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The Romantic Fallacy and Doing Good


Brian D. Rude, October 2012


      This is the text of a talk I gave at my church the other day. "UU" means Unitarian Universalist, for those who might not know. It's a pretty small denomination, but traces its history in America back to our Puritan founders of Massachusetts. Like all religions (I think) we want to do good, but I hold to a minority opinion that doing good is not always easy. In fact it is often very difficult.

      UU's want to do good, and I'm all in favor of that. It's not easy to do good in many cases, and sometimes something gets in the way of doing good. In this talk I want to explain something that I think often gets in the way of doing good. I don't expect everyone will agree with me on this, but by presenting the idea I hope to give you a little better perspective for understanding those who are cynical about a lot of things.

      The "romantic fallacy" is a term that I think is used now and then in our culture, but I'm not at all sure it always means the same thing. I'll first explain my idea of the romantic fallacy. Then I'll compare it with what I will call the "depravity fallacy", and then try to explain why both fallacies ought to be rejected.

      My introduction to the romantic fallacy came about fifty years ago, when I was a young college student, and it came from the book, "African Genesis" by Robert Audrey. I'm not sure this is a really important book, but it was very influential to me when I first read it. The author has two main arguments in this book. The first argument is not of much relevance now. He says the human species evolved in Africa, not in Asia, as was thought for many years. That idea is not of much relevance now because it is commonly accepted. The scanty fossil record before the twentieth century led people to believe that human evolution occurred in Asia, but the fossil record of the twentieth century has made it pretty plain that Africa is the place where the emergence of man from an ape background took place. Of course plenty of later evolution occurred after we spread out of Africa. All this makes a very interesting story, but not of importance at the moment.

      The second main point of this book, at least as I read it, is the idea of the "romantic fallacy", and the damage it can do to human thinking and human progress. This is what I want to talk about today. This, I think, is, or certainly ought to be, very relevant to Unitarian Universalists.

      We want to do good. We're not alone there. Every religion wants to do good. My argument is that an uncritical acceptance of the romantic fallacy gets in the way of doing good.

      The romantic fallacy, as explained by Ardery and as I am using the term here, arose from the writings of a philosopher of the 1700's, Jean Jacques Rousseau. I don't claim to have any familiarity with those writings other than what I talk about today. Perhaps his most famous quote is "man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains". He said that man is born good, but that goodness is not preserved. This goodness is somehow lost. As I understand it, he blames civilization of the loss of this natural goodness. Civilization somehow corrupts the basic goodness we were born with. So we should somehow reject civilization, apparently. He used the term, "noble savage", implying that a primitive person is somehow superior to a person from a modern culture, because people in modern cultures are corrupted by civilization.

      I do not agree with Rousseau, but the idea, the romantic fallacy, and the idea of noble savage seems to have tremendous staying power. We seem to see it everyday.

      The basic idea, that man is born good, doesn't seem problematic to me. Of course we are born good. What alternatives are there? <

      An opposing idea, which I will call the the depravity fallacy, usually goes by the name of original sin. Christians, at least many of them, embrace this idea. Man is born bad. We are evil. We are abhorrent to god. We deserve eternal hellfire. How come? Well, they explain, in the garden of Eden Adam and Eve disobeyed god. Therefore . . . . comes all the rest. Calvin and his followers made much of this idea, and Calvinism to this day remains an important influence on Christianity.

      The depravity doctrine, negative as it is, is coupled by Christians to a positive doctrine, the idea that God sent Jesus to atone for our sins, so therefore we're okay. I guess I'm glad this positive message is tacked on to the negative message, but I still wonder where in the world the original negative message comes from. I don't feel it myself. But by what I observe, I conclude that others do feel it.

      So we have a positive idea, man is born good, connected with a negative idea, civilization is bad, and we have a negative idea, original sin, connected with a positive idea, Jesus saves in spite of our depravity. Should we choose between the two fallacies? Should we reject them both?

      I'm going to give a real life example, and ask which perspective, the romantic fallacy or the depravity fallacy, we ought to apply to it. This is a real example in my experience at it happened just a few weeks ago. It's not a dramatic example and it's not an important example, but perhaps as good as any example to hold up the light of these two fallacies.

      I have a garden, and spend a lot of time in it. The other day when looking at my pumpkins I observed that two or three of them seemed to have been rolled out of place. Further inspection revealed that at least one, and maybe two, were totally missing. What could have caused the disturbance, I wondered. Deer? Not during the daylight hours. The neighbor's big dog? Possibly, but not likely. What about the neighbor kids? That would fit the situation. The neighbors had visitors that day. It was easy to imagine that a couple of kids saw the pumpkins and did what comes natural to kids They explored. I suppose they lost interest after a few minutes, but after a bit of damage was done.

      I did not give too much thought to this incident. I could have gone to the neighbors and asked a few questions, but I didn't. My only serious thought was whether or not I should go ahead and pick the pumpkins that were ready to be picked, or was it safe to just leave them where they were for a few more weeks.

      The next day when I was in the garden the neighbor came over with his son, about four years old, and explained that he had figured out that his four your old and a visiting six year old had caused some mischief and offered to pay for any losses. I said there was no significant loss and we talked for a while, and that was the end of the incident.

      So now my question is this. Two little kids did something they shouldn't have done. Is that evidence for either the romantic fallacy, or for the depravity fallacy, or both, or neither. If kids are born good why did they do a bad thing? Is this evidence that kids are born bad? That man in general is born bad, sinful, depraved?

      I think the answer is pretty obvious. Kids are born curious. That's not good or bad. Kids are born with eyes that explore and hands that explore, and legs that will take them all over to explore. They saw my pumpkins so they explored my pumpkins. Kids are also born ignorant. They are born without knowledge of of boundaries to separate their yard from my yard. They are born without knowledge of pumpkins and how they don't just magically appear, but are planted by the labor of a gardener, and that gardeners therefore have a property claim on them, and that you therefore shouldn't molest them. It is civilization that gives this knowledge to kids as they grow up.

      So in light of this incident, the depravity fallacy seems stupid, the romantic fallacy seems academic and mostly irrelevant, the characterization of civilization as bad seems stupid, and the good part of the depravity fallacy, the idea that Jesus saves souls, seems also pretty irrelevant. We know human beings are born curious and born ignorant. Doesn't that pretty well explain it all? Is there any value at all in choosing between these two perspectives?

      I think both the romantic fallacy and the depravity fallacy would be irrelevant to us, except for two very important things. The first important thing is the connection that I have already talked about. The romantic fallacy, the idea that man is born good, seems to be so often inextricably attached to the idea that civilization is bad. That "civilization is bad" idea can take many forms, some very blatant, and some pretty subtle, and some very arguable. But it is very often identifiable.

      And the second important thing is the spontaneity and persistence of this pair of ideas. The romantic fallacy and its connected civilization-is-bad idea seems to come up again and again and again. I want to mention four areas in which this is seen, in anthropology, in child rearing, in education, and in government.

      In anthropology there is the idea that the study of primitive peoples can inform us about how humans evolved. That is an immediately attractive idea, but when subjected to scrutiny many objections come up. I don't keep up with things anthropological, but I think it is safe to say that that idea is minimized in modern anthropology. Primitive peoples vary widely in their cultural traits. If we decide that one particular band of primitive people must represent evolving man, then what about the many other bands of primitive peoples that are so very different?

      But the romantic fallacy seems to have not only promoted this idea, but also promoted the idea that primitive peoples, and thereby evolving man, must be non-aggressive. In an extreme form the romantic fallacy asserts that civilization is the cause of all cruelties, conflict, and barbarism. If man is born good, and civilization is the problem, then primitive societies should be very pleasant places. But what does observation show, observation and analysis of actual primitive societies?

      Actual observation and analysis shows a very mixed result. It is easy to find examples of love any joy in primitive societies, but it is also easy, depressingly easy, to find terrible atrocities. It is easy to find societies in states of chronic warfare, in which fear is just a part of everyday life. It is easy to find primitive societies in which hatreds are nursed, in which revenge is considered not only acceptable, but expected and admired. Yet often the primitive is romanticized. I think this is a mistake.

      In child rearing the romantic fallacy is never far away. Remember when the term "permissive parenting" was a common part of the national conversation? I don't remember just what decade, or decades, that was. The term seems to have pretty much gone out of style. The idea behind permissiveness was that children will naturally be good if we don't somehow subvert or corrupt that goodness. This is often coupled with the idea that children learn the rules of life best by letting the "natural consequences" of bad acts teach the child. Thus permissive parents not only have the convenience of not having to teach their children anything, they also have a theory to justify their non-teaching. In the pumpkin rolling incident I mentioned a few minutes ago a permissive parent would argue that the child meant no harm, children being naturally good, and therefore the incident should be excused. The children will learn, sooner or later, somehow from their own experience, to respect a neighbor's pumpkins. My neighbor was not a permissive parent. Sure, he knows the child meant no harm, but by all appearances he also knows that the child needs to learn the rules of life in our society, and that it is his job to do the teaching.

      When permissivism was in its heyday there were many vocal defenders, though I never had any personal acquaintances who fell for it. That is not to say that my friends were harsh parents. Common sense told most people that children need to learn the rules. Sure, babies are born good, but toddlers and all kids need to learn the rules of life, and they need to learn them well. Permissivism, or perhaps I should say excessive permissivism, always seemed to be a result of an ideological commitment to a romantic notion of childhood, an unrealistic romantic notion. And in my mind, and I expect in many parents' minds, permissivism is not a good word.

      In education the romantic fallacy is painfully evident. All my life there has been a low grade war going on about educational philosophy. One educational fad after another comes out that seems based on the idea that the best teaching is to simply get out of the way and let the natural goodness of the child develop. We don't have to teach, we should just provide a rich environment and let the learning unfold of its own accord. Since man is born good, children really want to learn, and will, if we just leave them alone. Summerhill is probably the prime example of this. Summerhill was a school, in England I believe, that let the kids do whatever they wanted to. Summerhill may still be in existence. I don't know. It was never more than a fringe influence on actual educational practice, but it was a very appealing idea to many teachers. The romantic ideology, the ideology that children are born good and we should not corrupt them with civilization, dies hard.

      In government the romantic fallacy seems to inspire a confidence in what government can do, a confidence that is not shared by everyone, a confidence that is hard for me to understand, and a confidence that that has often had disastrous results. What is the death toll of Communism in Russia in the twentieth century? Is it in the tens of millions of lives, or the hundreds of millions? What is the death toll of communism in China, or in Asia generally? But Communism started out with very good intentions. It was going to produce a "workers paradise". In the 1930's Communism was seen as the wave of the future, by many Americans as well as by peoples world wide.

      I do not quite understand the connection between the Romantic Fallacy and the appeal of Marxism. Indeed I have never understood Marxism. In recent years I have realized that it is not Marxism that needs to be understood, it is the appeal of Marxism that needs to be understood. In "African Genesis" Ardrey spends a lot of time arguing that the romantic fallacy is basic to the appeal of Marxism. Here is a relevant paragraph. It has about ten or a dozen steps. I can't see how they form a logical progression.

      "Man's original nature is peaceable and good. His social environment must therefore be the cause of hostility and vice. The nature of man's society is determined by the ownership of land and the means of production. The nature of man himself is therefore determined by the ownership of capital. So long as ownership remains in private hands, humankind will remain divided between the exploiters and the exploited, and states will exist to protect the exploiters. All history, in consequence, must be interpreted in terms of the struggle between the two classes; all wars in terms solely of the exploiting class's efforts to gain or defend economic advantage. But if the exploited can gain control of the state, then private ownership will be ended. The exploiting class will be ended. The class struggle will be ended. War, misery, vice, hostility, and at last the need for the state itself will be ended, since man is naturally peaceable and good."

      I have no problem with sentence number one. It is a subjective judgment, a value judgment, a relative judgment, and a philosophical judgment. Therefore whether one agrees or not, it hardly seems worthwhile to argue about. But does sentence number one lead to sentence number two? What is social environment? It could probably be defined in a dozen different ways, with as many different sets of implications. Sentence number two, it seems to me, is pretty meaningless, and certainly does not follow logically from sentence number one. Sentence number two might be an idea worthy of careful thought, but that is quite different than saying it naturally follows sentence number one. If it does, it needs to be explained.

      Sentence number three, about the "nature of man's society" might also be an idea worthy of careful thought. We might find a lot of value in the sentence, but somebody's got to explain it. I can't see that it either naturally or logically follows the first two sentences.

      Then we come to sentence number four. "The nature of man himself is therefore determined by the ownership of capital." Say, what?! Is land the same as capital? Ownership of land in many societies doesn't have much meaning, or widely varying meanings. What's the "nature of man"? What counts as capital? Can you give some examples?

      And so it goes with each succeeding sentence. Each sentence may have some truth or value, or not, but it needs to be developed. It needs to be explained. By itself each sentence seems only a bit of rhetoric, too general to be strictly provable or disprovable, and too general to be very meaningful, and only vaguely a successor of what came before. Each sentence, if it has value, will have to have it's meaning and value explained. Each sentence, if it in any way follows what comes before, will have to have that connection explained.

      There seems to be a connection between good intentions and the idea that man is naturally good. I don't understand that very well. If a person has good intentions (and good intentions are seldom in short supply), how is there any benefit in asserting that man is naturally good. Or bad? Are good intentions bolstered by an appeal to the natural goodness of man, or validated, or promoted? Perhaps it could be argued that if man is naturally good, then we don't have much need of good intentions. It's a mystery to me.

      I want to be safe in my home. A belief in the natural goodness of man tells me that there's no problem. Man is naturally good, so I'm safe in my home. Is that sufficient? But then the connected idea, that civilization is bad, tells me that maybe I'm not so safe after all. But does this lead anywhere?

      Now let's turn that into a context of good intentions. I want you to be safe in your home. That's my good intention. Man is naturally good, so you're safe. My good intention is accomplished without effort. I want you to be safe, and you are safe because man is naturally good, so I am under no obligation to do anything further to act on my good intention. But that's not the end of it. Civilization has corrupted man, so you're not safe after all. My good intention is not realized without effort after all. Since civilization has corrupted everything, you are not safe in your home. So if my good intention is to mean anything I must somehow find something to do to make you safe. However, since I am part of civilization, and corrupted by civilization, when I try to do good I might do bad. So why is there a connection between good intentions and the romantic fallacy? Does this type of thinking lead anywhere?

      A simple belief in the natural goodness of man would not seem to make it harder to do good, but it wouldn't seem to make it easier, either. But then when we add on the connected belief that civilization makes things bad then everything seems to get hopelessly muddled. Nevertheless it does seem that people who are enamored with good intentions tend to latch on to the romantic fallacy.

      My perspective has long been that the romantic fallacy, on balance, makes doing good harder. To me, a painfully familiar situation in which the romantic fallacy makes it harder to do good is in math education, and perhaps this is as good as any to illustrate how the romantic fallacy can get in the way of doing good.

      There are "math wars" going on at the present time, and have been for several decades. I am a strong partisan, even a participant, in these wars when I get the chance. One one side in this war is much of the "math ed establishment". You know which side I'm on when I say this is the ivory tower side, the side that enthusiastically drinks the kool aid of the romantic fallacy. This side says that the best way to teach arithmetic is to get out of the way and let children explore and figure it out for themselves, in group situations preferably. The other side in the math wars, my side, says learning arithmetic is not very natural. It takes a lot of direct simple explanation, a lot of practice, a lot of review, a lot of feedback, a lot of effort, a lot, in short, of what good teachers have been doing for several hundred years. To adherents of this side the term "educational fad" is painfully meaningful, and depressing.

      A conscientious math teacher wants to impart knowledge, and indeed math is important knowledge. Doing good, among many other things, means teaching math well. The romantic fallacy, in my humble opinion, makes it very hard for a math teacher to do good. It subverts what should be a relatively simple and straightforward task. The romantic fallacy tells the teacher not to actively teach. just get out of the way and let the natural goodness of the child take over. But this doesn't work very well.

      To those who follow such things a depressingly familiar pattern unfolds. A school will adopt a new math program, sometimes with considerable fanfare. The school will play up the new program, but as time passes parents start to become alarmed. Their children are frustrated by the new math, and the parents are bewildered in trying to help. Parents develop serious concerns about the adequacy of the math education their children are getting. They fear their children's education is being compromised in an important way. Parents find they can't effectively help their children because they don't understand the new math. Indeed they are actively discouraged from trying to help their children with their math. In many communities concerned parents bring pressure on the school board to go back to the old understandable math. Often a few parents will start and organization to oppose the new math, and of course they set up a website. I have seen many of these websites in recent years.

      In my view the romantic fallacy has done substantial harm to math education in recent decades. But that is only a part of the bigger picture of harm done to education in many ways by the romantic fallacy. In the teaching of reading and English there is such a thing as "whole language". I am not familiar with any details of this, but I believe it roughly parallels the "fuzzy math" that I have described. And there is something similar in the teaching of history.

      There is an important concept that I want to bring up now, a concept that seems inextricably linked to the romantic fallacy and its many manifestations. That is the concept of "free floating guilt turned inward". Many times when I talk about the sentiment that civilization is bad, we could equally well interpret that sentiment as "We are bad. We are guilty." Guilty of what? Well, that's why I call it "free floating guilt". Usually when we speak of guilt we have some transgression in mind. If we say someone is guilty, we naturally ask, guilty of what? Yet commonly we observe what seems to be guilt, but with no sin attached. When a teacher following an educational fad says we should just step back and let the natural curiosity of the child lead his education, we can interpret that as "civilization is bad" or we can interpret that as "We are bad". Of course "bad" and "guilty" are not quite the same thing, but a general negativity turned inward seems pretty common.

      In politics the "blame America first" mentality seems pretty common. American is imperialist, according to this perspective. That's the cause of all the troubles in the world. Or so it seems to many people. If people are poor in India it must be because we are rich in America, though that connection is not explained. We are bad. We are guilty. That is all. We are not expected to ask what the connection is between being rich in America and poor in India.

      I reject this kind of thinking. I see it as a manifestation of the romantic fallacy. Man is born good, but is everywhere in chains, because we are bad. We are guilty. I don't think that is healthy thinking.

      Is there some sort of logical or natural connection between the idea that man is born good, and free floating guilt being turned inward? I don't understand it. But I do assert that those two ideas are often connected. The idea that civilization corrupts that natural goodness is a partial bridge between the two ideas, but doesn't seem at all complete or satisfying.

      I wouldn't ask anyone to reject the basic premise that man is born good. But I would ask people to consider that basic premise mostly irrelevant to living a good life and making a good world. Indeed the premise that man is born good can be considered just another way to state the first principle of our religion, the worth and dignity of every person.

      It can be argued that our first principle will tell us what to do, but I find that argument pretty limited and unconvincing. I don't buy it. My four year old neighbor who molested my pumpkins doesn't need a general philosophical idea about the goodness of man to guide him to right behavior about gardens and pumpkins and neighbors. What he needs is information, specific information about gardens and pumpkins and neighbors, and boundaries, and property, and respect for property, and a whole lot more. Yes, I hope as he grows up he accepts lots of good ideas about the goodness of humanity, the potential goodness at least, and I hope he takes these ideas to heart. But first he needs specific information. Our first principle, the worth and dignity of every person, doesn't tell a four year old kid a thing about gardens and pumpkins and neighbors.

      And if my four year old neighbor grows up to accept the depravity fallacy, he still might be a good person. If he is a Calvinist in his outlook then it seems to me his quality of life is not ideal, but that will probably not make him any less of a good citizen or a good neighbor. And if he is a Calvinist he still needs a lot of specific information about gardens and pumpkins and neighbors, and boundaries, and property, and respect for property, and a whole lot more.

      He will get this information from his parents. That means he will get the information he needs from civilization. So why did Rousseau say civilization corrupts the natural goodness of man? Why did anyone believe him?