Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thoughts on Good and Evil

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The very mention of the words "good" and "evil" (especially the latter) can invariably be counted upon to set off a spasm of righteous indignation among the relativist left. They will be particularly incensed by what they misperceive as usages that have meaning only in a wholly religious (biblical) context. Because the left is at heart antinomian (1), they eschew and despise any kind of standards to include the norms of traditional civil society (2).
Abstracting from its historical and popular current usage, I take the word "good" to mean anything in the service of human life, liberty, prosperity and general well-being. Similarly, "evil" has the opposite meaning - things that are harmful or destructive to all or any. At a deep, non-verbal level, the concept of good would seem to be essentially linked to survival and avoidance of pain.

In simple societies one can imagine that there is fundamental clarity about what is good and what is not. Existential threats posed by nature, enemies, hunger, sickness and pain are seen as evils; safety, abundance that satisfies basic needs and physical well-being are seen as goods.

But in secure and prosperous societies that have developed technologies capable of control or avoidance of existential threats, the linkage of good and evil to survival tends to become obscure, rationalized and abstract. (3)

I think it is important to see good and evil not only in moral, ethical or religious terms but also in the light of practical efficacy. When, with good intentions stipulated, we embark upon a project to improve our condition, we must first decide if the objective is good, i.e., does it promote life, liberty, prosperity and well-being, and second, whether our methodology for achieving the objective is good by the same standards. If, on the other hand, our methodology causes the project to fall short of its goals, if it wastes resources and if it generates unintended evils, then, our original motivations are irrelevant to the outcomes. Efficacy rather than intent must be the standard.

The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number (4)

Who could argue? But the phrase in inherently problematic. In advanced, pluralistic polities there is great variation in the conception of what is good. How are we to decide? If we decide, how, precisely is it distributed and what is the cost? Do we accept evil to promote the good, and, if so, what calculus enables us to establish a balance? Simpler, though plagued with many of the same difficulties, I lean toward prescribing the least evil for the greatest number.

The least evil may be the "necessary evil" of minimalist government. In return for ceding some liberties to the collective we authorize a popularly supported government to defend us from external threats, enforce our laws and undertake only those tasks that are too large or too expensive to be accomplished by local communities. The least evil for the greatest number.

But what are the consequences if government expands beyond its modest mandate? The bargain to establish the necessary evil of government remains in place, and the growth of government invariably diminishes liberty and undermines the linkage between the popular will and government's priorities.

More precisely to the point, the Western left has, with near-religious zeal, rejected judgment to embrace tolerance, no matter the cost. The willful failure to discriminate -- especially in, but not limited to, matters of moral conduct -- has led to nihilism. To assert that everything is relative is to vitiate one's own argument in its very formulation. Yet those who hold relativist views often cite Jesus' injunction to "judge not...", failing to recognize that the remark was directed only to hypocrites. The most casual sampling of biblical writings reveals that, in fact, honest judgment is a cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian tradition as it was to the Classical one.

The ideas behind good and evil are pretty simple, really, and without much freight -- that is, until they are yoked to the special, controlling purposes of social, political, moral or religious ideologies.

1. This word emerges from the exegetical history of the Christian faith, but it is remarkably useful in the analysis of contemporary Western society.
2. The left is tied intellectually to the tradition of Rousseauvian thought, which, like antinomianism, champions wholesale rebellion against traditional standards. Cf. The Awful Specter of Standards.
3. I expand on this idea here.
4. Sometimes called "the greatest happiness principle", it derives from the philosophy of Utilitarianism, most closely associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill. The idea expressed has great intuitive appeal and manages to endure despite its vulnerability to reductio argumentation.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Broken Linkages, Broken Society (Part I)

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Human Nature, Behavior and Consequences
Despite the naive, ideological assertions of cultural Darwinists and utopian dreamers, human nature is a constant; it has not, does not and will not change. And it is important to recognize that men are not inherently good or evil -- they are both. To paraphrase Shakespeare, man is neither good nor bad but thinking (characterization) makes him so. I might add the poet's biblical borrowing that "there is nothing new under the sun". Men have weaknesses and strengths, and we are prudent when we organize ourselves in ways that discourage the former and promote the latter. It was the American Founders' unparalleled understanding of human nature that led them in the design of the most successful political and social system that has ever existed. But that system -- like the Founders themselves -- is imperfect and decays when our weaknesses overcome our better natures.
In societies that operate at Hobbsean subsistence levels the correspondence between behavior and consequences is bright-line clear. Strategies for obtaining food and shelter and for protection against predators, animal and human, demand close adherence in the cause of survival. In prosperous, secure societies the linkage between behavior and consequences tends to become obscured. Though it is no less real, its forms change. In primitive life one is well-advised to be ever-alert for things that bite and sting, for extramural warriors, for natural disasters. In our current environment we must be on guard against politicians, zealot ideologues and schemes of organized fraud, theft and deceit. We must know what is true in relation to our survival and prosperity and rely upon it. The venom of vipers may bring us a quick death, but the venom of tyranny is not less lethal. The latter is slower but enjoys better concealment.

Knowledge and survival
For persons living in primitive societies (or tyrannical ones) accurate, empirical knowledge of the environs of one's world -- dangers and opportunities -- wisely exercised, is essential to survival, security and prosperity. One must recognize and defend against the dangers of the natural world and aggressive fellow men; know how to obtain essential needs and protect himself and his family. We may imagine that persons in poor circumstances can ill-afford the luxury of denial, (1) but we are mistaken to think it a luxury we can afford.

In advanced, abundant societies that are largely free of existential threats, the linkages between imprudent behavior and serious consequences are attenuated. In a wealthy politea social safety nets expand, and the penalties for violations of civil and criminal laws tend to become relaxed, since, excepting some crimes of violence, transgressions are no longer seen to threaten survival. In many large business and governmental organizations linkages between knowledge, productivity and reward often become obscure. Similarly inadequate knowledge and false beliefs may be rewarded so that the very foundations of civil society become corrupt.

Labor and reward
"We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us". That phrase was a common, ironic expression in the states of the former Soviet Union, where slackers and producers were equally rewarded. Where the true rewards were more closely associated with party loyalty that performance. In America we are not so far removed from the destruction of of the labor-reward linkage. It is most clearly seen in large, bureaucratic institutions -- businesses grown overlarge (2), public education, big eleemosynary institutions and particularly in governmental and quasi-governmental bureaucracies such as many NGO's and most notably the U.N., where any sign of accountability in the accomplishment of its stated missions has seemingly vanished. In terms of sheer fecklessness, employee perks and high salaries the European Union is rapidly gaining, if not overtaking the U.N. In these examples personal and political loyalties rather than performance to standards of efficacy are the engines of advancement.

It is important to consider the role of bureaucracies. They are, in their beginnings, useful in providing infrastructure support for executive productivity. But they tend to grow and when they reach a certain size and command of power, their focus shifts from executive support to self-interest. As organizations expand the power and remuneration of their leadership grows commensurately.

The most serious erosion of the linkage between labor and reward can be seen in highly progressive tax schemes. When the most productive citizens are heavily taxed to support the less productive, incentives (rewards) are reduced and the creation of wealth suffers at the expense of broader society. The "pursuit of happiness" envisioned by the Founders is possible only when the sanctity of property rights is guaranteed; taxation for purposes of redistribution clearly violates those rights.

Entire classes have evolved in the US from small institutions that once formed a useful symbiosis with the productive class but have drifted away from their original purposes and grown to be parasitic. Examples include much of academia, public education, most government bureaucracies, the arts establishment, unproductive corporate divisions and staffs, politicized churches and synagogues, media and much of the intellectual class, public health institutions and many research organizations. These classes tend to expand while consuming more public and private wealth and delivering increasingly less useful product. As parasitic entities they divert wealth from entities that might have produced more of it.

Virtue and civil society
Figuring importantly in the Founders hope for a successful and enduring republic was the idea that virtue -- personal and civic, private and public -- was the necessary condition of its maintenance.
To the ears of tribal intellectuals (and to those educated by them) "virtue" may ring as a notion that is puritanical, Victorian or simply quaint; its practice largely abandoned, its meaning is largely lost. (3)
Respect, it seems to me, is at the heart of the concept of virtue. Respect for one's self, one's work, one's moral precepts and for others. It is essential to the success of civil society, since voluntary association is at its core, so that persons who are not seen as virtuous -- who are, say, dishonest, venal or generally contemptuous of others -- will tend to be excluded.

The ideas and beliefs behind this essay are these: (1) that human nature is an historical constant, and the best organized societies are those that practically account for its virtues and vices by linking behaviors to appropriate consequences, and (2) that these linkages can be broken with individual impunity only in societies of abundance, where there is sufficient wealth and freedom from existential threats to support those who do not produce or sustain them. Individual impunity, however, does not account for the cumulative, pernicious effects that inevitably corrupt societies. The constant companions of success are hubris and the waiting Nemesis.

1. One of the best examples of the workings of denial (especially among elitists) is cited in an earlier post linked to a French TV discussion. One cannot deal with the world as it is without knowing the world as it is.
2. The citation applies primarily to business, but the mechanisms critiqued are common to all large institutions. A broader picture can be found by following the links at the bottom of the article.
3. Honor and shame have likewise become epistemological curiosities.

Note: in this essay I try to establish a framework for specific, concrete examples to follow in Part II.