August 29, 2011

Power and Distance

In any relationship in which one person or group of persons holds some power over another, the likelihood of that power becoming oppressive increases as the likelihood of contact between two parties decreases. This law holds true regardless of the type or nature of human institution in question. It is as true of left wing governments as of right wing governments. It is true of corporations. It is true of religious hierarchies. While it is always possible for people to treat one another badly face-to-face, it is always easier to deal callously with people that one neither knows nor sees.

This principle sounds so obvious as to hardly be worth mentioning. We have all been on the receiving end of someone else’s thoughtless policy at one time or another. We have all asked ourselves “what idiot made that rule?” Nevertheless, whether we lean left or right, we tend to think that there is some ideal way to organize society. We believe that creating a decent society is just a matter of getting all the rules right. My contention here is that any manipulation of other peoples’ lives on a large, impersonal scale, no matter how well intentioned, will eventually degenerate into an attempt to make human beings conform to the needs of a system, rather than making a system conform to the needs of human beings.

One example of this is the rise of industrial regulation. Unquestionably, it is a good thing that industries be prevented from despoiling their environments in gross and obvious ways. It is a good thing that they should be prohibited from producing unduly dangerous products, or putting employees in serious danger. The guiding principle in all such regulations is one of safety. However, human institutions have a life of their own. Beyond creating rules to advance the cause of safety, the work of the regulator will eventually creep into other realms. They will produce regulations to benefit themselves, or to manipulate industries to suit someone’s theories, or, often, simply for the reason that they can – in other words, purely for the exercise of power. Many laws and policies produce paperwork without producing any tangible benefit to anyone. Of course, in the absence of industrial regulation one finds abuses of similar character rendered by the industries themselves. When it is profitable to despoil someone else’s land or extract money that does not correspond to any actual goods or services it is a rare corporation that will quibble about ethics. It is not a failing of this group or that group. It is simply in the nature of human perception that the problems of distant parties are always tenuous abstractions while producing benefits for oneself, one’s family, one’s institution, or one’s cronies is a far more pressing concern.

Neither should we think that we are discussing a tendency that is a unique disease of power. While this sort of moral myopia is most dramatically expressed by those who wield authority, it is the social distance, not the possession of authority, which is the root of this tendency. Consider the September 11th attacks. A great many Arabs around the world openly reveled in the attacks, not because they hated any of the victims personally, but because they hated America, the ally of Israel, in the abstract. Likewise, many quite peaceable Americans, the sort of people who would readily come to the aid of any real individual in distress, were calling for what amounted to blood vengeance on behalf of their country. Patriotism is nothing if not the reduction of individuals to abstractions. It is the mass dehumanization of both the enemy and oneself. Yet none of this, on either side, was whipped up by any real authority. Rather, it sprang spontaneously from ordinary people.

If, as a species, we want to build a future with less suffering than our past then we had better put at least two unworkable ideas behind us. First, we need to give up on a magical belief in ideal systems. We cannot legislate and organize our way to utopia. To value any idea as more important than a life can only end in denigrating life. Second, we need to drop the recently revived idea that we can extract moral perfection from a careful study of nature. Everything is nature – including the Holocaust. It is only the plasticity of human beings that offers any real hope. The trick is to invent without falling in love with our inventions, not to maintain unwavering fidelity to the customs of banobos and baboons.

August 19, 2011


Almost every day I see some person standing by an exit ramp. Usually the person is young. Nine times out of ten the person is male. Nine times out of ten he is white. He holds a sign made of corrugated cardboard. Almost invariably it reads, “I will work for food.”

Some open their hearts, or their wallets at any rate, and hand the man a dollar or two and the requisite allotment of pity. Some hurl insults and accusations. Most pretend he isn’t there, and wait impatiently for the green light to release them from his presence. He’s a polarizing figure, this man with the sign. He gets on our nerves.

When I am in a rational frame of mind, as I do endeavor to be, I ask myself what I can actually know about a stranger based on a scruffy appearance and a sign. I cannot know much. I cannot know his personal history at a glance. I cannot know whether or not he has made an honest effort to find work. I cannot know whether or not he is a habitual panhandler or simply someone who has fallen on hard times. I can reasonably infer, though, that the purpose of the sign is more to elicit plain charity than to advertise a willingness to work for food. No one picks up strange men by the highway, takes them home to mow the yard, and gives them a can of beans in payment. People buy off their consciences with cash from the safety of their cars. Even if work were offered, certainly it must be more profitable to stand by the road holding a sign than to do some menial task for actual food. The sign, at least, is merely a clich̩ Рand almost certainly a lie.

There are, of course, few jobs to be had. Our country is not organized to assure that there are either jobs or dignity. There is much talk of these things, in high circles and in front of the camera, but people have been shed from the economy year after year, decade after decade. What remains is only a thin, fragile shell of professionals, nervously clinging to their jobs, and various detached elites who only shuffle paper and juggle numbers. For most of the rest, there has been the indignity of either public charity or Wal-Mart jobs. We have outsourced the making of things to others. A great nation has been traded for a credit bubble.

The panhandler is what America has produced. We will see more of him. He is the product of our collective ambition and complacency -- the delinquent offspring of our contempt and our self-satisfied generosity. We shrink from his image because he wakes us from our cultural conceit. We fear we might become him. A nameless artifact, standing by an exit ramp. Invisible. Despised. Unnecessary.

August 11, 2011

Why I am not a Bright

I do not oppose the promotion of a naturalistic worldview. To the contrary, have spent a good deal of effort, both in personal interactions and in writing to promote and clarify just such a view. I do not believe in any exceptions to a fundamentally materialist perspective. Nothing in my unique experience has ever required anything beyond a straightforwardly monistic ontology – this is to say that I believe that there is matter-energy, in all of its astonishing variety, and I have never encountered either empirical evidence or logical necessity of anything else. Nevertheless, I disagree with the Brights Movement on several points.

The Brights Movement has accepted the following definition of a bright (lower case “b” – a person who meets the criteria to join the movement):

• A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
• A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
• The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

My worldview aligns perfectly with the first two criteria. I shall have much to say about the third, but, at least by my own interpretation, this seems almost a corollary of the previous two. It is difficult to imagine an individual whose ethics and actions are independent of his or her beliefs, naturalistic or otherwise. One can, or course, fall short of one’s own ethical standards, but this does render those standards non-existent. On the other hand, to have a naturalistic worldview and a deliberately theistic ethical system would be incoherent. I suppose one might conduct one’s life in a generally unexamined way, accepting whatever cultural norms happen to be prevalent without really thinking about them, but I hesitate to call such a heuristic of blind conformity “ethics”. The matter of actions is even more straightforward. If one’s actions do not align with one’s worldview, a serious neurological problem is usually indicated. Action has a kind of primacy over mere assertion. If a person eschews the supernatural in public, but prays earnestly to hedge his bets, it is the prayer rather than the assertion that defines his beliefs. We are as we do, not as we merely say.

The purpose of the third criteria becomes clear as you read more of the Brights Movement web site ( ). The people who composed the guiding principles of the movement are never succinctly credited, though one may assume Paul Geisert, Mynga Futrell, Daniel Dennett, and perhaps Richard Dawkins were involved. Whoever composed them, it appears the belief they are trying to foster, as a sort of subtext to the movement, is that naturalism and egalitarianism are inseparable.

The site recognizes, then brushes aside, a great diversity of beliefs and opinions among those who might fall under the general category of brights. Any bright can be a Bright (upper case “B”) – a person who formally registers with the movement. One finds, in an explanation of the second principle of the movement, the following almost breathtaking statement:

“Each person deciding whether to self-identify by the shared characteristic—a naturalistic worldview—has employed a personal understanding of the terminology (including supernatural and mystical) and of any brief elucidation elsewhere on the site. We see little need to reach a common understanding of these terms, or to explicate beyond what is provided on the home page. We anticipate that those individuals who joined the constituency employed for all these terms some understanding in general use that they personally find apt.”

I believe the intent here was to avoid being mired down in philosophical hair-splitting, but throwing the definitions wide open is extraordinary. A movement founded on the notion that there is some concrete reality that underlies experience is taking an incongruous stance when it shrugs off specifics in the interest of not offending anyone. Still, I suppose we are all in this together.
The only important distinction to be made from the Brights’ perspective is between brights and supers:

“Antonym: A person who is not a bright is a super. That’s the noun term for someone whose worldview does incorporate supernatural/mystical element(s). In other words, a super's worldview is not naturalistic.
Individuals are either brights or supers (can’t be both). There are brights of all stripes and supers of all stripes – one humanity, one world.”

Alright then, we have a simple bifurcation of “one humanity” into two camps – albeit divided by a line it would be impolite for us to survey carefully -- brights on one side, supers on the other. All Brights are necessarily brights. Any bright who wishes to join the movement can do so simply by signing up -- that is, by choosing to self-identify as a Bright. Logically then, there can be no prerequisite to becoming a Bright other than the three quoted above – essentially, having a purely naturalistic worldview, whatever that happens to mean to that individual. To state this another way, by definition there can be no brights that are not eligible to be Brights. If you are not eligible to be a Bright, it can only be because you are a super.

The stated principle goals of the Brights movement are:

A. Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
B. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.

C. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals.

Setting aside any perverse pleasure one might take in being persecuted, no one with a naturalistic worldview can object to being granted a respectable status by his or her own society. This seems a worthy and entirely laudable set of aims. The problems occur elsewhere. Principle number eight is elucidated in this way:

“We intend to work to grow a constituency of Brights able to exercise social and political influence in a constructive fashion. The Brights movement is not by design an anti-religious force in society. The overall aim is civic fairness for all, which necessitates there being a place in politics and society for persons who hold a naturalistic outlook.
There is a human penchant for creating us/them classes in which the "them" is viewed as negative or repellant. Although some individual Brights may have negative views of persons who hold supernatural beliefs, the Brights movement does not proclaim superiority or a disdain for others. What is sought is social acceptance and civic equality. This movement unequivocally rebuffs not only verbal comparisons that cast Brights as lesser citizens than the religious, but also those that cast the religious as lesser citizens than the Brights.”

I must tread carefully here to avoid the idle charge of bigotry, but the text has now led us into a contradiction. It is certainly possible to have a thoroughly naturalistic worldview without being absolutely egalitarian. Perhaps I want to constrain people in group X because of some real, empirical experiences I have had, or, indeed, because of some scientifically conducted study I have seen. If this is the case, I still meet the criteria necessary to be a bright (including, I think, the ethics and actions criterion) – but I am clearly at odds with the movement’s founding charter. The idea that I can be an accepted part of a movement that “unequivocally rebuffs” views that I might, given sufficient evidence, publically hold is a non sequitur. Functionally, entertaining any negative views about members of a religion as a class disqualifies one from the Brights Movement. The term “bright” is descriptive, but the term “Bright” is normative. To join the movement is to formally assent to a certain ethical and behavioral restrictions not encompassed within a naturalistic worldview itself. Tiresome though it is to say so, the Brights Movement blithely stuffs its head into Hume’s Guillotine, slipping deftly from an “is” into an “ought”.

Christians often try to score a point against atheism by pointing out that Joseph Stalin, an atheist, was a mass murderer on a spectacular scale. Dawkins and others have pointed out, quite correctly, that Stalin was not a mass murderer because he was an atheist. Following the reasoning of the Brights Movement, however, we would have to conclude that Stalin was a super because he was not egalitarian. One can certainly bifurcate humanity in whatever way suits one’s purposes, but the bifurcation begins to break down when you help yourself to the ultimate attribution error, however nicely or cleverly you do it.

The notion that one must treat all religious persons as equal citizens is, frankly, irrational on its face. It may well be a workable and enlightened position if your neighbors happen to be Buddhists or Unitarians. It becomes less workable and enlightened, however, when one has the misfortune to live next to the Westboro Baptist Church. Tolerating the vehemently intolerant rarely produces reciprocity. If one’s neighbors happen to be hard-line Wahabi Muslims, or anyone else whose religious beliefs relegate non-believers to the status of non-persons, a rigorous adherence to the principle of civic equality is a unilateral fantasy. Civic equality can only exist between compatible parties, and some beliefs are simply not compatible.

Now let’s return to the third criteria of the bright definition:

• The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

If one’s goal were simply to further the civic status of brights, one would not necessarily have to begin by defining a set of ethical standards. If brights are viable as a social group at all, it can only be because they share some common practical interests. The bare desire for acceptance may well be a sufficient common ground in itself. Virtually all brights, however egalitarian or anti-egalitarian, would have to agree with such an appeal to self-interest. When one promotes an egalitarian set of ethics in this context it can only be either as a goal in itself or as an expedient tool in accomplishing the movement’s stated aims. The terms “fairness,” “equitable,” and “justice” are bandied about so often on the site that there can be little doubt that the authors are either extremely cynical or they genuinely believe in equality as something more than a temporary expedient. They are entitled to such beliefs. The problem is not that the authors have a certain concept of equality that they desire to see promoted, but that they have conflated equality with naturalism, either naively or dishonestly.

In the web site’s Action Area #1: Reality about Human Morality the authors proceed to lay out their program:

“Prerequisite to all activity is that we acquire expertise to assemble an absolutely indisputable basis for our assertions in the morality domain (the foundations of morality are understood by scholars). It is important to firm up understanding within the constituency of what is known about the natural underpinnings of human morality so that Brights can more effectively counter ‘common knowledge’ that morals are presented to humanity by a supernatural deity through scripture.

When we can articulate and defend a naturalistic basis of morality, then we can proceed to set forth goals for educational action, develop clear and soundly based messages (in terms that can be readily understood by lay persons, and especially transmitted via media), build a useful resource ‘tool box’ for Brights on the Web for their explanations, and so on. We must get together both our ‘subject’ and our ‘lesson plans.’”

The intention is to deduce morality (and by extension egalitarianism) from nature. This should be a more straightforward task than they are making it -- though they are correct that convincing the ignorant is a different matter altogether. If one has a purely naturalistic worldview then it follows that one does not believe that anything exists apart from nature. The question of whether something is natural or not becomes simply a matter of asking whether it exists or not. Unnatural is synonymous with non-existent. If anyone is moral, including a delusional supernaturalist, then it is at least trivially true that morality itself is natural. However, it must also be admitted that the supernaturalist’s delusions are the product of nature in exactly the same sense. If evolution were a guarantor of good epistemology, we would not need to even have this discussion! Proving that morality is a product of nature gains one nothing. Error and brutality are likewise products of nature. If morality were the necessary product or nature, again, we would have no problems.

A more honest, and I think more naturalistic, approach to the question of morality is to accept the fact that human behavior and beliefs are quite plastic. We are not entirely bound by genes. While some rudimentary aspects of morality are no doubt innate, all developed moral systems are essentially cultural artifacts. They are, to use Dawkins’ word, memes. Most religious strictures, however strange, served some function at one time. They were practical experiments in social organization, whether their organizers realized it or not. They often accomplish good things, like developing a sense of social cohesion, and bad things, like narrowing the minds of their adherents. The Brights Movement itself is just such a social experiment. It gives most of its members a certain sense of belonging. It espouses high ideals. It does not turn a very critical eye on its own principles and their cultural origins. To an outside observer, it is apparent that the Brights Movement is not a haven for the rigorous atheist or skeptic, but simply a re-branding and re-focusing of modern western liberalism, complete with all the multicultural baggage such an origin entails. Those who direct the movement raise equality and civic justice as inspiring banners, but they are not truly serious about such principles in actual practice. Again, from Action Area #1: Reality about Human Morality:

“…Beginning this project, The Brights' Net provided means for constituents who indicated interest in its goals to communicate with one another to plan a strategy. That mechanism proved unwieldy and unproductive, and so we abandoned the process and established a committee of Brights with a designated project director to lead the effort.”

It would seem that in the bright new world some animals are more equal than others. In the Brights Movement, the doctorate is power. I have serious reservations about democracy too -- but at least I do not pretend otherwise. The history of political movements organized and run by academics is not so encouraging that I would care to entrust them with either my identity -- or my ethics.
All Quotations cited from