Category Archives: Morality

Morality is about conformity versus disobedience.

You are probably familiar with the Milgram Experiment. To give a short explanation, during the sixties, this guy called Milgram made an experiment by which people were taken off the street and were told by a person in a lab coat that they were part of the testing of another person who could be heard but was not visible (and who was actually a confederate). Every time that person gave a wrong answer, they were to be given electric shocks of increasing intensity which elicited screams of pain from the person tested and, eventually, would lead to death. The experiment was made in order to determine whether ordinary people would follow orders to kill others, and under what circumstances (partially motivated by the horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust).

What was not studied, however, is the personality of the people who disobeyed and those who obeyed. A recent experiment was made to try to figure this out. And the results were rather interesting: agreeable, social people were more likely to obey orders to kill the subject, while anti-social, disagreeable people were more likely to disobey.

Do I like these results? Of course I do. As a lifelong anti-social, disagreeable person, I like to be told I’m more likely to be moral than other people, especially people (social, agreeable people) who tend to think I’m terrible. And people who are more social or agreeable may be reluctant in accepting the results, or may feel like they’re being attacked.

But I think there’s something deeper to talk about here beyond people’s personalities (which I think are fairly set in stone anyway). The dominant opinion about morality is that a person can only be moral if they follow the laws and mores of their society at that point in time. This position seems to be particularly prevalent in the United States, perhaps because of the higher level of fundamentalist religion. Christianity is, after all, very legalistic (and so are Judaism and Islam): its main concern is establishing rules of conduct for the individual, using God as the justification for the enforcement of those laws on everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. Christianity is not about showing us a new human potential or an ideal, but about repressing what is human in us (Christians say Jesus is the ideal, but it’s an ideal that is by definition unattainable).

There are logical problems with following our society’s laws and mores, and not the least of those is the whole relativism of the thing. Laws and mores change from century to century, and from place to place. It seems therefore entirely arbitrary to follow the laws and mores of our society at this precise time: why are those laws and those mores more desirable?

Anyhow, my greater point is that there are two basic views about morality: that humans are innately good (as many anti-authoritarians, such as myself, would propose) and that humans are innately evil (as pushed forward by most religious and authoritarian views). Now clearly I know there are more possibilities: one can believe in blank slate theory (although that has been largely discredited by science), or one can believe that humans are born with the possibilities for good and for evil.

The basic scientific information on this subject is that humans, like all primates, evolved as animals with a highly developed sociality. We also have scientific studies showing that even babies (way before they can understand or formulate moral principles) have a desire to help. Finally, we know that other primates also have moral traits which we usually attribute to humans (like fairness). Based on these, and other, lines of evidence, my conclusion is that some form of intuitionism must be true. We are born as fundamentally moral beings, with an internal moral compass.

What happens to us is that hierarchical social institutions constantly try to bend our moral compass to accommodate their values and principles. Most of us start our lives in a family institution, or some similar institution where adults control children’s lives. As a child, you learn pretty quickly that your values, your moral evaluations, are unwanted most of the time. You learn to follow what your parents think your values should be. This provides an opening for other hierarchies with even more devastating values to get into your brain, a lot of which are concerned with you hating or killing people who play for “another team,” like religion, sexism/racism, the military, and nationalism, or with exploiting one another, like sexism/racism, schools, capitalism and neo-liberalism. And the laws and mores of our society exist, in a large part, to support these institutions and their aims.

In our modern Western societies, there are two kinds of people who see themselves as non-conformists: fundamentalist Christians (who see themselves as rebelling against a sinful secular world) and radicals in some form or another (who see themselves as rebelling against the evil in our social institutions). Fundamentalist Christians, however, only “rebel” against institutions to the extent that they can conform to their own celestial dictatorship (to borrow Hitchens’ turn of phrase). As such, they are no more “non-conformists” than people who quit alcohol so they can take up smoking are “healthy.” They are non-conformists only to the average person who will not consider or even tolerate differing viewpoints.

When viewed from the perspective of conformity versus disobedience, the findings of that study are therefore not that surprising. What kind of people are most likely to go along with the mainstream view (which pursues the aims of our social institutions)? Agreeable and social people, of course. In order to be agreeable and social, you have to share a basic agreement with other people. You will get along better with other people if you are a liberal or a conservative, if you support your country, if you hate the kind of people your kind of people is supposed to hate, and like the kind of people your kind of people is supposed to like.

The anti-social attitude, at least from my personal experience, is not exactly opposed to getting along, but it is a rejection of compromise. I refuse to get along with anyone or any group if it means I have to compromise what I believe in. To many people, this makes me an asshole or a loser or a person who is otherwise aberrant, and I accept that. It’s difficult to be a social animal and to be anti-social at the same time. But the benefit is that I am more able to be myself, and to accept myself, than most people. There is comedy in the fact that people tell you to be yourself, but they never actually mean it. Anti-social people actually mean it.

It is no coincidence that radicals level their criticism against institutions, not against individuals. By and large, it is not individuals that are the problem, except insofar as they are led by institutions to believe in, and support, evil principles. People are moved by incentives. If you engineer a society so that the only way to be successful and happy is to exploit each other, and that people are indoctrinated to believe exploiting each other is the right thing to do, then people will exploit each other, not out of malice but out of the belief that they’re doing the right thing. And most people generally have no reason to reconsider their basic beliefs, because they are agreeable and agreeable people go with the flow.

Now, I am not saying that you can’t be a radical and be a social person at the same time, or an anti-social conformist, but I wouldn’t wish either of these personality types on anyone. They just seem like the worse of both worlds (although the former wouldn’t be too bad if you worked for some leftist non-profit or something).

Of course there are many rationalizations made to try to justify conformity. The one most often used is that what is ethical is not practical, for the individual or for society. But the question then arises: practical TO WHO? Surely an egalitarian society would be practical for 90% of the population, but it would definitely not be practical with the 10% composed of the power elite and those with the biggest fortunes. When they say something is “not practical,” what they mean is: it’s not practical for those in power, economic and political. It’s not practical for those who want to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last sixty years. And their conformity is going to have us all killed. The Earth has become one gigantic Milgram Experiment. And we’re the subjects.

Answering some Kohlberg Dilemmas (Heinz and the drug).

In my last entry, I gave my answers to a Kohlberg Dilemma involving a child Joe and his father. This one is a more famous example: I vaguely remember running into it before in philosophy class.

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. the drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

Of note is that this is a less realistic scenario than the first. A cure for any kind of cancer would not be discovered by a mere druggist. Making the scenario about a drug company would be more realistic but also more unwieldy. I think the scenario should have been about something else entirely.

That minor complaint aside, this scenario is definitely strongly connected to the capitalist system, where we believe that discoveries are an “intellectual property” which can be stolen. We also happen to believe that people have the right to life, but we don’t, in many societies, believe they have a right to health care, which makes any such right to life a logical impossibility. It is also about the profit motive being more important than the people motive. Capitalism is an inhuman system in all respects. It has no connection to real human rights or the real humanity we can show to each other.

1. Should Heinz steal the drug?
1a. Why or why not?

I have one issue with this question, and that is: if this cure involved radium, then how could Heinz or his wife know how to administer it safely? Anyway, I suppose we need to assume that the cure is easy to administrate, like some kind of pill (although ingesting radium seems rather dangerous).

That being said, my answer would be yes. Heinz should steal the drug in order to save his wife. Presumably he values his wife’s survival and health more than the chance of getting caught and going to jail. This is a moral question, not an ethical question, so there’s not really any issue of rights or principles here.

2. Is it actually right or wrong for him to steal the drug?
2a. Why is it right or wrong?

Now we’re entering into ethical considerations. The arguments for the theft being wrong would revolve around property rights, since a theft is by definition an attack on property rights. But I’ve already debunked property rights: nothing can be an actual right if it goes against another person’s rights. In this specific case, the druggist’s “property right” cannot trump the wife’s right to life. Beyond that, I don’t see any reason why the action could be wrong. Saving someone’s life is generally a good thing (if they want to live and if it spares them future suffering). The fact that the theft supports such an action means that it is, at the very least, not wrong.

My answer would be that stealing the drug is a right thing to do in this situation, because it is not wrong. The same evaluation applies, I think, to not stealing the drug. Neither of these actions can be wrong from an ethical standpoint, given the information we have in the scenario. Since my answer relies heavily on a factual statement (that property rights are bunk), I wouldn’t rate it on the Kohlberg scale, but it would probably be rated as post-conventional.

3. Does Heinz have a duty or obligation to steal the drug?
3a. Why or why not?

I do not believe that Heinz has a duty or obligation to steal the drug. As a society, we have an obligation to support the wife’s health in any way we can, but this does not mean that Heinz has to be the one to do it. To give an analogy I’ve used before, we recognize people’s right to be free from fires, but we don’t demand that any passerby help stop fires under penalty of law. We recognize that extinguishing fires is a specialized occupation, and we ensure that firefighters are the ones equipped to do so, not just some random people on the street (in modern times, anyway: standing around and passing buckets of water is another story).

So my point would be, there’s no reason to put the obligation on Heinz to cure his wife. If anyone has a duty or obligation here, it’s the druggist, who has the obligation to provide life-saving medications so everyone who needs them can have access to them (he is, after all, a druggist). Whatever action Heinz decides to take is a matter of personal risk-evaluation and moral evaluation, and has nothing to do with duties or obligations.

My evaluation here qualifies as post-conventional, insofar as it establishes a universal standard of justice (the obligation of the druggist to provide life-saving medications as being more important than profits).

My answers to the first questions have been rather different from my answers in the previous scenario of Joe and his father. In that scenario, I said that the father had no right to demand money from his son, and that the son’s money was rightly his. In this case, however, I believe that the druggist is not within his right to demand the kind of money that he’s demanding from Heinz, and that he has no right to his “intellectual property.” This may seem like a contradiction, but there are two huge difference between the two scenarios. The first is that in the Joe scenario, the child’s possession of the money was legitimate (his forty dollars was a wage given to him for legitimate work), while in this scenario, the druggist’s demands are based on profit, that is to say, illegitimate gains (the four thousand dollars is an arbitrary figure disconnected from the actual costs of the drug’s production and distribution). The second is that the druggist justifies himself on the basis of “intellectual property,” which is a contradictory concept (for many of the same reasons that the concept of property is contradictory).

Now, it may be that four thousand dollars is a reasonable cost price for the drug because the cost of discovery was so great (although I would question how a druggist could have spent all his time discovering this drug instead of working). But that would be a case for public provision of the drug (either by the State or the much better alternative of non-hierarchical health care), not for charging excessive amount of money to people who need it and can’t afford it. The belief that high research costs justify depriving people of vital health care is asinine and extremist capitalist nonsense.

4. If Heinz doesn’t love his wife, should he steal the drug for her? Does it make a difference in what Heinz should do whether or not he loves his wife?
4a. Why or why not?

5. Suppose the person dying is not his wife but a stranger. Should Heinz steal the drug for the stranger?
5a. Why or why not?

6. Suppose it’s a pet animal he loves. should Heinz steal to save the pet animal?
6a. Why or why not?

I think all these questions are obviously related. They are all moral questions similar to question 1, but with a lesser value being put on the life that needs saving. Presumably everyone would have some sort of cut-off point at which they’d say “no, Heinz should not do it just to save a stranger or a pet.” However, these are moral questions, not ethical questions, therefore they are essentially unanswerable by a third party. It would all depend on how Heinz evaluates the risks of the theft, as well as how much he values the survival of his wife, the stranger, or the pet. I would have no objection to Heinz stealing the drug for any of these reasons.

7. Is it important for people to do everything they can to save another’s life?
7a. Why or why not?

My answer to question 3 provides some indication of my answer here. I don’t think it is particularly important for anyone to save another person’s life, because most people are not qualified or equipped to do so, and it would be unfair to ask them to do it. While it is important for everyone to contribute their fair share of resources towards helping those who are qualified and equipped to do these jobs (through taxation, for example), we can’t expect saving people’s lives to be everyone’s daily concern.

Note that I am not talking here about Good Samaritan situations. I do think that Good Samaritan laws (laws protecting bystanders who give assistance) are a good thing in general. I am also skeptical of duty to rescue laws, apart from those cases where common law already applies (e.g. in cases where the danger was created by the bystander, between a parent or caretaker and minor children, between transportation companies and their patrons, between spouses). In general, again apart from the cases where common law applies, I think the decision to rescue or not to rescue should be left to the judgment of the bystander.

I am not sure where this answer fits on the scale. It may qualify as stage 4 (conventional), because it concerns the functioning of society as a whole at a pragmatic level, and not really any higher standard of justice.

8. It is against the law for Heinz to steal. Does that make it morally wrong?
8a. Why or why not?

No, I do not think a law alone can make an action morally wrong, for the same reason I gave in the previous scenario: I reject the relevance of parental authority and legal authority to moral decisions. To me, this is not an ethical consideration but a statement of fact: I am not saying that we should not consider the law as making an action morally wrong, I am saying that the law cannot (as a matter of fact) make an action morally wrong. The fact that a law exists against a given action (e.g. theft of “intellectual property”) or that no law exists against a given action (e.g. pornography), or that the State approves of, and subsidizes, a given action (e.g. procreation), has no bearing whatsoever on its moral status.

Because my answer has no ethical component, it cannot be rated on the Kohlberg scale (but the premise that the law is morally irrelevant only fits stage 6, post-conventional).

9. In general, should people try to do everything they can to obey the law?
9a. Why or why not?
9b. How does this apply to what Heinz should do?

My answer here is a continuation of my answer to question 8, as well as what I said about legal considerations in the previous scenario. In general, the law is only a consideration in the prudential sense that one may fear going to court or getting assaulted by a police officer. One should not, in any case, obey the law; one should fear the law, in the same way that one may fear a hurricane but that the hurricane does not confer any moral obligations. The latter statement (that hurricanes confer moral obligations) seems silly, therefore the statement that we should “obey the law” (i.e. that the law confers moral obligations) should seem equally silly, since a hurricane and the force of law are both situations of emergency, brute facts, which cannot be reasoned with and cannot be resolved by rational thought. So my short answer is that one should not “obey the law,” only fear it.

This applies to Heinz’ actions in the sense that he must measure his prudential interest in not going to jail in his evaluation of the risk of committing the theft. Whether Heinz is risk-averse or a risk-taker, whether there are other factors lowering or raising the risk, will have a big influence on this evaluation.

Note that I am not making a case for consequentialism here. The consequences of Heinz’s actions are not relevant to any evaluation of whether they are right or wrong. If Heinz ends up going to jail, and his wife dies, his action is not thereby wrong. And if Heinz remains a free man and his wife is cured, his action is not thereby right. My evaluation is solely made on the basis that the druggist has no right to keep Heinz from acquiring the drug. Every other factor in the case, including consequences, is irrelevant to the ethical conclusion that Heinz is in the right if he decides to steal the drug.

10. In thinking back over the dilemma, what would you say is the most responsible thing for Heinz to do?
10a. Why?

Again, I have to repeat something I wrote in answer to the previous scenario, as well as my answer to question 3: Heinz has no responsibility or obligation in this case because he has caused no wrong, and is not about to cause any wrong (since the theft would not be wrong). It is the druggist who has a responsibility and obligation to provide needed drugs to the population. Of the two possible outcomes, that Heinz tries to steal the drug or that Heinz does not try to steal the drug, neither can be said to be “more responsible”: he is partially responsible for his wife’s well-being, but it would be irrational to expect him to be responsible for stealing drugs from someone else (a dangerous and illegal action) in order to ensure that well-being.

If I had to give an answer, I would say that the most responsible thing for Heinz to do is to do what he thinks is best in the situation. This is not a real life situation, so real life considerations are not really relevant here, otherwise the most responsible thing for Heinz to do might be, for example, to get the media on his case and create a new Martin Shkreli-type situation, completely ruining the asshole’s life and hopefully lowering the price of the drug in the meantime.

Feel free to argue about my answers, or post your own answers, in the comments section.

Answering some Kohlberg Dilemmas (Joe and his father).

I have previously posted about the Kohlberg scale of moral development. Basically, they represent the development of morality in the individual, from obedience to evade punishment all the way to universal ethics based on principles like human rights. Kohlberg believed that we all went through the stages in that order and that, as in psychological development, we could “get stuck” on any of these stages. Basically, even if you don’t believe in these stages as being a natural development, they still provide a way of classifying and differentiating moral justifications and rationalizations.

Kohlberg, by the way, believed that women were morally inferior to men. One of his colleagues, Carol Gilligan, argued that this belief was based on an obsession about abstract ethical principles (an obsession which still exist in the political discourse today), and that the last two stages weren’t necessarily the end point of moral development. One does not have to believe that abstract ethical principles are superior to, for example, a view of ethical problems as a network of relations between individuals. So the top of the scale should be taken with a grain of salt. Abstract ethical principles are one way, but not the only way, to reason about moral issues post-conventionally.

In order to measure moral development, Kohlberg used scenarios and asked open-ended questions about them, evaluating the reasoning behind the answers. I thought these scenarios were interesting, for a couple of reasons. The one about Joe and his father opens some questions related to childism and child rights, which I think is very relevant to this blog. The famous Heinz scenario also opens some questions related to capitalism and property rights. So I want to go through these two scenarios here.

Joe is a fourteen-year-old boy who wanted to go to camp very much. His father promised him he could go if he saved up the money for it himself. So Joe worked hard at his paper route and saved up the forty dollars it cost to go to camp, and a little more besides. But just before camp was going to start, his father changed his mind. Some of his friends decided to go on a special fishing trip, and Joe’s father was short of the money it would cost. So he told Joe to give him the money he had saved from the paper route. Joe didn’t want to give up going to camp, so he thinks of refusing to give his father the money.

I like this scenario because it goes to the core of childism: children’s deeply-held values and desires against parental authority. Granted, this particular scenario is a hypothetical, but it is the sort of conflict that takes place all the time in all sorts of families for all sorts of reasons: parents shutting down their children’s values in favor of their own, whether overtly under the form of orders or outright coercion, or covertly under the form of verbal abuse or blackmail. I think this scenario in particular may have been engineered to make the child’s situation look more sympathetic, although it is not whose side you take that’s important, for the sake of the Kohlberg scale, as much as the depth of your justification as to why you take one side or the other. But as an anti-childist, I am on the side of the child in any conflict between children’s values and parental authority.

1. Should Joe refuse to give his father the money?
1a. Why or why not?

I’m not sure if this question is formulated correctly. After all, we do not know any more about his relationship with his father. If the father is willing to go so far as to alienate his son just for a fishing trip, it doesn’t seem like they’re on good terms, but there could be other factors involved. Whether he should refuse to give the money or not would depend on that relationship, amongst other things. But going on the data from the scenario and nothing else, it seems clear that Joe strongly values going to the camp and does not put a great value on his father going to a fishing trip (and why should he?). So on that basis alone, one would be inclined to answer yes.

As for the place on the scale, the question cannot be answered in terms of principles or rights, because it is a personal matter, not a question of ethics. If the question was “does Joe have the right to refuse to give his father the money,” then that would be a different story (my answer, of course, would be yes).

2. Does the father have the right to tell Joe to give him the money?
2a. Why or why not?

In a sense, this question is trivial: of course the father has the right to tell Joe to give him the money. We have the right to ask people to give us money, but they also have the right to refuse. So I assume that the question really means: does the father have the right to order Joe to give him the money and, as a logical consequence, have the right to enforce that order?

The father does not have the right to give Joe orders on the basis of him being Joe’s father. Apart from his responsibilities and duties as a father, his relation with Joe is one of one human being to another human being, and no human being has the right to simply order another to give them money. Usually this is done as a result of a prior agreed-upon exchange (e.g. of money for services or products, of money for citizenship rights, of money to support some cause or organization), but in this case, we are not told of any prior agreed-upon exchange. Therefore, the answer must be no. There is no justification present for the father to have the right to order Joe to give him the money. Joe is perfectly within his rights to decide what to do with the money, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the father’s responsibilities and duties (and going to a fishing trip has nothing to do with either).

My answer here is not at the conventional level, because I care not one bit whether the law or social standards would be on Joe’s side or on his father’s side. In general, my answers in this scenario are at the post-conventional level simply because I reject the relevance of parental authority and legal authority to moral decisions. Only the fact that parental coercion and legal coercion exist make them important: this importance is not a moral one but a prudential one.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is important in this situation. If Joe ultimately decides to surrender his property to his father for fear of retaliation, it is because his context (that his father is an aggressive misopedist, or hates him personally) makes it that moral principles cannot be applied, not that the moral principles have changed. Violence and the threat of violence create a distortion in the moral universe in the same general way that gravity wells distort spacetime. A straight line is no longer straight when distorted by a gravity well, and a desirable action may no longer be desirable when distorted by the threat of violence.

3. Does giving the money have anything to do with being a good son?
3a. Why or why not?

This seems to be a leading question, insofar as it assumes the validity of the “good child” construct, which is related to stage three (social conventions). So let me first preface by saying that I do not believe in the “good child” construct. No child is “good” or “bad”: all children react to the environment and familial context they have been placed in. No child can be blamed for being “bad” or praised for being “good,” because these are all arbitrary standards.

That being said, when we look at what the standards are, we find that being a “good child” ultimately means a child that is obedient, a child that does well in school, a child who follows the social constructs put upon it. Based on this, it seems to me that giving the money has something to do with being a “good son,” insofar as giving the money would show obedience to the father. Since I don’t believe in the “good child” construct, the point is moot anyway.

Like I said, the question relies on the acceptance of the “good child” construct. I reject the premise, and therefore cannot answer the question in a way that would make my answer evaluable on the Kohlberg scale.

4. Is the fact that Joe earned the money himself important in this situation?
4a. Why or why not?

I don’t think the fact that Joe earned the money himself is particularly important in this situation. In order to make the arguments I’ve made so far, all we need to establish is that the money is in Joe’s possession legitimately. If he had stolen the money, then the issues would become completely different (although parental authority would not thereby be automatically justified), but that’s not the scenario we have.

Suppose, for instance, that the money was an allowance given to him for food or leisure. This would not confer upon Joe any more obligation to give his father the money. Actually, it would seem to make the father’s demand even more egregious, since the money was given to Joe to serve an essential purpose. But that still would not alter the arguments I’ve already made. Joe would still value his camp more than his father’s fishing trip. The father would still not have the right to order Joe to give him the money. Joe would still not be a “good son” or a “bad son.”

5. The father promised Joe he could go to camp if he earned the money. Is the fact that the father promised the most important thing in the situation?
5a. Why or why not?

My general answer here is the same as in the previous question. The fact that the father promise Joe he could go to camp if he earned the money has no bearing on Joe’s possession of the money. The scenario is not based on the father no longer permitting Joe to go to camp, but on the father wanting Joe’s money, and the fact that this would entail Joe not going to camp is an incidental effect. Even if the promise did not exist in this scenario, it still would not justify the father taking the money.

Since I see it as an irrelevant factor, it cannot be the most important thing in the scenario. The most important factor in the scenario is that the money is Joe’s money, not the father’s. All arguments have to rest on this basic fact, and the basic principle that no one has the right to order someone else to arbitrarily surrender money. In any other context, we would call that robbery: if it was accompanied by a threat, we would call it extortion. Only the fact that a child is involved clouds our logic.

6. In general, why should a promise be kept?

I think that implicit in the word “promise” is the notion that it should be kept, so the question seems rather tautological to me. A promise should be kept because that’s what a promise is, an assurance that you will do something. So I think a more fruitful way to approach this question would be: in general, what are reasons to not keep a promise?

I think one major reason not to keep a promise would be learning new information which makes the promise undesirable or impossible to keep for one or both parties. Person A’s promise to person B to help them move is made null and void by person A throwing their back, for example, or person A learning that a loved one is sick and that they must go see them at the hospital on the same date. If they had known that information at the time the promise was made, they would not have made it.

Another reason would be if the promise was made under duress, but then it would hardly be a promise, as knowing you put someone under duress would surely tell you that there’s no assurance that they will actually follow through.

I suppose a stage 6 answer would be something like “promises should be kept because it is more just for all to live in a society where we can trust each other or rely on each other, because otherwise more callous people would be able to take advantage of others by making false promises” or something of the sort, but I don’t think that’s the right kind of answer.

7. Is it important to keep a promise to someone you don’t know well and probably won’t see again?
7a. Why or why not?

I think it all depends on whether we empathize with that other person. No one is likely to keep a promise to someone they don’t care about and will never see again. But most of us would keep a promise to someone they did care about, even if they would never see them again. I think that the strength of a promise generally is related to the strength of the relation between the parties: a promise made between two close friends is strong, while a promise made between two enemies is not worth a hill of beans (or any quantity of beans, however small).

Is it important? Certainly I would think less of anyone who breaks their promises to anyone, whether they would see them again or not, simply because that shows they are not a very good person. So my answer would be yes. I don’t think the “won’t see again” is particularly important.

8. What do you think is the most important thing a father should be concerned about in his relationship to his son?
8a. Why is that the most important thing?

I think the most important thing a parent should be concerned about in their relationship with their child (no matter the gender of each) is to support, and not interfere in, the natural development of the child. This means that the parent provides the material and psychological support that the child needs (being on the side of the child), while not indoctrinating the child for the parent’s sake.

It is the most important thing because the child’s sole job, the only thing a child should be concerned about, is being a child, and everyone involved in a child’s life should work towards that goal (either by providing material or psychological support, or by preventing undesired indoctrination). There should literally be no goal higher than this for any parent or caretaker. Any indoctrination, any coercion, any demands or orders which do not accord with this goal are wrong. It is not just the most important thing, it is the only thing.

I’m not sure what stage that would qualify as, but it’s definitely not conventional. I don’t believe that social consensus, laws, or social conventions have any bearing whatsoever on the issue of parents’ relationship to their children. The social consensus is that parents should interfere in their children’s lives in order to make them into good adults, and there are no laws against controlling children’s lives (except for things like assault, rape or murder).

9. In general, what should be the authority of a father over his son?
9a. Why?

My answer to this question is a direct consequence of my previous answer. The only justified authority that a parent can have over their child is the authority necessary to provide material or psychological support that the child needs (e.g. the classical example of a parent yanking their child out of the road so they don’t get hit, or helping them through rough times). No other parental authority is desirable or justified.

10. What do you think is the most important thing a son should be concerned about in his relationship to his father?
10a. Why is that the most important thing?

Again, I have to repeat myself: the child’s sole job is to be a child. Children should not be concerned with their relationship with their parents. If they like their parents, then all the better. But if they don’t, then they should not be the ones who have to cultivate the relationship. That’s the parents’ responsibility. So my answer, as unsatisfying as it might be, is: nothing.

11. In thinking back over the dilemma, what would you say is the most responsible thing for Joe to do in this situation?
11a. Why?

To me this question seems rather similar to question 1, except for the word “responsible,” but I’m not sure what it adds to the discussion. Joe has not done anything that he needs to take responsibility for. If anyone did, it is the father, who should take responsibility for giving orders to his child without justification. The responsible thing for the father to do in this situation is to apologize to Joe and tell him that he (Joe) can do whatever he wants with his own money. There is nothing responsible for Joe to do in this situation, because he didn’t do anything wrong.

Well, I hope you liked my answers. If you disagree with me on one of the questions, then please post your own answer in the comments. Since this entry is quite long, I will keep the other dilemma for another entry.

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.