Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Moral Sense

The alternative, then, to the religious theory of the source of values is that evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason, knowledge, and sympathy. How can we tell which theory is preferable? A thought experiment can pit them against each other. What would be the right thing to do if God had commanded people to be selfish and cruel rather than generous and kind? Those who root their values in religion would have to say that we ought to be selfish and cruel. Those who appeal to a moral sense would say that we ought to reject God’s command. This shows – I hope – that it is our moral sense that deserves priority.

This is a passage from an excellent book called The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Though the book itself is excellent, this paragraph confuses “is” (statements of fact) and “ought” (value judgments) in so many ways that it proves nothing other than the extent to which a really smart guy will stop his thinking short of disproving his own theory. He is responding to the fear that, in the absence of any widespread belief if a demanding God, humanity will fall into a nihilistic pit. Not so, argues Pinker, because we've got our moral sense, and that is superior to any religiously inspired set of rules.

Pitting our moral sense against religion in a thought experiment is rather odd, because it presumes that the two are, or can be, at odds with each other, and it presumes that we can somehow choose right from wrong, which are two presumptions that are inconsistent with Pinker's own views on life. Try this thought experiment instead – there is no God that has any behavioral expectations from us; instead, by some strange roll of the dice, life and later man have evolved from inanimate matter. There are certain physical laws and we have progressed to the point where we can figure out some of these laws, and how these laws can explain how matter interacted to create an amoeba, how the amoeba progressed to the fish, and so on up to man. And we know finally that man has developed certain distinct traits – such as the concern for “right” versus “wrong”, which Pinker would attribute to a moral sense that has evolved to become part of our circuitry.

Now, choose between your moral sense and your conception of God? According to this materialistic view of life, rejecting your moral sense is as nonsensical as rejecting your kidney; whether you believe you have one or not, it is a physical part of your make-up. If there is nothing outside of this material world with physical laws governing everything, than the moral sense is something only to be explained. It is not something to be chosen over religion, because where it is observed to be present we cannot say that it was truly chosen; and where it is absent we cannot say that it was consciously rejected.

There is no choice, and under this view religion itself is something that requires explanation. Why has man developed conceptions of an imaginary God? No, let me rephrase that question – how did man develop conceptions of God? - because in a physical world without a God, there is no “why” that asks about underlying meaning, there is only “how” that asks about a physical process of cause and effect. What strange collision of atoms, what improbable mutation of genes, has led us to create God?

Either we have some autonomy to choose freely from among alternatives, to choose “right” from “wrong”, or we don’t. If we don’t, there is no “right” or “wrong” – there is no “ought”, there only is an “is.” The fact that Pinker sets up a choice between our moral sense and values rooted in religion is a contradiction. According to his view, religious views must have come into existence as a complement to our development of a moral sense. Where a religious view takes hold in a population that God wants us to be cruel and selfish, this seems to me indicative, in Pinker’s conception of humanity, of a set of persons for whom the moral sense has not evolved as it has for most. But even if such views have taken hold, in the absence of any God, by what authority can we reject cruelty and selfishness?


Kofi Annan, former corrupt and inept head of the UN, resigns and takes the US to task for abandoning its principles. To which one is tempted to respond - at least we had some to begin with - in contrast to him. But that would be conceding his point, which I refuse to do. His UN did everything it could to undermine its own sanctions against Iraq through the Oil-for-Food scandal; arguably those sanctions were in real danger of being lifted because of the economic goodies Saddam was dangling before the French and the Germans. Absent the US intervention, my guess is that this would have already occurred by now, and you'd have Saddam very active in rebuilding his stockpiles of WMDs.

Don't believe me? Watch what happens with Iran, a nation that is a clear threat to its region and the world. Anything that will have the full backing of the UN will only further enable Iran. Why? Because Iran has economic goodies to spread aplenty, and the bottom line is most of the countries in the UN care more about the potential for getting their share than for a peace that will not effect them directly. This is the frustrating thing about the UN - everyone has this conception that member countries magically leave their own interests out of the equation when dealing with the UN, and so we get this magical cumbaya assembly that hastens world peace. The truth is quite the opposite - for most countries, the existence of the UN and this false conception of its role by many in the West as some guarantor of peace allows them to successfully ply their interests in a way they never could without the UN.

This was as true under Annan as it has ever been. But he is that rare creature, much like Clinton - rather than being judged for actual performance in a position, the two are that rare breed of politician that has morphed into a celebrity on the world stage. Short of pulling an OJ, they will always be able to find a crowd of well-heeled sophisticates who have done more than just forgiven their past foibles; they've either completely forgotten them or never acknowledged them in the first place.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Good News - There is a Group That Has Studied Iraq!

The Iraq Study Group’s report has been released. I love that name – the study groups I was a party to in college were effective in assuring a certain grade, but not through learning the subject well. Instead, it was all about making sure a significant percentage of your classmates were sitting around in a BS session, so that the average test score would stay sufficiently low. They were quite effective.

What is funny is that so much cache is given to a group in this setting. There are hundreds of people with deep knowledge of the region, hundreds more with great military knowledge, hundreds more schooled in diplomacy, but over the last 3 years they’ve all made the mistake of voicing their opinions as soloists. Now surely some of these guys share the same opinions on most things, but they apparently weren’t smart enough to figure out that a band, like the Beatles, will always trump the solo career of McCartney. They should have formed a group, say the Iraqi Study Group, and then everything would have changed.

I know this because you can take a group of people with no real claim to any military insight or know-how, with one trip under their collective belt to Iraq that never got them beyond the green zone, with no real claim to any historical knowledge of the area, and with maybe a little diplomatic experience but not that much to speak of, and when they issue a report it they all of a sudden become the agenda setters – go along with their recommendations, because these recommendations have come from great study, or else suffer the verdict of history. How it must pain Army Generals, who apparently never had it dawn on them that it might be worthwhile to study the situation, to be scooped by the noted military expert Sandra Day O’Conner, who’s studied real hard over the last few months. You gotta hate that one girl in the class that studies real hard and ruins the curve for everyone!

It’s all very comical even without considering the merits of their recommendations. It becomes downright hilarious when you consider at least one of their recommendations – to bring Iraq and Syria, the two parties with the largest vested interest in seeing Iraq become a total failure, to the bargaining table, as if these guys have been innocent observers of the chaos. Buying the stability of Iraq at the price these guys would exact is worse than an unstable Iraq, because the price would ultimately lead to Iraq being in cahoots with these losers, and an enemy of the United States.

There are contexts in which a bi-partisan panel of people may be a good thing, in that people removed from the game of political survival don’t have to cow-tow to certain interests that the active politicians have to be wary of. In such a setting, a politician gets some cover to go against his supporting lobbyists in favor of the groundswell of publicity surrounding the panel’s recommendations. Maybe some of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations fall under this category, I don’t know. I do know that despite the Democratic Congress’ pledge to enact all of those recommendations; they’ve already shelved one that the commission felt was vital to our security in order to protect the perks of seniority on different Congressional committees that will now come to them as the majority party. So maybe a panel or a commission’s recommendations can be used to bludgeon the controlling party in any given election, but it turns into a 1 trick pony.

All that said, I have two problems with any commission or panel. There seem to be two underlying assumptions, especially in this case, that to me are not so obvious: 1) that there is a better strategy going forward; and 2) that really smart people, when gotten together in a room, will reach a consensus on what that better strategy is.

I know I’ll catch hell for saying this, but maybe there is no better way forward in this war. Maybe regardless of strategy we will face the same intransigent enemies to stability in Iraq; or rather, maybe the current policies have reflected a reasonable trade-off between competing aims, and one that has a chance of being successful in the long-term. When people say we are losing the war, there is an implied definition of losing that hinges upon the trend or the current violence and insecurity in Iraq as indicative of the permanent state of affairs going forward. In some people’s minds, a war cannot be won by definition if it takes more commitment than 2 weeks of steady bombing with little risk to our troops. The current state of security is not good, and the trend is not encouraging, but my guess is that from a pure bodybag count, we’ve killed a lot more of the bad guys than we’ve sacrificed.

To say that this amounts to losing is problematic, because by that measure D-Day would be indicative of the Allied Powers losing WWII. There were a lot more American deaths on D-Day than the day before, implying a bad trend and a lack of security in Normandy, but gaining a foothold on the continent was the turning point of the war. Now, if one assumes an inexhaustible supply of the enemy in this case as compared to prior wars, no doubt we are losing. But the same assumption would lead to the same conclusion in all the wars of history, all of which typically had a clear winner, indicating an infinite reserve of enemies is a really bad assumption. Sometimes the only way to win is to stick it out against a formidable foe – they don’t always fold their tent just because they are overmatched, and in fact their only hope of victory is to become such a nuisance to us that we just wash our hands of it. That’s not us losing – there has not been any battles which have seen our men retreating. That’s us throwing in the towel. And people are entitled to their opinion over whether the costs we are paying are worth it, but it is another thing entirely to say that we are losing and that is why we should leave.

The second mistake is the ubiquitously problematic assumption that smart people will agree, and I would say that typically the left is more guilty of it, given their constant expressed desire to have a “dialogue” on the issues. Dialogue is all well and good – it helps people understand the views and perspectives of others, and so may lead to some mutual respect in the face of differing opinions – but it rarely changes anyone’s opinion. Most of what passes for “dialogue” in politics is not one’s espousing his own view, but instead speculating on the morally specious motivation for the opposing view. That doesn’t tend to lead to mutual respect. But the left wants dialogue due to 2 big errors on its part: 1) it assumes it is smarter or more informed than the right; 2) it assumes that all smart people, or those willing to be educated by their betters, will eventually agree. It follows that people who constantly want a dialogue think that it will produce a consensus supporting their view. But smart people are more likely to disagree, making “dialogue” more or less pointless as a tool for building consensus.

So now you throw together a couple of smart people from both sides of the aisle, and we get a consensus report. Odds are that every single individual member of that panel would have written a far different report if submitting their individual opinions. So what you have is a fake consensus; maybe some would say that it should rather be interpreted as political compromise that, because it came from a bi-partisan group, provides a reasonable set of political compromises as regards the way forward. But even if you interpret it in that light, you’ll face an even worse problem a few months down the line, when events on the ground are likely to have changed from 100 unforeseen contingencies, making the recommendations of our esteemed study group worth nothing. At that point in time, you can’t freeze the picture, have 10 people reconvened to study the matter, come up with a solution, and move forward on it. You have to react. That’s why we have an Executive branch – it is not meant to be a debating club – it’s meant to enact and enforce the laws and the policies of the land. This is not a decision over whether to increase the minimum wage.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Is Religion the Problem?

A reader writes to me to say that he has been reading a lot about religion lately, and though he is loathe to admit, now holds the opinion that religion is the cause of a lot of humanity’s problems. Not days later Elton John states publicly that were he in charge of the world, he would ban religion and force all men to wear really flamboyant clothing (OK, the second part I made up). Not days later I am wandering in Barnes & Noble when I come across a book by Richard Dawkins entitled The God Delusion, which purports to prove, according to its jacket, than mankind would be better off without religion.

Allow me to wax philosophic on the general question of whether the world would be a better place but for organized religion, or perhaps more generally a belief in God. It seems to me that atheism is a fairly recent phenomenon within civilization. Our evolutionary forefathers may not have formed some grand theory about the origins and meaning of their life in this universe, but they also were, as we understand, gripped in the evolutionary battle of survival, which probably often included beating and eating their conspecifics (i.e. those of the same species). That left little time to contemplate meaning.

They may have been altruistic within a small family clan, but the world was probably characterized by thousands of Hatfield and McCoy like rivalries. As consciousness developed, very naturally in their free time, these guys started asking themselves what is it all about? When you ask a question, you naturally follow it with an answer, and the answer these guys came up with was that there were higher beings – gods if you will – that control the rising of the sun, the weather, and pretty much all observed natural phenomenon. Once that answer is given, the next question naturally follows: what does he want from us? The Judeo-Christian belief is that the answer to that question is knowable through a combination of man’s God-given ability to reason, coupled with God’s revealing Himself to us through history. But I digress.

Some religions answer that He wants nothing from us – He couldn’t care less. Others posit a God with big demands. Atheists posit neither, and instead insist no god exists. But all the same, history is really no judge of the question of whether or not religion makes humanity worse off, because there has never been a civilization that was entirely bereft of religion. Religion has evolved, with polytheism and superstition being replaced in most corners of the world with a much more philosophically compelling monotheistic view of the matter; for our purposes it doesn’t really matter whether or not you find any such doctrines compelling or true. What matters is that it really cannot be denied that modern organized religion is a cornerstone of most of the civilizations that have come into existence.

Now religion has also been the cause of much conflict between competing civilizations who take a different view of the matter, or even between competing nations within a civilization who share the same basic core of belief but who disagree vehemently on certain dimensions. This much I’ll admit. But the question is whether or not this has led to more bloodthirsty killing than what preceded it, where what preceded it was either tribal atheism or primitive tribal religion. On that score more primitive views of the meaning of it all are a definitive prescription for more killing. One archeologist summarized the proportion of male deaths caused by war in a number of societies; the percentage for the U.S. and Europe was orders of magnitude lower (at about 2 percent) in the 20th Century than that for many indigenous peoples in South America and New Guinea (with percentages ranging across different tribes from 10 to 60 percent (for the Jivaro). This is strikingly at odds with what one might expect given the violent wars of the 20th century in Europe, but the notion that the noble savage was corrupted into war by the institutions of the West has it completely wrong – he’s really been coaxed away from it.

So as religion has evolved, bloodshed has decreased, and this even though the technological means for killing have been steadily improved. And even when we look at wars, very few of the major ones of the 20th century have a prominent religious dimension. Conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and that between Israel and every other nation in the Middle East, for all the attention each receives in America, have very few deaths attributable to them relative to the scores of wars fought for secular reasons (World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, etc.).

I suspect that many who think that religion is a problem have in mind a comparison with the Utopia in their mind rather than with any historical precedent, otherwise it is hard to understand how they draw support for their view as a blanket condemnation of religion. Perhaps the skeptic thinks that he has evolved beyond religion, and that all or most will be well if others would do the same. But even here there is ample historical reason to reject that view out of hand. We are fresh off of a century which saw an atheistic ideology (Communism) accounting for 100 million deaths, the vast majority of them unrelated to war. These regimes killed their own countrymen for the pure sport of it. Lenin, Stalin, PolPot, Tito, Mao Tse Tung, Kim Il Jong, Castro – none drew their inspiration from God. (But it is true that communism filled the same human need for some as does religion, and some describe it as a quasi-religion, or a religion that lacks only God. If those who criticize religion include communism in that set, well then they certainly have one good example to prove their point, but I suspect they mean religions centered around a God.)

That said, I do remember at the time of 9/11 someone pointing out that there were currently 38 war-like conflicts in the world at the time, and all but 2 or 3 involved Muslims on one or both sides of the conflict. Again, many of these conflicts, especially in Africa, appear to me less about religion and more about tribal rivalries. Islam was successful in converting many in Africa, but African nations haven’t successfully evolved beyond the same tribal mentalities that causes 60 percent of the male deaths of the Jivaro tribe in South America to be attributable to war. Even in Iraq, you hear of the importance of tribes in local politics. But even if I am wrong, the question here is not whether a particular religion makes humanity worse off, but whether religion in general does.

Of course it will come as no surprise to anyone that I think Christianity has made humanity unambiguously better off. To believe otherwise amounts to pure hatred of Western Civilization. Far from stirring controversy among otherwise noble savages, it seems to me that Christianity has been the most successful institution imaginable for curbing humanity’s otherwise deadly proclivities. Slavery, Nazism, Communism, the subjugation of women, the exploitation of the sick and poor – all have met their match, sooner or later, by peoples inspired by their Christian beliefs.

Tomorrow I’ll consider the question from a slightly different perspective.

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