Rationality and patriotism

Here’s a quote from the late Bill Hicks that often shows up on social media sites:

It goes on:

I do think this rather misses the point.  Certainly it would have been absurd for Hicks to have taken credit for being an American, as it would have been absurd for him to have taken credit for being his parents’ child.  That is not at all the same thing as saying that it would have been absurd for him to have taken pride in his relationship to them and their native land.

Take for example the matter of achievements.  Children want their parents to take pride in their achievements, and parents want their children to take pride in their achievements.  But if parents took credit for their children’s achievements, or vice versa, it would be a betrayal.

Likewise with regard to one’s country.  A person who had done something extraordinary would no doubt be pleased to find that s/he had become a source of pride for his or her countrymen.  Were s/he to find that those countrymen were trying to efface his or her name and to take credit for his or her achievements for themselves, I am sure that s/he would react with dismay and anger.

Taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s countrymen is part of patriotism, just as taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s family members is part of devotion to family.  There are many other parts to each of these things.  Affection to other members of the group, eagerness to defend the group when it is attacked, willingness to sacrifice one’s own individual interests for the sake of the group’s collective interest, all of these belong both to family devotion and to patriotism.

Nor is this the whole story of patriotism as a virtue.  I’ve been developing an interest in Moral Foundations Theory ever since I finally got around to reading Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind a few months ago. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist with an interest in anthropology, concludes in that book that in the ethical systems of the world, people consistently show concern with a few major oppositions.  He and his associates summarize the most readily identifiable of these as Care vs Harm, Fairness vs Cheating, Liberty vs Oppression, Loyalty vs Betrayal, Authority vs Subversion, and Sanctity vs Degradation.

Professor Haidt is not a Perennialist like my hero Irving Babbitt, who held that the wisdom traditions of every culture and age could be distilled into a set of doctrines and that his personal system of ethical and aesthetic and political beliefs was identical to that set of doctrines.  Rather, he argues that these oppositions crop up in the ethical experience of people in culture after culture, and that practical morality in all of the infinite variety of forms it takes among the world’s peoples is usually an attempt to address all of these oppositions all at once.  So, people try to be caring, fair, free, loyal, orderly, and pure, all at the same time.  Professor Haidt criticizes academic philosophy for a tendency to isolate one or the other of these oppositions and focus on it to the exclusion of the rest, and more broadly criticizes the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultural elites for their tendency to reduce morality to Care, Fairness, and Liberty, disregarding or actively deprecating the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  Professor Haidt claims that, among other ills, this disregard leads to political polarization, as the less WEIRD members of Western societies find that they cannot trust the educated elite to attend to matters which they, like most people in the world, consider to be of great moral weight.

If we take our cue from Professor Haidt and his fellows, we might want to develop a concept of patriotism that would draw on all six of the principal moral foundations.  We would need a standard of care that imposes a special obligation to look after one’s countrymen, without denying that others may also have a claim on our kindly ministrations.

As for fairness and cheating, something of that concern enters into our distinction between taking pride in something and taking credit for it.  It would be cheating to take credit for something another person did, but would also be cheating to refuse to take pride in what that person did if they were connected to us in a way that would entitle them to hope that they would make us proud.  A citizen who refuses to take pride in a countryman who discovers a great scientific truth or creates a magnificent work of art or wins a major athletic contest or conducts herself bravely in combat is cheating that countryman, just as a parent who refuses to take pride in a child’s achievements is cheating that child.  Fairness, indeed, demands that we take pride in the great deeds of our countrymen.

Inasmuch as the opposition of Liberty vs Oppression is obviously political, in a world of nation-states efforts to cultivate Liberty as a virtue must be obviously patriotic as well.  Liberty is always liberty as expressed in a given country, by its people, within its customs, under its laws; oppression is always oppression of a given people, in violation of their customs, in contempt of the restraints that law places on the exercise of power.  So liberty is a patriotic virtue.  When Nathan Hale resisted the British in defense of the liberties of Connecticut, he saw himself as his fellow rebels saw him, as a patriot.  Whether or not Hale actually died with the words “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country” on his lips, he certainly does symbolize a conception of patriotism that is very much alive to the opposition Liberty vs Oppression.  Likewise with an organization such as Veterans for Peace, with its slogan “Peace is Patriotic.”  Their focus is consistently on the ways in which militarism and the war economy erode the freedoms for which Americans have long hoped their country would be known.

When you get to Loyalty vs Betrayal, patriotism starts to have its unpleasant associations.  There’s a very long and extremely familiar history of irresponsible ruling elites branding all opposition to themselves as betrayal of the country, and using that smear to justify oppression.  I do think that remarks like Bill Hicks’ “I hate patriotism!” and similar statements from the political Left are counterproductive in that they make it difficult for others to trust that anyone on the Left will appreciate the value of Loyalty, and that in that distrust they tend to be dissatisfied with any but the crudest conceptions of loyalty.

Authority vs Subversion strikes liberal ears with an even nastier ring than that of Loyalty vs Betrayal.  The essence of modernity is rebellion, the essence of liberalism is rebellion institutionalized as a permanent feature of civic life.  That isn’t to say that modern, liberal people can never accept authority as legitimate, but that they can find legitimacy only in authority that is the byproduct of an adversarial process, such as an election, a market competition, or court trial.  So in a modern, liberal society, we have to develop a patriotism that can be expressed through adversarial processes and notions peculiar to adversarial processes (such as “rights,” for example.)  That is to say, a modern, liberal patriot must value adversarial processes, participate in them, respect other participants, and accept the outcomes of those processes.

Sanctity vs Degradation is largely about keeping symbols intact.  That’s why Bill Hicks’ suggestion that “instead of putting stars and stripes on our flags we should put pictures of our parents fucking” in order to destroy patriotism is apt.  That would certainly degrade both the flag and the parents, pointing to a rejection of both patriotism and devotion to family.  Considered as a dimension of patriotism, then, Sanctity vs Degradation brings to mind the idea of ceremonial regard for patriotic symbols.  It also suggests that the range of things we treat as patriotic symbols should be subject to dramatic expansion.  So the conservation movement that led to the creation of US National Parks in the early twentieth century presented the country itself as a patriotic symbol, and many social welfare proposals have succeeded because the people of the country were seen as patriotic symbols.  That’s one of the reasons why the moral imagination and the religious imagination are so often so deeply intertwined, that they both reject any attempt to confine the symbolic realm to limits set by explicitly rational thought.

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Meaning of Life?

The other day, I noticed a tweet in which Cliff Pickover linked to a 2010 article by Sean Carroll called “Free Energy and the Meaning of Life.”

The article, which I had not seen before, included this paragraph:

Because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy increases, the history of the universe is the story of dissipation of free energy. Energy wants to be converted from useful forms to useless forms. But it might not happen automatically; sometimes a configuration with excess free energy can last a long time before something comes along to nudge it into a higher-entropy form. Gasoline and oxygen are a combustible mixture, but you still need a spark to set the fire.

and this one:

Here is the bold hypothesis: life is Nature’s way of opening up a chemical channel to release all of that free energy bottled up in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the young Earth. My own understanding gets a little fuzzy at this point, but the basic idea seems intelligible. While there is no simple reaction that takes CO2 directly to hydrocarbons, there are complicated series of reactions that do so. Some sort of membrane (e.g. a cell wall) helps to segregate out the relevant chemicals; various inorganic compounds act as enzymes to speed the reactions along. The reason for the complexity of life, which is low entropy considered all by itself, is that it helps the bigger picture increase in entropy.

I tweeted the link, adding these comments:

You may recognize the reference to Stewart Brand’s famous remark, “On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.  The right information in the right place just changes your life.  On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.  So you have these two fighting each other.”

Of course, it was just Professor Carroll’s use of the collocation “Energy wants” that reminded me of Mr Brand’s quote and led me to parody it.  Energy doesn’t at all want to be useful, and biochemical processes don’t at all fight entropy.  Life, like all physical processes, continually increases entropy.

Anyway, I do want to put in a partial defense of something which Professor Carroll explicitly rejects.  Here’s his opening paragraph:

When we think about the “meaning of life,” we tend to conjure ideas such as love, or self-actualization, or justice, or human progress. It’s an anthropocentric view; try to convince blue-green algae that self-actualization is some sort of virtue. Let’s ask instead why “life,” as a biological concept, actually exists. That is to say: we know that entropy increases as the universe evolves. But why, on the road from the simple and low-entropy early universe to the simple and high-entropy late universe, do we pass through our present era of marvelous complexity and organization, culminating in the intricate chemical reactions we know as life?

That “Let’s ask instead” makes it clear that the phrase “the meaning of life” appears in this article rather jocularly. Professor Carroll and his friends are reinterpreting the question “What is the meaning of life?” to mean, not “What meaning has the transcendent order of the universe inscribed on life?,” but “What is there about life that might make it interesting to a physicist whose primary concern is with cosmology on a large scale?”  That is, in itself, a fine question, and in an age when the idea of the physical universe as a place nested in a larger order that inscribes it and its parts with true and eternal meanings is not in all quarters regarded as a self-evident truth, it might seem like a natural way of repurposing a chunk of language that might otherwise have fallen into disuse.

Still, I do think that a question like “What is the meaning of life?” can still be asked coherently in something like its old sense.  Moral Foundations Theory, pioneered by people like Jonathan Haidt, shows that social scientists are capable of describing the concerns that lead people to decide that some things are sacred in a way that puts them above judgment, some are distasteful in a way that puts them beneath notice, and some are subject to evaluation.  For an example of something that is above judgment, imagine a pious monotheist hearing that some or other story about God makes God look bad.  To such a person, making that observation shows only that the observer is looking at the story from the wrong angle and missing its point.  For an example of something distasteful in a way that puts it beneath judgment (what Edith Wyschogrod, following Heidegger, called “bare life,”) imagine a discussion among philosophers about the ethical implications of particular methods of trimming one’s toenails.  The average person would burst out laughing if s/he overheard such a thing.

The tripartite moral reasoning that isolates the realm of judgment from, on the one hand, a super-moral realm of the sacred, and on the other from an infra-moral realm of bare life hinges on the concept of meaning.  The infra-moral is not only distasteful, but meaningless.  The other two realms each have their own particular forms of meaning.  The meanings of actions that are subject to judgment are intelligible to reason and open to rational challenge.  The meaning which sets the sacred realm apart is one which is ultimately mysterious, that is to say, beyond the capacity of language to express or of the rational mind to comprehend.  The moral reasoning that carries us through the realm of judgment does involve continual attempts to identify the boundaries of that realm.  So we again and again look for fragments of the sacred in our rational surroundings, and for fugitive significances in the realm of bare life. The three realms thus interpenetrate each other.

Indeed, the examples of “anthropocentric” answers that Professor Carroll gives to the question would suggest a world that has already drifted far from the views of the Stoic and theistic thinkers who used to ponder questions of transcendent meaning.  If by “love” we mean, not the set of social connections and moral obligations that word would have brought to the minds of people in the days when Stoicism and theism were the default world-views, but an emotional state characterized by extreme attachment between individuals and those individuals’ fervent desire to enjoy life together, then it’s difficult to see what “meaning” has to do with it.  “Meaning” is a word we borrow from descriptions of communicative behavior, and the part of that emotional state which we tend to call “love” in our day and age is precisely the part that has the least to do with the pair’s efforts to send or receive or preserve messages outside itself.  That intensely private, intensely intimate relation is a brute fact, not inscribed with any particular meaning intelligible to anyone outside the pair.  Even the members of the pair, as their feelings evolve, cannot entirely comprehend the particular emotional state they inhabited in earlier phases.

That’s as much a state of matter as or “self-actualization” in its in this article after starting with a brisk dismissal of “anthropocentric” ideas that invoke it.  I made an almost-serious suggestion here a little while ago about something that we might want to think about when we think about life as something capable of carrying meaning.  Like Professor Carroll, I do think that if we are to find anything useful about such an expression it ought to apply to more than human life.  On the other hand, it ought to be about humans.  The proper question to ask is, what is it about life that makes it possible for humans to find meaning, not just in their own individual lives or in each other’s lives, but in the fact that they are living beings like other living beings.