Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/10

27

How I learned to love moral relativism & cultural chauvinism

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Over at Crunchy Con Rod Dreher points me to a new book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, which, in Dreher’s words “attempts to defend St. Paul against his modernist critics (e.g. those who consider him an impossible troglodyte for his views on women and homosexuals) by explaining the Greco-Roman social and cultural context in which he composed his letters.” If you open the Bible and read it front to back, there is much to defend, or as academics would say, “contextualize.”

As a young unbeliever with some fluency in the basic texts of the Christian religion I would occasionally point to the “politically incorrect” aspects of scripture, or commentaries by the Church Fathers, in arguments with my devout friends. The main issue which prompted me was the contention by my righteous interlocutors that their religious tradition espoused timeless values, that they had access to Truth untouched by historical contingencies. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Liberals are wont to point out the selective reading of scripture by cultural “conservatives.” The sections devoted to homosexuality have great relevance today, but those speaking to the sin of divorce are less emphasized in a society where many “Bible believing Christians” engage in serial monogamy.

Attempts by Christians to genuinely “roll back the clock” in a more credibly consistent manner have met with little success. Doug Wilson, a Reformed theologian and pastor prominent in right-wing Calvinist circles, attempted to defend the Biblical basis of slavery. Wilson’s argument is logically consistent. Christianity Today noted:

In his quest to mock modern-day cows of Bashan, however, critics say Wilson has sometimes gone too far. His local opponents will not soon forget the fall of 2003, when a pamphlet that Wilson co-wrote years earlier came to their attention. The aim of Southern Slavery: As It Was, authored with Louisiana pastor Steve Wilkins, was to compel Christians to acknowledge God’s sanction of slavery as it is biblically portrayed. Wilson and Wilkins argued that if Christians admit that the Bible’s treatment of slavery may be outdated, it’s only a short way down the slippery slope of relativism toward relinquishing the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and other hot issues. “If we respond to the ‘embarrassing parts’ of Scripture by saying, ‘That was then, this is now,’ we will quickly discover that liberals can play that game more effectively than conservatives,” they wrote.

Wilson’s particular line of thought in Southern Slavery seems to have been an attempt to revive the Christian arguments for Southern Slavery exposited by the Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney during the antebellum period. This is nothing compared to the 2,000 year gap which separates us from St. Paul. Though Dabney’s ideas on slavery have been rejected by all excepting a few such as Wilson, he has influence in other areas. The Christian historian Susan Wise Bauer cites his ideas on pedagogy approvingly, all the while explaining how misguided Christian slaveholders relying on Dabney’s framework were. I am sure as a conservative Christian who accepts a temporally invariant Truth Bauer believes she sees clearly where Dabney was being influenced by his times (slavery) and where he had access to Truth (his ideas as to the instruction of young minds). How convenient for her.

Of course I’m not a total relativist. The truths of much of science are ahistorical. The truths of history in a low-level concrete sense are, or are not. Alexander battled at Gaugamela on a particular date. But when it comes to our moral sensibilities there are a few core aspects of human nature, and many extraneous customs, traditions, and values which evolve and change over time and space. All humans in all societies would accept that it is immoral for a son to copulate with the body of his recently deceased mother. Traditions which might countenance such behavior, such as the dark strand in Tantric thought, do so only conditionally upon an understanding that this behavior is a warped perversion of the universal moral sense.

In contrast, you have a phenomenon such as slavery. It has been a feature of all advanced societies until the recent past. In some places and times, such as the American South in the 19th century and the early Roman world a substantial minority of the population were slaves. In China and India slaves were ever only a minor element in society, often criminals, prisoners of war or soldiers (in the case of India). In many cultures slavery was not seen as a benefit to society. In ancient China the humanistic Confucian theorists frowned upon slavery, as the institution undermined the basis of a stable political order and cosmic harmony, the primary production of the free peasant (in a later age this would be termed “Free Soil”). In western Eurasia both Christians and Muslims were enjoined to enslave only unbelievers. This was of course often honored in the breach, Muslim slavers would routinely have villages declared in a state of apostasy on flimsy grounds so that the letter of the law was followed, while the Normans found slavery to be widely practiced in the Christian Anglo-Saxon England which they conquered. Islamic, and later Christian, penetration into Sub-Saharan Africa was attracted by the huge reservoir of pagan slaves on the continent.*

Is slavery then natural? Aristotle certainly thought so. His idea that there were natural slaves whose labor allowed for the emergence of a refined leisure class was popular and various points in history, having a last efflorescence in the Deep South in the 19th century (some thinkers in South Carolina even argued for the benefits of enslaving lower class whites!). But I would suggest that having the argument as to whether slavery is natural is a pointer to the likelihood that at a deep level many found the idea of human chattel disturbing. So justifications had to emerge to salve the consciences of the owners of human property, and those who had to witness the ownership of humans, as well as those who worried that they themselves might one day be owned, or have to sell their own children during times of distress.

Human nature is flexible, but not arbitrary. The flexibility of that nature is manifest in the diversity of human societies. The incest taboo between first order relatives, parents and children, and full siblings, is very strong. There are powerful genetic reasons for this having to do with recessive lethal alleles, but there is an exception to this truism: it was not only the pharaohs of ancient Egypt who married their sisters, many common folk also engaged in this practice. Because Egypt is dry, and papyrus preserves relatively well, property records from Roman antiquity attest to the persistence of the practice into the Common Era. This does not mean that the first order incest taboo is arbitrary, rather, it shows that human cultural plasticity can overcome it, and a new equilibrium can be established for a time (though I suspect eventually the Egyptians would have given up the practice as inbred family lines regularly went extinct).

We are used to thinking of the diversity of human cultures in a spatial sense. As modern people we often have a visceral understanding of cultural diversity through migration and travel which ancient peoples did not have. But diversity also occurs over time. 15,000 years ago all humans were living as hunter-gatherers, in small groups. This I believe was the context of our core moral sense, what evolutionary psychologists would term the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” the EEA. Leading up to the Neolithic Revolution in many parts of the world these groups were growing in size and complexity. With the rise of agriculture we see mass sedentary societies. Historical records only begin about 5,000 years ago, but it is clear that the outlines of the world of economic specialization, rentier classes and the state were already fully formed before the first cuneiform was baked.

It is in the period between the Neolithic Revolution and the literate city-states of Sumer that I believe the seedbeds of what might today be termed “traditional” morality emerged. Social complexity in small hunter-gatherer bands is limited because specialization could not emerge in that context; there was simply not enough marginal economic product to steal so that a class of those who were not primary producers could crystallize. Certainly gods, inchoate taboos and superstitions predate the Neolithic Revolution, but the racket of institutionalized religion emerged only in the context of complex societies which could support priests. The flexibility of humanity is evident in the new ideologies which we took to, and turned into second nature, during the period of great agricultural civilizations. Ideologies such as Confucianism and the Abrahamic religions claim to be a distillation and revitalization of the primal human order, but in reality they’re radical intellectual retrofits on an evolutionary timescale.

So should we do the “natural” thing and abandon all the accoutrements of the past 10,000 years of civilization? To some extent that was tried in the early 19th in New York’s Burnedover District, and in the 1960s among the Counterculture. I think the empirical record is that by and large experiments in Noble Savagery fail, largely because the humans are not particularly noble, though somewhat savage, and the mores of the hunter-gatherer society are not appropriate to people embedded in a technological world.** If one wishes to revert to the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer living on the Malthusian margin, barely above subsistence level, then small-scaled communal living is workable. It worked for thousands of years. But most modern humans do not wish to abandon all trappings of consumer luxury, and lifestyles are package deals.

The empirical record does not seem to show that complex societies allow for human flourishing on the thin basis of core morality, the toolkit which is deeply hardwired into us because of the million year hunter-gatherer phase of humanity (or, if you constrain humanity to the behaviorally modern, the 50,000 year hunter-gatherer phase of humanity). In fact, hunter-gatherer societies themselves did not subsist just on the thin core, rather, they’re riddled with a superstructure of queer taboos and customs which scaffold human action. The specific nature of this exhibits great diversity, but the general tendency is still evident in Jewish or Islamic law, or Confucian fixation on proper rites and names.

The rise of traditional societies has seen an elaboration of formalized rules and rituals to channel human behavior. The dehumanization of the Other certainly predates the Neolithic, at least judging from hunter-gatherer cultures still extant, but advanced civilizations extended and elaborated the concept ingeniously. The barbarian, the kuffar and the infidel are primitive concepts, dressed up in specific cultural garb. Similarly, the empathy and fellow feeling which is natural between members of the same band has been extended to the point that universal human brotherhood is an explicit doctrine of several religions, and implicit within modern political thought. Complex human societies are riddled with fictive kinship.

Many of the meta-level intellectual structures of the previous age are now under stress as societies are becoming restructured by mass affluence. The American phenomenon of “shopping for a church” discomfits many religious traditionalists, but it is part and parcel of the consumer culture and the taking for granted of individual flux in identification. The hunter-gatherer didn’t have to deal with the peculiar institutions which arose after the Neolithic Revolution to manage a peasantry on the Malthusian margin, and the modern consumer is shedding the monopoly that these institutions have on the choices they make and beliefs which they adhere to. But their life is also characterized by an incredible flux which would bewilder the hunter-gatherer.

In the flux one needs to take a step back. Let’s take it as a given that humans have a particular moral sense, a thin core set of presuppositions which are species universals, and can be subverted only through mass social conditioning. But humans are also conditioned toward a thicker network of rules, rites and customs which demarcate their trajectory through the sample space of possible choices and behaviors. The peasant had their world bounded by the traditions of their village and the necessities of the farming life. The dweller in a Jewish shtetl were bounded by the traditions of their community. In much of the modern world the control of the lives of individuals by corporate entities is melting away, as civil society becomes radically voluntary and fluid.

Some see the variation in mores and values over time and space and use that to argue that all is chaos and caprice. These would argue that every man is a barbarian unto himself, that civilization is a fiction predicated upon lies. I believe this is radically wrongheaded. I certainly believe that Christianity is a fiction. And I certainly believe that Confucius’ contention that he was only resurrecting the ways of the ancients was a fiction. But there are broad similarities in the ethical-moral systems of Confucianism and Christianity, or any civilization. To fully flourish as a human one must be a social creature, embedded in the community. For a community to function there must be a common set of values binding individuals together with common currency. The exact currency may vary, but it serves the same function.

St. Paul was a barbarian. He was certainly not a barbarian without moral merit. Rather, he was a barbarian because he was of an alien civilization, specifically a Greco-Roman world which was antecedent, but not analogous to in many ways, to the modern West. This does not mean that St. Paul was not admirable, but it does mean he was profoundly different, alien, and in some ways morally unintelligible. The same can be said for contemporaneous cultures where some acts are not commensurable in their significance. The symbolic role of suicide for example differs in Japan from the West; in Japan suicide has a strong social valence which it does not in the West (in fact, in the West suicide often is a symptom of individual mental pathology, not an act with social consequences).

When it comes to ideologically grounded values which one presumes are temporally invariant the admirable barbarian becomes problematic. This is why religious individuals with an intellectual bent spend a great deal of time contextualizing the barbaric strands in the pasts of their own traditions. The God of the Hebrew Bible is famously often a very disturbing individual in regards to the genocidal commands which he issues from on high. Repeatedly in Christian history the heresy of Marcionism has broken out precisely because some intellectuals simply could not reconcile Yahweh with Christ.

Another problem with religions with a long history predicated on the idea of an ahistorical Truth is that past barbarisms can reemerge like the Phoenix, because past barbarisms are given precedence as the world began with Truth, so subsequent ages are more likely to be deviations. In Christianity this resulted in some of the weirder features of strange sects in the 19th century. Mormon polygamy was partly justified in part on patriarchal precedents. But the bizarre debut of Salafi radicalism in the 20th and 21st century is probably a more salient instance of the atavisms of religious ideology. The Salafists wish to recreate the utopian world of the first few decades of Islam. This naturally leads them to argue in some cases for the reintroduction of slavery. In other ways they’re a radical departure from Islamic tradition which probably has little real connection to 7th century Islam. Finally, the contingent event of there being massive oil fields in Saudi Arabia has resulted in a fortuitous economic structure which allows for the Saudis to run their nation on a primitive Islamic framework. This flowering of “moderate” Salafism is an aberration, and is likely not sustainable over the long term because of the structural nature of an economy based on resource exploitation (by analogy, some Counterculture enthusiasts can fund their lifestyle through their inheritances, but these will become exhausted over the generations).

Most societies are robust and allow for human flourishing only when they develop organically out of their own traditions. The disasters of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and more modestly much of the Communist world, attest to that. But over time these traditions, the guidelines of human life, evolve and change. The traditions themselves do not reflect invariant Truth; just as the greenback is not the True currency of the United States. And just as the guidelines can change over time, they change between societies. Some values, extending core moral concepts such as empathy, have spread across all human societies. Slavery is simply no longer acceptable, at least openly and formally. On the other hand, a Western concept of gender equality is not universal. Is there a difference here? I do think there is. Slavery violates our sense of individual human dignity more than enforcement of differentiated gender roles; I believe as an empirical matter Aristotle was wrong that there are natural slaves, but there is an empirical reality that men and women start out biologically different, and there are average group differences in disposition and outlook.

It would be inhuman if a society began to raise other humans as meat animals. In contrast, way Saudi Arabia treats its female population is simply barbaric. Many Saudi women accept and endorse the strict enforcement of gender, because their values are barbaric. I do not think their values are untrue, rather, I can not evaluate clearly how women in Saudi Arabia can properly flourish, so alien is the cultural context. As a social creature with empathy, who wishes to communicate and engage with my fellow human with common moral currency, I wish that the people of Saudi Arabia would give up their barbaric values. But, their behavior is not actionable in the same manner that raising humans as meat, or slavery, would be. These strike much more closely to triggers of abhorrence rooted in our universal individual human nature, as opposed to our socialized Weltanschauung.

That some of morality is invariant on a historical and spatial scale is an assertion about how things are. That much of morality is relative on a historical and spatial scale is an assertion about how things are. It does not follow from the latter than societies must abandon a thick set of morals and customs. Just because a value or custom is not True is a deep sense does not mean that it lacks essential utility toward the ends of human flourishing. Just because fiat currency is not backed by real assets does not mean that it is not useful in furthering economic activity. As a scholarly matter there is no point in judging intercultural differences. But as a conventional human who is a creature of social habit and custom, an aversion to the ways of aliens is a normal reflex. Our cognitive capacities exhibit scarcity in the supply of mental energy, and so much of our daily activities and our beliefs emerge out of the reflexive implicit mind, informed by our instincts, personal experiences, and social milieu. To examine all acts and beliefs “rationally” simply invites exhaustion of mental energy. To demand genuine consistency with Truth in the messy and sordid world of human affairs is likely folly, and will only detract from the enjoyment of the small things in life. It does not seem to me that grand transcendent Truth trickles down from on high to a society, rather, it is through personal self-cultivation and enjoyment of life that society can flourish and transcend simply being the sum of its pedestrian parts.

Addendum: I focused on religion when it comes to worship of Truth. But it need not be religious. Consider a friend who insisted to me that the Founding Fathers were multiculturalists! His admiration for the Founding Fathers and adherence to multiculturalism was resolved by simply reworking history. In contrast, other adherents of multiculturalism revile the Founding Fathers as “Dead White Men.” They were what they were, and need not be sacrificed before the idol of Truth.

* The push by the Teutonic Knights into the pagan Baltic fringe in the 12th to 14th centuries is a forgotten episode of the Christian war against unbelievers which redounded to economic benefit of the Crusaders. Because the Baltsa were outside of the pale of Christendom warlords could extract maximum marginal product out of their pagan subjects without any interference. As in the American South, some of the ostensibly Christian warriors prevaricated in allowing the pagans on their lands to be converted to Christianity and baptized.

** Additionally, many sixties radicals seem to have a weird concurrent adherent to the Blank Slate ideology, along with copious utilization of the Naturalistic Fallacy.

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45 comments

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · February 27, 2010 at 7:45 am

    A tour de force, Mr. Hume. Publishable in fact, with some minor editing (my rates available on request).

    If I have a criticism of your pieces on these themes, it is the very mild one that perhaps you overstate the degree of constraint in the “constrained” societies of the sedentary-Malthusian age. The people in Jane Austen’s novels are certainly plenty constrained; down in the urban underclass, though, it was rampant whoredom and “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence.” There will always be some large demographic striving to be as “barbarian” as they can be.

    And come to think of it, one of the Bennet girls in Pride & Prejudice ran off with a soldier. Prob. ended up in Gin Alley.

  • mnuez · February 27, 2010 at 8:15 am

    This post and some others of Razib’s of a similar nature are, to me at least, some of the most worthy outputs of human literary endeavors this decade. However hopeless I feel when encountering the opinions and thoughts of other online literates, I can’t help but feel less lonely knowing that not only does Razib exist but that there’s an audience that correctly understands and has also come to realize these truths.

    (I should note that Nicholas Wade’s “Before The Dawn” might be the silver standard for a book-length exposition of this post’s outlook. It’s magnificent.

  • Will · February 27, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    There is not a single shred of moral argument here. Hume puts together a pastiche of cultural history and biological speculation (“moral sense”), none of which even adds up to a claim that could be argued or disagreed with. He says that people seem to act in pretty predictable ways, but there’s some give and take here and there. So what? This is an argument? When somebody courageous on this blog takes Plato and Nietzsche seriously (or philosophy generally), let me know. Until then, it’s intellectually cowardly.

  • kurt9 · February 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    St. Paul would be considered a sociopath by today’s standards. People like to say that Ayn Rand was a sociopath, and there is some validity to this. However, most of the historical figures involved in the creation of the abrahamic religions (such as St. Paul) were far worse, in terms of personal character flaws, than Ayn Rand ever was.

    I see no reason to subscribe to any worldview that was created by sociopaths.

  • kurt9 · February 27, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I will say it more strongly. St. Paul was a true psychopath, plain and simple. He was one incredibly pathologically screwed-up, mentally deranged individual. People like him are often kept in mental institutions today. I cannot fathom why anyone would buy into any worldview that was created by such a pathologically disturbed individual.

    You know, libertarianism has its flaws, but it is infinitely superior to any other worldview.

  • Author comment by David Hume · February 27, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    kurt9, i did laugh at your comments. i would say that there is a high probability that st. paul would be a very different person if he matured in the 20th century than the 1st. or perhaps he’d go be a quantitative finance specialist at a hedge fund? :-)

  • Lesacre · February 27, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Razib,

    This was an excellent post, except that sometimes your objectivity is betrayed by a secular/Libertarian righteousness . For example:

    “Certainly gods, inchoate taboos and superstitions predate the Neolithic Revolution, but the racket of institutionalized religion emerged only in the context of complex societies which could support priests.”
    “Complex human societies are riddled with fictive kinship.”

    Let’s not dehumanize these conceptual barbarians.

  • Author comment by David Hume · February 27, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    @Lesacre

    touché! alas, i am what i am :-)

  • Lesacre · February 27, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Regardless, I think what you describe should be called “moral evolutionism” — we really are talking about an aspect of culture evolution, where norms are adapted to (and shape) societal organizations, material level ect, given some biopsychological constraints.

  • Will · February 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    @Lesacre

    I repeat: there is not a whit of an actual argument here. How should we live our lives? What is good or excellent or noble for human beings? Are there universal ends human beings are bound to pursue rationally? What is the rational basis, if any, for moral obligation? Can you–anybody on this site–even begin to understand the most basic philosophical questions? A lifetime of study of social history, genetics and evolutionary history does not bring you one step closer to raising, let alone answering, any of these questions. Do you understand that?

  • Author comment by David Hume · February 27, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    @Will

    will, i think you’re a retarded moron. which is why i’m not reading you. why are you reading me? anyway, you’re not being published anymore, so don’t bother. please. for the love of god.

  • Susan · February 27, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Razib, the friend who insisted to you that the Founding Fathers were multiculturalists is the obverse of those those on the religious right who insist that the Founding Fathers were Christian fundamentalists.

  • Author comment by David Hume · February 27, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    @Susan

    yes. people just project the present onto the past. it was what it was. let it be i say. unfortunately my viewpoint here isn’t too popular, though i suspect that the average human is rather stupid plays a part in this. to take the past for what it was you have to know something about it, and that would cut into TV time….

  • Susan · February 27, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    @David Hume
    I think you can divide people into three groups: those who know absolutely nothing about the past, which is most people; those who know about the past, but cherrypick it and distort those pickings to support whatever their current agenda might be; and those of us who accept the past as..what actually happened.

  • kurt9 · February 27, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    I am a transhumanist. This is the core of my identity and what i think about first when i wake up in the morning (or when i am quite drunk as I am now, barely about to type this). Transhumanism is the epitomy of masculinity for the simple reason that many more males than females are into it. We are into the outward oriented stuff like space colonization, radical life extension, and the general progression of technology. This is a male thing by the fact that 90% of the people who are into this are men and not women. femininity is defined by the introspective, inward oriented mentality that defines much of Western society as we know it today.

    We are the internally locus of control people that have no desire or need for these religious memes that seem so important for those who are of external locus of control. We define ourselves, our future, and who we are. We have no need for any concept of external definitions of who we are or not are. We create our own identity and future and exist independent of those who feel the need to believe in any external concept of identity and authority. We are of our own creation and we create our own future and f*ck you to anyone who can’t handle this.

  • Author comment by David Hume · February 27, 2010 at 7:35 pm

  • John · February 27, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I’m not sure I buy the idea that slavery is immoral in a significantly different way then oppression based on gender. It is either OK for one group of people to rule another or it isn’t. We should make this decision based on reasoned argument, not the fact that there is a difference of X% in the genes between men and women while there is only a Y% difference in genes between the slaves and the masters.

    We believers in HBD think that there are some inherent differences between men and women, but that natural fact does not in any way justify denying a person his/her rights. Soon we will live in a world where people can alter their own genes, and this will create all sorts of people we will consider to be “unnatural”. When a genetic uberman with an IQ of 250 meets me, he will have no greater or lesser claim to be my master or slave than anyone else.

  • John · February 27, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Still, I enjoyed the article.

  • Hisham · February 27, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    You’ve certainly come a long way since your “natural law” phase.

  • Author comment by David Hume · February 27, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    @Hisham

    natural rights :-)

  • Hisham · February 27, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    @David Hume
    I’ll respect your distinction, but I still recall the time when you referred to Eminent Domain as a violation of “natural law” ;-)

  • kurt9 · February 27, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    @David Hume

    Not at all. I’m a “biology” guy. That is, biotechnology and bioengineering can lead to radical life extension and improved human performance. This singulatarian obsession with uploading, AI, and other computer geek stuff, is just so much horse-pucky. In many ways, I am as pessimistic on the rest of the human race as the Derb. in my darker moments, I am more. The difference between him and myself is that I intend to MAKE IT(1) no matter what the f**K I have to do or what the cost is to myself or the rest of the human race in doing it. I don’t think the Derb has made a similar commitment. Then again, the Derb is significantly older than myself AND he is not the fanatical life extensionist/transhumanist that I am.

    The so-called singulatarian people are into the AI/down-loading stuff. This is a load of horse shit. I believe we get get biotechnological life extension (SENS, etc.) but the rest of transhumanism is a mental masturbatory fantasy. I call myself transhumanist only because I do not identify with any non-transhuminist worldview or organization, whatsoever. Since I think most transhumanists are full of it, of course I going to think that any non-transhumanist are doubly full of it. I’m not even sure that I am a libertarian. All I know is that I truly despise and really FUCKING HATE, to the core of my being, both Abrahamic religion as well as any kind of socialism. I truly and utterly hate these things to the core of my being and I have only utter contempt and disgust for these things. I utterly hate these things to an extent that you cannot possibly comprehend. I consider both Abrahamic religion and socialism to be nothing more than sophistry for rent-seeking activities.

    (1) “Making it” is a colloquial expression for surviving to a time when indefinite youthful life extension is commonly available and is common place in the society of the time. It is assumed that the SENS therapies will become available in the 2030-2040 time period.

  • kurt9 · February 27, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Oh, by the way, David Hume,

    I LOVED your discussion about how the American farmers of the 19th century had it way better than any other humans in the past 10,000 year prior to the industrial revolution. This is very, very true and cannot be said enough. This formed the cultural basis of the U.S. and what defines us what we are today. Frederick Turner talked about the importance of the frontier in some of his writings in the mid-19th century. I believe this more than anything is what made American special compared to the rest of the world.

    The industrial revolution allowed the concept of the “frontier” to be carried on in the form of urbanization and, later, suburbanization, through out the 20th century. The epitome of this was California and the rest of the sun-belt, especially the “edge-cities”, which constituted an economic frontier, long after the physical frontier of the west having close, though out the 20th century up until 1990. It certainly represented a personal frontier in my adolescent mind during the 80′s. The only problem is that this frontier “closed” during the recession of the early 90′s when I needed it the most, which resulting in my pitching up in Japan in 1991.

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  • mnuez · February 28, 2010 at 3:38 am

    @kurt9

    Huh? I was sure you were 18!

    It you’re 40 or over I’ll be absolutely astonished.

  • Vik · February 28, 2010 at 6:20 am

    1. Hunter gatherers in the Kalahari and Arctic have better nutrition than the poor in the first world and most of the third world. there is more malnutrition now than there has ever been

    2. You make too much of how much better off (happier) we are now, how we couldn’t trade for the past, etc. but human beings adapt to external events very quickly, ie, their “affective state” is very adaptable b) they judge their success relative to others. so while you may think life was brutish and unsatisfying for everyone prior to the industrial revolution its not based in a good understanding of human psychology. People find reason to be happy and satisfied, even suddenly blinded people who contemplate suicide in the first hours eventually return to their baseline emotional state in a matter of weeks.

    3. The standard of living you so extol is dependent upon the extraction and depletion of dwindling natural resources. Why can’t we see it as a brief intermission in the way things are, rather than as some permanent breakthrough? The “western lifestyle” will not be unchosen, it will be taken away by resource constraints and depletion, and the competition for those resources emerging elsewhere.

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  • Dick · February 28, 2010 at 10:49 am

    The problem morality poses for secularists is that there’s nothing beyond one’s feelings and tastes upon which to base moral judgment, nor is there any non-arbitrary basis for moral obligations and duties. Certainly evolution gives us no such grounds nor does popular opinion. If one rejects God one is led by the logic of that denial to moral subjectivism or nihilism. Atheists can, of course, adopt any values they wish if those values make them feel good, but it’s nonsense to ascribe “rightness” to these values and a category mistake to call them “true.” They’re completely arbitrary preferences. There’s no justification whatsoever in a naturalistic universe for saying that it’s wrong, in a moral sense, to squander the planet’s resources on ourselves, or for the strong to impose their will on the weak. Nor is there any moral obligation to do otherwise. The most an atheist can say is that these are behaviors that he doesn’t like, and if enough people agree with him they can make those behaviors illegal. What the atheist can’t say, though, is that the behaviors are in some sense morally wrong.

    Perhaps Razib will write a follow up piece to make the case for why, in a world without any transcendent ground for moral duty, it’d be wrong to be a might-makes-right egoist.

  • cynthia curran · February 28, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Well, Paul didn’t use the state to pushed his views not like Emperor Justinian that had homosexuals castrated. If a person believes that homosexuality is wrong but doesn’t use the state to put homosexuls in jail is that wrong. Anyway, those on the secular left are more intolerated. They want to brand anyone that speaks against homosexuality as intolerated and sometimes used hate laws like in Canada or Euorpe. I personality don’t believe in gay married but do like some homosexuals.

  • Ethan · February 28, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    @Dick
    I remember making the same argument, many times. There is a lot that could be said and has, elsewhere, but for a start, have you reflected on the strangeness of challenging an assertion of fact with the moral consequences you believe that fact would have? I don’t mean that to sound rude; I missed that for a long time too. It’s one of those connecting tissues of thought that are too organic to their host mind to be noticed easily.

  • Lesacre · March 1, 2010 at 12:56 am

    @Will

    :How should we live our lives? What is good or excellent or noble for human beings? Are there universal ends human beings are bound to pursue rationally? What is the rational basis, if any, for moral obligation? Can you–anybody on this site–even begin to understand the most basic philosophical questions? A lifetime of study of social history, genetics and evolutionary history does not bring you one step closer to raising, let alone answering, any of these questions. Do you understand that?

    If your point is that the study of the world, external and internal, can not alone answer the basic questions of any given person’s life, I appreciate this.
    If, on the other hand, your point is that the study of the world is irrelevant to those questions, I suspect that you have not mediated deeply on the nature of your questions.

    As for the particular questions you mention, can you name a classical thinker worth his salt, who has dwelt on these questions and not contextualized these questions within the framework of how he understands the world?

    What you are really saying is that you can not resolve questions by amassing data. I agree. Truth is fact in perspective. What you are implying is that this perspective can not, itself, be derives from amassing facts, mere facts — Sophia is independent from phronesis. And you are concluding that both transcendent information is needed, and the findings about the world are irrelevant. The latter is surely not correct.

    Some thinkers, often religious ones, come to the table with a true (as opposed to working, or work in progress) frame — whether you are talking about Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Christians, ect, what we usually mean by having a religion is having, or presupposing, a true perspective. This having or presupposing a true perspective is, of course, not exclusive to religions; hence we often speak of certain philosophy and ideologies, such as dogmatic scientism, Marxism, ect as being secular religions. While Faith based believers will talk about Truth, others will talk about the Way, and others will just overextend their working perspective, beyond it’s logical limits — as was common with 19th century science, and end with a defacto religion.

    Regardless, all presuppose some foundational (or default) belief/schemata/way/truth. Within the framework of this true perspective, this prioritizing of cognition, where impressions are deemed more real than others, answers are sought for the questions you pose.

    I am, of course, not hostile to religion, let along philosophy. To answer the questions above one most have a perspective. And we live our lives, day in an day out, on the basis of numerous unconsidered true perspectives. We often live with a default set of beliefs. For example, I usually just assume that living is a good thing. Is it a good thing? When I feel it is, I don’t ask the question, but sometimes I do ask the question — that is I have mixed feelings or competing cognition, which I need to reconcile. For example, I have been sick, and the other day I had the impulse to jump out the window. What am I to make of that impulse? Perhaps it’s my Daemon giving advice, and I should sacrifice a roaster to Esculapius? Perhaps this impulse is caused by my headaches, which is (“just”) amplifying a particular route in my cognitive Pandemonium, and it would be reasonable to either ignore it, or take a few aspirins. Perhaps, no matter what, I ought not jump — my local impulses, after all are informed by meta-impulses. But what am I to make of this sense of ought not jump, let alone people who feel an imperative to jump?

    One could have an endless serious of such questions and there are no absolute answers — there are just actions. One cognitive action might be to affirm the true perspective — as opposed to submit it to inquiry — that there in an imperative to not jump. Some people people never have the question, some people affirm a perspective that silences the question, and for some it just goes away. Others jump, which, given that on average this does not promote the tendency to pass down the genetic and memetic dispositions which amplify the impulses leading to the question, is why for most people the questions is not asked often. And yet — for those persons or societies of persons having these questions — they are seen as very important and serious questions. (If not, those people would not be around).

    I guess what I am suggesting is that most people never answer the questions you speak of. The questions are questions with regards to perspectives, however conceived. And perspective are a means of prioritizing cognition. Most people do not ask ‘To be or not to be,’ because the impulses leading to that question are not triggered, they just act on the impulses and that’s that, or because their greater/truer/dominant perspective suppresses them. If you have such questions, and you think in terms of Life truths, your perspective is not informing you — so that perspective itself is not “answer[ing], any of these questions.”

    If you are a person or a society posing these questions, since relative to you they are important, you either have two options: 1) expand (or elaborate) your current true perspective[s] or 2) develop a new one [set of ones]. With regards to 1, sometimes this just means making logical inferences (think of Kant’s idea of analytic judgments, originalist readings of the Constitution) or clarifications, and sometimes this means following the logic of the perspective (synthetic judgments, Hermeneutics). If the questions is persistent enough — it suggests that more than a simple analysis is needed; as such, you are either left with finding the ‘greater truth’ of the true perspective, or finding another one. In both cases you need to reevaluate the world, of which “social history, genetics and evolutionary history” is a part of, as you need a frame in which to formulate a new truth, in the sense of cognitive priority, or expand the old one.

  • Liesel · March 1, 2010 at 10:20 am

    We create our own identity and future and exist independent of those who feel the need to believe in any external concept of identity and authority.

    I tend to think this is impossible because at the least you will be contrained by your unique genetic code as well as widespread human nature. Humans find happiness in socializing with other humans and forming groups which necessitate giving up some autonomy to the collective. I have a feeling quite a few things which you take for granted inform your identity that are well beyond your control (beyond DNA, the time preiod and culture in which you were born, gender,education, health.)

    Transhumanism raises some interesting ethical dilemas:

    Anyhow, if humans do actually develop the ability to radically extend life expectancy for most individuals, wouldn’t that create an overpopulation nightmare that even really low birthrates couldn’t overcome?

    Would people already alive take precidence over those not yet born in consideration of resources?

    How many resources would be designated for the processes of extending life in shortage situations?

    What would prevent a few “mad scientist” types from monopolizing the life extending technology at the expense of others?

  • Dick · March 1, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    @Ethan

    You asked in #28 if I had “reflected on the strangeness of challenging an assertion of fact with the moral consequences you believe that fact would have?” but there’s nothing strange about evaluating an argument in the light of its consequences. That’s what a reductio ad absurdum does.

    Even so, I wasn’t trying in #26 to construct a reductio. Rather I wanted to argue that Razib’s basic claim, that whether God exists or not there are things that are wrong, and that we have a moral duty not to do these things, is simply not true.

    If man is morally autonomous then we cannot say that kindness is better than cruelty or that we should care about others. If man is his own moral ground then right and wrong are simply matters of our own personal preference and our only moral duty is to please ourselves.

    Indeed, if there’s an illegitimate leap from fact to value in this discussion it’s in the claim, implicit in Razib’s column, that social consensus, the evolution of sympathy, or personal abhorrence can impose an obligation upon us or confer moral value upon an act. It’s an old maxim that one cannot derive an ought from an is.

  • Eoin · March 1, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    ” there is more malnutrition now than there has ever been”

    Lol. Yes, we are so undernourished – what with people living longer and growing taller, and getting more obese. If by malnutrition you mean eating the wrong stuff, maybe, but not calorie deficiency. In any case there used to be famines. And lots of them. Heck I come from a place with less people then 1840.

    “The standard of living you so extol is dependent upon the extraction and depletion of dwindling natural resources. Why can’t we see it as a brief intermission in the way things are, rather than as some permanent breakthrough? The “western lifestyle” will not be unchosen, it will be taken away by resource constraints and depletion, and the competition for those resources emerging elsewhere.”

    Since the world population will peak at about 9B, a mere 50% increase; but has grown 600% in the last century ( with massive growth in calorie consumption per capita) I think we will survive just fine. The malthusian trap is over.

    Even if, say, it becomes more expensive to eat meat, so it will. In Iceland McDonalds has closed down, and they are back on the fish. Nobody has died off. I myself, for my own personal health reasons, have eaten vegetarian 3-4 days a week, and fish once a week, since last year. 35. I intend to live long. When I get a place with a garden I will grow food, not flowers. That would satisfy my nature, anyway, since it is productive and flowers are girly.

    That would do it for the world, were they to follow my example, without any other intervention ( like GM crops, or more intense agriculture).

    If meat consumption increases in the East, or India, it may well decrease in the West, and we could pretend that we are doing it for our health. Actually, it may be, since classes define their status against each other, that the middle classes and up eat less meat, while the poor still pop down to McDonalds. Meat eaters will be the rich in the developing world, and the poor here.

    Whatever happens, there is a vast give in the system, even if (God Forbid!) McDonalds has to close some outlets ( which I doubt). The fact that we have so many calories to spare – so many in fact that we spend a lot of waste on meat, or biofuels – means that we can get to 9B with little or no difficulty. We need nothing like the growth rate of agriculture in the Green Revolution. Although, if we needed that, we’d get that too. ( cause and effect are intertwined here, of course).

    So nothing to see here, except the apocalyptic meanderings of a pseduo-religion which takes nothing from Christianity except moral posterising, and the End of Days.

    Ok, thats talks a lot from Christianity, but Christianity had nice Churches, great music, and good theatre, as well as self-righteous bores.

  • Eoin · March 1, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    “People find reason to be happy and satisfied, even suddenly blinded people who contemplate suicide in the first hours eventually return to their baseline emotional state in a matter of weeks.”

    Actually, we are probably unhappier than hunter gatherers, or even the 19th century. I blame the lack of religion. Oh wait, I blame modern alienation, oh wait… I blame capitalist aspiration. Take your ideological pick.

    Whatever floats your boat. We can tinker about with society, but we are not going to get back to being hunter gatherers, are we? If your hope is that we all commune with nature a la hunter gatherers, the problem is that the transition would be vastly more painful than the Irish, Soviet, or Chinese famines – and we may not be able to cope.

    I take it that most of our morals may come from the EEA ( excpet, serial monogamy, or polygamy?) – but my eyesight did not. I think bad eyesight has evoloved in the meantime, and I for one welcome a society with contact lens, and no need to hunt to survive.

    Because I wouldnt. Most of us, wouldnt.

  • Vik · March 1, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    ol. Yes, we are so undernourished – what with people living longer and growing taller, and getting more obese. If by malnutrition you mean eating the wrong stuff, maybe, but not calorie deficiency. In any case there used to be famines. And lots of them. Heck I come from a place with less people then 1840.

    The western world is not malnourished – but the world as a whole is likely more malnourished. The western diet – well, the American diet, is highly processed and leads to an entire constellation of first world diseases. The very poorest i the western world have worse diets than the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari. In America, inequality is rising.

    The amount of arable land in the world is declining. Three billion people in the third world have announced that the only way to success is to attempt to emulate the western model. resources will become costlier and scarcer. Malthus will yet be proved the prophetic genius he was.

    If you are willing to concede that hunter gatherers are happier, then, we must ask, what was the point of it all? Whence this axiomatic presupposition of “progress”??

    It couldnt have been the big macs…

  • Vik · March 1, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    I do agree with the central point about religion. the basal moral instincts are products our noble hunter-gatherer phase – biophilia, egalitarianism, empathy and reciprocity are fundamental to humans, and are but dimly encoded in the major religious traditions. Animism is also encoded, but the Abrahamic traditions, and in particular Christianity, elided this natural human preference in favor of one God and one Truth. the ancients were much more concerned with practice than belief, and the gods in the earth, rather than God in the sky.

  • Eoin · March 2, 2010 at 6:07 am

    “but the world as a whole is likely more malnourished. ”

    No it isnt. People used to starve in London when it was at the height at Empire. The supposed “starving” people’s of the modern world are growing their populations, not the West. But real starving people dont have children. Actual real famines, with reductions in populations are rare these days.

    “The western diet – well, the American diet, is highly processed and leads to an entire constellation of first world diseases.”

    Sure, but the term malnournised has too meanings – calorie deficient, or eating the wrong types of food which lead to health problems. Historically we used the former, not the latter. To use a word with two meanings is going to be confusing – I accept that obese Americans are malnourished in the second category but there is a massive calorific overload.

    The primary function of food is energy. The old malnourished were emaciated wretches, the new (American, at least) malnourished are 300lbs of lard. It would take a long time to starve the latter. Studies which describe malnourishment in the American lower classes are talking about version 2. But that “malnourishment” is a problem with surplus – if their food becomes more expensive ( because rich Chinese are eating all the beef) they may become healthier. Like me, voluntarily giving up meat for half the week, they may have to.

    “The very poorest i the western world have worse diets than the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari.”

    Version 2 of malnourishment here, good food rather than calories. That said using version 1 ( calorie deficiency) – the very poorest in the world have had traditionally worse diets than most hunter gatherers since we moved onto agriculture. Until the modern age.

    As for why we moved on from hunter gathering – we ran out of game.

  • kurt9 · March 2, 2010 at 9:41 am

    The resource limits of the Earth:

    http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/

    With nuclear power and biotechnology, 15 billion people can live the U.S. standard of living. We are nowhere near the limits right now.

    Life before the industrial revolution was nasty, brutish, and short. For example, most people lost their teeth by the time they were 40 years old. Women often died during childbirth, etc. Why anyone would glorify this is incomprehensible to me.

    This romanticism of pre-industrial cultures is just that, the irrational Romantic movement, which started out as the late 19th century backlash against the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The Enlightenment was the only true revolution in human history because it was the only intellectual revolution in human history. What existed before the Renaissance and Enlightenment was people living like animals in disgusting filth and ignorance. Did you know that most medieval Europeans never bathed? Can you imagine this? The smell?

    mnuez,

    What makes you think that growing up requires the acceptance of either religion or socialism? Growing up involves one thing and one thing only, accepting responsibility for your own actions and the consequences thereof. Nothing less and nothing more.

    The social conservatism that is bandied about here and elsewhere on the ‘net is really a cover-up for rent-seeking behavior. I associate with others on the basis of mutual respect and rational self-interest. Your social conservatism attempts to force me to associate with those whom I would not associate with based on my own choice. The only reason for forcing such association is because such people want something from me and they cannot offer me anything in return. Hence, the need for me to be forced into associating with them.

    I reject this, as I reject much of what others think I should or should not do. I plot my own course in life and live that course. If others cannot handle this, that is their problem, not mine. You know, this kind of political debate is quite silly. My personal friends are more or less libertarian. The people I deal with in my business world (customers, suppliers, competitors), we don’t talk about this stuff at all. There is something called “polite” conversation, that American equivalent to tatemai (once I got used to it, it was actually quite easy for me to fit into Japanese culture) my parents taught me at a very early age. This precludes discussion of these matters and other personal life style matters from the conversation and the business relationships. I’m not gay and I’m certainly not a pedophile. So, I pretty much do what I want and get away with it because no one in my physical world gives a rat’s arse about this stuff.

    You see, simply because I do not think like you does not necessarily mean that I cannot possibly be over 40. I will bet you donuts to dollars that your typical engineer or wall street person thinks more like me than like you, even the ones over 40.

  • kurt9 · March 3, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Mnuez,

    If you knew what I do about the medical system, almost all government funded science research, and assorted other bureaucratic BS; you quickly come to share the same worldview that I do.

    Bureaucracy is incapable of any kind of productive behavior and, by default, any political philosophy that is based on the belief in the efficacy of bureaucracy is also completely worthless.

    It IS possible to be over 40 years old and to be a libertarian as well.

  • Rich Rostrom · March 3, 2010 at 11:27 am

    “All humans in all societies would accept that it is immoral for a son to copulate with the body of his recently deceased mother.”

    I don’t. I would consider it disgusting and improper in the extreme. But as Robert Heinlein once wrote, “Sin is cruelty and injustice; all else is peccadillo.”

    Inflicting the knowledge of such an act on relations or acquaintances might amount to such cruelty – but the act itself affects no one. How then is it “immoral”?

  • Vik · March 3, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    With nuclear power and biotechnology, 15 billion people can live the U.S. standard of living. We are nowhere near the limits right now.

    This is fantasy. Nuclear power for the mass of humans would lead to an exponential leap in the probability of nuclear holocaust. given that homo sapiens is inherently violent and war-smitten (though less so than some other primates) there is a greater likelihood of obliteration than utopia. Which would you bet on.

    “Biotechnology” also portends disaster. someone is going to mess with the genome, and it will F*ck things up. think unintended consequences.

    Life before the industrial revolution was nasty, brutish, and short. For example, most people lost their teeth by the time they were 40 years old. Women often died during childbirth, etc. Why anyone would glorify this is incomprehensible to me.

    This romanticism of pre-industrial cultures is just that, the irrational Romantic movement, which started out as the late 19th century backlash against the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The Enlightenment was the only true revolution in human history because it was the only intellectual revolution in human history. What existed before the Renaissance and Enlightenment was people living like animals in disgusting filth and ignorance. Did you know that most medieval Europeans never bathed? Can you imagine this? The smell?

    You are conflating the miseries of the paleolithic with the neolithic. you would adapt quickly to being toothless (viz. return to your baseline affective state rather quickly). you would are also perfectly adapted to natural smells. it has only been some years since hom0 sapiens has flushed his shit into his own drinking water and then proceeded to purify it, before then he revelled in its midst.

    All other fears are failures of the imagination. the question is, who had eudamonia (though the true Greek ideal of happiness is the Stoic/Pyrhonnic ataraxia) and what makes you think you have more of it?

  • Vik · March 3, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    The “Enlightenment” spawned all of the 20th century’s utopian fantasies, from Communism to Neoconservatism. The belief in progress led to the gulags. The primacy accorded to individualism (impossible to hunter gatherers) destroyed familial and social structures, cherished folkways, and concern for nature.

    Hardly enlightening!

  • kurt9 · March 7, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    No, Vik. I am right and you are wrong, and you know it as well as I do. In addition to being wrong about both nuclear power and biotechnology, you are wrong about the pre-enlightenment times as well. It is true that the Greeks and Romans invented and did stuff. But everything between them and the past 300 years was nothing but savage barbarism. The dark ages is called the dark ages for a reason. It was a time of ignorance and barbarism. Nothing of value occurred during this time and what existed in Europe during this time cannot be called “civilization” by any stretch of the imagination. It was a time of ignorance, mysticism, barbarism, and savagery (funny how all of these go together). It is simply pathetic to believe that anything of value even occurred during the European dark ages as it is to worship pre-industrial life styles. I pity people like you who think like this.

    I bet on the future. In 2050, nuclear power and biotechnology, among other things, will make us wealthier and healthier than we are today. In 2100, we will be wealthier and healthier than we will be in 2050. I bet my life, my future, and my current wealth on this prediction and I know that I will be proven correct.

    “The question is, who had eudamonia (though the true Greek ideal of happiness is the Stoic/Pyrhonnic ataraxia) and what makes you think you have more of it?’

    No, I don’t need the Greek ideal of happiness because my concept of happiness is superior. I say this because I know it. I would not say this if I did not know it.

    Modern civilization is infinitely superior to previous ones. You know this as well as I do. Stop pretending with this silly worship of pre-industrial life styles. It is really quite pathetic, you know.

  • Clark · March 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Kurt, while I agree modern society is better than pre-industrial ones, I don’t think it follows that pre-industrial ideals are necessarily worse than modern ones. (And arguably a lot of modern ideals are ancient ones) The problem is that it’s fine and dandy to have ideals, but in the brutish nature of life until recently it was quite costly to the individual to actually try to live up to such ideals.

    Of course this is the old utopia problem. How on earth do we separate out what are irrelevant trappings due to the social realities of a group achieving an ideal versus what is an essential problem for any utopian movement given the realities of human nature.

    I suspect most here would agree that the greatest cause of ethical development among humans has been basic sanitation and the easy supply of cheap food and shelter. Those have made it such that humans can afford to think more about ethics. And as humans struggle less with the basics, unsurprisingly we tend to see many practices as abhorrent.

    The question remains though how to deal with the cost question with regards to ethics. Could those cost questions be resolved it may well be that Greek conceptions are superior to others. (I don’t think they are, mind you, I just think the argument is far trickier than it first appears just like many New Atheist critiques of Christianity likewise flounder)

    Of course the safest bet is to just say that such questions of ideal can’t be separated from the question of the historic situation they find themselves embedded in. So the better question is what ideas from those earlier cultures can fruitfully be applied to our own culture. But then we have to ask the serious question of implementation. And it is there that most utopian schemes fall apart.

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