Wednesday, June 29, 2022

From Ernest Crosby

 “The essential idea of butchery for food is cruel, and you cannot be cruel humanely”

Monday, June 27, 2022

Veganism and Personal Choice

 I have noticed a number of tweets defending animal eating and exploitation as a matter of personal choice. I wanted to give a response.

I think the error might arise out of a confusion between artistic judgments and moral judgments. For tastes in art, we reasonably defer to individual preferences. If I like the movie Eraserhead and my wife detests it. We just assume that we have different tastes and leave it at that. We might say something like “well, each to their own.”

Many people assume that the same argument applies to moral choice, that morality is somehow simply a matter of individual preference. But a moment’s reflection will show that this cannot be. You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, believe that the morality of murder is a matter of personal choice. 

Morality, by its very nature, is about how we behave towards others in the context of a society. It would be bizarre to say that in a personal relationship only my interests matter. Indeed, the prerequisite for a healthy relationship is attention to the interests of others. Thus, morality is about the totality of relationships and in it we must weigh the interests of others. In artistic judgments we really don’t need to justify our tastes, but in moral judgments we need to have arguments why one course of action is moral and another is not.

Thus, when meat eaters say that their enjoyment of eating animals is sufficient justification, their argument fails to take into account the interests of the sentient animal, that is capable of feeling pain and has value in its own life.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 8)

 II. The Evolution of Cooperation

Why are we so altruistic? Cynics bemoan our selfishness, yet what is most striking about our species is our high levels of self-sacrifice. There is an urban legend, far from the truth, that we are the only animal that kills members of its own species. But murder of co-specifics is common in the animal world. What is remarkable about humans is not that we murder (and we have certainly done that on a massive scale), but that we will sacrifice ourselves even for unrelated strangers we will never meet. Indeed, as far as we know, humans are the only animals that will give their lives for an idea.   

Cooperation and altruism have always posed a special problem for evolutionary theory. Winning the game of natural selection means passing your genes onto the next generation. But how could cooperation arise out of agents who act exclusively in their own interest? This is what biologist David Sloan Wilson (2002) calls “the fundamental problem of social life” (p. 8).

Put another way - how do we reconcile altruism with selfish gene theory? The metaphor of the selfish gene originates with the zoologist Richard Dawkins. In his book, The Selfish Gene, he described humans (indeed, all animals) as lumbering robots built by genes. And he had a point, from the gene’s perspective we are simply vehicles to get copies of itself into the next generation. As Samuel Butler observed: “a hen is only an egg's way of making another egg.” There is no denying the elegance and power of Dawkins’ metaphor, but, in the final analysis, it must explain how selfish genes built unselfish people. 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 7)

 Luria’s mentor, Vygotsky, died of tuberculosis in 1934. Around this time his work fell out of favor with Soviet authorities and, until 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, his books were banned. Luria continued to research and publish but refocused his work onto more strictly neurological topics.

While a Marxist, Vygotsky’s approach was too heterodox for the new Stalinist orthodoxy. Vygotsky had read widely in a number of languages and his writing bears the influence of thinkers such as William James, Jean Piaget, and Spinoza. Moreover, Vygotsky’s cultural psychology was accused of chauvinism. It was claimed that his theories devalued the thinking of peasants and workers. 

This last point is important to explore because similar accusations have been made against other efforts to understand the evolution of the human psyche. Let us be clear, Vygotsky and Luria rejected any notion of biological inferiority of premodern people. They saw the differences embedded in social and historical forces. They did, however, accept a theory of progress.

Notions of progress have fallen out of favor, and the phrase “the myth of progress” has become an unexamined truisms.

Progress can be understood as some directional change toward the good. It is hard to draw up a balance sheet on history. One can find trends that have improved, such as enhancements in health and literacy. At the same time it is easy to see trends, such as climate change, that imperil our future.

The work of Vygotsky and Luria offers us an avenue for constructing a viable theory of human progress. Shifts in technology and sociocultural arrangements are closely linked to shifts in human mentalities. At certain historic junctures, there have been dramatic revolutions in our cognitive architecture. 

Understanding these changes will help us solve some enduring mysteries. These include the origins of human hyper-altruism, the fact of moral progress, and the rise of abstract philosophic thought. In this essay, I will focus specifically on how shifts in cognition are closely tied up with our altruism.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Some thoughts on tweeting vs. blogging

 The purpose of this blog is to disseminate a set of ideas that I believe deserve wider attention. In the process I have also set up a Twitter account to republish my blog posts on that platform. This drew me into the world of tweeting and now I have a sense of the difference between the two approaches.

In terms of responses, there is no doubt that I reach more people via Twitter than my blog. My blog posts rarely receive more than eight hits, while I have, at last count, 124 followers on Twitter. On the other hand it seems true that it is harder to engage in sustained explanation when I tweet. Perhaps this will change once I become more adept with the platform and make more extensive use of threads.

Also it seems clear that it is hard to unify disparate themes. One of my goals is to encourage veganism among Esperantists and to introduce vegans to Esperanto. But in general my tweets about veganism are read by vegans and my tweets about Esperanto are only read by those who are committed to the language. Once again I would like to figure out some way to unify both groups.

In the meantime I will continue to post longer pieces here on my blog, while also creating shorter tweets that may or may not be republished on the blog.

Friday, June 10, 2022

A short review of Christian Anarchist: Ammon Hennacy, A life on the Catholic Left


A short review of Christian Anarchist: Ammon Hennacy, A life on the Catholic Left by William Marling


William Marling has done us a great service in telling the story of the remarkable Christian pacifist Ammon Hennacy. Hennacy spent time in prison during the First World War for draft refusal. While imprisoned in prolonged solitary confinement, his careful reading of the Bible led him to become an uncompromising Christian Anarchist.

Over the course of his life Hennacy would practice what he called “the one man revolution” (the phrase borrowed from a poem by Robert Frost), where he tried to transform himself to live as close to his ideal as possible. 

One does not have to agree with all of Hennacy’s ideas to recognize the importance of his experiment in living a radical life. His example raises many deep questions about the relationship between individual and social transformation.

Marling does a good job of telling the story. The account is occasionally marred by some small factual errors (Linus Pauling did not discover vitamin C, “Civil Disobedience” was not a chapter of Walden) and he occasionally lapses into obscurant academic jargon including the obligatory quotation of Michel Foucault. But these are minor problems and overall I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (part 6)

 Our humanness is then tied up with our sociality. To understand how our mind evolved we need to understand human social cooperation. Indeed, standard evolutionary models do not seem to predict the high degree of altruism we observe in people. No explanation of human cooperation is possible without an appreciation of human culture and psychology. To understand our sociality we must comprehend how cultural change has shaped the mind.

Now, if the Vygostskian view is correct, then we can expect that people living a premodern life would think about the world in a radically different way than modern people. The dramatic transformations that took place in Soviet Uzbekistan during the 1930s, where illiterate people living a traditional life style, resided in proximity to people receiving modern education and taking employment in schools, factories or on collective farms, provided an opportunity to test this proposition. 

The people Luria interviewed included illiterate villagers “not involved in any modern social activities,” as well as people who had “access to a technological culture and mastery of mechanisms such as literacy and other new forms of knowledge.” 

Luria’s research consisted of lengthy interviews where he presented “specially developed tests that the subjects found meaningful and open to several solutions, each indicating some aspect of cognitive activity.”  Luria was particularly skilled at neuropsychological diagnosis. A number of tests he developed are still used by physicians today. 

In this case, the tests Luria used consisted of deductive reasoning problems where “the solution could be either graphic-functional and situational, or abstract and categorical.”  He borrowed this functional-situational versus categorical-abstract distinction from the work of psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein. 

Goldstein described these two orientations as concrete and abstract and wrote “in the concrete attitude we are given over passively and bound to the immediate experience of unique objects or situations.”  In the abstract orientation, he claimed that “we transcend the immediate given specific aspect of sense impressions, we detach ourselves from the latter and consider the situation from a conceptual point of view.” 

In a typical interview Luria would ask participants to classify and name geometric figures such as circles, triangles, and squares. Only the most educated, students in the teacher training program, identified the figures with their geometric names. Indeed when, given an incomplete figure they would say it was “something like a circle,” or “something like a triangle.” 

In contrast individuals with less formal education tended to describe the shapes with names of everyday objects. For example, they would describe a circle as a plate, a bucket, or the moon. A square might be called a door, a house, or an apricot drying board. When shown an incomplete circle, Luria would receive responses such as a bracelet or an earring. For Luria, such response confirmed his view “that the perception of geometrical shapes varies from one culture to another,” 

Prior to Luria’s work, most psychologists assumed that basic syllogistic reasoning is a universal feature of the human mind. But when Luria asked unschooled and illiterate peasants to reason syllogistically, he received surprising responses. 

For example, when presented with this problem:

“In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north. What color are the bears there?” 

Luria found that “as a rule, many refused to accept the major premise, declaring, ‘I’ve never been in the north and never seen bears.’”  The interviews revealed that while people could reason well about their direct experience, they were unable to abstract the process to events and objects outside of the particularities of their lives. 

From these observations, Luria concluded “the facts show convincingly that the structure of cognitive activity does not remain static during different stages of historical development.” 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Ernest Crosby on intellectual versus manual labor

From Ernest Crosby's Neighbor and Labor:

"In deciding between the merits of labor with the hand or with the head, we must remember that as society is now organized a very large share of intellectual work is devoted to the task of outwitting competitors, of speculating in values, of securing and protecting unjust privileges and of reaping their fruits, and that a comparatively small proportion is of any direct benefit to the masses of the people."

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Ernest Crosby on Unearned Income

 "It is to accumulations of wealth in the hands of those who did not earn it that the leading men in our professions, in finance, in business often owe their swollen incomes"

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (part 5)

 At the time Vygotsky wrote, there were, according to Luria, two dominant approaches to understanding the psychological difference between modern and ancient people. One point of view, associated with the French scholar Levy-Bruhl, argued that there is a fundamental psychological gap between modern and premodern peoples. The alternative view was to deny the existence of such a gap. This position was articulated by the anthropologist Franz Boas, who claimed that the ancient mind does not differ in any qualitative way from the modern mind. 

Boas and his followers played an important role in discrediting claims of racial superiority, they argued, correctly, that the biological hardware of the human brain does not differ significantly between human groups, or between modern and ancient people. What they ignored, however, is that the cognitive software that we run on those brains could be different across historical epochs.

Working within a Marxist framework, Vygotsky and Luria proposed a third model. While they accepted the evolution of human mentality, they located the source of change not in biology, but in socio-economic and historical forces. They asserted that our own thoughts, which we believe to be private and intimate, are in fact, deeply shaped by social forces. In this view, the link between the individual and the larger society is language. So while animals can think, human thinking resembles an inner monologue. 

Developmental psychologists had noted that children often spoke out loud to themselves, with little or no concern about an audience. Traditionally this behavior has been labeled egocentric speech as distinct from communicative speech, and it is thought to be related to the young child’s difficulty in taking the perspective of others. But Vygotsky (1996) amended this view with the hypothesis “that egocentric speech is actually an intermediate stage leading to inner speech” (p. 32).

This is a startling proposal. Vygotsky is saying that in the course of development we internalize the external linguistic environment and, in this sense, even our thoughts are social in origin.

Vygotsky and Luria were explicit in their rejection of the central claim of the Cartesian world view. While Descartes asserted, “I think therefore I am” as the foundational axiom for all philosophy, Luria countered with, “the perception of others and the processes of self-perception are shaped through social activities” (p. 19). In other words, self-consciousness itself is the product of socialization and impossible without language. 

One can pause here and ask: how plausible is this Vygotskian claim? Can we believe that consciousness is the exclusive property of humans or that animals cannot think because they lack a human language? Here we see the influence of a bias towards human thought which, in the light of emerging knowledge of animal cognition, is no longer tenable. Curiously, Descartes also had a similar bias against animal consciousness and cognition.

While it is clearly false to disparage the abilities and sentience of non-linguistic animals, it is clear, that for the human animal, language is a bridge to larger social forces and plays a strong role in shaping our mental architecture. In turn, our individual psychology binds us to and shapes the larger social world.