Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Ethics of Salesmanship

In yesterday's post I compared Stefan Molyneux's ethical worldview (hereafter simply philosophy), as expressed in his novel The God of Atheists, to the Old Testament Law. On reflection, this isn't really fair to the Old Testament. Whatever its demands, the Old Testament provided a set of bright-line rules such that you could be pretty sure whether or not you had broken one. But it was often difficult for me to predict which of the characters would be judged guilty of ethical lapses by philosophy. (Short answer: most of them.) Spoilers follow.

The early pleasure in reading TGoA was the depth of Molyneux's entry into the interior lives of his characters, the rich detail with which he describes both their internal motivations and the complexity of the personal and professional situations in which they live and work. His description of Middle School politics was spot-on, for instance, his revelation of the utter cynicism with which the project of starting a "boy band" is undertaken was laugh-out-loud funny, and his characterization of the upper-middle-class economy was biting and incisive. Molyneux writes with real insight, I believe, into the ways people behave and then deceive themselves about it. More prosaically, I learned a lot from him about the mundane worlds he writes about, such as investing, finance and commercial software development. Even the sex scene, which I earlier described as paint-by-numbers, had I will freely admit those numbers exactly right. This, for once, is in favorable contrast to Ayn Rand, whose novels I have been informed are populated by caricatures.

The problem is that all the richness of his characters starts to recede as they turn to philosophy. The three children -- Stephen, Sarah, and Alice -- the description of whose peer culture and their roles within it had me nodding in recognition, slowly become something with which I completely lost any identification. Stephen, the professor's son, begins his descent into philosophy by asking, "Are my parents happy?" What child does this? I didn't. I don't even do it now, not in any existential sense; I am content to accept everyone's presentation at face value. Come to think of it, I don't really stop to ask myself whether I am happy, only thanking God every day for such blessings I have. That is enough. Similarly, all the children demand to know why their mothers stay married to their fathers. Short of what must be an extremely high threshold of domestic violence, what child sniffs at her parents' marriage, "not ethical", and believe divorce would improve anyone's happiness?

As I mentioned in the last post, it was Stephen's father's crime, undertaken with malice aforethought, of driving Gordon to drop out of college and then writing up Gordon's thesis proposal as his own, that struck me as the most obvious. But the second most obvious crime was when Justin, the elder son of another of the families, willfully destroys the prospects of his incipient boy band with a profanity-laced tirade during its first live television appearance. This occurs in the middle of what the reader will recognize as a bout of depression, but which Molyneux attributes to a troubled conscience.* Fair enough. But the consequences were devastating, taking with them the fortunes of the third family, whose elder son Ian was also a member of the band and whose father Al was its producer and agent. Justin is the one character in the novel given something of a redemption arc by his embrace of philosophy, yet in the final chapter, while he admits to Ian that Ian may be justified in hating him, Justin never actually repents, nor even apologizes. It is not at all clear that Molyneux even recognizes Justin's action, betraying the trust and hope of everyone who had invested their money, time, and energy into the project, as even wrong.

At the other extreme, Molyneux presents Terry, the lead programmer hired fresh-out-of-college by Dave, a tech entrepreneur and Justin's father. Terry labors heroically at low pay** to meet the commitments his boss makes to their customers. He's the one character who presents as fundamentally decent, yet even he comes under the children's judgment for (and I'm half-guessing here) learning on the job? Not knowing that most of Dave's previous ventures had failed? Not quitting when a parent company bungled the stock options? Not appreciating the extent to which that stock was overvalued? That's a lot of expectation to lay at the feet of any one person, as he himself says when the children confront him. Like I said, Molyneux doesn't straw-man his counter-arguments.

Dave and Al represent middle cases. Dave is guilty of a range of petty graft as he struggles to maintain his family's upper-middle-class facade, but his primary failure is being out of his management depth, making promises to investors and clients both that, while not bald-faced lies exactly, are backed up more by hope and wishful thinking than experienced, hard-headed realism. Al, the talent agent for musical groups, seldom shepherds them to wild success. Both of them are in a sense salesmen whose primary product is neither music nor software but risk. They offer investors/musicians the opportunity of wealth/fame at the risk of loss. Both of them share in that risk (in Dave's case, more than he knew), but that is not enough. Molyneux to his credit, is trying to make a valid ethical point about how such opportunities should be offered appropriately, but on the strength of the novel I can't say I know where the ethical line actually is. Dave is clearly over it, but Al? His son Ian says at the end, "My dad f*cks people for a living." I read nothing that justifies that assessment. I expect most musicians are eager for any shot they might have to get paid for doing what they love. Al provides them that shot.

Professional ethics are a serious subject, and most professions take it seriously. The engineering department at which I taught covered it, as does the FE exam. But I'm not sure that philosophy is any help. Towards the end, Gordon-the-sock-puppet sneers at the prospect of developing an "Ethics in Accounting" course: "the basics", he calls it, "what people should already know." Maybe. But maybe not.

* I think. There were a few passages that, while I admired them for their florid prose style, were substantively incomprehensible. Justin's depression was described for an entire chapter in clinical detail, yet at the end I still couldn't summarize what it was all about.

** I'm not sure when the novel is set, but it was published in 2007. Justin's salary is given at $40K, which hasn't been the median starting salary for a tech professional since the mid-nineties.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

The Hell of Atheists

I kicked in, as I generally try to kick in to de-platformed creators and organizations, to Stefan Molyneux when he was thrown off YouTube on trumped-up charges of something-or-other, and decided to try to get my money's worth by reading his epic novel, The God of Atheists, or rather listening to his own dramatic reading of same. The book is the tale of three families whose lives intersect in various ways, most poignantly by the friendship of their three middle-school-aged children, against the backdrop of technology, music, academia, ambition, and ultimately destruction. With Molyneaux's voice providing the nuance, I was captivated throughout all 25 hours. The novel bears a similarity to Atlas Shrugged both in the scope of its philosophical ambition and in the content of its premises. And indeed, I would compare it to Ayn Rand's magnus opus in quality as well.

Except . . . I never actually read Atlas Shrugged. Whittaker Chambers innoculated me against whatever interest I might have had in Objectivism, and with any providence I will likewise cure you, my half-dozen readers, of any interest in whatever this is. Spoilers will follow.

I was vaguely aware from having watched his videos that Molyneux was an unbeliever -- he has counseled religious people on his YouTube show without remarking on it, for instance -- but I was surprised at the depth of his hostility. Molyneaux is an atheist, not in the gentle personally-not-persuaded manner of Scott Adams*, but of the dogmatic tub-thumper variety of Christopher Hitchens. Yet the moral universe he creates is every bit as uncompromising as the Old Testament law and every bit as terrifying as a Jonathan Edwards sermon. But in this world, there is no hope. No faith. No love.

Which is ironic. Molyneux believes with Hitchens that Christianity is child abuse, scaring them with a God who will punish them for sin. But in Molyneux's telling the living damnation that awaits those who come up short is just as real, just as scary. Indeed, it scared me. Except the point of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is to frighten us into God's grace and mercy. But here there is neither grace nor mercy, only wrath and judgment.

No relationship is free from this judgment. Not the relationship between parents and children; the novel revolves around the three children's condemnation and ultimate rejection of their parents for their moral failings. Molyneux himself was horribly abused by his single mother when he was a child, which experience probably informs his understanding of that relationship, or lack thereof. But these were not abusive parents. Indeed, to my reading they seemed to meet the parenting expectations of their class, but that doesn't matter. Molyneux is explicit about this: one of his characters specifically renounces any loyalty to parents when they are not "good people". Nor escapes the relationship between husband and wife; one of the marriages are held to be worthless, and one ends in divorce, but again not because of mistreatment. Molyneux demands we ask ourselves why our spouses love us. There is sex -- a chapter's worth in clinical detail -- but it is paint-by-numbers and without passion. No, the shortcomings which break relationships were abstract-ethical, and the standards exacting; everything is subordinated to Molyneux's ethical judgements.

There are no heroes in this novel, not really. In this, Molyneux strays from Rand; whatever else you may say about them, the "operatic businessmen" of Atlas Shrugged are held up as role-models for the readers. But Molyneux's sock puppets -- the three children and a philosophy graduate student named Gordon -- are notable for not being required to make any decisions, ethical or otherwise. In fact, one of the other characters points this out to them. To his credit, Molyneux generally "steel-mans" his counter-arguments, sometimes even to the point of making them more persuasive than what Molyneux himself asks us to believe. (Molyneux elsewhere straw-mans his religious counter-arguments, but this work is mercifully free of any religious characters through whom Molyneux would be tempted to embarrass himself.)

At times, Molyneux expounds a specific inversion of Christian theology. For example, Molyneux says something along the lines of, "the only people who believe in forgiveness are those who have done wrong." Well, yes: that is pretty much the point of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant; given the ten thousand talents we owe to God, we should be lenient with those who owe us the days wages. That's all of us.

The strange thing about this, and also in noted contrast to Rand, is that Molyneux never actually gets around to making any arguments for the ethics he believes in; the novel is merely parasitic on the values he assumes we share. One of the family patriarchs, a philosophy professor, tries to explain the ethics of honesty to the three children -- and fails at it miserably. Which is sort of the point: the professor is bad at his job, and his subsequent academic corruption is the one act of unmitigated immorality on which I had the firmest traction. But for all the fulminations against dishonesty, not one of the other characters undertakes to develop an ethics of truth from first principles. Which is just as well. I remember, listening with my daughter to the professor flail ineffectually, remarking to her: I'm glad I can just believe the Bible. Because without God, we are none of us more that chimpanzees with a slightly-better evolved adaptation to punish defectors. All the rest of it, all the philosophy, is so much post-facto rationalizing. And good luck to it: seriously, if you can't believe in God, then please cobble something together that keeps you from being a total d*ck.

But I, personally, can't help you. Judge for yourselves whether whatever-this-is leaves us richer or poorer. For myself, as with Atlas Shrugged, The God of Atheists drives me and any even modestly self-aware reader fleeing in mortal terror to the arms of Christ.

* In fairness, I am only familiar with Adams' thougths on religion from his YouTube videos. He has not, to my recollection, written about them in any of his books I have read. If he elsewhere has shown hostility to Christianity, I am unaware of it.