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Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

We Should Criticize the Home Team When They Deserve It

Two articles today have a common, negative theme:

Why Are Democrats Letting Republicans Steamroll Them? (Politico)

The Fall of Roe Is the Culmination of the Democratic Establishmentโ€™s Failures (The Washington Post)

The Politico article says the two parties have very different approaches to national politics:

The simplest way to summarize the situation is that Democrats value democratic norms over policy achievements, and Republicans feel the opposite….

This is a pattern weโ€™ve seen repeated ever since. Republicans attempt some unprecedented and shocking move; horrified Democrats respond by trying to be the adults in the room; and then the Democrats go unrewarded for it.

To be sure, a country is probably better off with one responsible party than with zero. But in important ways, this kind of asymmetry can be dangerous, making the government less and less representative of its people….

Weโ€™re seeing this dynamic again in the wake of the Supreme Courtโ€™s decision to overturnย Roe v. Wade. This ruling, while opposed by most Americans, was a longstanding goal of Republicans … And Democratic leaders had, thanks to [the] bombshell disclosure of the draft opinion, ample warning that it was coming. And in response, they have done โ€ฆ virtually nothing.

There are actions Congress could take (although with likely opposition from the two “Democratic” roadblocks, Manchin and Sinema); or the House could take by itself; or the president could take. Some of these might be considered norm-breaking and deemed too aggressive by Very Serious People. But as the Politico author points out, game theory tells us that the best way to deal with an uncooperative opponent is to stop cooperating. Otherwise you’ll beย  taken advantage of over and over.

The Washington Post article by Perry Bacon, Jr., says Democratic leaders are simply too damn old:

The overturning ofย Roe v. Wade, and the underwhelming reaction from senior Democratic leaders to that huge defeat, make the case even clearer that the partyโ€™s too-long-in-power leaders โ€” including President Biden โ€” need to move aside. On their watch, a radicalized Republican Party has gained so much power that itโ€™s on the verge of ending American democracy as we know it.

It’s a gerontocracy. Biden is 79; Nancy Pelosi is 82; her second-in-command, Steny Hoyer is 83; the House’s third-ranking Democrat, James Clyburn is 81; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is only 71, but his second-in-command, Dick Durbin, is 77. (I’m slightly younger than all of them but understand it’s too easy for politicians to overstay their welcome.)

Mr. Bacon continues:

Party leaders … spent 2021 downplaying Republican radicalism while emphasizing building roads years from now. No matter what happens this election cycle, their previous defeats, lack of new strategies and open disdain for the partyโ€™s activists is too much to allow this group to remain in charge. The Americans who will most suffer from entrenched GOP rule … deserve leaders who will fight as hard and creatively as possible for them, not a leadership class so invested in defending its own power, legacy and political approach….

There is a real ideological divide between the center-left and left in the Democratic Party. But I think an equally and perhaps more important fissure is between the political approach of the Old Guard and those who embrace a modern style of politics [among whom he includes Elizabeth Warren, who’s 73] …ย  I sense that they understand how politics in 2022 actually works. Unlike Biden and Pelosi, they are not wedded to polls and bipartisanship and do not constantly distance themselves from the partyโ€™s activists. They are much more open to new thinking.

I agree with both of them, but I’ll add another factor: money. There is nothing on the left that matches the number of billionaires and less than billionaires who fund right-wing organizations, Fox News being the prime example. But that imbalance doesn’t excuse the failure of Democratic leaders to effectively deal with the Republican menace.

President Biden’s biggest failure has been his inability to get 50 senators (all of whom caucus with the Democrats) to support his agenda, even on matters that don’t require reforming the Senate filibuster. Depending on how things work out, his appointment of the cautious Merrick Garland may be his second biggest failure. If you need a recent example of his perspective on Washington politics, here’s what President Biden said in February regarding duplicitous turtle-face Mitch McConnell, the guy who packed the Supreme Court that’s now running the country:

You’re a man of your word, you’re a man of honor. Thank you for being my friend.

A Guide to Reality, Part 11

In chapter 6 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Professor Alex Rosenberg offers an explanation of what he calls “nice nihilism”. The point he wants to make is that, although we should all be ethical nihilists and recognize that morality is an illusion, nihilism is nothing to worry about. We humans have evolved to be nice to each other, on balance, so we can continue to behave ethically despite giving up the idea that any of our ethical beliefs are true or correct.

Rosenberg begins with an account of human evolution, beginning a few million years ago when our ancestors left the African jungle and moved to the savanna.ย 


Scientists believe that our ancestors began consuming more protein on the savannaย (see striped animals above). This dietary change had certain biological effects, including increased fertility:

[There were] more mouths to feed over longer periods, but mothers prevented from providing for older offspring by the demands of younger ones; males living longer and so having still more offspring, putting further strains on available resources; and those offspring needing literally years of protection and nourishment before they could fend for themselves [118].

Living on the savanna also meant our ancestors had to compete with other predators and scavengers and avoid being eaten themselves. To make a long story short, the key to survival was cooperation, including the division of labor.

Rosenberg admits that reconstructing the very early history of the human race is somewhat speculative, but he invokes game theory to help explain why cooperation won out. Game theory, supported by computer simulations, has revealed that “tit for tat” and “fair and equal” strategies have the most favorable outcomes over time and, as he points out, human evolution was not an overnight phenomenon.

Still, he wonders whether biology and game theory can alone account for the widespread existence of norms like fairness, equity and cooperation:

But how does natural selection get people to adopt such norms? How does it shape such adaptations? … This problem looks like it’s too hard to be solved by genetically-based natural selection. Maybe if there were genes for playing tit for tat, they would be selected for. But at least in the human case, if not in animal models, such genes seem unlikelyย [134].

It isn’t clear why Rosenberg doubts the existence of a strong genetic basis for cooperation. On the contrary, there is some recent evidence that human infants have a built-in sense of fair play (The Atheists Guide was published in 2011). Instead, Rosenberg argues that core morality (the morality that’s common among world cultures) has come about partly through a process of “cultural natural selection” (134).

Again, I’m not sure what Rosenberg means by “cultural natural selection”, since earlier he suggested that “core morality is almost certainly locked-in by now” (108). Obviously, purely cultural practices are learned, not transmitted genetically. There is no set of genes that transmits the rules of baseball. Maybe he’s merely pointing out that there is no genetic basis for specific moral rules or practices, like keeping promises or tit-for-tat. Instead, he asks:

What kind of a device could nature have hit on in the course of our evolution that could guarantee to others that we will act in accordance with norms of niceness, fairness, equity and much of the rest of the moral core? It would have had to be a device that overrides the temptation to cheat, cut corners, free-ride when the opportunity occurs [136].

His answer is emotion. Emotions are “hardwired by genes we share” and “get harnessed together” with norms that are adaptive in our environments. They “motivate enforcement” of core morality and also morality’s local variations. For example, he argues that different norms will develop in pastoral vs. agricultural communities. Shepherds have to protect against rustlers, since their animals are easy to lead away. Farmers don’t have a similar problem, since a rustler can’t lead away a herd of wheat. As a result, herding communities develop strong emotions regarding theft and the need for revenge, while farming communities don’t (maybe they develop strong emotions regarding their plots of land, but Rosenberg doesn’t say). Some important combinations of norms and emotions enhance fitness in all environments, however; the norms in those combinations become part of core morality.

I don’t think it’s important for our purposes to understand exactly where the obscure boundary is between genetic and cultural transmission of norms and emotions. His thesis is that there is a strong relationship between morality and emotion, and that natural selection has played an important role in the evolution of both. In particular, the emotions of shame and guilt have been especially important in getting people to choose long-term benefits (e.g., remaining part of a community by behaving nicely) over short-term ones (e.g., enjoying candy you stole from your little brother).

Pointing out the strong connection between morality and emotion isn’t new with Rosenberg or isn’t an especially scientistic view. That connection has been emphasized by most philosophers, some of whom have argued that morality is a kind of cultural emotionalism: morality promotes or should promote behavior that makes people happy or feel good in the long run, and discourages or should discourage behavior that doesn’t. It’s also been pointed out that emotions aren’t usually irrational. People often get angry over things that aren’t that important from other people’s perspective, but angry people can almost always say why they’re angry, and there is usually some validity to their reasoning.

The last issue Rosenberg addresses in chapter 6 is why there is so much bad behavior if morality has been programmed into us. The obvious answer is that there is always variation in traits that are subject to evolution. With morality, most people end up in the middle, with saints on one side and sociopaths on the other. The chapter ends with the reminder that, although core morality evolved into its present formย and has contributed to the reproductive success of human beings, that doesn’t make it right or true, since ethical beliefs are neither true nor false.ย 

One question Rosenberg should have considered in greater depth is whether accepting ethical nihilism would make people behave less ethically. His answer is that we shouldn’t worry about the nihilists who may be lurking in our midst because they’ve also been programmed via natural and cultural selection to behave ethically (for the most part).

But some studies have shown that after being exposed to the idea that they lack free will and therefore aren’t responsible for their actions, people tend to become more selfish or dishonest. Being exposed to new philosophical ideas can clearly affect behavior. It’s been reported that one philosopher, Saul Smilansky, refuses to teach his students about free will and determinism because he’s afraid that their sense of responsibility will be affected. So it isn’t clear at all that the widespread adoption of ethical nihilism by itself or as part of scientism would leave society’s moral behavior untouched. This might be a case in which we couldn’t handle the truth.

Next installment: Whether we should let consciousness be our guide.

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