Inside the Myth of Europe

Dr. John Gray echoes Mr. Blair's writings on the dangers of mythology.

[The European Union's founders] were swayed by a myth - a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government. 
When you're inside a myth it looks like fact, and for those who were inside the myth of the end of history it seems to have given a kind of peace of mind. Actually history was on the move again. But since it was clearly moving into difficult territory, it was more comfortable to believe that the past no longer mattered.

Those dangers are real; the difference I have with these gentlemen on the point is that I think the danger means that you have to take control of the process.  Myths are indispensable to human consciousness.  We are most vulnerable to the baleful effects just when we -- as the modern Europeans -- think we are disposing of myths and living a new, regulated, scientific life.

We last saw Dr. Gray here writing in response to Dr. Stephen Pinker's new book, which argues a very similar myth:  that humanity is engaged in moral progress that is bringing us to a state of less violence, the world wars notwithstanding.  Here is Timothy Synder at Foreign Affairs rejecting Dr. Pinker (hat tip Arts & Letters Daily):
A principle of the scientific method is to arrange experiments so that one's own prior beliefs can be challenged. Pinker's natural experiment with history generates instead a selective rereading, in which his own commitments become the guiding moral light for past and future. But of course libertarianism, like all other ideologies, involves a normative account of resource distribution: those who have should keep. There is nothing scientific about this, although again, like all other ideologies, libertarianism presents itself simply as a matter of natural reason, or, in Pinker's case, "intelligence." Pinker goes so far as to suggest that libertarianism is equivalent to intelligence, since holding libertarian views correlates with high IQ scores. Since he believes that the need to regularly adjust IQ tests to preserve an average score of 100 means that we are growing more intelligent generation by generation, he deduces that we are becoming more libertarian. Pinker also conflates libertarian ideology with ethics, allowing him to conclude that we are therefore becoming increasingly moral. Each step in this argument is shaky, to say the least. As Pinker might have learned from Kant or Hume or any of the other Enlightenment figures he mentions, one cannot jump from reason to morals in this way. Even if each generation is brighter than the last, as Pinker believes, being smart is not the same thing as being just. To have an account of ethics, one needs to begin from ideas of right and wrong, not simply from mental habits that happen to be widespread in one's own milieu and moment.
My own critique of the whole 'moral progress' argument -- not merely Dr. Pinker's contribution to it -- is along similar lines.  We obtain much of our morality from rubbing against other people, who in turn get theirs from rubbing against the people in their circles.  Thus it should normally be expected to be the case that groups of people closer to each other, in time or in space, will have moral opinions more similar to each others' than groups of people who are further removed from each other.

It would be striking, then, if we couldn't read history as an arc leading to our own moral values:  and that will be true whoever we are, and whatever our moral values happen to be!  This is a basic fallacy, an error in logic, that arises from a failure to recognize the fact that human beings learn much of their moral code from each other.

What's much more interesting to me are the counterexamples.  One of the things that amazes in reading Chaucer, or Averroes, or Plato, is the degree to which we can find common ground with people centuries removed.  This points to a small but crucial moral core that doesn't change, but that is accessible to human reason in every generation.  There is no "progress" from this place because it is the destination:  the best we can hope for, in any generation, is to reach it and to remain there for the brief space of our life.  If we can also guide our children to it, and our friends, we have done all that morality can be asked to do for humankind.


Texan99 said...

Libertarianism means believing that those who have, should keep? I'd have said it means something more like "those who continue to strive to deserve will continue to receive." The natural state of affairs is not that, absent an intrusive government, people can accumulate good things that will resist decay. The natural state of affairs is that people will do things for each other: intimates will do things for love, without keeping a strict account, and strangers will do things for trade. It takes the intrusion of a government to insist that good things will continue flowing to people who neither accumulate intimates nor do things that other people value.

Grim said...

Your formulation is better. The author's general point isn't wrong, though -- i.e., that libertarianism has a normative claim about resource distribution. The norm is that you should keep what you earn, unless you choose not to do so.

There are a few problems with that claim, even though it sounds reasonable enough on its face. For example, in your own state, there was a time when people came and laid claim to vast swathes of land for cattle. Others wanted to come in later, and said they could more reasonably use the land for farming. The response "I was here first" makes good sense, if there's an endless amount of new land to which one can push on; but when there isn't, there begin to be challenges to the idea that the prosperous man has earned his prosperity. Certainly he invested a lot of labor in that land: but the land he just took. If the farmer is able to do the same, he will also invest labor, and earn on the same terms. But what gives him the right to take the land from the rancher? Well, what gave the first guy the right to take it from the Comanche?

That's the plot of Shane, really. It's not that anyone is trying to get a free ride: and it's not even that anyone is wrong. It's that the norm doesn't adequately answer the question, which is why the gunfighters end up having to sort it out. And, really, that's what happened with the Comanche, too.

Joseph W. said...

I haven't read this book of Dr. Pinker's yet. I'll have to find time for it this year. I would be mightily surprised to find he was really an advocate of "free market liberatarianism." He'd be far less popular than he is in pop-science circles if that were the case. I suspect he's being travestied. But on the subject of economics, this reviewer claims he attributes at least some violence to bad economic understanding, and if that's true then Dr. Pinker has a better point than the reviewer admits.

In The Blank Slate, I should say, Pinker did exhibit at least some basic understanding of economics...and, more importantly, the way sound economic reasoning contradicts "intuitive economics." It's easy for humans (and, I believe, chimps, but I have no time to check) to pick up the idea that value is something intrinsic in a commodity, and that fair trading is a matter of "equity matching" - so that, in the words of de Sade, "A merchant steals when he sells a sack of potatoes for more than a sack of potatoes is really worth" - and that if the Jews among you (in Europe) or the Indians among you (in Africa) or the Chinese among you (in the Philippines) have grown wealthy by trading, they somehow stole it from you, and there ought to be revenge.

The idea that value is subjective, that a trade can benefit both parties, and that the "middleman" can actually make everyone richer - that is counterintuitive - these are real advances in human thought, and if they were more broadly understood and accepted, could prevent a lot of the violence that's taken place in the last century (per Amy Chua's World on Fire and Thomas Sowell's Preferential Policies).

Dad29 said...

we can find common ground with people centuries removed. This points to a small but crucial moral core that doesn't change,...

St Paul mentions it, too. It's called "conscience", or--with some nuances--"natural law."