We are not in the boudoir of a mincing lady, but like two abstract creatures in a balloon who have met to speak the truth. Andrey Antonovitch Von Lembke in Demons, Dostoyevsky
I have been thinking about moral crusaders and, despite their intention, their malign effect on everyone. I recently noted their confusion about alcohol and behavior. But in their superficial understanding, banning the symptoms of a problem is always the first step. For example, certain people I have talked to think that to reduce abortions, banning it would be a reasonable first step. As if it being legal was the cause of someone having an abortion. And similarly with divorce, violent movies, rap music, rock music, pornography, teenage sex… ban, ban, ban. Recently, the UK government is talking about having an opt-in Internet censorship, focusing on pornography.
I read in a Christian guide about happiness, that one should avoid alcohol because (to paraphrase) “just one drink can lead to an addiction.” Interesting. If we were to use that principle in a literal sense, we could take no action at all, since it could lead to addiction. But the literal meaning is not what is intended to be communicated to the reader. Of course, they intended to implied that the highly probable result of one drink is addiction and it will destroy your life! Best avoid it completely, rather than enjoy in moderation.
Talking to a Christian friend, they raised a few themes regarding this preference for abstinence over moderation by self control. Regarding pornography, my Christian friend disapproves because it will “change” the user in some way. They expect pornography will lead to addiction and it will change a person’s behaviour and thoughts. I can safely predict they think this change will be harmful.
On the subject of marriage, the fact that barriers to getting a divorce are reduced are a significant factor in the minds of people considering a divorce – leading to a direct causal link to an increased rate of divorce.
There are several problems with this conception of social problems and their solution. Firstly, there is only a very tenuous causal link, or no link at all, between the availability of alcohol, porn and divorce to the actual social problems they supposedly cause. Our reaction to these factors is largely culturally conditioned and they are merely a symptom, not a cause, of the underlying social problems. Without understanding the problem, it is all the more difficult in addressing it properly.
Secondly, and even more critically, experience shows us that banning these items does nothing to address the problem. For example, banning legal abortions causes people to get abortions illegally. The overall rate doesn’t decrease. Second example, banning alcohol in the US did not solve alcoholism. Sex abstinence programs do not decrease teen pregnancy rates. Censoring the Internet to protect children simply results in them circumventing the censoring system.
Thirdly, the moralists attempt at banning things they disapprove of results in worse social ills. Banning drugs and alcohol increases organised crime. Some studies claim US prohibition reversed a declining trend of the consumption of alcohol! Banning abortion harms women in unregulated abortions. Banning prostitution marginalises and endangers prostitutes. Regulating or banning porn removes the “almost mainstream” sector of pornography of it, which actually strengthens the more graphic sector of the industry. Alcohol prohibition increased drinking to excess.
When I point out a few of these problems with a moralist’s point of view, their responses was (to paraphrase):
I believe it, despite that.
So they cling to their social remedies irrespective of evidence or harm they cause. Sacred belief apparently trumps evidence. Not only do they not understand the actual cause of social problems, they don’t want to understand it. However they do seem to act in good faith; at least I can compliment them on that, even if their actions is misguided.
They mentioned their ultimate remedy:
The only real solution is when everyone believes in Jesus.
But I don’t take that at face value, since it is not only the belief in Jesus that is required but universal agreement to follow that moral code. Neither solution is achievable given actual human psychology and I fully expect they admit they are waiting for divine intervention to implement their remedy. However, this is not good policy in my view, since waiting for miracles is most unreliable.
Another interesting point is the moralists apparent need for extreme measures, rather than enjoying pleasures in moderation. Their asceticism is not based on a simple life is in itself good, but rather that the possibility of addiction to earthly pleasures must be avoided at all costs. As Christians say, people are “bad” and can’t help falling for addictions. The instincts must be crushed. “If thy eye offends thee, cut it out.” However, not everyone is slave to addictions and can control their competing desires through self control.
I want to argue that, despite moralists claiming they want to improve society, that is not their primary objective. I have already discussed how the moralists do not care if their remedy actually improves society and are willing to ignore evidence that contradicts them. If improving social conditions was their goal, they would have different remedies. They would learn better remedies and how to apply them. However, evidence links religiosity with many social ills; however, this is complicated because we cannot determine the exact causal direction and reasons why this is. It is circumstantially interesting but not conclusive. But combining these two types of evidence: “banning things to fix social problems usually backfire” and “more moralising societies have greater social ills”, I contend that these effects are two sides of the same coin.
A different Christian told me we need to ban things, in order to:
“take a moral stand as a society”
I imagine this is a more fundamental motivation than fixing social problems. This is incidentally very anti-biblical, because it contradicts its message (to paraphrase): “don’t judge people”, “let him who is without sin throw the first stone”, “turn the other cheek”, “forgive your brother 49 times”, etc. But the moralists persist in attempting to improve mankind, often with socially harmful results. Another attractive feature of the moralists world view is that social problems have a simple fix (that is, simple to understand, if not to implement), and they are usually the fault of other people – that part is critical!
I am an optimist: I think social conditions could, in principle, be improved. However, within the parameters of what constitutes an acceptable solutions as defined by moralists, actual improvement cannot be implemented. I say we should not seek to take revenge, as a society, on criminals. Moralists think otherwise. The TV series “The Wire” was most enlightening on this matter. They claim policing policy is not dedicated to protecting communities but only to fulfil political targets to protect the image of the powerful. A fictional attempt is made at quasi-legalisation of drug dealing but this is soon terminated as politically unacceptable, regardless of the fact that it improved social conditions. Art, in this case, reflects reality. Prisons are, according to influential voices, there to punish criminals. With this policy, no wonder reoffending rates are appalling.
So moralists are not allies of people who want to fix social problems. Even if they claim to want to improve society, their actions should speak louder than that. They do waste everyone’s time and block attempts to implement reforms that actually do work.
Anti Citizen One
PS I was influenced by many thinkers here, but one is probably too obvious and predictable: Nietzsche and his chapters “The Improvers of Mankind” and “Morality as Anti-Nature” are required reading in my book. Popper’s “Open Society and its Enemies” is also relevant. ‘And when they call themselves “the good and just,” forget not, that for them to be Pharisees, nothing is lacking but—power!’
PPS I started reading Spinoza’s Ethics but it is hard going. Just went I thought everything was getting profoundly interrelated and monistic, I watched “The Fountain” for the first time! I like!
In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, “Oi, what you lookin’ at?” and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, “Hey babe, fancy a shag?” and start groping each other.
The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol. Kate Fox
That is insightful, particularly we consider moralists who try to tackle social problems – they always confuse the effect (drinking alcohol) with the cause (being a violent person who has socially conditioned to only act that way after drinking).
I recently finished On Liberty and I was pleasantly surprised, after his book on utilitarianism. Mill’s basic thesis is that the state should not impose laws on people unless it is to prevent harm on other people. He then sets about examining the arguments for and against his principle. He begins by arguing for the necessity of free thought and speech, based on fallibilism. Since it is absurd to claim we are without error, we should allow what is “true” to be argued in the public space – otherwise we cannot except to arrive at knowing what truth is. Also, without properly knowing the full arguments for and against this “truth”, the knowledge of truth becomes an atrophied belief (like, he claims, Christianity has become in the western world). He then extends this principle of free thought to human action – given that the best mode of life might still be discovered in a diverse society. This seems fairly reasonable except his assumption that moral propositions could be “true” or “false”, so fallibilism would not apply in this case.
The most interesting chapter, particularly from a Nietzschian perspective, is “On Individuality”. I few choice quotes:
Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be?
But these few [innovators] are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed.
Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.
In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superiority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.
So he claims that development of individuals and of humans generally is only achieved though diversity and experimentally trying different ways of thinking and living. Due to social pressure and psychology, only a minority can innovate in this way, but the entire history of mankind depends on these types of people. Nietzsche poetically described this as “the song of the necessary ones, the single and irreplaceable melody.” But even Nietzsche would admit that the majority of non-innovators are “necessary” and cannot be done away with (“Are poisoned fountains necessary, and stinking fires, and filthy dreams, and maggots in the bread of life?”). To perhaps summarise the difference these two writers, Mill proposes a safely net for individualism of preventing people harming others – but there is no such safety net in Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. However either system of innovation encompasses morality and this is, according to Mill, incompatible with objective morality. Mill specifically states that Calvinism would be opposed to his principles, because that view considers diversity and expression of human will as something to be avoided – and to some extent this applies to all Christian morality. I touched on a few of this issues in a previous post.
Mill does state a principle of state power and it is a fine summary of my own view:
[T]he greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information, and diffusion of it from the centre.
Power should be localised, information should be shared. Good stuff!
Anti Citizen One
… strangely under reported or belittled by the (corporate) media.
Update: I keep ranting about how the Bible is actually anti-materialist, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist. Looks like the Vatican might have been thinking about that. Full story here, of course Catholic politicians are unlikely to listen… and again!