Morality, intelligence and humanism.

An open letter reply to Patrice Ayme.

Two days ago I published a rather introspective post called The temptation to turn ever inwards. It was the result of reading three disturbing essays about the ‘affairs of man’; essays by Tom Engelhardt, Jim Wright and George Monbiot.  Frankly, I wasn’t expecting a great response either in the form of ‘Likes’ or written replies.  However, the first reply, a long reply, came in from Patrice Ayme.  I made the decision to reply to Patrice via a new post; ergo today’s post. Since making that decision a further comment came in from Sue Dreamwalker, also republished today.

What I am going to do is to reproduce Patrice’s comment but interspersed with my replies.

oooo

The biosphere evolved over billions of years. Now it is taken over by critters who live for just a few years. Solution? Make it so that said critters live longer, thus attaching a greater value upon survival.

I presume that the ‘said critters’ refer to humans? The average lifespan of humans has increased hugely. From a life expectancy of 30 years [1] at birth in Medieval Britain, back in the 13th Century, to an average of 67.2 years for humans worldwide in 2010. [2]

That’s an increase of 124% in a little over 700 years.  Yet despite that incredible increase in lifespan, humans have shown no interest in attaching a greater value to their survival: far from it!  One might even muse that humans have attached a greater value to those things that actively harm our survival.

For all the (over-) elaborate set-up of dear Monbiot, it’s simpler than that. Instead of going back to Baby Thatcher, Baroness god save the queen knows what, let’s grab a clear and present example.

I’m unclear as to what is meant by “the over-elaborate set-up” but as a long-time reader of Mr. Monbiot‘s essays I applaud both his commitment to the highest standards of journalism and to the UK’s Guardian newspaper for publishing so many of them over the years.  I would invite Patrice to give an example of over-elaboration coming from the pen of George Monbiot.

Britain, and many of the Brits, say our dear friend Chris Snuggs, a participant to your, and my, site, have said that they hated Europe, because Europe was not democratic enough. However, one of the latest improvement of the European Constitution is now effective: the head of the EC, the European Commission, is now to be elected by the just elected European PARLIAMENT. Guess what?

Chris Snuggs is more than a participant to Learning from Dogs, he is a close friend of many years.  Yes, he has strong views about Europe but those views are expressed in a declared, personal manner.

Chameleon Cameron, came out of the woodworks to bark, in the clearest way, that it was out of the question to do things differently from before, and now dare to have the European Parliament to elect (what is basically) the European Prime Minister.

Never mind that Britain voted for that European Constitutional change.

Never mind that in representative democracies, the leaders of the executive are elected by Parliament.

So what do we see here?

Contradiction within moods and thoughts systems (Britain agreed to the democratic change, and now does not). We also see erroneous ideas imposed (leaders of the executive says Cameron should be nominated undemocratically, that’s erroneous).

The same sort of things is also perking up in Iraq: the USA caused the mess there, committing several major war crimes in the process. Precisely because those war crimes were not prosecuted, a strong push has been exerted on Obama to duplicate Bush, and go back to attack Iraq some more.

Thus, it is simple: there bad ideas out there, and they need to be destroyed. And bad moods too (an example of bad moods is the enormity that the American population was made, by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc., into an accomplice of the most major war crime there is, war of aggression. Now that this war is in the process of being lost, some clamor to have the war pursued with renewed vigor.

We are now the stewards of the biosphere, whether we like it, or not. We can’t just sit on our rumps, strokes dogs, and whine we will attend to our garden (Voltaire style). By doing nothing, we leave criminals such as Bush, or their spirit, or their mood, in power. And thus we become accomplices.

There is total agreement for the idea that humans are the stewards of the biosphere.  But if the “sit on our rumps, strokes dogs and whine we will attend to our garden” is aimed at me, as it appears to be, then I strongly disagree.  Living as simple a life as we can is a long way from “doing nothing”.

So go out there, and engage in combat, bad moods, and bad ideas. That’s what even very old alpha monkeys, covered with age spots, do. We don’t want to let very old monkeys be examples of moral rectitude we cannot emulate.

A last point: Monbiot does not realize the contradiction he engages in. In the guise of criticising the opposition, he puts it on a pedestal, and engages in its very propaganda. Monbiot, and many like him, bemoan a “shift towards conservatism”. Nothing could be more false. People who destroy the biosphere are NOT conservatives. They play conservatives on TV. In truth, they are just the opposite. They are destructionists.

I am of the opinion, totally so, that George Monbiot is not playing at conservatism.

oooo

So, dear reader, there is little in the comment from Patrice that has me nodding my head.  Don’t get me wrong! Patrice Ayme is an individual of extreme intellect as even a dip into his blog will confirm. I am a regular reader of the writings over at that place.

However, there is one major stumbling block for me, one that I have communicated privately to the said Patrice, and that is the issue of anonymity. Because Patrice Ayme is a nom-de-plume.  Despite following ‘his’ writings for some time and sharing the occasional private email, I have almost no idea about who the person is. Yes, ‘his’ writings are often very strong and highly critical of many aspects of modern life, especially the American political system.  But that is not unique.  There is a long line-up of writers doing the same, and doing the same over their signatures: Tom Engelhardt, Jim Wright and George Monbiot and many, many others

For me, hiding one’s identity so securely behind a ‘virtual’ mask yet writing so passionately about many of the issues critically affecting the future of mankind, doesn’t work.  If one can’t or won’t be honest about who they are, then better, perhaps, that they keep their thoughts and ideas close to them.  There is no shortage of people openly being critical about the American Government and much else across the world, and being critical openly.

Later, Sue of Sue Dreamwalker added a comment.  That resonated perfectly with me and it, too, is reproduced in full.

Paul sometimes I despair at how Mankind plays out his life in the world Paul… We bemoan lots as we sit in our homes as the virus of hate, greed, and disaster pours into our living rooms via the BLACK BOX of FEAR tricks… Which helps depress, make us anxious, fearful,…. It insights anger, aggression and the spiral of thought escalates out via the Web… Internet at our fingertips- instant reactions…

Some times I wonder as I ponder… at the soup being remixed… as only this week we hear of ISIS another branch of the terrorists we are now supposed to fear… As the UK now makes friends with its long time enemy Iran.. reinstating diplomatic relationships again.. The Saga runs on an on… With Oil as the major players .

That’s why turning inward is sometimes Paul the only thing we can do… As we can only live our lives… While I so want to save the world.. The world has also got to want to save itself…

I can only live my own life and stop the petty squabbles, the judgements, the criticisms as I mend my own world to live at peace within it…
Once we all realise its our thoughts which in fact we send out, in fear, in anger, as we judge and condemn that are reflected back …

WE create the world.. We consume its products, We want to live in the lifestyles that demand this World to exploit others for riches.. And yet condemn the conditions of the haves and have nots…

We have lost sight of our basic values in life Paul…

So yes I often retreat inwards… I have too.. Because I worry too much about the kind of Earth we are leaving our Grandchildren to grow up in…
~Sue

In final reply to Patrice, I shall reproduce this well-known quotation [3]:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

References:

1. “A millennium of health improvement“. BBC News. 1998-12-27.

2. CIA Factbook.

3.This saying is widely attributed to Voltaire, but cannot be found in his writings. With good reason. The phrase was invented by a later author as an epitome of his attitude. It appeared in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym Stephen G. Tallentyre.

19 thoughts on “Morality, intelligence and humanism.

  1. “Control” is one of the worst curses of humanity. Those that demand that others impose upon their fellows through force or manipulation an attitude or behavior, however worthy the intent, are guilty of control, and they contribute in their hubris towards the worsening of the wasteland the humanity moves towards.

    The oak saplings I have successfully planted were originally planted in pots and compost in another person’s backyard without their permission, although I had intended to ask their permission when the opportunity arose, they acted by emptying all my planted acorns onto the ground before I could speak to them. Although I rescued the acorns, it was a painful lesson that if I invade, undermine, or restrict the space of another without authority I deserve a metaphorical kick in the face.

    A policy now exists in my company which forbids invasion, undermining or restriction of the space of individuals, communities, groups, institutions or nations unless they are threatening my business or they have authorised me to do so and it is required for the provision of a service or product that benefits them.

    The policy means for instance that I cannot go planting oak saplings on other peoples land without their permission, or I cannot intervene in battles over GM unless it directly harms my business.

    How I plan to influence the world is by example, by showing rather than telling. In any space I or my business own there will exist a contract between us and the other parties involved in the space which they shall abide by or are denied access. Space is sacred. Control is a curse.

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    1. Dear Alex: Very nice idea, to focus on space. A crucial idea.
      However, we will need to bottle in those who obsess at keeping on controlling us.

      Voltaire instituted the “cultivate your garden” (Actually it was invented by emperor Diocletian.)
      In both cases, when implemented on the largest scale, the political one, all what Voltaire and Diocletian achieved was to give space to the bad guys.

      What is what you call “GM”? General Motors? GMOs?

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  2. Paul: Thanks for the extraordinary compliment of your essay. I have very urgent business today, so I could read only the first paragraph, so far. Here is my answer (a variant of which will be posted on my site later):

    Paul Handover: I presume that the ‘said critters’ refer to humans? The average lifespan of humans has increased hugely. From a life expectancy of 30 years [1] at birth in Medieval Britain, back in the 13th Century, to an average of 67.2 years for humans worldwide in 2010. [2]
    That’s an increase of 124% in a little over 700 years. Yet despite that incredible increase in lifespan, humans have shown no interest in attaching a greater value to their survival: far from it! One might even muse that humans have attached a greater value to those things that actively harm our survival.

    Patrice Ayme: 1) Although the average lifespan has increased, not so the maximum lifespan. Sophocles was in his nineties when he wrote his work. Elders are the ones steering civilization with ideas, for the best.
    With elders who do not live any longer, I do not expect their wisdom to live longer, either.

    However, up to recent times, many of the political leaders were, because of the nature of plutocratic inheritance, extremely young when they got to power (Nero, Caligula, Constantine, Justinian, Louis XIV are notorious examples). So one would expect stupidity to reign, as observed.

    For example, Augustus gained power when he was barely out of adolescence (as heir of his great uncle Caesar). His rule reflected a decisive lack of wisdom relative to Caesar, including indulging in obvious crimes, something Caesar was never caught doing for all history to see (Augustus, for example had Caesarion, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra, a child he was related to, executed). Then Augustus made a hash of the German problem, etc.

    2) Human beings attach greater value to the survival: right now, the death rate from conflict is, by far, the lowest ever. By several orders of magnitude.
    The “good savage” myth of Rousseau, was just a figment of his stunted imagination. In truth, real savages spent most of their time savaging each other, as archeological findings have since testified.
    Wisdom has, overall, increased. The Roman Empire was unable to handle its entangled resource, commodities, economic and ecology crises. Western Europe, around 1300 CE reached a similar population (75 million), a similar state of development as Rome at its apex, and a similar crisis. Moreover, the climate entered the “Little Ice Age”, and the “Black Death” (the plague) showed up.
    On the face of it, the situation was worse.

    However, the European leaders then took enough of the right decisions for Western civilization to survive and accelerate its march forward.

    Why did wisdom improve?
    No choice.
    Civilization progresses, because technology progresses, and the latter advances, because science understands the world ever more. However this understanding REQUIRES and thus IMPELS, ever more sophisticated wisdom.

    Indeed, subjacent to science is an enormous amount of philosophy. A part of this philosophy is METACOGNITIVE. That means it reflects not just on what we know, but how we got to know it. It turns out metacognition is a necessary component to the advancement of science.

    Recent studies have shown that metacognition is not just useful in psychology, but even, in psychiatry. Really crazy people’s mental states improve when it is explained to them how their cognitive system mislead them.

    More(!!!) later…

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      1. I guess I did not get to the “offending” part yet! 😉 I am busy filling up the ideas in my comment above instead. I am hard to “offend”, as my mental system is highly stressed tested, as I’m sure yours also is, as a solo sailor and flier…

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  3. “I would invite Patrice to give an example of over-elaboration coming from the pen of George Monbiot.”

    Here it is, from that essay of Monbiot:

    “Any political movement that fails to understand two basic psychological traits will, before long, fizzle out. The first is Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Coined by the biologist Daniel Pauly, it originally described our relationship to ecosystems(1), but it’s just as relevant to politics. We perceive the circumstances of our youth as normal and unexceptional – however sparse or cruel they may be. By this means, over the generations, we adjust to almost any degree of deprivation or oppression, imagining it to be natural and immutable.

    The second is the Values Ratchet (also known as policy feedback). If, for example, your country has a public health system which ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them(2,3). If you live in a country where people are left to die, this embeds the idea that you have no responsibility towards the poor and weak. The existence of these traits is supported by a vast body of experimental and observational research, of which Labour and the US Democrats appear determined to know nothing.”

    This is way too general. Both are rather known as IMPRINTING (Nobels were given for its discovery). OK, done: say “IMPRINTING”, and move on. Instead Monbiot introduces an avalanche of equivalent, superfluous semantics.

    It’s as much time no spent dealing with specifics. That’s where the devil is.
    Make no mistake: I like Monbiot, a lot.

    An example of weakening over-elaboration is the obsession with “capitalism” (I am not talking about Monbiot here). That’s always weak, because capital is everywhere. It’s like complaining about the air.

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  4. “But if the “sit on our rumps, strokes dogs and whine we will attend to our garden” is aimed at me, as it appears to be, then I strongly disagree. Living as simple a life as we can is a long way from “doing nothing”.”

    Sorry Paul, I wrote this real fast, I did not want to offend you and your pack. It was instinctively aimed at my sister in law, presently visiting a new continent, Australia, who just got herself a dog, she had just sent me the pic that day.

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  5. The issue of anonymity has nothing to do with ideas. It has to do with celebritism.

    Take Obama, for example. Do you think you know who he is? Well, much of what he says, he did not write, and the real person is completely different from the persona. When I criticize “Obama” I criticize his public ideas, not the real, much simpler person.

    Getting out of celebritism, and into ideas, is exactly what we need to do. What if I am a Descartes (-Turing) machine?

    Machines are actually churning math theorem these days. That does not make them any less true.

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  6. We had guests for lunch today and I returned to my computer at a little before 4pm. To find Patrice’s elaborate, detailed replies to today’s post. To do those replies justice, in terms of reading them carefully and composing my responses, I shall return later over the weekend.

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  7. WOW! well, what a post and what an exchange of thoughts… as I read the comments and in-between some lines.. 🙂 .. Ego is still a player I see having Fun with points scoring…

    Handled well I thought Paul.. 🙂

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  8. what i believe, the Values Ratchet (also known as policy feedback). If, for example, your country has a public health system which ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them(2,3).

    Like

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