Jonathan Haidt and the New Atheists

Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times.  It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading.  Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism.  As he notes in the review:

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.

But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.

The “unspoken tension” is definitely there.  I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason.  Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion.  He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists.  Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,

These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe.  The other three authors, however, are men of science.

My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw.  “Men of science” indeed!  Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?”  Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?”  I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality.  Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals.  Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism.  As he puts it:

The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2:  Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses).  So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion.  To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers.  Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community.  That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.

This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense.  If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other.  It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.

We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw.  In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story:  By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.”  As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.”  In other words, as Haidt puts it,

The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face:  cooperation without kinship.

He then goes Atran and Henrich one better.  Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution.  Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection.  In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,

In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion.  I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007.  When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not.  Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way.  His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence.  Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection.  Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection.  He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection.  Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around.  However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion.  Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.

I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.”  Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion.  For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group.  For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.”  Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.”  Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.”  He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,

…the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.  Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society.  They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”  However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin.  Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing.  Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.”  Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.”  Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either.  Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot.  In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists.  I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing.  He concludes,

Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations.  We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.  They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank.  Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children.  It seems we’ve come full circle.  Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century.  Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection.  I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices.  However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction.  I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth.  Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.

Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”: Take Two

If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law.  It’s the best book on morality I know of.  Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow.  Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature.  Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”.  He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions.  He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.  According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions.  Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights.  It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette.  It should be read in full.

I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality.  I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations.  It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature.  Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality.  Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.

There is good news and bad news in the book.  The bad news starts early.  In the introduction, Haidt writes,

I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.

I’m afraid he’s right.  I’m certainly no exception to the rule.  The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating.  It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason.  If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears.  In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd.  However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point.  He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right.  It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.

Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse.  I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward.  Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows.  I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.

I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do.  However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it.  Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate.  He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it.  Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth.  For example, in chapter 4 he writes,

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.  We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.  The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology).  They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings.  Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law.  Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing:  summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart.  But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that  some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.  This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply.  I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason.  Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth.  We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments.  Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon.  None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood.  The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless.  There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.

The Implosion of Jonah Lehrer

A couple of years ago Harvard announced an ongoing investigation of evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Marc Hauser for “scientific misconduct” involving the integrity of experimental data.  Hauser wrote books such as Moral Minds for a lay audience as well as numerous papers in academic journals co-authored with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Richard Wrangham.  He resigned his professorship about a year later.

Now another public scientist and intellectual who also specialized in the behavioral sciences has fallen.  Jonah Lehrer was fired from his position at “The New Yorker” after admitting he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.  I can only agree with his editor, David Remnick, that “This is a terrifically sad situation.”  Why someone as ostensibly successful and highly regarded as Lehrer would do such a thing is beyond my comprehension.

One must hope we’re not seeing the start of a trend.  I can think of few things more important than the credibility and integrity of the behavioral sciences, so lately emerged from the debacle of the Blank Slate.  It turns out Lehrer didn’t even need to invent the quotes in question.  According to Randy Lewis writing for the LA Times, Dylan actually did say substantially the same thing in an interview with pop music critic Robert Hilburn in 2004.  Quoting from Lewis’ article,

At one point, he told Hilburn something very close to what Lehrer seemed to have been after: “I’m not good at defining things,” Dylan said in 2004. “Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.”

But he also did open up remarkably about how he viewed the art and craft of songwriting.

“I don’t think in lateral terms as a writer. That’s a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers…. They are so lateral. There’s no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.”

Had he been more thorough in doing the research for his book, perhaps Lehrer could have been able to hold onto the success he seemed so desperately to want that he concocted quotes from the greatest songwriter of the rock era.

It would be nice if the scientists who study our behavior and morality were themselves immune to the human frailties they write about.  Once again, we have seen that they most decidedly are not.  Those who seek Plato’s philosopher kings will have to keep looking.

Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”: First Impressions

I’ve finally started reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.  It does not disappoint.  Haidt is certainly among the greatest, if not the greatest, moral psychologists of our time.  He may turn out to be wrong in detail here and there, but I suspect that continued advances in our understanding of how the brain works will confirm the big picture he has painted for us when it comes to human morality.  If it were up to me, this and a few similar books would be required reading in every high school in the country.  If nothing else, they might at least provoke the next generation of advocates of holy causes into thinking a little about whether they’re actually motivated by a saintly desire to save the world, or perhaps something rather less heroic.

That said, let the nitpicking begin.  I will have more to say about the book in a later post, but a couple of things caught my eye as I began reading.  First, Haidt’s comments in favor of group selection in response to criticisms of E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth by Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and a host of other anti-group selectionists were no fluke.  He leaves no doubt where he stands on the matter in The Righteous Mind as well.  For example, from the introduction,

But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups.  As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists.  Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960’s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound.  We’re not always selfish hypocrites.  We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group.  These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns.  Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war and genocide.”

I find it surprising that Haidt would have the courage to stick his neck out like this on such a controversial subject, and one that is likely to arose the ire of some very influential public scientists and intellectuals.  Group selection theory has inspired fierce passions for well over half a century, and continues to do so today.  Haidt has much to lose by climbing into the arena and joining the slugfest.  The question is, what does he have to gain?  One can only surmise that he is convinced group selection played a key role in the evolution of the behavioral traits described in his book, or perhaps that the latest mathematical models of group selection published by Martin Nowak and others are airtight.

Other than that, I was bemused (or perhaps chagrined is a better word) to find Steven Pinker’s fanciful and farcical “history” of the Blank Slate ensconced in yet another book by a respected public scientist.  Apparently the rulers of Orwells Oceania were right.  “He who controls the present controls the past.”  Here’s Haidt’s version of the fairy tale:

The second wave of moralism was the radical politics that washed over universities in America, Europe, and Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Radical reformers usually want to believe that human nature is a blank slate on which any utopian vision can be sketched.  If evolution gave men and women different sets of desires and skills, for example, that would be an obstacle to achieving gender equality in many professions.  If nativism (the belief that natural selection gave us minds that were preloaded with moral emotions, ed.) could be used to justify existing power structures, then nativism must be wrong.  (Again, this is a logical error, but this is the way righteous minds work.)

While it was true that the Blank Slate was embraced by reformers because it accommodated their utopian visions, those reformers were on the scene long before the type prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s came along, and the earlier versions were really more mainstream than radical.  They typically supported some flavor of socialism, an entirely mainstream philosophy in the 30’s, 40’s and well into the 50’s, particularly in Europe, and represented the scientific and political orthodoxy of their day, at least as it existed on university campuses.  I recently wrote an article about a typical example of the type, anthropologist and socialist Geoffrey Gorer, a friend and supporter of George Orwell, who was also a convinced socialist.  Gorer was entirely respectable, mainstream, and impeccably non-radical in his day, and wrote the following in the 50’s:

One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

Gorer was highly intelligent, by no means a pious pecksniff of the 60’s and 70’s stripe, but, like so many other behavioral scientists of his era, had somehow managed to convince himself that a theory that should have been immediately identifiable as bunk to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old was actually true. It had to be true, or all of those fine “worldwide ideologies” that had occasioned the spilling of so much ink would be stillborn.

Haidt continues:

The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was a graduate student a Harvard in the 1970’s.  In his 2002 book The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker describes the ways scientists betrayed the values of science to maintain loyalty to the progressive movement.  Scientists became “moral exhibitionists” in the lecture hall as they demonized fellow scientists and urged their students to evaluate ideas not for their truth but for their consistency with progressive ideals such as racial and gender equality.

Nowhere was the betrayal of science more evident than in the attacks on Edward O. Wilson, a lifelong student of ants and eco-systems.  In 1975 Wilson published Sociobiology:  The New Synthesis.  The book explored how natural selection, which indisputably shaped animal bodies, also shaped animal behavior.  That wasn’t controversial, but Wilson had the audacity to suggest in his final chapter that natural selection also influenced human behavior.  Wilson believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions.

Prophets challenge the status quo, often earning the hatred of those in power.  Wilson therefore deserves to be called a prophet of moral psychology.  He was harassed and excoriated in print and in public.  He was called a fascist, which justified (for some) the charge that he was a racist, which justified (for some) the attempt to stop him from speaking in public.  Protesters who tried to disrupt one of his scientific talks rushed the stage and chanted, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”

There, in a nutshell, are all the elements of Pinker’s bogus “history”:  In the beginning, the Blank Slate was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And E. O. Wilson said, Let there be light, and there was light.  As I will never weary of pointing out, it didn’t happen that way.  Wilson, for whom I have the greatest respect as a scientist and a courageous thinker, was hardly a “prophet” who came along and single-handedly slew the Blank Slate Dragon. Prophets are the carriers of revelations. Wilson carried none, at least as far as human nature is concerned.  He was preceded by numerous influential thinkers, such as Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, who also “believed that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” and were derided for those beliefs as fascists long before E. O. Wilson came on the scene.

The most famous and influential of Wilson’s predecessors by far, as documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in Man and Aggression, an invaluable piece of historical source material edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, was Robert Ardrey.  For example, from Gorer, who contributed to the book,

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

The idea that there was anything “audacious” about “suggesting that natural selection also influenced human behavior” by 1975 is nonsense.  There is literally nothing in Sociobiology, at least as far as the ideas Wilson was attacked for, or regarded as a “prophet” for writing, are concerned, that had not appeared repeatedly in the works of Ardrey published more than a decade earlier, such as African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative.  For example,

Man is a fraction of the animal world… We are not so unique as we should like to believe. The problem of man’s original nature imposes itself upon any human solution.

Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity. In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.

A certain justification has existed until now, in my opinion, for submission of the insurgent specialists to the censorship of scientific orthodoxy. Such higher bastions of philosophical orthodoxy as Jefferson, Marx, and Freud could scarcely be stormed by partial regiments. Until the anti-romantic (anti-blank slate) revolution could summon to arms what now exists, an overwhelming body of incontrovertible proof, then action had best be confined to a labyrinthine underground of unreadable journals, of museum back rooms, and of gossiping groups around African camp-fires.

If today we say that almost nothing is known about the much-observed chimpanzee, then what we mean is that almost nothing is known of his behavior in a state of nature.

The romantic fallacy (blank slate) may be defined as the central conviction of modern thought that all human behavior, with certain clearly stated exception, results from causes lying within the human experience… Contemporary thought may diverge wildly in it prescriptions for human salvation; but it stands firmly united in its systematic error.

The contemporary revolution in the natural sciences points inexorably to the proposition that man’s soul is not unique. Man’s nature, like his body, is the product of evolution.

Marxian socialism represents the most stunning and cataclysmic triumph of the romantic fallacy over the minds of rational men… And an observer of the animal role in human affairs can only suggest that much of what we have experienced in the last terrifying half-century has been simply what happens, no more and no less, when human energies become preoccupied with the building of social institutions upon false assumptions concerning man’s inner nature.

It is the superb paradox of our time that in a single century we have proceeded from the first iron-clad warship to the first hydrogen bomb, and from the first telegraphic communication to the beginnings of the conquest of space; yet in the understanding of our own natures, we have proceeded almost nowhere.

In reality, similar ideas set forth in Wilson’s books such as Sociobiology and On Human Nature, are better seen as afterthoughts than audacity.  Keep in mind that we are not discussing the merits of this or that scientific theory here, but mere matters of historical fact, e.g., who were really the most significant and influential opponents of the Blank Slate?  A genuine example of audacity may be found in Pinker’s book.  He dismisses the entire life work of Ardrey (and Lorenz) as follows:

The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory.  The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.”  I looked up these “studies” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression.  In fact, they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies).  Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved:  Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species.  But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves.  (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)

So much for “the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature” in a book purporting to be about the Blank Slate. Pinker doesn’t even bother to explain why Ardrey and the rest were “totally and utterly wrong. To learn that, we have to consult The Selfish Gene itself. Here is the passage referred to:

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or gene).

In other words, group selection was Pinker’s excuse for excising Ardrey from history and anointing Wilson as the great prophet who had thrown down the gauntlet to the Blank Slaters. We are to ignore the life work of a man, brilliant in spite of the constant bowdlerization of his work (and acceptance of that bowdlerization by those who should know better) as the “Killer Ape Theory,” and unrivaled in his ability to portray the big picture, whose constant theme was “that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature constrains the range of what we can achieve when raising our children or designing new social institutions,” because of group selection. In one of the most delicious ironies in the history of science, that theory has now been embraced by “dragon slayer” of the Blank Slate E. O. Wilson himself. In fact, the last couple of decades have been nothing if not a triumphant vindication of Ardrey’s battle against the false orthodoxy of the Blank Slate. To delete him from the history of that sad episode in the history of science as “totally and utterly wrong” makes about as much sense as deleting the Wright brothers from the history of manned flight as a couple of dilettante bicycle mechanics.

I suggest that if Haidt looked into the historical facts for himself, it might begin to dawn on him why Dawkins and Pinker were so quick to condemn Wilson’s advocacy of group selection in his latest book.  As a psychologist, I suggest he might want to consider the reasons why Pinker and others have so grossly misrepresented the history of the Blank Slate in a way that, to all appearances, seems intended to spare the sensitivities of the “group” of academic experts to which Pinker belongs by airbrushing out of history a man whose influence and significance as regards the Blank Slate controversy were much greater than Wilson’s, but who had the “audacity” to be right when the “group” of academic experts were wrong in spite of the fact that he was a “mere playwright.” It might behoove him to do so for reasons of sheer self-preservation. After all, if the man who really was the greatest opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday could be airbrushed out of history and become an unperson for advocating group selection, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Haidt, not to mention Wilson?

What is the Proper Sphere of Morality?

I have often discussed what the proper sphere of morality is not.  My conclusions are based on the conclusion that morality depends ultimately for its existence on mental traits that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they resulted in increased fitness in the context of those times.  If that conclusion is true, then it follows that attempts to apply morality to entities that didn’t exist in those times, such as modern nation states, are irrational.  Given the nature of moral emotions, they are also predictable, but that is beside the point.

What, then, is the proper sphere of morality?  We certainly can’t dispense with it entirely, any more than a zebra can dispense with its stripes.  We are moral creatures because that is how we evolved.  It is our nature to experience moral emotions, and it is natural for our actions to be influenced by moral sentiments.  There is, indeed, no alternative to morality in regulating our routine, day to day interactions with other human beings.  We lack the mental capacity to logically analyze all those interactions in real time and arrive at well-reasoned decisions to regulate our own behavior, according to some complex algorithm, like so many biological supercomputers.  The proper sphere of morality is, then, that in which it cannot be dispensed with; our routine interactions with other human beings as individuals or small groups.

As we know from observing its manifestations in diverse human societies, moral behavior is not uniform, but can vary greatly under the influence of culture and education, even though the same evolved traits, or at least similar evolved traits, are the ultimate cause of all these variations.  I suggest, then, that, within the constraints imposed by our nature, moral rules be kept as simple as possible and, to the extent possible, serve to promote harmony and eliminate friction in our societies.

And what of the interactions of nations, political parties, super-national organizations, and other modern social entities to which morality is irrelevant because it evolved at a time when nothing like them existed?  We should seek to apply our powers of reason to regulate their actions and interactions in the pursuit of rationally arrived at and generally agreed on goals.  I know, human reason is a weak reed to lean on, and keeping morality out of such spheres will always be difficult because it is not “natural” for us to ignore and/or suppress our moral emotions.  However, if our history teaches us anything at all, it should be that there are consequences to the irrational application of morality in spheres irrelevant to its reasons for existence, and those consequences can be not just harmful, but devastating.  Consider the history of the 20th century, for example.  Communism and Nazism were no less moral and ethical systems because few people today would consider them “good.”  The “good” systems of tomorrow may well become the Nazism and Communism of the day after tomorrow.  Moral emotions have always been far more effective than dispassionate reason at justifying mass murder.  “Good” always implies an “evil” to go along with it, and we will never succeed in distilling it out of any future moral system, no matter how “enlightened.”  Millions of Jews and “bourgeoisie” were murdered in the name of fighting “evil.”  New outgroups will inevitably take their place in the moral systems of the future.

Let’s not go there again.  If we at least try to let reason be our guide, at best we stand a fighting chance of avoiding future Holocausts and the World Wars of the 20th century, only fought this time with massive arsenals of nuclear weapons.  At worst, we may at least avoid the inconvenience of having to take all manner of self-righteous posing and ostentations virtuous indignation seriously.

Morality and the John Stuart Mill Syndrome

John Stuart Mill recognized the subjective nature of morality, contrasting his own opinion with those who believed that good and evil were objective “things in themselves.” As he put it,

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

In spite of this, one constantly runs into artifacts of the implicit assumption that morality really does correspond to an object, a real thing. Consider, for example, the following excerpt concerning the basis of right and wrong:

A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it. The difficulty is not avoided by having recourse to the popular theory of a natural faculty, a sense of instinct, informing us of right and wrong. For – besides that the existence of such a moral instinct is itself one of the matters in dispute – those believers in it who have any pretensions to philosophy, have been obliged to abandon the idea that it discerns what is right or wrong in the particular case in hand, as our other senses discern the sight or sound actually present. Our moral faculty, according to those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not the perception of it in the concrete.

The implication here is, of course, that there actually is something concrete to find.  Weight is added to that impression by the following passage, in which, after noting the failure of philosophers to discover a universal morality in spite of more than 2000 years of effort, Mill suggests that whatever consistency we have finally attained on the subject is due to a “standard not recognized.”

To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine.  It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.

To the extent that such a standard exists, and is not due to innate human nature, it must be an objective thing it itself.  Mill was a brilliant man.  He had, however, the great misfortune of writing before the theories of Darwin could inform his work.  He was not a “Blank Slater” in the 20th century sense of the term, that is, an ideologue who insisted that he could not be wrong about innate human nature, and that anyone who maintained the contrary was morally or politically suspect.  He was aware he might be wrong about the matter, and admitted as much.

But I digress.  The point of this post is that, in spite of admitting the subjective nature of moral systems, Mill believed that, once the rational basis for the “utility” of his system of utilitarianism, or, as he put it, “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” had been accepted, It would somehow also acquire legitimacy.  In other words, it would become a valid basis for judging the actions, not just of himself and those who agreed with him, but everyone else, as well.  In short, it would become an objective thing.

We have learned a lot since then.  “Innate human nature” is now accepted as if there had never been any dispute about the matter, and, if the works of the likes of Jonathan Haidt, Frans de Waal, and Richard Wrangham are any guide, the ultimate reasons for the existence of morality are to be found in that nature.  As Mill would have agreed, it is entirely subjective.  It seems abundantly obvious that, given its nature and origins, morality cannot possibly acquire anything like universal legitimacy.  That, however, is a truth that our modern experts in ethics have found too hard to bear.  In a sense, it puts them out of business.  What good is their expertise if there is no universal standard to discover?  What becomes of the delicious joy of virtuous indignation and the divine pleasure of moral outrage once the absolute standard those joys depend on evaporates?

For example, consider an essay penned by Michael Price, a professor of psychology, in “From Darwin to Eternity,” a blog he writes for Psychology Today.  Entitled “Morality:  What is it Good for?,” the article makes all the requisite nods to human nature.  For example,

Human moral systems are ultimately biological:  they are generated by brains, and brains are composed of mechanisms that evolve by standard Darwinian natural selection.  Like all biological adaptations (such as hearts, uteruses, and hands), these mechanisms solve problems related to individual survival and reproduction.  The moral judgments of individuals can generally be regarded as the primary products, or else as the by-products, of these mechanisms.

and, fending off in advance the charge of genetic determinism beloved of the old Blank Slaters,

Some psychological adaptations for morally-relevant behavior solve problems that exist in virtually all human environments (for instance, the problem of avoiding inbreeding).  Others are solutions to problems that are more severe in some environments than others, and this is a major reason why – despite the fact that human nature is fundamentally the same cross-culturally – some aspects of moral systems vary significantly across cultures.  For example, in environments in which access to resources depends especially heavily on success in war – such as among the tribal communities of highland New Guinea, or the fiefdoms of medieval Europe – people are relatively likely to endorse military virtues like fierceness and valor and to disparage cowardice.

Prof. Price concludes with some reflections on what he calls “cultural group selection”:

Historically, groups with relatively empowering moral systems have tended to supplant groups with relatively enfeebling moral systems, and also to be imitated by weaker groups who wish to emulate their success.  Through these processes, winning moral formulas have tended to spread at the expense of losing ones.  From this perspective, the crucible of intergroup competition plays a key role in determining which moral systems flourish and which ones perish.  This view does not necessarily imply anything cynical about morality:  there’s no reason at all from biology that this competition must be violent (and indeed, Pinker argues persuasively in his recent book (The Better Angels of our Nature) that it has become much less violent over time), and nonviolent, productive competition can lead to a rising tide of benefits for humanity in general.

“Benefits for humanity?”  Where have we heard that before?  You guessed it.  In the end it’s not about gaining a rational understanding of human moral emotions and accommodating them as best we can in a rapidly changing world.  It’s about inventing a better mousetrap:

What this view does imply is that morality ought to be less about passionate expressions of outrage, and more about designing a value system that will enable societal success in a constantly changing and eternally competitive world.

And so, after all these assurances about the subjective nature of morality as a consequence of the evolved mental characteristics of a certain biological species with large brains, the Good Object begins to emerge from the shadows once again, hazy but palpable.  From its admittedly humble origins as an odd collection of behavioral traits that happened to contribute to the fitness of ancient groups of hunter gatherers, an infant “value system” emerges, a Thing that, if it survives to adulthood, will seek to acquire legitimacy by “enabling societal success” along the way.  In a word, we’ve come full circle, back to John Stuart Mill.  Undeterred by the dubious success of innovative “value systems” like Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, we merely need to persevere.  With luck, we’ll cobble together an entirely new one that will finally “enable societal success” without the creation of another luckless outgroup like the Jews or the bourgeoisie along the way, and with none of the other traditional unfortunate side effects that have inevitably accompanied mankind’s previous efforts to apply morality to modern societies.  No thanks.  We’ve been down that path before.

I don’t mean to pick on Professor Price.  What public intellectual doesn’t share his penchant for concocting gaudy new moralities that will usher in a Brave New World of “human flourishing?”  We find even the new atheists ostentatiously striking pious poses and raining down indignant anathemas on the morally suspect.  Nothing is harder to shake off and leave behind than the odor of sanctity.  I suspect, however, that we must if we ever really want to flourish.

Evolutionary Psychology as a Tool of the Progressive Left

Great shades of the is-ought divide!  Once upon a time, the “progressive Left” considered the mere belief that such a thing as human nature exists a sure sign of a weakness for fascism, racism, and right wing moral turpitude in general.  Now, if we are to believe Dennis Prager at National Review Online, the world has been stood on its head.  In an essay entitled “Science Demands Big Government,” he claims to have discovered, based on an opinion piece in the New York Times by Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, that,

…something held to be indisputably scientific — evolution — is offered as the Left’s explanation for virtually everything.

As I’ve pointed out before, there has been a paradigm shift touching on the matter of human nature and the evolutionary origin of human behavioral traits.  Not long ago one could reliably expect an allergic reaction from the Left the moment the subject was raised.    While the shift is far from complete, that’s no longer the case.    To date, at least, no confirmed leftists have been observed dousing E. O. Wilson with water on account of his latest book, as they did after he published Sociobiology, albeit it certainly left some readers with indigestion.  Be that as it may, practitioners in the field are still constantly harassed by leftists, and for the same reasons that prevailed during the heyday of the Blank Slate.  It seems to them that any suggestion that there might be a biological basis to human behavior is a direct assault on their ideological sacred cows.  Copious examples, including this latest one, may be found on the blog of the journal Evolutionary Psychology.  In this case, blogger Robert Kurzban addresses the hoary accusation by John Horgan, who blogs for Scientific American, that evolutionary psychology is equivalent to “social Darwinism,” pointing out for the umpteenth time that the goal of evolutionary psychology is to discover that which “is”, not that which “ought” to be.  As Kurzban recalled, Horgan had earlier leveled a similar accusation at participants in the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) in Santa Barbara as long ago as 1995, in an essay entitled The New Social Darwinists. Referring back to that earlier piece, Kurzban writes,

Probably the most obviously incorrect aspect of the piece is the title, “The New Social Darwinists.” Social Darwinism is, of course, a political ideology, a set of ideas about values, or political oughts; HBES is, of course, a scientific society, and presenters at the conferences were making positive claims, about what is. Interestingly, in the body of the piece, Horgan explicitly acknowledges the is/ought barrier, writing of the attendees that “[m]ost shun the naturalistic fallacy, the conflation of what is with what should and must be.” His choice of title might, one could generously suppose, be intended as a play on words of some kind.

If Prager will read Horgan’s latest, he will see that the accusations therein are a mirror image of his own.  Just as Prager accuses evolutionary psychologists of manipulating science to condone the nanny state, a bête noire of the Right, Horgan accuses it of condoning warfare, a bête noire of the Left.   While Prager probably doesn’t realize it, the attacks from the Left have been coming for decades.  It hardly seems fair that evolutionary psychology should now be attacked from the right as well.  For example, again quoting Prager’s essay,

Evolution explains love, altruism, morality, economic behavior, God, religion, intelligence. Indeed, it explains everything but music. For some reason, the evolutionists have not come up with an evolution-based explanation for why human beings react so powerfully to music. But surely they will.

Now, along comes Professor Lieberman not merely to use evolution to explain human behavior, but to justify coercive left-wing social policy.

In other words, not only is the Left progressive when it coerces citizens to act in ways the Left deems appropriate, science itself — through evolution — inexorably leads to government coercion on behalf of such policies.

Alas, dear reader, there is actually is some truth in what Mr. Prager says.  Little does he know that what he calls the progressive Left once worked itself into a fine fit of virtuous indignation and hurled down anathemas on the very same science with a fury no less imposing than his own.  Of late, however, a good many of them have finally stopped kicking against the goad.  In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” they are now busily engaged in cobbling their ideological “oughts” onto the “is” of evolved human behavioral traits.  Read through Professor Lieberman’s opinion piece, for example, and you’ll find enough “oughts” to put a religious tract to shame.

In hopes of mollifying Mr. Prager, I can only point out once again that the science of human nature has been sufficiently beaten up by the left over the last several decades, and doesn’t need any more brickbats from the right.  If he doubts it, I suggest he consult books like Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, or Not in our Genes, by Richard Lewontin.  Beyond that, there are a good many honest practitioners in the field who are well aware of the difference between “is” and “ought,” and are more interested in uncovering the truth than in scoring ideological points.  As we learned from the Blank Slate episode, the Left is perfectly capable of inventing comfortable fantasies to replace those truths, no matter how obvious, if they happen to be ideologically inconvenient.  One must hope that the Right doesn’t prove just as adept at doing the same thing.

Evolution and the Morality Gurus

Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause of human morality.  We perceive the world in terms of good and evil, not because good and evil are real things that exist on their own, independent of human minds, but because it is our nature to do so.  This means, among other things, that a legitimate basis for declaring some things good and others evil, a holy grail of philosophers for millennia, doesn’t exist.

This truth is particularly inconvenient for the legions of “experts” in ethics and morality of a secular bent.  Their whole trade is based on the assumption, whether implicit or explicit, of objective good and evil.  If there is no legitimate reason to claim that what they consider good is not just their own subjective opinion or intuition, but applies to others as well as themselves, their entire basis for claiming superior knowledge and authority in such matters evaporates.  So much is obvious to their religious brethren, who base their own claims to authority on the existence of imaginary super beings.  In such matters, at least, they are a great deal more clear headed than the unbelievers.  They immediately recognize that, when their super being is lacking, the legitimacy of moral claims disappears with it.

In fact, so much was obvious enough a few years after Darwin published his famous theory.  Given what we have learned in the last couple of decades about the relationship of moral emotions to processes in the brain, the existence of similar behavior  in other animals, and the revelations of Haidt and others about the manner in which moral judgments are actually made, it would seem there is no basis for any lingering doubts on the matter.  Of course, human beings have always been good at ignoring such truths if their profession or their ideology requires it, and the ethics “experts” have been no more behind hand about it than the corner chiropractor.

To illustrate how this works in practice, let us consider an essay composed by one of the expert tribe entitled Did Morality Evolve?  I don’t mean to pick on its author, Steve Steward-Williams, in particular, but he happens to describe himself as a lecturer in evolutionary psychology, which makes his conclusions that much more remarkable.  As such, he cannot well deny the evolved component of morality, noting, for example,

…there’s little doubt that evolutionary theory can shed light on the origins of some of the behaviours that fall within the rubric of morality, including altruism, empathy, and our characteristic attitudes about certain kinds of sexual behaviour.

This, however, is immediately following by,

On the other hand, the morality-as-adaptation hypothesis faces some serious challenges. If morality were a direct product of evolution, why would people constantly argue about what’s right and wrong? Why would we spend so much time teaching our children to be good, and inculcating in them virtues such as generosity? Why would we experience inner conflict between what we think is morally right and what we really want to do?

Cutting to the chase, Steward-Williams informs us that he has no “snappy answers” to these questions, concluding that,

…morality is not a direct product of evolution. Instead, and to some extent, it is a humanmade system of favouring those evolved tendencies that facilitate group cohesion, while disfavouring those that are socially divisive. Morality is a way of controlling our evolved natures, rather than a mere reflection of those natures.

One might call this a statement of the “reformed” version of the Blank Slate.  According to this version, there is, after all, such a thing as human nature, and it even influences morality, but it doesn’t matter, because there is another, “good” morality which serves to “control our evolved natures.”  Presumably our “evolved natures” include the “bad” morality.  Unstated but implicit in all this is the assumption that an objective good exists, and that it is associated with something like what Sam Harris might call “human flourishing.”  Voila! The role of the “expert” is restored.  It is to uncover the details of this unevolved morality for the rest of us so that we can “control” our evolved natures so as to serve the legitimate and true “Good.”

Steward-Williams’ “proofs” that some aspects of morality are not evolved are of the flimsiest.  For example, morality can’t be directly evolved “because people constantly argue about what’s right and wrong.”  This is a revised version of the “genetic determinist” argument of the Blank Slaters, according to which “human nature” could only consist of traits as rigidly programmed as the instincts of a bird building its nest, or a spider spinning its web.  Morality can’t be directly evolved, “because we spend so much time teaching our children to be good.”  More of the same, archaic, nature versus nurture stuff.  Morality can’t be directly evolved, because if it were we wouldn’t “experience inner conflict between what we think is morally right and what we really want to do.”  Really?  Why?  What, exactly, is it about evolved traits associated with moral behavior that requires that they immediately be completely self-consistent and in accord with all our other appetites, as perfect as Athena stepping forth from the brow of Zeus?

Why do I have a problem with these self-declared experts who are busily cobbling away on the details of future “other, unevolved” moralities?  After all, I’m tolerant enough of the corner chiropractor, and times are hard.  Well, as it happens, we’ve already tried the manipulation of morality on numerous previous occasions in order to, as Steward-Williams puts it, favor “those evolved tendencies that facilitate group cohesion, while disfavouring those that are socially divisive,” often with disastrous results.  Every morality implies an out-group.  To cite a couple of recent examples of the manipulation of morality, Communism “facilitated group cohesion” by murdering 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take.  Nazism “facilitated group cohesion” by murdering six million Jews.

I have a better idea.  It’s basically an adaptation of the old, “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” philosophy.  Let’s stop inventing new moralities.  Instead, let’s promote a thorough understanding of the behavioral traits that are the basis and precondition for the existence of them all.  Armed with that understanding, we might stand a chance of controlling our more destructive tendencies by relying on reason instead of novel and more perfect pieties.  It seems to me we’ve suffered from the strutting and posing of the pathologically pious long enough.

The Ethics of Individual Eugenics

Ross Douthat just published an opinion column for the New York Times entitled Eugenics, Past and Future, about the ever increasing control of individuals over the genetic makeup of their offspring.  After the obligatory brickbats thrown at the old eugenicists of the 20’s and 30’s, he maintains that what he calls “ethics” should be applied to decide whether such individual level eugenics is desirable or not.  Here are the last four paragraphs of his essay:

Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.

From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.

But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.

First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

In a word, Douthat believes that morality should be used to decide whether parents can exercise control over the genes of their offspring or not.  I would argue that morality has nothing to do with it.

Debates like this illustrate the fact that, while our understanding of what morality is, and why it exists, has been expanding by leaps and bounds, we have as yet been unable to come to grips with the implications of that understanding.  We are still too mesmerized by the illusion of the Good as object, as a thing-in-itself.  In spite of the fact that there are a myriad of other Goods, quite different from our own, we cling to the comforting fantasy that we perceive the “real” Good, the “true” Good.  It stands to reason.  That’s the way evolution has programmed us, presumably because those individuals unfortunate enough not to perceive the Good in that way did not survive.

Morality exists because it evolved.  Culture and environment have a profound influence on how and what we perceive as good and evil, but those perceptions would not exist at all failing the existence of the innate behavioral traits that are their ultimate cause.  Those traits promoted our survival at times and places utterly unlike the present, and I see no basis for assuming that they will continue to promote our survival in the modern world, nor do I see any basis for the supposition that they would be relevant in any way to decisions about whether or not to act in ways that were impossible at the time they evolved.  Specifically,  morality is not relevant to parent’s decisions about the genetic makeup of their children.

Assuming I am right about what morality actually is, there is no objective basis for moral decisions.  Philosophers throughout the ages have sought such a basis, but never found one.  How, then, are moral decisions made regarding issues such as the one raised by Mr. Douthat?  His last paragraph perfectly illustrates the method.  By striking virtuous poses and shaming and shouting down the opposition.  Whoever shouts the loudest and shames the best wins.  If Mr. Douthat can successfully manipulate human moral emotions so as to evoke a subjective feeling of moral approval for his contentions that parents who seek to control the genetic inheritance of their offspring really are seeking a mindless and illegitimate form of “mastery and control,” and that they are usurping unwarranted control over the “marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn,” and have a flawed belief in their own righteousness, then he wins.  If his opponents can shout louder, strike more convincing poses, and manipulate more effectively, they win.  Read the comments following the essay and you’ll see the process unfolding before your eyes, complete with extravagant and bombastic poses and the shouting down of anathemas on the morally flawed.

And what is my opinion concerning the “should” of this matter.  Alas, my “should” can have no sturdier basis than my own, personal whim.  My whim is to survive.  It seems to me that parents are the best judges of whether their offspring are likely to survive or not, and should be allowed as much latitude as possible in insuring their survival, including by consciously endowing them with the genes most likely to insure their survival.  As for the state, I suspect the old eugenicists had at least some excuse for giving it such a large role.  Many of the intellectuals of the 20’s and 30’s believed in the perfectibility of the state.  They had not yet been disillusioned by the reality of the fascist and Communist versions of totalitarianism.  We should be sufficiently aware by now that the state is far too liable to prefer its own interests over those of individual citizens to ever again entrust it with such power.

On the Role and Legitimacy of Morality

No human being is obligated to conform to someone else’s conception of the Good.  Moral rules are expression of the subjective judgments of individuals.  As such, they can never acquire objective legitimacy.  It follows from this that virtuous indignation and moral outrage can never be objectively justified.  They exist, not as rational responses to the breaking of objectively legitimate rules, but as subjective behavioral traits that are usually irritating and occasionally dangerous to others.

Does the above imply that we should not behave morally in our day to day interactions with other human beings?  Of course not!  There is no other plausible way to regulate those interactions so as to minimize conflict and maximize mutual benefit.  We are certainly not intelligent enough to accomplish the same thing in real time using our meager powers of reason.  Imagine the tedium of a conversation in which each party had to carefully reason about the potential outcome and impact of every word he spoke.  It is to the advantage of all, or at least most of us, that moral rules exist, and that their violation be punished or otherwise prevented.  It is, however, reasonable to insist that those rules conform to human nature, be as simple and efficient as possible, and not be motivated by the claims of any religion, whether spiritual or secular.