Thursday, January 27, 2011

Don't Bother Sucking Up to Them. They've Already Checked Out...

..and many of them are convinced they're doing "God's work."

Call me less than impressed by President Obama's shift to the center-right in the wake of the November elections, as evidenced by his recent State of the Union address.

Playing to what he presumes the independent voters want to hear, he threw in a heavy dose of business-friendly rhetoric and American exceptionalism, which the Republicans and Tea Party types have heretofore accused him of not believing in sufficiently.

In calling attention to the challenge posed by Asia to our claims to supremacy, Obama called this our "Sputnik moment." Well, even though I hate to jump onto the Tiger Mom cliche bandwagon, the Tiger Mom comparison fits better than the Sputnik comparison.
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.
I've heard this promise to fix the education system in every SOTU speech I can remember, and it never happens... That's all very well and good Mr. President, but even if we managed to discover tomorrow the magic elixer to set education right in this country, it would take at least a generation to take effect. We don't have that kind of time. What about the people who are suffering here and now? In this globalized economy we could theoretically compete on education and skill even if we couldn't compete on costs, but the fact of the matter is, we have already gotten to the point where we can't compete on costs and can't compete on education and skill either.

In effect, we are screwed, and the only thing that can possibly save us is protectionism, but the Tom Friedmans of the world have succeeded in making protectionism a dirty word.

As he begs hat-in-hand in suck-up mode to corporate America, Obama even designated GE's Jeffrey Immelt as head of his new "Council on Jobs and Competitiveness." Talk about a fox being sent to take charge of the chicken coop... If there is any US-based company that trail-blazed the loss of our intellectual capital to foreign companies and the loss of American manufacturing jobs through offshoring, it was GE, under Imelt's predecessor, the fraudulent buffoon Jack Welch.

So, if we cannot compete under the economic globalization paradigm as it currently stands, and if protectionism is still a dirty word, we'd better start learning to speak the language of cooperation rather than competititon, especially if the threats of climate change and peak oil have any thruth to them (and they do).

This, however, will not occur. You see, it is a lie to say that the Chinese are merely the manufacturing plant to the world and have nothing to offer other countries politically or culturally. Their ideal of a Confucian meritocracy dovetails very nicely with the laissez faire, free market dogmatism to be found among the world's global elites who hobnob and schmooze together in Davos, Manhattan, London, Moscow, Shanghai and Hong Kong. These entreprenuerial, innovative, noveau riche citizens of the world are quite happy with the way things are, thank you very much, and if you haven't the gumption to climb up the way they have, well that's your tough luck. The way they see it, there was nothing stopping you. If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, they are going to make sure that they and others like them are going to be OK, regardless of nationality, because they share more in common with each other than they do with their own countrymen..

In 2007, I wrote about Peggy Noonan's op-ed piece A Separate Peace: America is in trouble --and our elites are merely resigned. She said at the time:
Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us... I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."

You're a lobbyist or a senator or a cabinet chief, you're an editor at a paper or a green-room schmoozer, you're a doctor or lawyer or Indian chief, and you're making your life a little fortress. That's what I think a lot of the elites are up to.
I think this tendency is even more pronounced today, although I don't think Ms. Noonan gives the recent phenomenon of the new, globally-oriented, capitalistic philanthropist enough recognition and credit.

The Atlantic magazine is always a great read, but last month's issue was absolutely superb. Some of the great articles included:

A reminder of Eisenhower's prescient warning about the military-industrial complex: The Tyranny of Defense Inc.

A profile of the dour and cynically obstructionist Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Strict Obstructionist.

The effects of brutally mysogynistic internet pornography on our de riguer sexual mores: Hard Core.

...But the article I recommend most heartily is the cover story: The Rise of the New Global Elite.

Some extended excerpts below... Class warfare? You betcha. But I didn't declare it. They did.
On the set of Meet the Press, the host, David Gregory, was interviewing a guest who made a forceful case that the U.S. economy had become “very distorted.” In the wake of the recession, this guest explained, high-income individuals, large banks, and major corporations had experienced a “significant recovery”; the rest of the economy, by contrast—including small businesses and “a very significant amount of the labor force”—was stuck and still struggling. What we were seeing, he argued, was not a single economy at all, but rather “fundamentally two separate types of economy,” increasingly distinct and divergent.

This diagnosis, though alarming, was hardly unique: drawing attention to the divide between the wealthy and everyone else has long been standard fare on the left. (The idea of “two Americas” was a central theme of John Edwards’s 2004 and 2008 presidential runs.) What made the argument striking in this instance was that it was being offered by none other than the former five-term Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan: iconic libertarian, preeminent defender of the free market, and (at least until recently) the nation’s foremost devotee of Ayn Rand. When the high priest of capitalism himself is declaring the growth in economic inequality a national crisis, something has gone very, very wrong...

Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few. The wondrous inventions of the modern economy—Google, Amazon, the iPhone—broadly improved the lives of middle-class consumers, even as they made a tiny subset of entrepreneurs hugely wealthy. And the less-wondrous inventions—particularly the explosion of subprime credit—helped mask the rise of income inequality for many of those whose earnings were stagnant.

But the financial crisis and its long, dismal aftermath have changed all that. A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.

The rich of today are ... different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.

The Winner-Take-Most Economy

The rise of the new plutocracy is inextricably connected to two phenomena: the revolution in information technology and the liberalization of global trade. Individual nations have offered their own contributions to income inequality—financial deregulation and upper-bracket tax cuts in the United States; insider privatization in Russia; rent-seeking in regulated industries in India and Mexico. But the shared narrative is that, thanks to globalization and technological innovation, people, money, and ideas travel more freely today than ever before.

Peter Lindert is an economist at the University of California at Davis and one of the leaders of the “deep history” school of economics, a movement devoted to thinking about the world economy over the long term—that is to say, in the context of the entire sweep of human civilization. Yet he argues that the economic changes we are witnessing today are unprecedented. “Britain’s classic industrial revolution was far less impressive than what has been going on in the past 30 years,” he told me. The current productivity gains are larger, he explained, and the waves of disruptive innovation much, much faster.

From a global perspective, the impact of these developments has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly in the poorer parts of the world. Take India and China, for example: between 1820 and 1950, nearly a century and a half, per capita income in those two countries was basically flat. Between 1950 and 1973, it increased by 68 percent. Then, between 1973 and 2002, it grew by 245 percent, and continues to grow strongly despite the global financial crisis.

But within nations, the fruits of this global transformation have been shared unevenly. Though China’s middle class has grown exponentially and tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty, the super-elite in Shanghai and other east-coast cities have steadily pulled away. Income inequality has also increased in developing markets such as India and Russia, and across much of the industrialized West, from the relatively laissez-faire United States to the comfy social democracies of Canada and Scandinavia. Thomas Friedman is right that in many ways the world has become flatter; but in others it has grown spikier...

Executive pay has skyrocketed for many reasons—including the prevalence of overly cozy boards and changing cultural norms about pay—but increasing scale, competition, and innovation have all played major roles.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of U.S. workers, however devoted and skilled at their jobs, have missed out on the windfalls of this winner-take-most economy—or worse, found their savings, employers, or professions ravaged by the same forces that have enriched the plutocratic elite. The result of these divergent trends is a jaw-dropping surge in U.S. income inequality. According to the economists Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley and Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the United States went to the top 1 percent of the population...

Plutocracy Now

As with the aristocracies of bygone days, such vast wealth has created a gulf between the plutocrats and other people, one reinforced by their withdrawal into gated estates, exclusive academies, and private planes. We are mesmerized by such extravagances as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 414-foot yacht, the Octopus, which is home to two helicopters, a submarine, and a swimming pool.

But while their excesses seem familiar, even archaic, today’s plutocrats represent a new phenomenon. The wealthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era were shaped, he wrote, by the fact that they had been “born rich.” They knew what it was to “possess and enjoy early.”

That’s not the case for much of today’s super-elite. “Fat cats who owe it to their grandfathers are not getting all of the gains,” Peter Lindert told me. “A lot of it is going to innovators this time around. There is more meritocracy in Bill Gates being at the top than the Duke of Bedford.” Even Emmanuel Saez, who is deeply worried about the social and political consequences of rising income inequality, concurs that a defining quality of the current crop of plutocrats is that they are the “working rich.” He has found that in 1916, the richest 1 percent of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold, to 60 percent.

A Nation Apart

Another defining characteristic of today’s plutocrats: they are forming a global community, and their ties to one another are increasingly closer than their ties to hoi polloi back home. As Glenn Hutchins, co-founder of the private-equity firm Silver Lake, puts it, “A person in Africa who runs a big African bank and went to Harvard might have more in common with me than he does with his neighbors, and I could well share more overlapping concerns and experiences with him than with my neighbors.” The circles we move in, Hutchins explains, are defined by “interests” and “activities” rather than “geography”: “Beijing has a lot in common with New York, London, or Mumbai. You see the same people, you eat in the same restaurants, you stay in the same hotels. But most important, we are engaged as global citizens in crosscutting commercial, political, and social matters of common concern. We are much less place-based than we used to be.”

America's own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”

At last summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Splinter, CEO of the Silicon Valley green-tech firm Applied Materials, said that if he were starting from scratch, only 20 percent of his workforce would be domestic. “This year, almost 90 percent of our sales will be outside the U.S.,” he explained. “The pull to be close to the customers—most of them in Asia—is enormous.” Speaking at the same conference, Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, also lamented this global reality: “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business … American businesses will adapt.”

Revolt of the Elites

Wilson’s distinction helps explain why many of America’s other business elites appear so removed from the continuing travails of the U.S. workforce and economy: the global “nation” in which they increasingly live and work is doing fine—indeed, it’s thriving. As a consequence of this disconnect, when business titans talk about the economy and their role in it, the notes they strike are often discordant: for example, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein waving away public outrage in 2009 by saying he was “doing God’s work”; or the insistence by several top bankers after the immediate threat of the financial crisis receded that their institutions could have survived without TARP funding and that they had accepted it only because they had been strong-armed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Nor does this aloof disposition end at the water’s edge: think of BP CEO Tony Hayward, who complained of wanting to get his life back after the Gulf oil spill and then proceeded to do so by watching his yacht compete in a race off the Isle of Wight.

It is perhaps telling that Blankfein is the son of a Brooklyn postal worker and that Hayward—despite his U.S. caricature as an upper-class English twit—got his start at BP as a rig geologist in the North Sea. They are both, in other words, working-class boys made good. And while you might imagine that such backgrounds would make plutocrats especially sympathetic to those who are struggling, the opposite is often true. For the super-elite, a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire high self-regard, and that self-regard—especially when compounded by their isolation among like-minded peers—can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering of others.

Unsurprisingly, Russian oligarchs have been among the most fearless in expressing this attitude. A little more than a decade ago, for instance, I spoke to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that moment the richest man in Russia. “If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him,” Khodorkovsky told me. “Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it.” (Khodorkovsky’s subsequent political travails—his oil company was appropriated by the state in 2004 and he is currently in prison—have tempered this Darwinian outlook: in a jail-cell correspondence last year, he admitted that he had “treated business exclusively as a game” and “did not care much about social responsibility.”)

Though typically more guarded in their choice of words, many American plutocrats suggest, as Khodorkovsky did, that the trials faced by the working and middle classes are generally their own fault. When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford. One of America’s top hedge-fund managers made a near-identical case to me—though this time the offenders were his in-laws and their subprime mortgage. And a private-equity baron who divides his time between New York and Palm Beach pinned blame for the collapse on a favorite golf caddy in Arizona, who had bought three condos as investment properties at the height of the bubble.

It is this not-our-fault mentality that accounts for the plutocrats’ profound sense of victimization in the Obama era. You might expect that American elites—and particularly those in the financial sector—would be feeling pretty good, and more than a little grateful, right now. Thanks to a $700 billion TARP bailout and hundreds of billions of dollars lent nearly free of charge by the Federal Reserve (a policy Soros himself told me was a “hidden gift” to the banks), Wall Street has surged back to pre-crisis levels of compensation even as Main Street continues to struggle. Yet many of America’s financial giants consider themselves under siege from the Obama administration—in some cases almost literally. Last summer, for example, Blackstone’s Schwarzman caused an uproar when he said an Obama proposal to raise taxes on private-equity-firm compensation—by treating “carried interest” as ordinary income—was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

However histrionic his imagery, Schwarzman (who subsequently apologized for the remark) is a Republican, so his antipathy toward the current administration is no surprise. What is more striking is the degree to which even former Obama supporters in the financial industry have turned against the president and his party. A Wall Street investor who is a passionate Democrat recounted to me his bitter exchange with a Democratic leader in Congress who is involved in the tax-reform effort. “Screw you,” he told the lawmaker. “Even if you change the legislation, the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money into my foundation and spend it on good causes. My money isn’t going to be wasted in your deficit sinkhole.” He is not alone in his fury. In a much-quoted newsletter to investors last summer, the hedge-fund manager—and 2008 Obama fund-raiser—Dan Loeb fumed, “So long as our leaders tell us that we must trust them to regulate and redistribute our way back to prosperity, we will not break out of this economic quagmire.” Two other former Obama backers on Wall Street—both claim to have been on Rahm Emanuel’s speed-dial list—told me that the president is “anti-business”; one went so far as to worry that Obama is “a socialist.”

Much of this pique stems from simple self-interest: in addition to the proposed tax hikes, the financial reforms that Obama signed into law last summer have made regulations on American finance more stringent. But as the Democratic investor’s angry references to his philanthropic work suggest, the rage in the C-suites is driven not merely by greed but by a perceived affront to the plutocrats’ amour propre, a wounded incredulity that anyone could think of them as villains rather than heroes. Aren’t they, after all, the ones whose financial and technological innovations represent the future of the American economy? Aren’t they “doing God’s work”?

You might say that the American plutocracy is experiencing its John Galt moment. Libertarians (and run-of-the-mill high-school nerds) will recall that Galt is the plutocratic hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. Tired of being dragged down by the parasitic, envious, and less talented lower classes, Galt and his fellow capitalists revolted, retreating to “Galt’s Gulch,” a refuge in the Rocky Mountains. There, they passed their days in secluded natural splendor, while the rest of the world, bereft of their genius and hard work, collapsed. (G. K. Chesterton suggested a similar idea, though more gently, in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday: “The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht.”)

This plutocratic fantasy is, of course, just that: no matter how smart and innovative and industrious the super-elite may be, they can’t exist without the wider community. Even setting aside the financial bailouts recently supplied by the governments of the world, the rich need the rest of us as workers, clients, and consumers. Yet, as a metaphor, Galt’s Gulch has an ominous ring at a time when the business elite view themselves increasingly as a global community, distinguished by their unique talents and above such parochial concerns as national identity, or devoting “their” taxes to paying down “our” budget deficit. They may not be isolating themselves geographically, as Rand fantasized. But they appear to be isolating themselves ideologically, which in the end may be of greater consequence...

And, ultimately, that is the dilemma: America really does need many of its plutocrats. We benefit from the goods they produce and the jobs they create. And even if a growing portion of those jobs are overseas, it is better to be the home of these innovators—native and immigrant alike—than not. In today’s hypercompetitive global environment, we need a creative, dynamic super-elite more than ever.

There is also the simple fact that someone will have to pay for the improved public education and social safety net the American middle class will need in order to navigate the wrenching transformations of the global economy. (That’s not to mention the small matter of the budget deficit.) Inevitably, a lot of that money will have to come from the wealthy—after all, as the bank robbers say, that’s where the money is...

It is not much of a surprise that the plutocrats themselves oppose such analysis and consider themselves singled out, unfairly maligned, or even punished for their success. Self-interest, after all, is the mother of rationalization, and—as we have seen—many of the plutocracy’s rationalizations have more than a bit of truth to them: as a class, they are generally more hardworking and meritocratic than their forebears; their philanthropic efforts are innovative and important; and the recent losses of the American middle class have in many cases entailed gains for the rest of the world.

But if the plutocrats’ opposition to increases in their taxes and tighter regulation of their economic activities is understandable, it is also a mistake. The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn’t modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda—that, for instance, middle-class Americans could conclude that the world economy isn’t working for them and decide that protectionism or truly punitive taxation is preferable to incremental measures such as the eventual repeal of the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts...

The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world. Let us hope the plutocrats aren’t already too isolated to recognize this. Because, in the end, there can never be a place like Galt’s Gulch.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is the Naturalistic Fallacy Real?

If the world shouldn't be like the natural world is, why not?

Rape of Lucretia (Tarquin and Lucretia) by Titian (1568-71)

The founding fathers of the United States were an eclectic mix of deists, skeptics, enlightened free-thinkers and devout evangelicals. Despite their individual differences it was a stroke of genius on their collective part to agree to include within the Declaration of Independence the proposition that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In spite of many false starts, trials, and missteps, the viability and the survival of this republic, and by extension, all republics, rests upon the shared idea that our unalienable rights come to us by a non-negotiable divine mandate, and are not granted to us on the basis of either mutual consent or coeercion. We can look back at the diversity of that group of men who drafted the declaration and recognize the sheer brilliance in the way in which a "creator" is referred to.

This emphasis on our rights being unalienable inheritances from a creator is crucial, because there is not much in the natural world to support the notion that there is any such thing as Truth, or liberty, or that we are all equal, or that we have any rights at all, certainly not "unalienable" ones.

In a couple of earlier posts about Frans de Waal, I was exploring the idea of whether of not a Darwinist needed to be a Social Darwinist by necessity. De Waal emphatically said no. He also said that it was a mistake to try to derive the goals of society from the goals of nature. He said that trying to do so is an error known as the naturalistic fallacy, which is the impossibility of moving from how things are to how things ought to be.

The definition is subtle. I've heard of the naturalistic fallacy being referred to in a variety of ways. Sometimes when it is used it is actually referring to the appeal to nature argument, or the is-ought problem. Basically speaking it was a term defined by the philosopher G. E. Moore in 1903, noting the error inherent in drawing values from evolution or from any aspect of observed nature.

I understand what is being stated about the fallacy and its variants, but what I have a harder time grasping is why it is actually considered a fallacy. It might be very unpleasant to contemplate that evolution's goals, "red in tooth and claw" as they are usually described, might serve as the basis for what we consider to be moral, but I'm not sure why that disqualifies them automatically, especially if there are people who want to take God honestly and completely out of the discussion. There are still nihilists around, and even sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson who are willing to face this.

If nature is indifferent at best, and pitilessly cruel at worst, can a moral system be built without a belief in God? If so, on what basis?

Last year I took a run at reading Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Harvard's Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, an ordained Humanist Rabbi. I wasn't able to get all the way through it. I should have known I'd have issues with it just by the very nature of the fact that he refers to himself as a "Humanist Rabbi," a non-sequitur, or oxymoron if you will, if I've ever heard one.

Epstein's book is a spirited defense of secular humanism. I had very much looked forward to reading it. I was extremely interested in learning what the argument was for building a subjective system of morality based upon reason alone, written in a tone that was respectful of the sensibilities and opinions of theists, but I was disappointed in it. It was a work of apologetics, with more than a couple of derisive remarks of the "man in the sky" variety thrown in with the purpose of rankling people of religious belief.

I admit that I might have been hasty in this judgement, not having read the book all the way through, but the passage below reflects the sort of thing that bothered me, and it comes back around to the naturalistic fallacy, or Is-Ought Problem:
As the great eighteenth-English philosopher and skeptic David Hume pointed out, there is a huge difference between what “is” – what exists, the way the world is – and the way the world ought to be. One of the basic questions philosophers have occupied themselves with, then, is where do we get our values? Who says something that is one way ought to be another way, if not God?

This is not a mere egghead question that only professional philosophers and theologians deal with. It is the first thought that goes through the head of a young husband and father of three, sitting in an oncologist’s office, told that his pancreatic cancer has metastasized and is inoperable. “You may have about six months,” the doctor softly informs him. He understands that that’s what is. But with every fiber of his being he feels: it’s not what ought to be! And some theologians claim that the only way we can justify believing that it shouldn’t be that way is if God told us so.

God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Catholic theologian John F. Haught
asks, “Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?”

This question – where do we get timeless values (such as the fact that it is good to heal a sick father of three so that he can live and be with his wife and kids) without God – is a variation of the is-ought problem, and it comes up not just in the doctor’s office but in most of our debates about political and social issues. Of course, when it does, we should ask our questioners what they mean by timeless values, inviolable “oughts.” They usually cite as an example that murder is wrong, which of course makes you wonder why they aren’t pacifists. Or they may say that rape is wrong, which is despicable when you realize they’re implying we need religion to figure that one out…

As for those … who would suggest that there cannot be any justice or any good without God, Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, written in 380 BCE, provides … the “knockout punch” against them.

In the dialogue, Socrates reminds his friend Euthyphro that a crucial question is not simply whether we can know if one or another particular action is good, but on what basis we determine whether any action is good. Euthyphro answers “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.”

But Socrates responds: “Is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good?”

If the former is true, then who says the gods are not evil, unfair, or frivolous? The gods could choose to love anything they want, regardless of whether or not human beings would consider it just. Is that the kind of system we want to live by? Do the gods want us to be blindly, unquestioningly obedient to them, even if they behave like murderous scoundrels? And if the gods love the good simply because it is good, then it could damn well be good on its own. We wouldn’t need a god or gods to tell us what morality is – we’d be responsible for figuring it out just as they were.

In either case Euthyphro drives home the point that mere belief in God can’t make us good, and it can’t point the way to “timeless values” that we humans aren’t capable of arriving at on our own terms. Gods don’t – can’t – create values. Humans can, and so we must do so wisely.
I see the point he's trying to make with Euthyphro, but for me, it's a poor response towards addressing the Is-Ought problem. In particular, I have a real problem with these particular passages when he refers to the arguments made by theists:

They usually cite as an example that murder is wrong, which of course makes you wonder why they aren’t pacifists. Or they may say that rape is wrong, which is despicable when you realize they’re implying we need religion to figure that one out…
Well, the disgust over even discussing the topic of rape in a naturalistic context is a good preemptive strike by Epstein. His firm and heartfelt outrage boldy stated is a good way to close the issue without having to defend his basic premise. It's a clever debating tactic on his part, for sure. Yes, rape is despicable, but if it is despicable he needs to spend more than half a sentence explaining why it is despicable in a naturalistic universe.

What we could categorize as "rape" is commonly seen in the animal kingdom. In addition, when we look at the widespread prevalence of human sex trafficking across the globe with its victims numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it is evident that a large part of the human family, at least of the male gender (unfortunately), finds rape largely unobjectionable as well. Our natural human outrage over this is not as cut-and-dry as Epstein supposes. A number of books and articles have actually been written speculating that rape, despicable as it may be to our sensibilities, may have evolved as an evolutionary strategy. Robert Wright notes in The Moral Animal:
The rape and abduction of women was once a common feature of war in pre-literate societies...

There is an ongoing debate within evolutionary psychology over whether rape is an adaptation, a designed strategy that any boy might grow up to adopt, given sufficiently discouraging feedback from his social environment…. One (non-Darwinian) study found the typical rapist to possess “deep-seated doubts about his adequacy and competency as a person. He lacks a sense of confidence in himself as a man in both sexual and nonsexual areas.
If it seems I'm playing fast and loose with Epstein's argument, I do actually understand the point he's trying to make - that is should be intuitively obvious to us that what causes human pleasure is relatively good (as long as it does not harm anyone else) and what causes human suffering is evil.

Still, as far as I see, a problem remains... if you take God out of the mix.

If we can theorize that everyone of good will can agree that happiness (or contentment) is good, and suffering is bad, why isn't it equally valid to take an unflinching and bracing look at nature like the Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer did and follow the flow (as he saw it) instead of fighting it, and see morality couched in terms of what benefits the survival and trajectory of the species overall? If the behavior we see in a particular evolutionary adaptation benefited the survival and longevity of the human race as a whole, even if the trait seems on it's face to be obnoxious and repugnant to us, why can't it be concluded that that behavior is moral? If it can be shown that another type of behavior does not benefit the survival and longevity of the species, why can't it be categorized as immoral?

There are debates that occur right now in scientific circles about whether or not we are the product of "selfish" genes or if "group selection" was the key to our adaptation and survival as a species, but the key seems to me - if people wish to postulate the absence of a deity, that is - that morality depends upon us rejecting certain facets of the natural word. That we treat the general thrust of evolution in particular as an enemy. Robert Wright, once more in The Moral Animal:
Once Darwin fathomed natural selection, he surely saw how deeply his ethics were at odds with the values it implies. The insidious lethality of a parasitic wasp (who feeds within the living body of a caterpillar), the cruelty of a cat playing with a mouse - these are, after all, just the tip of the iceberg. To ponder natural selection is to be staggered by the price for a single, slight advance in organic design. And it is to realize, moreover, that the purpose of this "advance" - longer, sharper canine teeth in male chimpanzees, say - is often to make other animals suffer or die more surely. Organic design thrives on pain, and pain thrives on organic design...

If there's one thing natural selection "wants" us to believe, it is that our individual happiness is special; by pursuing goals that promise to make us happy, we will maximize the proliferation of our genes. Leave aside for a moment that pursuing goals which promise to make us happy, in the long run, often doesn't; leave aside that natural selction doesn't actually "care" about our happiness in the end and will readily countenance our suffering if that will get our genes into the next generation... We are designed not to worry about anyone else's happiness, except in the sort of cases where such worrying has, during evolution, benefited our genes...

There were of course, the utlilitarians like John Stuart Mill who tried to deal with the problems posed by this realization. According to the utilitarians things could be considered "good" to the extent to which they raised the amount of happiness in the world and "bad" to the extent to which they raised the amount of unhappiness and suffering. The goal was to raise the overall happiness. Darwin himself tended to agree with this, even if he preferred to stress "the general good and welfare of the community" over the notion of "general happiness." Distinctions have arisen between "act" utilitarians who focus on the pleasure principle and emphasize personal liberties and "rule" utilitarians who focus on the common good and emphasize that which most benefits the whole society.
One of the first to shift from the Spencerian view, in which ethics should imitate nature, to one in which the state of nature should be viewed as an enemy to be conquered, was "Darwin's bulldog," the biologist Thomas Huxley. I have to say, I found Huxley far more helpful in this area than Epstein. In his 1893 paper Evolution & Ethics he compared our imperative to build an ethical civilization to that of a horticulturalist's never-ceasing attempt to cultivate and rescue his garden from the state of pure nature and cosmic forces.

The practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows... It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence... Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process.

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.

Not only is the state of nature hostile to the state of art of the garden; but the principle of the horticultural process, by which the latter is created and maintained, is antithetic to that of the cosmic process. The characteristic feature of the latter is the intense and unceasing competition of the struggle for existence. The characteristic of the former is the elimination of that struggle, by the removal of the conditions which give rise to it. The tendency of the cosmic process is to bring about the adjustment of the forms of plant life to the current conditions; the tendency of the horticultural process is the adjustment of the conditions to the needs of the forms of plant life which the gardener desires to raise.
Of course, this type of view has always been hard for theists like myself to get our heads around. In our imaginations, the naturalists have always extolled the goodness of nature, and as a result we've imagined them believing that ethics divorced from God should imitate nature. This is not necessarily so... Going even further than Huxley was the recently deceased Stony Brook biologist George Williams, who said:
Huxley viewed the cosmic process as an enemy that must be combated. I take a similar but more extreme position, based both on the more extreme contemporary view of natural selection as a process for maximizing selfishness, and on the longer list of vices now assignable to the enemy. If the enemy is worse than Huxley thought, there is a more urgent need for biological understanding.
What these philosophically-inclined biologists discovered as a truism is similar to what the great religious minds over the centuries have discovered as well. The origin of human suffering often (though not exclusively) lies in selfishness, and the origin of human happiness (both individually and for the largest number) depends upon our own individual willingness to be unselfish and to self-sacrifice for the good of others.

Closing out with Robert Wright again, who uses the issue of homosexuality as a backdrop and example:
Why should the “naturalness” of homosexuality in any way affect our moral judgement of it? It is “natural,” in the sense of being “approved” by natural selection, for a man to kill someone he finds sleeping with his wife. Rape, may, in the same sense, be “natural.” But most people rightly judge these things by their consequences, not their origins.

What is plainly true about homosexuality is the following:

1) Some people are born with a combination of genetic and environmental circumstances that impels them strongly towards a homosexual lifestyle;
2) There is no inherent contradiction between homosexuality among consenting adults and the welfare of other people. For moral purposes (I believe) that should be the end of the discussion.

In this light, the argument for a utilitarian morality can be put consicely: widely practiced utilitarianism promises to make everyone better off; and so far as we can tell, that’s what everyone wants.

Mill followed the logic of non-zero-sumness to its logical conclusion. He wanted to maximize overall happiness; and the way to maximize it is for everyone to be thoroughly self-sacrificing. You shouldn’t hold doors open for people only if you can do so quite easily and thereby save them lots of trouble. You should hold doors open whenever the amount of trouble you save them is even infinitesimally greater than the trouble you take. In short, go through life considering the welfare of everyone else as important as your own welfare.

This is a radical doctrine: People who preach it have been known to get crucified. Mill wrote: “in the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I Speak No Catalan...

...but I like the vibe

Corren by Gossos, with Dani Macaco

És tard, no sé quina hora és,
però és fosc fa estona.
És fàcil veure que no hi ets,
ni un paper, ja poc importa.
Poso els peus a terra, vull caminar,
necessito despertar en un dia radiant.
Encara em queda temps per descobrir
tot alló que m'he amagat i que no m'he volgut dir.

Corren, corren pels carrers, corren
paraules que no s'esborren, imatges que no se'n van.
I ploren, ploren pels carrers, ploren
com gotes d'aigua s'enyoren, aquells que ja no es veuran.

Difícil descobrir qui soc avuí.
Una gota em cau mentre un altre em treu la set.
Plou i fa sol alhora
Tomba la bala bala,
tomba la bala que m'apuntava, era la meva
i jo mateix em disparava.
Raig de llum il·lumina'm, treu-me el fum.
Una revolució dins meu, la sedueixo i es transforma
No s'esborren, en conformo en mirar-me
Mirar-me de dins cap a fora.

On puc anar-te a buscar? Nena no és broma...
Hauria d'haver estat diferent,
però en un moment s'han tancat les portes.
Poso els peus a terra, vull caminar
necessito despertar en un dia radiant.
Encara em queda temps per descobrir
tot allò que t'he amagat i que no t'he volgut dir.

Corren, corren pels carrers, corren
paraules que no s'esborren, imatges que no se'n van.
I ploren, ploren pels carrers, ploren
com gotes d'aigua s'enyoren, aquells que ja no es veuran.

Heard them on the Putomayo catalogue - The España CD.