Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Human social virtues in a time of crisis

April 1, 2020

Garrison Keillor once said, if the purpose of one’s life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? This actually poses a deep philosophical issue. John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Yet each of us experiences existence only within the confines of our own skulls. Experiencing only one’s own feelings, not those of others.

It can be argued that we only ever do seemingly selfless deeds when it rewards us with good feelings. Evolution programmed us to have such feelings — and with empathy for the feelings of others, even if we cannot experience them directly — to make us do things for the common good. Hence even if pure selfishness might seem strictly logical, a degree of selflessness is a fundamental part of our human nature (barring sociopaths who failed to get that software installed). And we measure our virtue largely in terms of our interactions with others. Summed up pretty well by the golden rule. Nobody is perfect but most of us try.

And not just because of our programming. Your rational brain tells you that if you want to live in a society where people treat each other well, it behooves you to behave that way yourself. And if everybody does this, it’s good for everybody. We do what’s right mainly because we know it’s right, and why.

Holding fast to these standards of conduct is especially vital in a crisis like today’s, where the temptations for selfishness are heightened, and so is its ill effect. Where social solidarity is more needful than ever. Americans are largely meeting the test.

Acting rightly does make one feel good about oneself. But that may not be enough. We all have egos, greedy for such feelings, and one way to pump them up is through validation from others. This may seem strange because, again, you don’t have direct access to what others feel. But you’re affected by their behavior, which in turn is affected by their feelings toward you. And our social programming makes our position in society important to us. All this makes us crave the good opinion of others, and suckers for flattery.

Thus if we do good or are successful, we want others to know it. One way is to tell them. But that actually contravenes the golden rule. How so? Well, do you enjoy hearing others’ boasts? Saying “Look how great I am” implicitly tells the hearer, “and you’re not.” Even if unintentionally, self-aggrandizement forces the hearer to ponder the comparison. It’s not nice. That’s why bragging has a negative connotation, and modesty and humility are virtues.* A basic rule of living in society.

Much human behavior seeks to evade that rule. Successful, rich people cannot wear a badge announcing their net worth. But a lot of what they do (and buy) is mainly to advertise to others about their success. Boastfulness by other means.

But some are boastful by boasting. “I am very rich,” Trump has said. “I am very smart.” He’s even boasted of being the most modest person ever. And he tells us he’s doing a great job. Thus his coronavirus briefings (whose TV ratings he’s bragged about). Recently the word of the day, repeated like a verbal tic, was “tremendous.” Then he switched to “incredible.” Maybe tomorrow it will be “fantastic.” And not content to trumpet his wonderfulness himself, he trots out sycophantic flatterers to bubble about it.

What’s truly incredible is a president using a horrific crisis, with thousands dying, and millions suffering deprivation, as an occasion for sickening orgies of self-congratulation.

And contemptible as such braggadocio is, worse yet if the boasts are lies. It’s been factually documented how his failure of leadership delayed forceful action on testing to contain the virus. Doing what other countries did would have saved many thousands of lives and trillions in economic devastation. This reality might have brought forth some humility. A different reality can only be constructed out of lies. Like the simply false claim that we’re testing more than any other nation. (Our per-capita testing rate is certainly way below.)

I have pilloried Governor Cuomo in the past, but his coronavirus briefings are models of what Trump’s are not. No self-praise extravaganzas. No bashing the press and other critics, no demanding obsequious flattery. No lying. Cuomo gives us the unvarnished truth. He takes responsibility. He brings the situation home to us in a very human way we can all relate to. He tells us what needs to be done, what we all must do.

Knowing he’s being unfavorably compared to Cuomo infuriates Trump. But, incapable of learning from Cuomo, he resorts to pot-shots at him: “He had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price . . . he shouldn’t be talking about us. He should be buying his own ventilators.” But instead, said Trump, Cuomo goes for “death panels and lotteries.”

Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill has deconstructed exactly how vile this Trump cheap shot is. It came (surprise) from the internet, a right-wing website, based on a 2015 state task force report on pandemic planning. Churchill read it and interviewed the task force leader — concluding that the attack on Cuomo was “blatantly dishonest.” The report discussed strategies for dealing with a ventilator shortage, but did not recommend buying thousands just in case. Let alone somehow present an option to buy 16,000 “at a very low price.”

But Trump’s gross distortion of the facts is kind of beside the point. He’s repeatedly shown he needs no facts at all to slime somebody. And keeping up such divisive dishonesty, even in this time of national trauma, is just ghastly.

Here is the real point, that all this leads up to. I started out talking about our most fundamental human precepts for living among others. How normal people have that software pre-installed, and how crucial it is in a crisis like we face now. When the leadership we choose is someone who has not had that software installed, we are in very deep trouble as a society.

* Certain commenters will jump to sneer about my own modesty. I was tempted to actually talk about it here. But that would be immodest.

The pandemic and the Trump cult

March 27, 2020

(Expanding on my Feb. 13 featured commentary in the Albany Times-Union)

America is the culmination of thousands of years of people grappling with how to make good lives in a good society. Striving to tame all the demons in human nature, so our better angels can flourish.

This humanistic triumph cannot be taken for granted. Those demons always threaten it — more than do viruses. Many are the societies that have succumbed. America has no God-given immunity from its own bad choices.

Coronavirus is putting us to the test. Calling forth our better angels and social solidarity. We do see it in health workers, heroically on the job, often denied protective gear, literally risking their lives. We all must sacrifice, to serve the common good; and stay mindful of our most disadvantaged, who will suffer the most. Americans are mostly good, public-spirited people, rising to the challenge. But unfortunately right now we have an administration whose ethos is not social solidarity — rather, stirring up divisions and mutual hatreds, and led by the most self-serving man on Earth. A bad choice we’d made.

His supporters are unnervingly oblivious to the seriousness of unleashing those demons of human nature. Like foolish children, playing with fire, heedless of the profound consequences. Blithely condoning the shredding of cultural norms and standards that took centuries to build up.

I knew we were in trouble when “grab them by the pussy” did not end a presidential candidacy. Suddenly, we’d become a different country.

We’ve always had racism, xenophobia, and other hatreds, but never so legitimized. We’ve always had dishonesty and lying. But never like this, a war against the very concept of truth. We’ve always had thirst for political power, but never such willingness to subvert democracy and rule-of-law for it. There’s always been corruption, viciousness, cruelty. But never like this, at the top, a collapse of civic decency. Taken all together, degrading every virtue America used to embody.

Virtues all the more sorely missed in today’s crisis. With Trump’s daily “briefings” of misinformation, press-bashing, and self-glorification, telling us mainly what a tremendous job he imagines he’s doing. Endlessly repeating the word “tremendous” may gull people who don’t know better. His claque will sneer I’m just venting my Trump hatred. Well, I had a very bad opinion of Governor Cuomo too — yet recognize Cuomo’s exemplary leadership in this crisis. The contrast against Trump’s asininity couldn’t be more stark. 

Any rational person can see the reality. Trump true believers’ refusal to, even in this extremis, is stunning. They’re devotees of a cult that blinds them. People are often suckers for venerating a god, a messianic figure. Here they’ve got a doozy. Evil always exerts a strange attraction. So, more pedestrianly, does strength, or an illusion of it. Thus the appeal of military strongmen. Vile behavior, and getting away with it, plays to that, a potent macho brew more bracing than what’s seen as weak tea on the other side. And dupes of this cult are also blinded by their own demons: immigrants, foreigners, other religions and ethnicities; the media and other “elites;” the whole Democratic party.* It’s a mess of pottage for which they’ve sold their souls to a real devil. No good can come from this depraved bargain.

Power never makes bad men better. Trump is a very bad man, and we keep giving him more power. Impeachment acquittal left him with almost unchecked power. He soon made clear he’s drunk with it. What would re-election do?

Polls show about half of Americans still approve of this monster. People who wrap themselves in a flag of patriotism but have lost all sense of the country’s meaning. Have lost their minds.

This is more than just politics. America can survive Coronavirus but not another Trump term.

*Who, unlike Republicans, have kept their heads in responsibly choosing a moderate, decent, honest, experienced presidential candidate, rejecting radical alternatives.

 

COVID-19: How much is a life worth?

March 22, 2020

Watching news reports about the economic devastation, my wife said the unsayable: “This isn’t worth it.”

The economic disaster is not from people falling ill, but the aversive measures. They’re hurting huge numbers very badly. Is this worth it? Would it entail less suffering to just let COVID-19 run its course? Many millions would get sick, but for the vast majority it would be minor. Only a fairly small percentage would die. Common flu annually sickens tens of millions and kills tens of thousands.

Dr. Fauci (a real hero) was asked why we’re taking extreme measures for COVID-19, but not for common flu. He didn’t have much of an answer — basically that common flu is, well, common, and COVID-19 is not. It’s also called “novel coronavirus.” Novelty grabs attention that the familiar doesn’t.

Suppose, if unchecked, COVID-19 would kill a million Americans, even several million. Fighting it costs many trillions. Governments will lose tax revenues and spend several trillion on bailouts and economic aid. Individuals, collectively, will lose even more in reduced incomes; personal wealth is already shredded. A trillion is a million million. So the fight is costing us quite a few million for every life saved.

How much is a life worth? That might sound like a crass question, or an unanswerable one. But in reality we answer it all the time, in many contexts. For example, when juries decide what dollar damages to award in “wrongful death” lawsuits. More pertinent here, public policy is forced to answer it when weighing the costs of any health and safety measures against the benefits.

Take pollutants. We might be able to remove 99% of a pollutant at a cost that’s pretty reasonable for every resulting life saved. But to get the last 1% out might cost a lot more — too much in relation to the few additional lives that would save. We recognize that lives have value, but not infinite value.

That’s not callous but rational simply because resources are not infinite either. The money spent to eradicate that last 1% of a pollutant would mean less money for other things — which could save more lives. Imperfect humans don’t always make these choices with perfect rationality, but we intuitively grasp the point and act accordingly in at least a general way.*

Economists can analyze all these instances in which, explicitly or implicitly, we put a value on a human life, and calculate a number. It’s been done. The answer seems to be somewhere in the range of a million or two.

But are some lives worth more than others? One could note that most COVID-19 deaths are elderly and frail, not long for this world anyway, so the loss is arguably much less than for a youngster with many years ahead. Wrongful death cases often entail estimating what the deceased might have gone on to earn. This was taken into account by the 9/11 compensation fund. But for all the logic of trying to put a number on a life’s value, such an earnings-based approach seems faulty. That views lives as economic assets for others. Whereas the value of people’s lives is primarily to themselves.

A homeless person’s life is not worth less to them than a billionaire’s. And don’t be quick to say the latter derives more enjoyment from living. Many homeless people are happier than many billionaires.

What I’ve written here is shaped by my humanist philosophy. Which tells us to apply reason to human problems. And that human life (as Vince Lombardi said of winning) “is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

Those two precepts might seem to clash in a dilemma like COVID-19. That’s far from unique in human affairs. The value of human life — of any single human life — is ultimately an ineffable thing. But respect for it is the cornerstone of humanism. That is why we are doing what we are doing to contain COVID-19. We cannot do otherwise, even if the cost seems disproportionate.

With common flu (and all other normal threats to life), we’re set up to provide medical care to those who need it; recognizing that some will die even with everything done for them. We’re not similarly equipped to deal with a spike of COVID-19 victims in the millions. Hospitals and medical personnel would be overwhelmed, unable to cope. Great numbers of people would die simply for lack of care. A horrific scenario that would sear all our souls. To avoid that is why we’re trying to “flatten the curve,” so everyone will at least get proper medical help. We may yet actually fail.

This is about who we are as a society, as human beings. We cannot let ourselves say that the lives of some people — frail aged people — are of lesser value, and we can just kiss them off. That would put us on a road whose destination we know all too well.

* Economist Robert Frank has said there’s actually an optimal amount of dirt in your house. Up to a point, cleaning is worth it, but the effort to banish the last speck of dirt is not.

Artificial Intelligence and our ethical responsibility

March 16, 2020

(A virus-free and Trump-free post. (At least until I added this.))

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was originally conceived as replicating human intelligence. That turns out to be harder than once thought. What is rapidly progressing is deep machine learning, with resulting artificial systems able to perform specific tasks (like medical diagnosis) better than humans. That’s far from the integrated general intelligence we have. Nevertheless, an artificial system for the latter may yet be inevitable in the future. Some foresee a coming “singularity” when AI surpasses human intelligence and then takes over its own further evolution. Which changes everything.

Much AI fearmongering warns this could be a mortal threat to us. That superior AI beings could enslave or even eliminate us. I’m extremely skeptical toward such doomsaying; mainly because AI would still be imprisoned under human control. (“HAL” in 2001 did get unplugged.) Nevertheless, AI’s vast implications raise many ethical issues, much written about too.

One such article, with a unique slant, was by Paul Conrad Samuelsson in Philosophy Now magazine. He addresses our ethical obligations toward AI.

Start from the question of whether any artificial system could ever possess a humanlike conscious self. I’ve had that debate with David Gelernter, who answered no. Samuelsson echoes my position, saying “those who argue against even the theoretical possibility of digital consciousness [disregard] that human consciousness somehow arises from configurations of unconscious atoms.” While Gelernter held that our neurons can’t be replicated artificially, I countered that their functional equivalent surely can be. Samuelsson says that while such “artificial networks are still comparatively primitive,” eventually “they will surpass our own neural nets in capacity, creativity, scope and efficiency.”

And thus attain consciousness with selves like ours. Having the ability to feel — including to suffer.

I was reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s argument against animal cruelty: regardless of whatever else might be said of animal mentation, the dispositive fact is their capacity for suffering.

Samuelsson considers the potential for AI suffering a very serious concern. Because, indeed, with AI capabilities outstripping the human, the pain could likewise be more intense. He hypothesizes a program putting an AI being into a concentration camp, but on a loop with a thousand reiterations per second. Why, one might ask, would anyone do that? But Samuelsson then says, “Picture a bored teenager finding bootlegged AI software online and using it to double the amount of pain ever suffered in the history of the world.”

That may still be far-fetched. Yet the next passage really caught my attention. “If this description does not stir you,” Samuelsson writes, “it may be because the concept of a trillion subjects suffering limitlessly inside a computer is so abstract to us that it does not entice our empathy. But this itself shows us” the problem. We do indeed have a hard time conceptualizing an AI’s pain as remotely resembling human pain. However, says Samuelsson, this is a failure of imagination.

Art can help here. Remember the movie “Her?” (See my recap: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/her-a-love-story/)

Samantha, in the film, is a person, with all the feelings people have (maybe more). The fact that her substrate is a network of circuits inside a computer rather than a network of neurons inside a skull is immaterial. If anything, her aliveness did finally outstrip that of her human lover. And surely any suffering she’s made to experience would carry at least equal moral concern.

I suspect our failure of imagination regarding Samuelsson’s hypotheticals is because none of us has ever actually met a Samantha. That will change, and with it, our moral intuitions.

AI rights are human rights.

Contradiction: religion and results for U.S. blacks

March 8, 2020

In Jeremiah Camara’s film Contradiction: A Question of Faith, the question is whether blacks’ religiosity helps or harms them.

They tend to be more religious than other Americans, on average. Especially black women, far more than men. There are 85,000 predominantly black churches, roughly one for every 500 African-Americans. They’re less likely to question their faith, strongly inculcated down the generations. But if all that prayer did any good, blacks would be flush with God’s blessings. Obviously they’re not.

Camara sees religion as a misdirection of time, energy, and resources, that actually hinders black progress. There seemed to be little concept of “God helps those who help themselves.” Instead, worshipers are shown as mainly looking for miracles to lift them up. (Similarly, they’re suckers for lotteries.) Camara considers this a philosophy of powerlessness, of dependency rather than autonomy, indeed emulating the master-slave relationship. This is seen in the posture of prayer — on one’s knees, with hands positioned as though shackled.

As the film points out, Christianity is itself a legacy of enslavement, having been forcibly imposed to replace ancestral belief systems. Jesus was not a black man from Africa. Somewhat weird, really, that African-Americans still hold so firmly to this religion.

People were asked whether Jesus means more to them than the sacrifices of their own ancestors. Camara was nonplussed at their answering yes. They explained that Christ’s crucifixion washed away their sins. A powerful idea, if true. Of course it’s not – and would actually make no moral sense if it were.

Yet some people in the film claimed God gives them morality. Camara said that’s not being moral — merely obedient. Fear of Hell does play a big role. (For blacks growing up, religion is “a big woman with a belt.”) But in fact we do good because of our thinking brains, experience, and grasp of how to live amongst others. God is unnecessary.

The film was very negative about black pastors, calling this a lucrative career requiring no real qualifications except a talent for emotional manipulation. There was a tutorial on six basic techniques: 1) repeated phrases as a hook; 2) pointing up people’s tribulations; 3) assigning actions like “touch your neighbor;” 4) peddling hope; 5) claiming to convey messages from God; and 6) invoking the Devil to terrorize hearers. One pastor was shown using all six.

Camara observed that if these guys were really in communication with a supreme being, shouldn’t we expect more profound wisdom than the obvious claptrap they spout? It’s pathetic they’re taken seriously, rather than as disingenuous hucksters or deranged fools.

The idea of “faith” itself is an affront to human reason. Yet our society still so valorizes religious “faith” as commanding respect that it’s largely exempted from critical scrutiny like other ideologies. This film is a welcome departure, pulling no punches in its deconstruction of religious tropes and their social impacts.

But one thing bothered me. Most onscreen voices were black, and while some spoke with great intelligence and insight (including some “ordinary” folks), the religious ones did not, and the film focused mainly on them. Most were shown sounding pretty dumb. One could almost call this film racist. A Martian seeing it would think the pathology is black-centric, with no idea that legions of whites harbor the same beliefs.

American Nightmare — Sanders versus Trump

March 1, 2020

American Nightmare” is The Economist’s latest cover story. This is an authoritative, extremely serious, sober publication, not given to hysteria. But this editorial is strong stuff. I copy it below, with some editing by me, mainly for brevity:

Sometimes people wake from a bad dream only to discover that the nightmare goes on. This is the prospect facing America if Democrats nominate Sanders against Trump. An appalling choice with no good outcome.

Sanders is so convinced he is morally right, he has a dangerous tendency to put ends before means. And, where Trump has whipped up politics into a frenzy of loathing, Sanders’s election would feed the hatred.

He is not a cuddly Scandinavian social democrat who would let companies do their thing and then tax them to build a better world. Instead, he believes American capitalism is rapacious and needs to be radically weakened. He puts to shame Jeremy Corbyn [hard-left British Labour party leader who recently led his party to electoral disaster] proposing to confiscate not 10% but 20% of the equity of companies and hand it over to workers [actually, the government]. On trade, Sanders is at least as hostile to open markets as Trump is. He seeks to double government spending. With unemployment at a record low and wages in the bottom quarter growing by 4.6%, his call for a revolution in the economy is an epically poor prescription for what ails America.

Sanders displays the intolerance of a Righteous Man. He embraces perfectly reasonable causes like reducing poverty, universal health care and decarbonising the economy, and then insists on the most unreasonable extremes in the policies to achieve them. Like banning private health insurance (not even Britain, devoted to its National Health Service, goes that far). He wants to cut billionaires’ wealth in half over 15 years. A sensible ecologist would tax fracking; Sanders would ban it outright. Making college cost-free is a self-defeating way to alleviate poverty, because most of the subsidy would go to people who are, or will be, relatively wealthy. Banning nuclear energy would stand in the way of his goal to create a zero-carbon economy.

His ideological bent gives him a habit of indulging autocrats, like in Cuba and Nicaragua, so long as they claim to be “socialist.”

Last is the effect of a President Sanders on America’s political culture. The country’s political divisions helped make Trump’s candidacy possible. They are now enabling Sanders’s rise. Leftist activists find his revolution thrilling. They seem to have almost as much hatred for his Democratic opponents as for Republicans.

This speaks to Sanders’s political style. When asked how he would persuade Congress to eliminate private health insurance (which 60% of Americans oppose), Sanders replies that he would hold rallies in the states of recalcitrant senators until they relented. Traveling around the country holding rallies for a far-left program he could not get through Congress would widen America’s divisions. Political realities blocking his revolution would frustrate his supporters. On the right, an actual socialist in the White House would generate even greater fury.

The mainstream three-quarters of Democrats have begun to tell themselves that Sanders would not be so bad. Some say he would not be able to do many of the things he promises. This sounds worryingly familiar. Trump has shown that it is unwise to dismiss what a man seeking power says he wants to do with it.

If Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, America will have to choose between a corrupt, divisive, right-wing populist, who scorns the rule of law and the constitution, and a sanctimonious, divisive, left-wing populist, who blames a cabal of billionaires and businesses for everything wrong with the world. All this when the country is as peaceful and prosperous as ever. It is hard to think of a worse choice. Wake up, America! 

Postscript (this is Frank writing): Sanders could not be nominated were Obama still alive. Everything he worked for faces destruction. His weighing in would have huge impact. Yet he is inert. One commentator discussing this stressed the word “caution.” Reminds me of Obama’s anemic foreign policy. There are times for caution and times for taking a stand. This time, right now, is the latter.

 

 

God and meaning

February 20, 2020

Core claims of religion are that God gives us morality, and gives our lives meaning. An essay by Daniel Farrell, in Louise Antony’s book Philosophers Without Gods, has no trouble disposing of the first, based on Socrates’s Euthyphro question: is something moral because God says so, or does God say so because it is moral? If the latter, we can figure it out without God. If the former it’s just arbitrary and we can do better.

But Farrell has more trouble with the problem of meaning. The idea that things are worth doing or have value because God imparts that value. Even given Socrates’s insight, Farrell still posits that God is our best source for knowing what is right, hence losing God from the picture is a big loss. And without God, isn’t everything futility and meaninglessness?

What this really shows is how religious concepts stuck in our heads mess up thinking. Farrell’s problem is a problem only if you start from a paradigm with God at the center as the source of all meaning. Subtract God and there is a big hole. But what if you start from a paradigm that was never confused by that false idea? That is, a paradigm of reality as it actually is.

Then it’s clear we must make our own meaning. And it’s actually easier. Trying to ground the meaning of your life in the context of a supernatural concept full of logical absurdities (like, where did God come from in the first place, anyway?) is a fool’s errand. Far better to ground it in reality.

The reality that life has value to us, who live it, as individuals. Living it as a story, from a beginning to an end; living it through sensory experience, through pleasure and pain. Such feelings, experienced by beings capable of them, are ultimately the only things in the cosmos that matter, or can matter. Nothing you might posit, not even the existence of the Universe itself, can matter except insofar as it impacts those sentient feelings. And that is the only conceivable source of meaning — our strivings to optimize feelings, to enhance pleasure and combat suffering, for ourselves and our fellow sentient beings. Meaning aplenty for us, with no need for any god.

This is truth. A concept of God only muddles things with falsity.

Farrell talks about important decisions, like a career choice, saying they’re based on ultimately subjective mental modeling of how we’ll feel under different scenarios. He says many non-believers don’t find this as problematic as he does, because they’re satisfied to make such decisions based on their feelings without a need to (somehow) know they’re right. With that rightness being grounded in some notion of a “special significance” to one’s life. A concept in turn that comes from God — even if one no longer believes in him!

Is this messed up or what? Farrell actually confesses his inability to really explain it himself. Yet he goes on to talk about wanting one’s decisions to embody some sort of “rightness” above and beyond one’s (mere?) feelings. And about God supplying that rightness. Which, after all, can only be pure delusion — even if God exists (he doesn’t), nobody could know what he thinks about anything.

Contrary to Farrell, overcoming superstition is not a loss, but a benefit, in making meaningful sense of our lives, to live them authentically. We can do that only by eschewing delusions and coming to grips with reality. The rightness of our decisions can only come from within us.

When the monster in the nightmare is you

February 11, 2020

Monsters are a staple of nightmares.

Recently I dreamed I surreptitiously listened in to a phone call between my wife and our dentist. The hushed conversation was frustratingly hard to make out. But I got the gist: he was commiserating about her husband being a monster. One with no clue. I did hear the phrases “repulsive personality” and “pain in the ass.”

Was it true? Should I confront my wife about what I’d heard? How could I deal with this at all? My life was shattered!

I was jolted awake.

The trigger for this nightmare was immediately obvious. I’d just been reading Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, a scientific examination of all the factors influencing human behavior. Specifically, the chapter discussing the famous Milgram and Zimbardo experiments.

In Milgram’s, most subjects complied with orders to administer to others what they thought were increasingly severe electric shocks. Zimbardo’s was the “Stanford Prison Experiment” with students role-playing as prisoners and guards. Here too the behavior was appalling.

We know some people are monsters. But does everyone have a monster lurking just below the surface? Sapolsky quotes Solzhenitsyn that the line between good and evil runs through every heart.

The apparent lesson of both experiments is that human behavior is very much shaped by context and circumstances. Put us in extreme circumstances, and extreme behavior will often be forthcoming. Though not always; some people have the self-possession to rise above circumstances. But most of us are not saints or angels.

Naturally, reading such stuff causes soul-searching. Hence my nightmare. Maybe, contrary to that nightmare, I’ve lived my life admirably. But if so, perhaps it’s thanks less to my character than my circumstances. It’s easy being Mister Nice Guy when everything is going nicely. I’ve never really been tested. Would I press the button to deliver severe pain in Milgram’s experiment? Would I brutalize “prisoners” in Zimbardo’s? I’d like to think not. But one can’t feel sure.

We also know that people in groups can be influenced to do things they individually never would. Thus lynch mobs. But a much greater phenomenon is people in groups creating civilization. Its purpose is to make our lives better — mainly by curtailing the kinds of circumstances that cause people to behave badly toward each other, and expand those like I’ve experienced, increasing the likelihood that even a non-saintly person can go through life rarely behaving Zimbardoic or Milgramy.

This isn’t just a matter of affluence (though it helps; poverty can confront people with rotten choices). I don’t think the propensity to push Milgram’s shocker button correlated with income. What civilized society does is to create the structures wherein people can trust each other, with a basic bargain that you don’t harm others and they don’t harm you. In contrast to the Hobbesian “state of nature” with its “war of all against all.”

Of course it’s not perfection. Civilization, in all its complexity, does create some individual roles conducive to bad behavior. Some people are in fact tasked as prison guards. More generally, any sort of power can be problematic. And sometimes an entire society can become Nazi Germany. But that’s never been true of human civilization as a whole. It defeated the Nazis. And while the line between good and evil may go through every heart, they’re not equally partitioned. For most of us, the bad side of the line is dwarfed by the good.

And civilization’s big picture is an upward climb, organized ever better to achieve that. A slow fitful climb through most of history, but accelerating in modern times, with ever more people enjoying the benign circumstances of life that enable us to expand the good sides of our hearts and confine the bad to ever smaller precincts. So the “better angels of our nature” prevail.

But the climb does not go in a straight line. There was Nazi Germany. And there is Trump’s America where, for too many people, the better angels of their nature are succumbing to their demons. Whether our own downward spiral can be reversed remains to be seen.

The politics of identity: Francis Fukuyama

February 2, 2020

(Trigger warning: this piece may offend political correctness. The Humanist magazine’s editor wouldn’t publish it. It appears instead in the current issue of  Free Inquirya publication living up to its name.)

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man importantly broadened my political perspective. Now he’s written Identity — The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. 

A key concept in The End of History was thymos. Man does not live by bread alone. Thymos is an ancient Greek word referring to a desire for status and dignity; recognition of one’s human worth. It looms large in all matters political. For example, the push for gay marriage was a thymotic quest by gay people. Similarly, the pay equity issue is more about respect than money.

Identity carries this idea forward, as it’s become central to understanding today’s political situation. Fukuyama distinguishes between megalothymos, in aristocratic systems, with dignity accruing to superiority (for a few), and isothymos, the modern democratic concept of equal dignity for all.

But it’s not that simple. “Who am I, really?” is a modern question. It would not have occurred to those in pre-modern societies where identity was totally, immutably fixed by social context. And while who you are outwardly may seem clear enough, your idea of personal identity rooted inside is a more slippery concept.

Fukuyama sees Rousseau (writing in the late 1700s) as seminal here. Rousseau idealized people in the state of nature, with society actually being a corrupting force, an obstacle to the realization of one’s human potential. Rousseau would have said a craving for thymos is something that can only have meaning in a social context yet society actually impedes its achievement, a Catch-22 dooming us to unhappiness. But Fukuyama thinks social existence is of the essence in human life so it’s meaningless to posit its absence. It’s through society that our thymotic cravings play out — and their satisfaction is finally being enabled by modern liberal democracy. (That was the chief point in The End of History.)

Fukuyama spells out his take on today’s evolved concept of identity: the distinction between inner and outer selves; valuation of the inner self above social demands; its dignity resting on moral freedom; in which all human beings share. But then we come to a fork in the road. One path emphasizes individual fulfillment, the other a collective identity. And while the latter, in the guise of overtly collectivist systems like communism has largely proven a dead end, collective identity has lately recrudesced in ethno-nationalism and politicized religion (not only among Muslims, but also American Christians).

One might have expected the 2008 economic crisis, with rising inequality and a stressed working class, to spark a big surge for the populist left. Yet the opposite happened, especially in the U.S., electing Trump, and in Britain’s Brexit (though both were close votes). Fukuyama finds the explanation in how economic motivations are intertwined with identity issues in human behavior. Again, it’s thymos. In particular, immigration is seen on the right as a threat to the nation’s traditional culture, and undermining respect for those identifying with it.

But perhaps the left just hasn’t had a good answer for the economic problems coming to the fore. Fukuyama says the traditional left is now long on rhetoric but short on actual workable policies. The essence of its project — to increase socio-economic equality through state power — having reached its limits.

He also thinks it’s a problem that the principle of universal equal recognition has mutated into special recognition for particular groups. And those are mainly groups whom less educated working class whites don’t identify or feel solidarity with. Thus the left with its identity politics has actually lost touch with what used to be its own core identity group.

This identity politics also diverts attention from society’s most salient inequality, namely that between educational levels. Which will only grow more acute as technology, the biggest factor behind it, advances. Progressives have little to say about this (and what they do say is often unhelpful — battling school choice and in effect defending an abysmal educational status quo for the underclass you might think they’d champion).

Fukuyama notes the rise of the “self esteem” idea, tying in with that of liberating and dignifying the inner self. And this points to another basic dichotomy: asking society to treat your group the same as others, versus demanding respect for its differentness. The latter, Fukuyama says, has tended to win out. Thus “multiculturalism” and the idea of equal respect for cultures, contrasted with classical liberalism’s equal respect for human beings. Indeed, the left seems willing to sacrifice the latter on the altar of the former. (Some consider FGM or “honor” killings, for example, not wrong but merely culturally different).

Hence Fukuyama sees the idea of common humanity getting submerged in a celebration of differences. As though the black experience cannot be appreciated by whites; the “lived experience” of women is inherently terra incognita to non-women. With the next step being to delegitimize any differing viewpoint. And he deems it ironic that all this valorizes only certain approved identities while actually barring respect for some others: white, Western, Christian — male! — etc.

What a shock that there’s a backlash, a reassertion of such other identities. Fukuyama considers this whole dynamic (with associated censorious political correctness) bad for free reasoned discourse and liberal democracy itself. It’s torn apart when groups within society demonize one another as illegitimate threats to all that’s good and holy. This plays into the bitter partisan tribalism dividing America. Fukuyama says “societies need to protect the marginalized and excluded but they also need to achieve common goals.”

Note that while identity does come from inside oneself, most people actually conceive their identities in relation to other people: binding them with others in their groups, and also vis-a-vis other people whom they may see as not giving their group its due. Again, this centrifugal tendency among groups can unravel a liberal democracy whose organizing concept is groups coexisting, accepting each other’s legitimacy.

That’s a problem within a society. Then there’s nationalism, looking outward. The concern, Fukuyama writes, is not with nationalism per se but with a narrow, ethnically-based, intolerant form that it has widely taken. There’s a better alternative: building national identity around a set of positive values. That’s America’s own story, our identity uniquely grounded not in ethnicity or the like but in the American idea: constitutionalism, rule of law, democratic accountability, and all people being created equal.

Some actually see America as traducing such ideals, epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, a litany of oppression, injustice, and illiberalism. Missing there is any sense of America’s progress in ameliorating and overcoming its defects. Which, for Fukuyama in contrast, is the real story.

And we lift our lamp beside the golden door. That too is integral to our American identity, expressed in our national motto, e pluribus unum. The very fact that diverse people came here from every corner of the globe, to join in the American enterprise, is our crowning glory.

And so immigration doesn’t threaten our national identity — to the contrary, immigrants actually embody it more faithfully than do many native-born Americans who, for all their flag-waving, have lost their own consciousness of the nation’s true ideals and values.

Our identity in those ideals and values is what we must fight for.

 

Religion destroying India

January 24, 2020

India is heralded as the world’s largest democracy. Proving that democracy is not just a luxury for rich nations. Some claim messy democracy is bad for economic development — citing China’s high growth rates under authoritarianism. Yet is dictatorship really good for prosperity in the long term? After all, the richest countries are the most democratic. But anyhow, man does not live on bread alone, economics is not everything, and people value democratic rights for their own sake.

That was true of Indians — until lately. Now they’re sacrificing democracy, not for economics but for religion.

India was founded as a state both democratic and secular. This made huge sense given its diverse religions, mainly Hindu and Muslim. And its experience of vast intercommunal bloodshed accompanying Pakistan’s being made a separate Muslim state.

Some nevertheless wanted India to be a Hindu state. One was Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Hindu supremacists like Godse hated Gandhi for promoting accommodation with the nation’s Muslims. They’ve instead advocated “Hindutva,” an ideology of “India for Hindus.”

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has its roots in the RSS, a pervasive nationwide Hindutva organization. The BJP’s leader Narendra Modi rose out of the RSS, and in 2014 scored a big election victory, becoming prime minister, on a platform stressing economic reform. He won even bigger in 2019. But Modi seems focused less on the economy than on Hindutva — and on his own power. He’s increasingly authoritarian, and intolerant of criticism or opposition, using every possible means to suppress it. The RSS acts as a parallel government. That’s Modi’s power base. He openly rejects the founding concept of a secular state.

Kashmir is India’s most Muslim region. India and Pakistan have perennially contested sovereignty over Kashmir; effectively they’ve split it. India’s portion had a special status with much home rule. But in 2019 Modi’s government revoked that, putting Kashmir under military rule, while locking up legions of politically active Kashmiris, imposing a curfew, and cutting off communication with the outside world.

Another Indian state with a lot of Muslims is Assam. Hindutva activists claim many have “infiltrated” from next-door Muslim Bangladesh. The government has now created a register of citizens; if your name’s not on it, you’re put through bureaucratic hell to document ancestral Indian citizenship. Almost impossible if you’re poor and illiterate. Over a million Muslims are being thusly made stateless, with nowhere else to go; India is building detention camps.

Meantime, nationwide protests have greeted legislation to fast-track citizenship for refugees — provided they’re not Muslim. This is seen as violating India’s religiously color-blind constitution. And, more importantly, as presaging extension of the Assam initiative to the whole country. To make millions of Muslims not just second class citizens but non-citizens, stripped of rights. Including, of course, the vote. (Muslims mostly vote against the BJP.)

Defenders of religion call it a force for good. But too often it hijacks people’s rational brains. For many Indian Hindus, it’s not enough being freely able to practice their religion. They want it to reign supreme, crushing others. Rather than having a nation of equal rights, and peace among faiths.

Persecuting some small religious minority, though nasty and unjust, might be no big deal really. Not roiling the nation too much. But India’s Muslims number around two hundred million! With already a history of much sickening religion-inspired violence, mostly against Muslims, including lynchings. To deliberately stoke that religious conflict is national insanity.

Godse, the Hindu fanatic assassin of Gandhi, is now being rehabilitated as a hero. While Trump has staged a Texas rally with Modi lionizing him as a great pal.