Politics, Social Science

The Blank Slateism of the Right

“What a piece of work is a man!” Hamlet exclaimed. What indeed? Something less than God. Something more than dust. But what else can be said has remained controversial.

There is an idea that human nature is a “blank slate,” a tabula rasa, free of inherited content, on which education and experience leave their marks. This idea, found in the work of progressive philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, suggests that we are wholly or mostly the products of our environments. This concept is central to left-wing belief regarding unequal societies and the almost unlimited potential of mankind if we escape what Marx and Engels called our “chains”.

This belief has been extensively discredited, first by observation and now, increasingly, by science. Steven Pinker summarised the genetic and psychometric research that documents the scale of our inherited characteristics in his 2002 book The Blank Slate, which has since been updated in 2016. Some of this research is unsurprising. No one would maintain that if they had worked out more in the gym and eaten fewer hamburgers they could outsprint Usain Bolt. Yet there is evidence that numerous physical and cognitive traits, including intelligence, are more heritable than previously thought, and that these traits have a significant influence on our lives.

Critics of these findings have tended to be left wing, like the psychotherapist Oliver James, whose book, Not In Your Genes, was judged by the intelligence researcher Stuart Ritchie to be “bending over backwards to avoid awkward conclusions”. Conservatives have less cause for surprise and alarm. They have always believed in what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision”, according to which human nature is real, flawed and inflexible. And there is, for some conservatives, a greater temptation to exploit than ignore genetic research.

Nonetheless, while blank slateism has persisted on the left, so, in subtler forms, has blank slateism on the right. While progressives claim that human beings have the same potential but receive unequal outcomes due to structural bias, libertarians and conservatives often seem to think that human beings have the same potential but achieve unequal outcomes due to their decisions.

There is, for example, a belief that rich people “deserve” to be rich and poor people “deserve” to be poor because success and failure are explained, respectively, by hard work and sacrifice and laziness and cowardice. Such assumptions are, perhaps, natural products of the optimistic mythos of the American Dream but they become harsh, cynical and self-congratulatory in, for example, the works of Ayn Rand, where the rich and the poor are presented as Manichean embodiments of light and darkness, or the sinister and absurd “prosperity gospel”, which equates material success with Godliness.

Appreciating that people can be disadvantaged, not merely by their environments, which are significant, but by the limitations of their innate abilities allows us to be more realistic and compassionate. Some scholars, such as Gregory Clark, the author of The Son Also Rises, have become more open to redistributionist policies in the light of these conclusions. This raises practical questions that are open to debate, but the moral case for social solidarity is strong.

Blank slateism is also evident in traditional conservative approaches to morality. Conservatives like to emphasise personal responsibility, for example. During the run up to the 2016 election, Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review, asked, whether the system had failed white working class Americans. He decided that they had “failed themselves” —

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.

There was a grain of truth in this, considering the family breakdown, alcoholism and drug addiction that runs riot in such communities. But if one appreciates that there are environmental and genetic factors that predispose people towards making poor lifestyle decisions, one can have a more nuanced perspective.

This does not mean we have to abandon the idea of personal responsibility. If people who are predisposed towards suffering mental illness can avoid harming themselves, people who are predisposed towards antisocial behaviour can avoid harming others. Yet knowing more about what drives our worst impulses may help us to facilitate the triumph of our better angels.

***

Liberal conservatives often take a less moralistic but more reductionist approach to human nature. Here, people are not merely born and raised as blank slates but remain blank, or, at least, are easily wiped clean. It is less our abilities that are underemphasised than it is our identities. There are, for example, the free-market fundamentalists who think of humans as being little more than economic units. Migrants are perceived in terms of labour, moving from market to market to meet different demands, with no appreciation of their cultural inheritance.

In recent decades, neoconservative commentators have maintained that liberal and democratic values can be applied to all people, from Iceland to Indonesia, from Canada to the Congo. Bill Kristol, for example, insisted that the invasion of Iraq allowed us “to envision a future in which the Middle East and the Muslim world [were] transformed”. They were, of course, but not in the ways he had hoped.

Once Iraq had plunged into chaos, neoconservatives often blamed the victims. David Frum insisted that “sectarian war was a choice Iraqis made for themselves”. Never mind how obscenely absurd it is to think that war was collectively chosen — it is ludicrous to think our values are as applicable to Iraq as they are to England.

Cultures are not just abstract, but rooted in historical circumstances; products of their peoples, their local environments and their institutions. Democracy suited Europe, for example, when it had become less clannish — thanks, in no small part, to the Church banning cousin marriage — and, thus, better at large-scale cooperation. Countries in the Middle East have had no such developments. While this does not make cultural change impossible, it does make it less likely.

***

None of this means apparently scientific claims about human nature should be accepted without question. Indeed, one should be careful not to swallow pseudoscience. There are reams of what Steven Poole memorably calledneurobollocks”, devoted to stretching the ideas of the relatively young field of neuroscience to explain our minds. Genetics is younger, with more that remains unknown, and as the quixotic search for the “gay gene” has illuminated, it is also vulnerable to frauds.

This has real implications. We should accept that, as liberals worry, if genetic and cultural determinism is exaggerated it could inspire unwarranted discrimination and cruelties. We should also bear in mind that if we blame everything on our genes, we might grow indifferent to improving ourselves. Genes affect our decisions but do not control them, and are no excuse for nihilism and despair.

Moreover interpreting science is a dangerous task, requiring enough empirical rigour to assess the facts and enough insight to analyse their implications. One can value modern science and practical wisdom and ethical principles all at the same time. Yet if one’s beliefs are falsified by data one must change them or become a blinkered ideologue. Conservatives should accept, without dogmatically exploiting, research that maps out human nature and its limitations. This is not just because scientific research can affirm many conservative principles, but also because it sheds light on the truth.

 

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website here and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.

 

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website: bsixsmith.wixsite.com and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.
Ben Sixsmith

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Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website: bsixsmith.wixsite.com and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.

29 Comments

  1. Epson Maverick says

    Good article. Just one quibble — the NeoCons aren’t real conservatives. They are radicals pretending to be conservatives.

  2. I liked this post.

    Not sure I agree with the “Genes affect our decisions but do not control them,” part. I guess it depends what you mean by that. I think it is pretty clear that genes do control our decisions within the environment we find ourselves in.

    • Rex Mars says

      What, exactly, would the mechanism for this look like, though? For example, how does a gene know what a “gun” is to the extent that an individual may be driven to pick up a gun and fire it at another person as opposed to some other conflict resolution method?

      I think the statement “genes affect our decisions” is too broad and needs to account for the vast number of steps it takes to go from what is really just a molecular sequence that encodes for a protein to an active “decision”, meaning an action somebody takes in the context of their environment and all other cultural influences.

  3. Santoculto says

    Genetics delineates our boundaries, our limits, but not exactly what we can do ”inside us”, inside our limits or ‘territory”.

  4. Yes, this is what I meant. Free will is a subject that requires far more depth than I could manage but, e.g., psychopaths are not always criminals, sufferers of familial hypercholesterolemia don’t always die of heart disease…

  5. Genetics is younger, with more that remains unknown, and as the quixotic search for the “gay gene” has illuminated, it is also vulnerable to frauds.

    To clear something up, the “frauds” I reference are not researchers looking into the genetics of sexuality but people who exploit their work.

  6. I loved Gregory Clark’s book The Son Also Rises. It received astonishingly little media attention; perhaps because Left and Right are in denial of the book’s findings, albeit for different reasons.

  7. Santoculto says

    Genetics is very complex and abstract science difficult for most people to understand myself for example.

    I never need “to know” that “genes cause or predispose certain behavior” to know that the behavior come from their being, their epicenter. If we have a robust set of behaviors associated with certain types of beings, humans or not, whatever space and time they are, so we firstly only need capture, understand and accept them. To know that behavior is invariably intrinsic to their epicenter/being and analyze how constant and/predictable it can be we don’t need to know that “genes cause behavioral dispositions”. Even I know genetics is very important this primary factual understanding of this reality is also crucial, i think, as the concrete basis/ can be captured at naked eye. The physiological basis/origin of behavior is our genes, maybe correct. But our perceptual basis to understand behavior is in the pattern recognition/factor g of our capacities. So to be less dependent from what geneticists say also seems important.

  8. Santoculto says

    I think we have ”habitable zones” to do some negotiation or ”free will”, or better, we have a variation in intensity/intrinsicability of certain trait ”or” set of traits. So very intense traits tend to be little changeable or re-structured, amalgated versions are more prone to be controlled, and very weak intensity also tend to be little changeable Also some behavior are dependent from environment, alcoholism for example. Without any availability of alcohol drinks in certain environment the heritability or vulnerability to become alcoholic will be near to zero.

  9. “…libertarians and conservatives often seem to think that human beings have the same potential but achieve unequal outcomes due to their decisions.”

    I cannot speak for conservatives, but I don’t find this belief among fellow libertarians.

  10. Very good piece! I like it.

    libertarians and conservatives often seem to think that human beings have the same potential but achieve unequal outcomes due to their decisions.

    Libertarianism wouldn’t work without it – among other things that don’t work about libertarianism.

    Appreciating that people can be disadvantaged, not merely by their environments, which are significant, but by the limitations of their innate abilities allows us to be more realistic and compassionate. Some scholars, such as Gregory Clark, the author of The Son Also Rises, have become more open to redistributionist policies in the light of these conclusions. This raises practical questions that are open to debate, but the moral case for social solidarity is strong.

    I would think so myself, but the key thing is that you still have to actually care about the well-being of those on the bottom. A lot of conservatives don’t. In the end, facts are secondary to values when it comes to people’s motivations.

    The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.

    Oh it sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is that the people create their societies, not the other way around. As much as we may want to clean blighted Appalachian communities, for example, there is no way we can do that as long as they’re populated by Appalachians.

    This does not mean we have to abandon the idea of personal responsibility.

    The trick is that “personal responsibility” isn’t some sort of magic cure all; the concept of “personal responsibility” is part of the incentive structure to affect people’s behavior. Knowing that you face consequences for your actions compels you to make different choices than you would without said consequences (and everyone responds differently to the same set of incentives).

    In recent decades, neoconservative commentators have maintained that liberal and democratic values can be applied to all people, from Iceland to Indonesia, from Canada to the Congo. Bill Kristol, for example, insisted that the invasion of Iraq allowed us “to envision a future in which the Middle East and the Muslim world [were] transformed”.

    Well they sure found out otherwise, now didn’t they?

    Cultures are not just abstract, but rooted in historical circumstances; products of their peoples, their local environments and their institutions. Democracy suited Europe, for example, when it had become less clannish — thanks, in no small part, to the Church banning cousin marriage — and, thus, better at large-scale cooperation. Countries in the Middle East have had no such developments. While this does not make cultural change impossible, it does make it less likely.

    Hey, if you’re going to cite HBD Chick’s theory, please give her credit for it. See her blog here:

    start here | hbd chick

    Of course, as she would ask, where do institutions come from? I would argue that all those things you cite are also products of their people. Demography is destiny.

    We should also bear in mind that if we blame everything on our genes, we might grow indifferent to improving ourselves. Genes affect our decisions but do not control them

    Au contraire, genes do control our decisions, given the environmental landscape we find ourselves in. Free will does not exist (see my piece No, You Don’t Have Free Will, and This is Why – The Unz Review). The whole indifference thing is a because people are stupid (and irrational), not because of anything to do with the facts of the matter.

    Moreover interpreting science is a dangerous task, requiring enough empirical rigour to assess the facts and enough insight to analyse their implications.

    See above on people are stupid. Good luck with that. But maybe if enough important people understand these things, we’ll be in a better place. I’m not holding my breath, though.

    Man Quillette is kicking butt lately! Good, hopefully this site can become a serious force for good.

  11. Very good piece! I like it.

    I honestly thought, when I was writing this, “What will Jaymans comment?” I’ll take it!

  12. “This raises practical questions that are open to debate, but the moral case for social solidarity is strong.”

    No, not against self-ownership. The psychological case may be stronger. By the way, what makes you think Locke is “progressive”?

  13. Law of JayMan: his comments always link to one of his or HBDChick’s posts.

    In more seriousness. The harsh criminal policies often found among conservatives also often have blank slate associated beliefs in the powers of deterrence via rational choice theory. To some degree, human antisocial behavior does not respond much to deterrence and there are very large individual differences in self-control and emotionality. Ironically, opposition to legalization of drugs — common among conservatives — increases violent crime among common people because they use alcohol, a drug known to cause violence by lowering self-control. If they used cannabis instead, they would be less violent. Perhaps we can find other drugs with nice mood lifting effects that do not cause violence.

  14. Pingback: The Blank Slateism of the Right… | Wandering Near Sawtry

  15. Lorri says

    That comment written by Kevin D. Williamson of The National Review was poisonous.

    Rust belt factory towns were not always full of drug addicts. And what does he mean by saying that their citizens are selfish, or that it’s a myth that factories have moved to Asia? I was just reading an article the other day about how many factories have left just a portion of North Carolina and it was astounding. And NC isn’t even the rust belt.

    This is not only history, it’s recent history. I didn’t know revisionism could start so soon after recent history.

    I have an idea for an experiment. Let’s export the white collar jobs along with the blue collar jobs that are already gone, and see what happens to morale.

  16. Kevin Colquitt says

    “Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs.”

    Williamson isn’t saying that it is a myth that factories moved to Asia, he’s saying that it is a myth that this was done by Asians. It was American businessmen who moved the factories to Asia for cheap labor. It’s capitalism. Global capital follows cheap labor which is found in third world countries. Trump bemoaned it incessantly, all the while, having his own products manufactured in China.

  17. Salger says

    So when will Williamson criticize Blacks and Hispanics? After all, they’re noticeably more represented in drug charges, violent crime, bastard births, and welfare use than Whites are.

  18. I think he would, if he wasn’t going to face ostracism for it. As JayMan says, a lot of conservatives don’t care about those on the bottom. Kevin Williamson strikes me as one. But talking that way about blacks and Hispanics will get you into huge trouble.

  19. Richard P says

    A good article. On a minor point, I don’t think the Church has ever banned cousin marriage, at least not in England. Charles Darwin is merely the best known example of what was a common phenomenon until Victorian times. The list of forbidden relationships is here: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1662/Kindred1949.htm

    Industrialisation, population growth and better transport all widened access to people who were not close relations. I’ve seen it argued that in rural areas the bicycle had an important impact, in that people were no longer limited to potential mates within walking distance.

  20. “But if one appreciates that there are environmental and genetic factors…”

    There are ONLY genetic and environmental factors. What else could there be. We may not be blank slates, but we are moist robots.

  21. Good sentiments in general.

    “I would think so myself, but the key thing is that you still have to actually care about the well-being of those on the bottom. A lot of conservatives don’t. In the end, facts are secondary to values when it comes to people’s motivations.”

    Caring overrides logic. Perhaps this would be an OK thing in small doses, but its ripping us apart. Merkel cares about Islamic refugees, and so despite extremely obvious evidence its not going to work out, she has to do something, because she *cares*. People need to conserve who they care about because caring overrides logic. It’s useless complaining about this if its just part of human nature. Caring instinct was evolved for smaller scale and more similar people. Novel situation of global travel is short circuiting it.

    A good Schnelling point for caring might have been Steve Sailers citizenism, and Trump is trying that, but its probably too late. Too many non-whites even if you cut off immigration today. Once the left can win elections no matter what whites think its game over. You get something like Malaysia at best. Singapore made citizenism work by only allowed high IQ to immigrate and getting lots of Chinese immigrants from neighboring Malaysia. Europe especially doomed because Muslims worse then Hispanics. Mass deportations only hope.

    The sentiment of the article is great for an individual approach to morality and living (consider genetics but don’t let it rule your life), but I fear we changed things too much to fast that even getting “conservative” at this point implies tipping point change within our children time.

    @Emil O. W. Kirkegaard

    Pot is mostly legal and rarely enforced. Most people arrested for drugs these days also have violent crimes associated with them. The drugs are just a way to pin something on them, like Capone and taxes.

    The drugs your talking about already exist and are legal (prescription opioids). They are also the biggest drug epidemic today. Legality isn’t the biggest issue in this social problem.

    Libertarians needs to realize they effectively won the War on Drugs debate. It’s over. Trying to get hard drugs legalized or letting violent criminals on the streets is just autistic. Hopefully libertarians interested in those sorts of things will just get high and forget about it.

    @Lorri

    Society can only handle X% of people below a certain threshold of civilized nature. Amongst whites the ratio is relatively low enough that we could form reasonably functional societies. The ratio is a little higher amongst the Scots-Irish, but still good on a global scale.

    When we import lots more people below that threshold, we reach a tipping point where there isn’t enough societal surplus to overcome the anti-civilizational forces. This hits those at the bottom especially because those at the top increasingly give up on the entire idea of living in a society and try to wall off in a bubble. That’s how Latin America works. Most people living in barrios and a tiny group living in enclaves. Sucks for both but a bit less for the enclave types (unless the poors vote in total socialism like Venezuela). It’s the vision of the future Tyler Cowen advocates in “Average is Over”. Some vague appeal to global utilitarism is used to justify the gutting of the civilized west but I think its just short term opportunism at bottom.

    Mostly the chattering classes just want whatever they want for themselves. Caring about foreigners or immigrants is just a cover for wanting to impoverish lower end white people for themselves. In LBJ and Bill Clinton’s time those people loved Appalachia. In Hillary’s time my relative told me yesterday that those illiterate hicks in West Virginia should all die of black lung because they deserve it. She said De Blasio was going to let the criminals take over because he has a black wife, but then all of Appalachia should die off because they are racist and only voted against Hillary because they are a bunch of racists.

    Caring is mostly about coalition building to gain personal power. For this brief period between helping liberals win elections and having the numbers to not care about liberals anymore (see Submission) the establishment finds immigrant useful and therefore “cares” about them.

    • 62656 says

      @asdf At least in the USA, the Democrats will never dominate elections, like many, apparently yourself included, think they eventually will. The two-party system will always involve adjustment to keep things with 2 major parties, near 50-50 nationally. Immigration policy cannot give either major party a long term advantage. The parties adapt. For example, leaving room for Erick Erickson to call Trump a 50s Democrat.

      Regarding the poors vote socialism like Venezuela, I would also note Venezuela became heavily dependent on natural resources for revenue instead of human productivity (the resource curse). As societies become more dependent on natural resources, they don’t have to do as much for there to be the money needed, hence don’t worry as much about figuring out what increases human productivity. When the value of the natural resource drops substantially, you get where Venezuela is today. There is also the case that Venezuela has a Presidential system, like the USA, which is more vulnerable to personality cults than Parliamentary democracy.

  22. As soon as I reached the references to decisions and deserts I realized it is ultimately that American conservatism, at least its mainstreams and not only the neocons, is Whiggism.

    Before the idea of the American dream took hold, long before Rand, before the not-necessarily actually ‘conservative’ ‘right’ of the Mencken era, Americans took their cue first from Enlightenment English Whiggism and then the more progressive, more scientific world of the 19th century Reformers and Liberals.

    All the talk of what the poor deserve, their poor choices and bad habits, could have come from the mouth of Macaulay, or to take a fictional embodiment, Scrooge.

    Funny thing was- they were the liberals, reformers, progressives of their time. Really. They just had other ideas of how social progress would be achieved.

    Not that I would wish to preclude learning from the wisdom of any of them on an array of issues, but they had a hard vision of what liberalism, free trade, and industrialism would require.

  23. Monty says

    That was great, however, in respect to the “right”, it’s a bit strawmanish. Fascism, the first noteworthy modern manifestation of the right, was based on the corporate state; the state was a “corpus” a body composed of interdependent organs and limbs that worked in cooperation to create a functional whole. A hierarchical structure of co-dependence with all held to be off value.

    • zimriel says

      Monty, there are many on the Right – including many self-declared fascists – who consider fascism to be a, er, national socialism.

      Now, if you’d cited Franco and (more so) Salazar…

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