Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on March 12th, 2013 9 comments
I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism. History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior. From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism. It’s not a pretty picture. In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia. One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith. It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”
Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published. These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end. A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20′s and early 30′s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists. As a result he was treated “gently.” He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation. The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg. The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived. They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU. Serge recalls,
I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door. “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!” Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders. He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching: “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!” They were almost naked. We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began. The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea. When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”
The maidservants story was hardly unique. Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves. Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps. Serge describes many other such scenes. Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:
One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.
Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger. One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion. I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist. I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.
My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off. He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter. They left him lying there, bloody but full.
At the rationing office a poster announced: “Grandparents have no right to food cards.” All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.
These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union. Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope. He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time. Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20′s and 30′s. The western intellectuals averted their eyes. Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!” A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean. Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.
and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,
As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance. I feel as though there were a book inflation.
This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it. Serge knew better. He wrote,
All legal means of expression were now closed to us. From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.
In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere). The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look. Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look. Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal. After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished. It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time. Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.
If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet. Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man. We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood. That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind. In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now. The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.
It would be very risky to forget about Communism. It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.
Posted on January 16th, 2013 1 comment
As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online. It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20′s and 30′s, or just want to read something entertaining. The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint. He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933. The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended. Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos. You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:
Posted on November 24th, 2012 2 comments
Milovan Djilas was a man of genius. He was also, for much of his life, a Communist, and a very effective one who contributed mightily to the victory of Tito’s Partisans in World War II. After the war he was one of the four most powerful men in Yugoslavia, but became disillusioned with the reality of Communism. After publishing a series of 18 articles critical of the regime that appeared in the Communist organ Borba between October 1953 and January 1954, he was expelled from the party’s Central Committee. He was arrested in 1956 and imprisoned for “hostile propaganda” following interviews that appeared in The New York Times and Agence France Presse, and spent much of the next ten years in jail. His famous exposé of Communism, The New Class, appeared in 1957 after the manuscript was smuggled out of prison. His later autobiographical works, such as Land Without Justice, Memoir of a Revolutionary, and Wartime, are treasure troves, not only for historians, but for sociologists and psychologists as well. They are also full of invaluable insights into the birth and evolution of ideological ingroups.
In this case, of course, the ingroup in question is Communism, with Nazism one of the two great secular faiths of the 20th century. However, the phenomena described by Djilas are also evident among the ingroups spawned by the earlier religious faiths as well. Indeed, it might be said that one of these, a latter day version of Islam, “rushed in to fill the vacuum” left by the collapse of Communism. At the moment, pending the rise of the next great secular faith, it is, in a sense, the only game in town for those with a penchant for saving the world. Hence the occasionally comical love affair of the stalwarts of the extreme left with fundamentalist religious ideologues of the extreme right.
This phenomenon is hardly without historical precedent. For example, the Nazis found a fertile recruiting ground for their storm troopers among former Communists. Both of these ideological ingroups were strongly attractive to the same psychological type. Both promised to save the world, albeit in radically different ways. However, the strength of the attraction does not depend on the minutiae of theory, but on the degree to which an ideology appeals to the innate wellsprings of human moral behavior; what Jonathan Haidt has referred to as Moral Foundations in The Righteous Mind. If the appeal is there, theoretical details are almost a matter of indifference. Communist intellectuals were occasionally puzzled by the appeal of Nazism because of what they considered its theoretical incoherence. Their mistake was in believing that the appeal of either Nazism or Communism depended on theory. Communists became Communists, not because of the intellectual elegance of Marxism, but because it happened to be around. They had an emotional itch, and Communism was a convenient tool for scratching it. As Djilas put it in Memoir of a Revolutionary,
We called it Communism. It was not Communism, but, rather, a deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life, not to accept a hopeless monotony.
Here, too, in a nutshell, he describes the susceptible “psychological type.” Not surprisingly, the greatest susceptibility is found among the young. In Djilas words,
Youthful rebellion first assumed a moral form: the negation of traditional views and relationships. The common man suffered the dictatorship and the other hardships as elementary evils which had rendered him helpless. His concentration was on his family life. He was petit bourgeois. But he did not have any choice if he was not willing to go to prison. Opposition to this kind of life, resistance to it and the bourgeois existence, was the most frequent form rebellion took among young people, particularly among intellectuals.
Initial attempts to scratch the “itch” took familiar forms:
In the course of my two years as a student (1929 to 1931), young people sought relief in a special form of bohemian existence, in which alcohol was perhaps not the chief solace.
They did not immediately turn to Communism, in part because of the lack of an organized Communist movement in Yugoslavia at the time. King Alexander had abolished the constitution and established a personal dictatorship in 1929.
With the advent of the dictatorship, political organizations at the University were either broken up or they disintegrated. There wasn’t a trace left of the Communist organization. There were a few Communists, older students, but they were either so passive or so secretive that one didn’t know who they were. I knew one of them, Milos Tujo Cetkovic, but only because he was a Montenegrin, from my region, and a relative of my Aunt Draguna. However, he never said anything to encourage me in my rebellion, so involved was he in himself and in the mechanics of his conspiracy.
In keeping with ideological tradition, Djilas turn to Communism was catalyzed by admiration of a “heroic martyr.” In his case, it was Bracan Bracanovic, a former member of the Yugoslav Communist Party’s Central Committee.
They say that he was dark and young and wild, and that he had enormous physical strength. Several times he broke the chains on his wrists and it took as many as ten agents to subdue him. He shouted big angry words at the policemen, spitting at them in spite of horrible physical tortures. Uncompromising and unyielding, proud and strong, covered with blood and wounds, he died one night of a bullet in the nape of his neck, in a ditch near Belgrade. No grave and no stone. In my mind Bracanovic was identified with the heroes of our legendary past, the struggle against the Turks which I had sucked with my mother’s milk. The death of such a hero was a crime a hundred times greater than any other, which inspired hatred and thoughts of revenge in any young fiery spirit.
Djilas time at the University also coincided with the worst years of the Great Depression, which did not spare Yugoslavia. Economic misery and political repression promoted extremism:
My rebellious tendencies thrived in the Belgrade of this time: Belgrade with its wild night life, its crisscross of influences from the whole country and abroad, its restricted social and political life… All the forces that yearned for a breath of fresh air were packed into underground cellars. Belgrade was lively, colorful, and full of contrasts – an ostentatious display of newly acquired wealth on the one hand, and misery, hunger, and unemployment on the other. It was a setting that gave form and encouragement to the conscious organized rebellion of the young… The dictatorship’s major undoing was that it took over in Yugoslavia just prior to the Great Depression of 1929. The man in the street, who knows nothing about world economic laws, could not be convinced by elaborate but valid explanations in the press that the government was not wholly responsible for the economic downturn. Poverty was spreading every step of the way, exposing gruesome crimes and perversities.
As individuals in the face of all this misery, Djilas and his friends felt a stifling impotence:
I found my own impotence in this situation insufferable, my own and that of so many people who opposed this power as personified by the King, the tyrant. I felt that this night marked a final break between me, a citizen, and the King, the representative of state power. As it turned out, I was not alone in this reaction: we finally understood it was the King who was responsible for all that evil.
At first, Djilas joined a fellow student from a “bourgeois” party in distributing illegal political leaflets calling for a boycott of mock “elections” planned by the regime. However, this first experience with organized resistance failed to scratch the itch:
For many years I was ashamed of having distributed those leaflets and for having urged other people to join me. For a whole year my friends kept reproaching me, and their reproach, coupled with my own feelings of guilt, fortified my opposition to the bourgeois parties and their leaders. We were not yet Communists, but we had begun to compete with each other in degrees of hostility toward the bourgeoisie. Later this game assumed the character of deep ”class” hatred.
The group of similarly disaffected left-wing students that had begun to gather around Djilas decided to take their opposition a step further:
We agreed that demonstrations should be held at the Law School at noon the day before the elections… That was the first public demonstration against the dictatorship. This is not the time to talk of its impact on the development of the opposition and the Communist movement among the students. But those who joined the demonstration felt that they were initiating something new and dangerous, that they were treading into the unknown. Of that there can be no doubt.
The police smashed the demonstration, but only succeeded in fanning the flames. The result was evident at a meeting of the students the following day.
Several people made speeches, including me, critical of our weak showing. It was apparent that an organized minority was taking shape and imposing its will on the group. There were a few moderate speakers, but they were quickly silenced. Our skill in public speech-making – passion, invocation of patriotism, responsibility to the people, the duties of the young generation – had a tremendous impact. Certain speakers were able to do anything they wanted with the crowd.
The emotional buttons were being pushed. The moderate parties were pushed aside:
None of us leftists understood the full significance of the demonstrations. However, the results were soon in evidence. The bourgeois parties had lost control. In the demonstrations they were moderate, and in action they were nowhere to be seen… But the most surprising thing of all was that the bourgeois parties had lost all influence on the masses, the ram and unformed masses, rebellious, politically undecided, strongly leftist in outlook. A new generation was growing up under the dictatorship, ready to pounce. The dictatorship had given birth to its own gravedigger.
For the Party, it was now merely a question of collecting the ripe fruit. In Djilas’ case, it took the form of a message from the Communist Regional Committee that “the ‘comrades’ wished to see us.” The “comrade” who did most of the talking was one Blazo Raicevic. It turned out his Communist bone fides were somewhat dubious. According to Djilas,
In the post-1937 internal struggles, he was included in the purge as an “unhealthy,” “factional,” “antiparty” element.
It didn’t matter. Djilas continues,
…we were young Communists, not organized yet, but for that very reason most useful. He was not bothered by our ideological immaturity – he was not a very well-formed Marxist himself… For us Montenegrin leftists, he was the first contact with the party organization, even if we overestimated him as a Communist and the strength of the existing Communist Party.
Raicevic encouraged the young Communists, but he did not organize them. He didn’t need to. They had found a unifying ideological outlet for their discontent. From that point, the organization of the ingroup was almost spontaneous. Djilas had left Belgrade for several months to avoid the police, who were already watching him. The process of self-organization was already well underway when he returned:
In the three months that I had been away from Belgrade, the situation at the University had changed. The unstable leftist groups had grown stronger and better organized, and had been formed into Marxist circles. The official Communist party could in no way be credited with this development, even though the party did have its representatives in Belgrade, very respectable people at that… (I) found my colleagues organized in groups, absorbing ideology from Marxist pamphlets. They were now sober, coldly analytical, and unsparing in their criticism of “bourgeois remnants.” … I felt ashamed I had “fled” from the police and stayed away so long. I made up my mind to join one of the circles at once.
The process was complete. The young students with a ”deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life” now belonged to the Communist ingroup. In the words of philosopher Eric Hofer, they were now “True Believers.” The particular ideological shibboleths of the faith in question, Communism, were almost incidental. It was adopted, not because of its rational beauty, but because it happened to be the most effective nostrum for “scratching the itch” available at the time. Religious enthusiams have served just as well at different times and places. Nazism, which appealed, in part, to a different set of moral foundations, proved to be even more effective in what amounted to a head-to-head competition. However, for obvious reasons, an ideology based on the German Master Race didn’t play well in Yugoslavia. Communism had international appeal.
And what of Milovan Djilas? By all means, if you are suffering information overload about the results of the recent Presidential election, and are inclined to read something useful for a change, head to eBay or Amazon and pick up a couple of his books. I recommend his autobiographical works for starters, beginning with Land Without Justice. Save The New Class for later. It’s best read once you’ve gained some familiarity with the man who wrote it.
Posted on November 18th, 2012 2 comments
Not long ago, the “Men of Science” in anthropology were furiously denying that ancient hominids hunted, and that chimpanzees were anything but inoffensive and pacific vegetarians, and that human behavior was significantly influenced by human nature, in the teeth of abundant evidence that such notions were not only wrong, but ridiculous. Today, discussions of morality have fallen into a similar rut. It is perfectly obvious that the very existence of morality as commonly understood ultimately depends on the presence of innate mental traits that evolved at a time when the human condition was a great deal different than it is now. However, to admit that fact would be to admit at the same time that “ethics expert” is an oxymoron, and to reduce the sublime joys of self-righteousness to an embarrassing absurdity, and to finally admit that Good and Evil don’t really transcend the petty minds of individuals. In a word, it would amount to rejecting the way things “ought” to be on behalf of what “is”. Hence, the fact is ignored and denied. We shouldn’t be surprised. This rejection of “is” on behalf of “ought” has happened many times before.
There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, for this stubborn embrace of the fallacy of transcendent morality. Legions of philosophers, whether believers or not, were terrified that if the rationalizations propping it up were kicked out, we would all become immoral or, at best, amoral. This delusion is based on the groundless suspicion that, unless some chain of logic based on unquestionable axioms is provided proving that we ought to act one way and not another, society will immediately collapse in an orgy of murder, robbery, rape and deliberate refusal to obey the traffic laws. Even worse, we might all become (gasp!) moral relativists. This further fallacy is based on ignorance of the innate grounding of morality, and the more than dubious belief that religion has had the net effect of promoting “moral niceness.”
Today, belief in a God or gods has become palpably ridiculous for anyone with average mental powers and the courage to face the existential drawbacks of their absence. However, the old gods have always been a reliable prop for objective morality. Furthermore, it has been plausibly suggested that there are innate underpinnings for religious belief itself. I doubt that we “instinctively” believe in magical supernatural beings, but you have to hand it to the old gods. They certainly scratched us where it itched. When they disappeared, something new had to be found to do the scratching. Enter secular religion. The quintessential example is, of course, Communism. Like the supernatural tyrants of old, it was a jealous god, allowing no other gods before it. Alas, the new god died a much quicker death than the old ones because the paradise it promised was here on earth where it could be fact checked instead of the sweet hereafter. However, when the new god evaporated with unseemly haste, we did not simply give up on secular religion as a bad job. The itch was still there. New secular religions sprouted to fill the gaps as soon as the old ones died off. The various versions touted by Sam Harris and the rest of the New Atheists are familiar examples, and come complete with all the same delectable moral certitude and watertight justification for bludgeoning of the unrighteousness as the old ones.
It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect humanity to relinquish its cherished “oughts” anytime soon in favor of simply recognizing the “is” of morality and dealing with it. However, I still suggest it as a contingency going forward. Whatever our personal whims happen to be, it seems to me we are more likely to satisfy them by acting according to that which is true than to that which is false. We might have some chance of putting the constant murderous and disruptive bickering and warfare inspired by religious belief over the centuries behind us, avoiding the untimely death of another 100 million in the name of some future version of “scientific Marxism-Leninism,” and ending the constant annoyance of living in a world full of ostentatiously righteous poseurs.
And what of the drawbacks of accepting the “is” of morality, and kicking out the props of the Good-in-itself? Would our societies suddenly and spontaneously descent into anarchy? Would the bad guys win by default? I think not. We do not need, nor have we ever depended on, religions of the secular or old-fashioned flavors to act morally. We act morally because that is our nature. Obviously, there are great variations in the details of moral behavior among human societies, even though they spring from the same innate roots. We are not rigidly programmed to act one way and not another like so many insects. This gives us some flexibility. We cannot simply jettison morality. We must depend on it to regulate our social interactions, at least at the level of individuals and small groups. Under the circumstances, I suggest we keep it as simple as possible. Reduce moral rules to an elementary common denominator sufficient for maximizing social harmony and minimizing mutual injury. At the level of large states, reduce the influence of moral emotions to a bare minimum, and seek to apply reason to the pursuit of social goals within the constraints of our limited intelligence. Here, of course, I am not speaking of “is,” but of some of my own, personal “oughts.” However, to the extent that they want to survive and even, to some extent, enjoy life, I think others may find them serviceable.
Posted on November 14th, 2012 No comments
Amoebas react to light. Mimosa plants react to touch. Humans react to other humans. As all three species are presumably related, although their common ancestor lived at a remote date, biochemists and neurophysicists might well be able to discover subtle similarities in the biological processes involved in all three cases. However, unlike amoebas and mimosas, humans are conscious beings, and can observe and think about their reactions. Sometimes those reactions fall within the sphere of what is commonly referred to as moral behavior. In other words, they involve the perception of what we call “good” and “evil.” However, Mother Nature did not bother with anything so impractical as causing us to perceive these intuitions as what they actually are; the result of physical and chemical processes with no existence outside of the brains of individuals. They promoted our survival much more effectively when perceived as things that existed on their own, independent of the will or consciousness of particular individuals. We have been involved in a hopeless search for the basis of this illusion ever since. Like wanderers in the desert seeking a mirage, we seek to establish the legitimacy of Good and Evil. It is a hopeless quest.
It is an interesting idiosyncrasy of our species that we can easily see through the flimsy rationalizations others use to establish some basis for the powerful perception that their own versions of Good and Evil apply, not just to themselves, but to others as well. We’re just not quite so perceptive when it comes to seeing the flaws in our attempts to establish the legitimacy of our own versions. An interesting example just turned up on Instapundit, in the form of a paper published by Arthur Leff in the Duke Law Journal back in 1979, entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.”
The opening paragraphs of the paper are worth quoting in full:
I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.
I mention the matter here only because I think that the two contradictory impulses which together form that paradox do not exist only on some high abstract level of arcane angst. In fact, it is my central thesis that much that is mysterious about much that is written about law today is understandable only in the context of this tension between the ideas of found law and made law: a tension particularly evident in the growing, though desperately resisted, awareness that there may be, in fact, nothing to be found – that whenever we set out to find “the law,” we are able to locate nothing more attractive, or more final, than ourselves.
With that preamble, Leff announces that he will, “…try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will.” In fact, he does an excellent job of it, in terms both simple and brief. Noting that,
A statement in the form “you ought to do X,” “it is right to do X,” or “X is good” will establish oughtness, rightness, or goodness only if there is a set of rules that gives the speaker the power totally to determine the question… it is precisely the question of who has the power to set such rules for validating evaluations that is the central problem of ethics.
He then goes on to consider the circumstances under which anyone might gain that power. However, before doing so, he does not leave us in suspense as to his own position. In his words, “There are no such circumstances.” Noting that God was once the evaluator of last resort, he continues,
The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises. What Kurt Gödel did for systems of logic, deicide has done for normative systems…Put briefly, if the law is “not a brooding omnipresence in the sky,” then it can be only one place: in us. If we are trying to find a substitute final evaluator, it must be one of us, some of us, all of us – but it cannot be anything else.
Thus, once it is accepted that (a) all normative statements are evaluations of actions and other states of the world; (b) an evaluation entails an evaluator; and (c) in the presumed absence of God, the only available evaluators are people, then only a determinate, and reasonably small, number of kinds of ethical and legal systems can be generated. Each such system will be strongly differentiated by the axiomatic answer it chooses to give to one key question: who ultimately gets to play the role of ultimately unquestionable evaluator, a role played in supernaturally based systems by God? Who among us, that is, ought to be able to declare “law” that ought to be obeyed?
Leff then goes on to demonstrate that the possible answers to this unsettling question are both few and transparently fallacious. He first takes up what he calls “Descriptivism.” Again, quoting Leff,
It (Descriptivism) goes like this: it is not at all necessary to specify who is generating the legal system, much less to describe how that generation is being effected. A legal system is a fact. It is something… that exists. The way to discover its existence is to discover what rules are in fact obeyed.
However, Descriptivism really accomplishes nothing. Defined in that way, according to Leff,
“the law” describes not good behavior or right behavior, but behavior… Under Descriptivism, it is impossible to say that anything ought or ought not to be.
A possible alternative to Descriptivism is what Leff calls “Personalism,” according to which,
Everyone can declare what ought to be for himself, and no one can legitimately criticize anyone else’s values – what they are or how they came to be – because everyone has equal ethical dignity… If the difficulty with Descriptivism is that it validates any normative system, the problem with the “God-is-me” approach (“Personalism”) is that it validates everyone’s individual normative system, while giving no instruction in, or warrant for, choosing among them.
In other words, it becomes necessary to decide who will get to play philosopher king:
The next move, one would guess, would be to find some way to distinguish among the individuals either quantitatively through some aggregation principle, or qualitatively. One might choose to stand, that is, on the most evaluations or the best ones.
However, neither choice solves the problem. In the first case,
All one has is the assumed conclusion that in cases of conflicting perfections, the largest number wins.
But, according to Leff, the second is no better:
Can we then get out of our bind by deciding after all to pay attention to the quality of the ethical boxes? No, we cannot.
The moment one suggests a criterion, then individual men have ceased to be the measure of all things, and something else – and that necessarily means someone else – has been promoted to the (formally impossible) position of evaluator-in-chief.
One would think that a fully considered moral position, the product of deep and thorough intellectual activity, one that fits together into a fairly consistent whole, would deserve more respect than shallow, expletive, internally inconsistent ethical decisions. Alas, to think that would be to think wrong: labor and logic have no necessary connection to ethical truth.
Should one not in such a situation give more weight to A’s position than to B’s? Only if someone has the power to declare careful, consistent, coherent ethical propositions “better” than the sloppier, more impulsive kinds. Who has that power and how did he get it? …Bluntly, intellectual beauty is not a necessary prerequisite to ethical adequacy unless someone declares it to be.
Leff next moves on to demolish what one might call the Sam Harris school of validation:
There remains, then, only one considerable approach to the validation of ethical systems. Under it no search is made for any evaluator, but rather some state of the world is declared to be good, and acts which effect that state are ethical acts. Merely to express this approach is, or course, to refute it, for a good state of the world must be good to someone. One cannot escape from the fact that a normative statement is an evaluation merely by dispensing with any mention of who is making it. Hence the description of a particular end-state – human happiness (or “human flourishing”, ed.) or wealth – as a validator of a system, is just another evaluator-centered approach, but with blinkers added. Wealth is good, and makes our acts good, if someone, or some collection of someones, says so. But which someone or someones count still has to be accounted for.
There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system. There is no way to prove one ethical legal system superior to any other, unless at some point an evaluator is asserted to have the final uncontradictable, unexaminable word. That choice of unjudged judge, whoever is given the role, is itself, strictly speaking, arbitrary.
And so, just as Kant demolished the existing proofs of God’s existence, Leff polished off the secular bases of moral legitimacy. Unlike Kant, however, he did it briefly and coherently. By all means, read the whole paper. It is a fine little nail in the coffin for all secular systems that seek the holy grail of objective Good and Evil, whether past, present, or yet to come. Its conclusions have always been obvious to fundamentalist Christians and Moslems who fondly believe that the fantasies on which they base their own moral systems provide a better support. However, they continue to slam against a brick wall of cognitive dissonance, against all odds and the accumulating mounds of evidence about the real nature of morality, in the minds of agnostics, atheists and “Godless” moralists who simply can’t believe that there is no basis for the legitimacy of moral intuitions that they feel so strongly “in their bones.” Far be it for me to offer any moral conclusions, but I do think it would behoove us all to put these delusions behind us. Whatever whims any of us might have, moral or otherwise, I suspect we will be more likely to satisfy them if we base our actions on that which is true rather than on that which is not.
Posted on August 16th, 2012 No comments
We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy. A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism. A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame. For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around. However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions. It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth. Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.
That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind. No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack. But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam. The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer. On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town. The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet. Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.
I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC. Entitled God and War: An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war. Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.” It continues,
One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.
This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left. Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc. If nothing else it’s a safe strategy. Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all. Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.
As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are. Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran. For example, quoting from the article,
The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].
As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses. For example,
The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.
After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal. In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II. In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants. Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey. By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.
In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion. I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones. At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial. Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter. From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”
Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare. Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all. An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace. And who might this evil bogeyman be? Think, dear reader! The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum. That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush! Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,
…however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”
Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy. How wrong I was! Reading on we find,
He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self. From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.
Damn! Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy. The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,
As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.
What an understatement! Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!
How wonderfully ironic! After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings. By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all. “Further analysis” indeed! Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!
Posted on August 14th, 2012 5 comments
Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times. It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading. Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism. As he notes in the review:
Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.
But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.
The “unspoken tension” is definitely there. I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason. Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion. He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists. Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,
These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe. The other three authors, however, are men of science.
My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw. “Men of science” indeed! Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?” Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?” I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality. Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals. Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience. In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism. As he puts it:
The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2: Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses). So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion. To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers. Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community. That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.
This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense. If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other. It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.
We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw. In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story: By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.” As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.” In other words, as Haidt puts it,
The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.
He then goes Atran and Henrich one better. Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution. Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection. In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,
In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.
It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion. I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007. When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not. Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way. His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence. Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection. Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection. He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection. Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around. However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion. Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.
I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.” Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion. For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group. For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.” Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.” Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.” He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,
…the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.
Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin. Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing. Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.” Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.” Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either. Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot. In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists. I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing. He concludes,
Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).
In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank. Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children. It seems we’ve come full circle. Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century. Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection. I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices. However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction. I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth. Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.
Posted on August 7th, 2012 No comments
In chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt addresses the topic of religion:
In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology: Morality binds and blinds. Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.
Among the “scientists who misunderstand,” Haidt specifically singles out the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Group selectionist David Sloan Wilson recently wrote a similar critique of Dawkins in The Skeptic, claiming that Dawkins was “not an evolutionist” when discussing religion. In Wilson’s words,
Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare… How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.
I have some problems of my own with The God Delusion, such as its anti-American tone in general and its obsession with religious fundamentalists in the U.S., usually referred to by Dawkins as the “American Taliban” in particular. He even went so far as to repeat the old urban myth about how Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. However, it seemed to me that Dawkins was right as far as Wilson’s criticism was concerned. My impression was that the book really was concerned mainly with the question of whether or not there actually is a God, and that, as Dawkins said, he was therefore not obligated to digress on the evolutionary origins of religion. This impression was reinforced by Wilson’s review in The Skeptic, in which he wrote,
For religion, however, he (Dawkins) argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.
I thought when I read this, and still think that the issue of adaptation was beside the point. Dawkins was addressing the issue of whether God exists, and not the adaptive value of religion. This impression was reinforced by the fact that, immediately after the passage quoted above, Wilson continued with a long, rambling defense of group selection. It reminded me of Maslow’s hammer: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Wilson was simply betraying a tendency to see everything in terms of his favorite area of expertise, whether it was really germane or not.
Enter Jonathan Haidt, who takes issue with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists for similar reasons, but does a better job of explaining exactly what it is he’s getting at. As he puts it,
But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion – and understand its relationship to morality and politics – we must first describe it accurately… Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.
Now we at least have a better idea of why Wilson and Haidt are rejecting the arguments of the New Atheists. As Haidt puts it, they are like Plato and other rationalist philosophers who thought that reason should control the passions, as opposed to the view of Hume (and Haidt) that reason is really just a servant of the intuitions. Beyond that, they are using contrived arguments to explain away the evolutionary origins of religion. According to Haidt and Wilson, religion exists as a manifestation of evolved mental traits, and those traits were selected because they increased the fitness, not of individuals, but of groups. In other words, Haidt’s recent comments in favor of group selection are no fluke. Group selection actually plays a fundamental role in his theoretical understanding of religion as an adaptive trait, and not cultural group selection, but genetic group selection. Chapter 11 actually includes a spirited defense of Wilson, noting that his,
…great achievement was to merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences: Darwin and (Emile) Durkheim… In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the ways that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.
At this point, Haidt begins performing some remarkable intellectual double back flips. If religion really is an adaptive trait, apparently he feels it necessary to demonstrate that it is also really “good”. For example, we learn that,
…John Calvin developed a strict and demanding form of Christianity that suppressed free riding and facilitated trust and commerce in sixteenth century Geneva.
There is no mention of Calvin torturing a religious opponent to death in a slow fire made of green wood with a wreath strewn with sulfur around his head. Haidt tells us that the 911 bombers were really motivated by nationalism, not religion. (Remember the yarns about how zealots of a secular religion, Communism, such as Ho chi Minh and Castro, were also supposed to be “nationalists.” And, of course, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, either.) But, as “the most revealing example” of the benign effects of religion, Haidt cites Wilson’s example of “the case of water temples among Balinese rice farmers in the centuries before Dutch colonization.”
It seems to me that, if the New Atheists are guilty of an error of omission for focusing on the existence of God and ignoring the nature of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, Haidt must also be guilty of an error of omission by focusing on Balinese rice farmers and ignoring the slaughter of the Crusades, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women as “witches,” the brutal military conquest of north Africa, Spain, and large areas of the Middle East and Europe in the name of Islam, pogroms that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the centuries, the additional hundreds of thousands of dead in the Hussite wars, the constant bloody internal conflicts in numerous medieval states over the minutiae of religious doctrine, and so on and so on and so on. We can certainly discuss whether such “evils” of religion are outweighed by the “goods” cited by Wilson and others, but if Haidt is really the “man of science” he claims to be, it is not acceptable to ignore them.
One might similarly praise the advantages of war, which is as likely as religion to be a manifestation of evolved human mental traits. It also fosters within-group charity, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and any number of other “goods,” which are cataloged by German General Friedrich von Bernhardi in his seminal work on the subject, “Germany and the Next War.” Are not objections to the effect that it is occasionally very bloody and destructive just more instances of “misconceptions” inspired by the thought of Plato and other rationalist philosophers?
Call me an incorrigible rationalist if you like, but it seems to me that it does actually matter whether God exists or not. What if, as Haidt suggests, religion is not only an evolutionary adaptation, but one that is, on balance, useful and benign? Does that really render the question of whether God exists or not irrelevant? Is it really a “rationalist delusion” to consider the evidence for and against that hypothesis without dragging evolution and group selection into the discussion? Is reality so irrelevant to the human condition that it is acceptable to encourage people to associate in groups and act based on belief in things that are not only palpably untrue, but silly? If the truth doesn’t matter, what is the point of even writing books about morality? Would Prof. Haidt have us believe that The Righteous Mind is a mere product of his intuitions? I suspect that, whatever our goals happen to be, we are more likely to achieve them if we base our actions on that which is true than on that which is not. I am just as dubious as Haidt about the power of human reason. However, I prefer continuing to grope for the truth with that reason, however weak it might be, to embracing intuitions that require belief in things that are false, whether they enhanced the fitness of our species in times utterly unlike the present or not.
Posted on August 5th, 2012 1 comment
If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law. It’s the best book on morality I know of. Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow. Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature. Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”. He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions. He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions. Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights. It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette. It should be read in full.
I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality. I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations. It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature. Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality. Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.
There is good news and bad news in the book. The bad news starts early. In the introduction, Haidt writes,
I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.
I’m afraid he’s right. I’m certainly no exception to the rule. The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating. It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason. If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears. In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd. However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point. He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right. It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.
Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse. I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward. Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows. I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.
I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do. However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it. Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it. Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth. For example, in chapter 4 he writes,
Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).
Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply. I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason. Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth. We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments. Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon. None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood. The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless. There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.