Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Interlude - Bette

(Cheesy video, but...)

You might be reactionary if…

Michael Shermer, in his recent “reply” (it wasn’t much of a substantive reply) to Ophelia Benson, made reference once or twice to moral progress. Since I’ve written about this more than once in the past, I thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit the concept.

Thinking about moral progress takes you down a tricky, potholed path. The idea lends itself all too easily to apologies for imperialism and colonialism, to the smug notion that “we” Civilized White People have brought the rest of the planet’s population out of its primitive, backward ways, along an ever-advancing path toward Civilization. It also tends to confuse theory with social reality, discounting the very real forms of oppression that characterize contemporary "civilization."

Even more nuanced views which recognize many of the sources of contemporary bigotry to be of modern, elite origin tend to place white, straight, male “Westerners” in the moral vanguard. This ignores the obvious point that the most privileged, the prime beneficiaries of any system of oppression and exploitation, are the least likely to be progressive in challenging the situation (not that it doesn’t happen – of course it does, and these people tend to receive far more historical interest than the members of oppressed groups).

But let’s accept the idea that, over the past few centuries, barriers to the consideration of rights and participation – whatever their origin - have been falling. The movements against racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, ableism, imperialism, and religious privilege (specific and generic) have gained strength, marking progress at the level of moral theory and practice. This is true more broadly of the decline of authoritarian and hierarchical systems. (Again, this doesn’t mean the end of domination and exploitation in practice, but simply a decline in the explicit attempts to justify naked oppression. It’s an ongoing battle, always.)

What does this mean for us in the freethought movement? A lot! It means that we need to study the past, recognizing ourselves within the great sweep of the history of freethought and scientific progress, and to think about future generations. How will they regard our views?

Miranda Fricker writes about judging people in the past. We should think of ourselves as the past, because inevitably we will be. If we consider the arc of moral progress, and consider it a good thing, what do we think the most admirable of future generations will think of our views? How do our views fit historically?

I’ve had to revise my ideas about animal rights and psych rights considerably over the past couple of years, and have no doubt that not only my earlier views but some of my present ones will, to future generations, look quaint at best. The point, though, is the effort – to try to look back from the future and from the perspective of oppressed beings and to cultivate the habits of objectivity.

Now, Richard Dawkins likes to write about moral progress, but he’s not big on practicing what he preaches. Same with Michael Shermer. In my view, if we’re going to take moral progress seriously, here’s a relevant test:

Can your ideas be summarized or prefaced with “They want to take us back to a time when…” or “They want to continue a status quo in which…”?

“I want to continue a status quo in which women’s interests and talents are thought to be essentially different from men’s.”

“I want to continue a status quo in which women’s voices aren’t attended to with the same seriousness as men’s.”

“I want to move us back to a time when conference organizers didn’t think about the sex of invited speakers and so chose overwhelmingly men.”

“I want to move us back to a time when there were no harassment policies or cultural condemnation of sexism and each woman individually had to confront this on her own”.

“I want us to continue a status quo in which women who oppose sexism and misogyny are harassed, threatened, and subjected to a campaign of personal smears, sexist slurs, and denigration on the internet.”

If your ideas fit in this mold, you might be a reactionary.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Petitioning for diversity, feminism, and basic decency

Freethought Blogs is all abuzz about a new petition started by Adam Lee to the leaders of major atheist, skeptical, and secularist organizations. Here's support from

Ophelia Benson


and Ed Brayton

I think it's a great idea.

Oh, Erich Fromm, you're so wonderful.

From p. 7 of Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics


I have written this book with the intention of reaffirming the validity of humanistic ethics, to show that our knowledge of human nature does not lead to ethical relativism but, on the contrary, to the conviction that the sources of norms for ethical conduct are to be found in man's nature itself; that moral norms are based upon man's inherent qualities, and that their violation results in mental and emotional disintegration. I shall attempt to show that the character structure of the mature and integrated personality, the productive character, constitutes the source and the basis of 'virtue' and that 'vice', in the last analysis, is indifference to one's own self and self-mutilation. Not self-renunciation nor selfishness but self-love, not the negation of the individual but the affirmation of his truly human self, are the supreme values of humanistic ethics. If man is to have confidence in values, he must know himself and the capacity of his nature for goodness and productiveness.

None of this is to imply that the basis for moral norms shouldn't be subject to vigorous debate; on the contrary, Fromm's basing humanistic ethics on rational knowledge requires such investigation and discussion. And over the next several months I'll challenge several fundamental aspects of his vision of human nature and needs. But I wanted to pause for a moment to appreciate the value of his project to ethics, politics, psychology, and human (and potentially nonhuman) well-being.

Evolution and speciesism in the evo psych debate

The charge of human exceptionalism is often deployed as part of a ‘Gotcha!’ argument by proponents of evolutionary psychology. If you criticize research in the field, the claims the research is argued to support, or the assumptions on which these are based, the argument goes, it’s because you’re clinging to an outdated notion of human exceptionalism which holds that nothing (or very little) about our brains or behavior is rooted in evolution – that we’re “blank slates” upon which culture writes all. So, opponents of specific methods, claims, and assumptions are portrayed as evolution denialists who refuse – for political reasons, of course – to acknowledge that we’re products of evolution like all other animals. There are two key and complementary responses to this charge, but appreciating them requires addressing some of the speciesism that distorts our thinking.

Nick Gotts crisply summarized the first response to the standard straw man claim - that if you don’t accept extrapolations about innate sex differences from other species to humans you’re denying an evolutionary link between humans and other species:

So your ‘null hypothesis’ is that homo sapiens are unlike other mammals? Have I got that right? Why would this be your expectation? – noelplum99

First, if you’re going to use scientific terminology to make your point sound sciency, it’s a good idea to get it right. It’s Homo sapiens: both the upper-case initial letter of the generic name, and the italics, are required. Second, there’s a bit of a hint toward the answer in what you wrote earlier in the same comment:

When we observe other mammals we see differences between the sexes in terms of behaviour that are not clouded by culture in the same way they are with humans.

Now since you’re evidently not very bright, I’ll spell it out for you: the hypertrophy of culture in our species means that we are very limited in the extent to which we can legitimately extrapolate from what we see in other mammals when we consider behaviour, and specifically, behavioural differences between the sexes. With very limited exceptions, such as breastfeeding, there is no human behaviour unique to one sex, and even breastfeeding and similar examples are heavily influenced by culture in a way that has no parallel in other species.

The “hypertrophy of culture” for humans (and its specific implications for sex differentiation) is a key point that simply can’t be ignored. We’ve evolved to live and learn within human cultures, which means we have a highly developed capacity for cognitive and behavioral flexibility.

This doesn’t imply, though - and if I recall correctly Gotts has also alluded to this in the past - that human culture marks some magical line that clearly separates us from all other animals. The second response to the human-exceptionalism accusation is to point out that the capacity to learn, to develop, to live in cultures, to be flexible in our behavior is the result of evolution. These capacities didn’t originate with us, as many of our human myths claim, marking us as unique and special amongst animals.

[semi-gratuitous cat pic]

Many other species exhibit behavioral flexibility, are social, cooperate, teach and learn, play, experience emotions, and so on, and our own evolution built on the same structures. We can look to evolution to understand our capacity, and of course propensity, to learn, to be cognitively flexible in response to changing circumstances, and to live in cultures, just as we can look to evolution to understand other aspects of our physical selves.

It’s marvelous that evolution has produced this. The evolved physiological basis for our (and other animals’) cognitive and behavioral flexibility has to be immensely complex. That’s precisely the opposite of a “blank slate.” The “blank slate” metaphor (much less the “It’s probably X% cultural and Y% innate” business) doesn’t even make sense. A slate doesn’t absorb and change in response to what’s written on it; it doesn’t interact with the world at all. It’s a completely inapt metaphor for human culture and its evolutionary foundation.

Coming to terms with the evolution of cultural beings is a significant aspect of overcoming speciesism. And it should be noted that our flexibility and other adaptations related to culture have no doubt been accompanied by losses in other capacities. Moreover, these capacities and propensities have allowed humans to succeed so far - for a short evolutionary time - but might not serve us in the long run. Recognizing the tradeoffs and actual or potential disadvantages of our evolved cultural capacities, including cognitive and behavioral flexibility, plasticity, and learning, can help us to appreciate our connections to other animals and to reject the inaccurate natural/evolved/animal vs. cultural/unevolved/human dichotomy that underlies so many of the arguments about evo psych.

No, you’re not objective.

In recent arguments about evo psych, I’ve seen a lot of smug dismissals that take the form “How can you deny it? It’s Science - objective data!” As though the simple invocation of the word science or a scientific title magically granted a proposition or individual the power of objectivity. The casual refrain “Science has shown…” has to be the most preposterous substitute for real objectivity ever, all the more pathetic when followed - in true hyperskepticredulous fashion - by citations of anecdotes or appeals to common sense.

A sure route away from objectivity and toward biased thinking is believing that objectivity is a property you possess – that you’re inherently an “objective person” (Science has shown!* ;)). Few attitudes are more contrary to developing objectivity than the arrogant presumption that you already “have” it. As Fromm eloquently argued, objectivity is a practice, built on a foundation of humility. We accept that our prejudices and cognitive tendencies are going to affect our perspectives and perceptions, and do our best to mitigate it.

This is an individual and a collective effort. As individuals, we recognize that we tend to view things in ways that suit our biases, and we develop habits of looking critically at our beliefs – especially when these could be regarded as self-serving or seem to fit most comfortably with the prejudices of our age and culture. We work to practice epistemic justice in all areas of our lives. We cultivate an attitude of respect. Collectively, we confront the systems of domination and exploitation that breed and require biased thinking and impede respectful engagement, encourage and teach habits of critical thinking,** and challenge faith in all of its forms.

Objectivity isn’t something we have. It’s something we do.

* The link to the full PDF can be found on that page. The paper I’m referring to is:

Uhlmann, E.L., & Cohen, G.L. (2007). “I think it, therefore it’s true”: Effects of self perceived objectivity on hiring discrimination. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 104, 207-223.

** Critical thinking involves taking a critical eye to our own preconceptions and epistemic practices. It’s not about rebellion for rebellion’s sake, or the persona (much less self-image) of the brave, scientific pioneer or iconoclast bucking the alleged dogma. Critical thinking involves skeptically analyzing our own framing of and approaches to questions, the sources of our information and how these are differently evaluated, the reasons we reject information as valid or relevant, the bases on which we extrapolate and draw general conclusions from research findings, and so on. Critical thinking begins at home.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Woman Who Wasn't There

I happened upon this documentary recently. I'd somehow missed this entire story when it was in the news:

People are fascinating.