Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.

Jun 06 2014

Read my new book!

I’ve written a book summarizing my thoughts on life, truth, morality, and religion. About half of the book contains material from this blog (revised, re-written, and greatly improved), while the other half is new material never released before. The book is called The Triple Path. You can download it here (currently available only in PDF format).

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.

Feb 04 2012

Morality and ethics – part 6

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 10:46 pm

Note: This is part 6 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5

In my previous posts on morality, I’ve listed a set of baseline premises which we can use as the foundation of a system of morality:

  • Perpetuation of the human race
  • The value of human life
  • Individual autonomy and accountability
  • Importance of community
  • Respect for living things
  • Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
  • Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles

From those premises, I have derived three basic universal moral rules:

1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Be a part of the community and promote its welfare

In this post, I will discuss Rule #3: promote the community’s welfare. Rule 3 can be dangerous if it is used to justify a combative “us versus them” attitude, especially when combined with a zero-sum view of the world. This is why Rule #3 comes last. Promoting the community’s welfare does not justify acts that violate Rules 1 and 2.

What is “the Community”?

Humankind’s history of religious and moral thought has been one of a general progression (though often faltering) toward an ever-expanding notion of who we include in our conception of “us.” This is seen in the creation of the more universal world religions of the axial age that transcend race and ethnicity (at least in theory, if not always in practice), such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Rules 1 and 2, which I’ve previously discussed, embody that universal spirit.

But even with an ever-expanding definition of who we include in our conception of “us,” in practical terms there are still different categories of “us.” Let’s think about an example: say that you see two people standing in the road in the path of an oncoming truck – one of them is a stranger, and the other is a close friend. Let’s also say that you only have enough time to save one of the two people by pushing them out of the way. Who do you save? Almost everyone would, without hesitation, save their close friend.

How big is a community?

Humans are social animals. Though we are adapted to flourish and thrive as members of a mutually supportive group, there appears to be physical cognitive limits to the number of people who we can emotionally and intuitively incorporate into our mental model of the world. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was the first person to propose this cognitive human limit. He conducted a statistical analysis of different primate groups by comparing the average group sizes of various primate species with other characteristics of those species. He created a regression equation which predicted that, based on human characteristics, the average natural human group size would be about 150 (with a 95% confidence level that the real number is somewhere between 100 and 230). He then looked at the sizes of stone age villages and hunter gatherer tribes and found that their average population sizes matched his predictions. In fact, 150 may even be at the high end and seems to only be achievable for groups of people who are physically close together and who spend a significant amount of time nourishing their social relationships.1

Dunbar’s number is based on comparisons of humans with non-human primates and by studying our primitive ancestors (and contemporary cultures living in situations similar to our stone age ancestors). Two anthropologists – H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth – conducted studies of people’s social connections in modern society in the United States and came up with a higher number. Their results showed that the mean number of meaningful social ties that each individual had was 290 (the median was 231).

Perhaps the Bernard-Killworth number is evidence of our continued evolution – as our ancestors moved from living in small hunter gatherer bands to living in larger, more complex societies, perhaps selective pressures have increased our cognitive capacities and made it possible for us to handle larger social circles. But whether Dunbar’s number (150) or the Bernard-Killworth number (290) is right, either way we have an upper bound of about 300. When we think about being part of a community, three hundred is a relatively low number when we consider the number of people who live in an average city or country.

What Dunbar’s number shows us is that there is apparently a limit on how many people we can emotionally include in our conception of “us.” This makes intuitive sense. We may intellectually understand that all people – even those outside our community – are worthy of equal moral consideration, but in the real world, when a truck is barreling toward our friend and a stranger, we push our friend out the way first, and few people would argue that this natural tendency is immoral.

This disconnect between our intellectual understanding of morality and our emotional understanding grows out of the human tendency over the last few millenia of living in ever-larger polities and societies. In small groups, maintaining social cohesion is relatively easy because we are well-adapted to this behavior. In larger groups, however, we lack the cognitive and emotional capacity to intuitively self-organize in the way that small stone age bands and modern hunter-gatherer tribes have been able to organize. The large institutions of modern life (along with the resulting stability and technological progress they bring) are foreign to our natural constitutions. In light of Dunbar’s number, it thus becomes clear why the universalistic tendencies of the major world religions were necessary to the flowering of human culture and development. Such moral rules give us the cognitive and emotional tools to step beyond our normal mental limits to reach out of our social circles and act morally to “others.” But universally applicable moral rules do not come naturally to us. Thus, while our intellectual conception of who we include in “us” has expanded (and even perhaps the limits of our emotional conception of “us” has almost doubled from 150 to 290), in practical terms, our innate biological tendency is to morally and emotionally commit ourselves to relatively small social groups.

I think it unlikely that Dunbar’s number is a hard cutoff. We have a much smaller group of close friends and family with whom most closely identify as “us.” Moving out from there, we have growing concentric circles of people until we reach our “Dunbar group” of people for whom we have devoted our brains’ limited capacity to build strong social ties. Past our Dunbar group, most of us have at least some social contact with more than just 150 (or 290) people in a given week or month – those are people who we start to emotionally consider as “others”; as our emotional ties to them weaken, we start to apply learned rules of morality to our interactions with them. Our emotional conception of social ties becomes weaker and weaker as we move from our core social group of 150-300 people to others with whom we have weaker social ties.

None of us has one single static conception of “us.” Instead, we each have concentric and overlapping definitions of “us,” and those specific definitions are different for each person. Beyond their higher intrinsic priority, it is especially important that the first two rules take precedence over Rule 3 because universal moralistic thinking does not come naturally to us. Our ability for learning and using rational thinking makes universally-applicable moral rules possible; the fruits of these moral developments have become obvious over the last few thousand years as violence in human societies has gradually decreased and stability has increased (along with accompanying increases in material welfare). But no rational moral system can ignore the realities of human biology. And thus Rule 3 has tremendous importance because humans naturally organize themselves into groups and communities, and much of the meaning and fulfillment we get from life comes from our membership and participation in the communities of which we are a part. Community members care for each other, and are willing to make sacrifices for each other that perfect strangers would be unwilling to make. The strength of our social links to others declines as we move from our small core group to others, but each of those concentric circles constitutes a community that we would identify as being an ever-weakening version of “us.”

Be a part of your community

Many people consider differences and diversity to be of supreme importance. My personal experience has been that being exposed to different cultures and ideologies has forced me to look at things from a different perspective, has helped me sharpen my thinking, and has broadened my perspectives. But being part of communities of people who we consider as being the “same” as us is also important for our personal well being and for the future of our society.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s research indicates that “the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings.”2 Other research by political scientists has shown that the level of ethnic and linguistic diversity in a country is correlated with higher levels of instability in a country and lower levels of democracy.3 The ordering of the three rules tries to strike the balance between deriving the benefits of community while not forsaking the benefits of universal morality and exposure to diversity.

Once we’ve committed ourselves to the first two Rules, then creating unified communities promotes social welfare. Rule 3 can be dangerous if misinterpreted. It is not a justification for ethnocentrism or racism. It does not justify harming outsiders in order to benefit the community. Since strong communities and strong social ties are so beneficial for us, however, it is important to properly support the idea of community. Because of our social nature, the best future outcomes for humanity will come from building strong and cohesive communities of ethical people.

So how do you follow Rule 3? First, identify your communities. Look at the expanding concentric circles of the social groups that you are a part of, starting with your closest associates (such as family and close friends) and expanding each new circle out to slightly more distant relationships. Then, think of the strong moral obligations that you have under Rules 1 and 2 and apply those rules even more strongly to the members of your community. Look for ways to make sacrifices to help those in your community. Actively participate in the community, you do your fair share of the work to keep it functional, volunteer in your community and promote good relationships within the community (such as by reaching out to others and by avoiding negative gossip). Again, the same moral obligations and behaviors behaviors from Rule 1 and Rule 2 apply to your dealings with fellow community members, only more so.

Would it be better if we could conceive of humanity as being one giant community? Yes. But our brains are just too limited to emotionally conceive of a community of 7 billion people. Rule 1 and Rule 2 point us toward a universal human community and help us focus our behavior toward that ideal. But it is important to recognize our biological and cognitive limits and that is why it is not only morally justifiable, but also morally desirable, for us to also focus on building strong small communities in our day-to-day lives as well.




2 The Downside of Diversity, Boston Globe.

3 Clague, Christopher, Suzanne Gleason, and Stephen Knack. 2001. “Determinants of Lasting Democracy in Poor Countries: Culture, Development, and Institutions.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 573:17-41.

Thompson, Curtis. 1995. “Political Stability and Minority Groups in Burma.” Geographical Review. 85, No. 3 (July 1995): 269-285.

Jul 06 2011

Morality and ethics – part 5

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 11:00 pm

Note: This is part 5 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4

In my previous posts on morality, I’ve listed a set of baseline premises which we can use as the foundation of a system of morality:

• Perpetuation of the human race
• The value of human life
• Individual autonomy and accountability
• Importance of community
• Respect for living things
• Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
• Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles

From those premises, I have derived three basic universal moral rules:

1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Promote the community’s welfare

In this post, I will discuss Rule #2: act for the future. Acting for the future is a natural extension of Rule #1 Following Rule #1 means not just being selfless and loving toward people in the present, but showing that same love and selflessness towards those in the future. It also means showing that same love and concern for your future self. We think of our “self” as one continuous being, existing from birth until death. It can sometimes be helpful, however, to consider this idea of a continuous self as an illusion and consider the “you” of the present moment as a finite entity, one which will soon no longer exist, and of the different “yous” at future times as separate independent selves. Consider who you were 10 years ago. Chances are that there are substantial differences between who you are now and who you were in the past. You probably look different. Your opinions about many things may have changed. Your personality may have changed. Your relationships and personal circumstances may be different. These changes were probably mostly gradual ones, so it may be difficult to fix a moment in time when the “you” of the past changed into the “you” of the present, but it is probably clear that the change has happened.

One of the unique properties of personhood that makes us consider our future and past selves to be the same “self” is that the condition of each of your future selves is largely determined by your actions in the present. But taking a moment from time to time to look at your future selves as separate, independent beings for whom you have complete responsibility helps you remember that because of your obligations of love and selflessness, you have an obligation to work in the present to ensure the welfare and personal development of your future selves.

Why focus on the future?

Human beings are not very good at predicting the future. Our predictions of what will happen in the future, and how we’ll feel about it, are often wrong. Over time, almost every mutual fund underperforms when compared with the market average. Pundits and so-called experts generally avoid making specific predictions that can be easily measured and evaluated, and when they do, they are usually wrong (of course, they love to trumpet the rare occasions when they are right, but conveniently forget to mention the far greater number of times that they were wrong). On a more personal note, we are very bad at predicting how we will feel in the future, and how potential life events will affect our future levels of happiness.1 So if the future is so opaque, why should we act for the future, and how can we do it?

Acting for the future doesn’t require that we predict specific events, but that we engage in the behaviors most likely to fulfill the premises of the moral system. How can we know which behaviors will do this? First, we can use all of our methods for discovering truth, including the scientific method, past experience, and our knowledge about cause and effect. Second, we can draw on the experiences of others. Most people are very similar to each other. We can get a good idea about the effect of certain behaviors in our life by looking at the effect of those same behaviors in others’ lives.

We act for the future by doing the things now that will make the world a better, more moral place in the future. We act for the future by improving ourselves and doing the things which will make us better people in the future. Acting for the world means seeking progress: both personal progression, progression of others, and progression of humanity.

Make the World Better

The most basic way to “live for the future” is to live so that the world will have been a better place for having you in it. My conception of morality places human beings at the center, so making it a “better place” focuses first on making it a better place for human beings, but also secondarily on making it a better place for all other living things, so long as we can do it without hurting humans beings in the process.


So where do we start in our quest to make the world better? The first place is the family. Almost none of us will do much that will be remembered in history books or encyclopedias. The vast majority of even the “famous” people of today – including most scholars, writers, politicians, movie stars, and musicians – will mostly be forgotten in 100 years, relegated to footnotes in books that nobody reads. And in 1000 years, most will be completely unknown. The most lasting contribution most of us will make to humanity’s future is through the children we leave behind.

Because our greatest impact on the future is through our children, we should put a proportionate amount of time and effort into our children, but not in the way that most people would think. Things like dance lessons or piano practice, private school tuition or tutors, extra homework or sports practices are not the most important places to direct our efforts. As I’ve discussed previously,2 there is a large and ever-growing body twin and adoption studies examining a variety of life outcomes which show that, out of heredity, home environment, or the outside environment, the home environment is the least important variable.3 Now, of course, parenting is still important. Good parenting can have small effects at the margins. Moreover, bad parenting can have disastrous effects: any kind of abuse will very likely have significant negative impacts on children. Parents need to care for their children, teach them basic manners, ensure they have access to an education, etc. But assuming that those basic needs are met, most of the life outcomes for your children will be determined, to a large extent, by genetics and by environmental factors outside of your control.

So how do we put forth the time and effort to making the world a better place through our children? First, if you are a decent person and are someone who is contributing to society, then chances are that your children will be that way too. So, you can contribute most to future society by focusing more on having more children and less on being a helicopter parent who micromanages every aspect of your child’s upbringing.

Other than abuse, one of the worst things that parents can do to negatively influence their children is divorce. Just like most other behaviors and life events, likelihood of divorce does seem to have a genetic component,4 and it appears that some of the same genetic factors that increase parents’ likelihood to divorce, and not the divorce itself, are responsible for some of the negative outcomes in children in divorced families. Some of the negative outcomes, however, do appear to be caused by the divorce itself, and not by genetic factors.5 That means that you should be committed to monogamy for life (and that if you have a family history of divorce, you should be concerned about whether you might have a genetic propensity for divorce). Of course, there are situations (such as abusive relationships) when a divorce would be best for children, but in our world of no-fault divorces, these are likely a minority of current divorces.

Research has indicated various factors which increase the probability of a stable, enduring marriage. Women who delay their first sexual encounter until adulthood (after age 18) have much lower divorce rates.6 While it could be that some other factor makes a woman both more likely to have sex as an adolescent and to get divorced later in life, the research indicates that it is more likely that having sex at early age itself made women more likely to get divorced (although more research needs to be done to confirm this). I don’t know what the research shows about the effect on men of having sex at a young age, but it doesn’t matter: the sexual partners of young women are mostly young men, so that means that to prevent early sexual behavior from increasing the likelihood of divorce, both young men and young women should not have sex until adulthood.

People who live together before marriage are far more likely to divorce.7 Couples who cohabit “reported significantly lower quality marriages and a greater potential for splitting up than other couples.”8 Some researchers have questioned the causality in the relationship between cohabitation and divorce,9 but I have not found any hard data from these critics to back up their criticisms. Thus, absent further data to the contrary, it is also prudent to avoid cohabitation before marriage.

Economic Welfare

The most dramatic large-scale improvements in quality of life for large numbers of people have been brought about by the astronomically high levels of economic growth since the industrial revolution.10 Some people like to portray humanity’s far past as being an idyllic existence living in harmony with nature, free of exploitation or hierarchies. They are wrong. Life for our forebears was nasty, brutish, and short. Our farmer ancestors generally lived lives close to subsistence, doing backbreaking labor all day, every day.

Before agriculture, our hunter gatherer ancestors had somewhat better health and diets than their farmer descendants, and they usually worked fewer hours as well. But warfare and violence between tribal groups in hunter gatherer societies was generally high. Infanticide was probably fairly common. And life was still not easy. For example, women had to carry each child child up to about age four for miles every day. Our hunter gatherer ancestors living in that “idyllic past” did all sorts of things to harm the environment, such as hunting to extinction almost all large mammals outside of Africa and practicing slash and burn agriculture that radically altered the environment of many places on Earth. Medical knowledge was nonexistent. Literacy amongst our ancestors was rare, if it existed at all in their culture. People didn’t have the leisure or the knowledge to worry about things like education, the future of humanity, economic growth, or the environment. The truth is that the only reason people in the present day worry about such things as quality of life, humanity’s future, or the environment is because economic growth (along with the accompanying scientific advances) have given them enough education, prosperity, and leisure to be able consider those issues.

Acting for the future means doing the things we can do now to make sure that the future is a better place to live for ourselves, our descendants, and every other human being. The best way to achieve that is through economic growth (both on a personal and societal level).

How can we as individuals do this? One the biggest long-run determinants of economic growth is the savings rate. We should therefore avoid using debt to finance personal consumption and we should save. Not all debt is bad, though. It can a good idea to use debt to accumulate capital – this could include going into debt for an education to build human capital (but only to the extent that the education increases our earning power and gives us skills which will contribute to society) or to build physical capital (by, for example, building a factory or starting a business).

More than just saving, we should be frugal and restrained in our lifestyle and consumption of resources. One of the miracles of the human condition since the industrial revolution is decreasing prices for almost every type of good. It seems that human ingenuity has been able to cope with increasing population sizes and the limits of earth’s resources such that we have been able to provide better living conditions for ever-growing numbers of people. It would be easy to assume that this will always continue. I hope that it does. But prudence dictates at least some caution. It makes sense to conserve our resources. The great prosperity we enjoy in the developed world is a direct result of the frugality and savings of our forbears. It is fascinating to read through accounts of the living conditions of average Americans from previous eras. They endured many hardships to be able to save their money and ensure a better future for their children. The infrastructure and physical capital that we have now in the United States is the result of generations of hardworking Americans who saved and worked and built up our country. We owe it to future generations to do the same – it would be tremendously short-sighted and selfish to refuse to do the same thing for future generations.

That means we should keep a budget. We should live below our means and save our money. We should be frugal and conservative in what we buy and what we consume. Reduce, reuse, recycle, etc. We should also minimize our consumption of meat. When you feed plants to animals, most of the energy contained in the plants is lost – it is far more efficient to devote the same land and resources used to feed and raise animals to growing crops for human consumption.11 If everyone ate the same kind of diet as Americans, the world would only be able to support 2.5 billion people.12

On a societal level, we should seek governments and economic systems that encourage economic growth. This means governments free of corruption and free of onerous economic regulations. It means governments with laws that encourage real competition between firms (and not the oligopolies and monopolies we see in so many industries today) and that prevent corporate executives from extracting high rents (in the form of ridiculously high salaries) or from maintaining a shortsighted perspective focused on short-term profits (to keep a high stock price so they can get bonuses) at the expense of real long term growth.

Implications of Rule #2: specific sub-rules

I’ve discussed some of the implications of this rule, but there are many more. So what are some of the moral rules that would derive from Rule 1? I list below the rules that I think most important. An individual discussion of each rule is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think that most of them speak for themselves.

1. Act with self-control.
2. Practice the things you want to succeed doing.
3. Persist in doing good.
4. Cease doing unnecessary or less important things and instead prioritize doing the necessary and more important things first.
5. Always seek to improve your character and discipline yourself.
6. Get married, and don’t cheat on your spouse. Don’t cohabitate before marriage.
7. If you’re a good person, have children. Have more children.
8. Be good to your children. Teach them and give them the basic opportunities and tools for success in life.
9. Live within your means.
10. Be frugal and save your money, work to be self-reliant.
11. Avoid debt.
12. Minimize the resources you use.
13. Work hard.
14. Work doing things that contribute to society.
15. In all of your work, balance your efforts so that you do not neglect the most important things in life: your family and relationships with others.
16. Always seek greater knowledge and wisdom.
17. Help others achieve the comfort and well-being that you enjoy.

In the next post in the series, I will discuss Rule #3, “Promote the community’s welfare.”




1 Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness.

10 Watch this amazing video for a great visualization: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_effects_of_meat_production

It has to do with the food chain. In the food chain, anytime energy is converted into another form, it is not a perfect conversion and a lot of energy is wasted. All of the energy we consume comes from the sun. When you eat plants, you are only one step removed from the energy source (sun – plant – you). When you eat animals, you are two or three steps removed from the energy source (sun – plant – animal – you, or sun – plant – animal – animal – you).


The loss of energy by a factor of 1/2 from each of the steps of non-predatory death, defecation, and respiration is typical of many living systems. Thus, the net production at one trophic level is 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 = 1 / 8 or approximately 10% that of the trophic level before it.

Example: Assume 500 units of energy are produced by trophic level 1. One half of that is lost to non-predatory death, while the other half (250 units) is ingested by trophic level 2. One half of the amount ingested is expelled through defecation, leaving the other half (125 units) to be assimilated by the organism. Finally one half of the remaining energy is lost through respiration while the rest (63 units) is used for growth and reproduction. This energy expended for growth and reproduction constitutes to the net production of trophic level 1, which is equal to 500 * 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 = 63 units.

May 21 2011

Morality and ethics – part 4

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 9:04 am

Note: This is part 4 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 5.

In my previous posts on morality, I’ve listed a set of baseline premises which we can use as the foundation of a system of morality:

  • Perpetuation of the human race
  • The value of human life
  • Individual autonomy and accountability
  • Importance of community
  • Respect for living things
  • Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
  • Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles

From those premises, I have derived three basic universal moral rules:

1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Promote the community’s welfare

In this post, I will discuss Rule #1: Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule

Selflessness and love

Why is the first rule of morality to selfless and loving and live the golden rule? Because few of the main premises on which the whole system of morality is built can be achieved if people are selfish. The perpetuation of the human race depends on us making sacrifices for future generations. At a minimum, the human race cannot survive unless the current generation of people have children. Bringing forth children, and then raising them into adulthood, requires parents to sacrifice their time, income, and effort. Respecting the value of human life requires that we give up our own resources to help the poor and the sick. Maintaining others’ individual autonomy means limiting some of our own choices, if those choices would interfere with others’ autonomy. Commitment to the principle of personal accountability means being willing to suffer the consequences of our bad decisions. Working to ensure that our community and society survive and thrive means giving up some our personal resources for the good of the community. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Selflessness by itself, though, isn’t enough. Selflessness means conquering your attachment to your own desires for satisfaction and pleasure. Love, though, is an active concern for the well-being of others. Once we are selfless, love is what will motivate us to take action for others’ benefit. Having selflessness and love together is what leads people to willingly sacrifice for others’ benefit.

The Golden Rule

The golden rule has been around for thousands of years, with forms of it being taught in Ancient Egypt, Greece and China.1 The Golden Rule has been formulated in positive and negative forms. The positive form of the Golden Rule, as taught by Jesus, is

Do to others as you would have them do to you.2

Confucius taught a negative form of the rule. Here is a version of the negative version:

Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.

The writer George Bernard Shaw and the philosopher Karl Popper each separately criticized the traditional formulation of the golden rule because it does not take into account that our preferences might be different from others’.3 Karl Popper explained that the golden rule “can perhaps even be improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.”4

Popper and Shaw raise a valid point. Someone who is truly loving has empathy for those they love. Popper’s reformulation of the golden rule emphasizes the love and empathy we should feel for others. It recognizes that others have different preferences from our own and that we should honor those preferences. Some people have now taken to calling this reformulation the “platinum rule.” I’m still going to call this modern version of the rule the “golden rule.” The golden rule has been spelled out in a variety of different ways in different cultures across the centuries. This new version is just the most modern incarnation. Everyone knows what the golden rule is; coming up with a new name for it every time someone thinks of a new iteration complicates moral discourse and makes it difficult for people to understand what is being talked about.

The golden rule, however you formulate it, has a major flaw: what if you (or the other person) desire evil or immoral things? In a vacuum, the golden rule would appear to allow for immoral acts toward, so long as the person desired it. Immanuel Kant criticized the golden rule because “on this principle the criminal might argue against the judge who punishes him.”5 The convicted criminal being sentenced could argue to the judge that the golden rule requires his release, since the judge himself would not want someone else to sentence him to prison (or in the modern formulation, which would require respect for the criminal’s preferences, the rule would also require the criminal’s release, since the criminal himself would want to be freed). The requirements of the golden rule, therefore, must be limited by other moral considerations.

Based on this above this discussion of the various forms of the golden rule and criticisms of the golden rule, this is how I would phrase a modern version of it, to take into account the other moral premises we’ve discussed:

Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Do not do unto others what they would not have done to them. Do not do unto others that which endangers human life, interferes with someone’s autonomy or accountability, or which would damage the community.

Implications of Rule #1: specific sub-rules

So what are some of the moral rules that would derive from Rule 1? I list below the rules that I think most important. An individual discussion of each rule is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think that most of them speak for themselves.

1. Love your neighbor as yourself.

2. Work to relieve the poor, the needy, the sick, and the distressed.

3. Live free from anger and hatred.

4. Do not judge others.

5. Forgive others.

6. Do not seek revenge.

7. Be patient.

8. Do not cause the death of another human being, whether by deliberate action or through inaction, except in the case of self-defense, in which case taking life is only justified if absolutely necessary to protect your own life, or the life of an innocent person.

9. Take affirmative action to prevent the death of those who are in danger or distress.

10. Do not harm others. Do not do violence to others, whether it be physical or emotional. The only exception that is permitted is doing the minimum amount of violence necessary to defend yourself, or an innocent person, from physical harm.

11. Do not commit adultery.

12. Teach your children, while they are young, to seek wisdom, do good, and to have hope.

13. Do not keep secrets. Secrets poison relationships.

14. Do not gossip.

15. Do not waste your time criticizing others.

In the next post in the series, I will discuss Rule #2, “Act for the future.”




2 Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)

4 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945, p. 386 (2002 printing).

5 Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Section 2, fn.12. Online English translations of it are here and here.

May 19 2011

Morality and ethics – part 3

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 7:33 pm

Note: This is part 3 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 4, and part 5.

In my previous post about morality, I gave a list of baseline premises I think we can use to rationally derive a system of morality. To review, here are the premises, in roughly descending order of importance:

  • Perpetuation of the human race
  • The value of human life
  • Individual autonomy and accountability
  • Importance of community
  • Respect for living things
  • Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
  • Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles

Now can we apply these premises to derive a moral system of comprehensive rules which can be mechanistically applied to give us the “correct,” unambiguous moral answer in all circumstances? No. Morality is complicated. There are people who devote their entire career to studying ethics and morality. Ever since writing was invented, people have been writing about morality and debating about ethics. The human condition is too complicated and nuanced for someone to be able to write down a set of moral rules that are always applicable at all times. For example, while most of us would agree that it is immoral to lie, most of us would also agree that it is immoral not to lie in certain circumstances. Clearly people who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II were morally justified in lying to the Nazi authorities to protect human life.

But on the other hand, it is too easy to use the incompleteness of any moral system to justify unethical behavior. We humans are good at rationalizing and justifying our behavior. We are all natural-born hypocrites. Honestly recognizing the inherent flaws of any ethical system is not a license to act unethically. The more explicit and systematic that we are in our thinking about morals and establishing moral rules, the harder it will be for the hypocrite in all of us to rationalize immoral behavior. These moral premises are a good starting point, therefore, to deriving a set of moral rules that can have the power to help us shape ourselves and how we live to be more moral.

There are three basic moral rules which derive from the above premises:

1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Promote the community’s welfare

These rules are broad principles which encompass many more specific moral rules. And those specific moral rules include both positive rules (rules about what we should be doing) and negative rules (rules about what we shouldn’t be doing). More immature systems of morality focus on the negative rules; they worry more about what we shouldn’t be doing. Negative rules are important, but they are only a starting point. “Do not kill” or “do not harm others” would be subrules that fall within Rule #1. Mature morality, though, goes beyond worrying about not causing harm to someone, but with actively taking steps to help improve that person’s life. In the next three posts in my series on morality, I’ll individually discuss each of the three moral rules.

There is a fourth class of moral rules which are of lesser importance. These are rules of cohesiveness, which are rules not based on the fundamental principles I’ve discussed so far, but are instead rules of behavior which help members of a community establish their separate identity. Examples of these sorts of rules include Mormonism’s prohibition on coffee, tea, and wine or Judaism’s dietary restrictions (such as avoiding pork). Mormons and Jews will tell you that they follow these rules because God commanded it. Whether or not you believe that is true, there is no external moral reason to follow them, other than God’s purported command. I think even Mormons and Jews will acknowledge that these rules are not universal moral rules binding on people outside their faith,1 as opposed to the above three universal rules. For example, Mormons who own food service businesses will feel no guilt preparing coffee and serving it to non-Mormons, but Mormons expect even non-Mormons to follow the Golden Rule. Divine origin or not, the practical purpose served by the Mormon and Jewish dietary rules is thus to help members of those groups distinguish themselves and set themselves apart from society at large by following behavioral restrictions binding only on group members. These rules of cohesiveness can serve an important purpose for group members, but should never be confused with the universal moral principles embodied in the three rules.



1 Indeed, you could argue that some of these rules contradict other, more universal moral principles. It is a moral principle that we should keep our bodies in good health. Mormonism’s restrictions on coffee, tea, and wine don’t serve any empirical health purpose, since the best research shows that all of these things are actually good for you. You could argue that, in general, it is more moral to consume these substances than to abstain (full disclosure, I myself am a practicing Mormon and don’t drink coffee, tea, or wine).

Apr 06 2011

Morality and ethics – part 2

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 6:45 pm

Note: This is part 2 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 3, and part 4, and part 5.

When asked about whether a given act is moral, most of us will make a conclusion based on our initial intuition, and then try to rationalize a justification for that initial intuition. In day-to-day life, this intuitive approach to ethics usually works quite well. In this series of posts, however, I’m trying to go beyond this ad hoc, gut-level approach to morality. To really understand morality, I think we need to understand why a given act is moral or immoral.

In this post about morality, I’ll start by listing a set of baseline premises we can use to determine what makes something moral. I will try to give rational justifications for each of these premises. I admit that some of my justifications are somewhat conclusory, but I don’t think that most of these will be terribly controversial. If you can think of any better justifications for these premises, or of any good ways to refute them, please share in the comments. They are listed below (in roughly descending order of importance):

Perpetuation of the human race

Ensuring that the human race as a group survives, thrives, and progresses is more important than anything else.

This principle may seem to be removed from day-to-day life. Few of us will make choices which will, by themselves, determine the fate of all of humanity. But at the same time, the aggregate of our individual choices does determine humankind’s destiny. And the welfare of humankind should take precedence over everything else. Why? There are several reasons:

1. The ability to think, reason, and understand the world is something special and unique. The universe will be a worse place without beings there to understand it, so it is important to make sure that humanity not only survives, but that we continue to advance in our understanding of the universe.

2. The biological imperative: Evolution has shaped our behaviors and desires to ensure the survival of our species. We owe our very existence to these evolutionarily-determined behaviors and desires. These innate urges, desires, and behaviors are powerful and shape much of our behavior (both consciously and unconsciously). A reasonable moral system should account for these behaviors and desires and channel them to fulfill their purpose. A successful moral system needs to encourage the perpetuation of the species – if the species is not perpetuated, then the moral system will not be perpetuated either.

3. Mortality: all of us are going to die, but the perpetuation of humanity ensures that something of ourselves will continue on.

The Value of human life

Every human being is entitled to life. There are several reasons for this:

1. Intrinsic value: each human being is unique and is capable of making different contributions to our society and to humanity’s future.

2. Biological imperative: Every living thing has an instinct to self-preservation. Only living things which survive to reproduce pass on their genes. The process of evolution has thus selected for each of us to have the desire to stay alive. Our ancestors survived to reproduce because they had the urge to stay alive. We owe our existence to this instinct, and any reasonable moral system must account for this strong biological urge and encourage its continuing vitality.

3. Autonomy: because each person is independent and autonomous, each person’s life has independent value.

Individual Autonomy and accountability

Because each person is a separate individual, each person is free to determine the course of his or her own life and seek after his or her own happiness. Even when a person’s freedom is infringed by others (by being imprisoned, for example), that person is still free to make choices within the constraints placed on him or her and is free to think whatever he or she wants.

Every person is free to choose his or her 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 person is accountable for the consequences of his or her actions.

Importance of community

No one is an island. Humans are social animals. We are each part of a larger community and society. Community is incredibly important, and moral rules should ensure that our society and community survives and thrives for the following reasons:

1. Social benefits: we have evolved to need social contact. Living in a community provides the social interactions which are essential for good mental health.

2. Protection: living in a community affords us protection from dangerous people and animals.

3. Material benefits: Almost all of the material benefits we derive from modern life (easy access to food and shelter, modern medicine, gadgets and tools to make life easier, etc.) come from the benefits of living in a community: for example, I could not build a car or a computer on my own, nor do I grow my own food (and the list could go on). Each of us is immeasurably better off because of our society/community.

Respect for living things

We should respect other living things and promote their welfare, inasmuch as doing so does not threaten the welfare of other humans. There are several reasons for this:

1. Animals are autonomous and many exhibit some level of being self-aware, so some of the justifications for humans’ autonomy and for the value of human life also apply (to a lesser degree) to animals.

2. Our survival depends on the survival of the living things around us. The Earth remains habitable for us because of the respiration of plants and the complex interactions of living organisms. Moreover, as omnivores, we depend for sustenance on eating a variety of other living things. We use also materials created from living things for a variety of other non-food uses.

3. The variety of living things on the Earth make it beautiful and pleasant.

Intentions and consequentialism

A moral system should incentivize and maximize moral behavior. When evaluating the morality of an action (both before and after the proposed action has been accomplished), both the intentions of the actor and the likely consequences of the act are relevant.

A moral system’s value comes from governing the conduct of individuals to bring about positive, moral results. The morality of an act cannot therefore be divorced from its consequences. When evaluating an the morality of an action (or inaction), the consequences of that act matter. Focusing on the consequences of an act encourages people to carefully evaluate the likely outcomes of their decisions and encourages them to maximize positive and moral outcomes as much as possible. Focusing on the consequences of an act helps to encourage better results.

Intentions are also important, though, when evaluating an act’s morality because none of us can perfectly predict the future; when evaluating the morality of a future action, the consequences which the actor expects to result from an act (or inaction), and the actor’s reasons for doing (or not doing) something are an important consideration.

While it is true that a person’s actions do not always accomplish that person’s intended result, when someone intends to accomplish something, he or she is more likely to achieve that result than when he or she does not intend the result. There will thus be more outcomes which are moral when the moral system successfully encourages people to act with good intentions. A moral system should thus encourage people to have moral intentions, and judge the morality of actions based on the actor’s intent.


It is better for more people to be happy than fewer. Taking into account the above considerations, and all other things being equal, we should act in a way that maximizes the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles.


In part three of this series, I’ll explore how applying these premises can help us derive a coherent system of morality.

Mar 08 2011

Morality and Ethics – Part 1

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 10:15 pm

Note: This is part 1 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Why Should We Act Morally?

This is Part 1 of a series of posts on morality.

In this series of posts on morality, I don’t claim to have any special wisdom or insight. My purpose here is to do the best I can to think through these important moral issues. I have spent too much time up to this point not trying to carefully think through these issues. Since this is my first attempt, I am always open to better ideas (which is true of everything I write here). In this series, I use “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably to mean the principles and rules which determine right conduct and serve as guides for proper and acceptable behavior.

In this post, I discuss different justifications for why we should act morally. The ultimate purpose of this series will be to explain my thoughts about morality and try to figure out a rational system of morality.

Selflessness vs. Selfishness

It seems that every major system of human morality values selflessness. Yet moral teachers and religious leaders often justify the necessity for each of us to act morally by explaining the personal benefits we will receive from acting morally. Such benefits range from something as simple as feeling good to financial or material blessings from God, up through salvation in heaven. But any moral system which claims that we should act morally just because it will bring benefit to ourselves s really valuing selfishness, and not selflessness.

If morality is acting to make yourself feel good (getting a warm feeling by being nice to people, for example), then that means morality is really about taking action to benefit yourself, not to benefit others. Even if the reward is a long way off (like salvation in heaven after death), acting morally just because you get something out of the deal is really all about selfishness. If the reason that we should act morally is to get into heaven, than morality seems to be nothing more than just being able to weigh the costs and benefits of our actions to maximize the personal benefit. So what happens if doing something which is traditionally considered “immoral” will bring greater benefit than not doing it?1

A Hypothetical

Here’s a completely artificial hypothetical to test some of these ideas. Let’s imagine you are informed in a way that leaves you completely certain that if you kill a certain person, you will become a billionaire. More than that, it is guaranteed that you will never go to prison for the murder, no one will think less of you for doing it (in fact they will think more highly of you), and there will be no other negative consequences for you during your life or in the afterlife. The person, however, is completely innocent – they are a good upstanding citizen, they donate to charities and volunteer at a soup kitchen; they are a good parent to their children, and have not done anything that would make you (or any other reasonable person) think they deserved to die. Would it be morally justifiable to kill that person?

I think almost all of us would answer “no” to this question, even though murdering this person would bring great reward and no negative consequences. I know my gut reaction would be to strongly say “no, such a murder would not be moral.” If our intuition about this hypothetical is right, then there must be a better justification for morality other than that morality is good because it brings personal reward. If we’re trying to come up with a rational, coherent, and complete system of moral thought, then working just from instinct and intuition is not enough.

Why do most of us think that such a murder not would be justified? Are our instincts about this hypothetical right? Are moral systems which sometimes require that you act against your self-interest superior to moral systems which promise you rewards for following their rules? Is there a way to rationally justify a moral system which requires self-sacrifice and taking action against your own self-interest (a system where people who are moral are worse off than the immoral)? Is true selflessness better than selfishness?

I will address these questions in my next post. In the mean time, I will say that the idea that our actions should be motivated by a desire to maximize personal benefit to ourselves is a very cynical view of human nature, even if the perceived benefit is only some sort of other-worldly eternal reward. That sort of philosophy is one of the most debasing approaches to “morality.”

Love for God

Some people might argue that we should obey moral rules not because of some expectation of reward, but that we should be moral as a sign of our love for and gratitude to God. There several problems with this approach:

First, it does not account for people who have different religious beliefs. In our pluralistic society, different religions teach different things about what God expects of us. Does morality, therefore, depend on the religious beliefs of each person? This seems to lead to moral relativism (an idea which many religious leaders seem to especially criticize). Should each person be held to different moral standards, based on what they believe is the best way to show their love for God? What about atheists? Should they not be bound by any moral code? All of my atheist friends are compassionate, highly moral individuals. They have become atheists only after carefully thinking about religion, morality, ethics, and cosmology. Even without their belief in God, their behavior actually seems to me to be more ethical than many religious people I know. Any rational moral system should have more universal application than just to the members of one religion or group – it should be able to equal explain and guide the moral behavior of atheists, agnostics, and theists alike.

Second, it fails to recognize the difficulties in ascertaining God’s will and what we should do to show our love for him. Jesus said that if we love him, we should keep his commandments.2 Christian conservatives would claim that all we need is to do know his commandments is to read the Bible. But how reliable is the Bible? Many of the books of the Bible were written many years after the events they purport to describe occurred. Our best understanding of how the four gospels of the New Testament were written is that people told and re-told stories about Jesus. Those stories spread over a huge region, passing from person to person and city to city. Have you ever played the game of “telephone”? Imagine playing that game over several decades, telling stories over and over again. The same thing is true of the stories of the Hebrew Bible—oral traditions which circulated for many years were later written down, and then compiled, re-edited, and recombined many times over centuries by scribes with differing agendas and affiliations. The same sorts of problems are true of the sacred texts of most religions.3

What about the idea of biblical inerrancy? Belief in biblical inerrancy requires that two things be true: 1) God is perfect and cannot lie and 2) the Bible is the word of God. But there is no external way to prove either of those ideas. You can only get to that conclusion through circular logic – it isn’t very convincing to argue that we should accept the Bible as the word of God because it says that it is the word of God (the Quran says the same thing, so if that argument really is convincing, then Christians should accept the Quran as well as the Bible). Moreover, the Bible itself never purports to be inerrant; it is not even a single book, but a compilation of many widely divergent books written by different people in different places.

Additionally, there are huge textual problems with the Bible: there are literally thousands of different versions of ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Each of them are different from each other – how do we know which one is right? For example, the story about the woman taken in adultery where Jesus says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”4 does not appear in any of the early versions of John and is almost certainly a later addition to the book of John; the Johanine Comma (1 John 5:7-8 – the only place in the Bible where the doctrine of the trinity is explicitly stated) does not appear in any texts until the Middle Ages, and was added by later copyists.5 many centuries after the Gospel of John was written; Mark is the oldest gospel in the New Testament, and it did not mention any of Jesus’s post-Crucifixion appearances – later scribes instead made up a fake ending to Mark 16 to include those stories.6 These stories still appear in many Bibles today. Any claim of biblical inerrancy runs into the problem of figuring out what the Bible really says.

A Rational Moral System

Acting morally because of your love for God is a highly commendable reason for doing good, but I don’t think that it is a workable basis for the derivation of a coherent and rational moral system. A universally-applicable system of morality is far more desirable than one justified by each person’s personal religious beliefs. If God exists, and if he is all-knowing and all-loving, and if he created us in his image (meaning that he gave us the ability to think and reason like him), then surely any system of morality derived from rational principles would closely match his own moral laws. A moral system based on careful logic and science thus has the benefit of being something that most theists should be able to look to with confidence (assuming that they believe in God’s omniscience, omnibenevolence, and our creation in his image) as representing God’s will, but also something that atheists, agnostics, and other secular people can also follow.

A rational moral system will make the desirability of obedience to its principles self-evident. If a moral system is based on reality (as best as we can understand it), logic, and reason, then it should convince any objective, unbiased rational person who learns the principles of the moral system that they should live according to that moral system’s principles.

In my next post, I will discuss what morality is and start trying to reason through a system of rational morality.



1 The flip side of this is fear. Acting morally for selfish reasons often implies that you are acting morally out of fear of the consequences of not acting morally. I think there are similarly big problems with a system of morality which is based on getting people to be good because they are afraid. This smacks of totalitarianism to me.

2 John 14:15

3 Mormons will usually casually brush these types of concerns aside by saying that since their church is guided by a prophet who receives revelation from God, Mormons don’t have to worry about these difficulties with ascertaining God’s will. I disagree. Joseph Smith himself acknowledged that “a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such.” (History of the Church, 5:265). Joseph Smith made utterances, ostensibly as prophet, that later turned out to be wrong. One specific example: Joseph Smith received a revelation sending Hiram Page and others to Kingston, Canada to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada. The only problem was that Kingston was the wrong city – there were no government offices in that city for selling copyrights. The people sent on this mission came back unsuccessful. Joseph’s “revelation” was wrong. When the revelation quoting this was being prepared for publication, the editor actually crossed out, after the fact, the part where it mentioned Kingston, since it was the wrong city. David Whitmer wrote that Joseph’s explanation for the error was “[s]ome revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil. So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or the heart of man.” (Whitmer was writing many decades after the events in question, though, so we can’t be sure that these are Joseph Smith’s exact words).

There are more examples where prophecies and teachings from church leaders were wrong (like when Joseph Smith and others went to Salem, Massachusetts expecting to find treasure buried in the basement of a house, or the failure of Zion’s Camp; Brigham young taught, as revelation, that Adam was God – modern church leaders say that this was false doctrine). So, even if you take LDS doctrine as completely true, how are we to determine that a prophet is “acting as such” or not?

I think most Mormons would argue that the ultimate standard for discerning the truth of a church leader’s teachings is to pray to know if the teaching comes from God. But I know Mormons who have prayed and received contradictory answers from each other about controversial areas of Mormon doctrine like polygamy and giving the priesthood to African Americans. What do we do now? People on both sides will claim that their answer was right and the other side must not have been praying with enough faith and got a wrong answer. A standard allowing someone to pray to God for confirmation that the prophet’s teachings come from God (because history has shown that sometimes church prophets have been wrong, or taught things which contradict other church prophets, so the divine origin of their words may be in doubt) has problems as big (or bigger) than the the problems with trying to claim biblical inerrancy.

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