Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Abandon hope all ye who click here

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

The day a Tory takes the reins of the country seems the appropriate day to celebrate the uses of pessimism, even if it is a Tory doing the celebrating (those who have read him will know that Roger Scruton is no ordinary conservative but a very principled and elegant, and annoyingly persuasive, thinker about ethics and the contemporary world).

Feel free to leave a gloomy comment.

25 comments:

George Jelliss said...

annoying yes, persuasive no!

Brett Hetherington said...

Yeah, and a nice guy too, which is also uncharacteristic of a conservative. He gave me a bit of a tip about one of his publishers.

A pleasant man AND a Tory? Therefore, he might be dangerous!

rutty said...

"I believe that we are significantly distinct from the other animals. For we are rational beings who relate to each other “I” to “I”. Freedom, individuality, accountability and the moral life all result from this. They are outgrowths of first-person knowledge, of the fact, as Kant put it, that we alone in the world say “I”."

I'm not convinced that this is entirely true. Are we the only creatures on earth that say "I". I'm sure that there are plenty of zoologists with a contrary opinion to that.

Interesting argument but I'm not swayed from my normal rampant optimism

Supergreensunbear said...

Convincing language yes but subtle?So many assumptions made and 'truths' declared.

Maybe I'm reading into this incorrectly but these assumptions would seem to me to be playing devils advocate. In a deeply unfair world with many other overriding factors to any one persons situation, psychological state and well being. I would ask the motive of the author.

Is it not really Conservative/Capitalist theory the concept trying to be reinforced by the piece? Is a fairer society too much to ask for - if I should be pessimistic about that then put me in any category you like. Personally I feel the piece is itself an artful intellectual ploy.

The last sentence should maybe be changed from:
"one of the most important uses of pessimism is to warn us against destroying them. The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it."

to

"one of the most important uses of pessimism is to warn us against changing society. The soul-less optimism of none-conservatives (but on this occasion we'll use an extreme example), reminds us that we should try to keep the status quo, since the happiness of those who benefit from a conservative outlook, depends on it."

No?

Mr Maunder said...

"To believe that we are born free makes it easier to bear our frustrations, to blame others for our woes, and to dignify our inadequacies with the colours of a justified rebellion. It enables us to discard all knowledge that it is painful to acquire, and to believe that idleness is virtue. And the effect of this belief on education has been devastating, leading everywhere to the loss of discipline and culture."
But bankers often say that their profits have nothing to do with society and that they should be 'free' to trade as they wish. This enables non-doms to move their money from our country as they are 'free' to do so. There are laws for some but not for all it seems.

Hugh Caldwell said...

What we need to make us really cheery about evil is a Hall of Infamy to which to consign our least favourite persons. I just happened to think of Bomber Harris, but there is no shortage of candidates.

BDub said...

I interesting article and I enjoyed it, but i felt the later third took a turn and completely missed the point of the trans-humanism - that it assumes that no transcendence is happening, and that trans-humanists will just merely be humans as they are now in new form. That they will be filled with and flawed by the same sentiments as they are now. There is no reason to believe that true trans-humanism will express itself or even reason the same way - no reason to assume we will have the same values or the same outlook on life in a true trans-humanist environment.

Anonymous said...

A right wing rant disguised as rational discourse. He substitutes the old tory canard of original sin for pessimism.

Brent said...

I agree with the gist of the article, though I do think fundamental freedom is at the heart of our dilemma. Recognizing that we are entirely free and therefore responsible for the results of our choices (even if we were unable to anticipate these consequences) is the ultimate call to responsibility. It is easy to become pessimistic when you realize this situation, and pessimism may be a helpful teacher, but my nit-to-pick is to point out that you cannot escape form responsibility and choice.

Saying you are not free, or require laws and rules in order to be free, is to evade a responsibility - because you can always then fall back and claim you weren't really free after all because there weren't sufficient laws to allow you to have a free choice, etc, etc.

Even if someone holds a gun to your head and commands you to do something - it in the end is your choice. If it weren't they wouldn't have to threaten you.

Anonymous said...

Saying that history shows the absence of moral progress is extremely foolish, and shows a complete disregard for facts. Any historian having studied the question will tell you that by almost any measure (for example the number of murders or the attitude towards cruelty directed at animals) Humanity shows a long scale (milleniums) and short scale (decades) moral improvement.

Jeff Karon said...

Scruton wonders, late in his article, whom the trans-humanists are addressing. But I wonder whom he is addressing. Do I really have to pick between extreme positions marked out by Rousseau or Kant?

Perhaps those people who believe that moral sentiments arise naturally from the intersection of competition and cooperation are wrong--and wrong to consider humans on a continuum with, say, other primates--but he hasn't shown that this is so. Likewise, perhaps we already are modifying ourselves and will continue to do so--maybe he is right that our descendants will constitute a radical break of some sort, but that also is just a claim.

It seems likely, at least to me, that Scruton's fuzzy intuitions of soul and personhood are mostly cognitive illusions. Whether or not I want them to be replaced by something more accurate does not change whether they will be as technological change accelerates. Speculation by futurists at least gets us thinking about life in such changing circumstances.

Anonymous said...
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strefanash said...

He endorses St Paul's invocation of faith , hope and love, but rips these out of the Apostle's context.

So, Faith in WHAT? Mr Scruton can offer nothing.

Hope in WHAT? He can offer nothing. He says nihilism is of no use to us. but under his assunmptions what else is there.

And love? not with all the evil and calculation he says is real

He has no notion of the true blackness and bleakness of life both with or without the groundless hopes he tries to offer. He is a dabbler.

As for me I hope in God through Christ, but Mr SCruton wants it both ways. Hope without the context that St Paul invokes these things.

Mt Scruton can not have it both ways

Howie Goodell said...

I agree heartily with much of the article, but like a previous poster I find the trans-humanist critique at the end a non-sequitur. I think it is based on at least two "common-sense" premises he has not adequately examined:
1. Greatly extended life for the majority is physically unsustainable.
2. Long, healthy lives for the majority will make us inhuman.

First the unspoken technical critique. Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill and his students established the feasibility of human colonies in free space -- many thousands of Earths in physical capacity -- based on 1970's technology. "Limits to growth" are in the imagination. Deal with it, pessimists!

Second: his unspoken beliefs about limits to human adaptiveness. A few centuries ago, only half of children in Europe and America survived to adulthood; now nearly all do. Adults can expect 7-8 decades of life instead of 3-4. Would he really claim we are less human now? Think wars of religion, slavery, extermination of native Americans, Australians and South Africans, colonial exploitation and constant warfare...

Anecdotal: I have a paid-up cryonics contract, and I give myself maybe a 50% chance of being around in a couple hundred years, but only if peaceful progress in science continues and human well-being advances to allow it. This thought makes me unsympathetic to short-term, vicious thinking about the US monopolizing oil or suppressing China and India. Long-term thinking tends to be virtuous thinking -- the benefits of treating others well accumulate the longer you plan to be around to benefit.

Howie Goodell

Robin Hanson said...

I wonder where Scruton gets his concept of transhumanism. Immortality just isn't an option, but living longer is - why is that so bad? Where does he get his idea that "old-fashioned virtues and emotions" have little future, or that "human happiness as we know it will no longer be obtainable"? What the &*#%$ is he talking about? Guess I'll have to wait until Oct. for his book.

Anonymous said...

I think you got the trans-humanist part wrong. We have more and more of all, and faster and faster. From computers being our symbiotic, to a dual co-evolution to humans being the symbioses of a super A.I. systems types. Ray was close in some ways but off, and most si-fi gets close in some of the true parallels. Also the gatica and brave new world are off, as we have so much more, and they have a limited view and scope. The world was never enough and the solar system is only a true start to survival of the human race. We all walk our own paths, and some will walk alone with little remorse for the past, though some will keep a nostalgia for the past. To be the creators of our own surroundings, music, art, and genetic codding are already a part of humanity, and it just gets greater and faster, with more complexity with such. I prefer to be my normal optimist pessimist and a wide range in between. Why go back or try to stagnate in the now, when some who try will run to the future and thrive on it. I know where I came from, and dream of where I might go. Last note, for most the change will not happen over night, but over a decent amount of time. Just like computer use and medical technology have grown and evolved over time. Now it's up to you, do you want to walk to the near future, or run. And do you want to have others chose for you, or will you make your own choices? You might be able to see the great diversity coming even in the trans-humanist way. To transcend or evolve we are, and some will. To leave human kind behind is a bigger question that many will answer in there own ways. Death is what some fear, and fear is a mind killer, & yet we remain afterwards. I now leave you to ponder your way, as I find & create my dream and change in my own way.
LaboriousCretin Patient #0.1357 23L33T4U2C

Anonymous said...

I read it.

I doubt it.

queersingularity said...

This article represents a misguided attack on transhumanism from a reactionary philosophical foundation. We don't all necessarily wish to replace present human existence with something alien. Our more mundane yet most critical goals involve ending disease, involuntary aging, and material want.

Ray Ingles said...

As anonymous said, we can actually measure moral progress over history. See here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

Jack Bronston said...

Is this the Roger Scruton who wrote such a brilliant analysis of the work of Spinoza? The human spirit has been repressed by the irrational superstition and artificial fear imposed by organized religion. Before we can achieve moral progress, it must be founded on Reason -- as long as we are side-tracked by fairy stories of a controlling God, we will never understand the rational and achievable basis of morality and social justice. How could a student and interpreter of Spinoza so miss this critical point?

Karl Naylor said...

Professor Roger Scruton is generally unliked in the UK for being an intellectual conservative and nothing is bound to infuriate the smug orthodox progressives and their threadbare creeds than a philosopher who looks back nostalgically to the better aspects of Old England.

Scruton is correct to emphasise in The Uses of Pessimism are are a necessary counter to the mindless upbeat boosterism that has been at the heart of progressive Utopian schemes to better the world

Yet it is common knowledge that an abstract love of humanity is often a substitute for the art of loving individuals in particular, a pose made by supposed lovers of Humanity such as Lenin and Trotsky.

Their abstract love for those whom History had crushed throughout History led them to see all those who comprimised with the existing order as repellant non-humans who callousness made them unworthy of life.

The strength of Scruton's case lies here,

"The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a wilful ignorance of history. It also depends upon a wilful ignorance of oneself – a refusal to recognise the extent to which selfishness and calculation reside in the heart even of our most generous emotions, awaiting their chance. In order to see human beings as they are, therefore, and to school oneself in the art of loving them, it is necessary to apply a dose of pessimism to all one’s plans and aspirations".

It is this that avoid the outraged self righteousness that can lead to nihilism when those upon whom hopes have been pinned fail to live up to what is expected. The contempt of the Bolsheviks for the Russian people in but one example.

As is the phrase used by the Communists that they would create paradise on earth-we will drive man to happiness by force-and dispose of the enemies of the correct consciousness of the vision of paradise they had conceived by disposing enemies in the Gulag.

The problem with Scruton's Tory humanism is that it fails to deal with the reality that conservatism has ceased to be a coherent political project and through the distortions of neoconservatism itself now become a Utopian creed.

This is why Scruton's incomprehension of the world around him has led him to try and influence the American Enterprise Institute with all those who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 such as ex-Trotskyists like Perle, Bolton et al.

Such messianic tub thumpers for One Market Under God are the antithesis of Scruton's One Nation Burkean Toryism: even Burke warned on the revolutionary and universalist dangers of aspects of the US Constitution.

John Gray realises these perversions and follies: what he has taken from Schopenhauer is the pessimism that sees salvation from history and not through mass willed collective action as the key to happiness.

Scruton writes,

"I don’t go along with Schopenhauer’s comprehensive gloom, or with the philosophy of renunciation that he derived from it. I have no doubt that St Paul was right to recommend faith, hope and love (agape) as the virtues which order life to the greater good.

But I have no doubt too that hope, detached from faith and untempered by the evidence of history, is a dangerous asset, and one that threatens not only those who embrace it, but all those within range of their illusions. Pessimism is needed, not in order to neutralise the belief in human uniqueness, but in order to protect it"

There was no empirical evidence that the War in Iraq in 2003 was tempered by the "evidence of history", As Gray remarked it was a Utopian venture and such apocalyptic faith is precisely of the sort usually condemned by Michael Burleigh.

Yet Burleigh, another conservative close to Scruton's version of it, seems unwilling or unable to criticise the messianic and aspects "the American Creed". There is nothing inherently conservative about the USA. It a revolutionary power devoted to radical transformation.

Karl Naylor said...

@Part 2

There is nothing remote nihilistic in John Gray's rejection of Progress nor his rigorous naturalism which was shared by the ancients, Chinese Taoists, Buddhists and Hindus in which History is not a drama of salvation and redemption.

Scruton is simply incorrect and misinterprets Gray entirely when he states

"The disgusted dismissal of homo rapiens and all his works that we find spelled out by John Gray in Straw Dogs is not a form of pessimism. It is an attempt to dismiss humanity entirely, as a kind of plague on the face of the earth".

The fact that man has never been in charge of his historical destiny and the history is a blind drift of forces is not "nihilistic". Nihilists believe that "we" have been nothing but shall become "all" by radical projects to destroy the system.

Gray's pessimism is closer to the Tory Anarchism of writers like Swift, Conrad, Hardy and other conservative writers who saw no value in the idea of Progress. Conrad was hardly a nihilist. Scruton praises the novelist in England: A Elegy.

Scruton continues,

"That kind of misanthropic nihilism is of no use to us. It removes the ground from all our values, and puts nothing in their place. And it feeds on specious arguments designed to show that we are “merely” animals, distinguished in no significant respect from rats and worms, and with no right to the privileges that we have traditionally claimed, as moral beings who pursue the good"

That Scruton's view of Gray without even quoting where Gray actually writes that. Gray praises cities, music, philosophy and good literature. He also points like Conrad that civilisations have also practiced ethnic cleansing torture and genocide.

Gray is not a "nihilist" because a nihilist is, as Scruton himself emphasises, one who has a disappointed belief that the Kingdom of God does not reign here on Earth and casts around to punish those deemed guilty.

Moreover Gray does "not put nothing in its place": he emphasises the need for a conservatism based on a modus vivendi and agonistic liberalism where the state intervenes to provide security, a degree of welfare and good transport.

Scruton himself, though superb in aesthetics, offers nothing in the way of an analysis about what role the state should play: if nihilism has proliferated, it is precisely because neoliberalism and consumerism promoted by Thatcher undermined Toryism.

Karl Naylor said...

There is nothing remote nihilistic in John Gray's rejection of Progress nor his rigorous naturalism which was shared by the ancients, Chinese Taoists, Buddhists and Hindus in which History is not a drama of salvation and redemption.

Scruton is simply incorrect and misinterprets Gray entirely when he states

"The disgusted dismissal of homo rapiens and all his works that we find spelled out by John Gray in Straw Dogs is not a form of pessimism. It is an attempt to dismiss humanity entirely, as a kind of plague on the face of the earth".

The fact that man has never been in charge of his historical destiny and the history is a blind drift of forces is not "nihilistic". Nihilists believe that "we" have been nothing but shall become "all" by radical projects to destroy the system.

Gray's pessimism is closer to the Tory Anarchism of writers like Swift, Conrad, Hardy and other conservative writers who saw no value in the idea of Progress. Conrad was hardly a nihilist. Scruton praises the novelist in England: A Elegy.

Scruton continues,

"That kind of misanthropic nihilism is of no use to us. It removes the ground from all our values, and puts nothing in their place. And it feeds on specious arguments designed to show that we are “merely” animals, distinguished in no significant respect from rats and worms, and with no right to the privileges that we have traditionally claimed, as moral beings who pursue the good"

That Scruton's view of Gray without even quoting where Gray actually writes that. Gray praises cities, music, philosophy and good literature. He also points like Conrad that civilisations have also practiced ethnic cleansing torture and genocide.

Gray is not a "nihilist" because a nihilist is, as Scruton himself emphasises, one who has a disappointed belief that the Kingdom of God does not reign here on Earth and casts around to punish those deemed guilty.

Moreover Gray does "not put nothing in its place": he emphasises the need for a conservatism based on a modus vivendi and agonistic liberalism where the state intervenes to provide security, a degree of welfare and good transport.

Scruton himself, though superb in aesthetics, offers nothing in the way of an analysis about what role the state should play: if nihilism has proliferated, it is precisely because neoliberalism and consumerism promoted by Thatcher undermined Toryism.

Karl Naylor said...

@Part 3

The most accurate part would be that Gray is cheerfully misanthropic, rather like Schopenhauer, Swift and the French writers Gustav Flaubert and Guy De Maupassant. Even the contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

Gray's point is that the edifice of civilisation is fragile and collapse from within not merely by nihilism but through what Freud called Thanatos, the death instinct where those feeling civilisation is under threat will panic with militarism.

That is precisely what is happening now with the revival of the Great Game and the greed for natural resources. Scruton's misinterpretation of Gray is rather like T B Macaulay's dismissal of Swift as denigrating human beings and progress.

The New Great Game is not edifying. Nor is the repellent private affluence and public squalor that defines everyday life in the UK as a result of a decadent debt fuelled consumerism. But it is a result of human greed and myopic stupidity.

There is nothing remotely nihilistic in John Gray's rejection of Progress nor his rigorous naturalism which was shared by the ancients, Chinese Taoists, Buddhists and Hindus in which History is not a drama of salvation and redemption.

Scruton is simply incorrect and misinterprets Gray entirely when he states

"The disgusted dismissal of homo rapiens and all his works that we find spelled out by John Gray in Straw Dogs is not a form of pessimism. It is an attempt to dismiss humanity entirely, as a kind of plague on the face of the earth".

The fact that man has never been in charge of his historical destiny and the history is a blind drift of forces is not "nihilistic". Nihilists believe that "we" have been nothing but shall become "all" by radical projects to destroy the system.

Gray's pessimism is closer to the Tory Anarchism of writers like Swift, Conrad, Hardy and other conservative writers who saw no value in the idea of Progress. Conrad was hardly a nihilist. Scruton praises the novelist in England: A Elegy.

Scruton continues,

"That kind of misanthropic nihilism is of no use to us. It removes the ground from all our values, and puts nothing in their place. And it feeds on specious arguments designed to show that we are “merely” animals, distinguished in no significant respect from rats and worms, and with no right to the privileges that we have traditionally claimed, as moral beings who pursue the good"

Scruton's view of Gray depends on him not even quoting where Gray actually writes that. Gray praises cities, music, philosophy and good literature. He also points like Conrad that civilisations have also practised ethnic cleansing, torture and genocide.

Gray is not a "nihilist" because a nihilist is, as Scruton himself emphasises, one who has a disappointed belief that the Kingdom of God does not reign here on Earth and casts around to punish those deemed guilty.

Moreover Gray does "not put nothing in its place": he emphasises the need for a conservatism based on a modus vivendi and agonistic liberalism where the state intervenes to provide security, a degree of welfare and good transport.

Scruton himself, though superb in aesthetics, offers nothing in the way of an analysis about what role the state should play: if nihilism has proliferated, it is precisely because neoliberalism and consumerism promoted by Thatcher undermined Toryism.

The most accurate part of Scruton's critique would be that Gray is cheerfully misanthropic, rather like Schopenhauer, Swift and the nineteenth century French writers Gustav Flaubert and Guy De Maupassant. Even the contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

Karl Naylor said...

Part 4

Gray's point is that the edifice of civilisation is fragile and collapse from within not merely by nihilism but through what Freud called Thanatos, the death instinct where those feeling civilisation is under threat will panic with militarism.

That is precisely what is happening now with the revival of the Great Game and the greed for natural resources. Scruton's misinterpretation of Gray is rather like T B Macaulay's dismissal of Swift as denigrating human beings and progress.

The New Great Game is not edifying. Nor is the repellent private affluence and public squalor that defines everyday life in the UK as a result of a decadent debt fuelled consumerism. But it is a result of human greed and myopic stupidity.

Wise philosophers like Scruton ought to be warning against the consequences of unrestrained greed,the craven lack of independence Britain has shown with regards the USA. After all, he has been cited as an admirer of Enoch Powell and dislikes large power blocks.