Monthly Archives: December 2017

Authoritarianism in America

Hannah Arendt, stamp, Germany 2006

(I published this piece one year ago. Given all that’s happened in the last year I thought it was worth republishing.)

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie … The totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

For weeks now, I have been reading and blogging about dozens of articles from respected intellectuals from both the right and left who worry about the increasingly authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist trends in America. Interestingly, when I tried to escape my scholarly bubble by looking for voices arguing that we are NOT heading in this direction, I came up empty. I found partisans or apparatchiks who maintain that all is good, but I couldn’t find hardly any well-informed persons arguing that we have nothing to worry about. I know there must be such people, but if there are they must be a tiny minority.

Now I did find informed voices saying that, in the long run, things will be fine. That the arc of justice moves slowly forward, that we take 1 step back but then take 2 steps forward. Such thinking about things from a larger perspective resonates with me. I write about big history and believe there may be directionality to cosmic evolution. I’ve argued that the universe is becoming self-conscious through the emergence of conscious beings, and I’ve even hypothesized that humans may become post-humans by utilizing future technologies. So I can’t be accused of ignoring the big picture.

However, at the moment, such concerns feel obtuse. Yes, it may be true that life is getting better in many ways, as Steven Pinker recently noted. But such thoughts provide little consolation for the millions who suffer in the interim. When people lack health care and educational opportunities; when they are deported, tortured, falsely imprisoned, or killed in wars; when they live in abject poverty surrounded by gun violence and suffer in a myriad of other ways, none of this is ameliorated by appeals to a far away future. Even if the world is better in a thousand years, that provides small consolation now.

What is almost self-evident is that America is now becoming more corrupt, and at a dangerously accelerating rate. In response, we must resist becoming like those of whom Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So I state unequivocally that I agree with the vast majority of scholars and thinkers—recent trends reveal that the USA is becoming more authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist. The very survival of the republic is now in doubt.

Of course, I could be mistaken, as it’s hard to predict the future. Moreover, I am not a scholar of Italian history, totalitarianism, or the mob psychology that enables fascist movements. But I do know that all of us share a human genome; we are more alike than different. Humans are capable of racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, violence, religious fanaticism, and more. We are modified monkey—in many ways we are a nasty species. As Mark Twain said: “Such is the human race … Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”

Thus I resist the idea that fascism can happen in Germany, Italy or Russia, but not in America. It can happen here, and the signs point in an ominous direction. Furthermore, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was built on slave labor as well as genocide at home and violent imperialism abroad. It is a first world outlier in terms of incarceration rates and gun violence; it is the only developed country in the world without national health and child care; it has outrageous levels of income inequality and little opportunity for social mobility; it ranks near the bottom of lists of social justice; it is one of the few countries in the world to condemn Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and it is consistently ranked as the greatest threat to world peace and the world’s most hated country.

Furthermore, signs of its dysfunction continue to grow. If authoritarian political forces don’t get their way, they shut down the government, threaten to default on the nation’s debt, fail to fill judicial vacancies, deny people health-care and family planning options, conduct congressional show trials, suppress voting, gerrymander congressional districts, support racism, xenophobia and sexism, and spread lies and propaganda. These aren’t signs of a stable society. As the late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it:

The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.

Now with power in the hands of an odd mix of plutocrats, corporatists, theocrats, racists, sexists, egoists, psychopaths, sycophants, anti-modernists, and the scientifically illiterate, there is no reason to think that they will surrender their power without a fight. You might think that if income inequality grows, individual liberties are further constricted, or millions of people are killed at home or abroad, that people will reject those in power. But this assumes we live in a democracy. And a compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda, mindless entertainment, and a shallow consumer culture, you can persuade them to support anything. With better methods of controlling and distorting information will come more control over the population. And, as long the powerful believe they benefit from an increasingly totalitarian state, they will try to maintain it. Most people like to control others; they like to win.

An outline of how we might quickly descend into madness was highlighted by David Frum, the conservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Frum envisions the following scenario which is, I believe, as prescient as it is chilling:

1) …  I don’t imagine that Donald Trump will immediately set out to build an authoritarian state; 2) … his first priority will be to use the presidency to massively enrich himself; 3) That program of massive self-enrichment … will trigger media investigations and criticism by congressional Democrats; 4) ….Trump cannot tolerate criticism … always retaliating against perceived enemies, by means fair or foul; 5) … Trump’s advisers and aides share this belief [they] … live by gangster morality; 6) So the abuses will start as payback. With a compliant GOP majority in Congress, Trump admin can rewrite laws to enable payback; 7) The courts may be an obstacle. But w/ a compliant Senate, a president can change the courts … 8) … few [IRS] commissioners serve the full 5 years; 9) The FBI seems … pre-politicized in Trump’s favor … 10) Construction of the apparatus of revenge and repression will begin opportunistically & haphazardly. It will accelerate methodically …

Let me tell a personal story to help explain the cutthroat, no holds bar political world that is rapidly evolving in America today. Years ago I played high-stakes poker. It started out innocently, a few friends having a good time playing for pocket change. Slowly the stakes grew, forcing me to study poker if I didn’t want to lose money. My studies paid off, and I began to win consistently. Great.

Then I start playing with strangers, assuming my superior poker skills would prevail. But soon I started losing; finding out later that I was cheated. (I was being cold decked.) It turned out that my opponents played by a different rule—their rule was that I wasn’t leaving the game with any money. Then I discovered that some people will go further, robbing you at gunpoint of the money you had won. (This actually happened to me.) Once the gentleman’s rules of poker no longer applied, nothing was off-limits. Similarly, once the agreement to play by democratic rules is violated, all bets are off. For example, you begin to ignore the other parties Supreme Court nominees or threaten to default on the nation’s debts, or ignore obstruction of justice in order to get your way. This is a sign that we have entered the world of mobsters and rogue nations, an immoral world. The logical end of this state of affairs is violence.

This describes the current political situation. The US Congress was once characterized by comity but is so no longer. From the period after World War II to about 1980, the political parties in the USA generally compromised for the good of the nation. The radicalization of the Republican party began in the 1980s and by the mid-1990s, with Republican control of the House of Representatives, the situation dramatically deteriorated. One side was determined to get their way and wouldn’t compromise. It was now no holds barred.

In other words, American politics has entered a situation that game-theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do. For example, we would have a better country if everyone paid their share of taxes, but it is best for any individual, say Donald Trump, not to pay taxes if he can get away with it. Put differently, you do best when you cheat at poker and don’t get caught, or control the situation if you do get caught. In politics this means you try to hide your crimes, but vilify the press or whistleblowers if you are exposed.

If successful in usurping power, you win in what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature. Hobbes said that in such a state the only values are force and fraud— you win if you dominate, enslave, incarcerate, or eviscerate your opponents. But the problem with this straightforward egoism, Hobbes thought, was that people were “relative power equals.” That is, people can form alliances to fight their oppressors. So while the what Hobbes’ called the right of nature tells you to use whatever means possible to achieve power over others, the law of nature paradoxically reveals that this will lead to continual warfare—to a state of nature. The realization of this paradox should lead people to give up their quest for total domination and cooperate. They do so by signing a social contract in which they agree to and abide by, social and political rules.

But if we live in a country where people are radically unequal in their power—Democrats vs. Republicans; unions vs. corporations; secularists vs theocrats; African-Americans vs. white nationalists—then those in power won’t compromise with the less powerful. When the powerful few are imbued with the idea that they are better people with better ideas, and when they are drunk with their power, you can bet that the rest of us will suffer.

In short, it is a centuries old story. People want power. They will do almost anything to attain it. When they have it they will try to keep it, and they will try to divide those who should join together to fight them, hence they promote racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. In the end, a few seek wealth and power for themselves, others want a decent life for everyone. Right now the few are winning.

Is America the Worst of the Developed Countries?

Today’s Washington Post had an excellent article that in large part gainsays claims of American exceptionalism, “Americans are dying younger than people in other rich nations.” As the article points out, not only are Americans dying at younger ages compared to other advanced countries but

Furthermore, as the article points out,

A study published in December of last year found that if these and other social welfare factors were brought up to the OECD average, it would add nearly four years to our collective life expectancy. “The US mortality disadvantage is, in part, a welfare state disadvantage,” the authors concluded.

Americans are dying young, in part, because of deliberate policy choices we’ve made over the decades: rejecting single-payer health careCutting taxes for the rich. Shunning universal basic income. Abandoning universal child care.

Now I realize that for those suffering in escaping violence refugee camps or otherwise suffering unimaginable, the USA or any first world country is a desirable location. I also realize that in the entire history of the species, ours is probably the best time to live. Still, for those who currently live in the USA and who have the means, I would say that you should consider moving to another country if possible. Especially those worried about their children and grandchildren. Do you really want them to grow up in a country of extraordinary levels of gun violence, incarceration, sexism, racism, and all the rest?

More on Evolution and Ethics

My recent post, “Evolution and Ethics,” elicited a particularly thoughtful response from an expert in the field. He began by suggesting further readings on the subject including:

The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics by Paul Lawrence Farber
The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition by Robert Axelrod
Evolution, the Extended Synthesis (MIT Press) by Massimo Pigliucci
Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy” by Oliver Curry, and
Bridging the Is-Ought Divide” by Ed Gibney

He then responded to a few points I made in my piece. (My writing is designated by -> followed by his comment.)

-> The modern theory of evolution resulted from one the greatest scientific achievements in human history, the Neo-Darwinian or modern synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s worth mentioning the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis being debated now too. The wiki entry gives a good quick overview.

-> biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either scientifically illiterate or lying to you.

I believe this is a derivation of a Richard Dawkins quote, no?

[Possibly, but I just wrote it.]

-> Can we derive moral obligations from evolutionary facts?

Considering the scope of evolutionary studies, a better question to me would be, are there any other facts at all from which moral obligations can be drawn?

-> Huxley thought that natural processes always conflict with artificial ones.

Huxley’s “artificial” processes are, of course, natural ones too.

-> The first clue to understanding this came from research showing that the beneficiaries of altruistic behavior in non-human animals were generally individuals who shared many genes with the altruist.

What does “kin selection” really mean, however, when all of life shares many genes now and all genes originally? Kin might be just artificial divisions.

-> Natural selection sometimes favors cooperative behaviors that increase chances for a species survival; self-interest is often served better by cooperation than competition. Thus, ethical behaviors can be selected for.

Here is where “The Evolution of Cooperation” by Axelrod really proves this robustly.

-> Instead, Wilson and Ruse forge a connection between ethics and evolution without committing the naturalistic fallacy.

And here is where “Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy” would ask, which one? There are several common errors that are made here, but none rule out the derivation of values from nature. It just has to be done properly.

-> They begin with two scientific premises: 1) social behavior of animals is under the control of genes; and 2) humans are animals. Since both premises are true, we are led to a distinctively biological human morality based on kin selection.

I didn’t think this conclusion was accurate, but I’m not sure which Wilson / Ruse argument you are trying to portray. Maybe you are right that they said this. (Although I think it’s an error to jump all the way to kin selection from the genetic control of social behavior.)

-> However there are no absolute foundations for ethics, moral beliefs simply serve our reproductive aims and help us survive. Ethics is essentially an illusion our genes use to get us to cooperate.

Why an illusion? I think these are identical. I believe ethics are just rules for survival, and they are right or wrong depending on the thing chosen for survival.

-> What evidence is there that genes control specific social behavior? Gould says there is none, and even if there were our large brain can potentially overcome biological determinism.

I haven’t read Gould in his original works, but this seems off. Our large brains are nothing but physical matter built by genes. At least to an evolutionist.

-> First, inasmuch as moral norms differ between cultures and across time without a corresponding difference in biology, the theory that morality depends upon biology is flawed. This evidence suggests that culture, not biology, plays the largest role in shaping behavior. Second, human intellectual abilities have the power to go beyond biology.

I think there is some difference of definitions here between biology and culture. A physicalist would say they are both products of biology. A dualist would say culture is *somehow* separate. To me, a physicalist, I would then say that these cultural differences across time and place are merely the trials and errors of evolutionary beings attempting to survive. Biology is flexible and diverse like that.

-> On the other hand, moral altruism concerns intentions and motivations, with the regard we have for others; they have nothing to do with biology. Behaviors may look similar from the outside, but we distinguish them by the moral agent’s conscious intentions. So Ayala affirms that reciprocal altruism in non-human animals isn’t moral behavior any more than we would describe social insects which die for their community as morally heroic.

Ayala has to go a long way down the evolutionary chain of complexity to find a morally distinguishable difference. Where exactly does moral intention and motivation enter into things then? He’s a former priest so I have my suspicions what he thinks about this. Again, what is there in us but biology?

-> Biology determines this capacity for ethics because of the presence in human beings of three necessary and sufficient conditions for ethical behavior which themselves derive from human consciousness. First, we anticipate the consequences of our actions because we can create mental images of unreal or imaginary possibilities. Second, we make value judgments about actions, ends, objects, and behaviors which we consider valuable. Third, we choose between courses of action.

Nonhuman animals are capable of these three things too. Just not with as much information. The same can be said across differences in human morals.

-> Turning to the question of whether evolution determines “particular” moral norms, Ayala claims that any attempt to justify particular moral norms with biology commits the naturalistic fallacy.

Which one? Read Curry’s paper and my own for full rebuttals to this.

-> However, there is one general criticism of the attempt to derive moral values from facts of nature that we have previously discussed—the naturalistic fallacy. The idea is that we can’t derive values from facts, or ought from is. In this case, it means that just because of ethical behaviors arise in nature doesn’t mean we should value those behaviors.

No, but we can choose from among the behaviors in nature to decide which ones work best for our goals. And those goals can be natural too. In fact, supernatural goals or behaviors are impossible to use.

-> In other words, we must not only explain the nature and genesis of morality, we must justify it. But evolutionary ethicists have a hard time doing this. If they explain the genesis by saying that facts justify values, they supposedly commit the naturalistic fallacy. If they say that facts elicit values, they supposedly mistakenly read purposes and ends into evolution that evolutionists assure us aren’t there. In short, it may be that evolution explains the origin of morality, but can’t justify morality. Or it may be that these objections aren’t valid.

In my own paper and work, I say that we living beings have our own purposes (to survive) that naturally justify our actions. These, of course, have to be modified with as much information and survival as possible, but we’re still working on that. “Evolution” isn’t a thing or entity that can have goals; evolution is merely a process that describes what happens to us things and entities. So we evolutionary ethicists are not reading purposes and ends into evolution, we’re reading purposes and ends in our natural selves, and using evolutionary history to inform our ethics to understand, evaluate, and reach those ends we think are correct.

-> My own view is that too much is made of the naturalistic fallacy. While we may not be able to deduce morality from evolutionary considerations, there is no way to develop a moral theory without considerations of our nature. And we can’t do this without understanding our evolutionary history.

A sensible conclusion. Especially since there is no other information to use beyond our full evolutionary histories. At least, according to evolutionary epistemology…

(I appreciate the time and effort that Ed Gibney took to make these informed comments.)

What Happened to America?

Every morning I get up hoping to do some philosophical work but I make the mistake, (or is it a mistake?) to read the headlines and op-eds in the New York Times and Washington Post. Here is an expert from just one of them, Roger Cohen’s “If This is America,

If this is America, with a cabinet of terrorized toadies genuflecting to the Great Leader, a vice president offering a compliment every 12 seconds to Mussolini’s understudy, and a White House that believes in “alternative facts,” then it is time to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”

If this is America, where the Great Leader threatens allies who do not fall in lineretweets the anti-Muslim racism of British fascistsinsults the Muslim mayor of Londondreams up a terror attack in Swedeninvents a call from the Mexican presidentclaims the Russia story is a “total fabrication,” then you will have to “bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”

If this is America, less than a year into the Trump Presidency; yes, if this is still America, where Representative Diane Black, Republican of Tennessee, thanks the Great Leader for “allowing us to have you as our president,” and Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, says Trump’s will be the greatest presidency “maybe ever,” and the Great Leader celebrates a tax cut that saves his family millions but allows CHIP health insurance to expire for sick children, then you must “force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone.”

I could go on and list insightful pieces about the end of American democracy by conservative commentators like Michael Gerson’s, “The moral authority of the presidency is in tatters” or Jennifer Rubin’s” Now we know why Republicans are attacking the FBI,” or those from more center-left sources like Painter and Eisen’s “The Four Threats to Robert Mueller,” or E. J. Dionne’s “The age of betrayal is back.” But I must stop, at least for now.

I need to live my life too, not with my head buried in the sand but remembering my old friends the Stoics who taught me long ago to do my duty—love my wife and kids and grandkids, keep learning, write my posts, etc.—but remember that I can’t control the consequences. The world is a very big place and I’m a very small being.

It causes sadness to know what the selfish or ignorant do not, but such is life. Sometimes I think being educated and conscious is the greatest burden of all. I sometimes long for the innocence of childhood when life felt secure, comfortable, and rational. But the fact is that we all barely survive because of a thin layer of atmosphere that shields us from the radiation of an unimaginably large, cold, and dark universe. Life’s fragility and contingency accompany us on our journey. This morning Shakespeare captures my thoughts:

 But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.
~ Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure

Summary of Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?”

Lanier blowing into a woodwind instrument with several chambers

Jaron Lanier‘s recent book, Who Owns the Future? discusses the role that technology plays in both eliminating job and increasing income inequality. Early in that book, Lanier quotes from Aristotle’s Politics: “If every instrument could accomplish its own work … if … the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”

In other words, Aristotle saw that the human condition largely depends on what machines can and cannot do, and we can imagine that machines will do much more of our work in the future. How then would Aristotle respond to today’s technology? Would he advocate for a new economic system that met the basic needs of everyone, including those who no longer needed to work; or would he try to eliminate those who didn’t own the machines that run society? 

Surely this question has a modern ring. If, as Lanier suggests, only those close to the computers that run society have good incomes, then what happens to the rest of us? What happens to the steel mill and auto factory workers, to the butchers and bank tellers, and, increasingly, to the accountants, professors, lawyers, engineers, and physicians when artificial intelligence improves? (Lanier discusses how this will come about in his book.)

Lanier worries that automata, especially AI and robotics, create a situation where we don’t have to pay others. Why pay for maid service if you have a robotic maid, or for software engineers if computers are self-programming? Aristotle used music to illustrate the point. He said that it was terrible to enslave people to make music (playing instruments in his time was undesirable and labor intensive) but we need music so someone must be enslaved. If we had machines to make music or could get by without it, that would be better. Music was an interesting choice because now so many want to play it for a living, although almost no one makes money for their music through internet publicity. People may be followed online for their music or their blog, but they rarely get paid for it.

So what do we do? Should we eliminate or ignore the apparently unnecessary people? Should we retire to the country or the gated community where our apparent safety is ensured by a global military empire and their paid mercenaries? Where the first victims of society sleep on street corners, populate our prisons, endure unemployment, or involuntarily join our voluntary armies? (Remember technology will eventually replace the accountants, attorneys, professors and software engineers too!) Or should we recognize how we benefit from each other, from our diverse temperaments and talents, and from the safety and sustenance we can enjoy together?

So a question we now face is: what happens to the extra people—which will soon be almost all of us—when technology does all the work or the remaining work is unpaid? Are the rest of us killed or must we slowly starve? Surprisingly Lanier thinks these questions are misplaced. After all, human intelligence and human data drive the machines. So the issue is how to think about the work that machines can’t do.

I think that Lanier is on to something. We can think of the non-automated work as anything from essential to frivolous to harmful. If we think of it as frivolous, then so too are the people who produce it. If we don’t care about human expression in art, literature, music, theatre, sport or philosophy, then why care about the people who produce it.

But even if machines write better music or poetry or blogs than human beings, we can still value human generated effort. Even if machines did all of society’s work we can still share the wealth with people who want to think and write and play music. Perhaps people just enjoy these activities. No human being plays chess as well as the best supercomputers, but people still enjoy playing chess; I don’t write as well as Carl Sagan did, but I still enjoy it.

I’ll go further. Suppose someone wants to sit on the beach, surf, ski, golf, smoke marijuana, or watch TV. What do I care? Maybe a society of contented people doing what they wanted would be better than one driven by the Protestant work ethic. A society of stoned, TV watching, skiers, golfers, and surfers would probably be a happier one than the one we live in now. (In fact, the happiest countries are those with strong social safety nets, the ones with generous vacation and leave policies.) And people in countries with strong social safety nets still write music and books, do science, volunteer, and visit their grandchildren. They aren’t drug addicts!

This is what I envision. A society where machines do all the work that humans don’t want to do and humans would express themselves however they like, without harming others. A society much more like Denmark and Norway, and much less like Alabama and Mississippi. Yes, I believe that all persons are entitled to the minimal amount it takes to live a decent human life. All of us would benefit from such an arrangement, as we all have much to contribute. I’ll leave with some words inspiring words from Eliezer Yudkowsky:

There is no evil I have to accept because ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’. There is no abused child, no oppressed peasant, no starving beggar, no crack-addicted infant, no cancer patient, literally no one that I cannot look squarely in the eye. I’m working to save everybody, heal the planet, solve all the problems of the world.