Category Archives: Morality

Hierarchies, self-determinism, and PTSD.

There is a popular conception that PTSD mostly affects veterans, and a recent Internet posting sought to spread more awareness of the widespread nature of PTSD. The graph that was reblogged presented the following statistics for PTSD frequency:

Suburban police- 13%
Firefighters- 15%
Military veterans- 30%
Raped adults- 36%
Battered women- 45%
Abused children- 50%

The reference for these numbers doesn’t seem to exist any more, and I think this was more of a compilation of statistics. Either way, I took a look at individual studies by the NIH on PTSD and the numbers seem to be generally true.

Some people have looked at this study and said, look, soldiers are not by far the only ones who get PTSD, despite the popular narrative that says PTSD is mostly a military affliction. Yes, that’s a very good point, but I think there’s a lot more to look at here.

One thing I find particularly interesting is that, in almost all these cases except firefighters, we’re talking about situations where the people who get PTSD are in a position of complete lack of self-determinism:

* Abused children and battered women are being psychologically and physically controlled by someone who is generally stronger than they are.
* Raped adults may not be in constant relation with their rapist, but the situation again is one where the victim has little to no control.
* Soldiers and policemen have more control over themselves, but they are subservient to a strict hierarchy which imposes codes of conduct on them in a quite absolute way. Please do not interpret this as sympathy for such people, I am merely stating facts (incidentally, 40% of policemen are violent at home, which means they themselves inflict more PTSD on their wives and children).

To this list, I would also add cult members and prisoners, with the caveat that we don’t have clear statistics in either case. I have been unable to find any study regarding PTSD inflicted by cults, but it seems prevalent. In the case of prisoners, we have statistics ranging all the way from 4% to 48%, so the case isn’t clear. But these are both settings in which, again, people have no self-determinism and where PTSD occurrence is at least much higher than the average.

So what is the nature of this connection? I don’t think lack of self-determinism itself gives people PTSD, but what people make others do once they take control of them. You don’t take control over people to make them do things they’d do anyway, you take control over them to brainwash them, brutalize them or make them brutalize others. They say it takes religion to make good people do evil things, but I think any system that removes your self-determinism can do the trick. Religion just happens to be the most widespread one.

So that’s one perspective, but there’s another interesting set of studies concerning other primate species. Here they’re measuring stress levels, not PTSD. We find that they experience stress in a way that depends on their place in the hierarchy and how much control they have over their lives, in the same general way that humans do.

But there’s one interesting addendum. In his observation of baboon troops, Robert Sapolsky saw a troop get decimated by tuberculosis, killing the dominant males. The troop reorganized itself around a flatter and less aggressive hierarchy, and all the members saw their normal stress levels go down.

Another experiment done by Frans de Waal consisted of mixing up individuals from two species, one that lives under a strict hierarchy, rhesus macaques, and one that lives under a more loose hierarchy, stump tail macaques. The result was that the rhesus macaques eventually adopted the stump tail macaques’ social attitudes. This is only one experiment, but it seems that, at least in this case, lower stress was more appealing.

In general, the more strict the hierarchy, the more stressful, and one’s position in the hierarchy determines how stressful it gets (in profoundly unequal hierarchies, the subordinates are more stressed, while in flatter hierarchies the elite are more stressed).

In light of these results, the position that humans are hierarchical by nature doesn’t make much sense. If we were adapted to be in hierarchies, then they wouldn’t cause us so much stress. It seems more likely that some level of organization was adaptive but that stricter hierarchies arose from that out of purely social processes. Strict hierarchies cause stress because they put pressure on the individual to conform, to struggle for dominance, and to constantly keep one’s interests in check.

The connection between hierarchies and lack of self-determinism is not too surprising. Hierarchies are held together by control mechanisms, and control is only needed in order to make people do things they otherwise would not do. You can’t control someone into having more self-determinism, you can only control them into having less.

Now, there are plenty of cases where self-determinism can be momentarily taken away without there being a stable hierarchy behind it: usually small-scale crimes like a mugging or a break-in, for example. Likewise, not all cases of PTSD originate in hierarchies, and not all hierarchies cause PTSD. The more likely connection is that strict hierarchies are needed to bring into effect the attacks on self-determinism needed to put people in situations where they will get PTSD.

I imagine non-radicals may argue that there’s nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies, and that this is just a result of “excessive” hierarchies. I have argued for the nature of hierarchies being fundamentally evil before.

But beyond that, the hierarchies I’ve listed at the beginning are all commonplace: parenting and families, the police, and the military. These are all widely accepted as necessary for the functioning of society, and as generally beneficial. And they are all the source of incredible brutality (in fact, the brutality is the desired end result, despite complaints by advocates that it’s just “bad apples” perpetrating it).

When I talk about a strict hierarchy, I mean a hierarchy where there is a (relatively) greater power differential between the top and the bottom, where the superiors are able to exert (relatively) greater control over their inferiors, and where there is greater surveillance/coercion/regimentation over people’s lives.

Strict hierarchies are the most unegalitarian and therefore the most undesirable. Even if we assume that hierarchies are desirable in select cases (an assumption which remains completely unproven in practice), we still have a strong incentive to search for the most egalitarian solutions. People’s self-determinism is always more important than whatever controlling people is supposed to achieve.

Defining fairness.

It has been well established at this point that fairness is a basic human moral intuition, which also exists in other primates. This has been demonstrated by applying the Ultimatum Game (where one person is given the choice of how to share a certain amount of money with another person, who is free to then reject the offer and void the reward for both of them if ey is unsatisfied) to a wide variety of human cultures and to other primate species.

What these experiments do show is that while the exact definition of fairness is culture-dependent, it exists everywhere. Furthermore, it’s been found that the more a species cooperates with non-kin, the more extensive their concept of fairness becomes, showing the evolutionary basis of this behavior.

So far so good. But how do we get from something simple like sharing 100$ between two people to a social framework of what’s fair and what’s not? How do we get from “meat is shared amongst all the hunters” to “we should have a higher minimum wage”?

I want to start with one specific example of a debate around fairness in order to try to see how to articulate it: wages and prices. I think this is close enough to the Ultimatum Game, and yet it is a strictly modern, capitalist sort of debate.

We get people who say things like: the market price for labor is necessarily fair, because you can only determine the value of anything through the exercise of offer and demand. I have already debunked the Subjective Theory of Value, which is just subjectivism writ large. So the latter half of the statement is simply false.

But let’s go further. People who defend the fairness of market prices argue that any government intervention distorts people’s choices and returns undesirable outcomes. But corporations also intervene in prices, and distort people’s choices all the time. The difference, we are told, is that the government acts coercively and corporations are market agents just like you and me.

This of course is bullshit at many levels. But it also links us to the narrow meaning of political words. Any definition of fairness which consider anything beyond coercion as fair is limited to fairness1, and is therefore too narrow for our purposes.

Like any other socio-political word, we have to examine how narrowly it’s used. And through this process, we can connect fairness to all other socio-political concepts like freedom, equality, justice, tyranny, and “choice.” A person who thinks market processes are a guarantee of equality will have no problem saying that market prices are fair. A person who sees equality as an equal ability to live and express one’s values will see market prices as ridiculously unfair.

The intuition of fairness has existed for millennia before the advent of capitalist markets, and there’s no particular reason to believe that markets are necessary for it to be expressed.

If we move further away from resources and into social power, the principle remains roughly the same. Is affirmative action fair? Are women’s rights fair? They are certainly not fair1, but there’s no particular reason why we should care about that. If we translate social power into a tangible resource like money, then I think we get a general correspondence with issues like labor price and taxation.

The general consequence of considering only the most narrow kind of fairness (the absence of physical coercion or threat) is that only policies which extend the status quo are “fair.” The enormous amount of coercion deployed to protect property rights and State interests is omitted because this protection does not count as coercion in our societies.

Because fairness is a basic human intuition which permates ethics, all political views must have some conception of how fairness should be expressed in society.

Based on his conceptual analysis, George Lakoff defined two basic political models: the strict parent model and the nurturing parent model, associating them with conservatives and liberals respectively. To this I would add a third model, the anti-parent model, as exemplified by Anarchism in general, democratic schools, worker self-management, federated communities, and so on (I have an entry coming at a later date detailing this alternative moral framework).

Now compare this with a poll made by intuitionist Jonathan Haidt comparing fairness as proportionality (“you should get what you deserve”), fairness as opportunities (“everyone should have an equal chance to succeed”) and fairness as equality (“ideally everyone should have the same amount of money”). He found that the first was held mostly by conservatives, the second was held mostly by liberals, and the third was held by neither. Actually, I think the third is probably mostly held by people who hold to the anti-parent model.

“You should get what you deserve,” in practice, often ends up being “you got what you deserved.” “Everyone should have an equal chance to succeed,” in practice, often ends up being “you had an equal chance to succeed, you loser.” In short, these conceptions often end up used as reasons to beat up on those less fortunate… and that’s pretty unfair, if you ask me.

I would not exactly qualify myself as believing that everyone should have the same amount of money, or that money is the primary criterion by which we should evaluate the goodness of a life, although it’s obviously of great importance in a capitalist system. True, money is an important form of power, but an unfree society is bad for everyone (except the power elite) regardless of how much money you have.

I’ve commented many times before that negative rights, rights for something to be protected, are useless unless they are accompanied by positive rights, rights to access resources. The right to stay alive is useless without the right to access health care, for example. This concept of access, I think, provides us with an entryway into “fairness.”

I would like to define three principles of fairness, in order of depth, which I think encapsulate my anti-parent model concept of fairness very well:

1. Basic rights fairness: That all should have viable access to the resources necessary for their life as modern citizens (food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, transportation, electricity, sanitation, etc). This would require a major overhaul of the capitalist system, but is not inherently contradictory to it.

2. Power fairness: That there should be no hierarchies unless they can be justified by a greater good (the Chomsky Principle). This would require a major overhaul of all institutions, and it’s unrealistic to think that any existing power structure would voluntarily do this.

3. Generational fairness: That we should be fair to future generations as well, by not destroying the environment they are going to live in. This would basically require a miracle at this point.

The belief in “good porn” and “happy hookers.”

If you look hard enough, you can find a “good side” to pretty much anything; but morality is not a mathematical operation by which you can compensate for the infliction of harm with some act of charity. The example I like to give is that of a doctor who saves a patient’s life and then punches him while he’s in recovery. Saving a life doesn’t nullify the punch.

Christian sects like to flaunt their charitable activities as if it gave them moral credit. Many corporations also try to cover up their unsavory activities with charity. In general, anyone who has things to hide can use charity or some good cause as a cover for evil.

In general, people think that by pointing at a “good side” in something, they’ve somehow compensated for all the bad. You get the natalists who say “but there’s so much good in life, surely that compensates for the suffering.” But again, this is not a mathematical equation. Good and evil exist in their own right and do not cancel out.

In the realm of pornstitution advocacy, good is seen as canceling out bad, too. Take the rhetoric of “good pornography.” Why does it matter that there is such a thing as “good pornography”? However much there is of this animal, it is still dwarfed by “bad pornography.” It could only matter if the “good pornography” somehow countered the “bad pornography” and made pornography itself acceptable.

But now here’s a deeper problem, which strikes at the root of the concept of pornography. If we had criteria for what “good pornography” is, I would assume that it would include things like “this pornography was not a product of rape,” “this pornography was not a product of coercion” and “this pornography was made by people who set out to do work in pornography.”

Woman after woman coming out of the pornography industry testify that they were coerced into performing specific sexual acts, or even raped on set. We know that around half of prostituted women have been filmed for the purposes of producing pornography. We also know that “revenge porn” is a new trend on the Internet, and that private videos which appear to be completely consensual are being reposted without consent.

Given all these known facts, the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no guarantee whatsoever that any piece of pornography actually fulfills reasonable criteria for “good pornography”! And this means that “good pornography” is a nonstarter as a concept. If something cannot be determined to exist, then it is a purely theoretical entity and there’s no point in assuming its reality, let alone using it in an argument.

i don’t trust men who ask “but what about ______ kind of porn?” when i point out how rampant rape and abuse is in the porn industry…

anytime you reblog, like, or watch porn, you are taking a chance that what you are viewing is rape…

every instagram account that you follow run by a porn company (suicide girls, pornhub, brazzers, redtube, crash pad) statistically, has hired rapists and abusers who knowingly violated the contracts of the women signed to their companies. these companies are run by misogynists who don’t care about women and surprise! they hire men who don’t care about women.

It’s important to note that a majority of men are conditioning themselves to orgasm watching women potentially being raped or abused. And, reinforcing this, the inferiority of women is the primary (although not the only) message encoded in these videos. Pornography and macho culture encourage men to think of sex as a process of domination, and that there’s something wrong (feminized) with you if you don’t participate.

It’s also important to note that even corporations which are known for their softer and more unconventional approach to pornography, such as Crash Pad and Abby Winters, are guilty of unethical practices (such as hiring underage actresses and male rapists). While such corporations may be more trustworthy than the big pornographic producers, who oppose basic safety laws and operate in criminal conditions, they still cannot be trusted to produce ethical pornographic videos (if such a thing can exist).

The other stereotype is that of the “happy hooker.” It is stunning to compare the claims made about representatives for the pornography industry and the claims of ex-actresses after they leave the industry. It is also stunning to compare what is claimed about prostituted women (the “happy hooker” myth) and what ex-prostituted women say.

This stereotype has become so pervasive amongst liberal pornstitution advocates that they are applying it to child trafficking. The entry, believe it or not, contends that children who are trafficked into prostitution are not badly off:

Using ethnographic research from Atlantic City and New York City, Anthony Marcus, Chris Thomas, and Amber Horning find that underage sex workers have much more agency in their relationships with pimps than many assume, and that sex trafficking discourses may serve to further alienate them from organizations to assist them…

There are, of course, violent and otherwise abusive pimps: approximately 5 percent of the pimps in the pimp study described such an approach to pimping. Among the 14 percent of female sex workers in the New York Sex study who had pimps, we estimate that approximately 10–15 percent faced such systematic abuse. In Atlantic City we were able to identify three such relationships between a young sex worker and a pimp. These findings suggest that roughly 2 percent of all the sex workers whom we interviewed, across both cities, were in a relationship with a predominantly abusive, violent pimp.

Overall, though, we found a clear pattern of increasing, rather than decreasing, levels of young sex workers’ autonomy over time. As the sex workers in our survey became more experienced, more mature, and more accustomed to the dangers of customers and law enforcement, their pimp’s authority typically receded and a more equal relationship developed, or the sex worker simply left the pimp. Similarly, most of the pimps whom we met were realistic about the limits of their authority and did not want to lose the source of their livelihood. At all levels, pimps were constantly faced with the danger of being abandoned for another pimp, an escort agency, or independent work.

You will note that in all the studies presented, there is one obvious factor that is not discussed: whether these children were coerced into prostitution. All that is discussed is “how youth got initiated” into prostitution, with categories of answers such as “friend,” “pimp” and “homeless,” which do not actually indicate the “how.”

The topic of the article is how the narrative of “young prostituted women abused by pimps” should be replaced by something closer to the “happy hooker” narrative, with an extra dash of “agency” into the mix.

It does not matter at all how much “agency” prostituted children have. It does not matter at all how the pimps are affected. To be clear, I have nothing against fact-finding, but I object to the political spin based on “agency,” which is a made-up concept used to blame victims of systemic exploitation. To paint children who were trafficked into prostitution as worthy of being blamed is especially heinous. To portray their exploitation as a source of freedom is laughable.

But most importantly, buying an underage prostituted woman’s “services” is, well, rape. Calling them “sex workers” reinforces the liberal narrative of the “happy hooker” and obscures the fact that they are human beings who are raped on a daily basis.

1.) Referring to underaged sex trafficking victims as “underaged sex workers.” Especially if they are immigrants; then they are referred to as “(underaged) migrant sex workers.” I can’t believe this even needs to be said: If a prostitute is discovered to be a minor, that makes her a sex trafficking/rape victim, no matter what.

The fact is that 71% of prostituted women were physically assaulted, 89% want to leave but cannot, and 68% suffer from PTSD. Furthermore, 70% say they were sexually abused in childhood and that this abuse had some influence in their entry in prostitution. That is the reality of prostitution worldwide. Yes, there are “happy hookers,” but they do not represent the experience of a majority of women in prostitution. The narrative is broken.

Where are the liberals when ex-actresses come out and expose the coercion and rapes during shoots? Where are the liberals when ex-prostituted women tell us about their experiences? They either hide their heads and hope the evidence goes away, or they support organizations run by pornographic corporations and pimps.

Scapegoating: take responsibility for my sins, please.

It is well understood that the concept of scapegoat started as a way to channel everyone’s sins into a goat and releasing it into the wild, and the sins with it. In general, people widely accept the validity of scapegoating through their unthinking acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice, that one man’s sacrifice (all man all god, whatever the hell that means) can somehow transfer responsibility for everyone’s sins, as long as you believe in his sacrifice.

From a purely logical standpoint, this doctrine is an intellectual mess. There can be no such thing as delegation of responsibility for one’s “sins.” There is no reason why such delegation would only work if the person whose sins are delegated also believes in the validity of the delegation. It’s a ridiculous belief, and Christianity is an extremely bad framework to understand scapegoating.

I think scapegoating can be understood much better from the perspective of the manichean worldview. One of its basic premises is that the in-group is always right, good and noble; this entails a huge paradox because it fails to account for evil behavior and purposes within the in-group.

The most direct response is, as always, to ignore it, but this is only possible up to a certain point. There is only so much that one can ignore before the cognitive dissonance becomes just too great. Cults and governments get around this problem with information control, but unless you have absolute dictatorial control there’s only so much you can hide. And obviously you can’t attack the in-group, because the in-group is always right.

So the way out of this conundrum is to vilify, objectify and marginalize the individuals we believe are responsible. You have to set them apart from the in-group in order to preserve its moral purity. And you need to use labels and social roles within the in-group to differentiate between the “bad people” and the “good people.” So you’ve got “criminals,” unbelievers, “terrorists,” traitors and subversives, “suppressive people,” socialists and communists, and so on.

The scapegoat absorbs the sins of the population and, by doing so, becomes a subversive element (you can’t be subversive unless you’ve been marginalized first). Because of this, the scapegoat becomes the target of all the pent-up cruelty that would be reserved for the opposing out-groups. No amount of cruelty is too much to inflict on a scapegoat.

So you’ve got this attitude of “no cruelty is bad enough” against “criminals,” unbelievers, “terrorists” and all the other undesirables. People will always be in favor of more restrictions against “criminals” and their rights, no matter how cruel, because they “don’t have rights” or have “surrendered their rights” by standing against the in-group’s rules. This can only possibly make sense if rights are granted by some moral authority, but I’ve already debunked that notion.

Other examples of scapegoats in popular political discourse are abused women (who are called whores, attention-seekers), POC (such as the black men getting shot by police, who are painted as thugs and gang members and are portrayed worse than white serial killers), “immigrants,” welfare recipients (who are portrayed as exploiters of the system, and whose basic needs are portrayed as entitlement, because right-wingers confuse rights and entitlement).

Another excuse for scapegoating is the “it was consensual” defense. It seems that consent is another black check for any amount of abuse, such as rape and BDSM, workplace abuse, religious indoctrination and cults, and so on. Of course the vast majority of this supposed consent is actually imaginary: dressing “slutty,” being drunk, “consensual non-consent,” having a job at a certain workplace, belonging to a religion or a cult, are not acceptable forms of consent. But either way, people believe that there is actual consent there and that it excuses any amount of abuse.

Of course this abuse is often reframed in more positive ways. One way we justify abuse, especially against children, is under the strange contradictory concept of “tough love.” We also call it “teaching them a lesson” (because they need to be reminded of how evil they are) or that they “deserved it” (for being evil).

From all this we get powerful defensive responses when someone tries to debunk any instance of scapegoating: “how dare you defend them?” This is a powerful response because we’ve been conditioned to associate scapegoats with opposition against our in-group, and any support of a scapegoat is equated with attacking our in-group. It doesn’t feel good to attack our in-group and it’s easy to say things like “well, I don’t support what they do, but…” That sort of reasoning, though, fails to do justice to those labeled scapegoats, who are usually the victims in that situation.

The metaphorical frames of morality.

In their tome Philosophy In The Flesh, which is about applying insights about metaphors to philosophical concepts and philosophical ideologies, Lakoff and Johnson present a cognitive account of a number of philosophical concepts, including causality, time, mind, self, and morality. The latter is what interests me in this entry.

For those who have not read my entries on metaphors so far, here is a brief explanation of the theory. Complex concepts are almost entirely understood in terms of simpler concepts through a process known as conceptual framing. For example, we understand time as (amongst many other metaphors) money: we have, lose, spend, save and waste time, we lend people our time (but we can’t get it back), and so on. Like most metaphors, this is such an ingrained framework of our understanding that we rarely think of it as metaphorical at all. And yet it profoundly affects people’s behavior.

Metaphors are ultimately based on actual direct physical or sensory experience. We associate affection with warmth because of the experience of parental affection correlated with the warmth of their bodies, and that connection is repeated over and over again in our neural network until it becomes fixed. We universally identify greater quantities as being “up” and lesser quantities as being “down” because greater piles of goods are generally “up.” More complex metaphors are composed of simpler ones (e.g. morality as health + good health as up = good as up, evil as down).

The authors identify a number of metaphors that we use to make sense of morality and talk about it coherently. The two most important ones are those of moral strength and moral nurturance. They also identify two fundamental models of morality which are both related to the family structure (I will explain these two models after I explain the metaphors).

* Moral strength is the ability to act out on what we know is moral despite our hedonistic weaknesses (this metaphor presumes that hedonism is evil and self-denial is good). It holds that evil is a force, whether internal or external, and that morality is the strength we need to resist this force through self-control.
* Moral nurturance involves caring for others and their material and psychological needs. Self-nurturance is seen as akin to healthy self-interest.
* Moral authority refers to the demand of obedience to orders or precepts. Here the authors divide moral authority in two different conceptions, “legitimate authority” (that parents deserve to be obeyed when they fulfill their duties to their children) and “absolute authority” (that obedience must be unquestioned and complete).
* Moral empathy refers to the capacity to understand how other people feel and why they act.
* Moral essence refers to the belief in a person having a good or evil “character,” and to evil being a character defect which is part of the nature of that individual.
* Morality as health refers to the contagion model of evil as a disease or plague.
* Moral purity refers to evil as a corruption that must be purged, especially when brought about by the body against the will.
* Moral bounds refers to limits on freedom, such as human rights or laws in general.
* Moral order refers to the hierarchy of authority which, as developed in Christian thought, goes something like this: God>men>women>children>nature. This hierarchy is seen as part of the natural order.
* Moral accounting is the framework through which we speak of “paying you back,” “returning the favor,” and other metaphors based around debt (if you do a good action to me, I am in debt to you for a similar action). It also incorporates the many notions of fairness.

Lakoff and Johnson identify two fundamental moral frameworks, which they call the Strict Father Family Morality (which I will call Strict Father model) and the Nurturant Parent Family Morality (which I will call Nurturant Parent model). In these frameworks, the family is a metaphor for society as a whole, parents are a metaphor for authority figures, and children are a metaphor for the average citizen.

Now, before you accuse the authors of being elitist, note that they are talking about metaphors used in our language and are not literally saying that the average citizen should be bound to obey authority as children with their parents. Lakoff is a liberal, so we know he at least pays lip service to moral autonomy (I don’t think liberals seriously believe in moral autonomy, but that’s another matter entirely).

So first let me quote from Philosophy In The Flesh on the Strict Father model:

It is a model of the family geared toward developing strong, morally upright children who are capable of facing the world’s threats and evils… As you would expect, it gives top priority to the metaphors of Moral Authority, Moral Strength, and Moral Order… Moral Empathy and Moral Nurturance have a place in this family morality, but they are always subservient to the primary goal of developing moral strength and recognizing legitimate moral authority.

The metaphors are transposed to a family model, where moral nurturance refers to providing for children and raising children so they can take their place in the adult world, and moral strength (discipline, faith, obedience) is what children must be taught in order to become mature individuals. In the Strict Father model, moral strength is the end and moral nurturance is the means (as opposed to the Nurturant Parent model, which is the other way around): children must only be provided for as long as they learn discipline and obedience.

The emphasis on the evils surrounding us, the need to be strong to fight them, and the absolute necessity of being on the “right side” (i.e. the side of moral authority) is complementary to the Manichean worldview. In practice the two are often indistinguishable, as in-groups (led by the moral authority) need enemies to maintain cohesion, and weakness of the flesh or of the will can always be personified in all sorts of ways (the traditional target has been women, but nowadays there is a plethora of possibilities, including liberals, homosexuals, drug users, POC, and so on).

The authors identify the Strict Father model with conservatives in general, as well as most sects of Christianity (with God as absolute moral authority), and Kantian Universal Reason (with Reason with a capital R taking the role of absolute moral authority). To this I would add that ultra-rational ideologies in general would fit this category very well.

Now for the Nurturant Parent model:

The dominant metaphor is Morality is Nurturance. Nurturance is seen as the basis for all moral interactions within the family. Moral Empathy is also given special emphasis as a necessary condition for appropriate caring for other family members… Moral Authority is subservient to, and is legitimized by, the parents’ nurturant character and behavior. The metaphor of Moral Order plays little or no role in this model. Moral Strength is important, but it is understood relative to the obligation of the nurturant parent to be morally strong and to exercise that strength in protecting and caring for the children. It is part of the responsibility of nurturance to develop moral strength in the child.

As I pointed out before, the relation between the metaphors is reversed: in this view, moral strength is the means by which moral nurturance may be achieved. This is classified as liberal thought. Utilitarianism, with its emphasis on the common good, is also considered an instance of this model, although on this point I think the authors are dead wrong insofar as utilitarianism can be just as calculating and pitiless (e.g. supportive of human sacrifice and human misery) of a moral system as any Strict Father instantiations you can come up with.

Now, there are certain things that are obviously wrong in their account of these two models. As I pointed out, Lakoff is a liberal and therefore he has a rather rosy view of his own side of the (arbitrary) divide. For example, radical feminists would laugh at the belief that liberals do not believe in a moral hierarchy where men have power over women, because that’s precisely what gender is. Radical environmentalists will likewise be befuddled by the proposition that liberals do not believe that humans should have power over nature. Obviously liberals still believe in gender and ecocide, they’re just nicer about it.

But that’s a relatively small detail compared to the main issue I have with this whole Strict Father/Nurturant Parent dichotomy, which is its incompleteness. The authors do accept that there are other alternatives, but call them pathological:

The permissive family is what Lakoff calls a “pathological” form of the nurturant parent family, since it mistakenly thinks that letting the children do whatever they please is an appropriate form of nurturance.

The examples given are ethical egoism and existentialism. Far from me to stand in the way of anyone mocking ethical egoism, even if he is a liberal, so have at it. But this is still far from complete.

What all the models discussed by Lakoff and Johnson have in common is that they all assume the validity of pedagogy. The Strict Father model assumes the validity of “moral strength”-based pedagogy. The Nurturant Parent model assumes the validity of “moral nurturance”-based pedagogy. The Permissive model assumes the validity of “laissez-faire” pedagogy. What is missing is an explicitly anti-pedagogy model.

Because the metaphors are based on family models, it is therefore relevant to bring anti-pedagogical ideas to the table. The two I am most familiar with are the works of Alice Miller (for those of you unfamiliar with Alice Miller’s work, I recommend entries by Arthur Silber or Daniel Mackler’s articles on parenting), and Summerhill School (founded by A.S. Neill and explained in his wonderful book Summerhill School). Both point to a better life for children away from the family structure, away from the manipulation and poison we call “child-raising,” and towards children able to actually flourish, not just grow up, in full possession of their freedom. Both point to the fact that we need to tailor society to the child, not the child to society, if we ever hope to have a generation of healthy, relatively psychologically undamaged individuals. Perhaps most importantly, both show us that what children need is not discipline, or love, but listening and understanding: that you must be on the side of the child (a concept which is of high importance for both Alice Miller and A.S. Neill).

To quote Alice Miller’s basic position on pedagogy:

In contrast to generally accepted beliefs and to the horror of pedagogues, I cannot attribute any positive significance to the word pedagogy. I see it as self-defense on the part of adults, as manipulation deriving from their own lack of freedom and their insecurity, which I can certainly understand, although I cannot overlook the inherent dangers. I can also understand why criminals are sent to prison, but I cannot see that deprivation of freedom and prison life, which is geared wholly to conformity, subordination, and submissiveness, can really contribute to the betterment, i.e., the development, of the prisoner. There is in the word pedagogy the suggestion of certain goals that the charge is meant to achieve — and this limits his or her possibilities for development from the start.

A.S. Neill, writing about being on the side of the child:

That night [Homer Lane] showed me the solution that the only way was to be, as he phrased it, ´on the side of the child´. It meant abolishing all punishments and fear and external discipline, it meant trusting children to grow in their own way without any pressure from outside, save that of communal self-government. It meant putting learning in its place – below living.

A.S. Neill’s conclusions are not blind ideological faith or idealistic delusion: they are the end point of running a free school for more than forty years and observing the day-by-day results.

This provides an alternate metaphor to the three pedagogy-based models Lakoff and Johnson have listed. So what I want to propose, based on this new metaphor, is an alternate model which I will call Mutual Care Morality.

A Mutual Care community is designed to permit children to fully exercise their freedom without impeding other children’s freedom. It is based on the principle that the only sane way to help children flourish is to design systems that accommodate their natural needs, instead of family and school structures that are made to force children to conform to them. As such, it does not fit the description of the “permissive family” because it is not a family (i.e. it is not centered around an authority figure who has the “right” to be obeyed based on accident of birth) and it is not permissive, in that children, like adults, naturally seek to curb each other’s aggression.

The two core moral metaphors in the Mutual Care model are moral accounting and moral democracy. Moral accounting, again, incorporates notions of fairness, and the widespread concept of compensation for good deeds and repayment for bad deeds. It is dubious that we could talk about any morality at all without invoking this metaphor constantly, but it takes more importance in this model than in others.

The other metaphor, moral democracy, is not one described by Lakoff and Johnson, but I think it is one which is probably prevalent in self-governing systems. In a system where people share the same general values and interests, democracy can do what it’s supposed to do: to encourage debate and resolve issues through the interplay of perspectives. The formation of rules is not an individual endeavor imposed on the collective (as in moral authority), or the endeavor of one class using rules as a weapon against other classes (as in capital-democracy), but a collective endeavor itself.

The pro-pedagogy, pro-schooling view is based on the premise that children are not fully formed human beings (that they are of lower “intelligence”), that they are deficient in morality (that they are “born depraved“), and that therefore they must be subject to moral authority. This of course is the same argument used to justify God/Universal Reason/the State, and all those other important words that start with capital letters, as moral authorities over the average person.

It is difficult to connect the Mutual Care model to the moral metaphors, because there’s no pedagogy and therefore no explicit goal, no enforced conformity, beyond supporting the child’s development and material well-being. A mentally healthy and (relatively) mentally free child may or may not have more empathy or be morally stronger, but that’s not the objective. To set as policy or moral principle any “objective” for what a child’s life should be is a fundamental attack against the human rights of children.

But we may want to use the model as a springboard to question those metaphors as well, such as that of moral authority. The problem is that the family models are inherently authoritarian: no child can rebel against eir parents, because in a family structure the child’s freedom and livelihood depends on the support ey gets from eir parents. From that perspective, the only thing the child can rebel against is emself or other children. Therefore the radical standpoint, concentrating on examining and criticizing institutions, not individuals, stands in profound opposition to the family metaphor. This is why radical morality cannot be family-based, but must be based on Mutual Care. A drastically different view of society and hierarchies must be met with a drastically different view of ethics. A.S. Neill on the connection between the family model and authoritarianism:

[N]o child can make its school self-government a father-figure. I say that the future success of the world will come from the rejection of the father, the crowd leader. Most people accept father and mother, meaning that the great majority joins the Establishment, the anti-progress and usually anti-life [anti-vitality] majority.

As an extension of this problem, both family models propose individualistic solutions to collective problems. The Strict Father model proposes fighting against the ego as a solution to evil and the Nurturant Parent model proposes nurturance of the individual as the recipe for good character. These solutions are flawed, and as a result the metaphors fail to propose a sound basis for evaluating morality. The Mutual Care model is a morality directed against society and pushes moral criticism outwards, from the individual to institutions and society itself.

The authors are somewhat deluded on that point: they acknowledge the existence of numerous social influences but claim that “all of these get filtered through the child’s family morality.” There are a lot of dubious assumptions here: for one, that social influences will never reach the child in self-contained forms and that the child will, no matter the age, be able to analyze content from the perspective of their indoctrination. I’ve used the example of gender before to disprove this sort of belief: again, the fact that families who try to raise their children without gender always fail because of social influences demonstrates clearly that they are not just “filtered.” Same for race, intelligence, status, marriage, and so on. What family, except the most obsessive, abusive family, can “filter” indoctrination based on these constructs? As far as I know, none.

In describing the Nurturing Parent model, the authors display an authoritarian streak. I think Alice Miller would have a field day with the following quote:

Children should obey their parents because their parents have the responsibility of nurturing, protecting, and educating them, because their parents care about them, because their parents have the knowledge and wisdom to carry out their responsibilities of nurturance, protection, and education, and because their parents themselves set an example through moral action… Children have a right to adequate nurturance, protection, and education, and parents have a moral duty to provide it. When parents perform their moral duty, they earn the right to be respected and obeyed.

What we have here is the basic essence of pedagogy: parents are wise and know best, and by performing their duty they prove their superiority over the child and therefore gain the “right” to be obeyed. Given that the frameworks equate parents with moral authority, this passage becomes rather confused.

In For Your Own Good, Alice Miller points out the motivation behind such beliefs:

[A]ll advice that pertains to raising children betrays more or less clearly the numerous, variously clothed needs of the adult. Fulfillment of these needs not only discourages the child’s development but actually prevents it. This also holds true when the adult is honestly convinced of acting in the child’s best interests.

The Nurturant Parent model is actually a form of benevolent tyranny, which becomes a source of confusion for children because they will end up equating love with domination and authority. It hampers the child’s development because they will take to heart the belief that they are inferior and must obey the “wisdom” of their parents. Slavoj Zizek made a point similar to this, to make a more political analogy, but I think it applies at all levels:

He uses the metaphor of a child being instructed by his strict, authoritarian father to visit Grandma. The child doesn’t want to, but he also knows that this is irrelevant; he must do as he is told or suffer the consequences. In another world, a tolerant liberal father emotionally manipulates his child into visiting Grandma by saying “You know that your Grandma loves you and it would mean a lot to her, but you should only visit if you want to”. The child is not an idiot, and still knows he has no choice. He is additionally now obliged to want it for himself or it means there’s something wrong with him as a person.

By its very structure, the family unit is necessarily tyrannical. Liberals just want a benevolent tyrant, a non-coercive tyrant, which is a notion better relegated to fantasy; power corrupts.

The metaphor that moral strength means to resist one’s ego and desires is pervasive, naturally leads to the belief that children are born evil or only half-human, and to the need for authoritarianism (or a “right to be obeyed”) as a “remedy.” This, I think, is where evolutionary intuitionism comes in (it is, of course, not necessary to be an evolutionary intuitionist in order to promote self-government for children, or vice-versa).

Evolutionary intuitionism is the position that morality is a by-product of the evolution of long-term, social planning in our primate ancestors, and that fundamental moral principles are intuitions which most human beings (apart from those whose DNA does not contain that specific adaptation, i.e. sociopaths) innately understand. The upshot is that morality is not fundamentally something you learn, train, inculcate, or beat into someone, it’s something we’re all born with; while the implications of the intuitions are developed by discussing with other people, taking stock of what’s already been tried and whether it’s been successful, reasoning on what’s known, and so on, the intuitions themselves are part of what we might call “human nature,” like the fact that humans are social animals.

Evolutionary intuitionism is radical in nature because it assumes an equal and innate value to all human lives, unlike utilitarianism, where human beings stop being valuable when their sacrifice beings about greater utility for everyone else. As such, it necessary entails at least anti-genderism, anti-racism and antinatalism (the latter connection being detailed here), and provides a pretty solid moral basis for all the other radical positions (as it also backs up the Prime Directive).

Evolutionary intuitionism also discredits, as I’ve already pointed out, the belief in moral strength as conquering oneself. If morality is part of oneself, then fighting oneself would be rather (pardon the pun) counter-intuitive. This is not to say that an individual cannot be dysfunctional as a result of abuse, or of the more commonplace mistreatment that we take for granted in family structures and schools. But in this case the solution is not to redouble on the mistreatment and force the individual to become moral: rather, the solution is to allow the individual to experience freedom and express eir frustrations and desires until a better equilibrium is achieved (as has happened at Summerhill School time and time again).

Incidentally, the authors do discuss evolution in Philosophy In The Flesh. They reason that evolution is not survival of the fittest, as has been wrongly portrayed; this view has been extensively used to support some variant of the Strict Father morality. They posit that evolution is really all about the survival of the most nurtured. From their perspective this might make sense, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. At least, I’ve never seen any evidence that greater nurturance in species is correlated with survival: it is true that longer-lived species also parent for a longer time, but that’s because the youth of those species take longer to mature.

No, I think the evidence is on the side of evolution being survival of the cooperators (see for example the first two chapters of Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid). Species where the individuals cooperate with each other, and even with other species, are more likely to flourish. And this is true of human organizations and societies as well. Of course the Mutual Care standards of “flourishing” will be somewhat different from the Strict Father and Nurturance Parent standards of “flourishing.”

Anyway, there may seem to be some tension created by adding intuitionism to the mix, insofar as it seems intuition may be a moral authority, but this is not the case. In the case of God or Universal Reason or social norms, what we have is an external element imposing a moral system on the individual. In the case of intuition, the moral system is part of the individual. To say that the intuition is imposed on a human being is as silly as saying that bipedalism or the capacity to feel love are imposed on a human being. They are just part of the kind of animal that we are. Likewise, we don’t say that fairness is imposed on chimpanzees, even through they have it, too.

Now consider the concept of self-government in general (not just for children). Self-government, of course, is a metaphor (but so is the State and the nation, for that matter). It means that decision-making is left to those people who are affected by the decisions, in an egalitarian or consensus-based manner. Self-government is the political ideology which corresponds to the Mutual Care framework, as opposed to the paternalistic State (Nurturant Parent morality), the police State (Strict Father morality), and voluntaryism/Libertarianism (Permissive morality).

In the other frameworks, the crucial relation is that between moral strength and moral nurturance. In the Mutual Care model, this relation makes little sense, and the relation between the individual and society is the crucial one. But if we rephrase morality in this way, then the metaphors make more sense:

* Moral strength can be interpreted as the strength to resist conformity and “moral authorities.”
* Moral nurturance can be interpreted as the need for every individual to be provided with (and free to use) the resources they need to flourish.
* Moral essence could refer to social institutions and the roles that people play within them.
* Morality as health could refer to the infestation of hierarchical thinking within self-governed organizations. Moral purity could also be interpreted along the same lines, esp. in terms of ideological purity.
* Moral bounds can be interpreted as the limits imposed on freedom that prevent it from turning into license, i.e. accountability to the other people in one’s group.

Of course these are just basic possibilities, my attempt at portraying a real alternative to the two main frameworks, and not at all a realistic portrayal of how such a metaphorical system would develop in real life.

Some may object to everything I’ve said here on the basis that metaphors are meant to describe how people understand concepts, not an idealized version of those concepts. That is true, but even Lakoff and Johnson describe alternative metaphors; for instance, in Metaphors We Live By, they go into great detail about a new metaphor for love called LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART. This metaphor is meant to highlight aspects of love which are not targeted by the conventional metaphors. Likewise, the Mutual Care framework highlights aspects of morality which are not explained by our conventional metaphors.

There is also the political aspect: if liberals and conservatives, as ideologically close as they are, have such wildly different moral frameworks, then it stands to reason that radicals should be free to reimagine morality to a much greater extent. We urgently need better metaphors about morality, and this is my little contribution to that dialogue.

An intuitionist answers Matt Slick re: atheist morality.

Oh Matt Slick, you so funny.

I’ve always said that Christians are at their best when they challenge fundamental premises of naturalism, because then they at least serve the purpose of making us think and reaffirming what exactly it is that we believe in. Sure, this is a backhanded compliment at best, but frankly there is absolutely nothing in Christian theology worth complimenting.

Matt Slick is a fellow engaged in Christian apologetics on the Internet, so even if you don’t know him you can pretty much imagine what kind of nonsense he’s engaged in. But he has two articles asking questions for atheists about their standards of morality, and I thought they were interesting enough to involve my intuitionist perspective and engage with them.

The first article is called Questions for Atheists on Having a Standard of Morality.

1. OBJECTIVE STANDARD Do you have an objective standard of morality by which you can judge whether or not something is morally right or wrong?

Usually this is the point at which I would complain about the use of the word “objective” and try to clarify what I think it means, but fortunately Slick has defined it further down the page as: “an objective standard is one that is not based on your opinion or your experience.”

So given that definition, the answer is yes: while it is informed by my opinions or experiences, like any other standard or ruleset that exists (including the Christian one), intuitionism is a standard that is not based on my opinion or my experiences.

Hence I can skip ahead to the next questions about objective standards.

10. HAS OBJECTIVE STANDARD If you say that you do have an objective standard of morality, then where did you get this objective standard since an objective standard is one that is not based on your opinion or your experience?

If you read ahead, you can see this is the point where Slick tries to triage your position into the following categories: SOCIETY STANDARD, COMMON SENSE STANDARD, EVOLVING STANDARD, SELF DETERMINED, INSTINCT and WHATEVER WORKS. From the nature of subsequent questions for each category, I am guessing evolutionary intuitionism would go in the category INSTINCT. So skipping ahead to those INSTINCT questions:

32. INSTINCT If you say that your morals are derived from instinct, which is brain-programmed behavior, then wouldn’t that mean that different people’s brains would produce different moral values?

In theory, I see no reason why that couldn’t be the case. For example, sociopaths certainly have “different moral values,” because they lack certain mental abilities which normally give rise to certain values. But sociopaths no more contradict the norm than people born without legs, or with six legs (yes, such a thing happens), contradict the norm that human beings typically have two legs.

I know where this question is supposed to lead: to the typical objection that intuitionism has no way to deal with moral disagreements. As I’ve discussed before, there are means to hash out disagreements in intuitionism as much as in any other moral system.

Furthermore, difference in people’s brains are not the main cause of moral disagreements: biases, especially tribal biases, are the main cause, and religion is one huge repertoire of tribal biases. So I’d say religions like Christianity are far more of a hindrance to moral understanding than brain differences.

33. INSTINCT If you say that your morals are derived from instinct, which is brain-programmed behavior, then how would you really know if anything is right or wrong?

How is “really knowing” right from wrong different from “knowing” right from wrong? Slick’s question seems to be implying that a brain state cannot “really” tell us right from wrong, but he does not make any sort of argument in his question that would back this up.

Slick, I presume, assumes a Christian epistemology. From that standpoint, no atheist can “really know” anything, so the question is pointless. From my epistemic standpoint, intuitions lead us to “really know” a lot of things, including fundamentals of human thought (logic, perception, esthetics, morality, and so on). On this there can be no discussion, because the Christian worldview is fundamentally anti-rational, and therefore anti-discussion.

34. INSTINCT If you say that your morals are derived from instinct, which is brain-programmed behavior, then how does one neuro-chemical state of the brain that leads to another neuro-chemical state produce proper moral truths?

This is more or less a repeat of question 33, with a little more precision. But the precision is useless, since it just pushes the mystery back: what exactly does Slick think a truth is, apart from a neuro-chemical state of the brain? The answer is that Slick probably believes truth comes from God first. Again there can be no discussion with such a position.

This is linked to the presuppositionalist line of reasoning that if we’re “mere atoms banging around,” then there can be no truth. But whatever divine truths you believe exist out there, they still have to go through our brains, which are “mere atoms banging around.” If the brain is unreliable, then so is any ideology that goes through our brain, including Christianity.

So we can reverse the question to Christians as well: how can you say a neuro-chemical state of your brain (such as faith, revelation, the feeling of a personal relationship with Jesus, etc) is evidence (for you) that God exists? How can you “really know” that God exists based on a mere neuro-chemical state? Can you “really, really know” that God exists? And so on.

The other page with morality questions on Slick’s site concerns the principle of harm reduction. Since this principle is the reason behind the name of this blog, I had better address them as well.

But before I do that, I want to make one thing clear, which Slick does not seem to understand. When I, and most people, talk about “not imposing harm,” we mean it as an ethical principle (i.e. that which pertains to groups in society or society itself); what that means is, we’d like it to be a rule or law regulating society or sub-groups of society. We are not saying that it is a moral principle, a value that the individual should align their moral compass on, although it can be a part of one’s morality as well.

Slick’s questions seem to assume that the harm-reduction principle is a moral principle. So for example he assumes that self-harm is relevant, when in fact self-harm is not, on the whole, an ethical issue (i.e. an issue about how people treat each other as members of society).

Now that this much is clear, I continue with the questions.

1. VALIDATE THE NO-HARM STANDARD If you, as an atheist, say that what is morally good is that which reduces over-all harm, then on what basis do you validate that assertion as being a proper moral standard?

This does not seem to branch out, but he does designate a separate sub-category called [IT’S] WHAT PEOPLE WANT. This is obviously not relevant to my position, so I will skip those questions.

My answer would be simple: it is wrong to cause injury to people or treat people unjustly. Since that is the case, it would be good to set society up so that we disallow people to bring harm to each other, so we may get as much of the benefits of living in society as possible while getting as little injury from it as possible. This is why all societies have set themselves up to condemn unjustifiable harm such as murder, assault, theft, and so on. Unfortunately they have not done so systematically, for reasons which are too lengthy to get into in this entry.

4. SELF-PROTECTION If reducing overall harm is the standard of morality, then should a nation that is being attacked by another nation not practice self-defense since by defending itself it would increase overall harm to both nations?

So Slick’s process here assumes that the person will either answer “they should defend themselves anyway, the harm-reduction principle is not always valid” or “no, they shouldn’t defend themselves.”

But this seems like a false dichotomy to me. Slick’s premise that self-defense increases overall harm seems to me silly at best. At the very least, it is a huge assumption which is unsupported, and it renders the question moot. Perhaps sometimes self-defense makes things worse, but, whether we’re talking about individuals or nations, surely in the great majority of cases self-defense makes things less worse than they would be otherwise.

I don’t understand how Slick arrived at this assumption and it really doesn’t make any sense from a realistic standpoint. It’s like he thinks wars are fought so the winners can have tea and crumpets with the losers. No, when a country invades another the usual consequences are massive destruction of infrastructure, massive deaths, political enslavement, and sometimes genocide. Of course Slick is probably a neo-con and wants to believe that American imperialism is flowers and butterflies, but whatever dude.

8. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If reducing harm is the standard of morality, then is it okay to sexually assault a comatose person if no physical or emotional harm is suffered, and the person is never aware of it?

Here Slick is confusing harm-reduction as an absolute principle, with harm-reduction as the only principle. In this he is falling into the same trap as voluntaryists: the trap of thinking that anything that’s not forbidden is permitted.

Suppose that all harmful acts should be disallowed. This does not prove that all non-harmful acts should be allowed. We may want to say that non-harmful acts where one of the parties has not consented should be disallowed as well. The consent principle would not supersede or contradict the harm-reduction principle (as Slick seems to think would be the case, judging from question 11), but rather complement it. There are also other complementary principles, but since the example here is about consent, there’s no need to continue further.

9. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If reducing harm is the standard of morality, then is it okay for people to lie and commit adultery as long as others don’t find out about it, and there is no physical or emotional harm incurred by anyone?

Yes, I think that should be allowed in a free society. Lying is undesirable ethically because it leads to control and manipulation (with corporate and State propaganda, manipulation of public opinion on a global scale). If I interpret the question correctly, the instances of lying discussed here do not entail any of that, so I don’t see what’s unethical about it. It may irk me personally, but there’s no clear reason to disallow it.

As for adultery, while it is obviously not ideal, it is certainly a positive force in the world. The main problem, the main harm, I think, is marriage: this mental delusion that a person can, and should, stay faithful to one other person for the rest of their life. Insofar as it breaks the stranglehold of this delusion on people, adultery is a good thing. And if it doesn’t harm anyone, then all the better.

10. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If you answered yes to one or both of the two previous questions about rape and adultery, then aren’t you approving of these acts as long as no one is harmed?

Yes, I am approving of adultery. I’m sure Slick wants me to squirm and try to say that I don’t “really” approve of adultery, but I see no reason to do so.

11. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If you answered no to one or both of the questions on rape and adultery, then how is your position consistent with the what-is-good-is-what-reduces-harm standard since no harm was suffered by anyone?

I’ve already explained this on question 8. My position is consistent because it sets the consent principle as a complement to the harm-reduction principle, so it is perfectly consistent with it.

12. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If reducing suffering is what is morally good, then if a society decides to incarcerate Christians because it deems them harmful to that society, would that then be the morally right thing to do?

But Christianity is already enormously harmful to our societies. And yet there’s no atheist out there, even anti-theists, demanding that Christians be incarcerated. The obvious solution is not to put religious people in jail, but to set society up so that people’s religion has as little harmful impact on everyone else (especially defenseless children) as possible.

So no, I don’t think imprisonment is the right thing to do, not because I think Christianity is not harmful, but because imprisonment does not eradicate harm. I am against incarceration, at any rate, precisely because it inflicts more harm, it does not eradicate any harm.

13. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE Likewise, if reducing suffering is what is morally good and a society decides to incarcerate atheists because it deems them harmful to that society, would that be the morally right thing to do?

Same answer as in question 12, except that atheism in itself is not a moral position and therefore cannot entail any harm.

14. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If incarcerating Christians and/or atheists because society says it reduces overall harm is really not the morally right thing to do, then why is it not right since it would be that society’s attempt at reducing overall harm?

Here Slick is confusing cultural relativism with harm-reduction, which is ironic since he’s against cultural relativism in the first place (not sure how you can be a Biblical literalist and be against cultural relativism, but whatever). What is the moral relevance of it being “that society’s” belief? Even if we could classify it as a cultural practice, that wouldn’t factually make it a valid way of reducing harm.

If we follow the harm-reduction principle, then we must consider moral those rules or laws which actually do reduce harm. We cannot consider a rule or law moral just because a given culture believes it reduces harm.

16. SELF-HARM If reducing harm is the standard of morality, then what do you do with those people who are perfectly normal, productive members of society who also just happen to like harming themselves?

Here I have to come back the distinction between moral principles and ethical principles. As I, and most people, use it, the harm-reduction principle does not apply to individual motivations but to social organization. It is not concerned with things like self-harm which only affect the individual.

So none of Slick’s questions here apply to any substantial harm-reduction position. His tactic is to ask whether the principle should be applied or not, and if not, then how can you say the harm-reduction position is valid? But its validity is not in doubt. Self-harm does not affect this fact.

Now, I do not deny that self-harm can sometimes affect other people, especially where children are concerned. A parent killing themselves has a profound effect on a child’s life, psychologically and in terms of future well-being. So I do agree that, in that regard, there should be rules against parents self-harming, but that’s only because we live in a monogamist system where a child’s livelihood depends entirely on the livelihood of two specific people. So I will continue answering from this standpoint.

24. SELF-HARM But if you do force your standard on those who like to suffer harm, then aren’t you doing the same thing that you complain about regarding God in the Old Testament who also forced his morals on people?

First of all, I don’t believe any of that happened. The Old Testament is a book of myths, not of real history. But if we take the myths as real history, then my answer would be no, because there was no justification for God’s morals beyond “might makes right.” The harm-reduction principle is a justified principle which can be analyzed on a rational basis, and the means we take to achieve it can be analyzed on a rational basis. We know for a fact that there are many things that people like which are actually harmful, including religion.

I also find it ironic that Slick seems to be pointing out that the God of the Old Testament “forced his morals” on people. Of course he doesn’t see anything wrong with that because Christianity is inherently tyrannical in nature.

His next questions about SELF-HARM AND CONSENT assume that one believes that “reducing harm is good only when the consent of an individual is not violated.” This does not apply to my position because, again, harm-reduction and consent principles do not have to be in any sort of conflict. This is only Slick’s assumption.

Slick’s final, cheeky question:

33. SELF-HARM If what-is-good-is-what-reduces-harm, then shouldn’t you, as an atheist, just ignore all of these questions since they might harm your worldview on morality?

How fragile is a Christian’s faith if they see the innocent act of answering questions as being a threat to their worldview. I don’t see Slick’s questions as no such thing, and I think that’s mostly his ego speaking. Unless you are a close-minded bigot, no question alone can harm your worldview. But if the questions are particularly good and well formulated, they can cause you to think and expand your views a little bit, and that’s great, not harmful.

Not treating people as means to an end.

The core principle of this blog is “do not impose harm,” and I take it seriously as an ever-present ethical issue.

Not treating people as means to an end is a direct corollary of this principle; most of the time, barring true accidents or errors, to harm people means to treat them as a tool for our own values, instead of following theirs. Every crime, every atrocity, every conspiracy, reduces itself to fulfilling some people’s values at the expense of the victims’.

The maxim “the end justifies the means” can only make sense if you already seek to impose the rule of brute force, otherwise it is a logical impossibility. Moral justification for an action can only be located in the action itself and its context, not in some hypothetical future state. As says the Zapffe quote on my header, no future triumph or metamorphosis can justify the pitiful blighting of a human being against his will: I chose this quote as an apt restatement of “do not treat people as a means to an end.”

Independent confirmation of the principle is the fact that all radical positions have at their foundation a desire for some people to not be treated as means to some authoritarian end: people who are not part of the power elite (anarchism, anti-globalization), religious believers and those attacked by believers (anti-theism), women (radical feminism, anti-genderism), children (antinatalism, anti-pedagogy), all living species including humans (radical environmentalism). The flip side of this, of course, is that there are plenty of corrupt people who have used and continue to use these people as means to their ends, otherwise radical ideologies would not need to exist.

All hierarchies must necessarily use people as means to an end, because all hierarchies are predicated on superiors and inferiors. Inferiors must obey, and therefore surrender their value-system to that of their superiors. The values of the victims of these hierarchies are obviously equally irrelevant. Militaries do not waste any time examining whether their murdered victims valued the “freedom” supposedly being fought for, alcohol manufacturers do not spend money investigating the victims of drunk driving accidents, and male misogynists not known for their concern for female rape victims.

The consequence of routinely treating individuals as tools is objectification, literally associating individuals with tools. So you have the serious business expression “human resources,” living species called “natural resources,” the semantic association of women with nature. No matter what hierarchy you examine, you find absolute disdain and contempt for those lower on the ladder and desperate attempts to shut them up, indoctrinate them to devalue themselves, eradicate criticism in any way possible, and so on.

From an intuitionist standpoint, not treating others as a means to an end is a logical corollary to seeing other moral agents as being equally valuable as ourselves. This has a counterpart in the common sense notion of respecting others as you wish to be respected, and the Golden Rule.

So there are two basic tendencies in any society: one is the natural moral impulse to condemn treating other people as means to an end, which we might call legitimate crimes (murder, assault, fraud, etc), and another is the overwhelming power of hierarchies in molding thought, hiding its legitimate crimes (military crimes, police crimes, criminal collusion between the government and private entities, etc), and creating illegitimate crimes (heresy, treason and sedition, prostitution, drug crimes, evading arrest, etc).

This struggle between human rights and hierarchies typifies most of human history. This is why I sometimes say that there’s only two options, to be pro-harm or anti-harm. Of course every day situations are more complicated; but when you boil it down, every statist law, every State power, every claim of property is ultimately backed by the gun of the State; every religious maneuver and argument is backed by the wrath of God; every genderist rule is backed by ostracism, rape and murder. You can’t co-opt people “a little bit.”

The concept of civility as a veneer over evil.

The concept of the “veneer of civility” is a pretty popular metaphor. It conjures up the image of a thin layer covering up something more sinister, and when that layer cracks, the “true nature” of humanity comes up and takes over.

Bill Moyers expresses the majority view:

Civilization is but a thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen. And that’s not easy.

I think there is a lot of elitism and imperialism hiding behind such sentences. After all, we’ve spent centuries calling other cultures “uncivilized” and assuming that they must be more violent and evil than we are, but such assertions are now completely discredited (some people still spout such propaganda).

My inspiration here is an entry by Ursula LeGuin where she debunks the whole metaphor exactly perfectly:

If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.

What is this substance?

Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?

Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?

Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.

Furthermore, the metaphor reveals crucial limitations. We are assuming that human nature is the substance and civilization is a veneer over it. But presumably civilization was created by human beings with this same human nature, so how did it arise? How do we go from a state of individual confusion to a state of uniform order?

LeGuin is correct in stating that morality is innate. The order imposed by civilization is really the artificial production and reproduction of hierarchies and their attendant institutions and constructs. I think the metaphor does still work in a certain way, but only if we understand the true nature of civilization.

Take emergency situations, for example. In such situations, there is a veneer that comes off, but it’s not morality. Rather, I think it’s hierarchy. People no longer see each other or themselves as social roles but as human beings that need to survive. There is something inherently non-hierarchical about emergency situations, because social roles, titles, status or money don’t count for anything when the immediate concern is physical survival.

The Internet is another example. We have this conception that the Internet somehow releases people’s inhibitions, but I think it’s really that being on the Internet puts us in an environment where social mores are not as salient as they would be otherwise. In that sense, the release of hatred and hostility online is simply the result of people revealing more of their inner monologue. It’s brutal and it’s ugly, but it tells us more about the psyche of our fellow humans that would otherwise remain hidden.


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