Review of “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein

For some reason or another, I had never read this book. I can’t decide how to review it, since there’s already so much that’s been said about it. I think I’m just going to quote a couple passages and let my readers infer the rest.

Here’s a snippet from a classroom discussion (all the classroom discussions take place in a class called History and Moral Philosophy) on what happened to the US:

Mr. Dubois was talking about the disorders that preceded the breakup of the North American republic, back in the XXth century. According to him, there was a time just before they went down the drain when such crimes as Dillinger’s [Dillinger murdered a young girl] were as common as dogfights. The Terror had not been just in North America — Russia and the British Isles had it, too, as well as other places. But it reached its peak in North America shortly before things went to pieces.

"Law-abiding people," Dubois had told us, "hardly dared go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons . . . to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably — or even killed. This went on for years, right up to the war between the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony. Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places — these things happened also on the streets in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings. But parks were so notoriously unsafe that honest people stayed clear of them after dark."

I had tried to imagine such things happening in our schools. I simply couldn’t. Nor in our parks. A park was a place for fun, not for getting hurt. As for getting killed in one — "Mr. Dubois, didn’t they have police? Or courts?"

"They had many more police than we have. And more courts. All overworked."

"I guess I don’t get it." If a boy in our city had done anything half that bad . . . well, he and his father would have been flogged side by side. But such things just didn’t happen.

Mr. Dubois then demanded of me, "Define a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ "

"Uh, one of those kids — the ones who used to beat up people."

"Wrong."

"Huh? But the book said — "

"My apologies. Your textbook does so state. But calling a tail a leg does not make the name fit ‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did you housebreak him?"

"Err . . . yes, sir. Eventually." It was my slowness in this that caused my mother to rule that dogs must stay out of the house.

"Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?"

"What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.

"What did you do?"

"Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him."

"Surely he could not understand your words?"

"No, but he could tell I was sore at him!"

"But you just said that you were not angry."

Mr. Dubois had an infuriating way of getting a person mixed up. "No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?"

"Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you indicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?"

I didn’t then know what a sadist was — but I knew pups. "Mr. Dubois, you have to! You scold him so that he knows he’s in trouble, you rub his nose in it so that he will know what trouble you mean, you paddle him so that he darn well won’t do it again — and you have to do it right away! It doesn’t do a bit of good to punish him later; you’ll just confuse him. Even so, he won’t learn from one lesson, so you watch and catch him again and paddle him still harder. Pretty soon he learns. But it’s a waste of breath just to scold him." Then I added, "I guess you’ve never raised pups."

"Many. I’m raising a dachshund now — by your methods. Let’s get back to those juvenile criminals. The most vicious averaged somewhat younger than you here in this class . . . and they often started their lawless careers much younger. Let us never forget that puppy. These children were often caught; police arrested batches each day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret — in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that spanking, or any punishment involving pain, did a child permanent psychic damage."

(I had reflected that my father must never have heard of that theory.)

"Corporal punishment in schools was forbidden by law," he had gone on. "Flogging was lawful as sentence of court only in one small province, Delaware, and there only for a few crimes and was rarely invoked; it was regarded as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ " Dubois had mused aloud, "I do not understand objections to ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism? However, that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense.

"As for ‘unusual,’ punishment must be unusual or it serves no purpose." He then pointed his stump at another boy. "What would happen if a puppy were spanked every hour?"

"Uh . . . probably drive him crazy!"

"Probably. It certainly will not teach him anything. How long has it been since the principal of this school last had to switch a pupil?"

"Uh, I’m not sure. About two years. The kid that swiped — "

"Never mind. Long enough. It means that such punishment is so unusual as to be significant, to deter, to instruct. Back to these young criminals — They probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes. The usual sequence was: for a first offense, a warning — a scolding, often without trial. After several offenses a sentence of confinement but with sentence suspended and the youngster placed on probation. A boy might be arrested many times and convicted several times before he was punished — and then it would be merely confinement, with others like him from whom he learned still more criminal habits. If he kept out of major trouble while confined, he could usually evade most of even that mild punishment, be given probation — ‘paroled’ in the jargon of the times.

"This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and viciousness, with no punishment whatever save rare dull-but-comfortable confinements. Then suddenly, usually by law on his eighteenth birthday, this so-called ‘juvenile delinquent’ becomes an adult criminal — and sometimes wound up in only weeks or months in a death cell awaiting execution for murder. You — "

He had singled me out again. "Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house . . . and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken — whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?"

"Why . . . that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!"

"I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?"

"Uh . . . why, mine, I guess."

"Again I agree. But I’m not guessing."

"Mr. Dubois," a girl blurted out, "but why? Why didn’t they spank little kids when they needed it and use a good dose of the strap on any older ones who deserved it — the sort of lesson they wouldn’t forget! I mean ones who did things really bad. Why not?"

"I don’t know," he had answered grimly, "except that the time-tested method of instilling social virtue and respect for law in the minds of the young did not appeal to a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class who called themselves ‘social workers’ or sometimes ‘child psychologists.’ It was too simple for them, apparently, since anybody could do it, using only the patience and firmness needed in training a puppy. I have sometimes wondered if they cherished a vested interest in disorder — but that is unlikely; adults almost always act from conscious ‘highest motives’ no matter what their behavior."

"But — good heavens!" the girl answered. "I didn’t like being spanked any more than any kid does, but when I needed it, my mama delivered. The only time I ever got a switching in school I got another one when I got home and that was years and years ago. I don’t ever expect to be hauled up in front of a judge and sentenced to a flogging; you behave yourself and such things don’t happen. I don’t see anything wrong with our system; it’s a lot better than not being able to walk outdoors for fear of your life — why, that’s horrible!"

"I agree. Young lady, the tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it (I should not have sneered at their motives) but their theory was wrong — half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct."

"Sir? But I thought — But he does! I have."

"No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not — and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind. These unfortunate juvenile criminals were born with none, even as you and I, and they had no chance to acquire any; their experiences did not permit it. What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do."

"But the instinct to survive," he had gone on, "can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts."

"We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race — we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.

"These juvenile criminals hit a low level. Born with only the instinct for survival, the highest morality they achieved was a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang. But the do-gooders attempted to ‘appeal to their better natures,’ to ‘reach them,’ to ‘spark their moral sense.’ Tosh! They had no ‘better natures’; experience taught them that what they were doing was the way to survive. The puppy never got his spanking; therefore what he did with pleasure and success must be ‘moral.’

"The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ "

"The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature."

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. "Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?"

"Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

"The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it."

Mr. Dubois then turned to me. "I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty.’ But duty is an adult virtue — indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents — people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail."

"And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’ . . . and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure."

The another is from a classroom discussion on voting:

"Throughout history men have labored to place the sovereign franchise in hands that would guard it well and use it wisely, for the benefit of all. An early attempt was absolute monarchy, passionately defended as the ‘divine right of kings.’

"Sometimes attempts were made to select a wise monarch, rather man leave it up to God, as when the Swedes picked a Frenchman, General Bernadotte, to rule them. The objection to this is that the supply of Bernadottes is limited.

"Historic examples range from absolute monarch to utter anarch; mankind has tried thousands of ways and many more have been proposed, some weird in the extreme such as the antlike communism urged by Plato under the misleading title The Republic. But the intent has always been moralistic: to provide stable and benevolent government.

"All systems seek to achieve this by limiting franchise to those who are believed to have the wisdom to use it justly. I repeat ‘all systems’; even the so-called ‘unlimited democracies’ excluded from franchise not less than one quarter of their populations by age, birth, poll tax, criminal record, or other."

Major Reid smiled cynically. "I have never been able to see how a thirty-year old moron can vote more wisely than a fifteen-year-old genius . . . but that was the age of the ‘divine right of the common man.’ Never mind, they paid for their folly.

"The sovereign franchise has been bestowed by all sorts of rules — place of birth, family of birth, race, sex, property, education, age, religion, et cetera. All these systems worked and none of them well. All were regarded as tyrannical by many, all eventually collapsed or were overthrown.

"Now here are we with still another system . . . and our system works quite well [under this system, people vote when they finish voluntary military service]. Many complain but none rebel; personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb. Why? Not because our voters are smarter than other people; we’ve disposed of that argument. Mr. Tammany can you tell us why our system works better than any used by our ancestors?"

I don’t know where Clyde Tammany got his name; I’d take him for a Hindu. He answered, "Uh, I’d venture to guess that it’s because the electors are a small group who know that the decisions are up to them . . . so they study the issues."

"No guessing, please; this is exact science. And your guess is wrong. The ruling nobles of many another system were a small group fully aware of their grave power. Furthermore, our franchised citizens are not everywhere a small fraction; you know or should know that the percentage of citizens among adults ranges from over eighty per cent on Iskander to less than three per cent in some Terran nations yet government is much the same everywhere. Nor are the voters picked men; they bring no special wisdom, talent, or training to their sovereign tasks. So what difference is there between our voters and wielders of franchise in the past? We have had enough guesses; I’ll state the obvious: Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.

"And that is the one practical difference."

"He may fail in wisdom, he may lapse in civic virtue. But his average performance is enormously better than that of any other class of rulers in history."

Major Reid paused to touch the face of an old-fashioned watch, "reading" its hands. "The period is almost over and we have yet to determine the moral reason for our success in governing ourselves. Now continued success is never a matter of chance. Bear in mind that this is science, not wishful thinking; the universe is what it is, not what we want it to be. To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives — such as mine to make your lives miserable once a day. Force, if you will! — the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. Whether it is exerted by ten men or by ten billion, political authority is force."

"But this universe consists of paired dualities. What is the converse of authority? Mr. Rico."

He had picked one I could answer. "Responsibility, sir."

"Applause. Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal — else a balancing takes place as surely as current flows between points of unequal potential. To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority . . . other than through the tragic logic of history. The unique ‘poll tax’ that we must pay was unheard of. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead — and responsibility was then forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple."

"Superficially, our system is only slightly different; we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service — nothing more than a light workout to our cave-man ancestors. But that slight difference is one between a system that works, since it is constructed to match the facts, and one that is inherently unstable. Since sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility — we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life — and lose it, if need be — to save the life of the state. The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert. Yin and yang, perfect and equal."

The Major added, "Can anyone define why there has never been revolution against our system? Despite the fact that every government in history has had such? Despite the notorious fact that complaints are loud and unceasing?"

One of the older cadets took a crack at it. "Sir, revolution is impossible."

"Yes. But why?"

"Because revolution — armed uprising — requires not only dissatisfaction but aggressiveness. A revolutionist has to be willing to fight and die — or he’s just a parlor pink. If you separate out the aggressive ones and make them the sheep dogs, the sheep will never give you trouble."

"Nicely put! Analogy is always suspect, but that one is close to the facts. Bring me a mathematical proof tomorrow. Time for one more question — you ask it and I’ll answer. Anyone?"

"Uh, sir, why not go — well, go the limit? Require everyone to serve and let everybody vote?"

"Young man, can you restore my eyesight?"

"Sir? Why, no, sir!"

"You would find it much easier than to instill moral virtue — social responsibility — into a person who doesn’t have it, doesn’t want it, and resents having the burden thrust on him. This is why we make it so hard to enroll, so easy to resign. Social responsibility above the level of family, or at most of tribe, requires imagination — devotion, loyalty, all the higher virtues — which a man must develop himself; if he has them forced down him, he will vomit them out."

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23 Responses to Review of “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Starship Troopers was written in Heinlein’s most lucid period. Later on he became more strictly libertarian, and slid further into what I call the “Heinlein Corner” which is where a libertarian is unable to reprogram himself, and is thus stuck with correct data but an incorrect formula. The result is often, but not always, cyclical depression.

  2. Red says:

    The more I learn about criminals and human nature the more I think he’s right about flogging and quick punishment. I read in “When Bruit Force Fails” about a system that punishes drug users immediately with short jail sentences after they use again. This system is massively more effective than the same system that waits 3 months to punish the same person with a much larger sentence. As most criminals (children too) have poor impulse control something very primal like pain is far more likely to restrain future bad actions than something like jail ever would. That and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.

    The vet only voting bit has always fascinated me. It well explains the success of the Swiss form of democracy and closely matches who rules after a most conquests in history. The people that we later call nobles where simply men who proved themselves in battle and their descendants. It seems the farther such men get away from actually being military men the worse they rule.

  3. Leonard says:

    A book I am very fond of. If anything environmental put me on the path to libertarianism, SST is up there. It sharply criticizes our form of democracy; that was a huge intellectual step for me. He is talking about political power as a trust, not a right. The implications of that are huge. (The particular form that Heinlein lays out wouldn’t work. But in that direction lies anarchism and for that matter neocameralism.)

    Heinlein’s forecast of crime in the streets (which you quote above) was prescient. We can apply the Moldbug test: go back and see who predicted things correctly before democracy did its thing. Heinlein was just a few years away from the demise of traditional law and order in the USA; but he saw it coming when few did, and he saw why it was coming.

    I might protest that you made the thing sound very dry. Mr. DuBois is great, but there’s plenty of action in the book too. To this boy, the first chapter is one of the coolest hooks ever written.

  4. SkepticalCynical says:

    I haven’t; read SST in years. When I encountered it I was a typical high school liberal, but I remember the two passages above because I though Heinlein had a point. If Heinlein were alive today, perhaps he’d be doing some great writing for a reactionary website – I should go back and re-read the whole book.

    Thanks for the excerpts.

  5. K(yle) says:

    The people that we later call nobles where simply men who proved themselves in battle and their descendants. It seems the farther such men get away from actually being military men the worse they rule.

    I don’t think this is accurate. Augustus was by most metrics a good ruler and was never much of a warrior, especially in comparison to his famously ferocious rivals.

    The military aspect, especially in ancient times where ‘commanders’ were often judged by their individual puissance represents a very real, and very immediate implementation of an obligation upon a ruler in order to rule. It’s not the only situation where that is the case though.

  6. K(yle) says:

    If Heinlein were alive today, perhaps he’d be doing some great writing for a reactionary website

    More likely he’d engage in monomaniacal blathering about polyandry, nudism and incest unfortunately.

  7. Alrenous says:

    I may not have raised any puppies, but he clearly hasn’t been anywhere near children.

    No moral instinct? Every child knows instantly when they have been done wrong. Almost all children also know when they’re doing things they’re not supposed to – you can see it on their faces. They do it anyway as a test. To see if you’re serious. Our juvies are learning that no, we don’t mean it.

    No moral instinct? Absurd. While typically lies when uttered by children…just try to find one that doesn’t use “He started it” and “I had it first.” Both true moral principles.

    Children are far more sensitive than animals. My favourite example is watching a cat lounge on a window’s rail slide, apparently oblivious to the sharp metal flanges. Also, how animals rarely flinch when you examine their wounds.

    If you can’t find a way to communicate with a child without striking them, the failure is yours, not the kid’s.
    Revenge is Sour. (Orwell) The condition under which she should be able to shoot Mussolini is that he already be dead. If your child is small enough to strike without risking reprisal, there’s no need for you to ever strike them.

    If a child truly had no moral instinct, then striking them would be pointless. They would simply evade if and when possible, or else respond with violent self-defence. It would never occur to them that anyone deserved to be hit.

    Instead, even trained martial artists will clasp their hands away to allow their known abusive fathers to hit them.

    The rod teaches only that you get to make the rules if you’re bigger. A struck child learns morality in spite of the rod, not because of it.

    One should never forget that raising a child and meting justice and very different things. Yes, justice is only so if swift and terrible. The purpose of justice, however, is not to deal with those we love, but rather those we justifiably hate.

    • Ariston says:

      Higher IQ children learn morality quicker, resulting in the illusion of the moral instinct to those of us used to interacting with children of average and above-average intelligence. While there may be some instinct towards cooperation, group cohesion and desire to please, these only become impulses towards morality under the correct stimuli and at a speed determined by the intelligence of the person to process them correctly. The IQ-crime correlation is not just incidental.

      Anyone who went to a sufficiently diverse public school and properly remembers first grade should be able to demonstrate the truth of this on their own experience.

    • Nathaniel says:

      You’ve clearly never met a child under 5. Had it, perhaps, occurred to you that by age 5 children have already learned what’s kosher and what’s not? Children over a certain age react with what you consider to be a “natural moral sense” because they’ve been around for a half decade learning how their parents react toward action X, Y, etc.

      A younger child has no moral sense: Their psychology is comparable to that of a sociopath.

      • Alrenous says:

        Ariston,

        I do remember first grade. There’s a difference between knowing morality and caring to act morally. There’s a difference between knowing morality and remembering it, too. Also, critically, impulse control. Your first-grade experiment can’t distinguish any of these differences.

        Also, as I mentioned, tests. Children constantly transgress because adults are hypocrites and often express rules they don’t mean – so children have to test them all.

        Nathaniel,

        I’ve met lots of children under five. I also remember what it was like to be under five, which apparently escapes everyone else. (Did you know explicit memory formation stutters at first? My life’s reel tape would have black sections, and I considered it normal.)

        Are you seriously proposing that adults strike or otherwise discipline their children when they start fights but not otherwise? In my experience, adults routinely punish both parties in a fight, because they can’t be arsed to figure out who did start it. Yet children still use ‘he started it.’ Even ‘I’m telling’ is a good one. When do children use it? How?

        Maybe all the children I’ve met were just moral geniuses. Because even the pre-verbal infants I’ve seen have the same outraged cry as everyone else.

        Including me. If I have no moral instinct, I would have had to learn to feel wronged. What new feelings have you been taught to feel over your life?

        Did it ever occur to you to ask a kid about right and wrong, see what they’re actually thinking? Children of course have a unique communication style, and the question must respect that, but if they’re testing it often doesn’t occur to them to hide it. (Do it later. They do need to test and you’ll screw up the test if you ask right away.) Either they don’t know they’re testing and couldn’t work out what to hide even if they wanted to, or once they develop self-awareness, they’ll just tell you. I’ve gotten kids to confess to all sorts of thing adults never would, sometimes by accident.

      • K(yle) says:

        By the time a kid can talk coherently he’s already learned quite a lot. You’re also ignoring in-group versus out-group morality. I agree that Heinlein’s vision of ‘moral sense’ is a bit absolute, but you are taking the term to an absurd level.

        ‘Feeling wronged’ isn’t symbolic of morality. Traditionally it would be the ability to feel that you’ve wronged others. Sure, plenty of children can ‘feel wronged’, but those same kids can be incredibly solipsistic to the point of narcissism.

        As an adult I might feel wronged if you choose to fight me instead of passively handing over your wallet upon request. There’s no morality in my feeling though. I’d just be a raging sociopath, which is reflective of a great many kid’s personality. Things that happen to me are bad, but the negative consequences of my actions aren’t anything that’s going to haunt me.

        I also remember being 5 and slightly under, and I remember not actually feeling that things I did fell into a category of right or wrong until I was at least in 2nd grade. Guilt was a new phenomena. It’s a point of fact that a child’s brain is developing (and in fact continues to develop into a person’s 20s.) I remember the injustice at being caught, but again that’s not a ‘moral sense’. There’s no inborn morality and our eusociality isn’t honed to insect-like levels across ethnic groups.

        Of course where Heinlein goes wrong is that he’s talking about near adults (and in the real world actual adults) and that in-group versus out-group thing comes into effect. Someone, somewhere is banging the war drum and it’s seen as a moral thing to rob, rape and kill whitey if your ears are picking up that reverberation. The victims and perpetrators aren’t part of the same tribe; except the victims are the least likely to understand that.

      • Alrenous says:

        Feeling you’ve wronged someone else is recognizing you’ve done something to make them feel wronged, which is worked out by analogy to the self.

        >I knew the consequences of my misdeeds beforehand, and I was only spanked or switched when I was definitively guilty.

        As I mentioned previously, this thinking clearly requiring a pre-existing moral framework to ever occur to you at all.

        >I remember not actually feeling that things I did fell into a category of right or wrong until I was at least in 2nd grade.

        As above, didn’t is not couldn’t.
        Or, assuming your brain development thing is actually relevant – something you don’t establish – there’s no point in moral instruction before the age of seven or eight, as the necessary brain structures simply don’t exist before then.
        I consider it unlikely, because well-behaved children appear before that age.

      • Alrenous says:

        >I was spanked as a child and I feel it was instructive.

        And I feel it wasn’t. So that kind of cancels out.

        I wasn’t spanked as a child. I wasn’t given time outs. I was barely scolded. I was sent to my room exactly once, after deliberately provoking such a response to see if I could.

        According to your theory, I should be completely amoral.
        So what, I’m some sort of bizarre massive outlier, some genius moral prodigy that learns without being taught?

      • K(yle) says:

        You’re reading what you want to read into what people are telling you instead of actually responding to what is written.

  8. JL says:

    Awful prose. Couldn’t finish it.

  9. KevinV says:

    I’m very glad you’ve read and reviewed what is one of my favorite books. Starship Troopers really is one of those books that divides people, absolutely.

    For the first group, myself included, the ideas set forth in it seem obvious, natural and uncontroversial.

    For the second group, most moderns I would guess, the ideas seem outlandish. Take Hollywood’s take on it for example: I don’t know if you’ve seen the damn movie but if you do you’re in for a shock. It’s a liberal’s parody of the book, complete with complaints of fascism and militarism. In other words, the people who made the film clearly–clearly–didn’t understand any of it at all. It simply made them very uncomfortable. In fact, the movie is so unbelievably bad I sometimes wonder if it was done on purpose.

    Anyway, it’s a great story and is good shorthand to see if you’re dealing with someone who shares your basic worldview.

    Best line:

    “Flores died on the way up.”

  10. Anonymous says:

    “If you can’t find a way to communicate with a child without striking them, the failure is yours, not the kid’s.”

    I know the classroom conversation was about more than corporal punishment, but I’d like to pose this question: which group of people received more parental corporal punishment as children: convicted felons or college graduates?

  11. Nathaniel says:

    One will also note that Heinlein is appealing to the reader’s knowledge of puppy training; sadly, such knowledge is rare these days, and thus his argument does not work on a significant portion of the populace.

    If I had a dime for every mistrained and badly behaved dog I’ve met…

    • K(yle) says:

      If I had a dime for every mistrained and badly behaved dog I’ve met…

      He’s appealing to knowledge of housebreaking a dog. I’d hazard to guess that even poorly trained dogs have at least been housebroken. Not to mention all of the shows on Animal Planet about training dogs, in particular the immediate punishment being the only effective method of punishment.

      What you’re noticing is people still loving dogs but having very little free time, and dogs that are both under-exercised and under-trained due to how time intensive it is.

      which group of people received more parental corporal punishment as children: convicted felons or college graduates?

      I was spanked as a child and I feel it was instructive. I don’t have a jacket. It probably really depends on what you mean by corporal punishment. Arbitrarily smacking your kid isn’t corporal punishment. I knew the consequences of my misdeeds beforehand, and I was only spanked or switched when I was definitively guilty. I was never hit for being too loud or annoying, et cetera.

  12. Isegoria says:

    It looks like we cited many of the same passages from the book — although I suppose it’s hard not to.

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  14. David Yandell says:

    Heinlein is wrong . Moral instinct is hereditary. “On Killing”, book by a Green Beret, asserts that humans have an innate instinct not to kill other humans. He asserts that past wars, as bloody as they were, should have been bloodier, considering the potential of gunpowder weapons. Most men deliberately miss or pretend to fire.The military is aware of this, he claims, and have enacted psychological methods to overcome the instinct, subsequently increasing the psychological disorders of veterans.

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