Briefly Noted: Letters & Reviews (Vol. 1, No. 8)

The Expanding Circle by Peter Singer

Singer outlines the connection between sociobiology and ethics. He carefully refutes vulgar ideas in evolutionary ethics like social darwinism, and even argues against the suggestions of one of sociobiology’s founders, E.O. Wilson, by pointing out that Hume’s is/ought divide has not been transcended. Even if, as Wilson speculates, science can one day tell us precisely what we value through purely physical investigation of the human biology, this tells us nothing about what we ought to value.

He also gives a well-written summary of some of the ideas of inclusive fitness, the now commonly accepted evolutionary explanation for biological altruism. It is one of the best summaries I’ve read geared toward a popular audience, and is striking for its nuance and lack of howlers. From here, Singer moves on to explain how moral reasoning can prompt us to cultivate our biological dispositions toward altruism to expand beyond the band, the tribe, the race, the nation and onto even loftier points of reference—“moral circles”—like all of humanity or all sentient creatures.

The one resounding weakness of the book is Singer’s failure to offer a convincing argument for his account of reason. He acknowledges, especially in the afterward, that intuitionist approaches like those of Jonathan Haidt exist, and he demonstrates a thorough understanding of these ideas. But his idea of reason and the role it plays sometimes sounds too much like the imaginary skyhooks of past idealistic political philosophies: the spirit of religions, for example, or the dialectics of Marxists. For instance, he writes:

Attempts to challenge our genes based on our sympathy or on any other non-rational instincts may lengthen the leash on which our genes have us, but since they themselves are ultimately genetically based, they will never succeed in breaking it. Reason is different. Although our capacity to reason evolved for the same biological reasons as our other characteristics, reason brings with it the possibility—not often realized, admittedly, but always a possibility—of following objective standards of argument, independently of the effect this has on the increase of our genes in the next generation.

I recommend the book as one of the foremost representations of the places humanist moralities take us once we acknowledge the biological component of the human condition. Singer effectively argues for the cultivation of human nature much in the same way agriculturalists might cultivate the land, and he does not shy away from the implications this ethic has for biotechnics. The philosophy is clearly dangerous, and could easily justify attempts to tinker non-human nature and human societies into “reasoned” perfection, nevermind that reason itself is derived from the same biology the philosophy often holds in contempt.

A Darwinian Left by Peter Singer

This book is a worse version of Singer’s The Expanding Circle and deals with questions much better addressed in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. His argument is essentially that Darwinism can and must be incorporated into left-wing politics, and he spends some time quelling the worries of those aware of the right-wing uses of Darwinism in the past. He also mentions how contempt of Darwinism has sometimes led the left to dark places, such as the Soviet Union’s official endorsement of Lamarckism. But the book was clearly written hastily and often reads like the work of an undergraduate. I recommend that those interested in these questions refer to Pinker’s work and The Expanding Circle, and perhaps the more indulgent can read one of the two best chapters in Singer’s book, available for free on the internet.

Critique of Affirmative Morality by Julio Cabrera

Like Pessimism by Joshua Dienstag, reviewed in the last issue’s “Briefly Noted” section, this book was recommend by Chiaroscuro. It compliments the former work well. Cabrera argues that the “fundamental articulation of ethics” says “we must take into account the moral and sensitive interests of others not only those of your own, trying not to undermine the former and not give systematic primacy to the latter only because they are our interests”; he goes on to demonstrate how death presents quite a problem for the usual “affirmative” responses to the FAE. Thus, by the end he develops a “negative ethics,” which has “no affirmative expectations, developing activities that do no harm to others in at least two fundamental issues: not to kill anyone, and refrain from procreating.”

The book is, if nothing else, entertaining to read. Cabrera opens lashing out at nearly everything, including a significant portion of the people who will inevitably pick his book up, making clear who he is and is not writing for, condemning large portions of philosophy, and generally coming across as a cranky, dour old man. But the attitude, rather than being repellent, absorbed me. If you have read Lemony Snicket’s excellent children’s series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, you have a good sense of the entertaining nature of the prose, only Cabrera is entirely serious, which only amplifies the effect.

Much of the time his superficially exaggerated negativity rang true. For instance, he notes that many of the questions the work considers will no doubt be condemned by conventional philosophers as “juvenile” and “old questions.” Well then, he essentially responds, don’t read it. And he’s not wrong: consider how many condemn Nietzsche as the philosopher for angsty teen boys. Again, the man is like a kooky uncle who turns out to be right more often than not, and whose rants you once dismissed seem oddly prescient after you have already disregarded them at the crucial moment.

However, even with all that praise about the prose and entertainment value of the work, I cannot recommend it. The jargon is too thick, the postmodern influence too strong. That said, readers who enjoy it and who are interested in this general kind of thinking might also try David Benatar’s Better to Have Never Been Bornwhich I think is a much better and more readable take on these ideas.

Note: The above link is to the Amazon version of Cabrera’s original, Spanish-language work. It is difficult to find an English translation, but insofar as it can be trusted, I recommend the English version that I read, which is at least right now available for free on the internet.

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

Hoffer’s classic book is crucial for anyone attempting to understand the psychology of mass movements. Infamous for being recommended by the US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, it should be obvious that this entails not just the poorly-regarded movements like communist and fascist revolutions, but also the highly regarded ones like the fervor that united nations in a total war strategy during WWII, or the Civil Rights movement.

Hoffer makes a number of arguments in his book, too many to enumerate here. The most compelling is his anatomy of radical “types” from the gestation phase of a movement to its end. For example, near the beginning of a revolutionary time period, “men of words,” or intellectuals dissatisfied with the prevailing order, are much more important than “men of action” might be. Only after these intellectuals have delegitimized popular values or otherwise stamped out the hope the masses might have in conventional narratives do the latter become anything approaching a potent force.

The book also frequently insists that the ideas a mass movement stands for matter much less than the psychological effect they have on the masses that are captured by them. For instance, fascist and communist parties often traded members during the early 20th century, despite these two ideas being entirely at odds with each other. More important was the sense of importance and meaning the movement gave its individual members. Mass movements, Hoffer seems to insist, rely on Burns’ “transformational” leadership, not the stodgy, transactional leadership so necessary for the maintenance of normal, reforming organizations.

Interestingly, many aspects of Hoffer’s analysis can easily be applied to the early history of Earth First!, a radical environmentalist movement that in large part jump-started the radical environmental movement. It has influenced this journal in a notable way, and seeds of influence can also be seen in the Fund for Wild Nature, Center for Biological Diversity, and The Wildlands Network, all conservation organizations borne from the group. Those interested in comparing Hoffer’s insights to early Earth First! history may want to read Martha Lee’s Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse, Susan Zakin’s Coyotes and Town Dogs, and Dave Foreman’s Confessions of an Eco-Warrior.

A constant downside of Hoffer’s book is his tendency to make sweeping statements with no citations. He does often use quotes to support his arguments, but those do not come with citations either. Unfortunately, like with reading Ellul, we are left scrambling for evidence for any outlandish statement that does not strike us as true. Worse, we are prone to confirmation bias when he repeats some unsubstantiated thought that may be hiding in the recesses of our minds.

The book is, at least for now, available for free as a PDF on the internet.

Leave a Reply