Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History

 

“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Jury-man, the Judge, long ranks of new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” (Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities p. 292)

In this blog-post I will evaluate Ben Shapiro’s claim that the different levels of violence in the French Revolution and the American Revolution can be accounted for in terms of the different underlying philosophies which motivated both revolutions. In part 1 of the blog-post I will show that from a logical point of view Shapiro’s argument doesn’t prove what he thinks it does. While in part 2 I will evaluate the empirical data Shapiro presents. The overall conclusion of the blog-post will be that Shapiro’s argument doesn’t go through on either logical or empirical grounds.

                              Part 1: A Logical Analysis:

In his 2019 book ‘The Right Side of History’ Ben Shapiro made a causal claim about the nature of the Enlightenment. According to Shapiro the Enlightenment has two major strands:

“The Enlightenment straddled two sides of a thin line. On the one side was the American Enlightenment, based on the consummation of a long history of thought stretching back to Athens and Jerusalem, down through Great Britain and the Glorious Revolution, and to the New World; on the other was the European Enlightenment, which rejected Athens and Jerusalem in order to build new worlds beyond discoverable purpose and divine revelation.” ( Ben Shapiro ‘The Right Side of History’ p. 122)

Shapiro argued that history performed a comparative experiment as to which form of Enlightenment was the superior one. He reasoned as follows: the American Revolution was primarily influenced by the Judeo-Christian philosophy and the Greek philosophical tradition whereas the French Revolution was influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau with his emphasis on the general will and Voltaire’s general scorn for tradition (ibid p. 122). He went on to note that the French Revolution was much more violent than the American Revolution. So he concluded; X and Y had different levels of violence and the different levels of violence are best explained by different underlying philosophies p and q. Therefore since p and q are the only relevant differences between X and Y they are assumed to be the cause of the difference. This explanation is a simple billiard ball explanation. If a ball 1 hits ball 2 and then ball 2 moves then the only logical explanation is that ball 1 hitting ball 2 is the cause of its moving.

Shapiro’s reasoning is somewhat clear. If there is one clear difference between two distinct outcomes e.g. (a particular philosophical system being adopted) then it is a reasonable conjecture that this difference is the cause of the distinct outcomes. Nonetheless, prior to looking at the details it is important to note some obvious flaws in Shapiro’s reasoning. It is (or should be) a truism that correlations aren’t identical with causation. To use a clichéd example, imagine a bell and horn which are built to go off in sequence, the bell goes off and immediately a horn goes off. The reason they follow each other in sequence is because of a timer built into the bell and the horn by a designer. A naïve theorist who hears the bell go off and immediately hears the horn follow a few hundred times could make the erroneous conjecture that the bell is the cause of the horn going off. Such a naïve theorist would be guilty of confusing correlations (x always preceding y) with a causal statement that x is the cause of y. To avoid such simple confusion of correlation with causation our naïve theorist should have tried a variety of different experiments to disentangle whether x was actually the cause of y.

Shapiro’s reasoning is a paradigm case of confusing causation with correlation. He assumes that because something {distinct philosophical systems} can be correlated with different outcomes; therefore the distinct philosophical systems are the cause of the different outcomes. We know from the physical sciences how difficult it can be to isolate a singular cause of a particular state of affairs. A good technique to use is Mill’s method of differences where you do experiments where you can isolate various different factors { selectively removing or adding them} to see what outcome their addition or subtraction has to the phenomena you are studying. Shapiro seems to think that the different outcomes of the French and American revolutions in terms of violence are a natural experiment which show that Judeo Christian/Greek philosophies are the relevant factor in causing a less violent outcome.

Even if we grant for the sake of argument Shapiro’s empirical premises (1) The French Revolution was more violent than The American Revolution, (2) The only difference between the two different revolutions were the different philosophies adopted. It still wouldn’t follow that Judeo Christian Philosophy/Greek Philosophy made the American Revolution less violent. One could instead conjecture that the key variable was the influence of Rousseau and Voltaire’s philosophy which made the French Revolution more violent. One could argue consistently with Shapiro’s premises that the Judeo Christian/ Greek Philosophies do little work and the primary thing to emphasise is the importance of Rousseau and Voltaire’s philosophies in in causing the levels of violence. The primary point to note is that Shapiro’s natural experiment isn’t fine grained enough to decide between the different alternative interpretations we presented above. Contrary to Shapiro’s confident assertions his “natural experiment” does not tell us that adoption of Judeo-Christian/Greek philosophy is the key causal factor in the levels of violence that occurred in the revolutions. His natural history experiment leaves it underdetermined what the relevant causal factor was in the different levels of violence in the two Revolutions were.

In the above discussion we took Shapiro’s generalizations at face value and showed that even if we accept his generalisations they do not demonstrate what the causal factor is in the different levels of violence in both revolutions. In the next section we will look at the Shapiro’s empirical claims and examine whether he has provided sufficient support to justify them. By the end of the next section we will have conclusively shown that Shapiro’s empirical assumptions aren’t even remotely justified. We will have shown that Shapiro’s analysis of the French and American Revolution is unsupported on either empirical or logical grounds.

                     Part 2: An Empirical Analysis

When trying to evaluate Shapiro’s claims about both revolutions it is striking how rationalistic his interpretation of both revolutions is. On Shapiro’s world view both revolutions are idea lead and any difference in outcome can be explained by the influence of these ideas. On his picture; people subscribe to certain philosophies, and these philosophies dictate their actions in the world. In the words of Shapiro’s friend Sam Harris “Beliefs have Consequences”. If the people leading the French Revolution held the philosophy that there “were are no rights over and above the will of the people”, and that “traditions are there to be torn down” then this belief would have certain consequences.

At one level the “beliefs have consequences” mantra is a truism that is hard to deny. If I believe that it is going to rain today this may have the consequence of me wearing a rain coat. But when it comes to more complex behavioural patterns it becomes harder to tell a rationalistic view of the beliefs that people are subscribing to and how these beliefs effect behaviour. Firstly individuating beliefs is no trivial matter. A person says that he is behaving is a particular way x because of certain beliefs that he holds, nonetheless we can have good reason to doubt that the person is actually acting because of these professed beliefs. In the psychological literature there is an abundance of data which indicates that people’s reasons for their actions are not transparent to them. So, for example, in some psychological experiments words are flashed at people on a screen at such speeds that the mind cannot consciously register the words and would deny seeing them. Nonetheless when experimenters use various different word association tests the experimental subjects show a preferential bias for the word that has just been flashed before them. When asked about this preferential bias the subjects typically offer a series of confabulations to explain their behaviour and are surprised to learn that they are confabulating and that the real reason they show the preference is because the image was flashed before them below the level of consciousness and these subliminal images are the cause of their preferential word biases. In these controlled experiments people’s expressed reasons to explain their behaviour are less reliable than it may first appear. There are hundreds of experiments of this type, which indicate that our cognizance of the reasons for our behaviour are less transparent to us than we typically think.

Nonetheless, it could be objected to the above claim that the experiments in the psychological literature involve casual belief desire explanations by subjects in highly artificial circumstances. Hence the experiments have little to say about how a subject’s beliefs on philosophical subjects they have thought deeply about effect their behaviour when acting in the world.

However, despite there not being an abundance of controlled experiments on people’s philosophical beliefs and their effects on behaviour in political situations; there is reason to be sceptical of Shapiro’s cheerful rationalism. A brief discussion of the French Revolution will serve to disabuse one of the simple belief that it was a natural consequence of a particular philosophy playing out. Any reading of the French revolution will have to give contingent events as big role to play in the explanation as the role of abstract philosophical systems.

The terror of Contingency

Shapiro focuses on philosophical tracts which influenced the main protagonists in the French Revolution. He spends less time considering art and its influence on the emotions of French people from various different strata. Literacy rates were extremely high (Citizens p. 180) in France at the time of the French Revolution and various different art forms were extremely important to people of various different social standing. Comic Operas such as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ captivated and amused people through a series of jokes, sardonic sneers, etc. Paintings by people Greuze’s, Diderot’s plays, etc captured the publics imagination. These various different art forms moved people in ways that are not precisely quantifiable and had as much influence on people’s behaviour during the revolution as any philosophical text did. It is impossible to pick out a few abstract ideas and to claim that these ideas governed the behaviour of the various different players in the revolution; human behaviour is never that simple.

One of the most hated figures of the French Aristocracy was Mary Antoinette. But the French public’s general relationship to her wasn’t one of abstract philosophical ruminations on the nature of aristocracy. On the contrary she roused misogynistic fantasies amongst the French public, gossip and short stories about her centred on her engaging in orgies, having incestuous relationships with her son etc. When trying to understand the behaviour of people during and in the lead up to the Revolution it is important to view people as emotional and not always rational agents and to not pretend that they are simply acting on dry philosophical ideas.

Even idiosyncratic acts of nature can influence the behaviour of people and direct it in ways it may not have gone in otherwise. So, for example, in France in 1788 there was hailstorm burst, and in much of France a drought followed. That, in turn, was succeeded by a winter of a severity the like of which had not been seen since 1709 (Citizens p. 305):

“Frozen rivers stopped water mills from turning what grain there was into flour, and prevented transportation of emergency supplies to areas of greatest want. Deep snow lay on the ground as far south as the Haute-Garonne, west of Toulouse, where between Feburary 26 and April 10th there were fresh falls almost every other day. In January Mirabeau described Provence as visited by the Exterminating Angel. “Every scourge has been unloosed. Everywhere I have found men dead of cold and hunger, and in the midst of wheat for lack of flour, all the mills being frozen.”

The thaw brought its own miseries. In mid-January, the frozen Loire melted suddenly, sending flood waters over fields and pasture and bursting through rudimentary retaining dikes into the streets of Blois and Tours…the cruelties of the weather followed a harvest in 1787 that was no better than medicore…” ( Citizens p. 305)

All of this caused the doubling of bread prices and firewood which were basic requirements of the French peasants. Such contingent hardships can have wild effects on a groups political persuasions. With people cold, hungry and desperate it is more and more difficult to please them in trying to appease them in negotiations about how society is to be run.

None of the points I have touched on are decisive points in French Revolution or the Terrors that followed. I am merely pointing out that Shapiro’s emphasis on the key role played by philosophical views in distinguishing the French Revolution from the American Revolution is too disembodied and abstract. It ignores the lived experience and emotional lives of the people who lived through the revolution. Shapiro argues as if the revolution was simply the result of abstract philosophical principles being followed and ignores the concrete experiences of people living through the revolution.

Another weakness of in Shapiro’s account is that he argues as though there were no other differences between the French and American Revolution. He ignores the obvious difference that the colonists in America saw themselves fighting an external force from another country. Whereas in the French Revolution they were fighting not an external force but internal forces who represented different class interests.

2 thoughts on “Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    Rather than take a side in the debate, I challenge the assumptions and framing of the debate. We forget how violent was the American Revolution. More people died during the American Revolution than during the Reign of Terror. Also, during the same period, more people in England died on the gallows.

    The violence of both revolutions was in response to the even greater brutality and mass homicide of authoritarian imperialists. When the French peasants were starving to death because of moral failure of the aristocracy and monarchy, were they supposed to just give up without a fight? People don’t fight and die for ideologies.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/11/30/the-violence-of-bourgeois-revolutions-and-authoritarian-capitalism/

    Reply
    1. Benjamin David Steele

      Of course, I was repeating some of the points you made in this post. But my main point was about the violence. In general, I don’t accept either of “Shapiro’s empirical premises (1) The French Revolution was more violent than The American Revolution, (2) The only difference between the two different revolutions were the different philosophies adopted.” Without those premises, his argument is without foundation and so the debate is moot.

      Reply

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