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  • Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams

    Posted on November 4th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Many modern writers on the subject of morality are aware of its connection with emotional traits that exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection. Many of those also acknowledge that morality is a subjective phenomenon, and that good and evil have no existence independent of the minds that imagine them.  In a sense, these thinkers have managed to claw their way back to the simple truths Darwin alluded to in his The Descent of Man after they were eclipsed for many years by the Blank Slate debacle. Once they’ve done so, however, a funny thing happens. With the lone exception of Edvard Westermarck who began writing on the subject more than a century ago, none of them, or at least none that I am aware of, has managed to appreciate the seemingly obvious logical implications of these truths. Having glimpsed them, they shrink back, as if stunned by what they’ve seen.

    What are the logical implications I refer to? If morality exists by virtue of evolved emotional traits, then,

    1. The traits in question evolved because they happened to increase the odds that individuals carrying the genes that gave rise to them would survive and reproduce.
    2. As Darwin noted, evolution by natural selection is a random process. As a result, it is to be expected that the moral behavior that might evolve in intelligent species other than our own might potentially be quite different from ours.
    3. It follows that morality is subjective, and has no objective existence. Good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things. Rather, they are imagined in the minds of individuals.
    4. The responsible genes must have evolved at times radically different from the present, and even, at least in part, in species that were ancestral to our own.
    5. It follows that morality did not evolve to serve the “purpose” or “function” of promoting the happiness or flourishing of our species, however construed.
    6. There is no guarantee that the traits we associate with morality will have the same effect of enhancing the odds of survival of individuals in the environment we live in now as they did in the one in which the evolved.
    7. It is irrational to blindly rely on these traits to regulate the interactions between and within groups vastly larger and/or utterly different in kind from groups that existed when they evolved.
    8. It is irrational, not to mention potentially dangerous, to blindly rely on these traits to promote social goals that have no connection whatsoever with the reasons they exist to begin with.
    9. It is irrational to assume that the universal tendency to apply a radically different morality to outgroups to the one we apply to our ingroup will disappear if we ignore the former.
    10. It is no more rational to assume that the innate basis of human morality is uniform across all populations, than it is to assume that skin color will be the same across all populations. It is to be expected that there are similarities between different versions of morality, but also that there will be significant differences, which cannot be explained as mere artifacts of “culture.”

    A good number of modern moral philosophers accept the first four items in the above list.  Then, however, an odd thing happens. Far from accepting the seemingly obvious conclusions that follow from these four, as set forth in the rest of the list, they begin writing as if morality were an ideal vehicle for promoting whatever social goals they happen to favor. They begin speaking of things that they personally perceive as good or evil as if everyone else must necessarily also perceive them in the same way. In the end we find them speaking of these subjective goods and evils for all the world as if they were real, objective things. This powerful illusion, so characteristic of our species, reasserts itself, and the seemingly obvious implications of the evolved nature of morality are ignored.

    Why has it been so difficult for modern philosophers to jettison the illusion of objective morality? The answer can be found by examining their ingroup. Most of the public intellectuals and philosophers who write about morality do so in academia and other milieus currently dominated by the “progressive Left.” In other words, they belong to an ingroup that tends to be extremely moralistic, and is typically defined by ideology. Members of such ingroups tend to deem themselves “good,” and anyone who disagrees with the ideology of their ingroup “evil,” in accordance with the nature of human beings since time immemorial. There is no essential difference in this regard between them and a group of hunter/gatherers who deem themselves “good,” and their neighbors in an adjoining territory “evil,” other than the arbitrary features that happen to distinguish ingroup from outgroup. As we have seen so often in the recent past, any member of such ingroups who dares to seriously question any of the shibboleths that define the ideological box these people live in can expect to be ostracized and have their careers destroyed. In short, there is a very powerful incentive not to wander too far off the ideological reservation, and to occasionally virtue signal loyalty to the ingroup.

    Beyond that, those who imagine they possess the moral high ground also imagine that this gives them the right to dictate behavior to others.  In other words, morality rationalizes power and status, and the desire for these things has always been a very powerful motivator of human behavior. Those who possess them aren’t inclined to give them up without a struggle. Today not only moral philosophers but a host of others base their right to dictate behavior to the rest of us on the illusion that their version of morality is “true.” If the illusion disappears, their power disappears with it. Hence, regardless of what they claim to believe about the evolutionary roots of morality, we commonly find them busily propping up the illusion.

    Steve Stewart-Williams is an excellent example of the type referred to above.  He devotes a great deal of attention to the subject of morality in his Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life. On page 203 of my hard cover copy he even quotes E. O. Wilson’s argument “for the necessity of an evolutionary approach to morality.” On page 148 he says more or less  that same thing as I pointed out in the fourth item in the above list, although without referring specifically to morality:

    Our fear of snakes and spiders is an example of an aspect of human psychology that is poorly matched to modern living conditions, but which would have been useful in the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – the environment in which these fears evolved.

    In the following passage on page 291, Stewart-Williams seems to come out very explicitly in favor of the subjective nature of morality:

    The second way that Darwin’s theory could undermine morality is that it could undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths – truths that exist independently of human minds, emotions and conventions. In the remaining pages of this book, I’m going to argue that evolutionary theory does indeed undermine this idea, and that morality is, in some sense, a human invention (or, more precisely, a joint project of human beings and natural selection). In other words, in the final analysis, nothing is right and nothing is wrong. This perspective is quite counterintuitive to most people (myself included).

    It turns out that, as far as Stewart-Williams is concerned, this perspective is very counterintuitive indeed. Instead of drawing the seemingly obvious conclusions listed above that follow from the evolutionary roots of morality and its subjective nature, he spends much of the rest of the book alternately insisting that he believes in subjective morality, and then contradicting himself with comments that make no sense unless there is an objective moral law. Not surprisingly, this “objective moral law” turns out to be a vanilla version of the one that is currently fashionable in academia. Stewart-Williams realizes that the academic ingroup he belongs to is currently highly moralistic, and is likely to take a very dim view of anyone who seriously challenges the shibboleths that define its territorial boundaries.  To placate the “public opinion” of his ingroup, he begins delivering himself of statements that really are “counterintuitive” if he believes in subjective morality as he claims. For starters, he starts dreaming up ways to hop over Hume’s is/ought barrier:

    Hume’s law seems to show that facts about evolution can have no bearing on ethical issues, and that factual and ethical reasoning are completely independent domains of discourse. But it does not have this implication at all. The importance of the is-ought fallacy has been drastically overstated. Consider this argument again:

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick or poor.

    Clearly, the argument is not deductively valid. This could easily be remedied, however, by including an additional premise that would justify the leap from is to ought. After all, it is possible in principle to construct a valid argument from any premise to any conclusion, given the appropriate intervening premise.

    Efforts to aid the weak, sick, or poor go against nature.

    We ought not to go against nature.

    Therefore, we ought not to aid the weak, sick, or poor.

    The argument is now deductively valid, and thus if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true also.

    Right. It kind of reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon, in which one mathematician is proudly displaying his proof of some obscure hypothesis to another mathematician. The second replies that he doesn’t quite follow the step in the proof labeled “Miracle happens.” If, as Stewart-Williams claims, morality is subjective, then the reason you can’t just hop over the is/ought barrier is because there is no ought to hop to on the other side.  One cannot speak of an unqualified ought as he does above at all, because every ought is simply the expression of some individual’s emotionally motivated subjective opinion. Once you admit it is such an opinion, “valid arguments” of the type given above become entirely superfluous. The only “fact” involved is the experience of a subjective feeling which itself exists by virtue of an natural evolutionary process which has no function or purpose whatsoever. “Moral reasoning” is what happens when individuals attempt to interpret what they imagine these subjective feelings are trying to tell them.

    Having justified himself in advance by virtue of this ineffectual quibbling about the is/ought barrier, Stewart-Williams rattles off a whole series of “oughts,” for all the world as if they were unquestionable, objective facts.  For example, on page 255,

    I think we can agree that preparing for the future generations is a highly desirable value to cultivate.

    If morality is subjective, there cannot possibly be any “values,” whether “highly desirable” or not, to cultivate. He could say, “I think everyone else in the world shares my subjective opinion that we ought to prepare for future generations,” but, aside from being clearly false, that statement is entirely different from what he has actually written, implying the existence of “values” as objective things. On page 274, after making it quite clear that he personally considers the “moral dividing line” between humans and animals “is arbitrary,” and that he is opposed to “speciesism,” he writes,

    So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is unjustified.

    The above makes sense only if morality is objective. If, as Stewart-Williams claimed earlier, it is actually subjective, it is impossible for anything to be either justified or unjustified, unless one qualifies the statement by admitting that it is merely an expression of personal opinion based on nothing more substantial than feelings that exist by virtue of natural selection. The statement, “So, the allocation of moral status to humans and humans alone is justified,” is every bit as valid as the one given above, by virtue of the fact that the validity of both is zero. Consider what we’re dealing with here; a bag of behavioral traits that exist purely because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. I doubt that he is arguing that allocation of equal moral status to other animals will accomplish the same thing today. It’s likely to accomplish the exact opposite. As it stands, the statement is fundamentally irrational. All he is really saying is that he arbitrarily interprets certain emotional feelings to mean that humans and other animals must have equal moral status, and insists that everyone else must interpret their emotional feelings in the same way.  A bit later, he doubles down, writing,

    However, if we opt for a morality based on a brute human/non-human distinction, we know we’re getting it wrong – some animals will definitely be treated worse than they should be.

    Again, absent objective morality, this statement is nonsense. If morality is subjective, it is impossible to make truth statements about it one way or the other. We cannot possibly “know” we are getting something wrong unless an objective criteria exists upon which to base that conclusion. On page 289 he tells us,

    When we look at large-scale surveys of everyday believers, we find that in many ways atheists are actually more moral than believers. On average, they are less prejudiced, less racist, and less homophobic; more tolerant and compassionate; and more law-abiding. Admittedly, whether this means atheists are more moral depends on your personal convictions; if you think homophobia is a virtue, for instance, then you’d have to conclude that a greater number of religious than non-religious people possess this particular virtue. Nonetheless, a convincing case can be made that non-religious moral codes are often superior to those traditionally linked with theism. Consider Peter Singer’s Top Three ethical recommendations: do something for the poor of the world; do something for non-human animals; and do something for the environment. This is the ethic of an atheist, a man who accepts that life evolved and has no ultimate meaning or purpose. To my mind, it is vastly superior to moral systems emphasizing trivial issues (or non-issues) such as premarital sex, blasphemy, and the like. Morality is not just about deciding what’s right and wrong, good or bad. it involves getting your moral priorities straight.

    Seldom does one find such a jumble of contradictions in one passage. Stewart-Williams tells us that, on the one hand, morality is subjective, and depends on “your personal convictions,” but, on the other hand, non-religious moral codes are superior to traditional ones linked with theism, and, if you don’t agree with the author, you “don’t have your moral priorities straight.” In other words, morality is subjective and objective at the same time. As an atheist, I’m flattered that he thinks I’m “more moral” than believers, but unfortunately there can be no rational basis for such a conclusion. What he is telling us is that we “ought to” jury rig moral emotions to accomplish ends that have no discernable connection with the reasons that those emotions exist to begin with. He calls this “getting our moral priorities straight.” Is it not abundantly obvious by now that exploiting moral emotions to accomplish social goal that could profoundly affect the lives of millions of people is not only counterproductive, but extremely dangerous? Have we really learned nothing from our experiences with Nazism and Communism? If we seek to stuff Singers three ethical recommendations down everyone’s throats as “good,” then everyone who disagrees with them automatically becomes “evil.” They are consigned to the outgroup. They become the Jews, or the “bourgeoisie.” Are we not yet sufficiently familiar with the often violent fate of outgroups in human history? Does he think he can simply wish away that aspect of human nature?

    Perhaps the above passage is best interpreted as Stewart-Williams’ triple kowtow to the gatekeepers of his ideologically/morally defined ingroup. In the end, it is apparent that he has been no more capable of freeing himself of the illusion of objective morality than the rest of his academic tribe.  He concludes the book with a bombastic passage that confirms this conclusion:

    Of course, nothing can be said to argue that people are morally obliged to accept this ethic, for to do so would be inconsistent with the ideas that inspired it in the first place. It is an ethic that will be adopted – if at all – by those who find a certain stark beauty in kindness without reward, joy without purpose, and progress without lasting achievement.

    No, I’m sorry. You can’t have your moral cake and eat it too. The only thing we can say with certainty about people who “adopt such an ethic” is that they are seriously delusional. They believe that the solution of all the complex social issues facing mankind is a mere matter of “correctly” tweaking a volatile mix of emotions whose origins have nothing whatever to do with the issues in question, and then just letting those emotions run wild to do their thing. As noted above, their thing” invariably involves dictating behavior to others, lending power and status to the would be dictators in the process.

    Allow me to suggest a different version of “getting our moral priorities straight.” In my personal opinion, we ought to limit the sphere of influence of human morality to the bare essentials, namely the regulation of the day to day interactions of human beings that it would be impractical to regulate in any other way because of our limited intelligence. When it comes to matters such as Singers “three ethical recommendations,” or any other social issues involving large numbers of people, let us leave morality strictly out of it to the extent possible for such emotional creatures as ourselves, and lay our cards on the table. No matter what we happen to desire, in the end the fundamental reason we desire it is to satisfy innate feelings and emotions that exist because they evolved. By “laying our cards on the table,” I mean citing the particular emotions we wish to satisfy, making it perfectly clear in the process whether the manner in which those emotions are to be satisfied will have anything to do with the reasons the emotions evolved to begin with or not. It strikes me that something of the sort would be a great deal more rational and less dangerous than continuing to pursue our current approach of allowing such matters to be decided by whatever faction proves most effective at manipulating our moral emotions.

  • Morality Whimsy: Darwin and the Latter Day Philosophers

    Posted on September 30th, 2018 Helian No comments

    It’s hard to imagine how Darwin could have explained morality more clearly, given the Victorian context in which he wrote.  In Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man he said in so many words that it is a subjective manifestation of human nature. However, as I pointed out in my last post, even the philosophers of the 19th century who understood natural selection couldn’t draw the obvious conclusions.  None of them could free themselves of the illusion that Good and Evil are real, objective things, existing independently of human minds.  This was reflected in the various systems of “evolutionary morality” they proposed. They typically assumed that evolved morality had a goal, or purpose, which was usually some version of human flourishing, moral perfection, or “the good of the species.”  To all appearances, it never occurred to any of them that, as a natural process, evolution by natural selection cannot have a goal or a purpose.  In the 20th century, moral philosophers began to accept some of the more obvious implications of Darwinism.  In spite of that, they remained spellbound by the power of the illusion.  The only significant exception I’m aware of was Edvard Westermarck, who pointed out some of the obvious implications of Darwin’s claim that morality exists by virtue of evolved behavioral traits as far back as 1906.  He was forgotten, and we haven’t recovered the lost ground since.

    Today we know a lot more about the mechanics of natural selection than they did in the 19th century.  The study of morality suffered as much as any of the other behavioral sciences during the Blank Slate debacle, but we seem to be on the path to recovery, at least for the time being. Today many scientists and philosophers are at least vaguely aware of the fact, obvious as it was to Darwin, that human morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits. Some of them have even drawn some of the more obvious conclusions from that fact. However, we live in a highly moralistic era, especially in academia, and what we find written about morality today reflects this moralistic culture.

    To illustrate how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go, let’s consider the work of the philosopher Michael Ruse, one of the current crop of evolutionary moralists. He has written much on the subject, but I will focus on a paper he co-authored with E. O. Wilson back in 1986 entitled Moral Philosophy as Applied Science and the book Taking Darwin Seriously, published in 1999. First, the good news. Ruse does take Darwin seriously when it comes to the illusion of objective morality:

    …human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey.

    We believe that implicit in the scientific interpretation of moral behavior is a conclusion of central importance to philosophy, namely that there can be no genuinely objective external ethical premises. Everything that we know about the evolutionary process indicates that no such extrasomatic guides exist.

    As these passages imply, Ruse also rejected the Blank Slate:

    The evidence from both genetic and cognitive studies demonstrates decisively that the human brain is not a tabula rasa.

    The following passage just repeats what Darwin wrote over a century ago in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man:

    It is easy to conceive of an alien intelligent species evolving rules its members consider highly moral but which are repugnant to human beings, such as cannibalism, incest, the love of darkness and decay, parricide, and the mutual eating of faeces. Many animal species perform some or all of these things, with gusto and in order to survive. If human beings had evolved from a stock other than savanna-dwelling, bipedal, carnivorous man-apes we might do the same, feeling inwardly certain that such behaviors are natural and correct. In short, ethical premises are the peculiar products of genetic history. And they can be understood solely as mechanisms that are adaptive for the species that possess them. It follows that the ethical code of one species cannot be translated into that of another. No abstract moral principles exist outside the particular nature of individual species.

    Ruse explicitly rejects the currently fashionable philosophical conceit that evolved morality somehow tracks “true” morality:

    It is thus entirely correct to say that ethical laws can be changed, at the deepest level, by genetic evolution. This is obviously quite inconsistent with the notion of morality as a set of objective, eternal verities. Morality is rooted in contingent human nature, through and through.

    Nor is it possible to uphold the true objectivity of morality by believing in the existence of an ultimate code, such that what is considered right corresponds to what is truly right – that the thoughts produced by the epigenetic rules parallel external premises.

    Here “epigenetic rules” is a term Ruse and Wilson coined referring to the innate predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality. In other words, they’re what the 19th century philosophers referred to as “instincts.” It was an unfortunate choice in view of the current bitter disputes about the significance of epigenetic inheritance. They would have done better to stick with the terms already in use.

    So where is the fly in this promising ointment? To begin, Ruse isn’t quite on board with his own philosophy. In spite of his insistence on the subjective nature of morality, we constantly find him signaling to his morality-drenched academic peers that he’s “really good.” He suffers from the same morality addiction as the rest of them. Indeed, to get that monkey off his back, he would have to jump right out of his academic ingroup. For example,

    Like Huxley, I find these views (Social Darwinism)  taken to the extreme to be morally repellant. They are the epitome of all that is immoral, and anything but a guide to proper behavior… This philosophy I believe (generally) to be grossly immoral.

    Children with the disease (Tay-Sachs) develop at first in a normal manner. Then at six months they start to collapse into zombies, and die by the age of four. I see nothing immoral about detecting and aborting such children. In fact, I believe we have a positively moral obligation to do so.

    John Stuart Mill’s campaign for women’s rights was a good thing, as was Bertrand Russell’s opposition to nuclear weapons.

    What we have in the case of Darwinian ethics is a denial of objectivity, which is surely a denial of metaphysical reality by another name, and an affirmation of subjectivity, which is no less a commitment to common sense, in which the subject plays an active creative part. If anything is common sense, it is that rape is simply, totally, wrong.

    In spite of having affirmed that morality is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “epigenetic rules,” Ruse can find nothing wrong with applying it to decide all sorts of issues that could not possibly have contributed to the evolution of those rules. Consider, for example, this passage, which also includes virtue signaling in the form of a wink and a nod to his liberal ingroup.

    Darwinism is anything but a gospel for the extreme conservative. Apart from anything else, no one is saying that there are humans towards whom we have no sense of moral obligation whatsoever. Furthermore, the pretense that we need not bother about the Third World is self-refuting. If we ignore it, then through such effects as overpopulation, we shall soon find that it raises all sorts of difficult moral issues which do directly impinge on us.

    In case we are left in any doubt about Ruse’s actual commitment to objective morality under a veneer of subjectivism, he adds,

    My only hope is to have shown that a Darwinian approach to morality does not call for a repudiation of standards and values cherished by decent people of all nations.

    It is beyond me where in Ruse’s philosophy one can find a definition of “decent people.” Indeed, his philosophy excludes the possibility that one can make unqualified reference to “decent people” unless “decency” exists as an independent object. In other words, his use of the term is a blatant non sequitur. All this makes no sense at all unless we are aware that Ruse imagines he has found a way to skip blithely around Hume’s is/ought barrier. It goes something like this:

    If morality means anything, it means being prepared to hold out a helping hand to others. Christians, utilitarians, Kantians, and everyone else come together on this.

    I guess I’m not one of the above. To me, morality refers to social behavior that is ultimately the result of evolved behavioral traits. The above is yet another example of Ruse’s tendency to objectivize a possible manifestation of that behavior as “good.” Next, we are optimistically informed that a universal human morality is possible based on the dubious assumption that there are no differences in the evolved traits on which it is based among human populations:

    When it comes to general shared moral principles, the Darwinian stands firm. Humans share a common moral understanding. This universality is guaranteed by the shared genetic background of every member of Homo sapiens. The differences between us are far outweighed by the similarities. We (virtually) all have hands, eyes, ears, noses, and the same ultimate awareness. That is part of being human. There is, therefore, absolutely nothing arbitrary about morality, considered from the human perspective.

    All this is so much hand waving. Given the evidence of vast differences in moral rules and behavior across human populations, the idea that there is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it is nonsense. No matter. Apparently based on this axiom of universality, a miracle happens. Ruse cuts the Gordian knot, and walks right around the is/ought barrier!

    To use an American sporting metaphor, the Darwinian does an end-run around the is/ought barrier. He/she realizes that you cannot go through it, but argues that you can go around it, giving morality all of the justificatory insight possible.

    In fact, all the “justificatory insight possible” amounts to zero. There is no plausible reason for the claim that the implausible assumption of universal “epigenetic rules” relevant to morality enables an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier. In other words, Ruse is just another modern philosopher attempting to have his cake and eat it, too.

    Unfortunately, Ruse has left out a few things in his “universal moral understanding.” Among them is the outgroup. He never mentions its existence in any of his work I’ve read so far, and yet, if there is any universal aspect of human moral behavior, that is one of them.  If what Ruse has written above about skipping around the is/ought barrier is true, then it becomes our duty to hate the outgroup with a blind, irrational fury. Beyond that, he never seriously takes into account the vast difference between the environment in which we now live, and the one in which the predispositions responsible for moral behavior evolved. If he did, it would immediately reduce his notion that morality is an appropriate tool for deciding issues about how to deal with the Third World to an absurdity.

    Perhaps the most significant thing of all that Ruse has left out of his philosophizing is a very fundamental feature of human morality. We do not apply it to ourselves alone. We apply it to others as well. To the extent that one imagines that he has done an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier, he also imagines that he has acquired the right to dictate behavior to others. After all, who are we to dispute such a noted philosopher’s take on what our “universal human morality” consists of? That is my biggest problem with our latter day “evolutionary moralists.” In reality, they are just as addicted to objective morality as their 19th century precursors, and just as intent on explaining to the rest of us what we “ought” to do.

    Do you like to have others dictate to you what you ought and ought not to do? I don’t. I know that we require some form of morality, because as a species we are too stupid to do without it. Under the circumstances, I prefer to keep it as simple as possible, and to reduce its sphere of influence as much as possible. It strikes me that expanding that sphere to include “the Third World,” or anything of the sort, is not only absurd, but extremely dangerous. I cannot give you any objective reason why you ought not to grovel before people who presume to dictate to you what you ought or ought not to do. I can only inform you that I prefer not to grovel myself. That, it seems to me, is one of the great advantages of grasping the truth about the subjective nature of morality. That truth does not imply moral chaos, or the impossibility of a society with “absolute” moral rules. It merely provides some insight into what such an “absolute” morality might look like in the context of whatever goals or purpose you’ve established for yourself in life.

    In my next post I will review the work of another modern “evolutionary moralist” who, predictably, has been no more capable of shaking the objective morality illusion than Ruse. Things haven’t changed much since the 19th century. The symptoms of the addiction have just become more subtle.

  • “Milo News,” Jerry Coyne, and Infant Euthanasia

    Posted on July 29th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Prof. Jerry Coyne recently posted an article on his Why Evolution is True website defending euthanasia for severely deformed or doomed infants.  This provoked a predictable enraged response from right wing and Christian websites.  Prof. Coyne responded to these attacks here.  There’s nothing surprising about any of this except for the fact that one of the attacks on Prof. Coyne was posted at Milo News, edited by Milos Yiannopoulos.  In view of Prof. Coyne’s consistent defense of Yiannopoulos’ freedom of speech, I found it particularly incongruous that one of the attacks should appear on his website. I left the following comment.

    BEGIN QUOTE

    I’m also an atheist, like Prof. Coyne, but more to the right than average.  In fact, I recently defended Milo’s book on my blog:

    http://helian.net/blog/2017/07/16/worldview/milos-dangerous/

    However, I also agree with Prof. Coyne’s view on euthanasia of infants.  Unlike the furious zealots of the left and the right, however, I don’t assume the right to stuff my views on morality down anyone else’s throat.  It’s odd that many of the commenters on this thread defend their pious hatred of Coyne in the name of Judeo-Christian morality.  There seems to be something of a disconnect between their rage and what is taught in the Bible, such as “judge not, lest ye be judged,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Blessed are the meek,” etc.  In view of the fact that Christians have used their religion to justify killing tens of millions in religious wars, a million witches, give or take, in the Middle Ages, hundreds of thousands of Jews in pogroms over the centuries, most notably whenever a body of troops left for the Crusades, and murdered tens of thousands more as “heretics,” it seems absurd for them to imagine they’re standing on the moral high ground as they foam at the mouth about Coyne’s views on euthanasia.

    As it happens, it’s particularly incongruous in view of Prof. Coyne’s consistent and effective defense of freedom of speech in general and Milo’s freedom of speech in particular.  See, for example,

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/milo-yiannopoulos-talk-canceled-at-university-of-california-at-davis/

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/02/09/berkeley-students-defend-violent-protests-over-milo-yiannopoulos-talk/

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/milo-falls-on-his-sword/

    In Dangerous Milo places the University of Chicago at the top of the list of his college “heroes,” noting that the “Chicago Principles on Free Expression” are the “gold standard in the fight against campus censorship.”  Prof. Coyne has consistently and strongly defended those principles.  These are a few things to consider as you work yourselves up into orgasms of pious indignation.

    I would love to see Milo sit down and have a beer with Coyne sometime.  They are both individuals who can actually think.  The results of the exchange might be interesting.

    END QUOTE

    Prof. Coyne is certainly on the left of the ideological spectrum, but he is decidedly not a Social Justice Warrior, nor is he a regressive leftist of the authoritarian persuasion who is determined to stuff his version of morality down anyone’s throat, nor is he intolerant of opinions that differ from his own.  He will have nothing to do with the ludicrous love affair between the SJW left and radical Islam, in spite of the usual specious accusations of “Islamophobia.”  I find it unfortunate that in this “four legs good, two legs bad” world where so many have chosen to confine themselves in ideological strait jackets, there are so few who seem willing or able to make the distinction between someone like him and, say, a garden variety SJW whose tastes run to fascism.

    The comment quoted above still hasn’t made it out of moderation at Milo News, and may have been consigned to the memory hole there.  Be that as it may, I reiterate my support for Prof. Coyne’s position on infant euthanasia.  This is a case in which it’s very important to consider why your moral emotions are pushing you one way or the other on the issue, and what paying heed to them (or not) will actually accomplish.  I personally would prefer that the issue be regulated by law, with euthanasia allowed up to the age of, say, a week, with the decision left strictly to the parents.  After that the usual laws dealing with murder would apply.  I do not think my opinion is capable of rendering itself independent of the neurons that gave rise to it, clothing itself in the odor of sanctity, and then fobbing itself off as a “moral law” to my unsuspecting fellow citizens.  However, I do think it should be given as much weight as any other opinion, preferably in some rational process of deciding what “ought” or “ought not” to be done that has been made as free from blatant attempts to manipulate moral emotions as possible.

    As for Milo, I know he rejects the notion of apologizing for anything, and I don’t blame him.  However, according to his own principles as set forth in Dangerous, there is much “good” in Prof. Coyne.  It would be nice to see him recognize the fact instead of simply relegating him to the same circle of hell as, say, octogenarian establishment Republicans, hideous third-wave feminist scolds, and craven, back-stabbing book publishers.

  • Morality; Once More From the Top

    Posted on April 2nd, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It doesn’t take too many bits and pieces to fit together the “big picture” of morality.  Once the big picture is in place, it becomes possible to draw some seemingly obvious conclusions about it.  Unfortunately, they are not obvious to most people because they are too invested in their own versions of morality.  They ignore the picture, and invest their time in propping up foregone and false conclusions.  As a result we constantly encounter such absurdities as learned professors of philosophy writing books in which they start by insisting on “moral nihilism” and the purely subjective nature of morality, and finish by telling us all about our “duties” and the things we are “bound” to do, assertions that are completely incomprehensible absent the existence of objective moral rules.

    Suppose, for example, that one of the innate elements of our shared “core morality” was a tendency to get out of bed and jump into a pool of liquid every morning.  According to this whimsical mode of reasoning, we would still have a “duty” to jump into the pool and, indeed, we would be “bound” to do so even if the original water in the pool were replaced by sulfuric acid.  Such behavior might be reasonable in response to objective moral rules dictated by a vengeful God.  However, it would at least be advisable to think twice about whether we were “bound” to do so as a “duty” if the rules in question were mere manifestations of evolved and subjective behavioral predispositions, even if all our neighbors had already jumped in.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at the big picture, or at least the big picture as I see it.

    Morality is an expression of evolved behavioral predispositions.  Pre-Darwin thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume may not have known about the evolutionary origin of these predispositions, which they referred to as “passions” or “sentiments.”  However, they demonstrated very convincingly that they exist, that morality cannot exist without them, and is, in fact, just a term for the manner in which we express them.

    Evolution is a natural process.  As such, it has no purpose or goal.  It follows that, like all other evolved traits, mental or physical, the traits responsible for morality have no purpose or goal, either.

    The traits in question evolved at undetermined times in the distant past.  It can be safely assumed that our physical, social, and cultural environment was quite different then from what it is now.  It follows that it cannot be assumed that these traits will have the same effect now on the probability that the responsible genes will survive and reproduce as they did then.

    Given the evolved origin of the perception that some acts are morally good, and that others are morally bad, these perceptions must be purely subjective in nature.  They do not correspond to objective analogs that exist as things in themselves, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them.

    Since moral rules have no objective existence, it is impossible for them to somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, there can be no legitimate, independent basis for prescribing what other people ought or ought not to do.  That basis can only exist in the form of subjective opinions in the minds of individuals.  It is impossible for such a basis to somehow acquire the right to dictate behavior to others.

    In spite of their subjective nature, moral rules are generally felt or believed to possess objective validity.  They are perceived in that way not because they really do exist independently, but because they were most effective in enhancing the odds of survival and reproduction when perceived in that way.

    Because moral rules are perceived as objective even though they are not, and the predispositions responsible for them are innate, moral behavior will continue no matter what philosophers, religious leaders, or anyone else writes about it.  These predispositions are probably quite similar across human populations, but they can obviously manifest themselves in a great many different ways.  In other words, moral rules have similarities across populations, but they are not rigidly programmed.  Within the bounds set by human nature, they can be adjusted to promote different social goals.  However, those innate bounds are always there, and by ignoring them we run the risk of promoting societies that are very different from the ones we had in mind.

    Since morality evolved in times that were very different from the present, blindly seeking to satisfy moral emotions without questioning why they exist is likely to become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the complexity of the social issues to which we seek to apply them.  It can certainly not be assumed that acting blindly in response to them will accomplish the same thing now as it did then.  When people act in that way, it might be useful to point out that the only reason the emotions in question exist is because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the past.  One might then ask them whether they really believe that their actions will promote the survival and reproduction of those same genes they happen to be carrying now and, if not, what it is they are trying to accomplish and why.

    So much for the obvious implications of the evolutionary root causes of all moral behavior.  Why is it that the number of people who have been capable of grasping these implications is vanishingly small?  The answer lies in morality itself.  More precisely, it has to do with the nature of contemporary ingroups.  When the predisposition to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups evolved, ingroups were defined by the fact of belonging to a particular group or tribe, usually consisting of no more than around 150 people.  Today we find that they can just as easily be defined by ideology, particularly in the case of the very secular people who are otherwise most capable of accepting the evolutionary origins of morality.  Unless one unquestioningly accepts the morally loaded shibboleths that define such an ingroup, one cannot belong to that ingroup.  It is very difficult for us to accept ostracism and rejection by our tribe.  We have abundant evidence that most of us are perfectly capable of rejecting the obvious if only we can protect our status as members in good standing.  The result is such glaring non sequiturs as those committed by the “moral nihilist” referred to above.  As I’ve mentioned before, I know of not a single modern public intellectual or philosopher who has managed to jettison the defining moral rules of an ideologically defined ingroup and avoid such glaring contradictions.

    Why do I bother to write about morality?  Among other things, I don’t like to be bullied by people who have embraced the irrationalities referred to above.  I reject the assumption that anyone has a right to dictate to me what I must consider Good and what I must consider Evil, regardless of anything I might happen to think about the subject.  One doesn’t even need to appeal to Darwin to reject the notion of such a right.  One simply needs to ask such questions as, “Why do you believe that such things as ‘rights,’ ‘Good,’ and ‘Evil’ exist as objective things, independent of any subjective, conscious mind?  Assuming they exist, can you show one to me?  Can you tell me what substance they are made of since, after all, if they are made of nothing, they are nothing?  Assuming these things exist, how is it that they have acquired the legitimacy necessary to dictate behavior to me or anyone else?”

    The world is full of pious frauds who can answer none of these questions, and yet still insist on dictating behavior to the rest of us.  For the most part, they appear to be rushing towards goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions they take so seriously exist to begin with.  Indeed, many of them seem to be rushing towards self-destruction and genetic suicide, insisting all the while that the rest of us are in duty bound to follow them along the same path.  Today the fashionable term for them is Social Justice Warriors.  When I was a child they were normally referred to as do-gooders.  H. L. Mencken used to refer to them generally as the Uplift.  From my own point of view their record is not uniformly negative.  In fact, over the years they have accomplished many things that I find both useful and acceptable as far as the satisfaction of my own goals in life are concerned.  The problem is that, because they are rushing about blindly, responding to emotions without ever bothering to question why those emotions exist, their actions are just as likely to accomplish things that I find useless, and often harmful.  As a consequence, I would prefer that these people refrain from further attempts to dictate to me and to the rest of society, and in fact that they refrain from continuing to blindly do anything at all without understanding why they want to do it to begin with.

    I know, I’m grasping at straws.  The last one I know of who insisted on the above truths about morality was Edvard Westermarck.  He wrote his first book on the subject more than 100 years ago, and very few paid any attention to him.  The ones who did either didn’t understand him or were incapable of rejecting comforting worldviews in favor of the harsh truths revealed in his work.  His example is hardly encouraging.  On the other hand, I can be certain I will accomplish nothing if I do nothing.  Therefore, I will do something.  I will continue to write.

  • Ingroups and Outgroups and Ideologues

    Posted on February 27th, 2016 Helian 5 comments

    The Blank Slate is not over.  True, behavioral scientists, intellectuals, and ideologues of all stripes now grudgingly admit something that has always been obvious to those Donald Trump refers to as the “poorly educated,” not to mention reasonably perceptive children; namely, that there is such a thing as human nature.  However, many of them only admit it to the point where it interferes with their imaginary utopias of universal brotherhood and human flourishing, and no further.  Allow me to consult the source material to illustrate what I’m talking about.  In Man and Aggression, published in 1968, Blank Slate high priest Ashley Montagu wrote,

    …man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings… The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless… Human nature is what man learns to become a human being.

    A bit later, in 1984, fellow Blank Slater Richard Lewontin generously expanded the repertoire of “innate” human behavior to include urinating and defecating in his Not in Our Genes.  One still finds such old school denialists in the darker nooks of academia today, but now one can at least speak of human nature without being denounced as a fascist, and the existence of such benign aspects thereof as altruism is generally admitted.  However, no such tolerance is extended to aspects of our behavior that contradict ideological shibboleths.  Here, for example, is a recent quote from a review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact (a good read, by the way, and one I highly recommend) by critic George Sciallaba:

    For all the vigor with which Coyne pursues his bill of indictment against organized religion, he leaves out one important charge. As he says, the conflict between religion and science is “only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition.” There are other kinds of superstition. Coyne mentions astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing, but religion “is the most widespread and harmful form.” I’m not so sure. Political forms of superstition, like patriotism, tribalism, and the belief that human nature is unalterably prone to selfishness and violence, seem to me even more destructive.

    Aficionados will immediate recognize the provenance of this claim.  It is a reworked version of the old “genetic determinism” canard, already hackneyed in the heyday of Ashley Montagu.  It serves as a one size fits all accusation applied to anyone who suggests that any aspect of the human behavioral repertoire might be “bad” as opposed to “good.”  Patriotism and tribalism are, of course, “bad.”  There’s only one problem.  If “genetic determinists” exist at all, they must be as rare as unicorns.  I’ve never encountered a genuine specimen, and I’ve search long and hard.  In other words, the argument is a straw man.  There certainly are, however, people, myself included, who believe that our species is predisposed to behave in ways that can easily lead to such “bad” behaviors as tribalism, selfishness and violence.  However, to the best of my knowledge, none of them believe that we are “unalterably prone” to such behavior.  What they do believe is that the most destructive forms of human behavior may best be avoided by understanding what causes them rather than denying that those causes exist.

    Which finally brings us to the point of this post.  Human beings are predisposed to categorize others of their species into ingroups and outgroups.  They associate “good” qualities with the ingroup, and “evil” qualities with the outgroup.  This fact was familiar to behavioral scientists at the beginning of the 20th century, before the Blank Slate curtain fell, and was elaborated into a formal theory by Sir Arthur Keith in the 1940’s.  I can think of no truth about the behavior of our species that is so obvious, so important to understand, and at the same time so bitterly denied and resisted by “highly educated” ideologues.  Tribalism is not a “superstition,” as Mr. Sciallaba would have us believe, but a form of ingroup/outgroup behavior and, as such, a perfectly predictable and natural trait of our species.  It has played a major role as the sparkplug for all the bloody and destructive wars that have plagued us since the dawn of recorded time and before.  It is also the “root cause” of virtually every ideological controversy ever heard of.  It does not make us “unalterably prone” to engage in warfare, or any other aggressive behavior.  I have little doubt that we can “alter” and control its most destructive manifestations.  Before we can do that, however, we must understand it, and before we can understand it we must accept the fact that it exists.  We are far from doing so.

    Nowhere is this fact better illustrated today than in the struggle over international borders.  Take, for example, the case of Germany.  Her “conservative” government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, long followed a policy of treating the countries borders as if they didn’t exist.  More than a million culturally alien Moslem “refugees” were allowed to pour across them in a single year.  This policy of the “conservative” German government was cheered on by the “leftist” German news media, demonstrating that the pleasant mirage of universal human brotherhood is hardly a monopoly of either extreme of the political spectrum.  The masses in Germany reacted more or less the same way they have reacted in every other western European country, demonstrating what some have referred to as an “immune” response.  They resisted the influx of immigrants, and insisted that the government reestablish control over the nation’s borders.  For this, one finds them condemned every day in both the “right wing” and “left wing” German media as “haters.”

    A remarkable fact about all this, at least as far as Germany is concerned, is that the very same German media, whether of the “right” or the “left,” quite recently engaged in a campaign of anti-American hatemongering that would put anything they accuse the local “tribalists” of completely in the shade.  The magazine Der Spiegel, now prominent in condemning as “haters” anyone who dares to suggest that uncontrolled immigration might not be an unalloyed blessing, was in the very forefront of this campaign of hate against the United States.  One could almost literally feel the spittle flying from the computer screen if one looked at their webpage during the climax of this latest orgy of anti-Americanism.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany among the furious denunciations of the United States for one imagined evil or another.  It was hardly “all about Bush,” as sometimes claimed.  These rants came complete with quasi-racist stereotyping of all Americans as prudish, gun nuts, religious fanatics, etc.  If ever there were a textbook example of what Robert Ardrey once called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” that was it.  After indulging in this orgy of hatemongering, Der Spiegel and the rest are now sufficiently hypocritical to point the finger at others as “haters.”

    There is another remarkable twist to this story as far as Germany is concerned.  There were a few brave little bloggers and others in Germany who resisted the epidemic of hate.  Amid a storm of abuse, they insisted on the truth, exposed the grossly exaggerated and one-sided nature of the media’s anti-American rants, and exposed the attempts in the media to identify Americans as an outgroup.  Today one finds the very same people who resisted this media hate campaign among those Der Spiegel and the rest point the finger at as “haters.”  In general, they include anyone who insists on the existence of national borders and the sovereign right of the citizens in every country to decide who will be allowed to enter, and who not.

    The point here is that the outgroup have ye always with you.  Those most prone to strike self-righteous poses and hurl down anathemas on others as “haters” are often the most virulent haters themselves.  To further demonstrate  that fact, one need only look at the websites, magazines, books, and other media produced by the most ardent proponents of “universal human brotherhood.”  If you find a website with comment threads, by all means look at them as well.  I guarantee you won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup.  It will always be there, decorated with all the usual pejoratives and denunciations we commonly associate with the “immoral,” and the “other.”  The “tribe” of “others” can come in many forms.  In the case of the proponents of “human flourishing,” the “other” is usually defined in ideological terms.  For leftists, one sometimes finds the “Rethugs,” or “Repugs” in the role of outgroup.  For rightists, they are “Commies” and “socialists.”  It’s never difficult to exhume the hated outgroup of even the most profuse proponents of future borderless utopias as long as one knows where to dig.  We are all “tribalists.”  Those who think tribalism is just a “superstition” can easily demonstrate the opposite by simply looking in the mirror.

    Today we find another interesting artifact of this aspect of human nature in the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  The elites of both parties don’t know whether to spit or swallow as they watch him sweep to victory after victory in spite of “gaffes,” “lies,” and all kinds of related “buffoonery,” that would have brought his political career to a screeching halt in the past.  The explanation is obvious to the “poorly educated.”  Trump has openly called for an end to uncontrolled illegal immigration.  The “poorly educated” were long cowed into silence, fearing the usual hackneyed accusations of racism, but now a man who can’t be cowed has finally stepped forward and openly proclaimed what they’ve been thinking all along; that uncontrolled immigration is an evil that will lead to no good in the long run.  This fact is as obvious to the “poorly educated” in Europe as it is to the “poorly educated” in the United States.

    Ingroups and outgroups are a fundamental manifestation of human morality.  There is an objective reason for the existence of that morality.  It exists because it has promoted the survival and reproduction of the genes responsible for it in times not necessarily identical to the present.  It does not exist for the “purpose” of promoting universal brotherhood, or the “purpose” of promoting “human flourishing,” or the “purpose” of eliminating international boundaries.  It has no “purpose” at all.  It simply is.  I am a moral being myself.  I happen to prefer a version of morality that accomplishes ends that I deem in harmony with the reasons that morality exists to begin with.  Those ends include my own survival and the survival of others like me.  Uncontrolled immigration of culturally alien populations into the United States or any other country is most unlikely to promote either the “flourishing” or the survival of the populations already there.  As has been demonstrated countless times in the past, it normally accomplishes precisely the opposite, typically in the form of bitter civil strife, and often in the form of civil war.  I happen to consider civil strife and civil war “evil,” from what is admittedly my own, purely subjective point of view.  I realize that my resistance to these “evils” really amounts to nothing more than a whim.  However, it happens to be a whim that is obviously shared by many of my fellow citizens.  I hope this “ingroup” of people who agree with me can make its influence felt, for the very reason that I don’t believe that human beings must forever remain “unalterably prone” to constantly repeating the same mistake of substituting a mirage for reality when it comes to understanding their own behavior.  That is what the Blank Slaters have done, and continue to do.  I hope they will eventually see the light, for their own “good” as well as mine.  We are not “unalterably prone” to anything.  However, before one can alter, one must first understand.

     

     

  • The Great European Morality Inversion

    Posted on October 2nd, 2015 Helian 5 comments

    If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know my take on morality.  It is the manifestation of a subset of our suite of innate behavioral traits.  The traits in question exist because they evolved.  Absent those traits, morality as we know it would not exist.  It follows that attempts to apply moral emotions in order to solve complex problems that arise in an environment that is radically different from the one in which the innate, “root causes” of morality evolved are irrational.  That, however, is precisely how the Europeans are attempting to deal with an unprecedented flood of culturally and genetically alien refugees.  The result is predictable – a classic morality inversion.

    The situation is unfolding just as Jonathan Haidt described it in his paper, The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  As he put it,

    …moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.

    In other words, the “emotional dog” makes the judgment.  Only after the judgment has been made does the “rational tail” begin “wagging the dog,” concocting good sounding “reasons” for the judgment.  One can get a better idea of what’s really going on by tracking down the source of the moral emotions involved.

    Let’s consider, then, what’s going on inside the “pro-refugee” brain.  As in every other brain, the moral machinery distinguishes between ingroup and outgroup(s).  In this case these categories are perceived primarily in ideological terms.  The typical pro-refugee individual is often a liberal, as that rather slippery term is generally understood in the context of 21st century western democracies.  Such specimens will occasionally claim that they have expanded their ingroup to include “all mankind,” so that it is no longer possible for them to be “haters.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  It comes with the human behavioral package.

    If anything, the modern liberal hates more violently than any other subgroup.  He commonly hates the people within his own culture who disagree with the shibboleths of his ideology.  Those particular “others,” almost always constitute at least a part of his outgroup.  Outside of his own culture, ideology matters much less as a criterion of outgroup identification, as demonstrated, for example, by the odd affinity between many Western liberals and radical Islamists.

    Beyond that, however, he is hardly immune from the more traditional forms of tribalism.  For example, European liberals typically hate the United States.  The intensity of that hatred tends to rise and fall over time, but can sometimes reach almost incredible levels.  The most recent eruption occurred around the year 2000.  Interestingly enough, one of the most spectacular examples occurred in Germany, the very country that now takes the cake for moralistic grandstanding in the matter of refugees.  Der Spiegel, its number one news magazine, was certainly in the avant-garde of the orgasm of hatred.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany on the homepage of its website, so filled was it with furious, spittle-flinging rants about the imagined evils of “die Amerikaner.”  However, virtually every other major German “news” outlet, whether it was nominally “liberal” or “conservative,” eventually jointed the howling pack.  The most vicious examples of anti-American hate were typically found in just those publications that are now quick to denounce German citizens who express concern about the overwhelming waves of refugees now pouring into the country as “haters.”

    On the other hand, refugees, or at least those of the type now pouring into Europe, seldom turn up in any of these common outgroups of the modern liberal.  They land squarely in his ingroup.  Humans are generally inclined to help ingroup members who, like the refugees, appear to be in trouble.  This is doubly true of the liberal, who piques himself on what he imagines to be his moral superiority.  Furthermore, as the refugees can be portrayed as victims of colonialism and imperialism, one might say they are a “most favored subset” of the ingroup.  Throw in a few pictures of drowned children, impoverished women begging for help, etc., and all the moral ingredients are there to render the liberal an impassioned defender of the masses of humanity drawing a bead on his country.  Nothing gives him more self-righteous joy than imagining himself a “savior.”  This explains the fact that liberals are eternally in the process of “saving” one group of unfortunates or another without ever getting around to accomplishing anything actually recognizable as salvation.  All the pleasure is in the charade.  We find the same phenomenon whether its a matter of “saving” the environment, “saving” the planet from global warming, or “saving” the poor.  For the liberal, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

    Which brings us back to the theme of this post.  All the sublime moral emotions now at play in the “salvation” of the refugees have an uncanny resemblance to many other instances of moral behavior as practiced by the modern liberal.  They have a tendency to favor an outcome which is the opposite of what the same moral emotions accomplished at an earlier time, and that led to their preservation by natural selection to begin with.  In a word, as noted above, we are witnessing yet another classic morality inversion.

    Why an inversion?  At the most fundamental level, because it will lead to the diminution or elimination of the genes whose survival a similar response once favored.  At the moment, the pro-refugee side is calling the shots.  It controls the governments of all the major European states.  All of them more or less fit the pattern described above, whether they are nominally “liberal” or “conservative.”  Indeed, foremost among them is Germany’s “conservative’ regime, which has positively invited a flood of alien refugees across its borders.  Based on historical precedent, the outcome of all this altruism isn’t difficult to foresee.  In terms of “culture” it will be a future of ethnic and religious strife, possibly leading to civil war.  Genetically, it amounts to an attempt at ethnic suicide.  I am well aware that these outcomes are disputed by those promoting the refugee inundation.  However, I consider it pointless to argue about it.  I am content to let history judge.

    While we bide our time waiting for the train wreck to unfold, it may be of interest to examine some of the techniques being used to maintain this remarkable instance of moralistic play-acting.  I take most of my examples from the German media, which includes some of the most avid refugee cheerleaders.  Predictably, outgroup vilification is part of the mix.  As noted above, anyone who objects to the flood of refugees is almost universally denounced as a “hater” by just those people who wear their own virulent hatreds on their sleeves while pretending they don’t exist.  Of course, there are also the usual hackneyed violations of Godwin’s Law.  For example, Jacob Augstein, leftwing stalwart for Der Spiegel, denounces them as “Browns” (i.e., brownshirts, Nazis) in a recent column.  On the “positive” side, the “conservative” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung optimistically suggests that the refugees will promote economic growth.  According to another article in Der Spiegel, the eastern Europeans, who are not quite so refugee-friendly as the Germans, are “blowing their chance.”  The ominous byline reads,

    Europe is shrinking.  The demographic downtrend is particularly dramatic in the eastern part of the continent, where the population is literally dying out.  In spite of that, Hungary, Poland and company are resisting immigration.  They will regret it.

    In other words, before turning out the lights and committing suicide, the eastern Europeans should make sure an alien culture is in place to take over their territories when they’re gone.  Of course, this flies in the face of the impassioned rhetoric the liberals have been feeding us about the need to reduce the surface population if we are to have an environmentally sustainable planet.

    I note in passing that the European elites that are driving this process now seem to have taken a step back from the brink.  They are having second thoughts.  They realize that they don’t have their populations behind them, and that their defiance of popular opinion might eventually threaten their own power.  As a result, the number of news articles about the refugees and their plight is only a shadow of what it was only a few weeks ago.  Mild reservations about refugee wowserism are starting to appear even in such gung-ho forums as Der Spiegel where, as I write this, the lead article on their homepage is entitled “Now Things Are Getting Uncomfortable.”  Ya think!?  The byline reads,

    There is a chance in tone in the refugee crisis.  SPD (German Social Democratic Party) chief Gabriel warms about limits to Germany’s ability to absorb refugees.  Minister of the Interior de Maziere deplores the misbehavior of many migrants.  The pressure on Chancellor Merkel is increasing.

    “Ought” the Europeans to alter their behavior?  Is what they consider “good” really “evil?”  Are they ignoring the real “goal” of natural selection?  Certainly not, at least from an objective point of view.  There is no objective criterion for determining what anyone “ought” to do, anymore than there is an objective way to distinguish the difference between things, such as good and evil, that have no objective existence.  They are hardly failing to move towards the “goal” of natural selection, since that process does not have either a purpose or a goal.  As you may have gathered, my own subjective whim is to oppose unlimited immigration.  I have, however, not the slightest basis for declaring that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is “evil.”  At best, I can try to explain my own whims.

    I’m what you might call a moral compatibilist.  I see myself sitting at the end of a chain of life spawned by genetic material that has evolved over a period of more than three billions years, surviving and reproducing over that incredible gulf of time via an almost infinite array of successive forms, culminating in the species to which I now belong.  I consider the whole process, and the universe I live in, awesome and wonderful.  Subjectively, it seems to me “good” to act in a way that is compatible with the natural processes that have given me life.  It follows that, from my own, individual, subjective point of view, I “should” seek to preserve that life and pass it on into the indefinite future.

    I have not the slightest basis for claiming that “my way” is better than the whimsical behavior of those I see around me exultantly pursuing their morality inversions.  At best, I must limit myself to observing that “my way” seems more consistent.

  • On the Red Meat Morality Inversion

    Posted on August 18th, 2015 Helian 4 comments

    Dwight Furrow recently posted an article at 3 Quarks Daily entitled “In Defense of Eating Meat.”  His first paragraph reads,

    There are many sound arguments for drastically cutting back on our consumption of meat—excessive meat consumption wastes resources, contributes to climate change, and has negative consequences for health. But there is no sound argument based on the rights of animals for avoiding meat entirely.

    As far as the first sentence is concerned, I have no problem with rationally discussing the pros and cons of meat consumption as long as the emotional whims behind the reasons are laid on the table.  I certainly agree with the second sentence, for the same reason cited by Westermarck more than a century ago; there is no such thing as objective morality, and it is therefore not subject to truth claims.  Furrow “kind of” sees it that way, but not quite.  Indeed, the core of his argument is very revealing.  It exposes all the ambivalence of the modern moral philosopher who understands the evolutionary origins of morality, but can’t bear to accept the consequences of that truth.  It reads as follows:

    Singer’s argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using “rights” talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.  The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings. Rights, then, are entitlements that determine what a right-holder may demand of others that we decide to honor in order to maintain the requisite level of social trust.

    We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don’t eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals.

    Lovers of boneless ribeye steaks may well wish to simply accept this as it stands.  Any port in a storm, right?  Unfortunately, I’m a bit more fastidious than that.  Before plunging ahead, however, a bit of background on the debate might be useful.  Perhaps the best known crusader against the consumption of red meat is Peter Singer.  His Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, published in 1975, has been, as Wiki puts it, “a formative influence on leaders of the modern animal liberation movement.”  His arguments are based on his conclusion that the particular flavor of utilitarianism he favored at the time constituted an objective guide for establishing the legitimacy of truth claims about the rights of animals.  As Furrow points out, the basic claim of the Utilitarians is that “only overall consequences matter in assessing the moral quality of an action.”  The most coherent statement of this philosophy was probably John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, published in 1863.  That was probably too early for the moral consequences of Darwin’s Origin, published in 1859, to sink in.  I seriously doubt that Mill himself would have been a Utilitarian if he had lived a century later.  He was too smart for that.  Mill explicitly denied any belief in objective morality, noting that mankind had been struggling to find such an objective standard since the time of Socrates.  In his words,

    To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine. It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.

    I think Mill would have grasped where the “standard not recognized” really came from if there had been time for the consequences of Darwin’s great theory to really dawn on him.  Not so Singer, who apparently either never read or never appreciated Mill’s own reservations about his moral philosophy when he wrote his book, and treated utilitarianism as some kind of a moral gold standard.

    Which brings us back to Furrow’s counter-arguments.  Note in the above quote that he recognizes that morality is both subjective and an “evolutionary development.”  From that point, however, he wanders off into an intellectual swamp.  If morality is an evolutionary development, then it is quite out of the question that it arose, “…because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.”  Evolution is not driven by needs, nor does it serve any purpose.  Robert Ardrey put it very succinctly in his bon mot, “Birds do not fly because they have wings.  They have wings because they fly.”  According to Furrow, “The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation.”  No, evolution didn’t somehow create an “institution of morality” consisting of “a set of considerations.”  Rather, it resulted in a set of behavioral responses in the form of emotions and feelings.  In other words, it produced the “moral sense” whose existence was demonstrated by Francis Hutcheson a century and a half before Darwin.  These emotions and feelings have their analogs in other animals.  We can only “consider” what they might mean after we have experienced them.  Had we not experienced them to begin with there would be nothing to consider, and therefore no morality.  Morality is a fundamentally emotional behavioral phenomena, and not some cognitively distilled laundry list of legalistic prescriptions for developing trust so we can cooperate with each other.

    Furrow goes on to claim that animals cannot have rights because our “flourishing” does not depend on trusting them.  However, that can only be true if it is also true that the “purpose” of morality and therefore the “goal” of evolution was to promote “human flourishing,” which is nonsense.  “Rights” are subjective emotional constructs that we commonly delude ourselves into perceiving as real things.  It follows that any metric of their objective legitimacy when applied to animals is entirely equivalent to their objective legitimacy when applied to humans; zero.

    My own opinion on the eating of red meat is not based on any claim that I understand the “purpose” of moral emotions better than Singer.  Rather, it is based on the observation that morality exists because it has made our genetic survival more probable.  It therefore seems to me that interpreting our moral emotions in a way that makes our survival less likely is a characteristic of a dysfunctional biological unit.  In other words, it is what I call a morality inversion.  Establishing artificial moral taboos against the eating of red meat or any other food that might increase our chances of survival in the event that there’s not enough food to go around strikes me as just such a morality inversion.  It is based on the wildly improbable assumption that there will always be enough food to go around, in spite of the continuing increase of the human population, and in spite of the fact that such a state of affairs has often been more the exception rather than the rule throughout human history.  In other words, it amounts to turning morality against itself.

    There is nothing objectively wrong about morality inversions.  It’s just that an aversion to them happens to be one of my personal whims.  I like the idea of my own continued genetic survival and the continued survival of the human race because it seems to me to be in harmony with the reasons we happen to exist to begin with.  As a result, I have a negative emotional response to moral systems that accomplish the opposite.  In other words, according to my cognitive interpretation of my own subjective moral emotions, eating red meat is “good,” and morally induced vegetarianism is “evil.”  As I said, it’s just a whim, but I see no reason why my whims should take a back seat to anyone else’s, and that’s all Singer’s infinitesimally elaborated version of utilitarianism really amounts to.  Indeed, I’m encouraged by the hope that there are others who also place a certain value on survival, and therefore share my whims.  I note in passing that they by no means coincide with the notion of “human flourishing” that currently prevails in the academy.

     

  • Post-Darwinian, “Evolutional” Theories of Morality in the 19th Century

    Posted on October 26th, 2014 Helian No comments

    It’s become fashionable in some quarters to claim that philosophy is useless.  I wouldn’t go that far.  Philosophers have at least been astute enough to notice some of the more self-destructive tendencies of our species, and to come up with more or less useful formulas for limiting the damage.  However, they have always had a tendency to overreach.  We are not intelligent enough to reliably discover truth far from the realm of repeatable experiments.  When we attempt to do so, we commonly wander off into intellectual swamps.  That is where one often finds philosophers.

    The above is well illustrated by the history of thought touching on the subject of morality in the decades immediately following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.  It was certainly realized in short order that Darwin’s theory was relevant to the subject of morality.  Perhaps no one at the time saw it better than Darwin himself.  However, the realization that the search for the “ultimate Go0d” was now over once and for all, because the object sought did not exist, was slow in coming.  Indeed, for the most part, it’s still not realized to this day.  The various “systems” of morality in the decades after Darwin’s book appeared kept stumbling forward towards the non-existent goal, like dead men walking.  For the most part, their creators never grasped the significance of the term “natural selection.”  Against all odds, they obstinately persisted in the naturalistic fallacy; the irrational belief that, to the extent that morality had evolved, it had done so “for the good of the species.”

    An excellent piece of historical source material documenting these developments can be found at Google Books.  Entitled, A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution, it was written by one C. M. Williams, and published in 1893.  According to one version on Google Books, “C. M.” stands for “Cora Mae,” apparently a complete invention.  The copying is botched, so that every other page of the last part of the book is unreadable.  The second version, which is at least readable, claims the author was Charles Mallory Williams and, indeed, that name is scribbled after the initials “C. M.” in the version copied.  There actually was a Charles Mallory Williams.  He was a medical doctor, born in 1872, and would have been 20 years old at the time the book was published.  The chances that anyone so young wrote the book in question are vanishingly small.  Unfortunately, I must leave it to some future historian to clear up the mystery of who “C. M.” actually was, and move on to consider what he wrote.

    According to the author, by 1893 a flood of books and papers had already appeared addressing the connection between Darwin’s theory and morality.  In his words,

    Of the Ethics founded on the theory of Evolution, I have considered only the independent theories which have been elaborated to systems. I have omitted consideration of many works which bear on Evolutional Ethics as practical or exhortative treatises or compilations of facts, but which involve no distinctly worked out theory of morals.

    The authors who made the cut include Alfred Russell Wallace, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, John Fiske, W. H. Rolph, Alfred Barratt, Leslie Stephen, Bartholomäus von Carneri, Harald Hoffding, Georg von Gizycki, Samuel Alexander, and, last but not least, Darwin himself.  Williams cites the books of each that bear on the subject, and most of them have a Wiki page.  Wallace, of course, is occasionally mentioned as the “co-inventor” of the theory of evolution by natural selection with Darwin.  Collectors of historical trivia may be interested to know that Barratt’s work was edited by Carveth Read, who was probably the first to propose a theory of the hunting transition from ape to man.  Leslie Stephen was the father of Virginia Woolf, and Harald Hoffding was the friend and philosophy teacher of Niels Bohr.

    I don’t intend to discuss the work of each of these authors in detail.  However, certain themes are common to most, if not all, of them, and most of them, not to mention Williams himself, still clung to Lamarckism and other outmoded versions of evolution.  It took the world a long time to catch up to Darwin.  For example, in the case of Haeckel,

    Even in the first edition of his Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte Haeckel makes a distinction between conservative and progressive inheritance, and in the edition of 1889 he still maintains this division against Weismann and others, claiming the heredity of acquired habit under certain circumstances and showing conclusively that even wounds and blemishes received during the life of an individual may be in some instances inherited by descendants.

    For Williams’ own Lamarckism, see chapter 1 of Volume II, in which he seems convinced that Darwin himself believes in inheritance of acquired characteristics, and that Lamarck’s theories are supported by abundant evidence.  We are familiar with an abundance of similar types of “evidence” in our own day.

    More troublesome than these vestiges of earlier theories of evolution are the vestiges of earlier systems of morality.  Every one of the authors cited above has a deep background in the theories of morality concocted by philosophers, both ancient and modern.  In general, they have adopted some version of one of these theories as their own.  As a result, they have a tendency to fit evolution by natural selection into the Procrustean bed of their earlier theories, often as a mere extension of them.  An interesting manifestation of this tendency is the fact that, almost to a man, they believed that evolution promoted the “good of the species.”  For example, quoting Stephen:

    The quality which makes a race survive may not always be a source of advantage to every individual, or even to the average individual.  Since the animal which is better adapted for continuing its species will have an advantage in the struggle even though it may not be so well adapted for pursuing its own happiness, an instinct grows and decays not on account of its effects on the individual, but on account of its effects upon the race.

    The case of Carneri, who happened to be a German, is even more interesting.  Starting with the conclusion that “evolution by natural selection” must inevitably favor the species over the individual,

    Every man has his own ends, and in the attempt to attain his ends, does not hesitate to set himself in opposition to all the rest of mankind.  If he is sufficiently energetic and cunning, he may even succeed for a time in his endeavors to the harm of humanity.  Yet to have the whole of humanity against oneself is to endeavor to proceed in the direction of greater resistance, and the process must sooner or later result in the triumph of the stronger power. In the struggle for existence in its larger as well as its smaller manifestations, the individual seeks with all his power to satisfy the impulse to happiness which arises with conscious existence, while the species as the complex of all energies developed by its parts has an impulse to self preservation of its own.

    It follows, at least for Carneri, that Darwin’s theory is a mere confirmation of utilitarianism:

    The “I” extends itself to an “I” of mankind, so that the individual, in making self his end, comes to make the whole of mankind his end. The ideal cannot be fully realized; the happiness of all cannot be attained; so that there is always choice between two evils, never choice of perfect good, and it is necessary to be content with the greatest good of the greatest number as principle of action.

    which, in turn, leads to a version of morality worthy of Bismarck himself.  As paraphrased by Williams,

    He lays further stress upon the absence of morality, not only among the animals, in whom at least general ethical feelings in distinction from those towards individuals are not found, but also among savages, morality being not the incentive to, but the product of the state.

    Alexander gives what is perhaps the most striking example of this perceived syncretism between Darwinism and pre-existing philosophies, treating it as a mere afterthought to Hegel and Kant:

     Nothing is more striking at the present time than the convergence of different schools of Ethics. English Utilitarianism developing into Evolutional Ethics on the one hand, and the idealism associated with the German philosophy derived from Kant on the other.  The convergence is not of course in mere practical precepts, but in method also. It consists in an objectivity or impartiality of treatment commonly called scientific.  There is also a convergence in general results which consists in a recognition of a kind of proportion between individual and society, expressed by the phrase “organic connection.”  The theory of egoism pure and simple has been long dead.  Utilitarianism succeeded it and enlarged the moral end. Evolution continued the process of enlarging the individual interest, and has given precision to the relation between the individual and the moral law.  But in this it has added nothing new, for Hegel in the early part of the century, gave life to Kant’s formula by treating the law of morality as realized in the society and the state.

    Alexander continues by confirming that he shares a belief common to all the rest as well, in one form or another – in the reality of objective morality:

    The convergence of dissimilar theories affords us some prospect of obtaining a satisfactory statement of the ethical truths towards which they seem to move.

    Gyzicki embraces this version of the naturalistic fallacy even more explicitly:

    Natural selection is therefore a power of judgment, in that it preserves the just and lets the evil perish.  Will this war of the good with the evil always continue?  Or will the perfect kingdom of righteousness one day prevail.  We hope this last but we cannot know certainly.

    There is much more of interest in this book by an indeterminate author.  Of particular note is the section on Alfred Russell Wallace, but I will leave that for a later post.  One might mention as an “extenuating circumstance” for these authors that none of them had the benefit of the scientific community’s belated recognition of the significance of Mendel’s discoveries.  It’s well know that Darwin himself struggled to come up with a logical mechanism to explain how it was possible for natural selection to even happen.  The notions of these moral philosophers on the subject must have been hopelessly vague by comparison.  Their ideas about “evolution for the good of the species” must be seen in that context.  The concocters of the modern “scientific” versions of morality can offer no such excuse.

  • Privilege and Morality

    Posted on May 25th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege.  Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male.  In his words,

    There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year…  “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

    As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe.  His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S.  Again quoting Fortgang,

    Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

    I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter.  When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.”  For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,

    Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.

    and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:

    What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men,  are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.

    The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.

    Which brings us to the point of this post.  Our species isn’t good at nuance.  The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context.  It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions.  That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists.  It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way.  It exists because it evolved.  It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate.  That is the only reason for its existence.  Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual.  It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  That dual nature is not optional.  It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.

    The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege.  It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white.  However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society.  As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male.  Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived.  As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species.  It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa.  Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups.  That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”

    It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma.  Privilege exists.  It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy.  However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred.  The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege.  Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.

    What “should” we do under the circumstances?  There is no objective answer to that question.  At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims.  In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.”  A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves.  For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival.  Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action.  Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me.  When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.

    On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.”  For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair.  Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege.  I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.

    However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race.  In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero.  Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion.  Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries.  The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation.  I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations.  I am satisfied with equality before the law.

    Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage.  I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.

  • Trotsky on Proletarian Morality

    Posted on April 29th, 2014 Helian No comments

    You might say Leon Trotsky was the “best” of the old Bolsheviks.  He was smart, was familiar with the work of a host of important thinkers beyond the usual Marx and Hegel, and wrote in a style that was a great deal more entertaining than the cock-sure, “scientific” certainties of Lenin or the quasi-liturgical screeds of Stalin.  He also had a very rational understanding of morality, right up to the point where his embrace of Marxism forced him to stumble across the is-ought divide.  He set down his essential thought on the subject in an essay entitled Their Morals and Ours, which appeared in the June 1938 edition of The New International.

    Trotsky begins by jettisoning objective morality, summarizing in a nutshell a truth that is perfectly obvious to religious believers but that atheist moralists so often seem unable to grasp:

    Let us admit for the moment that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means. Then it is evidently necessary to seek criteria outside of historical society and those ends which arise in its development. But where? If not on earth, then in the heavens. In divine revelation popes long ago discovered faultless moral criteria. Petty secular popes speak about eternal moral truths without naming their original source. However, we are justified in concluding: since these truths are eternal, they should have existed not only before the appearance of half-monkey-half-man upon the earth but before the evolution of the solar system. Whence then did they arise? The theory of eternal morals can in nowise survive without god.

    It is a tribute to the power of human moral emotions that the Sam Harris school of atheists continue doggedly concocting “scientific” theories of morality in spite of this simple and seemingly self-evident truth.  It follows immediately on rejection of the God hypothesis.  In spite of that, legions of atheists reject it because they “feel in their bones” that the chimeras of Good and Evil that Mother Nature has seen fit to dangle before their eyes must be real.  It just can’t be that all their noble ideals are mere artifacts of evolution, and so they continue tinkering on their hopeless systems as the “ignorant” religious fundamentalists smirk in the background.

    The very title of Trotsky’s essay reveals that he understood another fundamental aspect of human morality – its dual nature.  In spite of approaching the subject via Marx instead of Darwin, he understood the difference between ingroups and outgroups.  In the jargon of Marxism, these became “classes.”  Thus, Trotsky’s ingroup was the proletariat, and his outgroup the bourgeoisie, and he found the notion that identical moral criteria should be applied to “oppressors” and “oppressed” alike absurd:

    Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.

    Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution.

    Trotsky was quite familiar with Darwinian explanations of morality.  One might say that, like so many Marxists who came after him, he was a “Blank Slater,” but certainly not in the same rigid, dogmatic sense as the later versions who denied the very existence of human behavioral predispositions.  He allowed that there might be such a thing as “human nature,” but only to the extent that it didn’t get in the way of the proper development of “history.”  For example,

    But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable.  Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.

    He didn’t realize that these “elementary moral precepts” were just as capable of accommodating the Marxist “classes” as ingroups and outgroups as they are of enabling more “natural” perceptions of one’s own clan of hunter-gatherers and the next one over in the same roles.  His conclusion that these “precepts” were relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things was reinforced by the fact that he was also familiar with and had a predictable allergic reaction to the work of those who derived imaginary, quasi-objective and un-Marxist “natural laws” from “human nature”:

    Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type, in so far as they do not confine themselves to rationalist utilitarianism, the ethics of bourgeois bookkeeping, appear conscious or unconscious students of Viscount Shaftesbury, who at the beginning of the 18th century deduced moral judgments from a special “moral sense” supposedly once and for all given to man.

    The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer, since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of a gregarious animal, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society torn by classes.

    Other than the concocters of “natural law,” there was another powerful barrier in the way of Trotsky’s grasping the fundamental significance of his “elementary moral precepts” – his own, powerful moral emotions.   According to his autobiography, these manifested themselves at a very young age as powerful reactions to what he perceived as the oppression of the weak by the strong.  As Jonathan Haidt might have predicted, they were concentrated in the “Care/harm,” “Liberty/oppression,” and “Fairness/cheating” “foundations” of morality described in his The Righteous Mind as characteristic of the ideologues of the Left.  It was inconceivable to Trotsky that the ultimate cause of these exalted emotions was to be found in a subset of the evolved behavioral traits of our species that have no “purpose,” and exist purely because they happened to increase the odds that his ancestors would survive and reproduce.  And so it was that, as noted above, he skipped cheerfully across the is-ought divide, hardly noticing that he’d even crossed the line.  At the end of the essay we discover that this sober rejecter of all absolute and objective moralities has somehow discovered a magical philosopher’s stone that enabled him to distinguish “higher” from “lower” moralities:

    To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party, since the party embodies in his consciousness the very highest tasks and aims of mankind… Does it not seem that “amoralism” in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?

    Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will – only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!

    Let us say that it provided Trotsky with moral satisfaction, and leave it at that.  It is certainly easier to forgive him for such a non sequitur than the more puritanical among the New Atheists of today, who have witnessed the collapse of the Blank Slate, can have no excuse for failing to understand where morality “comes from,” and yet still insist on edifying the rest of us with their freshly minted universal and “scientific” moral systems.

    As it happens, there is a poignant footnote to Trotsky’s essay.  Even at the time he wrote it, he probably knew in his heart of hearts that his earthly god had failed.  By then, he could only maintain his defiant faith in Marxism by some convoluted theoretical revisions that must have seemed implausible to a man of his intelligence.  According to the dogma of his “Fourth International,” the Bolshevik coup of 1917 had, indeed, been a genuine proletarian revolution.  However, soon after seizing power, the proletariat had somehow gone to sleep, and allowed the sly bourgeoisie to regain control, using Stalin as their tool.  The historical precedent for this remarkable historical double back flip was the Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution.  As all good Marxists know, this had ended in the defeat of Robespierre and the Jacobins, who were the “real revolutionaries,” by the dark minions of the ancien regime.  A more realistic interpretation of the events of 9 Thermidor is that it was a logical response on the part of perfectly sensible men to the realization that, if they did nothing, they were sure to be the next victims of Madame Guillotine.  No matter, like the pastor of some tiny fundamentalist sect who insists that only his followers are “true Christians,” and only they will go to heaven, Trotsky insisted that only his followers were the “true revolutionaries” of 1917.

    The fact that he took such license with Marxist dogma didn’t prevent Trotsky from grasping what was going on in the 1930’s much more clearly than the “parlor pink” Stalinist apologists of the time.  Here’s what he had to say about he Duranty school of Stalinist stooges:

    The King’s Counselor, Pritt, who succeeded with timeliness in peering under the chiton of the Stalinist Themis and there discovered everything in order, took upon himself the shameless initiative. Romain Rolland, whose moral authority is highly evaluated by the Soviet publishing house bookkeepers, hastened to proclaim one of his manifestos where melancholy lyricism unites with senile cynicism. The French League for the Rights of Man, which thundered about the “amoralism of Lenin and Trotsky” in 1917 when they broke the military alliance with France, hastened to screen Stalin’s crimes in 1936 in the interests of the Franco-Soviet pact. A patriotic end justifies, as is known, any means. The Nation and The New Republic closed their eyes to Yagoda’s exploits since their “friendship” with the U.S.S.R. guaranteed their own authority. Yet only a year ago these gentlemen did not at all declare Stalinism and Trotskyism to be one and the same. They openly stood for Stalin, for his realism, for his justice and for his Yagoda. They clung to this position as long as they could.

    Until the moment of the execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the others, the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure, though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the revolutionists in the U.S.S.R. In this sense The Nation and The New Republic, not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the pen, fully responded to the interests of “democratic” imperialism. The execution of the generals alarmed the bourgeoisie, compelling them to understand that the advanced disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus lightened the tasks of Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado. The New York Times cautiously but insistently began to correct its own Duranty.

    Those who don’t understand what Trotsky is getting at with his imputations of Stalinism regarding The Nation and The New Republic need only read a few back issues of those magazines from the mid to late 1930’s.  It won’t take them long to get the point.

    Even if the gallant old Bolshevik still firmly believed in his own revisions of Marxism in 1938, there can be little doubt that the scales had fallen from his eyes shortly before Stalin had him murdered in 1940.  By then, World War II was already underway.  In an essay that appeared in his last book, a collection of essays entitled In Defense of Marxism, he wrote,

    If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime.  The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy.  This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class.  However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.

    The assassin who ended Trotsky’s life with an ice pick was perhaps the most merciful of Stalin’s many executioners.  There could have been little joy for the old Bolshevik in witnessing the bloody dictator’s triumph in 1945, and the final collapse of all his glorious dreams.