Previous: Honesty, Flattery, Fealty
Next: Review of Why America Needs Religion

What Does "Morality" Mean?

Musings on Claire Berlinski's
There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters

Peter A. Taylor
February 5, 2011

Part 1
(which actually has something to do with Claire Berlinski's book):


Marxism is intellectualism for stupid people; it tends to attract the sort who can't understand that an economic system that cannot feed its own population reliably has failed at the game of Life. Literally.
-- Moe Lane

I recently read There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, by Claire Berlinski. It was a very enjoyable book, as were the interviews Berlinski did with Peter Robinson (in 5 parts):

I also recently read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (single html page "Glasgow" 6th edition or Modern Text versions are available), in conjunction with a series of Russ Roberts/Dan Klein EconTalk podcasts on the book. There was also an EconTalk podcast with historian Nicholas Phillipson on his book, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life.

There are a few sections of Berlinski's book that are too good not to quote, but there is one particular point that I want to develop at much greater length with some help from Adam Smith. So first let me get a few juicy details from Berlinski out of the way.


Berlinski is adament in her interview with Peter Robinson that there is no comparison between Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin, and she has good reasons for saying so, and yet there is the issue of social class. I want to look at politics in terms of quasi-religious conflict, but certain politicians bring out indications of class consciousness that I can't avoid. Thatcher was a "shopkeeper's daughter." She definitely wasn't a member of the right clubs. Joe Biden famously remarked that Barack Obama didn't have an accent unless he wanted to. It's also very hard to explain the hostility Palin has faced in terms of how different her religious views are from those of Jimmy Carter, or how different her policy views are from those of John McCain, or how her gravitas holds up relative to Dan Quayle. Mencius Moldbug explained this "potent allergic stimulus" in terms of three American social castes: Eloi, Morlocks, and Proles. (I think Moldbug was kidding about the trained ferrets, but it's often hard to say with him.) Social class appears to be an important political factor, and one that I can't reduce to an expression of quasi-religion.

I am reminded of an observation Glenn Reynolds made on the supposedly feminist-friendly Democratic Party, in the context of an aide to Jerry Brown calling opposition California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman a "whore:" "It's like Mean Girls without Lindsay Lohan."

David Reich, the former editor of the Unitarian Universalist Association's house organ, The World, wrote a thinly fictionalized account of his experience there called The Antiracism Trainings. Part of the UU culture, as he (accurately) describes it, is contempt for country and western music. Theologically, this makes no sense, but I have heard this point acknowledged from the pulpit of a UU church. So even within a (nominally) religious institution, I can't get away from the need to understand class issues.

I don't know where to go with this. I still think religion is generally a better lens than class for examining politics, but I feel like I'm missing something1.


Here are some choice excerpts from the Berlinski book.

P. 51:

The box appears to be made of something bombproof.

"What is it?" I ask.

"Come closer!"

I approach. The strange vessel appears to be emitting an aura. Andrew leans over, shielding from my glance the trick he uses to open it. It flips open noiselessly. He stands aside. "Ta-da!"

There it is: her handbag.

The thing is almost alive and pulsating. I half expect it to whiz up and begin soaring about the room. Thatcher famously opened a ministerial meeting by thumping that handbag on the table and announcing, "I haven't much time today, only enough time to explode and have my way."

"Smell it," says Andrew. He is flushed with sly delight.

"Can I? Really?"

"Go on."

I lean over and sniff, gingerly. There is a faint odor of talcum and lily. I look at him, surprised. "It smells—"

"My grandmother wore a perfume that smelled just like that."

He's right. The handbag smells like a nice old lady.

I'm taken aback. I had been expecting it to smell like napalm and gunpowder.


Following an interview with Neil Kinnock, Berlinski writes (p. 154),

Socialists love analogies to Sweden. But they are always unconvincing because they are based on some fantasy Sweden, rather than on an actual Nordic country bordered by Norway and Finland. In this Sweden of lore, every single woman is also eighteen years old, blonde, busty, lonely, naked, and waiting for you in the sauna.... In fact, the policies Kinnock admires nearly ran Sweden into the ground. Only when they were abandoned did the Swedish economy begin to recover. You may as well argue that the command economy has been a splendid success in Narnia.

The key to the book is on pp. 110-1, where she interviews Charles Powell.

I fit in one more question. "Why does she matter?"

"I think," he says, "the overall message would be that you can change a country — a lot of people think you can't; you can run a country, you can administer it, but don't be silly, governments come and go, life goes on, you can't change it. Now you have Mr. Sarkozy saying you can change France — and it will be very interesting to see if he does — but she shows that it can be done. I think that's a very important lesson. And from the point of view of the rest of the world, well, I think she did a better job than anyone of exposing socialism and really destroying it. I mean, there's no socialism left in this country and there's not much left in Europe. No one believes in socialism anymore2."

Alas, Powell is mistaken, as Berlinski explains in her last chapter and her epilogue. P. 356:

A final point. She matters now because her battles are not over. For a brief, perishable moment during the 1990s, it was possible to imagine that the great questions of history had been settled. But history did not, as Francis Fukuyama predicted, come to an end. Quite the contrary.

Socialism was buried prematurely. This fact has been little remarked, precisely because the world's attention has in recent times been focused on the dramatic rise of Islamic extremism. Amid this anxiety it has been forgotten that the appeal of socialism as a political program is far wider, more seductive, and more enduring than political Islam. To the vast majority of the secular world, Islam is alien and always will be alien. Islamic law is widely and correctly perceived as a recipe for immiseration. This is not so of socialism, a political movement that like fascism embodies the religious impulse in secular form, and is thus an ideology destined to rise again and again from the grave, skeletal claws outstretched and grasping for the instruments and subjects of labor.

But the point is, as the Star Trek movie had it, "Resistance is not futile."

Alternately, we have the G. K. Chesterton Neil Gaiman version: "Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."


Part 2
What Does "Morality" Mean?


The point I want to develop at length is the moral aspect of the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Berlinski begins Ch. 3, "I Hate Communists" (quoting Thatcher's first words to a Congolese communist), with another Thatcher quotation,

Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.

Or on p. 8:

In the end, the real case against socialism is not its economic inefficiency, though on all sides there is evidence of that. Much more fundamental is its basic immorality.

This stands in stark contrast to the view that one is likely to hear from behind the pulpit of a Unitarian Universalist church, which is that there is a tradeoff between the economic success of capitalism and the moral superiority of socialism. Thatcher's view was that capitalism is economically successful because it is morally superior to socialism. P. 116:

The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice.
The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior.

To Thatcher, the daughter of a Wesleyan lay preacher, socialism was heresy and sin. On p. 57, Berlinski explains the work of John Hoskyns, author of the strategy paper, "Stepping Stones:"

...Hoskyns concluded that Britain's postwar settlement had produced an entirely dysfunctional economy and society. It would have to be completely rewired. In other words, Britain needed a revolution. For a revolution, you need fervor. In 'Stepping Stones,' he supplied the vocabulary with which to rouse that fervor.

Events continue to reveal the true morality of collectivism. But the real point — that socialism is less moral than capitalism, rather than as immoral — has not yet been made. message would be repeated over and over: Shame.

Berlinski's book is thus in part an indictment of my own e-book on libertarianism, The Dog Ate My Manifesto. I was deliberately circumspect in bringing up the subject of morality. I was aiming for a relatively hostile audience, and I despaired of producing moral arguments that would be cogent for them. I certainly have my own moral views, but I knew perfectly well that other people didn't share them, and I saw no reason for expecting to be able to bring other people around independently of practical arguments. I tended to view moral rules as heuristics that could be derived from practical arguments, but with little or no independent basis. The good news is that my arguments for libertarianism don't depend on my audience's pre-existing moral views. The bad news is that the writing tends to be dull and ineffective. Dare I say, "sterile?" I doubt that my writing ever roused much revolutionary fervor among my fellow libertarians. I similarly doubt that many hostile readers saw my focus on economics as an attempt to change the soul.

The problem isn't merely that I am unsure of whether my moral arguments are correct. It isn't even the difficulty of making arguments cogent for multiple audiences. The deeper problem is that I'm not sure what "morality" even means. If a Christian thinks immorality and sin are the same thing, then immorality for him is a well-defined concept, but then why do we have two different words? And what good does this do for an atheist?

Morality has never seemed to me to be a clearly defined concept. It means too many different things to too many different people, and when philosophers try to nail the concept down, their arguments too often "peter out in metaphysics," as H. L. Mencken put it. I have tried to address (skirted? danced around?) this problem before in passing, in my essay "Is Rational Religion Possible" (Is Morality a Credence Good?) and in a book review of Guenter Lewy's Why America Needs Religion (What exactly is a moral doctrine supposed to accomplish?), as well as in The Dog Ate My Manifesto.

Let me now try to dig deeper, and answer the question, "What does 'morality' mean?" What might it mean, for example, if I were to say, "Polygamy is immoral?" The question opens a door into a sort of Tower of Babel. It could mean:

  1. I am describing my own emotional reaction to it.
  2. I am trying to use my imagination to cause myself to enter into a particular emotional state.
  3. I am trying to encourage you to use your imagination in a way that will cause you to enter into a particular emotional state.
  4. It would be harmful to you in a broad sense if you practice it (enlightened self-interest).
  5. It would be harmful to you in some unconventional, intangible sense if you practice it, but specifically not in a conventional, narrow or tangible sense.
  6. It would be harmful to your partners if you practice it.
  7. It would be harmful to innocent third parties if you practice it.
  8. It would be harmful to society as a whole if you practice it in this specific instance (act-utilitarianism).
  9. It would be harmful to society as a whole if people practice it as a matter of general policy (rule-utilitarianism).
  10. It would be harmful to society as a whole if people in general engaged in practices that are confusingly similar to it (rule-utilitarian heuristics).
  11. I am making the intellectual observation that it violates current social norms.
  12. I am making an emotional attack on you in order to enforce current social norms. (If I am an authority figure, I may also be able to raise or lower your rank in my organization's social hierarchy.)
  13. I am trying to change the social norms so that they oppose it.
  14. It violates a set of religious, philosophical, or intuitive rules or guidelines that I embrace regardless of whether anyone else does, and regardless of whether I can demonstrate any resulting harm.
  15. I am trying to gain social status (or political power) at someone else's expense, perhaps fraudulently.
  16. I am trying to influence your behavior for my own, selfish benefit (again, perhaps fraudulently).
  17. I am trying to commit myself to a course of action that precludes it.
  18. I am swearing an oath of fealty to an organization that opposes it.
  19. (Update) I have a theory of psychology that causes me to expect various kinds of harm, social norms, and a normal person's emotional reactions to correlate very closely (natural law).

Alternately, what does it mean if I say, "Military service is virtuous?" If I substitute "beneficial," "conforms to," "rewarding," "reinforce," "support," and "requires" for "harmful," "violates," "making an attack on," "enforce," "oppose," and "precludes," I come up with an analogous list of possibilities.

And what is "moral relativism?" Does that mean context dependence or does it mean indifference to other people's feelings?

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt approaches morality in terms of people's emotional reactions, and identifies a number of patterns, or moral "axes." Some of these can clearly be related to harm, but some cannot, at least not directly. Adam Smith took a similar approach in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, focusing obviously on moral sentiments, but he also delved into the personal and social psychology of how these sentiments are formed. Smith emphasized the use of the imagination: we don't literally feel one another's pain, we imagine it, and such a use of the imagination is often a conscious act. This is affected by social norms, which in turn are affected by any harm that may be done to people we encounter in normal life.

Betty Sue Flowers gave a lecture some years back on how moral sentiments change (ie. "spiritual journeys"). There was a Biblical passage (Mark 10:18) where someone addressed Jesus as "good teacher," and Jesus said, "Why do you call Me good?" Flowers (perhaps taking some liberties with the context) interpreted this in terms of the breakdown of the distinction between self-interest and altruism. Instead she distinguished between doing "good deeds" versus seeing another person's interests as one's own. Her slogan for this was, "When doing becomes seeing, the good becomes automatic and disappears." I interpret her "doing good deeds" as responding to external social pressure, whereas "seeing" means I have learned to use my imagination to form a sentimental attachment to the person I am helping. She also mentioned Luke 11:11, where Jesus asks, "If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone?" Parents are expected to embrace their children's interests as their own. You don't get social approbation for this; you're considered sick if you neglect your children. Flowers also talked about "the path of service." Sometimes service to others is therapeutic. This again blurs the distinction between self-interested and altruistic behavior. She explained that "'they' — the gods, or whoever 'they' are — are bargain shoppers: 'they' always get two for the price of one." She emphasized that "the path of service" is not intuitive for most people. It must be taught.

Larry Loen, on the soc.religion.unitarian-univ newsgroup, explained morality from an atheist's perspective in terms of enlightened self-interest: "I don't need God to tell me not to wear loose clothing around machine tools."

The distinction between tangible and intangible consequences figures prominently on the contributions statement I recently got from the treasurer at my church, stating for US Federal Income Tax purposes that my family received only "intangible religious benefits" in exchange for our annual pledge.

John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, focused exclusively on the net harm to society. I emphasize (rule-utilitarian) heuristics in The Dog Ate My Manifesto because I despair of finding a set of moral rules that are both simple enough for people to be able to follow and complicated enough to produce reasonable results in all cases.3

Thomas C. Schelling discussed commitment strategies involving other people (game theory) in The Strategy of Conflict. He also wrote in Choice and Consequence about one person being "of two minds" about something, and the resulting internal negotiations within a single person's head, in the context of alcoholism and the need for obnoxious alarm clocks. Being of two minds regarding our own behavior is also a critically important part of the writings of Saint Paul and Jonathan Haidt (see The divided self, ch. 1 of The Happiness Hypothesis.) Haidt likens the conscious mind to a man riding an elephant, who has to train the elephant, and even then has only limited authority over it.

Lawrence Kohlberg wrote of stages of moral development, which seems to suggest that people begin with emotional reactions and seemingly arbitrary rules, but gradually grow into utilitarianism.

Two of my recent essays; Honesty, Flattery, Fealty and The Market for Sanctimony, explore moral fraud, whether this be self-deception, outright fraud, or the meta-fraud described by Harry Frankfurt as "bullshit." (As I write this, the left side of the news media and internet are falling all over themselves trying to blame the shooting of Democratic Party Representative Gabrielle Giffords by an apparent schizophrenic who seems to be a fan of The Communist Manifesto on anticipated Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin.) David Reich's The Antiracism Trainings is a tragicomic view of moral fraud within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I find the word, "values," as in "moral values," particularly confusing because it sounds like it refers to ends, but I think people mostly use it to refer to means. For example, Roger Kimball writes, "The inclusion of India shows, as Roberts argues, that the defining quality of the Anglosphere is not shared race or ethnicity but shared values." If I substitute "sensibilities" for "values," do I change the meaning? What if I substitute "goals" or "social norms?" How about moral tastes? James A. Donald clearly refers to "means" when he says "values" in his discussion of natural law.

The distinction between ends and means is itself confusing. Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, "He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determines the end." Fosdick is half-right. I knowingly choose the beginning of a road, and this determines the place it leads to, but whether I can be said to have knowingly chosen the place it leads to depends on whether or not I have a reliable map. The distinction between ends and means is a reflection of uncertainty. In fact, one of the topics I learned about as an Industrial Engineering student was "Decision-Making under Uncertainty," and it strikes me that this topic could just as easily have been called "Moral Philosophy for Engineers." Alternately, the ends vs. means distinction could be a reflection of inconsistency in what kinds of effects are being counted in the two categories.

Edward O. Wilson writes of moral "guidelines," in ch. 11 of his book, Consilience. He divides moral philosophers into "transcendentalists, who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind." Wilson is an empiricist who thinks morality is biologically based: if you were a giant, intelligent termite, you would probably be genetically predisposed, because of Darwinian selection pressures, to view canniballism as a sacrament. This genetic predisposition would tend to drive social norms.

Update: The James A. Donald piece on Natural Law appears to be closely related to both Wilson and Rand. I don't buy it, but it's worth a read. If this is what Ayn Rand meant, then she makes much more sense than I gave her credit for. But I still think Adam Smith had a much more realistic view of human psychology.

Ayn Rand regarded her philosophy, ethics, and emotions as an integrated system analogous to a computer program. If I read her correctly, she would be in Wilson's "empiricist" camp, although this is a big "if." Rand's "ethics" appear to be far more rigid than Wilson's "moral guidelines." (I am using "ethics" and "morals" interchangably, which is perhaps dangerous here.) Wilson apparently expects moral guidelines to be provably correct or incorrect based on experiments and observations in biology. It isn't clear to me that Rand's ideas were scientifically falsifiable, and some of them, such as the virtues of smoking, seem to me to be based on her sentiments, rather than determining those sentiments, as she seems to claim.

Wilson and Rand differ more markedly when we consider what it means to say that a moral guideline is "correct." For Wilson, if I read him correctly, it means that such a guideline was adaptive from a Darwinian standpoint in the geologically recent past. It might not necessarily mean that such a guideline is still adaptive today. Perhaps it was adaptive from the standpoint of group selection rather than at the individual level. "Adaptive" in this Darwinian sense (some combination of survival and reproduction) certainly does not mean that following the guideline in question maximizes the long-term happiness (enlightened self-interest) of the creature who follows it. If you ask me if I am happy, and I tell you how many children I have, I have not answered your question. From a Darwinian standpoint, I am merely a vehicle that my genes use to propagate themselves. Furthermore, whatever we conclude about the happiness of the individual does not guarantee that his behavior will have the same effect on the average member of his social group. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that guides selfish individuals to act in mutually beneficial ways only works if certain conditions are reasonably well met (see the Efficiency Proofs in Part II of "Should Medicine be a Commodity?"). We are in the realm of evolutionary psychology, not utilitarian philosophy, or even economics. There is no guarantee that Wilsonian "moral" behavior will be "rational" in the economic sense ("selfish" in Rand's jargon, if my Objectivist-to-Economese translation is correct).

Rand's ethics claim to be "selfish." That is to say, they are supposed to promote enlightened self-interest — happiness, broadly defined, at the individual level. She acknowledges the need for the state to perform military and police functions, but with those two exceptions, she seems unconcerned about the distinction between individual rationality and group rationality (ie. she seems unconcerned about market failures other than those due to individual irrationality, and these two examples of public goods).

But consider also the harsh emotional stance Rand takes with her opponants. Is that a bug or a feature? One of the words that keeps coming up in the Nicholas Phillipson podcast on Adam Smith is "rhetoric." Smith was a lecturer on rhetoric and a student of the history of rhetoric. Phillipson explains,

Exchange when it's discussed in TMS [The Theory of Moral Sentiments] is about trading — we trade sentiments with each other, looking for a sort of psychological deal; it's nice to have a discussion with people and to feel that what we are saying is regarded with sympathy. We relish the process of trading our ideas. It's what happens in any tutorial at any university, any conversation in a park. The process he's describing in TMS and that regulates our social lives is exactly the same process which he is discussing when we trade our goods and services. He says: We spend all our lives trying to persuade people. That's why rhetoric matters.

Bryan Caplan, incidently, makes the same point about teaching economics in a modern university in The Myth of the Rational Voter. The teacher is not simply laying out facts. Arguments have to be made in such a way that students will be motivated to exercise mental discipline and resist peer pressure. Rhetoric matters.

What I think is going on here is that Rand believed that socialists and theists use moral rhetoric fraudulently (or in reckless disregard of the truth) to gain money, power, and status. Rand, in turn, is making an emotional attack on socialists and theists in order to defend healthy social norms and change unhealthy ones. At least, that's part of what is going on. In fact, I'm struck by a certain stylistic similarity to Margaret Thatcher and John Hoskyns: message would be repeated over and over: Shame.

Frankly, I regard Objectivist philosophy as more of a weapon or a tool of persuasion than a guide. For example, she says, "In my morality, the defense of one's country means that a man is personally unwilling to live as the conquered slave of any enemy, foreign or domestic." Suppose I am considering joining the Army. Does this statement tell me how to weigh the advantages and disadvantages? What does it mean when an Army officer retires? "Ok, I'm willing to be a slave now?" From an economics standpoint, voluntary military service seems a mysterious thing. I'd like a philosophy that can illuminate this. I see individuals bearing great personal cost in order to produce a public good. How do they internalize the benefits? Surely the pay isn't enough to explain it, especially considering that money is of not much use to a corpse. Does military service attract a mate? (And if so, why?) Does it lead to a better career? Is there a sophisticated commitment strategy at work? Does it give them bragging rights? Rand's rhetoric supports the view that American soldiers have bragging rights, but she doesn't say that explicitly, and other than bragging rights (social status), I still don't know how to internalize the public good or how to judge the value of the part that I could internalize. Objectivism purports to be a guide to enlightened self-interest. John Allison even makes this claim somewhat plausible with what he says about how to run a bank. But it mostly looks like rhetoric to me. (See also "Some Problems with Ayn Rand's Derivation of Ought from Is," by David D. Friedman.)

At first blush, Rand's Objectivist ethics appear to be completely antithetical to the view of morality that Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd took in an NPR story (December 22, 2009) I heard shortly after reading Rand's "Philosophy: Who Needs It?" Weissbourd takes a "purist" view, that morality has to be completely divorced from self-interest. From Rand's perspective, this is pure, unadulterated nonsense. NPR, being the bastion of journalistic professionalism that it is, took pains to present both sides of the issue: in addition to the "purist" view, they also presented an "impure" view, that it is permissible for self-interest and morality to be mixed. From Rand's perspective, this approach seeks a middle ground between sense and nonsense.

In order to make sense of the disagreement between Rand and Weissbourd, we have to distinguish clearly between broad and narrow usages of "self-interest." Rand is taking the broadest, most "enlightened" view possible that is still consistent with her understanding of rationality. That is, she seems concerned with the possibility that the word, "enlightened," may often be a euphemism for "poorly grounded." I suspect her of having a hair trigger when it comes to condemning people for being poorly grounded. Consequently, her view of "self-interest" may be narrower than I would take. Weissbourd, on the other hand, seems to be approaching "morality" the way an IRS auditor would approach "charity." Weissbourd excludes by his implicit definition of morality the "narrow" self-interest that, from a practical standpoint, is the most important part (eg. not wearing loose clothing around machine tools). For Adam Smith, prudence and ordinary "commutative" justice are the foundations of civilization; altruism is "the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building" (TMS, pt. 2, sec. 2, ch. 3).

Confusion between broad and narrow usages of "self-interest" quickly leads to acrimonious disagreements. Yet this confusion persists. I can't help but ask whose fault this misunderstanding is, and to what extent it is deliberate. On one hand, Objectivists use language very strangely. But Weissbourd also seems a mite peculiar in how he seems to want very badly to keep his peas and carrots separated on his plate. Why does he do this?

One reason why the IRS might make this distinction is because Congress is taking narrow self-interest for granted, and is implicitly trying to subsidize public goods that are produced by churches and other charitable or educational organizations. Sir Dennis Robertson does something very similar in explaining the difference between a preacher and an economist:

There exists in every human breast an inevitable state of tension between the aggressive and acquisitive instincts and the instincts of benevolence and self-sacrifice. It is for the preacher, lay or clerical, to inculcate the ultimate duty of subordinating the former to the latter. It is the humbler, and often the invidious, role of the economist to help, so far as he can, in reducing the preacher's task to manageable dimensions. It is his function to emit a warning bark if he sees courses of action being advocated or pursued which will increase unnecessarily the inevitable tension between self-interest and public duty; and to wag his tail in approval of courses of action which will tend to keep the tension low and tolerable.

— from The Calculus of Consent, ch. 3, by James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock

Robertson obviously refers to the sacrifice of "self-interest" in a narrow sense, and expects "preachers" to be able to either supply their audiences with something along the lines of "intangible religious benefits" (social status, perhaps?) or remind them of some subtle benefits that were already available. Some of these benefits include psychological rewards which depend on "right relationship" with other people. As H. L. Mencken put it (The Altruist):

A large part of altruism, even when it is perfectly honest, is grounded upon the fact that it is uncomfortable to have unhappy people about one. This is especially true in family life. A man makes sacrifices to his wife's desires, not because he greatly enjoys giving up what he wants himself, but because he would enjoy it even less to see her cutting a sour face across the dinner table.

But people don't have to be physically about, or even physically real, in order to pull on our heart strings. Thomas Schelling has an essay or three along these lines about "the mind as a consuming organ" in Choice and Consequence. People will pay money to go to movies and plays about people and even animals who they know are fictional (eg. Lassie and Timmy). Adam Smith (TMS, pt. 3, ch. 3) wrote about the emotional effects on a hypothetical Englishman of hearing that millions of Chinese (complete strangers) had been killed in a great earthquake. But the most important relationship one has is one's relationship with one's self, the self-image:

It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

The "impure" theory uses "self-interest" the same way the "pure" theory does. The difference is that the impure position has no problem with people having mixed motives. But having (I think) solved this semantics problem regarding "self-interest," I am left with the same problem I had with Ayn Rand. I need to make tradeoffs between different kinds of self-interest, and this discussion of "morality," whether the pure or impure version, doesn't really tell me anything useful about how to do this. Weissbourd may be trying to apply some emotional carrot and stick, or staking out a claim for higher social status, rather than trying to give me insight. In other words, rather than offering us a guide to action, Weissbourd, too, is trying to dazzle us with his rhetoric. The impure position seems similar, but seems to come with a warning not to take the rhetoric too seriously.

In terms of the confusion between broad and narrow self-interest, Jonathan Haidt is both part of the solution and part of the problem. His primary concern in "The felicity of virtue" (ch. 8, The Happiness Hypothesis) is how virtuous behavior is taught, rather than explaining what it is. But it is clear enough that he is thinking of enlightened self-interest here. "Most approaches were practical, striving to inculcate virtues that would benefit the person who cultivates them" (p. 159). He says explicitly on p. 164 that virtue is its own reward, although I think Smith, via Phillipson and Roberts, does a better job of explaining why:

Smith says in TMS man wants to be loved and he wants to be lovely. That is: Sure, we want people to think highly of us. But we want to actually earn it. We care that we merit that love.

Haidt says in general that morality was taught much better in ancient times, and that modern Westerners have gone off the rails. "Where the Greeks focused on the character of a person and asked what kind of person we should each aim to become, modern ethics focuses on actions, asking when a particular action is right or wrong" (p. 163). On the next page he alludes obliquely to the confusion between narrow and enlightened self-interest, but he presents it as an oversimplification that he seems to regard as important only because it makes teaching difficult. "When morality is reduced to the opposite of self-interest, however, the virtue hypothesis becomes paradoxical: In modern terms, the virtue hypothesis says that acting against your self-interest is in your self-interest. It's hard to convince people that this is true, and it can't possibly be true in all situations."

I fear that Haidt is being too kind. It isn't clear in many discussions of morality whether the speaker's moral views are grounded in self-interest at all. Haidt himself elsewhere talks, for example, of a moral "purity/sanctity" axis involving such things as kosher food laws whose relation to self-interest is at best tenuous. Edward O. Wilson's biologically-based morality may have more to do with reproduction than happiness. John Locke's ideas about "natural rights" and Robert Nozick's version of libertarianism both seem to me to be among those that "peter out in metaphysics." The NPR story never explains why I should care whether Weissbourd regards my behavior as moral or not.

If I bend over backwards long enough, trying to be generous to Weissbourd, I can rationalize that perhaps he is trying to draw a distinction similar to Betty Sue Flowers' between "seeing" and "doing good," but then he inexplicably disparages the latter as not being genuinely moral. Or is he implicitly asking us to lie about our motives? I feel like I'm reading a bad Agatha Christie novel. A simpler interpretation (the Objectivist one, if I read Rand correctly) would be that Weissbourd is asking us to revel in self-sabotage. It's also possible that he is telling us that our motives are honorable only so long as we are unable to articulate them (as people often seem to imply when discussing good and bad reasons for having children).

If we try to take the rhetoric of people like Weissbourd seriously as a guide to action, morality quickly becomes absurd. Gilbert and Sullivan parody this sort of moral pedagogy in the operetta, "Patience," but it is not clear that the parody differs from the real thing except in that it follows the logic to its conclusion. Here the title character in "Patience" mournfully explains why she is morally compelled to marry the obnoxious Bunthorne:

True love must single-hearted be;
from every selfish fancy free.
No idle thought of gain or joy
a maiden's fancy should employ.
True love must be without alloy.
True love must be without alloy.

Imposture to contempt must lead.
Blind vanity's dissention's seed.
It follows, then, a maiden who
devotes herself to loving you
is prompted by no selfish view,
is prompted by no selfish view.

Maybe this is just a symptom of Asperger's syndrome on my part, but for me, this "morality reduced to the opposite of self-interest" is worse than useless. At best, it seems almost criminally inarticulate. I expect flatterers to say things that are plausible, even if they are in reckless disregard of the truth (Frankfurt's "bullshit"). But this isn't even coherent, let alone plausible. It seems intended only to make people feel good, or feel bad, and depends totally on the listener not trying to think about it very hard. It is the human equivalent of me patting my son's Labrador retriever on the head and saying, "Nice doggy." In "Patience's" terms, it is like Bunthorne's poetry. Even Bunthorne's fondest admirers admitted that his writing was nonsense.


A tautology?

Why would I embrace any system of morality that can't be justified in terms of my enlightened self-interest? It would seem, tautologically, that a moral system that cannot be related to my interests is one that I would not be interested in. But sometimes these relationships are subtle, and often they are concealed rather than illuminated by rhetoric. My answers all involve either conceptions of self-interest that are not sufficiently inclusive or else some kind of fraud.

One answer is that I wouldn't knowingly seek out such a system, but my cognitive biases lead me to one, and the difference between an intuitively comfortable moral system and a theoretically better system doesn't seem great enough to justify the amount of mental effort needed to produce and adhere to a "better" one. Such an imperfect system might be justifiable in terms of enlightened self-interest, once I take the "cost" of my own mental effort into account ("rational ignorance" in economic jargon, or more accurately "rational irrationality" in Bryan Caplan's terms).

A second answer is that the question involves semantic confusion over both "self-interest" and "morality." I may be using "self-interest" in a narrow, unenlightened sense, and I may want to use the word "morality" specifically to mean only behavior that supports a complementary subset of enlightened self-interest.

A third explanation has to do with how sentiments change (ie. Betty Sue Flowers' "spiritual journey"). The Sufi poet, Rumi, advised the "spiritual window-shoppers" among his readers, "Even if you don't know what you want, buy something, just to be part of the exchanging flow." It is in your enlightened self-interest in some abstract sense to be emotionally connected to other people, even though the choice of which group of people to become involved with may be largely arbitrary. You may therefore want to embrace a moral system that supports forming these connections, even though, before those connections are formed, it may be hard to relate that system to anyone in particular that you care about.

A fourth explanation is that I want to live in a society that has more or less utilitarian rules, even though this creates conflicts of interest. I want Dennis Robertson's "preacher" to be able to inculcate benevolent behavior in you towards me, but I will not always be willing to do what is asked of me to reciprocate, and we all understand that the preacher's tools are limited. What I would like to see in a book on morality is a description of the inducements that Robertson's preacher has to offer, and a practical guide to making the tradeoffs I need to make in order to decide when to accept and when to decline them. One might think of some behavior as supporting enlightened self-interest on an immediate, "tactical" level, analogous to a consumer good, and other behavior supporting enlightened self-interest on a longer-term, "strategic" level, analogous to an investment in "goodwill." Some investments make sense and some don't.

A fifth explanation is that some kind of shenanigans are afoot. While people's conscious intentions may be benevolent when they talk about morality, I can't explain the world I see around me without talking about self-deception, competition for social status, and coalitional psychology. In addition, people who engage in self-deception (ie. all of us, to some extent) are likely to be exploited by deliberate frauds (ie. demogogues). Steven Pinker warns (p. 47, The Blank Slate), "The conscious mind—the self or soul—is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief." Human beings are extremely good at self-deception. Robert Frank warns (Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status) that competition for social status is a much bigger factor in everyday life than most people give it credit for. Most social organizations (churches, political parties, etc.) can be seen to some extent as teams that compete for social status against other teams. But it is precisely these competing social organizations that mostly set the social norms and teach the philosophy that we call "morality."

You can find the long version of this last view of human nature in The Market for Sanctimony, or why we need Yet Another Space Alien Cult. The short version is that I suspect that most moral pleading is on some level fraudulent, at least in the realm of politics.

What many lack today — and intellectuals most of all — is some source of moral values besides the tribal identifications offered by partisan politics.

— anonymous commenter at Neo-Neocon blog


Part 3
Can I have my revolutionary ferver now?


What does this tell me about the struggle for moral superiority between the capitalists and the socialists? Can I declare one side objectively the winner? Can I even figure out what claims the respective sides are making? Can I at least improve my rhetoric?

When the minister at my church a few weeks ago made his comment about the moral superiority of socialism, I think he was either expressing his own moral sentiments or making a statement about social norms. When Margaret Thatcher and John Hoskyns made the comments Claire Berlinski quoted in chapter 3 of There Is No Alternative, I think they were either trying to enforce existing social norms or trying to change them. If so, then neither side is objectively right or wrong, except in so far as one could say that current social norms are one way or the other.

My sense is that current social norms in the US are a muddle, at least among Moldbug's "Proles." (Daniel Hannan claims that public opinion in Britain is more similar to the US than most people realize.) Americans don't like to be called "socialists" or "fascists," but Sheldon Richman's description of "fascism" in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics sounds awfully familiar to me. ("As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist veneer." Or as Jonah Goldberg wrote in Liberal Fascism, p. 68, fascism is "non-Marxist socialism.") You just have to call it a "public-private partnership" and you have a good shot at getting a majority of voters to support it. By this measure of the struggle for moral superiority, I have to call it a draw.

If it comes down to a utilitarian argument, I think capitalism wins easily, as I argued in The Dog Ate My Manifesto. My lack of a "manifesto" refers to the need to make tradeoffs rather than making decisions based on "bright line" criteria. But the optimal size of government as a proportion of the economy is definitely closer to zero than to unity. The 14% figure that Berlinski offers (p. 123) looks to my libertarian eyes to be toward the high end of the plausible range.

I'm not sure who wins if it is framed as an evolutionary psychology argument. As Friedrich Hayek (via Will Wilkinson) wrote in The Fatal Conceit,

If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.

I'm inclined to argue that socialism is in large part an attempt to apply "small band" rules that our ancestors evolved 100,000 years ago in the East African Rift Valley to the "extended order" we find today at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. So the socialists have a valid Wilsonian claim that their moral views are biologically based, but unfortunately, outside of "our more intimate groupings," these "instincts and sentiments" are maladaptations.

On the other hand, people don't like being coerced. They especially don't like being coerced by strangers. It doesn't help when the strangers are sanctimonious (they seem to be more interested in social status than in benevolence), have conflicts of interest, have poorly thought-out reasons, and lie about uncertainty. Or maybe it's just me. Carter Van Carter described libertarianism as "applied autism." Do other people like being coerced? Or do people with better social skills always expect to be part of the winning political coalition, without realizing that they are playing a lot of negative-sum games? How much of the ascendancy of socialism over classical liberalism during the last century is due to evolutionary psychology, and how much of it is due to historical accidents and the quirky interactions between science, religion, technology, and politics? I'm inclined to say that classical liberalism is the historical accident, and that socialism is "morally superior" in the sense of being a genuine Darwinian evolutionary psychology maladaptation. But surely this is not what the UU minister meant. I can't imagine anyone bragging that their moral views are a genuine evolutionary maladaptation.

I also notice that Margaret Thatcher's argument travels in the opposite direction from mine. My argument in The Dog Ate My Manifesto is that capitalism (libertarianism) is moral because it's utilitarian. Thatcher's argument is that capitalism is economically successful because it's moral. As the 1979 Conservative Manifesto (bearing Thatcher's signature) states (Berlinski, p. 48),

Our country's relative decline is not inevitable.
We in the Conservative Party think we can reverse it, not because we think we have all the answers but because we think we have the one answer that matters most. We want to work with the grain of human nature, helping people to help themselves — and others. This is the way to restore that self-reliance and self-confidence which are the basis of personal responsibility and national success.

Thatcher's argument starts with people's natural moral sentiments, which can only be somewhat modified by culture. Human nature is like a horse. Capitalism rides the horse, where socialism gets into a tug-of-war with the horse. In Taoist terms, capitalism is efficient because it goes with the Tao, and it goes with the Tao because it conforms with people's moral sentiments. Capitalism thrives by allowing people to act on the sentiments that they actually have, more or less, rather than demanding that they act on the sentiments that other people wished they had.

But I may be confusing human nature, culture, and moral pedagogy. Consider the context of the quotation from p. 8 on the immorality of socialism:

It was not only that socialism was an economically inefficient way to organize human societies. It was not only that communist regimes had in the twentieth century drenched the world in blood. It was that socialism itself--in all its incarnations, wherever and however it was applied--was morally corrupting. Socialism turned good citizens into bad ones; it turned strong nations into weak ones; it promoted vice and discouraged virtue; and even when it did not lead directly to the Gulags, it transformed formerly hardworking and self-reliant men and women into whining, weak and flabby loafers. Socialism was not a fine idea that had been misapplied; it was an inherently wicked idea.

To say that socialism is "morally corrupting" implies that humans have morals that are capable of being corrupted. This takes us outside the notion of human nature being fixed over human time scales and into the realm of either culture (social norms) or individual virtue (Haidt's habit formation pedagogy, which is obviously affected by culture). Thatcher's argument that socialism is "morally corrupting" is really saying that socialism causes both culture and the formerly "virtuous" habits of enlightened individual self-interest to evolve in ways that are not only economically inefficient, but contemptible as viewed from the platform of fixed human nature.

The actual moral claim that socialists make (eg. Bernard Crick's In Defence of Politics4) is that capitalism (ie. having secure property rights) is morally corrupting; that altruism is not the limited resource that Dennis Robertson and Richard MacKenzie claim, but more like a muscle that capitalism allows to atrophy; that capitalism causes people to be less altruistic that they would be under socialism. On these terms, Thatcher clearly wins, in my view. Adam Smith explains this beautifully in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

So on the one hand, socialism, is "moral" in that our biologically based "instincts and sentimental yearnings" incline us toward socialist policies, but on the other hand, it is "immoral" in that the inevitable consequences of these policies are offensive to those same biologically based sentiments. We seem to be like moths, who have a love-hate relationship to candle flames. But is that what morals are for? To lead us to burn ourselves? I'm calling this one for Thatcher.


I want to return now to the question of how I can make my rhetoric more effective. As part of this, I would like to be able to respond more effectively to my opponents' rhetoric. This means, assuming that my position is sensible and my opponents' are not, that I would like to have a more-or-less objective moral BS detector. I want to be able to say that some moral arguments are objectively false, self-contradictory, or lead to generally undesirable outcomes. For example, is the game being played positive sum or negative sum?

As Confucius said, the first step is the rectification of names. In order to say whether a particular line of moral reasoning makes sense, I need to place it in one of at least four categories according to whether its object is (1) the enlightened self-interest of an individual decision-maker, (2) utilitarianism (group decision-making), (3) honest persuasion (ie. exchange of sentiments), or (4) dishonesty. Utilitarian logic may not produce a clear winner among political philosophies, but it clarifies the uncertainties and it does produce some clear losers.

But effective rhetoric has to engage the emotions, not just the intellect. I'm not at all sure of what follows, but this is what I think: rhetoric often has to be tailored to one's audience. I want a neutral audience to feel more sympathy or affinity with my views than with my opponents' views. I want to rouse fervor in a friendly audience. I want a moderately hostile audience to suffer a loss of confidence and start looking for a fallback position, or possibly feel some sympathy and consider switching sides. I want a committedly hostile audience, those who have invested too much face to be able to admit error, to be seen by the other groups as ridiculous or contemptible, and to be stressed enough to make further errors.

Part of the trick of preaching to a neutral audience is to accept that my moral sentiments are subjective, and to politely get in other people's faces with them anyway. These subjective sentiments may be part of what Carl Jung confusingly called the "objective psyche." Adam Smith explained this in terms of a hypothetical "impartial spectator." I differ with Ayn Rand here; while I think there is a high likelihood that people can talk one another into using their imaginations to enter into one another's sentiments, there is no guarantee of success, as these are still fundamentally subjective. But I agree with John Allison that equal treatment for unequal behavior is unjust, and I see no reason to be shy about saying so.

Michael Strong preaches at a moderately hostile audience. He seems to follow Scipio's advice: "Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across." The trick here is to help your opponents to save face while they retreat. Or is it? How effective was Strong's book? Maybe the problem isn't for individuals to save face when they change their minds, but for them to find new friends who will accept them even though they acknowledge truths that would have been unspeakable in front of their old friends. What would have happened if, heaven forbid, I had succeeded in converting the past minister at my church to libertarianism? What effects would that have had on his career, his marriage, and his self-esteem? He might have needed a new life — not a "golden bridge," but a witness protection program.

Rousing fervor in a friendly audience overlaps a great deal with attacking a committedly hostile audience. Usually one addresses the friendly audience (preaching to the choir) and tries to transfer prestige from the hostile to the friendly camp by accusing the hostile camp of being evil and/or stupid. Otherwise, rousing fervor consists largely of drawing attention to the importance of some task ahead, such as not saddling our children with mountains of debt.

The interesting part is ridiculing and shaming a committedly hostile audience. Thatcher (and Rand, as I read her) emphasized shame. H. L. Mencken was a master of ridicule. For my purposes, the distinction is not important. Ridiculing and shaming (roughly, accusing them of being stupid and evil, respectively) both attack the opponent's social status, and make him a less desirable person to be associated with. Part of the trick here is to direct the accusations at the zealots, not at the people you hope to influence. This distinction is important, and it is difficult, because the difference between the zealots and the moderates is not necessarily that their ideas are different, but that the moderates' emotional investment is lower. Another trick is to not be afraid of making enemies.

The main thing I want to accuse my opponents of is failure to exercise mental discipline. I want to accuse them of allowing their emotional needs rather than facts to determine their beliefs. ("False consciousness?") As Jamie Whyte put it,

Modern politics is just as you should expect it to be when votes are cast by ignorant people taking advantage of a low-cost source of emotional gratification5.

The second most important accusation I want to make has to do with moral education. I recognize Haidt's point about the need to develop good habits, but what I'm really getting at here is a point I brought up regarding Christianity in The Market for Sanctimony:

As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, morality is largely a matter of imagination. I claim that traditional Christianity did a relatively good job of training the moral imagination, and that Marxism does a disasterously perverse job of this.

What I really want to do is change the culture. I want a culture that shames people for failure to exercise mental discipline and that encourages people to use their imagination differently. I want the loss of face, the psychological cost, of talking out of one's ass regarding politics to be greater than the psychological cost of exercising significantly higher levels of mental discipline. And when people imagine walking in other people's shoes, I want them to be taught to be far more realistic about the alternatives and to consider a far more representative sample of the world's population.

I have mixed feelings about rhetoric. Maybe the most effective rhetoric in the long run would be to treat everyone as if they were open-minded, to be gracious, and to let one's opponents appear uncivil. Maybe I want to be flawlessly polite, even as I exhaust everyone's patience making it painfully clear that my opponents have gotten the wrong answer. Or it may be that the most effective approach is a combination, with different writers specializing in different styles. Do Adam Smith and H. L. Mencken play an effective game of good cop/bad cop together? Have the Progressives been winning because the classical Liberals did a bad job, or because the breakdown of Christian cosmology has left too big a psychological hole in the modern Western mind, and we haven't figured out how to fill it yet? [More thoughts on rhetoric here.]


"Interesting," said Professor Quirrell. "That does sound similar. Is there a moral?"

"That your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality," said Harry. "If you're equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge. The students thought they could use words like 'because of heat conduction' to explain anything, even a metal plate being cooler on the side nearer the fire. So they didn't notice how confused they were, and that meant they couldn't be more confused by falsehood than by truth. If you tell me that the centaurs were under the Imperius Curse, I still have the feeling of something being not quite right. I notice that I'm still confused even after hearing your explanation."

-- Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (fanfic), Chapter 26. Noticing Confusion



1. There are other explanations. On p. 18, Berlinski writes of her experiences at Oxford:

It was a clearly observable law that the more bitterly a woman could be heard complaining of the university's institutional sexism, the more likely it was that she was ugly, hopelessly passive, or not all that bright. If Thatcher subsequently had no patience with feminists — "Some of us were making it before Women's Lib was even thought of," she once snapped — I would wager it was because she had made precisely the same observation.

James Taranto says there's a gender gap in the Palin hatred, and that it has to do with attitudes towards abortion and women's equality.

There were a lot of interesting comments about Thatcher, Palin, and Carrie Prejean (Miss California 2009) at this Samizdata blog post, especially one by "Ian B:"

...[B]oth the Left and the Right in the Anglosphere are derived from the Christian revival at the start of the Victorian Era. This revival was a strongly female phenomenon (there's a good discussion of this in Callum Brown's The Death of Christian Britain). Women played a central role as carriers and enforcement of the new evangelism.

Women thus gained a role as "the angel in the home" and the conscience of society; a role which broadly they still carry out (they have been primary carriers of the Green faith, the replacement for Christian moralism, for instance.) This means that members of the two moralist movements — Leftism and Conservatism — expect women to pursue their moral goals, and failure to do so is a failure of their femininity. Thus to a feminist, a woman who fails to advocate their moral system is literally "not being a woman".

Hence, to leftist moralists, Thatcher was not a woman. Palin is not a woman. Etc. They are seen as instead carrying out the "male" role of being immoral. In that sense, they are treated as kind of moral transexuals.

Here is an old post by William Jacobson on Palin hatred and the role of her son, Trig. I suspect that part of the problem is that, like the NRA, the abortion rights movement is terrified of slippery slope arguments, and they consequently take more aggressive positions than they otherwise would. But I also expect that supporting abortion rights in the first place places women in a psychologically uncomfortable position, having to abandon part of their traditional self-regard as being good, nurturant mothers. Palin engages in plenty of verbal ridicule, but arguably, this merely adds insult to the real injury, that of giving birth to a Down's syndrome baby. If a woman feels as if she has sacrificed part of her soul on the altar of abortion rights, Palin's presence on the national stage would naturally be something of a salt shaker over the wound.

There is also an obvious element of denial and projection regarding experience and qualifications coming from the Obama camp.

Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us.

There is a guilty conscience behind every brazen word and act and behind every manifestation of self-righteousness.

— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, p. 95

One more factor is that Palinophobia may have been something of a scapegoat "preference cascade." The Democratic Party and its gleichgeschaltet media boosters needed to demonize the Republican ticket, but it was awkward for them to go after McCain because their treatment of him in the past, as a friendly "RINO," had been too favorable. No such blatant flip-flop was necessary to attack Palin. The need for a scapegoat was felt by a large fraction of the electorate; they just needed to agree on who it would be.

Update: Lexington Green suggests that Palin's key characteristic is that she was the first major Republican politician to drop the gloves with regard to the use of ridicule against Obama.

Respond by recalling Alinsky's Rule 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counteract ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage."

Sarah Palin's speech to the GOP convention ridiculed Obama. It worked precisely as Alinsky would have predicted. They are still reacting to it.

2. This "No one believes in socialism anymore" was an abrupt about-face from how Britain was before Thatcher, when the Conservative Party had pretty much given up because nobody believed in capitalism anymore. A great deal of Thatcher's genius appears to have been that she triggered a preference cascade. Lots of people disliked Britain's drift towards socialism, but they were isolated, and didn't know their own numbers.

3. Eliezer Yudkowsky offers dire warnings for people who think they're smart enough to not need to adhere to their ethics.

...beware of cleverness....

There are obvious silly things here that you shouldn't do; for example, you shouldn't wait until you're really tempted, and then try to figure out if you're smarter than your ethics on that particular occasion.

But in general - there's only so much power that can vest in what your parents told you not to do.

4. "A Footnote to Rally Fellow Socialists" in the 4th (American) edition, esp. pp. 196-7. This isn't a very good example, but my collection of socialist propaganda is quite limited unless you count copies of the UU World which I haven't read.

As it happened, it was a conversation with my wife (now Pu Sa Bum Nym) about a particularly inane article in the UU World ("Why immigration is a moral issue," by Daniel Stracka, pp.14-15, Vol. XXIV No. 4, Winter 2010) that actually got me to sit down and start writing out the list that figures so prominently in Part 2 of this essay. I regard this article as a two page long non-sequitur. He quotes Rev. Peter Morales as saying, "As a religious people who affirm human compassion, advocate for human rights, and seek justice, we must never make the mistake of confusing a legal right with a moral right." Fair enough, but I don't see how anyone can help but be confused if they can't figure out what basis Stracka has for asserting moral rights, or why this matters. I certainly didn't learn it from this article. All I am left with is an impression that the word, "moral," is a signal that the author intends that all critical thinking is to be suspended.

5. The recent reissue of Eugen Richter's 1891 cautionary novel, Pictures of the Socialistic Future, led to a discussion at EconLog on explaining socialism's moral decay. Bryan Caplan presents:

  1. The Actonian "power corrupts" story
  2. The Hayekian "worst get on top" story
  3. The Richterian "born bad" story

While I agree with the general thrust of the comments there, that the Richter story is first among equals, that's not really my concern here. I'm not worried about people like Trotsky, or even the low-level ideologues. In a democracy like the USA, I'm worried about large numbers of breezy moral idiots. If the breezy moral idiots stop following the demogogues, the demogogues will cease to matter.


Previous: Honesty, Flattery, Fealty
Next: Review of Why America Needs Religion