Category Archives: Morality

Why should we care about morality?

Also see previous entries I have written on intuitionism:

What is Ethical Intuitionism?
Why Atheists Should Be Intuitionists.
Why intuitionism supports antinatalist conclusions.
Ideological bias is the main ethical error.
An intuitionist answers Matt Slick re: atheist morality.
Some misunderstandings about intuitions.
Equating intuitionism with “naive intuitionism.”
Intuitionism as used by reactionaries.


Many times, people who talk about morality from an authoritarian standpoint, or from a nihilistic standpoint (which usually end up being pretty similar), will ask the question: “why should I care about what’s right and what’s wrong?” One of the assumptions behind this question is that humans are in a default state of “not caring about morality” and that we need to reason our way into it. If there is no good reason to do so, then the individual should remain in a state of “not caring.”

From an intuitionist perspective, this assumption is invalid. The vast majority of human beings are born with the mental structures which enable morality, and cannot “opt out.” As sentient beings and social beings, we have no choice but to have some idea of what’s right and what’s wrong, because we must act intelligently in order to fulfill our needs. We can only distort our moral balance, generally as a result of some profound moral bias (such as that one might acquire when joining a fundamentalist religion, a cult, or be subjected to some other form of indoctrination). In time, if we leave the source of bias, our moral balance will begin to re-establish itself.

But there is another way we can interpret the question, and that’s to ask: “why should I care about YOUR definition of right and wrong?” That question is more important, insofar as any positive claim or belief must be shown to be based on reality in order to be rational or credible. Many people are unable to answer this question and fall back on the inter-subjective idea of “if you agree with me, then you should care, otherwise you shouldn’t.” This is not a good sign. A position based on reality should be able to point to some fact (however abstract), not just agreement that the position is true.

There is a consideration that complicates things here, and that’s the is/ought problem, which entails that one cannot prove the validity of a moral system based on statements of fact alone. Intuitionism cuts through the Gordian knot of the is/ought problem, in that moral intuitions (and all other intuitions) are part of our biological makeup and partially constitute the kind of organism that we are. We would not ask why humans walk the way they do: the way we walk is a result of our skeletal system. Likewise, our morality is based on our moral intuitions.

To continue the analogy, people may wear all sorts of shoes, may walk or run in various stances, may become handicapped, and all of these behaviors and abilities/disabilities have as their foundation the fact that we are bipedal animals with a certain gait. People may act “selfishly” or “altruistically,” their moral systems may get unbalanced, they may label themselves all sorts of ways. All those behaviors are also based on moral intuitions as their foundation, in the ways some become more important than others, in the expression of those intuitions in our specific societies or subcultures, and so on.

So the question “why should I care about right or wrong?” fails to make an impact on intuitionists, because it has the same general nonsensicality as “why should I walk on two legs?” or “why should I act like a social animal?”. In all cases, the answer is the same: “you’re a human being, so you already do.” Moral statements are derived from moral intuitions, which are pre-existing and therefore do not require justification or reasoning for their existence (or at least no more than being bipedal does).

The question, however, does apply to moral positions which assume some moral system requiring justification or reasoning. So take utilitarianism, for example (or any of its variants). Asking “why should I be a utilitarian?” is a valid question, since utilitarianism is an abstract construct which must be accepted by the individual. If we accept the existence of moral intuitions (which I think we should, as they do exist), then either utilitarianism is based on moral intuitions or it is not. If it is, then why not go straight to the source and skip utilitarianism? If it is not, then why should we care? And equally importantly, how could it possibly be justified without appealing to some form of pre-existing evaluation, whether it’s intuitions or something else?

I have used the same argument structure before about following the Bible as a moral guide. Before one can do so, one must accept the Bible as moral in the first place. This evaluation was made on some basis. So why not just skip the Bible and go straight to that basis, elaborating on it? If the individual already possesses a way to evaluate morality, then the Bible was not needed in the first place. If the individual does not already possess a way to evaluate morality, then they cannot validly evaluate the Bible as moral in the first place.

Of course utilitarians (or other moral realists who believe they have a solution to the is/ought problem) have their own justifications for why they believe what they believe, and I am not dissing that. This is not an analysis of those justifications. I would be willing to examine them on this blog, although I do not know of any right now (feel free to submit any you know).

One further issue is that many defenses of moral realist positions smuggle in supposed intuitionist evaluations as a “check” against invalid moral premises. For instance, some people will claim that negative utilitarianism cannot possibly be true, because it leads to the conclusion that no one should exist. But why cannot this even be possibly true? Well, because it’s “absurd.” That sounds like an arbitrary appeal to intuition (I have analyzed why I believe antinatalism, and by extension human extinction, is harmonious with the intuitionist position here). In practice, it means something like “well, I don’t like this position because it ruins my big complicated arguments about morality, and I can’t obfuscate it, so I’ll just ignore it.” That’s just intellectual dishonesty.

Intuitionism as used by reactionaries.

I’ve come across reactionaries who use moral intuitionism as their basis, and that has always puzzled me. As an intuitionist, I need to address this. I think I’ve figured out what the issue is: they interpret intuitionism as something like “instinctivism,” the belief that anything we do instinctively must be good. I have analyzed the “instinctivism” argument of Bryan Caplan regarding natalism in this entry. Basically, his argument was that natalism is true because most people don’t kill themselves.

The fact that people generally do or don’t do something, however, doesn’t imply anything about it being intuition-based or not. It is entirely possible, for example, that our brains have some forms of cognitive bias which make us think our lives are much better than they actually are (this is a claim put forward by many antinatalists). It is also possible that people are indoctrinated to believe that their lives are good and that they should be thankful for being alive. Then we would grasp at the life-system as a shining beacon of goodness, instinctively, not because we’d naturally do it based on human intuition but because we’ve been indirectly trained to do so.

I think the same is true about politics. For example, there was some media attention on some intuitionist philosopher stating that conservatives were inherently better because they orient their morality on all the categories of moral intuitions (care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity), while liberals only orient their morality on some of them (care and fairness). The unspoken implication is that, since the intuitions are shared by all humans, liberalism is somehow less than human, while conservatism appeals to the entire spectrum of human morality.

My opinion is that this is, as Chidi in The Good Place would say, “hot stinky cat dookie.” All humans who have a moral sense care about all these things, just in different ways. These specific conservatives believe that the way *they* care about loyalty, authority, and purity are the only way you can care about those things, and liberals just don’t care at all. Believe me, liberals have just as keen of a sense of loyalty, authority, and purity than everyone else. I say this in a good way but also in a bad way: liberals can get just as deranged and unbalanced about those things as conservatives do (been on tumblr lately? or followed the trans lobby? or really anything the regressive part of the “left” is up to these days?). They just value loyalty to other ideals or people, they value the authority of different people, and they attribute purity to different properties. But to the fanatic, anyone who disagrees with their values is a nihilist (fundamentalist Christians think atheists and determinists are nihilists, natalists think antinatalists are nihilists, and so on).

The fact that conservatives exist and that they think they’re better than everyone else does not prove that conservatism is the result of our moral intuitions and liberalism is not (and this is not a one-or-the-other issue: there is nothing inherently contradictory about believing both are, or that neither are!). It proves that people are indoctrinated into certain political beliefs, and people like to think they’re special and have some kind of special knowledge that others do not have. It’s not too hard to figure out. The fact that conservatives do not understand how liberals think (and vice-versa) does not mean that conservatism is intuitive and liberalism is not. That’s just bigoted, sloppy thinking.

The more general point here is that morality (from the intuitionist standpoint) is not only an issue of what the intuitions are, or how they are defined by society, but also an issue of how balanced they are. I think that the idea that valuing something at the expense of other things and having it become an obsession is pretty well understood and is the basis of many stories. The conservative commentators seem to believe that liberals have an unbalanced moral system, that they somehow don’t value loyalty, authority, or purity as much as they should. But how would you measure that, and how could you tell you’re the one who’s right?

There are cases where you can tell pretty easily. Cults, for example, exploit our sense of loyalty (you have to be loyal to the group!) and redefine our concept of care (we can save the world, and that’s the most caring thing you can do!) in order to make us harm people, reject social authorities, and want to generate unfairness in society in favor of the cult. Anti-abortion advocates play on our sense of purity and sanctity (rejecting abortions as disgusting and ungodly) in order to get us to treat women unfairly (not giving them contraception or medical operations which would be granted to men) and condemning some women to death. People who manipulate our intuitions for these purposes know very well what they are doing, at least at some level (that they are exploiting some part of us in order to crush another).

Our moral system did not evolve under our fast-changing social conditions. We know this because the moral system exists to some extent in all primate species, and therefore we know it evolved under conditions of small groups with clearly delineated and generally (but not always) unchanging social roles. They were not meant to operate under conditions where a large pool of individuals could stumble on ways to use complex languages and communication technologies to hijack certain parts of that system in favor of other parts.

The proper intuitionist argument is not “these people don’t follow this or that intuition” (which is absurd, as we all do to some extent, except for sociopaths), but whether our moral systems are in balance and are functional, or if they are imbalanced and dysfunctional.

Some misunderstandings about intuitions.

Ethical intuitionists hold that our ethical judgments are founded upon a priori, spontaneous judgments, which we call intuitions, simply because that’s the term that’s been used in academia for a long time. This is somewhat confusing, since people commonly use the term “intuition” to designate various other things. Many people think they’re addressing intuitionism, but they are talking about some common meaning of “intuition,” not the technical meaning.

First, let me again point out the wide scope of intuitions that humans possess. We come with a great deal of a priori intuitions. If Chomsky is right, and I see no reason to posit that he is not, we already have a basic universal grammar in our brains ready for words to plug into it. We also have a wide range of ethical intuitions, logical intuitions, esthetic intuitions, and so on. Just the basic concept of a number, like the number 1, is extremely complex from a logical standpoint. I will use a number of such intuitions to demonstrate that the meanings I will examine here are flawed.

1. “The intuition” is a special faculty.

This is the epistemic concept of the intuition as a way to figure things out more rapidly, that comes from experience and talent, a sort of alternative way of knowing which does not rely on detailed lines of reasoning or judgment. The intuition is a faculty which is developed and trained. I see nothing wrong in such a belief. In fact, it makes sense that someone with a lot of experience would be able to make shorthand judgments about certain situations, or perhaps subconsciously detect things that are askew.

However, it has nothing to do with intuitions in the technical sense. Intuitions are not developed by one’s experience or talent, and they are not an alternative way of knowing. They are a priori judgments, meaning that they are not the result of any sort of personal process. Intuitions have nothing to do with the faculty of intuition, although I have no complaints if someone wants to use the term in that context.

2. Intuitions are “common sense.”

“Common sense” is a vague term. As the quote goes (attributed to Horace Greeley), common sense is very uncommon, meaning that what is common sense to one person may very well not be for another. If we are talking about what is common sense in a society, well, that too changes over time. Intuitions do not change over time or from person to person, because they exist independently of the influence of culture or personality. Our culture or personality may lead us to make judgments which contradict our intuitions.

For example, we have an ethical intuition that it is wrong to harm innocent people. A person indoctrinated or brainwashed in a religion or cult, for example, may be induced to do things which are absolutely contrary to our intuitions (i.e. soldiers killing innocent people), and people who live in societies which support those religions or cults may thought-stop those intuitions through some widespread rationalization (i.e. we have to kill them because they’re subhuman in some way and do not deserve to be called innocent).

To give another example, we have a psychological intuition that enjoyment is preferable to suffering. However, we will readily undergo some temporary suffering if we think it will lower our suffering in the long run (such as going to the dentist). We would still rather not go to the dentist, but make the intellectual judgment that this bit of suffering now is better than a potentially great deal of suffering later.

My point here is that culture and personality do not change the intuition, although they do change how we act. What we call “common sense” is merely the belief that certain judgments are widely accepted and are therefore of superior quality. But intuitions, formulated in words, may be very unpopular, for various reasons. For example, we are all born with fairness intuitions, but it so happens that, thanks to neo-liberalism amongst other reasons, fairness as a concept is not universally revered, or even liked. It is “common sense” in many places that it’s perfectly all right to condemn people to imprisonment or death based on their worth in a capitalist society. This goes against our fairness intuitions, but is a result of the fact that we are indoctrinated to believe that capitalism is the best economic system and that there are no viable alternatives. The argument, basically, is that the absence of viable alternatives means that there’s no point in objecting to it.

3. Intuitions are propositions.

Even amongst people who are consciously talking about intuitions in the technical sense, there is a confusion that stems from the belief that an intuition is a proposition, which therefore can be rational or irrational, true or false. This confusion is understandable. After all, we formulate an intuition in the form of a sentence, such as “helping people in need is a good thing,” and sentences are propositions, which can be rational or irrational, true or false.

But this is a limitation of the way we communicate. Actual intuitions are not propositions. There are no literal propositions engraved in our brains or sculpted out of neurons. You can’t slice a brain, look at it in a microscope and find the actual words “helping people in need is a good thing.” Intuitions are judgments, not propositions. We may feel that helping people in need is a good thing, even if we can’t formulate that proposition. In fact, babies do judge that helping people in need is a good thing, as demonstrated by the fact that they help people find objects in experiments, even if babies cannot formulate any proposition at all. If intuitions were propositions, then it would make no sense for babies to have them, and yet they certainly do.

Usually this prompts the question: if intuitions cannot be true or false, then how can they be reliable ethical (or logical, or esthetic, or whatever) foundations? But asking such a question is like demanding evidence that our sensory apparatus is “true” in order for it to be a reliable foundation for our empirical knowledge. A sensory apparatus, like an intuition, is not the kind of things that is true or false: it’s the kind of thing we’re born with. It must be the foundation because all knowledge exists within an individual which has a specific sensory apparatus and a specific set of intuitions.

Now, it is true that our sensory apparatus can mislead us, because our brain uses certain models of reality which break down in various situations. This is so obvious that no one but the most mendacious of empiricists would even bother disagreeing with that. But this does not mean that “our sensory apparatus is invalid.” Indeed, the way we find out about (and, eventually, compensate for) the breaking down of our models is through more, and better, observations. At best, it means that certain conclusions that we drew from a limited range of inputs were invalid.

4. Intuitions are unexamined premises that come from our upbringing and/or from society.

The correct term for this is socialization. Intuitions do not originate in socialization because anything that originates in socialization, or any other form of human interactions, cannot be a priori. For example, little children are not socialized into understanding grammar, and yet they are able to understand many aspects of grammar before they are able to speak in sentences (and in some simpler cases, before they even speak words). So there’s no socialization there. A baby who helps someone find an object is not doing so because it was taught to be helpful, as it is too young to understand the very concept.

5. Intuitions are adaptations which exist to promote evolutionary success.

Sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and other quacks, have attempted to give various “scientific” explanations for human behavior, including ethics, esthetics, and psychology. These attempts have been shown to be, on the whole, unscientific pap which serves the purpose of rationalizing reactionary politics. In general, we should be extremely dubious of ANY supposed explanation of human behavior through evolutionary adaptation.

Ethics is a good example. In his book Evolutionary Intuitionism, Brian Zamulinski points out that our deep conviction that people who saved Jews during WW2 were acting heroically flies in the face of all evolutionary processes. Neither direct self-interest, nor Hamilton’s Rule, nor reciprocal altrism, can explain this judgment. The only plausible conclusion is that ethics is an evolutionary by-product of some other adaptation, not an adaptation in itself. Likewise, a lot of adaptationist explanations for female sexual attraction have been handily debunked (facial symmetry has nothing to do with health, hip size has no bearing on childbirth, men’s self-reported attraction to women does not correspond to peak fertility ages, breast size has nothing to do with breastfeeding abilities, etc). So far I have seen no evidence that any commonly recognized intuition has any basis in evolutionary adaptation. It is possible, but it needs to be proven. And with the track record of adaptationists so far, I’d say the evidence would have to be absolutely beyond a resonable doubt.


I don’t want to give the impression that we cannot be mistaken about what is or is not an intuition. Can people mislabel “intuition” something that is really a proposition, “common sense,” or an unexamined premise? Sure. I think it’s sometimes done to make an argument look stronger. If you call a piece of evidence an intuition that we all share, instead of a simple belief or unsupported premise, then you give your argument more weight than it should have. And there is a temptation to label our common sense beliefs as intuitive, simply because so many people would agree with such a statement.

So how can we tell if something is an intuition? There are many ways, but to me the most credible is to rely on the studies done on the various areas. For example, on ethical intuitions, I rely on Jonathan Haidt’s study on the foundations of morality. On some other issues, I will rely on well-known conclusions by people who study child development. Because intuitionism is a disreputable field, widely rejected in modern philosophy, there isn’t really a comprehensive field that you can refer to immediately. This is unfortunate, and that’s also why it’s important to be careful and not throw intuitions about nilly-willy. But on the other hand, it’s also important to understand what it is, exactly, and how it differs from the common conceptions I’ve listed above.

What are the important moral questions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Self-interest” is not a coherent concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The equation of morality with general well-being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fundamental problem with Christianity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equating intuitionism with “naive intuitionism.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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