In my last post I noted that, objectively speaking, there can be no such thing as “moral progress,” and that pursuing such a nonexistent thing as a goal is potentially dangerous. The reasons for this have to do with the way some of our innate behavioral traits manifest themselves in environments unlike the ones in which they evolved. As I pointed out in the post,
It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the expression of moral emotions that all human populations have in common, but particular aspects of those emotions can vary significantly between individuals, and between populations. It follows that we will never agree on what our “goals as a society” should be. Some subset of the individuals in a society may agree on the goals of “moral progress,” but what of those who don’t? Inevitably, they will be the evil ones, the “deplorables,” the outgroup whose opinions can be ignored because they are “morally bad.”
This dual nature of human morality based on our universal and powerful tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups is reason enough in itself to reject the notion of “moral progress.” We have tried to outlaw various manifestations of the behavior by giving them bad names, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and so on. The result of such attempts has invariably been the creation of yet more outgroups. The hatred doesn’t disappear. Instead, it simply pops up again, even more virulent than before, but directed at some alternative outgroup that hasn’t yet been declared off limits.
A good illustration of how this works in practice just turned up in the Washington Post in an article entitled, “When free speech becomes a political weapon.” The author, Jennifer Delton, expresses concern about the threat of freedom of speech to “moral progress.” According to Delton, when freedom of speech is accorded to “evil” people, it is transmuted into “freedom of speech.” By this she means that it becomes a “political weapon,” which is then used by the “evil” people to impede “moral progress.”
As is often the case, Delton defines her ingroup in terms of ideology. “Good” people are those whose ingroup is defined by the same ideological shibboleths as hers, and “evil” people are those belonging to outgroups whose members challenge those shibboleths. More precisely, “Good” people are those whose beliefs are in harmony with “the internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism that marks the thinking of educated elites of both parties.” She cites Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as an example of the practical application of these ideals.
In common with most humans, Delton perceives her “Good” as an objective thing. In other words, she considers “internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism” to be “good in itself,” regardless of whether it is thought to be good or not. Obviously, it never occurs to her to explore the evolutionary reasons for this common illusion. Digging down through layers of cultural and environmental impedimenta to discover the innate predisposition(s) that are the “root cause” of her perception of “the Good” is certainly a project that would never occur to her. Still less would it occur to her to consider the question, interesting from a biological, if not a moral point of view, of whether her response to the emotions in question enhance or reduce the odds that the responsible genes that she happens to carry will survive and reproduce. Instead, she merely cites the authority of the “educated elites of both parties,” and leaves it at that.
Since the only “truly good” things are the “Goods” that define her ideology, it follows that any other supposed rights or principles are not good in themselves, and can be dispensed with to the extent that they threaten those things that are. Freedom of speech belongs in this category. As Delton puts it, referring to the New Deal,
Liberals would be chumps to let a principled commitment to “freedom of speech” undercut the pragmatic goal of political survival, which was the only way to ensure progress in civil rights and social welfare.
In this case, Delton is referring to the decision by an earlier generation of “Good” liberals to end their support of freedom of speech for Communists. This was to be done, not because the Communists had murdered millions of people, and enslaved millions more, or because they sought to use freedom of speech to destroy the system that defended that freedom. Indeed, Delton doesn’t perceive Communists as an outgroup at all. Instead, Communists were to be deprived of freedom of speech because they were being used as tools by those who were “really evil.” In Delton’s words,
Their presence in liberal organizations made liberals vulnerable to Republican and conservative attacks. So those liberals interested in political success (and in preserving the New Deal) drove them out of politics.
If freedom of speech could be legitimately denied to Communists because they were a mere annoyance, it must be doubly legitimate to deny it to conservatives, who are “truly evil.” However, Delton isn’t brazen enough, or at least not brazen enough yet, to say, “I think freedom of speech should be denied to conservatives,” which is what she actually means. Instead, she falls back on the distinction between freedom of speech and “freedom of speech.” Of course, that begs the question, “What’s the difference?” According to Delton,
Philosopher Sidney Hook hinged his argument about speech on the distinction between the free flow of ideas, which the First Amendment protected, and actions, which it did not. He said liberals had no problem with Communists’ ideas, which they were free to expound upon and disseminate. The problem lay in their organized actions, which involved, “all sorts of stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, evasions and subterfuges” developed by Lenin to subvert democracy.”
There’s no need to wade through swamps of philosophical mumbo-jumbo in a vain attempt to understand the obscure chain of events by which the “free flow of ideas” is transmogrified into “all sorts of stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, evasions, and subterfuges.” That Gordian knot is easily cut if you simply assume that the former applies to speech by those who belong to Ms. Delton’s ingroup, and the latter to speech by those who do not. So it is that any attempt by “evil” people, that is, those who don’t quite see eye to eye with Ms. Delton touching on the universal benefits of “internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism,” to assert and defend their freedom of speech becomes a “right to create political spectacle and instigate violence.” Apparently more or less the same logic is used to defend the assertion that attractive women who don’t wear a burka “create a public spectacle and instigate rape.”
Ms. Delton makes sure that her readers realize that anyone who disagrees with her opinion is evil. Having compared them to Communists, she doubles down by claiming that they are Nazis on top of that:
It was one thing to defend the American Nazi Party’s right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1977, when the liberal establishment and mainstream media were still intact and the American Nazi Party was a marginal fringe group. The group was offensive, but neither its actions nor its ideas posed a threat to the political or social order, which was stable. The situation is different today, with an erratic President Trump in the White House, elites in disarray and white nationalism on the rise.
I note in passing the degree of panic such hyperbole reveals on the left of the political spectrum in response to the recent election. After dragging in the Communists and the di rigueur Nazis, Delton throws in some pejoratives to insure that even the most obtuse won’t fail to grasp that “conservatives = evil!”
Quoting Voltaire is not going to preserve anyone’s liberties – least of all those populations most vulnerable to vicious racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic attacks.
Note that racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism are merely different forms of outgroup identification that have been deemed by common agreement to be evil. However, they are all symptoms of the same phenomenon; blind hatred of outgroups in the context of an environment radically different from the one in which that innately motivated behavior evolved. Ms. Delton is no less a bigot merely because her hatred is directed at an outgroup based on ideology rather than race, sex, or religion, and one that doesn’t yet happen to be among those that are considered “off limits.” Of course, there is an alternative explanation. The people she hates may really be trying their very best to do things that they consciously believe are evil. They may really be mortified if they pass the day without committing three or four bad deeds. I wouldn’t put it past Ms. Delton to believe as much. However, I have my doubts.
The point here isn’t that Mr. Delton is a bad person. The identification of something she happens to want with “objective good” is a delusion common to almost every other human being on the planet. I merely point out that the delusion can be inconvenient if you happen to value your right to speak freely, and downright deadly if you happen to be a Jew or a “bourgeois” in the wrong place at the wrong time. It follows that it would behoove us to at least be aware of the danger.
I note in passing that the most extreme forms of the delusion are currently found among individuals who are on the left of the ideological spectrum. That has not always been the case, and is, of course, no basis for concluding that leftists are “really evil.” However, we can consider why this is the case. I think part of the reason is that leftists like Ms. Delton imagined that they were safely in control of the tools needed to shape popular opinion, including the academy, the media, and the entertainment industry. The results of the election were a terrible shock to many of them. Ever since they have been frantically trying to think up ways to nullify those results and reassert their status and power. Part of that project includes plugging the leaks that allowed thought crime to poison the minds of impressionable “deplorables” to begin with. That entails denying access to a public forum to anyone who disagrees with “good” ideology, if necessary with the aid of modern day “antifa” storm troopers.
It is very unlikely that my little blog will convince enough people that “moral progress” is an illusion to matter. It is much too delicious for human beings to believe in their own moral righteousness, and on the Left that sentiment has now become, for all practical purposes, an indispensable fetish, comparable to a form of religious fanaticism. At best, I can point out the danger of the all but universal faith in “moral progress,” and advise my readers that, if they value freedom of speech, it is likely they will have to fight for it.