Trotsky on Proletarian Morality

You might say Leon Trotsky was the “best” of the old Bolsheviks.  He was smart, was familiar with the work of a host of important thinkers beyond the usual Marx and Hegel, and wrote in a style that was a great deal more entertaining than the cock-sure, “scientific” certainties of Lenin or the quasi-liturgical screeds of Stalin.  He also had a very rational understanding of morality, right up to the point where his embrace of Marxism forced him to stumble across the is-ought divide.  He set down his essential thought on the subject in an essay entitled Their Morals and Ours, which appeared in the June 1938 edition of The New International.

Trotsky begins by jettisoning objective morality, summarizing in a nutshell a truth that is perfectly obvious to religious believers but that atheist moralists so often seem unable to grasp:

Let us admit for the moment that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means. Then it is evidently necessary to seek criteria outside of historical society and those ends which arise in its development. But where? If not on earth, then in the heavens. In divine revelation popes long ago discovered faultless moral criteria. Petty secular popes speak about eternal moral truths without naming their original source. However, we are justified in concluding: since these truths are eternal, they should have existed not only before the appearance of half-monkey-half-man upon the earth but before the evolution of the solar system. Whence then did they arise? The theory of eternal morals can in nowise survive without god.

It is a tribute to the power of human moral emotions that the Sam Harris school of atheists continue doggedly concocting “scientific” theories of morality in spite of this simple and seemingly self-evident truth.  It follows immediately on rejection of the God hypothesis.  In spite of that, legions of atheists reject it because they “feel in their bones” that the chimeras of Good and Evil that Mother Nature has seen fit to dangle before their eyes must be real.  It just can’t be that all their noble ideals are mere artifacts of evolution, and so they continue tinkering on their hopeless systems as the “ignorant” religious fundamentalists smirk in the background.

The very title of Trotsky’s essay reveals that he understood another fundamental aspect of human morality – its dual nature.  In spite of approaching the subject via Marx instead of Darwin, he understood the difference between ingroups and outgroups.  In the jargon of Marxism, these became “classes.”  Thus, Trotsky’s ingroup was the proletariat, and his outgroup the bourgeoisie, and he found the notion that identical moral criteria should be applied to “oppressors” and “oppressed” alike absurd:

Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.

Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution.

Trotsky was quite familiar with Darwinian explanations of morality.  One might say that, like so many Marxists who came after him, he was a “Blank Slater,” but certainly not in the same rigid, dogmatic sense as the later versions who denied the very existence of human behavioral predispositions.  He allowed that there might be such a thing as “human nature,” but only to the extent that it didn’t get in the way of the proper development of “history.”  For example,

But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable.  Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.

He didn’t realize that these “elementary moral precepts” were just as capable of accommodating the Marxist “classes” as ingroups and outgroups as they are of enabling more “natural” perceptions of one’s own clan of hunter-gatherers and the next one over in the same roles.  His conclusion that these “precepts” were relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things was reinforced by the fact that he was also familiar with and had a predictable allergic reaction to the work of those who derived imaginary, quasi-objective and un-Marxist “natural laws” from “human nature”:

Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type, in so far as they do not confine themselves to rationalist utilitarianism, the ethics of bourgeois bookkeeping, appear conscious or unconscious students of Viscount Shaftesbury, who at the beginning of the 18th century deduced moral judgments from a special “moral sense” supposedly once and for all given to man.

The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer, since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of a gregarious animal, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society torn by classes.

Other than the concocters of “natural law,” there was another powerful barrier in the way of Trotsky’s grasping the fundamental significance of his “elementary moral precepts” – his own, powerful moral emotions.   According to his autobiography, these manifested themselves at a very young age as powerful reactions to what he perceived as the oppression of the weak by the strong.  As Jonathan Haidt might have predicted, they were concentrated in the “Care/harm,” “Liberty/oppression,” and “Fairness/cheating” “foundations” of morality described in his The Righteous Mind as characteristic of the ideologues of the Left.  It was inconceivable to Trotsky that the ultimate cause of these exalted emotions was to be found in a subset of the evolved behavioral traits of our species that have no “purpose,” and exist purely because they happened to increase the odds that his ancestors would survive and reproduce.  And so it was that, as noted above, he skipped cheerfully across the is-ought divide, hardly noticing that he’d even crossed the line.  At the end of the essay we discover that this sober rejecter of all absolute and objective moralities has somehow discovered a magical philosopher’s stone that enabled him to distinguish “higher” from “lower” moralities:

To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party, since the party embodies in his consciousness the very highest tasks and aims of mankind… Does it not seem that “amoralism” in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?

Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will – only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!

Let us say that it provided Trotsky with moral satisfaction, and leave it at that.  It is certainly easier to forgive him for such a non sequitur than the more puritanical among the New Atheists of today, who have witnessed the collapse of the Blank Slate, can have no excuse for failing to understand where morality “comes from,” and yet still insist on edifying the rest of us with their freshly minted universal and “scientific” moral systems.

As it happens, there is a poignant footnote to Trotsky’s essay.  Even at the time he wrote it, he probably knew in his heart of hearts that his earthly god had failed.  By then, he could only maintain his defiant faith in Marxism by some convoluted theoretical revisions that must have seemed implausible to a man of his intelligence.  According to the dogma of his “Fourth International,” the Bolshevik coup of 1917 had, indeed, been a genuine proletarian revolution.  However, soon after seizing power, the proletariat had somehow gone to sleep, and allowed the sly bourgeoisie to regain control, using Stalin as their tool.  The historical precedent for this remarkable historical double back flip was the Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution.  As all good Marxists know, this had ended in the defeat of Robespierre and the Jacobins, who were the “real revolutionaries,” by the dark minions of the ancien regime.  A more realistic interpretation of the events of 9 Thermidor is that it was a logical response on the part of perfectly sensible men to the realization that, if they did nothing, they were sure to be the next victims of Madame Guillotine.  No matter, like the pastor of some tiny fundamentalist sect who insists that only his followers are “true Christians,” and only they will go to heaven, Trotsky insisted that only his followers were the “true revolutionaries” of 1917.

The fact that he took such license with Marxist dogma didn’t prevent Trotsky from grasping what was going on in the 1930’s much more clearly than the “parlor pink” Stalinist apologists of the time.  Here’s what he had to say about he Duranty school of Stalinist stooges:

The King’s Counselor, Pritt, who succeeded with timeliness in peering under the chiton of the Stalinist Themis and there discovered everything in order, took upon himself the shameless initiative. Romain Rolland, whose moral authority is highly evaluated by the Soviet publishing house bookkeepers, hastened to proclaim one of his manifestos where melancholy lyricism unites with senile cynicism. The French League for the Rights of Man, which thundered about the “amoralism of Lenin and Trotsky” in 1917 when they broke the military alliance with France, hastened to screen Stalin’s crimes in 1936 in the interests of the Franco-Soviet pact. A patriotic end justifies, as is known, any means. The Nation and The New Republic closed their eyes to Yagoda’s exploits since their “friendship” with the U.S.S.R. guaranteed their own authority. Yet only a year ago these gentlemen did not at all declare Stalinism and Trotskyism to be one and the same. They openly stood for Stalin, for his realism, for his justice and for his Yagoda. They clung to this position as long as they could.

Until the moment of the execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the others, the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure, though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the revolutionists in the U.S.S.R. In this sense The Nation and The New Republic, not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the pen, fully responded to the interests of “democratic” imperialism. The execution of the generals alarmed the bourgeoisie, compelling them to understand that the advanced disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus lightened the tasks of Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado. The New York Times cautiously but insistently began to correct its own Duranty.

Those who don’t understand what Trotsky is getting at with his imputations of Stalinism regarding The Nation and The New Republic need only read a few back issues of those magazines from the mid to late 1930’s.  It won’t take them long to get the point.

Even if the gallant old Bolshevik still firmly believed in his own revisions of Marxism in 1938, there can be little doubt that the scales had fallen from his eyes shortly before Stalin had him murdered in 1940.  By then, World War II was already underway.  In an essay that appeared in his last book, a collection of essays entitled In Defense of Marxism, he wrote,

If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime.  The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy.  This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class.  However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.

The assassin who ended Trotsky’s life with an ice pick was perhaps the most merciful of Stalin’s many executioners.  There could have been little joy for the old Bolshevik in witnessing the bloody dictator’s triumph in 1945, and the final collapse of all his glorious dreams.

 

“Natural Law” and Other Rationalizations of Morality

People worry about a “grounding” for morality.  There’s really no need to.  As Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce pointed out in Wild Justice – The Moral Lives of Animals, there are analogs of moral behavior in many species besides our own.  Eventually some bright Ph.D. will design an experiment to scan the brains of chimpanzees as they make morally loaded decisions, and discover that the relevant equipment in their brains is located more or less in the same places as in ours.  Other animals don’t wonder why one thing is good and another evil.  They’re not intelligent enough to worry about it.  Hominids are Mother Nature’s first experiment with creatures that are smart enough to worry about it.  The result of this cobbling of big brains onto the already existing mental equipment responsible for moral emotions and perceptions hasn’t been entirely happy.  In fact, it has caused endless confusion through the ages.

We can’t just perceive one thing as good, and another as evil, and leave it at that like other animals.  We’re too smart for that.  We have to invent a story to explain why.  We perceive Good and Evil as things independent of ourselves, so we need to come up with some kind of myth about how they got there.  It’s an impossible task, because Good and Evil don’t exist as independent things.  They are subjective impressions.  It is our nature to perceive them as things because morality has always worked best that way, at least until now.  That fact has led to endless confusion over the ages, as philosophers and theologians have tried to grasp the mirage.

We are much like the patients described in Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain, who had their left and right brain hemispheres severed from each other to relieve severe epilepsy.  According to Gazzaniga,

Beyond the finding…that the left hemisphere makes strange input logical, it includes a special region that interprets the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs.  I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.

Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs.  In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patients’s brain, he got up and started walking.  When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action:  “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

We constantly invent similar stories to rationalize to ourselves why something we have just perceived as good really is Good, or why something we have perceived as evil really is Evil.  Jonathan Haidt describes the same phenomenon in his The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail:  A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.  Noting that he will present evidence in the paper to back up his claims, he writes,

These findings offer four reasons for doubting the causality of reasoning in moral judgment: 1) there are two cognitive processes at work — reasoning and intuition — and the reasoning process has been overemphasized; 2) reasoning is often motivated; 3) the reasoning process constructs post-hoc justifications, yet we experience the illusion of objective reasoning; and 4) moral action covaries with moral emotion more than with moral reasoning.

The most common post-hoc justification, of course, has always been God.  Coming up with a God-based narrative is a piece of cake compared to the alternative.  After all, if the big guy upstairs wants one thing to be Good and another Evil, and promises to fry you in hell forever if you beg to differ with him, it’s easy to find reasons to agree with Him.  Take him out of the mix, however, and things get more complicated.  We come up with all kinds of amusing and flimsy rationalizations to demonstrate the existence of the non-existent.

Consider, for example, the matter of Rights which, like Good and Evil, exist as subjective impressions that our mind portrays to us as objective things.  The website of the Foundation for Economic Education has a regular “Arena” feature hosting debates on various topics, and a while back the question was, “Do Natural Rights Exist?”  The affirmative side was taken by Tibor Machan in a piece entitled, “Natural Rights Come From Human Nature.”  If you get the sinking feeling on reading this that you’re about to see yet another version of the naturalistic fallacy, unfortunately you would be right.  Machan sums up his argument in the final two paragraphs as follows:

We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits (a class of some kind of beings) and games (another class) and subatomic particles (yet another class) and so on. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified, but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn’t be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chickens and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, or when there are some oddities involved.

So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us—we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights, and as they do so they must also respect them.

Is it just me, or is this transparent conflation of “is” and “ought” sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old?  Well, it must be me, because according to the poll accompanying the debate, 66% of the respondents thought that Machan “won” with this argument, according to which Natural Rights “evolved” right along with our hands and feet.  Obviously, since people “know in their bones” that Rights are real things, it doesn’t take a very profound argument to convince them that “it must be true.”  In a word, if you think that the world will sink into a fetid sewer of moral relativism and debauchery because there is no “grounding of morality,” I have good news for you.  It ain’t so.  If our moral equipment works perfectly well even when the only thing propping it up is such a flimsy post-hoc rationalization, it can probably get along just as well without one.

 

An Appeal to Conservative Atheists: “C’mon, Man!”

No doubt sports fans are aware of the “C’mon Man” collections of the sports week’s worst bloopers and blown calls on ESPN.  That was my reaction on reading a piece entitled Yes, Atheism and Conservatism Are Compatible by fellow conservative atheist Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review Online.  The article was a reaction to the recent unceremonious eviction of the atheist group American Atheists from a booth at CPAC after they had been invited to attend by current Chair of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas.

Cooke started out well enough, quoting the Interdict by fire-breathing Christian zealot Brent Bozell that led to the eviction:

The invitation extended by the ACU, Al Cardenas and CPAC to American Atheists to have a booth is more than an attack on conservative principles.  It is an attack on God Himself.  American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God.  How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity?

to which Cooke quite reasonably responds,

The particular merits of the American Atheists group to one side, this is a rather astounding thing for Bozell to have said. In just 63 words, he confuses disbelief in God for “hatred” for God — a mistake that not only begs the question but is inherently absurd (one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there); he condemns an entire conference on the basis of one participant — not a good look for a struggling movement, I’m afraid; and, most alarmingly perhaps, he insinuates that one cannot simultaneously be a conservative and an atheist. I reject this idea — and with force.

and

If atheism and conservatism are incompatible, then I am not a conservative. And nor, I am given to understand, are George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Daniels, Walter Olson, Heather Mac Donald, James Taranto, Allahpundit, or S. E. Cupp.

He continues with the same point that I made in a recent post:

One of the problems we have when thinking about atheism in the modern era is that the word has been hijacked and turned into a political position when it is no such thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an “atheist” as someone who exhibits “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.” That’s me right there — and that really is the extent of it.

Cooke continues with an assessment of the Christian legacy in world history which is rather more benevolent than anything I would venture.  And then he goes completely off the tracks.  As readers of this blog might guess, it happens in the context of an issue that speaks to our moral emotions – the question of Rights.  Again quoting Cooke,

A great deal of the friction between atheists and conservatives seems to derive from a reasonable question.  “If you don’t consider that human beings are entitled to ‘God given’ liberties,” I am often asked, “don’t you believe that the unalienable rights that you spend your days defending are merely the product of ancient legal accidents or of the one-time whims of transient majorities?”  Well, no, not really.  As far as I can see, the American settlement can thrive perfectly well within my worldview.  God or no God, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are all built upon centuries of English law, human experience, and British and European philosophy, and the natural-law case for them stands nicely on its own.

Not really.  Sorry, but without a God, the “natural-law case for them” collapses as a non sequitur.  Without a God, “natural law” can’t grab a single Right, Good, or Evil out of anyone’s subjective consciousness and magically transmute it into a thing-in-itself.  And in spite of the fervent wringing of hands of every conservative on the face of the planet, the fact that it can’t won’t cause a God to miraculously spring into existence.  The subjective perception of rights in the human consciousness will continue to function just as it always has.  That perception isn’t going anywhere, and neither requires, nor will it pay any attention to the Christians who are disappointed because there’s no God to transmute the perception into an independent Thing, nor to atheists, conservative and otherwise, are disappointed because they can’t transmute it into a Thing by invoking equally imaginary “natural laws.”   Adding insult to injury, Cooke continues,

“Of the nature of this being (God),” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1817, “we know nothing,”  Neither do I.  Indeed, I do not believe that there is a “being” at all.  And yet one can reasonably take Jefferson’s example and, without having to have an answer as to what created the world, merely rely upon the same sources as he did – upon Locke and Newton and Cicero and Bacon and, ultimately, upon one’s own human reason.  From this, one can argue that the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership, that this self-ownership yields certain rights that should be held to be unalienable, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  After all, that’s what we’re all righting for, Right?

(Pause for loud forehead slap.)  Locke, Newton, Cicero and Bacon?  Smart men, no doubt, but what on earth could they conceivably have known about the evolutionary origins of such concepts as Rights?  Good grief, Locke was a Blank Slater, albeit one of a much different color than the likes of John Stuart Mill or Ashley Montagu.  Are we really to believe that one can become enlightened concerning “Rights” by reading Locke, Newton, Cicero, and Bacon until one reaches a state of Don Quixote-like stupefaction?  “Human reason?”  Hey, I’m game, as long as the chain of rational arguments doesn’t include the “miracle happens” step introduced in one of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” cartoons.   And the leap from “human reason” to “self-ownership” as a property of the universe?  All I can say is, Cooke should have stopped while he was ahead.  C’mon, man!

What is the “Atheist Agenda?”

There is none.  An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, period!  Somehow, that simple definition just never seems to register in the minds of large cohorts of atheists and believers alike.  Take, for example, Theo Hobson, who supplies us with his own, idiosyncratic definition in a piece entitled “Atheism is an Offshoot of Deism” that recently turned up in the Guardian:

Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.

Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).

So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us.

Sorry, but I beg to differ with you Theo.  There certainly are many delusional atheists who embrace such a “moral vision,” but the notion that all of them do is nonsense.  For example, I reject any such “moral vision,” which Michael Rosen accurately described as “Religion Lite.”  If you’ll trouble yourself to read the comments after your article, you’ll see I’m not alone.  For example, from commenter Whiterthanwhite,

So is my Afairyism an offshoot of my five-year-old’s belief in fairies?  Is my Afatherchristmasism an offshoot of her belief in Father Christmas?

Topher chimes in,

Indeed.  Certain (rather more arrogant) religious people insist on seeing atheism as a reflection of theism rather than a rejection of it. It makes them feel better I guess, but of course is absolutely misguided.

Dogfondler adds,

Yes what a bag of bollocks this is. Atheism is an ‘offshoot’ of deism the way that absence is an offshoot of presence.  It seems that what theists can’t stand about atheism is the sheer absence of belief. Get over it.

Ituae concurs,

Can you, and others like you, please stop talking about atheism as if it were a belief system? I don’t believe in God. Doesn’t mean a subscribe to whatever incoherent, ill-thought-out Humanism you’re passing off as philosophy.

There are many similar comments, but as noted above, it never seems to register, even among some atheists.  Follow an atheist website long enough, and you’re sure to run across commenters who insist on associating atheism with veganism, progressivism, schemes for gladdening us with assorted visions of “human flourishing,” and miscellaneous secular Puritans of all stripes.  No.  I don’t think so!  Atheism doesn’t even come pre-packaged with “scientific rationalism.”  It is merely the absence of a belief in a God or gods – Period! Aus!  Schluss!  Basta!

If any word is long overdue for a re-definition, it’s “religion,” not “atheism.”  Instead of being rigidly associated with theism, it should embrace all forms of belief in imaginary, supernatural entities, or at least those with normative powers.  In particular, in addition to a God or gods, it should include belief in such things as Rights, Good, and Evil as things-in-themselves, independent of the subjective impressions of them that exist in the minds of individuals.

Among other things, such a re-definition would add a certain coherence to theories according to which the predisposition to embrace “religion” is an evolved behavior.  I rather doubt that we’ll eventually find something quite so specific as “You shall believe in supernatural beings!” hard-wired in our brains.  On the other hand, there may be predispositions that make it substantially more likely that belief in such beings will follow once a certain level of intelligence is reached.  I suspect that the origins of secular religions such as Communism will eventually be found by rummaging about in the very same behavioral baggage.  I’m not the only one who’s seen the affinity.  Many others have spoken of the “popes,” “bishops,” and “priesthood” of Communism and its antecedents, for almost as long as they’ve been around.

In any case, not all atheists are secular Puritans who embrace these various versions of “religion lite.”  I personally hope our species will eventually grow up enough to jettison them along with the older editions.  Darwin immediately grasped the truth, as did many others since him.  It follows immediately from his theory.  Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of morality and the perception of such subjective entities as Good and Evil that go with it.  That is the simple truth, and it follows that belief in the existence of Good and Evil as objective things with some kind of a legitimate, independent normative power, whether ones tastes run to the versions preferred by the “heavy” or “lite” versions of religion, is a chimera.

Does that mean it’s time to jettison morality?  No, sorry, our species doesn’t have that option.  We will continue to act morally in spite of the vociferous objections of legions of philosophers, because it is our nature to act morally.  It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t “real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it.  On the other hand, we do have the option of recognizing the pathologically self-righteous among us for the charlatans they are.

Elmer Gantry

Morality and the Lament of the Liberal Atheists

Atheists of the ideological type that might be described as “progressive” or “liberal” have a problem.  In general, they are extremely moralistic and self-righteous.  Read their articles, visit their blogs, or just follow one of them on Twitter for a while, and you’ll see what I mean.  Take New Atheist kingpin Richard Dawkins, for example.  In the last week alone he has tweeted anathemas against sexists, racists, animal abusers, and female genital mutilators.  The problem with this is that atheists lack any legitimate basis for applying their moral judgments to anyone.  As political philosopher Michael Rosen puts it, their tacit assumption of such legitimacy amounts to “religion lite.”

Rosen’s comment appeared in a review of American philosopher, legal scholar, and liberal atheist Ronald Dworkin’s book, Religion Without God, that recently appeared in The Nation.  Noting that Dworkin accepted “the full, independent reality of value,” Rosen, himself a liberal atheist, points out that there is a problem with this claim.  There is no more evidence for it than there is for the existence of God.  He sums up the implications in the final paragraph of his review:

I cannot see that describing the target of our disagreements about value as existing in a fully independent, objective realm is anything other than religion lite:  the religious idea of eternal goodness without the miraculous elements of omnipotent divine will and personal immortality.  Yet I am one with Dworkin in thinking that even a fully secular individual should contemplate the universe not just with curiosity and wonder but with reverence and gratitude.  Still, behind me I hear a voice – a Nietzschean one, perhaps – that tells me that what Dworkin and I are looking at is no more than a penumbra, the few rays that remain in the sky after the sun of revealed religion has set.  If that is so, then the coming night may be dark indeed.

This sums up the dilemma of the liberal atheist very nicely.  They want to continue sitting comfortably on a branch they have just sawed off.  Religious believers notice this immediately and laugh, with good reason.  the world view of the modern liberal may well turn out to be as dangerous as that of any religious fanatic, but at the same time it’s a joke.  It is as moralistic as that of the most self-righteous Pharisee, or the most pious Puritan, utterly dependent on the existence in an “independent, objective realm” of Good, Evil, and Rights to have any semblance of rationality, but lacking any evidence or rational basis for belief in such mirages.  The continuing stream of news from the realm of science, which good liberals must at least pretend to respect, to the effect that the ultimate basis for morality may be found in the evolved behavioral predispositions of an animal species with a particularly large brain has done nothing to help matters.  All this is happening at a time when the modern incarnation of the liberal can hardly engage in a rational debate without constantly falling back on the illusion of moral superiority as his inevitable ultima ratio.  No wonder Rosen senses the approach of darkness for liberal atheists.  What happens when the very basis of the ultima ratio disappears?

But what of the rest of us?  Are dark times approaching for us as well?  There might be a nuclear holocaust tomorrow for all I know.  However, no matter what the future brings, I like our chances of survival better if we base our decisions on what is true rather than on what is false.  It may be you think that a chaotic world of moral relativism is inevitable if there is no objective Good and Evil.  It may be you think human beings will lose their dignity if there is no God.  It may be that you think that tyranny and oppression will be our lot if there are no objective Rights.  True or not, one thing is certain.  None of these fears will cause Good, Evil, God, or Rights to magically pop into existence, independent of the minds that dream them up.  You may not be happy about reality, but it will stubbornly persist in being real in spite of you.

Such fears are also unrealistic.  Moral relativism is the ground state of living things.  It doesn’t work for a social species like ours.  If every one of us tried to monopolize all the available resources within his grasp at the cost of everyone else, the chances that any given individual would survive and reproduce would be drastically reduced.  Therefore, morality.  It exists because, from an evolutionary perspective, it works.  It will continue to function just as it always has, even if 100,000 philosophers shout at the top of their lungs that it’s irrational.  Of course it is, but it doesn’t matter.  We will continue to perceive the good and evil that seem so real to our imaginations as absolutes.  It is our nature to do so, and it will only be possible for us to override that nature by an act of will.  When it comes to regulating our social interactions, morality is the only game in town.  There is no viable substitute.  Within certain limits, of course, there is a great deal of flexibility in exactly what these “absolutes” will be.  Assuming we value the survival of our species, we would do well to choose them wisely, and limit their scope to the bare necessities.

It will never be possible to ignore human moral emotions with impunity.  They aren’t going anywhere, and “rational” arguments will never really be rational unless they are taken into account.  That said, it seems obvious that decisions regarding the optimum minimum wage, how we should react to the situation in Ukraine, and what the law should be regarding corporations were not contemplated by Mother Nature when she devised morality.  Perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to apply our limited powers of reason to deciding such matters, rather than just allowing ourselves to be carried along on a tide of moral emotions.  Those among us who invariably react to those whose opinions differ from their own in such matters with outrage and virtuous indignation are not only tiresome, but irrational.  The liberal atheists may sense the darkness as the façade of their cherished righteousness collapses around them.  The rest of us, however, can breathe a sigh of relief.

Antediluvian Feminism

While catching up on my back issues of The Monthly Magazine, I ran across an interesting letter to the editor by one “P. W.” in the April 1801 issue.  (It’s on page 220 in case you happen to have a copy lying around the house.)  Many women probably had the same idea long before him, but it’s the earliest piece by a man I’ve ever run across proposing equal pay for equal work.  Some excerpts:

Sir, the propriety of giving women the same pay as men, for acting with equal success in the same station, has long been so forcibly impressed upon my mind, that I cannot resist my inclination to give you the reasons for the opinion I have formed on the subject…

First, it is obvious that the absurdity of custom can never overthrow or diminish the authority of the immutable law of justice, which directs that women should receive equal rewards with men, for the same services equally performed.

Second, the sound policy of calling out the abilities of every member of the community, for the benefit of the whole, by the stimulus of an adequate reward, is a principle that should be extended to both sexes; a change that would improve the female character, and convert her present insignificancy into usefulness.  The stage, the fine arts, and literary composition are the principle departments in which an equality of honour and profits are to be obtained by the competitors of either sex…

Third, humanity unites with policy, in enforcing the advantage of providing resources for women of all ranks, whereby the may gain an honourable support, when deprived of the customary protection of male relatives…

The interests of morality the abolition of the absurd and unjust depreciation of female talent, as it certainly operates as a check to the exertions of women, and tends to multiply the herd of those unhappy frail-ones, who fall a prey to seduction; and who, in their turn, become seducers, and inveigle our sons, our fathers, and our husbands, into the paths of destruction.

It took a while, but the shade of P. W. must have smiled when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963.

As those who click on the link above will see, The Monthly Magazine was published in London from 1796 to 1843.  Among other things, it published the earliest fiction of Charles Dickens.

Equal Pay

 

Of Ingroups, Outgroups and Ideology

The set of innate human behavioral traits we associate  with morality did not evolve in order to eventually promote and uphold ideological utopias.  However, they did evolve to promote a dual system of moral behavior, in which one set of rules applies to the ingroup and another to the outgroup.  Murder, for example, which is usually severely punished if the victim belongs to the ingroup, has on occasion been treated with indifference and even encouraged if he belongs to an outgroup.  Knowledge of the distinguishing traits of ingroups and outgroups are acquired by experience and culture.  Such traits often include ideologies, of both the religious and secular types.  Thus, to cite a familiar example, while support or contempt for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the other shibboleths of Marxism played no role in the evolution of moral behavior, they are quite capable of serving as ingroup/outgroup markers.

For example, as I write this, the liberal/conservative divide in the US is a major variant of ingroup/outgroup identification.  That’s why one runs across terms like “polarization” in the news so often.  Read the comment section of any political blog, and you’ll quickly see that liberals and conservatives often don’t see their opponents as fellow citizens who happen to disagree with them, but as enemies, members of an outgroup complete with all the negative qualities commonly associated with outgroups.  They are not only wrong, but morally evil.

Mankind has often paid a heavy price for failing to understand this fundamental aspect of our moral nature.  Communism and Nazism were both highly successful ideological ingroups, in essence, secular religions, and both were also highly moralistic.  Both fought against “evil,” in the form of an outgroup.  For the Communists, the outgroup was the bourgeoisie, and for the Nazis, the Jews.  In the course of a few decades, these two powerful and charismatic secular religions had murdered tens of millions of men, women and children in the name of ridding the world of the “evil” supposedly embodied in these two groups.  The process continues today.  Old outgroups are exchanged for new ones, often strikingly similar to the ones they replaced.  For example, instead of bourgeoisie, we now have “the one percent.”  Instead of Jews, we now have “Zionists.”  The only difference in that respect between this century and the last is that the 21st century hasn’t yet spawned a new, charismatic ideology anywhere near as “successful” as Nazism and Communism to fill the vacuum left by their demise.  Unless we learn to understand and control this aspect of our moral nature, the appearance of new ones is just a matter of time.

The outgroup have ye always with you.  It represents a fundamental human need.  If one doesn’t happen to be handy, it will be invented. Hence the chimerical nature of schemes to unite all mankind into one big ingroup, a gigantic mutual admiration society.  As E. O. Wilson put it referring to a different ideology, “Great theory, wrong species.”

Morality, we are now told, must be put on a secular, “scientific” basis, in order to serve the transcendental “good” of “human flourishing.”  This new scheme of harnessing moral emotions in the name of “human flourishing” is not only palpably absurd, but dangerous.  Moral behavior evolved.  It has no purpose.  The reasons it evolved have to do with the survival of individual genes, and have nothing whatsoever to do with “human flourishing.”  “Human flourishing” itself will inevitably mean different things to different people, and these differences will spawn ingroups and outgroups as before.  There is nothing wrong with human beings uniting to consider rational means of achieving mutually agreed upon goals.  However, attempts to “tame” morality, and make it conform to “science” in pursuit of those goals is a prescription for disaster.  Human moral emotions cannot be manipulated at will.

Morality will not disappear, nor will our moral behavior undergo any fundamental change simply by virtue of our understanding it.  We will not all suddenly become “moral relativists,” nor will we all begin applying mathematical equations instead of moral emotions to regulate our day-to-day interactions.  We may, however, become wise enough to cease and desist from attempts to “tame” those emotions in the interest of promoting this or that ideological or political system.  Unless we are to understand that the mayhem and senseless mutual slaughter we have been engaged in since the dawn of recorded time represents “human flourishing,” one must hope so.

On the Existence of “Moral Blind Spots”

According to Michael Austin, who writes the Ethics for Everyone blog for Psychology Today, we are suffering from “Moral Blind Spots.”  Referring to the morality-based arguments in favor of slavery of an earlier time, he writes,

When I read these arguments and discuss their flaws with students, I’m reminded of something a professor of mine once asked, “What will future generations think about us? What moral blind spots of ours will they see, that we miss?” There are many possibilities, to be sure, but I think that future generations may look back at the disparity of wealth in our world and wonder how we could have missed the injustices that exist related to this.

If future generations are still capable of rational thought, perhaps they will ask a more pertinent question:  In view of the fact that the nature of morality and the ultimate reasons for its existence should have been obvious to our generation, why did so many of our philosophers, professors, and other assorted Ph.D.’s in the social sciences still believe there was some logical basis for making moral judgments of past generations?  Like so many of the other contemporary experts on morality, his work is informed by the tacit assumption that Good and Evil exist, independent of their subjective origins.  Like the others, he throws out a barrage of “shoulds” without troubling himself in the least about establishing their legitimacy, apparently oblivious to the many books discussing the biological origins of morality that have been appearing lately.  Here are some examples from his article:

It is disturbing, shocking, and disappointing to read arguments which include the attempt to defend the indefensible.

The “indefensible” he refers to is slavery.  Austin is not providing us with a description of his subjective moral intuitions in response to a particular stimulus.  Rather, the implication here is that there are objective reasons to consider slavery indefensible, and attempts to defend it as disturbing, shocking, and disappointing.  In short, he is saying that slavery is objectively Evil.  Why?  We are not told.  Nothing could be easier than striking poses in defense of this particular instance of “expertise in morality.”  Does not everyone agree that slavery is Evil?  What could be easier than simply shouting down anyone who disagrees?  They simply reveal themselves as Evil by association.  In reality, slavery is neither Good, nor Evil, because such categories simply don’t exist as things in themselves.  We can certainly say that the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the U.S. today is that slavery is evil.  It was also the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the ante-bellum South that slavery was good.  What we cannot say is that there is some objective basis for deciding which of them is right.  Continuing from the article,

We look back and wonder, “how could educated people believe that slavery was a moral institution?”

Here Austin is assuming that there are objective reasons for considering slavery moral or immoral.  He does not tell us what they are, and for good reason.  There are none.

How could we believe that it is morally permissible for certain parts of the world to have so much, while others, through no fault of their own, die of malaria because they lack access to something as cheap and effective as a bed net or anti-malarial medication.

Here Austin is assuming that there is an objective basis for declaring some things morally permissible, and others not.  Again, he does not trouble himself to explain why.

I pay extra money each month to my satellite tv provider so that I can watch Arsenal on the Fox Soccer Channel, have an occasional overpriced drink at the local coffee shop, and I purchase other things that I don’t really need. To be clear, I don’t think that we should necessarily stop all such spending. What I do think we should consider, however, is the option of curtailing some of this spending and then putting that money to work in ways that can help others who are suffering from treatable illnesses. By making do with a little less, we can help others live. This is not mere charity, it is a matter of justice.

Here, we find a baseless “should” associated with the spending of money in one way as opposed to another, another baseless “should” concerning what it is appropriate for us to consider, and what not, and a declaration that something is a “matter of justice” without the least semblance of an attempt to establish the legitimacy of that assertion.

Morality is a loose description of a collection of behavioral traits, observable in human beings, with analogs in other species.  The ultimate reason for their existence is the evolution of physical traits in the brain and nervous system.  Those traits exist solely because individuals who possessed them were more likely to survive, in times which bear little resemblance to the present, than those who didn’t.  So much is becoming increasingly obvious.  In spite of this, Austin and legions of other modern moralists continue to simply assume the existence of objective morality as a given.  It is nothing of the sort.  Today, objective morality is like a dead man walking.  Perhaps future generations will have the sense to wonder why it is taking the dead man so long to finally collapse.

Of Rights and the Radicalism of Benjamin Franklin

As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,

The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so.  I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted.  They seem to mistake the point.  Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme.  That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine.  The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards.  As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small.  A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states.  We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778.  An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights.  He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family.  I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists.  This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.

In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy.  They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals.  As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified.  There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains.  There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves.  It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream.  Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits.  Such claims assume the independent existence of rights.  However, they have no such existence.  The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood.  It is impossible for them to be self-evident.  To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.

When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good.  In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable.  The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it.  One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself.  The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.

I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.”  I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.

Ben Franklin Channels Karl Marx

Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone.  That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world.  The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it.  Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track.  Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France.  Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,

Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work.  In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account.  Does that mean that Franklin was stupid?  Far from it.  As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist.  The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology.  More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.

The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly.  We are not nearly as smart as we think we are.  The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.

As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought.  Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution.  Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British.  Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed.  His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of.  Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless.  Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today.  The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.