Monday 20 June 2011

Political correctness versus natural selection


There is a paradoxical relationship between the theory of evolution by natural selection and Leftism, liberalism or political correctness.

At one level, to 'believe in' evolution by natural selection is used by the Left as a litmus test of seriousness - and 'creationism' is regarded as a marker of imbecility.

On the other hand, the Left will not accept the conclusions of natural selection when applied to humans, so that sociobiology/ evolutionary psychology is regarded with extreme suspicion (even though the discipline is colonized almost entirely by Leftists).


The politically correct Leftist ideology is primarily ethical - yet as a secular ideology it excludes divine revelation as a basis for ethics, and as a revolutionary ideology it also excludes spontaneity and common sense as a basis for ethics.

This opposition to the spontaneous and commonsensical is the basis for the aversion to natural selection - because natural selection shapes instinct.

Hence Leftism sets itself against the instinctual, has an automatic suspicion of that which is natural, because the natural is essentially 'selfish' (whether conceptualized as selfishness of organisms or of genes).


Political correctness cannot accept the implications of the natural selection it espouses, because PC regards natural selection as leading to a secular version of 'original sin' - intrinsic human selfishness.

For political correctness to accept the full implications of natural selection would therefore be to refute itself.

It would be for PC endorse selfishness, since animals are selfish; it would be to endorse cruelty, because animals inflict suffering on each other.


Political correctness (correctly!) recognizes that natural selection cannot lead to real virtue, to real disinterested unselfishness - therefore PC is intrinsically trying to get outside natural selection.


Political correctness, as the most advanced form of Leftism, has evolved to locate virtue in terms of abstract ethical rules which are instantiated outside of the human organism and human society.

(Given the suspicion of the spontaneous and commonsensical) these abstract ethical rules ought to be followed literally even when (especially when) they contravene instinct and common sense.

Therefore, for political correctness, the ideal is that all human behavior should be regulated by abstract ethical rules - and the outraging of spontaneous human morality is a feature, not a bug: it is evidence of transcending the 'natural' (where the natural is intrinsically regarded as corrupt).


But which rules?

If they are not to be purely arbitrary, abstract ethical rules must have two characteristics:

1. Moral inversion.

PC rules must contradict spontaneous common sense.

2. Face plausibility.

Since there are (in principle) an 'infinite' number of morally-inverted ethical rules; those which are selected must have a kind of face plausibility - must have (in the social context of modern society) a kind of platitudinous uncontradictability; for instance when denial of the morally-inverted rule must seem to convict the contradicter of cruelty and/ or selfishness.


This means that the ethical principles of political correctness depend on an implicit consent; they cannot be founded, nor defended in any fundamental fashion, but only by 'sophistry', displacement and counter-attack.

They are not necessary, but neither are they arbitrary. They are not approximate, neither are they exact - yet their interpretation must be precise and literalistic.


(Specific PC rules, developed in this fashion, are then subjected to progressive harmonization/ simplification by being brought under ever-more-general 'meta-principles'- such as diversity, equality, peace, non-discrimination. Presumably these meta-principles will - if PC lasts long enough - eventually be brought together under a single primary, foundational evaluation.)


Literal interpretation of rules in the face of the natural means that there is no such thing as moderation in PC, nor is there any hierarchy of PC transgressions: use of a single taboo word in a private conversation may elicit the full majesty of legal prosecution, social exile, permitted violence; yet tyranny, torture, rape and murder may be ignored when to notice these might be seen to tend towards disruption of over-arching PC priorities.

The two options are full and unrelenting legalism, or complete ignoring: the end goal of promoting universal PC justifying the means of ignoring specific transgressions of PC.


Natural selection is seen as having led to that to which political correctness is opposed: the natural and instinctive.

Hence PC opposes the consequences of natural selection, even as it accepts (as dogma) the reality of natural selection.

The rules of PC are therefore set-up in opposition to natural selection as abstract and partial summaries of concrete and infinitely complex realities - presented as self-evidently true - followed and enforced without compromise in the face of spontaneity and common sense - and the denial of which is seen as a moral monstrosity.



Gyan said...

But is the Left correct in rejecting sociobiology?

Lemniscate said...

I am amazed at PC's ability to marginalize and suppress science which would undermine its outlook while simultaneously presenting itself as the epitome of rationality, science and open-mindedness. Only through PC ensnaring the academics and politicians and bringing them in to unholy alliance could the authority of science be exploited so effectively.

James Kalb said...

One idea behind liberal modernity is that substantial reality is oppressive and only abstract concepts are free, self-determining, and truly human. Liberalism is the triumph of the concept.

The idea goes back a while. Kant divided human thought, and the world as we experience it, into two parts: what is given to the human mind (pure unordered sensory experience) and what the human mind does with what is given to it (ordering it by applying categories like space, time, cause, effect, and whatnot).

If you take that general approach and apply it to human conduct, there are also two aspects: desire and aversion, which are given to us, and moral concepts, which represent the activity of the human mind. Morality, which for Kant is equivalent to human autonomy, becomes a matter of acting in accordance with pure moral concepts with no influence from substantive understandings of the good (which, as substantive understandings, are based on desire and aversion and are thus at odds with the free self-rule of the human mind).

The pure concept of morality is then what Kant calls the categorical imperative: acting in accordance with the concept of universal law, meaning in accordance with principles that the actor could consistently will to be universal. Basically, that means don't cheat--e.g., don't lie, because lying wouldn't work unless there were a general practice of not lying.

Kant thought that lots and lots of practical rules (eat your vegetables, study for your exams, practice strict sexual morality, execute murderers, etc.) followed from the categorical imperative. Most people, especially today, don't see how that's so. So they need other concepts to determine what to do in particular situations.

In keeping with the overall project, those concepts have to be as abstract and content-free as possible. The most abstract and content-free concepts available are equality and freedom--to the extent possible, treat everything the same, and let it do what it wants.

Hence present-day liberalism, and hence the rejection of the natural, the spontaneous, and the commonsensical that you point out.

Jonathan said...

This post really helps to clarify PC and a lot of your previous thoughts; especially your explanation of how "the outraging of spontaneous human morality is a feature, not a bug". Is it too late to add this to the book? Preferably near the beginning?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - well... no. But then I am a professional (i.e. paid) sociobiologist!

@L - indeed. But science has been collapsing for some decades. e.g. Most people nowadays (including scientists themselves) think that science = peer review by committee; when in fact peer review has nothing to do with real science.

@JK - I tend to see Kant as a symptom rather than a cause - but a symptom of what? That is the question...

@J - thanks. I'll bear it in mind when I look at the proofs. It might be possible to add a few paragraphs if it fitted somewhere.

James Kalb said...

Kant is certainly part of a tendency, and if he had become a haberdasher instead of an academic it probably wouldn't have made that much difference in the long run.

One way to explain what has happened is that people decided there is no personal God, so the world around us isn't intended or meaningful. You can't trust it and you certainly don't want it to dominate you. Salvation lies in escape.

In Buddhism escape from that situation involved something that looks like personal extinction. In the West it has involved self-deification.

Bruce Charlton said...

Jim - that is a superb condensation!

If you don't publish it on your blog, I will post it here.

(I mean, post it here under *your* name - not plagiarised!)


Interestingly, Christianity is about self-deification (theosis) - but deificiation in the next world, not this one (except for ascetic saints at the end of prolonged struggle).

(Mormonism, too, is explicitly about working-towards becoming a God, indeed a creator God although remaining under the Trinity, sometime after death.)

It seems to be *this-worldly* self-deification that is the specific problem.

On the other hand, political correctness may represent a turn away from self-deification (as in earlier Leftisms) - into a more 'Eastern'-type, anti-human aim of extinction of the self by total identification with abstract processes...?

Gyan said...

Sociobiology has fundamental problems no less than Leftism. since it denies the rational nature of man.

I wonder how sociobiology can be reconciled with Christian faith and classical worldview.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - All forms of specialized discourse (sciences, law etc) are incommensurable with each other and with Christianity - at some level and in some applications.

That is because all specialisms are simplified models, that sample reality but which leave out aspects of reality.

So each and every science is incommensurable with each other, but there is nothing distinctive about evolutionary psychology in this regard - except that its limitations are more obvious - which is a good thing, on the whole.

Brett Stevens said...

Leftism, liberalism or political correctness

LLPC (acronymizing the above) seems to be dead-set against anything other than the pure autonomy of human intent; even without religion, we know this is false in the same way free will is false (we may have free choice, as I believe, but free will presupposes we know all options possible, which is unlikely given our geographic and personal isolation).

In doing this, I think LLPC misunderstands natural selection. In my view, it is not selfishness, but self-interest. The formation of civilizations shows that self-interest can extend to helping others and forming a cooperative team, where selfishness is destructive to that team.

Brett Stevens said...

@Jim Kalb:

Morality, which for Kant is equivalent to human autonomy, becomes a matter of acting in accordance with pure moral concepts with no influence from substantive understandings of the good (which, as substantive understandings, are based on desire and aversion and are thus at odds with the free self-rule of the human mind).

This was the basis of Nietzsche's attack on Kant and Schopenhauer, who form a kind of continuum in their pursuit/discovery of transcendental idealism: results matter more than intent.

As you point out, liberalism is obsessed with intend. Bad results if you did not intend them should not exist, in their view. I view this as a desire to escape from the burden of making choices in life and facing their consequences.

Cowardice, given enough theory, can dress itself up as benevolence. That could explain the vastly aversive nature of our society when it comes death and suffering: we have rejected the meaning of all events, thus to us any "bad" events are pointless, arbitrary and possible hateful inflictions upon us by an uncaring world.