Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 26

Politics of Human Nature 10: Humanitarianism and cowardice. For Rand and her followers, it is quite obvious why altruism is counter-productive and harmful:

Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of [the altruist] morality does to a man’s life. The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy: he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure-and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself. Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.

In Rand’s analysis, the practical effects of altruism are logically derived from her rather extreme definition of the term (i.e., that altruism means “ man has no right to exist for his own sake”). Since (as I noted in the previous post) few if any humanitarian/altruists would accept Rand’s definition, her analysis is of little value. It tries to determine matters of fact almost exclusively on the basis of logical deductions from principles hardly anyone holds, and which very few ever follow in practice. A more detailed examination of the actual facts will show that the practical effects of altruistic and other so-called “humanitarian” doctrines tend to run along somewhat different lines. If we examine what happens in the real world of fact when humanitarians dominate the ruling class of a society, we discover that the principle danger of humanitarianism arises, not necessarily from the “self-sacrificial” rationalizations expressed in extreme forms of the doctrine, but often from the cowardice of the typical humanitarian. For it would appear that humanitarianism holds a particular appeal to the pusillanimous type of individual. Humanitarian doctrines serve as a kind of cover or fig leaf for cowardice, as if the humanitarian is trying to convince himself and others that he appeases violent criminals and his nation’s most dangerous enemies not out of cowardice, but out of love and pity for mankind.

Pareto explains how these humanitarian sentiments can lead to violent overthrow of a ruling class:

Let us imagine a country where the governing class, A, is inclining more and more in the direction of humanitarianism…. Such a country is on its way to utter ruin. But lo, the subject class, B, revolts against the class A. In fighting A it uses the humanitarian derivations so dear to the A’s, but underlying them are quite different sentiments, and they soon find expression in deeds. The B’s apply force on a far-reaching scale, and not only overthrow the A’s but kill large numbers of them—and, in so doing, to tell the truth, they are performing a useful public service, something like ridding the country of a baneful animal pest…. The country is saved from ruin and is reborn to a new life….

If the class governing in France [under Louis XVI] had had the faith that counsels use of force and the will to use force, it would never have been overthrown [in the French Revolution]…. Had Louis XVI not been a man of little sense and less courage, letting himself be floored without fighting, and preferring to lose his head on the guillotine to dying weapon in hand like a man of sinew, he might have been the one to do the destroying. If the victims of the September massacres, their kinsman and their friends, had not for the most part been spineless humanitarians without a particle of courage or energy, they would have annihilated their enemies instead of waiting to be annihilated themselves. [§2191]

While Pareto might be criticized for seeming a bit too eager to see humanitarians exterminated, this does little to effect his main point. Nor should we let Pareto’s focus on revolutions cause us to think that the cowardice of humanitarians does not pose a threat to the West. In America there is little chance of a violent revolution. But this does not mean that the dominance of humanitarians in America’s ruling elite does not pose a threat to the social order. For external threats still exist and must be faced resolutely. And humanitarianism, even when it doesn’t completely oppose defending the country against its enemies, nevertheless cannot help undermining and demoralizing the will to fight.

In her political writings, Rand tended to focus almost exclusively on the “social legislation” effects of the humanitarian/altruist sensibility. While there exists an obvious and significant nuisance value to much of the laws and social programs favored by our dear humanitarians, the more serious threat stems from the squeamishness many of these humanitarians experience when it comes to using force to defend the social order from enemies both foreign and domestic. As James Burnham put it:

Most liberals [i.e., humanitarians] … are foxes rather than lions. They belong to the types, professions and classes who seek their ends by shrewdness, manipulations and verbal skills. What tends to happen, therefore, when liberals become influential or dominant in the conduct of a nation’s affairs, is that the government tries to handle the difficulties, dangers, issues and threats it faces by those same methods … and to shy away as much as possible and as long as possible from the use of force. In fact, liberals tend to employ the social agencies of force—police and army—as above all instruments of bluff. Their actual use of force, which will always be necessary no matter what the theory, becomes erratic and unpredictable, the result not of a prudent estimate of the objective situation but of their own impatience, panic or despair. [Suicide of the West, 293]

Now while Objectivists such as Peikoff seem to share Burnham’s disdain of the liberal humanitarian’s squeamishness about using force, Rand’s conviction that all social pathologies stem from abstract “premises” once again darkens rather than enlightening the understanding. Believing that liberal humanitarianism is caused by the acceptance of the premise of altruism (as defined by Rand), Objectivists think they can combat its pernicious effects by demonstrating the absurd and immoral consequences of the premise of extreme self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, humanitarian cowardice is not caused by the premise of self-sacrifice. On the contrary, cowardice, to the extent that it is not innate, is primarily caused by soft living. Cowardice can only be cured, if it can be cured at all, by strenuous discipline and experience in battle. Trying to change it by arguing against it’s so-called premises is silly and a waste of time.


Priest4hire said...

I feel as though I'm missing something. Here's a definition of humanitarianism taken from the Wikipedia: "In its most general form, humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. Humanitarianism has been an evolving concept historically but universality is a common element in its evolution. No distinction is to be made in the face of human suffering or abuse on grounds of tribal, caste, religious or national divisions." That's not exactly what springs to mind when I think of pre-revolutionary France. It makes me wonder if Pareto is doing to the term 'humanitarian' what Rand did to 'altruist'.

I can't help but notice that between this post and O&B part 23, Pareto is calling humanitarians cowards and malcontents. Is it not possible that Pareto had an agenda? Perhaps this Mandlebrot quote regarding Pareto's views, and I hope you'll forgive the indulgence, sheds some light:

"There is no progress in human history. Democracy is a fraud. Human nature is primitive, emotional, unyielding. The smarter, abler, stronger, and shrewder take the lion's share. The weak starve, lest society become degenerate: One can, Pareto wrote, 'compare the social body to the human body, which will promptly perish if prevented from eliminating toxins.' Inflammatory stuff -- and it burned Pareto's reputation."

That smacks of social Darwinism. While this obviously does not make him wrong, it does colour many of his comments—especially since much of what he is saying has to be taken on his authority alone.

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rtaylortitle said...

I personally have no issue with an individual's right to persue altruism. To the extreme, it becomes maudlin sentamentalism at the expense of one's potential achievement(s) in life in general.

But, the government(s) have no busy using tax dollars (or the Feds paper money) to utilize in wasted and utuopian/ineffective programs (witness the failure of Johnson's "Great Society".

gregnyquist said...

Andrew: "[Wikipedia's definition of humanitarianism is] not exactly what springs to mind when I think of pre-revolutionary France. It makes me wonder if Pareto is doing to the term 'humanitarian' what Rand did to 'altruist'."

I don't think it's fair to say that Pareto is doing the same thing with humanitarianism as Rand does with altruism. The problem with Rand's definition is not that it is different from common usage (she may define it any way she pleases), but that it accords with very little that can be found in reality. But Pareto's "humanitarianism," even if it doesn't accord with Wikipedia's definition, does at least accord with certain types found through history. Pareto uses the term humanitarianism to refer to a kind of sentimental religion of humanity that first arose in recent times among the intellectuals and the upper classes in pre-revolutionary France and became dominant among the "soft" left in the 19th century. Pareto regarded these humanitarian sentiments as one of the causes of the French Revolution. Although the Ancient regime of France did not "practice" anything remotely approaching the Wikipedia version of humanitarianism, the doctrines of Rousseau and the philosophes, often featuring a strong humanitarian tinge, were quite popular among the ruling classes, particularly those that were victims of the September massacres (many of the aristocrats who were not tainted by these views went into exile and missed this massacre). Taine claims that "radical dogma [which includes what Pareto would describe as humanitarianism] and brute force, are the successors and executors of the Ancient regime," and that "In a case of this kind good intentions are not sufficient; to be liberal and even generous, to enter upon a few semi-reforms, is of no avail. On the contrary, through both their qualities and defects, through both their virtues and their vices, the privileged wrought their own destruction, their merits contributing to their ruin as well as their faults."

gregnyquist said...

"I can't help but notice that between this post and O&B part 23, Pareto is calling humanitarians cowards and malcontents. Is it not possible that Pareto had an agenda?"

Pareto was a disillusioned classical liberal. Other than a firm conviction that abridgements of free speech were useless and stupid, he does not appear to have had any strong political views. His contempt for what he calls humanitarianism probably has its source in a psychological conjecture about instinctive repugnance to suffering, which he regarded as a kind sentiment of disgust at all suffering, whether beneficial or otherwise (and yes, there are beneficial or useful forms of suffering). Such a sentiment, Pareto says, provoked the proverb, "The merciful doctor aggravates the sore," and Pareto goes on to observe that the sentiment "is often observable in weak, submissive, spineless individuals." Now Pareto contrasts this "instinctive" repuganance to suffering with a "reasoned" repugnance to useless sufferings, which he describes as "characteristic in strong, energetic people, who know what they want and are able to stop at the exact point that they consider it desirable to attain." Now the larger point that Pareto is trying to drive at is that society cannot be governed by people whose first consideration is to eliminate or mitigate suffering, because it's just not possible: that's not the way the world works. What one should do is avoid useless suffering—suffering that yields no utility for individuals or the social order, such as the suffering caused by the persecutions of witches or Jews or Kulaks or anything equally stupid and senseless. But some suffering is unavoidable. In order to put an end to slavery, and all the terrible suffering that that institution caused, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman had to inflict enormous sufferings on their own troops and on the South. Societies have to make these kind of trade-offs all the time; and you need strong people with good judgment to decide the exact point at which one is going to make each particular trade-off, because it won't do to pass such judgments off to spineless sentimentalists whose weakness will cloud their judgment.

Wells said...

I think it is completely fair to say that Pareto is doing the same thing with humanitarianism as Rand does with altruism.

Senator* Vilfredo Pareto, Ex-noble, decided that the 3rd Estate was wrong since they were not nobles. He than composed this particular justification as to why.
While this doesn't make him wrong, it makes him suspect.

I'm calling BS on Senator Pareto's argument though since it seems to be that the French 2nd estate lost the Revolution by having less money and less ability to earn it than the wealthier members of the 3rd estate. This was something of a feature since Louis XIV intentionally depowered the aristocracy and made them dependent on him for money and jobs.
At the time of Louis XVI, due to mounting debt from the previous king, compounded by France's involvement in the American Revolution, it was also the case that not only did the 2nd estate not have money, but neither did the king. They tried to raise taxes on the third estate, and touched off the Revolution.

Yes, Louis XV and Louis XVI were indecisive people, however having an entire bureaucracy for a Great Power flow through one kat is a Bad Idea. The problem was structural rather than in the martial virtue of any particular person or group of people.

*Yes, Dr. Vilfredo Pareto was appointed Senator by Benito Mussolini at the start of Italy's fascist regime.

gregnyquist said...

"That smacks of social Darwinism."

Pareto was a critic of social Darwinism, which he considered an unscientific doctrine that yielded largely "verbal" solutions to social problems and also unwittingly returned to the theory of final causes. Mandlebrot description of Pareto's theory is somewhat misleading because he only concentrates on those aspects that political correctness nowadays finds most disturbing: Pareto's suspicion of democracy (Pareto's views on this issue are actually quite similar to those of some of America's Founding Fathers), his pessimistic view of human nature, and his belief that "smarter, abler, stronger, and shrewder take the lion's share" (which for better or worse, happens to be largely true). I'm not aware that Pareto ever said anything like the "The weak starve, lest society become degenerate." Those our Mandlebrot's words, not Pareto's. And the actual quote of Pareto listed by Mandlebrot is almost certainly taken out of context.

Pareto's reputation was harmed, not because he was a social darwinist or because he favored rule by the strong, but because he was critical of doctrines treasured by sentimental leftists. And if we focused merely on Pareto's criticism of such doctrines, we might be able to turn him into a right-wing crank. But he was also critical of doctrines treasured by non-leftists, such as European and American support for slavery, America's treatment of the Indians and Blacks, and European imperialism. "With a hypocrisy truly admirable, these blessed civilized peoples [i.e., the European imperalist countries] claim to be acting for the good of their subject races in oppressing and exterminating them; indeed so dearly do they love them that they would have them "free" by force.... the French freed the Madagascans and—to make them freer still—killed not a few of them and reduced the rest to a condition that is slavery in all but the name. Such talk is uttered in all seriousness, and there are even people who believe it. The cat catches the mouse and eats it; but it does not pretend to be doing so for the good of the mouse." This last remark about the mouse is as good a one sentence abbreviation of what Pareto's sociology is all about: exposing the empirical emptiness, the pretense, the mendacity, the hypocrisy of the ideologies used by ruling elites to justify their conduct.

gregnyquist said...

Wells: "I think it is completely fair to say that Pareto is doing the same thing with humanitarianism as Rand does with altruism."

Why? Are you denying that there are "humanitarians" in Pareto's sense of the word? And whether Pareto's example of the French Revolution is apposite to Pareto's point is completely beside the point. There are other examples one could turn to to show that Pareto's conception of humanitarianism accords with something real. Most of the examples Pareto gives of humanitarianism involves individuals who pity criminals. Now there are plenty examples during the last two-hundred years of "humanitarians" who seem overly-eager to lavish their benevolence on criminals, terrorists, and other people who wish to murder the innocent. Isn't that a little strange? Isn't that something deserving of an explanation? If you really want to help people, why squander your benevolence on murderers, rapists, and thugs? Pareto cites several examples of juries that acquitted attempted murderers (in two cases, the thugs tried to murder old deaf women—truly horrible), partly out of fear of the murderers, and partly out of (or rationalized by) humanitarian reasons. So such people do exist; they do claim to be humanitarians in Pareto's sense; so why not use the word to describe them?

gregnyquist said...

"Yes, Dr. Vilfredo Pareto was appointed Senator by Benito Mussolini at the start of Italy's fascist regime."

So that proves Pareto was a fascist, right? Isn't this merely "guilt by association," one of old McCarthy's disreputable tricks?

Pareto never lived long enough to subject fascism to the same evisceration he subjected other ideologies. Mussolini showered Pareto with honors because Mussolini misread Pareto (just like leftists misread him), and thought that Pareto approved of any use of force, including lawless and despotic force. But that is hardly true. Pareto simply wanted law and order. He wanted the government to stand up to lawless factions in society, which were tearing Italy apart. Pareto hoped Mussolini would be able to accomplish this, but he warned the fascists against despotism, censorship and economic corporatism. Doesn't look like the fascists followed Pareto's advice, does it (which hardly would have surprised an old cynic like Pareto)? Indeed, Mussolini was fortunate that Pareto died 10 months into his reign, for this enabled Il Duce to avoid the embarrassment of being criticized and denounced by one of his intellectual heroes.

Michael Prescott said...

Some online sources I consulted point out that Italian fascism, in its earliest years, was viewed favorably in many quarters. Quite a few distinguished persons throughout the West admired Mussolini - at first. It was only later that fascism was understood to be dangerous.

David Ramsey Steele notes that Cole Porter's hit song "You're the Top" originally featured these lyrics:

You're the top!
You're the Great Houdini!
You're the top!
You are Mussolini!

Steele observes:

"The youngest prime minister in Italian history, Mussolini was an adroit and indefatigable fixer, a formidable wheeler and dealer in a constitutional monarchy which did not become an outright and permanent dictatorship until December 1925, and even then retained elements of unstable pluralism requiring fancy footwork. He became world-renowned as a political miracle worker. Mussolini made the trains run on time, closed down the Mafia, drained the Pontine marshes, and solved the tricky Roman Question, finally settling the political status of the Pope.

"Mussolini was showered with accolades from sundry quarters. Winston Churchill called him 'the greatest living legislator.' Cole Porter gave him a terrific plug in a hit song. Sigmund Freud sent him an autographed copy of one of his books, inscribed to 'the Hero of Culture.'"


The point being, the aged and infirm Pareto can probably be forgiven for not apprehending the danger posed by Mussolini at the beginning of his regime. Few people saw it at the time.

Wells said...

Greg Nyquest said this

Pareto cites several examples of juries that acquitted attempted murderers (in two cases, the thugs tried to murder old deaf women—truly horrible), partly out of fear of the murderers, and partly out of (or rationalized by) humanitarian reasons.
This is better for Dr. Pareto's argument. So I'll explain based on it.

There are several different things going on here. There is the propensity of people to be cowards, and there is the propensity of people to mollycoddle real malefactors*. These are not the same thing. I'm not going to use humanitarian for either group of people. The first group are called cowards, the second group of people need a new word.

From what I have observed criminals are mollycoddled for several reasons.
1st) Sometimes it is because the depredations being visited upon them do not match the crime or the depredations are inhumane regardless of crime. An example would be people who fight against torture. Nobody deserves to be tortured regardless of what they actually did, therefore it is possible to be against the torture of any particular criminal regardless of why that person is being tortured to start with.

2nd) Sometimes it is moral cowardice**. Voting against someone who is on trial for murder opens people up to the probability that they might be wrong, and while you are supposed to vote Not-Guilty if you have any Reasonable Doubt, there exist people who cannot separate unreasonable doubt from Reasonable Doubt due to lack of bravery and thus cannot do an adequate job as a juror.
Also condemning a particular person would mean condemning a social system that condones the crime. Cowards are not prepared to do that. Someone who condemns a particular rape really condemns patriarchy in the same breath, Just as someone who is against a particular lynching is condemning all racism. This is not humanitarian behavior, rather it is it's opposite, humanitarians are more likely than ordinary people to decry systematic injustice. Not to say that you won't hear noises of humanitarianism especially with respect to 'forgiveness' or 'moving on'.

3rd) People judge members of their tribe differently than they judge members of opposing tribes. A man can commit sexual harassment and still be an honored politician for one side. A man can be a drug addict and possible sex tourist and still be honored as a intellectual leader by another political tribe. This is not so much mollycoddling wicked people, but rather mollycoddling your wicked people.

* As opposed to people who are accused of being malefactors but who are not. No amount of praise is enough for those who would defend the falsely accused. Too often such people are lumped with those who defend the obviously guilty, especially when a mob has decided to railroad an innocent man.

** Remember, there are several types of courage. Physical courage is the ability to act correctly even under the threat of wounds or physical violence. There is a lot of physical courage out there. A whole lot.
Moral courage, that is the ability to act correctly even under the threat of social disapproval or of loss of social privileges, is rarer. It is what is probably lacking when obvious murderers are allowed to go free.

gregnyquist said...

Wells: "There is the propensity of people to be cowards, and there is the propensity of people to mollycoddle real malefactors*. These are not the same thing."

Why not? Why couldn't they be. Obviously, they are not the same in all instances; but why can't they be mutually reinforcing elements in the same psyche? After all, while it is easy to understand where a "propensity for cowardice" comes from, where does this "propensity to mollycoddle" criminals come from? Why is it unreasonable to suppose that cowardice may be an important part in at least some of these mollycoddlers? And while it is quite true that there is moral and physical courage, there is also a kind of cognitive courage: there are people out there who are (as Nietzsche said of Plato) "cowards before the truth," who don't want to face up to hard facts, such as the impossibility of perfect justice, of eliminating suffering and hardship from the world, of stopping all violence, etc. etc. Mollycoddling criminals, I would suspect, comes, in many instances, from people who don't want to admit the existence of individuals who, in order to get what they want in terms of material wealth and status, will terrorize mankind, even to the point of murdering and torturing millions of people. It's disturbing and scary to think that such individuals exist. It's far more comforting to think that these terrorists are really victims of "society"—which is to say, of those elements of civilization that are fighting the terrorists (police, military, justice system, defenders of property rights, etc.). It's easy to make an enemy or a scapegoat of the defenders of civilization because these defenders don't represent any real threat to the coward before the truth.

Such a theory, whatever its weaknesses and limitations, would at least explain why some people (often the very individuals who most pride themselves on their "compassion" and humanitarianism) are those who (1) wish to mollycoddle criminals, terrorists, communists, etc. and (2) who reserve most of their hate for the defenders of civlization. While it is easy to understand why someone would disagree or even dislike former President George W. Bush, it's harder to understand why anyone with a mere modicum of common decency would exhibit more passionate hatred and disgust toward Bush than toward the terrorists who killed 3,000 people on 9-11.