Posted on November 11th, 2012 No comments
According to Michael Austin, who writes the Ethics for Everyone blog for Psychology Today, we are suffering from “Moral Blind Spots.” Referring to the morality-based arguments in favor of slavery of an earlier time, he writes,
When I read these arguments and discuss their flaws with students, I’m reminded of something a professor of mine once asked, “What will future generations think about us? What moral blind spots of ours will they see, that we miss?” There are many possibilities, to be sure, but I think that future generations may look back at the disparity of wealth in our world and wonder how we could have missed the injustices that exist related to this.
If future generations are still capable of rational thought, perhaps they will ask a more pertinent question: In view of the fact that the nature of morality and the ultimate reasons for its existence should have been obvious to our generation, why did so many of our philosophers, professors, and other assorted Ph.D.’s in the social sciences still believe there was some logical basis for making moral judgments of past generations? Like so many of the other contemporary experts on morality, his work is informed by the tacit assumption that Good and Evil exist, independent of their subjective origins. Like the others, he throws out a barrage of “shoulds” without troubling himself in the least about establishing their legitimacy, apparently oblivious to the many books discussing the biological origins of morality that have been appearing lately. Here are some examples from his article:
It is disturbing, shocking, and disappointing to read arguments which include the attempt to defend the indefensible.
The “indefensible” he refers to is slavery. Austin is not providing us with a description of his subjective moral intuitions in response to a particular stimulus. Rather, the implication here is that there are objective reasons to consider slavery indefensible, and attempts to defend it as disturbing, shocking, and disappointing. In short, he is saying that slavery is objectively Evil. Why? We are not told. Nothing could be easier than striking poses in defense of this particular instance of “expertise in morality.” Does not everyone agree that slavery is Evil? What could be easier than simply shouting down anyone who disagrees? They simply reveal themselves as Evil by association. In reality, slavery is neither Good, nor Evil, because such categories simply don’t exist as things in themselves. We can certainly say that the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the U.S. today is that slavery is evil. It was also the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the ante-bellum South that slavery was good. What we cannot say is that there is some objective basis for deciding which of them is right. Continuing from the article,
We look back and wonder, “how could educated people believe that slavery was a moral institution?”
Here Austin is assuming that there are objective reasons for considering slavery moral or immoral. He does not tell us what they are, and for good reason. There are none.
How could we believe that it is morally permissible for certain parts of the world to have so much, while others, through no fault of their own, die of malaria because they lack access to something as cheap and effective as a bed net or anti-malarial medication.
Here Austin is assuming that there is an objective basis for declaring some things morally permissible, and others not. Again, he does not trouble himself to explain why.
I pay extra money each month to my satellite tv provider so that I can watch Arsenal on the Fox Soccer Channel, have an occasional overpriced drink at the local coffee shop, and I purchase other things that I don’t really need. To be clear, I don’t think that we should necessarily stop all such spending. What I do think we should consider, however, is the option of curtailing some of this spending and then putting that money to work in ways that can help others who are suffering from treatable illnesses. By making do with a little less, we can help others live. This is not mere charity, it is a matter of justice.
Here, we find a baseless “should” associated with the spending of money in one way as opposed to another, another baseless “should” concerning what it is appropriate for us to consider, and what not, and a declaration that something is a “matter of justice” without the least semblance of an attempt to establish the legitimacy of that assertion.
Morality is a loose description of a collection of behavioral traits, observable in human beings, with analogs in other species. The ultimate reason for their existence is the evolution of physical traits in the brain and nervous system. Those traits exist solely because individuals who possessed them were more likely to survive, in times which bear little resemblance to the present, than those who didn’t. So much is becoming increasingly obvious. In spite of this, Austin and legions of other modern moralists continue to simply assume the existence of objective morality as a given. It is nothing of the sort. Today, objective morality is like a dead man walking. Perhaps future generations will have the sense to wonder why it is taking the dead man so long to finally collapse.
Posted on October 7th, 2012 No comments
As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,
The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the point. Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme. That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine. The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards. As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,
The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.
Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778. An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights. He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family. I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists. This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.
In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy. They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals. As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified. There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains. There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves. It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream. Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits. Such claims assume the independent existence of rights. However, they have no such existence. The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood. It is impossible for them to be self-evident. To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.
When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good. In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable. The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it. One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself. The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.
I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.” I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.
Posted on July 29th, 2012 No comments
Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone. That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world. The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it. Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track. Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France. Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,
Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work. In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account. Does that mean that Franklin was stupid? Far from it. As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist. The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology. More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.
The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly. We are not nearly as smart as we think we are. The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.
As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought. Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution. Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British. Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed. His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of. Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless. Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today. The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.
Posted on March 18th, 2012 No comments
Freedom of religion in the United States has always been a matter of freedom for me, but not for thee. True, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most influential of our founding fathers, favored the complete separation of church and state, but they belonged to a minority. The majority went along with the language of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but only as a form of armed truce. Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hardly in favor of full religious liberty. They favored the First Amendment prohibition, not because of an altruistic desire to proclaim complete liberty of conscience as a human right, but of the great diversity of Protestant sects in the country at the time, and their desire to insure that there would be no interference with the one they happened to favor.
As may be seen in the records of both the Great Convention and the state ratifying conventions, the clause was accepted with mixed feelings. The fears of many others were expressed by a farmer at the Massachusetts convention, who “shuddered at the idea that Roman Catholics, Pagans and Papists might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” Furthermore, at a time when State sovereignty was taken a great deal more seriously than it is now, the States did not consider the federal prohibition a barrier to their own establishment of any religion they happened to prefer. Several of them actually had State religions at the time the Constitution was ratified. There also existed support of the clergy by general taxation, provision for religious instruction, religious tests for office, and all the other traditional accompaniments of an established religion.
As one might expect from their strong religious tradition, Protestant Christianity was established in practically every one of the New England states. Legally binding tithes existed in Vermont until 1808, the more “liberal” constitution of Connecticut of 1818 provided, “No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship… And each and every society of denominations of Christians in this State shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights and privileges.” Maryland allowed taxation to support Christianity as long as no sect was favored, and no Jew could hold an office in the state until 1851. It was an idiosyncrasy of that State’s law that a Negro’s testimony was admissible in court against a Jew, but not against a Christian. Massachusetts confined the equal protection of the laws to Protestant Christians until 1833, a Pennsylvania court held that “Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the Common Law of Pennsylvania,” and so on, and so on. Indeed, the disabilities applied to Catholics and Jews in this land of “religious freedom” remained in force in some states long after those sects had achieved full emancipation in Great Britain in spite of its established church.
As for atheists, the idea that freedom of religion applied to them in the United States has always been a myth. In most States they were incompetent to testify until the last decade of the 19th century. As for the guarantee of religious liberty in the Constitution, it was intended, according to one state court, “to prevent persecution by punishing anyone for his religious opinions, however erroneous they might be. But an atheist is without any religion, true or false. The disbelief in the existence of any God is not a religious but an anti-religious sentiment.”
And so it is that, at least in some sense, right wing evangelicals are quite right when they declare that the United States is a “Christian nation.” They are in fine company in that regard, as the “Christian nation” meme was also commonly found in the pamphlets of the Ku Klux Klan in its heyday. True freedom of religion has never existed in this country, and those who are most prone to make pious speeches about defending the ideal of Liberty are typically the first to deny its substance. It should therefore come as no surprise that atheists should still be fighting against their relegation to the status of second class citizens in the “under God” clause of the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.
The justices of the Supreme Court used all the familiar specious arguments in upholding that blatant denial of full citizenship to atheists in 2004 that earlier courts had used to condone prayer in the public schools. As in that earlier battle, they claimed that children who objected could choose not to recite the pledge, completely ignoring the stigma such children would bear by segregating themselves in that way. Today we might say that, by so doing, they would publicly proclaim their adherence to an outgroup, deliberately inviting the hostility of the Christian ingroup. In view of the Supreme Court’s ruling that there is a de facto established church in this country after all, atheists have now turned to the states for relief. As noted in an article in The Atlantic,
So the American Humanist Association has mounted a state constitutional challenge to the pledge in Massachusetts state court. On behalf of an anonymous Godless couple (Jane and John Doe) and their three children, the AHA argues that mentioning God in the pledge violates guarantees of religious equality in the state constitution.
While I am not optimistic, I certainly hope Jane and John Doe win the day. I would cringe with shame for my species if aliens really did visit this planet and discover that, not only do a majority of its human inhabitants still believe in imaginary magical beings, but that belief in the same is actually still enshrined in the law of many of the states into which we are organized. Beyond that, as one who volunteered to serve this country in Vietnam at a time when it was anything but popular to do so, it would please me if soldiers of a later day, at least, could pledge their allegiance to their country according to the established formula without at the same time falsely declaring their belief in a fantasy.
Posted on November 27th, 2010 4 comments
Human rights have no existence independent of individual human minds. Like moral judgments, they are perceived as real, objective things, but do not exist as such. Rather, they are subjective mental constructs, existing in our minds in the same way that similar constructs exist in the minds of other animals. They exist because our minds evolved in a way that enabled their existence. Like morality, much of the basic mental machinery responsible for their existence likely came into existence long before the emergence of the genus Homo. And also like morality, the sophistication of the expression of this aspect of our nature in our species compared to others is due to our advanced cognitive abilities rather than any fundamental difference in the emotional mental processes involved. Our notion of rights seems superior to that existing in other animals merely because our ability to think about how we act is superior to that of other animals.
The human rights perceived by each individual mind cease to exist once that mind ceases to exist. That does not mean they are mere figments of the imagination, or that they should not be taken seriously, or, for that matter, that they should be taken seriously. It is a mere statement of fact.
Because rights are perceived as real things, and because of the significance we attach to them, attempts are often made to portray them as legitimate in themselves. A familiar example thereof is the US Declaration of Independence, which includes the passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
In fact, given their nature, it is impossible for them to have any such objective legitimacy as that claimed in the ringing words of Jefferson. Because they have no objective existence as real things, they can be neither alienable nor inalienable. Similarly, because they do not actually exist as independent objects in the way that we perceive them, they cannot be endowed, whether by some super being supposedly responsible for the creation or by any other agency.
Presumably the basic mental machinery necessary for us to conceptualize the concept of a right evolved because of its effectiveness in resolving conflicts. For example, the wolves in a pack do not fight to the death each time there is a conflict of individual interests over such things as who will eat first, or who will have access to females in heat. Dominant wolves have the “right” to take precedence in such matters. Such rights are certainly not inalienable in wolves. As dominant wolves weaken with age, their status can be successfully challenged by younger, more powerful individuals, resulting in the alteration of previously established rights. Rights are no more inalienable in our species. With us, too, they can change within the limits set by our nature. For example, in the late 18th and early 19th century, there was much debate over how to compensate the loss to slave owners of their “right” to the possession and service of their slaves. In our own day, the idea of the existence of such a “right” would be considered absurd. Similarly with the “right” of the Russian nobility to buy and sell landed properties that included serfs, and their “right” to demand the services of these serfs. Today such “rights” are dismissed as an evil and unjustifiable form of exploitation.
Given their nature as evolved emotional traits that emerged at times in which our circumstances were radically different from those we now find ourselves in, it would behoove us to be as circumspect in the establishment of rights as it is in how we distinguish between good and evil. Like good and evil, the perception of rights as real things will exist because it is our nature to believe in their existence. They exist, not in the way that we perceive them, but as subjective mental constructs, but are not any less relevant to our condition because of that. One way or another, they must be taken into account.
The U.S. Bill of Rights is an interesting example of how this was effectively accomplished in practice. Its authors considered such things as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly in their own best interests. To a large extent, the authors believed they already existed in the form of rights. They were accordingly codified in simple, easily understandable form by individuals whose claim to represent the people as a whole was recognized as legitimate. British Tories at the time dismissed these rights at the time as mere addenda to a “silly paper constitution.” They were, however, embraced by the people and have been hallowed by a long existence of more than two centuries. In a word, they are effective rights.
In contrast, the laundry list of contradictory “rights” set forth in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights are expressed equivocally, in a much less straightforward and simple manner, and were created by individuals who had no generally accepted license to represent anyone. They have been observed by the participating nations more in the breech than in the observance, are unfamiliar to most of the people in the world, and are, therefore, for all practical purposes, moot.
While I am hardly certain that they are best, my personal preference is that the rights we establish and defend maximize individual autonomy and minimize interference in our lives by the state or by other individuals, limited only by the proscription of acts that unduly harm others. The principles set forth in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Utilitarianism are a start in the right direction.
Posted on October 18th, 2010 No comments
I just ran across an editorial by the Sage of Baltimore in his American Mercury that should be required reading for students of good and evil. In the piece, which appeared in the issue of November 1926, Mencken encapsulates facts about the nature of morality that have been obvious to some of our best thinkers since at least the time of Aristotle, but about which academic and professional “experts” on the subject in the 21st century seem hopelessly confused. Specifically, in spite of all that we have learned recently about the wellsprings of morality in genetically programmed and innate mental traits, and the fact that these traits exist only because they evolved, a great number of these experts persist, implicitly or explicitly, in defending the “noble purpose” fallacy. By this I refer to the illusion that Good is a real thing, existing independently of subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and it has a goal or purpose, variously described as promoting “human flourishing” or some other chimera of that nature.
Mencken included his observations in a piece attacking Prohibition, which he considered an obscene assault on individual liberty. In it he identifies the notion of Good as a real thing as the “categorical imperative.” It is worth quoting his thoughts at length (bold and italics are mine):
That great statute has not only had the profound political effect of ereviving the old love of liberty in the hearts of the people, and their ancient willingness to run some risks for it; it has also had the still profounder philosophical effect of blowing up their old naïve faith in the categorical imperative. True enough, the name of the categorical imperative was a stranger to them, but nevertheless they once gave it full credit, and it was implicit in all the ethical schemes that bedeviled them, whether theological or merely constabulary. Right, in their view, was a definite entity, a Ding an sich (thing in itself), and as real as hot or cold. Wrong was equally clear and invariable. On this postulate all the gaudy nonsense of their law was based, and all the still gaudier nonsense of their theology. To question it was a sort of sin against the Holy Ghost, and indistinguishable from question democracy itself. But now they have learned to question it, and it seems to me that this learning has brought them many plain benefits, and vastly increased their intellectual dignity. For the first time in their history that have come to a surprised but not unpleasant understanding of the fact that the law, even the moral law, is after all only a human contrivance, and that what is put into it today may be taken out of it tomorrow. In other words, they have begun to realize that behind all categorical imperatives there stand concrete and highly human moralists, most of them with something to sell, and that the great and revolutionary discoveries of these moralists, when subjected to analysis, are very apt to turn out to be buncombe…
This rent in the moral fabric is greatly deplored by specialists in indignation, but it must be manifest to the judicious that it lets in a lot of welcome light. The whole imposture of law is salubriously illuminated, and with it the whole imposture of government. Hundreds of thousands – nay, millions – of simple men, hitherto in the habit of taking such things on faith, have begun to look into them a bit suspiciously – and suspicion, in that field, as in pathology and amour, is the beginning of wisdom. There is no slackening of belief, so far as I can make out, in those moral principles which ground themselves firmly upon human experience; swindlers, as everyone knows, are still reprehended, and the jail-doors clap upon them every day. But in the regions wherein morality itself becomes a sort of swindle, and the Good Man is indistinguishable from a Florida land speculator or a seller of Oklahoma oil stock – in these regions there is a growth of agnosticism, and even of infidelity, and out of it, in the long run, there will flow unmistakable benefits…
I long ago pointed out the colossal opportunity awaiting any Federal judge with enterprise enough to embrace it – and courage enough to face the blast of the Anti-Saloon League. Let him exhume the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments from the cold, cold ground, let him loose a bold judicial whoop for the whole Bill of Rights, let him begin sending Prohibition agents to the hoosegow, whence they issued to afflict a free people – let him do these simple things, all within his lawful powers, all within the strict boundaries of his oath, and he will come to such fame as not even the late Valentino ever encompassed. (That has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?)…
The treatment that remains is to get the patient on his legs, and let him pursue his own devices, taking what he wants and rejecting what he wants. In other words, the remedy is to heave the categorical imperative out of the window, and with it all the ethical osteopaths and chiropractors who merchant it. It is perhaps easier, since Prohibition, to get new moral legislation on the books. The uplifters have learned how to crack their whips, and the legislators have learned how to jump. But it is vastly harder to get moral legislation obeyed. That far, at least, we have gone…
The next bit is a beautiful encapsulation of the inevitable difficulties even the most brilliant of our intrinsically moral species has in discussing and understanding morality. Our responses to what we see as gross impostures almost inevitably have some moral coloring, even if the imposture we are rejecting has to do with morality itself:
Perhaps we are destined to go still farther. For years I have spilled ink denouncing the hypocrisy that runs, like a hair in a hot dog, through the otherwise beautiful fabric of American life. Now I begin to suspect on blue days that I have been chasing a categorical imperative of my own. Is hypocrisy, then, infamous per se? I can only confess that, at the moment, I am in some doubt. It seems to work. In the face of it, and theoretically impeded by it, there has been the great advance in ethical realism that I have been describing. Perhaps hypocrisy is an anesthetic that makes major moral operations possible; without it they might be intolerable. Perhaps it is a necessary function of democracy – a general assumption of the not-true, embracing many lesser but inevitable assumptions of the not-true. It may be that candor, like honor, would be fatal to the whole democratic process – that it presupposes a contempt for the general opinion, and no less for the general lack of opinion, that verges upon anarchy…
…one sees only that the ancient authority of the moral law has begun to crack. Not only the wicked, but also multitudes of the naturally virtuous, have brought the concept of duty into the light of reason. A law among us is no longer something to be obeyed automatically; it is something to be weighted and discussed, and maybe to be rejected. It seems to me that Prohibition is mainly responsible for that benign change. It has destroyed a very dubious and dangerous axiom by putting it into terms of the intolerable. That is a public service of high value, and even of a certain austere dignity. Let the band blow a blast or two in honor of the preposterous Mr. Volstead (Prohibition was referred to as the “Volstead Act”). He aimed at the bird of freedom (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and brought down a whole sky-full of buzzards (Buteo wowseris).
How refreshing and reassuring it is to read a piece like that at a time when moral “experts” can come up with some goal or purpose, arbitrary other than the fact that it must seem an attractive goal or purpose to most of the other members of the group to which the “expert” belongs, and claim with a perfectly straight face that, because the goal is desirable and attractive, it is, therefore, also “really Good,” and hence, by some strange, mysterious process, linked to the human emotional traits we associate with morality. We still live in an asylum, and it’s probably worse than even Mencken thought. For all that, occasionally a little light still shines through the cracks in the wall.
Posted on August 24th, 2010 No comments
The Internet has no equal as an enabler of Freedom of Speech. It provides access to public media to rich and poor alike, regardless of whether some publisher thinks he can make a profit from their work or not. Or at least it does outside of Philadelphia. The benevolent government there has decided to tax Freedom of Speech out of existence, or at least the Freedom of Speech of the little people who can’t afford it. You see, if you have any of those little display ads on your site, you’re in a “business for profit.” No matter that it costs money to maintain a website, and not one in a thousand of the sites that hosts the ads rakes in more than a fraction of that cost as “profit.” You still have to pay a “business privilege license” fee of $300. And, oh, by the way, you also have to bear the cost of documenting every penny of your income and expenses, because otherwise the city will just assume your income is pure profit, and tax that, too. It’s kind of like the “Fairness Doctrine,” but on a smaller scale and without the charade.
Posted on August 23rd, 2010 No comments
Morality is the behavioral expression of innate and fundamentally emotional traits hard-wired in the human brain. The variety and complexity of moral behavior is increasing with extreme rapidity, at least in terms of evolutionary times scales, as the physical characteristics of the brain responsible for the emotions relevant to morality, which have changed little if at all in the last 10,000 years, interact with the vast cultural and environmental changes associated with, among other things, the spread of mass education, instant international communication, and the emergence of modern states and other mass social groups in creatures, such as ourselves, with a sufficiently high intelligence to actually think about moral behavior. This has resulted in the remarkable variety of behaviors and beliefs associated with morality we see today, including the arousal of furious passions over “goods” and “evils” attributed to a variety of social groups, beliefs, and ideologies that didn’t exist and were, therefore, utterly irrelevant at the time that the traits associated with morality evolved.
The fundamental nature of morality, including the fact that evolved, innate traits are responsible for its expression, and that they quite as capable of evoking hatred, rage, and aggression as they are of inspiring empathy, self-sacrifice, and love, has been evident to our best thinkers almost since the days of Darwin. However, it is a testimony to the extreme difficulty we have in reasoning about things as much a part of us as our emotions that the communities of scientific and academic experts in the fields such a psychology, anthropology, and sociology that are most closely associated with the study of questions related to morality have been unable to keep up. For the most part, they subscribe to secular or spiritual religions and ideologies that are defined by pronounced judgments about distinctions of “good” and “evil,” even though those categories can have no real existence as other than subjective mental constructs. As a result, acceptance of a fact as obvious as the association of morality with innate mental traits and predispositions was furiously resisted and successfully repressed for decades by orthodoxies such as behaviorism that better accommodated those ideologies. General acceptance of the fact that morality is the expression of hard-wired mental traits has only occurred in the last decade or so, but only after being forced on the grudging community of “experts” by the rapid accumulation of new evidence from a variety of fields that was too compelling to be ignored.
One would think it rather obvious that, if morality is the expression of mental traits evolved eons ago at a time when our consciousness and social existence were radically different from what they are today, and if those mental traits only exist because they promoted genetic survival in those long bygone days, rational beings would dismiss the idea of “updating” it and applying it willy-nilly to modern realities out of hand as doomed to failure and, in view of disastrous outcomes of applying such “updated” moralities observed in the 20th century in the cases of Nazism and Communism, potentially self-destructive. We are, however, not rational beings, and our faith in our own intelligence is highly exaggerated. As a result, we have not seen the advent of a new Age of Reason. Rather, old moral certainties have merely been superficially updated to accommodate new realities.
The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality has presented us with a case study of how this has worked out in practice in the case of experts who are members of what have been termed WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies. As we have seen in the cases of three of the nine keynote speakers we have looked at so far, none of them are in the least bit dubious about applying morality, touched up here and there around the edges, to deal with modern realities, they believe in the notion of “moral progress,” and they have an implicit belief in good and evil as valid, legitimate things in themselves, somehow existing on their own, independently of the consciousness of individual human beings. In a word, when it comes to morality, we are far from being out of the woods.
In examining the remarks of some of the other speakers, we will see the same phenomenon repeated, including the most explicit attempt by any of the nine to justify faith in “legitimate” versions of good and evil, and an interesting example of how the behavioral traits associated with morality are “adjusted” to fit the Procrustean bed of new “goods” and “evils” required by WEIRD ideology.
First on the list today is fellow atheist Sam Harris. Sam doesn’t limit himself to merely implicit acceptance of WEIRD morality. He positively embraces it, proclaiming a fervent belief in a “moral truth” that he suggests is discoverable using the latest scientific technique. According to Sam, we must “think about moral truth in the context of science,” in order to “maximize human well-being.” He deems it “obvious” that “we need some universal conception of right and wrong.” However, as he sees it, there is an “impediment” in the way of our search for “moral truth.” In his words,
…most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.
It’s hard for me to understand the basis for such a preposterous claim. Consider, for example, the following statement by another speaker, Jonathan Haidt:
The problem is especially serious in moral psychology, where we all care so deeply and personally about what is right and wrong, and where we are almost all politically liberal. I don’t know of any Conservatives.
This, based on my experience, accurately represents the true state of affairs. Whatever their conclusions about the “intellectual basis” for good and evil, almost all of the people Harris is referring to are convinced ideologues, and moralists to the core. Furthermore, they see eye to eye with him about what good and evil “really” are. Read any history of the United States that has come out of these circles in the last 20 years. Does it contain no moral judgments? Can anyone point out one of these “right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people” whose work isn’t larded with morally loaded “shoulds?” Have the neuroscientists suddenly discovered that no emotional response can be detected in their brains to the names “Sarah Palin” and “Rush Limbaugh?” Journalists? Are you kidding me? Has any one of them of any note recorded in the history of the last 100 years been so much as capable of writing a book not characterized by a determined effort to make sure the reader can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys?” Are not such “public intellectuals” as Harris’ fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens passionately devoted to their own versions of good and evil? I personally would certainly agree that there is no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil, but, at least in terms of drawing any actual consequences from that conclusion, it seems to me that if I were thrown into a bag with a random assortment of “scientists, public intellectuals, and journalists,” I would be a distinct anomaly in that respect.
Be that as it may, Harris assures us that he is prepared to defend claims to “moral truth in the context of science.” And how are we to recognize “scientific moral truth?” By the fact that it promotes genetic survival, which is, after all, the only reason that morality exists to begin with? No, unsurprisingly, Harris is in full agreement with the other speakers regarding what is “really good.” It is that which “maximizes human well-being,” and “human flourishing,” as understood by self-described political liberals in the early 21st century.
We soon find out what kind of scientific proofs Harris has in mind to establish the verity of his moral truths. They amount to evoking morally linked emotions in a group of ideologically similar individuals and daring any of them to step outside the ideological box they live in by denying they feel those emotions or that they are not elicited by the kinds of evils Harris evokes. Some examples of his scientific technique:
In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.
Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.
I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery.
And so on. In other words, Harris’ “proof” of the legitimacy of “moral truth” amounts to demonstrating that he can elicit similar moral emotions in a group of like-minded individuals. This is less than compelling evidence of what he proposes to prove.
In closing, Harris plays a clever game with the word “value:”
The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. (not, at least, if Harris is gatekeeper) I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to cut the heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.
Here, Harris evokes emotion as before, in this case in response to the beheading of adulterers, and then conflates two different definitions of the word “value.” In one case, it is the utilitarian value of doing good science to accomplish some desired end. For example, the technique used to create the atomic bomb was “valuable” in that sense, because the goal was achieved; the bomb went off. Emotion had nothing to do with that fact. It would have gone off whether its creators had strong emotional feelings about the utilitarian “values” they used to create it or not. In the second case, the “value” referred to is an emotional value. In its origins, it has not the slightest thing to do with “human flourishing.” Such emotional values, innate in their origins, are not infinitely malleable to promote “human flourishing” or whatever other utilitarian goal Harris might have in mind, and they come inextricably linked to another “value” – hatred directed at those who prefer, or seem to prefer, some other value. In other words, Harris would have us believe there is no difference between the means that are rationally chosen to achieve some goal and innate human emotional responses that have proven time after time after time to be incredibly bad means of achieving the social goals he has in mind. It’s as if Nazism and Communism never happened, as if precisely the same sort of desire for “human flourishing” didn’t give rise to them, and as if all that’s needed in the future to avoid their incredibly destructive outcomes is merely to tweak our method of discovering “moral truth” a bit. I have an alternative suggestion. Next time we want to promote “human flourishing,” let’s leave morality and all its associated passions out of it.
In our next installment, we will examine the remarks of the remaining speakers to see what rather remarkable adjustments to morality are required to promote human flourishing in the 21st century. Earlier posts on the Edge Conference can be found here, here, and here.
Posted on August 18th, 2010 No comments
As mentioned in an earlier post, the recent Edge conference on The New Science of Morality was addressed by nine eminent speakers who together represent a reasonable sample of current thinking on the subject in scientific and academic circles. Their remarks reveal a fact that has been abundantly obvious for some time; that the ideologically driven orthodoxy of the “Not in our Genes” school admirably described by Steven Pinker in his book, “The Blank Slate,” has been largely abandoned in favor of general acceptance of innate or “hard-wired” human nature, including human moral behavior.
By its own account this milieu is primarily to the left of center and “progressive” in its political outlook. Their conservative and religious critics have had no difficulty grasping an obvious implication of these recent adjustments to their world view; these self-described “secular liberals” have abandoned any rational claim to the objective legitimacy of moral distinctions, or on the existence of good and evil as other than subjective constructs of individual human minds. I might add that they have never had a basis for such a claim, even in the heyday of the “blank slate.” Now, however, it’s more obvious than ever. Regardless, as we shall see, in every case their remarks reveal an implicit belief in an objectively valid and legitimate morality. This faith of theirs in something for which there can be no rational justification is a remarkable demonstration of the power of innately driven and fundamentally emotional moral judgments over the human consciousness.
To study the phenomenon in action, let’s begin dissecting the remarks of the nine speakers. The first was University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Like many of the speakers who followed him, Haidt discussed his own scientific work, centered around what he calls Moral Foundations Theory, which “specifies a small set of social receptors that are the beginnings of moral judgment.” He likens these to taste receptors for sweet, sour, bitter, etc., and identifies the five most important of them as “care/harm, fairness/cheating, group loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, and sanctity and degradation.” I will leave it to future generations of geneticists to document where, if at all, these “moral receptors” appear in the human genome. In developing his taste metaphor, Haidt cites a variety of famous thinkers and authorities from days gone by. In doing so, he sticks to the most sound and approved remarks of the most sound and approved thinkers, a pattern that will repeat itself with the remaining speakers. It is essential to establish and maintain academic gravitas in this milieu, and novelty or wandering off the reservation in the choice of authorities is therefore assiduously avoided. In Haidt’s case, the list includes Mencius, unlikely to raise any eyebrows outside of China, and David Hume, currently in high fashion as an early proponent of innate human nature.
Haidt goes further than any of the other speakers in explicitly recognizing the consequences of morality understood as the manifestation of evolved, hard-wired behavioral traits. In his words,
So, as I said, morality is like the Matrix. It’s a consensual hallucination. And if we only hang out with people who share our matrix, then we can be quite certain that, together, we will find a lot of evidence to support our matrix, and to condemn members of other matrices… I believe that morality has to be understood as a largely tribal phenomenon, at least in its origins. By its very nature, morality binds us into groups, in order to compete with other groups.
But wait! Before you conclude that Haidt “get’s it,” and has managed to get his mind around the reality that morality is the manifestation of evolved traits that exist because they promoted our survival under conditions that existed in the misty realms of our prehistory, read on. Without missing a beat, Haidt goes on to discuss the possibility that the various types of morality may be “right” or “wrong,” and concludes,
And as I said before, nearly all of us doing this work are secular Liberals. And that means that we’re at very high risk of misunderstanding those moralities that are not our own. If we were judges working on a case, we’d pretty much all have to recuse ourselves. But we’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to just be extra careful to seek out critical views, to study moralities that aren’t our own, to consider, to empathize, to think about them as possibly coherent systems of beliefs and values that could be related to coherent, and even humane, human ways of living and flourishing.
And so Haidt wanders back off into the swamp in search of the “true good,” which, although none of mankind’s greatest thinkers has quite managed to capture it yet, in spite of thousands of years of trying, is apparently “coherent, humane” (whatever that means), and promotes what I suppose we are to understand as the objectively justifiable “goods” of “living and flourishing.” As we shall see, Haidt is not unique in attaching transcendental moral significance to such vague notions as “living and flourishing,” nor is he unique in never cutting to the chase and explaining why we should take his word for it that such things are “legitimately good.” It is just one of those things that are “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.”
In later posts we will examine further artifacts of this implicit belief in the “true good” among the remarks of the remaining speakers, and consider the future ramifications thereof in our quest to better understand ourselves.
Posted on June 17th, 2010 No comments
Then there’s Norway, where I live, and where the last few days have seen yet another dark development. By way of background, permit me to begin by quoting myself. On pages 230-31 of my book Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom I sum up the more alarming aspects of Norway’s Discrimination Law, passed in 2005:
It forbids “harassment on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, skin color, language, religion, or beliefs,” and, in turn, defines harassment as “actions, omissions, or utterances [my emphasis] that have the effect or are intended to have the effect of being insulting, intimidating, hostile, degrading, or humiliating.”
In other words, it’s illegal just to say certain things.
Defendants may be accused not only by the individuals whom they’ve supposedly offended but also by semiofficial organs such as the Anti-Racist Center and the Center against Ethnic Discrimination (both of which helped formulate the law, and both of which exist less to oppose real racism and discrimination than to oppose political incorrectness generally) or by the government’s Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud.
Which means that a handful of far-left organizations have been given enormous power to silence those they disagree with.
Violations of the law by individuals are punishable by fine; violations by individuals in concert with at least two other persons (such as a writer conspiring with an editor and publisher, perhaps?) can be punished by up to three years’ imprisonment — this in a country where murderers often get off with less. Moreover, the burden of proof is on the accused: you’re guilty until proven innocent.
And this in a supposedly free country.
One would think that the adherents of a religion who actually believe in it themselves would not fear criticism. If they are convinced that what they believe is true, why would they not welcome challenges to that truth as opportunities to embarrass and confute unbelievers, and to enlighten others? If, on the other hand, they fear that belief in a God who threatens to burn the majority of human beings in hell for millions and billions of years, and, in fact eternally, for the paltry sins they commit during their short stay on earth may not be quite rational, on can understand why they would be sensitive to criticism.
Liberty is not a ground state. You have to keep fighting for it, or it disappears.