Bad year for moral monsters

December 30, 2006

Pinochet, gone.  Fidel Castro, in extremis.  Saddam Hussein suffering an abrupt collision with justice, meted out by his fellow citizens (previously his victims).  The year 2006 was a hard one for moral monsters.

The actions of every human being add or detract to the sum of human worth.  The actions of accomplished monsters like Hussein made life more shameful and ignoble for all.  They fouled the moral air around us, made us gag at the thought that we belonged to the same species as them.

We will all breathe easier in 2007 for their departure.


December 29, 2006

I have never believed in New Year’s resolutions.  What’s the point?  If one possesses self-rule, they aren’t necessary.  If one doesn’t, then they are painful reminders of the weakness of one’s flesh.  By the nature of the thing, it’s the latter kind — those lacking in self-rule — who make the most vehement resolutions every December 31st, and who break them soonest thereafter.  It’s a seasonal comedy:  the human animal, chasing its tail.

Those wishing to change are looking in the wrong direction when they make lists and resolutions.  It isn’t what they do that must change:  it’s who they are.  Despite the lessons taught by Law and Order and other crime shows, character rather than the stress of the situation drives judgments and actions.

An honest man will never steal.  A disciplined man will rarely overindulge.  But who will trust a lifelong thief who vows, on December 31, never to steal again, or an 800-pound behemoth who resolves never to touch another spoonful of ice cream?

Building character is a lifelong proposition, not a vow of a moment.  That’s the fallacy built into the resolutions, and the reason they almost always fail.  The desire for immediate transformation, natural in a consumer setting, becomes self-defeating in the realm of morality and character.  The latter look to the long haul — to the end of life, in a sense, and to one’s final accounting to oneself.

Is it possible to improve one’s character radically, overnight?  Instant transformation is possible but exceedingly rare:  the usual term for it is “conversion,” of which St. Paul is the most famous example.  He began the day as Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Christians, and ended it as Paul, saint, martyr, and proselytizer for Christianity.

William James believed that only a specific kind of personality — one divided against itself — was prone to such dramatic reversals.  Certain it is that conversion, which usually manifests itself in the form of an overwhelmingly emotional moment, is less instantaneous than one might think.

The convert undergoes a shattering experience that must be made intelligible.  The process of understanding that experience can take years, as was the case with St. Paul.  A.N. Wilson writes:  “The revelation or apocalypse came upon Paul instantaneously, but we discern from his autobiographical reflexions that it took him at least three years for its implications to sink in; three years before he turned back to meet Peter and James in Jerusalem.”

Certain it is, too, that the process of conversion, of becoming a new person, is horribly painful — the spiritual equivalent of breaking and re-setting every bone in the body.  Or even better:  of dying while still alive.  That is why Christians who undergo this experience (a small subset of those who claim it) feel they have been “born again.”

But conversion is not uniquely a Christian experience.  The Buddha’s abrupt  enlightenment under the bodhi tree resembles the vision that blinded St. Paul on the road to Damascus.  On occasion the conversion isn’t religious at all:  James mentions the case of alcoholics who undergo a Pauline moment of self-revulsion and self-revelation, and emerge transformed.  Also according to James, neither religious nor secular conversions are guaranteed permanence.  Some portion of the born again and newly sober are reclaimed by the old divided self.

There is a science of temptation.  The human brain, Jonathan Haidt explains, really is divided against itself:  it has a powerful automatic capability, which looks to the short run and immediate satisfaction, and a weak consciously controlled module, which plans complex activities and looks to the long run.

Haidt’s metaphor is of a rider and an elephant.  The conscious rider can advice, suggest, and engage in certain persuasive routines such as dwelling on the horrible consequences of impulsive bevahior; but the elephant will go where it wants to.  The problem of the human condition is that we overvalue the strength and influence of the rider, then are appalled when the elephant has its way.

Our minds are loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part:  conscious verbal thinking.  . . . Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere.  We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out.  We sometimes fall into the illusion that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self.  But really we are the whole thing.  We are the rider, and we are the elephant.

A new year isn’t a moral boundary.  Time alone, sad to say, can’t cure our weaknesses.  If we wish to discover resolutions that are regularly fulfilled, we should look to the 12-step commitment recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous.  The steps come in religious and semi-secular flavors, but more importantly they accept the problematic nature of human failure — the power of desire, the weakness of the will — and they embrace the whole length of a life, from the first attempt at reformation to the last living temptation.

That lifelong perspective, which is the span of the moral drama, together with support from the community, which provides moral wisdom and is the Greek chorus of the drama, gives the individual a chance to overcome self-destructive desires.

Blogging and selfishness

December 25, 2006

There are many who think the new communication technologies, and blogging in particular, impede public debate and stimulate the consumption of one-dimensional, self-justifying information.  The name usually given to this malady is the “daily me.”

I have already given my thoughts on the subject.  The Internet exists in a state of nature, and blogging reflects this condition.  Pornography and polititical invective abound, but so does discussion of every other subject under the sun.  The daily me is as much a myth as is the idea that we somehow engaged in public debate by watching the network news.

Sophistpundit brings a new angle to the question.  He sees each post as a potential point of reference, however humble, that can enrich someone’s research.  Given aggregators like Google, the matrix of references will grow at the same speed as the Web.  Here’s Sophistpundit’s notion, in his words:

In blogging particularly, and the internet more broadly, I see the opportunity to create an ever growing wealth of points of reference. What Google has done is given us a method of ranking the pages that provide these points. It is what I would consider the closest thing to a real meritocracy that you could ask for when organizing such a vast amount of information. It is as though they have provided scientists with a method of immediately finding the articles within their field which have been cited by the most other articles.

For this reason I see blogging as an opportunity; to take part in a new era of scholarship and learning. For myself, it isn’t about updating the most frequently, or having the most traffic. It’s about making my modest contributions to a much larger storehouse of information, and learning a great deal along the way.

Blogging:  ranting selfishness or scholarly contribution?  Go read the post, and decide.

Books to read: Freedom’s gap

December 24, 2006

The term “philosopher” sounds old-fashioned. What does a philosopher do, in the age of Youtube and Second Life — not to mention Prozac and Viagra? The question answers itself. Human life is massively incomplete, a series of moments in search of a theme.

Our ability to attain any sort of integrity is ever in doubt. Are we consumers of, or consumed by, our modern toys and drugs? Is happiness an eternal buzz, available via chemical concoctions, or is it the objective consequence of a particular way of living? Does morality matter — and if so, which? Are even free to find out?

Too many questions. A philosopher is a grand strategist: he identifies the most important existential problems for his age, and makes an attempt to resolve them. Only a generation as intellectually null as that of the Baby Boomers could maintain that the answers can be found in Google.

As it happens, the greatest living philosopher, by my lights at least, is an American: John Searle. From the false parallel between the human brain and computers to the objective reality of a social arrangement like marriage, Searle has contributed contributed deep and lasting insights to the strategic questions of the day. Since I have posted on Searle and his work before, I’d like to concentrate here on his latest book: Freedom and Neurobiology.

Every person alive today lives and acts inside a contradiction. On the one hand, we believe, universally, that every event has a cause. The triumphs of science and technology rest on this belief, and give it enormous authority. But it informs everyday behavior, too. If I threw a ball and it stopped in mid-air, my entire understanding of the world would collapse, and I’d be left in a state of utter confusion and doubt. Events in the world are predictably determined. We take that for granted.

On the other hand, we have the conscious experience that many of our actions are not determined. Interestingly, we don’t have this experience of our sensory perceptions, which is why, Searle observes, there is no “freedom of perception” problem. He goes on:

If you consider ordinary conscious activities such as ordering beer in a pub, watching a movie, or trying to do your income tax, you discover that there is a striking difference between the passive character of perceptual consciousness and the active character of what we might call “volitional consciousness.” For example, if I am standing in a park looking at a tree, there is a sense in which it is not up to me what I experience. It is up to how the world is and how my perceptual apparatus is. But if I decide to walk away or raise my arm, then I find a feature of my experiences of free, voluntary actions that was not present in my perceptions. The feature is that I do not sense the antecedent cause of my action . . . as setting causally sufficient conditions for the action; and, which is another way of saying the same thing, I sense alternative courses of action open to me.

We must always explain our actions — give reasons for them — precisely because these reasons are never seen to be “causally sufficient” to force the action. The human body is no different than a planet or a baseball in its composition. Our neurobiological equipment, which manufactures our reasons and propels our actions, is equally of the same stuff as the determined world.

Yet we share a powerful and persuasive experience that, unlike planets and baseballs, we might have chosen different reasons and behaved differently in most circumstances. Determinists, of course, would claim this experience is an illusion — but, Searle makes clear, even determinists must “act on the presupposition of freedom.” If you go to a restaurant and are given a choice between veal and pork, for example, even the refusal to choose is an exercise in free will.

So if you say to the waiter, “Look, I am a determinist — che sara sara. I’ll just wait and see what I order,” that refusal to exercise free will is only intelligible to you as one of your actions if you take it to be an exercise of your free will. Kant pointed this out a long time ago. We cannot think away our free will.

In cases of deliberation and action, Searle posits a necessary “gap” between perception and action — a sort of existential fuse-breaker which somehow separates the determined world from the causally insufficient world of human experience. Searle avoids all talk of morality, but it is of course in this gap where moral conflicts and judgments are born, and where morality itself comes to life. A belief in right and wrong, a feeling of conflict about possible actions, are only possible in a world in which very different choices, with different consequences, can be made.

The question of free will is whether Searle’s gap can be shown to be more than a rationalization of our wish to be free: whether, in some sense or model, the determined material world and the human experience of choices can coexist.

We don’t have enough information for even a tentative answer. Instead, in Freedom and Neurobiology Searle articulates some of the logical requirements that would condition any possible affirmation of free will. Interestingly, one such requirement is that old friend of moralists: the self.

Since David Hume famously defined each person as “a bundle of perceptions,” the self has been out of favor in both philosophy and psychology. Yet Searle specifically mandates a “non-Humean self” with a unified field of consciousness, deliberative capacities, and the power to act, as a prerequisite to an intelligible explanation of free will. For Searle, this self would be an emergent feature of the brain rather than some quality or spirit superimposed on human flesh.

Searle also makes another interesting connection: between human freedom and quantum indeterminism. The logic that leads him to this connection (one he resisted in earlier works) strikes me as pretty crude, but who knows — the fabric of reality may turn out to grind away at a level of explanation that is less than Platonic in complexity. Searle does admit that his line of reasoning converts one tough problem into three: that of free will, that of consciousness, and that of quantum mechanics.

Yet that’s where the question stands at the moment. Searle confronts it with his usual clarity, courage, and dazzlingly brilliant logic.

We live in an intellectually lazy age. Previous periods attempted to pound their philosophical doubts into submission, with various degrees of success: recall the Victorians wrestling with natural selection, or Enlightenment thinkers seeking a “science of man.” We, on the contrary, just whistle past the graveyard. We dwell with our contradictions by pretending they aren’t there.

The age of neurobiology has burst upon us, and (if I may be forgiven a pun) we are hardly conscious of it. The existential problems posed by our growing knowledge of the determined, material side of mind — of which the reality of human freedom is but one — will intrigue and perplex most wide-awake thinkers of the next generation. I’m certain they will turn gratefully to Searle for their starting-point.

Happiness, the sequel

December 12, 2006

Given my last post with the hideous happy face, thought it would be good time to trot out a pretty funny NYT Magazine article from July:  “Happiness:  A User’s Manual.”  It offers the latest information on who’s happy, who isn’t, and why.  The good news:  “Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than members of other professions.”  The strange but predictable bit:

On a day-to-day basis, caring for children creates roughly the same level of satisfaction as washing the dishes. In fact, surveys of parents invariably find a clear dip in happiness after the Blessed Miracle of Childbirth, which continues unabated for twenty years — bottoming out during adolescence — and only returns to pre-birth levels when the child finally leaves home.

Well, that explains the European demographic implosion.  If I may speak on behalf of the rest of the human race — those of us who keep on breeding, misery and all — I would say the surveys are, as they say, objectively true but subjectively false.

Wretched parenting situations occur with appalling frequency, but they aren’t necessarily experienced as such.  Personally, I could have done without the Blessed Miracle of Childbirth, in which I participated in a fifth-wheel “coaching” capacity — I believe future technology will make it possible for babies to hatch in the microwave.  But watching the kids grow up has been a wild, strange adventure, better than any movie — and well worth the exorbitant price of admission.

Books to read: Happiness

December 10, 2006

If there’s one aspect of human life that’s natural and universal to the species, it’s the desire for happiness. Rich and poor share it, as do ancients and moderns, men and women, black and white. Right?

Nope. As with everything else worth talking about, happiness was invented by the Greeks. And as Darrin McMahon demonstrates in his fascinating history of happiness, the idea — really, ideal — of happiness, once invented, has rolled around the world causing all sorts of toil and trouble. It has evolved from a condition to a feeling, from the stuff of tragedy to the universal smile on the photo image. The feverish demand for happiness, McMahon speculates, may well trigger depression.

For the Greeks, happiness was something that happened to a very few — McMahon observes that the two English words are also related to happenstance, or luck. It would seem that the Greeks first articulated what was an ancient, widespread notion: that happiness was an objective condition — the possession of health, strength, beauty, material prosperity, children — and that the happy few had done nothing to earn this condition, but were simply blessed by the gods.

To consciously pursue happiness, in this view, came close to tempting the gods, and to boast of having obtained it invited disaster.

Many Greek stories, most famously that of Croesus, relentlessly make this point: except for a handful of god-like individuals, human life is suffering unto death, made more tragic by brief and intermittent episodes of happiness. “No one who lives is happy,” the once-great king Croesus concluded. To endure with strength was the best we could hope for.

This tragic outlook was first challenged Socrates, contrarian and gadfly, whose brood of disciples — Platonists, Stoics, Epicureans — shattered forever the old tragic sense of life. Socrates broke with this tradition by arguing that happiness was attainable through personal effort. More: in his view, happiness was the goal of all human activity, a proposition so revolutionary as to stand the old culture on its head.

The Athenians had obsessed about the fragility of good fortune and the inevitability of suffering. Socrates insisted that happiness had nothing to do with luck, any more than it depended on wealth or beauty: it was based on knowledge, on what we today would call science. Suffering, to Socrates, resulted from ignorance.

With his radical reorientation of happiness, Socrates anticipated both the American Declaration of Independence and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The doctrine he established has been internalized by most of us, and is still going strong. Today, most people believe happiness is the goal their lives. Most people take it for granted that their actions can secure it. Disputes arise only over the most effective method of doing so. Socrates’ answer was the life of reason — almost certainly wrong, but no less influential for all that.

In some ways Socrates remained true to the old tradition. Because of the rampant ignorance and selfishness of the multitude, he thought happiness was accessible only to a a handful of gifted individuals. Those happy few were, of course, people like himself: philosophers who could pry truth from convention. If democracy, as he once said, was pandering, then happiness was the reward of noble minds. Like all Athenians, Socrates also kept happiness firmly attached to the objective world. The life of reason meant avoiding painful mistakes, and had nothing to do with happy feelings.

The triumph of Christianity democratized and subjectivized happiness, but removed it to a perfect world beyond the grave. The “good news” of Christ’s resurrection was available to every man and woman of faith. Everyone could be saved; everyone could be happy. Calvinists argued, like Socrates, that the gate was narrow and only few were chosen, but the majority of Christian groups rejected Calvin’s predestinarian logic, which had little of good news about it.

Christianity also converted happiness into a feeling. St. Paul made love the greatest virtue, and the love of God, the sight of a loving God after salvation, could only be described in terms of ecstatic joy. Mystics and sectarians tried to anticipate the moment of salvation, experiencing moments of sublime happiness that gave the word “enthusiasm” wholly religious associations. But for most Christians human life was a vale of tears, and the bridge to happiness was death.

As McMahon explains, St. Augustine, who set the tone on the subject, denied the possibility of perfection in this world. The human race, Augustine held, was tainted by original sin. Human sinfulness made of the City of Man a place of violence and corruption. The rise and fall of empires obeyed a divine plan to humiliate wordly ambition. For Augustine no less than for the tragic-minded Greeks, earthly life was a trial to be endured. All hope of happiness lay in the transcendent City of God.

The history of happiness appears like a tale of ever increasing expectations. The typical Greek thought happiness god-given. For Socrates, it could be earned, but only by a few. For medieval thinkers, it was universally available, but only in heaven. The last step down this path was taken by French Enlightenment thinkers who proclaimed that everyone could and should be happy, right here on earth. The only barriers were ignorance and superstition. Remove these, and happiness flowed to the masses as a universal and natural condition.

Except for a return to feelings inspired by the Romantics, that is where we are today. Everyone, by right, expects to be happy, but nobody knows what that means or how to get there. If it’s a feeling, a whole pharmacopia of drugs becomes an obvious pathway to happiness. If it’s wealth, there seems to be a limit to how much happiness money can buy: McMahon cites statistics showing the richest to be happier than the poorest, but the curve flattens out beyond a middling income, and our growing prosperity has been matched by a higher incidence of clinical depression. Similar studies claim that marriage helps; children apparently don’t.

So what are we to make of happiness? McMahon has no time for our feel-good industry, which has spawned, among other monstrosities, the yellow happy face. But he’s a historian, not a moralist, and after presenting virtually every reference to happiness on the record, he very appropriately leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Let me end this post, then, with some of my own.

We Americans have the pursuit of happiness in our DNA. As McMahon (following in the footsteps of Jean Yarbrough) observes, this had nothing to do with happy faces: Jefferson and the Founding Fathers meant by that phrase the perfection of virtue. In a sense, the old Greeks were much closer to the truth than Socrates. Morality is a tragic condition. We must always amputate some piece of ourselves, of our private desires, if we are to play by the rules of the community, and the only kind of happiness worth having must be sheltered under those rules.

It is presumption to say that the goal of human life is happiness or pleasure — or any other single end. Human life isn’t like a military unit with a mission. Many ends are pursued: sex, love, family, money, work, power, God. Virtue is just a word for the harmonizing of those ends into a theme, a passably coherent story that one’s children can tell with pride.

Happiness, if it is to come, will arrive in the pursuit of those multiple ends that cohere in a person’s life. In marriage, for example — or, despite what the studies tell us, in children. In success at work. In sexual passion. Or, for the faithful, in the peace that passeth undestanding. Epicureans and utilitarians, who pursue happiness pure and simple, run aground on human nature. Constant pleasure nauseates, then bores. Wealth and power, once achieved, become givens. Self-seeking to healthy persons feels too narrow a pursuit.

We are rarely happier than when we transcend our smallish selves. We are creatures of kinship. We are social animals. We are the only symbolic species. We mix love of family, community, and higher ideals with the earth of self-interest — and in a balance between these demands happiness will sometimes be found.

Evolution and morality

December 3, 2006

Those who believe there’s some sort of debate going on between “evolutionists” and “creationists” are way off the mark.  In the public sphere, creationism barely registers, except as a foil to enlightened voices.  In the world of power politics, creationism may win a mention in a school district in Kansas, but the other side can humiliate and overthrow the president of Harvard.

As Ullica Segerstrale has shown, the real debate today is between those who believe in the power of natural selection over human behavior, usually called neodarwinists, and those who believe the human mind is a blank slate at birth, who tend to be Marxists or, what amounts to the same thing, postmodernists.

It was the latter group that forced Larry Summers into three public apologies before driving him from Harvard, for uttering a single statement supportive of a neodarwinist notion — that women and men may have evolved with different skill sets.

Neodarwinists like Richard Dawkins speak glibly of the “selfish gene.”  That kind of talk enrages the postmodernists, who consider it the glorification of individual selfishness, and thus a justification of white, male, capitalist oppression.  The debate is rich in ironies.  Postmodernists maintain that all cultural arrangements, including morality, are manipulations by the power structure.  Belief in selfishness is central to their ideology.

Most neodarwinists happen to be politically very liberal.  They tend to avert their gaze, uneasily, from the implications of their own theories.  Dawkins, for example, has become a famous bore on the subject of religion, yet can also say with a straight face, “I want to change the world in which I live in such a way that natural selection no longer applies.”

Because of these contradictions, the problem evolution poses for morality gets discussed only at the most cartoonish level.  The Larry Summers affair is one example:  he was punished for violating a sex taboo in academia.  Another is this article, which argues that neodarwinism (aka “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology” — no catchy names for this crowd) should be treated like sex education and not taught to young children, to avoid traumatizing their impressionable little minds.

To treat the matter seriously, we must begin with the facts.  The facts, I am convinced, support many of the neodarwinist contentions.  There is a sense in which genes can be said to exist simply to reproduce themselves.  The life of each person is, again in a sense, the sum of his genetic endowment and his environment.  Group selection, once the battle cry of social darwinists, has fallen into scientific disfavor.  Selection is said to occur at the level of the individual organism (though persuasive unorthodox opinions have not been lacking).

Some of the problems raised by this body of evidence are trivial.  Genes can be described as “selfish,” but their reproductory strategies could in theory be saintly.  In fact, neodarwinists have found altruism to be an evolutionary success story.  Equally, if men and women turn out be differently endowed, this won’t affect their essential equality, which flows from the moral and political plane.  We have right-handed people and left-handed people, high-IQ people and low-IQ people, but no one seriously suggests that one set is morally inferior to the other, and should be deprived of the vote.

The transcendent questions posed by evolution to morality are, first, whether we exist simply to survive and reproduce, and second, whether we have any choice in the matter.

If survival and reproduction are the highest good, then morality as we understand it has no place in human life.  Even if we succeed by the imitation of Christ, nothing need stop us, when a new strategy becomes necessary, from the imitation of Stalin.  Morality by definition is about shared constraints on behavior.  Otherwise it becomes a fraud perpetrated by self-centered persons to disadvantage the competition — precisely what the postmodernists contend.

For morality to become more than a game played by con artists on dupes, it must somehow connect to natural selection.  Evidence for this connection is plentiful.  A moral sense is almost certainly hardwired to the human genome, continuous with the inarticulate ideals of other social primates.  Deep feelings of rightness and shame enforce the moral sense, and the cumulative genius of the community, across history, has used these feelings as a lever to reorganize human existence toward  nobler goals than survival and reproduction.

No human being ever said to himself, “I live to have offspring.”  That is not delusion but reality at the human level — which differs from the selfish gene level as the latter does from the random atomic level.

In addition, many specific moral ideals have a genetic aspect, and are found in every human community:  the marital bond, for example, and the mutual love between parents and children.  Other ideals, like the brutalization of Spartan males, are local exaggerations, requiring intense habituation of the moral sense to extreme behaviors.

But there’s no blank slate.  The moral sense will stretch only so far, and it’s the height of futility to pine, like Dawkins, for a world in which “natural selection no longer applies.”

The question of choice has, in a way, already been answered, but it’s important to make that answer clear.  We have evolved the most complex set of desires of any living creature.  If those desires pulled in the same direction, we would become unfree, slaves to our own needs.

Demonstrably, our desires contradict one another.  The moral emotions contradict selfish drives.  Empathy contradicts indifference to the fate of others.  The yearning for a worthy place in the community contradicts the impulse to illicit pleasure, to cheat in stealth, or to abuse wealth and power.  In these contradictions — in this sacrifice of animal instinct on a cross of contingency and doubt — human freedom is born.

Our ancestors were selected for a range of behavioral possibilities.  We who are their heirs have choices in how we behave, but the choices aren’t infinite in number.  There are many behaviors we can’t systematically indulge in:  free sex, child murder, unrestrained violence, total deceit, and isolation from the community are but a few.  We can’t abolish our inheritance — we can’t, as Dawkins should know perfectly well, do away with selection, any more than we can flap our arms and fly.  But our ancestral biology has carved out of blind instinct a sphere of human choice, and within that sphere, we are free.

Evolution poses problems for morality, but none, I think, beyond solution.  Aspects of morality, in turn, are not accounted for by neodarwinist theory.  According to the latter, altruism must be based on kinship or reciprocity.  But human behavior everywhere refutes this notion:  the NYC firemen in 9/11, who rushed into certain death to help their fellow citizens, could have hoped for no reciprocal payoff.  The same applies to soldiers who face death in battle, and individuals who risk death to save a drowning stranger.

While these behaviors can be explained in ways congruent with evolution, they have not been viewed by the neodarwinists as a problem they need to solve.  Until they do, their theories will only be partial explanations of human behavior.