I‘ve been called out today by former friend and colleague Francois Tremblay over a Facebook discussion (PDF) started by his wife about human rights.As outrageous and distasteful as I find this situation, (like President Obama being forced to refute Sarah Palin’s mendacities about “death panels,”) I must defend my honor against Tremblay’s slanderous lies (which are now permanently associated with my name, thanks to Google).
- Tremblay accused me of claiming “man is innately evil.” This is a lie. I said no such thing. People compete and they cooperate. But competition dominates and people often use deception, dirty tricks, and even murder. It’s a part of nature, and it’s been that way from the day the first single-celled organism divided. Natural competition is neither good nor evil, it is amoral. Only society, reputation and the mutual advantages of cooperation provide us with any moral framework.
- Deep in the discussion, I said “People smile at each other while they are secretly working to underbid their associates, eat their friend’s lunch [metaphorically] or bang their other friend’s wife.” Tremblay responded with one of the most foul attempts at character assassination I’ve ever experienced: he claimed my friends should therefore worry I would steal their lunches or have sex with their wives. He called me a “serial lunch-thief.”
HELL, NO. If I said people sometimes kill their wives, does that mean my wife would have reason to worry I might kill her?
This despicable falsehood is a prime example of the kind of dirty tricks I was talking about in point one. Tremblay has really lost it this time. He is stovepiped with his anarchist philosophy and he’s been living in that echo chamber for many years. He’s way out of his intellectual depth with regard to what is known about evolutionary psychology and anthropology. And he’s also used to getting his way in arguments. Like most of the “let’s-all-sing-Kumbayah” crowd, he is clearly shadow-repressed, and has almost certainly never been threatened in life or limb. He’s never had to fight for his life, nor feel the boot of real repression. He’s spent his life fighting “soft” repression such as drug laws or censorship. But never having been actually stripped of all dignity–and summoned the will to fight back through whatever means necessary–he has no clue of the depravity of which he and all human beings are capable.
I’m not suggesting we all need to experience torture or deprivation to know what it’s like to be human. Far from it. But we do need to realize what’s lurking just under the patina of polite society. Instead of engaging with the nuance of the valuable point I was making, he lied about it and then slandered me. It’s one thing to do something like that among a few friends on Facebook. It’s quite another when you repost the lies on your public website a month later. This is demagoguery defined.
Tremblay’s decision to publicly attack me is also somewhat tragic because it marks the end of a long and formerly productive relationship. Back in the Jurassic period of Black Sun Journal (around 2005) I used to correspond with him and his group of anarcho-libertarians. He was also a prominent atheist activist. So I was invited to be a guest on his wife’s talk show, Hellbound Alleee, and also contributed about a half-dozen commentaries to their Vox Populi project.
At the time, aside from promoting atheism, I was trying to make sense of how we develop a set of ethical principles while still preserving self-interest. After rejecting a lifetime of religion–which holds self-sacrifice as the essential moral foundation–I toyed with libertarianism and even anarchy. There’s something very compelling about the individualistic idea that no one should be coerced into anything, including paying taxes. No one should be forced into fighting wars they disagree with. Patriotism and nationalism have obvious drawbacks, and strong individuals do a better job at deciding what’s best for them than government does. Governments also have a long and bloody history of injustices. So far, so good. Francois seemed to be a cogent voice for rejecting both God and the excesses of government, things I could agree with.
But then I began to discover cracks in the anarchist arguments. They especially don’t jive with what ev-psych and anthropology tell us about human nature. Following are four very briefly stated reasons why I now support a liberal global parliamentary form of government and an economy based on regulated capitalism:
Humans have an even longer history of violence than do governments
Evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker has shown and documented that even with all the wars of the 20th and 21st century, human violence is at an all-time low. As we have progressed in our forms of government, both individual and state-sponsored violence have declined. In primitive tribes, if you were male, you had a 15 to 60 percent chance of dying in mortal combat. Today that risk is a small fraction of one percent. We have government and civil society to thank for this startlingly recent increase in the value of human life, and the enforcement of a semblance of formerly non-existent human rights.
Humans universally manipulate for power and profit
Nothing particularly surprising there, but you’d be amazed how many people will argue the point. Robert Greene has analyzed this in depth with his power trilogy, The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War, and The Art of Seduction. In addition, viewing the world from a gene’s point of view leads to unmitigated self-interest punctuated by instances of reciprocal altruism. This is the thesis of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Reciprocal altruism is governed by game theory, which gives rise to a great deal of predictability in human behavior. Want something? Appeal to a person’s self-interest rather than expecting them to “be nice” to you. If you can convince someone something you want is in their interest, you’ll get results every time. Regardless of your political persuasion, ignore these principles of human nature at your peril.
It is not possible to “opt out” of society
Libertarians and anarchists often describe taxation as “theft.” But that would only be true if a person was entirely self-sufficient, which is impossible. As long as someone derives her living (even in part) from a society, she owes a debt to others who’ve contributed to that success. Then there is the small problem of empathy. You cannot be ethical and allow sick people to die in the streets. Taking care of them costs money, and we must all pay for it. People don’t pay voluntarily, otherwise there would be no street people. You cannot “let” other people go to war for you, enjoy the spoils (recently, oil), then refuse to pay their salaries. Even if you think the war is unjust, people are still bleeding so you can drive your car. You cannot have children growing up without educating them, or you will have to spend a greater amount later building prisons. Thanks in part to Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism for clarifying this social imperative for me.
Without regulation, humans exploit and destroy common resources
The Tragedy of the Commons is well known. The canonical example is a field everyone in a village uses to graze their livestock, but no one cultivates. It’s a metaphor for the thoughtless exploitation of resources for short-term profit that leads to long-term ruin. The most recent example is the dramatically falling water table in India. But the concept covers every form of externality and tort committed by those profiteering at the expense of others or the environment. Without strong government, and specifically global government, we can never get a handle on the commons, which is being fouled with CO2, overfished and exploited at an alarming rate.
There are many other sound reasons (beyond the scope of this article) why anarcho-anything does not work and can never work. Humans are a social, hierarchical species, and we need organizers.
Still anarchists continue with their irrational claims that people will all just somehow naturally work together for the common good, absent external incentives. Dishonest anarchists like Tremblay often play both sides. In the current discussion, he slammed me for saying humans are inherently competitive (“evil”), but in 2005 on BSJ, he attacked altruism itself: “Everyone should realize how loaded the word “altruism” is, and how silly and evil it really is.”
Thanks for spelling that out, Francois.
Update: This conversation would be a humorous footnote, if it didn’t keep happening! Recently, in 2022, I posted on Facebook about the subject of self-interest and reciprocity and the transactional nature of love. Someone responded by asking me if I had “ever experienced love?” And it wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the years, I’ve noticed that whenever I discuss the nuts and bolts of human nature, and particularly the power literature by authors such as Robert Greene, people automatically assume that I’m amoral, manipulative, and calculating, and question whether I’m capable of love. Of course, to some extent all human beings exhibit these tendencies, myself included. But what I’m discussing is the fine line everyone walks between cooperation and defection, despite outer appearances. Words like “love” and “kindness” are suitcase words for very complex intersubjective social phenomena. And I see no reason not to look a bit deeper to understand the complex calculations that underlie such concepts as trust, loyalty, and betrayal. Not to mention trying to understanding the types of circumstances in which people are willing to defect, and deceive each other. We’re the product of countless generations which have refined strategies to gain advantage. A big part of those strategies involve pretending to be something we’re not, or disguising true agendas, while feigning sincerity. I’ll be writing much more about this in the future. –Sean Prophet, September 2022