Category Archives: Morality

What are the important moral questions?

When we talk about “moral issues,” we could be talking about a lot of things. On this blog, I make a clear distinction between “morality” and “ethics,” in order to not be misunderstood. By “morality” I designate evaluations of one’s own actions based on one’s values and desires. By “ethics” I designate universal evaluations of right and wrong which look at how groups and societies should be run. These are two very different things, subject to different principles, so it’s important, in my view, to maintain that distinction.

I showed this distinction in action many times in the two Kolhberg dilemmas I analyzed (Joe and his father, and Heinz and the drug). So, for example, “should Heinz steal the drug” is a moral question, because the answer would depend on a specific person’s values and desires, while “is it actually right or wrong for him to steal the drug?” is an ethical question, because the answer would be something universal, based on principles of conduct, not on any person’s values.

Starting from here, a further point is that most specifically moral questions tend to be very boring, because the only strictly logical answer is some variant of “well, that depends on the person’s values.” Should Heinz steal the drug for his wife? Well, if he values his wife more than not getting caught, then yes. Otherwise, probably not. There is no universal answer that one can give to such questions because, by definition, they are not universal but personal.

Another category of questions is meta-moral questions, and we should also carefully separate these as well. Meta-moral questions concern the sources and justifications of morality. Utilitarianism, moral intuitionism, divine command theory, moral non-cognitivism, moral nihilism, are all meta-moral positions: they defend some view of where morality comes from, or what morality actually is. So questions like “on what basis should Heinz morally evaluate the action of stealing the drug” or “what property of Heinz makes him able to evaluate his actions” would be meta-moral questions. These tend to be very interesting because of the wide range of positions and the vast disagreement between different meta-moral positions, but they don’t tend to hold much practical importance. Whatever our meta-moral positions, we tend to behave roughly the same, as far as I know.

And this is the first moral fact which I think is relevant here. If you take a global view of how human beings act, and don’t focus on ethical or meta-moral disagreements, then you find a lot of agreement. We pretty much all value being healthy, being able to live comfortably, being good people, and so on and so forth. We may disagree on how to achieve these goals, and we may express them differently depending on the culture we live in, but in terms of values you will find general agreement. This is why we can have something like the Maslow pyramid of needs and there’s not too much disagreement about it: we all have physical, mental and psychological needs that must be fulfilled, and whenever we are able to fulfill them, we generally do so.

There are interesting things to be discussed in the differences in values, but most of those differences in values are brought about because of religion, politics, or other authoritarian systems. Hierarchical systems in general (including religion, government, capitalism, the family structure, childism, sexism, racism, and so on) are pretty much omnipresent in our lives, and they all seek to indoctrinate the individual to think and act in certain ways. This is why I believe that the first moral question of import is: should we obey or should we rebel, and to what extent?

Even though we have to choose, either choice is a pretty bad one. To obey means to deny who we are, and our desire for freedom. Some people can suppress those desires and do well as obedient citizens, but many people cannot. To rebel means constantly being in the crosshairs, and depending on how much one rebels, can mean a loss of status, material resources, being incapable of getting a job, and being ostracized by the rest of society. There are of course degrees of rebellion. Some rebellions, like being an atheist in a Western country or being into polyamory, are relatively benign. Others, like actively fighting against your government or your economic system, can be very dangerous to fatal.

It is this tension between the individuated self and social institutions which provides the context to most moral dilemmas (such as the two Kolhberg dilemmas I analyzed). To a person who wants to do precisely and nothing more than what they are told to do, then there are few moral dilemmas. And if society tolerated every dissenting opinion and let anyone attack it as they wished (whether from the left or from the right), then there would be few moral dilemmas either. But such a person would hardly be human, and such a society could not survive. So therefore there must always be some tension between individual freedom and institutional survival.

Here are some interesting questions based on this that are worth asking:

* Why do some people obey so willingly even in atrocious situations (e.g. white people smiling at lynchings, people committing or defending horrible war crimes) and others disobey even in situations where disobedience is fatal (e.g. the White Rose in Nazi Germany, people who hid Jews during WW2)?

* To what extent should individuals accept institutional encroachment into their lives?

* To what extent should parents indoctrinate their children into obedience to various institutions and social roles?

* In general, what features of society motivate people to act in the ways they do, and are those features desirable or undesirable?

* To what extent do any individual’s actions participate in the construction of society itself?

I don’t think any of these questions have black and white answers (which is why they are interesting).

Note that the distinction I am making here is nothing like the typical “egoism v altruism” distinction, which, as I’ve already discussed, is meaningless (and besides, is really a collective attribute and therefore has little to do with morality anyway). It is more under the lines of D&D moral alignments “lawful v chaotic.” But more importantly, we can look at the recent remake of the Milgram Experiment for more information. Obedience v rebellion can be explained, to some extent, by whether the individual is social or not. Social individuals tend to be more obedient (to go along with the flow, to be like everyone else), while anti-social individuals tend to be more rebellious.

So, to that extent that sociability makes one more likely to obey, we can extend the discussion to sociability and anti-sociability. To what extent should individuals modify their beliefs to fit in with a group? Does being sociable necessarily preclude the possibility of rebellion, and to what extent? In general, what gets people to be more or less sociable?

We can connect this to the principle that we should not treat people as means to an end. People who are particularly sociable treat other people as a meant to an end, the end generally being to be popular or well-liked. We all know the feeling of a really sociable people trying to manipulate us into liking them. People who are anti-social don’t see people as means to an end: when they do decide to associate with someone (at least from my experience and observations), it is on the basis of how much they like them, not on the basis of extracting something out of it.

“Self-interest” is not a coherent concept.

Many people believe that human beings only act on the basis of self-interest. However, there are some grave problems with that sort of statement. As it turns out, it is extremely difficult to find a technical definition of “self-interest” which is not either exceedingly vague or handwaving. And without any understanding of what “self-interest” is, then the whole argument falls apart right out of the gate.

Dictionary-level definitions are overvague, talking about “personal interest,” which is of no help because it merely reformulates the “self” as “personal,” a substitution which we already understand and therefore is of no help at all. Technical definitions are not much more helpful. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

Psychological egoism claims that each person has but one ultimate aim: her own welfare. This allows for action that fails to maximize perceived self-interest, but rules out the sort of behavior psychological egoists like to target — such as altruistic behavior or motivation by thoughts of duty alone.

But this is ultimately a handwavey definition. How do we determine that altruistic behavior cannot support one’s own welfare? Does one’s duty never support one’s own welfare? What about the aims we hold which are not related to one’s own welfare? Finally, it seems to, paradoxically, designate as self-interested actions for which we personally see no benefit (see my argument against equating self-interest with hedonism below).

Some people argue that all actions must be selfish, because we always get something out of them. But this does not take into account the fact that all actions are tradeoffs: doing things requires us to expand time, energy, resources, and whatever else. If the return we get is smaller than what we expand in getting it, then how can this be called “selfish”? So it seems to me that this is a dead end. I have lampooned this sort of simplistic thinking in my satire entry about psychological altruism.

Other definitions equate self-interest with hedonism, or well-being. However, these definitions conflict with what we commonly understand as self-interested actions. For instance, if someone does not value or desire pleasure, then it seems perverse to equate self-interest with hedonism. The same general principle can be applied to well-being. In general, it makes little sense to define self-interest as some standard disconnected from the individual’s subjectivity, since, after all, this is about self-interest, not “a person’s actual interest” (or what would be called “enlightened self-interest,” which is a contradiction in terms unless you either redefine “enlightened” or “self-interest”).

Another definition, which seems more promising, is to define self-interest with desires: a self-interested action is an action we desire to perform. However, this is a trivial definition, because any action we perform involves a desire to perform it at some point. This is just a consequence of being an organism with a will, and has no moral relevance. However, it shows us how people might validate the position that “all actions are self-interested.”

So my general position about “self-interest” is that it’s an equivocation between a number of different meanings of “self-interest.” In general order from narrowest scope to widest scope:

Status-self-interest is a term I use to refer to actions which pull ourselves up in society while dragging other people down. Stealing money or other resources, competing on the free market, manipulating people (a vast domain in itself, applicable to all areas of life), lying for personal gain, fraud, are all examples of status-self-interest. My analysis in this entry was based on status-self-interest.

Because of its narrowness, I believe this is the concept of self-interest which imbues the term with the most meaning. When you combine it with the “we all act in our self-interest,” what it basically means is: people are mean-spirited and will do anything to get the upper hand over everyone else. Human society is “red in tooth and claw.”

Well-being-self-interest encompasses the more ultra-rational “enlightened self-interest” ideologies (as well as the more recent secular “morality as well-being” beliefs, which are just declawed and defanged versions of “enlightened self-interest”). This refers to actions which further the individual’s survival and flourishing. They include some status-self-interested actions, as well as other more mundane actions which fulfill biological or psychological needs. In this sense, something like sleeping at least eight hours a day is a self-interested act, because it is conducive to the person’s well-being.

I believe that this concept of self-interest can serve to whitewash self-interest as a whole, because well-being is a rather benign concept. “Self-interest just means doing what’s best for you and your life.”

Emotional-self-interest is what people invoke when they say things like “giving to charity is selfish because it makes you feel good.” I believe this is used to drag actual acts of altruism under the self-interest umbrella: if someone points out an actually altruistic act made by a certain person, simply assume that the person must have had an emotional reason to do what they did and the issue is resolved. Whether they actually did have such a reason is besides the point, as all they’re doing here is cast doubt on the altruist’s position. Any just-so story is enough to accomplish this, and emotions are so wide-ranging in nature that they always provide some way to formulate a just-so story.

Desire-self-interest is, as I’ve already pointed out, trivially true because all actions are preceded by a desire to perform them. This means that desire-self-interest has the widest scope of all, as all actions automatically become part of it simply by the fact that they are actions performed by willful organisms. Therefore this concept can be used to drive home the “fact” that self-interest is inevitable. “We all do the things we want to do, therefore we all operate on self-interest.” (a similar way to do this is by using value-self-interest, which pretty much amounts to the same thing)

You can also replace the term “self-interest” with “selfishness,” “benefit,” and so on, with the same effect.

As in other structures of equivocations, the passage from one version to another carries a lot of argumentative weight. That is why equivocation is a fallacy; as long as the other person does not realize you are equivocating, being able to jump from one version to the other means that your argument is a lot more flexible than it would be if you were arguing logically. Status-self-interest establishes the moral claim, well-being-self-interest makes the claim appear inoffensive, emotional-self-interest and desire-self-interest justify and universalize the claim.

But by looking at the different versions listed separately, we can now see that they all contradict each other. Actions which raise my status may not be conducive to my well-being (especially if they are violent or criminal). An action might make me feel good if I performed it, but I may have no desire to perform it. In some contexts, I may not feel the need to, or want to, do what supports my well-being (I may instead want to take some unhealthy risk). And so on and so forth.

While evolutionary psychology is not based on equivocation, it does share certain attributes with the “self-interest” construct. For one thing, both crucially use and abuse just-so stories: self-interest uses just-so psychological stories as a way to explain away altruistic actions, while evolutionary psychology uses just-so evolutionary stories to fit its agenda onto observed human behavior. In both cases, we are talking about imaginative but irrational guesses, not stories made on the basis of actual evidence or data.

But I think the most important similarity between the two is that they are both pseudo-rational means to support a certain view of human nature. People who claim that the only motivation we have is self-interest are not putting forward a moral claim but rather a claim about human nature, and that claim is that human nature is innately evil or destructive. In that claim is also contained the possibility of change, although many proponents of self-interest believe that we should not try to change our self-interested natures. Evolutionary psychology puts forward the claim that human nature encodes human behavior, that the traditional genderist Western view of the world is not only correct but necessarily correct, and that these things cannot be changed.

These claims are harmonious, but they are not equal. One can believe in self-interest but not in evolutionary psychology, and vice-versa (although admittedly the vice-versa is very unlikely, since virtually all evolutionary psychologists are part of some category of conservatism). Rather, my point is that we should not let claims about human nature masquerade as supposed immutable realities. And I say the same thing about my position too: all positions about human nature should be based on evidence, not on a priori.

In general, the claim that we are all self-interested can be used in one of three ways:

1. We (necessarily) are all self-interested and we have no choice in the matter.
2. We (or most of us) are all self-interested and this is a good thing.
3. We (or most of us) are all self-interested and this should be changed.

Some people from the Leftist side take the third position because they assume that self-interest refers to status-self-interest (because this is the only version of self-interest which is both not inevitable and undesirable). The second position most likely refers to emotional-self-interest or well-being-self-interest. The first position most likely refers to desire-self-interest. This is not set in stone, of course. Ultra-rationalists may argue that status-self-interest is a good thing, because they have been indoctrinated in believing in some form of Social Darwinism (generally of the “unfettered capitalist” kind).

I am not saying here that the equivocation is done on purpose. I don’t think most people who advocate for self-interest in some form (whether saying it’s a good thing, or that it’s just an innate fact we can do nothing about) are aware of this. Indeed, I’ve advocated self-interest in the past, and none of this ever crossed my mind. The whole equivocation is not at all what I was planning on writing about in this entry, because I was not even aware of it. It was only after researching various definitions of self-interest from different sources that, after some deep confusion and some panic, I came to the slow realization that there was an equivocation there. It came to me as a complete surprise, but it only goes to show how shallow and vacuous these Libertarian-right positions are.

The equation of morality with general well-being.

There is a view of morality, most notably being propagated by misogynist and bigot Sam Harris, which claims that morality is reducible to general human well-being. He claims, on that basis, to have identified the scientific underpinnings of morality. These are laughable claims to anyone who knows about moral views and their defeaters, but it seems that a lot of atheists don’t know enough on the subject to really address these claims.

Equating morality with something like “human well-being” is called reductionism- a meta-moral position which reduces evaluative properties (like “good” and “evil”) to some factual property or properties. Sam Harris defines this in his introduction:

I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.

This is the reductionist trick that Harris is using: that evaluative properties can be reduced to questions about emotions, impulses, laws, institutions, and neurophysics. According to this view, knowing enough facts related to these things means that we can make moral judgments, because questions of value are really just questions about these scientific issues. A moral statement can be reduced to some set of factual statements. So when I say, for instance, “torturing babies is wrong,” I am actually making a statement about scientific issues, such as the pain caused by torture, the nervous system of babies, the emotions that a torturer goes through, and so on, which I express through evaluative terms like “wrong.”

The first thing to point out is that there is no evidence to demonstrate that morality is reducible in this manner, there is no evidence to demonstrate that “general human well-being” is actually what morality reduces itself to. The common response given by Harris and others to this objection is: “if you don’t think morality is simply about well-being, then why should we care about what you think morality is?” But this is a poor response. A negative utilitarian could also say the same thing: “if morality is not about minimizing suffering, then why should we care about it?” Likewise for someone who believes morality is reducible to, say, happiness, self-accomplishment, the accumulation of knowledge, or whatever.

This brings me to my next point, which is that this “general human well-being” standard is a utilitarian standard, and therefore can be no more valid than any other utilitarian standard. For instance, Sam Harris cannot validate inter-subjective calculations any more than any other utilitarian can (although they claim far and wide that they can, until you ask them how). Furthermore, like most (but not all) utilitarian positions and like adaptationist positions, it cannot explain acts of self-sacrifice and justifies acts of sacrifice which are clearly immoral.

For instance, we widely believe that the people who helped hide Jews during the Holocaust were acting morally. If morality is reducible to general well-being, then this position is incomprehensible. After all, the act of hiding Jews was a sacrifice of well-being (depending on the country, you could be executed if you were found hiding Jews), at little to no gain in general well-being. Anyone who seriously believes that morality can only mean maximizing general well-being should boo Schindler’s List. Likewise, utilitarian advocates must hold that sacrificing the lives of innocent, non-consenting people in the name of a greater good (like, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is a good thing.

I am not saying that any moral position which entails these views is necessarily wrong, but that these are at least pretty strong counter-arguments. It also gives a lot more weight to our “why should we care” questions. If your moral position entails that self-sacrifice of well-being to help others is bad, and that sacrificing innocent lives for the general well-being is good, then why exactly should we care about it? This seems to be no less a coherent question than the one they ask us.

Another problem, which is a problem for all reductionist positions, is that the well-being standard is an attempt to get evaluative properties from factual statements, which we know is logically impossible. You cannot get moral statements from non-moral statements, any more than you can get esthetic statements from non-esthetic statements, logical statements from non-logical statements, objective obligations from inter-subjective orders, and so on (in that regard, the is/ought dichotomy is really not special at all, but a rather commonplace principle). The formal argument demonstrating the is/ought gap was written by Toomas Karmo in 1988 (I am going here from the description by Michael Huemer in Ethical Intuitionism).

I will spare you the details, but the gist of the argument is this. There are statements that can break the is/ought barrier, but these statements are necessarily trivial (for instance: “it is good to do good things,” or “murder is bad”). For a moral statement to be non-trivial, it must be the case that under some possible sets of values the statement is false, and that under some other possible sets of values the statement is true. For instance, “torturing babies is wrong” is true under most possible sets of values, but it can be false under a possible set of values where torture is an absolute good, therefore the statement “torturing babies is wrong” is non-trivial. To derive a non-trivial moral statement, we must have some way of rejecting some sets of values and not others, but that itself would require a moral judgment. Therefore, no collection of factual statements alone can derive a moral statement.

Suppose a person knew everything there is to know about “positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc,” but held to no value system. This person would still not be able to make non-trivial moral statements. They certainly would not be able to derive “what is good (/desirable/ought to be pursued/whatever) is what furthers general human well-being,” unless they were first able to logically eliminate all possible value systems which do not further well-being, which they cannot.

Sam Harris also addresses intuitionism, but his reasoning is, well, bizarre:

I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).

Of course it doesn’t. Why should we expect intuitions to jibe with someone’s manufactured moral system? To take an example I’ve already used, intuitively we do not boo Schindler’s List, but Harris’ standard means we should. Does that mean the intuitions are clearly wrong? The only way this argument makes any sense is if we assume Harris’ morality is true by definition and the golden standard by which we should evaluate all other moral claims, but as I think I’ve demonstrated here, this is very silly.

This also brings up another big problem with Harris’ moral stance. How do we know he’s right? Since no amount of factual information can validate it, we must therefore validate it through our own morality. But this, in turn, means that Harris’ position is itself secondary to some other principle, the principle that was used to evaluate whether the position is valid or not. If someone thinks that well-being is a good standard, the moral principle by which he has judged it good must therefore be superior to, and replace, well-being. And if we cannot judge Harris’ stance as being morally good, then why follow it?

The fundamental problem with Christianity.

There are a LOT of things wrong with Christianity as a religion. Its history, its holy book, the kind of person it molds you to become, the fact that it’s still strongly socialized in many children, the political dogmas it has sprouted in the Western world, and so on. It is important to talk about all of these things.

However, none of these things are necessarily fundamental to the religion. All ideologies or worldviews have a core, a set of fundamental premises which must be true in order for that ideology or worldview to make sense. In some cases, these premises are explicitly stated, and in other cases, you have to infer them. Even if they are explicitly stated, you must still verify their fundamental nature: sometimes a group will have a strong incentive to lie about its fundamental premises (for example, cult idelogies), and sometimes followers who state core premises may simply be mistaken (for example, the people who try to reduce religion to love or peace, when these things have little to do with the core of religious worldviews).

Buddhism is one example of a religion which has explicitly and clearly stated its core premises: the Four Noble Truths. If you believe that the Four Noble Truths are invalid in some substantial way, then you couldn’t be a consistent Buddhist, because everything is (in theory, anyway) derived from them or supported by them. You may believe in the Four Noble Truths and not be a Buddhist. You may also not believe in the Four Noble Truths and claim to be a Buddhist, although you would be dishonest in doing so. If the Four Noble Truths are true, this does not thereby prove that all of Buddhism is true. But if the Four Noble Truths are false, then this definitely would prove that Buddhism is invalid as a worldview (this, of course, does not imply that every single part of Buddhism must be invalid).

What are the fundamental premises of Christianity? There is no explicit list of such premises. However, we know how a Christian is defined by Christians: a person who believes in Jesus as their savior. What premises does this imply?

1. There is a god that created the universe.
2. This god sent its son, Jesus, to be sacrificed in order to make our salvation possible.
3. We must worship this god and its son as the way to salvation.

I have problems with premises 1 and 3, but these problems are frequently discussed in arguments and debates. What is seldom discussion are the implications of premise 2. This process is called atonement, and there are many opinions about what it really means, many disagreements, even though they are all supposedly based on the Bible. No surprises there, as Christians agree on very little, while spending a lot of ink (or electrons) quoting Bible verses for their side. But the proposition that no one disagrees about is that Jesus was sent by God to be sacrificed in order to make our salvation possible. How this actually works in relation to God, humans, and Jesus, who’s forgiving who and why, is of no further relevance and only serves to keep theologians employed.

That, I contend, is the most evil principle ever proposed by any religion. Not because of its consequences (telling people to kill heretics, for example, would bring about a great deal more destruction), but because it represents a complete negation of justice in the purest form ever devised. Nothing else that I know comes close to it.

If justice means anything, it is the assignment of responsibility for actions, and the rational and just evaluation of a person based on that responsibility. You are responsible for events in the world based on the actions you commit, and you are responsible for that part of events which you caused by your actions. To give just one simple example, if you run a pedestrian over, and they die later of their wounds, you are responsible for the death to the extent of the medical consequences of you running them over.

The principle of atonement is the exact opposite of justice, in that it posits that the sacrifice of one person atones for other people’s responsibility. This is the equivalent of, in our example, killing the judge’s child in order to atone for running the pedestrian over. It is a principle which, if implemented to any degree, would lead to nothing but pure evil. It is a principle which runs contrary to all notions of fairness and empathy that are inborn in the human organism, notions which Christians profess were crafted by God, but which contradict this unjust principle.

Christians generally act as if convincing atheists of principle 1 is sufficient to turn them into Christians. In practice, this may be so, but logically it cannot be so. One can accept principle 1 and still reject principles 2 and 3. And in my opinion, anyone who is an ethical person to any degree must reject principles 2 and 3, otherwise they are being inconsistent. People who claim to have been atheists and having been converted by some argument or other must either be evil or ignorant of what they converted to. The latter is most likely. Unfortunately, too many debates and arguments about Christianity revolve solely around whether God exists, creating the illusion that accepting the existence of God must mean accepting Christianity as a worldview.

In order to prove that we should adopt the Christian worldview, Christians must demonstrate, not only the existence of God (an impossible task, as almost 2000 years of apologetics has demonstrated), but also:

* that delegating responsibility of one person’s actions upon another person, and punishing that other person, is just;
* that worshipping a being which created evil, and brought about this evil sacrifice, is a good thing.

These two other hurdles do not follow from the first. Even if one could prove that God exists, this would not prove that justice is exactly the opposite of what it is, or that one should worship such a being in view of all the evils of the world. If God exists, but is pure evil, then the correct, sane response would be to opposite it with all our energies, not worship it. To say otherwise is nothing more than might makes right rhetoric.

Of course, Christians already have a strong incentive in worshipping God: that’s what their in-group does. They also have a strong incentive to accept the injustice of the Jesus narrative: they believe that they benefit from it, by being saved. Of course they are incorrect about the latter, since God does not exist and therefore there is no salvation to be found in Christianity. But even if God did exist, it would still be an irrational proposition: why should anyone trust an evil god about its claims of salvation? I suppose we could call this Chamberlaining (in reference to Neville Chamberlain trying to appease Hitler).

The basic fact is that, if God exists, then all bets are off. This is exactly the flaw that they project upon atheists (“If god does not exist, everything is permitted”). It is Christians who believe that salvation delivers us from sin, even the sins they commit during this life. If Christianity is true, then everything is permitted. Christians try to get around this by saying that anyone who loves God will obey God, but that makes no sense. We don’t obey people because we love them. We obey people because we fear them. And that is what Christianity is really about: fear, fear of sin, fear of impurity, fear of “the world,” fear of disapproval from one’s fellows, fear of being “unsaved,” fear of Hell.

The denial of justice at its most basic level opens the door to treat God as a moral absolute. If there is no justice, then you can’t object to God’s orders being automatically good. You can no longer object to genocide, mass enslavement, mass rape, familial murder, cold-blooded executions. And that’s the corruption of the human sense of morality that Christianity does.

Of course, Christians believe that they are moral people. No one seriously believes (apart from some mentally disturbed individuals) that they are evil people. But Christians are stealing the concept of justice from secular worldviews. Which brings me to another popular apologetics projection, especially on the Internet: presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalists propose that secular people “borrow” a number of concepts from the Christian worldview, that logic, morality and the uniformity of nature can only make sense if God exists.

But this is exactly backwards. It is the Christians who have no grounds for logic, morality and the uniformity of nature. There is no logic, morality, or uniformity of nature possible if God exists, because everything goes if God exists. God could make it so that logic no longer applies, that something immoral becomes moral (like genocide), and miracles are by their very definition a break in the uniformity of nature. Christians only believe in justice because they borrow it from secular worldview, because there is no such thing in Christian doctrines. Christian doctrines give us no objective standards about what makes an action good or evil, only God’s will, which is a subjective construct. If genocide can be both right and wrong within the same worldview, then it is absolutely useless.

Equating intuitionism with “naive intuitionism.”

When you tell people that you’re a moral intuitionist, there is a sort of natural argument that forms in people’s minds, at least people who care about morality at all. This argument consists of equating intuitionism with what I call “naive intuitionism.” I use this term in the same way that people use “naive realism,” a term which refers to the belief that we perceive things exactly as they are. But in reality, perception is mediated by senses and a brain, which filter and interpret sensations. I refer to native intuitionism, therefore, as the belief that the propositions we develop from our moral intuitions are always a direct perception of correct moral principles.

So first, let me point out the fundamental flaw with this argument: being an intuitionist does not mean you must be a naive intuitionist, any more than being a realist means you must be a naive realist. If intuitions are the result of an evolutionary process, which I contend, then we must start from the premise that our moral faculties, like all other biological faculties, are messy. Evolution is a sloppy process of trial and error extended over ages. Because of this generous time frame, it is extremely good at eventually zeroing in on some solution to a specific problem, but it can’t start over. For instance, it can’t look for a more optimal solution if that requires it to backtrack in any way.

It is incontestable that humans are social animals adapted to life in hierarchical communities. Our moral sense is likewise that of a social animal. Not that of a solitary predator, whose calculations are almost solely instrumental (although some stupid humans pretend to imitate such a way of life), but that of a being concerned with the cooperation of others in fulfilling goals. It seems that, from the very first, human communities have fostered cooperation and division of labor. It is little wonder that predatory “moralities” are usually accompanied by a denial of evolution.

Humans interested in understanding how morality works divide intuitions in categories, like fairness, tribalism, and so on. But in our daily lives, these all co-exist and are constantly intertwined in our moral evaluations. They are not meant to be analyzed as separate units, but as facets of a moral system. When taken to extremes, they can lead to extremes of evil:

Fairness can lead to the death penalty, capitalism, and “an eye for an eye.”
Liberty can lead to vulgar individualism, and turning a blind eye to the exploitation or oppression of others.
Loyalty, and respect of authority, can lead to war and genocide.
Sanctity can lead to hatred against innocents for being “impure.”

Note that I said “when taken to extremes.” In their normal context, these intuitions should not lead one to evil. But clearly they can.

Before I continue in this line of reasoning, I want to address one objection that I foresee: some might say that the consequences I listed are the result of false premises. But this doesn’t really tell us anything, since all errors are either the result of false premises or invalid logic. The reality of the situation is that people do make grave mistakes and are often in error, and pointing that fact out does not really illustrate anything. If we could simply never make any mistakes, we wouldn’t need epistemology or morality to begin with, and this whole discussion would never need to happen (Anthropic Argument from Moral Disagreements?).

So the question becomes, how can our moral system, as I call it, get out of whack? Well, I think the answer should be obvious to anyone who understands social constructionism and hierarchical institutions. Institutions have the leverage they need to convince people that their interests are linked to the institution’s flourishing. The individual becomes identified with the nation, the religion, the economic class, the distinctive mores and traditions, the social roles, and so on, and various intuitions are associated with those same things (religion as source of sanctity and purity, government as a fair arbiter and source of liberty, etc). And when that identification is in place, it becomes relatively easy to invoke whatever intuition is needed to get people to do evil things. This is the most commonplace way to corrupt an individual.

It is rather similar to the ways in which quacks exploit our cognitive biases to make us believe in fake remedies or pseudo-science. Cognitive biases are evolved mechanisms by which we can make judgments rapidly and with finite mental resources, but they are insufficient to arrive at conclusions in complex, abstract domains, where most quackeries lie. Most people have no direct experience with medical trials, oncology, physics, or evolutionary theory. Therefore, they must rely on what they know, which is often insufficient to distinguish true claims from false claims, especially when they have been convinced that some quack theory represents some ultimate or transcendent truth. In both cases, we’re talking about natural systems that evolved under simpler social conditions being twisted by more complex structures and systems of thought.

Another good analogy is cults, because cults are just an extreme form of hierarchical institutions. People join cults with good intentions. Once they are convinced that the cult is the only way to save the world, or bring humans to a higher plane of existence, or whatever, they can be persuaded to do anything to further the aims of the cult. Their best interest, and the cult’s best interest, become one and the same.

The solution to the co-optation of our moral system is individualism, the position that one’s values and principles are more important than external obligations (like laws and religious diktats). This is rarely presented as a solution. On the other hand, vulgar individualism, the position that all morality should be purely instrumental (i.e. self-interested) and that the individual should only be concerned with their own well-being and status, is often presented as a solution, especially in this age of capitalism and neo-liberalism. But it’s just another tactic to introvert people and prevent them from looking at social realities. The more obsessed you are about yourself, the less time or energy you have to look at what other people are going through, or look at the reality of your own situation.

Is there such a thing as “evil people”?

Morality is concerned with evaluating values and actions. Ethics is concerned with evaluating rules and institutions. Neither of these fields could exist without the basis of the individual as a moral and social agent, but they are not concerned with evaluating individuals. An individual cannot have a moral or ethical status because individuals are organisms, facts of biology, therefore beyond evaluation (even when we talk about natalism or antinatalism, it is the existence of individuals, not individuals themselves, which is evaluated). Properly speaking, there is no such thing as a “good person” or an “evil person.”

This does not stop people from making such evaluations routinely. And it is so ingrained in the way we talk that it’s easy to make statements of that nature. However, it’s important to remember that such statements are generalizations or metaphors, not literal truth. If we say “the nazis were bad people,” we’re basically saying that they did bad things routinely and that therefore they could not be trusted to do good. It does not entail that there was literally badness inside of them, like some kind of gremlin or metaphysical substance, because that would be silly. No such substance exists.

However, anti-causalism (i.e. the belief in a soul, free will, or some other anti-causal form of volition) and adaptationism (the belief that evolutionary causes are sufficient to explain human behavior) both present a challenge to that position. Anti-causalists believe that people do good or evil things as a consequence of the kind of volition that they have. Adaptationists believe that people do good or evil things as a consequence of their biology. In both cases, the evaluation of actions implies an evaluation of the individual actor: doing evil means that you are evil, because you have some quality of evilness either in your soul/volition or in your brain.

First, let me get the issue of validity out of the way: I don’t believe that either of these positions are valid, as I’ve explained before. The concepts of soul, free will, and specialized brain modules, are all without merit. Not only are they invalid, but neither anti-causalism nor adaptationism are able to give a coherent account of how human behavior arises. If they fail at explaining human behavior, then we cannot use them to evaluate anything related to human behavior, including individuals.

I’ve already discussed these points. What I do want to discuss here is that the view that people are “good people” or “evil people.” For one thing, this is a reactionary view. Radicalism by definition seeks the roots of social problems in institutions and the basic principles they implement in our societies. It is this identification of institutions as roots of social problems which leads to the desire to change society. But institutions are only relevant because they influence human behavior. If people are innately good or evil, and are not influenced at all by institutions, then radicalism cannot be true.

Neither can egalitarianism be true. If some people are innately good and some are innately evil, then egalitarianism is a hollow farce. It is no wonder, then, that advocates of anti-causalism and adaptationism think egalitarianism is a hollow farce. The only alternative is conservatism, which is basically the view that some people are inherently better than others and deserve power within a set of “traditional” structures. One may disagree in what criteria should be used to judge people as inherently better (Libertarians, for example, believe that the economic arena is the only proper space to judge people, as opposed to most other conservatives), but any such disputes would still take place within the conservative framework.

Furthermore, the view that people are innately good or evil is at odds with the desire to change society, which is based around a view of human nature that is both knowable and changeable. Under anti-causalism, human nature is not knowable, since it exists in some unnatural, mystical realm. Under adaptationism, human nature is not changeable, and changes in the way society operates should be futile in the long run (e.g. from monarchy to democracy). Nothing but the one correct way to organize society around our biology should be “successful” at all. Yet clearly this is not the case, since a wide variety of cultures are “successful.”

I have commented many years ago on the fact that the belief that people are innately evil is reactionary. The belief in people being innately good or evil is merely an extension of that view. But in their case, “good people” usually means “people who are like me” or “people who agree with me.”

Still, there are plenty of people who use these terms without necessarily wanting to be reactionary. For example, one can believe that the Nazis were evil, or that cops are evil, and believe that this is not a reactionary belief. I would agree with such statements, but they are not literally true. No Nazi was an “evil person” and no cop is an “evil person.” The reality is that they are morally depraved and untrustworthy. But they are not “evil people” who have “chosen to be evil” or who have a “corrupt soul.” This reflects a superstitious attitude towards the world, that is to say, attributing material form to a concept (a process which philosophers call reification).

By and large, when we are talking about social behavior (what is usually referred to when we talk of “good people” and “evil people”), people are motivated by incentives, because incentives provide people with the physical and psychological benefits of living in a given society. People will ignore incentives if they have an even more powerful reason to do something, but usually this is not the case. These incentives are created and sustained by institutions, and aim to perpetuate an institution’s actual purpose. Since institutions can be at odds, incentive systems may also conflict, in which case other factors will influence behavior as well.

It is difficult to speak about incentives in general terms, so let’s talk about specific examples. Even though we live in a supposedly liberated era, most people still get married and have children. From the contra-causal standpoint, people simply do so, with no causal reason at all. But with all the lifestyle possibilities that exist, how would most people just randomly do the same thing? So the contra-causal explanation makes about as much sense as flipping 100 dice, getting 80 of them rolling a 6, and then doing this again and again. Surely the possibility that the dice are weighted makes more sense than the absence of any cause.

The adaptationist explanation also doesn’t work, because we know of societies without monogamous marriage, or without marriage as we understand it (including Western societies, where pair bonding is generally temporary). If the adaptationists were right and we are biologically made for lifetime pair bonding and child-raising, such societies could not exist at all, or at least they could not last very long. There could also never be such a thing as childfreedom or antinatalism, any more than there exists people who preach freedom from food (breatharians notwithstanding) or freedom from social norms (although many statists like to pretend that Anarchists are like this).

So why do people get married and have children? States have a keen interest in keeping population numbers up in order to receive more taxation revenue, unless they are indisputably overpopulated. Therefore States offer numerous privileges to married people and lucrative economic rewards to parents. Proselyting religions, which also depend on numbers, strongly encourage their believers to breed, and have in the past used strong-arm tactics (and some still continue to do this, like the Catholic Church) to ensure breeding within marriage. Generally, people who are married and with children are seen as having a higher social status, and are given more attention than those who do not (e.g. in the workplace or in health care).

These are all very powerful incentives, but they are magnified many times over by the fact that children are raised by their parents to want these things. Parents do this because marriage and having children are considered to be part and parcel of the life blueprint. Parents raise their children to be “normal” and “successful” (the alignment paradigm).

The Nazis are the usual example people trot out to explain “evil people,” so let’s look at that. At its peak, the Nazi Party’s membership included 10% of the German population. Why were people members? Well, many jobs required party membership, which in itself is a powerful incentive. Also, the Nazi Party fueled German people’s hopes through strength and fear of the Other, like all right-wing regimes do in times of economic and political crisis. The general point here is that people didn’t join the Nazi Party because they were evil. They, by and large, did so because they thought it was the right thing to do, for themselves or their country.

And this is a point that’s really important to understand when it comes to “evil people.” The adaptationists are correct insofar as there are some people who are sociopaths, and who have no intention of doing good. But this is a tiny minority of the population. Generally, people who do evil do so out of a misdirected desire to do good. Studying cults for a long time has shown me that people who end up doing tremendously evil things don’t do so because they are mendacious. They usually join cults out of a desire to do good, to find some higher truth, to help themselves grow, to help others. They end up doing evil because they are brainwashed into believing that their actions are for the greater good. Like cults, institutions mislead us constantly on the nature of good and evil, although in a much less coercive manner, especially if they can count on parents or the media to do the dirty work for them.

Now, I know some people will read this and think that I am trying to excuse “evil people,” to rationalize their evilness. This is what people always say when you look at the causes of evil behavior. They fail to grasp that understanding something and rationalizing it are two very different things. The goal here is not to divest people of their responsibilities, quite the opposite. The anti-causalist cannot explain responsibility, because whatever is making “choices” (whether a soul or some supernatural agency) is not “me” in any meaningful way. Adaptationists, on the other hand, can justify responsibility, but only some of it: they can justify a person being responsible for their own actions, but they cannot justify collective responsibility, so they only have one small piece of the picture.

On the constructionist account, the individual is responsible for their actions because the individual is the last link in the causal chain that led to the action. To make an analogy, we may say that “Paul made the pie” insofar as Paul put the pie together and cooked it. But his actions were only the last link in the causal chain that led to the existence of the pie, a causal chain which extends towards the beginning of time (as Carl Sagan famously said, if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create a universe). The beginning of time, however, is of little interest to us. The point here is that both positions vastly underestimate the scope of responsibility by excluding the collective responsibility contained within any action. As it turns out, and contrary to common belief, it’s the adaptationists who reject large swaths of responsibility. As reactionaries, it is their job to reject collective responsibility as a concept.

To address another common objection, to acknowledge collective responsibility does not mean supporting cultural relativism. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. Cultural relativism holds that all cultural practices are equally valid. But the only way this could possibly be true is if we divorce evil actions from the incentive systems of culture. To a constructionist, this makes no sense: evil actions are perpetrated because of the incentive systems present in our society, which includes culture. Because it rejects the causality between incentives and actions, cultural relativism is closest to the anti-causal position, and it is people who preach about choice, free will and agency who are most likely to be cultural relativists. Radicals are by and large not cultural relativists.

Besides, “culture” is not some kind of entity that rises ex nihilo from a community or a society. Culture evolves from, and is inextricably linked to, the material, psychological, political, and spiritual condition of its people. A lot of this is itself the result of incentive systems. It’s always important to remember that when we talk about systems this complex, we are talking about feedback loops. Not simple “this caused that which caused the other thing,” but systems constantly re-creating and molding each other. Institutions, cultures, ideologies, human actions, all cause each other to some extent, change each other to some extent, and evolve in parallel.

Statism is a rationalization of power.

The basic definition of the State is that it is a monopoly of power over a territory, through legitimized (or as statists would say, actually legitimate) force. Anarchists add to this basic definition the fact that it is, like all institutions which deal in power (of whatever kind), hierarchical.

And yes, I do include “anarcho-capitalists,” voluntaryists, and other right-wing extremists in the category of statists. They still believe in a State, but their justification is absolute property rights instead of democratic elitism (as I’ve previously noted). The common pretense of these right-wing types to being anti-government, anti-statists, or even anarchists, is just that, a pretense. Sadly, thanks to the confusion that these types are hell-bent on sowing, it is necessary to reiterate this.

It is possible to define statism from a different angle, not as a belief in an institution but as a particular sort of prejudice. The prejudice can be expressed as such:
“People are self-interested, corrupt, and/or downright evil: you can’t count on people to do the right thing. That’s why we need a State composed of people whose job it is to redirect some of people’s energies towards the common welfare and common goals.”

This is a very persuasive argument, but its force lies not in its logic, but with how well it meshes with our current forms of democratic elitism. After all, the elites are ostensibly democratic (in practice, this is mostly not true), and not tyrannical, because their aim is not to exploit people but to help them. And democracy, which gets the credit for things like the welfare state and workplace laws (which were passed against the will of a large proportion of the democratic elite, not because of the democratic elite), can therefore pretend to exist for the common welfare.

The argument is illogical for many reasons. First of all, there is an origin problem (which I’ve discussed before, for example): if people are so self-interested or corrupt that they can’t do the right thing, then how did an organization (the State) arise that embodied the virtues of long-term planning and common goals? Where did these come from? Second, we do not know of any hierarchy where concentration of power causes more compassion to flow from the superiors to the inferiors. Concentration of power tends to have the opposite effect: the more power we have on others, the more we use that power for our own interests.

Compounding the illogic is the belief that the State is a “servant of the people” and is “accountable through democracy.” How can an institution which supposedly serves the common welfare against individuals who only seek their own self-interest be accountable to those same individuals? So this statist view is profoundly contradictory and ultimately must be incoherent, if it is to be logical at all.

I was talking to someone about the “magic hierarchies” concept. As it turns out, she worked in a hospital. I just kept asking her, which function of a hospital necessitates subverting people’s values? She could not answer this, but kept repeating that people just couldn’t run a hospital. But people do run hospitals. The fact that they do so as part of corporate or State hierarchies doesn’t change the fact that actual people are doing everything that is done in a hospital. The fact that some people control the rest is not necessary for any action that takes place in a hospital. Why would you need to subvert people’s values to run a hospital? People already want and need good hospitals.

So this woman was, in a sense, prejudiced, although it’s not a prejudice that we recognize or label. And I think this prejudice is unrecognized precisely because it lies at the core of statism, and is therefore so common that we don’t even look at it. In its more extreme form, it’s the “people are innately sinners/evil/corrupt” belief. In its general form, it consists of believing that “people” are incapable of self-management (for whatever reason), but that politicians and CEOs are somehow superior to them because they are capable of using their power to manage others fairly and efficiently, something that “people” could never do.

Somehow politicians are superior to “people.” But under democracy, we, the unenlightened ones, vote them into power. So apparently “we the people” are too stupid to manage ourselves but we’re smart enough to figure out which politicians are enlightened enough to do so. That makes about as much sense as saying that I don’t know anything about quantum physics but I can vote on which physicists have the “correct” interpretation of quantum physics.

The prejudice is also false. There have been plenty of societies and organizations based on self-governance. Historical evidence does not support the claim that self-governance does not work. The current self-managed businesses (like the recuperated factories in Argentina, or Mondragon corporation) are not failing. The evidence shows that self-management is at least as good as hierarchical management, and it does not involve subjecting anyone’s values.

The confusion between moral statements and political statements.

People make all sorts of statements about things being right or wrong, and we tend to act as if all those statements are roughly equal. Statements based on the Bible, for example, are put on the same playing field as statements based on science.

My point here, however, is to talk about right or wrong from a moral standpoint. When controversial issues like pornography, prostitution, white supremacism, affirmative action, or corporal punishment against children, are brought up, we discuss moral statements and political statements as if they answered each other. But actually those two types of statements cannot respond to each other, since they pertain to completely different things.

A moral statement is a statement which makes an evaluation of right or wrong based on values, or principles derived from values. For example, a statement such as “it is wrong to kill animals in order to feed on their flesh” is a moral statement which may be evaluated based on the values underlying it (concerns for animal welfare, being against suffering, being against murder for self-interested purposes, and so on). Whether you agree or disagree, I think it’s clear that this is a moral statement.

A political statement, as I define it, is a statement which makes an evaluation of right or wrong based on power. I’ve previously defined power, using J.K. Galbraith’s classification, as being of three general types: condign power (force), compensatory power (money) and conditioned power (indoctrination). Any statement which relies on one of these three things is a political statement, not a moral statement.

So if you say something like “it is not wrong to kill animals for meat them because most people are willing to pay for the meat,” that’s a political statement, not a moral statement. Your justification is based on money as the standard, that it is not wrong because people are willing to spend money on it. People spending money on things does not provide any sort of evidence of its morality: one can pay for anything, including hitmen, rape, massive fraud, and States routinely pay for war, torture and political assassinations. All it proves is that enough people feel that they benefit from the action to want to pay for it, and that these people do not particularly care what the victims think.

Here I want to clarify a possible objection. Someone might say that my first example also involves power, in the form of coercion against the animals, and that therefore it is not a moral statement. But it is not sufficient for a statement to include a form of power, or a value, to be of a certain type: we must look at how it’s justified. In the first statement, the coercion is not the justification, but the exact opposite, as it is what is being argued against. In the second statement, money (in the form of consumer demand) is the justification.

It is relatively trivial, though, to retool the second statement to a form like this: “it is not wrong to kill animals for meat them because most people value meat consumption.” That would be a moral statement. Not a particularly good one, since it is heavily influenced by conditioning.

This brings me to my next point, which is that the moral/political dichotomy is not black and white. In Western societies, a lot of moral statements have indoctrination hiding behind them. As a general principle, we should be far more wary of classifying any commonplace statement as moral statement, because statements generally become commonplace because of indoctrination or being promulgated by major social institutions. If someone tells people what they already want to hear, or are used to hearing, then they are likely doing so to curry favor, not to make a rigorous argument.

To take an extreme example, someone proposing antinatalism is not likely to do so to gain people’s favor, but rather generally (but not always) do so out of extensive arguing and weighing the arguments. Someone proposing natalism, on the other hand, is likely to do so to gain support, since it is a position that most people (that is to say, parents) already accept enthusiastically. The same thing is true to a lesser extent of other unpopular ideologies, like atheism, feminism, moral intuitionism, and so on.

Note that I am not saying that all commonplace statements are always wrong. Being classified as a political statement instead of a moral statement does not make a statement necessarily wrong. The fact that not all power can be eliminated from society, even under the most utopian scheme possible, is the most rigorous proof of this. Likewise, there are plenty of moral statements that are just plain wrong.

Let me use these principles on a debate that I’ve written a great deal about, pornography. So you often get an argument of the form “pornography is fine because women get paid well to participate.” This is a political statement, not a moral statement, and therefore has no place in a moral debate. The fact that the producers of pornographic videos have the money to get women to perform sexual acts has no bearing on the morality of said sexual acts, or of their distribution. Rather, it is a statement about a desired distribution of power: that rich producers should have more power, and women needing money should have less power. It is, basically, capitalist logic (whoever has the money makes the rules). Arguing about distribution of power can be a worthwhile subject, but it’s not a topic of morality.

So let’s take an argument from the other side (that is to say, my side), such as “prostitution is wrong because money does not equal consent.” While this argument involves the concept of money, it is a moral statement because it is justified by the moral concept of consent. We can reformulate the statement like this: “Consent is necessary for something to be right, trading money is not a form of consent, therefore prostitution is wrong.” Whether you agree with it or not (I do realize it is not a rigorous logical argument), I think it’s clear that it is a statement about morality.

Inherent in any moral statement is a pro-rationality, anti-power preface that can generally be described as: “No matter what the law says, any holy book says, or any other external authority says, I believe that…” While external factors are part of any moral evaluation, moral obligation cannot logically be derived from some externally-imposed obligation, such as the law or divine commands. Any statement that cannot thus be prefaced cannot be a moral statement. For instance, you could not say “No matter what the law says, prostitution is wrong because it’s against the law.” “Prostitution is wrong because it’s against the law” is necessarily a political statement (which I disagree with, since the law has nothing to do with morality).

A lot of people do not acknowledge the existence of any form of power beyond force. This means that they will put statements that are justified by money or indoctrination in the category of moral statements. This leads to the absurdity of equating payment with consent, or to say that a child who was indoctrinated in a religion for 18 years now has “freedom of religion” because they’ve become adults. I feel that a lot of moral disagreements stem from things which are actually not about morality at all, and that if we were able to distinguish the two, discussions would be a lot more productive.