Sunday, September 30, 2018

Retroactive Prime Directive

Alien landing

In the Star Trek universe—in case you don’t follow the series—there is a rule called the Prime Directive. It forbids the Federation’s interstellar explorers from interfering with the civilizations they discover, especially the more primitive societies. Visitors to new civilizations are forbidden from offering advanced technologies or, in some cases, even revealing that they come from beyond the stars. The intention is to preserve the unique nature of these developing civilizations and allow them to achieve whatever their native skills, cultural qualities, and particular history will enable them to become. Many of the various Star Trek series include stories where the Prime Directive is tested and ultimately found to be wise and appropriate.

Of course, in the Progressive future world depicted by the series, the Prime Directive is an antidote to and an apology for Western imperialism. This is the world, or the galaxy, done right the first time. This is the situation in which an advanced civilization—the enlightened, gracious, Western European–based explorers of Star Fleet—“boldly go[es] to seek out new worlds and new civilizations” and then carefully and studiously leave them alone. No educating the natives here. And certainly no enslaving them and making off with their trade goods and raw materials.

It’s a pretty picture. An ideal of self-restraint. But is it real?

In the Progressive doctrine, the New World as discovered by 15th- to 19th-century Europeans embodied many such primitive civilizations. The “Native Americans,” the people who were here first—but only after crossing the Bering Sea land bridge at the end of the last Ice Age—were still living a mostly Stone Age existence. The hunter-gatherers of the North American plains needed something on the order of twenty square miles of open land to feed one family throughout the year, several thousand square miles or more to feed a whole tribe. The city-based civilizations of Central and South America practiced slash-and-burn farming and so could feed more people on less land, but they still were primitives compared to European farmers and their tools, and these populations were more vulnerable to climate cycles.

In either case, the North American tribes and civilizations possessed no horses—until, that is, the Spanish came and a few of their herds went feral in the wilderness. The natives had no iron, certainly no gun powder, no simple machines, and not even the wheel. Their spears and arrows were tipped with bits of knapped flint, and the “swords” of Central American warriors were clubs edged with flaked obsidian. The Maya had an advanced form of ideographic writing and sophisticated mathematics, as well as pretty good skills with stone work. The Inca of South America had a flair for hydraulic engineering equal to that of the Romans. But still, these were largely Stone Age peoples.

They also weren’t particularly peaceful or gracious themselves. The Aztecs and the Maya both practiced human sacrifice. The tribes of the plains went to war against each other long before the Europeans showed up. Widows and the aged in the tribe who had no one left to support them would be exiled and exposed. Life was hard. People died.

The modern, Progressive view that the Europeans came into the New World, committed genocide against the peaceful natives, enslaved the survivors, and stole their lands and raw materials is a compelling narrative. But absent a Western culture imbued with some kind of 15th-century Prime Directive, it is not a realistic one.

With the exception of small groups—prospective traders like Christopher Columbus, who was only seeking a passage to the markets of Asia; explorers and cartographers like John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci, who were commissioned by royalty and functioned not unlike the explorers of Star Trek; and Portuguese and Basque fishermen, who landed in what was to become New England in order to process their catch of the Grand Banks cod fish—most of the Europeans who came to the New World were people seeking a new life, new land, refuge from persecution, and freedom from the religious restrictions, economic repressions, and monarchical wars of Europe. Some also came as transported convicts, who had no choice but indentured servitude until they could escape into the wilderness. These Europeans did not come to observe, study, and make a map. They came to stay and hoped to prosper.

One can imagine such people—the Pilgrims or the Spanish conquistadors—arriving on the eastern shores of the New World and exercising some form of Renaissance Prime Directive. “Oh my! There are already people living here! And they have formed stable hunter-gatherer—or in some places slash-and-burn—cultures capable of their own eventual development. It is not our place to intrude. We must preserve their heritage on their own land. We will now withdraw and not disturb them.” Maybe the Pilgrims could have found an isolated and uninhabited island somewhere else to establish their spiritual sanctuary. Maybe the conquistadors could go and invade some established neighbor who was both culturally and technologically equivalent, like Morocco, and had the ability to fight back.

That is not, however, the way these things work. And it’s not because Europe had experienced its own invasions from the dawn of prehistory: the Dorians, the Ionians, and Sea Peoples coming into Greece; the Romans into the rest of the Mediterranean and Western Europe; the Celts, Huns, Goths, Vandals, and Visigoths into Rome; and the Saxons, Danes, and Normans into England. The history of the world has been that of roving bands moving in on and pressuring their neighbors, when they weren’t carrying out explicit wars of conquest like the Mongols and the Muslim Caliphate. The fact that the New World pitted Stone Age people with flint spears against Iron Age invaders with horses, the wheel, and gun powder is a tragic accident of history, but it was not unforeseen.

When we first meet an intelligent species out among the stars, let us pray that we are the explorers and that our interstellar drives, dense energy sources, potential weaponry, and coherent organization allow us to be at least culturally and technologically equivalent to whomever we find. Then perhaps we can afford to follow our own Prime Directive. But if we meet that extraterrestrial species as it comes here to Earth, where the advantages in energy, weapons, and sophistication lies with them, then we had better prepare to either make friends fast and learn their technology even faster—or, in the words of Homer, “fall on the ground and bite the dust.”

In my opinion, it has never been a good strategy, in the words of Blanche Dubois, to “rely upon the kindness of strangers.” People possessing advanced skills and their own intentions will not wait upon the less developed.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Mark of a Gentleman

A gentleman

I recently quipped on Facebook: “While a Christian might be within his rights to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, a gentleman never would.”1 To me, this raises an important distinction in our modern world between rights and responsibilities among the choices an individual may make.

Our society and our laws, as embodied in the First Amendment, guarantee the right of free speech. You may say, write, advocate, and publish almost anything you want. There are, of course, legal exceptions that have been raised and confirmed over time. The classic example is that you must not shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And you can be held liable under law for defamation of another person, for inciting a riot, or in time of war for committing treason by offering aid and comfort to the nation’s enemies.2

Today, many people on the Left would like to add “hate speech” to the list of prohibited communications. Not unlike the definition of “pornography” or “sedition,” the actionable content of hate speech is vaguely defined. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the 1964 Supreme Court case about banning obscenity and pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description … But I know it when I see it.” Too many people would like to see actionable hate speech defined as any kind of speech they believe would be offensive to groups whom they would like to support. That’s a little too broad for me and, I think, for most reasonable people.

But while any individual or group has the right to say, print, and broadcast anything they want within the narrower definitions of the law, that does not mean they should. The law of the land is necessarily open and nonjudgmental. But people who would use that law as the only guide to their personal behavior make poor acquaintances and bad neighbors. In most of polite society, they would be viewed as bit of a crank or crackpot.

A well brought up individual is—or at least used to be—taught manners by strict and loving parents, kindly aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and attentive teachers. For those who did not have such an upbringing, I would refer you to Miss Manners, which is the nomme de politesse of Judith Martin. I have been a secret fan of hers for years, and I would boil down the essence of what she advocates—if she has not already done so herself—as refraining from causing others discomfort.

In this modern world, all too many people are willing to make others feel weak, foolish, and stupid by pointing out some personal failing and invoking some law addressing it in the name of good society, personal etiquette or hygiene, or simply “manners.” It is a game of multi-variable “gotcha!” that any number can play.

How does this apply to the Christian baker and the making of artisanal cakes? In my mind, very simply.

A person’s religion is and should remain a private matter. If I am a practicing Christian—or Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or Seventh Day Adventist—I am required by my principles to act in certain ways. These might include refraining from taking vengeance by turning the other cheek, or from consuming alcohol or pork products in observance of religious prohibition. More positively, my beliefs may require that I render alms to the poor, defend the weak, pray at certain times of day, and fast at certain times of year. This is my business. If anyone should ask why I do these otherwise outlandish things, I may explain that they are part of my religious observance. Or I might simply say that it is my preference and my own damn business.

The First Amendment allows this. So long as I am not breaking any laws—which would include, say, child endangerment, human sacrifice, or the pursuit of ethnic cleansing—the Constitution permits me to believe and practice as I will. The First Amendment also allows me to preach, proselytize, and advocate for my religion. I can print handbills, advertise on billboards, and show up at your door to explain to you the Four Noble Truths of the Lord Buddha. And you have a right to drop my handbills in the gutter, look past my billboards to the scenery beyond, and slam the door in my face.

But Miss Manners—if she were here and engaging in this discussion—might suggest that I not so actively seek to convert others to my way of thinking. After all, I should grant that they are adult, thinking human beings who have already chosen their beliefs and made their peace with the everlasting. I should respect their choices as free and independent human beings. I might, if asked, give my opinion and advice to people who are themselves in doubt or distress and seeking a new meaning for their lives. That would be the gracious thing to do. But I would be intruding upon their privacy and failing to respect their agency as human beings to insist that they were in error with their current beliefs and that the only way out of error would be to adopt the truth that I have personally embraced and now endorse.

A Christian baker—not my great aunt who likes to bake for family occasions, but an entrepreneur who has established a public place of business and put out a shingle—may believe that homosexuality violates the precepts and traditions of his or her religion. That is an acceptable private opinion. The baker may even believe it would be inappropriate for two men or two women to marry in what, so the baker believes, would be an irreligious ceremony. That is again a private opinion and belief supported by the First Amendment. But to confront those customers in a public place of business and refuse to serve them because their request is offensive to the baker’s beliefs and represents some personal failing in them would, in my opinion, be ungracious. Those customers are doing that they believe to be right and proper. They are not seeking to give offense by asking for a cake decorated to their liking. And it would hurt their feelings—cause them discomfort—to be refused on the grounds of something that is simply part of their nature.

In my opinion, the baker is well within his rights to refuse service to anyone. If someone wants a cake celebrating a bar mitzvah, a gay union, or the coming of the demon Belial, the baker can refuse and the customer will have no recourse under the law but to take his business elsewhere. Not all bakers are gentlemen and ladies properly brought up to consider the feelings of the people around them.

But a gentleman would ask whether it was his place to criticize the personal and apparently heartfelt choices of his customers. He would then, in my opinion, decide that it was the appropriate practice of his art to create the best cake he could to celebrate their joyous occasion. This is not a matter of rights but rather of responsibility to a higher principle.

There are many things that a citizen may do under the law that a gentleman—or a lady—never would.

1. This is, of course, a paraphrase from the line in Susanna Clarke’s excellent fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Lord Wellington asks Strange if a man might be killed by magic, and Strange replies that while a magician might kill a man by magic, a gentleman never would.

2. Unfortunately, the distinction about “time of war,” and so the definitions of “treason” and “sedition,” become blurred when we are fighting wars and police actions in two or three areas around the globe at the same time, have emerged from decades of an undeclared Cold War with a number of as-yet unreconciled former enemies, and now exist in an Orwellian state of continuing undeclared war against pretty much anyone the adherents of law and order would like to name.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Situational Ethics

Ancient of Days

William Blake’s Ancient of Days

A young friend of the family recently started the first day of a freshman ethics class. The teacher’s first question, requesting a show of hands, asked how many of the students believed ethics are a social and cultural construct. All but one hand went up. And how many thought ethics are a universal given. My young friend’s hand went up. At that point, the teacher told him that he was wrong, and he later dropped the class.

This appears to be a doctrine of our times, at least in the academic world: that everything is a cultural construct, from morality to sexuality to the principles of science itself. Of course, if everything is a construct, then one might question if the construct might somehow, somewhere be constructed differently. The old values that you learned “at your mother’s knee,” or in your church or synagogue, or as the bedrock of your native civilization can then be characterized as local, parochial, and false. And new values—values more suited to the questioner’s purpose—might be substituted in their place. But I digress …

My first quarrel with this teacher—whom I never met, except in the abstract of the story—is that this definition of “ethics” is too broad. Yes, some questions of ethics and morality are culturally based, like not pointing the sole of your shoe at a person in some Eastern cultures. Even some principles that we in the West hold to be universal, like intentional killing, can be culturally and situationally approved. Every war is based on provisionally ignoring that commandment.

Early in my studies about Zen, I learned that the response to certain types of questions should properly be mu, or “no thing.” When a question is too broad, or poses an assumed but unproven dichotomy, or creates a logical fallacy, then the answer cannot be either “yes” or “no.” So the only right answer is “no thing,” meaning “the question does not apply.” And that would be my answer to this ethics teacher’s question.

Yes, certain ethical practices that shade between etiquette and morality—like pointing with your shoe—are purely cultural. Not all of them are minor and involve petty insults. In other Eastern cultures, for example, a father may kill his children if they dishonor the family, and religious persons are called upon to deceive, beset, and even sometimes kill idolaters and nonbelievers who remain steadfast and unrepentant in their error. In other cultures and contexts, however, these practices are simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

But I would argue that there is a universality to certain basic ethical questions. The transmission of the principle may be cultural, as told in religious stories, fables, children’s fairytales—or simply passed on from parent to child—but the principle remains solidly based in the dynamics of human interaction.

For example, I would challenge the ethics teacher to name one society that would condone, approve, or recommend coming up behind a stranger, bashing his head with a rock, and then picking through his pockets for his wallet and other valuables. The victim is not known to be a nonbeliever or idolater or belonging to any other class worthy of killing. The act is not motivated by mercy killing or implemented as part of wartime tactics. It is purely intended for personal gain.

Name a society that condones telling lies to someone who has reason to trust you—friend, family member, or other responsible person in your community—again for the purposes of personal gain. These are not the “white lies” of commission or omission on the order of answering the question “Do I look fat in these jeans?” This is lying in order to swindle someone out of land, money, or some valued possession that the liar wants to obtain for him- or herself.

Name a society that recommends or supports the genocide of a people who have previously been accepted and valued in the community, people who were once friends and neighbors but have suddenly become “the other” and outsiders for the political, economic, or religious purposes of some subset of the community.

The list could go on indefinitely. And it’s not that people don’t do these things, or that they sometimes get away with them during the upheavals of war, economic disintegration, or natural disaster. But find me a society or culture that would point to these ethical challenges and say that this is right and proper behavior.

I am not arguing that these actions are wrong because a god or a religious book somewhere said thou shalt not kill, lie, cheat, steal, or murder your enemies once you get the upper hand. Many religious traditions do transmit these and other cultural values and still prohibit such foul deeds. My argument is that these ethical principles are like the adaptations of biological evolution. They are so, not just because your tribe or culture says so, not because your god or your priest invokes them, but because these are the only ways in which human civilization can reliably function.

If a person cannot walk the streets without fear of becoming the victim of imminent and unrestrained murder for profit, then you don’t have a society but a jungle. If you cannot trust your friends, family, and respected members of your community to have your best interests at heart and seek to protect your life and rights to property and security, then you don’t have a family or a friend—or a community. And if your extension of good will and fair dealing to others in your society can sour to the point of murder over matters of race, religion, politics, or other noncritical and immaterial differences, then again you don’t have a society but a state of undeclared war.

Every species on Earth represents a hard-fought and -won adaptation to a particular environmental niche. The bodily configuration, reactions, capabilities, energy levels, and metabolism of any one species are not designed by an intelligence or selected according to some ideal pattern. Instead, they developed and became perfected over time because these features worked best in that place. And the fact that we see some of these species as precious and beautiful—think of songbirds and butterflies—is a fact of our own evolution. While the fact that we see others as creepy and scary—think spiders and alligators—is also evolutionary. We humans are evolved to find both beauty and terror in this world. We are adapted to this environment. If we had adapted to metabolizing sulfur compounds in the dark and boiling water of an undersea volcanic vent, we would find that kind of life beautiful, too.

In the same way, our nature—human nature—has evolved over time. While some of this evolution is adaptive to the physical environment—such as our peripheral vision, allowing us to perceive subtle movements in the bushes beside us, which might be a leopard waiting to pounce—much of our nature evolved in relation to our mental environment. Like many other mammals and some insects, we are social creatures. Our life exists in both the physical world and in the mental world of dealing with others of our kind, predicting their actions and reactions, and keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

In this sense, yes, much of our ethical teaching is a social construct. But it is not cultural in the sense of being limited to one cultural interpretation—say, Western Civilization—and either useless or irrelevant, and perhaps harmful, in terms of other cultures around the world, like being careless about where you point your shoe.

The core issues of ethics and morality are human issues, which means they bridge cultural affectations. They are so universal that they might as well have been pronounced by a god and preserved in a religious book. Because the image of that god is always created from some aspect of human nature and our species’ collective wisdom.