Creative Destruction

April 12, 2006

They don’t exactly float in the air

Filed under: Debate,Evolution,Philosophy — Adam Gurri @ 3:38 pm

Here at Creative Destruction, a post of mine sparked quite a discussion. The original post took a quote from the Vulgar Moralist, and he has just stepped into the arena.

I am interested in “ideas” only so far as they influence behavior.

Suppose, then, that all of us non-Mormon Americans keeled over tomorrow, and left the country in the hands of the Latter Day Saints. With a greater degree of freedom than is the norm in the Muslim Middle East, the next generation might indeed see some individualists and free-thinkers who deviate from church teachings. But would they approximate the numbers of cultural liberals today?

Traditions are not learned from a manual. They are taught in the school of family life, and in the shared rituals of the community. They are not a matter of intellectual assent or reasoned proof. We feel the moral vision implicit in our traditions in the form of powerful emotions, which link our lives to the larger story of the community, infuse them with meaning, and seem, not infrequently, worth dying for: dulce et decorum est. In a very literal sense, morality commands our biology. (Those interested in the biological drivers of morality, check the work of Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt.)

If the moral community we call “cultural liberalism” physically vanished tomorrow (and I have no idea if this is really in the cards), it would take with it all its traditions, rituals, and habits. The chance of these being reproduced spontaneously in the next generation approximate the chances of spontaneous Muslim generation, should all believers in that religion somehow vanish instead.

What is the place of freedom in this scheme of things? I said tradition is not learned in a manual. Morality isn’t a series of yes-and-no questions. The complexity of human life is too immense for such methods. Personal freedom is the motor of moral evolution: the way we adjust our public traditions to our private needs, and to the everlasting puzzle of the social environment. Not being a social darwinist, I don’t believe moral evolution is necessarily for the good, whether “good” is considered in terms of good and evil or of worldly success.

This is why I felt that Ampersand was way off when he argued that VM’s argument could be boiled down to saying that “ideas are passed on – or fail to be passed on – through breeding. Period.” It isn’t about breeding; it’s about the practitioners of a tradition being around to demostrate just what being a part of that tradition means, on a behavioral level.

Breeding is connected, in as much as if the advocates of a tradition grow fewer with each generation, the likelihoods of that tradition’s long-term survival begins to decline.

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6 Comments »

  1. The notion that ideas, or at least, social norms, can be stamped out because they lack current practioners is an overstatement. Ideas can exist in books and other media and return.

    The restoration of many of the core ideas of classical Greco-Roman civilian (mostly through documents preserved by monastic orders and the Islamic empire) in the Italian Rennaisance, the changes that have taken place in modern Iran in the 27 years since the Islamic Revolution, and the changes that took place in China after its cultural revolution, which represent some of the closest historical analogs to the more radical scenario suggested hypothetically of all non-LDS people disappearing, show that divergent viewpoints are remarkable in their ability to reinvigorate themselves, even after brutal attempts to suppress them.

    There are certainly cultures that have all but died. The formal trappings of Coptic culture has vanished from the face of the earth, leaving nothing but momuments. But, even some of their ideas, like burial practices followed by Jews and Christians that have no theological explanation, remain with us.

    Comment by ohwilleke — April 12, 2006 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

  2. That’s a valid point, ohwilleke.

    Then the question for a particular set of beliefs becomes, (a) how implicitly compelling is the textual representation of the beliefs, and (b) how attractive those beliefs are to people growing up under a particular culture.

    For cultural liberalism, my opinion of the first answer would be “rather uncompelling” – but only for most people. People who have been poorly treated by status quo authority structures, or who are passing through the adolescent transition, will find them very interesting indeed.

    Alas, we’re not likely to see the end of liberalism just because liberals don’t breed much. On the plus side, we will see the ideas die back to a great degree.

    Comment by Robert — April 12, 2006 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  3. The restoration of many of the core ideas of classical Greco-Roman civilian (mostly through documents preserved by monastic orders and the Islamic empire) in the Italian Rennaisance

    We have absolutely no idea how much of this was an actual restoration, and how much of it was a completely different tradition inspired by the writings from the classical civilizations.

    Two people can read the sentence “be respectful to others” and end up translating “respectful” into two entirely different sorts of behavior.

    the changes that have taken place in modern Iran in the 27 years since the Islamic Revolution

    What about them?

    divergent viewpoints are remarkable in their ability to reinvigorate themselves, even after brutal attempts to suppress them.

    Then obviously, the attempts were not successful, and the traditions lived on, even if only in limited circles.

    Again, I think you put too much stock in the notion that ideas can be preserved without people. An idea means something very different to different people–without living, breathing practitioners of a tradition, the phrases they used to justify the behavior are empty and can be transplanted to very different traditions.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 12, 2006 @ 8:02 pm | Reply

  4. divergent viewpoints are remarkable in their ability to reinvigorate themselves, even after brutal attempts to suppress them.

    I think this is (quoth Karl Popper) historicism. “It (suppression) didn’t work that way then, so it won’t work, period”.

    Often the don’t worry -group points out to the fact that Liberal ideas arose from non-Liberal societies, but this too, I fear, is too optimistic, and overlooks the roots of Liberalism in the Western Tradition(invidualism as opposed to collectivism etc.)

    (Also, what Adam wrote. I’m tempted to write a post on this, when I have time ;))

    Comment by Tuomas — April 12, 2006 @ 10:21 pm | Reply

  5. Adam, that’s true for some ideas, less true for others.

    The more an idea is bound up with experiential behavior, the more it has to be transmitted person to person.

    But the un-modelled teachability of certain ideas can be very pure indeed. I can drop a junior high chemistry textbook (translated into ancient Greek) into Democritus’ lap via my time machine, and a year later be confident that he will understand how the periodic table of elements works – even though nobody was there to mix reagents with him.

    Comment by Robert — April 12, 2006 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  6. The more an idea is bound up with experiential behavior, the more it has to be transmitted person to person.

    But the un-modelled teachability of certain ideas can be very pure indeed.

    of course, I think this once again depends on who receives it, but I’ll buy that there are varying degrees of teachability 🙂

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 12, 2006 @ 10:42 pm | Reply


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