Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Tragedy of the Secular Left

It is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards Tony Judt, brain as sharp as ever but trapped in a paralysed body. Although English, he has spent his career in New York as a bastion of the American academic left. His most controversial utterance was to declare that Israel would have been better off if it followed the multicultural Lebanese model, rather than being a specifically Jewish state.

Judt’s eloquent essay in the Guardian last Saturday has been remarked on by many commentators on the left, with its plea for a new language of social democracy coupled with pride in its past achievements. However, in many ways this essay is the ideal exemplar for Judt’s entire career: wrong but in an interesting way. The difficulty with his argument is one that afflicts the secular left as a whole: his manifesto is based on a misunderstanding of human nature and consequently it relies on wishful thinking.

Judt begins by assuring us that “the materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition.” Yet, as a historian, he must know that this is untrue. History affords us with endless examples of how humans predominantly look after their own and their family over the species as a whole. Where we cooperate, it is to advance our own ends. Yes, Adam Smith explained how markets can provide a common benefit derived from all the individual actors pursuing their own goals. But no workable theory of economics or human behaviour has been proposed that demonstrates that human beings are fundamentally altruistic.

Recent work in behavioural genetics and economics has borne this out. There was once a trend towards believing that altruism could be a serious force in economics. This followed experiments such as the “dictator game” where subjects were given some money and had the choice of how much of it to give away. Many did so, apparently for no reason. But recently, as the Freakonomics team of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have brilliantly reported, we’ve realised that human beings are only naturally altruistic when they are students doing economics experiments in front of their professors. In real life, people tend not to give away their cash for nothing.

Evolution has similar lessons for us. It is well established that we have evolved a capacity for reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours). Furthermore, ‘kin selection’ means that we act altruistically with regard to our family because this helps us to advance the interests of our shared genes. But pure altruism has no satisfactory evolutionary explanation. That examples of genuine self-sacrifice exist, no one denies. We can transcend our evolutionary inheritance and be better than nature intended us to be. But most of the time we aren’t.

So, when Judt claims that selfishness is not inherent in human nature, he has confused the exception with the rule. And this fundamental mistake means that his whole argument is built on air. Nonetheless, he is able to identify the core of his problem when he states,
In post-religious societies such as our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our "benevolent instincts" and reversing our selfish desires that we can "produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety".
Unfortunately, a post-religious society lacks the most obvious tool with which to make people do unto others who are in no position to repay them. This leaves the secular left with the desire that we transcend our natures, but no lever to make us do so. This is not a new challenge. Communists used violence to achieve their aims, but no democrat can countenance such methods. The unions have always acted explicitly for the material gain of their members. No one should blame them for that, since benefiting their members is precisely their purpose. As Daniel Finkelstein has recently explained, this is why the unions have so often acted contrary to the interests of Labour governments.

The third strand of the nineteenth century left was Christian socialism, once a very strong force in the UK. It has become a cliché to say that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism. Christian socialism was important because it provided the only way for a mass movement to persuade people to be better than they might otherwise be. Religions do ask us to transcend the crocked timber of our humanity. Even if the promise of heavenly reward represents yet another example of reciprocal altruism, at least the bills do not come due this side of the grave.

The secular left want for this string in their bow. They can cajole us into listening to our better natures or, like New Labour, appeal to our self interest. Only the latter is ever likely to be an election-winning strategy. For Judt, who won’t as he says “retreat to religion”, the problem is more than one of language and renewal. He must find a way either to defy human nature or to convince the prosperous middle classes that the left has something to offer them.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


jamierobertson said...

Very articulate and thoughtful post, James, thanks.

Karl said...

Well, it does seem that a lot of political commentators, right and left, seem to live in their own little fantasy worlds. I agree that as a historian Judt should have known better then to say some of the things he has said.

TheOFloinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheOFloinn said...

Deleted and amended a post in order to add the link at the very bottom in which Midgley discusses selfishness.

Kin selection is problematical. There are species that do not and cannot recognize kin, even children, let alone cousins. A robin will defend its nest against a ball of red twine, so it doesn't even recognize conspecifics. David Stove critiqued this and so, IIRC, did Mary Midgley.

When Darwinists say "we act altruistically with regard to our family because this helps us to advance the interests of our shared genes" they are using the word "because" in reverse. No human makes such calculations, let alone robins. The shared genes prosper because we act altruistically. This seems a problem only because of an unrealistic and tendentious definition of "altruism."

All that said, I've always been tickled by the parallelism between Dawkins' "selfish gene" and "original sin," which Aquinas indeed identified with selfishness. Dawkins is very much a Calvinist preacher. :-)

Midgley on Selfishness, in the Guardian:

As usual the devotees of Preacher Dawkins don't get it.

Perplexed Seeker said...

I think that you're right, but this illustrates only the problem with taking a successful predictive model outside of fields where it was originally useful. Gene-centred models of trait distribution in populations of animals can be a highly useful mathematical tool for analysing how traits spread over time, but it's a big stretch to turn that into the straightforward causal story that's so widespread these days.

If taken literally, it does lead to absurdities, as Mike rightly points out.

Where is really falls down for me is the assumption of a direct and unidirectional causal link between individual genes and behaviour. Now I don't deny, as some Marxists do, for example, that there is no correlation between genetics and behaviour. There has to be, otherwise these traits could not be maintained from generation to generation.

However, even with the single blood cells we use for experiments in the lab where I work, it doesn't seem at all obvious that there is a neat and direct causal relationship between a genotype and the living cell's complex behaviour. Even things this simple can do the unexpected.

I suspect that the most we will ultimately be able to extrapolate from behavioural genetics will be to define the range of possible behaviour given the biological structures that genes encode. I doubt we will have many credible stories (except in special cases) of individual genes that cause animals to act in certain ways (except in the vague sense that, as was recently demonstrated, a certain gene enables speech in humans, but only if several hundred other genes are also present and working correctly).

What I've always found odd about Dawkins and his accolytes is that when pressed he always accepts the above, then goes on happily ignoring what he just said and starts talking about selfish genes (in a very literal sense) to his heart's content. I've encountered a similar response from other supporters of the concept. It's kind of like arguing with ID theorists.

biggins said...

The central argument of this post is based on an unsubstantiated and incoherent conception of 'human nature'. Human beings are forced to look after themselves, sure, but you fail to understand that the notion of looking after one's family may extend, through various words and deeds, beyond the immediate nuclear family towards the family of humankind. The 'secular left' or whoever it is you're attacking (you're actually attacking anyone who is sensitive, intelligent and with a passion for social justice) understands that 'human nature', which you so readily cling to as if it were a concrete truth (reification fallacy, anyone?), is far from black and white. Why is altruism 'transcending our evolutionary inheritance'? This is a senseless expression, for surely altruism is part of our inheritance as well. No, the real reason why you're so keen to depict humans as selfish is so you can bring religion back through the trapdoor. 'Only God can save us' you would like to pitifully moan along with Heidegger. However, many of us in the secular 21st century don't desire to transcend our natures, because we understand the confusions inherent in the concept of transcendence. You may well be correct in the idea that peddling the horseshit of transcendence or religion is the only sensible election-winning strategy. Such is the fate of reasoned argument in the hands of populism. Christian socialism must have been the right approach, since it appealed to so many! No thanks. Some of us will let the cards fall where they may, and we believe truth and honesty takes precedence over electioneering. Judt doesn't need to defy anything except the tiring attempts of the pious to degrade human imagination and ingenuity in order to make space for their redeeming father figure.

Josco said...


....what a load of piffle. Not a single argument or coherent point could be found in that nonsense post of yours.

If you had actually engaged the author's text (as opposed to some imaginary strawman which apparently only exists in your mind), I would have more than likely supported you on principle (I am an Atheist and have little patience for religious slight of hand).

But that? That was embarrassing. Try again and this time open your damn eyes while you type.

biggins said...

Well Josco, I can see several arguments/points in my post, I'll spell them out for you, since you seem to require that kind of thing:

-The author has not considered the importance or history of altruism in our genetic development

-Human nature is a problematic concept to which the author simply (and fallaciously - see 'reification') assumes a given characteristic - 'selfish'

-The idea that altruism 'transcends our evolutionary inheritance' is incoherent, since altruism is part of our evolutionary inheritance

-The motivation of the author in making the above points invites suspicion, since all his arguments are designed to make religion the redeemer of our original sins (he doesn't put it like that, but what do you make of the following passage, once stripped of its pragmatic rhetoric?

'Unfortunately, a post-religious society lacks the most obvious tool with which to make people do unto others who are in no position to repay them. This leaves the secular left with the desire that we transcend our natures, but no lever to make us do so.')

-The political popularity of an argument has nothing to do with whether it's true or moral

And I'll add one more which I only hinted at earlier:

-The concept of transcendence is incoherent: even if we desired to, we could not 'transcend' our own natures, and when we try to it ends up, like religion, looking quite a lot like 'human nature'...

I thought it was pretty clear the first time round. well, whatever...