Category Archives: Morality

How can we explain human behavior?

I have previously divided explanations of human behavior into three very general categories: anti-causalism (the belief in some non-material explanation, like a soul or free will/agency), adaptationism (the belief that evolutionary adaptations mold behavior), and constructionism (the belief that social conditioning, especially social constructs, mold behavior). I have done so because positions that fall under each category do share a lot in common, and so it is instructive to discuss about them in general terms before we get into the specific. I have gone into specifics, mostly against adaptationist beliefs, in other entries, but in this entry I want to talk about the general categories again.

So one question that adaptationists often raise about my constructionist position is, how would YOU explain why people do what they do? The trouble with adaptationist theories is that they offer a solution that is clear, simple, and completely wrong. It omits all the complexity of human life and turns it into a simple and abstract mechanism of genetic propagation which can be easily understood by thinking about what you imagine hunter-gatherer societies to be like. This is basically a Flintstones view of evolution used as a nice story that explains why people do what they do: they are compelled by their genes, and the genes seek their own “self-interest” (whatever that means for inanimate objects).

My constructionist view is more complicated, because human motivations are more complicated. To fully understand any behavior, we need to fully understand the person first, which is impossible. Anyone who claims to completely understand the motivations for a behavior is lying. We can talk about general incentives that are given to the individual in this or that context, but these are generalities which do not apply to everyone. The specific circumstances of subcultures one is raised in, education, personality, social networks, and so on, change everyone’s response to incentive systems, although those incentive systems are still the dominant influence. Basically, we all either follow, or react against, incentive systems and prevalent belief-systems.

Adaptationism also has its exceptions, but they don’t make much sense. When confronted by the many ways in which non-Western societies break their “evolutionary imperatives,” they say that this must be due to culture. But according to their own theory, culture is constructed by biology, and it makes no sense for certain cultures to somehow push people into doing things that go completely against our very DNA. So there’s really no explanation to be found along these lines.

Let’s just take one simple example, one that is supposed to be one of evolutionary psychology’s strengths: the double standard. They claim that it is genetically advantageous for men to sleep around and for women to seek stable monogamous relationships. However, they have little to reply to examples of non-Western societies, or even some Western examples, where men do not sleep around (or do not have sex at all) or where women do sleep around. From a constructionist perspective, culture is primary, and therefore does not suffer from these problems. Whatever the culture says the role of sex and gender are, most people will follow. In our societies, we are raised to believe that men should be virile and have sex, and that women should want to get married and have children, so that’s what we tend to do. Other societies, with different frameworks around sex and gender, entail different behaviors.

Does that mean that everyone will follow cultural principles? No, clearly not. There are many reasons for that. For instance, we’re all raised in different subcultures and social classes, which influences how we see ourselves and the parts of the culture we adopt or reject. A white boy from the upper class will have a different relation to the culture, to sex, and to gender, than a black girl from the lower class. Also, some small portion of our personality is of genetic origin.

Genetics are not completely irrelevant from the constructionist perspective, they just don’t provide most of the explanatory power needed. Because of the fact that we have human bodies, we generally want to eat, to socialize and share kinship, have sex, have status and admiration, and so on (although these things are not true for everyone). But this does not explain behavior. Human behavior is never simply “to eat” or “to share kinship,” it consists of eating specific things at specific times and in specific ways, of a kinship that is constructed in specific ways. Both of these things are a result of culture, which nearly completely erases the genetic factor.

Social constructs are an important part of constructionism, which is why I call it “constructionism,” because they constitute our identity. Everything that you see as uniquely “you” is a result of social constructs being imposed (or in some cases, not being imposed, like in non-religious families) on “you,” mostly through childhood socialization, but also from other sources such as the mass media and the education system.

The prevalent view about identification nowadays is a view related to adaptationism, in that it posits that our most important identifications are innate (although they would not call it adaptationist at all, and they do not seek evolutionary explanations). Race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, are all supposed to be innate, fixed attributes of the individual. Many, although they tend to be more right-wing, also equate social status as being innate.

The problem with this view is that all these things are social constructs, and that ignoring that fact makes it impossible to understand why people identify they way they do. Take a controversial example, that of gender. If you ask a liberal feminist or an SJW for an explanation of why people are the gender that they are, the answer will be: because that’s what their “innate” gender is, it’s what they really are.

Not only is this impossible (because gender is an extremely mutable concept, not just between societies but within the same society at different times), but it also doesn’t explain anything. All it does is transpose the previous uncertainty to another, equally uncertain concept (what that person’s “innate gender” is). An explanation is supposed to start from known data and use that data to show the cause and effect relationship that one is asking about, usually involving the word “because.” For instance, “we had to close down the theater because there was a small fire there.” On the other hand, “they are a man because they are innately a man” helps specify what they think gender is but it doesn’t explain it.

From the constructionist standpoint, gender is a social construct. That includes the gender roles, the gender stereotypes, the gender hierarchy, everything. We are all assigned a gender at birth based (arbitrarily) on our sex. We (for most people, if not all) have parts of our personality, or beliefs, which clash with the stereotype of our assigned gender, but we go along with it anyway. Some people refuse to go along with it to some extent (mostly due to being homosexual, which goes against both gender roles in the West), and they become gender rebels of one kind or another.

This view provides us with a basic explanation. If you know the gender stereotypes in their culture (or subculture, if their family is part of a subculture that has views on gender), and you know someone’s personality and beliefs to some extent, you can, to that extent, figure out how comfortable they would be with their assigned gender.

In general we can say that the categories through which people identify themselves are based around the kinds of social constructs that exist in their culture or subculture, and the way they identify comes as obedience to, or reaction against, those social constructs. Gender is only a point of identification because gender is an extremely important kind of social construct in our societies, and people identify as one gender or the other, or as no gender at all, depending on their reactions to the gender stereotypes they are taught.

I’ve mostly talked about constructionism and adaptationism. However, as readers of my blog know, I don’t think much of anti-causalism either. Religious anti-causalists blather on and on about how one’s soul can be saved or wicked, depending on what religion one “chooses” (how one comes to “choose” a specific religion over any other is never explained), and how people who do things they disagree with are demonic. Secular anti-causalists usually deploy the concepts of free will and agency, which are unfalsifiable and don’t explain anything either. But that’s to be expected, because the concept of the soul and the concept of free will are used to bury the truth in unnecessary verbiage, not to actually explain anything. Until someone proves that some non-material entity or process can somehow be measured and be shown to effect material bodies, I see no reason to believe in either of them.

The uncontested moral authority of parents over children.

Moral authority is a curious thing. On the one hand, we think it is noble for people to rebel against authority and to stand up for what’s right. This is one of the standard stories that we tell: the lone hero standing up against an oppressive worldview or regime, appealing to what’s right instead of force or expediency, stirring other people’s sense of compassion or justice. Many of our favorite heroes from history or fiction are molded upon this trope (Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Jeanne D’Arc, Jesus, Moses, and so on down the line).

On the other hand, we don’t always extend this admiration to moral independence in our daily lives. As I discussed in this entry, anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of people state they believe that morality is not a matter of personal conscience. And that’s only when we talk about it in the abstract: when push comes to shove, the vast majority of people believe that the law is more important than personal conscience.

Consider the domain of religion, which may twist a lot of these study results. Christians especially think of themselves as moral rebels and heroes, such as when they fight against abortion, homosexuality, that sort of thing. So they might say that they are rebelling against secular authority. But at the same time, they are obeying a “higher” authority, the authority of God’s Word (as they read it). Many Christians will desperately try to deny this (as you can see on the comments of this entry) and will argue with a straight face that Christians are not subject to any authority. This is pure nonsense. The whole concept of salvation is grounded in God as the ultimate moral authority. The entire Bible proclaims God’s ownership of humans.

My point, however, is not about religion but about childism, although the two are obviously related: it is an old idea that God is basically a father figure. I heard a father say this to his daughter while leaving a store, after she complained about some command he gave her: “I don’t have to give a reason, I just tell you.”

Most people would not even think about such a statement, but I personally find it very interesting. If you think about it, you’ll realize that, well, he’s right: he doesn’t have to give a reason to his daughter at all. Nothing and no one can compel him to do so, except perhaps his wife. But if you think about the parents as a couple, then you can say that nothing and no one compels parents to justify their commands.

I think that’s an interesting fact because a moral principle is pretty much defined by its justification. An order alone (such as “you shall not kill”) does not qualify as morality, because there’s no reason given for us to accept it (unless we accept the authority of the person giving the order as infallible). Likewise, no statement about reality can be scientific unless it’s backed by empirical evidence. Without the evidence we have accumulated to back that view, the statement “the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old” is no more scientific than the statement “the Earth is approximately 6000 years old.” It is the justification (i.e. the traces of ancient civilizations, the fossil record, the age of the oldest organisms we know, what we know about the formation of the solar system, and so on) that makes it scientific. Without justification (such as our moral intuitions, our observations about cause and effect in other people, our own experiences, our empathy, and so on), there is no particular reason to adopt any moral principle over any other.

And I think the fact that parents can basically give any command they want to a child without it being justified is something that is very rare. Actually, I can only think of three others: the relation between God and humans, the relation between cult leader and follower, which is basically a substitute for the first, and the relation between slavemaster and slave, which is a more general case of the first two.

None of these comparisons are particularly flattering. But they bring me to the point that the metaphor of God as a father figure is particularly appropriate in the moral sense. We happened to have defined atheism as a lack of belief in gods, but a far more salient fact about atheists as a group is their almost completely uniform rejection of divine morality as presented in Christianity. And if there is anything that qualifies one to be anti-childist, it must be the recognition and rejection of parental morality, of the idea that parents have a “divine right” to impose their values on children. Likewise for democracy and the “divine right” of kings, protestantism and the “divine right” of popes, and what have you.

There is something fundamental about moral justification. Any ideology which demands that you, or anyone else, accept a command without justification, is wrong in a profound way. It is anti-morality, it is anti-rationality, it is anti-freedom of thought.

Some may argue that the relation between boss and employee is another one of the relations I listed. In most cases this is not going to be true because the boss in question still reports to a higher boss, or to their shareholders (although this may not be true for every single action, obviously). In other cases this could be entirely true. In most relations in a hierarchical system, justification is not necessarily given to the victims but rather to some higher authority. While this is a vast improvement from the complete lack of accountability discussed above, it is still not an ethical system. But no hierarchy can be an ethical system. At best it can only provide some greater good that could not be provided otherwise, but the hierarchy itself is never desirable.

Moral systems as a support of the status quo.

There is fundamental and profound disagreement on the issue of what morality is all about. This is not overly surprising, since the whole area is still very much primitive, philosophically speaking. Most people are still at a base authoritarian level (whatever I’m ordered to do is moral) and have not really evolved beyond that. There is not much use of rationality in the public discourse about morality at all.

The role of morality is to distinguish between right and wrong. The area being examined differs (morality, as I define it, is preoccupied with the individual evaluating their own actions, while ethics is about evaluating rules for groups and societies), but the principle is generally the same. And what we mean by right and wrong, at least in general definition, is more or less the same: by right we mean an action or a motivation for action that is desirable and by wrong we mean an action or a motivation for action that is undesirable.

We live in hierarchical societies, and this fact pollutes all domains of thought, although none more than the social domains, morality being one of them. As for any other system of thought, morality can be exploited to support the status quo. I find that this is not really discussed a great deal. We discuss how certain ideologies support or don’t support the status quo, but we don’t really examine moral principles as such in that same light. Perhaps because, to a certain extent, we treat moral principles as personal beliefs and sacrosanct (in the same way that self-identity has become sacrosanct).

You may, of course, dismiss my statement as a consequence of my radicalism, but to me any moral system which does not start from the premise that one’s collaboration with the social order must be subject to questioning is automatically a failure. That should be one of the fundamental questions that any moral system examines, and must answer rationally. What is the source of morality and how does that entail conformity, or non-conformity, to the social order? Why do we cheer non-conformity in certain instances, and boo it in others?

On the first question, there are three general classes of answers. Either morality has no actual source and is mere preference or desire elevated as morality, morality has an internal source (intuition, conscience), or morality has an external source (God, the law, culture). I have argued at length that the first and third are logically incoherent, although I expect to change no one’s mind. Rather, I want to point out that all these answers can turn into a support of the status quo (although obviously I think the first and third, again, are more likely candidates).

The first position eventually must collapse into the third. I have already discussed the problem with anomie: anomie necessarily leads to tyranny because informal structure will be most easily influenced by those few with the power to do so (whether it’s money, popularity, education, or whatever). The same thing is true of a moral vacuum. Since we must act, and therefore cannot actually live in a moral vacuum, people’s opinions about right and wrong would be open to the influence of those with the most power. We would end up with a structure of external morality similar to the one in hierarchies today, where superiors impose their morality on inferiors under threat of (real or imagined) harm.

So the only two alternatives we have are morality imposed by an external source or molded by an internal source. Because most of our societies are made of hierarchies, the former will inevitably support hierarchies. The three external sources people tend to most believe in are God, the law, and culture. These suffer from being circular, as humans create gods, laws and cultures, and therefore these sources are not truly “external,” “infallible,” “objective” or “absolute” (or whatever else they claim to be). There are many other problems, but I’ve already discussed all those.

More to the point, the moral systems derived from such sources are inevitably pro-status quo. Believing that God, the law or culture are the infallible source of right and wrong leads to servile obedience to the hierarchical institutions that dictate what God says, what the law says, or what culture is; and since most hierarchical institutions depend on each other and prop up each other, obeying one usually leads one to obeying all of them.

There are counter-examples, but these counter-examples tend to prove the point. For instance, the Quakers used to be a very rebellious denomination of Christianity, but their rebellion was conceptually based on a doctrine they called “Inner Light,” that the truth about right and wrong was accessible internally by all. Social movements such as anti-slavery and the suffragettes relied heavily on the “conscience” as a counter-balance to the law. Appeals to religions, laws and cultures are inherently dichotomous and divisive; appeals to our common humanity are universal and uniting.

But there is a problem with moral systems using internal sources, as well. Despite the fact that they are once removed from hierarchical institutions, they do not safeguard against prejudices that are integrated within our psyche. Someone who is a profoundly hateful person will not become magically moral if they look within. Misunderstood prejudices can also integrate themselves in our psyche without our knowledge (such as the way in which many people think they are not sexist or racist but adopt implicitly sexist or racist beliefs).

There is also the added problem that morality is inherently individualistic. As I make the difference, morality is about individuals evaluating their own actions, while ethics is about the rules that a group or a society should adopt. Even if they are well-intentioned, moral rules like the Golden Rule often implicitly support the status quo simply because they do not integrate the social context in which our actions take place. The standard of “how we want to be treated” incorporates hierarchical thinking because the issue of “how we want to be treated” necessarily includes the issue of “how hierarchies want us to behave.” The Golden Rule is very good because it forces people to think about reciprocity, but that reciprocity necessarily stops at the individual level.

But even ethical principles can suffer from the same problem. Take for example Sam Harris’ ethical standard of “well-being.” Apart from his support of evolutionary psychology, which is pure nonsense, Harris’ program suffers from the same problem than cultural relativism does: who defines what “well-being” is and on what grounds? In practice, the ones who will end up defining “well-being” for us are the ones with the influence and power to do so. And even when we do the defining for ourselves, we will most likely adopt practical standards which follow hierarchical standards (such as “health” as defined by the medical institutions, “wealth” as defined by capitalism, “happiness” as defined by natalist-think, and so on).

As for my other question, why do we cheer non-conformity in certain instances, and boo it in others? Well, I think authoritarianism has a lot to do with it: we tend to support non-conformity when that non-conformity supports “our side” (e.g. Schindler’s List, the American Revolution), and we tend to attack non-conformity when that non-conformity goes against “our side” (e.g. socialist or communist revolutions, civil rights movements). We let hierarchies define what is “legitimate” disobedience and what is “illegitimate” disobedience, which just makes no sense at all since disobedience means disobedience to those same hierarchies that are trying to impose unjust moral principles. The fact that we are told what is legitimate disobedience and illegitimate disobedience, and that people accept this uncritically, is in itself wrong.

Moral nihilism is an argument from ignorance.

There’s a lot of different positions on ethics. That is true of any other area of knowledge. But unlike those other areas, there are a lot of people who dispute whether ethics actually exists.

A lot of the disputes revolve around the word “objective.” I’ve commented in the past about how I think that word is usually unnecessary because of its vagueness, and leads to pointless disagreement. There are two main ways in which people use “objective”:

1. “X is objective” means that the existence of X does not depend on it being experienced (i.e. is accessible to all observers).
2. “X is objective” means that X is a matter of fact and can be evaluated by outside observers.

In her entry, LaFave points out that something can be subjective in meaning 1 but yet be objective in meaning 2. For example, esthetic judgments may be subjective in meaning 1, but there are people who have expertise in evaluating esthetic judgments (e.g. food critics, movie critics), which indicates that esthetic judgments are objective in meaning 2. There is no necessary connection between the two meanings, which makes discussion difficult unless one is very clear about which meaning is being used.

When people use the word “objective” in reference to ethics, they easily switch from one meaning to the other without even realizing it. So for example when they say “how can morality be objective if people disagree on what’s right?”, they are using “objective” in meaning 1. People don’t usually disagree about observable facts, because those facts are accessible to all individuals who have an open mind. But when they say “morality is subjective because values are just preferences,” they are using “subjective” in meaning 2. In that view, moral judgments are similar to your evaluation of ice cream flavors.

Basically, in these disputes, “does ethics exist” is equated with “is ethics objective.” But this is a problem in itself: that something is not “objective” does not mean it does not exist. A headache is “subjective” according to meaning 1, but headaches definitely exist, can be studied and remedied. Your personal preferences, or my personal preferences, are mostly “subjective” in both meanings, but that does not mean you actually have no personal preferences. Of course you still have personal preferences, even if they are “subjective.” So establishing that something is “subjective” (in either meaning, or both) does not prove in any way that it does not exist.

Note that this only applies to unsophisticated advocates. People who understand the field to some extent understand that answering no to “is morality objective” only entails that moral realism is false, not that morality does not exist.

But there is a greater problem with moral nihilism, and that’s the fact that it’s based on an argument from ignorance. I have written a few entries on presuppositionalism and the presup script, where I’ve pointed out a similar flaw. We can simplify the presup argument as such:

1. Reason, truth, the uniformity of nature, morality, etc. exist.
2. Secular worldviews cannot account for these features of reality.
3. Therefore God exists.

This is, of course, an oversimplification, and there’s a lot of verbiage included in this whole process. But I formulate it this way to illustrate the problem: point 2 is an argument from ignorance. No Christian out there knows for a fact that there is no secular worldview that can account for reason or truth, and presuppositionalists are ignorant of even the most basic secular worldviews. They simply assume that this is the case and argue from there.

One may reply that it’s my burden of proof to show that there is a secular worldview out there that accounts for reason or truth. But that’s not logically sound. You can’t use a proposition in an argument when you can’t actually show that proposition is true. No presup actually knows that “secular worldviews cannot account for truth.” The best they could say is “I don’t know of any secular worldview that can account for truth” (which would only show their ignorance and little more).

A logical argument would need the added premise that there is something inherent to the secularity of secular worldview that makes them incapable of accounting for reason or truth. If a secular worldview by definition cannot account for reason or truth because there is something about secularity that makes it impossible, then the argument could be reformulated like this:

1. Reason, truth, the uniformity of nature, morality, etc. exist.
2. Secularity necessarily entails being unable to account for features of reality.
3. Secular worldviews cannot account for these features of reality.
4. Therefore God exists.

The problem, of course, is that point 2 is false.

You probably wonder what this has to do with moral nihilism. Well, the argument for moral nihilism is pretty similar:

1. Moral judgments exist.
2. No moral realist worldview can prove that these judgments are objective.
3. Therefore moral judgments are subjective.

This argument suffers from the same flaw as the presup argument: point 2 is an argument from ignorance. No moral nihilist actually knows that no moral realist worldview can prove that moral judgments are objective. They assume the truth of the proposition and demand that moral realists shoulder the burden of proof. But like presups, they are not allowed to use propositions nilly-willy. Either they know point 2 is true or they do not.

Presumably a sound argument would be similar to the one above:

1. Moral judgments exist.
2. Proving that moral judgments are objective is impossible.
3. No moral realist worldview can prove that these judgments are objective.
4. Therefore moral judgments are subjective.

What would a proof of 2 look like? It would need to demonstrate that moral judgments are inherently subjective, that when we say things like “murder is wrong” that wrongness cannot be directly observed by others and that we necessarily aren’t referring to any fact of reality.

Moral nihilists claim that when we say things like “murder is wrong,” we mean “murder is wrong for me.” But that’s not what we mean when we say it. When we say “murder is wrong,” we actually mean that murder itself is wrong, not just that it’s wrong for ourselves. If someone asked us if they should murder someone, “well, murder is wrong” would be a meaningful answer. And if that person then tells us, “it’s wrong for you but not for me,” then we would be justified in thinking there’s something wrong with that person. It makes as little sense as a person refusing to admit the existence of a stop sign.

Of course a moral nihilist may reply to the paragraph above by saying that moral realists are simply deluded. That may be so, but it has not been demonstrated. Likewise, you can deny the existence of a stop sign by saying that perception is not reality and that my sense of sight is somehow deluding me into thinking there’s a stop sign there. That may very well be true, but it needs to be demonstrated, otherwise there’s no particular reason to believe any specific claim of delusion.

Let’s say that every single human being on this planet is being deluded when they say “murder is wrong,” and they actually mean “murder is wrong for me.” That’s fine, but then the question becomes, how is this happening? What is it that is making everyone (regardless of the society they were born in) be wrong in the same way? This to me seems like a rather stringent prerequisite for moral nihilism to clear before it can even be considered as credible. Therefore it seems extremely unlikely that moral nihilism could ever be found to be true.

Note that I am not saying something like “well, people used to believe the Earth was flat, so it was extremely unlikely for the Earth to be round.” We are talking about a direct observation of a moral judgment, which is not derived from any other proposition. The vast majority of the Earth’s population being wrong about “murder is wrong” is comparable to the vast majority of the Earth’s population being wrong about the existence of the Moon.

Remember the two meanings of “objective.” Based on these, what does it mean for moral judgments to be “subjective”? It can mean one of two things:

1. The existence of moral judgments depends on them being experiences. They are not accessible to all observers.
2. Moral judgments are not a matter of fact and cannot be evaluated by outside observers.

The first proposition makes sense, since all judgments, all evaluations, all knowledge is ultimately contained within our minds and are not accessible to all observers. But that’s not saying much. People don’t use the fact that logical or scientific arguments are “subjective” in this sense to argue that logic or science are “subjective.” It is not really seen as relevant at all. So why should it be relevant in the case of ethics?

One may reply that science is about real entities that exist outside the mind, but that’s not true. Laws of nature do not exist outside the mind. The entities that we discover laws about do exist outside the mind, but so do the actions that we evaluate morally. There is no more “law of gravity” floating somewhere in space than there is “moral goodness.” Both are based on observations but ultimately they are founded on things that are not found outside the mind. Same for logic, of course.

So if moral judgments are “subjective” in meaning 1, then why don’t we have science nihilists or logic nihilists? Why concentrate on morality and ethics?

The second proposition doesn’t make much sense. We evaluate moral judgments made by others all the time, and we use matters of fact in order to do so. Now again, one may reply that this is all delusional thinking. That’s all well and good, but one would have to provide some evidence for that proposition before we take it into consideration.

Suppose we have a discussion on a moral issue, such as cheating on one’s spouse. Examples of factual matters that may be discussed include reciprocity (would you like to be treated that way?), consent, the unhappiness of the spouse if they found out, and so on. Now suppose a moral nihilist came in and said, “well, you both think you’re discussing a moral judgment about cheating, but you’re wrong- actually, you’re just discussing your personal preferences.” But all these matters being discussed are factual matters, not preferences. If the moral nihilist thinks so, then he has to demonstrate how all these matters are actually personal preferences.

Hierarchies, self-determinism, and PTSD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining fairness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scapegoating: take responsibility for my sins, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 530 other followers