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  • What Made the “blank slate” the Blank Slate?

    Posted on December 7th, 2014 Helian No comments

    The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history.  For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature.  So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day.  What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century?  After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle.  A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.  Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.

    Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced.  Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.”  In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”  The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them.  For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man.  Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally.  Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally.  The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but.  They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason.  As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin.  For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,

    The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing.  A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison.  Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience.  “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.”  This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.

    Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself.  Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they.  This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.

    In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely.  That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists.  They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter.  Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them.  And for a long time, it worked.

    By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin.  Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials.  Interested readers are encouraged to check the index.  As Pinker puts it,

    So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”

    Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it.  For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,

    We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.

    Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984.  What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior?  As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.”  Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:

    Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies.  As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.

    Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.

    All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.

    The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said:  “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy.  The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.”  He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”  What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends.  As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.

    Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist.  Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance.  As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday.  Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:

    The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.

    The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism.  To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded.  To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.

    Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.

    Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:

    More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported.  E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others.  Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith.  It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.

    This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate.  They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well.  There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.”  Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters.  By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.

    It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight.  We possess the means of committing suicide as a species.  Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander.  In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues.  Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology.  Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all.  For example, again quoting from Lewontin:

    Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances.  If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.

    One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin.  What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate.  I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real.  Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.

    It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice.  Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”

  • The New Atheists as Imperialist Warmongers; Leftist Islamophilia in the Afterglow of Communism

    Posted on December 3rd, 2014 Helian No comments

    The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it.  For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa.  The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available.  The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots.  In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind.  As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it.  Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam.  For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town.  The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular.  The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.

    So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across.  Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm.  They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam.  Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”

    An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine,  which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.”  In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!”  Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom.  The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.

    It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question.  We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general.  He hardly mentions Christianity.  When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story.  As Savage puts it,

    It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.

    As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:

    The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.

    Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:

    Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.

    The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era.  Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.”  Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.”  No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin.  In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:

    The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.”  In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.

    One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb.  Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,

    Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.

    If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:

    Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.

    and this:

    This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.

    So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy.  He just had a bad environment.  See how that works?  At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest.  In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes.  It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise.  In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant.  Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.

    In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated.  Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace?  I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation.  As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves.  They’ve all been excommunicated.



    Thanks to Tom at for the cartoon.  Check out his store!



  • Morality Addiction in the Academy

    Posted on September 30th, 2014 Helian No comments

    One would think that, at the very least, evolutionary psychologists would have jettisoned their belief in objective morality by now.  After all, every day new papers are published about the evolutionary roots of morality, the actual loci in the brain that give rise to different types of moral behavior, and the existence in animals of some of the same traits we associate with morality in humans.  Now, if morality evolved, it must have done so because it enhanced the odds that the genes responsible for it would survive and reproduce.  It cannot somehow acquire a life of its own and decide that it actually has some other “purpose” in mind.  The spectacle of human “experts in ethics” arbitrarily reassigning its purpose in that way is even more ludicrous.  In spite of all that, faith in the existence of disembodied good and evil persists in the academy, in defiance of all logic, in evolutionary psychology as in other disciplines.  It’s not surprising really.  For some time now academics of all stripes have been heavily invested in the myth of their own moral superiority.  Eliminate objective morality, and the basis of that myth evaporates like a mirage.  Self-righteousness and heroin are both hard habits to kick.

    Examples aren’t hard to find.  An interesting one turned up in the journal Evolutionary Psychology lately.  Entitled Evolutionary Awareness and submitted by authors Gregory Gorelick and Todd Shackelford, the abstract reads as follows:

    In this article, we advance the concept of “evolutionary awareness,” a metacognitive framework that examines human thought and emotion from a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective. We begin by discussing the evolution and current functioning of the moral foundations on which our framework rests. Next, we discuss the possible applications of such an evolutionarily-informed ethical framework to several domains of human behavior, namely: sexual maturation, mate attraction, intrasexual competition, culture, and the separation between various academic disciplines. Finally, we discuss ways in which an evolutionary awareness can inform our cross-generational activities—which we refer to as “intergenerational extended phenotypes”—by helping us to construct a better future for ourselves, for other sentient beings, and for our environment.

    Those who’ve developed a nose for such things can already sniff the disembodied good and evil things-in-themselves levitating behind the curtain.  The term “better future” is a dead giveaway.  No future can be “better” than any other in an objective sense unless there is some legitimate standard of comparison that doesn’t depend on the whim of individuals.  As we read on, our suspicions are amply confirmed.  As far as its theme is concerned, the paper is just a rehash of what Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey were suggesting back in the 60’s; that there are such things as innate human behavioral predispositions, that on occasion they have promoted warfare and the other forms of mayhem that humans have indulged in over the millennia, and that it would behoove us to take this fact into account and try to find ways to limit the damage.  Unfortunately, they did so at a time when the Blank Slate, probably the greatest scientific imposture ever heard of, was at its most preposterous extreme.  They were ridiculed and ignored by the “men of science” and forgotten.  Now that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has finally collapsed after reigning supreme for the better part of half a century, their ideas are belatedly being taken seriously again, albeit without ever giving them credit or mentioning their names.

    There is, however, an important difference.  In reading through the paper, one finds that the authors believe not only in evolved morality, necessarily a subjective phenomenon, but are true believers in a shadowy thing-in-itself that exists alongside of it.  This thing is objective morality, as noted above, an independent, and even “scientific,” something that has a “purpose” quite distinct from the reasons that explain the existence of evolved morality.  The “purpose” in high fashion at the moment is usually some version of the “human flourishing” ideology advocated by Sam Harris.  No evidence has ever been given for this concoction.  Neither Sam Harris nor anyone else has ever been able to capture one of these ghostly “goods” or “evils” and submit it for examination in the laboratory.  No matter, their existence is accepted as a matter of faith, accompanied by a host of “proofs” similar to those that are devised to “prove” the existence of God.

    Let us examine the artifacts of the faith in these ghosts in the paper at hand.  As it happens, it’s lousy with them.  On page 785, for example, we read,

    Because individual choices lead to cultural movements and social patterns (Kenrick, Li, and Butner, 2003), it is up to every individual to accept the responsibility of an evolutionarily-informed ethics.

    Really?  If so, where does this “responsibility” come from?  How does it manage to acquire legitimacy?  Reading a bit further on page 785, we encounter the following remarkable passage:

    However, as with any intellectually-motivated course of action, developing an evolutionarily-informed ethics entails an intellectual sacrifice: Are we willing to forego certain reproductive benefits or personal pleasures for the sake of building a more ethical community? Such an intellectual endeavor is not just relevant to academic debates but is also of great practical and ethical importance. To apply the paleontologist G. G. Simpson’s (1951) ethical standard of knowledge and responsibility, evolutionary scientists have the responsibility of ensuring that their findings are disseminated as widely as possible. In addition, evolutionarily-minded researchers should expand their disciplinary boundaries to include the application of an evolutionary awareness to problems of ethical and practical importance. Although deciphering the ethical dimension of life’s varying circumstances is difficult, the fact that there are physical consequences for every one of our actions—consequences on other beings and on the environment—means that, for better or worse, we are all players in constructing the future of our society and that all our actions, be they microscopic or macroscopic, are reflected in the emergent properties of our society (Kenrick et al., 2003).

    In other words, not only is the existence of this “other” morality simply assumed, but we also find that its “purpose” actually contradicts the reasons that have resulted in the evolution of morality to begin with.  It is supposed to be “evolutionarily-informed,” and yet we are actually to “forego certain reproductive benefits” in its name.  Later in the paper, on page 804, we find that this apparent faith in “real” good and evil, existing independently of the subjective variety that has merely evolved, is not just a momentary faux pas.  In the author’s words,

    It is not clear what the effects of being evolutionarily aware of our political and social behaviors will be. At the least, we can raise the level of individual and societal self-awareness by shining the light of evolutionary awareness onto our religious, political, and cultural beliefs. Better still, by examining our ability to mentally time travel from an evolutionarily aware perspective, we might envision more humane futures rather than using this ability to further our own and our offspring’s reproductive interests. In this way, we may be able to monitor our individual and societal outcomes and direct them to a more ethical and well-being-enhancing direction for ourselves, for other species, for our—often fragile—environment, and for the future of all three.

    Here the authors leave us in no doubt.  They have faith in an objective something utterly distinct from evolved morality, and with entirely different “goals.”  Not surprisingly, as already noted above, this “something” actually does turn out to be a version of the “scientific” objective morality proposed by Sam Harris.  For example, on page 805,

    As Sam Harris suggested in The Moral Landscape (2010), science has the power not only to describe reality, but also to inform us as to what is moral and what is immoral (provided that we accept certain utilitarian ethical foundations such as the promotion of happiness, flourishing, and well-being—all of which fall into Haidt’s (2012) “Care/Harm” foundation of morality).

    No rational basis is ever provided, by Harris or anyone else, for how these “certain utilitarian ethical foundations” are magically transmuted from the whims of individuals to independent objects, which then somehow hijack human moral emotions and endow them with a “purpose” that has little if anything to do with the reasons that explain the evolution of those emotions to begin with.  It’s all sufficiently absurd on the face of it, and yet understandable.  Jonathan Haidt gives a brilliant description of the reasons that self-righteousness is such a ubiquitous feature of our species in The Righteous Mind.  As a class, academics are perhaps more addicted to self-righteousness than any other.  There are, after all, whole departments of “ethical experts” whose very existence becomes a bad joke unless they can maintain the illusion that they have access to some mystic understanding of the abstruse foundations of “real” good and evil, hidden from the rest of us.  The same goes for all the assorted varieties of “studies” departments, whose existence is based on the premise that there is a “good” class that is being oppressed by an “evil” class.  At least since the heyday of Communism, academics have cultivated a faith in themselves as the special guardians of the public virtue, endowed with special senses that enable them to sniff out “real” morality for the edification of the rest of us.

    Apropos Communism, it actually used to be the preferred version of “human flourishing.”  As Malcolm Muggeridge put it in his entertaining look at The Thirties,

    In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now (at the end of the decade, ed.) the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.

    Of course, this earlier sure-fire prescription for “human flourishing” cost 100 million human lives, give or take, and has hence been abandoned by more forward-looking academics.  However, a few hoary leftovers remain on campus, and there is an amusing reminder of the fact in the paper.  On page 784 the authors admit that attempts to tinker with human nature in the past have had unfortunate results:

    Indeed, totalitarian philosophies, whether Stalinism or Nazism, often fail because of their attempts to radically change human nature at the cost of human beings.

    Note the delicate use of the term “Stalinism” instead of Communism.  Meanwhile, the proper term is used for Nazism instead of “Hitlerism.”  Of course, mass terror was well underway in the Soviet Union under Lenin, long before Stalin took over supreme power, and the people who carried it out weren’t inspired by the “philosophy” of “socialism in one country,” but by a fanatical faith in a brave new world of “human flourishing” under Communism.  Nazism in no way sought to “radically change human nature,” but masterfully took advantage of it to gain power.  The same could be said of the Communists, the only difference being that they actually did attempt to change human nature once they were in power.  I note in passing that some other interesting liberties are taken with history in the paper.  For example,

    Christianity may have indirectly led to the fall of the Roman Empire by pacifying its population into submission to the Vandals (Frost, 2010), as well as the fall of the early Viking settlers in Greenland to “pagan” Inuit invaders (Diamond, 2005)—two outcomes that collectively highlight the occasional inefficiency (from a gene’s perspective) of cultural evolution.

    Of course, the authors apparently only have these dubious speculations second hand from Frost and Diamond, whose comments on the subject I haven’t read, but they would have done well to consider some other sources before setting down these speculations as if they had any authority.  The Roman Empire never “fell” to the Vandals.  They did sack Rome in 455 with the permission, if not of the people, at least of the gatekeepers, but the reason had a great deal more to do with an internal squabble over who should be emperor than with any supposed passivity due to Christianity.  Indeed, the Vandals themselves were Christians, albeit of the Arian flavor, and their north African kingdom was itself permanently crushed by an army under Belisarius sent by the emperor Justinian in 533.  Both certainly considered themselves “Romans,” as the date of 476 for the “fall of the Roman Empire” was not yet in fashion at the time.  There are many alternative theories to the supposition that the Viking settlements in Greenland “fell to the Inuits,” and to state this “outcome” as a settled fact is nonsense.

    But I digress.  To return to the subject of objective morality, it actually appears that the authors can’t comprehend the fact that it’s possible to believe anything else.  For example, they write,

     Haidt’s approach to the study of human morality is non-judgmental. He argues that the Western, cosmopolitan mindset—morally centered on the Care/Harm foundation—is limited because it is not capable of processing the many “moralities” of non-Western peoples. We disagree with this sentiment. For example, is Haidt really willing to support the expansion of the “Sanctity/Degradation” foundation (and its concomitant increase in ethnocentrism and out-group hostility)? As Pinker (2011) noted, “…right or wrong, retracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity entails a reduction of violence” (p. 637).

    Here the authors simply can’t grok the fact that Haidt is stating an “is,” not an “ought.”  As a result, this passage is logically incomprehensible as it stands.  The authors are disagreeing with a “sentiment” that doesn’t exist.  They are incapable of grasping the fact that Haidt, who has repeatedly rejected the notion of objective morality, is merely stating a theory, not some morally loaded “should.”

    From my own subjective point of view, it is perhaps unfair to single out these two authors.  The academy is saturated with similar irrational attempts to hijack morality in the name of assorted systems designed to promote “human flourishing,” in the fond hope that the results won’t be quite so horrific as were experienced under Communism, the last such attempt to be actually realized in practice.  The addiction runs deep.  Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too hard.  After all, the Blank Slate was a similarly irrational addiction, but it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity after a mere half a century, give or take.  Perhaps, like the state was supposed to do under Communism, faith in the chimera of objective morality, or at least those versions of it not dependent on the existence of imaginary super-beings, will “whither away” in the next 50 years as well.  We can but hope.

  • MSNBC’s Orwellian Take on “Animal Farm”

    Posted on May 9th, 2014 Helian No comments

    There’s been a lot of chatter on the Internet lately about MSNBC host Krystal Ball’s “re-interpretation” of Animal Farm as an anti-capitalist parable.  The money quote from her take in the video below:

    At its heart, Animal Farm is about tyranny and the likelihood of those in power to abuse that power. It’s clear that tendency is not only found in the Soviet communist experience. In fact, if you read Animal Farm today, it seems to warn not of some now non-existent communist threat but of the power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites and corporations…

    As new research shows that we already live a sort of oligarchy that the preferences of the masses literally do not matter and that the only thing that counts is the needs and desires of the elites, Animal Farm is a useful cautionary tale warning of the corruption of concentrated power, no matter in whose hands that power rests.

    Well, not exactly, Krystal.  As astutely pointed out by CJ Ciaramella at The Federalist,

    This is such a willfully stupid misreading that it doesn’t warrant much comment. However, for those who haven’t read Animal Farm since high school, as seems to be the case with Ball: The book is a satire of Soviet Russia specifically and a parable about totalitarianism in general. Every major event in the book mirrors an event in Soviet history, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Trotsky fleeing the country to Stalin’s cult of personality.

    Indeed.  Animal Farm’s Napoleon as the Koch Brothers?  Snowball as Thomas Picketty?  I don’t think so.  True, you have to be completely clueless about the history of the Soviet Union to come up with such a botched interpretation, but, after all, that’s not too surprising.   For citizens of our fair Republic, cluelessness about the history of the Soviet Union is probably the norm.  The real irony here is that you also have to be completely clueless about Orwell to bowdlerize Animal Farm into an anti-capitalist parable.  If that’s your agenda, why not fish out something more appropriate from his literary legacy.  Again, quoting Ciaramella,

    What is most impressive, though, is that MSNBC couldn’t locate an appropriate reference to inequality in the works of a lifelong socialist. It’s not as if one has to search hard to find Orwell railing against class divisions. He wrote an entire book, The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible living conditions in the industrial slums of northern England.

    Not to mention Down and Out in Paris and London and four volumes of essays full of rants against the Americans for being so backward about accepting the blessings of socialism.  Indeed, Orwell, has been “re-interpreted” on the Right just as enthusiastically as on the Left of the political spectrum.  For example, from Brendan Bordelon at The Libertarian Republic,

    Leaving aside the obvious historical parallels between Animal Farm and the Soviet Union, the inescapable message is that government-enforced equality inevitably leads to oppression and further inequality, as fallible humans (or pigs) use powerful enforcement tools for their own personal gain.

    Sorry, Brendan, but that message is probably more escapable than you surmise.  Orwell was, in fact, a firm supporter of “government-enforced equality,” at least to the extent that he was a life-long, dedicated socialist.  Indeed, he thought the transition to socialism in the United Kingdom was virtually inevitable in the aftermath of World War II.

    In short, if you’re really interested in learning what Orwell was trying to “tell” us, whether in Animal Farm or the rest of his work, it’s probably best to read what he had to say about it himself.


  • 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.


  • Academic Left Update: Party Time at Swarthmore

    Posted on May 13th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published their now classic Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science almost two decades ago.  The book described the flipping and flopping of the various species of self-appointed saviors of mankind on campus left high and dry by the collapse of Marxism.  In the absence of that grand, unifying philosophy, the authors found them running about like so many chickens with their heads cut off, engaged in internecine warfare, and chasing after the various chimeras of postmodernism, eco-extremism, radical feminism, anti-racist racism, etc.  For some reason, perhaps because they were scientists and they objected to their ox being gored, Gross and Levitt were willing to subject themselves to the incredible boredom of attending the conferences, following the journals, and reading the books emanating from these various swamps.  Since they happened to be on the left of the ideological spectrum themselves, their book was also thoughtfully written and not just one of the usual rants from the right.

    Unfortunately, no one with similar insight and tolerance for pain has published anything of similar stature in the ensuing years.  We have been reduced to scrutinizing the data points that periodically bubble up through the froth to formulate some idea of how close we are to being saved.  Based on the meager information at our disposal, we gather that no great new secular religion has sprung up in the meantime to take the place of Marxism.  The only thing on hand to fill the vacuum left behind by its demise has been radical Islam.  Since, in a sense, it’s the only game in town, we’ve been treated to the amusing spectacle of watching leftist “progressives” making eyes at the fanatical zealots of one of the most reactionary religious systems ever concocted by the mind of man, while the latter have been busily cannibalizing the revolutionary vernacular familiar from the heyday of Communism.

    Other than that, it would seem that the scene today would be quite familiar to readers of Higher Superstition.  Consider, for example, the recent “revolutionary action” that took place on the campus of Swarthmore.  If we are to believe the somewhat overwrought account at National Review Online, it involved intimidation of the school administration and bullying of conservative students at what was advertised as an open Board of Managers meeting.  The ostensible goal of the disruption was to get the administration to agree to the divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, apparently based on the rather dubious assumption that nothing disagreeable would happen if all mankind suddenly stopped using them.  However, the divestment thing is hardly what is nearest and dearest to the hearts of the “academic left” at Swarthmore.  What is nearest and dearest?  According to NRO,

    The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies.

    I doubt that the gentry at NRO really understand what is going on here, because they lack the proper grounding in Marxist theory.  As Trotsky might have put it, they just don’t understand the dialectic.  What we are really seeing here is the emergence of a new exploiting class of gigantic proportions, cleverly attempting to obfuscate their true historical role behind a smokescreen of revolutionary jargon.  These people are exploiters, not exploitees.  Ensconced in their ivory towers, untouchable within their tenured cocoons, they are increasingly gaining a monopoly of the social means of education.  Like the bourgeoisie of old, who used the social means of production to suck the blood of the exploited workers, they use their own monopoly to feast on the sweat of the academic proletariat – their students.  They accumulate these useless “studies” courses for the same reasons that the capitalists accumulated money.

    Little realizing that they are being reduced to debt-serfs, with lives sold out and mortgaged to maintain these academic vampires in their accustomed luxury, the student proletariat are kept docile with fairy tales about “saving the world.”  Now, if Marx was right (and how could he possibly be wrong?) this “thesis” of the academic exploiters will soon run head on into the “antithesis” of the developing revolutionary consciousness of the student proletariat they have so cynically betrayed.  At least the bourgeoisie used their monopoly to produce something useful.  The new class of academic exploiters fobs off its victims with “studies” that they will find entirely useless in their struggle against the slavery that awaits them, unless they are among the happy few co-opted into the exploiting class.  Where is this leading?  How will the exploited academic proletariat react when they finally figure out, crushed under a mountain of debt, with heads full of “liberating” jargon and no prospect of employment that the “radical and emancipatory” blather they were being fed really leads to chains and slavery?  I can but quote the ringing warning of Edwin Markham in his famous poem, Man with the Hoe:

    O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
    How will the Future reckon with this Man?
    How answer his brute question in that hour
    When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?

    The pundits at NRO should relax.  If I’ve interpreted the Marxist dialectic correctly, the revolutionary climax will be followed by a brief period of the dictatorship of the academic proletariat, followed by the gradual withering of academic administrations, and a new era of universal wisdom based on enlightened self-education.

    And what of the academic exploiters?  I think it goes without saying that it will be necessary to “expropriate the expropriators.”  However, being by nature a kindly and sedate man, I can only hope that it doesn’t come to the “liquidation of the academic exploiters as a class.”  On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of “right opportunism” and realize full well that “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”