I was reading Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” and got to his analysis of Socrates. Russell has a number of amusing insights into the man, but my favorite is this idea that Socrates’ primary value was as perhaps the first systematic philosopher of bullshit-detection. The Socratic Method, though of limited use in formal, mathematical logic, is ideal for leading your conversation partner to find errors in their thinking. This is of great importance, Russell argues, because in any era the goodness of the public morality will include contradiction and error. Note that the art of bullshit detection not only rubs up against but requires undermining the public morality, the goodness, of the community at large. Russell, not nearly finished with this topic, goes on in his essay “On Nice People” to argue the following.
“To be a nice person, it is necessary to be protected from crude contact with reality, and those who do the protecting cannot be expected to share the niceness that they preserve. Imagine, for example, a wreck on a liner which is transporting a number of colored laborers; the first-class female passengers, all of whom are presumably nice women, will be saved first; but in order that this may happen, there must be men who keep the colored laborers from swamping the boat, and it is unlikely that these men will be able to succeed by nice methods. The women who have been saved, as soon as they are safe, will begin to feel sorry for the poor laborers who were drowned, but their tender hearts are rendered possible only by the rough men who defended them.”
Confucius and Mencius discover a similar problem in their “village worthies.” Confucius calls these people “thieves of virtue” because, by conforming to the passing moral fads, they often lead third parties to confuse a sincere life of virtue with mere virtue signalling. Mencius, quoting a piece of the Confucius cannon now lost to us, writes the following:
“I hate the things that appear to be something but are not. I hate the false millet, because I fear it could confound the sprouts. I hate the flatterers, because I fear they could confound duty. I hate the sharp tongued, because I fear they could confound trustworthiness. I hate the tunes of Zheng, because I fear they could confound music. I hate the lilac, because I fear it could confound the vermilion. I hate the village worthy, because I fear he could confound virtue.”
So what is it about these village worthies Mencius and Confucius dislike so strongly? It is that “you can find no fault” in them, according to whatever moral fad happens to be in vogue. They are comfortable and smug and “good” because “it is enough to be good.” They resemble but fall short of Shun and Yao (Confucian moral exemplars) precisely because they go through the motions of goodness without any of the struggle, deep thinking or discipline performing a thoughtful life would require.
Edward Gibbon, scandalous as always, describes the higher moral values of 4th century Rome as follows:
“As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”
The higher the goodness – the more devotion, justice and virgins the church produced – the less practical good could be done. The greater the moral purity, the fewer the philosophers; with the rise of the good, the fall of the useful.
In Russell, the Confucians and Gibbon we find a strange theme of moral goodness being, fundamentally, dishonest. I got thinking about this because of a discussion some of my students had. When I asked them if they valued diversity, each of them said yes. I then explained that diverse suitors to Viking maidens very often killed rival suitors in order to show the sincerity of their love and protect the lady’s honor, that the diverse people of Dahomey believed in the moral imperative to go on tri-annual slave hunts and sacrifice/eat those unfit for sale, that the diverse Hmong tribesmen of Vietnam have a proud tradition of wife stealing, the students universally expressed their horror. Such things violate “universal values,” they explained. Even milder forms of diversity like traditional female circumcision and child soldiering, they continued, were unacceptable because of said values.
I then asked if they could think of any diversities that were acceptable. The only things we came up with were trivialities like cooking diverse foods, provided, of course, that the diverse foods are not farmed in “universal values” incompatible ways and do not look too yucky in our universal values attuned eyes. My students at this point grew confused. How, they wondered, are they supposed to believe what good people believe – diversity is good and universal values exist – without having to actually respect the diverse but icky Viking, Dahomey, Hmong etc. cultures?
We had a similar discussion about equality. Everyone agreed we need more equality, but when I pointed out that an equal world would see my students making $280 a month and ending their educations in the ninth grade, we discovered that what we really wanted was to be more equal to people who are richer and more successful than ourselves, not equal to the unfortunate or even average. Being equal to the average Zambian, for example, would be an unacceptable lack of respect for the differences in ability we all have. This particularly argument led us to the logical consequence that the average Zambian prefers to live uneducated and impoverished, which was most disquieting. Once more, we faced the problem of how to be egalitarian – that is good – without the grim hopelessness of actual equality?
The nonsense of goodness doesn’t end there. My students are also, in order to be good, supposed to believe in freedom, even though that term is literally meaningless. I shouldn’t be too hard on the students. They learned this puffery from their ethics teachers and their ethics teachers – good people – were certified and hired based on their adherence to moral fads far more than their abilities to think. I should also point out that the students also, mostly by themselves, replace goodness with honesty, given the chance.
Back to the gibberish goodness requires us to believe. In all three cases, a commitment to truth over goodness seems to solve the moral confusion. In the case of good people respecting diversity and believing in universal values, we can very simply demonstrate that the goodness in question is a direct contradiction. The value of diversity means that we think there are multiple ways to be good, diversity meaning “many types.” Universal values mean that we there is one answer, universal being “one thing applicable in all cases.” My students couldn’t respect diverse cultures and embrace universal values any more than they could be darkly bright or coolly hot.
In the case of equality, replacing goodness with honesty led to the discovery of a cognitive bias. Namely, when I asked the students for examples of inequality, they invariably mentioned people who were richer and more successful than their own families. Considering my students are all middle or upper class folks from a rich country, those higher ups they considered privileged were a tiny, minuscule slice of the global population. A little discussion followed on this and we discovered that equality is, in almost all cases, sanctified ambition and pious hypocrisy.
Freedom, well, I wrote an entire article about that goofy bundle of nothing. If you don’t have time to read that article, a short summary. The term “freedom” includes both “freedom to X” and “freedom from X.” Freedom to X and freedom from X have exactly opposite meanings and, thus, when we speak of freedom in the abstract, as is done in ethics classes, we are talking literal nonsense.
In all cases it is perhaps better, or at least more honest, to suspect the sincerity of the good, the nice and the worthy.
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Joshua and the Chosen People