Category Archives: Morality

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.

The pro-pornography and pro-BDSM positions are fundamentally selfish.


From Dinosaur Comics.

I think the proposition I give in the title of this entry may seem counter-intuitive; anyone interested in these debates has been bombarded by entitlement propaganda from the pro side, which posits that men have a right to, and are entitled to, female sexuality. Starting from this premise, I agree that the notion that the pro-prostitution and pro-BDSM positions are selfish does not make much sense (how can it be selfish to demand something that you are entitled to?). But I reject male entitlement to sex, and if we do go beyond that flimsy rationalization, I think the selfish nature of these positions is obvious.

I think that actions which benefit the self and hurt others would be labeled selfish by everyone (except Objectivists, but their own pro-capitalist ideology belies that). So however else selfishness may be defined, we can posit that selfish people are fine with running roughshod over others in the satisfaction of their needs.

Before even looking at how pro-pornography advocates defend their position, we can define the fundamental issue as this: in order to support pornography as an institution, you must first believe that your orgasms are more important than the widespread physical and mental abuse of women in pornography, the use of prostitutes and trafficked women to produce pornography, the creeping invasion of pornographic images and poses into mainstream media, and the threat to all women that pornography represents.

So I think we can all agree that, a priori, being pro-pornography is a very selfish position. But what about the advocates’ replies?

First, they try to argue that all these harms cannot possibly exist because “porn is not real” or “it’s just fantasy.” I could facetiously argue that they are out of their minds and can no longer differentiate between real life and fantasy, but I doubt that’s actually the case. I’m more inclined to believe that they are simply lying. Of course pornography is real, it’s made by real people in real circumstances and the sexual acts really are performed. To seriously argue otherwise is a complete psychotic break and requires treatment, not debate.

Sex-positive advocates will usually talk about how important healthy orgasms are, but pornography is not necessary for orgasms in the first place, so it’s really a red herring. The fact that a couple may sit down and watch pornography as a way to spark their sex life doesn’t mean they need pornography to have sex. And pornography, as I’ve pointed out before, is a very poor way of learning about sex. And even if the argument was valid and not a lie, it’s still selfish to think that the harms of pornography are compensated by your orgasm.

Another popular argument is the free speech argument. Besides its logical invalidity, what does it say about you that whatever you’re defending is so harmful to society that the only argument you have is that you have the right to defend it? Anyone has the right to be a woman-hating little shit, but how does that justify woman-hating? That seems to me like a rather childish and selfish attitude to have.

It rather reminds me of choice-talk. People throw the word “choice” around as a way to reduce everything to the individual. When they use it about themselves, they are basically saying “you can’t criticize me!”. To take one random example:

“I am an adult and if I choose to watch pornography, violence etc. then it is my own business.”

Really implies:

“I am an adult and if I choose to watch pornography, violence etc. then you are not allowed to criticize it. You may criticize children all you want, but I am an adult and all my choices are just as valid as yours.”

So there is an element of misopedia in this comment (obviously children don’t have rights and their “choices” cannot be valid without adult approval), but most importantly the individual demands that eir values have primacy over everyone else’s. Because there is criticism of pornography from a radical perspective and that criticism deserves as much consideration as the individual’s “choice.” To say otherwise is to refuse to live in society, but there lies the rhetoric of the sociopath, who, like the consumer of pornography, desperately does not want you to confront what he does.

If you read this blog, you know that I have repeatedly exposed the lies and misrepresentations of the most visible “feminist” pro-pornography advocate, Wendy McElroy (see 1, 2). Her defense of pornography is a mishmash of lies (e.g. radfems think women who look at pornography are “damaged” and regressed to a childlike state, pornography is sexually informative) and ignorance (e.g. she cannot use the term “objectification” correctly, she only discusses pornography with privileged and successful white pornographic actresses). Reading her defense, one gets the impression of a person who wants to sound like the voice of reason, but rejects anyone who is not like herself or who has different issues.

How often, in the pro-pornography discourse, do you hear anything about human rights, about equality, about the harm done? The reason is obvious: no human right, no egalitarian principle would be broken by banning pornography, and no harm is being resolved by pornography. They have no argument there, so they have no choice but to fall back to the same “free speech” and “it’s not real, it’s not real” rhetoric.

With BDSM, we have a similar situation, in that the person’s orgasm remains paramount. BDSMers must, a priori, believe that their orgasm is more important than the fact that they are reproducing physical and verbal abuse, sexual assault, torture, rape, and slavery, participating in a sexual institution which normalizes and justifies these activities, equating sexuality with oppressive hierarchies (and labeling non-hierarchical sex “vanilla sex,” on the premise that sexuality that is egalitarian and respectful of consent is inherently uninteresting and flavorless), and threatening abused women.

When I first commented on BDSM, I pointed out that, like with the pro-pornography advocates, the main argument used to address these charges is that BDSM is “not really” physical and verbal abuse, sexual assault, torture, etc. In order to make the point, they use weasel terms like “consensual non-consent,” “dubious consent,” “meta-consent,” “long-term consent.” None of these terms are actually forms of consent, but rather ways of calling various forms of non-consent “consent.”

I do feel like this point will be misunderstood, so I want to expand on it a bit. I have defined consent quite a bit on this blog, but basically to consent means to agree to participate to, or allow, if one is not directly involved, a certain course of action. All these BDSM terms entail that by agreeing to something that will happen in the future, agreeing when one is forced to agree, or by agreeing to actions which are undefined, one is agreeing to those future, coerced or undefined actions.

But this is logical nonsense. The only way to consent (agree to an action) is to agree to the action at the time of the action. Anything else is coercive; if consent really existed at the time of the action, then you wouldn’t need any long-term or contractual agreement in the first place. Sexual acts which are not consensual are actually really acts of sexual assault or rape.

Not only is it rape when agreement is not obtained at the time of the act, but even when there is no agreement at all, the assumed validity of BDSM as a sexual practice helps rapists get out of rape accusations (“we were practicing rapeplay, honest!”). Abusive forms of BDSM sex are, in practice, indistinguishable from other forms of abuse (how can we tell if there was an pre-existing agreement two days or two years ago?).

There is a “not all BDSMers” argument, just like there’s a “there is feminist porn too” argument. Both arguments are misguided, since the radfem position is not that all BDSMers are rapists or that all pornography is abusive, but rather that pornography and BDSM as institutions further the cause of woman-hatred and patriarchal ideals. Sadly, in defense of their sexuality, BDSMers are not ashamed to tell people about their sexual activities without their consent (not surprising, given how little they value consent) as if this was a normal thing to do (an activity which some in the anti-kink community call kink-creep).

Same problem with the argument that BDSMers only do it between themselves and thus cannot hurt anyone else. Apart from the fact that such arguments marginalize survivors of BDSM abuse, they obscure the fact that radfem arguments are not concerned with what people do in their own bedroom but with systems of oppression. BDSM as an institution is more than just people having sex: it’s a system of thought about sexual relations and “consent,” a reframing of sex as hierarchy and an us v them ideology where everyone who does not practice hierarchical sex is “vanilla” and has not discovered their personal kink.

As you can see, I’ve highlighted a number of areas where both positions are very similar. But the fundamental similarity, I think, is that advocates of pornography and BDSM are both conditioned by their orgasms (in the case of BDSM, often on purpose; in the case of pornography, involuntarily). If you keep getting orgasms in a specific physical or mental way, then eventually your orgasms will be connected to that way.

Let’s take porn for example: “John” enjoys pornography that includes group sex, so he seeks out this type of stimulus when he masturbates. Every time he orgasms to stimuli (visual or fantasy) of group sex, “John”’s brain forms an association between the stimuli and orgasm. And the more he pairs his orgasm to group sex, the stronger the association. Now, this doesn’t mean that simply seeing or thinking about group sex will cause “John” to orgasm, but it will start the arousal process. And more importantly, “John” might find that it takes longer to become aroused or to achieve orgasm to other types of sexual stimuli. He may even have to fantasize about group sex when he’s being intimate with his partner in order to orgasm.

If women’s oppression is the only way for you to get an orgasm, then you have a huge incentive to defend women’s oppression. Addicts will defend their right to have their drug of choice at any costs. And a lot of women are hoodwinked by the lie that it is normal for men to need pornography to orgasm, or the lie that women need to get into BDSM to have interesting sex lives (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a manual for “forced seduction”).

Under the guise of tolerance and openness, pro-pornography and pro-BDSM advocates peddle the same old patriarchal bullshit. To paraphrase a famous quote, pornography and BDSM are the theory, rape is the practice.

I love when pro-porn people criticize radical feminists for their vague pragmatic agreement with conservatives but don’t seem to realize their much greater agreement with a massive legion of rapists.

[P]orn teaches the same things as rape.

You have an inner destructive drive, I’m just cranky.

You will note that the title of this entry is similar to that of an earlier one. This is no coincidence, as the topics are also similar, but I hope this entry can shed light from a somewhat different angle.

My starting point on this one is from Alice Miller’s book Banished Knowledge. For those of you who don’t know her work, Alice Miller was a tireless worker for children’s rights and believed that child abuse must be identified and acknowledged by society. Despite being a mother herself, she attacked pedagogy itself and showed how even seemingly irrelevant verbal abuse can have consequences for a child’s future well-being.

In Banished Knowledge, she says:

It is only from adults that an unloved child learns to hate or torment and to disguise these feelings with lies and hypocrisy. That is why, when the child has grown up, he or she will say that children require norms and disciplining: this lie provides access to adult society, a lie that permeates all pedagogy and, to this day, psychoanalysis. The young child knows no lies, is prepared to take at their face value such words as truth, love, and mercy as heard in religious instruction in school. Only on finding out that his naivete is cause for ridicule does the child learn to dissemble. The child’s upbringing teaches him the patterns of the destructive behavior that will later be interpreted by experts as the result of an innate destructive drive. Anyone daring to question this assertion will be smiled at for being naive, as if that person had never come in contact with children and didn’t know “how they can get on your nerves.” For at least since the days of Sigmund Freud, it has been known in “progressive” circles that children come into this world with a death drive and might kill us all if we didn’t ward off “the first indications.”

(bold mine)

It’s easy to recognize in Miller’s pointed analysis the dichotomy between constructionism and some form of innate evil. I will not use the label adaptationism for the latter, since there are many contra-causal positions which believe in innate evil as well (e.g. Christianity), but the argument can be adapted to adaptationism as well (no pun intended).

In the entry I linked above, I noted the following double standard: that we claim “we” believe things on the basis of free willed thinking, and we claim “they” believe things on the basis of unreasoning reflex. “Our” beliefs are the result of free will, which is “good,” and “their” beliefs are determined, which is “bad.”

The actual truth of the matter is that everyone’s beliefs are determined by who they are and the circumstances they live through, and there’s no substantial difference between how “we” (the “good guys”) form beliefs and how “they” (the “bad guys”) form beliefs. The double standard is an excuse to not question our beliefs and to justify hating our enemies.

Miller talks about this “innate destructive drive” that people commonly believe children possess. Actual scientific observation has shown that children are born with the same ethical mechanisms (like empathy and fairness) that we all have: those are innate and don’t just pop up after a certain age, and, since they are feelings and not reasoned propositions, neither are they the kind of thing that you can learn. Children are human beings, with all that it implies; the fact that we consider children to be subhuman partially explains why we fall prey to such ridiculous beliefs as “children have a destructive drive.”

But there is a further part to this discussion. Children are essentially powerless bundles of need whose lives depend on their parents exactly as much as if they were still in the womb. They need food, sleep, heat, space to live and experiment, but they also need affection, care, a sense of belonging, love. Deprived of any of these elements, they will fail to develop as they should and may become “destructive.”

This is not normal and should not be interpreted as normal; it is the result of neglect and abuse. Try to understand a baby’s situation. The baby cannot feed itself, cannot move on its own, is only beginning to comprehend the world, and its life is dominated by two human beings who tower over it and control its activities. Adult slaves do not live through such a level of powerlessness, let alone your average adult. For those who have blocked their childhood experiences, even grasping a fraction of what it means to have such an existence is a daunting task.

Because they block understanding of this situation, adults become ridiculously judgmental and hostile to their own children. We routinely hear about parents who take their two year old, three year old, four year old, five year old to the task for not fulfilling the parents’ needs.

To put it as mildly as I can, this is batshit insane. I don’t know why anyone expects a toddler to process information the same way an adult would. But most importantly, a toddler does not exist to fulfill the parents’ needs, the parents exist to fulfill the toddler’s needs.

I imagine some parents may argue “well you don’t have children, you don’t know how it is.” Alice Miller had children and she knew how it was, and that didn’t stop her from denouncing parents in the most direct way. Child abuse and neglect by parents is caused by the parents; children can never be responsible for being neglected or abused. I don’t need to be a parent to understand that, any more than I need to be a murderer to be against murder.

The flip side of the “innate destructive drive” is that parents who neglect or abuse their children are said to be justifiably cranky or weak. You will note that unlike a drive, being cranky or weak is a temporary state which does not define the person. Children are evil by nature, parents are evil because of specific circumstances; in no way can pedagogy, or the person of the parent, be attacked. To do so is one of the biggest taboos in our societies (again, because we hate children and therefore the children are always held responsible except in extreme cases).

We use this same “innate destructive drive” excuse to explain away hardened criminals. If we can convince ourselves that criminals are born that way, then we can be reassured that there was nothing society could have done to prevent their crimes. “There is nothing we could have done” is always the clarion call of the “we live in the best of all worlds” delusion which is so necessary for all of us to keep living in our evil and corrupt Western societies. I do not argue that this is not a necessary delusion; the trouble is when people start taking the delusion as reality.

There is, however, a racial and genderist distinction. When white men kill, they are usually labeled crazed, mentally ill (which is an insult against the mentally ill, who are no more violent than the rest of the population), temporarily insane; only the serial killers and mass murderers are called “monsters,” which is just another way to evade reality. When black men kill, when women kill, no one shies away from the responsibility of the murderers.

Since my previous entry was about determinism, I think I should mention it in this entry as well, since it may yield some confusion. The concept of an “innate destructive drive” is not specifically deterministic: indeed, as I already pointed out, many free will beliefs include a belief in innate drives. It’s important to distinguish between determinism and adaptationism: the former is an obvious logical deduction, the latter is a formidable mine of pseudo-science. Despite what some people think, determinism doesn’t mean we can completely predict people’s behavior; that’s the hallmark of a quack who has no interest in the subtleties of, and numerous conscious and unconscious influences on, human behavior.

Evolutionary psychology: the confront of the bully.


From ebbits (click to enlarge).

The “results” of evolutionary psychologists (which has nothing to do with either actual evolution or actual psychology) are full of just-so stories referring to a Pleistocene era about which they know very little in order to justify their belief in the naturalness and immutability of the traditional Western and neo-liberal values they enshrine. They start with an imaginary hunter-gatherer society out of the Flintstones, make up an imaginary solution to a problem they assume these imaginary people might have had, and call that scientific evidence.

But those are not the most important stories they tell. Here are what I think are the two greatest stories made up by evolutionary psychologists:

1. They are dispassionate scientists looking for the truth about human action, and they are the only ones who can do it because they wield the “cold light of scientific realism.”

2. Their opponents are evil socialists or “blank slaters” who want to inject their corrupt and unrealistic values in what should be the “cold light of scientific realism.”

These two stories are woven together into one conclusion: the evolutionary psychologist is the light of reason, science triumphant, and his opponents are demagogues who, deep down, hate science.

Evolutionary psychologists characterize themselves as a beleaguered minority. In language that resonates with that of the conservative right, they see themselves victimized by what Harvard Professor Steven Pinker calls “an establishment” of “elite” “intellectuals.” Evolutionary psychology is the “real” science, seemingly the only real human science that is capable of dealing soberly with the obvious and cold hard facts of the human situation. Pinker contrasts evolutionary psychologists with their opponents, who are “biased by politics” or “romantics” in the thrall of “feel-good moralism.”

Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics

Edward Hagen, after answering the criticism that evopsych cannot explain change in human societies:

[E]volutionary psychologists are keenly interested in the cognitive abilities that underlie the rich political behavior of people everywhere. The considerable research on ‘cheater detection modules’ represents the first baby steps in this direction. Further, the ‘politically incorrect’ assertions of evolutionary psychologists (e.g., that youth is a component of female mate value) are based on considerable empirical evidence. Critics are welcome to challenge the evidence or provide testable alternative explanations for it.

The founders of evopsych, Cosmides and Tooby:

Three decades of progress and convergence in cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience have shown that this [social constructionist] view of the human mind is radically defective. Evolutionary psychology provides an alternative framework that is beginning to replace it. On this view, all normal human minds reliably develop a standard collection of reasoning and regulatory circuits that are functionally specialized and, frequently, domain-specific. These circuits organize the way we interpret our experiences, inject certain recurrent concepts and motivations into our mental life, and provide universal frames of meaning that allow us to understand the actions and intentions of others.

The little problem with these grandstanding assertions is that the scientific inquiry done outside of evopsych’s little domain, like anthropology, neurology, sociology and evolutionary biology, all stunningly disprove evopsych’s foundational premises. Anthropology tells us that the traits that evopsychs take as universal and immutable (such as the sexual double standard or kinship as genetic closeness) are actually non-existent in many non-Western societies. Neurology tells us that the brain does not have fixed “circuits,” but is highly plastic. Sociology tells us that social constructionism is the correct view, and that the evopsych assumption that gender, race and class are “natural” is incorrect. Evolutionary biology disproves the evopsychs’ spurious analogies between humans and other (carefully selected) species.

But there is something more here beyond pseudo-science; there is a sort of bravado that evopsychs take when their conclusions are found aberrant (e.g. when they try to justify spousal murder, rape or racism as healthy adaptations). They get in your face and tell you that they’re scientists and have the reputation of science behind them, so if you find them “politically incorrect,”
what are you going to do about it, punk? Provide better evidence? I don’t think so (although it doesn’t seem hard to provide better evidence than no evidence).

[Gender essentialist writers] are fond of presenting themselves as latter-day Galileos, braving the wrath of the political correctness lobby by daring to challenge the feminist orthodoxy that denies that men and women are by nature profoundly different. Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of The Essential Difference, explains in his introduction that he put the book aside for several years because “the topic was just too politically sensitive”. In the chapter on male-female differences in his book about human nature, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker congratulates himself on having the courage to say what has long been “unsayable in polite company”. Both writers stress that they have no political axe to grind: they are simply following the evidence where it leads, and trying to put scientific facts in place of politically correct dogma.

Deborah Cameron

Evolutionary psychologists argue that, however tough it is to acknowledge the darker side of that nature, someone has to do it, and their job is to shed the cold light of scientific realism on human nature, including its more unsavory bits… The “disturbing side of human mating [jealousy, rape, incest, violence, etc.] must be confronted,” Buss argues, “if its harsh consequences are ever to be ameliorated.”

Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics

Buss views evopsych not only as a “candle in the dark” against the harshness of the unsavory part of human nature, but as the only real possible solution to human woes! Take note of the mental contortion now; the way to end sexism is not to attack the social construction of gender and how it creates a hierarchy which hurts the people who aren’t on top. No, that’s a naive “blank slate” view, because gender is engraved in our brains. Instead, we must naturalize jealousy, rape, spousal murder, male promiscuity and the female virgin/whore paradigm, the double standard, and so on, and doing so will…

Will what? What’s the game plan here? Alcoholics who join AA have to believe they’re powerless and that they can’t be cured, which is self-defeating. Making the silly argument that evopsych is the only solution to the social woes that evopsych itself naturalizes and justifies is equally self-defeating. Having a just-so story on why men kill their wives does not help us stop men from killing their wives. There is absolutely nothing that one can do with this fabricated “information.”

What we can do to help eradicate social woes is to change the social context: mentalities, ideologies, institutions, laws, and yes, armed conflict. Those methods, while still fallible, do occasionally work in bringing about social change. No social change has ever been brought about by evopsych, which only started in the 1970s as a reaction to the sexual revolution and mainly persists as a way for older professors to con their students into fucking them; if evopsych is necessary for social change, then how did all that change before the 1970s happen? As I’ve also pointed out before, the biggest change in the history of human societies, the agricultural revolution, took place after the Pleistocene era: this fact alone is enough to prove the ultimate absurdity of this dogma.

My main point, however, is not that evopsychs are hucksters, but that they are bullies. Every single failure of evopsych is a reason for them to get in people’s faces and gloat that they don’t care about the “politically correct,” only about pure, hallowed science. And their pretensions about being scientists mean they don’t even have to address mainstream criticism, because after all those critics are not scientists and therefore cannot possibly know anything about how to disprove such a scientific field as evopsych.

But most importantly, they bully women, people of color, poor people, and everyone else whose exploitation is “explained” by evopsych as a human adaptation, but this bullying is done under the guide of science and cloaked in scientific lingo.

In this and other ways, it reminds me of Creationism, who are also bullies who use pseudo-science to dazzle and confuse uneducated people. And Creationism supports the ideologies which state that God created men and women to form a gender hierarchy, that God creates the human races to form a race hierarchy, and so on. A pitiless god is replaced by an imbecilic natural process, which is about standard for non-religious whackjobs.

Creationists also use just-so stories. They tell us, for instance, that before the Fall animals were made to chew grass, and that the Fall somehow changed their DNA so they’d develop pointy teeth, digestive systems, and so on. Well isn’t that convenient. God, like imaginary conceptions of the Pleistocene era, is a slot machine of stories that just happen to exactly fit what you believe.

But this is not the only similarity between evopsychs and Creationists. Creationists also accuse their opponents of being afraid of “real science” (which they call “observational science”). Creationists also follow ridiculously invalid fundamental premises. Creationists are also, by and large, right-wing bigots who seek to naturalize their bigotry.

But even if there are many similarities, Creationists are motivated primarily by religious beliefs, and their bigotry is secondary. In this way, Creationists are actually morally superior to evopsychs.

Despite their claims to be on the side of “real science” and of their ability to confront uncomfortable facts, neither of them are really able to confront the truth, and they both confuse bullying for confront. Evopsychs are unable to confront the real science which disproves their cherished beliefs, they are unable to confront that their just-so stories are the products of their imagination, and they are unable to confront the fact that their work is political in nature and, like all other human activities, value-laden.

Like all intellectual bullies, evopsychs have to paint their opponents as disingenuous agents of a conspiracy to suppress the great truths they are “discovering”: Creationists have “scientific materialism” (see the Wedge Document) and evopsychs have the “blank slaters” and “feel-good moralists.” Like all crackpots, they rail against the “orthodoxy” and the “scientific establishment” because science is not on their side.

Over the years, the technological metaphor used to describe the structure of the human mind has been consistently updated, from blank slate to switchboard to general purpose computer, but the central tenet of these Empiricist views has remained the same. Indeed, it has become the reigning orthodoxy in mainstream anthropology, sociology, and most areas of psychology.

Also like many crackpots, they use the “they laughed at Galileo!” argument. Of course they think they’re Galileo fighting the evil establishment (no one to my knowledge has ever claimed to be like the Catholic Church, except I guess the Catholic Church).

In 1632, Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican was published in Florence. The Dialogue effectively argued that Copernican theory was the factually superior theory of cosmology. Because the major moral/political power of the day, the Catholic Church, had grounded its authority in a Ptolemaic (i.e., Aristotelian) view of the physical world, Galileo’s Dialogue was obviously quite threatening…

Today, apparently, a number of thinkers have, like the Catholic Church, also grounded their moral and political views in certain scientific assumptions about the world. In this case, these are scientific assumptions about human nature (mainly that there isn’t one). Consequently, any body of theory and research which calls these assumptions into question will be seen as quite threatening.

You may notice the heavy projection; they portray their opponents as a sinister cabal threatened by the rise of real science, but this is an accurate description of evopsychs themselves. They accuse their opponents of lacking confront, but evopsychs are unable to confront reality.

Bullies are bullies precisely because they are unable to confront reality or dealing with others; in the case of ideological bullies, they are unable to gain respectability because their ideology is fundamentally irrational, therefore they use non-intellectual arguments (like projection, playing the victim, ad hoc replies, just-so stories, claiming they have the “real truth,” and so on and so forth ad nauseam) and use intimidation in order to appear stronger than they really are. Again the comparison with Creationists comes to mind here.

Just so I’m clear, my point in this entry was not to refute evopsych (I have done a summary of the case against it in a previous entry). I don’t think evopsych is worth refuting because it is not scientific and demonstrates a complete ignorance of actual science. I think evopsych needs to be analyzed at the level of its motivations and techniques, because it is a right-wing movement which leads (whether unconsciously or consciously, but their intent does not concern me at all) to the naturalization of neo-liberalist and traditional Western social constructs, and therefore supports institutional tyrannies, the Patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and so on.

“You’re just a science denialist!”

Evolutionary psychology has been getting blasted in atheist circles for its unscientific nature and for supporting the status quo. In response, the battle cry of the evolutionary psychologist has been nothing but: “you’re a science denialist!”

This term is derived from “Holocaust denialism”; Holocaust deniers are people who deny that the Holocaust happened despite the historical evidence presented. At least, that was the original use of the term. Nowadays, “denialism” is used more and more widely, to attack “climate change denialism,” “AIDS denialism,” “evolution denialism.”

Granted, these positions can be seen as denying a body of evidence, so the use of “denialism” there is not entirely objectionable. But what body of evidence is being denied by people who object to evolutionary psychology?

Evolution is true, and humans are the product of evolution. That much is beyond the shadow of a doubt and is not being denied. That we have a (human) psychology is not being denied either. But the concept that our concrete behaviors are the result of evolution, which is what evopsych proponents declare as their foundation, is very much under contention. They do not propose any scientific evidence to demonstrate this as a fact; they simply posit that our brain evolved specific behaviors as solutions to Pleistocene problems and assume from there.

What is important to understand here is that evolutionary psychology papers do not provide any evidence of the truth of evolutionary psychology itself. All evopsych “researchers” assume that our behaviors are evolved as the implicit principle behind their research.

As it turns out, it’s easy to falsify evopsych and show it to be pseudo-science. According to evopsych, based on their unproven assertions about behaviors being evolved, there should be individual, separate modules in our brains that regulate specific behaviors. But no such modules have ever been shown to exist. Evolutionary psychology is not a science, it is dangerous, politically-motivated charlatanism poorly dressed up as science.

So when we are told that people who debunk evolutionary psychology are “science denialists,” we must make clear three things:

1. Evolutionary psychology is not science. Its premises are false and its methods are circular. It is based on no measurable observations and contradicts observations of the human brain.

2. Attacking evolutionary psychology is not “science denialism” because, unlike the Holocaust, climate change, evolution and HIV research, there is no body of evidence demonstrating the validity of evolutionary psychology. Neither can evolutionary psychology explain anything in a novel way or shed new light on any problem.

3. Evolutionary psychology is a political position, not a scientific position. Its objective is to support the status quo on issues of gender, sexuality, race, class and power.

Illustrating these three points is the following evopsych explanation for homosexuality:
(and before you accuse me of choosing the most embarassing evopsych position, this is the very first result on Google right now, as I am writing this in September 2013, for “evolutionary psychology explanation for homosexuality”)

Overly simplified, this “tipping-point” model (originally introduced by G. E. Hutchinson in 1959, and then later popularized by Jim McKnight in 1997 and Edward Miller in 2000) posits that genes associated with homosexuality confer fitness benefits in their heterosexual carriers. If only a few of these alleles are inherited, a males’ reproductive success is enhanced via the expression of attractive, albeit feminine traits, such as kindness, sensitivity, empathy, and tenderness. However, if many of these alleles are inherited, a “tipping point” is reached at which even mate preferences become “feminized,” meaning males are attracted to other males.

To go through the three points again:

1. The premise of this “research” is that homosexual behavior has evolved for some reason, and we need to find that reason. No attempt has been made to establish whether any specifically homosexual behavior was in fact evolved or not. It is entirely possible that any given behavior is not an adaptation in itself but rather the by-product of an adaptation (as morality is) or is completely unrelated to any adaptation. The latter is due to genetic drift, and while there is no consensus on how important genetic drift is to evolution as a whole, we know for a fact that genetic drift can have a profound impact on the development of species, especially on small populations.

“The ground rule – or perhaps doctrine would be a better term – is that adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should be used only where it is really necessary.”

As is clear to most evolutionary biologists, and other interested skeptical parties who are less than enamoured by the efforts of Evolutionary Psychologists, the approach described… above is rarely followed and instead these scientists appear to fire off adaptive explanations with reckless abandon, with their work often consisting of nothing more than folk wisdom and a post hoc just-so story explanation.

2. Even if the explanation is true, how does it advance our understanding? It still does not explain what makes one hetereosexual or homosexual (how are these genes transmitted to any specific individual? have any studies confirmed that homosexuals come from “feminine” families?). It also does not acknowledge that there are many more sexual orientations than heterosexual or homosexual, and so does not explain reality as we know it.

3. The association of homosexuality with feminine traits, as well as the association of “kindness, sensitivity, empathy, and tenderness” (that is to say, passivity and slavish support of males) with femininity as opposed to aggression as masculine trait, are Patriarchal constructs which perpetuate sexism and homophobia. There, then, is the real objective of this “research”: to perpetuate gender roles and homophobia. Of course the writers flippantly deny this:

These recent findings are scientifically intriguing and they likely have profound implications for the LGBT community (which we purposefully skirted here as we are donning our science and description hats and not our policy and prescription caps).

Here we see again the myth that science is “value-neutral” and that one can neatly separate fact from value, leaving only cold logic (a “male” trait). This of course is a lie. But by making the dichotomy between “science”/”description” (of facts) and “policy,” the writers are omitting the fact that description itself plays off on the meanings already existing in society. If I describe homosexuality as feminine or women as caring, I am in fact perpetuating already existing hierarchies, even if it’s “description” and not “policy.”

It makes it a lot easier for evopsych proponents to slip their support for hierarchies under the door if they first convince people that their research is “scientific” and “descriptive.” People think that racism or sexism can’t be racist or sexist if it’s “scientific” (see the IQ-race debate for example). So you get into the whole “objectivity” game, as in “I’m being objective and you’re not.” That’s a game for suckers if there ever was one.

Evopsychs may accuse us of being science denialists, but they are behavioral creationists.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 290 other followers