Saturday, September 24, 2011

Political Correctness: Spellbinding the Masses

In Scientism, I argued that the modern science-centered worldview is religious rather than strictly secular. This religion, which I call scientism, isn’t just academic positivism or behaviourism, but the popular worship of technoscientific power and the divinely creative forces revealed or enthroned by that power, such as natural selection in the minimally-regulated (mostly uncivilized) market. Pitiless Mother Nature reigns in capitalistic oases, as in Edenic jungle paradises, intervening in human affairs by separating winners from losers in every wild, entirely unchristian struggle for profit. The god of the free market, which must be the very same cosmic creativity that evolves solar systems and galaxies, is omnipresent in modern economies, at one with our vices that compel us to compete in a short-sighted, self-destructive fashion, leading presumably to our eventual extinction and replacement by some other chosen species. All hail Cosmic Creativity! And until that glorious future, when we’ll likely sacrifice ourselves for the sake of mindless evolution, a handful of mandarins, tycoons, magnates, and other lords of commerce rule as demigods, prophets and champions of that model sociopath, the creative force of natural selection. These oligarchs are elevated by the free market and so chosen by Mother Nature to rule in her social order, which is the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order. Thanks to their cunning, modern wealthy societies protect that underlying hierarchy with façades of democracy and with bribes of technologically-achieved pleasure. 

How could scientism be religious, though, without some scripture recited in holy places, causing knees to bow in reverence for the revealed Word of the Almighty? Where is the so-called secularist’s holy book of divine wisdom, if so-called secularists really are closet religionists? My answer: the verses of scientism’s scripture are repeated hourly on the mountain tops of television and radio airtime; they're the politically correct slogans, the spin-doctored and market-tested rhetoric, and the instrumental talking points for the Pavlovian training of human cattle. Were that scripture confined to a single book, its title might be Political Correctness: Sacred Verses for Spellbinding Consumers; instead, scientism uses modern technology to piggyback its messages on those of popular entertainments so that you hear them even when you think you don’t. Remember that scientism is a paradoxical faith, a religion that pretends to be opposed to all religious follies. Just as an oligarchy can disguise itself as a democratic republic, pagan worship of nature can disguise itself as scientific rationalism and as postreligious humanism. To see the religious aspect of so-called secular society, you have to step back from it and ask yourself whether there’s any reason to believe that our innate tribalism and creative urge to speculate, which are primary causes of religion, were shut down by modern forces of progress. Sure, in the name of that progress, the old gods of supernatural monotheism were dethroned and the perennial religious philosophies of mystics were ignored or ridiculed, but since religions are found in all times and places occupied by human beings, due to innate causes within us, we should expect that modern naturalists deify whatever’s left to replace the outmoded objects of worship.

Taboo and the Sacred

What is political correctness? Officially, politically correct speech and attitudes are conventions that respect social discoveries, such as the existence of civil rights due to the equality of humans as free, rational persons. It’s merely good manners in the face of the facts to tell the truth, for example, about the dignity of the poor and the rich alike. The social discoveries are like mathematically necessary truths, and the student can just tick the appropriate boxes in the Quiz of Life, thanks to regular tutoring from the authorities, such as politicians, pundits, celebrities--indeed, virtually anyone performing her public function (her job) and certainly anyone on mainstream media. Your private thoughts are more or less your own, but there are rules for public behaviour, besides those recognized in courts of law, and the penalty for disobeying them is to be shunned or ostracized.

This official account can be dismissed just by pointing out that there are incompatible notions of what’s politically correct. For example, there are liberal and conservative myths that contradict each other in speaking of different social facts that are supposed to be respected. Perhaps one myth is correct and another is false, but it’s more likely that scientific standards are inapplicable to political “theory”, since politics is the study of power in human societies, and the act of putting forward a political explanation is itself a move in that power dynamic. Natural scientists can be objective because they don’t anthropomorphize their objects of study, and so their biases that are likely activated when dealing with other people are held in check when investigating atoms, rocks, or galaxies. When prescribing a social structure, however, the political theorist can’t be doing science in that sense, and so her political rationale can be neither objectively true nor false. The more appropriate standards of evaluation in politics are ethical and aesthetic ones, and the political theorist is better regarded as a myth-maker.

In any case, liberal myths are more readily associated with political correctness than are conservative ones, and the reason for this is just that postmodern liberals have lost faith in their myths, whereas conservatives, lacking the strength of character or the intellectual integrity to admit that their myths are grotesque when applied to what’s now known about nature, hold fast to their monotheism or their social Darwinism. Liberals therefore force themselves to belittle their myths, reducing them to Life Quizzes, and their absolute imperatives to multiple choice questions with pseudoscientifically correct answers. Liberalism, after all, begins with the naturalistic fallacy that since the natural sciences have cognitively progressed, so too can societies normatively progress. (See Liberalism.) But the point I want to stress is that the notion of political correctness is a misnomer, since political myths and scientific theories shouldn’t be evaluated with the same criteria; the latter can correspond to facts, because of scientific objectivity, whereas the former can be ethically or aesthetically impressive.

For what, then, is “political correctness” a euphemism? Certainly, politically correct speech is safe, inoffensive speech, the verbal equivalent of Muzak. But more precisely, the rules of political correctness are meant to steer people away from committing taboo acts. Every religious society has its division between the sacred and the profane. Liberal and conservative myths about us and our social institutions prescribe what should be worshipped as holy, as worthy of approval despite the fear which the holy arouses in us due to its inhumane displays of awesome power. Modern, classic liberals deified the rationality, freewill, and consciousness of human nature, and natural forces were to have feared us, as it were, for our determination to bend them to our will. Again, though, postmodern liberals no longer believe we live up to Enlightenment hype. Meanwhile, conservatives seem to deify traditional supernatural forces, but the gods they actually follow are money and earthly power and pleasure. After all, Christian and Muslim conservatives have underlying secular agendas, such as the imposition of theocracies. (See Conservatism.) According to the monotheistic myth, we should all fear the supernatural God, but that God is modeled on the human dictator. And according to implications of libertarian (explicitly economic) conservatism, the weak should fear the strong whose greater strength gives them all the right in the world to sacrifice the weak and the poor for the dominator’s pleasure.

In a hyper-rational liberal society, humans are divine and the sacred space extends to whatever part of nature we transform by our labour; whatever we touch turns to gold, as it were. Wild nature is profane, like the face of the waters before God’s spirit brooded over them and created the universe from those raw materials. The wilderness is profane because it dares to oppose noble humankind instead of offering us its teat whenever we whine like the infants we are, as implied by this instrumentalistic myth. With the glorious power of science, we reconnoiter the indifferent enemy’s territory and smite the inhumane elements, engineering them to our benefit. In a postmodern liberal society, however, nothing is sacred or profane exactly, and instead there’s the distinction between the Serious and the Radical. The Serious citizen operates entirely within the social system without questioning its assumptions and who dedicates herself to making the system more efficient, while the Radical questions those assumptions and aims to upset society. (Remember, from Liberalism, that the postmodern liberal is a wannabe technocrat, a partisan nihilistic machine that views the world in pragmatic, non-normative terms, seeking only to tinker around the edges to maintain the conservative, naturally oligarchic status quo. President Obama is currently the leading example of this sort of liberal; for more examples, see all those who call themselves “centrists” or “pragmatists.”)

Now, in a theocracy, the sacred is defined not by religious scripture, but by the might of the ruler who cherry-picks the interpretation of the scripture that best excuses the preposterous imbalance of power in that society. Typically, for example, the ruler is a man, whose vices tend to be more politically advantageous than a woman’s, and so women become profane while masculine vices become sacred. To the extent that science empowers a middle class that can challenge the monarch’s sovereignty, through mass production and capitalism, science and technology also become profane. This is, of course, the story of Catholic theocracies in the middle ages and of present-day Islamic ones. With regard to capitalistic free markets, money, earthly power and pleasure are sacred, since these and the vices needed to win those goods are fuels for the engine that turns the natural cycle of evolution, which cycle is the ultimate divinity in pagan scientism. Government regulations of economic activity are profane for daring to restrain Mother Nature and to reverse her judgment as to who should or shouldn’t possess wealth. More generally, anything that deviates from primitive instinct must be profane; hence, the Republican’s false populist rhetoric against the snobbery of intellectual elites who fantasize that they can run an economy better than can an egoistic, chaotic free-for-all. Just because we learned how to reach the moon doesn’t mean we should step outside of the savage jungle when thinking of how we should live together.

The taboo, then, is the sacrilege of profaning what is sacred, by mixing up the two spaces. For example, a classically liberal taboo is to discriminate against anyone’s human rights, by calling attention to natural differences such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, or history and ignoring everyone’s equal measures of rational capacity, autonomy, and consciousness. The sin is to ignore a person’s sacred, godlike qualities and to elevate the profane, animalistic ones that place us in the wilderness. By contrast, a postmodern liberal taboo is to ask a deep, normative question instead of being “realistic” and taking a present system for granted. Typically, the progressive “base” of the Democratic Party commits this sin against the grown-up interests of the Serious, corporate Democrats. Thus, the classic liberal is an idealist whereas the postmodern liberal is a realist.

Again, the taboo for religious conservatives isn’t disobedience to God’s commandments; rather, it’s disobedience to a human interpretation of those commandments, where the scripture is used in a secular ploy to establish a theocracy, which is a natural dominance hierarchy. While the myths speak of rebellion against God, the immediate, tangible sin is to rebel against God’s human representative, whether it’s a priest, a televangelist, a Republican President, a cult leader, or an Imam, Shiekh, or Ayatollah. The taboo for a libertarian conservative is to deign to exercise godlike power to miraculously extricate yourself from your position in a natural pecking order. Thus, it’s a sin to share resources, giving the poor a free ride. Cooperation is supposedly unknown in the wild, and natural selection favours only the exercise of our vices, not our virtues such as empathy or humility.

Of course, the libertarian supposedly permits charity as long as it’s not theft, which is to say that individuals should be free to dispose of their possessions as they like, but the government shouldn’t be allowed to use taxes to transfer money from the rich to the poor. There is, however, no political principle at work here. In theory, people in a democracy voluntarily submit to the will of the majority, so if the majority elect a party that favours the redistribution of wealth through taxation, or rather the ideal of people’s equality, even those who vote for a different party indirectly consent to the taxes. Why, then, is the libertarian actually opposed to a democratic government’s socialist use of taxes? Because that’s the most effective kind of charity, which plays havoc with the natural pecking order. And the reason the libertarian emphasizes vice over virtue is because social Darwinism is a myth that rationalizes power that happens to be acquired by vicious, human predators. When sociopaths overpower everyone else, they position themselves to tout the benefits of their monstrous way of life, and so they can broadcast their egoistic, social Darwinian celebration of their defining characteristics, such as selfishness, ambition, pitilessness, hedonism, and short-sightedness. When even poor people respect those vices, despite their having failed in the economic competition due presumably to their greater degree of virtue, they don’t rebel against the power inequality.

The Magic of Political Correctness

So much for a general theory of the religious nature of political correctness. Is there any evidence that that theory applies to actual political correctness? There’s a clue that the theory does apply, which is that we adopt and defend politically correct slogans with primitive displays of emotion rather than with logical arguments. Often, the slogans are repeated so many times that we become bored of questioning them or else the slogans tap into mythical imagery, whether the images are from political rhetoric, commercials, or the entertainment industry. For example, note the difference between the belief that men and women are equal in terms of their personhood, and the belief that women should be given preferential treatment, along with children, when there’s a desperate choice between saving a woman or a man, but not both, in a natural catastrophe. The first convention is backed up by a wealth of well-known scientific evidence that men and women have similar brain structures, and it’s just this rational basis that makes the convention scientifically rather than merely politically correct. There’s no such rational basis for the second convention, especially given the first one. Granted, there’s some suggestion that women are needed to reproduce, and so for the sake of future generations a woman’s life is worth more than a man’s. But of course, men are also needed for sexual reproduction. That second belief is merely politically correct because it’s justified, instead, by romantic myths of chivalry.

As for postmodern liberalism, take Obama’s dismissal of progressive calls for Bush administration and Wall Street accountability through prosecutions. Obama and his spokespeople ridiculed the progressives as hysterical children who don’t understand how the system works. Whether Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wall Street bankers should have been prosecuted just to eliminate moral hazard, even if the prosecutions would have been doomed to failure, is a normative question that a pragmatic liberal doesn’t waste time contemplating. All postmodern liberal decisions must meet solely the engineer’s standard of making the most efficient use of available resources within a predetermined system. In the political system, a President loses prestige for tilting at windmills. The idealism of progressives is naïve and counterproductive, according to the realistic liberal who effectively has no values. But the point I want to emphasize here is that this progressivism is politically incorrect, because the liberal centrist typically doesn’t bother to justify the dismissal, but merely relies on the comparisons to children or to crazy extremists. To venture an explanation of the rebuff, the postmodern liberal would have to reveal the realist’s functional nihilism, which would vitiate liberalism as a viable, uplifting school of political thought. That would be most impractical.

There are many religious conservative slogans that are merely politically correct and thus lacking even the pretense of a rational justification, such as the anti-science slogans, “Global warming is a hoax” or “Humans didn’t evolve along with monkeys.” One reason for this hostility to science is, of course, the god-of-the-gaps problem, which is that the more scientists learn about nature, the more divorced from reality become traditional theistic beliefs about God, spirits, and miracles. But science is also a whipping boy for most religious conservatives: they berate scientific theories without knowing even what a theory generally is in the scientific sense, let alone understanding the details of how climate and natural selection are thought to work. The politically correct belittling of scientific theories, in Republican campaign rallies or in televised political “debates,” for example, would be just like a know-nothing hobbit’s carping about Gandalf’s magic spells--as if the hobbit were remotely qualified to say anything worth listening to on such esoteric subjects. Still, the religious conservative picks up and repeats these memes, dutifully signaling her political membership. Likewise, libertarian myths about the evils of taxation and the need for market “freedom” are driven into conservatives through relentless political and commercial advertising, which is repeated over and over and which taps into American mythology of rugged individualism, coloured by Hollywood images of the Wild West.

Political correctness seems, then, to function as a form of arresting magic, a way of policing the borders of sacred or profane spaces, with verbal hypnotism. The hypnotism works by the nonrational power of subjectively magical formulas that dare the hypnotized individual to gainsay a certain convention, commit a taboo act, and thus be ostracized. By “arresting” I mean that the politically correct speaker is held in sacred space by her chanting of the formula, since she thereby signals her allegiance to the group. The in-group slogans test the member’s commitment, because she must be willing to mindlessly repeat them rather than challenge them with a skeptical mindset.

Liberals make a pseudoscience out of their dehumanizing use of language, pretending to engineer society with talking points as though the liberals were in possession of a blueprint of society which specifies how people are components of a social machine. The conservative politician or pundit relies on talking points as well, but the liberal shares the advertiser’s cynical view that consumers need to be manipulated by elites for their own good, whereas the conservative is in the grip of idolatry that would elevate the masses. Like the advertiser and the disillusioned radical, the postmodern liberal suffers from self-loathing and from misanthropy: having lost faith in her rationalist, utopian ideals, the latter-day liberal assumes there’s no compelling defense of any values and the responsible adult should simply get on with work like Sisyphus pointlessly rolling his rock up the hill. The liberal’s job is to defend big government, which in turn safeguards the oligarchic arrangement, and the liberal’s chief tool is her mastery of politically correct rhetoric, including platitudes, slogans, talking points, and a thousand kinds of lies such as spin, obfuscation, and evasion, not to mention a legion of fallacies. The liberal operative thus practices the phony science of public relations, which aims at managing public opinion the way a master trains his dog. The idea is to tell the public what they unconsciously want to hear, as determined by polls and other forms of market research. Telling the unvarnished truth is always anathema to the paternalistic liberal. Again, the consumers and voters are taken to consist of levers, dials, and buttons on a social machine, and the liberal is supposed to be a technician who manipulates them.

But because there’s no rigorous science of social engineering, and the liberal’s scientism represents liberalism’s collapse after the twentieth century’s mockery of Enlightenment expectations, the liberal’s rhetoric must be operating on a wing and a prayer, like psychic mind reading or other dubious, so-called paranormal phenomena. There may be no real magic in the sense of a violation of natural law, but there’s surely subjective magic, which is just a matter of ignorance on the perceiver’s part. As Arthur C. Clarke said, sufficiently advanced technology appears magical. Even if the technology is a simple game of twenty questions, as in the case of John Edward’s shenanigans, if the audience is prevented from appreciating that game, due to sleight-of-hand mischief, the questioner can appear psychic. What the liberal actually manages by chanting slogans, pandering, spinning, and resorting to numerous other tricks is people’s perception of reality; she is thus a spell-binding magician, not an engineer with her arms elbow-deep in reality’s underbelly. The liberal spin-doctor simply takes advantage of people’s ignorance, gullibility, and fallacious thought routines and manipulates them into buying the lemon of liberal orthodoxy.

Conservative elites are more brazen in the verbal abuse of their flock, encoding their rallying cries in religious verbiage and thus playing the ancient game of enlisting God in support of their prejudices. A clear instance of this is the evangelical Christian’s selling of family values despite the New Testament’s anti-family message. (See Theism.) The family value slogans are thus at best politically, rather than historically, correct, but conservative demagogues also indulge in the sordid business of exploiting poor people’s ignorance of the Bible, pretending their retrograde ideal of the Cleaver family is founded on biblical principles. It should go without saying that a fair summary of Jesus’ ethical teachings is the following: the more content someone is in worldly, secular terms, the less esteemed that person is by God, since God favours those who fail in the secular rat race. According to Jesus’ good news for drop-outs and losers, by preferring conventional happiness to the higher mission of seeking God’s heavenly kingdom, the middle class parents who raise a family in the suburbs, with a white picket fence, a dog, and a two-car garage are actually hell-bound souls who got their priorities all wrong. But the feel-good contrary message, that aims at reconciling Jesus’ spiritual radicalism with modern hedonism, need only be tenuously connected to the Bible, thanks to the indispensable art of cherry-picking, and the nominal Christian masses can fantasize that these demagogues are prophets in their midst. Having absorbed at least some basic biblical imagery, from movies if not from the Bible itself, the masses are hungry to associate any passionate conviction with divine inspiration and so even Bush’s neoconservatives could sell their “preventative” wars on pseudo-Christian grounds.

The religious aspect of the economic conservative’s politically correct rhetoric is more scientistic than monotheistic. The libertarian trades on the masses’ fear not of the dead supernatural God, but of the living demigods who fly from mansion to mansion and run their corporate empires from Babel-like towers. Relying not on prior monotheistic infantilization but on the corporate variety in advertising, the libertarian preaches an anti-government creed that invokes the unconscious craving for a return to perfect consumption in the womb. First the propaganda for endless consumption of material products is digested in enormous quantities, in the form of omnipresent advertising, and then economic conservatives press their advantage by advocating a form of self-destructive government that empowers those who satisfy that infantile demand. Again, there should be no illusion here that the slogans of small government, individual liberty, and the free market are rationally embraced by the majority of economic conservatives. Granted, there’s such a thing as libertarian philosophy, as spouted by Ron Paul, for example, but that philosophy is mostly a rationalization for the true causes of libertarian membership: the force of having read Ayn Rand’s paeans to capitalism while the libertarian was still young, and the understandable deification of technoscience and its oligarchic champions. Once the consumer glorifies the pseudo-Nietzschean ego and replaces her fear of a supernatural God with that of natural gods, she’s ready to regurgitate laissez faire propaganda.

White Lies

Finally, I want to consider a more common kind of politically correct speech: the white lie. Conventionally, a white lie is a lie told with benevolent rather than malicious intention. But there’s another, more popular kind of non-malicious deception, which is the speech emitted by what Freud called the persona, the self’s public side that plays various social roles. The lies we tell to prop up our self-image and to maintain acquaintances and group cohesion are legion. Almost every word we speak in public is a white lie in that what we say isn’t what we really believe, deep down, as it were: we speak knowing that we’re not speaking our mind, but we’re compelled to lie just like actors reading from a script. We say what we’re expected to say, what we’ve been trained to say, and we say what makes us happy. (See Happiness.) The exceptions to white lying, then, are the heart-to-heart conversations good friends or loved ones sometimes have and the times we “level with” each other or “tell it like it is.”

We white-lie when we humour someone, when we pretend to be optimistic to avoid an awkward confrontation or to spare someone’s feelings, or when we say to an acquaintance, “I’ll call you later” or “Let’s get together in a couple of weeks,” with no intention of following up. You might think that the traditional lies told in a political campaign are clearly white lies, assuming they’re aspirational promises as opposed to malicious attempts to mislead. But white lying with benevolent intentions is only a subtype of the kind of lying I have in mind, namely the kind that doesn’t proceed from negative intentions. The more common kind of non-malicious lying happens routinely, with no conscious intention at all. Some political speech may be deceptive but intended to help the voters rather than just the lying politician, while other kinds of deceptive political speech may be compulsive and impersonal or unmotivated, and it’s the latter kind I’m more interested in here.

Habitual white lying is the adult equivalent of children’s play in a fantasy world that lives only in their shared imagination space. Children pretend that a large box is a spaceship, freely making the best of what they’re given, fantasizing because they prefer an ideal world to the one they actually inhabit. We seldom grow out of that tendency to delude ourselves and others. White lies are pretenses, playful verbal constructions that shouldn’t be evaluated in terms of their truth status or their conventional meaning. Instead, the lies we routinely tell to avoid dealing with uncomfortable truths are means by which we reinforce our social status and the enchantments of political correctness. For example, when acquaintances pretend that they’re better friends than they know they are, congenially promising to keep in touch, they might as well be chimpanzees picking nits out of each other’s fur. The semantic content of their blather is irrelevant to its function, which is to help hold together their tribe. Their smiles are forced, their promises like the sing-song baby talks that soothe infants. 

White lies are politically correct, because they’re not directed at individuals; instead, they play to people's social functions. When we speak reflexively, putting no thought into what we’re saying and feeling no shame in slipping on a persona, playing a role, and acting according to a conventional script, like a puppet on a string, we don’t honour what little dignity or autonomy we have. Only when we engage in heart-to-heart dialogues and rant like prophets possessed by the power of a muse or of Logos, the divine reason shaping the universe, do we speak directly to each other as individual, potentially godlike persons. When we dress in mind-garments, in phony personalities that are just social constructs rather than our true characters, we perform in the show of conventional social interaction, the evolutionary point of which is surely to keep us happy long enough, at least, to reproduce and contribute to the gene pool’s flexibility for the benefit of future mutants and their offspring. This conventional interaction is the real Matrix, the mass hallucination that keeps us “functional.”

In public, we’re bombarded by lies that hypnotize, enchant, and comfort us. This is the nature of political correctness, of speech that’s merely socially useful: we chant mantras and feel-good slogans or read from conventional scripts, modeling our behaviour on the iconic images we see in commercials or in movies--all to remain in our sacred spaces, to avoid taboos, and to keep in the good graces of what we secularists worship: the mindless cosmic creativity that abuses self-aware creatures, programming us with mesmerizing formulas spewed from our own mouths, and also the champions of that natural force, the winners of the rat race, the predatorial oligarchs who reside at the apex of a power hierarchy and who earn the most rewards from the cosmos for best imitating its inhumanity.


  1. Translated in Greek here

    You know, I was surprised you didn't bring up Jim Carrey's film "Liar, Liar" when discussing white lies. BTW, I was wondering if you've read Harris' book on Lying, especially the section on white lies. I'm still undecided if his stance on lies is naive or just overly optimistic (provided there's an actual distinction between the two).

    1. Wow, thanks! This is an oldie, but it anticipates a lot of what I've since said. I didn't know Sam Harris wrote that book, but I've just now read the chapter on white lies. I agree with Harris that white lies are bad, but my reasons are different from his. He says they're bad because they deny our friends their freedom to improve their life, and he assumes such white lies are meant to spare people's feelings. But this explanation isn't convincing. If it's our friend we're dealing with and we care about that person's feelings, we should likewise care about the friend's freedom.

      What Harris misses is that we don't tell white lies to our actual friends; instead, we tell them to our acquaintances. White lies are all about power dynamics. Notice that you'd be much less likely to tell a white lie to someone who clearly has more power than you. This is because you'd fear retaliation.

      I thus compare white lies to signs of what Veblen calls conspicuous consumption. We white-lie not just to make certain relationships go more smoothly, but to dominate others in a passive-aggressive way. When we withhold the truth even on trivial matters, we signal to those in the know that the person lied to isn't threatening or useful enough to be informed. This is a case of implicature, of saying one thing indirectly by saying something else. We tell these lies not to spare people's feelings, but because we don't really care about those people at all, and so we use them as fodder as we practice our ability to deceive in more serious ways.

      This is similar to the American government's infamous over-classification of documents. The government withholds all sorts of information from the public without legal justification; the reason this happens is just that elitist technocrats in the government have a very low opinion of the American masses. White lying is a sort of cheap shot in that it's an insult that can't be called out, because it's disguised as a compliment. When we tell a white lie, what we're really saying isn't that we care so much about the person that we don't want to hurt her feelings; instead, we're saying the person means so little to us that we can think of her only in Machiavellian terms, so that we can increase our power over her by withholding trivial information on a whim.

      By the way, I'll be entering Harris's contest to prove to him that his science of morality won't work.

    2. Wow... good luck with that. I'm suspicious that it might just be a marketing trick, but it might still net you a couple thousand bucks, so go for it.

      I honestly have no clue why he even started this contest; I mean he must have realized by now the main critique was that the book didn't deliver on its title-subtitle. He affirms utilitarianism and goes on from there. That's fine, but he should at least have offered an apology for that. The rest of the critics only had to rehash the criticism of utilitarian ethics. He's got a background in philosophy, so he must have seen them coming. And he certainly knows of the is-ought divide, but he won't be winning any Kyoto prizes for his non-existent refutation.

      It's been a while since I read that book (I should have another look at some point) but really, did its success have anything to do other than the atheist community starving for a naturalistic ethical system? And it's not like it hasn't been attempted before; Richard Carrier wrote on the same topic and from what I've been reading it's similarly unconvincing (haven't managed to get my hands on it though).

      And I do remember quite vividly getting to Ch.4 Religion and thinking to myself "What the hell's this doing here? You wave Hume off in the prologue and devote a whole chapter to stuff that's been repeated ad nauseum, your own previous books included? Filler." Harris even played right into Dennett's warning to skeptics: Beware of an author overusing "surely" and "certainly" cos he's reached the edge of his certainty zone and hopes to elicit agreement from the reader. (I'm tempted to say there's at least one "surely" every other page).

      In any case, looking forward to reading your critique. Are you gonna put it up here before February or will you wait for the deadline to pass first?

    3. I've read Carrier's chapters on the science of morality, which did indeed precede Harris's book by a few years and which do the reader the courtesy of actually laying out an explicit argument for the thesis. Harris writes more like Dennett, meandering and chatting. There's actually no explicit statement of the argument's premises and conclusion in his book. Carrier's made this point. I suspect Harris unconsciously steered himself away from laying out an argument so that he could say that all his critics are missing his point. Mind you, Carrier's argument is just as naive as Harris's implicit one, but at least Carrier lays it on the line. (I've criticized Carrier's argument in the comment sections on his website and I've not been terribly impressed by his responses. Mind you, he responds to hundreds of comments.)

      I've already written the entry (max. of 1000 words, which is very short), and much of it draws from my blog's article on Harris's science of morality. But I also slip in some responses to Harris's responses to Blackford, who I think already said most of what needs to be said on the matter. I'll certainly post my entry here at some point, but since it's for money I might as well wait until the contest is over.

      I predict that none of the entries will change Harris's mind. There's a lot of ego that comes into play when you're famous and you have to be willfully antisocial to resist the temptation to become full of yourself when so many people call themselves your fans. Still, I look forward to reading the winning entry.