Freedom of Religion, Atheism, and the Pledge of Allegiance

Freedom of religion in the United States has always been a matter of freedom for me, but not for thee.  True, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most influential of our founding fathers, favored the complete separation of church and state, but they belonged to a minority.  The majority went along with the language of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but only as a form of armed truce.  Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hardly in favor of full religious liberty.  They favored the First Amendment prohibition, not because of an altruistic desire to proclaim complete liberty of conscience as a human right, but of the great diversity of Protestant sects in the country at the time, and their desire to insure that there would be no interference with the one they happened to favor.

As may be seen in the records of both the Great Convention and the state ratifying conventions, the clause was accepted with mixed feelings.  The fears of many others were expressed by a farmer at the Massachusetts convention, who “shuddered at the idea that Roman Catholics, Pagans and Papists might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.”  Furthermore, at a time when State sovereignty was taken a great deal more seriously than it is now, the States did not consider the federal prohibition a barrier to their own establishment of any religion they happened to prefer.  Several of them actually had State religions at the time the Constitution was ratified.  There also existed support of the clergy by general taxation, provision for religious instruction, religious tests for office, and all the other traditional accompaniments of an established religion.

As one might expect from their strong religious tradition, Protestant Christianity was established in practically every one of the New England states.  Legally binding tithes existed in Vermont until 1808, the more “liberal” constitution of Connecticut of 1818 provided, “No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship… And each and every society of denominations of Christians in this State shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights and privileges.”  Maryland allowed taxation to support Christianity as long as no sect was favored, and no Jew could hold an office in the state until 1851.  It was an idiosyncrasy of that State’s law that a Negro’s testimony was admissible in court against a Jew, but not against a Christian.  Massachusetts confined the equal protection of the laws to Protestant Christians until 1833, a Pennsylvania court held that “Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the Common Law of Pennsylvania,” and so on, and so on.  Indeed, the disabilities applied to Catholics and Jews in this land of “religious freedom” remained in force in some states long after those sects had achieved full emancipation in Great Britain in spite of its established church.

As for atheists, the idea that freedom of religion applied to them in the United States has always been a myth.  In most States they were incompetent to testify until the last decade of the 19th century.  As for the guarantee of religious liberty in the Constitution, it was intended, according to one state court, “to prevent persecution by punishing anyone for his religious opinions, however erroneous they might be.  But an atheist is without any religion, true or false.  The disbelief in the existence of any God is not a religious but an anti-religious sentiment.”

And so it is that, at least in some sense, right wing evangelicals are quite right when they declare that the United States is a “Christian nation.”  They are in fine company in that regard, as the “Christian nation” meme was also commonly found in the pamphlets of the Ku Klux Klan in its heyday.  True freedom of religion has never existed in this country, and those who are most prone to make pious speeches about defending the ideal of Liberty are typically the first to deny its substance.  It should therefore come as no surprise that atheists should still be fighting against their relegation to the status of second class citizens in the “under God” clause of the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.

The justices of the Supreme Court used all the familiar specious arguments in upholding that blatant denial of full citizenship to atheists in 2004 that earlier courts had used to condone prayer in the public schools.  As in that earlier battle, they claimed that children who objected could choose not to recite the pledge, completely ignoring the stigma such children would bear by segregating themselves in that way.  Today we might say that, by so doing, they would publicly proclaim their adherence to an outgroup, deliberately inviting the hostility of the Christian ingroup.  In view of the Supreme Court’s ruling that there is a de facto established church in this country after all, atheists have now turned to the states for relief.  As noted in an article in The Atlantic,

So the American Humanist Association has mounted a state constitutional challenge to the pledge in Massachusetts state court. On behalf of an anonymous Godless couple (Jane and John Doe) and their three children, the AHA argues that mentioning God in the pledge violates guarantees of religious equality in the state constitution.

While I am not optimistic, I certainly hope Jane and John Doe win the day.  I would cringe with shame for my species if aliens really did visit this planet and discover that, not only do a majority of its human inhabitants still believe in imaginary magical beings, but that belief in the same is actually still enshrined in the law of many of the states into which we are organized.  Beyond that, as one who volunteered to serve this country in Vietnam at a time when it was anything but popular to do so, it would please me if soldiers of a later day, at least, could pledge their allegiance to their country according to the established formula without at the same time falsely declaring their belief in a fantasy.

On the Nature of Human Rights

Human rights have no existence independent of individual human minds. Like moral judgments, they are perceived as real, objective things, but do not exist as such. Rather, they are subjective mental constructs, existing in our minds in the same way that similar constructs exist in the minds of other animals. They exist because our minds evolved in a way that enabled their existence. Like morality, much of the basic mental machinery responsible for their existence likely came into existence long before the emergence of the genus Homo. And also like morality, the sophistication of the expression of this aspect of our nature in our species compared to others is due to our advanced cognitive abilities rather than any fundamental difference in the emotional mental processes involved. Our notion of rights seems superior to that existing in other animals merely because our ability to think about how we act is superior to that of other animals.

The human rights perceived by each individual mind cease to exist once that mind ceases to exist. That does not mean they are mere figments of the imagination, or that they should not be taken seriously, or, for that matter, that they should be taken seriously. It is a mere statement of fact.

Because rights are perceived as real things, and because of the significance we attach to them, attempts are often made to portray them as legitimate in themselves. A familiar example thereof is the US Declaration of Independence, which includes the passage:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

In fact, given their nature, it is impossible for them to have any such objective legitimacy as that claimed in the ringing words of Jefferson. Because they have no objective existence as real things, they can be neither alienable nor inalienable. Similarly, because they do not actually exist as independent objects in the way that we perceive them, they cannot be endowed, whether by some super being supposedly responsible for the creation or by any other agency.

Presumably the basic mental machinery necessary for us to conceptualize the concept of a right evolved because of its effectiveness in resolving conflicts. For example, the wolves in a pack do not fight to the death each time there is a conflict of individual interests over such things as who will eat first, or who will have access to females in heat. Dominant wolves have the “right” to take precedence in such matters. Such rights are certainly not inalienable in wolves. As dominant wolves weaken with age, their status can be successfully challenged by younger, more powerful individuals, resulting in the alteration of previously established rights. Rights are no more inalienable in our species. With us, too, they can change within the limits set by our nature. For example, in the late 18th and early 19th century, there was much debate over how to compensate the loss to slave owners of their “right” to the possession and service of their slaves. In our own day, the idea of the existence of such a “right” would be considered absurd. Similarly with the “right” of the Russian nobility to buy and sell landed properties that included serfs, and their “right” to demand the services of these serfs. Today such “rights” are dismissed as an evil and unjustifiable form of exploitation.

Given their nature as evolved emotional traits that emerged at times in which our circumstances were radically different from those we now find ourselves in, it would behoove us to be as circumspect in the establishment of rights as it is in how we distinguish between good and evil. Like good and evil, the perception of rights as real things will exist because it is our nature to believe in their existence. They exist, not in the way that we perceive them, but as subjective mental constructs, but are not any less relevant to our condition because of that. One way or another, they must be taken into account.

The U.S. Bill of Rights is an interesting example of how this was effectively accomplished in practice. Its authors considered such things as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly in their own best interests. To a large extent, the authors believed they already existed in the form of rights. They were accordingly codified in simple, easily understandable form by individuals whose claim to represent the people as a whole was recognized as legitimate. British Tories at the time dismissed these rights at the time as mere addenda to a “silly paper constitution.” They were, however, embraced by the people and have been hallowed by a long existence of more than two centuries. In a word, they are effective rights.

In contrast, the laundry list of contradictory “rights” set forth in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights are expressed equivocally, in a much less straightforward and simple manner, and were created by individuals who had no generally accepted license to represent anyone. They have been observed by the participating nations more in the breech than in the observance, are unfamiliar to most of the people in the world, and are, therefore, for all practical purposes, moot.

While I am hardly certain that they are best, my personal preference is that the rights we establish and defend maximize individual autonomy and minimize interference in our lives by the state or by other individuals, limited only by the proscription of acts that unduly harm others. The principles set forth in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Utilitarianism are a start in the right direction.

H. L. Mencken and the Good-in-Itself

I just ran across an editorial by the Sage of Baltimore in his American Mercury that should be required reading for students of good and evil.  In the piece, which appeared in the issue of November 1926, Mencken encapsulates facts about the nature of morality that have been obvious to some of our best thinkers since at least the time of Aristotle, but about which academic and professional “experts” on the subject in the 21st century seem hopelessly confused.   Specifically, in spite of all that we have learned recently about the wellsprings of morality in genetically programmed and innate mental traits, and the fact that these traits exist only because they evolved, a great number of these experts persist, implicitly or explicitly, in defending the “noble purpose” fallacy.   By this I refer to the illusion that Good is a real thing, existing independently of subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and it has a goal or purpose, variously described as promoting “human flourishing” or some other chimera of that nature.

Mencken included his observations in a piece attacking Prohibition, which he considered an obscene assault on individual liberty.  In it he identifies the notion of Good as a real thing as the “categorical imperative.”  It is worth quoting his thoughts at length (bold and italics are mine):

That great statute has not only had the profound political effect of ereviving the old love of liberty in the hearts of the people, and their ancient willingness to run some risks for it; it has also had the still profounder philosophical effect of blowing up their old naïve faith in the categorical imperative. True enough, the name of the categorical imperative was a stranger to them, but nevertheless they once gave it full credit, and it was implicit in all the ethical schemes that bedeviled them, whether theological or merely constabulary. Right, in their view, was a definite entity, a Ding an sich (thing in itself), and as real as hot or cold. Wrong was equally clear and invariable. On this postulate all the gaudy nonsense of their law was based, and all the still gaudier nonsense of their theology. To question it was a sort of sin against the Holy Ghost, and indistinguishable from question democracy itself. But now they have learned to question it, and it seems to me that this learning has brought them many plain benefits, and vastly increased their intellectual dignity. For the first time in their history that have come to a surprised but not unpleasant understanding of the fact that the law, even the moral law, is after all only a human contrivance, and that what is put into it today may be taken out of it tomorrow. In other words, they have begun to realize that behind all categorical imperatives there stand concrete and highly human moralists, most of them with something to sell, and that the great and revolutionary discoveries of these moralists, when subjected to analysis, are very apt to turn out to be buncombe…

This rent in the moral fabric is greatly deplored by specialists in indignation, but it must be manifest to the judicious that it lets in a lot of welcome light. The whole imposture of law is salubriously illuminated, and with it the whole imposture of government. Hundreds of thousands – nay, millions – of simple men, hitherto in the habit of taking such things on faith, have begun to look into them a bit suspiciously – and suspicion, in that field, as in pathology and amour, is the beginning of wisdom. There is no slackening of belief, so far as I can make out, in those moral principles which ground themselves firmly upon human experience; swindlers, as everyone knows, are still reprehended, and the jail-doors clap upon them every day. But in the regions wherein morality itself becomes a sort of swindle, and the Good Man is indistinguishable from a Florida land speculator or a seller of Oklahoma oil stock – in these regions there is a growth of agnosticism, and even of infidelity, and out of it, in the long run, there will flow unmistakable benefits…

I long ago pointed out the colossal opportunity awaiting any Federal judge with enterprise enough to embrace it – and courage enough to face the blast of the Anti-Saloon League. Let him exhume the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments from the cold, cold ground, let him loose a bold judicial whoop for the whole Bill of Rights, let him begin sending Prohibition agents to the hoosegow, whence they issued to afflict a free people – let him do these simple things, all within his lawful powers, all within the strict boundaries of his oath, and he will come to such fame as not even the late Valentino ever encompassed. (That has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?)…

The treatment that remains is to get the patient on his legs, and let him pursue his own devices, taking what he wants and rejecting what he wants. In other words, the remedy is to heave the categorical imperative out of the window, and with it all the ethical osteopaths and chiropractors who merchant it. It is perhaps easier, since Prohibition, to get new moral legislation on the books. The uplifters have learned how to crack their whips, and the legislators have learned how to jump. But it is vastly harder to get moral legislation obeyed. That far, at least, we have gone…

The next bit is a beautiful encapsulation of the inevitable difficulties even the most brilliant of our intrinsically moral species has in discussing and understanding morality.  Our responses to what we see as gross impostures almost inevitably have some moral coloring, even if the imposture we are rejecting has to do with morality itself:

Perhaps we are destined to go still farther. For years I have spilled ink denouncing the hypocrisy that runs, like a hair in a hot dog, through the otherwise beautiful fabric of American life. Now I begin to suspect on blue days that I have been chasing a categorical imperative of my own. Is hypocrisy, then, infamous per se? I can only confess that, at the moment, I am in some doubt. It seems to work. In the face of it, and theoretically impeded by it, there has been the great advance in ethical realism that I have been describing. Perhaps hypocrisy is an anesthetic that makes major moral operations possible; without it they might be intolerable. Perhaps it is a necessary function of democracy – a general assumption of the not-true, embracing many lesser but inevitable assumptions of the not-true. It may be that candor, like honor, would be fatal to the whole democratic process – that it presupposes a contempt for the general opinion, and no less for the general lack of opinion, that verges upon anarchy…

…one sees only that the ancient authority of the moral law has begun to crack. Not only the wicked, but also multitudes of the naturally virtuous, have brought the concept of duty into the light of reason. A law among us is no longer something to be obeyed automatically; it is something to be weighted and discussed, and maybe to be rejected. It seems to me that Prohibition is mainly responsible for that benign change. It has destroyed a very dubious and dangerous axiom by putting it into terms of the intolerable. That is a public service of high value, and even of a certain austere dignity. Let the band blow a blast or two in honor of the preposterous Mr. Volstead (Prohibition was referred to as the “Volstead Act”). He aimed at the bird of freedom (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and brought down a whole sky-full of buzzards (Buteo wowseris).

How refreshing and reassuring it is to read a piece like that at a time when moral “experts” can come up with some goal or purpose, arbitrary other than the fact that it must seem an attractive goal or purpose to most of the other members of the group to which the “expert” belongs, and claim with a perfectly straight face that, because the goal is desirable and attractive, it is, therefore, also “really Good,” and hence, by some strange, mysterious process, linked to the human emotional traits we associate with morality.  We still live in an asylum, and it’s probably worse than even Mencken thought.  For all that, occasionally a little light still shines through the cracks in the wall.

Censorship in Philadelphia

The Internet has no equal as an enabler of Freedom of Speech. It provides access to public media to rich and poor alike, regardless of whether some publisher thinks he can make a profit from their work or not. Or at least it does outside of Philadelphia. The benevolent government there has decided to tax Freedom of Speech out of existence, or at least the Freedom of Speech of the little people who can’t afford it. You see, if you have any of those little display ads on your site, you’re in a “business for profit.” No matter that it costs money to maintain a website, and not one in a thousand of the sites that hosts the ads rakes in more than a fraction of that cost as “profit.” You still have to pay a “business privilege license” fee of $300. And, oh, by the way, you also have to bear the cost of documenting every penny of your income and expenses, because otherwise the city will just assume your income is pure profit, and tax that, too. It’s kind of like the “Fairness Doctrine,” but on a smaller scale and without the charade.

The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, IV

Morality is the behavioral expression of innate and fundamentally emotional traits hard-wired in the human brain. The variety and complexity of moral behavior is increasing with extreme rapidity, at least in terms of evolutionary times scales, as the physical characteristics of the brain responsible for the emotions relevant to morality, which have changed little if at all in the last 10,000 years, interact with the vast cultural and environmental changes associated with, among other things, the spread of mass education, instant international communication, and the emergence of modern states and other mass social groups in creatures, such as ourselves, with a sufficiently high intelligence to actually think about moral behavior. This has resulted in the remarkable variety of behaviors and beliefs associated with morality we see today, including the arousal of furious passions over “goods” and “evils” attributed to a variety of social groups, beliefs, and ideologies that didn’t exist and were, therefore, utterly irrelevant at the time that the traits associated with morality evolved.

The fundamental nature of morality, including the fact that evolved, innate traits are responsible for its expression, and that they quite as capable of evoking hatred, rage, and aggression as they are of inspiring empathy, self-sacrifice, and love, has been evident to our best thinkers almost since the days of Darwin. However, it is a testimony to the extreme difficulty we have in reasoning about things as much a part of us as our emotions that the communities of scientific and academic experts in the fields such a psychology, anthropology, and sociology that are most closely associated with the study of questions related to morality have been unable to keep up. For the most part, they subscribe to secular or spiritual religions and ideologies that are defined by pronounced judgments about distinctions of “good” and “evil,” even though those categories can have no real existence as other than subjective mental constructs. As a result, acceptance of a fact as obvious as the association of morality with innate mental traits and predispositions was furiously resisted and successfully repressed for decades by orthodoxies such as behaviorism that better accommodated those ideologies. General acceptance of the fact that morality is the expression of hard-wired mental traits has only occurred in the last decade or so, but only after being forced on the grudging community of “experts” by the rapid accumulation of new evidence from a variety of fields that was too compelling to be ignored.

One would think it rather obvious that, if morality is the expression of mental traits evolved eons ago at a time when our consciousness and social existence were radically different from what they are today, and if those mental traits only exist because they promoted genetic survival in those long bygone days, rational beings would dismiss the idea of “updating” it and applying it willy-nilly to modern realities out of hand as doomed to failure and, in view of disastrous outcomes of applying such “updated” moralities observed in the 20th century in the cases of Nazism and Communism, potentially self-destructive. We are, however, not rational beings, and our faith in our own intelligence is highly exaggerated. As a result, we have not seen the advent of a new Age of Reason. Rather, old moral certainties have merely been superficially updated to accommodate new realities.

The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality has presented us with a case study of how this has worked out in practice in the case of experts who are members of what have been termed WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies. As we have seen in the cases of three of the nine keynote speakers we have looked at so far, none of them are in the least bit dubious about applying morality, touched up here and there around the edges, to deal with modern realities, they believe in the notion of “moral progress,” and they have an implicit belief in good and evil as valid, legitimate things in themselves, somehow existing on their own, independently of the consciousness of individual human beings. In a word, when it comes to morality, we are far from being out of the woods.

In examining the remarks of some of the other speakers, we will see the same phenomenon repeated, including the most explicit attempt by any of the nine to justify faith in “legitimate” versions of good and evil, and an interesting example of how the behavioral traits associated with morality are “adjusted” to fit the Procrustean bed of new “goods” and “evils” required by WEIRD ideology.

First on the list today is fellow atheist Sam Harris. Sam doesn’t limit himself to merely implicit acceptance of WEIRD morality. He positively embraces it, proclaiming a fervent belief in a “moral truth” that he suggests is discoverable using the latest scientific technique. According to Sam, we must “think about moral truth in the context of science,” in order to “maximize human well-being.” He deems it “obvious” that “we need some universal conception of right and wrong.” However, as he sees it, there is an “impediment” in the way of our search for “moral truth.” In his words,

…most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.

It’s hard for me to understand the basis for such a preposterous claim. Consider, for example, the following statement by another speaker, Jonathan Haidt:

The problem is especially serious in moral psychology, where we all care so deeply and personally about what is right and wrong, and where we are almost all politically liberal. I don’t know of any Conservatives.

This, based on my experience, accurately represents the true state of affairs. Whatever their conclusions about the “intellectual basis” for good and evil, almost all of the people Harris is referring to are convinced ideologues, and moralists to the core. Furthermore, they see eye to eye with him about what good and evil “really” are. Read any history of the United States that has come out of these circles in the last 20 years. Does it contain no moral judgments? Can anyone point out one of these “right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people” whose work isn’t larded with morally loaded “shoulds?” Have the neuroscientists suddenly discovered that no emotional response can be detected in their brains to the names “Sarah Palin” and “Rush Limbaugh?” Journalists? Are you kidding me? Has any one of them of any note recorded in the history of the last 100 years been so much as capable of writing a book not characterized by a determined effort to make sure the reader can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys?” Are not such “public intellectuals” as Harris’ fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens passionately devoted to their own versions of good and evil? I personally would certainly agree that there is no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil, but, at least in terms of drawing any actual consequences from that conclusion, it seems to me that if I were thrown into a bag with a random assortment of “scientists, public intellectuals, and journalists,” I would be a distinct anomaly in that respect.

Be that as it may, Harris assures us that he is prepared to defend claims to “moral truth in the context of science.” And how are we to recognize “scientific moral truth?” By the fact that it promotes genetic survival, which is, after all, the only reason that morality exists to begin with? No, unsurprisingly, Harris is in full agreement with the other speakers regarding what is “really good.” It is that which “maximizes human well-being,” and “human flourishing,” as understood by self-described political liberals in the early 21st century.

We soon find out what kind of scientific proofs Harris has in mind to establish the verity of his moral truths. They amount to evoking morally linked emotions in a group of ideologically similar individuals and daring any of them to step outside the ideological box they live in by denying they feel those emotions or that they are not elicited by the kinds of evils Harris evokes. Some examples of his scientific technique:

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.

I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery.

And so on. In other words, Harris’ “proof” of the legitimacy of “moral truth” amounts to demonstrating that he can elicit similar moral emotions in a group of like-minded individuals. This is less than compelling evidence of what he proposes to prove.

In closing, Harris plays a clever game with the word “value:”

The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. (not, at least, if Harris is gatekeeper) I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to cut the heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.

Here, Harris evokes emotion as before, in this case in response to the beheading of adulterers, and then conflates two different definitions of the word “value.” In one case, it is the utilitarian value of doing good science to accomplish some desired end. For example, the technique used to create the atomic bomb was “valuable” in that sense, because the goal was achieved; the bomb went off. Emotion had nothing to do with that fact. It would have gone off whether its creators had strong emotional feelings about the utilitarian “values” they used to create it or not. In the second case, the “value” referred to is an emotional value. In its origins, it has not the slightest thing to do with “human flourishing.” Such emotional values, innate in their origins, are not infinitely malleable to promote “human flourishing” or whatever other utilitarian goal Harris might have in mind, and they come inextricably linked to another “value” – hatred directed at those who prefer, or seem to prefer, some other value. In other words, Harris would have us believe there is no difference between the means that are rationally chosen to achieve some goal and innate human emotional responses that have proven time after time after time to be incredibly bad means of achieving the social goals he has in mind. It’s as if Nazism and Communism never happened, as if precisely the same sort of desire for “human flourishing” didn’t give rise to them, and as if all that’s needed in the future to avoid their incredibly destructive outcomes is merely to tweak our method of discovering “moral truth” a bit. I have an alternative suggestion. Next time we want to promote “human flourishing,” let’s leave morality and all its associated passions out of it.

In our next installment, we will examine the remarks of the remaining speakers to see what rather remarkable adjustments to morality are required to promote human flourishing in the 21st century. Earlier posts on the Edge Conference can be found here, here, and here.

The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, II

As mentioned in an earlier post, the recent Edge conference on The New Science of Morality was addressed by nine eminent speakers who together represent a reasonable sample of current thinking on the subject in scientific and academic circles. Their remarks reveal a fact that has been abundantly obvious for some time; that the ideologically driven orthodoxy of the “Not in our Genes” school admirably described by Steven Pinker in his book, “The Blank Slate,” has been largely abandoned in favor of general acceptance of innate or “hard-wired” human nature, including human moral behavior.

By its own account this milieu is primarily to the left of center and “progressive” in its political outlook. Their conservative and religious critics have had no difficulty grasping an obvious implication of these recent adjustments to their world view; these self-described “secular liberals” have abandoned any rational claim to the objective legitimacy of moral distinctions, or on the existence of good and evil as other than subjective constructs of individual human minds. I might add that they have never had a basis for such a claim, even in the heyday of the “blank slate.” Now, however, it’s more obvious than ever. Regardless, as we shall see, in every case their remarks reveal an implicit belief in an objectively valid and legitimate morality. This faith of theirs in something for which there can be no rational justification is a remarkable demonstration of the power of innately driven and fundamentally emotional moral judgments over the human consciousness.

To study the phenomenon in action, let’s begin dissecting the remarks of the nine speakers. The first was University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Like many of the speakers who followed him, Haidt discussed his own scientific work, centered around what he calls Moral Foundations Theory, which “specifies a small set of social receptors that are the beginnings of moral judgment.” He likens these to taste receptors for sweet, sour, bitter, etc., and identifies the five most important of them as “care/harm, fairness/cheating, group loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, and sanctity and degradation.” I will leave it to future generations of geneticists to document where, if at all, these “moral receptors” appear in the human genome. In developing his taste metaphor, Haidt cites a variety of famous thinkers and authorities from days gone by. In doing so, he sticks to the most sound and approved remarks of the most sound and approved thinkers, a pattern that will repeat itself with the remaining speakers. It is essential to establish and maintain academic gravitas in this milieu, and novelty or wandering off the reservation in the choice of authorities is therefore assiduously avoided. In Haidt’s case, the list includes Mencius, unlikely to raise any eyebrows outside of China, and David Hume, currently in high fashion as an early proponent of innate human nature.

Haidt goes further than any of the other speakers in explicitly recognizing the consequences of morality understood as the manifestation of evolved, hard-wired behavioral traits. In his words,

So, as I said, morality is like the Matrix. It’s a consensual hallucination. And if we only hang out with people who share our matrix, then we can be quite certain that, together, we will find a lot of evidence to support our matrix, and to condemn members of other matrices… I believe that morality has to be understood as a largely tribal phenomenon, at least in its origins. By its very nature, morality binds us into groups, in order to compete with other groups.

But wait! Before you conclude that Haidt “get’s it,” and has managed to get his mind around the reality that morality is the manifestation of evolved traits that exist because they promoted our survival under conditions that existed in the misty realms of our prehistory, read on. Without missing a beat, Haidt goes on to discuss the possibility that the various types of morality may be “right” or “wrong,” and concludes,

And as I said before, nearly all of us doing this work are secular Liberals. And that means that we’re at very high risk of misunderstanding those moralities that are not our own. If we were judges working on a case, we’d pretty much all have to recuse ourselves. But we’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to just be extra careful to seek out critical views, to study moralities that aren’t our own, to consider, to empathize, to think about them as possibly coherent systems of beliefs and values that could be related to coherent, and even humane, human ways of living and flourishing.

And so Haidt wanders back off into the swamp in search of the “true good,” which, although none of mankind’s greatest thinkers has quite managed to capture it yet, in spite of thousands of years of trying, is apparently “coherent, humane” (whatever that means), and promotes what I suppose we are to understand as the objectively justifiable “goods” of “living and flourishing.” As we shall see, Haidt is not unique in attaching transcendental moral significance to such vague notions as “living and flourishing,” nor is he unique in never cutting to the chase and explaining why we should take his word for it that such things are “legitimately good.” It is just one of those things that are “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.”

In later posts we will examine further artifacts of this implicit belief in the “true good” among the remarks of the remaining speakers, and consider the future ramifications thereof in our quest to better understand ourselves.

“Hate Speech” and the Liquidation of Free Speech

Bruce Bawer comments on another of the “hate speech” laws that have recently been used so effectively to dismantle freedom of speech in Canada. Bruce describes the Norwegian version:

Then there’s Norway, where I live, and where the last few days have seen yet another dark development. By way of background, permit me to begin by quoting myself. On pages 230-31 of my book Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom I sum up the more alarming aspects of Norway’s Discrimination Law, passed in 2005:

It forbids “harassment on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, skin color, language, religion, or beliefs,” and, in turn, defines harassment as “actions, omissions, or utterances [my emphasis] that have the effect or are intended to have the effect of being insulting, intimidating, hostile, degrading, or humiliating.”

In other words, it’s illegal just to say certain things.

Defendants may be accused not only by the individuals whom they’ve supposedly offended but also by semiofficial organs such as the Anti-Racist Center and the Center against Ethnic Discrimination (both of which helped formulate the law, and both of which exist less to oppose real racism and discrimination than to oppose political incorrectness generally) or by the government’s Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud.

Which means that a handful of far-left organizations have been given enormous power to silence those they disagree with.

Violations of the law by individuals are punishable by fine; violations by individuals in concert with at least two other persons (such as a writer conspiring with an editor and publisher, perhaps?) can be punished by up to three years’ imprisonment — this in a country where murderers often get off with less. Moreover, the burden of proof is on the accused: you’re guilty until proven innocent.

And this in a supposedly free country.

One would think that the adherents of a religion who actually believe in it themselves would not fear criticism.  If they are convinced that what they believe is true, why would they not welcome challenges to that truth as opportunities to embarrass and confute unbelievers, and to enlighten others?  If, on the other hand, they fear that belief in a God who threatens to burn the majority of human beings in hell for millions and billions of years, and, in fact eternally, for the paltry sins they commit during their short stay on earth may not be quite rational, on can understand why they would be sensitive to criticism.   

Liberty is not a ground state. You have to keep fighting for it, or it disappears.

Free Speech and “Tolerance” on the Internet

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner had an op-ed in the New York Times on Friday entitled, “The Battle for the Internet.” (hattip Volokh Conspiracy)  Apparently it was conceived as a call for freedom of expression on the Internet, which Kouchner describes as the medium of an unprecedented “revolution in freedom of communication and freedom of expression.”  In fact, Kouchner’s notion of “freedom of expression” is somewhat constrained.  It doesn’t apply to people whose opinions do not bear a sufficient resemblance to his own. 

Kouchner does not keep us guessing about the type of people whose freedom of expression should be the subject of our particular solicitude.  In his own words,

For the oppressed peoples of the world, the Internet provides power beyond their wildest hopes. It is increasingly difficult to hide a public protest, an act of repression or a violation of human rights. In authoritarian and repressive countries, mobile telephones and the Internet have given citizens a critical means of expression, despite all the restrictions.

We should provide support to cyber-dissidents — the same support as other victims of political repression.

For those not familiar with current French political thought regarding the categories of people one can legitimately view as “victims of political repression,” I note in passing that they do not include Jews living in predominantly Moslem countries, Serbs in Kosovo, or Russians in Latvia.  But I digress.  Let us allow Mr. Kouchner to give a more comprehensive definition of those who, we must assume, are not so victimized.  In his words,

Extremist, racist and defamatory Web sites and blogs disseminate odious opinions in real time. They have made the Internet a weapon of war and hate. Web sites are attacked. Violent movements spread propaganda and false information.

I am not talking about absolute freedom, which opens the door to all sorts of abuses. Nobody is promoting that. I’m talking about real freedom, based on the principle of respecting human dignity and rights.

The battle of ideas has started between the advocates of a universal and open Internet — based on freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for privacy — against those who want to transform the Internet into a multitude of closed-off spaces that serve the purposes of repressive regimes, propaganda and fanaticism.

In other words, “freedom of expression” should not be extended to propagandists, fanatics, and promoters of “hate.”  That would be to embrace “absolute freedom of expression,” as opposed to “real freedom of expression,” which should only be extended to those who are sufficiently “tolerant” to agree with Mr. Kouchner.  And how does one go about defending “real freedom of expression?”  Why, by invoking the aid of “international instruments,” presumably after the fashion of the UN.  Again, in Mr. Kouchner’s words,

We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them.

No fewer than 180 countries meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society have acknowledged that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies fully to the Internet, especially Article 19, which establishes freedom of expression and opinion. And yet, some 50 countries fail to live up to their commitments.

We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them.

In a word, then, we are to leave defense of “freedom of expression” to more or less the same people who entrusted defense of “women’s rights” to the theocratic rulers of Iran.  Good luck with that.

In response to Mr. Kouchner’s impassioned plea for “real” freedom of expression, I suggest that he take note of the fact that it has already been tried, with rather disheartening results.  Our Canadian neighbors implemented a version of it complete with a national version of his “international instrument for monitoring such commitments,” in the form of what they called the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), throwing in a batch of clones at the provincial level for good measure.  It turned out that defense of “human rights” in Canada required the suppression of opinions that diverged from the prevailing “progressive” orthodoxy. 

Started back in the 1970’s, these organizations long had the good sense to limit their censorship to obscure conservatives, religious groups, unpopular and extreme political groups, and similar “violators of human rights” who lacked the name recognition and the wherewithal to fight back.  The CHRC prided itself on a 100% conviction rate in its vendettas against such malefactors, achieved via such dubious means as debarring truth as a defense, allowing hearsay evidence, and funding accusers but not defendants.  Eventually, however, they became “dizzy with success,” and started launching attacks on people who could actually defend themselves, such as conservative talk show host Mark Steyn, who occasionally sits in for Rush Limbaugh, the editors of Canada’s flagship Maclean’s magazine, and Ezra Levant, editor of the Western Standard.   Defend themselves they did, as can be seen, for example, here, here and here.  The mainstream media in Canada took note, belatedly realizing that their own collective freedom of expression was threatened, and not just that of the nameless small fry whose rights had been a matter of such singular indifference to them for 30 years and more.  They, too, began pushing back, and a host of Internet sites joined the fray, examples of which can be found here, here, here, and here.  Finally, assured that their backs were covered, even Canadian politicians rediscovered the value of freedom of speech.

Finally, confronted by forces it couldn’t intimidate, the CHRC backed down, in the familiar style of bullies whose bluff has been called.  The victory was a pyrrhic one, however.  It and its sub-bullies live on, and their existence will surely continue to have a dampening effect on the public discourse of anyone who might dare to disagree with them.  As Stefan Braun of the Winnipeg Free Press puts it,

Maclean’s, more mainstream and better-resourced than the niche Western Standard, survived its accusers. But to see any of this as a victory misses the point. If such wrongful accusations can be legally levelled to harass, hound and hurt even established media and renowned authors, can anyone really feel safe from rapacious censors, who may think to challenge popular wisdom or powerful censorship interests defending it?

What message is sent to malicious, or simply misguided, thought-accusers who think to silence them?

Thought persecution, not legal vindication, is the point. Legal vindication is evidence not of the absence of public harm from wrongful hate-speech complaints, but proof of its existence.

Steyn and Levant signify only the visible tip of a much larger chilling iceberg of public self-censorship lurking unspoken and unheard beneath…

The effects of Mr. Kouchner’s “real” freedom of expression are quite visible in Europe as well.  In the Netherlands, a major political party is threatened with blanket censorship in the trial of its leader, Geert Wilders, for daring to criticize Islam.  In the UK, high-handed bureaucrats banned popular US talk show host Michael Savage from entering the country, citing the now-familiar trumped up charges of “provoking criminal acts” and “inciting hatred.”  Once upon a time the country’s Independent Television Commission (ITC) even considered banning Foxnews for being “too opinionated.”  Apparently the commissioners failed to detect the irony of such a charge in the homeland of the BBC.

Europeans commonly refer to the First Amendment right to freedom of expression guaranteed to citizens of the United States as “radical” in comparison to their own “real” freedom.  How long we will remain “radical” in this respect is anybody’s guess.  Our latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, has been quoted as saying, “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.”  Predictably, one form of freedom of expression she feels bears an unacceptably high “societal cost” is “hate speech.”  Rest assured that “hate speech” will never include the torrent of obscene and violent abuse Sarah Palin has been subjected to since her candidacy for the Vice Presidency was announced.  Nevertheless, it is a highly flexible term, and can easily be construed to include any form of opposition to the prevailing orthodoxies.  Just ask the Canadians.

Of Democrats, Republicans, and the Liquidation of Liberty

The values of the Enlightenment can be summed up in one word; Liberty. The term includes freedom of thought and freedom of action, the latter freedom precluding only acts that physically harm others. The American Revolution represented a remarkable and, it would seem, historically anomalous victory of Liberty. Liberty is no more a good in itself than any other human value. I must admit, however, that I have an emotional attachment to it, and will regret its passing for what one might call sentimental reasons. In fact, we may be witnessing its demise.

Both of the great political parties in the United States embrace Liberty as a slogan. Both promote policies that assume its liquidation. The Democrats promote the cancerous expansion of state power. As the greatest and most consistent proponent of Liberty among our founding fathers, Thomas Paine, put it, “That government is best which governs least,” and “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” Today, the Democrats represent the polar opposite of his point of view regarding government. In an earlier post, I quoted Benjamin Franklin’s response to a scornful attack on the American Revolution in a letter from some of our British enemies:

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.

Today, the Democrats are but the latter day incarnation of the evil Franklin and Paine recognized so clearly.

As for the Republicans, never has a party brayed the word “Liberty” so loudly while so actively subverting it in practice. They demand torture, imprisonment without trial, and punishment without due process of law for anyone they choose to call a terrorist, all in the name of “security.” When it comes to freedom of conscience, they have become the mirror images of the British Tories who were the great enemies of our Revolution. As I write this, their demands for the liquidation of that freedom are becoming ever more explicit. Consider, for example, these words in the latest platform of the Republican Party in the state of Maine:

Reassert the principle that “Freedom of Religion” does not mean “freedom from religion.”

As if to punctuate the absurdity of this remarkable version of “Freedom of Religion,” the authors of the Maine platform actually quote Jefferson in the same document.  If ever a man was thoroughly and diametrically opposed to everything today’s Republicans stand for in matters of religion, it was Jefferson. 

It may be that Liberty can only exist in a state of unstable equilibrium in human societies. If so, it had a good run in America.  To the extent that I experienced it, I count myself fortunate.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Sedition on the Left and Right

In listening to Carter’s improbable nostrums for bringing peace to the Middle East, or Clinton’s latest attempts to breathe new life into the Alien and Sedition Acts, one can only admire the wisdom of the American people in limiting Presidents to eight years in office.  Do you wonder why the existence of Foxnews, talk radio, and freedom of speech in the blogosphere is a good thing?  Here’s a data point for you.  If it weren’t for them, there would be no counter to the Left’s latest attempts to limit the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances to those who agree with them.  These people need to revise the bumper stickers on their Volvos to “Question the Questioning of Authority.”  As for the Administration’s legacy media poodles, I can only suggest that they go to the next big “peace” demonstration and look around.  If they’re really worried about demonstrators who promote acts of violence, it might occur to them to consider what all those people in black hoods are there for.