Vendredi Voltaire: Natural Law (A Dialogue)


Voltaire by Houdon

Voltaire by Houdon

B: What is natural law? (*)

A: The instinct that gives us a sense of justice.

loiB: What do you consider just and unjust?

A: What seems that way to the entire universe.

B: The universe is composed of many minds[1]. I understand that in Lacedemonia they cheered those guilty of larceny that were condemned to the mines in Athens.

A: Semantic quibbling; one could not commit larceny in Sparta, because everything was held in common. What you call “theft” was punishment for avarice.

B: It was forbidden to marry one’s sister in Rome. It was permitted among the Egyptians, the Athenians, and even the Jews to marry one’s fathers’ sister. I observe with regret that the unfortunate Jews, who certainly don’t apply their laws to anyone else, and who (setting their religion aside) are a people of nothing but brigands, ignorant and fanatical. Finally, according to the books, the young Thamar, before being raped by her brother Ammon, told him, “My brother, don’t be silly, but ask for me in marriage from my father, he will not refuse you.”

A: Laws of convention all the same, arbitrary usage, passing fads; the essential remains: show me a country where it is honest to steal from me the fruit of my labor, to break one’s promises, to lie for gain, to defame, to assassinate, to poison, to be ungrateful to one’s benefactor, or to beat one’s parents when they bring you food.

(*This dialogue is pulled almost entirely from volumes A, B, and C of the Dialogues)

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I assume Voltaire’s footnote is a reference to Plato’s Dialogues.

Voltaire, as a French aristocrat of his time, was antisemitic. There’s no excuse for it, he was skeptical enough about everything else that he was certainly capable of realizing that he was simply looking at another form of religious fanaticism to be dismissed along with all the rest. Yet, he did not. I always found that odd, since Voltaire grew up surrounded by the folly of the pre-revolutionary French court; surely he could have seen that calling the Jews ignorant and fanatical brigands hardly distinguished them from his own class.

What still amazes me about Voltaire’s Encyclopedia is that he wrote it – all of it – as a sort of side project. The volume this page was drawn from is one of 6, comprising around 500 pages each. If one were to try to assemble a collection of Voltaire’s writing, it would make anyone else who writes want to stand there and weep silent tears of envy.

Comments

  1. says

    What did Voltaire fear?

    I’ve been hammering out a way to represent the errors of bias that bigotry creates in a person’s experience of the world. Irrational intolerance of a group of people takes some interesting forms. For example excessive use on non-literal language (people being like disease, parasites, invaders..) characterization that is not tied to an evidence trail (x are violent, overreacting, mentally ill) and assertions that something people naturally do is a bad thing here (public criticism, complaints displays of anger…), acting as if an individual person is like an associated group), and basic insults (claims of bias with no demonstration of bias for example).

    I think those are clues to how the fear is expressed.

  2. Brian English says

    The term natural law conjures up scholastic morality or Aristotelian teleos. We all have a purpose in nature, and being moral is to follow that purpose, which coincidentally is just what the Catholic church degrees is moral.

  3. says

    Brony@1:
    What did Voltaire fear?

    That’s a really good question!

    He probably feared being ostracized by his class. While many of his attitudes are what I would expect from an atheist, he never rejected religion, even while fulminating against the worst abuses of the catholic church (“ecrasez l’infame!”) It always struck me as odd that he was so skeptical and open minded but still failed to reject religion and antisemitic bigotry. I will say: he was contemptuous, but not aggressive. I feel about as he did, except that all religious people tend to be fanatical and ignorant (if not brigands).

  4. Brian English says

    The image you posted makes me wonder if I should dig out my book l’Optimisme. I’ve been doing a bit of French, so I might get more out of it this time.

  5. John Morales says

    Brian English:

    The term natural law conjures up scholastic morality or Aristotelian teleos.

    For you, maybe. Consider karma: actions have consequences.

    (Consider too that modern science is basically an enterprise to determine natural law, yet has no use for dogma nor nor teleology :) )

  6. says

    John Morales@#5:
    I know you know, but…

    “Natural Law” seems to be a buzzphrase with some people who want to claim that something is true by appealing to “laws of nature” that aren’t. I made the mistake of using the term, once, back in 2008 or so, when pharyngula was on scienceblogs (or was it earlier than that…?) anyhow, I got duly flayed.

  7. says

    @Marcus Ranum
    Fear of rejection by peers is pretty powerful. It’s possible that he virtue signalled the bigotry, but it’s also possible that his experiences and social connections warped how he saw Jews.

    I’m not more than casually familiar with Voltaire. Do you have any specific expressions of Voltaire’s irrational prejudice and discrimination?

    @Brian English
    Morality is stochastic at certain levels. That’s just a fact. The trick is finding examples of how that works.

    The way that a member of a dominant group will read ~10% of a minority group as 50% for example. A general sense of more of “them” than there really are has effects are are stochastic in nature.

    The golden rule and other examples of tit-for-tat morality (John Morales’s example of karma) involve a mirroring of behavior. An assumption of related dispositions. That sort of thing spreading in a population is going to be stochastic in how it plays out.

    Critisizing specific stochastic explanations of moral social behavior is desirable.

  8. says

    I realized that I used “virtue signalling” the way that gets critisized fairly . It would have been better to say maybe Voltaire gave off deliberate false virtue signals or other social information as the first possibility.

  9. Brian English says

    Consider karma: actions have consequences.

    I haven’t read many philosophical treatises that flesh out Karma, so not sure how it could be thought of as a natural law, except as a folk theory that justice is universal. I’m pretty sure Voltaire wasn’t getting at that.

    (Consider too that modern science is basically an enterprise to determine natural law, yet has no use for dogma nor nor teleology :) )

    No argument, just you’ve changed the topic from justice and morals.

  10. Brian English says

    Brony, I think I’m not up to unpacking your comment, so I’ll try, and you correct, if you feel like it.

    Morality is stochastic at certain levels. That’s just a fact. The trick is finding examples of how that works.

    I’m struggling with this, morality is random at certain levels. What does that mean and entail?

    The way that a member of a dominant group will read ~10% of a minority group as 50% for example. A general sense of more of “them” than there really are has effects are are stochastic in nature.

    Availability bias?

    The golden rule and other examples of tit-for-tat morality (John Morales’s example of karma) involve a mirroring of behavior.

    The Golden rule is a normative thingy, treat others as you want to be treated, or some such. Karma is quite different, it’s a universal scoreboard, where good and bad acts are tallied, and by some unknown mechanism, repaid. That’s obviously bunk, evil shits have great lives, but I guess is helps someone in shitsville to think it’ll all even up. Sort of like the meek shall inherit the Earth heaven. I don’t see how it’s tit-for-tat, as it’s not something you ought to do or others will repay you for. Unless you’re just reifying payback as universal cosmic comeuppance…Maybe I misunderstand what people mean by Karma and am just talking past you?

    An assumption of related dispositions. That sort of thing spreading in a population is going to be stochastic in how it plays out.

    Is that what you mean by random, that some people will adopt a norm, while others will hold-out? I guess at a high level, it might be random.

  11. says

    Stochastic=/=random.
    Stochastic=/= can not be precisely predicted at any given point in time but with non-random elements.
    The example PZ used when I first learned the concept[t was that of the lines at a bank on a Friday morning. You can’t predict exactly how many people will be there but you can assume that the numbers present at any given time will increase.

    Bias is how our brains influence our own personal role in stochastic events. I see bias as an overall neutral and the availability bias is one example of how our minds can be biased. Both good and bad decision making works with the same hardware and software, social interactions and experiences create the rest.

    Norms are patterns we want to force or encourage the group to adopt. For hopefully individual and communal benefit, but not so much in reality. I see them as social tools.

  12. says

    Brony@#7:
    The subject of Voltaire’s antisemitism arouses a variety of defenses and criticisms. Mostly they depend on taking him at his word: did he really mean what he said. I think that’s a non-starter because Voltaire was nothing but “meaning what he said.” I doubt that the man misspoke more than a few times in his adult life, and certainly not in writing. Which is why I think comments like the one I cited, from his own encyclopedia, ought to carry weight for everyone that reads them. The comment above, he very clearly says it’s the Jews that are “ignorant and fanatical” – which is a different proposition from saying that judaism encourages ignorance and fanaticism, or something to that effect.

    The problem is that he wrote a lot so it’s easy to find places where he can be quoted – and he was oh, so quotable. And he said a lot of things that sure look pretty antisemitic. One letter to NYT is good:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/30/books/l-voltaire-and-the-jews-590990.html
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1968/10/24/the-chosen-people-1/

    I do hate to say it but many of the defenses of Voltaire strike me as “he was a man of his time” i.e.: arguing that Voltaire was an ignoramus. Hardly. Nor do I accept the “genius” disclaimer: yes, he was a genius but we expect better of our geniuses (or we call them out for their flaws) One of the defenses I read of him, once, was that – as an upper class Frenchman – Voltaire probably didn’t really know any Jews or have anything to do with them, therefore “he was a man of his time” blah blah blah. His great love Emilie Du Chatelet was a woman, and a great mathematician (she did was is still considered one of the best French translations of Newton’s Principia) and Voltaire was able to see past the prejudices of his period, there. He was incensed by some of the excesses of the catholic church, and fulminated about many of the horrible aspects of that doctrine – but he made a point of attacking the church, not the catholic. So, while I am quite the fan of Voltaire, I’m not going to whitewash a great character flaw. Even Voltaire’s flaws were great!

  13. John Morales says

    Brian English:

    I haven’t read many philosophical treatises that flesh out Karma, so not sure how it could be thought of as a natural law, except as a folk theory that justice is universal. I’m pretty sure Voltaire wasn’t getting at that.

    Of course not. He was an Enlightenment freethinker embedded in his milieu and handicapped by the technology of the time. He almost certainly was no better versed in Eastern philosophy than you are.

    Define “natural law”, then you can make a proper determination.

    BTW, consider that when you denigrate it by calling it merely “a folk theory” it may be a consequence of your lack of erudition on the topic.

    (Which is not to say that it’s any less “a folk theory” than is Abrahamism.)

    No argument, just you’ve changed the topic from justice and morals.

    Did I really?

    I used the compound term “natural law” descriptively (literally), rather than referentially (to particular concepts) — and you now note that it no longer connotes what you claimed its usage connotes.

    (I’ve used the same term, but changed the connotation)

  14. says

    Karma I’m not so sure how to define in a way that is consistent with what I read about our brains/minds. But it has to do with the split second judgement of an event in good or bad terms with respect to a sense of “reciprocity at large”. By role-modelling that bad behavior the person invoking karma can seen as suggesting that spreading that behavior will guarantee that they will receive it.

    I have a twisted way of thinking about it in that I think of bigots as people who are statistically certain to be treating some people badly. To change the numbers new role-modeling and changes to existing role-modeling is needed.

  15. says

    Brian English@#10:
    I don’t see how it’s tit-for-tat, as it’s not something you ought to do or others will repay you for

    I think the idea of “karma” is that it’s confirmation bias applied to “tit for tat.” So if I see some bastard getting away with murder, and they suddenly get colon cancer, I might think “it’s karma!” but I ignore all the great times they had.

    (And, in that example by “I” I mean, “I try really hard not to!” Confirmation bias is a hard-working cognitive bias!)

  16. says

    Brian English@#11:
    Anyway, this was sort of what I thought Voltaire meant by natural law when talking morality/justice:

    That’s what I think he meant, too. The dialogue is attempting to show that there is no natural moral law. People who wish to argue there is, sometimes will say something like that there are states of nature that apply universally, i.e.: nobody likes to be killed, or to have their children killed. Etc. Of course pointing out that there are cases when the “natural law” is flouted ought to serve as a refutation of the idea. (One could argue that the samurai who commits seppuku wishes to be killed, or the worshipper of Moloch who donates his unwanted child to the furnace wants to see his child killed, etc)

  17. says

    @John Morales
    That is a fascinating bit of information.

    Maybe instead of “what goes around comes around”, it’s “you suck because it’s going to go and cone around no matter what you do”.

    I’m looking at that one more closely. It smells subversive.

  18. Owlmirror says

    A translational quibble:
    Re: “The universe is composed of many heads.”

    While “tête” does literally mean “head”, I am pretty sure that the text does not intend that literal sense. Per definition 6 here (“Esprit, imagination, mémoire, intelligence, jugement”), I think that the intent would be better conveyed by something like “minds”.

    I think “logomachie” means more than just “verbosity”; again per Wiktionnaire, “combat en paroles, dispute, querelle”. Maybe something more like “semantic argumentation”?

  19. says

    Owlmirror@#20:
    While “tête” does literally mean “head”

    Yes, “minds” would have been a better translation.

    Maybe something more like “semantic argumentation”?

    Hmmmm… It would be more Voltairean to say “semantic quibbling” or something like that. I’m going to update the translation with a link to your comment.

  20. cvoinescu says

    I would say that Voltaire’s anti-semitism is a product of his time. Some attitudes are so ingrained that they act as thought-terminating clichés even in great thinkers. He’s guilty of hate “only” in as much as it didn’t occur to him to even think about these preconceptions — which is that much more of a sin given his outstanding ability to think.

  21. says

    cvoinescu@#22:
    I would say that Voltaire’s anti-semitism is a product of his time.

    I would say that’s an explanation, not an excuse. But, yes, I agree with everything you said. I doubt he was an antisemitic hater in the nazi mould; he simply assumed it. Which is unacceptable for a skeptic of his caliber.

  22. says

    Brony@#23:
    I swear I didn’t edit it.
    By the way, if anyone ever wants me to fix a comment my policy is this: I’ll fix it as you wish and if you want me to delete the comment in which you request the fix, I will.

    I.e.: “please delete the spare =/= in my #12 and delete this comment.”

    Standard patch-update. ;)

  23. cvoinescu says

    Marcus Ranum @ #24
    I never meant it as an excuse, only an explanation. I’ve seen this happen with pervasive vicious prejudice in otherwise intelligent and open-minded people. Voltaire fits that pattern very well, sadly. Brief exposure to facts seems to cure that kind of prejudice in honest people, but it’s perfectly conceivable that Voltaire never happened upon anyone willing to challenge him on that. (Still disappointed that he didn’t do it himself.)

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