Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

Steve Stewart-Williams asks “Did Morality Evolve?” (The Nature-Nurture-Neitzsche Blog, May 2, 2010). His answer:

[T]here are at least two reasons to think morality bears the imprint of our evolutionary history. The first comes from observations of a class of individuals that psychologists all too often ignore: other animals. Nonhuman animals obviously don’t reason explicitly about right and wrong, but they do exhibit some aspects of human morality. Rather than being locked into an eternal war of all-against-all, many animals display tendencies that we count among our most noble: They cooperate; they help one another; they share resources; they love their offspring. For those who doubt that human morality has evolutionary underpinnings, the existence of these ‘noble’ traits in other animals poses a serious challenge….

…A second [reason] is that, not only do we know that these kinds of behaviour are part of the standard behavioural repertoire of humans in all culture and of other animals, we now have a pretty impressive arsenal of theories explaining how such behaviour evolved. Kin selection theory explains why many animals – humans included – are more altruistic toward kin than non-kin: Kin are more likely than chance to share any genes contributing to this nepotistic tendency. Reciprocal altruism theory explains how altruism can evolve even among non-relatives: Helping others can benefit the helper, as long as there’s a sufficient probability that the help will be reciprocated and as long as people avoid helping those who don’t return the favour. Another promising theory is that altruism is a costly display of fitness, which makes the altruist more attractive as a mate or ally. Overall, the evolutionary explanation of altruism represents one of the real success stories of the evolutionary approach to psychology.

Though I’m disinclined to use the term “altruism,” it’s useful shorthand for the kinds of behavior that seems selfless. In any event, I am sympathetic to Stewart-Williams’s view of morality as evolutionary. Morality is at least a learned and culturally-transmitted phenomenon, which manifests itself globally in the Golden Rule.

*     *     *

Pierre Lemieux decries “The Vacuity of the Political ‘We’” (The Library of Economics and Liberty, October 6, 2014):

One can barely read a newspaper or listen to a politician’s speech without hearing the standard “we as a society” or its derivatives….

The truth is that this collective “we” has no scientific meaning.

In the history of economic thought, two main strands of analysis support this conclusion. One was meant to criticize economists’ use of “social indifference curves” (also called “community indifference curves”), which generally appeared in the welfare analysis of international trade between personalized trading countries. Countries were personalized in the sense that they were assumed to have preferences, just as an individual does. In a famous 1956 article, Paul Samuelson definitively demonstrated that such social indifference curves, analogous to individual indifference curves, do not exist….

A second strand of analysis leads to a similar but more general conclusion. The problem has come to be known as the “preference aggregation” issue: how can we aggregate—”add up” as it were—individual preferences? Can we fuse them into social preferences—a “social welfare function”—that would equally represent all individuals? This second tradition of analysis follows a long and broken line of theorists. The Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) in the 19th, and economist Duncan Black in the 20th all discovered independently that majority voting does not provide an acceptable aggregation mechanism.

I’ve discussed the vacuity of the political “we” and the “social welfare function” in many posts; most recently this one, where I make these two points:

1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

*     *     *

I’m pleased to note that there are still some enlightened souls like David Mulhhausen, who writes about “How the Death Penalty Saves Lives” (September 30, 2014) , at the website of The Heritage Foundation. Muhlhausen cites several studies in support of his position. I’ve treated crime and punishment many times; for example:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Saving the Innocent
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Lock ‘Em Up
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Governmen

The numbers are there to support strict punishment, up to and including capital punishment. But even if the numbers weren’t conclusive, I’d be swayed by John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, who makes a succinct case for the death penalty, regardless of its deterrent effect:

I’m a bit surprised . . . [by the] claim that “the burden of empirical proof would seem to lie with the pro-death penalty scholar.” If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.

The same goes for fraudsters, thieves, rapists, and other transgressors against morality.

*     *     *

Walter E. Williams asks “Will the West Defend Itself?” (, October 1, 2014):

A debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is entirely irrelevant to the threat to the West posed by ISIL, al-Qaida and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups. I would like to gather a news conference with our Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno; Marines’ commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford; chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert; and Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the U.S. Air Force’s chief of staff. This would be my question to them: The best intelligence puts ISIL’s size at 35,000 to 40,000 people. Do you officers think that the combined efforts of our military forces could defeat and lay waste to ISIL? Before they had a chance to answer, I’d add: Do you think the combined military forces of NATO and the U.S. could defeat and eliminate ISIL. Depending on the answers given, I’d then ask whether these forces could also eliminate Iran’s capability of making nuclear weapons.

My question to my fellow Americans is: What do you think their answers would be? No beating around the bush: Does the U.S. have the power to defeat the ISIL/al-Qaida threat and stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions — yes or no?

If our military tells us that we do have the capacity to defeat the terror threat, then the reason that we don’t reflects a lack of willingness. It’s that same lack of willingness that led to the deaths of 60 million people during World War II. In 1936, France alone could have stopped Adolf Hitler, but France and its allies knowingly allowed Hitler to rearm, in violation of treaties. When Europeans finally woke up to Hitler’s agenda, it was too late. Their nations were conquered. One of the most horrible acts of Nazi Germany was the Holocaust, which cost an estimated 11 million lives. Those innocents lost their lives because of the unwillingness of Europeans to protect themselves against tyranny.

Westerners getting the backbone to defend ourselves from terrorists may have to await a deadly attack on our homeland. You say, “What do you mean, Williams?” America’s liberals have given terrorists an open invitation to penetrate our country through our unprotected southern border. Terrorists can easily come in with dirty bombs to make one of our major cities uninhabitable through radiation. They could just as easily plant chemical or biological weapons in our cities. If they did any of these acts — leading to the deaths of millions of Americans — I wonder whether our liberal Democratic politicians would be able to respond or they would continue to mouth that “Islam teaches peace” and “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Unfortunately for our nation’s future and that of the world, we see giving handouts as the most important function of government rather than its most basic function: defending us from barbarians.

Exactly. The title of my post, “A Grand Strategy for the United States,” is a play on Strategy for the  West (1954), by Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor. Slessor was, by some accounts, a principal author of nuclear deterrence. Aside from his role in the development of a strategy for keeping the USSR at bay, Slessor is perhaps best known for this observation:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. (Strategy for the West, p. 75)

Doctrinaire libertarians seem unable to grasp this. Like “liberals,” they tend to reject the notion of a strong defense because they are repelled by the “tribalism” represented by state sovereignty. One such doctrinaire libertarian is Don Boudreaux, who — like Walter E. Williams — teaches economics at George Mason University.

A post by Boudreaux at his blog Cafe Hayek caused me to write “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” where I say this:

Boudreaux … states a (truly) liberal value, namely, that respect for others should not depend on where they happen to live. Boudreaux embellishes that theme in the the next several paragraphs of his post; for example:

[L]iberalism rejects the notion that there is anything much special or compelling about political relationships.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who look more like you to be more worthy of your regard than are those who look less like you.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who speak your native tongue to be more worthy of your affection and concern than are those whose native tongues differ from yours.

For the true liberal, the human race is the human race.  The struggle is to cast off as much as possible primitive sentiments about “us” being different from “them.”

The problem with such sentiments — correct as they may be — is the implication that we have nothing more to fear from people of foreign lands than we have to fear from our own friends and neighbors. Yet, as Boudreaux himself acknowledges,

[t]he liberal is fully aware that such sentiments [about “us” being different from “them”] are rooted in humans’ evolved psychology, and so are not easily cast off.  But the liberal does his or her best to rise above those atavistic sentiments,

Yes, the liberal does strive to rise above such sentiments, but not everyone else makes the same effort, as Boudreaux admits. Therein lies the problem.

Americans — as a mostly undifferentiated mass — are disdained and hated by many foreigners (and by many an American “liberal”). The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of imperatives, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When those imperative lead to aggression (threatened or actual), that aggression is aimed at all of us: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, rational, and irrational.

Having grasped that reality, the Framers “did ordain and establish” the Constitution “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (among other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of its constituent States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.