I can’t adequately describe Jonah Goldberg’s article Biology and Ideology. It’s chilling.
Steve Simpson pointed me to this op-ed by Robert Bartley on the myriad of recent scandals in the “supposedly high-minded quarters” of society, from academia to the Catholic Church. Dishonesty seems to be on a rampage. But there may be reason for hope, as Bartley suggests towards the end of his piece:
On whether we have experienced a general erosion of standards, I think I can rest my case. Human nature, of course, remains a constant over time and across fields of endeavor. What matters is accountability, that is, whether we as a society are willing to sit in judgment on each other. And perhaps the anecdotes above in fact suggest that in this post-Clinton era we’re making some progress; at least the issues are coming to light and creating some agony in church, government and universities.
But it only gets more interesting. Barley goes on to suggest businessmen do not share the “immunity from accountability” that tenured academics and civil servants have. They are not protected from their own immorality by the cushion of a more-or-less guaranteed job.
In my opinion, the tenure system doesn’t really protect professors against political ax-grinding. Those with unpopular opinions are simply weeded out before tenure is awarded. The downsides to the tenure system, in terms of ensconcing terrible professors and permitting little effort, are considerable. A system requiring competence and diligence while protecting professors against unjust politics would surely not be impossible to construct.
As Paul has been away at a conference for the past few days, I have spent a few hours in those days in rather dubious pursuits. Perhaps the worst was a few night ago. After watching my beloved Batman Beyond, I stuck around the Cartoon Network to watch some bizarre Japanese cartoon. As it turns out, the cartoon contained an interesting moral lesson, although not the one intended.
In the cartoon, a young boy has died. But there is a possibility of his returning to life if he properly cares for a magic egg. If he behaves badly, the egg will hatch a terrible monster which will bite his head off. If he behaves well, the egg will hatch a powerful creature necessary to return his spirit to his body. But his house catches fire and threatens to destroy his body, without which he will not be able to return to life. A girl he cares for runs into the blazing house to rescue his body, but she gets trapped by the fire. The boy is thus faced with a stark moral choice. He can throw the egg into the fire to save the girl, but thereby ruin his chances of returning to life. Or he can save the egg for himself and allow his friend to die. (Of course, if the boy allows the girl to die, his body will also be destroyed, along with any hope of rebirth. But the cartoon doesn’t consider this fact.) The boy overcomes his “selfish” desire for life and throws down the egg. The gods are so impressed with this noble act that they return him to his body despite the destruction of the egg. In fact, the gods inform the boy that had the egg hatched, the creature would have surely eaten him for his bad behavior. (Sorry for the long summary, but the story line was too bizarre for a short synopsis.)
The moral of the story, of course, is that selfless behavior is rewarded. By acting to save the life of his friend, he ends up saving both of their lives. If he had acted to save his own life, both he and the girl would have died. Only by acting against his own apparent interests can the boy has all of his wishes realized.
This moral message is fairly common, particularly in children’s literature. Adults sell the ideal of altruism to children by giving it an egoistic veneer. They claim that rewards will be heaped upon those who act selflessly. Those rewards may come from God after death, from other people, or even from psychological satisfaction. Those rewards may be delayed, but they will come. In essence, this dressed-up altruism asserts that the best way to obtain happiness is to not pursue it. Or even more strongly: the best way to obtain happiness is to pursue the happiness of others at the expense of one’s own happiness.
Of course, when the issue is put so starkly it seems rather ridiculous. Imagine a person who has $50 in his wallet. He wants to buy a $75 gift for his beloved wife. Would the best way to acquire the extra $25 be to give away the $50 dollars he has? Should he then expect to magically receive $75 back? Or should he just directly pursue the needed $25 by going to the ATM and removing the funds from his account? Obviously, we get the stuff we want by pursuing it, not renouncing it. That’s how life works.
Two objections could be made to this simple observation when applied to happiness. First, we do occasionally receive good stuff unexpectedly, like an inheritance from an aunt we never knew existed. Such gains cannot be relied upon, precisely because they are unexpected and unusual. Most of the time, we must work to achieve what we want. Second, some people pursue their happiness in all the wrong ways, thereby making themselves miserable. But the irrationality of some people’s means of acquiring something says nothing about the actual value of that thing. Just because some people attempt to obtain a job by threatening lawsuits doesn’t mean that pursuing a job is bad.
Altruism, if presented honestly, would advocate the sacrifice of oneself to others as an end-in-itself. To motivate altruism with hope or expectation of reward, as the cartoon did, is to appeal to egoism. But egoism and altruism are not compatible, no matter how often people accept the silly contradiction. Kant understood this problem, which is why his moral theory seems so harsh and extreme. He, at least, was consistent on this issue. (Although not well-grounded, as Will Wilkinson argues in this essay.)
I’m not advocating any form of psychological egoism. People clearly can and do act against their interests, both in full knowledge and in ignorance. My point is rather that to make altruism a palatable moral theory for a wide audience, its advocates must sugar-coat it with a veneer of self-interest. They must promise people rewards for their sacrifices. They falsely promise a positive cost-benefit analysis in the long run. Why? Because naked altruism would be abhorrent to most even moderately self-respecting people.
But by dressing up the wolf in sheep’s clothing during childhood, the indignity of altruism remains hidden from the sight of most people.
In Why Kids Lie, Eckman talks about reducing the temptation to lie. Speaking of his son, who he caught in a big lie two years earlier, Eckman writes:
Whenever something has come up that [my son] might be tempted to lie about, I have been very careful about questioning him in a way that would encourage him to be truthful. Not “Who broke the vase?” or “Did you break the vase?” But “We shouldn’t have kept that vase in such a vulnerable spot; it would be too easy to knock over. Was it you or your sister?”
In other words, Eckman is recommending asking leading questions that put the wrongdoing in the most favorable light so that truthfulness isn’t so scary for the child. The child feels safer in telling the truth, with fewer worries about harsh punishment to come.
However, the most charitable explanation for behavior isn’t always the most accurate. The son might have broken the vase playing baseball inside or smashed the vase in a fit of anger. In such cases, the leading question encourages the child to confess to the wrongdoing — but only superficially. The child might honestly admit to causing the damage, but then lie (either by omission or commission) about the reasons for that damage. In essence, the leading question provides a ready-made false excuse.
So using this method of leading, charitable questions in an attempt to promote honesty and responsibility may instead promote habits of dishonesty and irresponsibility.
In contrast, Linda and Richard Eyre’s book Teaching Your Children Values contains some excellent suggestions for teaching honesty to children of all ages. Perhaps the most interesting is implicit in the opening story of the chapter on honesty.
Pulling into the driveway one way, I noticed a broken milk bottle on the pavement. I asked nine-year-old Josh and his friend, Chip, if they knew how it happened. Chip quickly said no. Josh looked over at him, somewhat startled, then walked over and put his hand on Chip’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay, he’ll understand.” Then to me, “The basketball hit it, Dad. Sorry. We were going to clean it up, but we forgot. Come on, Chip, I’ll get the dustpan.”
Despite his father’s direct question, Josh isn’t afraid to answer honestly. But most importantly, he knows what to do to fix the situation: clean up the mess he made. Not all wrongdoings can be so easily fixed, but most can be fixed with a bit of thought and effort. By focusing the child’s attention on the constructive task of making amends rather than awaiting punishment, the admitting the truth becomes less scary.
In other words, children ought to be explicitly taught the skills of redemption as part of learning about the necessity of honesty. The former will make the latter easier.
I haven’t blogged much these past few days because I was working on upgrades to the web site. They are, I hope, finally done! If you have problems or suggestions, please e-mail me at [email protected].
Here’s a brief summary of what’s new:
The worst few minutes of every day used to be cleaning out the kitty litter. Ick.
But now, that odious chore has been replaced by one still more odious: the two minutes of brushing my teeth with my new Sonicare toothbrush. Perhaps its due to my 10+ years of experience with migraines, but the vibrations inside my skull are torture. Convicted murders should be required to use this toothbrush once an hour, although I’m sure the ACLU would claim such punishment to be “cruel and unusual.” At least my teeth are really clean.
So now I’ll clean out the kitty litter with the comforting thought that at least I’m not brushing my teeth!
Since starting work on my various projects on the virtue of honesty, I have been voraciously reading anything and everything on the subject. So I was pleased to find Paul Ekman’s book Why Kids Lie in a used bookstore recently. The book proved to be an easy read. The writing style was clear, engaging, and even friendly. But like many psychology books written in such a breezy tone, Eckman’s book fell a bit short in the substance department.
However, the book was certainly not entirely lacking. Eckman summarizes some psychological studies that I have not seen elsewhere, such as those that investigating the factors influencing children’s choices to cheat and lie. Of particular use to parents is his discussion of the evolution of children’s attitudes towards lying throughout childhood. Most children start off with the view that lying is always wrong, then slowly allow more exceptions until dishonesty is pretty much okay whenever as a teenager. And he does offer practical advice to parents of lying children.
But two failings did stand out:
First, Eckman’s understanding of the justification for honesty as a virtue is entirely limited to the argument that dishonesty destroys trust in relationships. No other reasons for honesty are given explicit attention. However, since so many lies go undetected, this argument from trust is one of the weakest arguments for honesty available. Additionally, trust works in strange and muted ways in family relationships, because the option of scaling back or terminating a relationship is simply not available as in adult relationships. Members of a family are, for the most part, stuck with each other for better or worse for many, many years. If a child betrays a parent’s trust, that parent cannot trade in their child for a new and better one. But the (limited) power of the appeal to trust comes from exactly this possibility: that our relationships might be severely hampered or even destroyed by the discovery of a lie. As a result, where children are concerned, the argument from trust really boils down to the fact that kids avoid lying for fear of being caught and punished. This sad fact certainly highlights the need for a more complete view of why honesty is a virtue.
Second, Eckman hops, skips, and jumps through important moral arguments concerning the scope of honesty as a virtue. He asserts (without much argument) that certain types of lies are acceptable, such as those told to be polite or to protect oneself from danger. Unfortunately, Eckman’s moral distinctions are fuzzy and unclear, and thus prone to expansion. We see such expansion in his teenage son Tom’s views on morally acceptable lies, as laid out rather well in Chapter Four by Tom himself. Tom argues that any lie “told for good purpose” is acceptable, including lies to “avoid getting in trouble” (109). We also see the failure of altruism to establish honesty as a virtue in his question: “As long as [a lie] doesn’t hurt anybody, what is so wrong about it?” (109). Unlike Eckman, parents need to demarcate clear moral lines with clear reasons if they wish their kids to adhere to moral principles.
For any parent trying to cope with a deceitful child, Why Kids Lie may prove useful. But don’t get your hopes up.
Most kids lie. They lie to avoid punishment. They lie to be polite. They lie to preserve their privacy. I certainly lied all the time as a kid, particularly as a teenager.
But so many questions linger. Do people generally lie more as kids or as adults? If people lie more often as kids, as I suspect they do, why? What follows are three possible explanations.
1. Social Ineptness: Honesty often requires a great deal of skill. Conveying gratitude for an unwanted gift without being dishonest requires careful crafting of words. Fending off nosy inquiries requires experience in the sorts of answers likely to deflect attention. Children are in the process of developing such moral skills, so those skills may be only rudimentary and generally inadequate for the harder cases. As a result, dishonesty might more often seem like the only option to kids. Adults generally have more experience, more practice, and more skill in the arts of communication, so consequently they generally experience less pressure to lie.
2. Empirical Testing: Children might learn about the costs of dishonesty and benefits of honesty from their parents and teachers, but such consequences might not seem entirely real until seen or experienced firsthand. So some portion of lying in children might be attributed to empirical testing of this moral choice. And some portion of lying in children might be attributed to a lack of direct experience with the negative consequences of dishonesty. (These consequences will include those imposed by the liar’s own consciousness, by other people, and by reality.) It’s worth nothing that kids can manage to avoid some of the stupider moral principles that adults attempt to foist upon them by taking such an empirical approach to ethics.
3. Perverse Incentives: Children face punishment for their undesirable behavior in a way that adults do not. A child who lies to a parent might be grounded for a month, whereas an adult who lies to a parent cannot be forced to experience such punishment. Punishment is simply not a consequence of dishonesty for adults, unless that dishonesty is part of otherwise criminal activity. Because kids usually wish to do stuff that they parents forbid (like drinking at parties), the threat of punishment if the truth is revealed certainly encourages lying. This is not to say that adults do not face negative consequences if caught doing something wrong, but rather that kids face the additional negative consequence of parental punishment if caught.
What other aspects of a child’s life contribute to dishonesty?
A few days ago, I finished David Nyberg’s book The Varnished Truth. I’m going to offer a brief review here, as well as a few offhand comments.
In recent years, defending dishonesty has become rather fashionable in the philosophical and psychological literature. Within the crowd of these defenders of dishonesty, The Varnished Truth stands out as perhaps the most interesting, savvy, and sophisticated work. Nyberg’s goal is to challenge the assumption that dishonesty is always wrong and to show how deception is often a critical aspect of moral decency. In making his case, Nyberg clearly demonstrates a grasp of much of the subtlety and complexity of honesty in daily life. His style of writing is also clear and engaging, with plenty of examples. And he often lays bare his philosophical presumptions for all his readers to see, if they care to notice.
The book also presents some interesting challenges to the conventional view of honesty, such as that honesty goes hand in hand with trust in relationships (140-6). Altruism is certainly no good foundation for the virtue of honesty, as Nyberg so successfully demonstrates.
The most frustrating aspect of the book is Nyberg’s cavalier attitude, his utter lack of appreciation for the seriousness demanded by the subject. He claims that his book is “serious but not scholarly,” but the book is not nearly serious enough. Mere footnotes do not make a book serious.
In many places, it seemed as if Nyberg’s intent was to create confusion in the minds of his readers. Generating such confusion by highlighting the complexity of an ethical issue is all well and good, so long as the goal is to present a theory which helps make sense of all of that complexity. But Nyberg offers no such theory; he even seems to think it foolish to attempt one. This focus on complexity was not all bad, for it motivated me to develop my basic theory that we ought to be telling the contextually relevant truth rather than the whole truth or the technical truth. (I’ll have to write about that later.)
Those familiar with the Objectivist theory of evasion ought to be particularly interested in the chapter on self-deception. Nyberg clearly understands self-deception as evasion in the Objectivist sense. But his metaphysical subjectivism and malevolent universe premise lead him to the conclusion that such self-deception is both necessary and proper. If I ever write a mainstream academic paper on the Objectivist theory of evasion, that chapter will certainly provide many quotes.
For those of you interested in the virtue of honesty, I would recommend The Varnished Truth as part of a “know thy enemy” and “understand the complexity” strategy. But be sure to also read the discussion of honesty in Tara Smith’s Viable Values (164-174). It’s absolutely the best analysis of the virtue of honesty from an egoistic perspective available.
In preparing for my talk on honesty to TOC’s 2002 Summer Seminar, I have been exploring the limits of the virtue of honesty. The standard Objectivist position is that honesty is not required when force has been initiated against us. Why not? Because the virtue of honesty is formed in the context of trading relationships. Because our virtues ought not be used against us in the service of evil. Because we can avoid irrational people, but people initiating force. In Basic Principles of Objectivism, Nathaniel Branden says that someone who has initiated force has “suspended morality” with respect to himself. Anything that the victim chooses to do in self-defense against the initiator of force is morally right. But of course, although honesty is not required where coercion is present, neither is dishonesty. Morality has been “suspended,” not inverted.
My thinking about this issue lead to me to the question: In situations where force is being initiated against us, when is it in our self-interest to lie and when is it in our self-interest to tell the truth? Given the prevalence of coercion in human history and even in a country as free as the US is today, some general principles would certainly seem to help us make better decisions.
I posed this very question to FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group) Saturday night in my presentation on honesty. I was completely surprised by the resounding and near-unanimous answer: There are no principles. Whatever people do is moral. People have their own unique breaking points. People have their own goals. So no general principles can be constructed. We make decisions based on the particulars of the context.
The primary problem with this account is that it seems to leave us with little guidance in dealing with coercion. How am I to decide what to do if there are no principles involved? Aren’t there any moral considerations at all?
Rand doesn’t have much to say on the subject, but I did find an interesting comment at the end of her essay “The Wreckage Of The Consensus” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She writes:
Once in a while, I receive letters from young men asking me for personal advice on problems connected with the draft. Morally, no one can give advice in any issue where choices and decisions are not voluntary: “Morality ends where a gun begins.” As to the practical alternatives available, the best thing to do is to consult a good lawyer.
There is, however, one moral aspect of the issue that needs clarification. Some young men seem to labor under the misapprehension that since the draft is a violation of their rights, compliance with the draft law would constitute a moral sanction of that violation. This is a serious error. A forced compliance is not a sanction. All of us are forced to comply with many laws that violate our rights, but so long as we advocate the repeal of such laws, our compliance does not constitute a sanction. Unjust laws have to be fought ideologically; they cannot be fought or corrected by means of mere disobedience and futile martyrdom. (CUI 325)
Rand seems to be drawing a distinction here between “moral” and “practical” advice. Such words seem ill-chosen, given the Objectivist rejection of a moral-practical dichotomy. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that there are prudential concerns even when force has been initiated against us. Whatever goals and values we have in life, there are better and worse ways of achieving those values, even when our freedoms are curtailed. In the quote from CUI, Rand is arguing precisely along those lines: If you wish to fight unjust laws, then fight them “ideologically” rather than through “mere disobedience” or “futile martyrdom.”
So, perhaps the only universal principle when making decisions in the face of coercion is: Act as best you can according to your hierarchy of values. Act to preserve what is more important to you before you act to preserve what is less important. Be willing to give up lesser values to preserve greater ones. To put it bluntly: save your spouse before you save your TV. To the extent that your hierarchy of values is rational, you will be acting in your own self-interest.
That’s not much of a moral principle, but it’s a good start.