Morality: On Whose Authority?

There are two very basic truths that one must grasp to avoid living in a world of illusions. There is no God, and morality exists by virtue of natural selection. We are inclined by what we refer to as our human nature to prefer the world of illusion; to believe in both God and objective moral goods and evils. However, if one thinks about these things with an open mind, it seems to me the truth should be evident to any reasonably intelligent person. Unfortunately, there are legions of individuals in our societies who benefit from propping up these mirages. The first sort promises us that we will live on in the hereafter for billions and trillions of years, apparently accomplishing nothing of any particular use to anyone other than avoiding death. The second sort flatter our desire to be noble champions of a nonexistent Good, and assure us that, of the myriad versions of the same on offer, theirs is the only genuine article. Among the latter are the editors and contributors to Ethics, a journal which caters to duly certified experts in mirage recognition.

Darwin explained what morality is and why it exists more than a century and a half ago in his The Descent of Man. It is an artifact of natural selection that happened to increase the odds that the genes that are its root cause would survive. Absent those genes, morality, good and evil, would not exist. It follows that, since there is no way for simple facts of nature to spawn objective “oughts,” good and evil are not objective things, and they have no independent existence outside of the minds of individuals. They may have been useful illusions at some point, but they are illusions regardless. These rather simple and obvious facts are commonly treated as if they were in bad taste, particularly as far as the journal Ethics is concerned.

Consider, for example the latest issue of this flagship publication of our “experts on ethics.” The first article is entitled “Democratic Equality and the Justification of Welfare-State Capitalism.” Needless to say, nothing could be more irrelevant to human morality than welfare-state capitalism, since neither welfare-states nor capitalism existed at the time the genes responsible for the existence of morality evolved. The process of evolution is a fact of nature, and as such is incapable of “justifying” anything. On whose authority are we to base the claim that “democratic equality” is an “objective good”? It is a bastard child of human morality, spawned in a modern environment alien to the one in which it evolved. It is not clear that “democratic equality” will promote the survival of the relevant genes in its modern proponents. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the opposite may be the case. No matter, “democratic equality” happens to evoke the emotional response “good,” in a great many individuals, including the members of the author’s academic tribe. Since these worthies all agree that “democratic equality” is good, it is assumed that it must really be Good. This is the rather flimsy basis for the objective “goodness” of democratic equality. Or it is at least as far as that particular tribe is concerned. The ”authority” we are looking for is nothing more substantial than the whim of that tribe.

The next article is entitled “Proportionality in War: Revising Revisionism.” Here, again, we are dealing with another weird artifact of morality that can occur in creatures with large brains when they ponder what their emotions are trying to tell them without taking into account why those emotions exist to begin with. Modern warfare did not exist at the time these emotions evolved. In spite of that, they have caused some individuals to imagine that “proportionality in war” is “good.” Again, no authority is cited for this conclusion. Apparently, we must assume it is true because it is “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.” In reality, the only “authority” for this “objective good” is the majority opinion prevailing among the academic tribe that controls the content of a particular journal. Since modern warfare is, at least in some cases, a struggle for mere survival, it seems that “win the war” would be a more appropriate moral “good” in warfare than “proportionality.” Of course, since we are dealing with emotional responses rather than reason, it doesn’t matter.

Another article in the latest Ethics is entitled “Rank-Weighted Utilitarianism and the Veil of Ignorance.” It is a discussion of some of the latest algorithms fashionable among Utilitarians for calculating utility. Again, when we ask on whose authority we are to base the claim that there is any connection between utility and “objective good,” we are left in the dark. Certainly, John Stuart Mill, who wrote the book on Utilitarianism, is no such authority. He didn’t believe in objective or, as he put it, transcendental morality. He proposed utilitarianism as a mere matter of expedience, based on the assumption that, when it came to morality, human beings are perfectly malleable, or a Blank Slate, if you will. As Darwin pointed out some years later, that assumption is wrong. The very existence of morality is a reflection of innate behavioral predispositions. Unless this very basic fact is taken into account, calculating how much utility it takes to add up to a moral good is as futile as calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In short, if you seek the answer to the question, “On whose authority?”, it is unlikely that you will find it in the pages of Ethics. The claim of our modern “experts on ethics” that they know all about Good is similar to the claim by priests and mullahs that they know all about God. Both claim special knowledge of things that don’t exist. In both cases, their claim to respect in society and often their very livelihood depend on their ability to convince others that an illusion is real.

If Darwin was right, then morality is a bottom an emotional phenomenon. It exists by virtue of emotionally driven behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved, and they evolved in an environment that no longer exists. One cannot speak credibly about ethics or morality at all without taking these facts into account. In view of this, consider the following paragraph from the conclusion of the article in Ethics referred to above:

“I myself am inclined to reject both REU theory and RWU for reasons independent of these issues. But the results of this article provide some reason for fans of these theories – or, more generally, of any nonseparable theories of distribution or decision – not to appeal to the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance may be a valuable heuristic device for ensuring impartiality, but, as Parfit puts it, “it does that crudely, like frontal lobotomy.” It requires us to ignore information that may be relevant to distributive justice – that is, which utilities belong to whom, and in which outcomes. We should not make distributive choices by depriving ourselves of this information, but by ensuring that we are impartial in other ways, if we can.”

Forget the acronyms and consider the assumptions implied by this paragraph.  The most fundamental assumption is that “distributive justice” is an object, a thing. It is further assumed that this justice object is good-in-itself. No authority is given for this conclusion. Apparently, we are to believe that it is intuitively obvious to all right-thinking philosophers that distributive justice is good, period, independently of any individual’s opinion on the matter. The author would have us believe that, by carefully parsing the outcomes of different schemes of distribution, he has arrived at a superior algorithm for maximizing “distributive justice.” All that is necessary for us to be morally good is to apply this algorithm.

If Darwin was right about morality (and he was right), such speculations are reduced to the pure gibberish they appear to be to casual readers of Ethics. It is hardly surprising that human beings have come up with the notion of “distributive justice.” Natural selection has predisposed us to think that way. Obviously, thinking that way must have enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the context of the small groups that existed when the trait in question evolved. However, it can hardly be assumed that the behavior resulting from that predisposition will promote the survival of the relevant genes in modern societies consisting of hundreds of millions of individuals the same way it did in groups of a hundred hunter-gatherers in a completely different environment. Under the circumstances it seems reasonable to ask the promoters of “distributive justice”, “Why are you doing this.” If Darwin was right, then “distributive justice,” regardless of how it is defined, cannot be good, nor can it be evil, for the simple reason that these categories have no objective existence. They don’t exist regardless of the powerful, emotionally driven illusion that they do exist. That illusion exists because it was selected at the level of the individual, and perhaps at the level of small groups. Notions to the effect that it was selected for “the good of the species,” or for “human flourishing,” or for “the welfare of all mankind,” are all equally absurd.

A rational answer to the question would be something like this: “I realize why my moral emotions exist. I realize that the odds that blindly responding to them in the environment we live in today will promote my genetic survival the same way they did eons ago are vanishingly small. However, I’ve decided, even though I’m aware of the facts that account for my existence, that I’m not interested in survival. I just want to be happy. One thing that makes me happy is to pretend that I am morally good, even though I am also aware that no such thing as “good” exists, and is just an emotionally spawned illusion.” However, the promoters of these emotionally driven exercises in self-deception are never satisfied to promote “distributive justice” on their own. They insist that the rest of us also behave according to their complicated recipes for maximizing it. The inform us that if we fail to assign the same value to their version of “distributive justice” that they do, then they will declare us “evil.” There is but one rational response to that assertion.

“On whose authority?”

 

The Blank Slate: A Stroll through the Valley of the Rubies

It is unlikely that an accurate history of the Blank Slate affair will ever be written. Historians of science commonly have at least some connection to the academic and professional tribe of scientists. That tribe is understandably coy about admitting that they almost unanimously propped up something as absurd as the denial of human nature for over half a century. Legitimate research was replaced by ideologically motivated dogmas, resulting in what was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. Those who would understand what happened will need the patience to wade through the source material. One of the best pieces thereof I’ve ever run across is Defenders of the Truth – The Sociology Debate, by Ullica Segerstrale.

Segerstrale describes herself as a sociologist, but she’s also what used to be called a “crack reporter” in days of old when genuine reporters were not yet extinct. Somehow, she managed to acquire easy access to most of the key players on both sides, and she was an acute and knowledgeable observer. The result was a genuine treasure trove of information about the affair.

Of course, the most well-known account of the Blank Slate is Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. Unfortunately, that history almost completely ignores the two individuals who played the most important role in smashing of the Blank Slate hegemony; Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz. Ignoring the role of these two in what purports to be a history of the Blank Slate is equivalent to leaving Darwin out of a history of the Theory of Evolution. Of the two, Ardrey was the most significant, and he was an outsider, a “mere playwright,” who mortally offended the academics and professionals by making their denial of human nature a laughing stock among intelligent lay people. They haven’t forgotten the shame and humiliation of being exposed as charlatans to this day. As a result, apparently out of solidarity with his tribe, Pinker saw fit to airbrush both Ardrey and Lorenz out of history.

Instead of praising them for their role in smashing the Blank Slate, Pinker dismissed Ardrey and Lorenz in a single paragraph of his book. The passage, referring to Man and Aggression, a collection of reviews edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and a superb piece of source material in its own right, is as follows:

In fact, they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)

This passage is so absurd on the face of it that Pinker must have simply assumed that no one would ever bother to question it. In the case of his own academic tribe, of course, he was right. That doesn’t alter the fact that he was playing fast and loose with the truth. In the first place, the claim that Lorenz’ comparison of aggression in some animals to a simple hydraulic device was an “archaic theory” is utter nonsense. It was not a “theory” to begin with, but a model, and anyone can confirm that the model is both apt and accurate by repeating Lorenz’ experiments themselves. As for Ardrey, the idea that he “believed” in this “archaic theory” is also nonsense. Perhaps he referred to it in passing at some point, but as far as I can tell he never even mentioned it.

Pinker’s passage about the “far stronger criticism” by the “sociobiologists themselves,” must be one of the most ludicrous and also one of the most ironic comments that has ever appeared in what purports to be a history of science. As I have pointed out elsewhere, when Dawkins claimed that Ardrey and Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong,” he wasn’t even referring to any of the central themes of the Blank Slate debate. He was referring to group selection! Dawkins never even declared his support for “sociobiology” until long after publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology. A more apt choice for one of the “sociobiologists themselves” would be none other than Wilson himself. In fact, Pinker portrayed Wilson as the greatest hero of the Blank Slate affair, the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. Here’s the irony: As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Wilson came out as a strong supporter of (you guessed it) group selection, in some of his later books! This begs the question of whether Pinker knew that his “hero,” Wilson, by far the most important of the “sociobiologists themselves,” was a supporter of group selection much earlier, at the time he published “The Blank Slate.” If so, he must have been at least as “totally and utterly wrong” as Ardrey and Lorenz. And this brings us back to Segerstrale’s book.

Several passages in Defenders of the Truth make it perfectly clear that Wilson’s support for group selection was common knowledge at least as far back as the publication of Sociobiology! For example,

…Wilson inherited his mentors’ fondness for holistic explanations, substituting the old metaphysical holism with a ‘new holism’ based on communication theory, and gave much more prominence to ‘group selection’ explanations that did some of his English colleagues (like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene).

So while Dawkins in The Selfish Gene fully embraced kin selection, Wilson’s particular brand of sociobiology regarded kin selection as just one of the many possible mechanisms for altruistic behavior, on a par with group selection.

According to (evolutionary biologist Irven) Devore, when writing the book (Sociobiology) Wilson had not really appreciated the importance of Hamilton’s kin-selection theory; he was thinking more in terms of group selection.

It is hard to imagine that Pinker, who considered himself expert enough on the subject to write a book about the Blank Slate, could possibly have been unaware of Wilson’s support for group selection at the time he published. Under the circumstances, it is hard to construe his claim that Ardrey and Lorenz should be erased from history because of their support for group selection as other than a ludicrous smear, apparently intended to placate an academic and professional tribe that for more than half a century had propped up theories of human behavior that any reasonably intelligent ten year old must have realized were nonsense.

Apparently, Noam Chomsky realized they were nonsense as well. Segerstale’s book includes an interesting first-had account of the debate that ensued at a conclave of Blank Slaters who referred to themselves as the Sociobiology Study Group when Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin, who had invited Chomsky, tried to Shanghai him into supporting the cause. Chomsky begged to differ and, as Segerstrale records,

What was worse, Chomsky could not just be dismissed – his radical credentials were impeccable, and he had been a left-wing activist longer than most people present. Adding salt to the wound, Chomsky even stated that he thought it important for political radicals to postulate a relatively fixed human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society. We need a clear view of human needs in order to know what kind of society we want, Chomsky proclaimed. Not surprisingly, under these conditions, no Chomsky critique of sociobiology emerged.

The hegemony of the Blank Slate at the time was no secret to Chomsky, and perhaps he considered his defiance an act of despair. According to Segerstrale,

For Chomsky, finding out about human nature constituted the most interesting challenge there was. Surprisingly, however, he said that he doubted that science would be able to say much about it – he suggested that we might rather try to find the answer to human nature in literature.

Gems like this are strewn throughout the book. It shows that Chomsky believed the sciences were so hobbled by the Blank Slate dogmas that they were incapable of shedding light on the secrets of human behavior. Those who would seek them out would be better advised to look for them in the writings of such acute observers of the human condition as novelists (and playwrights).

This and much more invaluable source material may be found in the pages of “Defenders of the Truth” by those who seek a deeper understanding of the Blank Slate than is to be found in Pinker’s bowdlerized account. By blocking our path to self-understanding, no perversion of the sciences has ever been more destructive and dangerous to our species. It is well worth learning something about it.

Evolution, Revolution, and the Moral Philosophy of E. O. Wilson

Human history is a record of the attempts of our species to reconcile behavioral traits that evolved eons ago with rapidly and radically changing environments. Today we can follow the results of our latest experiments on social media as they develop in real time. As we observe the behavior of those around us, ranging as it does from the extravagant to the whimsical to the absurd, one salient fact should be kept in mind. With few exceptions, the actors in this drama don’t have a clue why they are doing the things they do.

We suffer no such confusion when it comes to the behavior of other animals. We don’t imagine that they are acting according to an “objective moral law,” revealed to them by their gods. We don’t imagine that they act the way they do because of a lively interest in the welfare of all chimpanzee kind, or all giraffe kind, or all alligator kind. We don’t imagine that they are motivated by a “culture,” which has somehow magically materialized out of thin air. We don’t imagine that they have nobly decided to dedicate their lives to the “flourishing” of their species. We realize perfectly well that they behave the way they do because that behavior has enabled their ancestors to survive and reproduce. Only when it comes to ourselves do we fall under the spell of such extravagant mirages. We are so addicted to the illusion of our own uniqueness that we have rendered ourselves incapable of grasping the seemingly obvious; that we are no different from them when it comes to the fundamental motivators of our behavior.

No doubt aliens visiting our planet would deem it a great joke that those among us who refer to themselves as “scientists” and “experts” assured us with perfectly straight faces for upwards of half a century that these fundamental motivators, known as “human nature” in the vernacular, didn’t even exist. The fact that the thing they denied was the reason for their denial made it all the more absurd. Our situation today is little better. There is a palpable sense in the air that a system that served us relatively well for many years is collapsing around our ears. A few of the brightest among us realize that the reasons for this are to be found in the human nature that was denied for so many years. They hopefully suggest that overcoming our problems is a mere matter of tweaking the old system here and there to bring it into better harmony with the evolved, emotional behavioral traits that we commonly refer to by that name. I have my doubts.

Consider, for example, the case of E. O. Wilson, one of the “brightest among us” I refer to above. Read the final two chapters of his Consilience, and you will see that Wilson understands perfectly well that human morality is a manifestation of emotional predispositions that evolved eons ago, just as Darwin suggested in his The Descent of Man. He realizes that these predispositions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, and that it is hardly guaranteed that they will produce the same result in the vastly different societies we live in today. He understands that, if the above conclusions are true, then morality must necessarily be subjective, a point of view he refers to as “empiricism.” He calls the opposite point of view, the belief that there is an objective moral law that exists independently of anyone’s opinion on the matter, as “transcendentalism.” He comes down firmly on the side of empiricism. And then he goes completely off the tracks. He tells us what we “ought” to do in a manner that would be completely irrational absent the assumption of “transcendental” morality.

I agree with Wilson (and Darwin) that what he calls the “empiricist” explanation of morality is correct. If so, then the “root cause” of human moral systems, in all their myriad forms, can be traced back to emotional predispositions that exist because they evolved via natural selection. These predispositions evolved in times radically different from the present, and we probably share versions of some them that are little different from those that existed in our pre-human ancestors. I personally conclude from this that, before blindly acting in response to my moral emotions, I need to ask myself if responding in that way is likely to have the same result as it did in the Pleistocene, or if, perhaps, in the context of the very different societies we live in today, it may accomplish exactly the opposite.

I have set goals for myself in life that I consider to be in harmony with the reasons for the existence of my moral emotions. They include my own survival and reproduction, the preservation and continued evolution of my species into forms that are likely to survive in plausible futures and, beyond that, the continued survival of biological life itself. If behaving as I am inclined to behave by virtue of my moral emotions will not serve those goals, but will, in fact, act against or defeat them, I conclude that I need to resist acting blindly in that way. There is no reason at all that any other individual is morally obligated to share my personal goals. However, I have, at least, laid my cards on the table. If someone tells me I am morally obligated to act in a certain way, or in other words that I “ought” to act in that way, I must insist that they also lay their cards on the table. Do they, too, have personal goals in life, and are those goals compatible with my own? If not, and they are simply blindly demanding that others act in ways that satisfy their moral emotions, what makes them think I’m obligated to comply? Unless one believes in a “transcendental” morality, no such obligation can exist. In spite of this, Wilson insists that I, and all the rest of humanity, “ought” to do what he wants.

The ”logic” Wilson marshals in support of this demand is less than compelling. It can be found in “Ethics and Religion,” the next to last chapter of his Consilience. He begins with an attack on G. E. Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy,” which he wrongly interprets as something akin to Hume’s prohibition against hopping over the is/ought divide. He assures us that this fallacy is itself a fallacy, “For if ought is not is, what is?” This non sequitur is what scientists refer to as “hand waving.” The question implies a “transcendental” moral ought, which is impossible if there are no transcendental good and evil. As we read on, we learn how he arrived at this remarkable question. He accomplishes the trick by simply hopping from the categorical ought of morality to the conditional ought of utility. Just as we “ought” to use a hammer rather than a screwdriver to drive a nail, we “ought” to do some things and refrain from doing other things to conform to the moral fashions prevailing among the academic tribe. As he puts it:

Ought is not the translation of human nature but of the public will, which can be make increasingly wise and stable through the understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.

At this point, Wilson’s “ought” no longer has anything to do with the term as we commonly associate it with morality at all. It is completely divorced from its evolutionary origins, and has been re-defined to mean conformity to the “public will” that supposedly exists in societies utterly unlike those in which that evolution took place. Wilson does not feel obligated to explain to us how conforming to the “public will” is likely to enhance the odds of our genetic survival, or his genetic survival, or the continued survival of biological life in general. In fact, he has passed from “empiricism” to “transcendentalism,” promoting a personal version of the “good” which he has convinced himself is “good-in-itself,” but is really just the expression of an ideal that he finds emotionally comforting.

To what end is this “public will” to be made “wise and stable?” Translated to the present, which “public will” are we to prefer? The public will of that half of the population that supports Trump and agrees with his agenda, in the process condemning those who oppose him as evil, or the public will of that half of the population that opposes Trump and all he stands for, in the process condemning those who support him as evil? Wilson doesn’t leave us in suspense. The “public will” he refers to is the one generally supported by tenured university professors. Referring to conservatism he writes,

By that overworked and confusing term I do not mean the pietistic and selfish libertarianism into which much of the American conservative movement has lately descended.

This assertion that “much of the American conservative movement” is morally bad flies in the face of Wilson’s claim that he is a moral “empiricist.” Absent belief in a “transcendental” objective morality, it is mere gibberish. In keeping with the rest of his tribe, Wilson also considers globalism a “transcendental” good-in-itself. In his words,

In the long haul, civilized nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole. In thus globalizing the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind’s noblest and most enduring goals.

This, too, is the affirmation of a purely objective moral code, and flies in the face of the reasons morality evolved to begin with. It decidedly did not evolve to meet the “needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole,” nor did natural selection ever take place at the level of a “global tribe.” In conforming to the moral ideology of his own tribe, Wilson falls into some amusing contradictions. He promotes globalization and open borders as “good,” but then informs us that,

The problem of collective meaning and purpose is both urgent and immediate because, if for no other reason, it determines the environmental ethic. Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself.

He goes on to evoke all the familiar environmental dangers we face, citing among others overpopulation leading to starvation, degradation of the water supply, etc. He is particularly alarmed at the increasing rate of extinction of other species, and of the specter of a world in which biodiversity is a thing of the past. If Wilson is really worried about the environment, why is he such a promoter of globalism and open borders? Think of it. Large portions of the globe in Europe and North America were occupied by peoples with a low birthrate, ensuring gradually sinking populations and a consequent decrease in environmental degradation and the possibility of restoring some level of biological diversity. Instead, in keeping with what Wilson suggested they “ought” to do, they threw open their borders and allowed a massive influx from regions with rapidly increasing populations, thereby rapidly accelerating environmental degradation.

Beyond that, Wilson’s globalist “ought” is a good example of how moral emotions can “malfunction,” outside of the environmental context in which they evolved. His big brain combined with modern means of transportation and communication have enabled him to imagine the existence of a global “tribe.” His moral emotions then suggest to him that no artificial borders “ought” to limit or restrain this “tribe.” The result is a classic morality inversion. From a genetic point of view, the evolved behavioral traits that promoted the survival of small, territorially isolated tribes eons ago now accomplish precisely the opposite when blindly applied to a global “tribe” of over seven billion people.

I don’t mean to pick on Wilson. From my personal point of view he represents the best and the brightest of modern academics. I merely point out that, like the rest of his tribe, and the rest of mankind in general, for that matter, he imagines that he “ought” to promote “human flourishing,” or he “ought” to promote “moral progress,” or he “ought” to promote a “just society.” In the process, he never stops to consider that, absent the motivating power of innate predispositions, it would never occur to him that he “ought” to do anything. In all likelihood those predispositions are similar to those that motivated our human and pre-human ancestors hundreds of thousands and probably millions of years ago. They are the only reason that we imagine that we “ought” to do anything at all. They evolved by natural selection, not because they promoted “human flourishing,” or “moral progress,” but because they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive. Under the circumstances it seems at least reasonable to consider whether the things we imagine we “ought” to do will accomplish the same things today.

There is no reason that anyone “ought not” to devote their lives to “human flourishing,” or that they “ought not” to fight for what they imagine is “moral progress.” I merely suggest that, before blindly pursuing those goals, they consider whether they make any sense at all given the fundamental reasons that we imagine we “ought” to do some things, and “ought not” to do others.

Meanwhile, as a system that seems to have served us well for more than two centuries appears to be collapsing around our ears, we hear suggestions on all sides that we need a revolution, or that we need to demolish the system and replace it with a new one, or that we must have a civil war to destroy those who disagree with us. It can be safely assumed that the people offering these suggestions are at least as clueless as Wilson when it comes to understanding the “root causes” that motivate their behavior. Before we join them in fighting for, and perhaps sacrificing ourselves for, the noble goals they dangle so invitingly in front of our noses, it may behoove us to consider our own goals in life in light of an accurate understanding of the fundamental factors that motivate us to have any goals at all. It may turn out that fighting for “noble causes” is not really the most effective way to achieve those goals after all.

Morality and Social Chaos: Can You Hear Darwin Now?

When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, it immediately rendered all previous theories and systems of morality obsolete. If he was right, then everything about us, or at least everything with a significant impact on our odds of survival, exists by virtue of natural selection. Our innate behavioral traits, some of which give rise to what we commonly refer to as morality, are no exception.  For the most part, the philosophers didn’t notice, or didn’t grasp the significance of what Darwin had revealed. Many of them continued to devote whole careers to things as futile as explicating the obscure tomes of Kant, or inventing intricate theories to “prove” the existence of something as imaginary as objective morality. Others concocted whole new theories of morality supposedly based on “evolution.” Virtually all of them imagined that “evolution” was actively striving to make progress towards the goal of a “higher” morality, thereby demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the significance of the term “natural” in natural selection. Darwin himself certainly didn’t fail to grasp the moral implications of his theory. He tried to spell it out for us in his “The Descent of Man” as follows:

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitable acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

To read Darwin is to wonder at his brilliance. He was well aware of the dual nature of human morality long before Herbert Spencer undertook a systematic study of the phenomena, or Sir Arthur Keith published his theory of in-groups and out-groups:

But these feelings and services (altruistic behavior, ed.) are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association.

He exposed the imbecility of the notion that natural selection “tracks” some imaginary objective moral law in a few sentences:

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

It is a tribute to the tremendous power of the evolved moral sense described by Darwin that it spawns a powerful illusion that Good and Evil are real things, that somehow exist independently of what anyone’s mere opinion of them happens to be. The illusion has been so powerful that even his clear and direct explanation of why it isn’t real was powerless to dispel it. Only one philosopher of note, Edvard Westermarck, proved capable of grasping the full import of what Darwin had written. Today one can complete an undergraduate degree in philosophy without ever seeing his name mentioned, even as a footnote, in the textbooks and anthologies.

We live in a world full of others of our kind, all of whom are chasing this illusion. They feel they “ought” to do things because they are good, noble, just, and moral. Using their big brains, they come up with all sorts of fanciful whims about what these things are that they “ought” to do. The reasons they use to arrive at these notions may be as complex as you please, but if you follow the chain of reasons to the end, you will always find they lead back to emotions. Those emotions spawn the illusion of the Good, and they exist by virtue of natural selection.

Do you feel a powerful impulse to join a Black Lives Matter demonstration? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you imagine that you can serve the Good by pulling down statues? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think that the people who are doing these things are Evil, and should be destroyed? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think we need a revolution or a civil war to insure the victory of the Good. You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Have you considered the fact that the panacea you imagine will result from a successful revolution or civil war will inevitably be just as “unnatural” for our species as the system it replaces? We are simply not adapted to live in the massive societies we are forced to live in today if we want to survive, no matter how cleverly they are organized. The best we can hope for is that they be so structured as to minimize the inconvenience of living in them.

As for the emotions referred to above, we may find it useful to keep in mind the fact that they exist because they happened to motivate behaviors that increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive in an environment populated by small, widely dispersed groups of hunter-gatherers. Today, in a radically different environment, those same emotions still motivate our behavior. However, the odds that this will have the same effect now as they did then in promoting gene survival are vanishingly small.

What are the implications of all this at the level of the individual?  For starters, it is neither Good nor Evil to rush around blindly responding to emotions by pulling down statues, joining demonstrations, organizing revolutions, or joining in civil wars. The obvious reason for this is that Good and Evil are terms for categories that simply don’t exist. They are imagined to exist. I merely suggest that individuals may want to stand back for a moment and consider whether, in their frantic efforts to promote the Good, they are accomplishing anything remotely connected to the reasons they imagine such a thing as the Good exists to begin with. The illusion of Good exists because it once promoted survival. As they pursue this mirage, individuals may want to consider whether their behavior will have a similar result today.

It is up to individuals to choose what their goals in life will be. No God or objective moral law can make the choice for them, because these things don’t exist. Supposing you’ve read Darwin, and understand that the sole reason for the existence of the emotions that motivate your behavior is the fact that, once upon a time, long, long ago, they happened to increase the odds that the genes you carry would survive. You can still choose to respond to those emotions in ways that make you happy, or in ways that make you feel good and noble, even if your behavior doesn’t improve the odds that you will survive, and may actually be suicidal. With a little effort, you may even still be able to delude yourself into believing that you really are fighting for the Good. Realizing that you are a link in a chain of living creatures that has existed unbroken for upwards of two billion years, you can make a conscious decision to be the final link. You can go through life imagining that you are as noble as Don Quixote, and then die, fully aware that you represent a biological dead end. None of these choices would be immoral. All I can say about them is that I don’t personally find them attractive.

I happen to have different goals. My goals are personal survival, and beyond that the continued survival of my species, and its continued evolution into forms that will promote the survival of biological life in general. To reach these goals, I realize it will occasionally be necessary to second guess my emotions, and to choose to act against the way they incline me to act. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are better than the goal of living a happy life, or of devoting my life to fighting on behalf of the illusion of Good. All I can say is that they are my goals, which I have chosen because they happen to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Darwin explained those reasons to us. Perhaps it’s time to start listening to him.

The Atlantic Monthly Ponders: Where Will It End?

Today we are witnessing extreme examples of moral nihilism. By moral nihilism I mean the concoction of novel “moral laws” in rapid succession, combined with the expection and demand that everyone else respect and obey these new “laws.” Moral nihilism is often associated with moral subjectivity. The opposite is the case. The current chaos in our cities is a direct manifestation of objective morality. It requires the assumption that one is acting on behalf of some objective “good,” existing independently of anyone’s mere opinion. It is an illusion spawned by the very power of our moral emotions, and one that we must shed if we are ever to make anything that can be accurately described as “moral progress.” Absent objective morality, the very notion of judging people who lived centuries ago by the moral fashions prevailing today becomes absurd.

The fundamental lie of objective morality is commonly used to justify all kinds of ancillary lies. Indeed, the illusion often promotes a sincere belief that the lies are true. One of the best antidotes is historical source material, taken straight up rather than filtered by some academic historian to fit a preferred narrative. I found a good example bearing on our current situation in the pages of the December, 1857 issue of the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Where Will It End?” (To see the article, click on the link that appears when you click on the first link).

The “it” referred to was slavery, and the question was to be emphatically answered in a few years. Among the lies that this article demolishes, along thousands of other articles like it that appeared in contemporary books, newspapers, and magazines, is the argument, beloved of Marxists, Confederate Heritage zealots, and 19th century British aristocrats alike, that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. By all means, read the whole thing, and you’ll see what I mean. However, its value hardly ends there. Let’s take a look at some of the more striking excerpts. The first explodes the leftist narrative that the country was built on the backs of slaves:

When the eyes of the thoughtful inquirer turn from the general prospect of the national greatness and strength, to the geographical divisions of the country… He beholds the Southern region, embracing within its circuit three hundred thousand more square miles than the domain of the North, dowered with a soil incomparably more fertile, watered by mighty rivers fit to float the argosies of the world, placed nearer the sun and canopied by more propitious skies, with every element of prosperity and wealth showered upon it with Nature’s fullest and most unwithdrawing hand, and sees that, notwithstanding all this, the share of public wealth and strength drawn thence is almost inappreciable, by the side of what is poured into the common stock by the strenuous sterility of the North. With every opportunity and means that Nature can supply for commerce, with navigable rivers searching its remotest corners, with admirable harbors in which the navies of the world might ride, with the chief articles of export for its staple productions, it still depends upon its Northern partner to fetch and carry all that it produces, and the little that it consumes. Possessed of all the raw materials of manufactures and the arts, its inhabitants look to the North for everything they need from the cradle to the coffin. Essentially agricultural in its constitution, with every blessing Nature can bestow upon it, the gross value of all its productions is less by millions than that of the simple grass of the field gathered into northern barns. With all the means and materials of wealth, the South is poor. With every advantage for gathering strength and self-reliance, it is weak and dependent. Why this difference between the two?

The author doesn’t leave us guessing. The answer is slavery. Far from being the economic dynamo on the back of which the evil whites stood to build their empire, it hobbled and impoverished them for the benefit of a few. In his words,

The key of the enigma is to be found in the constitution of human nature. A man in fetters cannot do the task-work that one whose limbs are unshackled looks upon as a pastime… Hence the difference so often noticed between tracts lying side by side, separated only by a river or an imaginary line; on one side of which, thrift and comfort and gathering wealth, growing villages, smiling farms, convenient habitations, school-houses and churches make the landscape beautiful; while on the other, slovenly husbandry, dilapidated mansions, sordid huts, perilous wastes, horrible roads, the rare spire, and rarer village school betray all the nakedness of the land. It is the magic of motive that calls forth all this wealth and beauty to bless the most sterile soil stirred by willing and intelligent labor; while the reversing of that spell scatters squalor and poverty and misery over lands endowed by Nature with the highest fertility, spreading their leprous infection from the laborer to his lord.

In the next passage we find a denunciation of slavery similar to those penned by a myriad other authors in the decades leading up to the Civil War:

That the denial of his natural and civil rights to the laborer who sows and reaps the harvests of the Southern country should be avenged upon his enslaver in the scanty yielding of the earth, and in the unthrift, the vices, and the wretchedness which are the only crops that spring spontaneously from soil blasted by slavery is nothing strange. It is only the statement of the truism in moral and in political economy, that true prosperity can never grow up from wrong and wickedness.

There is a striking similarity among virtually all of these authors; they are all white. Similar denunciations of slavery in the literature of any other race or culture are virtually nonexistent in comparison. We don’t know when or where the first incidence of human slavery occurred, but we do know who put a stop to it, and they happened to have white skin. Absent the battle waged by whites against slavery, first with the pen and then with the sword, the chances that slavery would be considered anything but a benign social institution today are vanishingly small. This fact alone exposes the gross racism of today’s pious social justice warriors.

The article also exposes the racism inherent in the claim that all whites are born tainted with the original sin of slavery. As the author points out,

The entire sum of all who have any direct connection with slavery, as owners or hirers, is less than three hundred and fifty thousand, – not half as many as the inhabitants of the single city of New York.

The white population of the country at the time the article was written was about 25 million. Slave owners and hirers made up little more than one percent of the total, especially when one deducts women and children from the total. As the author points out, the remaining white population of the South was impoverished by slavery, not enriched by it. He notes that the increasing desperation of the slave oligarchy is driven in part by growing signs of resistance among poor whites:

It rages, for its time is short. And its rage is the fiercer because of the symptoms of rebellion against its despotism which it discerns among the white men of the South, who from poverty or from principle have no share in its sway. When we speak of the South as distinguished from the North by elements of inherent hostility, we speak only of the governing faction, and not of the millions of nominally free men who are scarcely less its thralls than the black slaves themselves… That such a tyranny should excite an antagonistic spirit of resistance is inevitable from the constitution of man and the character of God. The sporadic cases of protest and of resistance to the slaveholding aristocracy, which lift themselves occasionally above the dead level of the surrounding despotism, are representative cases… The unity of interest of the non-slaveholders of the South with the people of the Free States is perfect, and it must one day combine them in a unity of action.

Just as many of us have underestimated the recently demonstrated willingness of many of our fellow citizens to grovel and humiliate themselves for such sins as telling the truth and mildly challenging leftist dogmas, the author underestimated the willingness of southern whiles to fight for the oligarchs who impoverished them. The Civil War demonstrated the southern oligarchy’s ability use their nearly unchallenged control of the social media of their day to influence and manipulate the behavior and opinions of the population. The techniques they used will sound eerily familiar to 21st century readers:

There must be intelligence enough among the non-slaveholding whites to see the difference there is between themselves and persons of the same condition in the Free States. Why have they no free schools?… Why are they hindered from taking such newspapers as they please? Why are they subjected to censorship of the press, which dictates to them what they may or may not read, and which punishes booksellers with exile and ruin for keeping for sale what they want to buy? Why must Northern publishers expurgate and emasculate the literature of the world before it is permitted to reach them?… The slaveholders, having the wealth, and nearly all the education that the South can boast of, employ these mighty instruments of power to create the public sentiment and to control the public affairs of their region, so as best to secure their own supremacy. No word of dissent to the institutions under which they live, no syllable of dissatisfaction, even, with any of the excesses they stimulate, can be breathed in safety. A Christian minister in Tennessee relates an act of fiendish cruelty inflicted upon a slave by one of the members of his church, and he is forced to leave his charge, if not to fly the country. Another in South Carolina presumes to express in conversation his disapprobation of the murderous assault of Brooks on Senator Sumner, and his pastoral relations are broken up on the instant, as if he had been guilty of gross crime or flagrant heresy. Professor Hedrick, in North Carolina, ventures to utter a preference for the Northern candidate in the last presidential campaign, and he is summarily ejected from his chair, and virtually banished from his native State. Mr. Underwood of Virginia dares to attend the convention of the party he preferred, and he is forbidden to return to his home on pain of death. The blackness of darkness and the stillness of death are thus forced to brood over that land which God formed so fair, and made to be so happy.

Do you notice any similarity between the tactics of 19th century slave owners and 21st century social justice warriors? You should! Source literature is a wonderful thing. It transports you to a different world where you can watch the narratives that pass for “history” pop like soap bubbles before you eyes. The author concludes,

Thus the ideal of a true republic, of a government of laws made and executed by the people of which bards have sung and prophets dreamed, and for which martyrs have suffered and heroes died, may yet be possible to us, and the great experiment of this Western World be indeed a Model, instead of a Warning to the nations.

It was whites who first raised a moral challenge to slavery, and finally put an end to it. Their reward has been blanket condemnation as a race for the sins of a tiny minority. No, dear author, your hopes were vain. The monuments to the martyrs and heroes you refer to are being defaced and pulled down as I write this. We did not become a Model for others. We certainly became a Warning.

Moral Realism: Philosophers Chasing a Mirage

Darwin isn’t really necessary to debunk moral realism – the notion that objective moral truths exist. Examples of virtuous indignation and moral outrage are certainly abundant enough in modern societies. Examine one such example at your leisure and consider the questions, “Where is the authority for that behavior? What justification do the outraged have for insisting that particular acts or individuals are evil?” In fact, no such authority or justification exists independently of the mere opinion of individuals. Darwin’s great contribution was to explain why we so firmly believe in the illusion of moral truths. The illusion exists because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce, and it is an extremely powerful illusion because it maximized the odds by instilling absolute conviction that the illusion is real.

Many scientists and public intellectuals have accepted the fact that morality exists by virtue of natural selection. If that’s true, then we’re talking about a natural process that hasn’t been guided by a supernatural being or any other conscious entity. It seems obvious that this excludes the possibility that there are objective moral truths. The reason for the illusion that they exist is clear. There is no reason to continue believing that the illusion is real, especially in view of the fact that no “moral truth objects” have ever been detected. Some among the scientists and public intellectuals mentioned above have admitted as much, claiming to accept the fact that morality is subjective. The incredible power of the illusion is demonstrated by the fact that none of them who are alive today, or at least none that I am aware of, behaves in a way that is in any way comprehensible or rational if they actually believe what they say. All of them claim that certain individuals are immoral, or that we have moral obligations, or that we “ought” to do things they deem good, and “ought not” to do things they deem bad, without the slightest suggestion that all they are really doing is demanding that the rest of us respect and base our own behavior on their emotional whims. They may claim they don’t believe the illusion is real, but every one of them acts as if they firmly believe it is.

As if that weren’t evidence enough of the whimsical nature of our species, there are also philosophers who accept the fact that human morality exists by virtue of natural selection, and yet still insist on the existence of objective moral truths. Two examples of the same may be found in an article entitled Evolution and Moral Realism, that appeared in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science a few years ago. The authors, by the names of Kim Sterelny and Ben Fraser, were a professor and postdoc at the time in the philosophy program of the Australian National University. Wikipedia informs us that the former is the winner of several international prizes. They appear to accept the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolution by natural selection, at least for the sake of argument, but claim that there are moral facts and moral truths in spite of that. Based on his publication list, Sterelny is familiar with the work of Richard Dawkins, and must be familiar with how other authors have both supported and disputed his take on group selection. He seems to understand how natural selection actually works. In spite of that, according to the abstract of the paper in question,

…one important strand in the evolutionary history of moral thinking does support reductive naturalism – moral facts are facts about cooperation, and the conditions and practices that support or undermine it.

We make a positive case that true moral beliefs are a “fuel for success”, a map by which we steer, flexibly, in a variety of social interactions.

The authors leave no doubt about what they mean by “moral facts” and “true moral beliefs” a bit later when they write,

…we shall be arguing, that moral facts are facts about social interactions that support stable cooperation, the moral realist must hold that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, independently of what anyone says, believes, or thinks.

Coming from philosophers, this bit is surprising to say the least. The fact that human beings are predisposed to cooperate with others under certain conditions is a fact. It belongs to the realm of “is.” The claim that cooperation-supporting institutions are morally good, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of “ought.” In the rest of the paper the authors attempt to explain this leap from “is” to “ought.” I doubt that Hume would be impressed.

One problem is immediately apparent in the abstract, where the authors claim that facts about cooperation are moral facts because they are a “fuel for success.” Success at what? To be successful, one must have a goal. A goal is something a conscious being desires. Natural selection has no desires, nor does it have any goals. It does not have a function, because a function can also only be assigned by a conscious being. Claiming that natural selection has the goal or the function to promote cooperation is about as rational as claiming that a lump of carbon has the goal or the function to turn into a diamond, and yet the authors make that claim throughout the paper. Consider the following examples:

So one function of moral thinking is to track a class of facts about human social environments.

…a natural notion of moral truth emerges from the idea that normative thought has evolved to mediate stable cooperation.

The moral truths specify maxims that are members of near-optimal normative packages – sets of norms that if adopted, would help generate high levels of appropriately distributed, and hence stable, cooperation profits.

If moral thinking evolved as a tracking device, selected to track and respond to cooperation pitfalls, then the apparently truth-apt character of moral thought and talk would reflect its functional role.

Every one of these statements is incomprehensible absent the existence of some conscious mind directing the process. No such conscious mind exists to give natural selection a function, nor to “mediate stable cooperation,” nor to “generate cooperation profits.” Natural selection is a process that happens by virtue of the fact that some genes are more likely to survive and reproduce than others. A result of natural selection has been the evolution of our species. However, it is completely impossible for that to ever have been its “function,” or its “goal.”

Even if there were a conscious mind to give natural selection a “goal” and a “function,” it would hardly imply a moral obligation to comply with this goal. “Cooperation” might be a useful tool for achieving the hypothetical imperative of “fueling success,” as defined by the authors, but that fact by no means implies a moral, categorical imperative to cooperate in achieving that goal. Is it really necessary to explain to professors of philosophy that there is a difference between the statement that one “ought” to use a hammer to drive a nail, and the statement that one “ought” to act morally? Even the patron saint of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, understood the difference. He knew that there could be no objective, “transcendental” justification for his proposed morality. That’s why he supported the blank slate. He knew that if innate emotions played a major role in motivating morality, then his utilitarian nostrums would be stillborn.

In short, if the authors’ intention was to hop over the is-ought barrier, they’ve stumbled badly. Their notion of “moral truth” begs many other questions. For example, they actually mention the existence of ingroups and outgroups, but don’t explain how outgroups will fit within the rubric of cooperation as moral truth. We all tend to hate and despise those we identify as belonging to our outgroup, however we define it. When it evolved, that tendency typically applied to the neighboring group of hunter gatherers. It insured that we would keep our distance from each other, and avoid over-exploiting the resources in a given territory. Things have changed, of course. We are aware of a great many “groups,” and are capable of perceiving virtually any of them as the outgroup. Regardless of which one we choose, identification and hatred of outgroups remains a characteristic human trait.  Typical university professors are more than likely to perceive Donald Trump and his supporters as outgroup, and yet they make up half the population of the United States, give or take. How will “cooperation” as a moral imperative apply to them? Clearly, the idea that “cooperation” will have the same result globally in groups of hundreds of millions of people today as it did in the Pleistocene can hardly be assumed. Suppose it doesn’t? Will the dependent “moral truths” not evaporate as a result? If moral truth exists as an objective thing, independent of what anyone merely thinks to be good, how is it that this “objective truth” only popped into existence billions of years after the big bang, coincident with the emergence on one planet among trillions of a particular type of animal?

Clearly, the illusion that there are moral truths is an aspect of the innate nature of our species, and that illusion is extremely powerful. It is also a very expedient illusion for professors of philosophy. After all, they are supposed to be experts about good and evil. If good and evil don’t exist, that leaves them experts about nothing. Unfortunately, they don’t exist any more than unicorns and leprechauns. If we exist as a result of natural selection, then the most parsimonious and obvious explanation of morality is that it is a manifestation of emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved, and that the fact of their evolution excludes the possibility that they somehow track or correspond with “moral truths.”

The fact that there are no objective moral truths has no moral implications. It does not imply that we are forbidden to act in harmony with our moral emotions, nor does it imply that we are forbidden to establish a morality and treat it as an absolute, with punishment for those who violate the moral law. It does imply that, depending on what our personal goals happen to be, we should be very careful about how we construct such a morality. There is no guarantee that emotions that helped us reach our goals millions of years ago will have the same effect today.

Artifacts of a Historical Scavenger Hunt

Today we suffer from a sort of historical myopia due to our obsession with social media. In our struggle to stay abreast of what’s happening in the here and now, we neglect the past. Instead of going back and examining the source material for ourselves, we leave it to others to interpret it for us. These interpretations are commonly bowdlerized to fit a preferred narrative. It’s a shame, because the past holds a rich mine of material relevant to the present. Pick up and old book, or an old magazine, and you’ll often find that they bring the reality of today into sharper focus. Nuggets of insight will pop up in the strangest places, often in articles that ostensibly have nothing to do with the insight in question.

Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the October, 1842 issue of the Edinburgh Review, one of the dominant British journals of literature and politics in the first half of the 19th century. It came from an article about the recently published autobiography of one M. Berryer, a prominent lawyer and eyewitness of some of the worst atrocities of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. In one of the opening paragraphs of his review, the anonymous author offers the following general comments about human nature:

Few men know the fluctuating nature of their own character; – how much it has varied from ten years to ten years, or even on the recurrence of similar events. Few men attempt to distinguish between the original predispositions and the accidental influences which, sometimes controlling and sometimes aggravating one another, together formed at any particular epoch their character for the time being. Still fewer attempt to estimate the relative force of each; and fewer still would succeed in such an attempt.

Amazing, really! That passage might have been lifted from an introduction to a book about the latest advances in Genome Wide Association Studies. It demonstrates that people were perfectly well aware of the existence of “original predispositions” almost 200 years ago. This brief passage shows more insight into the nuances of the entanglement of “nature” and “nurture” in our species than the vast majority of the tomes of psychology, sociology, and anthropology published during the hegemony of the Blank Slate. It puts in sharp relief the extent to which we managed to dumb ourselves down in the service of ideologically motivated truisms. To read it is to wonder at our success in willfully blinding ourselves to the truth in an area as potentially critical to our survival as self-understanding.

Perhaps most prominent among the ideologies that required an imaginary version of human beings rather than the real thing was and remains socialism. By reading old books one can gain an appreciation of how familiar “Marxist” ideas had become long before Marx became a household name. Consider, for example, the following passages from “Sybil,” published in 1845 by Benjamin Disraeli. Most remember him as a British Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria, but he was also an outstanding and prolific novelist. Sybil, the heroine of the novel, is the daughter of a leader of the proletariat, and speaks of him as follows:

When I heard my father speak the other night, my heart glowed with emotion; my eyes were suffused with tears; I was proud to be his daughter; and I gloried in a race of forefathers who belonged to the oppressed, and not to the oppressors.

According the Devilsdust, one of Disraeli’s working-class characters,

We’ll clean out the Savings Banks; the Benefits and Burials will shell out; I am treasurer of the Ancient Shepherds ( a trade union), and we passed a resolution yesterday unanimously, that we would devote all our funds to the sustenance of Labour in this its last and triumphant struggle against Capital.

Later Devilsdust is recorded as saying of Stephen Morley, a labor journalist who might have served as a prototype for Lenin,

…if ever the great revolution were to occur, by which the rights of labour were to be recognized, though bolder spirits and brawnier arms might consummate the change, there was only one head among them that would be capable, when they had gained their power, to guide it for the public weal…, and that was Morley.

In short, the idea of class struggle culminating in a proletarian revolution was already well developed before Marx wrote “Das Kapital.” What he added was a “scientific” theory distilled from Hegelian philosophy according to which the revolution was inevitable, and the proletariat would emerge victorious and establish a worker’s paradise by the force of historical “laws.” The conviction that one was fighting for the Good, and must inevitably win the fight, served as a powerful intoxicant for already radicalized fanatics, and, as we now know, would culminate in a nightmare.

Perhaps most prominent among the public intellectuals who sought to warn us of the perils of listening to the Marxist siren song was Herbert Spencer. For his trouble, he was vilified as a “social Darwinist” and forgotten. That’s ironic, because Spencer was never a Darwinist to begin with. His ideas about evolution were much more Lamarckian in character. His brilliant critique of socialism, however, was based on insights about human nature that are seldom equaled among modern scholars. It turned out to be a prophecy of uncanny accuracy about the reality of Communism. Consider, for example, the following passages, written in the introduction to a collection of essays published in 1891 entitled “A Plea for Liberty.” The first refers to an earlier summary of some of the more prominent features of the innate human behavior denied by Blank Slaters, then and now.

The traits thus shown must be operative in any new social organization, and the question to be asked is – What will result from their operation when they are relieved from all restraints? At present the separate bodies of men displaying them are in the midst of a society partially passive, partially antagonistic; are subject to the criticisms and reprobations of an independent press; and are under the control of law, enforced by police. If in these circumstances these bodies habitually take courses which override individual freedom, what will happen when, instead of being only scattered parts of the community, governed by their separate sets of regulators, they constitute the whole community, governed by a consolidated system of such regulators; when functionaries of all orders, including those who officer the press, form parts of the regulative organization; and when the law is both enacted and administered by this regulative organization? The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until, eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

Astonishing, no? If your education about the reality of Communism doesn’t extend beyond what’s taught in the public school system, by all means read Orwell’s “1984,” or, better yet, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, one of the most brilliant political writers of the 20th century. If that’s not enough to impress you, check this out:

Misery has necessarily to be borne by a constitution out of harmony with its conditions; and a constitution inherited from primitive men is out of harmony with conditions imposed on existing men.

These seemingly obvious facts, that we possess innate behavioral traits, and they evolved in conditions radically different from the ones we live in now, are seemingly beyond the grasp of virtually every prominent public intellectual today. They speak of morality, community, and politics as if these salient facts didn’t exist. We continue this type of self-imposed obscurantism at our peril.

The above historical artifacts all bear on the reality of the here and now, characterized by the hegemony of equalist dogmas. Equalism started out benignly enough, as a reaction to the gross exploitation and abuse of a majority of the population by an elite distinguished by nothing but the accident of birth. It has now morphed into a monster that demands that we all pretend we believe things that are palpably untrue on pain of censorship, social ostracism, and loss of employment and educational opportunity.  From the first item cited above we can see that the interplay of innate human nature with experience and learning was a matter of common knowledge to an anonymous book reviewer more than a century and a half ago. Even children have a rudimentary familiarity with human nature and have acted based on that knowledge for millennia before that. It is all the more astounding that the Blank Slate orthodoxy required denial of the very existence of human nature for upwards of half a century, and virtually every academic and professional “expert” in the behavioral sciences meekly went along. This orthodoxy was eventually destroyed by its own absurdity, strikingly portrayed to a wondering lay public in a series of books by a man named Robert Ardrey. Now Ardrey is remembered, if at all, as a bete noire with which to terrify young associate professors. Today the Blank Slate is well on the way to making a comeback. Now, however, instead of making themselves laughing stocks by denying the existence of human nature, its resurgent clergy merely see to it that no research is done in anything of real relevance to the human condition.

As for Communism, we can count ourselves lucky that we’ve been there, done that, along with “democratic” socialism, national socialism, and a grab bag of other versions. These repeated failures have at least slowed our progress towards stumbling off the same cliff yet again.  Of course, they haven’t stopped equalist ideologues from claiming that the only reason socialism has been such an abject failure to date is because it hasn’t been “done right,” or that previous versions weren’t “real socialism.” Fasten your seatbelts.

Meanwhile, I suggest that you take the time occasionally to read old things; novels, magazines, newspapers, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll find that the self-imposed stupidity and politically correct piety of modern societies aren’t inevitable. There have been other times and other cultures in which people could speak their minds a great deal more freely than under the secular Puritanism that prevails today. The fact that the culture we live in today is a “natural” outcome for our species doesn’t mean you are obligated to either accept it or refrain from fighting to change it.

The Anti-Natalist Morality Inversion: A German Vignette

Anti-natalists keep popping up in the news. A recent story about one of them at the website of the German news magazine “Focus” caught my eye because she happens to be from Regensburg. I was stationed there as an Army liaison officer back in the day, a job that involved driving all over Bavaria with a German co-worker, visiting police, border, and administrative officials, and visiting superb bakeries and breweries on the way to maintain our stamina. I couldn’t see my military career getting any better than that, so left the service and attended the University of Regensburg for a semester to satisfy my non-technical minor requirement at the University of Wisconsin, where I would later attend graduate school. The cost was quite affordable in comparison with US universities; 15 marks per semester. I took courses in political science, history, and Chinese. The latter was taught from a Red Chinese textbook. Chairman Mao was still riding high, and we read stories about Lenin’s greatcoat, life in a people’s commune, etc. The university corridors were plastered with competing posters affixed there by the Maoist and pro-Soviet Communist student groups, who apparently considered each other a much greater threat to humanity than any mere capitalists. I played fourth board for the Regensburg chess club, along with several German WWII veterans, and a Polish Jew who had been one of three survivors of a group of nearly 300 prisoners marched out of the Buchenwald concentration camp as US forces approached. There was a remnant of an old Roman wall along one side of my favorite gas station, and I used to drive to work every day over an old stone bridge across the Danube built in the 12th century. I was glad to learn that it has since been closed to vehicular traffic.

But I digress. The anti-natalist in question, one Verena Brunschweiger, was interviewed on the occasion of the publication of her second book on the subject, “The Child-free Rebellion: Why ‘too radical’ is just radical enough.” According to the article, entitled “Child-free Author Again Insists: ‘We have better sex and better relationships,’” the publication of her first book, “Child-free Instead of Childless; A Manifesto,” a year earlier had raised a “shitstorm,” one of those vulgar English terms the Germans delight in using. Her latest was described as more radical than ever in defending her main theme: “Children are the worst thing that one can inflict on the environment.” She elaborates, “Children are the worst climate killers of all, and therefore a child-free life is the only rationally, ethically, and morally acceptable way to avoid the climate disaster (Klimamisere) that the world is heading for.”

She claims that she has been the subject of vicious attacks and even death threats for her opinions in Germany, in spite of the fact that she deems herself a “moderate.” She notes that one finds a much more tolerant atmosphere in other countries, especially the United Kingdom, where one hears calls for a complete ban on births, promoting the goal of the extinction of mankind. When asked about claims she was hostile to children she replied,

I am not against children per se. Children are great. But the steadily increasing population is destroying the planet. That’s the problem… In fact, at one point I considered the possibility of having a child quite seriously. However, I decided against it after seeing a study according to which, for each child we avoid bringing into the world, we will reduce CO2 by 58.6 tons per year.

In response to a question about her concrete demands she replied,
“We need regulations to suppress aggressive language on the Internet, especially by populist and fascist groups. Beyond that, we need to carefully reflect on the implications of our reproductive behavior, instead of simply reacting to emotional biological urges.”

Well, we all spend our lives reacting to emotional biological urges whether we like it or not. They are the root cause and motivating force behind everything we do. If we are to “reflect” about them, it seems the first question we should ask ourselves is, “Why do these emotional urges exist to begin with?” The answer to the question is that they exist because they increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. If we wish to act in harmony with the fundamental reasons that we have any goals to begin with, then obviously our goals in life should include survival and reproduction. That is the choice I have made. There is no objective standard according to which my choice is better or more moral than Brunschweiger’s. No one is “out there,” in the form of a God or any other material or immaterial entity, to make the choice for us. The universe doesn’t care. It is a choice we must all make for ourselves. I merely suggest that, in making the choice, we consider why it is we are motivated to do anything at all. Darwin supplied the answer to that question more than a century and a half ago.

The chances that Brunschweiger has ever gotten around to asking herself the fundamental question noted above are vanishingly small. In fact, she is blindly “reacting to emotional biological urges” in spite of herself. She assures us that sex is better without children, without reflecting on the reasons that the sexual urge exists to begin with. She adds that her “relationships” are better, too, without ever considering why humans bother to relate to each other at all. When it comes to saving the planet and reducing CO2 emissions, her solution of personally having no children is whimsical to the point of being ridiculous. It merely reflects the ideology of her leftist ingroup taken to an extreme. Consider the current situation of her home country, Germany. The current birthrate of German women is below replacement level. In other words, left to itself, the German population would eventually decline of its own accord. If, as Brunschweiger suggests, it is “ethical” and “moral” to save the planet by reducing CO2 emissions, the best thing Germany could do is establish firm, well-defended borders, and prevent any influx of population from countries that are reproducing at a much more rapid rate. However, this solution is the one defended by the “populists” in her outgroup. I suspect the chances that she has ever called for such a rational and realistic approach are very slim.

If we choose to live in harmony with the reasons we exist to begin with, then avoiding “climate disaster” is certainly a worthy goal. However, refusing to reproduce is a completely irrational strategy for achieving that goal. Again, if we choose to live in harmony with the reasons we exist to begin with, our method for “saving the planet” should not be limiting our own reproduction, but limiting the reproduction of the “other.” But doesn’t that imply application of a double standard? Of course! Our species, along with many others, has always applied a double standard. We have always perceived others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. This behavior is innate, for the same reasons that explain all of our other innate behavioral traits. Brunschweiger is hardly immune to this human trait. She helpfully identifies her outgroup for us; “populists and fascists,” meaning anyone who challenges the ideology of her leftist ingroup. Her problem isn’t that her behavior is “abnormal.” Her problem is that she is blindly behaving “normally” in an environment radically different from the one in which her “normal” traits evolved. In her case, the result has been genetic suicide.

How should those of us who have grasped the answer to the fundamental question posed above react to the Brunschweigers of the world? Certainly not with death threats. Assuming we want to live in harmony with that answer, I submit that our reaction should be one benign neglect. Let them commit genetic suicide and remove themselves from the gene pool. The behavioral traits they carry enabled them to survive in environments that existed in the past. However, those traits have been unable to keep up with our species’ self-created and rapidly changing environment. In the environment we find ourselves in today, they have “malfunctioned,” resulting in an outcome the opposite of that which occurred in the past. I have described this kind of behavior elsewhere as a “morality inversion.” They appear to lack a sufficiently strong urge to have children as a “good in itself” to survive. As a result, they represent a liability to the rest of us. I suggest we allow them to go extinct, just as they wish.

Corona and Nassim Taleb: The Tragedy of a Genius in a World of Imbeciles

I don’t pay much attention to Nassim Taleb. I doubt that it’s worth paying attention to anyone who claims that, after carefully pondering the matter, he’s concluded that Claire Lehmann of Quillette is a “neo-Nazi.” He’s also concluded that he’s a genius, and anyone who disagrees with him is an imbecile. Just ask him. Recently, however, he’s become the guru of the most extreme proponents of government lockdowns in response to virus pandemics. Let’s consider what they’re so excited about.

A good summary appears in a gushing article by Yves Smith at the “naked capitalism” website, entitled, “Taleb: The Only Man Who Has A Clue.” Smith does not inform us on what basis he feels himself qualified to dismiss every highly trained virologist and epidemiologist on the planet as “clueless.” Be that as it may, he cites Taleb’s “Systemic Risk Of Pandemic Via Novel Pathogens – Coronavirus: A note,” which summarizes his point of view under the headings, “General Precautionary Principle,” “Spreading Rate,” “Asymmetric Uncertainty,” and “Conclusion.” Let’s consider what he has to say under the first of these:

General Precautionary Principle : The general (non-naive) precautionary principle [3] delineates conditions where actions must be taken to reduce risk of ruin, and traditional cost-benefit analyses must not be used. These are ruin problems where, over time, exposure to tail events leads to a certain eventual extinction. While there is a very high probability for humanity surviving a single such event, over time, there is eventually zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events. While repeated risks can be taken by individuals with a limited life expectancy, ruin exposures must never be taken at the systemic and collective level. In technical terms, the precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.

Extinction? Zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events? Seriously?? There are millions of species on the planet. They all bear genetic material that has been around, in one form or another, for upwards of two billion years. Presumably, unless Taleb is claiming virus pandemics are unique to human beings, many of them have survived repeated exposures to such events. If life on our planet is not capable of surviving repeated exposures to pathogens without implementing Taleb’s nostrums, how is it that any life survives at all? It should all be gone, with the viruses turning out the lights on their way out. In what even remotely rational sense are we “risking ruin” with the coronavirus? We have lived with all kinds of much deadlier diseases throughout most of our history. Many of them have been persistent, and many others have passed over us repeatedly, and yet none of them, not even the Black Death, has managed to “ruin” us. Indeed, if you ask some of the legions of anti-natalists and radical environmentalists out there, this sort of “ruin” is just what the doctor ordered. After all, the global population has grown to the point where we are at least rocking the boat a bit lately.

This begs the question of where you draw the line when it comes to “ruination.” Apparently, we are not sufficiently “ruined” by the yearly visitations of flu. When is a new pathogen serious enough to take the proposed drastic steps? Assuming we do magically find a way to identify this “ruination” line in the sand, is it really probable that our only choices are obeying Taleb or going extinct? I rather suspect that our species, in spite of all the idiots and imbeciles that Taleb has identified among us, is intelligent enough to come up with measures a great deal more effective than lockdowns and wearing masks, if it ever really comes to our staring extinction in the face.

As far as “ruin exposures” go, there are many who believe that the risk at the “collective level” is much greater from shutting down systems as complex as modern economies than it is from COVID-19. No doubt Taleb, who considers himself a genius in economics as well as epidemiology would dismiss this concern with a wave of the hand. I’m not so sure. I rather doubt he’s the only man in the universe who has a clue. He informs us that this “precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.” This is a bit of jargon apparently intended to impress the rubes. I doubt that many of his worshipful fanboys have a clue what “ergodic” even means, and the term is best left in the realm of statistical mechanics in any case.

Speaking of rubes, have a look at the comments by Taleb’s followers on a Twitter thread in which Dr. Phil has the misfortune of being officially added to his list of “imbeciles.” These guys all consider themselves only a peg below Taleb among the ranks of the world’s greatest living geniuses. They must all walk around with permanent scowls on their faces from the stress of living among the rest of us idiots and imbeciles. They all imagine that they’re uttering great profundities as they squawk out variations on his latest tweets like so many parrots. In this case, Dr. Phil was being interviewed by Laura Ingraham, rightly pointing out that we accept significant risks of death from driving, smoking, swimming, etc., without feeling any need to do something as extreme as locking down the economy. Taleb tweeted the interview with the snarky comment, “Drowning in swimming pools is extremely contagious and multiplicative.” All of his acolytes thought this was most profound, but in fact it is a matter of complete indifference. Dr. Phil was making a point about acceptance of the risk of death. The fact that COVID-19 happens to be contagious just adds another number to factor in when quantifying risk. Overall risks can be calculated and compared regardless of whether one of them derives from a contagious disease or not.

I started to have my doubts about Taleb when I started wading through the grab bag of banalities in his third book, “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms.” Anyone whose tastes run to that sort of thing would be well advised to forget Taleb and buy a copy of Rochefoucauld’s maxims instead. They’re both more intelligent and more entertaining. One of them happens to be most appropriate in this case: “Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.” In Taleb’s opinion, Claire Lehmann is a neo-Nazi, Bjorn Lomborg is a right-wing, sociopathic quack, and Dr. Phil is an imbecile. He’s entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine too. In my opinion, he’s an over-inflated windbag.

Corona Comments

There are no objective oughts, no objective goods, no objective values, and no objective moral virtues. That is a simple statement of fact, and implies nothing whatsoever regarding how we ought to behave. Facts bear no implications about what we should do, except as means to an end. We must decide for ourselves what ends to seek. Objective facts may then inform us what we “should” do if we want to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
Whatever the goals we set for ourselves happen to be, in large measure if not totally, they are a response to our “nature”; predispositions that are as much innate as our arms and legs. These predispositions are similar but not identical among human individuals, and they exist by virtue of natural selection. In other words, at some point and in some environment, they promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors. It cannot be assumed that their influence on our behavior will have that result in the very different environment most of us live in today.

Our nature does not determine our behavior, in the sense that it does not dictate what we must do in this or that situation. Rather, it inclines us to act in some ways, and not in others. It is fundamentally emotional, in humans as well as in other animals. We happen to have very large brains, and so can ponder over what our emotions are trying to tell us. We can reason about how we ought to respond to them. However, our reason is far from infallible. As the reasoning process becomes more complex, the outcome regarding what we “ought” to do will vary increasingly among individuals. This is doubly true by virtue of the fact that most individuals respond to their emotions blindly, never considering or taking into account why those emotions exist to begin with.

The above is illustrated by the response of our societies to the spread of COVID-19. The situation is anomalous, in that few of us have experienced anything like it. As a result, an appropriate response to it is not neatly packaged among our preferred or habitual responses to everyday occurrences. One result of this is that we find unusual differences of opinion about how we should react to the virus, even among those whose ideology, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” was formerly a reliable predicter of what their response to a given situation would be. Two factions have formed; those who tend to agree that we ought to take extreme measures to control the spread of the virus, and those who tend to believe that this “cure” is worse than the disease. At the moment the former faction has the upper hand, although the latter hasn’t been silenced completely.

Both factions present their arguments as if they are defending an objective truth. In fact, that is impossible, because objective “oughts” do not exist. What they are really defending is something they want, or value, and what they want or value represents their response to emotions that exist because they evolved. That statement applies not just to our response to a virus, but to every other form of conscious human behavior.

Emotional responses are bound to vary to some extent across populations that have been widely separated by time and space, but they tend to be quite similar, as one would expect of traits that happen to promote survival in a given species. Fear and avoidance of death is one trait almost all of us have in common. The emotional root cause of this fear probably hasn’t changed much, but in creatures with large brains such as ourselves, our behavior isn’t rigidly determined by our genes. We think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and how we should behave in response. Needless to say, we don’t always all come to the same conclusions, regardless of how similar the underlying emotions happen to be.

In the modern human societies that exist in western Europe and North America, fear of death may well be a greater motivator than ever before. We have few children, and can reasonably expect that those children will survive to adulthood. That was not the case in societies that are more typical of our past, where a large fraction of children didn’t survive past their first few years. Death was not exactly welcomed, but we were more likely to accept it as a matter of course. Now we are more inclined to treat it as an unmitigated calamity, and one that must be staved off as long as possible at all costs. In the case of the virus, it almost seems some of us believe they will be immortal if only they can avoid catching it. Under the circumstances, such drastic steps as shutting down complex modern economies appear to be completely rational. We hand wave away any negative affect this may have on our own and future generations by simply assuming that the global economy will quickly recover afterwards. If we follow the chain of logic that is used to justify this behavior to its ultimate source, we will always find an emotion. The emotion is followed blindly, without regard for the reason it exists to begin with. That reason is that it once enhanced the odds of survival and reproduction of the genes that give rise to it. The question of whether it will have the same result if blindly reacted to in a completely different environment is treated as if it were entirely irrelevant.

In the case of the virus, our innate fear of death has triumphed over all other emotions. We don’t take into account the fact that, while that fear exists for a reason, the programmed death of our physical bodies and consciousness occurs for exactly the same reason. Our fear of death and our programmed death both promote the survival of our genes. Our genes don’t protect us from death indefinitely. Rather, they insure that we will die, but at a time that is optimum for insuring that they will not die. They have been around, in different forms but in an unbroken chain, for more than two billion years. For all practical purposes, they are potentially immortal. I happen to share the goal of my genes. That goal is no more intrinsically good or virtuous than someone else’s goal to accomplish the opposite. However, it does seem to me to have the virtue of being in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with, and to be formed in full awareness of why the emotions that motivate it exist to begin with as well.

It does not seem “better” to me to be blindly blown about by the shifting winds of my emotions in a completely different environment than the one in which they evolved. The blind fear of death can be and often is trumped by an equally blind response to other emotions. Consider, for example, such slogans as “Death before dishonor,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “A fate worse than death.” Those who coined these slogans and those who were moved by them were no hypocrites. In the past we can find myriad examples of such individuals laying down their lives in defense of their principles. These principles were based on other innate emotions than fear of death, perhaps including hatred of the outgroup, or territoriality, or the struggle for status. Thus, while emotions are the basis of all our actions, they can motivate goals that are diametrically opposed to each other in different situations. I merely suggest that, instead of reacting to them blindly, we may find it useful to consider why they exist to begin with. That seems to me particularly true in the case of events as profound as global pandemics.