Thursday, September 16, 2010

Of robber barons and moral codes

Rewind a scant 600 years, and modern science doesn’t yet exist. Men and women live and die in squalor and filth, largely ignorant of the germs that ravage their bodies and of the natural laws that govern the universe, instead imploring an alleged supernatural force to help them navigate this vale of tears.
But thanks to minds such as Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur and Charles Darwin, this is not how we face the world today. They taught us our method of knowing: careful, mathematically precise observation, step-by-step inference and generalization, and systematic, evidence-based theory building.
They had the courage to challenge entrenched authority, toss aside superstition and defy popes. As others followed the trail the first scientists blazed, human knowledge advanced dramatically.

With these words, Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, arguing on CNN.com that our moral code needs modernization, reiterate the atheist myth of scientific development, playing very fast and very loose with the details. However, the point of the article isn’t merely to hoist the superiority of science over religion:


Kings and aristocrats were swept aside to make way for the rights of man. This idea gave birth to a new nation, our beloved America, in which the individual was free to think and pursue his own happiness. A new person arose: the industrialist.
Slandered as robber barons, what these individuals actually did was earn fortunes by studying the discoveries of science and commercializing them. …
Although few of us would turn to the Old Testament or the Quran to determine the age of the Earth, too many of us still turn obediently to these books (or their secular copies) as authorities about morality. We learn therein the moral superiority of faith to reason and collective sacrifice to personal profit.
But the more seriously we take these old ethical ideas, the more suspect become the modern ideas responsible for human progress. The scientists in their laboratories did not demonstrate the superiority of faith. Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration did not proclaim the superiority of collective sacrifice. Why should we think these ideas are the path to moral enlightenment?

Of course, it all depends on how you define “morality”, and Brook and Ghate eventually show that they’re stronger in rhetorical flourishes than they are in philosophy:


If morality is judgment to discern the truth and courage to act on it and make something of and for your own life, then these individuals, in their capacity as great creators, are moral exemplars. Put another way, if morality is a guide in the quest to achieve your own happiness by creating the values of mind and body that make a successful life, then morality is about personal profit, not its renunciation [italics mine].
I suppose we could spend time picking apart Brook and Ghate’s shallow, highly selective and distorted treatment of both scientific and industrial history. However, the italicized sentence exposes the most basic error of their argument.

If the goal of morality were simply the material success of the individual, then the only rule necessary would be: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” But material success doesn’t equal happiness; often enough, it means being isolated, dissatisfied and even miserable in the greatest physical comfort you can buy. Moreover, technological advancement hasn’t brought nothing but wealth and health; it’s also brought us more efficient, more horrible ways to damage ourselves and others. Often enough, the technology we develop to solve one problem brings others in its wake, as anyone who listens to pharmaceutical commercials ought to know.

Morality isn’t simply about how I should try to find happiness. Rather, it’s also about the way I treat others in my pursuit of happiness. Almost all moral codes, whether derived from religion or not, agree that there are right and wrong ways to treat other people, whether they’re relatives or strangers, servants or masters, friends or enemies. We develop these codes in response to the fact that, for the most part, we don’t live in isolation, that we aren’t really self-sufficient, that we form communities and social networks to enhance our chances of individual survival.

The theist and the atheist may disagree on whether an unborn child is a living human being, but they will agree that you ought not kill another human being except in self-defense. The Christian and the Buddhist may fight over whether one ought to have material possessions, but they will agree that one ought not take another’s possession without consent or fair compensation. Different societies may argue about whether a man should be allowed to marry more than one woman, but they will concur that a man shouldn’t sleep with another man’s wife. In no social code I know of is it taught or believed that the individual pursuit of happiness or success excuses doing wrong by another person.

This is precisely why the robber barons are held in dishonor. To achieve their successes, they literally ruined their competitors whenever they could, and built their empires on the broken backs of men to whom they paid bare subsistence wages, most often with no consideration for their safety even when the work was highly dangerous. Nor were they above cheating their customers, misrepresenting their products, bamboozling investors through stock-market fiddles or bribing government officials. For every good business practice developed by industrial and commercial interests, at least two have been imposed upon them by the government against their stiff resistance. Even today, businesses support gay rights not because of any inherent interest in social justice or human dignity but because they recognize a higher-than-average-income market segment they can exploit for dollars and higher-than-average education they can mine for labor.

And scientists? I don’t need to defame the motives and morality of scientists in general to make my point. However, we can note that there is one time and place in history when science wasn’t shackled by religious morality: the death camps of Nazi Germany. And while the scientists in question mostly engaged in pseudo-scientific experiments based on racial baloney, occasionally they produced results that have since been added to our stockpile of knowledge. But we’ve taken it as a moral fact that the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t by itself justify everything done to gain it.

Let’s return again to the outrageous proposition Brook and Ghate would foist on us:


If morality is about the pursuit of your own success and happiness, then giving money away to strangers is, in comparison, not a morally significant act. (And it's outright wrong if done on the premise that renunciation is moral.)

Away with compassion. Away with community-building. Away even with the most basic human consideration for the happiness and success of others, if it gets in the way of me being happy and successful. Are you uneducated, crippled, in bad health, starving, living in filth, beset by mental illness, or even just had a string of bad luck? Sucks to be you, as long as I’m healthy and wealthy and surrounded by all the marvels of technology ever put on the market.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Brook and Ghate’s moral viewpoint isn’t “new” in any meaningful sense. Rather, it’s naked, distilled egocentrism, selfishness of a kind seen in every age and every society. Heck, it’s amorality, an abandonment of ethics that would be the delight of Gordon Gekko.

It’s not that these two moral eunuchs actively misrepresent religion and history to make their point: they weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last. It’s that they do so to advocate a “morality” so frighteningly inhumane and anarchic in its implications.

Even more frightening is how easily such a moral void could come to rule us. For, if you really want to, you can make a business case for almost any horror … and find profit in it. Especially if it serves selfishness. Because people can have the most destructive and most predatory ideas of what will make them happy and successful.

Science, freedom and the pursuit of personal profit—if we can learn to embrace these three ideas as ideals, an unlimited future awaits.” But an unlimited future of what? What these words, so reminiscent of Karl Marx’s invocation of the “most happy state”, mean we can only guess; the words themselves are so much rhetorical fluff.

However, without the necessary concessions that each person has an inherent dignity, that we’re obliged to respect the rights and integrity of others even when doing so would frustrate our freedom and personal profit—such concessions science can’t give us, because science can’t recognize what it can’t measure—freedom and the pursuit of personal profit can only lead to anarchy, to a “survival of the fittest” mentality that has no room for compassion or mercy, no respect for law or custom.

Human progress does require good ideas. That, in the entire column, is about the only true thing Brook and Ghate say. But more than that, human progress requires an idea of good, of what it actually means to be good. For all their rhetoric, the authors don’t even come close to giving us that.