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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 284

Yoram Hazony on Traditional Conservatism vs. Enlightenment Liberalism

Conservatism: A Rediscovery (book cover)

In this conversation based on his new book, political theorist Yoram Hazony argues that the best hope for Western democracy is a return to the empiricist, religious, and nationalist traditions of America and Britain, a distinctive alternative to divine-right monarchy, Puritan theocracy, and liberal revolution. After tracing the tradition from the Wars of the Roses to Burke and across the Atlantic to the American Federalists and Lincoln, Hazony describes the rise and fall of Enlightenment liberalism after World War II and the present-day debates between neoconservatives and national conservatives over how to respond to liberalism and the woke left.

In response, Shermer makes the case for Enlightenment liberalism, with its focus on science and reason, as the primary driver of moral progress over the centuries. Hazony criticizes the modern left with its focus on identity politics, while Shermer counters that while the illiberalism of the left can be problematic, a far greater threat to individual liberty and personal autonomy—the bedrock of Enlightenment liberalism—comes from religious and nationalist conservatism on the right.

Yoram Hazony, an award-winning political theorist, is the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation in Washington and the president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. His previous book, The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018), was named Conservative Book of the Year for 2019 by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and has been translated into half a dozen languages. He appears frequently in the U.S. media, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Fox News, CNN, NPR, Time, The New Republic, The Ben Shapiro Show, and the Rubin Report. A graduate of Princeton University (B.A.) and Rutgers (Ph.D.), Hazony lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children.

This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

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Shermer and Hazony discuss:

  • Why does he live in Israel instead of the UK or US?
  • a brief history of conservatism
  • What would a conservative society and political system look like?
  • capitalism and free trade
  • hierarchy: individual — family — tribe — nation
  • rationalism vs. empiricism
  • Marxism as an existential threat today
  • nationalism
  • Why do nations need religion?
From Dr. Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery
Anglo-American Conservative principles
  1. Historical Empiricism
  2. Nationalism
  3. Religion
  4. Limited Executive Power
  5. Individual Freedoms
Enlightenment Liberalism’s political paradigm
  1. All men are perfectly free and equal by nature.
  2. Political obligation arises from the consent of the free individual.
  3. Government exists due to the consent of a large number of individuals, and its only legitimate purpose is to enable these individuals to make use of the freedom that is theirs by nature.
  4. These premises are universally valid truths, which every individual can derive on his own, if he only chooses to do so, by reasoning about these matters.

“Enlightenment rationalism, to the extent that its program is taken seriously, is an engine of perpetual revolution, which brings about the progressive destruction of every inherited institution, yet without ever being able to consolidate a stable consensus around any new ones.”

From Dr. Shermer’s The Moral Arc

Would you rather survive and flourish or suffer and die an early death? An answer for this general question follows from your preferences to these specific choices: Would you rather be satiated or starving? Quenched or thirsty? Healthy or disease ridden? Free from pain or racked in chronic agony? Face fairness and justice or cruel and unusual punishment? Free from chains or yoked in chattel slavery? Prospering in a democracy or struggling in an autocracy? Working in a capitalist or communist economy? Enjoy civil liberties or be refrained from volitional actions? Express yourself freely or be censored on what to think and say? Be knowledgeable or ignorant? Employ reason or irrationality? In short, would you rather live in North Korea or South Korea? East Germany or West Germany during the Cold War?

The questions virtually answer themselves because we know most people in most circumstances nearly everywhere in the world answer them the same way. How do we know? By asking them (through polls and surveys) and observing them through empirical social science and scholarly history. In laboratories and historically, most people everywhere and everywhen almost always engage in behaviors that satiate their hunger, avoid disease and pain, pursue health and longevity, escape bondage to freedom, and seek knowledge instead of ignorance. Why? Because it is in our nature to so desire.

It is my hypothesis that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Just as it was inevitable that the astronomer Johannes Kepler would discover that planets have elliptical orbits—given that he was making accurate astronomical measurements, and given that planets really do travel in elliptical orbits, he could hardly have discovered anything else—scientists studying political, economic, social, and moral subjects will discover certain things that are true in these fields of inquiry. For example, that democracies are better than autocracies, that market economies are superior to command economies, that torture and the death penalty do not curb crime, that burning women as witches is a fallacious idea, that women are not too weak and emotional to run companies or countries, and, most poignantly here, that blacks do not like being enslaved and that the Jews do not want to be exterminated. Why?

My answer is that it is in human nature to struggle to survive and flourish in the teeth of the nature’s entropy, and having the freedom, autonomy, and prosperity available in free societies—built as they were on the foundation of Enlightenment philosophers and scientists seeking to discover the best way for humans to live—best enables individual sentient beings to live out their evolved destinies. Let me unpack that sentence. As I noted in my manifesto, my moral starting point is the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings, by which I mean the evolved instinct to live and to have adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. Any organism subject to natural selection will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish. If it didn’t, it would not live long enough to reproduce and would no longer be subject to natural selection.

Certainly moral truths don’t instantiate in some physically measurable form like the mass of a particle or the gravitational force of a star, but there are abstract Platonic truths that most scientists agree exist, such as those in mathematics. Pinker writes:

On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Pinker draws out the implications for moral realism:

If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me—to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car—then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

From this one can derive what Pinker calls the principle of interchangeable perspectives that is embodied in the Golden Rule discovered by many religions over thousands of years, and rediscovered in different forms in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, the Social Contract of Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rosseau and John Locke, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and John Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. This principle emerges time and again because it is, in a sense, a foundation of morality built into human moral nature, and thus should be part of an empirical moral science.

Slavery and the Principle of Interchangeable Perspectives

Slavery is morally wrong because it’s a clear-cut case of decreasing the survival and flourishing of sentient beings. But why is that wrong? It is wrong because it violates the natural law of personal autonomy and our evolved nature to survive and flourish; it prevents sentient beings from living to their full potential as they choose, and it does so in a manner that requires brute force or the threat thereof, which itself causes incalculable amounts of unnecessary suffering.

How do we know that’s wrong? Because of the principle of interchangeable perspectives: I would not want to be a slave, therefore I should not be a slave master. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is, in fact, the very argument made by the man who did more than anyone else in this country to put an end to slavery, Abraham Lincoln, who in 1858, on the eve of the American Civil War that would be fought to end the institution, declared: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

This is also another way to formulate the Golden Rule: “As I would not want someone else to make me a slave, so I should not make someone else be a slave.”

In modern parlance, it is a description of the evolutionary stable strategy of reciprocal altruism: “I will scratch your back instead of being your master, if you will scratch my back and not make me a slave.”

It is the behavioral game theory strategy of tit-for-tat: “I won’t make you a slave if you don’t become my master.”

The principle of interchangeable perspectives is also a restatement of John Rawls’ “original position” and “state of ignorance” arguments, which posit that in the original position of a society in which we are all ignorant of the state in which we will be born—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, healthy or sick, Protestant or Catholic, slave or free—we should favor laws that do not privilege any one class because we don’t know which category we will ultimately find ourselves in.

This can be restated in this context thusly: “As I would not want to live in a society in which I am a slave, so I will vote for laws that outlaw slavery.”

In an unpublished note penned in 1854, Lincoln outlined the argument in what to our modern ears sounds like a perfect articulation of a behavioral game analysis. In his refutation of the arguments made in his day that the races should be ranked by skin color, intellect, and “interest” (by which Lincoln meant economic interest), Lincoln wrote the following:

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Lincoln is here making a clearly secular argument for equality, reasoning his way from premises to a conclusion. Nowhere did he aver that his inspiration for the abolition of slavery came from religion.

The full passages from the Old Testament about slavery discussed in the podcast

Many biblical passages make it clear that God believes that slavery is a good idea, and so should you.

You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. —Leviticus 25:44

Are there any age restrictions? Surely it must be wrong to buy and sell children.

You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. —Leviticus 25:45

Thanks, Dad! But these laws only apply to foreigners—what about the people of Israel?

You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. —Leviticus 25:46

Does this verse mean that the people of Israel were not to be slaves? No. God didn’t forbid His chosen people from enslaving one another—that would be extreme—but He did demand that more lenient protocols should be followed.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. —Exodus 21:2

Saying that the slave will owe his master nothing for his freedom seems a bit rich. Still, as far as treatment goes, a total of seven years of slavery isn’t too bad (if the slave survived the experience), but note that biblical law had a special way of holding even a freed slave hostage:

If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. —Exodus 21:2–6

That’s a clever trick—bribe your male slave with a wife and children and then use those family relationships as a lever to make him yours forever. Seven years of clubs and chains just wasn’t quite enough misery, it would seem, for the Hebrew slave. He was bedeviled by a special category of emotional torture—a gut-wrenching choice between family and freedom. (Clearly being the chosen people has its drawbacks; one is reminded of Tevye appealing to God in Fiddler on the Roof: “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”)

Then there is this little gem from Exodus 21:7: When a man sells his daughter…

Excuse me? When a man sells what? This must be some mistake in translation. But no. Sex trafficking as a form of slavery was widely practiced in biblical times, and so naturally the good book issued instructions on the proper way to sell one’s daughter into a lifetime of sexual servitude. As the father of a daughter myself, I find the mere contemplation of what is being negotiated here sickening:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. —Exodus 21:7–11

This episode was released on June 28, 2022.

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