Is, Ought, And The Elephant

A brief illustration:

A well-written, entertaining, and impressively comprehensive mini-book article from the web-journal “The New Atlantis” has been making the rounds lately, and I highly recommend it to you, “Do Elephants Have Souls?

Whatever you think about the topic, there is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia as well as an excellent collection of elephant-related literary commentary.

For example, did you know that Elephants commit suicide?  That they might be able to exchange infrasonics with Blue whales?  That they occasionally rape rhinoceroses, perhaps in part due to culling having , ‘…disrupted the transmission of elephant culture from one generation to the next.’?  (Don’t ask about human analogies).

Which justifies an obvious pun: this joke will only work if presented audibly, in a cockney accent:

A: Hey Costello, did you know that Elephants sometimes rape Rhinos?

C: No Abbott!  That’s shocking!  What happens when an Elephant rapes a Rhino?

A: Hell If I Know!

Of course, since the answer given by the article is essentially, ‘close enough’, a more honest title would have been, “Treat Elephants Better, You Evil Bastards!”

It’s a classic of moral persuasion in the field of humane-treatment of animals, somewhat reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Consider The Lobster‘, but with a much more arguably deserving (and less tasty) subject.

First we are going to examine reality, and show you that that most people are making an error – perhaps an innocent oversight – into something empirically observable, and should thus adjust their beliefs about the natural world.

And next, we are going to plug that amended paradigm into your moral calculator and show you that you (well, everyone) ought to be modifying their behavioral choices.  We would like you to adjust your moral calculus in our direction, of course, but even if you don’t, we think you should find this argument compelling even on the basis of your existing moral principles.

Because I am an incurable quant-type at heart, I tend to conceive of such arguments in a pseudo-mathematical fashion.

So, I imagine some empirical metric for moral ‘worthiness’, as in: “The well-being of which is worthy of our moral concern and is thus something we should take into account to some degree when we make moral decisions.”

Although it would be extremely crude to do so (not to mention highly controversial if one draws certain human analogies), I think the tone of the article and the instinct of animal-lovers everywhere is that this ‘worthiness’ is somewhat proportional to higher brain functioning, with perhaps total mass, number, and efficiency of convoluted grey-matter neurons in the cerebral cortex being a passable intraspecific proxy.  Consider these images:

brain size evolution

brain mass species

One can see that Primates, Marine Mammals, and the larger Terrestrial Mammal Quadrupeds dominate.  From La Wik’s neuron count list, we can see Humans, Elephants, Whales, Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Dolphins, Monkeys, Dogs, and Cats (perhaps also Horses) earning places at the top of the biological charts.  This seems to accord with a lot of people’s observations about relative animal intelligence and their emotional instincts to admire – even love – some of these creatures and believe they should be treated with something other than mere material indifference.

So, the primary line of attack of the article seems to be a demonstration arguing for this adjustment:

moral v1

moral v2

Well, perhaps.  But you know, there’s a problem.  The problem is that the author knows that the empirical argument is being made in a particular moral climate: a function that maps ‘objective’ moral worthiness to arbitrary ethical imperatives in terms of treatment.  That tends to map onto this graph as so:


So, the question is one of these is the Dog and which is the Tail?  Well, if you’re trying to change people’s behaviors, you could try to shift their treatment-mapping curve to the left, some element of their empirical worthiness curves (such as the elephant’s) to the right, or some combination of both.

It all depends on which is easier to do, and I submit the ‘objective’ curve-shift is usually easier than convincing someone to change their moral mapping.  After all, you ‘know’ your own moral calculator pretty well, but you probably don’t know much of anything about elephants, and ignorance is the mother of indifference.  One you learn about how human-like the creatures are, well, now you’re got to do some serious recalculation.  Then again, we’re ignorant and indifferent to a lot of things, so whoever is in charge of providing us with educations and information about the world has a tremendous opportunity to decide what we learn about, and thus what we come to care about.

This of course gives rise to an awfully tempting incentive to be less than fully honest about your empiricism (and less than perfectly forthcoming as to its political ulterior motive).  I wonder if we just occasionally observe this in the Social Sciences (Oh, don’t try to hide. I’m looking at you too, Economics!)

For problems like this, the ‘moral landscape’ of belief reduces to shifts in the mean and also variance (but only on the low side, human moral systems seem to have an asymmetric bias, but look, it’s just a diagram to ease communication).  Here’s how you might label them:

JAIN: As in Jainism, or followers of the ‘do not harm’ principle Ahisma, who famously avoid hurting even insects.

PETA: Include more animals into your care-focus.

SPCA: Treat some charismatic macrofauna humanely, but then sharp drop off.

NIET: Nietzsche-Bomb Ichiban!  Only Übermenschen need apply!

ARIS: Either Aristotle or Aristocratic, take your pick, but it’s the view that there’s a lot of variety in the worthiness of human beings and how you are ethically compelled to treat them.

TRAD: Willing to judge some vilest-slice of humanity as deserving to be treated no better than animals, but being strictly humane above that level.



So, quick gist of the argument behind the Elephant Article is: Perform Empirical Adjustment from v. 1.0 to 2.0 because it is more correct, and also perform Moral Adjustment from Avg. to SPCA/PETA because you should; it is more ethical.

I find this a pretty extensible and handy tool when I contemplate the political-moral landscape (for instance, on display recently at Marginal MORAL REVOLUTION – allcaps theirs, not mine), and all you have to do is replace ‘animals’ with ‘groups of people’, depending how you label them.

On the Empirical side of things, you can compare those who believe in Human Biodiversity with those who insist of Human Neurological Uniformity.  Before everyone calls me mean names, you can replace ‘worthiness’ with any objective metric, it doesn’t matter.

And you can also model moral-mapping functions as well.

Conservatives, even nominal Universalists, tend to emphasize a series of concentric circles from the individual of proximate-relations, radiating outward with further distance in ranking in terms of moral concern.  So there is one’s family, community, religious-group, country/nation, culturally, geographically, and ethnically close foreigners … eventually landing in all humanity.  As the Arab Bedouins say, “I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers”

But Western Liberals tend to display a xenophilia that Sailer callsLeapfrogging Loyalties‘.  After all, if you need to distinguish your class as superior to your bumpkin compatriots (always a popular source of humorous, camaraderie-building conversation among asses everywhere), then it helps to ally with the alien against him.

One can use this moral-visualization tool to picture the difference between Universalists vs. Particularists, between Immigration Selectionists vs. Open-Borders proponents, between patriots vs. leapfroggers, and between citizenists and bubblers.

The point is to analyze what people write by working backwards.  Everyone is trying to influence you to change your behavior, and if they can’t coerce you, then the are going to try and change your beliefs, both type 1 and type 2.

So, whenever I see the kind of moralistic nonsense exploding in certain parts of the blogosphere – like we’ve been observing lately with the open borders / amnesty issue – I try to break the assertions apart into claims about reality and claims about morality.

But it’s usually easy and straightforward to contest falsifiable claims about reality.  And it also easy to say, ‘well, that’s your opinion’ when someone is being honest and telling you they are merely expressing their arbitrary political preferences.

But it’s a pointless, futile, and frustrating exercise to ever try to prove to someone they are ‘wrong’ about their moral-mapping, especially if you yourself remain beholden to a shared premise that it is even possible for them to be right about it, and that there there actually exists a thing to be ‘right’ about that doesn’t rely on a shared belief in a common moral authority.  You know, like God or something.

But now that God’s dead, there’s a great incentive to fill the vacuum of a desire for universal moral certitude, confuse the issue, and deceive yourself and everyone else by conflating the two and asserting that the political is the moral is the rational is the empirical.  Which means you’re going to see it all the time, and the only real question is where will it take us?

Samuel Johnson once said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”, but today, unsubstantiated moral proclamation is his first and only resort.  After all, with suckers born every minute, what else does he need?  It doesn’t matter if an advocate is wrong about the elephants in reality if he can always compensate and adjust the moral goal posts to whatever extent necessary to maintain his ability to say it is right to protect them.

This feedback between political ends and moral means may work to the great benefit of the animal elephant.  But I’m increasingly convinced it will inevitably result – and sooner rather than later – in the effective extinction of the Grand Old Pachyderm.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Can You Handle It?

I’m still somewhat amazed – and certainly amused – that our little NR/DE ideegemeinschaft has generated even the small amount of attention and coverage that it has.  Of course, much of it is simply awful, inaccurate, and banal libel (e.g. Kuznicki, Bartlett, Shea) but that’s to be expected.

What is more surprising is that some genuine talents have spent some considerable amounts of their scarce time exploring the subject with fairness and at least a certain amount of open-mindedness (e.g. Alexander, Gurri, and Bloom).  I can’t quite come to believe that today’s shrinking attention spans and news-cycles don’t force all this to blow over soon, but I was wrong before, and so one can only hope that future writing looks more like the work of the latter group than the former.

But the work of these authors is not done, and I want them to take another go at it, and to do it from a different angle.

Master Spandrell says:

In a way this reminds me of a similar issue in the altright movement. We are the enemies of leftism, and at the present stage most of us writers and thinkers are mainly engaged in the analysis of the leftist hegemony. The Cathedral’s rule is so pervasive that rather than think “how do we get out?”, many of us are still mostly concerned with the “how did we get here?”

And there’s been enough introductory-level ‘neoreaction 101’ reporting.  Anyone can write a ‘What is X-ism’ article.  But to take it seriously means to ask ‘Why is X-ism now a thing?  Why do people go there?’ and to engage earnestly with those root motivations and experiences.

Why is this important?  Because NR – like any young political scene – presently has no ‘catechism’ and is conflicted, schismatic, and evolving in an ongoing process of deveopment.  Writing to report that there is something new out there and about what ‘it’ is well and good, but as Gurri stated, one can’t do justice to that mission when there isn’t yet a solid core ‘it’ to cover.  But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t some common thread.

It should come as no surprise that the better journalists are Libertarian-ish, and I hope they are reading this post, because it is to them that I am addressing it.

Here is my view of things in order of increasing NR/DE consensus / commonality:

  1. Prescription and Strategy – What to do, how to change things, ‘how do we get out?’
  2. Goals – What do we want?  What is the vision of the better society, and how can it be made to function to produce the intended results?
  3. Analysis and Diagnosis – What is the nature of the problem, ‘how did we get here?’
  4. Presentation of Symptoms and Social Critique – The list of things that people think are going seriously wrong and an awareness that the doctrinaire remedies and ideas upon which we were taught to rely are ineffective to arrest the disease.
  5. Libertarian and/or Traditionalist Right Ideological Back-Story.

That back-story (or ‘sick journey‘, and see also) isn’t universal of course, but it’s common enough especially among the most prominent writers that I think it deserves special attention.  Foseti is very fond of asking new members to the fold, “Where did you come from and what brought you here?”  The answers tend to have a lot in common, and I think that says more about what’s really happening here than our struggle to intellectually address the higher order problems.

As Peter A. Taylor wrote:

The “neo” prefix flags me as a busted libertarian, or at least, a busted something else. I am not a native-born reactionary. I am an ideological refugee or squatter, someone who undertook a Moldbug-like “sick journey”, if not from Mises to Carlyle, then at least from David Friedman to Henry Sumner Maine.

The back-story occasionally goes further (in a way that I think is more common for the older cohort of bloggers) to a progressive and/or mainstream religious rearing before a sociopolitical / ideological awakening to step 5, and I’d include myself amongst that number.

So, in the spirit of Harris’ Moral Landscap Challenge (to which there were 424 submissions), and borrowing Bryan Caplan’s concept of an ideological Turing Test, here is my challenge to the Libertarian-sympathetic NR-covering journalists out there:

Explain how you imagine Handle went from stage 5 to 4.

I don’t claim to be representative at all, but I use myself instead of the group of ‘neoreactionaries’ as a whole because it provides both a clearer target (I’ve left a bit of a comments trail that’s not hard to trace) and makes it easier for me to evaluate your efforts.  I promise I’ll be fair and honest.  If you don’t trust me, you can try to simulate Handlesprechweise and my fellows can grade how close to the mark they think you’ve hit.

And … hold on just a second.  We all know where this is going, right?

Well, obviously Handle is some evil, stupid, ignorant, creepy, racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, hateful, extremist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semite oppressor who is probably an unemployed, broke, fat, ugly, socially awkward and involuntarily celibate failure in life.

He is a geek shut-in who plays games all day because he cannot function in the real world, except when he attends nerdy costume conventions, and who blogs from his mother’s basement.

He is bitter, angry, and frustrated at the world’s failure to recognize his (nonexistent) ‘genius’ and so tilts Quixotically at windmills, grossly exaggerates social problems or concocts delusional apocalyptic scenarios that are entirely imaginary, and dreams about fantasy-fascism with his other loser-cult buddies.  Ha Ha!  If he’s not an X, then it’s only because he couldn’t hack it, or they kicked him out!

You get the point.  Believe me, I’ve heard it all before.

Well, I plead not guilty down the line of the charge-sheet, which you can choose to believe or not of course.  After all, if you’ve never met me, I’m just some random pseudonymous person on the internet, hardly a bastion of trustworthiness.

But besides being wrong, I’d encourage you to avoid this false name-calling for three reasons:

  1. It’s the easy way out, and neither of us will learn anything or do any actual thinking.
  2. This is precisely what more mainstream folks say about you – just more of the relatively stronger tribe  ‘punching down’ to the the even more outnumbered – and it’s just as erroneous.
  3. It is rude.  It indulges your prejudices, and to overcome those disrespectful biases you should, like Arnold Kling, try to take ‘the most charitable view of those who disagree’.

So, imagine Handle is a person just like you, who once thought almost exactly as you presently think, but then … something … – actually many things – and he decided he no longer wished to remain within the fold and identify with it as he once did, and that is was pointless to try and nudge it from within.  He took a step away, found it to be superior, and began a journey that led him to where he is today.  All exit, no voice.

If you’re an educated conservative-ish or libertarian-ish individual, that probably means he knows your beliefs, how you came to them, and the arguments you use to justify them, much better than you know him.

But, maybe not!  We shall see!  Take a shot a what you think those ‘somethings’ were, and if you believe in those somethings too, then why they haven’t led to your own exit.

Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments

Adam Gurri Is A Mensch

(UPDATE: Adam responds at The Ümlaut, I really wasn’t trying to be bruising.)

Adam Gurri has written what I regard as the best and fairest post about neoreaction that has yet come out.  But more important than the content of his composition is the honorable and gentlemanly process by which he drafted his piece.  Adam demonstrated a truly remarkable amount of balanced intellectual discipline; if only that were more common!  He researched his subject thoroughly, reached out to the primary-source author-subjects of his investigation, invited commentary and draft-review by other members of the DEC (including yours-truly) and comported himself in an unceasingly friendly, respectful, open-minded, and civil manner.  For all this, he has earned my admiration and justifiably deserves our esteem.

During the course of our dialogue I made several amicable criticisms of a few of his points, and Gurri has told me he has written a follow-up to those points that will appear next Monday.  I have not seen a draft of that piece, but I can try to anticipate some of its content.  I asked Adam if he would permit me to post my criticisms in a response post on this blog, and he not only approved by invited me to do so as soon as possible (in time for that next article).

The first category criticism is something I’ll concede is a bit trivial, but worth mentioning because I think it characterizes the kind of coverage NR/DEC is likely to get.

Despite what it may seem, most coverage of NR is not actually designed to denigrate this particular idea-community per se, but mostly to repeat the same theme and tribal-signaling the ‘journalist’ usually pursues.  If they are a lefty progressive and worship democratic universalist absolutist-egalitarianism (or occasionally even a Libertarian sympathetic to some of those ideals), then the theme is to denigrate any anti-egalitarian (genetic-realist) and anti-democratic (political-realist) ideology as creepy, evil, racist, etc. and then to make sure your readers know how opposed to racism you still are – you know the drill.  But they always say everyone non-progressive is like this, whether overt or covert, whether as an inchoate or fully-manifested hazard, and so they haven’t bothered to make or acknowledge any distinction between NR and the rest of their usual targets.

This is to say that they have no interest in acquiring or presenting an accurate picture or taking it seriously as a matter to be assessed on its own merits which could be weighed in an agenda-free and disinterested manner.  Gurri, it seems to me, is about as close as an outsider will ever get to that ideal, though, as a hyper-federalist, he may be closer than he thinks.

The other ‘journalists’ are like the professional antigen-presenting cells that digest this dangerous foreign matter and present it to the immune system in a way that triggers the psychological allergic-reaction.  The way these journalists make their money is to start these allergic reactions (audience-tailored ‘sensationalism’ compatible with, and merely serving to reinforce, the readership’s biases).

And so it’s naïve to expect they would ever care about reading or learning anything new, just jump at the first rat-trap, hair-trigger sign of ‘offensiveness’ – the bare minimum to be able to paint the same picture on the tent canvases of whatever enemy camp is being assailed this week.  In this way, NR is just a Rorschach test – your typical hack sees just enough of what he wants to see to make the same point he’s always making – just another pile-drive from the same jackhammer.  That’s why reading so much political journalism these days is like being submitted to industrial-strength Chinese water torture, except with acid.

And Adam Gurri is definitely no hack, but the opus of his writing does display a common thread which has a particular purpose, and he uses his excellent article on neoreaction as much as an opportunity to pursue his theme as one to merely provide ‘coverage’.  And that’s perfectly fine – I can’t emphasize enough how much a realistic individual should appreciate his work as close to the ideal as can possibly be expected.  It’s especially commendable that Adam is completely forthright about this in that he announces this theme – his understanding of the science of social order and institutions – and restricts his commentary to it.

There is a minor problem with this approach, and again, I admit I’m nitpicking here. But that focus severely constricts the scope of his coverage of NR.  It overly focuses on the positive proposals from ‘the three kings’ of Moldbug, Land, and Anissimov (Neocameralism, Technocracy, Monarchy), and less on the negative critique of Egalitarian Democracy that, in my view, is the bulk of the core consensus and community-organizing principle of NR-affiliated individuals.

Ok, with that trivial amuse-bouche out of the way, let’s get to the meat-and-potatoes criticisms.

I. Order must be Discovered, Not Designed / There is no such thing as Political Engineering.

This is a Burkean-Hayekian (with also some Oakeshott and even Chesterton) line of thought, often deployed in defense of market ‘order’ against Socialist central economic planning.  This is where the logic of the infamous ‘calculation problem’ applies just as well to the structures of governance established by over-optimistic rationalist constructivists.

And I’m generally sympathetic to that notion.  However, the main problem with rational constructivists is almost always in the use of false premises about the nature of their subjects – human beings – (deriving from delusional ideology and not reality, ‘Rousseau-disease’) and leaping over the limits of what knowledge they do possess.

As an analogy, there is nothing wrong with a civil engineer using rational principles and scientific evidence to build a suspension bridge.  But if they extend the principles outside their operating envelope – if they assume the rules for smaller bridges in calm environments will always work for larger ones in windy settings and forget to account for resonances – then they’ll occasionally build a galloping gertie.  And they can learn from that experience and build a better Tacoma Narrow Bridge.

If you were to look at that history and say ‘Bridges cannot be designed, only discovered’ or ‘There is no such thing as civil engineering’, well, there may be some kernels of truth in those statements – there’s a lot of trial and error and learning by small steps – but mostly it would seem ridiculous.

Let’s take the analogy into the political arena to consider the American founding.  Following the revolutionary war and independence from Great Britain, the American colonies established themselves under the infamous Articles of Confederation.  The arrangement – despite the fact that it unsettled the absolute minimum of the underlying order and organic institutions of the states – was recognized almost immediately as an unstable failure in terms of building a viable nation, and so only 6 years later they were making plans for the constitutional convention.

What emerged with the US Constitution was inarguably both more radical and more stable.  If you can read the Federalist Papers and say that that the founders themselves didn’t think they were involved in a project of rational political-order engineering, then I’m sorry but we just have different systems of interpretation.  Consider, for example, these words from Charles Murray’s “American Exceptionalism

…you are watching the beginning of an experiment in governance unlike any in the history of the world. Four million people, spread out over thirteen colonies stretching from New England to Georgia, have separated themselves from the world’s greatest power and then invented a new nation from

That all by itself makes the United States unique and also makes it impossible to predict what might happen next.

It isn’t just the newness of the nation that makes its future so imponderable. … instead the founders of the United States have created a form of government that will attempt all sorts of things that are widely thought to be impossible.

Republican government itself is widely thought to be impracticable and unstable. No country in continental Europe has a constitutional monarchy, let alone a republic in which all power ultimately resides in the citizens. Even Britain, Europe’s most politically liberal nation, still expects the sovereign to play a major role in the governance of the nation and shudders at the memory of its own brief experiment as a republic.

It is widely thought to be impossible for a nation to function with a head of state elected for a limited term. How can the Americans realistically expect a successful, popular president who is chief executive, head of state, and commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces to retire voluntarily? Every lesson of history teaches that transmission of power through an electoral system doesn’t work for long.

Surely it is impossible that a piece of paper, the Constitution, can command the allegiance— indeed, the reverence—that the American system will require. The consensus at the Constitutional Convention and in the debates over ratification of
the Constitution is that the new Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws already passed by the legislature and implemented by the executive power— an unprecedented level of judicial independence. …

Now, in the alternative, if one says that the Constitution just wasn’t ‘radical enough of a change’ from the pre-existing institutions of social-order, then one is making one’s assertion unfalsifiable.  Unless one can define a precise metric for ‘radical’ (which I’d say one cannot), then if a new system persists, it wasn’t ‘radical enough’, and if it fails, it was ‘too radical’ by definition.  I can’t possibly disprove the order-discovery thesis under those definitions.

One could say, “Well, there is a difference between ‘designing’ and ‘offering a flexible, adaptable plan’ that you expect to both evolve organically and over which you hope to exert some influence.”  But where does the ‘plan’ come from if not design?  Is ‘design’ now defined as the hubris that one’s political plan will be implemented exactly as written and self-sustained with perfect fidelity and rigidity?  That’s a strawman argument in which no one actually believes anymore.  People may be overconfident at times, but that degree of enthusiastic naivete in the perfection of one’s own utopian scheme is thankfully rare.

One can also say that successful designers ‘flatter’ themselves, because their principled systems only worked because they were coincidentally in accord with discoverable order.  But all human systems are ‘unnatural’ (imposing constraints on human impulses) and thus friction-forming to some extent by necessity.  But often those frictions are absorbable and survivable – ‘there is a lot of ruin in a nation’.  If you define every failure as ‘too much distance between design and discovery’, then what you have a tautology, not an insight of political science.

And the constitution was hardly the only successful effort at creating a political order.  There are plenty of constitutions out there, as well as genuinely radical new laws, regulations, or Supreme Court opinions ordering an upheaval of the existing social order.  It would be a stunning statement to assert that the Court has never moved against the tide but dragged the society to a new, deliberately designed and intended, destination if by nothing else than the force of law and passage of time.

And, in truth, institutions are designed everyday.  Think about new corporate organization, or the invention of bureaucracies with genuinely novel structures.  There is lots of innovation in governance out there is you expand your focus.  Think about how wikileaks or anonymous works, or those ‘radically flat’ programming collectives or cooperative internet opinion-journalist outlets.  You can define ‘discovery’ as ‘what works vs what doesn’t’, but Gurri’s actual claim reduces to one in which there can be no systematic difference detectable between the design-phases of the ‘order of delegated authorities’ in systems that work vs. systems that failed.  I find that to be highly implausible.

Also, consider the problem of multiple-equilibria.  That is to say, there is no single order to ‘discover’ at all.  Indeed, how can one see the variety of stable systems in History, or around the world – or in the multiplicity of successful organization arrangements – without some inkling of the fact that there are probably many different kinds of functional orders, with some clearly better than others depending on one’s goals and preferences.

If each of these ‘equilibria’ is a path dependent evolving order, then it seems to me it could be possible to ‘design’ a discontinuous leap from the current system to a superior model – even if that model is as-yet untried, hypothetical and speculative (as was the proposed Constitutional order, and, as Moldbug says, the highly influential Napoleonic Civil Code).  Gurri is right about the ‘how do we get from here to there’ problem, but I think he errs whenever he disparages any ‘there’ that seems remote from ‘here’ as a priori infeasible.

II. ‘Dictatorship’ vs. ‘Monarchy’

Gurri says:

For better or for worse, modern radical regime change means either democratization or dictatorship …  any revolution with an articulated desire to set up a monarchy of the sort that existed during the Enlightenment is much more likely to end up with just another 20th century style dictatorship.

I wish Gurri has gone into slightly more detail to explain what he means, and how we he proposes we distinguish between the two.  If he means Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, etc… well … that seemed a bit far-fetched.  He focuses somewhat on military junta / coup-leaders like Pinochet, Franco, or Papadopoulos, so maybe that’s what he’s talking about.  But what about Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – King (constitutional monarch) of Dubai, or more illustratively,  Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore?  Are these 20th century style ‘dictatorships’?  If so, they’re not so bad.  If not, then Gurri needs to explain how they bucked his thesis.

Also, what exactly is ‘modern’?  I would argue that the New Deal was a ‘modern radical regime change’ (its abruptness certainly argues against the notion that it was a ‘discovered order’) that didn’t mean either democratization or dictatorship.

III. Democracy As a Political ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

I’ll admit I can’t remember reading any of the three authors ever using this analogy in their critiques of democracy, but I could be wrong, so please feel free to enlighten me with sources in the comments sections.  Nick Land apparently thinks this is a clever setup, but I think it requires some more specificity.

Let’s define the issue and see it if fits.

A tragedy of the commons is an economic phenomenon that emerges whenever there is some valuable and durable (or self-regenerative) resource in which the property right to exclude others either does not exist or is not enforced.  If the resource were made subject to a lawful title of exclusive property, it would tend to be managed in a market-efficient manner, maximizing the net present value of expected production, which usually implies sustainable levels of utilization into the long-term.

But without these property-rights, each user of the resource can gain more expected utility from each marginal increase in utilization, regardless of the decreases in utility to the collective whole, and even when the collective detriment is greater than the individual benefit.  This leads to an intense race which in turn causes premature and inefficient over-utilization, exhaustion, and depletion (even extinction) of the resource.  The classic examples are common pastures for livestock, or the stock of fish populations in the open seas.  And the classic remedies are proprietization (e.g. for land) or regulation (e.g. for fish)

Ok, can we now, mutatis mutandis, fit this analogy with the authors’ critiques of democracy?  It doesn’t seem to make sense for the resource to be ‘sovereignty’ itself.  No individual or politician can vote as many times as they want without someone stopping them.

However, it seems to me there are two possible ways to make this analogy fit.

III.A. Redistrubution

Two quotes:

George Bernard Shaw: “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

Alexis de Tocqueville: “The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.”

So, if the ‘resource’ is ‘tax revenue’, then the citizens of democracy can vote themselves benefits out of a public burden, and will tend to do so whenever they believe (usually incoherently) that the advantage they will receive will be larger than their expected increase in taxes.   And one can be more abstract to accommodate cases of rent-seeking (e.g. quotas and unjustifiable barriers to entry for licensed professions) or regulatory party-to-counterparty transfers that lie outside of taxation (e.g. minimum wage laws).

So perhaps the real ‘resource’ is the overall underlying economy, and the ‘overuse’ of that resource is the use of necessity for politicians to direct sovereign power towards the enabling self-destructive levels of mutual predation in their pursuit of votes and legal bribery campaign financing.

And while all fits the tragedy of the commons analogy, it’s certainly not a new claim – it constitutes one of the most classic criticisms of democracy – and it hardly makes sense to call ‘sovereignty’ itself the commons.

And more to the point, Gurri actually makes what I regard as a claim that is both incredible and which contradicts this line of criticism, “The ballooning of the relative size of governments is unlikely to be caused by democracy … ”  If this is the way democracy creates a tragedy of the commons, it can only work to the effect of ballooning the size of government.

Consider, and while it is an imperfect measure because of outsourcing and contracting, there are hardly more executive branch civilians (and over a million fewer military personnel) than there were half a century ago, and in a much larger country.  What has expanded tremendously, however, are redistributive transfers which now constitute the vast majority of the federal budget.  If that ballooning is not a democratic tragedy of the commons at work, then what is it?  Perhaps Gurri is talking about pre-60’s ballooning, but that’s not continuing expansion which people have been complaining about for the last 50 years.

III.B. Zero Sum Game of Influence In A Winner-Take-All Demotist Content.

Another classic criticism of non-proportional-representation democracy is that since power depends on public opinion, and in any particular contest the result is either 100% or 0% power, then political opponents (and their culturally-influential allies) will expend more than the ‘efficient’ (however defined) amount of resources (and really do almost any sleezy thing) to influence public opinion in their direction.  That includes everything from campaign ads to biased ‘journalism’ to … in the most extreme cases such as totalitarian states which perceive themselves vulnerable to popular upheaval, establishing an apparatus of suppression and thought-control.

All this is definitely tragic, however, it is even harder to map to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ analogy.  I invite people to weigh in on the topic in the comments.

Gurri very much wants to use this topic to launch a brief mention of the work of Elinor Ostrom, but it seems out of place.  Is it really all that insightful to say that individuals in particular trades with deep experience in the hazards and tensions of conflicting interests over limited resources don’t always need laws or full-proprietization of resources to self-regulate and develop community customs to keep the peace?

One of the problems with Ostrom’s work, however, is that it turns out many of these pragmatic and spontaneous arrangements have all the economic efficiently of a cartel involved in a conspiracy against trade.  ‘Avoiding overuse’ is not distinguishable from ‘anything less than maximum use’ and is distinct from the market ideal sustainable use.  And some of the institutions that accomplish this are far from genteel.  Established Lobstermen, for example, have been known to settle their differences by surreptitiously sinking the newest entrant’s boats or cutting away his traps’ buoys.  As Adam Smith said:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

So, for example, the members of OPEC have certainly developed their own customs, practices, and institutions to manage the market price for their resources.  That’s a real ‘tragedy of the commons’ all right, a single user could make a little extra marginal profit at the cost of expanding supply, which would lower prices according to the elasticity of demand and thus hurt the total revenues of all the suppliers by lowering profits below monopoly-levels and down to the prevailing market margin.  And usually we call such a situation the markets working as they should – as we consumers want them to!

And many professionals are guild-like and can effectively restrict supply – even outside a state-licensing framework – at the cost of consumers and potential new entrants.  Indeed, that is precisely how many professions ‘self-regulated’ even prior to state-licensing.

We often don’t want markets to develop Ostrom-like institutions outside law and markets, and weather states or markets are ‘uniformly successful’ or not, they are often preferable to the alternatives, whether spontaneous or not.  If democracy is a tragedy of the commons in any way, it doesn’t help matter if two dominant parties cooperate, despite their competition, to ensure they can always divide whatever spoils there are between them.

IV.  Neocameralism

Gurri chides Moldbug for rhetorical hypocrisy when Moldbug criticizes Hoppe for entertaining the possibility of a functional anarchy (though one has never existed), when at the same time Moldbug proposes a joint-stock corporation model of governance which is – according to Gurri – likewise ahistorical.

I think the difference between the ahistoricity (really utter implausibility) of ‘no government’ vs. a merely innovative form of government is a vast chasm that kills the attempt at equivocation.  After all, the JSC-like structures of authority are found in many governmental organizations such as the military and certain departments of the bureaucracy, which is part of the reason why transitioning from the government to the corporate world is often so easy and seamless.  Also, many of the world’s non-democracies utilize corporate-style organizational schemes.  Historically, certain colonial-governments (sometimes also ‘companies’) were run on the basis of corporate charters (and sometimes also explicitly for profit).

But furthermore, even the formal political level of the U.S. Government was designed to function in a corporate-like way, with the House representing by proxy the ‘shareholders’ of the citizens (each with one vote), The Senate acting as a kind of Board of Directors, and the President functioning as the CEO.  Here is Judge Posner in a recent and related post which definitely indicates he shares the opinion that corporate authorities would yield more effective governance.

The point is that ‘anarchy’ and ‘a form of organizational governance discovered by market and trial-and-error processes to be the most effective at managing large enterprises’ are simply worlds apart as political innovations, and Gurri’s accusation erroneously ignores that distance.

V. On Military Coups and Political Formulas

Gurri present an interesting hypothesis that attempts to explain the absence of America military coups.  To explore this thesis, I’ll use a term from Gaetano Mosca (one of Moldbug’s favorites) the ‘political formula’ which he defined as:

Those abstract principles through which the political élite justifies its own power, building around it a moral and legal structure.

Near-Religious Worship of Democracy is America’s political formula, and Gurri says that our society’s inculcation (one could just as easily say ‘indoctrination’ or ‘brainwashing’) of respect for the established form of democratic governance (regardless of its actual merits) is what keeps military leaders from attempting takeovers.

There are a few obvious problems with this thesis.

The first problem is that the U.S. military itself does not actually do much of this ‘inculcation’ in favor of Democracy – certainly not with any effectiveness or genuine motivation – and when it does, it mostly centers around the abstract idea of personal freedom and liberty.

On the contrary, military experience itself is demonstrative of the strengths of hierarchy, the necessity of a unity of command, the folly of dispersed authority and responsibility (if you’ve ever participated in an interagency consensus-requiring committee, you never want to do so again) and it emphasizes the martial virtues of duty, obedience, conformity, and self-sacrifice.  In short – it is about as undemocratic / reactionary an institution as exists within the government (not in terms of the political sentiments of its members, but in its structure).  It is somewhat ironic then that when Gurri chastises Anissimov for ignoring that, “… there exists today, in America, an institution that looks a lot like Anissimov’s ideal picture of an oak. It’s the US military,” he is specifically identifying the least democratic institution.

I also think Gurri’s implicit theory of the cause of military coups – a lack of special ideological affection for the existing system – is flawed in two ways.

First, it ignores the history of coups (a woefully understudied topic, but I’d recommend Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat)  Coups often originate in social chaos and/or pending collapse in the midst of an impotent, flailing, and unpopular regime, or in very weak, small, and primitive governments where a single well-planned assault can capture the palace.  Fortunately, these conditions have not characterized American history.

Second, all nations and systems have political formulas which justify the existing power structure, whatever it is, and Soldiers have fought and died obediently without thought of coup-plotting for all kinds of regimes, democratic or otherwise, and some quite nasty.  There’s nothing special, I submit, about democratic legitimacy vs. any other kind of legitimacy.

Finally, even assuming Gurri is right about the benefits of inculcation, that indoctrination actually occurs at the general-population levels and begins practically at infancy.  Is Gurri in favor of legitimacy-creating, manipulative constructed social narratives in general – that is, effective political formulas – so long as they prevent coups?  And is he so sure that’s he is immune to those democracy-worship messages that he’s been receiving since childhood?

VI.  Survivorship Bias

Gurri leans heavily on the very conservative notion that we should give the presumption of respect to institutions that have lasted with longevity.  In general I agree, but I think American Democracy makes a bad example for two reasons.

First, I think there is a good argument that American Democracy did not in fact, in the actual day-to-day operation of government, survive intact at all.  The transformation of American government after the New Deal into one dominated by an administrative-bureaucracy largely insulated from democratic considerations is the best example.  Moldbug would argue that actual distribution of power and responsibility for writing and enforcing laws and regulations bears increasingly little resemblance to the ‘formal’ democratic dictates of the Constitution, and that to think we have preserved institutions is to buy into the facade instead of looking behind the veil.

And Second, respect for any system cannot derive from longevity.   Some very nasty systems (e.g. North Korea) have lasted a very long time all things considered.  And if a system is decaying, you will go on respecting it until it’s dying day.

Gurri is saying, “You must give respect to this system because it is old.”  But the three authors would say, “No, this thing is a rotting oak, or better yet, a cancer.  It started out as one mutant cell, and all its age means is that its mechanisms of growth are slow by steady, and it has taken this long to grow as large and threatening as it has – more dangerous every single day.  You don’t look at a big tumor and say, ‘It must be benign because it is old’.  You say, ‘Good grief!  We need to cut this thing out right away or we’ll lose all the things we really care about.  If we would have known ages ago that we would be led inexorably to this sad state of affairs, then we would have cut it out from the start!”

That is their argument, that democracy is reaching its terminal, stage-IV phase, that we are declining as a culture, (in a way masked by technological advance) and that decline was baked into the cake from the very beginning.  And how long it took to get to this stage is fairly irrelevant when it comes to prescribing a remedial course of action.

VII.  Conclusion

The truth is, I regard all the above criticisms as minor corrections, or even just volleys in a friendly conversation.  None seem at all fatal to Gurri’s presentation or seriously detract from its excellent quality.  Again, I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I am with Gurri’s fairness and nobility, and I greatly look forward to his next piece.  In a way, it’s a bit sad, because I can guess that Gurri’s article will be the zenith and high-water mark of coverage of neoreaction which means it will only get worse from here on in.  But everyone expects bad-faith, and so it was a refreshing experience to be pleasantly surprised with the opposite.

Posted in Uncategorized | 33 Comments

The Atheist Evangelist

Punxsutawney Handle 2014 – the groundhog emerges from his hovel of hibernation only briefly to keep his promised appointment and make an appearance for the cameras, and then, upon being filled with a terrifying foreboding by witnessing the spectacle of his own shadow – sign of signs – he slouches back into his dusky den to wait out the last six weeks of winter.

Sam Harris is one of a handful of prominent atheists who have carved out for themselves the latest bit in the old public-intellectual-niche of anti-religion.  He’s got a challenge for you, and if you’re interested in the prize of $2K (guaranteed to go to someone) /$20K (much less likely), then you’ve got a few hours left to submit your own entry.

(AMENDATION: Harris Responds to Haidt (unfortunately selecting a rare example of his changing his views an instance where his beliefs shift in the wrong direction in response to a work of propaganda politicized advocacy, which I think is revealing), and This View of Life gives these four essay submissions, all surprising weak and certainly missing Harris’ point.  Oh well.)

I think answering his challenge ought to be an easy exercise of presenting the many well-known, ancient, and logically air-tight results of countless objective-morality-critical philosophers.

The demonstration is simple.  Any claim, assertion, or statement, moral or otherwise, can be subjected to the inquiry, “Why?”  The question can only be answered in three ways:

  1. As a deduction from other, logically prior claims
  2. I don’t know why, some things just are by necessity.  But it is what we always observe in a way a fair contrarian skeptic could confirm self-persuasively.
  3. Because X Says So.

David Hume’s infamous ‘guillotine‘ is merely the statement that all moral ‘oughts’ can only ever originate in 3 (even if X is yourself) and proceed through 1, but never overlap with 2 (which you could say is whatever forms our current best guess at the fundamental natural and physical laws of the universe.)

But the interesting thing is that while Harris is perfectly familiar with these results, and has had to engage with critics who have repeated them to him ad nauseum, he flatly rejects the validity of those arguments.  The mutually frustrating dialogue proceeds as follows:

H: Human well-being is an empirical phenomenon – a fact deriving from natural 2’s.  We should avoid 3’s because they are unreliable, and anyway, we don’t need them.

C:  Ok, but why should we care about well-being?

H:  What else can rational, objective morality consist of besides concern for the well-being of conscious creatures?  Any other concern can only come from unjustifiable bias or some fictional basis for a 3-like statement.

C:  No, your assertion is just another 3-like statement, with X being Sam Harris.  If a robber asks, “Why should I care about the other guy’s well-being when robbing him improves my own?” your only answer can be, “well, it might hurt his more”, and he’ll ask again, “Why should I care about that”, and in the end the final answer can only be, “Because Sam Harris said so.”

H:  No.  I have no say over the natural fact of well-bring.

C:  Argh! We’re going in circles!  You have to be able to answer why it is moral in a 2-like statement.  It doesn’t matter even if your proposal is the only possible answer to ‘objective morality’.  We can only observe actions and consequences, but we can’t observe your logical leap that we ‘ought’ to be pursuing a certain kind of consequence.

H:  What else can objective morality possibly be about?  If we’re going to have morality, and it’s going to be based on 2-like statements, then my proposed consequence is the only one that makes sense.

C:  And why should we have morality?

H:  Duh!  Because it’s morality, which is good by definition, and I say we should do good.  What are you, some kind of evil person?

C:  I must be.  I want to kill you now, and I don’t think it would be wrong.

So Harris’ challenge now becomes more challenging if you cannot persuasively undermine the very basis of his premises (which tells you a little bit about the difference between proving and convincing).  If there’s still time left then you should give it a shot, and who knows, maybe one of you will win.  I hope so – it would be a bit of an entertaining coup on behalf of our little despised community.  (UPDATE: more submissions than I expected, it turns out)

Anyway, back to Harris.  What is clear is that he genuinely would very much like his own views to become more prevalent and for religious people to abandon their theological beliefs and then convert to his; he’s not just some closet believer cynically playing the part of an atheist in order to win fame and make money.  If he’s a crypto-anything, it is a thing that is hidden also to himself, which is both the most common and also the most powerful kind of human crypto.

“Ironically” (actually not, but that’s another story) Harris shows a lot of evangelical and missionary zeal in his proselytizing.  One can always speculate as to his real, root psychological motivations, where they originate and whether he is aware of them or not, but he embraces the classic anti-religious cover story which is that religion is not merely factually false but that it is on net a force that undermines human happiness and welfare.  There are three general claims the “New Atheists” would make along this line of thinking:

  1. Because humanity does not share one, true, permanent religion (which is inevitable with something as reliably schismatic), the differences in theologies tend to perpetuate and exacerbate our outmoded and suppression-worthy tribal tendencies (indeed, to serve the needs of tribalism in the primitive environment was part of the role religions played), and, yadda yadda [insert logic and evidence here], lots more pointless war and slaughter caused by belief in imaginary myths than would otherwise be the case.  Religion makes us kill each other over nothing, in a way that cannot be resolved by civil debate, and so it is a force for evil.  On the other hand, Science provides us with verifiable, universal truths upon which all humanity could coordinate and live in rationality, peace, and harmony – if only the stubborn clingers would just let go of their pleasant but fraudulent fantasies.
  2. Religions are not even very good at accomplishing the incidental personal and social benefits that they often claim for themselves.  On the individual levels, there are psychological comforts, motivational enhancers, and coping skills.  And at the collective level they provide a societal organizing principle, as well as a stability-enhancing political formula, and there is also the taming of the inborn vacuum of a need for spirituality by filling it with something common (and which leads to reflexive pro-social behavioral tendencies) instead of letting it hallucinate and go berserk in countless varieties.  That is, even if evaluated in a light sympathetic to noble lies, it remains the case that in practice religion tends not to achieve more noble effects for its adherents than would be the case under general belief in Scientific Atheism.  All that religions are really good at, in the end, is making themselves hard to remove from those who are attached to them, and encouraging those adherents to propagate the faith.
  3. Religious people tend to a lot of crazy, wasteful, and harmful things in the name of utterly bizarre notions of ‘the good’.  Their ethical systems cause a lot of needless suffering which is at odds with any common sense view of human flourishing.

Harris’ claim, then, is that the world would be a much better place – not just for him, but that most people would greatly prefer it – if everyone came to believe in the truth he knows.  And that, he claims – and probably also believes –  is why he’s so motivated to play his part to eradicate the nonsense once and for all.  But for some nefarious reason the obstinate idiots just won’t go along!

To Harris – it’s not as if we lack evidence and arguments for Scientific Truth in a way that makes an embarrassing mockery of contradictory religious claims originating in superstition and fabricated fictional mythology.  To him, the verdict has been in – well beyond any reasonable doubt and publicly available – for a very long time: centuries at least.

It’s not as if people lack awareness or that they don’t have cheap, easy access to these facts and arguments in this information age.  It’s not as if these messages aren’t found in the content that permeates their daily lives (at least in all parts of the world sufficiently economically developed to have access to television – which is almost everywhere these days).  Outside the muslim world, it’s not like the State is standing in the way of Harris’ message – quite the contrary.  And the issue is not merely one of inertia and waiting for generational turnover.

So, what’s the problem?  Three things:

  1. Competition: Religious public intellectuals, while admittedly on the defensive against the cultural tide these days, retain a certain degree of influence, even on marginally religious (or “affiliated”) people.  There is always an asymmetric advantage given to the advocate who is arguing in favor of his audience’s existing beliefs and loyalties, especially if it constitutes part of their traditional heritage and self-identity.  Religious intellectuals may be sincere believers, but they are using their cognitive capacity to engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias in order to act as committed lawyers to construct the best persuasive case for one particular side of an argument (and one weighing heavily on irrational psychological propensities) instead of as disinterested judges that fairly and rationally weigh all the evidence.  They then transmit this ‘strongest’ case to the members of their audience/jury who are predisposed to embrace and retransmit it, and, anyway, not very good at being either creative lawyers or rational judges.  To honorably combat this asymmetric advantage, New Atheists must go on an offensive (and occasionally militant and obnoxious) crusade to compensate for their disadvantage.
  2. Most people seem to have a religious/spiritual module built-in to their brains by human evolution (though there is clearly some biodiversity in this regard) – they want/need to believe in some magical fairy tale that soothes existential angst and explains everything – and parental encouragement, social conformism, and acculturation provide the desired content ready-made.  ‘Raw’ Science is simply not attractive enough to most people to be emotionally appealing and compelling.  People naturally find the prospect of a meaningless, purposeless, and purely-material existence to be bleak, depressing, or even terrifying.  It’s therefore profoundly hard to make a persuasive case that they should liberate themselves from the pretty lies they’ve allowed themselves to be suckered into believing and overcome their biases in order to embrace the truths they find so ugly and repulsive (this should be a fairly familiar feeling to folks around these parts).  This is especially hard when some people who have embraced the truth confess it makes them feel awful.
  3. Related to 2 is the common belief (or perhaps instinct) that without something like religion and a faithful belief in materially transcendent morality that is both unprovable and denies its own need for proof – or equivalently in a God-like unevaluated ethical evaluator – people will see the logic of moral nihilism and, realizing there is nothing real beyond their own personal preferences, become Machiavellian real-politikers, scheming to maximize their own self-interests in what is bound to be an anti-social manner.  If a poor man finds a rich man’s wallet on the ground and his desire is to keep it – knows that if he keeps it that it will give more pleasure to him than pain to the rich man and also knows he won’t get caught – then why would he ever return it unless he’s been psychologically conditioned to not use his reasoning logically and instead simply believe that he should sacrifice his own interests without justification because ‘it’s just the right thing to do’?  Religion does this, and what’s going to replace it when it’s been eradicated?  Some kind of thought-control apparatus of mass influence?  And who exactly gets to run that?  And why should anyone trust them not to turn into exploitative Machiavellians themselves?

Whatever you think about the merits of 2 and 3, suffice is to say that people like Harris perceive them to be dwindling – yet still successful and so particularly aggravating – sources of remaining psychological resistance to their persuasive goals in the kangaroo court of public opinion.

Countless alternative ethical schemes – rationally reconstructed from plausibly appealing first principles – have been proposed by true geniuses and over many centuries of effort.  But while some have indeed become popular most of their authors were both philosophically sophisticated and honest enough to concede that while these systems may ‘tend to do what we want them to do’, they remained inescapably arbitrary and logically incapable of self-validation.

And while there were brief periods when it was intellectually fashionable to embrace the truth of such arbitrariness (Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche call your office), it never seems to last more than a generation or so before being replaced in one way or another by some new movement propelled by a zealous belief in the objective moral truth of their own new righteous cause.

My view is that, compared with the typical style of the previous generation of writers, current political discourse seems to have regressed into just such a remoralized phase, with such compelling arguments as ‘It’s just wrong!’ becoming increasingly common and brazen with an almost stunning lack of self-awareness or realization of any need for clarification or justification.  Not just, “It is immoral not to follow my policy recommendations because God says so, or according to my preferred system of moral philosophy, with which you may of course differ in a way I cannot possibly prove to be ‘incorrect'” but simply, “It IS immoral.”  Full stop.

UPDATE: Read this latter-day mini-sermon (or this one) for a typical example.

UPDATE2: Now this: “In the blogosphere, is moralizing really that which needs to be raised in relative status?”

As if to prove my point only a week after I made it, the Blog Title has now changed from “Marginal Revolution – Small Steps Towards A Much Better World” to “REVOLUTION -Big Steps Towards A Much, Much More Moral World”.

And not just as a shortcut rhetorical device either – as if everyone understands the implied qualifications – or even as an appeal to the modal sentiments of an ethically homogenous audience, but instead out of a genuine belief that there is such a thing as a God-less objective and rational morality (which there isn’t) and that enlightened geniuses like Rawls have discovered it.   So they feel they can now skip the disclaimer mumbo jumbo and just make unsubstantiated moral assertions – and without even bothering with pondering the moral calculus of hard cases – as if the answer should be obviously real and true for everybody and there is no possible good-faith disagreement on that score.  And we can feel free to do this without shame even if we have a degree in Philosophy from Harvard where the professors taught us that we are certainly in the wrong about all that.  Their immediate predecessors certainly wrote from the amoral frame as if that were the case, but obviously we’ve made moral progress since then.

Explaining the mystery of the remoralization of our political discourse in this increasing non-theistic age, and exploring the consequences, is a project I’ve been working on.

But the contemporary atheist moralists aren’t the only ones to reject moral nihilism in principle (and not merely pragmatically) of course.  One of the cleverest Christian criticisms of moral nihilism is an argument reminiscent of Marxist Historicism and which claims that, regardless of its truth, due to its intellectual-energy-sapping incompatibility with human nature, nihilism is not self-stabilizing as a general popular – or even elite – belief system, that it is only one phase of a repetitive historical cycle and thus merely sets the stage for events which will inevitably lead to destructive horrors.

A metaphor is that nihilism deals with a problematic garden by converting the weed-picker into a plowman who then plows the garden under in a process which exhausts him to the point where he stops caring about either plowing or weed picking.  Then the noxious and invasive weeds move in and take over, but they eventually choke each other’s roots into mutual annihilation, and then out of the composted rubble of the great weed-war, someone rebuilds a new imperfect garden, and so on.

The way we ‘step outside history’ is to manage social discourse in a way such as to make sure nihilist arguments can never make any meaningful progress, especially amongst the intellectual class.  This isn’t too hard because, as mentioned above, nihilism is already very unappealing.  It’s only real appeal is that it is logically coherent, fully consistent with the evidence scientific observation, and the most parsimonious explanation of a world full of injustice and apparently devoid of miracles.

But that’s pretty weak tea for an intellectual who is motivated in part by the adulation his peers tend to grant to bold and brilliant rebellions from the established fairy tales believed by all the idiot chump rubes, from whom they desperately want to distinguish themselves.  You can’t ever breed that tendency away, but perhaps you can tame it if you can distract your intellectuals with a different mechanism by which they can jockey for status – one that always steers clear of anything with a morally nihilistic aspect.

The problem is that if moral nihilism is true, then your intellectuals will be pursuing something false and thus schismatic, and with religious-like moral fervor.  Which … is exactly the problem Harris et al claim to have with religions.  If this actually happened without the participants even realizing it then that would indeed be ironic.  But more worrying is that it will necessarily generate a conflict between empirical reality and moral imperative.

And – as the New Atheists will be the first to tell you – historically, the loser is usually reality.  The result is intellectual and philosophical stagnation in the face of either a futile impotence or an insane counterproductivity at dealing with social problems that can never be solved without breaking down one’s righteous avoidance and turning off the ideology-protecting / ego-defending cognitive filters and being able to stare a piece of ugly and morally-offensive truth straight in the face.  And so they are indeed never solved, and we also never learn.  And this is mostly because this setup make public constructive criticism impossible.  If you try to tell someone they’re incorrect, they’ll just call you immoral and evil and then ignore or persecute you hysterically for offending their fragile sensibilities and breaching the peace.  Seen any of that around lately?

Let us now return to the question of how Harris dealt with the dilemma posed by atheism resistance-generators 2 and 3 above.

The dilemma is this.  He can’t make any progress in terms of public popularity by taking what I’ll call the Heartiste position and saying:

There is no such thing as morality or spirituality or meaning or purpose or soul or afterlife or God or the supernatural or good and evil or right and wrong.  There is no natural law or human rights or anything like that.  These are all just seductive illusions and mental reflexes, the desire and easy-suggestibility for which was implanted in your genes by evolution for reasons that are no longer operative.

You are all just a bunch of emergent phenomena of an enormous complex arrangement of strange quantum things pointlessly interacting in that weird way they do.  That’s it.  Everything else is make-believe which your mind refuses to accept is make-believe with every last bit of its unlimited power for denial.

Sorry if that upsets you, but that’s the truth.  You should stop craving fantasy land and grow up and be an adult and just accept it and cope.  If you need to talk, I’ll be poolside.  We should just be getting whatever pleasure juice we can squeeze out of this big orange called life and by whatever means optimal.  You should hurry up and join me and get started because there’s not as much time left as you may think to extract some safe fun during these last days of the evaporating civilization that made it possible.

Yes, I admit if this belief spread widely – as opposed to being followed by a tolerable number of free-riding sociopath parasites – that it will accelerate our civilization’s demise.  It wont be a happy day when every babysitter is a Woody Allen.  So what?  There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.

I think you can appreciate that this message doesn’t tend to win many hearts and minds, which is what Harris is trying to do.

Another option could be the brutal honesty of moral subjectivity, “This is merely what I, Sam Harris want.  I prefer to live in a world where people feel compelled (and are occasionally coerced) to obey this principle.  It’s not a universal truth, it’s just the truth of my preference.  It’s not any more significant than my preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream, but it’s still real.”

Again, not very persuasive unless you happen to want what Harris wants.  When’s the last time you verbally convinced someone to change their favorite flavor of ice cream?

The only other option for a moralist Atheist is to contradict the Hume, Leff, and Heartiste positions by means of scientific 2-like statements which any skeptic could verify, and this he cannot do because it is impossible.

Well, the easiest way to end a war is to surrender.  The second easiest way is to stop fighting, declare victory even if you didn’t actually take a single inch of territory, and just pretend you won.  You can hold your triumphal parade to the folks back home who never witnessed the battle.

And this is what Harris has done.  The way to address the questions of morality and spirituality is simply to assert as confidently and unapologetically as possible that there is indeed such a thing as an objective, rational, universal atheist morality (which is something like a natural law of the universe) and that atheists can be ‘spiritual’ too.  Over three years ago, Harris published his “The Moral Landscape” to make the first assertion at length, and in a few months he will release “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion“.

I don’t know how persuasive these books will turn out to be, but they probably offer some false but genuine comfort to the marginally-loyal atheist who is logically-able and philosophically-sophisticated and who would otherwise be quite bothered by the problems discussed above.  And who do we accuse of dishing out false but genuine comforts – of dispensing opium to the masses?  And now we get self-righteous atheists both as pretty-lies-junkies and as pushers too.  Terrific.

But my assessment is that, so far, Harris is having less success pushing his dope than he had originally hoped for, hence the existence of this publicity stunt essay contest.  It would be hilarious and genius if Harris bought all his press for only one thousand dollars, picks the stupidest submission while claiming it was the ‘best’ (thus enabling the perception which makes all his critics appear even more asinine) and then easily tears it apart.  But I doubt he’s that deviously clever, and I think he’s being completely sincere.

But I don’t detect any ‘trend discontinuity’ of noticeable acceleration in the decline of religious attitudes in the public as a result of Harris’ work – or even all the New Atheists combined.  Of course, it would be silly to expect mere books to accomplish that goal, but that is what the books themselves claim is their purpose.  So why is Harris having any trouble?  The answer, in two words, is ‘Direct Game‘.

And direct game applied to people predisposed to reject your message is usually unsuccessful, often even for the masters.  So maybe what the New Atheists need is a bit more salesman’s subterfuge and indirect game, though that requires a great deal more sophistication and intelligence.

And it is by this path that we come to the so-called Straussians and Neoconservatives.

Paul E. Gottfried has recently published, “Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America“.  (UPDATE: See also Daniel McCarthy’s Review, Gottfried’s Response, and McCarthy’s rejoinder – all excellent), Quick, be like Handle and go buy and read everything Gottfried has published (ok, fine, just the stuff written in English).  Done?  Good.  Well, as you might imagine, the book has come under a great deal of specious criticism from fans of Strauss’ project, and Gottfried recently responded in a post at the impressive “Nomocracy in Politics Site“.

Let me do a great deal of torturous injustice to Gottfried’s work by breaking down the history of the Straussian successful ‘subversion’ of the intellectual commanding heights of the American establishment right; a takeover that was benevolent and enlightened, outright welcomed and invited, or sinister and insidious, depending on your point of view.

  1. Strauss inclined towards the Schopenhauer-Nietzsche tradition early in his philosophic career (see the beginning of ‘the Heartiste position’ above)
  2. Then the Nazis and Soviets, the horrors of WWII, genocide and persecution (for example, of Strauss himself), and the ghastly Communist domination of much of the world’s population.
  3. Which was really, really bad, and promised to get much, much worse with the explosion of technology-enabled state capability.
  4. And, Strauss reasoned, some of that badness can be fairly laid at the feet of the vacuum created by the demise of traditional Christianity and its replacement with alternative sociopolitical-rooted philosophies which, it seemed, were even more likely to go completely berserk in the modern age.  It didn’t matter that they were slightly more in accord with reality than old-time religion, because it is now pretty clear that public truth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and there are far worse things than spreading noble lies.  Integrity is a value, but so is peace, harmony, and especially, survival.
  5. So what to do?  It’s not like you can (or even want) to bring back old-time religion.  You need something religion-like to take its place which is a more human-friendly societal operating system.  You would need that thing to be positioned against nihilism in general as part of its cultural legacy, and especially its worst excesses of Fascism and Communism, and to possess the actual geopolitical power able to withstand those rivals and crush any potential upstarts.  Because you can’t build it from scratch, you would like to build upon an already existing tradition and just nudge it a little in the direction you’d prefer it to go.
  6. Cut to the chase: It’s America silly – time to grab the reigns of that least worst behemoth.  And that means it’s also time to swallow your pride, suppress your compulsion to tell the truth, and stop making the obvious arguments against the absurdities of democracy, rights, equality, and so on, and instead flatter existing patriotic Americans who love this stuff by doubling down on your extolations.
  7. With two exceptions.  First, that whole ‘isolationism’ thing, the prudent anti-foreign-entanglements view of which was the genuine American tradition that went back to nation’s founding.  Well, you can hardly crush Nazi and Communist nihilists and keep that around, so it’s got to go, replaced with a messianic Palmerstonian interventionism of righteous crusades.  Second, a truly universal civil faith will have to actively divorce itself from it’s particular Christian and Northern-European heritage.  Paleoconservatives who don’t get this will simply have to make way for Neoconservatives.  Or they can be made to make way.  Whatever.
  8. So we get into ‘the uses of history’ clever propaganda territory.  A modernized version of the American classical liberal tradition is now The American Religion (which it has always really been, in truth).
  9. And if anyone tries to criticize you and you can’t silence them, then you can always accuse them of being immoral or unpatriotic.
  10. And, yeah, all this kind of depends on having actual dangerous nihilist enemies to fight.  It would probably all break down and go berserk in its own way if that condition were to disappear.  But it’s not we’re writing a permanent script for all time (though, of course, we have to pretend to be doing exactly that).  It’s just for a generation or so, until the current storm passes.  When it does, hopefully, maybe, people in the future will be able to safely liberate themselves from this concocted, but extremely useful, nonsense – this old and newly-improved secular religion.  But from the point of view of where we stand in the immediate aftermath of the war – the heaps of smoking rubble, mounds of human ash, cold war, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation or Communist domination – (the mugging by reality which has opened the eyes of even those who were once devout Trotskyites) I’ve got to say, I’m willing to take that chance.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  The paleoconservatives got a bad shake from all this, but even they admit that it was worked like a charm – at least in terms of its success in conquering the intellectual right and creating lots of brilliant disciples (some witting, some not) to further the project along. I think even Strauss would be surprised with the way much of this work has shifted from Historians, Philosophers, and Political Theorists to Economists, Journalists, and Foreign-Policy players.

If Sam Harris wants us to follow his own prescriptions for morality and spirituality, then he could definitely learn a thing or two from old Master Leo about how to gradually and stealthily replace an old religion with a new one.

Unfortunately, the Straussian-American religion is now well past its sell date, and the Atheist Evangelist Religion will never be ready for prime-time because it can never overcome its own self-contradictions.  Traditional religion is everywhere on the ropes, and the pool-sides are getting increasingly crowded.  To some of us who have particular preferences, this – and a whole host of many other social issues – looks like a big problem in need of some radically new solutions.  But no one can get anywhere if those solutions can’t get past the firewall that someone implanted in your brain and had the nerve to name ‘morality’ when, in the end, it was nothing more than ‘politics’, which is to say, ‘power’.

Human being are naturally power-seekers, of course, and our brains are made to help us rationalize our selfish motives away in the name of something we can justify as the greater good.  The second most dangerous psychological vulnerability is the tendency for unconscious-hypocrisy to hijack the moral sense and put self-interest firmly in the driver’s seat.  The most dangerous one is the tendency to accept someone’s else’s elucidation of their own power-driven-morality as accurate, driven by the reflexive instinct for morality as an adaptive social coordination mechanism.

The original critical-mass of publically prominent atheists emerging from the enlightenment made exactly this claim in their criticism of old-time religion.  That is was merely a system created (or which perhaps emerged spontaneously) to organize and justify social and political power through thought-control.  And that we wouldn’t be able to make certain kinds of progress unless we liberated our minds from that thought-prison.

Our problem today is just the same because the human mind is made to be institutionalized, and like the old prisoner, can’t handle life on the outside for long.  As we enter a pathetic parody of an increasingly remoralizing phase of our contemporary ‘intellectual’ life, we witness a long line of new wardens.  They all live in their own cozy jails, naturally, and are all in full agreement as to the benefits of mass incarceration – eagerly jousting with each other and salivating over the prospects of the lucrative commissions should the line of new prisoners be persuaded to select their particular cell-block.

The real moral landscape challenge, then, is to recognize the efforts of Sam Harris for what they really are, even if he won’t.  And, of course, and even if propelled by necessity rather than nobility, to summon the courage to face life on the outside.

Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments


Anti-Sabbatical: When one has to attend to his professional and family affairs, and priority personal projects, for an extended period of non-disruption, at the cost of one’s participation in the community.

I regret that I will not be able to post anything here, or read or comment on your blogs, for approximately one month. Time to disconnect, get off the grid, and go dark for a while.

If you’d like to get a hold of me, or bring something particularly interesting to my attention, or update one of my lists, do not hesitate to email or leave comments to some post on this site. See you all again in due time.

-Best Regards

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Fifth Column In Every Pot

One of the problems with the whole Snowden** story is that it tends to make the NSA into too much of a cynosure of paranoia when it comes to individuals, entities, and institutions ‘spying on us’ or ‘invading our privacy’ or whatnot.

The reality is that everybody is trying to spy on everybody else.  Countries and Corporations, Lovers and Lawyers and Law Enforcement, oh my, and so on.  If you’re worried about the NSA in particular you definitely aren’t worried enough.

And speaking of worries; Charlie Stross recently posted a slight conceptual extension on the relatively recent Chinese tactic of covertly placing wireless internet accessing devices inside ordinary electronic appliances.  These stories have been coming out for a while now, and the problem is only getting worse.

The ‘first generation’ version of this idea is simple.  Inside your electric chicken pot, tea kettle, desk lamp – whatever – is a little microprocessor always drawing a negligible amount of current and scanning for some unsecured wifi router.  If it finds one, it establishes a connection and surreptitiously ‘beacons’ to headquarters.  The little chip is now useful for various purposes.

Maybe it’s now a hop-point for proxying which impedes attempts at attribution.  Maybe it monitors your traffic.  Maybe it uses your electricity to mine Bitcoins.  Maybe it reprograms your router and puts a new password on it, or installs malware on it, or fries the circuit-board from overloading, or disables the thing by corrupting the firmware.  Maybe it’s just really good at pinging a particular website and acting as a bot in a DDoS attack.  Lots and lots of scary possibilities.

Of course, for this to be a major threat and cause of personal – as well as national – concern, it would have to involve the obviously impossible coincidence of a peer-competitor adversary nation with a vast and highly sophisticated cyber-espionage division, that also was ruthless and brazen and had little compunction about spying or concern about getting caught.  And this nation would also simultaneously have to be the same country with a huge trade surplus that exported billions of cheap, retail electronic devices to every country in the world, dozens of which are probably in your house.

Which as we know is such an unlikely concurrence so as to be totally imposs…  oh.  Scheiße!

Frightened of things besides just the evil NSA yet?  Good; you should be.  We don’t have a good name for this kind of (very reasonable) panic yet, so I’m going to dub it, ‘The Blue Scare‘.  That’s after the color of the lights on my own wifi router, which … just got a new password.  Can’t be too careful, you know?

Stross takes it a step further and imagines these implants being clandestinely embeddable not just in conventional plug-in appliances, but in all sorts of devices; really anything with a power source, even from batteries, and maybe even the batteries themselves.  This would be particularly useful, if done cleverly, in logging your keystrokes or tablet-pokes and intercepting your passwords and credentials to gain privileged access to all your accounts and information.

You have no idea how many people can blackmail you now.  You might as well just believe everything you do is being watched so you should fear the consequences and try to be on your best behavior at all times.  God’s not dead; we just replaced him with technology.  ‘Reincarnated’ even; if that’s not too blasphemous. ‘Don’t Be Evil’, indeed.

But fortunately there are some obvious countermeasures, and I’m sure the genuine tech people in the crowd know plenty more.  For one, secure your darn router with a password.  Second, it can’t be that hard to set up routers with little ‘unsecure honeypot sandbox hotspots’ (to mildly abuse all those terms), just waiting for some Chinese Chip to take the bait and reveal itself.  And then probably reporting everything it does to your favorite anti-virus company.  I knew some guys at University who shared an apartment and an internet connection and had something just like that on their router just for laughs that sent expectant free-riders to some very nasty websites.

Maybe you get a sniffer tool too and figure out where it is so you can return it to Walmart.  Is it really a breach of warranty if your lamp works perfectly, but just happens to have a little extra invisible spying parasite attached to it like a tick?  Be sure to add a microphone to the sniffer too to prevent acoustic attacks.

So, probably, we’ll quickly defeat most of the implants which have to ‘out’ themselves to perform their mischief, and the tactic will rapidly disappear.

But then what?  No more Blue Scare?  Quite the contrary, alas.

Putting on my inner-evil-monster, hope-the-enemy-doesn’t-read-this hat, I try to imagine what damage could be done with undetectable sleeper implants that can’t connect to the internet or any wireless network because they’d reveal themselves.

And what they could do is listen.  For two things.  First, they could scan for all the frequencies that are typically emitted in their area.  Second, for the encrypted signal order that instructs them to 1. Suck up all the power available and jam on all those detected frequencies, 2. Constantly repeat the encrypted jam order to all other jamming devices in range, and 3. Irreversibly enter into this mode so that, even if you disconnect the power, as soon as you plug it back it, it starts jamming and order-signal-repeating again.

This is a cascade of dominoes that sets off a pretty awful avalanche, especially in high density urban areas.  How awful?  Well, first, how much do we rely on wireless telecommunication devices these days – the ones that will all be immediately neutralized everywhere an RF-avalanche was triggered?  I think everybody is utterly dependent on them.  And second, how exactly do you turn this nightmare off without scrapping everything everyone has that uses electricity or some self-directed super Nuclear-EMP?  You probably can’t.

And no one has to fire a single shot to unleash this catastrophe. No one even has to put a single human being behind enemy lines, because all the fifth-column agents are electronic.

All they have to do is put the little devices in the cheap retail electronic items, flood your country with them (it’s not like it wouldn’t be hard to hide this capability from customs inspectors), and wait.  Oh, you want to intervene against that Taiwan invasion reincorporation-liberation?  Are you sure?  Are you sure you’re sure?  You might want to reconsider.

Are you Blue Scared enough yet?  Still like free trade?  Don’t even remember the NSA now, do you?  Except maybe you’re thinking, “Somebody’s got to do something about this!”  Well, who do you think that somebody is?

**What ever happened to Snowden’s girlfriend?  Does she still love him?  Has she visited him in Russia.  Does he have a new one?  Does the FSB provide for his needs?  Do they need to?  The guy is a top-tier global celebrity right at the end of – but still within! – his 15 minutes of fame.  He probably gets his pick of the litter of the Bolshoi Ballerinas.  That is, when groupies and/or ‘journalists’ aren’t flying in from all over the world to ‘intimately interface’ with the guy.  Sigh … no one covers this stuff.

Posted in Uncategorized | 41 Comments

140 Years Ago

The substance of what I have to say to the disadvantage of the theory and practice of universal suffrage is that it tends to invert what I should have regarded as the true and natural relation between wisdom and folly. I think that wise and good men ought to rule those who are foolish and bad. To say that the sole function of the wise and good is to preach to their neighbours, and that everyone indiscriminately should be left to do what he likes, and should be provided with a rateable share of the sovereign power in the shape of a vote, and that the result of this will be the direction of power by wisdom, seems to me to be the wildest romance that ever got possession of any considerable number of minds.

Fitzjames Stephens, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1874.

UPDATE, 140 Minutes Ago:

I have many times made it clear that I view myself as an obituarist for my country, not a campaigner or a political activist. After the utter failure of my attempt to influence politics at the last election  (when millions of conservative patriots voted for the Conservative Party that hates and despises them, so saving that ghastly organisation from what would otherwise have been certain doom), I have abandoned any serious hope of making any difference. It goes deeper than that. Over many years of presenting conservative and patriotic arguments in public places, I have found that it is becoming harder and harder to do so, not easier. The overwhelming bias of our culture, media and schools towards the ideas and beliefs of the left has produced three generations to whom my beliefs are now actually shocking.

So I have decided that telling the truth must be its own reward.  As I have often stated here, what we do here matters somewhere else, often in ways we cannot see at the time. This applies to evil deeds and to good ones.

Peter Hitchens, 30-DEC-2013.

Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments