The buzz, the bees, and belief

I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.

Leonard McCoy

I posted yesterday about what I called the Positive Buzz fallacy:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

I realized today that it is closely related to a fallacy that people often commit in misunderstanding natural selection: An organism is fittest in a given environment, and the fallacifier infers that it’s simply best.

This fallacy is implicit in almost every bad metaphorical extension of Darwinian selection. It’s committed every time someone justifies an outcome by saying that it’s just the survival of the fittest. It’s de rigueur for social Darwinists, who want to infer the rightness of a nigh-inevitable outcome even though the nigh-inevitability only holds in contingent social conditions.

The connection occurred to me because I was reading William James. Although he’s no social Darwinist, he does draw inspiration from a Darwinian metaphor. Regarding religion, he writes:

[T]he freeest competition of the various faiths with one another, and their openest application to life by their several champions, are the most favorable conditions under which the survival of the fittest can proceed.1

James thinks that it is best to let various faiths compete. The one that finds a place in the most human hearts will win out. It will be found to work, in a Jamesian sense.

I worry about James’ optimism. Perhaps demagoguery and hate can foster conditions in which the faith which out-competes others is the kind that is blind to real suffering and shows up in public places bristling with guns. Although he doesn’t put it in those terms, James is not blind to the worry. He suggests that it is crucial that religion be seen as an hypothesis, so as to qualify its “public manifestations” and “authoritative pretensions.”

Alas, there are environments in which the people who keep their over-beliefs quietly in their hearts will be outcompeted or even killed by those with more authoritarian pretensions. That brings me around to the epigraph from Bones McCoy. It is crucial that we cultivate a society where the blind-and-bristling faith is unfit.

The McCoy quote isn’t perfect, because my point here is that good requires creating a better social environment rather than battling evil tit-for-tat.

It occurred to me while writing that I could have led instead with that old chestnut, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s best known as a quote from Martin Luther King, who adapted it from Theodore Parker.2 It too is an imperfect fit, because it suggests that the trajectory of the moral universe is its own thing apart from what sort of social contexts we construct. Instead, its arc is determined by countless separate things that humans do.

King and Parker both knew this. Whatever their faith in the long arc of things, they worked not just to change the lot of individuals one-by-one but also to change the social order, to change the environment in which individual individuals hew to their over-beliefs. Barack Obama, who is fond of the quote, underscores the required activity: “[W]hile you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it ‘bends toward justice.'”

  1. Preface, “The Will to Believe” and Other Essays.
  2. See Garson O’Toole at Quote Investigator and Mychal Denzel Smith at HuffPo. Parker was a prominent figure in the Boston of James’ youth.

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