Noble Lies and the Superman

November 15, 2007 § 27 Comments

With respect to the Zero Group Differences mythology discussed in a post by my colleague Maximos at What’s Wrong with the World, a commenter observes:

Essentially, a “noble lie” (Zero Group Differences) has been constructed to counter an ignoble one (ateleological reductionism), in order to prevent the horrific consequences that would follow from people accepting the latter on its own en masse.

The core of advanced liberal mythology involves a concept of the free and equal superman, emancipated from history and self-created through reason and will. Because this is an utterly inhuman anti-anthropology, though, it implicitly entails the existence of the untermensch, the less-than-human oppressor who through his actions or perhaps his mere existence (think of an unborn child) stands in the way of the full emergence of the free and equal new man. As an impediment to the emancipated equality of the superman, the untermensch is himself not a full member of the human race.

So my understanding of the strength of the “zero group differences” mythology in the face of what has always been massive evidence against is this: that implicitly everyone understands that it is the only thing standing between the advanced liberal superman and the nazi.

(Cross-posted in slightly edited form at What’s Wrong with the World)

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§ 27 Responses to Noble Lies and the Superman

  • Rodak says:

    What person, at the popular or political level, who would be in a position to influence mass socio-political thinking, would you name as a specimen of the “liberal superman?” On on the basis of what doctrine and political agenda is the person named characterized as a liberal superman?

  • zippy says:

    <>On on the basis of what doctrine and political agenda is the person named characterized as a liberal superman?<>Anyone who de jure or de facto holds to what Justice Kennedy wrote in <>Planned Parenthood vs. Casey<> when he wrote:<>“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”<>

  • Rodak says:

    “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”I see no reason why the above statement implies that one define’s one’s own concept of existence, meaning, etc., ex nihilo. One chooses one’s belief system from among those to which one is exposed, and defines one’s concept of existence on that basis. This could just as easily include that of Catholic and disciple of Jesus Christ, as it could race-baiting neoNazi. Kierkegaard was the proto-existentialist, but he was hardly a “liberal superman”, or godless materialist.

  • zippy says:

    <>I see no reason why the above statement implies that one define’s one’s own concept of existence, meaning, etc., …<>That is because when you look at words you decide that they mean whatever you want them to mean. (Oh, and “ex nihilo” isn’t the required qualifier, but merely the superman’s absolute sovereignity over his own concept of meaning, existence, etc).

  • Tom says:

    The term “noble lie” is a self-referent (like “polysyllabic” and “sibilant”): the idea that a lie can be noble is itself a lie, told to make telling it sound noble.

  • Rodak says:

    “…the superman’s absolute sovereignity over his own concept of meaning, existence…”But, I say that this doesn’t exist. Even the most bedrock existentialist anchors his sense of meaning to some external system–which could just as well, as I said, be Christianity, as Marxism, or cut-throat capitalism. The man you are describing would be a solipcist. He would be weird, but harmless, since he would be disconnected from everybody and everything else. He would have no basis for communication with, or empathy for, anybody else.I might add, just as a matter of common sense, that the justice could not have meant what you are implying that he meant.

  • zippy says:

    <>But, I say that this doesn’t exist.<>I say that the emancipated free and equal superman self-created through reason and will doesn’t exist too. But plenty of people, including Justice Kennedy, believe in him or act as if they believe in him.<>I might add, just as a matter of common sense, that the justice could not have meant what you are implying that he meant.<>It seems to me that you are attempting to impute the lack of common sense in the Justice’s liberalism to me. Obviously it is important for you that advanced liberalism not exist, but you can’t make it not exist simply by pointing out that the things liberals say defy common sense. Of course they defy common sense: that is very much the point.

  • Bob says:

    This is slightly off topic, but I believe it’s where the rubber meets road regarding your opposition to legal positivism. It’s not hard to see that the Zero Group Differences myth is what drives affirmative action laws and that affirmative action laws are unjust laws (even though based on noble intentions, they are still based on “noble lies”). An unjust law is no law at all. Should we obey those laws? Do you obey those laws?

  • zippy says:

    <>…that affirmative action laws are unjust laws…<>That isn’t obvious, or at least it isn’t univocal. They may be unwise, they may have been enacted in response to an incorrect deontology or whatever. But a positive law which attempts to compel an unjust act lacks force specifically when it attempts to compel a specific unjust act. Show me a specific unjust act which that law attempts to compel, and yes, then that law loses its normative force.(A lot of the length of the legal positivism discussion rests on a failure to focus on specific, actual acts as opposed to generalizations).<>Should we obey those laws?<>Not if and when they attempt to compel you to perform a specific unjust act.<>Do you obey those laws?<>Not when they attempt to compel me to perform a specific unjust act, though I’m hard pressed to recall any time when employment law has attempted to compel me to perform an unjust act. Unless there are fairly general and common conditions where not hiring someone in particular is unjust then the space of actual circumstances where this applies will be pretty small.Of course it has been a number of years since I’ve held executive authority in any particular company, so it isn’t a question I struggle with day-to-day anymore.

  • Bob says:

    It seems to me that the commonly perceived injustice of affirmative action is to grant preferential treatment (in hiring, promotion, layoffs and enrollment) to certain groups despite the contradictory mandate that those in decision making positions be blind to group distinctions (e.g. color blind). It can mean < HREF="http://www.hr-software.net/EmploymentStatistics/DisparateImpact.htm" REL="nofollow">quotas<>. (see < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirmative_action" REL="nofollow">here<> and < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirmative_action_in_the_United_States" REL="nofollow">here<>) The injustice results when lesser qualified candidates of preferred groups are hired over those better qualified candidates of non-preferred groups.I’m surprised that you’ve taken this approach (i.e. “I’m not aware of an injustice”), since you’ve complained of PC Tyranny in a few posts prior to this. Affirmative action is PC Tyranny given the force of law. Perhaps the “tyranny” part is mere hyperbole.

  • zippy says:

    Again, <>what specific act that the law attempts to compel me to do is unjust?<> Not “injustices which result” — morality is not merely or even primarily a matter of consequences, and in general you will find me unmoved as a moral matter by claims of “injustices which result” until we have settled the matter of particular acts. Furthermore, the language of “lesser qualified candidates” is question-begging, as if the common good and the organizational good both depended upon clear linear rankings of possible hires according to positivist criteria, linear rankings which further happened to be coincident.I should perhaps state explicitly that I don’t think there is anything intrinsically unjust about preferential hiring policies in general, whether those preferential hiring policies are driven by company policy or by positive law. (That is one of my central points, in fact).What specific unjust behavior on my part does the positive law attempt to compel? If it does attempt to compel me to engage in a specific unjust behavior, then it has no normative force and I must disobey. But if you can’t tell me <>what specific act I am to putatively avoid which it is attempting to compel<> then I can’t tell you whether or not the law has normative force in that instance.<>Perhaps the “tyranny” part is mere hyperbole.<>No, it isn’t. But in the Catholic understanding of law one must obey the competent authority even if that competent authority is in general a tyrant: unless the tyrant commands a <>specific unjust act<>, in which case he <>must<> be disobeyed and one must not perform that specific act.

  • Bob says:

    When I wrote an “an unjust law is no law at all”, I had in mind MLK’s quote of St. Augustine in his “Letter from a Birmingham jail.” There is a good chance I misunderstand you, but as far as I can tell — if I follow your reasoning (and again, I probably don’t) — that there was no specific unjust act compelled by most if not all segregation laws prior to the sixties. I leave you to decide how I’m to be corrected in this, since I seem to be distant and remote from achieving that sort of understanding.<>But in the Catholic understanding of law one must obey the competent authority even if that competent authority is in general a tyrant: unless the tyrant commands a specific unjust act, in which case he must be disobeyed and one must not perform that specific act.<>I wholeheartedly agree with this. In fact, I would suggest that Scalia’s “legal positivism” falls under this (I know you’ll disagree).Perhaps a different argument will illustrate what I mean. A good friend of mine, an avid pro-lifer questions why we could not vandalize the local Planned Parenthood (during the night, when it is unoccupied). My answer is that we must obey the just laws (in this case the laws which protect property). My friend argues that the use of the property for abortion voids the protection for that property. Obviously, I disagree with my friend, since we are not the proper judges of the title of that property.I’m sorry about digressing into this tangent. I hope I haven’t tried your patience.

  • zippy says:

    <>…but as far as I can tell — if I follow your reasoning (and again, I probably don’t) — that there was no specific unjust act compelled by most if not all segregation laws prior to the sixties.<>Well, the one thing we probably agree on is that you are probably not following me. There is more than a little non-implied extrapolation from me not being able to recall a time when positive employment law attempted to compel me to do something against the natural law to the idea that nobody in the entire history of employment law has done something against the natural law in compying with positive employment law.<>In fact, I would suggest that Scalia’s “legal positivism” falls under this (I know you’ll disagree).<>Yep, I disagree.

  • Bob says:

    <>Well, the one thing we probably agree on is that you are probably not following me. There is more than a little non-implied extrapolation from me not being able to recall a time when positive employment law attempted to compel me to do something against the natural law to the idea that nobody in the entire history of employment law has done something against the natural law in compying with positive employment law.<>It’s not that I wish to make an extrapolation of any sort, I simply cannot conceive of a way that one positive employment law (segregation) could be viewed as compelling an unjust act, when at the same time (well not actually at the same time historically) another similar positive employment law (affirmative action) does not compel an unjust act.Since it seems that you are capable (you seem to imply that segregation laws are to be considered unjust), please show me how to construct a specific unjust act that a positive employment law (segregation) compels and so thereby making the law unjust. How are these laws to be deemed unjust, if we are only to consider how they compel a specific unjust act? It seems to me that unjust law is not merely what it compels an individual to do but also what it fails to prevent (and possibly more than this). For instance, an abortion law designed to permit abortions might not compel you to commit a specific unjust act. It still would be an unjust law, regardless of whether experience has offered the chance for you to disobey or could offer you a chance to disobey it. Supposing the law did not compel, you as a hypothetical hospital administrator, while not allowing it at your hospital, could still make the case that the abortion law was unjust.<>I should perhaps state explicitly that I don’t think there is anything intrinsically unjust about preferential hiring policies in general, whether those preferential hiring policies are driven by company policy or by positive law. (That is one of my central points, in fact).<>I could agree with this in general. I don’t would mind preferential treatment of pregnant women or handicapped individuals for parking spaces. However, I could see how such a law could be burdensome for a smaller business with few parking spaces. Are segregation laws and affirmative action laws unjust? Perhaps not intrinsically so, nor in the specific instance of compelling an unjust act, but rather in the systematic abuse allowed or engendered by those laws. In that case, I think MLK was right about those unjust segregation laws. I think the same case could be made for affirmative action laws, they are unjust in that they allow systematic abuse in the same way. Feel free to disagree.

  • zippy says:

    <>I simply cannot conceive of a way that one positive employment law (segregation) could be viewed as compelling an unjust act, when at the same time (well not actually at the same time historically) another similar positive employment law (affirmative action) does not compel an unjust act.<>First of all, a law doesn’t compel “an unjust act”. Any given positive law in ordinary circumstances compels/prohibits or attempts to compel/prohibit all sorts of different particular acts, some of which may be perfectly just and some of which may be grossly unjust, and anywhere in between. A positive law doesn’t compel a single particular act, it sets up categories which constrain and compel all sorts of different acts according to whatever abstract criteria are encoded in the law. As I’ve mentioned many times, resolving specific cases justly is entirely distinct from making abstract rules that apply to whole classes of cases. A <>law<> is a general rule, not a particular act.Second, you keep trying to take my understanding that some discrimination is contingently just and extrapolate to the notion that all discrimination is categorically just. I have no idea why you think that, nor even how to respond to it, other than to suggest that you might reflect for a moment on the difference between the abstract concepts always, sometimes, and never.

  • Bob says:

    <>First of all, a law doesn’t compel “an unjust act”.<>I was trying to respond to this sequence.<>Me: Should we obey those laws?You: Not if and when they attempt to compel you to perform a specific unjust act.Me: Do you obey those laws?You: Not when they attempt to compel me to perform a specific unjust act, though I’m hard pressed to recall any time when employment law has attempted to compel me to perform an unjust act. Unless there are fairly general and common conditions where not hiring someone in particular is unjust then the space of actual circumstances where this applies will be pretty small.<>It seems to me that you haven’t been sufficiently consistent in the use of your terms and ideas.<>Second, you keep trying to take my understanding that some discrimination is contingently just and extrapolate to the notion that all discrimination is categorically just.<>No, I thought that my interjection of the handicapped and pregnant women cases would be sufficient to disabuse you of the notion that I thought in terms of always or never.It seems to me that both affirmative action and segregation are of the same class of discrimination in <>actual<> practice. Rather than look at the person, they both ask that we look at the color of their skin. In the former case, it was to proclaim that one color was inferior, in the later case, like the PC Tyranny post earlier, we’re to look at people as objects to fill a quota.

  • zippy says:

    <>It seems to me that you haven’t been sufficiently consistent in the use of your terms and ideas.<>That is just an assertion though. What have I actually said that is inconsistent with something else I’ve actually said? All I am doing is refraining from what you are doing, which to all appearances is to extrapolate from “when the law attempts to compel you to perform an unjust act you must not obey it” into some kind of general invalidation of that law for everyone everywhere.I said repeatedly in the legal positivism threads that if the polity doesn’t want a judicial act of resolving a particular case justly to extrapolate into a legislative act of modifying the law (through stare decisis, judicial review, and common law) then the polity is perfectly capable of refraining from applying that extrapolation (though in our polity at present the polity does apply that extrapolation). What the polity cannot do is force the judge to decide the particular case before him unjustly: to (e.g.) send Fred to the headsman when Fred doesn’t deserve it, or to pass Fred off to another judge knowing that that judge will unjustly send him to the headsman. In this discussion you seem to be missing the same distinction as in the other: the distinction between legislating general rules and judging particular cases. I don’t at this point know how to resolve that for you, having repeated the point quite a number of times in quite a number of different phrasings.

  • Bob says:

    <>All I am doing is refraining from what you are doing, which to all appearances is to extrapolate from “when the law attempts to compel you to perform an unjust act you must not obey it” into some kind of general invalidation of that law for everyone everywhere.<>Okay, let’s see if I understand you now. Prior to Brown v Board of Education, the police or the school could have ignored the segregation laws because an unjust law is no law at all, and on the basis that for Topeka specifically, separate was not equal.However, the Supreme Court was mistaken in Brown v Board of Education in that it made a broad ruling that separate was not equal everywhere rather than a specific ruling that separate was not equal for Topeka, Kansas.In addition, we can say that “separate but equal” is not intrinsically evil and therefore not a violation of natural law (but perhaps rather a bad law from a policy perspective).However, if we could say “separate but equal” is a violation of natural law, then…Without regard to the specific facts of the case, the school and the police (everywhere, not merely in Topeka) could (and in fact are required) ignore the law as an unjust law.And also, if Brown v. Board of Education reached the Supreme Court, it would be correct in broadly overturning all “separate but equal” laws as a violation of natural law and (for those strict constructionists out there) a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Are my statements a correct reiteration of the concepts you’ve been trying to convey to me?

  • zippy says:

    Well, no, I disagree with a great many of the positive assertions in that comment.

  • Bob says:

    I apologize for trying your patience.

  • zippy says:

    Don’t worry about it! I’m a big boy — but I think it is going to take a whole different approach on my part to get across the key distinction that I think legal positivists ignore.

  • Bob says:

    FWIW, I believe the scope of your definition of Legal Positivism is far too broad. It may be that my views have been corrupted with a few strands of their thought, but I believe* in the primacy of Natural Law, that all laws are to be in accord with Natural Law* That human laws are tied to justice/morality/ethics* That an unjust law is no law at all.A legal positivist would disagree with me on these points. These are not trivial points.

  • Tony M says:

    “An unjust law is no law.” I agree with this (and I think Zippy does too) when understood properly. When the law <> specifically <> enjoins an act which <> is in itself <> a violation of the natural law, then it is no law. The Roman law which was laid down specifically to require Christians to sacrifice to the emperor was an unjust law. But most laws (at least, laws which require positive acts rather than restrain acts) formally enjoin acts which are good or neutral, not acts which are bad. The law which requires me to drive on the right side of the road is not unjust, even though there are <> circumstances <> where driving on the right will involve a horrible result, like killing a dumb kid in the road. Even don’t say that the law is unjust on account of that circumstance, it would indeed be <> unjust <> of me to drive over the kid just to follow the law. The “law of the land” on abortion is really a negative law, not one which (for most of us) requires a positive act. It says, in effect, that abortion is not to be treated as illegal. For 99.9% of us, this requires nothing at all of us, (except to elect better representatives), it certainly does not require us to commit an abortion. The only persons it impacts at all directly are the police and state attorneys, who are required to <> not <> act on such occasions. But this does not require something <> inherently <> unjust of them: It is often the case that the DA’s office will decide to not prosecute cases which it deems are (a) un-winnable, or (b) not worth the expense and effort that would be required. And the police often decide to not act to demand strict compliance with the law in certain cases, overlooking those acts as being not worth society’s tracking down such piffling acts (like the last time a cop let you off with a warning instead of a speeding ticket). The NOT-ACTING in these cases is not inherently immoral. Therefore, even for the police and prosecutors, the abortion “law of the land” does not prescribe specific immoral acts on their part. I say this believing absolutely that this “law” was neither (a) decided in accordance with the Constitution, nor (b) is it a proper manner of handling society’s obligation to persons. I believe that the President (or Congress) as equal arms of the law could, within the powers granted by them in the Constitution, refuse to <> follow <> the prescriptions of the Roe decision, on the basis that the decision was visibly extra-Constitutional (and therefore no binding decision at all). But the President is not me. I don’t have the authority, under the Constitution, to treat myself as an equal arm of the government with the Supremes.

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