Bill Clinton’s Flawed Moral Philosophy

Bill Clinton gave a speech at the anniversary of the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Citing the sequencing of the human genome, Clinton said: “Every non age-related difference (between humans) … is contained in one half of 1 percent of our genetic makeup, but every one of us spends too much time on that half a percent…That makes us vulnerable to the fever, the sickness that the Nazis gave to the Germans.  That sickness is very alive across the world today.”

Here Clinton connects our moral worth to our genes- the Nazis were wrong that different people possessed different moral worth, because our genes are closely similar.  He conducts the discussion on the terms adopted by Nazis and other racists (genes are the source of worth), but argues that because of the similarity of our genes, we are going to be of equal, or close to equal, worth. 

For Clinton, it apparently isn’t just the fact of having DNA that confers moral worth; he doesn’t just point out that we all have DNA, he points out how similar our genetic makeup is.  He implicitly accepts the premise that some genes provide greater moral worth than others.  Yet if this is the case, it might just as well as not be the case that the morally important genes are to be found among the .5% of genes that differentiate us- in terms of race, intelligence, fitness or what have you.  Once Clinton has agreed to debate on the Nazis’ terms, he finds himself with no way, in principle, of avoiding their conclusions.

Clinton himself notes that the human genome sequencing came after the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum.  But the museum was created on the assumption that we already knew that the Holocaust was wrong.  No subsequent scientific discoveries can truly add to or take away from that knowledge.

What is unclear about Clinton’s ethical system is how DNA itself, as distinct from the attributes they create (or, better, the sort of being of whose existence they are a necessary condition) is a source of moral worth.  DNA is just a set of chemicals with certain properties; how you can derive any moral conclusions from it is utterly beyond me. 

Compare Clinton’s speech to Obama’s on the same subject, which avoided any kind of reductionism.  Obama spoke of “education that can enlighten used to rationalize away basic moral impulses,” acknowledging prescientific knowledge of morality.  He spoke of “the scapegoating that leads to hatred and blinds us to our common humanity,” without suggesting that this humanity is reducible to component parts.  He spoke of irreducible concepts such as “courage and resilience and dignity.” 

Once you take reductionism to a certain point, you break things down past the point at which they have moral content.  Why stop at genes?  Why not attribute moral meaning to atoms, or to subatomic particles or what not?  Then everything that exists takes on equal moral significance, which is to say none at all- you lose Don Quixote’s distinction between what is and what ought to be, which is basic to morality by definition.


Truth, Beauty and Scientific Fraud

The New York Times did a long piece on a scientist, a psychologist to be precise, one Stapel, who ran decades of fraudulent experiments.  In explaining his motives, “[h]e insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions.  His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive.  ‘It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty – instead of the truth.’”

So Stapel implicates the institutions of science itself in his fraud, at least partly.  It seems like in these scientific fraud cases, there turns out to be more trust by scientists in each others’ work than is theoretically supposed to be the case.  So they might check each other’s work, but not really verify the inputs, for instance.

As for Stapel’s motive, and that of the academic journals, there is nothing wrong by itself with wanting beautiful results.  In fact, scientists seem to define elegant as orderly and simple, which is what they’re going for- models that are consistent with all data, but are simpler than just a list containing all the data.  The only thing Stapel did wrong was making up his own order, rather than finding the order that actually governs the universe.  Truth is a subset of beauty, and he only went for the latter.  It’s only natural that journals will only publish an elegant result, since that’s the only thing of note.  All truth is beauty, but not all beauty is truth.

“Stapel alluded to having a fuzzy, postmodernist relationship with the truth, which he agreed served as a convenient fog for his wrongdoings.  ‘It’s hard to know the truth,’ he said.  ‘When somebody says, “I love you,” how do I know what it really means?’  At the time, the Netherlands would soon be celebrating the arrival of St. Nicholas, and the younger of his two daughters sat down by the fireplace to sing a traditional Dutch song welcoming St. Nick.  Stapel remarked to me that children her age…, 10, knew that St. Nick wasn’t really going to come down the chimney.  ‘But they like to believe it anyway, because it assures them of presents.’”

So Stapel holds that truth is difficult, perhaps impossible, to know, yet for this very reason he was willing to declare that he had found truth when he had not done so (because who is to say what is and is not truth.)  His discussion of Santa Claus again suggests that we can’t handle the truth, that we want to be fooled, and perhaps are only making a scapegoat of him to mask the degree of our own delusions.*

The example Stapel uses to support the idea that truth is unknowable, that of the problematic meaning of love, deals with difficulties finding meaning, but he traded on the trust of an institution that promises to remove such difficulties through a very precise, neutral language.  Indeed, one of his themes is that science is, in practice, about communication.  Well, of course it is.  But he means communication in the sense of marketing and public relations, not the ways that scientists are theoretically supposed to communicate their findings.

Stapel then notes, probably correctly, that people’s anger at him comes because he threatens their faith in science.  Science is of course supposed to be a process that has a lack of faith in any particular scientist, assuming he might very well be committing fraud, showing bias, and so forth.  It is supposed to work like a good political or economic institution, giving morally average people incentives to good behavior by rewarding those who prove someone else’s work wrong, or prove common biases wrong.  People may in practice be confusing faith in the institutions of science to root out fraud with faith in a particular scientist’s integrity, but the Stapel episode could challenge people’s belief in either.


Staple explains how he got away with what he did: “I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat…I always checked – this may be by a cunning manipulative mind – that the experiment was reasonable, that it followed from the research that had come before, that it was just this extra step that everybody was waiting for….You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far.”


To demonstrate penance, Stapel told the reporter that he hates himself and is in therapy.  His redemption comes through his writing a book based on his diary after the experience of being found out. 

Stapel told his wife Marcelle about his fraud.  She was upset, because when Stapel had devoted himself to his work at the expense of her, she had thought it was for science, and finding out that it wasn’t made her feel cheated.  Nevertheless, compartmentalized his fraud and concluded that he was good in other respects- he was fine when he wasn’t doing science.  “Marcelle described to me how she placed Stapel inside an integrity scanner in her mind,” the reporter writes- which is strange to me, since what she describes is more or less the opposite of what I understand integrity to mean.

The couple next told their kids.  There is no indication that they found it shocking or surprising that he could do such a thing.  They immediately sought to establish whether the situation would affect them personally.  They first asked, sensibly enough, if Stapel was going to die, and apparently the parents said no, though Stapel did in fact become suicidal.  They asked if the parents would get divorced or if they would have to move, and again the answer was no.  After establishing that their own lives would not be affected in the ways that could reasonably be expected, they concluded that the problem was an abstract one, and fell back on cliché: you always tell us it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. 

* Yet when his parents defend him by blaming the system, he rejects the idea.

Thoughts on King Lear

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, villain and bastard Edmund delivers the somewhat famous line, “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars.”

To understand Edmund, note his “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/ My services are bound.”  Thus, his philosophical justification for his evil deeds is a rejection of conventional norms through appeal to Nature, which allows us all to take what we can get and favors the cunning and strong. 

Isaac Asimov in his Guide to Shakespeare notes that Edmund’s is a proto-Hobbesian view of the state of nature, but the view is also that of the Sophist Greek school.  The play takes place in pre-Christian and pre-Christ Britain, and Shakespeare keeps the explicit moral themes pagan.  A character notes Lear’s failure to know himself, which is of course a violation of the Delphic command, and the play is (like Oedipus) about attaining self-knowledge.  The Duke of Gloucester has a parallel journey to self-knowledge, and is blinded in the process, seemingly an obvious Oedipus allusion.  The difference is, Oedipus pursues knowledge and blinds himself when he cannot find it, whereas Gloucester attains knowledge only when he has had his eyes gouged out by others.

About the “excellent foppery of the world” line, Asimov says in his Guide to Shakespeare: “Shakespeare may have intended this to further damn Edmund as an atheist and cynic, but fashions have changed and the bastard’s rational comments force the modern audience to approve of what he says…”  Asimov is being too sensitive about atheism and rationalism here.  Shakespeare had Edmund say this because it’s exactly what he would say.  Someone like Edmund would obviously disbelieve in astrology, but this does not mean all who disbelieve in astrology are like Edmund.

Asimov also says it wasn’t until Rousseau’s time that the idea that people were good in the state of nature, and that society corrupted them into striving after power, came to prominence.  Yet Lear delivers a powerful (although half mad) monologue to Gloucester along those lines: “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.  Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which the thief?—Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?  And the creature run from the cur?  There thou mightst behold the graet image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.—Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!  Why dost thou lash that whore?  Strip thine own back; Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind For which thou whipp’st her.  The userer hangs the cozener.  Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all….”

Edmund’s own affinity for nature comes from the fact that convention has wronged him by stigmatizing bastards, while he is by nature handsome, strong and clever.  Possibly his distorted notions of natural law are themselves a reaction to, and thus a product of, corrupting convention, not of actual nature. 

He eventually finds himself in a self-contradictory position.  Though he claims to make Nature his guide, his ambition leads him to betray his own father, knowing what it will lead to (Asimov’s suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding), and Edmund grants that such a betrayal of one’s own father is unnatural.  He then goes against what he himself describes as his own nature by trying to do something good at the end of the play.  He does it almost as an afterthought, and perhaps only because he can no longer benefit from not doing it, since he is dying.

Commonly-Used Words

A Sporcle quiz reveals the 100 most-commonly used words in English; I think the OED was its source.  Most are words like and and the and but; it is not until 61 that we get a word with meaningful content, “people.”  Besides people, the most commonly used words that we actually care about are year, good, look, think, work and give.

What, if anything, does this tell us?

Thoughts on the Final Book of the Anne of Green Gables Series

Rilla of Ingleside, the eighth and last book of the Anne of Green Gables series, shifts from Anne’s perspective to that of her youngest child, Rilla, named for Marilla*, as World War I reaches its tentacles into Prince Edward Island life.  I loved and hated this book.

PEI, and Rilla personally, both seemed completely immune from the outside world until the War.  Rilla is 15-19 during the War, the years she expected to be the best of her life.  Apart from anything that happens, L.M. Montgomery shows us how day-to-day life changed and stayed the same for Rilla and others. 

The plot involving Walter, Rilla’s beloved brother, brilliantly personalizes the cost of war.  He had typhoid, so can stay out of the war without looking like he’s shirking, yet he knows he could pass exams and fight.  Unlike others going to the front, though, he understands what war really is.  He confides in Rilla, who believes in him unquestioningly.  Yet to him, the only way he can live up to this belief is to go to war, something she desperately wants to avoid.  In the end, of course, he overcomes himself, thereby bringing about his own death. 

The scale of wars like WWI usually make it hard to think of the meaning of one soldier’s death.  What could be more commonplace than a boy entering the machine of modern war and getting crushed?  Yet Montgomery succeeds in turning this into a very personal, tragic story.**

Not that Walter’s story is some kind of purely personal, existential thing; political context matters, too.  Walter is no natural fighter, but he’s an ardent idealist, and so of course is bound to ultimately answer the idealistic version of the Piper’s call.

The other main story is Rilla’s romance with Kenneth Ford.  This is brilliantly done; the War really hurries things up and reduces them to their essence.  “I love you.  Do you love me?  Good.  Don’t kiss anyone else while I’m away, promise?  Excellent.”  The climax to subplot comes in the middle; the end is rather anti-climactic.  So much for the good….


I was initially surprised to find that Montgomery considered the War worth fighting, only because one rarely comes across that perspective in literature, so I found the idea novel and interesting.  It makes sense when you think about it- she’s Canadian, and Canucks are more loyal than the Queen. 

Still, there could have been a little more detachment from everyone’s enthusiasm for victory.  After all, almost nobody on Prince Edward Island cared anything for the European alliance structure, or whether France or Germany controlled Alsace-Lorraine, or the independence movements within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then suddenly one day, there was a war, and England was right, and Germany was wrong.  Of course, the PEIers seem to feel the violation of Belgian neutrality in a kind of visceral way that the war’s larger causes did not produce, and this was nominally the reason England jumped in.  They also viscerally feel the sinking of the Lusitania.  No qualms about any of England’s tactics, though.

My bigger objection, though, is Montgomery’s turning the war into a sacrifice to bring about a glorious new age, a reshaping of the world according to a triumphant Idea.  She has the preacher, Mr. Meredith, brutally wrench a Bible verse from context and make Britain’s war effort part of the struggle for the Kingdom of Heaven, on earth.  He uses the occasion of war to preach on the text “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”  Afterward at a gathering, he explains himself as follows: “Without shedding of blood there is no anything.  Everything, it seems to me, has to be purchased by self-sacrifice.  Our race has marked every step of its painful ascent with blood.  And now torrents of it must flow again.  No…I don’t think the war has been sent as a punishment for sin.  I think it is the price humanity must pay for some blessing—some advance great enough to be worth the price—which we may not live to see but which our children’s children will inherit.” 

I too can prophecy!  I can tell you about the world that will come out of this bloodshed, Pastor, but I don’t think you’ll like it very much.  And its horrors also won’t bring about a painful ascent.  They won’t mean anything, except perhaps that God has a sense of humor and idealists are His target.

The God-in-the-flowers-and-trees theology Montgomery usually expresses is harmless enough, but this romantic nationalism is its darker version.  The nation becomes identical with this secularized God, its cause a divine Idea.  Humanity’s story becomes one of slaughter to bring about heaven-on-earth.  While romantic theology lends dignity to the world as it is in the pre-War Anne world, here it denigrates that world as unworthy compared to the Ideal world that must be purchased with its destruction.

Relatedly, Walter tells Rilla on the eve of his departure: “Nobody whom this war has touched will ever be happy again in quite the same way.  But it will be a better happiness, I think, little sister—a happiness we’ve earned.  We were very happy before the war, weren’t we?  With a home like Ingleside, and a father and mother like ours we couldn’t help being happy.  But that happiness was a gift from life and love; it wasn’t really ours—life could take it back at any time.  It can never take away the happiness we win for ourselves in the way of duty.”  Montgomery always ridicules the kind of moralism that says the War is sent as punishment for our sins (see Meredith’s comments, above), but how is this moralism really any better?

Worse still, Montgomery violates her own characters to make them mouthpieces for her take on the story:

“Oh, Miss Oliver, what would it be like not to wake up in the morning feeling afraid of the news the day would bring?****  I can’t picture such a state of things somehow.  And two years ago this morning I woke wondering what delightful gifts the new day would give me.  These are the two years I thought would be filled with fun.

“Would you exchange them—now—for two years filled with fun?”

“No,” said Rilla slowly.  “I wouldn’t.  It’s strange—isn’t it?—they have been two terrible years—and yet I have a queer feeling of thankfulness for them—as if they had brought me something very precious, with all their pain.  I wouldn’t want to go back and be the girl I was two years ago, not even if I could….I suppose I had a soul then, Miss Oliver—but I didn’t know it.”

Now, Gertrude Oliver, the schoolteacher, is presented to us as a great cynic, the last person who should go in for this kind of higher-purpose-of-suffering stuff.  I find it even less believable that Bertha Marilla Blythe would endorse this view. 

Gertrude is also made to say, on the occasion of Britain’s capture of Jerusalem, “After all…it is worth while to live in the days which see the object of the Crusades attained.  The ghosts of all the old Crusaders must have crowded the walls of Jerusalem last night, with Coeur-de-lion at their head.”  Nobody in Europe has cared about Jerusalem in 500 years, but when we find the Ottoman Empire aligned with Germany, how easily it can be fitted into wartime idealism!  What does Montgomery care anyway whether Jerusalem is in Christian or Muslim hands?  Aren’t all religions for her just another way to talk about the same God? 

Coeur-de-lion in fact went all the way to the Holy Land, fought some skirmishes, got to the gates of Jerusalem, then buggered off.  I suppose he hung his head in shame in heaven, or hell, for a few centuries and then found comfort in the results of World War I, but what does this have to do with the things the War is actually about? 

Here as throughout, the big Idea covers up the realities of the War- not to hide the brutality but to cover over its actual meaning.  Similarly, as battle rages over Verdun, Gilbert says it is militarily unimportant but the fate of the War will turn on it because of its “significance [as] a Idea,” which is fine- psychological victories and all that.  But then Pastor Meredith chimes in that the good guys will win, because “[t]he Idea cannot be conquered.  France is certainly very wonderful….in her I see the white form of civilization making a determined stand against the black powers of barbarism.*****  I think our whole world realizes this and that is why we all await the issue so breathlessly.  It isn’t merely the question of a few forts changing hands or a few miles of blood-soaked ground won or lost.”  But that’s exactly what it is!  Either this plot of ground is worth taking, or it is not; either this War is in the interest of the British Empire, and that Empire’s interests are worth fighting for, or not. 

The war may have any number of political implications, consequences in this actual world, but it will not bring about an Ideal world.  What would be the point, anyway?  Was there ever a hint of suggestion that Anne’s world in Anne of Green Gables was deficient because it was a world of simple happiness, with gifts of nature not created by human struggle and conflict?  The only reason to sacrifice your life is to save such a world, not to try to build something better.

* How is it that none of her sons was named after Matthew?

** Though she provides all sorts of dubious comfort.  Yes, we’re coming to that.

*** Rick Santorum could not be reached for comment

**** At this point, Rilla’s brothers in the War are both still alive.

***** Alas, yes, LMM really wrote that.  Even Homer nods.



Gosnell Murder Case

Some people have said the Kermit Gosnell murder case should receive more attention.  Salon’s Irin Carmon disagrees:

This week, the right wing has been working the refs, demanding to know why the press has been allegedly silent on the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who allegedly committed horrific acts against his patients with impunity for years.

The media of course determines what issues get covered, and how much- it can make sure everyone knows about something, or it can ensure that those with niche interests know about it, or that almost nobody knows about it.  The phrase “working the refs” implies that the media does this task not arbitrarily, but according to a set of objective criteria; that these criteria are by definition legitimate, like the rules of a basketball game; and that while the media may make mistakes, it is at least devoted to conscientiously following whatever the criteria are, and has no agenda of its own, whereas media critics are the equivalent of Phil Jackson, having an obvious agenda.  So Irin Carmon puts us immediately in a frame of mind suggesting the media is presumptively right.

Carmon then denies the story has been shut out.  There has been “copious coverage by pro-choice among pro-choice and feminist journalists,” he writes, which he proves by linking to a non-mainstream source, an opinion piece, and two Philadelphia local news blogs, and says if you don’t know about the story, you haven’t been paying attention.  All of this only proves that you have to actively pay attention in order to know about the story- the media is treating this as a niche story, of special interest perhaps to feminists, and keeps it far away from mainstream coverage.  The whole point is that this is a story you have a choice not to pay attention to, unlike, for instance, the Newtown shooting.  The fact that people presenting the story come with a Feminist label only proves that the media, in its faux-objective, referee role does not deem the story important. 

Carmon’s next argument is to note that most objecting to the lack of mainstream coverage are male.  She then links to mainstream news organizations devoting a few paragraphs to the story somewhere on their websites.  She argues that because of the lack of public funding and access to abortion, it is natural that “the vacuum was filled by a monster.”   

The facts that some critics are pro-life males, that some feminists have covered the story, and that the story can be interpreted to have feminist implications, have nothing to do with the question of whether there has been enough coverage, but these arguments are designed to discredit the messenger.  It is pro-life people arguing that the media ignores the issue, but feminists (the opposite side!) are interested in the issue, so pro-lifers must be wrong, is how his logic implicitly runs- and when you think about it explicitly, it doesn’t make much sense.

I think the reason the media is ignoring the case is that they don’t think of the killing of unwanted babies as that big a deal.  Insofar as something is wrong, it is a women’s health issue- this was a back-alley abortion clinic.  If someone kidnapped newborn babies whose mothers wanted them, and beheaded them, it would absolutely dominate the news- even if it were a “local crime story.”