Donald T. Campbell, longtime member of the psychology faculty at Northwestern University, noted primarily as a hard-headed methodologist who had contributed mightily to the social sciences by bringing all attainable rigor to social field research, was elected president of the APA in 1975. He had some trouble deciding on a topic for his presidential address. He didn’t think he had anything new to say about the work for which he was best known, and he was far too intelligent and responsible to lapse into the vague generalities and exhortations so commonly seen in the addresses of APA presidents who followed him in later years. Fortunately for all of us who had elected him, Campbell had a strong avocational interest in biological evolution. He wrote a long, abundantly documented essay entitled “On the Conflicts Between Biological and Social Evolution and Between Psychology and Moral Tradition.” I thought he did a fine job, daring to address such matters as the genetics of altruism and the psychology of religion in ways that I considered both learned and wise. As usual, Meehl was more incisively critical than I was, and saw cause 46to question some of Campbell’s arguments. Thorough under-standing of Meehl’s critique obviously requires prior study of Campbell’s paper, but a reasonably accurate sense of the dialogue can be gained by reading Meehl’s remarks on their own:
Dear Don: We found it, an old pencil draft, here typed, you may retain. Still seems sound, basically. I’m unsure why I didn’t publish it, perhaps seemed a bit harsh, on someone I liked & admired? Don’t know. I also think I intended to write some more but broke off. The “end” is abrupt, non-closured.
Only major alteration I would now make is split the altruistic component of “Herd Instinct” from other (bad) components (e.g., gullibility, hatred for out-group, adulation of leader, coercive conventionality). Butld.k. the most recent ethology about that cluster, how separable it is.Paul
P. E. Meehl, Response to Campbell’s 1975 Presidential Address
Draft II 1/20/76
As always, Professor Campbell’s conjectures are perceptive, stimulating, and reflect that combination of erudition, methodological sophistication, and human concern that makes us proud to have selected him APA president. In this necessarily brief response, it would be pointless to waste words on echoing him. For example, I think we social scientists should cultivate a bit of humility toward the wisdom of our grandparents (cf. my “Law and the Fireside Inductions,” 1971, etc.). Again, like Campbell, I have a strong interest in religion and find irritating the combination of arrogance and ignorance with which some of our brethren approach (or avoid) the “great questions.” In this communication I aim to advance the dialogue by (a) qualifying what he says about psychotherapists, (b) offering a counter-conjecture to his approval of altruism, and (c) strongly dissenting from his “liberal Protestant” defense of religion. Since we are both (at least semi-) Popperians, I make no apology for not here “proving empirically” my conjectures—offering them on the same conjectural basis he gave as his.
As to the permissive, counter ethical, “accept your impulses” attitude of psychotherapists, probably no one will dispute this as a vague cultural consequence of Freud, Rogers, Ellis, and Co.’s teachings and tactics. But as a sometimes psychoanalytic, sometimes RET [Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Therapy] practitioner, I am impelled to emphasize the crucial difference between “Do not deceive yourself by defensive unknowing” (Freud) and “It is okay 47for anyone to do as he pleases” (Who?). The author of Civilization and Its Discontents was surely not saying, or implying, anything like the latter. Somewhere Freud says explicitl y that mere non-gratification of instincts as such never made anyone ill, and he says the same thing about hard work. The “do as your momentary impulses seem to suggest” view of mental health is a corruption of our dominant Western psychotherapy tradition.
As to altruism [which Campbell advocated without qualification], perhaps I can further Campbell’s good cause by offering a provocative, far-out conjecture (which I myself only half-, and sometimes, believe) and urging reflection upon it to sharpen the empirical differences for long-run tests, which will mostly be “reforms as experiments” [one of Campbell’s most widely cited, practically valuable conceptions]. Meehl’s counter-conjecture: A socially optimal ethic within the achievable range would be a minimal ethic, not a strongly altruistic one. Sentiments of altruism, group identification, loyalty, and the like may do as much harm as good, maybe more. By a “minimal ethic” I mean, roughly, one that says: “(1) Primum non nocere; (2) fulfill your contractual obligations; and then (3) do as you please.”
The vaguenesses in this language are well known and, of course, largely incurable on present knowledge even if I had the space. The “contractual obligations” phrase is particularly messy, as I intend by it to include not only explicit agreements (business contracts, personal promises) but those so-called “implicit agreements” that are relied on in much of political theory to explain why we are obliged to pay taxes, obey the law, vote in elections, etc. One may think of these as being analogues to the lawyers’ notions of quasi-contract, unjust enrichment, etc., writ large. Probably Professor Campbell will ask me, “Well, Meehl, but would you really want to live in a world with people who practiced such a minimal ethic? Don’t you want to love and be loved? Don’t you care whether your friends and colleagues and family are there to give (and receive) help, affection, sympathy, etc.?” Sure I do. But I am conjecturing that unless a person is genetically aberrated or dreadfully twisted by a loveless childhood, my third non-altruistic precept “then do as you please” will be sufficient to cover most of that. Putting it crudely, “I want my wife to darn my socks because she agreed to (maybe in what my daughter and her husband call a ‘mini-contract’) and is, therefore, obligated to; but I would prefer that she be fond of me for non-ethical reasons, spontaneously, arising out of the pleasant coincidence that I meet some of her deepest needs. I do not much like the idea that I am being loved “altruistically,” and I’m not at all sure that I can love a spouse (or 48student, or colleague, or patient) that way. I can, however, strive to keep my promises.
Other than because of deep temperamental factors, why does this minimal ethic have plausibility for me? Herewith a brief summary of two sorts of considerations. Take war, which Professor Campbell (like me) is deeply concerned about. I shall assert without proof that war is mankind’s greatest scourge, whether assessed by physical and psychological suffering, deaths, or economic waste. A n “achievable” ethic that would reduce appreciably the amount of war would have a strong case despite its other defects, even if major. Now I gather that Professor Campbell conjectures more altruism would be desirable on this score. I do not believe it. Bodaciously I urge the exact opposite: War is not mainly due to mass aggressiveness or territoriality but is due to dominance, aggressiveness, and territoriality in the leaders combined with stupid, gullible altruism and group-feeling by the mass of followers. The alpha baboon is mean (that’s partly why he gets there!), the beta baboons are hangers-on, and the gammas are dumb suckers. I suggest that if we could eradicate the sentiments of group identification, loyalty, patriotism, and altruism in the large from the human animal, wars would cease. If each gamma baboon were (rationally!) brain-washed by Albert Ellis to ask, “What’s in it for me?” the alphas and betas would have one hell of a time getting a good war started (or, at least, keeping it going). This idea is not confined to political warfare between states, but applies to the history of religious, racial, and other kinds of group conflict. There are, to be sure, some circumstances in which it is to my (individual, selfish, rationally calculable) advantage to risk injury, death, or major inconvenience in a group struggle, but very rarely. A rational egocentric calculus would, I suggest, almost never lead one to risk his life killing capitalists, communists, Catholics, Calvinists, Whites, Blacks, greens, or whatever. I will buy in on a world of minimal ethics rationalists any time.
It may well be objected that we don’t know how to achieve such an ideal. I think we do, at least as well as we know how to achieve Campbell’s super-altruistic one. Some Christian apologists like to say, “Christianity works fine, it’s just that it’s never been tried.” That, of course, is a preacher’s easy cop-out. A doctrine and institution that possessed a total educational monopoly (not to mention great political power) for over a millennium and a half has, I submit, been “tried” about as well as a social scientist expects anything to be tried. It made a few saints—very few—and it didn’t prevent war, poverty, social exploitation, race hatred, subjection of women, judicial torture, or slavery. On the other 49hand, I am not aware of any time or country in which a comparable large-scale, long-term near-monopoly of education aimed at shaping a rationally egocentric minimal ethic has been tried. I would be curious to learn whether Professor Campbell can provide me with an example of such. As I read the record, even today, in the shadows of our Spenglerian decline (where megalopolitan man is, according to ole Oswald, supposedly unfeeling, rootless, and hyper rational), the child is brainwashed by parents, sibs, peer group, teachers, scoutmasters, clergy, and so on to believe rigidly in all sorts of “musts,” “cannots,” “shoulds,” about life and self which he is not encouraged to examine (and, in fact, is usually punished for so doing).
Which brings me to my second example. I believe I have learned a little something about mind and society in the course of logging over 10,000 hours as a psychotherapist, although the riskiness of relying on such clinical impressions is well known. I am not persuaded by my clinical experience that an ethic located well toward the altruistic end of Campbell’s scale is better for people’s mental health than one closer to my minimal ethic. Of course, one does not see very many saintly people in psychotherapy—no doubt partly because true sanctity is conducive to contentment, but also because the base rate for saints is pretty low, as it always has been. What we see in psychotherapy is, rather often, persons who are pseudo-saints, or who are married to pseudo-saints, or who think, “Shame on me for not being a saint,” whether they use that term or not, usually not. Suburbia and academia teem with people whose lives are 95% controlled by a cluster of shoulds, oughts, and quasi-moral group identifications that tend to make them unhappy, as well as other people. One need not be a hippie, a hedonist, a crook, or even a disciple of Albert Ellis to notice the ubiquity, severity, and recalcitrance of life-postulates that patients simply never question. That one must live for others, conform to the group’s expectancies, define one’s identity via the group’s list of roles—in short, “be a good baboon” in the baboon troop’s sense—these are near universals for business executives, faculty (and faculty wives), lawyers, doctors, and the rest. I think a “mental hygiene” case can be made against these manifestations of group feeling that is as strong as any case Professor Campbell could make in their favor. I repeat, I don’t claim to be able to “prove it scientifically,” but I know he doesn’t expect that of me, any more than he demanded it of himself in the address.
Finally, I cannot resist the impulse to chastise my friend Campbell gently for the one short (but important in his eyes, I infer from our conversations and correspondence) passage that, I think, 50is tendentious and below the usual Campbell standard of intellectual craftsmanship. Discussing the “need for epistemic humility” he faults behavioral scientists for holding religious discourse to a direct realism, a literal veridicality that they recognize is impossible for science itself. Now, brethren, I submit that this is really a bit thick—more what we would expect from a bankrupt Methodist sky-pilot than a philosophically sophisticated psychologist of Professor Campbell’s brains. Three brief comments, of necessity somewhat dogmatic due to my space limitations.
First, his text seems to conflate the probable (uncertain, corrigible, fallible) character of human knowledge, scientific or otherwise, with sentences not meaning what they seem to say. If an astronomer tells me, “The sun is, very probably, a sphere of hot gas 93 million miles away,” he means what he says. The assertion is admittedly approximate (e.g., the sun is an oblate spheroid) and only probable (being inductive); but it is informative, makes a truth claim, and is (despite its imprecision in some respects) not compatible with “The sun is Apollo’s chariot” or “The sun is a glowing lump of lead.” It is misleading to suggest that because theoretical science involves (a) idealizations in the embedding text, (b) approximations in the formalism, (c) error in the empirical measurements, and (d) probability rather than certainty, therefore scientific statements are pretty much like religious statements which our ancestors believed but we do not. Professor Campbell states explicitly that he disbelieves in teleological or supernatural explanations. I take it this disclaimer entitles me to assume that he does not hold, for instance, that one Jesus of Nazareth was sent by God (let alone was Nicaea—identical with God), performed miracles, rose from the dead, and so forth. For some 19 centuries the Church believed these things, and today some people still do. I am at a loss to understand why Professor Campbell thinks it is unfair or inconsistent for the unbelieving psychologist to set aside the teachings of Jesus, and his followers, and the social institution they built. What competence, expertise, qualifications, or authority do these possess, on his naturalistic premises? I cannot think of any. It sounds somewhat as if he were telling me that I should have a proper epistemic humility toward a medieval housewife’s views on the economics of the modern dairy industry, even though she believed that brownies curdle the milk whereas I know that it is due to enzymes secreted by Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Does it help my reflections on buttermilk production to say, “Oh well, after all, let’s not be snooty about the Middle Ages. Remember, our knowledge of bacteria is incomplete, 51approximate, oversimplified, and only probable. It’s really kind of a metaphor, properly understood. I mean, brownies are little animated beings invisible to the naked eye, and so are bacteria.” To which I say, bluntly, “Baloney.” Parts of science are understandable quite literally, and even in using “models” (loose term here) the scientist can normally, on request, distinguish what Mary Hesse calls the negative analogy from the positive analogy. A chemist does not literally believe that his tinker-toy model, which colors sulfur atoms yellow and carbon atoms black, “corresponds” to the external world. But nothing he tells us qua chemist, or does in his laboratory, depends on any such misattribution of the negative analogy to the alleged reality. On the other hand, when the chemist asserts that the angle Cl B Cl in a boron chloride molecule is 120° and the nuclei are approximately 1.76A apart, he means what he says, and his calculations and experiments are based upon that literally intended feature of his positive analogy.
Nor is this true only of the exact sciences. If I conjecture that schizophrenics have a different parameter of synaptic function because at a certain locus of their DN A one of the four organic bases adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine is different from the normal, I mean that, literally as it reads. If Skinner tells me that you get much higher rates on FR than on crf, he means that, literally as he says. The trouble with Professor Campbell’s brand of liberal Protestantism is that when the negative analogy in the received corpus of Christian theology is shaved off, Occam’s razor leaves nothing of substance. We have some deluded fanatics followin g a somewhat aberrated (grandiose, judgmental, riot-fomenting) prophet, and a resulting social institution that taught a bunch of stuff that isn’t so. The “non-supernaturally-linked” components—if there are any such, which I doubt—are ethical (= moral and life-style) exhortations which are politically unworkable, philosophically indefensible, and sincerely practiced by almost nobody. I do not understand why Professor Campbell advises us to regard them with such respect, or why he thinks that the approximate and probable character of scientific knowledge has much of anything to do with that question.
Of course, one may say that wise and “epistemically humble” thinkers will be open to instruction from any source. To this, as a very general remark, I cheerfully agree. If it appears that I can learn something interesting, valid, or useful from a Hogo-Bogo witch doctor, I should do it. But I quickly add two caveats: First, you really can’t hear everybody or devote serious study to all claims, even if you 52officially subscribe to open-mindedness and epistemological humility as a policy. Secondly, Professor Campbell asks us to do more than this. If I read him rightly, he urges us to cultivate a positive, actively receptive attitude toward the religious tradition. Our Bayesian priors on its moral deliverances should, one gathers, be sizable. I cannot see that he has told us why. On the Campbell non-supernatural ontology (and, I take it, epistemology), John the Baptist and my sainted namesake were pretty thoroughly muddled about practically everything that is testable, and for the rest they held a world picture that Campbell thinks he (and we) cannot. Why, if I do not buy St. Paul’s theories of the cosmos, the creation, the origin and destiny of man, the creation of the world, the source of sin, the future life, the verbal accuracy of the Scripture, the resurrection of the dead, or the authority of Jesus as a prophet and teacher, should I think his views about human society, moral conduct, or the “good life” deserving of respectful attention?