It follows that we will never agree on what our “goals as a society” should be.  Some subset of the individuals in a society may agree on the goals of “moral progress,” but what of those who don’t?  Inevitably, they will be the evil ones, the “deplorables,” the outgroup whose opinions can be ignored because they are “morally bad.”

    This dual nature of human morality based on our universal and powerful tendency to perceive others in terms of  ingroups and outgroups is reason enough in itself to reject the notion of “moral progress.”  We have tried to outlaw various manifestations of the behavior by giving them bad names, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and so on.  The result of such attempts has invariably been the creation of yet more outgroups.  The hatred doesn’t disappear.  Instead, it simply pops up again, even more virulent than before, but directed at some alternative outgroup that hasn’t yet been declared off limits.

    A good illustration of how this works in practice just turned up in the Washington Post in an article entitled, “When free speech becomes a political weapon.”  The author, Jennifer Delton, expresses concern about the threat of freedom of speech to “moral progress.”  According to Delton, when freedom of speech is accorded to “evil” people, it is transmuted into “freedom of speech.”  By this she means that it becomes a “political weapon,” which is then used by the “evil” people to impede “moral progress.”

    As is often the case, Delton defines her ingroup in terms of ideology.  “Good” people are those whose ingroup is defined by the same ideological shibboleths as hers, and “evil” people are those belonging to outgroups whose members challenge those shibboleths.  More precisely, “Good” people are those whose beliefs are in harmony with “the internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism that marks the thinking of educated elites of both parties.”  She cites Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as an example of the practical application of these ideals.

    In common with most humans, Delton perceives her “Good” as an objective thing.  In other words, she considers “internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism” to be “good in itself,” regardless of whether it is thought to be good or not.  Obviously, it never occurs to her to explore the evolutionary reasons for this common illusion.  Digging down through layers of cultural and environmental impedimenta to discover the innate predisposition(s) that are the “root cause” of her perception of “the Good” is certainly a project that would never occur to her.  Still less would it occur to her to consider the question, interesting from a biological, if not a moral point of view, of whether her response to the emotions in question enhance or reduce the odds that the responsible genes that she happens to carry will survive and reproduce.  Instead, she merely cites the authority of the “educated elites of both parties,” and leaves it at that.

    Since the only “truly good” things are the “Goods” that define her ideology, it follows that any other supposed rights or principles are not good in themselves, and can be dispensed with to the extent that they threaten those things that are.  Freedom of speech belongs in this category.  As Delton puts it, referring to the New Deal,

    Liberals would be chumps to let a principled commitment to “freedom of speech” undercut the pragmatic goal of political survival, which was the only way to ensure progress in civil rights and social welfare.

    In this case, Delton is referring to the decision by an earlier generation of “Good” liberals to end their support of freedom of speech for Communists.  This was to be done, not because the Communists had murdered millions of people, and enslaved millions more, or because they sought to use freedom of speech to destroy the system that defended that freedom.  Indeed, Delton doesn’t perceive Communists as an outgroup at all.  Instead, Communists were to be deprived of freedom of speech because they were being used as tools by those who were “really evil.”  In Delton’s words,

    Their presence in liberal organizations made liberals vulnerable to Republican and conservative attacks.  So those liberals interested in political success (and in preserving the New Deal) drove them out of politics.

    If freedom of speech could be legitimately denied to Communists because they were a mere annoyance, it must be doubly legitimate to deny it to conservatives, who are “truly evil.”  However, Delton isn’t brazen enough, or at least not brazen enough yet, to say, “I think freedom of speech should be denied to conservatives,” which is what she actually means.  Instead, she falls back on the distinction between freedom of speech and “freedom of speech.”  Of course, that begs the question, “What’s the difference?”  According to Delton,

    Philosopher Sidney Hook hinged his argument about speech on the distinction between the free flow of ideas, which the First Amendment protected, and actions, which it did not.  He said liberals had no problem with Communists’ ideas, which they were free to expound upon and disseminate.  The problem lay in their organized actions, which involved, “all sorts of stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, evasions and subterfuges” developed by Lenin to subvert democracy.”

    There’s no need to wade through swamps of philosophical mumbo-jumbo in a vain attempt to understand the obscure chain of events by which the “free flow of ideas” is transmogrified into “all sorts of stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, evasions, and subterfuges.”  That Gordian knot is easily cut if you simply assume that the former applies to speech by those who belong to Ms. Delton’s ingroup, and the latter to speech by those who do not.  So it is that any attempt by “evil” people, that is, those who don’t quite see eye to eye with Ms. Delton touching on the universal benefits of “internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism,” to assert and defend their freedom of speech becomes a “right to create political spectacle and instigate violence.”  Apparently more or less the same logic is used to defend the assertion that attractive women who don’t wear a burka “create a public spectacle and instigate rape.”

    Ms. Delton makes sure that her readers realize that anyone who disagrees with her opinion is evil.  Having compared them to Communists, she doubles down by claiming that they are Nazis on top of that:

    It was one thing to defend the American Nazi Party’s right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1977, when the liberal establishment and mainstream media were still intact and the American Nazi Party was a marginal fringe group.  The group was offensive, but neither its actions nor its ideas posed a threat to the political or social order, which was stable.  The situation is different today, with an erratic President Trump in the White House, elites in disarray and white nationalism on the rise.

    I note in passing the degree of panic such hyperbole reveals on the left of the political spectrum in response to the recent election.  After dragging in the Communists and the di rigueur Nazis, Delton throws in some pejoratives to insure that even the most obtuse won’t fail to grasp that “conservatives = evil!”

    Quoting Voltaire is not going to preserve anyone’s liberties – least of all those populations most vulnerable to vicious racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic attacks.

    Note that racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism are merely different forms of outgroup identification that have been deemed by common agreement to be evil.  However, they are all symptoms of the same phenomenon; blind hatred of outgroups in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which that innately motivated behavior evolved.  Ms. Delton is no less a bigot merely because her hatred is directed at an outgroup based on ideology rather than race, sex, or religion, and one that doesn’t yet happen to be among those that are considered “off limits.”  Of course, there is an alternative explanation.  The people she hates may really be trying their very best to do things that they consciously believe are evil.  They may really be mortified if they pass the day without committing three or four bad deeds.  I wouldn’t put it past Ms. Delton to believe as much.  However, I have my doubts.

    The point here isn’t that Mr. Delton is a bad person.  The identification of something she happens to want with “objective good” is a delusion common to almost every other human being on the planet.  I merely point out that the delusion can be inconvenient if you happen to value your right to speak freely, and downright deadly if you happen to be a Jew or a “bourgeois” in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It follows that it would behoove us to at least be aware of the danger.

    I note in passing that the most extreme forms of the delusion are currently found among individuals who are on the left of the ideological spectrum.  That has not always been the case, and is, of course, no basis for concluding that leftists are “really evil.”  However, we can consider why this is the case.  I think part of the reason is that leftists like Ms. Delton imagined that they were safely in control of the tools needed to shape popular opinion, including the academy, the media, and the entertainment industry.  The results of the election were a terrible shock to many of them.  Ever since they have been frantically trying to think up ways to nullify those results and reassert their status and power.  Part of that project includes plugging the leaks that allowed thought crime to poison the minds of impressionable “deplorables” to begin with.  That entails denying access to a public forum to anyone who disagrees with “good” ideology, if necessary with the aid of modern day “antifa” storm troopers.

    It is very unlikely that my little blog will convince enough people that “moral progress” is an illusion to matter.  It is much too delicious for human beings to believe in their own moral righteousness, and on the Left that sentiment has now become, for all practical purposes, an indispensable fetish, comparable to a form of religious fanaticism.  At best, I can point out the danger of the all but universal faith in “moral progress,” and advise my readers that, if they value freedom of speech, it is likely they will have to fight for it.

  • Can Darwinism Make Us Morally Better?

    Posted on August 19th, 2017 Helian No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Damore Affair and the Ghost of the Blank Slate

    Posted on August 12th, 2017 Helian No comments

    So you thought the Blank Slate was dead, did you? Check out this post about the Damore affair by Jerry Coyne at his Why Evolution is True website:

    Salon disses dismisses Google memo as “biological determinism” that can “slip into eugenicist doctrines”

    Coyne is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He’s also a leftist of great honesty and intellectual integrity. You should read him should you believe that such creatures went the way of unicorns long ago.  Among other things, he’s a strong supporter of the University of Chicago’s steadfast stance in favor of freedom of speech.  Coyne takes issue with an article by one Keith A. Spencer entitled, The ugly, pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto, condemning Damore. Here’s the money quote:

    The Salon article is “The ugly pseudoscientific history behind that sexist Google manifesto“, and is by Keith A. Spencer, a Salon writer whose scientific training appears to be a B.A. in astrophysics/English at Oberlin (double major) and then subsequent work in the humanities and writing ever since (he also has a master’s degree in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon).  Although I’m not a credentials monger, perhaps Spencer’s lack of biological training is shown in the way he refutes Damore’s “pseudoscience”: his refutation relies on a single book published in 1984: Not in Our Genes, by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin (henceforth LRK). I am well familiar with that book, as the first author was my Ph.D. supervisor, and I have to note two things. First, The book not a dispassionate review of the literature: the authors wrote it because they were committed to dispelling biological determinism, and were certainly diehard opponents of evolutionary psychology, then called “sociobiology”. You cannot count on that book to be an objective review of the literature, as it’s a polemic. It should not have been used by Spencer as an authoritative refutation of gender differences.

    Second, the book is outdated. It is now 33 years old, and a considerable literature has accumulated since then. Not one thing is cited from that literature save in support of the absence of two sexes (see below)—Spencer just emits quote after quote from that book. And he uses it to refute three assertions that, he claims, Damore makes—at least implicitly…

    Note that Lewontin was Coyne’s Ph.D. supervisor. I know from other posts that Coyne admires and respects him personally, and reveres him as an educator in the field of evolutionary biology. The fact that he would take issue with Lewontin in this way is, among other things, what I mean by honesty and intellectual integrity.

    But just check out the quote. Here we have someone citing “Not in Our Genes” as a respectable scientific tract. It’s stunning! Even such reliable stalwarts of the Left as Scientific American and PBS threw in the towel and accepted the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature long ago, flinging Not in Our Genes on the garbage heap of history.  How can one account for such an absurd historical anomaly?  Well, if you read Damore’s manifesto, you’ll notice that he actually uses the term “evolutionary psychology,” and in a supportive fashion, no less.  Of course, the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is the reality and importance of human nature, and insisting on that fact is tantamount to waving a red flag in the face of hoary Blank Slaters like Spencer.  These people are like the Bourbons; they’ve learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They still quote their ancient texts as if nothing had happened since those golden days of yesteryear, when the Blank Slate orthodoxy controlled the academy, the media, and the behavioral sciences virtually unchallenged for upwards of half a decade. They also still recall those who smashed their hegemony with unabated bitterness. Foremost among them was Robert Ardrey.  Sure enough, he popped up in a PBS special about Homo naledi as an evil proponent of the “Killer Ape Theory” even though no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever suggested that Homo naledi hunted or even ate meat. For more on that similarly incongruous fossil of the Blank Slate, see my post, PBS Answers the Burning Question:  What Does Robert Ardrey have to do with Homo naledi?

    It’s not hard to find similar artifacts these days.  Indeed, they pop up on both the Left and the Right, as evolutionary psychology has a way of deflating cherished narratives on both ends of the ideological spectrum.  However, those responsible for the mutilation of the behavioral sciences we recall as the Blank Slate were primarily leftist ideologues.  Given the Left’s current all but unchallenged hegemony in the academy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a concerted attempt to turn back the clock and restore the Blank Slate orthodoxy at some point along the line.

  • “Dangerous” by Milo Yiannopoulos; A Review

    Posted on July 16th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • J. L. Mackie: A Moral Subjectivist and His Magical System

    Posted on July 1st, 2017 Helian 8 comments

    J. L. Mackie was an Australian philosopher.  He was astute enough to realize that there are no such things as objective good and evil.  In fact, the very first sentence of his Ethics:  Inventing Right and Wrong consists of the bald statement,

    There are no objective moral values.

    A couple of paragraphs later he elaborates as follows:

    The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues – rightness and wrongness, duty obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on.

    In the next four chapters of his book, Mackie elaborates on this theme and its implications.  At the beginning of chapter 5 he claims to have demonstrated that,

    …no substantive moral conclusions or serious constraints on moral views can be derived from either the meanings of moral terms or the logic of moral discourse.

    Perhaps, but at this point Mackie has climbed quite a ways up the scaffolding he was busy building in the first four chapters.  Like so many “subjective moralists” before him, he now makes the mistake of looking down.  He suffers an attack of vertigo, based on the realization that if he climbs much higher, he will be forced to admit that all the tomes of moral philosophy he has spent a lifetime reading, the very basis of his claims to be an “expert,” are actually irrelevant to the subject he claims to be an expert about, other than as historical curiosities.  As we read on, he begins carefully climbing back down.  In the following passage we find him taking his first tentative steps in reverse:

    What tasks then remain for moral philosophy?  One could study the moral views and beliefs of our own society or others, perhaps through time, taking as one’s subject what is summed up in Westermarck’s title, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  But this perhaps belongs rather to anthropology and sociology.  More congenial to philosophers and more amenable to philosophical methods would be the attempt systematically to describe our own moral consciousness or some part of it, such as our “sense of justice,” to find some set of principles which were themselves fairly acceptable to us and with which, along with their practical consequences and applications, our “intuitive” (but really subjective) detailed moral judgements would be in “reflective equilibrium.”

    Mackie should have read Westermarck more carefully.  He’s the only one I know of other than Darwin himself who not only realized the subjective nature of moral judgements, but was also aware of the implications of the fact that morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist as a result of natural selection.  Mackie paid lip service to Darwin, but clearly didn’t understand the process of natural selection.  Nothing evolves to serve a purpose, or to perform a task.  Moral emotions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce at a particular point in time.  As we read on, it becomes clear that what Mackie is saying in the above passage is that the job of the moral philosopher is to discover this nonexistent task, and then concoct a moral system designed to accomplish the task.  As he puts it,

    At least we can look at the matter in another way.  Morality is not to be discovered, but to be made:  we have to decide what moral views to adopt, what moral stands to take.

    Let’s consider what Mackie is saying here if morality really is a manifestation of evolved behavioral predispositions.  In that case it must be a manifestation of emotions, so what Mackie is saying is that we have to manipulate emotions.  Apparently he assumes they are so malleable they can be manipulated at will to make them conform to any “moral stand.”  What, however, would be the point of taking this, that, or the other “moral stand?”  Mackie explains,

    In the narrow sense, a morality is a system of a particular sort of constraints on conduct – ones whose central task is to protect the interests of persons other than the agent and which present themselves to an agent as checks on his natural inclinations or spontaneous tendencies to act.

    A bit later on he quotes another moral philosopher, G. J. Warnock, as follows:

    …we shall understand (morality) better if we ask what it is for, what is the object of morality.  Morality is a species of evaluation, a kind of appraisal of human conduct; this must, he (Warnock) suggests, have some distinctive point, there must be something that it is supposed to bring about… The function of morality is primarily to counteract this limitation of men’s sympathies.  We can decide what the content of morality must be by inquiring how this can best be done.

    According to Mackie, these comments, evoking as they do “tasks,” and “purposes” and “functions” of a form of evolved behavior, and thereby flying in the face of everything Darwin taught about natural selection, are “…a useful approach.”  In fact, they are the foundation of sand upon which Mackie will later erect an elaborate moral system.  All Mackie is really suggesting is that we manipulate some emotions in order to satisfy another emotion.  Apparently the moral itch he wants to scratch is the “limitation of men’s sympathies.”  However, this particular moral itch has no more objective legitimacy or external authority than the desire to hang a thief, or take vengeance on an enemy, or satisfy any other whim one could suggest.  This fundamental error is made by every moral subjectivist, moral nihilist, or moral relativist I am aware of except for Westermarck and Darwin himself.  Herbert Spencer, who may have been wrong about many things, but was an original thinker for all that, exposed the error very nicely in the case of utilitarianism in his Social Statics (pp. 33-35), more than a century and a half ago.  It comes in the form of a dialog, closing with the following:

    Wherefore, if reduced to its simplest form, your doctrine turns out to be the assertion, that all men have equal claims to happiness; or applying it personally – that you have as good a right to happiness as I have.

    No doubt I have.

    And pray, sir, who told you that you have as good a right to happiness as I have?

    Who told me?  I am sure of it; I know it; I feel it; I…

    Nay, nay, that will not do.  Give me your authority.  Tell you who told you this – how you got at it – whence you derived it.

    Whereupon, after some shuffling, our petitioner is forced to confess, that he has no other authority than his own feeling – that he has simply an innate perception of the fact; or, in other words, that “his moral sense tells him so.”

    So much for Mackie’s “useful approach.”  In fact, it is nothing but the expression of an emotional whim, and is similar in that regard to all the other ultimate goods that ever tickled the fancy of moral philosophers.  In spite of that he uses the remainder of the book to start tacking together yet another moral system, complete with hairsplitting distinctions between alternative “oughts” that would gladden the hearts of pettifogging lawyers and quibbling theologians alike.  In the end his “subjective” morality is anything but that.  It has now become a tool that is to be “made” to perform a “function,” and this “function” is to promote the “higher goal” of “protecting the interests of persons other than the agent,” a goal which is not only unrelated to the reasons that morality evolved to begin with, but has now, for all practical purposes, been transmogrified into an objective good.

    Why does it matter?  Why not just let Mackie and the rest of the “experts on ethics” continue to play in their sandboxes?  In my opinion, because we can no longer afford to blindly respond to the emotions that give rise to morality as if they were still operating in the environment in which they evolved.  The environment is radically different now, and the games we are playing with moral emotions are becoming increasingly dangerous.  The emotions aren’t going anywhere.  We are profoundly moral beings, and simply suppressing our moral emotions is not an option.  I personally would prefer that we find a way to accommodate them that doesn’t involve the moral blackmail, bullying, and pious posing that are currently the preferred methods of adjusting our differences over what our moral emotions are trying to tell us.  However, we can only do that if we understand what morality really is, and how and why it evolved.  The invention of yet another moral “system” is not the way to gain that understanding.

     

  • Of Ingroups and Outgroups and the Hatreds they Spawn

    Posted on June 17th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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