Church, State, Civilization
Part 1: Allow Me to Explain The Darkness Of The Human Soul
The title of this post is meant to be something of a joke as I took it from this South Park clip:
I want to discuss what I see as some of the implications of the current standard understanding of human psychology as seen through a Darwinian lens. I don’t think I’m saying anything that hasn’t been said in other places, but maybe I’m putting together things that haven’t been put together before.
Current Darwinian theory holds that there have been three great forces shaping human nature. First there is the simple requirement to survive in competition with other organisms. These forces have produced the “selfish genes” which proliferate due to their ability to survive and replicate. These selfish genes produce organisms seeking their own individual survival and reproduction so that they may pass on their genes.
The second force is kin selection which explains the seemingly contradictory fact that many organisms spend a good deal of time and energy not on their own selfish needs, but on their offspring and families. Kin selection shows how a gene may still be interested in its own survival despite having the organism it inhabits acting altruistically since sexually reproducing organisms will share 50% of their genes with their offspring.
Finally, reciprocal altruism shows how an organism might still benefit even if it makes sacrifices that benefit unrelated organisms, as long as the other organism in turn reciprocate and provide a benefit as least as great as the cost of cooperation.
The long working of these forces on our species has molded human psychology, and created the psychological processes that in turn produce behavior. Genes build brains that produce consciousness that produces behavior. You can think of the brain and body as a ship built and outfitted by the genes for a journey on which they are passengers. The genes have provided our expedition with the tools past experience has shown to be needed in dealing with the various contingencies that can be expected on the journey.
Psychological processes are not different in kind from other biological processes. That is to say, our psychological processes have been designed by natural selection and work according to the same principles as other biological processes. Like, say, the heart, lungs, or liver, psychological processes have been selected for their ability to produce some beneficial effect. In the case of psychological processes, they are all designed to ultimately contribute to some successful behavior. As Millikan writes: “The capacity to have desires is maintained in the species, then, only insofar as some desires become goals, then become intentions, and finally are fulfilled. Hence one of the functions of desires too is to guide the organism towards their own fulfillment” (White Queen Psychology, p. 166).
For example, the struggle for individual survival and reproduction has produced our self-interested psychological processes. The subjective feeling of hunger, for instance, is designed to get the organism to procure food, to actually produce food-seeking behavior; sexual attraction is designed to get the organism to pursue sex; fear is designed to get the organism to seek safety, and so on. I need a name for this self-interested aspect of psychology and am going to call it the ego. This should not be confused with any other uses of “ego” such as Freudian accounts, but the word does have the connotation of selfishness, and so it seemed a suitable choice. Hunger, thirst, the sex drive, and fear are mental states that result from the workings of the ego. In addition, there is the drive to procure the means to achieve these ends–power–which mostly takes the form of the desire for material goods, wealth, or status. Finally, there is the desire to achieve these things with the expenditure of as little energy as possible, which you might call efficiency (or laziness if you’re feeling less kind).
The brain gets the organism to act in distinctive ways by producing mental states with imperative content. This just means that certain mental states are designed to produce behavior as hunger is designed to get the organism to go and procure food. Other mental processes such as beliefs do not have imperative content; they are not designed to produce behavior themselves, but they are supposed to be invoked as guides to behavior. The imperative content is encoded in the qualitative nature of consciousness, what philosophers call “qualia.” Appetites and emotions are imperative mental states.
The second force, kin-selection, has produced in us the subjective feeling of love and affection for our family members (but also conflicts between siblings). These emotional states are supposed to get the organism to care for and protect its offspring. Finally, our long history as social animals has produced pro-social feelings such as friendship and camaraderie, or loneliness and fear of ostracism, in order to benefit us through cooperating with others. In “Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics for the 21-st Century” I argued that virtue is the process whereby these latter social emotions benefit the individual and take precedence over the imperatives of the selfish ego. These social emotions are self-interested, but they differ from the other imperatives of the ego in that they are designed to prevent or impede the workings of the ego in those cases where acting on its imperative would be disadvantageous as compared to producing a beneficial effect on potential cooperators.
It might be an oversimplification to state that the ego motivates with pleasure, kin selection with love, and reciprocal altruism with friendship or camaraderie, but it is pretty close.
If consciousness is produced by the brain, and the brain is produced by the genes in order to serve their ends, consciousness must be designed to further the ends of our genes. (“Serving the ends of” is transitive in this case.) A strong version of this thesis is that consciousness is constantly, in every instance, every single thought, actually serving the interests of the genes. A weaker version would hold that as long as major needs are met, such as hunger, thirst, safety, and sexual satisfaction, the mind is left free to wonder. But soon enough you can be sure that hunger or thirst or even boredom will create imperative states to get the organism up and moving and following the genetic imperatives.
One might be tempted to reply that psychological processes are independent of genetic influence. For example, in The Blank Slate Pinker writes:
The genes have metaphorical motives–making copies of themselves–and the organisms they design have real motives. But they are not the same motives. Sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is wire unselfish motives into the human brain–heartfelt, unstinting, deep-in-the-marrow unselfishness.
Combine this with the common misconception that the genes are a kind of essence or core of the person, and you get a mongrel of Dawkins and Freud: the idea that the metaphorical motives of the genes are the deep, unconscious, ulterior motives of the person. That is an error.
It would be easy to misinterpret a quote such as this as showing that our psychological processes aren’t serving genetic interests. Pinker thinks there is a line, a dualism, somewhere between genes and consciousness, and on one side of this line you have morality and on the other side you have value-free biological processes. When evaluating the morality of someone’s actions you should not consider the genetic ends these actions are serving. I’m not here arguing that this isn’t true or that there isn’t such a line (although if it does exist it must have been itself designed by the genes for their motives (or by God)), I am just claiming that even if there is such a line it doesn’t show that consciousness isn’t designed to further genetic ends. Pinker rightly claims that there are two senses of “motive”: motive-g(ene), and motive-h(human). But motive-h is indeed designed to further motive-g. Pinker urges us to pay no mind to that man behind the curtain when discussing morality, but he is there. If we switch from talk of motives to biological functions it must be that the brain structures that have the function to produce consciousness are serving genetic ends in doing so.
The imperatives of the ego are causal processes, like all biological processes, and considered by itself, in isolation from other psychological influences, the ego will produce its designed behavior as a matter of causal law unless something causally blocks them. (I will discuss the forces that block the workings of ego-imperatives below and in future posts) This is nothing more than saying thirst will produce drinking behavior unless, for instance, there is nothing around in the environment to drink and the organism knows this. Consider a photocopying machine. If the machine is in working condition, plugged in, filled with toner, loaded with paper, and a piece of paper with an image in placed in it, and the Copy button is pushed (Normal conditions in Millikan’s lingo), the machine will create a copy as a matter of the working of physical law. Likewise, unless impeded by other psychological states, mental or physical illness, or by the environment itself (as when the object of a desire is unavailable) the electro/chemical nervous system will succeed in producing its designed behavior as a matter of causal law.
Like all biological processes, the ego is designed to produce an effect–in this case fulfillment of its imperatives–and if these imperatives are not fulfilled it never stops working at it anymore than the lungs, heart, or liver cease at their work Normally. Just as the heart is always pumping blood, when unfulfilled the ego is always working out how to remove obstacles to its fulfillment. If left unfulfilled the appetites can increase their intensity until the organism complies; our feelings of hunger will grow stronger and stronger and make it harder and harder to resist acting on its imperative. If it feels stymied or has no idea how to proceed it will produce frustration or dissatisfaction, the purpose of which is to get the organism to work on fulfilling its imperatives.
In perusing its ends the ego employs practical reason. (In Millikan’s terms, the proper function of practical reason is producing Normal conditions for the desires.) This is just to say that if someone is hungry they will need to employ means/end reasoning in figuring out how procure food; they will have to go in the other room, open the refrigerator door, take out the food, etc.. Thus the ego is designed to do what it has to do to get around or remove obstacles that stand in the way of achieving its ends. As I mentioned before, the ego despises going unfulfilled, and will produce pain–hunger, thirst, fear, lust– as a means of getting the organism to fulfill its imperatives, and will keep employing practical reason to work on the problem. Imagine the ego as a machine for overcoming obstacles to the fulfillment of its imperatives. This is no different from Hume’s “reason is the servant of the passions” with the added biofunctionalism.
The ego creates self-interested imperative states and then works out how to fulfill them. That’s all it does. It doesn’t have conscience, sympathy, shame, or anything like that. These mental processes may exist and may serve to limit acting on the ego, but their nature and purpose, and the forces that created them, are quite different from that of the ego. Of course I am not claiming that the ego always succeeds in getting the organism to act on its imperatives, or succeeds in attaining them even if it does, or that the individual has no control over its behavior. I am only saying that imperative psychological states have the function of producing their fulfillment, whether or not they are acted upon or are fulfilled. There are many factors that can impede the ego from fulfilling its imperatives. First, there is the environment itself where the object of our appetites–food, drink, wealth, sex, power– simply might not be currently available, or there are no known means to attain them. Second, other mental states are designed to prevent the ego from producing behavior. As the ancients knew, the soul is often in conflict with itself. Just because the ego may be pushing for a behavior doesn’t mean the that whole organism is (see Millikan’s “The Bundle of Biological Purposes Which is Us.”). Hunger might be pushing us to engage in some course of action while fear is serving its function by telling us to seek safety. This has necessitated higher-order mental processes–the Will–to adjudicate between opposing urges. For one thing, the pursuit of our appetites might negatively affect other people such that they withdraw the benefits of reciprocation and cooperation. The benefits accrued by producing a beneficial effect on other people might outweigh the benefits of acting on our appetites. In this case, social emotions–fear of negative social consequences such as ostracism–will prove stronger that the imperatives of the ego. Simply put, you might crave a hot fudge sundae, but don’t want to get fat, and so resist the urges of the appetite. Or you might have a strong urge to be violent towards someone who has angered you but fear either their retribution, prison, or the consequences of gaining a reputation for being untrustworthy.
The ego is thus the source of the urge to defect and free-ride. That is to say, the psychological drive to cooperate produced by reciprocal altruism is in conflict with the ego-imperative to not have to suppress itself or expend excess energy. Imagine a group of cooperators working to gather food. If the selfish ego can receive the benefits of others’ labor without expending energy itself, it will happily do so. It is the psychological fear of punishment/ostracism and the withdrawal by the group of the benefits of reciprocal altruism that motivates cooperation. There is a dilemma playing out between conflicting psychological forces as representation of the real world consequences. The ego despises being repressed, and is designed to look for a way to enjoy the benefits of cooperation without having to repress its own desires.
Let’s now take an ego’s-eye view and look at how it can be expected to act if unimpeded by other factors. The ego would view internal impediments as just another obstacle to be overcome, in no way different from external obstacles. Even if it is the job of the social emotions to prevent the workings of the ego, it’s also part of the ego’s job to overcome these obstacles. Rationalization is the ego employing practical reason in order to get around these inner psychological obstacles to its fulfillment. It is not different in kind from figuring out how to open a door to get the food inside. If you need some particular belief to get around an impediment, the ego will happily provide it. The ego’s ability to employ both practical reason and self-deception/rationalization is a powerful combination. Almost anything can be justified through this means; any impediment to the fulfillment of the appetites can be removed. You can rationalize, say, breaking your diet (“I walked up a flight of stairs today so I now can have a hot fudge sundae”), stealing a neighbors property (“they didn’t need it anyway”). Murderers can justify murdering their victims; rapists can justify rape (“she was asking for it”).
In addition to these internal impediments to the ego there are the three great human institutions designed to limit the ego: marriage, church, and state. When these institutions are powerful in a society, most people will lack the power to overcome the pressure they exert. But the powerful, the clever, the devious, the alienated, or the resentful have the means to pursue their ego-imperatives by dismantling social and institutional obstacles. It might take decades or centuries to dismantle such institutions.
At the highest levels, practical reasoning combined with rationalization becomes theorization. In pre-civilization, if you wanted something you would simply try to take it and it didn’t require any special justification. But civilization prevents violence unless it is justifiable; it demands that we justify our actions under an abstract theory of justice. When theories of justice, or even metaphysics, compete in a marketplace, the ego will purchase its favorite. When a libertarian says ” sorry, on my theory taxation is theft therefore we can not redistribute wealth” the response will siply be to get another theory to justify redistributing wealth. If there aren’t any currently on offer, practical reason will get to work creating one; the ego will produce a theory in order to get around any restrictions placed on it (unless the society possesses strong protections against such subversion). Marxists can give their theory to justify mass murder in the taking of people’s property, and since there are always plenty of people all looking for rationalizations to have restrictions on their appetites lifted, they will seize upon the justifications offered by such theories and become passionate followers. If you need a theory in order to get around social restrictions, the ego will provide them. Post-structuralism/post-modernism are just the realization that in order to justify leftist politics you need to deny the existence of reality. If that’s what is required, so be it.
The existentialists and their intellectual descendants claimed that once all religious, social, and institutional determinants of the will were removed the individual would possess radical autonomy and be able to spontaneously create their own values. But you can not design yourself; we have already been designed. Radical autonomy can’t generate imperative content, only our evolved brain does that. The promise of radical autonomy was just a smoke screen, a fiction to explain why it wouldn’t just end up in hedonism once societal impediments to the will had been lifted. But this is exactly what happened. Existentialism didn’t usher in a golden age of self-created individuals, it just handed the will over to the same old sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll hedonism.
Marriage requires the repression of one’s ego-imperatives in a cooperate/cooperate equilibrium (discussed here and here) and so has been a prime target for liberalism. The ego’s ideal would be–instead of having to actively and constantly put in the effort to seek the happiness of your spouse–to not have to put in any effort and still be rewarded despite constant defection. Liberalism/feminism has sold marriage as an institution where one gets to defect endlessly yet still be loved unconditionally: the ego’s fondest desire. What an attractive prospect! You are supposed to be loved “for who you are” and actually putting in effort to make your spouse happy would be to violate one’s sacred autonomy/authenticity. Once the ego has “reformed” marriage it would mean you don’t have to expend any energy on the happiness of your spouse–in fact any expectation that you owe your spouse any effort is evil!–and yet can expect unconditional love. However, when both partners expect to be able to defect and yet be loved unconditionally dissatisfaction will set in as neither will put in any effort and yet expects the other to do so. Successful marriage takes constant effort on behalf of the happiness of your spouse.
Church and state will be the topics of parts 2 and 3, but I can say here that religion, being the primary obstacle to the pursuit of the appetites, will always be a primary target for removal. Once having successfully destroyed religion’s power to get people to repress their appetites, the main impediment to the fulfillment of the ego-imperatives is the preferences of other people. If their preferences can be altered or removed, the ego will happily do so. If finding overweight people unattractive can be done away with through a campaign against “fat phobia” (or “slut shaming”) the ego will try it. (I don’t think it can be so overcome as I don’t believe that that finding overweight people unattractive is a mere social convention.) Perhaps the ultimate endgame of mankind’s long struggle is to be surrounded by automatons who satisfy our every desire and indulge our every whim no matter how depraved without complaint; where no one ever has to limit their desires out of concern for its effect on other people.
Imagine an individual who lives a life of successfully fulfilling ego-imperatives. A mild version of this is the rock star life: sex with a different groupie each night, getting paid millions of dollars without having a grinding real job. This is an incredibly attractive prospect to a young man. (An aside: young men love the rock star life for the prospect of getting sex, wealth, and not having to do tedious work. But I think there is a different attraction for young girls. I don’t really think Katy Perry or Taylor Swift or their legions of young female fans are attracted to their glamorous life by the prospect of getting laid. For women, the attraction is being up on stage receiving adoration from millions of admirers. Oh, infinite validation! The female equivalent to infinite sex with groupies.) At the extreme, a rock star acting only upon the ego-imperatives will result in fat Elvis: eating whatever you want without concern for social effects, endless drugs, groupies, and blowing away TVs that annoy you.
A step up from the rock star is Tony Soprano or followers of the “Thug Life”–the gangster who feels entitled to murder whomever angers them. The “stop snitching” movement is a manifestation of this process. Here, even the ego-imperative for violence towards antagonists gets acted upon. (The Sopranos was a show about the conflicts between ego, kin and clan vs. church and state.) To many, this is what “the pursuit of happiness” would ideally entail.
Now consider the end-game of the ego-imperatives. The ultimate end of the ego would be an environment where all the restrictions on ego-imperatives has been lifted. And so the ego will always be hostile to the state as it imposes restrictions upon the working of anger to produce violence, rape, and the desire for power in the form of other people’s property. As the ego is a machine for overcoming obstacles to the fulfillment of its imperatives, and the state’s purpose is to do just that, there will always be those who are working to undo civilization and get back to kin and clan alone. You see this in the inner city, as the “stop snitching” movement seeks removal of the state’s impediment to murder. The gangs that rule in parts of Western cities mark the return to the “natural” state of kin and clan alone being the rule.
I will discuss the state in more detail in part 3.
This doesn’t mean that the ego would be unconditionally against the state. The ideal end of the ego would an American inner city or European “no-go” zone where all artificial restrictions on the ego have been lifted and we are back to kin and clan alone. The state no longer has any ability to enforce the law/restrict the working of the ego, but is still useful as a way to actively fulfill the ego-imperatives with minimal effort on the part of its beneficiaries by providing welfare payments, food, housing, and medical care. The best of both worlds: the state no longer enforces the law, but actively satisfies ego-imperatives.
On the other hand is the rich liberal. The rich liberal has the power to fulfill his desires and would view repressive social arrangements as restricting and in need of dismantling. They are the primary force looking to undermine moralistic social conventions in order to avoid social consequences from pursuing the imperatives of the ego. To the rich liberal the state is useful to protect his wealth. The poor liberal however doesn’t have any wealth to protect, doesn’t fear becoming poor as they already are poor, doesn’t have a wonderful job and lifestyle to preserve. To the poor the state isn’t a protector of their wealth since they don’t have any. To them the state is an impediment to the possession of property, just another obstacle to be removed. When the poor pursue the life of the ego you get the sad disaster you see in many poor communities. But the rich are willing to sacrifice the poor to their fate as long as it frees them to pursue their appetites.
Thus, Leftism is the biological strategy of removing all obstacles to the fulfillment of ego-imperatives, and exploiting the apparatus of the state to fulfill them. Rightism is the belief that there need to be institutional restraints against the functioning of the ego. Church, state, marriage, family, virtue, self-responsibility, all have the function of placing impediments in the way of the functioning of the ego (to a lesser extent business and military place limits on the ego through the expectations that one has duties to fulfill) and so will always be a target of Leftism.
I can’t decide what to call the opposite to a life of the ego: the life of virtue, the civilized life, the formal life. None quite capture what I am looking for so I am going to follow Aristotle in calling it “the good life” (although what I mean by that is different from what Aristotle means).
I am not saying that the ego is always bad and social emotions are always good. No one enjoys indulging their appetites more than I do, and cults can put intense social pressure on people to act against their own best interests. The issue is whether the behavior is leading towards living the form of a good human life. Rightism is the claim that in civilization the good human life involves the restraint of the ego to one’s parents, friends, family, spouse, God, and law. I discuss in more detail how virtue is the repression of the ego to produce a beneficial effect on other individuals in “Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics For the 21st Century.” In parts two and three I will be discussing the role of church and state.
To give away the conclusion, civilization is, well, it’s an endless war of good vs. evil. It is not a set of universally agreed upon rational axioms as Rawls holds; it is the endless battle of partisans of the good life against the ego’s attempts to remove all impediments and return to kin and clan.
We will discuss the role of the church in this battle in part 2.