On the Role of Morality in the Modern World

To decide what role morality should play in our lives, it is more important to understand why it exists than to understand precisely what it is. I can discuss the sky with a five year old and be quite confident she knows what I’m talking about even if the chances that she understands the nature of the electromagnetic scattering phenomena that account for its blue color are vanishingly small. In the same way, I can be confident in discussing morality with any reasonably intelligent human being that they know what I’m talking about without being unduly concerned about whether they have read what Aristotle, Saint Augustine, and Freud had to say about it.

Morality exists because it evolved. It evolved because it improved the chances that we would survive, or, more precisely, that the genetic material we carry would survive. It has no purpose, any more than our eyes, ears or teeth have a purpose. “Purpose” implies an intelligent builder. There was no intelligent builder, and therefore no purpose. Eyes, ears and teeth exist because human beings are more likely to survive with them than without them. So it is with morality.

As a complex evolved trait, morality is likely to have a long evolutionary history. The human eye didn’t suddenly pop into existence thanks to some remarkable random mutation that resulted in an “eye gene.” Similarly, the evolutionary changes relevant to the expression of morality are not the result of a sudden mutation in anatomically modern humans that resulted in a “morality gene.” Just as many other animals are sensitive to light, many other animals exhibit behavior analogous to moral behavior in human beings, elicited by the same types of physical processes in the brain as occur in our own brains. Just as the eye didn’t evolve overnight, so morality has likely been a work in progress for a very long period of time – certainly tens of millions and more likely hundreds of millions of years.

One day in the not too distant future, we may discover the extent to which the physical processes in the brain responsible for human morality have evolved fairly recently in terms of evolutionary timescales; say, in the last three or four million years. The answer to that question should be very interesting. It may be that they have evolved very little, and that the complex moral systems we are so proud of are merely the result of our greatly expanded cognitive abilities attempting to analyze and rationalize emotional responses that are, perhaps, little changed from the time we shared a common ancestor with the apes.

Be that as it may, we can say with great confidence that the traits responsible for the expression of morality evolved long before the emergence of large nation states, whether ancient or modern. The most important recent changes likely took place during a time when we existed as small bands of hunter gatherers, all of whose members were genetically related to each other to some extent.

All this begs the question of what role a trait that evolved because it promoted our survival long ago should continue to play today in a world in which our modes of social organization, not to mention our ability to destroy each other, have undergone radical change in what amounts to, in terms of evolutionary time scales, the blink of an eye.

We certainly can’t abolish morality. We are moral creatures, and the emotional processes in the brain associated with morality will strongly influence our behavior in any case. Exactly how different individuals respond in similar situations will vary depending on factors such as culture, education, and rational analysis, but I suspect the function of the basic wiring in the brain responsible for eliciting the response, the “moral center” of the brain, if you will, will be similar from individual to individual. For example, “liberals” and “conservatives” will differ over such things as what types of behavior they consider good and evil, and who belongs in their “in-group” as opposed to their “out-group,” but look at a sample of the comments on a blog with either orientation, and you will see that the emotional nature of the responses to morally loaded situations is similar in either case. If a neuroscientist were to scan the brain of an individual from either side as it responded to the stimulus of some “hot button” issue of the day, I doubt whether he could tell the difference.

We behave morally in social situations because it is our nature to do so. We could not routinely substitute rational thought for moral emotions in deciding how to act or how to respond in our common day to day interactions with other human beings even if  we wanted to. Even if we could somehow disconnect ourselves from our emotional brain, we simply lack the mental power necessary for anything that intellectually demanding. Thus, the fear that people will become amoral if they don’t have some “reason” to act morally, in the form of a religion, or philosophy, or respect for tradition, is ill-founded. We act morally because it is our nature to act morally. Such “reasons” can have a limited influence on exactly how we act in given situations, but we will hardly become amoral in their absence.

That may be a comforting thought, but it has its drawbacks. Assuming the ultimate goal of the individual is still to survive, it is hardly clear that the best way to accomplish that goal is to respond blindly to emotions that evolved because they happened to promote survival under conditions that no longer exist. There is no compelling reason to expect that they will continue to promote our survival in the radically different world of today. For example, it is generally considered good to fight evil. However, mankind’s most notorious icons of evil thought they were doing just that. Name any one of them you choose; Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, you name the villain. None of them were deliberately doing things they considered evil just because they wanted to be evil. On the contrary, they thought they were doing good, eliminating evil threats to the welfare of whomever they considered the “chosen people.” There exists no objective reason for asserting that they were doing anything else.

Similarly, when it comes to behavior we associate with “doing good,” the reasons for the evolution of the positive emotional response we derive from such actions often no longer exist. In small groups of hunter-gatherers, sacrificing resources for the good of others in the group promoted the survival of genetically related individuals who were likely to return the favor. In modern nation states with populations of tens or hundreds of millions, sacrificing resources for the good of others can make us feel good in exactly the same way. However, the individuals who benefit from this behavior are much less likely to be related to us, and the chance that they may someday return the favor may be vanishingly small. When the governments of modern nation states force their citizens to engage in this sort of “good” behavior, it is reasonable for them to ask whether the state exists to serve the interests of the people who live in it, or the people exist to serve the interests of the state.

Many of our best thinkers have suggested that the best way out of these and similar dilemmas is to create a new morality, tailor made to accomplish whatever noble ends they have in mind in the modern world. The problem with this is that it is not possible to mold human emotional responses like so much clay. Human nature is not infinitely flexible. As the Communists recently discovered, it is not possible to arbitrarily create new goods and new evils and then simply “reeducate” human beings to accommodate them.

We must act morally in our day to day relationships with other individuals because, given our nature, there is no alternative. If we must have a “new morality,” then, let it apply to these relationships. Let us keep it as simple as possible, as much in harmony with our nature as possible, and with the general goal of promoting harmony and preventing individuals from harming their neighbors. When it comes to such things as the relations between modern states, however, I am not convinced that relying on a tool as ancient, blunt, and out of its proper element as morality is advisable. It may well be better to decide what goals we really want to accomplish in the long term, and then pursue those goals with our limited powers of reason, such as they are.

We face many fateful decisions about our future that have no easy answers. Our continued survival is anything but assured. For better or worse, though, we must make those decisions. If we want to get it right, we had best learn to understand ourselves.

Of Niall Ferguson, Objective Criticism, and European Hatemongers

There has, of course, always been an undercurrent of anti-Americanism in European society. Our rapid expansion across the continent and rise as a potential competitor, our form of government, our heterogeneous mixture of races and ethnic groups, and religious idiosyncrasies, our geographic distance, and many other factors have acted to reinforce the sense that Americans were “others.” Our brains are hard-wired to have a dual system of morality, which I have elsewhere referred to as the Amity/Enmity Complex. We reserve “good” moral behavior for those in our “in-group.” The “other,” however, is perceived as evil, unclean, and contemptible. Ask the European Jews who survived World War II how that works. The collapse of the Soviet Union reinforced the sense of our power and significance. Instead of just one among several others, for many Europeans we became “The Other.” Predictably, human nature took its course, and hatred of Americans reached new extremes.

As I happen to speak German, I was able to watch the phenomenon as it developed in that country firsthand. It became impossible to overlook when the German mass media, with Spiegel magazine in the forefront, began to discover just how lucrative it could be to feed the growing undercurrents of anti-American hate. The rest of the media soon caught on. Towards the end of the Clinton administration, the German media started becoming choked with expressions of rage, hatred, and denunciations for any number of trumped up claims of US “immorality.” Spiegel’s editors became positively obsessed with the game, to the point that it became difficult to find any news about Germany on their website mixed in with the daily dose of intemperate railing against the USA. This quasi-racist Amerika bashing went on well into the Bush administration, until a growing number of decent Germans, and the few Americans who were paying any attention, started pushing back. David of Davids Medienkritik was prominent among them, and one can find some of the more egregious and vicious attacks documented on his website.

Gradually, the word spread, and more Americans began to notice, including influential players in our own mass media. It became increasingly obvious to the “respectable” elements in the German media that, if they kept it up, they would soon enjoy reputations similar to that held by Julius Streicher and “Der Stürmer” during the Third Reich. This, of course would not do. It might seriously jeopardize their chances of raking in any future international prizes for “objective journalism.” They began moderating their tone, until today one only sees the occasional chunk of red meat still tossed out to the legions of Amerika haters.

Of course, this remarkable change in tone makes it quite obvious that the editors of Spiegel and the rest were quite conscious of the game they were playing all along. If not from that, one could detect it in the day and night difference between the occasional English articles on their site and the German stuff intended for domestic consumption. While the unabashed hatemongering was still going on unabated, however, they were quite disingenuous about it. One of their favorite phrases was “objective criticism.” Any slanted, half-baked attack on the US was fobbed off as “objective criticism.” I don’t doubt that many Germans still rationalize their hate as “objective criticism.” To them, I can only recommend that they take a look at the real thing. They need look no further than Niall Fergusons, “The War of the World.”

The book is anything but a pro-US panegyric. On the contrary, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings. There’s more than enough to make the more thin-skinned of my countrymen squirm as they read it. To read it, however, is to learn the difference between the “objective criticism” of the hate mongers and the search for truth of a conscientious historian.

Balance is always one of the best tip offs. Ferguson is well aware of the opposing arguments on either side of the issues he discusses, and has a deep grasp of the relevant history. No one can be perfectly objective. Our world view is bound to mediate the way we perceive historical facts to a greater or lesser extent. However, Ferguson doesn’t ignore half of the facts because they conflict with a preferred narrative. History plays a much different role in the “objective criticism” of the Amerika haters. For them, it is just a sewer one wades through to pick up choice tidbits that fit the narrative. To them, its end is to villify. Facts that conflict with that end are ignored. As a result, the hater’s grasp of history is necessarily shallow. Challenge one of their choice tidbits, and it’s obvious. They never waste much time trying to defend the indefensible. They just hop ahead to the next tidbit.  Read the book and you’ll see the difference.

There is another good reason for reading “The War of the World.” In the process of demonstrating the difference between a serious history and propaganda, Ferguson has created a virtual case study of the Amity/Enmity Complex in action. Of course, the manifestations of anti-American hate referred to earlier are an excellent example of a recent manifestation of this destructive aspect of human nature. “The War of the World” chronicles many more, although Ferguson himself hasn’t grasped the connection. The book cites instance after instance of slaughter and destruction inflicted on the “other” in recent history. The Jews are, of course, the quintessential “other” of our time, and Ferguson reveals the incredible and unforgivable misery they have suffered from the irrational hatred of their neighbors, not only in Germany, but in pogroms and murders that were every bit as vicious in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and a host of other countries. Read the litany of horror, and it may begin to dawn on you why the existence of Israel is necessary.

The Jews had plenty of company in the 20th century. Ferguson tells us of the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanking, the slaughter of Serbs by Croats and of Moslems by Serbs, and countless other manifestations of the Complex. Read his book. Then read what Robert Ardrey, Arthur Keith, and many others have been trying to tell us since the time of Darwin about the dual system of human morality, and think about it.  Unless you’re blind. You’ll see they were right. One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, they’ll be proved right. Wait and see.

On the Smartness of Liberalism and Vegetarianism

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias had an interesting post on intelligence yesterday.  He quotes an article in the Social Psychology Quarterly that claims, among other things, that

Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women), while intelligence is not associated with the adult espousal of evolutionarily familiar values on children, marriage, family, and friends. … Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.

Where to begin?  Perhaps with the obvious observation that the psychologists have lost none of their ancient skill in doublethink.  They are perfectly familiar with the meaning of the term “intelligence,” and consider it a “well known fact” that it can be measured using reliable tests when associated with, for example, liberalism, vegetarianism, and atheism.  At the same time they are just as certain that “intelligence” is a highly ambiguous complex that it is hopeless to even attempt to measure when associated with, for example, sex or race.  

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the first of these “truths” of the psychologists really is true.  In other words, let us assume that Mr. Kanazawa really does know what he’s talking about when he speaks of intelligence, and that this intelligence really is measurable.  What, then, are we to make of its association with such “value-loaded” categories as liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention a tendency to have fewer children?

To begin, allow me to enlighten Mr. Kanazawa on a matter touching on this discussion, but about which he seems somewhat confused.  In his abstract we read, “The origin of values and preferences is an unresolved theoretical question in behavioral and social sciences.”  I have no doubt that it is an unresolved theoretical question in the behavioral and social sciences.  For those of us who don’t move in such high intellectual circles, however, the answer is obvious enough.  Values and preferences reflect mental traits of various animals, one species of which happens to be Homo sapiens.  Mental traits originate in the brain, and the human brain exists in its current form because all of its essential features have, at one time or another in the past, promoted our genetic survival. 

Values and preferences such as liberalism and vegetarianism have not, of course, evolved in their perfect modern incarnations, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.  Rather, they correspond to responses of the human brain to conditions quite different from those that prevailed during the long process of its evolution, moderated by cultural influences.  As values and preferences, they are morally loaded.  In other words, one doesn’t embrace liberalism and vegetarianism by virtue of a purely rational evaluation of whether they will promote one’s genetic survival or not.  Rather, they are adopted by virtue of emotional responses associated with those innate mental characteristics we associate with morality.  In other words, they are perceived as “good,” and not just good from a utilitarian point of view,  but “good in themselves.”  That’s how human morality works, no matter how smart one happens to be.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an objective “good in itself.”  Liberalism and vegetarianism certainly have a real existence as “goods,” but only as subjective, or perceived goods.  In other words, they do have a genuine existence as goods, but that genuine existence is in the form of a figment of our imaginations.

Liberalism and vegetarianism, then, can be considered artifacts of innate human mental characteristics interacting with an environment utterly different from that in which they evolved to begin with.  Those mental traits could not possibly have evolved fast enough to keep up with the profound changes in the human environment that have occurred over, say the last 10,000 years.  Furthermore, they are not perfectly malleable and adaptable to those changes, as the inventors of the New Soviet Man discovered to their cost.  Under the circumstances, it seems rather risky to assume that complex behavioral traits that have emerged as ancient human mental characteristics interact with the modern environment will continue to promote our survival. 

In the case of liberalism and vegetarianism, I would claim that they certainly do not.  According to the article,

Liberalism … [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others. Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel. Humans … are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or exchange with. … There is no evidence that people in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands freely share resources with members of other tribes. …

True enough.  However, as we often hear, the world has shrunk.  We are no more capable of altruistic behavior towards strangers and “other tribes” than we ever were.  However, thanks to modern means of transportation and communication, it has become possible for us to perceive a far greater number of others as belonging to “our tribe.”  “We” is no longer constrained by the environment to a small group of people who are likely to be genetically related to us.  “We” can now correspond to much larger social constructs, such as fellow citizens in a modern state, fellow members of huge political organizations, or fellow believers in massive religious denominations.  “We” can be such entities as “the proletariat,” or “the German people,” or “the oppressed masses.”  “We” can even include other species.  Liberalism and vegetarianism are only “evolutionarily novel” in the sense that they represent the response of a relatively unchanged human brain to massive and transformational environmental and perceptual changes.

Unfortunately, such modern “goods” no longer promote our survival.  In the case of liberalism, the result is the handing over of resources to those from whom the chances that we will ever receive any corresponding benefit in return are vanishingly small.  In the case of vegetarianism, it is the establishment of artificial taboos against certain foods that one can dispense with in certain developed countries that happen not to be at war, but which may be essential to survival elsewhere, or in those same countries in the event of war or one of the other types of social breakdown that occurred with such alarming frequency in the 20th century.  To the extent that a “good” no longer promotes our survival, it is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, a serious threat.  Morality exists, like everything else about us, because, and only because, at some time in the past, it promoted our survival.  That being the case, nothing can be more immoral than failing to survive.  To anyone who would claim otherwise, I can only say, to borrow a phrase from E.O. Wilson, please “lay your cards on the table,” and explain why.

What, then, can we say about the association of higher levels of human intelligence with such survival threatening “goods” as modern liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention with such behavioral tendencies as having fewer children.  Apparently, we are forced to conclude that, as things now stand, human beings with above average intelligence represent a biological dead end.  Eventually they must either become more stupid, or more intelligent.  My personal preference is for the latter.  I have a hunch it will more effectively promote our long term survival.

UPDATE:  Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy has more on the Kanazawa article.  From his take:

I suspect that much of the public interest in Kanazawa’s study is driven by a perception that political views endorsed by more intelligent people are more likely to be true. This, however, is a dubious inference. Even intelligent people have incentives to be rationally ignorant about politics and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know. I do think that, other things equal, a political view is more likely to be correct if it is more likely to be endorsed by people with greater knowledge of the issue (controlling for other factors that may affect their answers). While knowledge and intelligence are likely to be correlated, they are not the same thing. Ultimately, the fact that a political ideology is more likely to be endorsed by more intelligent people is only a weak indicator of its validity.

Or, as Confucius once said, “Study without thought is vain; thought without study is dangerous.”

Interestingly, Kanazawa himself does not claim that intelligent people are more likely to endorse liberalism because it is true. Instead, he argues that the result is due to the fact that liberalism is more at odds with our genetic instincts than conservatism is, and intelligent people are more likely to endorse “novel” ideas.

Liberals are not different from conservatives because they are more rational, and therefore less subject to genetic instincts.  (“Genetic instincts” is imprecise, but we’ll use the vernacular for the time being).  Rather, liberalism and conservatism are manifestations of the same genetic instincts in the context of the modern world.  They differ only in such factors as identification of who belongs in the “in-group” and who belongs in the “out-group.”  These distinctions can have a major political impact, but, as far as human nature is concerned, they are peripheral.  They are both merely possible expressions of emotional responses whose fundamental origins in the brain are identical in both cases.

Niall Ferguson and the Amity/Enmity Complex

In earlier posts, I have noted the remarkable paradigm shift that has recently occurred in acceptance of the fact that human behavior, including moral behavior, is highly dependent on predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain. It did not come easy.  The concept of innate behavioral traits flew in the face of a good many cherished ideological myths, not the least of which was the myth of Marxism.  We have made great progress, but we have not reached our journey’s end. 

Not all the myths are dead.  Legions of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and other “experts” of every stripe are still fighting a delaying action.  They will continue to insist until the bitter end, or, to put it more concretely, until the facts finally drag them back to reality, that, while some aspects of human behavior may be innate, we are only wired to be “good” and “moral.”  Once upon a time they told us that, because the “gentle” chimpanzee was our closest relative in the animal kingdom, then, obviously, our nature was to be “gentle” and “unaggressive” as well.  When it turned out that, after all, the chimpanzee is not as “gentle” and “unaggressive” as first imagined, and, in fact, displays some character traits that are distinctly politically incorrect, the hapless beast was tossed overboard in favor of today’s favorite, the lately fashionable bonobo.  The bonobo, we are told, is a paragon of cooperative behavior, with sexual habits that are in perfect harmony with the most advanced views on the topic.  In a word, we have made progress, but only partial progress.  Instead of being fully buried, our heads are now only half buried in the sand.   

All this gushing over bonobos ignores some hard facts.  Among them is the Amity/Enmity Complex.  As I noted in an earlier post, Robert Ardrey once described the Complex as

…the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist. The paradox may be simply stated: If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence? If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?

…What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.

…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 the code of amity.

It does not take a mental giant to figure out how the predisposition to acquire such a dual morality would have promoted the survival of ancestral humans.  It served to spread populations out, optimizing their exploitation of available territory.  Ardrey has included several interesting descriptions of related behavior in other primate species in his books.  At a time when we possessed only crude weapons, the survival value of enmity between adjoining groups was enhanced by the fact that it was unlikely to have lethal consequences.  Times have changed.  Our weapons are no longer crude.

The complex is the fundamental human behavioral trait behind such “isms” and other related evils as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious bigotry.  However, rather than admit something as unpleasant as an innate behavioral trait that might predispose us to be other than perfect angels, we have refused to accept the obvious.  The obvious is that the enmity half of the Amity/Enmity Complex is the unifying fact that explains all these behaviors.  Rather than accept it, we have instead experienced the devastating effects of each of these “isms” in turn, only giving them a name that associates them with “evil” after the fact.  Would it not be better to understand the underlying phenomenon than to continue on this eternal treadmill, constantly closing the barn door after the animals have already fled?  There have been many Cassandras among us since the time of Darwin, thinkers who pointed to the abundant evidence for the existence of the Complex, and the dangers of ignoring its existence.  One would think that, if the preceding centuries of violence and warfare were not enough, the scales would surely have dropped from the eyes of even the most stubborn doubters after the genocide and mass slaughter of the 20th century.  Alas, bonobos are still in fashion, and we’re still not quite there yet.

I remain optimistic, however.  I have witnessed the paradigm shift referred to above in my lifetime.  The other shoe will eventually fall.  Facts are stubborn things.  They don’t go away, and we continue to accumulate them.  The Amity/Enmity complex is a fact.  As long as we retain the freedom to inquire and to research the truth, it will become, like innate human behavior, a fact that is increasingly difficult, and finally, impossible to ignore.  It may be that we will have to beat the last, recalcitrant, “progressive” psychologist over the head with the last quantum fluctuation in the last electron in the last molecule in the final neuron that proves, once and for all, that the Complex is real, but one day he, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world. 

Meanwhile, the manifestations of the Complex, countless as they are in our history, remain obvious to anyone with a mind open enough to look at them.  Besides much else that recommends it to the interested reader, there are many interesting examples in Niall Ferguson’s book, “The War of the World.”  For example, referring to anti-Semitic pogroms in pre-WWI Russia:

What happened between 1903 and 1906 was quite different in character… The catalyst was a classic “blood libel”, prompted by the discovery of the corpse of a young boy,…In the violence that ensued, hundreds of shops and homes were looted or burned. This time, however, many more people were killed… Between October 31 and November 11 there were pogroms in 660 different plances; more than 800 Jews were killed.

To the persecution of the “bourgeoisie” in the Russian Civil War:

The Bolshevik newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta declared: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood… let there be bloods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible.”… Between 1918 and 1920 as many as 300,000 such political executions were carried out.

and, finally, to the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Turks:

Like the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, the Armenians were doubly vulnerable: not only a religious minority, but also a relatively wealthy group… In the mid-1890s irregular Kurdish troops had been unleashed against Armenian villages as the Ottoman authorities tried to reassert the Armenians’ subordinate status as infidel dhimmis, or non-Muslim citizens. The American ambassador estimated the number of people killed at more than 37,000… The murderous campaign launched against the Armenians from 1915 to 1918 was qualitatively different, however; so much so that it is now widely acknowledged to have been the first true genocide… the men and boys older than 10 were massacred… The number of Armenian men, women and children who were killed or died prematurely may have been even higher than a million, a huge proportion of a pre-war population that numbered, at the very most, 2.4 million.

Is it really so hard to see the common thread here?  Is the truth really so difficult to recognize and accept?  The damage we have done to ourselves boggles the mind.  One day we will learn to understand ourselves, and grasp the reasons why we do these things.  May that day come sooner rather than later.

Richard Holloway and Godless Morality

While we’re on the subject of morality, I will touch on a related artifact from a slightly earlier time.  It is a book entitled “Godless Morality” by Richard Holloway, who was formally Bishop of Edinburgh for the Scottish Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as an “after-religionist.”  Holloway was still formally a Christian in 1999, when the book was first published, but had already wandered far from the straight and narrow path.  His book notes that divinely mandated moral systems “bear a striking resemblance to, and offer confirmation of, the social systems in which they emerged.”  Morality was not something mandated by the Bible.  Rather, according to Holloway, “the creation of morality is our business, it is something we have to do for our own sake if we are to live sanely and with care for one another and the good of society.”  Christianity “has allowed itself to be imprisoned by its own lack of historical imagination and versatility in interpreting ancient texts,” and “There really is no single, discernable point of view to be found (in the Bible), and what we do discover is often impossible to interpret, because we are so far from its original context.”  In a word, when Holloway wrote the book, he was palpably no longer a Christian.  Apparently, he hadn’t quite realized it yet himself, but, to his credit, he did eventually have the intellectual honesty to put two and two together.  He now appears to be a more or less garden variety progressive leftist.  Reading his rather rambling book is like listening to NPR for a couple of hours, complete with the chapter on gay and lesbian issues. 

The theme of the book is that we must all get together and cobble forth a new morality, suitable to the cultural context of our time.  Good luck with that.  Its interest as far as this post is concerned is in what distinguishes it from the books on the subject that have begun to appear in the last few years.  As a mentioned above, it was published ten years ago, and it shows.  Holloway is vaguely aware of a connection between morality and our evolutionary past, but the related discussion is remarkably naive compared to what one finds in more recent works.  For some reason, he seems allergic to Darwin, perhaps because he was aware at some level of the left’s aversion, still very pronounced at the time, to any genetic interpretation of human behavior.  Instead, he drags in such worthies as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. 

According to Holloway, “(Schopenhauer) tells us that the species wages war with individuals and their moralities.  It knows no morality except its own will-to-live, so that it has no scruple about over-riding our happiness and well-being, because the species has a closer and prior right to us than the individual has.”  This, we are to understand, “fits well with Nietzsche’s understanding of the human predicament as a consequence of humanity’s sundering from its animal past… And this is the origin of morality, this need to find some kind of balance between instinctive and intentional life, between the drive of the species and the consciousness of the individual.”  Of course, Darwin would have blushed to hear such stuff, not to mention his followers, who had already articulated sophisticated hypotheses concerning morality more than 150 years ago.  The point is that, as recently as ten years ago, one could simply ignore them and hold forth with quaint phrases from such poetic philosophers as Nietzsche on the origins of morality and still maintain at least some semblance of credibility.  That is no longer possible today.  We have been making progress.

It is interesting that, like a number of explicitly atheist writers,  Holloway is aware of the subjective nature of morality.  For example, he says, “I have claimed that morality is a human construct; it is something that we ourselves have created.”  However, he is as incapable as them of transcending his own nature and  following this claim to its logical consequences.  For example, he is clearly capable of unabashed virtuous indignation directed at the rich exploiters of the poor, or those who would discriminate against gays and lesbians.  I daresay he would be incapable of imagining a time or a cultural context in which slavery, predatory exploitation of the poor, and the treatment of homosexuals as pariahs would necessarily be “good,” although, if morality is really a human construct, cultures and contexts that would allow such revisions of morality should be at least hypothetically possible.  In other words, he still experiences morality as an object, as a “thing-in-itself,” all his protestations to the contrary.  We all do.  That’s the way we’re wired.  That’s the way I’m wired. 

None of us can live as other than moral beings.  However, I differ with Mr. Holloway, not to mention some of the more illustrious of my fellow atheists, in my assessment of the role morality should play in our lives.  Morality is a tool crafted in the course of our evolution because it has promoted our survival.  It has no “higher purpose” beyond that, and, to the extent that it doesn’t promote our genetic survival, it is utterly meaningless.  To the extent that one can posit a “good-in-itself” at all, it is survival.  There is and can be no “higher good” than that, from the point of view of our essential selves, our genes.  Morality evolved at a time and in circumstances vastly different from those we live in today.  It is, unfortunately, not infinitely malleable to suit the times, as the Communists recently demonstrated in a rather large-scale experiment that cost 100 million human lives.  It is not in our nature to be amoral.  Let us, then, live our lives according to simple moral rules that promote our survival and, if possible, our happiness.  However, at the same time let us realize that behavioral traits that evolved when we lived as small groups of hunter-gatherers armed with spears may no longer be appropriate now that we live in nation-states armed with nuclear weapons.  We can’t adjust our behavior at will to create perfect denizens of the kinder, gentler, more just world Mr. Holloway appears to favor.  Our morality has its dark sides, such as the Amity/Enmity Complex I’ve often discussed on this blog.  This aspect of our nature made it “morally good” for the Nazis to murder the Jews, for the Communists to slaughter the “bourgeoisie,” and for the zealots of assorted religions the world over to liquidate infidels.   That, too, was “moral” behavior, as far as the killers were concerned.  That aspect of human morality will not change merely because the Holloways of the world wish it so.  Inevitably, situations will arise that do not neatly lend themselves to resolution in the context of moral rules.  To survive, it may be necessary to act rationally rather than morally.

Of Human Nature and Political Games

In my last post I noted with some gratification that phenomena as obvious as the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior are finally being accepted, in the popular media and elsewhere, as obvious, whereas 40 or 50 years ago they would have been furiously attacked as evidence of racism, fascism, or some similar social malady. In those days, such attacks came mainly from the left, with emphasis on the Marxist left. Well, hold on to your hats, dear readers, because it appears that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. Now it appears that the political right is turning its baleful glance on evolutionary psychology, and discovering that it is a font of nefarious schemes to subvert free will and human virtue.

We begin this story with an article that appeared on NPR’s website. It discussed the ideas of Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam regarding the interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind as set forth in his new book entitled “The Hidden Brain.” I have no certain knowledge regarding Mr. Vedantam’s political leanings, but, considering the fact that NPR has deigned to discuss his book and he writes for the Washington Post, I suspect that he probably stands rather to the left of Rush Limbaugh. Now, given the unfortunate history of attacks on proponents of innate predispositions by assorted Defenders of the Faith on the left, one would think that Mr. Vedantam’s embrace of evolutionary psychology would be grounds for loud huzzahs all ’round. For example, according to the NPR article, he notes the importance of innate aspects of human behavior in the development of social maladies such as racism, citing research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes. All this seems harmless and commonplace enough. All Vedantam is really saying is that there is such a thing as an Amity/Enmity Complex, that it can manifest itself as racism, and that, if we are to control such socially destructive behavior, it would behoove us to understand what causes it.  Fifty years ago, he would have been loudly denounced as a heretic by the High Priests on the left for stating such obvious truisms.  Today, we hear barely a whimper from that direction, but, alas, the time for rejoicing has not yet come.  It appears that the right has now discovered, in its turn, that evolutionary psychology is really a nefarious plot against mankind.

I cite as exhibit A an article written by Jeff G. at Protein Wisdom.  Instead of rejoicing at the return of the Prodigal Son from the left, it seems he has smelled a rat.  Mr. Vedantam, it appears, is not really a benign science writer for the Wapo, but a myrmidon of the left, a mere tool in a broader plot to seize control of our minds and reprogram us into latter day versions of Homo Sovieticus.  Let’s allow Jeff G. to set the tone.  Referring to the Montreal study, he says,

Of course, were the data reversed (had, for instance, the day-care center under review been located in the basement of Reverend Wright’s church, say) — with whites linked to negative attributes and blacks viewed positively — that data almost certainly wouldn’t be extrapolated out as normative the way it is here. In fact, such data would likely be used to exhort the force of identify politics to “empower” historically disenfranchised groups, the result being that we must now believe that identity politics is simultaneously ameliorative (when it empowers certain identity groups) and “racist” (when it empowers other identity groups), even as the mechanism is precisely the same.

Here Jeff G. invents the first in a series of strawmen, attacking Mr. Vedantam for what he “almost certainly” would have done if the racial shoe had been on the other foot.  Apparently, he is unaware of the absurdity of attacking someone for a misdeed they haven’t actually committed, but which he has concluded they would have committed in some hypothetical alternate reality.  Continuing with the article,

And here you have the last two maneuvers: 1) It is silly to call children as young as 3 bigots, Vedantam will (pretend to) concede; and yet they are showing bigoted behavior — like, for instance, they draw “bigoted associations” or make “racist statements” — which transgressions Vedantam will trace to “culture and upbringing”. Are these children responsible for their own culture? Their own upbringing? Of course not, the argument will suggest. And so their bigotry, which is undeniable (given the “associations” drawn by the kids in one Montreal day-care center) must come from somewhere else, and must be lodged somewhere outside of the conscious reach of these children (where presumably it could be corrected).

Certainly culture plays a role in determining whether we perceive specific racial characteristics in a positive or negative light, but where, exactly, does Mr. Vedantam imply that these associations are “lodged somewhere outside of our conscious reach?”  The logical process by which Jeff G. arrives at the conclusion that this “must be” is beyond me.

Once we are here — once we begin to give power to deeply-seeded attitudes learned through acculturation and rote indoctrination (and buried deep in our “sub-conscious”) while simultaneously divorcing the conscious mind from the unconscious mind in such a way that the unconscious mind is no longer a part of the intentional “we” — it is an easy next step to argue 2) that “we” are not responsible for any kind of unconscious racism or bigotry; thus, we can say racist things, or make racist associations, without those associations or statements being intentionally racist. More, we can’t be expected to recognize in ourselves such unconscious bigotry precisely because it lies in our unconscious mind, which is the “autopilot” to our “we,” and as such stands apart from our conscious control over it. Which means we’ll have to rely on others to spot our bigotry for us. God bless ‘em.

Now the strawmen are really starting to come out of the woodwork.  Whoever said that our racial attitudes are “buried deep in our sub-conscious,” beyond our conscious control?  Whoever came up with the idea that our conscious and unconscious minds are “divorced” from each other?  Whoever suggested that it is impossible for us to become conscious of our own “unconscious racism” because our “unconscious minds” aren’t part of our “We?”  Mr. Vedantam certainly makes no such claims in the NPR article, nor does he imply anything of the sort.  In fact, these are all fantasies invented by Jeff G. himself.  Of course, they are necessary fantasies if we are to give any credence to the central theme of his article, which is that Mr. Vedantam is part of a larger conspiracy to convince us that “we must rely on others to spot our bigotry for us.”  Why the insidious leftist elites Mr. Vedantam supposedly serves would want us to believe this becomes clear later in the article.  As Jeff G. puts it,

The upshot of all this is that we are left with an obvious way to fight “racism”: change society and culture in such a way that our “unconscious” mind — over which we have limited ownership (or rather, something akin to a rental agreement) — learns the “correct” lessons. We need to be taught which kinds of associations are acceptable and which are not. Our speech and thought needs to be cleansed; our autopilot re-educated.

Well,  not exactly.  Nowhere does Mr. Vedantam claim that it is even possible to “re-educate our autopilot,” and this must be dismissed as another of Jeff G.’s fantasy strawmen.  Far from implying that we have no control over our autopilot, he specifically states exactly the opposite.  Quoting from the NPR article:

“Our hidden brains will always recognize people’s races, and they will do so from a very, very young age,” Vedantam says. “The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways.”

There is no suggestion here that the associations be “reprogrammed,” but simply that children be made aware of their existence, and the fact that they can manifest themselves as social evils such as racism.  Returning to the NPR article,

Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it’s not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, “The Hidden Brain,” is about how to “take back the controls.

In other words, far from suggesting that we need to be “re-educated,” because we can’t control our “autopilot” by our own volition, Vedantam is again saying exactly the opposite; that our conscious minds are really in overall control, and that we are quite capable of dealing with asocial manifestations of unconscious behavior such as racism on our own, without the need for any “re-education” by cliques of leftist illuminati.  No matter, Jeff G. has already left reality far behind, and can’t be bothered to read what Vedantam is actually saying.  he continues,

On offer here is the following prescription: you can only know your autopilot by learning what culture and society have imprinted upon you. Once there, you can only “take back control” by changing what culture and society imprint. Because otherwise, nothing else Vedantam writes makes sense: if you could consciously control your unconscious, that would be a form of consciousness that robs the unconscious of its (presumed) power; so the answer is that you must control your unconscious mind by consciously decided what is appropriate for it to learn in the first place.

Which is to say, you can only take back control by giving over control to those who will properly teach you.

Here one can only shake one’s head.  Nowhere does Vedantam suggest that “you can only ‘take back control’ by changing what culture and society imprint.”  Far from claiming that you cannot consciously control your unconscious, he actually explicitly states exactly the opposite.  Nowhere does he suggest that its even possible to “correctly” program the unconscious mind by “giving over control to those who will properly teach you.”

Well, I can only offer Mr. Vedantam my sincere sympathy, and express the hope that, in future, those who attack his book will take the trouble to read it first. 

 The political animals on both the right and the left will always have their ideological axes to grind.  Meanwhile, we continue to learn.  That which is true will remain true whether it happens to be politically desirable and expedient or not.  Let us seek the truth.

“The Evolution of Morality” and Innate Human Behavior

There has been an incredible (and gratifying) sea change in attitudes towards and acceptance of the idea that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions that are genetically programmed in our brains since the 60’s and 70’s. In those days, proponents of the idea were relentlessly attacked by so-called “scientists” who were actually ideologues defending Marxism and related secular religions. These attacks generally included vilification and demonization via slanderous accusations of “racism,” “fascism,” or some similar right wing sin. At the time, academics in such related fields as anthropology, psychology, etc., either cheered on the ideologues, or stood discretely aside, collaborating in a secular variant of religious obscurantism. In the meantime, there have been great advances in our knowledge of the inner workings of the brain. The proponents of innate behavior have been vindicated, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the basic truth of their arguments, and maintain any claim to scientific respectability at the same time. It would be difficult for anyone who hasn’t been around long enough to have witnessed these changes to appreciate their magnitude or significance.

A recently published book entitled “The Evolution of Morality,” by the philosopher Richard Joyce, is one more striking example of the change, among many others. In it one finds the remarkable passage,

There is one traditional complaint against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that has, thankfully, receded in recent years: that the program would, if pursued, lead to unpleasant political ends. It shouldn’t be forgotten that much of the tone-setting early invective against these research programs was politically motivated. In their withering and influential attack on sociobiology, “Not in Our Genes,” Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin are, if nothing else refreshingly honest about this, admitting that they share a commitment to socialism, and that they regard their “critical science as an integral part of the struggle to create that society” (1984: ix). Elsewhere, Lewontin and Richard Levins proudly made this declaration: “…we have been attempting with some success to guide our research by a conscious application of Marxist philosophy” (Levins and Lewontin 1985: 165). It is not these disturbing confessions of political motivation that I mean to highlight here – intellectually repugnant thought they are (and should be even to Marxists) – but rather the bizarre presupposition that a Darwinian approach to human psychology and behavior should have any obvious political ramifications.

There is much else of interest in Joyce’ book, not the least of which is a quote of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus regarding innate ideas of good and evil at the start of the introduction. I highly recommend it to the interested reader. The fact that it, and many other writings in both the popular and scientific literature, now treat the idea of innate behavior as commonplace and generally accepted, except by such latter day Trofim Lysenkos as Lewontin, Levins, and Kamin, et.al., would surely seem bizarre to a Rip van Winkle ethologist of the late 60’s who suddenly woke up 50 years later. It is encouraging evidence that the obscurantism of the high priests of secular religions like Marxism is as vulnerable to the advance of human knowledge as the obscurantism of the fanatical devotees of the Book of Genesis.

All this begs the question, however, of how it is that such supposedly “scientific” fields as psychology and anthropology are so often hijacked by the purveyors of ideological snake oil and pseudo-scientific fads, to the point that they develop an immune response to new ideas that happen to be in conflict with the prevailing sacred cows. It seems to me that shame would be an appropriate response, but I’m not holding my breath. However, perhaps a little self-criticism wouldn’t be too much to ask before we charge ahead to the next fad. I would suggest that, for starters, those active in fields relating to something as complex as the human brain refrain from promoting their theories as established scientific truths until we understand the brain well enough to support such claims.

Take, for example, the theories of Sigmund Freud. Without a thorough knowledge of the detailed functioning of the brain, the idea that such theories should have the status of established facts is absurd. No such knowledge, or anything close to it was available at the time they were proposed, yet those theories were, for many decades, treated by many as established truths that only the ignorant would question.

If there is insufficient evidence to support a given hypothesis, would it not be reasonable to continue to identify it as such, until such evidence is forthcoming? Would it not be wise to refrain from claiming that we perfectly understand this or that phenomenon, and admit that there are some things that we just don’t know, until the facts are forthcoming to support such claims? When new ideas are proposed that are both plausible and supported by the available evidence, would it not be wise to allow discussion and investigation of those ideas without vilifying those who propose them?

Realistically, I suppose human beings will always be subject to such shortcomings. We prefer the comfortable illusion that we know to the humbling admission that we don’t yet understand. It is in our nature, so to speak. Happily, as is now so apparent in the field of evolutionary psychology, the problem will tend to be self-correcting as long as human knowledge continues to expand. The only thing we need to fear is that the paths to greater knowledge and understanding will be obstructed. Let us see to it that they remain open.

European Anti-Americanism, Then and Now

Brussels Journal quotes a charming new anti-American tune by Belgian musician Raymond van het Groenewoud with the original title, “Down with America.” According to BJ, the tune is

written in Dutch… and will be available in record shops as of next week, and was played on Belgian state radio last Thursday and Friday. Here is a quote from the lyrics of the song:

Hamburgers and coke, yes you already knew
But do you also know the cause of the general decay?
Short-sighted thinking, loud talking
Sticking to one-liners forever
Down with America! Down with the jerks from America
Down with America! […]

Down with American colonialism
Down with that ugly, biting English
All the Anglo-Saxon pretence, arrogance
Yes, a hot pick up their ass
And that is that […]

I am from the Belgian, the European panel
And I ask you: “Clear my channel! Clear my channel!”
Megalomaniac unicellular idiots
Kiss my ass, yes, kiss my balls

Thus one of the most recent expressions of European “Kultur.” I doubt that Der Spiegel, whose editors have been known to throw tantrums and become blue in the face over the excessively patriotic lyrics of Toby Keith, will even bother to take notice.

Like racism, anti-Semitism, and religious bigotry, anti-Americanism is a common expression of the Amity-Enmity Complex I’ve written about earlier. However, unlike racism, which justified slavery, or anti-Semitism, which resulted in the Holocaust, or religious bigotry, which has caused millions of deaths in Europe since the days of Constantine, anti-Americanism hasn’t yet resulted in a catastrophe sufficiently horrific to give it a bad name and render it socially unacceptable. As a result, it still thrives luxuriantly, although its intensity has fallen off somewhat of late from the obsessive, mindless frothing at the mouth one found in even the “respectable” European newspapers and magazines in the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the Bush Administrations.

In an ideal world, the psychologists would have recognized the Amity-Enmity Complex for what it is long ago; the fundamental aspect of human nature responsible for anti-Americanism and all of the other varieties of destructive behavior mentioned above, not to mention most of the countless wars that have marred our history from the dawn of recorded time. However, this is not an ideal world, psychology has been more akin to an ideology than a science lo now these many years, and so, instead of recognizing and controlling the Complex itself, we stagger on from disaster to disaster, assigning a bad name to each of its manifestations in turn so that we may recognize them as evil. So it is, and so it will continue until some inspired team of neuroscientists tracks down the bio-chemical processes responsible for the expression of the Complex molecule by molecule, documenting it so thoroughly than all but the most recalcitrant of the assorted species of psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists are dragged kicking and screaming into the real world, and can no longer deny a truth that should have been obvious to them long ago.

Well, we have been making wonderful and encouraging progress along those lines of late, and one finds glimmerings of common sense in even the darkest journalistic haunts of the social science professoriat. However, before they master a notion of such cognitive complexity as the close kinship of, for example, anti-Americanism and racism as common manifestations of the Amity-Enmity Complex, I suspect we will yet have a long path to follow.

To amuse you during the long wait, I’ve uncovered an interesting example of anti-Americanism from days gone by. Of course, such artifacts will come as no surprise to the cognoscenti among you, who, no doubt, can cite many interesting specimens of their own. Be that as it may, I turned up this example in a back issue of H. L. Mencken’s “American Mercury,” dated October 1924. It is entitled “A Yankee in Paris,” and documents a savage attack on Americans who dared to cheer on their Olympic football team. There are many nuances to the story that will be abundantly familiar to the modern reader, such as the remarkable delicacy of the mainstream media then as now in avoiding any mention of such outbursts. I have included a pic of the opening blurb below, and the story in full may be found here.

Blogscans179

Civility and Political Discourse

A lot of what passes for political discussion these days amounts to pointing out the moral flaws in one’s opponent, often referred to as demonization. This is typically done by people who would be dumbfounded if asked to explain the rational basis for their claims to superior virtue. Apparently, Jonah Goldberg, has no problem with this, pointing to our long history of political incivility. He reminds me of Cunegunde in Voltaire’s “Candide,” who was ashamed that she resisted being raped and mutilated by the soldiers of an invading army after it was explained to her that it was, after all, a mere matter of tradition.

All Goldberg is really saying is that we have a long habit of striking Pharisaical poses and expounding on the inferior virtue and moral turpitude of our enemies. That does not make it right or useful. There are good habits and bad habits. This is a bad habit. Perhaps it’s best to look at it from a practical point of view. It’s emotionally satisfying to feel holier than the other guy, but it doesn’t really inform him, or anyone else, for that matter. When I read or hear someone declaiming on someone elses immoralities, I reflect that there are probably very few people in the world who deliberately and consciously go around doing things they know are evil, and, taking one moralistic poseur with another, the chances are vanishingly small that the person doing the ranting has a clue about why what he thinks is good is really good and what he thinks is bad is really bad. I then shrug my shoulders and move on.

I am far from believing that I will solve such a pervasive and persistent problem with an appeal to our better natures. However, I point out to the happy few who are more interested in approaching the truth than reinforcing the walls of the ideological boxes they live in that it is impossible to do so without listening to and considering opposing points of view. Moreover, ones own point of view is considerably more coherent and persuasive when presented in temperate language. It happens that I am far from perfect in this respect. However, I will make an effort to take my own good advice, and at least respond with civility if I am approached with civility. I hope others will do so as well.

Cass Sunstein, Glenn Beck, and Diversity of Opinion

Cass Sunstein has been confirmed as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Budget and Management. The right refers to him as another of Obama’s “czars,” although the position has been in existence since 1980. As Katie Connolly of Newsweek informs us, Glenn Beck was among those who were less than thrilled about Sunstein’s appointment. According to Connolly, after taking down Van Jones, “Beck has him in his sights. Recently he urged fans, via his Twitter feed, to collect and save all the information they could find about Sunstein.” Predictably, the stalwarts of the left are frothing at the mouth about all this, striking pious poses as noble defenders of freedom of speech even as they work tirelessly to eliminate it via the “fairness doctrine.”

Glenn’s allergic reaction to Sunstein is justified, to the extent that he is sitting at the opposite end of the political spectrum. On the other hand, Cass Sunstein is no Van Jones. He is a progressive leftist, but he is not a self-blinkered ideologue who is incapable of appreciating points of view that differ from his own.

Some of the right’s objections to Sunstein relate to his attitude concerning freedom of speech. He wrote an interesting essay on the subject back in 2001, excerpts of which appeared in the Boston Review. It’s worth a closer look. The picture of the man that emerges from his own work is a great deal more nuanced than the filtered versions we’ve being seeing from both his detractors on the right and his hagiographers on the left (who, BTW, do not include Kos). In fact, it turns out that some of the reactions to his nomination are good illustrations of a problem he associates with the rise of the Internet:

We can sharpen our understanding of this problem if we attend to the phenomenon of group polarization. The idea is that after deliberating with one another, people are likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which they were previously inclined, as indicated by the median of their predeliberation judgments. With respect to the Internet, the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought before—but in more extreme form.

The problem of group polarization is certainly real. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the Amity-Enmity Complex I have referred to earlier. Indeed, Sunstein describes the Complex very nicely:

For present purposes, the most important point is that group polarization will significantly increase if people think of themselves, antecedently or otherwise, as part of a group having a shared identity and a degree of solidarity.

According to Sunstein, the problem is exacerbated by the increased ability of individuals to self-filter the news in modern society:

Of course, these developments make life much more convenient and in some ways much better: we all seek to reduce our exposure to uninvited noise. But from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.

Sounds harmless enough. However, Sunstein’s version of how these “shared experiences” were acquired in the past will have his detractors on the right rolling with laughter:

To be sure, the Internet greatly increases people’s ability to expand their horizons, as millions of people are now doing; but many people are using it to produce narrowness, not breadth… What is different is a dramatic increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. For all their problems, and their unmistakable limitations and biases, these intermediaries have performed some important democratic functions.

Here, of course, Sunstein is referring to what is often referred to as the “legacy media.” Supposedly these “intermediaries” performed the invaluable service of bringing individuals into contact with stories and ideas that they would, given the choice, have ignored, familiarizing them with other points of view and providing balance to their own.

Here, I must join the right rolling in the aisles. The idea that the legacy media, which, by the time the Internet appeared on the scene, had long been feeding us an utterly one-sided and slanted narrative, grossly abusing their great power in the process, were somehow performing a “valuable service” by exposing us to “diverse points of view” doesn’t pass the “ho-ho” test. Their stony silence during the Van Jones affair was a stark reminder of just how effective these “intermediaries” used to be in making sure that inconvenient truths never saw the light of day. Returning to the essay:

People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experience with diverse others and exposure to material that they did not specifically choose.

They have a range of encounters “to material that they did not specifically choose,” all right. However, it is hardly “chance” material, and, instead of choosing it themselves, others do them the honor of choosing it for them.

A system in which you lack control over the particular content that you see has a great deal in common with a public street, where you might encounter not only friends, but a heterogeneous variety of people engaged in a wide array of activities (including, perhaps, political protests and begging).

This comparison of the legacy media with the “public street” is one of Sunstein’s favorite hobbies. In fact, their street led in only one direction, and it was certainly not public. Now, however, we run across some of the nuance that doesn’t appear in the diatribes of the right:

None of these claims depends on a judgment that general interest intermediaries are unbiased, or always do an excellent job, or deserve a monopoly over the world of communications. The Internet is a boon partly because it breaks that monopoly. So too for the proliferation of television and radio shows, and even channels, that have some specialized identity. (Consider the rise of Fox News, which appeals to a more conservative audience.) All that I am claiming is that general interest intermediaries expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public. Indeed, intermediaries of this sort have large advantages over streets and parks precisely because they tend to be national, even international. Typically they expose people to questions and problems in other areas, even other countries.

However, after these hopeful remarks, Sunstein quickly returns to his obsession with polarization:

Consider discussions among hate groups on the Internet and elsewhere. If the underlying views are unreasonable, it makes sense to fear that these discussions may fuel increasing hatred and a socially corrosive form of extremism.

One wonders who will get to decide what is “reasonable,” “hateful,” and “socially corrosive.” Is Sunstein unaware that there is a difference of opinion on the subject?

How does this bear on the Internet? An increasingly fragmented communications universe will reduce the level of shared experiences having salience to a diverse group of Americans. This is a simple matter of numbers. When there were three television networks, much of what appeared would have the quality of a genuinely common experience. The lead story on the evening news, for example, would provide a common reference point for many millions of people. To the extent that choices proliferate, it is inevitable that diverse individuals, and diverse groups, will have fewer shared experiences and fewer common reference points. It is possible, for example, that some events that are highly salient to some people will barely register on others’ viewscreens. And it is possible that some views and perspectives that seem obvious for many people will, for others, seem barely intelligible.

In fact, these stories were chosen and reported in a way that conformed to a political narrative. It’s odd that the very modes of communication that freed Americans from the heavy handed slant of the legacy media are now the reason Sunstein is worried about “balance.” Obviously, he never felt threatened by the gross bias of the legacy media because he agreed with it. The perceptions of other people who aren’t quite as in tune with that media as Sunstein regarding the nature of this “common, shared experience” are entirely different. In reality, an elite had the power to choose what our “common shared experience” would be, and then interpreted it for us. The Internet and talk radio demolished that power. The very real danger that government could hand it right back to them on a silver platter with the “fairness doctrine,” restoring the “diversity” their propaganda machine used to dish out, is a far greater cause for concern than Sunstein’s worries about polarization.

However, Sunstein’s suggestions for curing the problems he alludes to are hardly as heavy-handed as his detractors would have us believe. Returning to the essay:

I do not intend to offer a comprehensive set of policy reforms or any kind of blueprint for the future. In fact, this may be one domain in which a problem exists for which there is no useful cure: the genie might simply be out of the bottle. But it will be useful to offer a few ideas, if only by way of introduction to questions that are likely to engage public attention in coming years.

Drawing on recent developments in regulation generally, we can see the potential appeal of five simple alternatives. Of course, different proposals would work better for some communications outlets than others. I will speak here of both private and public responses, but the former should be favored: they are less intrusive, and in general they are likely to be more effective as well.

Nevertheless, I suspect the cures Sunstein suggest are worse than the disease. They include:

Disclosure: Producers of communications might disclose important information on their own, about the extent to which they are promoting democratic goals… Television broadcasters might, for example, be asked to disclose their public interest activities. On a quarterly basis, they might say whether and to what extent they have provided educational programming for children, free air time for candidates, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired. They might also be asked whether they have covered issues of concern to the local community and allowed opposing views a chance to speak. The Federal Communications Commission has already taken steps in this direction; it could do a lot more. Of course, disclosure is unlikely to be a full solution to the problems that I have discussed here. But modest steps in this direction are likely to do little harm and at least some good.

Here one might ask what happens when TV stations insist they are perfectly objective, and entirely fair? The real effect of the type of “disclosure” favored by Sunstein will be exactly what conservatives are worried about when they criticize the fairness doctrine; the exclusion of all but a single narrative. There is, in fact, no such thing as objective reporting. I can think of one type of disclosure that would really be helpful. Anyone who reports the news on public media, whether they claim to be unbiased or not, should disclose their opinions on 15 or 20 of the “hot button” issues of the day, regularly updated. Ones that might serve at the moment include abortion, the public option in health care, the war in Afghanistan, talk radio, etc. If we know what their opinions on such issues are, we will also know how they will filter the news.

Self-Regulation: Producers of communications might engage in voluntary self-regulation… Any such code could, for example, call for an opportunity for opposing views to speak, or for avoiding unnecessary sensationalism, or for offering arguments rather than quick soundbites whenever feasible.

NPR and the BBC are perfect examples of why this idea would never work. Their editors are likely convinced that they are paragons of this type of “self-regulation,” yet they are invariably and persistently slanted. Here, I must agree with Rush Limbaugh. He is an opposing point of view, and one that, for all practical purposes, never existed before he came on the scene. I disagree with him on much. However, he may well be the single greatest promoter of freedom of speech and diversity of opinion this country has ever produced. Talk radio and the Internet provide Americans with far greater access to diverse and alternative opinions on just about any subject one could name than exists anywhere else in the world. Neutering them because they are “polarizing” would be a fatal mistake.

Subsidy: The government might subsidize speech, as, for example, through publicly subsidized programming or publicly subsidized websites.

The effect of subsidy will be what it has always been; the cultivation of points of view preferred by those in power.

Links: Websites might use links and hyperlinks to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views.

Again, notice that, contrary to what some conservative websites have been suggesting, Sunstein is not proposing these links be mandatory. However, his idea raises other issues. Would he include the views of Nazis, Communists, cults, creationists, etc., among those to be linked? Who would decide which of these to exclude?

Public Sidewalk: If the problem consists in the failure to attend to public issues, the most popular websites in any given period might offer links and hyperlinks, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions… But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers.

In fact, weakening the power of “general interest intermediaries,” i.e., the legacy media, has been one of the greatest boons of the Internet. It was precisely those “general interest intermediaries” that walled people off from opinions the editors of those former gatekeepers preferred they not hear. As for the authors of the “popular websites” Sunstein is concerned about, they are very well aware of their opponents’ points of view, and must address them or immediately be exposed among their peers. This is a significant break on extremism. So are the comment sections that appear after many blogs on both the left and the right, and typically include both “pro” and “con” points of view. In fact, the legacy media were far more effective at barring our access to opposing points of view than the Internet could ever be.

Well, be that as it may, Cass Sunstein is a highly intelligent man who is willing to listen to opposing points of view. His opponents on the right who are crying for his removal would be well advised to consider those facts and be careful what they wish for.