Nov 18 2012


Category: EntertainmentJames @ 11:15 pm

I can’t believe Steven Spielberg would have the audacity to think he can rip off others’ cinematic ideas and think that people won’t notice. Mr. Spielberg, we’re on to you. We know you’re a copycat – the definitive cinematic Lincoln biopic already came out last June. It was called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Nov 15 2012

Morality and Hypocrisy

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 8:00 am

Note: This is a continuation of my series on morality. Here are the first seven parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, and Morality and Free Will.


Hypocrisy is claiming to have beliefs, qualities, or motivations that you do not really possess. It is making criticisms of others or having expectations of others that you do not apply to yourself. It is living in moral self-contradiction. We all condemn hypocrisy, but the truth is that we are all hypocrites.

The problem of hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is one of the biggest obstacles to moral behavior. Among the main purposes of moral rules and ethical principles is to maximize the welfare of individuals, communities, and humankind and to improve personal relationships between individuals. The more we all act morally, the happier and more prosperous our communities become. It would seem obvious, then, that we should all act morally. This does not happen because there is frequently a divergence between the personal benefits we get when we act morally and the societal benefits that come to everyone else when we act morally. This is especially true when we can act immorally but still make it look like we are acting morally. When we practice such hypocrisy, we get the external social benefits of gaining others’ trust and earning a respected place in the community without paying any of the costs. Thus, hypocrisy makes a perverse sort of sense when we think we will get a greater personal benefit from acting immorally than from acting morally, even though the overall negative cost of that behavior outweighs the overall benefit. For example, a salesman can often make more money by being dishonest, bending the truth, or misleading his customers. Even though that salesman knows the right thing to do is be honest, he acts dishonestly to maximize his income. even though our community will be worse off overall.

Selflessness and morality

I have written before about the moral case for acting selflessly. The reason for acting morally when it exacts costs on ourselves is because selfless moral action brings greater overall benefits to society. We are a communal species, and the amazing benefits of modern life that we enjoy come because our ancestors sacrificed their own interests for future generations and because our fellow citizens today restrain their selfish impulses to maintain an orderly and fair society. When we experience disorder and injustice in society, it is because there is a breakdown in morality and persons act selfishly against the community’s interest to derive personal benefit to themselves. The short term individual benefits that come from such immoral behavior creates a worse living environment for all of us. Many selfish acts cause little harm, but the aggregate of many such small acts can have very negative results on a societal level. Acting selflessly creates a peaceful and fulfilling society to live in.

We thus have an obligation to act selflessly, even though if may come at a net cost to ourselves, because it is the only way for our community to prosper. We cannot live in a peaceful, prosperous society unless those around us act selflessly. Because we benefit from others sacrifices, we must be willing to pay the price when it comes our turn to sacrifice. This is why moral teachers so frequently condemn hypocrisy. Hypocrites are parasites who reap the benefits of others’ selfless moral acts, but who are unwilling to reciprocate in kind. Hypocrisy is so universally and harshly condemned because a society of hypocrites cannot function.

Harsh treatment for hypocrites helps tip the scales in favor of acting morally for people who might otherwise act selfishly – the potential punishment for acting hypocritically can make it in someone’s interest to act morally, even if they otherwise would have derived more personal benefit from acting immorally. But no enforcement system is perfect. When we rely only on external enforcement to force hypocrites to follow the rules, hypocrisy will increase because even with good enforcement there will still be too many opportunities to cheat. Wise people understand that even if you have no chance of being caught, acting immorally when you do not think anyone will notice still contributes to making a lonelier, more mistrustful, more inhospitable society. The wise understand that they need to pay it forward – the aggregate of all of our actions creates the human world in which we live. Thus, morality means taking a long view and transcending our immediate physical needs and feelings. It requires that we sometimes sacrifice our own interests for those of the community. And, to encourage the less-enlightened who need some incentives to behave, it requires that we punish those who refuse to choose to be selfless (thus giving them a selfish reason to comply).

Avoiding Hypocrisy

Avoiding and preventing hypocrisy is easier said than done. Understanding why we should avoid hypocrisy is a good first step. We should also understand what conditions make people more likely to act with hypocrisy so that we can take steps to avoid those conditions or take extra care when we find ourselves in those situations. Research shows that persons occupying positions of power are naturally prone to act with greater hypocrisy.1 Research also shows that persons occupying a position of power naturally become better liars.2 This means that in your personal life, the more power you get, the more you should be aware of the potential for you to act with hypocrisy. On a broader scale, it also means we should set up hierarchies at all levels of society – in private institutions, churches, governments, and everywhere else – that force extreme transparency on people in power, to make it more difficult for them to act with hypocrisy. We should also impose higher penalties for those in authority who violate laws and moral rules, to provide incentives to counteract the leaders’ natural tendency toward hypocrisy.



Nov 01 2012

Morality and Free Will

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 8:00 am

Note: This is a continuation of my series on morality. Here are the first six parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.


I have not been posting as frequently on the blog because I have been working on other projects, some of which are related to my writings here. When those projects are closer to being finished, I will post about them here. In the meantime, I have been thinking a little bit more about morality. In part two of my morality series, I wrote that the principle of individual autonomy and accountability is an important basis of morality. This raises questions about free will that I want to explore further.

Autonomy and accountability

Because we are separate individuals, we are each free to determine the course of our own life and seek after our own happiness. Even when our freedom is infringed by others, we are still free to make choices within the constraints placed on us, and we are free to think whatever we want. We are each free to choose our actions, but every action has natural consequences which result from that action. When we choose something, we are also therefore choosing the consequences which come with that choice. This means that autonomy also comes with accountability: each of us is accountable for the consequences of our actions.

Free will vs. Determinism

This raise questions about whether free will exists or whether our actions are predetermined by preexisting circumstances. In the end, though, the most reasonable conclusion is that the purported distinction between determinism and free will is a false dichotomy. Arguments about free will often boil down to whether you believe that we have some sort of non-material spirit that is independent from the physical universe. Since a universal system of morality should be self-evident to everyone, though, it should deal only with the physical reality that we humans directly experience and can prove. If we have a spirit, no one has been able to credibly prove what it is or how it works. Whether we are a dual spirit-body entity or not, it is clear that physical laws and principles govern most of what we do, feel, and think, and that using physical models assuming that we are physical beings operating in a physical universe has created the most compelling scientific explanations of human function. Similarly, a purely physical model is enough to support this principle of individual autonomy and accountability.

Does using a model that assumes our actions are ultimately determined by the physical properties of our bodies, particularly our brains, foreclose the possibility of us having free will? Debates about free will are really just debates about semantics and definitions. Determinists, who do not believe in free will, argue that our actions are entirely governed by the conditions that pre-existed our actions. Thus, many of them will argue that there is no free will because if you had perfect information about a person’s physical state and all of the preceding events of their life, you could perfectly predict their future actions. The problem is that no has been able to experimentally prove whether this is possible, and perhaps uncertainty at the quantum level means that it will never be possible. The idea of determinism is set against a definition of free will that holds that free will means we are free to make choices free from constraints. Of course, even if it were true that we could choose to act independent of the physical realities of our bodies, there would still be other constraints on our decisions, such as social and psychological constraints. Thus, no one who talks about free will can really claim that we are free of all constraints on our actions. The debates between proponents of free will and determinism are fruitless – neither position is strong, and their arguments end up being more a pointless debate about semantics rather than something that will yield useful ideas about morality and how we should treat each other.

Beyond Free Will

The principle of autonomy and accountability does not require that there be free will in some metaphysical sense. We do not need to define free will or figure out if we truly have free will for autonomy and accountability to form a basis of our morality. Independent of all the constraints on our actions, each of us enjoys an existence separate from all others. Regardless of what outside constraints are placed on us, we determine how we act within those constraints. We are free in the sense that each of us is an autonomous individual organism capable of independent action. No one can directly control the neural impulses within our body.1 While our behavior might be physically determined, it is not directly compelled by any outside physical force other than our own unique personal characteristics and our experience. We are influenced by incentives and external influences, but our personal behavior is ultimately determined by internal physical processes.

Our brains – our physical neural framework – learn from experience. We apply our own personal neural models to modify our behavior in response to our circumstances. We learn from the consequences of our actions and change our future behavior in response. Thus, in the end, each of us is responsible for the consequences of our own actions. In the end, we are the masters of our own fate.

We are social animals, and we impose rules and limits on each other to constrain our actions within acceptable norms that promote the community’s welfare. The history of human experience, however, clearly shows that we flourish when freedom is maximized and constraints are limited. Research has shown that even just reducing a person’s belief in free will makes them less helpful and more aggressive.2 On the other hand, the constraint of being accountable for our actions is also important. Moral rules are a necessary part of living in a community of other people. Because our actions affect everyone around us, we are accountable not only for the natural consequences of our actions, but also for the effect our actions have on others. Indeed, we already seem to be attuned to this reality. Research indicates that we behave better when we are reminded that we are accountable to a higher power3 (whether to God or a civic institution) or when we feel like we are being watched4 (it is enough to increase the rate that people follow the honor system and pay for their purchases at an honesty box by simply posting a picture of an eye above the box). Whether or not we are free to act in some metaphysical sense, the physical reality is that both individuals and societies progress and flourish only when individuals are free to determine their actions and are then held accountable for the results of those actions.


1 Of course, this is not completely true anymore. It is possible to hook electrodes to someone’s nerves or brain and control certain aspects of that person’s bodily functions. In the future, such technologies may be come sophisticated neough to control a person’s behaviors. In that case, such a person being controlled externally would be absolved from moral responsibility, at least to the extent that they did not cede that control over them.

2 Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, Dewall CN. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 35(2):260-8. PMID 19141628 doi:10.1177/0146167208327217

4 Bateson M, Nettle D, Roberts G., Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters 2006, 2(3), 412-414. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509.