Science discovers values

October 23, 2006

It is an astonishing fact that the great mainstream of Greek and Western moral philosophy, a veritable Amazon of genius, has been on the wrong track for 2,500 years.  From Socrates to John Rawls, the assumption has been that reason can discover right conduct, while passion or emotion merely cloud one’s rational judgment and cause misbehavior.  There is not a shred of evidence in support of that proposition.  One has only to read a single Socratic dialogue, or a book by Kant, to realize that it isn’t just false — it’s absurd.

As a handful of deviant philosophers have understood — David Hume comes to mind, with Protagoras before and William James after him — morality springs from our DNA, no less than our selfishness, and its driver is passion rather than cold reason.  We don’t feel a child abuser is in error, the way I might be in error if I believed two plus two equals five:  we are revolted and enraged by the abuser.

When we reflect on the suffering of courageous and noble persons — the firefighters of 9/11, say — we don’t react with annoyance over such a contradiction:  we admire and empathize and weep for the loss, even though it isn’t ours.  We weep at false tragedies, splayed out on screens.

Rationality describes and assesses the environment.  Morality, powered by passion — Hume’s term — determines right action.

This is a testable hypothesis.  Over the last decade, a number of experiments have done just that.  Many, like this one described by Times Online, have been of the “game theory” type.  The results have invariably favored passion over reason.

In this particular instance, the “rational actor” account of human nature, which assumes we always act to maximize our material interest, was shown to be inadequate in explaining certain kinds of irrational behavior.  For example, we refuse offers that are perceived to be profitable but unfair.  In other words:  humans submit to moral impulses, which sometimes trump self-interest.  The science writer of the Times seems troubled by the revelation:

What is starting to emerge is a more accurate — and recognisable — picture of human nature than classical economic theory provided. In many ways, it is a positive one, helping to explain the human capacity for kindness and co-operation, and the centrality of fairness to social norms. We are not acquisitive automatons conditioned always to follow narrow self-interest.

But it also has a dark side. The depth with which we feel injustice, and the way we respond to it emotionally, rather than rationally, may also underlie extreme reactions to perceived wrongs. The gang leader who has a rival murdered over a slight to his honour and the fundamentalist who takes out his grievance against the West by becoming a suicide bomber are both particularly high-stakes players of the ultimatum game.

We will never grow up to be Mr. Spock.  This may come as a shock to science writers of Times Online, but it’s a trivial truth to the rest of us, who wrestle, with some degree of awareness, with passions that lead to good and evil.


Living in the material world

October 16, 2006

Even among religious persons, the temptation is strong to measure life success in material terms.  For the nonreligious, it often appears as the only yardstick, substituting for less-quantifiable standards such as happiness or achievement.  How much money do I make?  How many people stand at attention when I walk into the office?  How large is my house — how fancy my car?  Success or failure in life will seem to depend on the answers given to these questions.

That such naive materialism is objectively false I consider to be beyond dispute.  That some version of it preys on the minds of many who live in the rich nations of the West is, I think, a likelihood.  I also suspect that we Americans are particularly susceptible, for two reasons.  First, our economy has been booming for so long that, as Sophistpundit observes, even the gloom-mongers in the media have taken notice.  Second, unlike most countries, we lack the rigid rankings of class, caste, or tribe, to set beside the products of material prosperity.

Even most Americans under the poverty line are, by historical standards, wealthy.  It’s not surprising, then, that we sometimes give the impression of being what we consume.

The materialist temptation arises in diametrically opposed contexts:  that of failure and that of success.  Subjectively, one can be unhappy with one’s material situation at any point between destitution and great wealth.  It’s a feeling, not a fact.  TV and the movies constantly place before us impossibly grandiose “lifestyles,” unattainable in the real world; and, unless one is Bill Gates, in reality there will always be people wealthier than one, whose existence can be looked on as a reproach.

Yet only in the most extreme examples can we say that lack of wealth equals human  failure.  If a father or a mother spend their money on drink or drugs while their children go hungry, that’s a moral disaster — a failed life.  If the same father or mother helps feed, shelter, and clothe the children, but can’t afford to buy them Gameboys or take them to Disney World, not one iota of failure attaches to their lives, whose worth will be judged by a different set of standards — moral rather than material.

The sense of failure breeds frustration, bitterness, and envy, emotions that demean those who experience them.  The desperate desire to become rich often leads to foolish decisions — accepting work one hates, giving money to frauds who promise the world, and quite frequently a rootless nomadism, as seekers after El Dorado wander from one promised land to another.

Still, the greater moral peril lies with success.  That is true of individuals and, given our unprecedented bounty, of the American people as a whole.  The worship of wealth becomes destructive of democracy, as money and things are pursued at the expense of freedom and good character.

Jefferson, with all the Founding Fathers, was keenly aware of this.  He worried about a community in which “wolves” fattened on human sheep.  Jefferson’s most famous phrase, the pursuit of happiness, meant to him the perfection of virtue, not the accumulation of wealth and goods.  It was for this reason that he saw the country’s future in its small farmers, and it was for this reason that he hated Hamilton’s plan to fund a national bank.

Material success can inspire selfishness, heartlessness, and insatiable greed, and it can lead to the dehumanizing of those who are less successful.  (I once knew a housewife from Latin America who bought a brand of toilet paper cheaper than her own for her maid.)  It can also create a corrupt dependency on luxuries, making things master over men:

The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

What, then, is the proper attitude to money and consumer goods?  To begin with, let’s remember that no one ever gets rich because they want happiness.  People get rich because they have a talent for making money.  They are happy when they have a talent for happiness, which can be had with or without great sums of money.  Beyond a minimum material sustenance, the measure of a successful life is equally agnostic about wealth.

I believe money can be a door to opportunity.  I believe we can have fun with our possessions — Emerson’s “things in the saddle” — without being ridden by them.  The problem isn’t one of quantity but of morality.  The question, therefore, isn’t how many dollars add up to corruption, but what defines one’s subjective relationship to wealth and property.

Boiled down to basics, morality has two components:  self-rule and community values.  Let these guide a person’s relationship to material prosperity, and wealth can be enjoyed in the proper measure.

That’s easy to prescribe, exceedingly hard to achieve.  The tempation is always present to consider the material world an end rather than a means, the value of which justifies cheating and bullying to win.  It takes a lifetime of moral education — day by day, test after test — to overcome this temptation.


The measure of a life

October 12, 2006

The recent horror in Pennsylvania made me think that we Americans have trouble taking the measure of a human life.  Or at least, the TV talking heads and opinionators have trouble, even unto cluelessness.  A man murdered half a dozen girls.  He had plainly intended to molest them.  What more is there to say?

Well, I heard a female TV psychologist say, “While we don’t know it for a fact, I can speculate that he had himself been molested when he was a child.”

Beyond the triviality of such speculation, the point seemed to be that the murderer couldn’t help himself.  He had been speculatively molested:  therefore, a murderer of innocent children.

This is the “resistance is futile” school of human behavior.  Here, we are in the grip of forces beyond our control.  The measure of a human life is no higher than that of a finely calibrated machine.  The Pennsylvania murders are the result of a malfunction.  The loss of the young girls is a regrettable waste but not a problem of morality.  In the “resistance is futile” universe, there are no problems of morality.  There are only the mechanical laws of life.

The murderer, in this awful case, blew his own brains out.  What fate did he deserve, if captured?  Pennsylvania has only executed three criminals since 1976.  The state would appear to place a high valuation on the lives of law-breakers, even killers.  It is fair to ask whether, from a moral perspective, this is actually the case.

The debate over capital punishment is really about the measure of a human life.  Arguments against capital punishment are both practical and moral.  This European Union human rights functionary, for example, maintains that “the administration of state killing via the judicial system serves no useful purpose in preventing crime but can have a brutalizing effect on societies that inflict it.”

Properly understood, however, both arguments are of the mechanistic variety.  Both contend that the laws of momentum regarding capital punishment impose brutalizing rather than preventive effects “on societies.”

The rights and wrongs of individual acts — the punishment or mercy these deserve —  aren’t part of the equation.  Our EU worthy would consider such an approach to be simplistic or worse:  barbaric.  “In a genuinely civilized and humane society you do not have the death penalty.”  If human action belongs to mechanics rather than morality, this proposition is undoubtedly true.

But then the same would be true of imprisonment.  Jail time doesn’t deter crime, and if executing criminals brutalizes society, what are we to say of the practice of penning them, like animals, in cages?  The concept of individual crime and punishment has no place in social mechanics.  Malfunctions should be fixed, not punished.  On this principle, the Vietnamese Communists, who believed in vast historical forces, sent their political prisoners to “reeducation” camps.

The Europeans have moved in a different direction.  They have trivialized crime by imposing trivial punishments.  The man who gunned down Pim Fortuyn, the probable next prime minister of The Netherlands, received an 18-year sentence and, if “rehabilitated,” could let loose before he’s 45.  He can still vote in Dutch elections.  A former bodyguard of Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic was condemned of war crimes at The Hague, then promptly set free.

Trivializing the consequences of human actions, no matter how vicious or vile, has profound implications:  human life itself becomes trivial, childish, and ignoble, a mere byproduct of inscrutable but all-powerful forces.  Its value is low — it can be snuffed out violently with little consequence.

Despite our televised psychologists, Americans think differently.  We have faith in individual morality.  Whatever the forces at work on each individual, he is, in a fundamental way, free.  The measure of a person, then, must be the sum of his actions:  we strive for good character, even nobility, and we admire those who achieve it.  Equally, we despise bullying, selfishness, and cowardice.  Those who engage in such low behaviors bring the measure of humanity down for all.

In the matter of capital punishment, we believe that individual inviolability is contingent rather than absolute.  Each of us is a moral agent, which means that our actions matter.  At a certain point, when we deprive others of life or dignity, we forfeit our own:  our license as moral agents expires.

This has nothing to do with deterring crime or any social effect.  It’s nothing more than just desserts.  Where the point of expiration lies is a fair moral and political question.  I myself would consider only the most heinous murderers for execution.  Others would disagree, on the principle that a killer is a killer.

But if human life matters most, then the malicious taking of innocent life condemns the killer to the greatest penalty.  In a dim, inchoate way, the murderer of the five Amish girls must have understood that, as he put an end to his own wretched life.


Dalrymple on Europe

October 6, 2006

The decline of Europe, moral and political, has been a frequent subject of this blog (see here and here).  It has all the horrible fascination of a slow-motion train wreck.  A better metaphor, for a moralist, would be a continent-sized laboratory experimenting with the absence of higher values:  one gets to see what happens to societies which fail to inspire any deeper loyalty than one’s own skin.

My favorite Brit and second-favorite opinionator (after Mark Steyn), Theodore Dalrymple, has a review of three Europe-in-deline books over at Claremont.  Invariably, he has interesting things to say.

Modern Europeans believe in very little, except in as comfortable and safe a life as possible. Indeed, health and safety have altogether replaced faith, hope, and charity as the cardinal desiderata.

One signal difference between Europeans and Americans is the jettisoning of religion by the former and the persistence of faith among the latter.  Can this help to explain Europe’s peculiar loss of nerve — its moral and political failure?  Two of the authors reviewed by Dalrymple believe this to be the case; he, on the other hand, remains unpersuaded.

For myself, I am somewhat skeptical of the strength of American religious feeling compared with the breadth of the religious affiliation that they claim. If Americans were to experience a loss of confidence in their country’s power, whether objectively justified or not, the crisis of meaning and purpose might strike them too.

Here I must say Dalrymple shows himself too much of a Brit, charmingly clueless about how matters stand across the Atlantic.  To believe that the average American derives his sense of meaning and purpose from his country’s muscular posture in the world is, put generously, comical.  The average American does not now, and never has had, any interest in his country’s posture in the world.  The American vision turns inward, not outward:  and it seeks achievement, not power.

Still, I understand the source of Dalrymple’s error.  I recently stood on the steps of the Victoria monument, in front of Buckingham Palace.  I don’t like great piles of stony architecture, but the place, it seemed to me, hummed with grandeur.

Britain is a small island.  Its people are a bunch of quarreling tribes, more or less kept in place by the English.  How did they come to rule half the world?  And what must it feel like, having ruled so much, to become just another country, unable to control the tide of alien immigrants or the tangle of silly EU regulations?  I had no answer to these questions.  Buckingham Palace still looked like the home of a mighty empress — but only a sad old woman lives there now, granny to a pack of royal buffoons.

In a sane moment, Dalrymple wonders whether the doom-mongering on Europe had been overdone.  The threat of Muslim immigration, on which his authors harp, may well negate itself.

Will these books appear to have been unduly alarmist in half a century’s time? I certainly hope so, and indeed suspect that it might be so. We have had many perils and predicted apocalypses before. Islamism, and indeed (in my belief) the whole of Islam, is potentially very vulnerable to the corrosive effect of the intellectual acid-bath of rational criticism. Therefore, what we have to fear is fear itself: a fact of which the Islamists are themselves fully aware. I hope only that the ultimate critique of Islam in Europe is not a fascist one.

The last line goes to the heart of the matter.  European civilization will not go away any time soon.  Buckingham Palace will stand.  But the liberal order, which Europe invented and has fitfully embraced, could well be overthrown in our lifetimes.