It's Not Magic
Writings of a techie wizard
Sun, 14 Aug 2011
My Favorite Heinlein Quote
I've already referred to my favorite Heinlein quote once, and I'm sure I'll be doing it again, so I figured I might as well lay it out in full and unpack in detail why it's my favorite quote. Here it is, from Time Enough For Love, as noted on wikiquote:
I'll start the unpacking with the following hypothesis: human progress, which I will define in a moment, only comes from people of the second class.
Heinlein himself, of course, was of the second class. All that business about the people of the first class being "idealists" and those of the second being surly curmudgeons was irony, particularly sharp irony since it describes well how people of both classes see themselves, but while people of the first class do tend to see those of the second as surly curmudgeons, people of the second, like Heinlein and like me, do not see those of the first as actually doing good. We see them (or more precisely those of them who want to actually do the controlling of others, as opposed to just wanting others to be controlled; I'll expand on that later in this post) as infernal busybodies, whose general effect on human history is best summed up by this quote from Rick Moen:
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
How do I define "human progress"? Simple: it is anything that expands the choices people have for how to live their lives, without infringing on other people's choices. The reason I like this definition is that if you propose it to people of the first class, you will have them nodding their heads in agreement; yes, indeed, that's what progress means. And yet, when we take this definition of progress to its logical conclusion, we'll find that it confirms my hypothesis above: actual human progress always comes from people of the second class. And so, if you are of the first class, and you are in favor of human progress, the best thing you can do to help is to switch to the second class.
Consider this simple question: do you, yourself, want to be controlled? No, of course not. Nobody does. Everyone wants complete freedom for himself. Most of us (grudgingly) accept that we can't have complete freedom, because we have to share the planet with others. But we want as much as we can get. We want it because we want, as the definition of true human progress above says, to have as many choices as possible for how to live our lives. We don't want to be restricted by someone else's idea of what is "good" for us, or what is "proper", or what is "right". We want, as responsible adults, the freedom to decide those things for ourselves.
If you are of Heinlein's second class of people, this is no problem. You don't want to be controlled, and you don't want to control others. The situation is symmetric. You also, as Heinlein noted, will be a more comfortable neighbor, because you aren't always sticking your nose into other people's business.
But if you are of the first class, you have a cognitive dissonance problem. You don't want to be controlled, but you do want others to be controlled, even though the others themselves don't want to be controlled. This situation is not symmetric, but our evolved ape brains are very adept at inventing rationalizations for the asymmetry. We say that people need to be controlled in the name of "security", for example. Or we say that they need to be controlled because otherwise they will corrupt our children. And so on.
But, you might think, wouldn't people's natural desire not to be controlled stop these rationalizations from working? Well, that's where somebody of class one, somewhere way back in human history, invented a neat trick. A person of class one wants other people to be controlled, but this does not mean every person of class one wants to do the controlling. Like everything else, it's easier to get someone or something else to do the hard work if at all possible. So when a person of class one comes along who does want to do the controlling, they can simply attach a little rider to all those rationalizations I mentioned above: yes, people need to be controlled to protect our security, or to protect the children, or whatever, and I will take care of all that if you just give me the power to do the controlling. And it works! People of class one, it turns out, will happily submit to being controlled if they think that they are thereby obtaining security from the crazy antics of all those other loons who don't want to be controlled.
And note that if you are the lucky person of class one who gets to do the controlling, you get the best of both worlds: you get to claim to be a person of class one, so you don't set off the alarms that people of class two set off in the minds of all the other people of class one, but you also get all the freedom that people of class two want, plus power. Nice work if you can get it. We'll come back to this in a little bit.
I have stated the above in roundabout terms, but of course what we have here, in plain English, is a dominance-submission hierarchy. It is far older than the human species. It has been one of evolution's handy solutions to organizing social animals since its invention. Cognitive scientists are finding that we have "modules" for this behavior pattern pretty much hard-wired into our brains. From that standpoint, it is not a mystery why the trick works. What is a mystery, at least from this viewpoint, is why it doesn't work on everyone: why there are any people at all of the second class.
Of course old-fashioned liberal philosophy has the answer to this one: human beings are not just animals. Somehow, we managed to cross a line and become persons. And once you're a full-fledged person, the whole system of dominance and submission looks the way socialism looked to E. O. Wilson: great idea, wrong species. Human beings are not insects. You don't have to believe that humans were made in the image of God to believe this; indeed, you don't even have to believe that there is a God. But you do have to believe that human beings are persons, and that persons, while they are evolved animals, are not just animals. We have some extra quality that makes us unique, different from other animals. This extra quality doesn't have to be anything mystical or mysterious; the simple fact that we are capable of even thinking about and discussing the question of "human progress" at all will do. Insects don't have elaborate debates on how best to run the hive.
In other words, as soon as you have the ability to even think about a concept like the "good" life, as soon as you can even consider one potential future vs. another in the abstract and label one as "better", over a whole lived life instead of just limited to the next meal, you have crossed a line, and you have only two choices. One is to exit the whole scheme that evolution evolved for organizing social animals; it quite simply no longer applies to you, because it evolved in animals that didn't have the conceptual ability that you have. This makes you a person of the second class: you don't want to be controlled, and you don't want to control anyone else either. As I noted above, this situation is symmetric, and it makes for a minimum of hassle.
The other choice is to yield to the temptation of the Ring, as Tolkien would have put it. You find yourself in possession of a great secret: you now know that it is possible to not be controlled, that you can have a "good" life completely free of the dominance-submission hierarchy that evolution saddles social animals with. But why should you share this secret with anyone else? Why not use it instead, to put yourself at the top of the hierarchy?
Of course, to do that consciously, with full malice aforethought, as it were, you would have to be evil, wouldn't you? But there's a handy dodge for this too. Taking power, putting yourself at the top of the hierarchy, just for yourself would be evil, but if you do it for a good cause, that is quite another matter. After all, there is so much that is wrong with the world, and yet nobody seems to be fixing all these wrong things; they just seem to go on and on. But you, of course, have a great idea for really fixing something, really making a difference. All you need is the power to do so. And we've already seen how you can get that: just work the trick we saw above on all the other people of class one, and get them to help you impose your system of control on the people of class two.
But doesn't this count as human progress? Okay, so it was done using the Ring; but even so, didn't something get fixed that needed fixing? Maybe, for a time anyway. But the fixes, even if they are fixes at first, don't last. What does last is the system of power that the well-intentioned people of class one construct to implement their fixes. And the first thing such a system does is to make sure that nobody else has a chance at the top. And so, as Richard Feynman said in his eloquent essay, The Value Of Science,
In other words, as soon as you use power to "fix" something by fiat, by controlling people, you always end up taking away more choices than you open up. It always turns out to be a net loss, not a net gain. And so no real human progress ever comes from people of class one.
It's often difficult to see this because the perceived gains from controlling people are visible and immediate, while the losses from restricting other choices are often invisible and take time to be felt. For example, in the previous post where I referred to my favorite Heinlein quote, I talked about efforts to censor the Internet in the name of some "good cause", such as preventing computer viruses or child porn. Advocates of such schemes always talk about the obvious, visible benefits, but they never talk about the hidden costs: all the good things that could be done on the Internet that haven't been thought of yet, but which would be harder, or even impossible, on a censored Internet. We can't know today how valuable those things might be, any more than someone in, say, 1995 could know how valuable Google would be today. But that's exactly why we can't afford to, as Feynman said, confine future innovators to the limits of our present imagination.
The conflict I am describing is an age-old one in philosophy: which is more important, virtue or liberty? W. H. Auden described it as the difference between the European and the American viewpoints; an article in Life magazine in November 1947, which is readable online via the wonder of Google Books, quotes him thus:
(I believe the Auden essay in question is in The Dyer's Hand, but I have not found it online.)
It should be obvious that Heinlein and I and everybody of class two are on the American side in this. "Freedom of choice" is simply another unique quality of humans that makes us persons, unlike other animals. (I could argue that it's actually the same quality that I was talking about above, but that will have to wait for another post.) The only thing I would add is that the European proposition assumes, without proof, that it is even possible to ensure virtue by making it prior to liberty; and if history teaches anything, it teaches that that is a pipe dream. Even the most draconian systems of control in history, such as the medieval Christian Church, came nowhere near ensuring that people would "do and think right". If anything, people have probably been more virtuous, on average, in societies that have given them the liberty to decide for themselves what "virtue" is. Which is, of course, precisely the American point.
Does any of this guarantee that real progress will come from people of class two? Of course not; there are no guarantees. But at least we of class two recognize the plain fact that human beings cannot be controlled. We are simply too complex. Still less can reality itself be controlled. That may seem strange to say in this scientific age, but any real scientist will be the first to tell you how vast is our ignorance. The supposed "security" that the people of class one at the top of the hierarchy are promising to the other people of class one underneath them is an illusion; it can't actually be had at any price. The best we can do is to let everyone use their own judgment about how to make the choices they have. This certainly isn't perfect, but at least it makes progress possible, which is more than can be said of the alternative.
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