What are the important moral questions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Lord of the Flies really about Anarchism, or is it about Fascism?

EJD develops an interesting question in this entry: is Lord of the Flies, a novel generally used to argue for childism and against Anarchism, not really a story about fascism?

The leadership of Jack, the unelected charismatic boy quickly becoming a despot, leads to poor initial consequences. The boys miss a chance to be rescues because Jack and his friends have taken the elite role of hunting and tending the fire, but neglect their duties.

Meanwhile, the little ones (an allegory for the little man?) begin to become increasingly afraid of an unproven danger. Jack, like any despotic leader, uses this ‘fear of the other’ to gain control. In a way similar to how nationalists use the threat of foreigners, religious fundamentalists use the threat of heathens, or Statists in general use the threat of ‘lawlessness’, Jack exploits the threat of the Beast to gain control and establish himself as master of the group. This is how the Stalinists gained control of the Russian Revolution (fear of the Capitalists), how the conservative faction of the political structure justified repression of leftist thought in the US (fear of the Stalinists), how certain religious fundamentalists gain control of populations in the developing world (fear of the US), and how the US justifies crackdown on civil rights (fear of the Jihadists). The fear of the other is a building block to any successful putsch for greater control, and Jack played it as expertly as Hitler playing the resentment, fear of Communism, anti-Semitism of the post-Versailles German populace to aid his rise to power.

The Friendly Antinatalist: Why I’m An Antinatalist

🔥Cathy Brennan🔥 on “all PIV sex is rape”

Are our societies cult-like?

Given my interest in analyzing cults and how they brainwash people, I suppose it would be natural that I would want to apply that same understanding to society as a whole. After all, our societies are totalizing groups, like cults. Everything we do and think is either a consequence or a reaction to all the socialization and indoctrination we have received. Pledging allegiance to a cult means foregoing allegiance to the society. Does that mean, therefore, that society is just a bigger cult?

We designate certain groups as cults, and other groups as quasi-cults, cultish, or not cults at all, based on their separation from the larger society they inhabit: separation of language, segregation of information, separating friends and families, shifting value systems and allegiances. Therefore, judging any society’s level of cultism is, strictly speaking, impossible, because we have no greater society to compare it to.

However, in another sense, we already do judge societies on the basis of our own. For example, we can say North Korea is a cult because of its political system. We can do this by talking about a section of it, the political system, and comparing it with other political systems. Of course there is a degree of self-indulgence in this. What we’re saying is, “look how much more cult-like North Korea is compared to us.” This does not prove that our societies are not cult-like, merely that one is more cult-like than the other. This evaluation is therefore inherently relative.

While we cannot evaluate societies literally on the same criteria as cults, we can still reason by analogy. Let me list the main criteria for identifying cults:

1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.

3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. (Lifton, 1989)

Again, I am saying we need to reason by analogy, not literally. Society is not a group with a clear and definite structure, a charismatic leader, and a set of doctrines that are clearly laid out to the initiate. Society encompasses vast and numerous groups which interact in complex and often vague ways, many leaders with various qualities, and doctrines which are either “common sense,” technical knowledge, historical or social myths, religious doctrines which vary wildly from group to group, scientific principles, beliefs disguised as science, positions that are part of political worldviews, and so on. This list narrows down quite a bit if we give a more precise definition of the word “doctrine.”

What is a society formally delimited by? It is delimited by its border (a society exists within a country or territory), by its government (monopoly of control over a country or territory), by its economy and currency (who you can trade with, who you can work with), and more vaguely by its culture (the way things are done). There are, of course, other structures that are extremely important within a society (such as the family structure or the gender hierarchy), but these are the particular structures that separate societies from each other.

What are the ideas and beliefs that separate societies? Well, obviously, allegiance to a country, a government, an economy, and a culture. But there are also more general principles, such as us versus them (or more generally, manichean thinking), racism, neo-liberalism (which sets economies against each other), war and a history of war, religious hatred, and so on.

Based on this reasoning, what can we use an analogy to these criteria?

Milieu Control: Information is controlled within society by the capitalist media, and particularly by the capitalist media’s dependence on the government’s favor for access to important people and information. While this has been especially noted in the case of the United States (e.g. see Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent), people in all societies are artificially limited in their access to information and communication by the constraints of capitalism. Only certain groups are allowed to use the mass media, and only in certain ways. The Internet, of course, represents a significant attack against those limitations (in the same way that the Internet has been very bad for cults in general).

Mystical Manipulation: Because it is impossible to manipulate the direct experiences of the people of an entire society, this is not a possible means of control. What can be manipulated is access to information and how to interpret that information, the former which I’ve already covered.

Demand for Purity: Most of the ideas and beliefs I listed above are examples of black and white thinking, and we are constantly exhorted to conform to them (be on the “right” side). We are also encouraged, through the belief in positive thinking, to purify our minds. There is no general idea of “perfection” in our societies, only success, so that doesn’t really apply here.

Confession: Again, because of the size of any society, there is no way for this to be a working principle. But the principle of confession applies to various areas of society, including parenting (confessing your disobedience), justice (confessing your crimes), and religion (confessing your sins).

Sacred Science: This principle is taken literally by cultural relativists (culture is always right), authoritarians and right-wingers (power is always right), and others. But as a more general analogy, the belief in one’s society as the “good” side, and in your culture as the “right” culture, is beyond questioning or doubt (and anyone who questions them is considered a traitor, a secret “them”). We do not consider our leaders infallible, but we do consider them to be representatives of the society, and therefore people who are necessarily on the “good” side.

Loading the Language: The way words are manipulated, in politics for example, is well understood. We use plenty of thought-terminating cliches, even in normal language.

Doctrine over person: All groups affirm the superiority of their agreed-upon beliefs against the personal disagreements of their members. Any group that did not do this would not remain a group for long. Societies are no different. Experiences which lead people to deny some socially mandated belief (e.g. the superiority of “our” way of life compared to others) are denied or reinterpreted.

This is an extremely cursory examination of the issue, and I am not claiming otherwise. And again, I am not literally saying societies are cults (because such an evaluation is impossible). What I am saying is that by reasoning in analogies we can see ways in which societies sometimes operate in a similar manner to cults.

This is not to say that society is evil. Actually not all cults are evil, and some are rather benign (although they tend to be the exception rather than the rule). The reason why we are against cults is because they are the perfect sort of environment for a leader to brainwash people. And we don’t like brainwashing because it negates the native value system of the individual in favor of some imposed value system, a value system which benefits someone who is not the individual holding it.

Well, of course we have that in our societies also, just not in the same extreme form. Take religious brainwashing, for instance. It is a well known phenomenon that people who deconvert from a religion generally and suddenly drop all the other positions that came along with it (like political positions or ethical positions). This is because most people are indoctrinated as children into a religion, which includes the value system imposed by that religion on the believer. That value system overrides the native value system of the individual. Once they leave the religion, they also drop that imposed value system. The same thing is true of people who leave cults. Other ideologies, like political ideologies, philosophical ideologies, child-raising ideologies, racist or sexist ideologies, and so on, can warp people’s value system to some larger or smaller extent, making certain things acceptable which otherwise would not be, and making certain things unacceptable when natively the person would have nothing against it.

With brainwashing and indoctrination in general comes its opposite mechanism, cognitive dissonance. If you don’t know what that is, cognitive dissonance is the mental tension generated by acquiring a belief which contradicts one of our other held beliefs. For example, if you believe that your friend Peter is an upstanding individual who would do no wrong, and then you observe him punching a person you believe is innocent, you would experience cognitive dissonance because you both believe that Peter is an upstanding individual and that Peter punched an innocent person, which is a contradiction. If you want to no longer experience the discomfort, you would have to resolve the contradiction by rejecting one of the two beliefs. People who change their minds about something they used to believe strongly usually do so because of cognitive dissonance.

In cults, people often experience cognitive dissonance by observing things happening within the group that contradicts what they were told about the group (e.g. “the group is a paragon of virtue” vs “the group kicked Peter out even though he did something praiseworthy”). Likewise, we experience plenty of cognitive dissonance between commonly accepted beliefs in our societies and what we observe or read about. Belief in the rightness of the country or government may be challenged by what the government actually does or has done in the past. Belief in the inferiority of certain classes or races may be challenged by meeting and living with such people. Religious and political beliefs may be challenged by a wide variety of events, including reading about scientific or empirical counter-evidence, being unable to satisfactorily answer contrary arguments, and so on.

Preschool is the sad, last bastion of childhood, and it’s under attack

I think it’s already fucking sad that preschool, of all places, is the last bastion where children are allowed to play and be children. But even more deplorable is the fact that these freedoms are under attack. Psychology Today (not the most reliable of sources, but anyway) has the scoop.

The system as a whole is broken; it is why I left the profession. Truth is, most school districts, at least the one’s I have worked in in America, do not use scientific evidence or best practices to teach kids. They instead use the next fad that comes along, “Common Core” being the latest debacle, from government bureaucracy because it comes with money or grants from the state or federal govt. and then test these kids to death until they hate school, hate learning, and wish nothing more than to get out because the ones that already are disadvantaged never measure up and continuously keep seeing their failures rather than their strengths. Worse, they test these kids in kindergarten, so the cycle of failure and frustration begins at an early age! If we want to change the education system, then it is up to the parents and educators who must stop allowing politicians and book companies, who make a ridiculous amounts of money off these curriculum initiatives, to force these unscientific methods of teaching down the throats of children. Boycott testing, write your representatives, and go to School Board meetings and demand the reversal of early academic testing. It is the only way to bring play back to schools.

The Meat Grinder

Coming Out As Trans-Everything