|Synapse Sample Issue
The New Science of the Moral Sense
© 2008 by Charles Manning
On January 13, 2008, in an essay entitled "The Moral Instinct" in the New York Times (on-line), Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, announced "the new science of the moral sense." While Pinker doesn’t bill his eloquent essay as philosophical, and doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, the essay mentions a number of philosophers and philosophical ideas. It particularly interests me because I discussed the relationship between morality and evolution in my recent article, "Distinctionism" (Synapse # 153).
First, a couple of definitions. Pinker doesn’t define morality or moral truth. I understand morality as the discipline that attempts to assert how humans should behave with regard to themselves, others, and the environment. It’s designed to turn humans, at all stages of life, away from bad conduct, and toward good conduct, regardless of whether they’re inclined to good or bad conduct by nature or environmental influences. Moral assertions, when true, are "moral truths." I’m not sure Pinker would agree with these definitions. Oddly, he uses the term "moral truth" only once in his lengthy article.
Pinker adds the moral sense to the traditional five senses. The moral sense is, or at least has as an essential part, "moralization" – a psychological state, also referred to as a feeling, instinct, or intuition. Moralization makes us deem certain actions immoral, not just disagreeable, unfashionable, or imprudent. Pinker says in the moralization state, we feel "the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause." The two hallmarks of the moral sense are that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal, and that immoral acts deserve to be punished. Pinker quotes Bertrand Russell: "The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell."
Pinker devotes much of his essay to explaining how the moral sense "commandeers" our thinking, confuses morality with "purity, status and conformity," turns practical problem solving into a moral crusade offering solutions through "punitive aggression," places taboos against discussion of important ideas, and fosters self-righteousness. This, he claims, infects the conclusions of the moral sense, as well as methods of arriving at them, causing them often not to conform to morality. (Pinker’s moral conclusions or judgments are apparently the same as what I call moral assertions, but I’ll follow his terminology in characterizing his views.) He asserts that people frequently wrongly believe they have good reasons for moral conclusions. He implies that scientists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg have failed in attempts to show that moral conclusions result from reasoning.
Pinker blames the moral sense for "moral illusions." Examples are the belief that it’s wrong to use an old U.S. flag to clean a bathroom, and wrong to commit consensual (among adults), safe, and private incest. Other moral illusions are the refusal of vegetarians and non-smokers to tolerate the slightest trace of the forbidden substances, and undue veneration of religious leaders such as Mother Teresa, who, according to Pinker, accomplished far less good than Bill Gates, the computer software magnate, or Norman Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution."
Without carefully explaining it, Pinker appears to divide moral conclusions into two categories: those that are part and parcel of the moral sense, including moral illusions, and those that can be justified by reason. This in turn implies that sound moral judgment can be achieved or exercised apart from the moral sense.
Pinker’s concept of the moral sense resonates to some extent with my own ideas. In the "Distinctionism" article, I asserted that evolution equips humans, uniquely among animals, with three capacities necessary for moral behavior: intelligence, the drive to understand and follow moral rules, and the drive to create moral rules. At least the latter two of these capacities appear to be in line with Pinker’s "moral sense." Although I don’t agree that punishment is always thought to be deserved for moral infractions, I agree that the origin of the moral sense lies in evolution and neurobiology.
My main objection to Pinker’s thesis stems from his conflation of, or failure to distinguish, the moral sense and moral conclusions. In terminology sometimes used by philosophers (but not Pinker), he describes certain moral conclusions – the ones brought about by the commandeering influence of the moral sense – as internally related to the moral sense. Of necessity, then, they arise, like the moral sense itself, by evolutionary and neurobiological processes, not by reasoned analysis. Pinker clearly thinks rationally defensible moral conclusions aren’t internally related to the moral sense; that is, are externally related to it (again, not Pinker’s terminology).
In contrast, I believe all moral conclusions (assertions), no matter how defensible, are externally related to the moral sense. I believe all are produced and exercised by human reasoning, not evolution or neurobiology; reasoning both by the person following the rules and by the creator(s) of them. Of course, human reason is fallible. The merit of moral conclusions must be assessed without regard to the existence or strength of anyone’s moral sense.
My second, related objection relates to Pinker’s belief that "moral illusions" and/or conclusions of the moral sense aren’t learned, since they’re just manifestations or outgrowths of evolution and neurobiology. Pinker seems oblivious to the fact that one couldn’t find desecrating the flag morally repulsive without learning that the object is indeed the national symbol and that desecrating the national symbol is forbidden. Siblings have to learn they come from the same parents before they can recognize sexual intercourse between them as incest, and they have to learn that incest is forbidden. One has to know who Mother Teresa was before one can venerate her as a moral paragon, defensibly or not. And one must learn what a paragon is. None of this is purely instinctive.
My third objection to Pinker’s proposals is that Pinker presupposes a standard for moral truth that’s questionable and that he doesn’t adequately discuss or defend. To determine moral truth, Pinker proposes utilitarian calculation, or cost-benefit analysis. He views the moral sense as having the unfortunate effect of causing ordinary people not to honor "the utilitarian standard of what would result in the greatest good for the greatest number."
For example, Pinker suggests there’s a serious question whether incest and other behavior popularly held to be immoral is always immoral when considered in the light of (utilitarian) reason. He cites psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s claim that if asked whether incest, when practiced safely, secretly, and between consenting adults, is morally acceptable, people readily say no, but can’t explain why. If pressed, they rationalize "backward" to plausible, but insufficient, justifications.
In this, Pinker appears to claim that the possibility of achieving something good (sexual pleasure) without harm to anyone makes utilitarian moral sense. I doubt that any serious student of morality would accept such thinking. It’s hard to understand why it wouldn’t justify, in some instances at least, parent-child incest or pedophilia.
To further support his allegation of a gap between people’s moral beliefs and utilitarian reasons for holding them, Pinker turns to Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist. Greene says (Darwinian) evolution equips us with an instinct against harming others that sometimes overwhelms the "utilitarian calculus that would tote up the lives saved and lost."
Greene’s conclusions arise from experiments he and others conducted related to "the Trolley Problem," a series of scenarios devised by philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson, in which people face versions of sacrifice-one-to-save-several dilemmas involving a runaway trolley and workers on the tracks. When people are confronted with the choice to push a fat person off a bridge and onto the tracks to stop the trolley and thereby save five workers from being killed (the scenario assumes the actor is too thin to stop the trolley by jumping in front of it himself), they universally find the option of sacrificing the fat man morally repugnant. Greene describes this as a non-utilitarian intuition. On the other hand, people don’t find it morally repugnant, in an alternative scenario, to throw a switch changing the trolley headed for five workers to another track with only one. This alternative is said to involve rational calculation, not the moral sense. Greene’s MRI studies show different areas of the brain responsible for the emotional and calculating processes, which seem to vie with each other. Pinker approves Greene’s conclusion that refusing to throw down the fat man represents "nonutilitarian intuition" triumphing over cost-benefit analysis.
I find it unpersuasive that the moral value of actions depends on the degree to which the actor acts with or without emotion. Nor is it obvious to me that refusing to sacrifice the fat man would be less defensible morally than sacrificing him. Pinker, and apparently also Greene, state the opposite, without explanation. They didn’t determine that by reviewing MRI’s; they presupposed it.
To return to my second objection for a moment, the trolleyologists adduce no evidence that moral inclinations such as the aversion to pushing the fat man off the bridge, which they call "instinctive and worldwide moral intuitions," aren’t learned. They assume that because people generally come up with inadequate rationalizations for common moral beliefs, they must be a product of evolution. It’s forgotten that every day, people reasonably rely and act upon results of the reasoning of others, having learned those results, without being able to duplicate or explain the reasoning.
Moreover, unlike Pinker, I would be reluctant to trust the moral judgment of a person who coldly calculates costs and benefits. He observes that to people who have "blunted emotions" because of damage to frontal regions of the brain, it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Are we to believe that brain damage improves one’s moral judgment?
The role of presupposed moral values in Pinker’s analysis conflicts with his claim of a science of the moral sense. A science shouldn’t depend on subjective presuppositions, especially when, as in Pinker’s article, they’re scarcely discussed or defended. (In fairness, late in his essay, Pinker does elaborate on nonzero-sum games and non-egocentric perspectives in relation to determining when the judgments of the moral sense are "aligned with morality itself." But that has no bearing on the trolleyology intuitions or the moral illusions Pinker mentions.)
The aforementioned deficiencies also affect Pinker’s comments about children and morality. He cites approvingly studies that show children have "the stirrings of morality." They offer toys to other children, and try to help and comfort others in distress. Pinker says psychologists Elliot Turiel and Judith Smetana observed that preschoolers have a rudimentary understanding of the difference between customs and moral principles. The implication is that moral behavior occurs instinctively in children. Pinker notes that some children lack these "stirrings," but attributes this to genetic or brain defects.
My view that intelligence is required for moral behavior means that infants and very young children (not to mention animals) lack the capacity to exercise moral judgment. This is different from Pinker’s claim that lack of moral judgment in children results from genetic or physical defects. Normal children, like normal adults, have to be constantly restrained from inappropriate behavior that comes naturally to them. I think experience shows that by the time children enter the age group studied by Turiel and Smetana, they’ve already learned the "stirrings of morality" at home. Pinker states no reason why one would attribute the particular stirrings he mentions to evolution rather than the teachings of parents or other adults.
Pinker mischaracterizes moral concerns that occur across regions and cultures. Pinker refers approvingly to five such concerns identified by Haidt: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority, and purity. Haidt describes these as "the primary colors of our moral sense." Pinker refers to them as moral "spheres," and says they’re universal and a product of evolution. He cites certain animal behavior as demonstrating the deep evolutionary roots of some of the moral spheres. Others he thinks evolved in accordance with the theories of sociobiologists and of Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene." But, he notes, their importance and function varies among cultures. Pinker says moral illusions result from "unwarranted intrusion of one of the moral spheres into our judgments."
In my opinion, Pinker errs by suggesting the moral spheres evolved in Darwinian fashion, and for that reason have no rational ground. The moral spheres, which Pinker says occur universally, but in forms that vary from place to place, are analogous to languages, which occur universally, have common characteristics, but vary in form. We wouldn’t say English or Chinese evolved by Darwinian evolution. I believe that languages, and the moral spheres, evolve(d) socially, but that’s very different from Darwinian evolution.
Pinker actually mentions an analogy, similar in some ways to the one I just proposed, by the philosopher John Rawls, based on a theory of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argues that evolution equipped us with "universal grammar" that allows us to instinctively understand the grammatical structure of language, without consciously understanding the rules. Rawls suggests evolution gave us an analogous moral "grammar" that leads us, without conscious understanding of moral rules, to understand human action in terms of its "moral structure." What I find objectionable in this theory is the supposition, perhaps just Pinker’s, that learning and reasoning play no role in the process. Even if endowed with "universal grammar," one can’t speak English or Chinese without being taught, and such teaching can’t occur if the student is incapable of reason. We speak without conscious awareness of the rules of grammar because we know them so well. The same may be said about following moral rules.
Pinker correctly recognizes that morality is "something larger than our inherited moral sense." He finds the source of morality uncertain, but suggests considering moral realism, which holds that moral truths (this is his one use of that term)
"exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others."
This is close to my understanding, although I would substitute "reality" for "some abstract Platonic realm." Moral realists might agree with me that how we feel about moral assertions, and how we come to believe or disbelieve them, has no bearing on whether they’re true. In other words, moral truth is objective truth.
Notwithstanding the sensible observation on the source of morality, Pinker, by blurring the distinction between the moral sense and its conclusions, and failing to recognize that all moral conclusions result from reason and learning, wrongly pits common morality and reason against each other, and accordingly misrepresents the nature of morality as developed and practiced by humans everywhere. However strong the moral sense may be, the moral rules humans create and follow provide premises used in deciding rationally what to do. And because moral rules themselves result from reasoning, they’re subject to revision as further analysis, and changes in the milieu in which we live, lead students of morality in new directions and into deeper perceptions.
The reader may recall in my "Distinctionism" essay the observation that many religions "doctrinalize" moral rules, thereby sometimes encouraging believers not to analyze the reasons for the rules. Pinker says nothing in his essay confirming or contradicting this. He says we justify "moral goodness" with our religions. He notes that sometimes religion leads people to ridiculous extremes, such as the recent outcry in Sudan against a teacher who allowed school children to name a classroom teddy bear "Mohammed."
Toward the end of the essay, Pinker admits his approach may be perceived as "dragging us to an amoral nihilism, in which morality itself would be demoted from a transcendent principle to a figment of our neural circuitry." This somewhat reflects my view of the situation. Pinker responds by arguing that some moral intuitions or spheres are indeed consistent with rational thinking, even if they originated by Darwinian evolution. He discusses (as mentioned earlier) nonzero-sum games and non-egocentric perspective; in short, how it makes sense in a calculated way to behave selflessly with our allies, and to refrain from demanding of others what we wouldn’t tolerate if demanded of us. Pinker says these "features of reality" could help determine "when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself." While the discussion is challenging, I believe it again comes down to advocacy of a utilitarian form of morality, while denigrating common morality as emotional or intuitive.
Not surprisingly, Pinker proposes that the science of the moral sense can provide benefits. He claims it can tell us what morality is, how morality should "steer our actions," and ways in which our "psychological makeup" can prevent us from "arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions." He says it shows that our adversaries may not be amoral psychopaths, but just "in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us." He says the new science can advance morality by "allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend."
Some of that may be in the offing. But we should beware of resting our hopes on misunderstanding.
Bio: Charles Manning, 65 and married, is a practicing attorney in South Texas and former Philosophy SIG coordinator. Manning2887@sbcglobal.net
Western Civ - and Me
This paper is an interpretation of a lecture on the Western literary canon given by Prof. Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago at Harvard University. The lecture and this paper have the same title. The lecture was published in Commentary, Aug., 1990, and all the quotes here were taken from that text. The text itself is rather bulky to be published in Synapse but you are strongly urged to read it and submit your reactions to it or this paper to the editor of Synapse. It should be available at your local library or on the web. Bloom's basic argument is quite straight forward and can be described in one paragraph (see four paragraphs down) so most of this paper will be devoted to the implications of his position which are not so easy to see.
All through his lecture Bloom is taking digs at Harvard. At least we can say that the gentlemen of the Yard have a sense of humor; they must have invited him there to do that. No Harvard professor would ever title a speech or MS anything like: “The Greek Tragedies - and Me”. What Bloom did seems most appropriate as when the lecture was given he was considered the world's leading authority on the Western canon. Bloom's invitation to speak at Harvard was obviously prompted by the success of his recently published book The Closing of the American Mind. If you are reading this article most likely you have read that book, if not you had better get a copy fast.
Bloom's book was on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list for over a year, and had become the subject of much academic debate. As of the last count there were 1.2 million copies in print. Even though Harvard was one of the more obvious targets of Bloom's criticisms his academic standing was so high by 1990 the Harvard planners must have considered it beneficial to be able to say that he had lectured there. The differences between approaches to education at Harvard and the U. of C. were well known before 1990. However, it was the new multiculturalist approach to education that by 1990 had taken control of Harvard and many other universities that troubled Bloom so much.
Some of you may have wondered where I got my unique writing style. A lot of it came from my friend Bloom. I had him as an instructor, and friend, when he was a doctorial candidate at the U. of C. We both carry the U. of C. cachet quite openly. One party in making a rudimentary first reading of the text of Bloom's lecture thought it was something I had written.
The basis of Bloom's argument was to provide a riposte to the substitution of proposals for specific social programs for courses in basic philosophy in many universities. The proposed social programs were to be unique to certain racial, sexual, or geographic groups. The philosophical works to be abolished were intended to apply to all groups of mankind as much as physical circumstances would permit. The confusion of two such radically different groups of thought patterns would demonstrate an abysmal ignorance.
The first paragraph of Bloom's lecture consists of two words: “Fellow Elitists:” This was a take-off on the “Fellow Immigrants” speech F.D.R. gave to a meeting of the D.A.R. Roosevelt then proceeded to do to the D.A.R what Bloom was out to do to Harvard: accuse them of criticizing other people's elitism as a cover up for their own. In both cases we have a contrast between two kinds of elitism, one of inherited status, the other of personal accomplishment. Bloom and F.D.R. praise and claim the later and accuse their targets of the former.
Bloom attributes much of the criticism of The Closing of the American Mind to confusion of these two different types of elitism. People can talk as they wish, or think they should, but certainly no graduate of Harvard or the U. of C., or of any other university I can think of, considers himself on the same cultural level as a grammar school drop-out who has trouble reading the daily news paper. Bloom explicitly states: “. . . that Harvard is in every respect-its students, its faculty, its library, and its endowment-the best university in the world.” I took this as a hypocritical nod to his hosts. He did not mention what I know he considered to be the most important attribute of a university-the educational level of its graduates. In this respect he, and I, consider the U. of C. to be far superior to Harvard. Along these lines one of my favorite authors, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., professor of history at Harvard, thought that there are many advantages to attending Harvard, but getting a good education is not one of them. Schlesinger enrolled at Harvard, stayed for two years and left saying that there was nothing more for him to learn there. About twenty years later he was back as a tenured professor without ever having reenrolled at any university. He must have been the only tenured professor in the history of Harvard without a college degree of any kind. The attitude at Harvard would seem to be that if you are good enough to go there you don't need a college education; you go there for other reasons. And they criticize people like Bloom for being elitist.
Bloom goes on to take some digs at the “educational reformers” who condemned The Closing of the American Mind, prominent among them being The American Council of Learned Societies. They accused Bloom of being a class, gender and racial bigot along with, but not limited to, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Milton. These authors were declared unworthy of study in respectable universities! To quote Bloom: “(Clearly, the characters who wrote this report were sent by central casting for the movie version of The Closing of the American Mind.)”. In an incredible display of abysmal stupidity the administrations of many universities adopted this nonsense as standards for their curricula.
Bloom then goes on to point out how the basic operating principle of the canon “reformers” is anti-Eurocentrism. The reformers would do away with all works by “dead white European males.” and usher in “the century of the Pacific”, and of European minorities and females. Here the “reformers” reveal a blatant ignorance of the nature and purpose of a canon. Traditionally the canon was not taken to be representative of any one society or group. It did not represent any one group and did represent all possible societies, at least to the extent that societies represent social perfection. No one society is to be taken as a model for any other. Societies should differ to the extent that adoption to physical restraints require. Philosophy, like science, to be genuine has to be universal. No one would argue that physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc. vary from society to society. If the multiculturalists were to really have been taken seriously we would now have male and female physics, European and oriental chemistry, white and black mathematics, etc. There are problems with the new canon that its advocates, with their closed minds, cannot see. The works that currently make up what passes for a canon are devoted to specific societal problems. The classical canon works were intended to apply all societies in all places at all times. The classical works dealt not with specific social/economic problems but the construction of societies capable of coping with any specific problems that might come up. The problem with current canon works is not that the problems they address are unreal but that they are being approached with unworkable methods. What modern canon writers, and university administrators, can not see is that most of the problems that trouble our societies cannot be solved in isolation, as the current canon requires, but require new social structures capable of developing new relations between different social elements.
Scientific textbooks are not adopted by means of democratic votes, yet the universality of their principles is denied only by religious fundamentalists whose minds were closed without the aid of multiculturalism. All basically new ideas in all sciences were initially denied by entrenched authorities. In the sciences there is a guiding principle that goes: One man plus the truth makes a majority. In order to hold up scientific as well as philosophical principles must be universal. Yet multiculturalistic thinkers base their programs on parochial principles; the whole movement is a grand internal contradiction.
Within my lifetime I have seen many proposed solutions to basic problems come and go quite quickly. A generation or two ago existentialism was supposed to be the new universal philosophy. Many of my U. of C. classmates wanted to have courses in it offered as basic philosophical material. The faculty wisely declined. At about the same time Zen Buddhism was to offer religious salvation to the western victims of corrupted Christianity. Today Christianity is still very much us, corruption and all, and I do not know, or much care, if the Zen form of Buddhism is still widely practiced anyplace in the world. Another was the “cultural literacy” movement (I am inclined to say joke) of E.D. Hirsch that came about the same time as Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Hirsch's idea was that if we could improve the vocabularies of our students we could improve public education in general. (Never mind about the books just teach the kids to understand the words.) That idea soon disappeared into the trash cans where it belonged.
When it comes to the works of Marx and Freud we have some most valuable lessons to learn. The canon material is supposed to be applicable for at least several centuries. The works of Plato and Aristotle have held up for much longer and possibly approach eternal value. If the content of the canon were to be decided by a vote of college professors and students certainly the works of Marx would have been there three generations or so ago, those of Freud two generations ago, and one generation ago existentialism would have been philosophy, and Zen our religion. Now that we have gained much practical experience with the theories of these scholars we know that as a political and economic system communism is totally unworkable, that as a method of psychotherapy psychoanalysis is much more likely to harm rather than help the patients, and that existentialism has disappeared into a scholastic never-never land. Today I think it would be difficult to find high school students who have ever even heard of Marx, Freud, existentialism, or Zen let alone know anything about their theories. No wonder Bloom despised the idea of canon material whose basic nature could change with every generation, or sooner.
Now that it has been in effect for some years I could propose a question for advocates of the multiculturalist canon. Has any work of this genre ever resulted in an implemented program that solved, or at least alleviated, any social, political, or economic problem?
When it comes to the make up of the canon if we were asked to vote on our choices I could not think of any work by a black or female author that I could recommend. On the other hand I could not think of any work by a living or recently deceased white man that I could vote for either. Whatever my standards are they are not based on racial or social bigotry as are the works of the present canon. I do think that all college students should read The Closing of the American Mind but hopefully within a few years that work will have served its purpose and will not be needed among the canon. The basic defects of the multiculturalist canon are at last starting to become obvious to at least a few academics.
Although he has been dead for at least ten years Bloom is more famous now then he was when was alive. The Closing of the American Mind is taking on more importance all the time. As an example we could look at the case of Lawrence Summers. At the age of 29 he was the youngest tenured professor in the history of Harvard. He went on to a distinguished career becoming, among other things, Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. Sometime around the year 2000 he was appointed President of Harvard. In 2007 he was fired by the faculty senate after a contentious relationship with many of the school's professors. The media tried to put a distinguished face on the dispute but people who could read between the lines could see it as a fight over the nature of the canon. The professorial bigots accused Summers of bigotry. The professors wanted the new canon, Summers wanted the old. What sort of graduates do you think Harvard is turning out?
If you read the financial news you know that Summers was the only man at Harvard who warned Greenspan about the coming subprime mess that is now causing havoc with all the world's financial systems. Greenspan would not listen. (No one from the famed Harvard Business School or economics department seemed to notice.) When we stop to think about the $100 million + per year Wall Street executives who could not see anything as obvious as the subprime mess coming it is shocking. Of course no one responsible person at The Federal Reserve, The Department of the Treasury, or the SEC saw it coming either. Catastrophes like the S&L meltdown of the 1980's or the Dot com bubble of 2000-2002 apparently did not teach our financial rulers or our congressmen who write our regulatory laws anything. Do you ever wonder just who is running this country anyway? Such situations make Bloom's objections to the closed American mind seem trivial. Most people who are even aware of them regard the canon wars as arguments about which mostly irrelevant books a few college students should read. Actually they are about what sort of society should we have. Situations like this demonstrate that there is something basically wrong with our society.
Just look at all of the crap that would have polluted the canon if its content had been chosen by democratic means, or by a vote of Harvard professors. Scientific textbooks are not chosen by democratic means, yet they are almost universally accepted and their principles apply equally well in all societies. The same principles should apply for all canon works in spite of the American Council of (un)Learned Societies. There is a saying that scientists go by: One man plus the truth makes a majority.
There is a basic, unstated and therefore very dangerous, assumption behind the multicultural movement that all writers can only address themselves to the concerns of their particular social, racial, or sexual group. (What groups did Plato and Shakespeare address? Or Marx and Freud for that matter.) Before you say that no one could believe such nonsense remember that most Harvard professors believe it. Multicultural thought is monocultural thought in disguise.
There is one pertinent issue here that even Bloom did not see. For as long as men have existed on Earth they have lived in an environment where the natural resources of the planet were inexhaustible. There may have been problems of processing and transportation but the raw material supply was always more than adequate. We have now reached a situation where that is no longer true. Clearly these problems cannot be solved by any one racial, or political pressure group, or even by any one country. Mankind is going to have to learn to think in terms that are completely novel. The good sign is that the reopening of the canon wars would indicate that many people think our whole society is in need of fundamental change.
Quantifying the Bluebird
Part 1: The First Ethical Equation 1
John Locke suggests euphoria is a basic present experience like a color, a sound, etc. It just is -- and is similar to nothing but itself. Expressed mathematically, happiness is the maximization of one’s presently experienced conscious and unconscious euphoria / dysphoria ratio within the prudence of probable consequences and acceptable risks projected over a conservatively estimated remaining life span.
The euphoria / dysphoria ratio (e/d ratio) is like any other ratio. It can be increased by raising euphoria and holding dysphoria static, by raising euphoria at a greater rate than dysphoria, by lowering dysphoria and holding euphoria static, or by lowering dysphoria at a greater rate than euphoria.
Let’s pretend that we could objectively measure happiness. The First Ethical Equation becomes:
Euphoria = Happiness
Here are some examples:
100 = 1
100 Let’s say you start here with a happiness level of 1 and move to:
200 = 2
Here you have benefited by increasing your euphoria and keeping your dysphoria static. Perhaps you are cultivating new, happy habits.
400 = 2
Here you have benefited by increasing your euphoria at a greater rate than you are increasing your dysphoria. Perhaps you have fallen in love.
100 = 2
Here you are maintaining your level of euphoria while decreasing your dysphoria. Perhaps you are correcting masochistic bad habits.
50 = 2
Here you are decreasing your dysphoria at a greater rate than you are decreasing your euphoria. Perhaps you have walked away from a once promising situation that has gone sour.
Part 2: Euphoric Goals
If happiness is the end, then what lesser euphoric goals are the means? Each hedonistic philosopher slices them up differently. It is truly a continuum; but for purposes of reflection I recommend that these sub-goals be divided into biological goals, environment molding goals, strength demonstrating goals, and aesthetic goals.
Biological goals are those sub-goals with which we are born. They are genetically inherited from our ancestors. Since our ancestors were filtered through the mesh of natural selection, most (but by no means all) biological goals strongly support personal survival with offspring raised to sexual maturity. In Aristotelean parlance, we have been designed to flourish and multiply.
My candidates for biological goals include nourishment, oxygen, consensual adult love and lust, offspring love and procreation, elimination of wastes, and so on. These are, as quoted by Plato, the sensual pleasures of Aristipus.
Environment molding goals are those sub-goals which we develop to enable us to obtain our biological goals. Our environment does not automatically satisfy our biological goals. Food does not drop into our mouths when we hunger; water does not flow from the rocks when we thirst. We are forced to develop sub-goals to influence our environment to satisfy the biological goals.
To some extent, environment molding goals manifest themselves as influences over other humans. From earliest babyhood we learn that others have the things we need and we develop systems of thought and action to obtain them. As grownups we deal much more with the non human present experiences and as oldsters become mostly dependent again on other humans. Strength demonstrating sub-goals are biological and environment molding goals over fulfilled out of sheer delight in influencing our environment. Environmental influence becomes an end in itself. We are more creative than we have to be, work harder than we have to, eat more than we hunger, and so on.
Strength demonstrating goals can be very dangerous insofar as they often conflict with themselves and with our environmental and biological goals. Still and all, strength demonstrating goals are one of the roads to maximum happiness. The satisfaction of biological goals can lead to lighthearted contentment, but happiness entails powerfulness.
Strength demonstrating goals are much more individualistic than biological or environmental molding goals. This is fortunate, because if we all liked the same things there would probably not be enough to go around. On the other hand, some of the strength demonstrating goals enshrined by a culture may not be suitable for everyone in that culture. We ought to recognize that, within the limits of probable consequences and acceptable risks projected over a conservatively estimated remaining life span, we have great freedom to pick and choose strength demonstrating goals to maximize our conscious and unconscious happiness.
I suspect that there is a correlation between child abuse and the sort of strength demonstrating goals chosen. That the less child abuse there is, the more these goals will demonstrate kind strength. The more child abuse there is the more these goals will demonstrate cruel strength.
Aesthetic sub-goals are the frosting on the cake. Beauty exists and its contemplation is a euphoric goal. But what is Beauty and why do we find it so? Certain present experiences entail beauty and beauty entails pleasure. Evolutionary theory would lead us to predict that beauty is often associated with personal survival with offspring reared to sexual maturity. Some beauty clearly fits this category, e.g., the admiration of sexes for each other; the beauty women find in babies and all of us find in cute juveniles, even juveniles of other species, etc.
Other beauty is harder to analyze. I am extremely interested in the beauty of trees -- and I am not the only human to be so. Traveling across the steppe while taking my elderly mother to a medical specialist, I was struck by the epiphany that from the distance the small towns looked like woods. Humans plant trees where they live. An extraterrestrial might surmise that we are descended from forest dwelling primates.
The moon and the stars are beautiful especially in the purlieu of the woodlands. For how many eons did our progenitors sleep under them? So I suspect the aesthetic appreciation of Mother Nature is a mark of the creatures from which we evolved.
In addition, many human made things are beautiful. Let me suggest the beautiful ones are an expression of our minds’ ability to mold present experiences, and that the human mind is our prime tool of survival. Let’s turn it around and ask: what do we find ugly? Evolutionary theory would predict ugliness to be associated with dullwittedness, disease, deformity, destruction, desecration, and death. And so it is.
Most strength demonstrating and aesthetic goals are optional. It is unfortunate, but not a tragedy, if we fail to achieve them. The translators of Ecclesiastes call them “vanities.” Sometimes, however, strength demonstrating and aesthetic goals are so strong that they whelm us. People so whelmed have a purpose in life above and beyond basic biological and environmental molding achievements. The whelmed may know greater joy and, perhaps, greater sorrow.
Aristotle was whelmed by theoria or philosophic contemplation -- so much so that he suggested it for everybody. “The most fortunate of men is he who combines a measure of [material] prosperity with scholarship, research or contemplation.”
In my case, I am whelmed by the solitary contemplation of natural beauty. This aesthetic exultation of mine is a true whelming goal; the center about which my being revolves. I am a Woodswalker and I spend my prime time alone in the Woodlands and their purlieu contemplating Wisdom.