Good News! Academics Prove Trump is Reducing Prejudice

As I noted in my last post, we have an innate tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroup and outgroup(s), and to apply different versions of morality to each. We associate the ingroup with good, and the outgroup with evil. There was no ambiguity about the identity of the outgroup when this behavior evolved. It was commonly just the closest group to ours. As a result, any subtle but noticeable difference between “us” and “them” was adequate for distinguishing ingroup from outgroup. Today, however, we are aware not only of the next group over, but of a vast number of other human beings with whom we share our planet. Our ingroup/outgroup behavior persists in spite of that. We still see others as either “us” or “them,” often with disastrous results. You might say the trait in question has become dysfunctional. It is unlikely to enhance our chances of survival the way it did in the radically different environment in which it evolved. In modern societies it spawns a myriad forms of prejudice, any one of which can potentially pose an existential threat to large numbers of people. It causes us to stumble from one disaster to another. We respond by trying to apply bandages, in the form of “evil” labels, for the types of prejudice that appear to cause the problem, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc. It is a hopeless game. New forms of prejudice will always pop up to replace the old ones. The only practical way to limit the damage is to understand the underlying innate behavior responsible for all of them. We are far from achieving this level of self-understanding.

Consider, for example, Continue reading “Good News! Academics Prove Trump is Reducing Prejudice”

Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex

Sir Arthur Keith was the first to formulate a coherent theoretical explanation for the dual nature of human morality; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different versions of morality pertaining to each. As he put it,

A tribesman’s sympathies lie within the compass of his own tribe; beyond his tribe, begin his antipathies; he discriminates in favor of his own tribe and against all others. This means also that the tribesman has two rules of behavior, one towards those of his group and another to the members of other groups. He has a dual code of morality: a code of “amity” for his fellows; a code of indifference, verging into “enmity,” towards members of other groups or tribe.

According to Keith, this aspect of our behavior played a critical role in our evolution:

I shall seek to prove… that obedience to the dual code is an essential factor in group evolution. Without it there could have been no human evolution.

We are all still tribesmen today. We just have a vastly expanded set of criteria for deciding who belongs to our “tribe,” and who doesn’t. Of course, given the radically different environment we live in today, it can hardly be assumed that the behavior in question will enhance the odds of our survival as it did in the distant past. Indeed, various versions of the behavior have been deemed harmful, and therefore “evil,” including racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. All are manifestations of the same basic behavior. Human beings are typically found justifying their own irrational hatred by claiming that the “other” is guilty of one of these “officially recognized” forms of irrational hatred. Unaware of the underlying behavior, they are incapable of recognizing that they are just as “tribal” as those they attack. Continue reading “Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex”

Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not. Continue reading “Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?”

Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

As I noted in a recent post, (Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective), John Staddon, a Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke, published a very timely and important article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion noting the gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities in secular humanist morality. These included its obvious lack of any visible means of support, even as flimsy as a God, for its claims to authority and legitimacy. My post included a link to a review by Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the Why Evolution is True website and New Atheist stalwart, that called Prof. Staddon’s article the “worst” ever to appear on Quillette, based on the false assumption that he actually did maintain that secular humanism is a religion. In fact, it’s perfectly obvious based on a fair reading of the article that he did nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, Quillette gave Prof. Coyne the opportunity to post a reply to Staddon. His rebuttal, entitled Secular Humanism is Not a Religion, doubled down on the false assertion that Staddon had claimed it is. Then, in a counterblast, entitled Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne, Staddon simply pointed out Prof. Coyne’s already obvious “confusion” about what he had actually written, and elaborated on his contention that secular values depend on faith. As I noted in the following comment I posted at Quillette, I couldn’t agree more: Continue reading “Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette”

The Blank Slate and the Great Group Selection Scam

“Group Selection” has certainly been good for something. Steven Pinker seized on the term to rationalize dropping those who played the greatest role in demolishing the Blank Slate orthodoxy down the memory hole in the fairy tale he served up as the “history” of the affair. His version had the great advantage of sparing the feelings of the academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences, by assuring them that their “science” had been self-correcting after all. In fact, it didn’t self-correct on its own for over half a century. As so often happens, it took outsiders to finally break the Blank Slate spell and extract the behavioral sciences from the swamp they had been floundering in for so long. They included ethologists and behavioral geneticists who were supposed to be confining their attention to animals. Perhaps the greatest of them all was the “mere playwright,” Robert Ardrey, an outsider par excellence. Enter Richard Dawkins, who observed that some of the most important of these dismantlers of the Blank Slate were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection. No matter that the theme of their work had been the existence and importance of human nature, and not group selection. Pinker seized on Dawkins’ convenient phrase, and declared that they had all been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, without even bothering to mention that Dawkins criticism had been limited to group selection.

It gets worse. It is hardly clear that the very term “group selection” as used by generations of earlier thinkers since Darwin even meant what Dawkins claimed it did. You see, there’s “group selection,” and then there’s “group selection.” The term can mean different things to different people. No doubt a great many thinkers since Darwin would  have been furious to learn that Dawkins had gratuitously foisted his definition on them. Many of them meant nothing of the sort. They certainly included Konrad Lorenz, one of the men specifically called out by Dawkins. Lorenz liked to speak of traits as being “good for the species.” Indeed, there can be little doubt that our hands, with their nice, opposable thumbs, and the eyes that present us with a 3-dimensional view of the world are “good for our species.” That rather obvious observation hardly implies that these handy traits were actually selected at the level of the species. Lorenz never suggested any such thing. Indeed, elsewhere he wrote very clearly that selection takes place at the level of the individual, not at that of the species. In spite of that, Dawkins insisted in putting words in his mouth, and Pinker was only too happy to use Dawkins as his “authority” on the matter.

If you’d like to read a brief but concise account of the use of the term over the years, take a look at Section 1.2.5 (“Group Selection”) in the first volume of Johan van der Dennen’s The Origin of War, which is available free online. As he puts it,

Group selection is one of the most confused and confusing topics in modern evolutionary biology. It is part of an ongoing and sometimes acrimonious, controversy over the “level-of-selection.” the term “group selection” is used in a dazzling number of different meanings. One generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that a trait may evolve for the benefit or the “greater good” of the group or species, but at the expense of the individual gene carrier.

Dawkins wrongly implies that this “strict” version of the definition is the only one around, but that’s hardly the case. Van der Dennen continues,

The other generic meaning of the term “group selection” is the idea that in the course of human evolution, groups have competed with one another – some groups subjugating other groups, some groups absorbing and assimilating other groups, some groups even eliminating other groups altogether – and that these events must have had an impact on the gene pools and (the direction of) human evolution. As applied to the human species, therefore, group selection may be eminently possible, “since one group of humans can consciously organize their altruistic behaviors and wipe out a rival group.” …This latter meaning of the term “group selection” is probably what Darwin envisaged when attempting to explain human morality (which posed a serious problem for his theory).

Darwin suggested a solution to the problem as follows:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

In other words, “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection” was certainly plausible if the traits in question could somehow arise via natural selection. Darwin was puzzled about how these traits could evolve to begin with, given that they imparted only “a slight or no advantage” to individuals. This, of course, is already quite different from Dawkins’ “strict definition,” according to which “group selection” means traits that are only useful to the group, but actually harmful to individuals within the group. As it happens, Sir Arthur Keith, whose work I discussed in my last post, also commonly used “the other generic meaning” of the term “group selection.” Indeed, he referred to his “new theory of human evolution,” the subject of a book with that title published in 1948, as “group theory.” Heaven forefend that Pinker should immediately pounce on poor Sir Arthur and declare him “totally and utterly wrong” with the rest.  In fact, like Lorenz, he also made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t using the term in the strict sense implied by Dawkins. But most importantly, he suggested an answer to Darwin’s puzzle. According to Keith, the traits commonly associated with group selection could very definitely be strongly selected at the level of the individual.  In other words, they were not necessarily harmful to the individual at all.

According to Keith, life in small groups in close proximity to each other had a forcing effect on human evolution. In his words, “it favored rapid evolutionary change.” As noted in my last post, he considered our common tendency to perceive others in the context of ingroups and outgroups as key to this effect. In his words,

It will this be seen that I look on the duality of human nature as an essential part of the machinery of human evolution. It is the corner-stone of my mosaic edifice… We may assume, therefore, that in the very earliest stages of man’s evolution, even in his simian stages, “human nature” was already converted into an instrument for securing group isolation.

According to Keith, in the context of isolated, competing groups, the factors which favored the survival of groups were also strongly selected at the level of the individual. As he put it, “Individual and group selection went on hand in hand.” Obviously, he was not using the term “group selection” in the sense suggested by Dawkins. In the following chapters, he discusses many aspects of human morality and human nature and the reasons they would have been strongly selected at the level of the individual in the context of his “group theory.” These included many aspects of human behavior that we can all observe for ourselves, assuming we are not blinded by ideological dogmas, such as the desire to appear morally “good” in the eyes of others in the group, the desire to achieve high status in the group, the desire to appear attractive to the opposite sex, etc. As Keith pointed out, all of these “good” traits would contribute strongly both to the “selection” of the group in competition with other groups, and at the same time would strongly increase the odds that the individual would survive and reproduce within the group.

Darwin and Keith were hardly the only ones to use the “other generic meaning” of group selection. Indeed, use of the term in that sense may be considered the default until V. C. Wynne-Edwards finally showed up in the early 60’s with a version that really does fit the “strict” definition preferred by Dawkins. Whether that version ever actually happened to a significant extent is still the subject of bitter disputes. The point is that use of the term by no means implies acceptance of the “strict” version. It goes without saying that it is also no excuse for rearranging history.

Ingroups and Outgroups and Sir Arthur Keith – Adventures in the Bowdlerization of History

There is no more important aspect of human nature than our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Without an awareness of its existence and its power it is impossible to understand either out history or many of the critical events that are happening around us today. A trait that probably existed in our ancestors millions of years ago, it evolved because it promoted our survival when our environment and way of life were radically different from what they are now. In the context of current human technologies and societies, it often appears to have become wildly dysfunctional. We can distinguish ingroup from outgroup based on the subtlest of differences. That worked fine when we all lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. The outgroup was always just the next group over. Today the same mental equipment for identifying the outgroup has resulted in endless confusion and, in many cases, disaster. The only way out lies in self-understanding, but as a species we exhibit an incorrigible resistance to knowing ourselves.

In my last post I commented on the foibles of an ingroup of intellectuals whose “territory” was defined by ideology. I’m sure they all believed their behavior was entirely rational, but they had no clue what was going on as they reacted to a “turncoat” and “heretic” in the same way that ingroups have done for eons. Had they read a seminal book by Sir Arthur Keith entitled A New Theory of Human Evolution, they might have had at least an inkling about the real motivation of their behavior. Published in 1948, the book was of critical importance, not just because it addressed the question of ingroups and outgroups, but because of Keith’s sure feel for the aspects of human behavior that really matter, and for his forthright and undaunted insistence on the existence and importance of innate human nature. He was certainly not infallible. What scientist is? He believed the Piltdown skull was real until it was finally proved a hoax just before he died. Some of what he had to say about human behavior has stood the test of time and some hasn’t. However, his hypotheses about ingroups and outgroups definitely belong in the former category, along with many others. There is no question that they were closer to the truth than the Blank Slate dogmas that already served as holy writ for most of the so-called behavioral scientists of the day.

Today there are few original copies of his book around, although some are offered at Amazon as I write this. However, it is available online at archive.org, and reprints are available at Alibris.com and elsewhere. It is a must read if you interested in human behavior, and even more so if you are interested in the history of the behavioral sciences in general and the Blank Slate in particular. Unfortunately, most of the accounts of that history that have appeared in the last 50 years or so are largely fairy tales, concocted either to deny or “embellish” the reality that the Blank Slate was the greatest scientific catastrophe of all time. If you want to know what really happened, there is no alternative to consulting the source material yourself.  One of the biggest fairy tales is that the man who played the greatest single role in demolishing the Blank Slate, Robert Ardrey, was “totally and utterly wrong.” In fact, Ardrey was “totally and utterly right” about the main theme of all his books; that human nature is both real and important. He insisted on that truth in the teeth of the Blank Slate lies that had been swallowed by virtually every “behavioral scientist” of his day.

Ardrey had an uncanny ability to ferret out scientists whose work actually did matter. Sir Arthur Keith was no exception. What he had to say about Keith and his take on ingroup/outgroup behavior was far more eloquent than anything I could add. For example,

In his last two books, Essays on Human Evolution in 1946 and A New Theory of Human Evolution in 1948, Keith took the final, remorseless step which his thinking had made inevitable. Conscience, he affirmed is simply that human mechanism dictating allegiance to the dual code. Those who assert that conscience is inborn are therefore correct. But just how far does conscience compel our actions in such an ultimate direction as that of the brotherhood of man? Not far. Conscience is the instrument of the group.

Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus, conscience serves both codes of group behavior: it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as of the code of amity.

These were Keith’s last words on the subject. If the grand old man had any noteworthy capacities for self-delusion, they escape the eye. And when he died a few years later, at the age of ninety, with him ended truth’s brief history. His thoughts by then were overwhelmed by the new romanticism (the Blank Slate, ed.) when falsehood came to flower: his sentiments were condemned by that academic monopoly which substituted high-mindedness for the higher learning. And as for almost twenty years no one followed C. R. Carpenter (a primatologist who published some “inconvenient truths” about the behavior of monkeys and apes in the field, anticipating the revelations of Goodall and others, ed.) into the rain forest, so for almost twenty years none has followed Sir Arthur Keith into the jungle of noble intentions.

Beautifully said by the great nemesis of the Blank Slate. Ardrey had much else to say about both Keith and the history of hypotheses about ingroup/outgroup behavior in Chapter 8, “The Amity-Enmity Complex” of his The Territorial Imperative. If you’re looking for source material on the history of the Blank Slate, Ardrey’s four books on human nature wouldn’t be a bad place to start. They’re certainly more accurate than Pinker’s fanciful “history” of the affair. Keith himself was certainly aware of Blank Slate ideologues and their “academic monopoly.” However, he had a naïve faith that, if he only told the truth, he would eventually be vindicated. A hint about the extent to which that faith was realized can be gleaned by perusing the Wiki entry about him, which dismisses him into the realm of unpersons with the usual hackneyed claim of the pathologically pious that he was a “racist,” along with a gleeful notice that he was taken in by the Piltdown skull.

When it comes to the bowdlerization of history, by all means, have a look at the Wiki entry on “Ingroups and outgroups” as well. The most shocking thing about it is the thought that its author might actually believe what he’s written. We learn, for example, that “The terminology was made popular by Henri Tajfel and colleagues during his work in formulating social identity theory.” One wonders whether to laugh or despair on reading such absurdities. The idea that the history of what Ardrey referred to as the “Amity-Enmity Complex” began with some inconsequential “study” done by a Polish psychologist back in 1971 is beyond ludicrous. That’s just one of the reasons why its important to read such important bits of source material as Keith’s book. He actually presents an accurate account of the history of this critical aspect of human behavior. For example,

In brief, I hold that from the very beginning of human evolution the conduct of every local group was regulated by two codes of morality, distinguished by Herbert Spencer as the “code of amity” and the “code of enmity.”

Spencer wrote extensively about the subject in his Principles of Ethics, which appeared in 1892, nearly 80 years before the subject “was made popular” in Tajfel’s “study.” Unfortunately, he also noted the fallacies behind the then fashionable versions of socialism in another of his books, and gave reasons that governments based on them would fail that were amply confirmed by the history of the next hundred years. For that, he was viciously condemned as a “Social Darwinist” by the socialist true believers. The moniker has stuck to this day, in spite of the fact that Spencer was never even a “Darwinist” to begin with. He certainly had his own theories of evolution, but they were much closer to Lamarckism than Darwinism. In any case, Keith continues,

As a result of group consciousness, which serves to bind the members of a community together and to separate the community from all others, “there arises,” to use the words of Professor Sumner, “a differentiation between ourselves – the ‘we’ group or ‘in’ group – and everybody else – the ‘out’ group.”

The passage Keith refers to appeared in Folkways, published by Prof. William Graham Sumner in 1906, also somewhat earlier than the good Prof. Tajfel’s study. Of course, studies by learned professors of psychology are not necessary to document ingroup/outgroup behavior. Just read a little history. Look around you. Can one really understand the furious hatred of Trump by so many highly educated academics and intellectuals absent a grasp of this aspect of human behavior? Are racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, hatred of the “bourgeoisie” or other versions of the “class enemy,” or any of the other myriad versions of outgroup identification that have been documented in our history best understood as the acts of “evil” people, who apparently get up every morning wracking their brains to decide what bad deeds they can do that day, or are they better understood as manifestations of the type of innate behavior described by Prof. Keith? I personally lean towards the latter explanation. Given the incredibly destructive results of this aspect of our behavior, would it not be advisable for our “experts” in evolutionary psychology to devote a bit more attention to it, as opposed to the more abstruse types of sexual behavior by which they now seem to be so fascinated? No doubt it would annoy the hardcore Blank Slaters who still haunt academia, but on the other hand, it might actually be useful.

Sir Arthur had much more to say about the evolution of human nature, including that great tool of historical obfuscation, “group selection.” But that’s a matter best left to another day.

A New York Intellectual’s Unwitting Expose; Human Nature Among the Ideologues

Norman Podhoretz is one of the New York literati who once belonged to a group of leftist intellectuals he called the Family. He wrote a series of books, including Making It, Breaking Ranks, and Ex-Friends, describing what happened when he underwent an ideological metamorphosis from leftist radical to neoconservative. In the process he created a wonderful anthropological study of human nature in the context of an ingroup defined by ideology. Behavior within that ingroup was similar to behavior within ingroups defined by race, class, religion, ethnicity, or any of the other often subtle differences that enable ingroups to distinguish themselves from the “others.” The only difference was that, in the case of Podhoretz’ Family, the ingroup was defined by loyalty to ideological dogmas. Podhoretz described a typical denizen as follows:

Such a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes, or anyway used to take, doctrine or dogma. Though we cluck our enlightened modern tongues at such fanaticism, there is a reason why people have been excommunicated, and sometimes even put to death, by their fellow congregants for heretically disagreeing with the official understanding of a particular text or even of a single word. After all, to the true believer everything important – life in this world as well as life in the next – depends on obedience to these doctrines and dogmas, which in turn depends on an accurate interpretation of their meaning and which therefore makes the spread of heresy a threat of limitless proportions.

This fear and hatred of the heretic, together with the correlative passion to shut him up one way or the other, is (to say the least, and in doing so I am bending over backward) as much a character trait of so-called liberal intellectuals as it is of conservatives… For we have seen that “liberal” intellectuals who tell us that tolerance and pluralism are the highest values, who profess to believe that no culture is superior to any other, and who are on that account great supporters of “multiculturalism” will treat these very notions as sacred orthodoxies, will enforce agreement with them in every venue in which they have the power to do so (the universities being the prime example at the moment), and will severely punish any deviation that dares to make itself known.

Podhoretz may not have been aware of the genetic roots responsible for such behavior, but he was certainly good at describing it. His description of status seeking, virtue signaling, hatred of the outgroup, allergic reaction to heretics, etc., within the Family would be familiar to any student of urban street gangs. As anthropological studies go, his books have the added advantage of being unusually entertaining, if only by virtue of the fact that his ingroup included such lions of literature as Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Allen Ginsburg, and Lionel Trilling,

Podhoretz was editor of the influential cultural and intellectual magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995. When he took over the magazine already represented the anti-Communist Left. However, he originally planned to take a more radically leftist line, based on the philosophy of Paul Goodman, a utopian anarchist. In his Growing Up Absurd, Goodman claimed that American society was stuck with a number of “incomplete revolutions.” To escape this “absurdity” it was necessary to complete the revolutions. Podhoretz seized on Goodman’s ideas as the “radical” solution to our social ills he was seeking, and immediately started a three-part serialization of his book in Commentary. Another major influence on Podhoretz at the time was Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, a late Freudian tract intended to reveal “the psychoanalytical meaning of history.” It is depressing to read these books today in the knowledge that they were once taken perfectly seriously by people who imagined themselves to be the cream of the intellectual crop. Goodman certainly chose the right adjective for them – “absurd.”

In any case, as the decade wore on, the Left did become more radicalized, but not in the way foreseen by Podhoretz. What was known then as the New Left emerged, and began its gradual takeover of the cultural institutions of the country, a process that has continued to this day. When he came of age, most leftists had abandoned the Stalinism or Trotskyism they had flirted with in the 30’s and 40’s, and become largely “pro-American” and anti-Communist as the magnitude of the slaughter and misery in the Soviet Union under Stalin became impossible to ignore. However, as the war in Vietnam intensified, the dogs returned to their vomit, so to speak. Leftists increasingly became useful idiots – effectively pro-Communist whether they admitted it or not. As Israel revealed its ability to effectively defend itself, they also became increasingly anti-Semitic as well, a development that also continues to this day. Then, as now, anti-Semitism was fobbed off as “anti-Zionism,” but Podhoretz, a Jew as were many of the other members of the family, was not buying it. He may have been crazy enough to take Goodman and Brown seriously, but he was not crazy enough to believe that it was preferable to live in a totalitarian Communist state than in the “imperialist” United States, nor, in light of the Holocaust, was he crazy enough to believe that the creation of a Jewish state was “unjust.” In the following passage he describes his response when he first began to notice this shift in the Zeitgeist, in this case on the part of an erstwhile “friend”:

I was not afraid of Jason. I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

Today, of course, one no longer roars. One simply concludes that those who habitually resort to Hitler comparisons are imbeciles, and leaves it at that. In any case, Podhoretz began publishing “heretical” articles in Commentary, rejecting these notions, and nibbling away that the shibboleths that defined what had once been his ingroup in the process. In the end, he became a full-blown neoconservative. The behavioral responses to Podhoretz “treason” to his ingroup should be familiar to all students of human behavior. His first book length challenge to his ingroup’s sense of its own purity and righteousness was Making It, published in 1967. As Podhoretz recalls,

In an article about Making It and its reception that was itself none too friendly to the book, Norman Mailer summed up the critical response as “brutal – coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” But, he added, “the public reception of Making It was nevertheless still on the side of charity if one compared the collective hooligan verdict to the earlier fulminations of the Inner Clan.” By the “Inner Clan,” Mailer meant the community of New York literary intellectuals I myself had called the Family. According to Mailer, what they had been saying in private about Making It even before it was published made the “horrors” of the public reception seem charitable and kind. “Just about everyone in the Establishment” – i.e., the Family – was “scandalized, shocked, livid, revolted, appalled, disheartened, and enraged.” They were “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips… No fate could prove undeserved for Norman, said the Family in thin quivering late-night hisses.”

Podhoretz notes that academia was the first of the cultural institutions of the country to succumb to the radical Gleichschaltung that has now established such firm control over virtually all the rest, to the point that it has become the new “normalcy.” In his words,

For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively.

By the late 60’s the type of behavior that is now ubiquitous on university campuses was hardly a novelty. “De-platforming” was already part of the campus culture:

By 1968 SDS (the leftist Students for a Democratic Society) had moved from argument and example to shouting down speakers with whom it disagreed on the ground that only the “truth” had a right to be heard. And it also changed its position on violence… and a number of its members had gone beyond advocacy to actual practice in the form of bombings and other varieties of terrorism.

As Podhoretz documents, the War in Vietnam had originally been supported, and indeed started and continued by intellectuals and politicians on the left of the political spectrum. He noted that Robert Kennedy had been prominent among them:

Kennedy too then grew more and more radicalized as radicalism looked more and more like the winning side. Having been one of the architects of the war in Vietnam and a great believer in resistance to Communist power in general, he now managed to suggest that he opposed these policies both in the small and in the large.

However, in one of the rapid changes in party line familiar to those who’ve read the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and memorialized by George Orwell in 1984, the hawks suddenly became doves:

…a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak. A speaker whose criticisms were insufficiently violent could even expect a hard time, as I myself discovered when a heckler at Wayne State in Detroit accused me, to the clear delight of the audience, of not being “that much” against the war because in expressing my opposition to the American role I had also expressed my usual reservations about the virtues of the Communist side.

Of course, there was no Internet in the 60’s, so “de-platforming” assumed a form commensurate with the technology available at the time. Podhoretz describes it as follows:

The word “terror,” like everything else about the sixties, was overheated. No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though there were undoubtedly some who lost out on job opportunities or on assignments or on advances from book publishers they might otherwise have had). The sanctions of this particular reign of “terror” were much milder: one’s reputation was besmirched, with unrestrained viciousness in conversation and, when the occasion arose, by means of innuendo in print. People were written off with the stroke of an epithet – “fink” or “racist” or “fascist” as the case might be – and anyone so written off would have difficulty getting a fair hearing for anything he might have to say. Conversely, anyone who went against the Movement party line soon discovered that the likely penalty was dismissal from the field of discussion.

Seeing others ruthless dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them even from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts.

The “terror” is more powerful and pervasive today than it ever was in the 60’s, and it’s ability to “dismiss from the field of discussion” is far more effective. As a result, denizens of the leftist ingroup or those who depend on them for their livelihood tend to be very cautious about rocking the boat.  That’s why young, pre-tenure professors include ritualistic denunciations of the established heretics in their fields before they dare to even give a slight nudge to the approved dogmas. Indeed, I’ve documented similar behavior by academics approaching retirement on this blog, so much do they fear ostracism by their own “Families.” Podhoretz noticed the same behavior early on by one of his erstwhile friends:

As the bad boy of American letters – itself an honorific status in the climate of the sixties – he (Normal Mailer) still held a license to provoke and he rarely hesitated to use it, even if it sometimes meant making a fool of himself in the eyes of his own admirers. But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

So much for Podhoretz description of the behavioral traits of the denizens of an ideologically defined ingroup. I highly recommend all of the three books noted above, not only as an unwitting but wonderfully accurate studies of “human nature,” but as very entertaining descriptions of some of the many famous personalities Podhoretz crossed paths with during his long career. One of them was Jackie Kennedy, who happened to show up at his door one day in the company of his friend, Richard Goodwin, “who had worked in various capacities for President Kennedy.”

She and I had never met before, but we seemed to strike an instant rapport, and at her initiative I soon began seeing her on a fairly regular basis. We often had tea alone together in her apartment on Fifth Avenue where I would give her the lowdown on the literary world and the New York intellectual community – who was good, who was overrated, who was amusing, who was really brilliant – and she would reciprocate with the dirt about Washington society. She was not in Mary McCarthy‘s league as a bitchy gossip (who was?), but she did very well in her own seemingly soft style. I enjoyed these exchanges, and she (an extremely good listener) seemed to get a kick out of them too.

Elsewhere Podhoretz describes McCarthy as “our leading bitch intellectual.” Alas, she was an unrepentant radical, too, and even did a Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, but I still consider her one of our most brilliant novelists. I guess there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to ingroups.

Of Intellectuals, Ideology, and Ingroups

I’ve written much about the ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature. It would be difficult to exaggerate its importance. If you’re not aware of it, you will never understand the species Homo sapiens.  The myriad forms of bigotry that have plagued mankind over the years, our countless wars, such furious animosities as those between the blues and greens of the circus, or those who believed that Christ had only one nature and those who insisted he had two, and such stunning scientific debacles as the Blank Slate – all were profoundly influenced if not directly caused by this aspect of human behavior. I’ve just read a brilliant description of how it works in practice in a book by Norman Podhoretz entitled Breaking Ranks. Podhoretz began as a leftist radical, and ended up as a conservative. He probably never realized exactly what it was he was describing. For all that, he succeeded in describing it beyond all praise.

Podhoretz edited Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. His milieu was that of New York intellectuals. Their ingroup was defined, not by race, religion, or ethnicity, but by ideology. He describes what was going on among them during the emergence of what became known as the “New Left” in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. To read his book is to understand what George Orwell meant when he wrote, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” What Podhoretz describes is stunningly similar to what we see going on all around us today, imagining it is somehow historically unique. Consider, for example, the following passage, in which he describes what happened to those who committed thoughtcrime against the ideological shibboleths that defined his ingroup.

No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though undoubtedly some who lost out on job opportunities or on assignments or on advances from book publishers they might otherwise have had). The sanctions of this particular reign of “terror” were much milder: One’s reputation was besmirched, with unrestrained viciousness in conversation and, when the occasion arose, by means of innuendo in print. People were written off with the stroke of an epithet – “fink” or “racist” or “fascist” as the case might be – and anyone so written off would have difficulty getting a fair hearing for anything he might have to say. Conversely, anyone who went against the Movement party line soon discovered that the likely penalty was dismissal from the field of discussion.

Seeing others ruthlessly dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts. The “terror” in other words, could at its most effective penetrate into the privacy of a person’s mind. But even at its least effective it served to set a very stringent limit on criticism of the radical line on any given issue or at any given moment. A certain area of permissible discussion and disagreement was always staked out, but it was hard to know exactly where the boundaries were; one was always in danger of letting a remark slip across the border and unleashing the “terror” on one’s head. Better, then, not to take a chance. Of course, one could recant and be forgiven; or alternatively one could simply speak one’s mind and let the “terror” do its worst. Yet whatever one chose to do, the problem remained.

Sound familiar? It should. Here’s another bit that should sound just as familiar, recounting a conversation with Podhoretz’s erstwhile friend, Jason Epstein:

I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

Those were halcyon days! Today comparing a (Republican) President to Hitler isn’t even enough to evoke a yawn. Podhoretz’s Making It was decidedly politically incorrect for its day. Here’s what happened when he tried to get his manuscript published:

My agent read the manuscript and decided that she would rather forfeit a substantial commission and a client hitherto considered valuable than represent such a book. My publisher read the manuscript and decided that he would rather lose the substantial advance he had already paid me than put him imprint on such a book. They reacted, as I said at the time, the way their Victorian counterparts might have reacted to a work of sexual pornography. So did another publisher to whom the manuscript was then submitted by my new agent. Nor was the response much better among my friends. Lionel Trilling advised me not to publish it at all, warning that it would take me ten years to live it down. Jason Epstein agreed. No amount of money, he said, was worth what “they” would do to me when this book came out.

That’s how de-platforming worked in those days. I’m sure Milo Yiannopoulos would have a good idea how Podhoretz felt. Eventually, the book was published. Here’s how he describes the response of his ingroup, described as the “Inner Clan”:

In an article about Making It and its reception that was itself none too friendly to the book, Norman Mailer summed up the critical response as “brutal – coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” But, he added, “the public reception of Making It was nevertheless still on the side of charity if one compared the collective hooligan verdict to the earlier fulminations of the Inner Clan.” By the “Inner Clan,” Mailer meant the community of New York intellectuals I myself had called the Family. According to Mailer, what they had been saying in private about Making It even before it was published made the “horrors” of the public reception seem charitable and kind. “Just about everyone in the Establishment” – i.e. the Family – ” was “scandalized, shocked, livid, revolted, appalled, disheartened, and enraged.” They were “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips… No fate could prove undeserved for Norman, said the Family in thin quivering late-night hisses.”

The Gleichschaltung of the equivalent of the MSM of the day proved to be a mere bagatelle. They fell into line as soon as they sensed which way the wind blew. As Podhoretz put it,

…most of them had become fellow travelers of the Movement and so obedient to the radical party line on all issues that they could not even recognize it as a line. (They thought it was the simple truth and self-evident to all reasonable minds.)

The situation in the universities in the 60’s was also uncannily similar to what we see among today’s “snowflakes.” It was worse in those days, though, because “the Youth” was practically deified.

For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively. But there was also a more positive pull in the idea that if so many of the “best” students were becoming radicals, then the new radicalism must surely be that “wave of the future” the Communist party had only seemed to be in the days of one’s own youth.

Podhoretz comments on the Vietnam War are a perfect example of how a policy that had once been open to rational discussion became a defining shibboleth of the ingroup, about which no “deviation” was allowed. The war was actually a legacy of JFK and originally almost universally supported by his liberal followers. He notes that, prior to about 1965,

…there would have been nothing especially outlandish in saying that the “intellectuals” or the “academic community” were an important constituent of the liberal consensus on foreign policy that had in some sense led to American military intervention into Vietnam.

However, beginning in the mid-60’s, there was a drastic shift in the direction of the ideological winds. Eventually, opposition to the war became one of the shibboleths that defined Podhoretz’s ingroup. Defying that shibboleth was heresy, and, then as now, heretics were cast into outer darkness:

In turning against the war, many of these liberal intellectuals no doubt thought that they were responding to the force of evidence and argument, and this may indeed have been the case with some. But I have always found it hard to believe that it was the case with most. In those days the argument over Vietnam in the universities was characterized less by the appeal to evidence and reason than by the shouting of slogans, the mounting of mass demonstrations, and threat and the occasional resort to physical force, and the actuality and ubiquitousness of rhetorical violence and verbal abuse.

…a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak.

Podhoretz noted that the language used against the outgroup became increasingly furious. He added,

Language like that was not meant to persuade, nor could it do so; it could, however, incite supporters and frighten opponents, and that is exactly what it did. Those already convinced were encouraged to believe that no other view deserved to be tolerated; those who still disagreed but who lacked either very powerful conviction or very great courage lapsed into prudent silence.

Then as now, there were those who liked to tickle the dragons tail with an occasional provocative remark. However, that required a fine sense of where the red lines were that couldn’t be crossed, and when a ritual kowtow was in order to appease the gatekeepers of the ingroup. Podhoretz provides us with an example of this behavior in the following remarks about Norman Mailer’s “tail tickling”:

But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

For more modern examples, see what I wrote in my last post about Steven Pinker’s unhinged ranting about Trump in his Enlightenment Now, a book that was supposed to be about “science” and “reason,” and an earlier one I wrote about Prof. Travis Pickering’s “violent agreement” with what Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz wrote about the “hunting hypothesis,” furiously attacking them and then repeating what they’d written earlier virtually word for word without attribution. Pickering was well aware that some of the ancient high priests of the Blank Slate were still around, and they still had plenty of clout when it came to casting out heretics, even if they were forced to throw in the towel on human nature. They have by no means forgotten how Ardrey and Lorenz shamed and humiliated them, and the good professor decided a bit of judicious virtue signaling would be prudent before repeating anything so closely associated with their legacy.

There are many other outstanding examples of how, then as now, the ingroup “sausage” was made. They demonstrate how intellectuals who pique themselves on their devotion to “science” and “reason” can be convinced after the fashion of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 that two plus two really does equal five.  Orwell was a remarkably prescient man. He also wrote, ““If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Now, as in the 60’s, that right is under attack. It is entirely possible that, in the long run, the attackers will win. Communism and Nazism were defeated in the 20th century. Today we take their defeat for granted, as if it were inevitable. It was not inevitable. Our future may well look a great deal more like Communism or Nazism than anything the heroes of the Enlightenment had in mind. If we would avoid such a future, we would do well to understand ourselves. That’s particularly true in the case of what a man named Ardrey once called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”

Tilting at Is/Ought Windmills with Steve Stewart-Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We ought not to go against nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality Whimsy: Darwin and the Latter Day Philosophers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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