Ostentatious Piety in the Asylum

The blogosphere is a crazy place. Read posts and comments where you will, and you will find the online asylum is filled to bursting with people who are cocksure they know what is good and what is evil, and are quite convinced their standards apply to everyone else in the world. No matter whether they are leftists or rightists, infidels or true believers, they are all convinced they have a monopoly on the true morality. One typically finds them pointing out how people they happen not to agree with don’t quite measure up to their universal standard.

Now, certain as they are that they know the difference between good and evil (and assuming, of course, that human beings really are intelligent), one would think that they would be able to tell you, logically, and going back to first principles, why what they consider good is really good, and why what they consider evil is really evil. If so, one would be thinking wrong. Of all those currently strutting about on the moral high ground preening themselves on their superior virtue, you could probably count the number who could even make a convincing attempt with the fingers on one hand.

Good and evil have no objective existence, and yet our brains are hard wired to perceive them as not only real, but absolute. Even I, the philosopher king of this blog, perceive them that way. That would all be well and good if our situation were still the same as it was when morality evolved. It isn’t though. The world is now much more complex, and we are armed with nuclear weapons in place of sticks and stones. Second guessing mother nature is always a dubious proposition. Refusing to act as moral beings because we consider ourselves too clever and sophisticated for such atavistic nonsense is a strategy that is more than likely to blow up in our faces. Still, it would behoove us to occasionally step back and ask ourselves whether what we consider good and evil really promote our survival or not. These categories only exist in our minds because that’s what they did in the past. If they prompt us to act self-destructively in the new world we’ve inherited, perhaps its a sign we need to turn off the autopilot, and start relying on our reason.

A Note to the Professionally Righteous

I occasionally receive comments from people who are “appalled” and “indignant” about what I have to say. Allow me to suggest to those people that they take their comments elsewhere. I don’t care to let them use my little blog to announce to the world what it is they happen to be virtuously indignant about on any given day. There are many other blogs and forums that will be more than happy to pass on that urgent news for them.

The Evolution of Morality and the Shifting Standards of Political Correctness

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey
An interesting article appeared in the German news magazine, “Der Spiegel,” recently. It was entitled, “How Mankind Learned Humanity,” and discussed recent developments in the field of evolutionary science relating to the evolution of morality in human beings. Why was it interesting? Well, there was a time when the appearance of anything of the sort in a left-leaning publication like Spiegel would have been virtually unthinkable. You see, back in the day, Marxists, socialists, and dwellers in various other ideological straightjackets found such notions politically unpalatable. They were in conflict with the preferred version of human behavior as infinitely malleable, and determined entirely by environment and learning. Creatures possessing such ideal characteristics were indispensible if the various utopias then under construction for us were ever to work as planned.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, a brilliant thinker named Robert Ardrey and others like him began publishing books, such as “African Genesis,” and “The Territorial Imperative,” pointing out the rather obvious absurdities of such notions, and reviewing studies of animal behavior and other research that pointed to the conclusion that our capacity to act as moral beings had evolved, along with the rest of our characteristics. They were promptly demonized as fascists, racists, and “pop ethologists” by the puritan ideologues. Notions to the effect that there was any genetic component to human behavior became distinctly politically incorrect. References to such ideas in the popular media became few and far between. When they did, it was usually to the accompaniment of some slur about the moral turpitude of those harboring such notions.

For those of us who lived through those times, and witnessed the shameful attempts of scientific poseurs like Richard Lewontin and Ashley Montagu to silence Ardrey and his colleagues with ridicule and spite, the unconscious vindication of his ideas represented by the Spiegel article and many others like it is both welcome and encouraging. I never doubted that vindication would come, because it seemed that, unless the Lewontins of the world were somehow able to cow the rest of the research community into suppressing every “inconvenient truth” that didn’t quite agree with their ideologically conditioned preconceptions, the weight of evidence for ideas that really amounted to little more than common sense would become overwhelming.

In the end, it did become overwhelming. The Spiegel article and the ever increasing volume of others like it are a reflection of that fact. The genetic basis of morality, and of human nature in general, is now treated as a commonplace in the popular media, as it is in the scientific research community in general. To tell the truth, I never thought the day would come as quickly as it has. It’s a hopeful sign. In the end, as long as free research can continue, the truth really can prevail.

Morality – the Nature of Good and Evil

To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists.  Morality is a construct of our minds.  In other words, it is subjective.  It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us.  Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist.  It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past.  It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved.  We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives.  We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are.  The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures.  For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”

“Oh, M. Le Beau!  …where did you pick up this absurdity?  …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”  

The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature.  While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable.  We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute.  It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives. 

It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved.  We all have desires.  However, others desire the same things.  A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival.  On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive.  It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.  Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved.   Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains.  Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.  

We experience morality as an absolute.  Why?  Because it functions best that way.  We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way.  In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way.  The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages.  In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species.  However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties.  We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.

The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties.  Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.”  The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety.  Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil. 

In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds.  If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another.  Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are constructs of our minds.  How then, “ought” we to act?

As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with.  There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard.  Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer.  Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction.  What “should” we do?  To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive.  There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  Morality is a part of us because it works.  It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue.  We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature.  On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies.  It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization.  See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved. 

Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with.  In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.

Torture: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

We are told that torture is essential to defend our “security.” Here are a few examples of how torture has contributed to the “security” of society over the years.

From “The History of the Franks,” by Gregory of Tours (in 584 AD a nobleman named Mummolus annoyed Queen Fredegund. Gregory continues with the story):

(The Queen) had a number of Parisian housewives rounded up, and they were tortured with the instruments and the cat, and so compelled to act as informers. They confessed that they were witches and gave evidence that they had been responsible for many deaths. They then added something which I find quite incredible: “We sacrificed you son (a young boy who had just died of dysentery) O Queen, to save the life of Mummolus…

Chilperic (the king) immediately sent his men to seize the person of Mummolus. He was interrogated, loaded with chains and put to the torture. Then his hands were tied behind his back, he was suspended from a rafter and he was questioned about these sorceries…Mummolus was extended on the rack and then flogged with treble thongs until his torturers were quite exhausted. After this splinters were driven beneath the nails of his fingers and toes. So things continued…

From “Red Victory” by W. Bruce Lincoln, describing the methods of the Cheka, the first of the infamous Communist security organizations, during the civil war that followed the 1917 Revolution:

Rapes of female prisoner by Cheka guards and interrogators were so commonplace that they occasioned comment from superiors only if performed in some particularly brutal or perverted fashion…

…each Cheka headquarters evidently developed certain specialities. The Cheka in Voronezh rolled its prisoners around inside a barrel into which nails had been driven, while the Cheka in Kharkov used scalping as a preferred form of torture. In Armavir, the Cheka used a “death wreath” that applied increasing pressure to a prisoners skull; at Tsaritsyn, they separated prisoners joints by sawing through their bones; and, in Omsk, they poured molten sealing wax on prisoners’ faces, arms, and necks. In Kiev, Chekists installed rats in pieces of pipe that had been closed at one end, placed the open end against prisoners’ stomachs, and then heated the pipes until the rats, maddened by the heat, tried to escape by gnawing their way into the prisoners’ intestines.

From a U.S. military autopsy report:

Final Autopsy Report: DOD 003164, (Detainee) Died as a result of asphyxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) due to strangulation as evidenced by the recently fractured hyoid bone in the neck and soft tissue hemorrhage extending downward to the level of the right thyroid cartilage. Autopsy revealed bone fracture, rib fractures, contusions in mid abdomen, back and buttocks extending to the left flank, abrasions, lateral buttocks. Contusions, back of legs and knees; abrasions on knees, left fingers and encircling to left wrist. Lacerations and superficial cuts, right 4th and 5th fingers. Also, blunt force injuries, predominately recent contusions (bruises) on the torso and lower extremities. Abrasions on left wrist are consistent with use of restraints. No evidence of defense injuries or natural disease. Manner of death is homicide. Whitehorse Detainment Facility, Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Such acts really do merit moral condemnation, but we’ve become jaded to moral condemnation. We’ve been afflicted by the professionally pious with their ostentatious displays of superior virtue and their holier than thou preening for so long that we dismiss moral revulsion as a pose, because that’s what it usually is. For the professionally pious, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing. When the reality really is an outrage to human decency, we tend not to notice, dismissing any reservations about, for example, torture, as just another pose, just another facet of someone’s political narrative.

Well, a healthy conscience and a conventional sense of right and wrong aren’t really necessary to understand why it’s necessary to resist the legitimization of torture. It can really be boiled down to a matter of self-preservation. Read through the above incidents, and multiply them hundreds of thousands of times. That’s been the reality of human history. Can anyone really still be so naïve as to believe that what goes around will never come around, that they will never be the victim of what they gladly condone when applied to others? As state power continues to expand exponentially, not only in the US, but in virtually every other country on the globe, who can still be blind enough not to see that, if they legitimize torture, they will eventually become its victim, or, if not them, their children? Has “security” become the sine qua non of modern society, trumping habeas corpus, the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront ones accusers, and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without hindrance except by due process of law? If so, then I submit that security is not to be found by the legitimization of torture, but by its final, unequivocal condemnation as a legal instrument of state power.

If security has really become the ultimate social value, then perhaps, when it comes to torture, it would be wise to forget the terminological hair-splitting one finds here, there, and everywhere on the web these days, and coolly consider the odds of ourselves becoming victims. Do you really want security above all else? Then work to put the state out of the torture business once and for all. You’ll be a more secure.

bruegel-wsj

Torture: The Liberals, the Conservatives, and the Rabbit People

I, personally, am opposed to torture.  I also consider the notion that water boarding, sleep deprivation, and similar “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not torture absurd.  Whatever one cares to consider it when inflicted in a carefully controlled training situation, water boarding is most definitely torture when inflicted on an enemy not once, but 80, 90 or 100 times, by tormenters who are confident they will not be held to account for their deeds.  Resistance to torture doesn’t have to be a moral decision, just a practical one.  Nations that torture weaken themselves by playing into the hands of their enemies, handing them an effective propaganda tool.  Anyone who was following the European media at the time the Abu Ghraib story broke knows how effective and damaging such propaganda can be.  For democracies, at least, condoning torture carries a high political cost.  The damage it does to the national security of a democracy by allowing its enemies to seize the moral high ground and by eliminating its own moral authority in the world greatly outweighs any plausible advantage that could be gained by it.

 

Individuals who support torture live in an imaginary world in which the victims are always their enemies, persons certainly guilty of terrorism or worse, regardless of whether they have had a trial or whether there is any plausible evidence against them.  The principles embodied in the American Bill of Rights don’t matter, as long as their precious security is at stake.  In the end, though, that security is a chimera.  Those who believe that torture will only be applied to the “others,” never to themselves, live in a dream world.  In the first place, nations that torture provide their enemies with justification for torture, putting their citizens, and especially their soldiers, at risk.  In a world that condones torture, the idea that the old rule, “What goes around, comes around,” doesn’t apply is not only stupid, it is suicidal.  In a world that condones torture, every individual is a risk.

 

History has demonstrated that the state is the most effective terrorist, just as it is the most effective killer. It was to protect us from the state as torturer and killer that or forefathers established prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, protections against arbitrary imprisonment, and all the rest of the freedoms we treasure for ourselves, and should treasure for others.  The conservatives in the USA who cheer so loudly for “enhanced interrogation” are wringing their hands at the same time about the expansion of government power and what they perceive as the approach to socialism.  If the state is really in danger of becoming so evil, is it wise to cheer so loudly for torture?  What if the state really does become evil?  What if it occurs to the leaders of that evil state to engage in the wholesale torture of those who, after all, were torture’s most zealous defenders?  What?  You think “It can’t happen here?”  Was the history of the 20th century nothing but a bad dream?  No, it wasn’t a dream.  It was a reality that could happen here quite as well as it happened elsewhere.  In such a world, our genuine security depends on standing by the principles we never should have abandoned in the first place, including rejection of torture.  

 

Sometimes I can’t even believe we are having this debate. A bunch of religious fanatics gets lucky and kills 3000+ people, and we are suddenly in a “war,” and have to throw all our liberties out the window.  Going on a decade later, we are still at “war,” and anything goes, as long as we can bamboozle ourselves into believing that our precious “security” requires it.  It reminds one of the constantly warring states in Orwell’s “1984.”  I suspect Orwell would have detected a very familiar ring in the arguments being fobbed off on us today to justify this constant state of “war.”  We have over 25,000 firearm deaths every single year in the US, and over 40,000 traffic fatalities. Is anyone suggesting we throw out the Bill of Rights and introduce a police state because of that? Hundreds of thousands have died defending the liberties we are now supposed to casually discard because we are all so terribly threatened by the evil terrorists. What fine Americans we are, what brave defenders of the faith our fathers fought and died for!  One successful attack, and all we can think of is crawling under a rock and bleating about our illusory “security.” One successful attack that in no way threatens our existence as a nation and, suddenly, we are drawing dire parallels with the need to suspend habeus corpus during the Civil War. What wimps we have become, what rabbits!

 

The right in the US really seems to have taken leave of its collective senses on this issue.  They really seem to believe that the torturers will never turn on them, that they will somehow, against all odds, be immune to the disease they are so blithely promoting.  The idea that the people who are given the authority to apply torture will always be philosopher kings, or, for that matter, are even likely to be capable of distinguishing those in the act of carrying out a nuclear attack from innocent civilians rounded up based on no or faint evidence is nonsense. History has proved it nonsense time after time. Those who condone torture have forgotten or never learned the lessons of history.  Our founding fathers were well aware of those lessons.  They didn’t suffer from our modern delusions about the benevolence and justice of the state as torturer.  That’s why they took the stand they did.  If we abandon their stand in pursuit of a hollow security we might as well give up the fight. We will have become the mirror images of the people we are fighting.

 

When one looks at the ideological divide in the US today on the matter of torture, one can only shake ones head.  The right openly condones it.  They give Nathan Hale speeches defending it, as if it were some kind of a holy cause.  For them, no one can be truly “patriotic” who opposes it.  For the left, it is just an ideological bludgeon that they find a convenient tool for attacking their enemies.  One hears no reasoned arguments against torture.  Instead, in place of reason one finds nothing but the usual pious posing from the “moral high ground.”    In other words, they oppose torture more or less for the same reasons the Bolsheviks opposed it before 1917; because it is a useful political tool. 

Morality – the Nature of Good and Evil

To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists.  Morality is a construct of our minds.  In other words, it is subjective.  It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us.  Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist.  It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past.  It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved.  We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives.  We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are.  The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures.  For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”

 

“Oh, M. Le Beau!  …where did you pick up this absurdity?  …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”   

 

The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature.  While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable.  We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute.  It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives. 

 

It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved.  We all have desires.  However, others desire the same things.  A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival.  On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive.  It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.  Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved.   Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains.  Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.   

 

We experience morality as an absolute.  Why?  Because it functions best that way.  We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way.  In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way.  The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages.  In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species.  However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties.  We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.

 

The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties.  Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.”  The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety.  Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil. 

 

In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds.  If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another.  Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are constructs of our minds.  How then, “ought” we to act?

 

As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with.  There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard.  Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer.  Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction.  What “should” we do?  To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive.  There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  Morality is a part of us because it works.  It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue.  We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature.  On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies.  It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization.  See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved. 

 

Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with.  In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.