Saturday


It is difficult to find an authentic expression of horror, due to its close resemblance to both fear and disgust, but one readily recognizes horror when one sees it.

It is difficult to find an authentic expression of horror, due to its close resemblance to both fear and disgust, but one readily recognizes horror when one sees it.

In several posts I have referred to moral horror and the power of moral horror to shape our lives and even to shape our history and our civilization (cf., e.g., Cosmic Hubris or Cosmic Humility?, Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror, and Against Natural History, Right and Left). Being horrified on a uniquely moral level is a sui generis experience that cannot be reduced to any other experience, or any other kind of experience. Thus the experience of moral horror must not be denied (which would constitute an instance of failing to do justice to our intuitions), but at the same time it cannot be uncritically accepted as definitive of the moral life of humanity.

Our moral intuitions tell us what is right and wrong, but they do not tell us what is or is not (i.e., what exists or what does not exist). This is the upshot of the is-ought distinction, which, like moral horror, must not be taken as an absolute principle, even if it is a rough and ready guide in our thinking. It is perfectly consistent, if discomfiting, to explicitly acknowledge the moral horrors of the world, and not to deny that they exist even while acknowledging that they are horrific. Sometimes the claim is made that the world itself is a moral horror. Joseph Campbell attributes this view to Schopenhauer, saying that according to Schopenhauer the world is something that never should have been.

Apart from the horrors of the world as a central theme of mythology, it is also to be found in science. There is a famous quote from Darwin that illustrates the acknowledgement of moral horror:

“There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Letter from Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, 22 May 1860

This quote from Darwin underlines another point repeatedly made by Joseph Campbell: that different individuals and different societies draw different lessons from the same world. For some, the sufferings of the world constitute an affirmation of divinity, while for Darwin and others, the sufferings of the world constitute a denial of divinity. That being said, it is not the point I would like to make today.

Far more common than the acceptance of the world’s moral horrors as they are is the denial of moral horrors, and especially the denial that moral horrors will occur in the future. On one level, a pragmatic level, we like to believe that we have learned our lessons from the horrors of our past, and that we will not repeat them precisely because we have perpetrated horrors in past and came to realize that they were horrors.

To insist that moral horrors can’t happen because it would offend our sensibilities to acknowledge such a moral horror is a fallacy. Specifically, the moral horror fallacy is a special case of the argumentum ad baculum (argument to the cudgel or appeal to the stick), which is in turn a special case of the argumentum ad consequentiam (appeal to consequences).

Here is one way to formulate the fallacy:

Such-and-such constitutes a moral horror,
It would be unconscionable for a moral horror to take place,
Therefore, such-and-such will not take place.

For “such-and-such” you can substitute “transhumanism” or “nuclear war” or “human extinction” and so on. The inference is fallacious only when the shift is made from is to ought or from ought to is. If confine our inference exclusively either to what is or what ought to be, we do not have a fallacy. For example:

Such-and-such constitutes a moral horror,
It would be unconscionable for a moral horror to take place,
Therefore, we must not allow such-and-such to take place.

…is not fallacious. It is, rather, a moral imperative. If you do not want a moral horror to occur, then you must not allow it to occur. This is what Kant called a hypothetical imperative. This is a formulation entirely in terms of what ought to be. We can also formulate this in terms of what is:

Such-and-such constitutes a moral horror,
Moral horrors do not occur,
Therefore, such-and-such does not occur.

This is a valid inference, although it is false. That is to say, this is not a formal fallacy but a material fallacy. Moral horrors do, in fact, occur, so the premise stating that moral horrors do not occur is a false premise, and the conclusion drawn from this false premise is a false conclusion. (If one denies that moral horrors do, in fact, take place, then one argues for the truth of this inference.)

Moral horrors can and do happen. They are even visited upon us numerous times. After the Holocaust everyone said “never again,” yet subsequent history has not spared us further genocides. Nor will it spare us further genocides and atrocities in the future. We cannot infer from our desire to be spared further genocides and atrocities that they will not come to pass.

More interesting than the fact that moral horrors continue to be perpetrated by the enlightened and technologically advanced human societies of the twenty-first century is the fact that the moral life of humanity evolves, and it often is the case that the moral horrors of the future, to which we look forward with fear and trembling, sometimes cease to be moral horrors by the time they are upon us.

Malthus famously argued that, because human population growth outstrips the production of food (and Malthus was particularly concerned with human beings, but he held this to be a universal law affecting all life) that humanity must end in misery or vice. By “misery” Malthus understood mass starvation — which I am sure that most of us today would agree is misery — and by “vice” Malthus meant birth control. In other words, Malthus viewed birth control as a moral horror comparable to mass starvation. This is not a view that is widely held today.

A great many unprecedented events have occurred since Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population. The industrialization of agriculture not only provided the world with plenty of food for an unprecedented increase in human population, it did so while farming was reduced to a marginal sector of the economy. And in the meantime birth control has become commonplace — we speak of it today as an aspect of “reproductive rights” — and few regard it as a moral horror. However, in the midst of this moral change and abundance, starvation continues to be a problem, and perhaps even more of a moral horror because there is plenty of food in the world today. Where people are starving, it is only a matter of distribution, and this is primarily a matter of politics.

I think that in the coming decades and centuries that there will be many developments that we today regard as moral horrors, but when we experience them they will not be quite as horrific as we thought. Take, for instance, transhumanism. Francis Fukuyama wrote a short essay in Foreign Policy magazine, Transhumanism, in which he identified transhumanism as the world’s most dangerous idea. While Fukuyama does not commit the moral horror fallacy in any explicit way, it is clear that he sees transhumanism as a moral horror. In fact, many do. But in the fullness of time, when our minds will have changed as much as our bodies, if not more, transhumanism is not likely to appear so horrific.

On the other hand, as I noted above, we will continue to experience moral horrors of unprecedented kinds, and probably also on an unprecedented scope and scale. With the human population at seven billion and climbing, our civilization may well experience wars and diseases and famines that kill billions even while civilization itself continues despite such depredations.

We should, then, be prepared for moral horrors — for some that are truly horrific, and others that turn out to be less than horrific once they are upon us. What we should not try to do is to infer from our desires and preferences in the present what must be or what will be. And the good news in all of this is that we have the power to change future events, to make the moral horrors that occur less horrific than they might have been, and to prepare ourselves intellectually to accept change that might have, once upon a time, been considered a moral horror.

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Thursday


What does it mean to be a socialist in the 21st century, in the wake of a century of failed socialist and communist social experiments? We have already seen the use of the phrase “21st century socialism,” particularly in the work of Heinz Dieterich Steffen, who has been influential in Latin America. Dieterich has been a professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico, D.F. since 1977; I first heard about him when I was in Ecuador in 2009. Dieterich has been closely associated with the left-leaning governments of Venezuela and Bolivia.

Partly under Dieterich’s influence, and partly simply using his slogan of socialism of the 21st century, Venezuela, Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Ecuador engaged in a so-called Bolivarian Revolution. But the Bolivarian Revolution has fizzled. Recently there was a good critique of the movement in Foreign Policy magazine, The Bolivarian Legacy by Douglas Farah, subtitled, “Hugo Chávez and his leftist allies will leave little behind other than failed economic policies, massive corruption, and shrinking political freedoms,” which pretty much sums up the author’s conclusions. I would have framed it even more strongly. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever “new” or “revolutionary” or “twenty-first century” about caudillo-style politics masked by claims to represent “the people.”

So much for twenty-first century socialism in Latin America. Now it seems that we are to find out want twenty-first century socialism means in France under the new president François Hollande. This, I think, will be rather more effective and more of a movement to reckon with, than the tendentious ideological formulations of Heinz Dieterich. Hollande is a career politician, and he will act as a politician, which is to say he will rule by policy, in the context of his party, and employing the institutional structures of the French government, which has been a strongly centralized state since the Sun King turned France into an Enlightenment superpower united under absolute monarchy. This is more about institutions than it is about personalities. By all accounts, Sarkozy was much more of a “personality” than Hollande.

The Financial Times ran two stories in today’s paper, Wealthy hit hardest as France raises taxes by Hugh Carnegy in Paris, and France: Ready to jump ship by Hugh Carnegy and Scheherazade Daneshkhu, both detailing French plans to dramatically raise taxes and to place salary caps on executives.

These policies will have a strong selective effect. Some wealthy people will leave France and take their businesses with them — perhaps many will do so. David Cameron has already promised to welcome French “tax exiles” to the UK:

“If the French go ahead with a 75% top rate of tax we will roll out the red carpet and welcome more French businesses to Britain and they will pay taxes in Britain and that will pay for our health service, and our schools and everything else.”

Thus France will lose some of its wealthiest citizens, some of its businesses, probably some international investment, and it will likely decline in growth, productivity, and competitiveness. If you want to start a dynamic new business in Europe, and believe that it may come to be worth a lot of money, you certainly won’t try to start that business in France.

That being said, is this policy necessarily ruinous for France? The answer to this depends upon how you define “ruinous.” I have no doubt that there are many who will characterize the developments in France as ruinous, or something similar, but it is to be observed that Hollande is not trying to foment a social revolution, he isn’t proposing the European equivalent of a Bolivarian Revolution, and he isn’t laying plans for mass nationalizations and confiscations, although the tax levels are already being called “confiscatory.”

I would not be at all surprised to see France settle into a comfortable if stagnant and ever-so-genteel decline — a decline that may be as comfortable to the majority of French citizens as Japan’s “lost decade” was to a majority of Japanese. Japan was and is a very wealthy country. It no longer aspires to great power status, and so its people could be relatively comfortable even in the midst of extended stagnation. Similar observations hold for France: France was and is a wealthy country; it no longer aspires to great power status, and so its people could be relatively comfortable even in the midst of extended stagnation. Moreover, mass sentiment in France may well be on the side of an economic leveling that will eliminate France as a major global economic competitor, but will nevertheless confirm the people in their moral rectitude; and in feeling that they are in the right, the people may be more satisfied with this moral stance than they would be with higher economic growth rates, especially if part of the growth rate is eaten up by executive salaries and shareholder dividends.

What I am saying is that Hollande’s variety of socialism may well be sustainable, especially in France, and perhaps also elsewhere in Europe. France could become a place that is perhaps not very economically vibrant, but one where the needs of the people are met with a reasonable degree of comfort (rather better than the comfort provided by the socialist economies of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain), where freedoms and human rights are respected (rather more respected, again, than behind the Iron Curtain), and where the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest is systematically narrowed by legislation.

A sufficient number of “true believers” in the cause of France will remain in France to keep the major enterprises functioning, even if they could earn many times more if they went elsewhere. As I noted above, Hollande’s policies will be strongly selective. Those for whom wealth is of paramount importance will choose to leave; those for whom France, and being French in France, is of paramount importance, will choose to stay. From this selective process, France may gain in French nationalism even as it declines in economic competitiveness. A socialist France cannot expect to be a global economic competitor, but if it can keep the lights on and the people fed, this may be more important to the French masses than improving standards of living.

It has become an almost irritatingly repetitive commonplace that mathematicized economics cannot account for all the forces and complexity of an economy. I do not deny that this is true. A mathematical model is always a simplification that derives its predictive power precisely from being simpler than reality. There is no point is constructing a model that is a duplicate of the phenomenon to be modeled; the map, as we all know, is not the territory. Usually when this “criticism” of economics is made it has a strong moral slant to it, but surprisingly the criticism often misses some of the most important moral truths of economic life: that sometimes people will prefer to be poor and proud rather than to be slightly wealthier but at a moral cost they are unwilling to pay.

This is one formulation of socialism — trading moral rewards for economic rewards — though not one the socialists are likely to endorse. The tradition of socialist and communist thought is so steeped in absurd fantasies of maximized abundance in which, “each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure ample” (in the words of Malthus), that it is all but impossible to get them to see that they are trading wealth for moral rectitude. And if that is what people want, that is what they will get.

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