Cactus Club February 1998

Cycle II: Part 1

1 February 1998............evolutionary psychology and social Darwinism

Quoting from The Moral Animal by Robert Wright----------"Evolutionary theory, after all, has a long and largely sordid history of application to human affairs. After being mingled with political philosophy around the turn of the century to form the vague ideology know as "social Darwinism," it played into the hands of racists, fascists, and the most heartless sort of capitalists. It also, around that time, spawned some simplistic ideas about the hereditary basis of behavior--ideas that, conveniently, fed these very political misuses of Darwinism. The resulting aura--of crudeness, both intellectual and ideological--continues to cling to Darwinism in the minds of many academics and laypersons. (Some people think the term Darwinism means social Darwinism.) Hence many misconceptions about the new Darwinian paradigm." Question: What is the "new Darwinian paradigm" and does it, like the old social Darwinism, lend itself to theories promoting social division?(PD)

5 February development and cultural relativism

Quoting from The Moral Sense by James Q. Wilson..........."In 1906 the great sociologist William Graham Sumner wrote that 'the mores can make anything right.' Thirty years later Ruth Benedict's best-selling book PATTERNS OF CULTURE was read to mean that all ways of life were equally valid. Published in 1934 just after the Nazis had come to power, it was probably intended to be a plea for tolerance and an argument for judging one's own culture only after becoming aware of an alternative to it. But by popularizing the phrase "cultural relativism" and discussing cannibalism without explicitly condenming it, she was read as saying something like what Sumner had said: culture and the mores of society can make anything right and anything wrong". Questions: As we judge an athletic performance or the quality of a particular product, are there standards by which to judge a specific culture? Is culture malleable or simply another product of evolution?(PD)

8 February 1998...........evolution and society

Quoting from The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley........."Kropotkin's was not a mechanistic theory of evolution, like Darwin's. He could not explain how mutual aid gained such a foothold, except by the selective survival of sociable species and groups in competition with less sociable ones - which was just to remove competition and natural selection one step, to the group rather than the individual. But he had posed a question that reverberates through economics, politics and biology a century later. If life is a competitive struggle, why is there so much cooperation about? And why, in particular, are people such eager cooperators? Is humankind instinctively an anti-social or a pro-social animal? That is my quest in this book: the roots of human society. I shall demonstrate that Kropotkin was half right and those roots lie much deeper than we think. Society works not because we have consciously invented it, but because it is an ancient product of our evolved predispositions. It is literally in our nature."------"It is the claim of this book that the answer to an old question- how is society possible?- is suddenly at hand thanks to the insights of evolutionary biology. Society was not invented by reasoning men. It evolved as part of our nature". Questions: Is society a product of evolution or law or perhaps both. What is the difference between society, culture, and civilization and does evolution have the same impact(if any) on all three?(PD)

11 February 1998.............of ants and humans

Quoting Stephen Gould from the book The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley--------"One day, at the New York World's Fair in 1964, I entered the Hall of Free Enterprise to escape the rain. Inside, prominently displayed, was an ant colony bearing the sign: Twenty million years of evolutionary stagnation. Why? Because the ant colony is a socialist, totalitarian system." Ridley goes on to make the following comment regarding some people's evaluation of social insects. "Their societies are more harmonious, more directed towards the common, or greater, good, whether it be communism or monarchy." Question: How do the societies of social insects (like ants, bees, and termites) compare to and contrast with the societies of human beings?(PD)

17 February 1998............the desire for recognition

Quoting from Trust by Francis Fukuyama----------"The satisfaction we derive from being connected to others in the workplace grows out of a fundamental human desire for recognition. As I argued in THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN, every human being seeks to have his or her dignity recognized (i.e., evaluated at its proper worth) by other human beings. Indeed, this drive is so deep and fundamental that it is one of the chief motors of the entire human historical process. In earlier periods, this desire for recognition played itself out in the military arena as kings and princes fought bloody battles with one another for primacyl In modern times, this struggle for recognition has shifted from the military to the economic realm, where it has the socially beneficial effect of creating rather than destroying wealth." Question: What are the economic and political ramifications of the desire for recognition and can we harness both for improved social development, order, and harmony?(PD)

20 February 1998............on the evaluation of cultures

All ways of life are valid. No culture is superior to another. Social mores make anything right. Are these statements true?

I said in a previous contribution that I found no way to prove by formal logic alone the existence of natural law and natural rights. In the same vein, when a person decides to believe the statements above, I doubt I can use reason to convince him of his error. But he is in error nonetheless.

It's important to point out that the people who claim to believe these statements contradict themselves, for they see nothing of condemning the past imperial cultures of Europe and the United States. They often condemn America's religious subcultures. They even today hold all white men accountable for the "evil" of slavery. I must wonder: by what reason do they condemn any of these behaviors?

Yet it is important to note that each of us may unreasonably pass judgment on another culture. We often view groups like the Amish, who certainly have a distinct culture, as "wrong." We hold the culture of an ancient people like the Tibetans as "backward." Are these fair judgments?

The statements I opened with deny the existence of objective standards by which to judge other cultures or the behaviors of others. I hold that there are indeed such objective standards, which are those very same natural rights we've discussed before. If an individual's or a society's actions infringe on those natural rights, then those actions are indeed wrong. By such standards we can see that the Amish and the Tibetans are not wrong or backward culturally, but just different. And the imperial cultures condemned by the "cultural relativists" did indeed engage in incorrect, immoral behavior -- though not to the extent those people like to claim. And we can see that slavery is, truly, wrong.

Unless a society respects the natural rights and the natural liberties of its citizens, it engages in wrongdoing. Unless an individual respects his fellows' freedoms, he indeed transgresses. But I'll never prove it to those who cling religiously, contradictions notwithstanding, to the dogma of cultural relativism.(JV)

26 February 1998...........making society better by design

Quoting from The Fatal Conceit by F.A. Hayek----------"The demands of socialism are not moral conclusions derived from the traditions that formed the extended order that made civilization possible. Rather, they endeavour to overthrow these traditions by a rationally designed moral system whose appeal depends on the instinctual appeal of its promised consequences. They assume that, since people had been able to GENERATE some system of rules coordinating their efforts, they must also be able to DESIGN an even better and more gratifying system. But if humankind owes its very existence to one particular rule-guided form of conduct of proven effectiveness, it simply does not have the option of choosing another merely for the sake of the apparent pleasantness of its immediatly visible effects. The dispute between the market order and socialism is no less than a matter of survival. To follow socialist morality would destroy much of present humankind and impoverish much of the rest." Questions: Why does Hayek differentiate between generating and designing a system of social rules? Is it not possible to improve our moral system by design rather than simply accepting the results of cultural evolution? (PD)