Abortion: Conflict and Compromise, by Kate Greasley

View of a Foetus in the Womb, c. 1510 – 1512, drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

A few years ago, when I told a colleague that I was working primarily on abortion rights, he looked at me quizzically and replied, “But I thought they had sorted all of that out in the seventies”. Needless to say, he was a scientist. Still, while the idea that the ethical questions implicated in abortion were somehow put to bed in the last century is humorous, I knew what he meant. The end of the ‘sixties and beginning of the ‘seventies marked watershed developments for reproductive freedom in both Britain and the U.S. – developments which have (with some non-negligible push and pull at the boundaries) continued to set the basic terms of abortion regulation ever since.

In Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act widely legalised termination of pregnancy for the first time and codified the grounds upon which abortions could be legally carried out. Shortly after, the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade famously declared that there was a constitutionally protected right to abortion in the United States, albeit with some qualifications. Since those events, there have been no revolutionary changes to the system of abortion regulation on either side of the Atlantic, although there have been many meaningful ones.

Of course, legal resolution by no means signalled the end of moral disagreement about abortion. A significant minority voice has continued to vehemently oppose abortion practice. What was settled back then secured far more of a grudging détente than a happy compromise. (Like so much legislation, the Abortion Act was a product of political expediencies; I once heard one of its drafters describe the pandemonium of last-minute back-room deals in the Houses of Parliament, and the hotchpotch of provisions that emerged from all of the bargaining necessary to get it through.) As such, the political resolutions, whilst enduring, have always been intensely fragile, especially in the US where Christian conservatism and the anti-abortion lobby overlap so much. Of late, that fragility has become increasingly apparent. Recent developments in the United States and elsewhere have revealed just how misplaced any complacency about reproductive rights truly is.

It is, in truth, hardly surprising that abortion compromise is so precarious when one considers the nature of dissent to abortion practice. If one side of that debate really believes—as many claim to—that abortion is murder, akin to infanticide, then it is hard to see how they can ever truly accept legal abortion merely on the strength of its democratic pedigree. Against such a belief, rehearsing the familiar pro-choice mantras about women’s rights and bodily autonomy is a bit like shooting arrows at a Chinook helicopter. For what strength does control over one’s body and reproductive destiny really have when measured against the intentional inflicting of death on another?

Of course, if ideological opponents of abortion rights really believe that abortion amounts to murder, it may be hard to make sense of some of the traditional exceptions they themselves have defended, in circumstances, for example, of rape or incest, or where the pregnancy endangers the very life of the pregnant woman. If killing the fetus is no less than homicide, then how can it be justified even in these dire conditions? We certainly do not permit the out and out killing of born human beings for comparable reasons. This may be an indication that opponents of abortion who make such concessions do not truly, deeply, believe the claim that killing an embryo or fetus is like killing a child. Alternatively, it may just suggest that such concessions are rarely ever authentic, but adopted merely as a matter of political strategizing, to avoid losing moderate support in the wider conflict. If that were true, it would be unsurprising to see those traditional concessions gradually withdrawn as opponents of abortion become emboldened by increasing success.

Either way, defenders of abortion rights have a constant decision to make about how to respond to attacks on reproductive freedom and the denunciation of abortion as a moral horror. The approach most traditionally favoured, at least in public spheres, is to simply ignore all talk about abortion being murder and try to refocus attention on women’s stakes in abortion freedoms. As the Mad Men character Don Draper always quipped, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. This strategy can have its uses, but also its drawbacks. Most importantly, whilst reminding everyone of what women stand to lose through abortion prohibition is likely to strengthen the resolve of those sympathetic to abortion rights, it does nothing to address the consternation of those that are genuinely conflicted about the issue – who are not sure that abortion isn’t murder. As an effort to persuade avowed opponents of abortion rights to think again, it is even more pointless. For those who decry abortion as unjustified homicide do not usually need to be convinced that women can be hugely benefited by it, and harmed by its outlawing. That is not where their main ground of opposition ever lay.

It is for this reason that I think any effective defense of abortion rights must meet that opposition on its own terms, and confront the claims that abortion is homicide and the fetus the moral equivalent of a child. The task can seem daunting; how does one even begin to argue about whether or not unborn human lives have exactly the same right to life as mature human beings? But there are many reflections one can bring to bear on that question, and especially on the question whether, when examining our own or others’ beliefs, we are really committed to the claim that embryos are equal in moral value to human children. For one thing, as some philosophers have pointed out, if we really believed that claim, we may have to ask why infinitely more resources are not devoted to the prevention of natural miscarriage, which, it would follow, is the single biggest cause of child mortality – far greater than famine, disease, or war. At any rate, if defenders of reproductive freedoms do not concern themselves with the fundamental questions of abortion ethics, they are in danger of being left with little effective argument if and when the fragile settlements that have held for some decades threaten true collapse.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

New Podcast Episode: A ‘Light’ That Obscures: The Misrepresentation of Secular Thought in Pope Francis’s First Encyclical

foot-washing-255x212Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Like many, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised and impressed by many of the sayings and doings of the new Pope. He emphasizes helping the needy and is critical of over-judgmentalism and of hyper-materialism (he practices what he preaches by driving a cheap car and living in a simple apartment). He also goes out of his way to spend time with ordinary people, be it in a correctional facility, in processions, or on the phone. Often dubbed ‘The People’s Pope’, he’s making the most of his promotion, on a mission to do real good in the world. Catholic or not, most people are thrilled that such an influential person is providing such an excellent example of how to live a life of service and of mercy.

But I wasn’t quite as pleased the author of an article in the Huffington Post about Pope Francis’ first encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) co-authored with the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. The author says that the encyclical ‘…reflects Francis’ subtle outreach to nonbelievers’. While I consider myself an atheist, I’m a cultural Catholic, brought up with that religion. Since so many of my loved ones are observant Catholics and the Catholic church is so influential in the world, I’m very interested in what goes on in it. The first encyclical of a new Pope is a big deal, and this encyclical does a good job of promoting Catholic teaching with inspirational language and metaphors. However, the authors also resort to bad arguments to make their point… Read the written essay here:

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Sexual Purity: A Dirty Idea

So have you ever heard of a purity ball?

It’s sort of like a prom, but with a twist: daughters are accompanied by their fathers, instead of their boyfriends. There, they enjoy music, eat, drink, and dance… and then these young girls pledge to remain sexually abstinent, or ‘pure’, until their wedding day.

Other than sounding weirdly out-of-date, like bride-prices and trousseaus, anything else bother you about this concept?

What does this concept of ‘purity’ mean?

The idea seems to be that if you’ve never had sex with someone, you’re more virtuous, more worthy, more desirable, more ….clean.

But what does this imply? That if you do have sex with someone, you’ve become, somehow, ‘impure’? That it makes you dirty, less desirable, less worthy, less virtuous, less worthy of respect, maybe even less valuable as a person?
This idea, that engaging in one of the most social, most cooperative, most intimately friendly actions that human beings enjoy with one another can ever make you ‘impure’, has been a bee in my bonnet ever since I began to question what the idea of sexual purity, like the Cult of the Virgin, really stands for. For ages, human belief systems have equated virginity, especially of women, with sacredness. The stories of the birth of Horus, of the Buddha, of many of the Greek gods, of Jesus, all illustrate this obsession many of the world’s cultures, and especially religions, have had with virginity. (The virgin birth of the Buddha seems to be a later addition: early Buddhist texts honor the Buddha’s father, as his natural father, as well.) These gods and heroes are made out to be more special, better than mere ordinary human beings, at least partly because their mothers didn’t create them with the help of another human being. Gods and saints have been more revered, and brides’ dowries have been higher, so long as they or their mothers are virgins.
So what does this say about our attitude towards human beings?
‘How about respect?’ one might ask. ‘How about the idea that we should practice self-control, that we should respect each other’s bodies, and not ‘use’ each other for our own selfish pleasure?’ I answer: this is both an important issue, and an entirely separate one. Sexuality, for human beings, is generally a deeply emotional thing, unlike most other animals (so far as we know). For us, it’s intertwined with the need for closeness, for intimacy, for feeling more alive, for just plain feeling good. In short, it’s one of the most richly sociable activities we engage in. And we can easily hurt each other through sex, when we lie to our partners, when we make promises we don’t keep, when we profess love to get what we want only to show indifference afterwards, and worst of all, when we inflict pain and violate their right to self-determination through rape. We expect each other to practice sexual self-control, and we are right to condemn ‘using’ anyone as a mere tool for our exclusive pleasure.

But sex outside of marriage is more often friendly, affectionate, respectful, mutually exciting, and consensual than not. Most of the time, it’s a good and valuable thing, not only for its own sake, but for what it can teach us about being good partners not only for the evening, but for life. And even when it’s not, when we use our sexuality selfishly, or to harm or deceive others, our bad behavior has no impact at all on their integrity or worth. We may be said to make ourselves ‘impure’ through our disrespect, dishonesty, cruelty, or violence; we may metaphorically be said to sully our own moral characters by wronging anotherYet we don’t have purity balls in which we pledge not to sully ourselves by lying, stealing, cheating, or murdering. There’s no Cult of the Honest Woman, no god or prophet honored by virtue of their mother’s never haven stolen anything. And we don’t ever imply that we can be made impure if others lie to, steal from, or cause harm to us. It’s sex that’s been so widely singled out and associated with the concept of transmissible purity and impurity in so many of the world’s ideologies, cultures, and religions, for reasons that are no longer useful, and no longer morally defensible.

When I look at the belief systems that sacralize virginity, it seems the common denominator is the inheritance of values from tribal, patriarchal cultures, in which life was wrested out of the land with great difficulty, where infant mortality was high and competition for territory was fierce. Keeping tight control over women helped ensure one’s bloodline was unmixed with that of competitors, and worthy of protection by the head of the household and the tribe. The mythology of purity and impurity, of ritual, superstition, and prohibition surrounding human sexuality is perceived as such effective method of social control that they persist in many cultures and belief systems even to this day (though sexual assault statistics over the decades reveal that liberal, secular societies generally have lower rates of sexual assaults than more sexually repressive ones). Over the years, the justifications have changed, but attitudes remain the same.

Yet most of the world’s population has long since left that harsh ancestral world behind, and we are in an age in which personal liberty and individual human worth and dignity are valued like never before. Murder, theft, assault, and sexual coercion and violence are vilified and illegal, and most societies now go out of their way to ensure individuals can express their personalities and pursue their own goals as much as possible, in safety and security. We also care to understand how and why our social institutions and practices can enrich and beautify human life, and to celebrate them, from conversation, humor, and storytelling, to music and fine arts, to dining with friends, family, and allies, to sex itself, as countless scholarly volumes, scientific studies, and works of art and literature attest.

I argue that this view of human nature, in which human beings are understood as both individually valuable and thoroughgoingly social, doesn’t have room for this concept of sexual purity and impurity. In fact, to say sex with another human being can ever make you impure is just about the most personally insulting and antisocial idea one can express: the claim that the touch of another human being can make you dirty is an attack on human dignity itself.

It undermines the concept of personal responsibility, in which we are morally accountable for what we do and not for what a person does to us. It treats sex as a thing that is corrupt and evil outside of a narrow context, in a way totally divorced from what we’ve discovered about the history, evolutionary biology, and psychology of human sexuality. It reveals a deep scorn for human nature, in which sexuality is as basic a component as rationality, language, the need to survive, to feel pleasure, to matter, and to find love and companionship. And it implies that human beings are innately corrupt, dirty, wicked things, redeemed only through distancing themselves from their own humanity.

Just as I reject all of these, so I reject the idea of sexual purity. And I think you should, too, if you believe that human beings are valuable and worthy of respect for their own sake.

* Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

* Also published at The Dance of Reason, Sac State’s philosophy blog

Welcome to the Podcast Edition of Ordinary Philosophy!

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the
podcast version of Ordinary Philosophy!

You can listen to the podcast here, on Google Play, or subscribe in iTunes.

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of podcasts, mostly because my life is very busy. One day in the future, I hope to have a lot more time to do each task one at a time, to really be present, as they say, as I wash the dishes, straighten the house, do the laundry, and perform all those other tasks that take up time, but not much thought.

But at this time in my life, between my day jobs, my creative projects, and spending time with friends and family (which I don’t do enough of these days, sadly), I don’t have enough time to keep up the world of ideas as nearly much as I’d like to by sitting down and reading. Instead, I keep myself informed and increase my education by listening to lots of podcasts: discussions with my favorite authors and thinkers, audio renditions of books and essays, debates, recordings of classes on my favorite subjects, and so on. I listen to these podcasts while doing those aforementioned chores, and let me tell you: as one who is not fond at all of household chores like doing the dishes and washing the floor, the podcast is a marvelous invention: they transform boring chore time into great opportunities for learning and exploration. I’m also an avid hiker, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to immerse myself in some fascinating ideas or discussion as I immerse myself in the beauties of nature.

To begin with, this podcast will simply consist of audio recordings of my Ordinary Philosophy pieces. Over time, I may add commentary and who knows, perhaps interviews and discussions with guests. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, here’s Ordinary Philosophy in audio form: I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable!

… And here’s episode 2: Is the Market Really the Most Democratic Way to Determine Wages?
Originally published as an essay Feb 6th, 2014

Money and Human Worth

‘It’s just business.’

This is one of my least favorite phrases of all time. 
It seems to be used, generally, to explain away unpleasant, unkind, or unethical behavior, or to avoid addressing or dealing with the undesirable side effects of a difficult but necessary decision, in a situation where money is involved.

Yet just because the phrase ‘it’s just business’ might be used only in difficult or unpleasant situations, that doesn’t make it wrong, does it? Couldn’t it be a shorthand way of pointing out that it’s impossible to make everyone happy in every business transaction, since it involves two or more opposing sets of interests? In fact, the phrase could be revealing humane concern, a regret that there are often undesirable side effects to the other in conducting business.

Yes, I allow; the utterer could be expressing these sentiments, choosing this phrase because it’s a ready-made, widely understood part of our lexicon.

But we don’t hear it being used this way much, do we? It seems this phrase is almost always used to justify rudeness, treating human beings as if they’re merely a means to an end or taking advantage of an opportunity to exploit others; to explain away bribery, theft, extortion, bullying, abuse… It’s not generally used in cases of honest dealing, of courtesy and respect for other person(s) involved in a transaction, of doing one’s best to make sure an employee is treated or ‘let go’ in as just and fair a manner as possible. In such situations, no such disclaimer is necessary.

So why am I bringing this up? What’s caused me to think about why and how people use this phrase, and for it to rankle with me enough to write this essay?

Full disclosure: I have a working gal’s chip on my shoulder.

I’ve worked for a living my entire life, since I was about seventeen. Most of those years I worked in customer service. I’ve prepared and served food and drink, I’ve sold goods and services, I’ve made art and things to wear, I’ve lifted and carried loads, I’ve decorated and cleaned, I’ve answered phone calls, I’ve scheduled appointments and events… The list goes on. I consider it all honest work, and I think… no, I know, I’ve helped make life better for many, many people along the way.

All this is true, in fact, of most of the people in the world. Behind every counter and cash register, on the receiving end of every phone call and email, in every kitchen and factory and field and warehouse and office and hospital, other people’s work make our lives better. We depend on them for providing the necessities and the luxuries of life. Their hard work makes our lives enjoyable and even possible. Given this fact, it never fails to disappoint me, and sometimes still surprises me, how often people feel entitled to treat working people with condescension, disdain, and even abuse, from the first moment of interaction.

Now most people I’ve worked for and done business with have been decent, many more have been polite, friendly and supportive, and some have been the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, some have become dear friends. I consider myself lucky that in so many ways, throughout the course of my working life, I’ve enjoyed a great deal of moral and financial support, others’ concern for my well-being, a richness of interesting experiences, of opportunities to improve my situation, of the goodness of other people, and of the chance to expand my talents, exercise my creativity and problem solving skills, and best of all, to never stop learning.

But I also couldn’t possibly begin to make a full account of the number of times I’ve felt dismissed, condescended to, treated like a machine or a servant, and attacked for all manner of disappointments and inconveniences (real or perceived) whether I was responsible for them or not, simply by virtue of being on the other side of that counter, that receipt book, that telephone, that paycheck. I am also keenly aware how instrumental I was, or at least tried to be, in making that person’s life better at that moment. And this, again, is true of every working person in the world. Without us working people, no one could eat food, drink water, keep themselves and their homes and cities clean, travel, heal their ills, enjoy any luxuries, and so on, in comfort and security. And of course, the category ‘us working people’ include the vast majority of humanity. Most of us work for a living, and each job we do involves at least some kind of business interaction. It’s work that provides the (real) goods and services for sale in any business transaction. And almost all of us who live in this world have had many occasions to bemoan ill treatment in our capacities as workers and engagers in business.

This is where we arrive at the connection between the phrase ‘it’s just business’ and why it bothers me so much. I detest it because it expresses an attempt to dehumanize the interaction and, by extension, the person one does business with. It implies that one can remove the ‘human element’, the consideration of the other as a being with moral worth to whom we have certain obligations, from the realm of business. And if it’s not really a human interaction, therefore, one does not have to act with kindness, fairness, or respect.

I argue that this the attempt to dehumanize business is impossible: business is entirely about people. All business transactions are a type of human interaction. It’s true that when we make a bargain, when we exchange money for something we want, certain elements are added to the interaction. There are problems of fairness to be resolved, there’s customer loyalty to be won, the need for expediency may be pressing, and so forth. But all types of human interaction contain unique elements: all involve a particular combination of expectations, obligations, etiquette, and other considerations. The fact that it’s a business transaction, and not another kind, does not subtract from the basic fact that all parties are human beings to whom we owe a basic level of respect and courtesy.

Business, in this sense, is always personal.

Most of us, most of the time, recognize this. Most business, day to day, is conducted in a reasonably courteous and decent way. We greet the other person, we say thank you (if not always ‘please’), we ‘shake hands on it’. We don’t usually lie, steal, or bully to get what we want. We treat our colleagues and employees with decency at least when we come into direct contact with them, we praise their work and give them raises and bonuses if we can, we usually feel regret, at least on some level, if we feel we need to fire them, and we hope they do well in the future. When we consider the phrase ‘it’s just business’, we realize that it holds little meaning when considered in light of how we usually behave. Understood as ‘it’s just a human interaction that involves money,’ we realize it’s a rather meaningless statement.

So it appears clear that we resort to this phrase when doing the right thing by the person we’re doing business with becomes difficult or inexpedient to getting what we want. And I fear it’s became far too widely, and far too unquestioningly, accepted when used this way. Why have we come to acquiesce to the idea that when money enters an interaction, that its appropriate to overlook or cast aside our concern for the cost in human dignity, in respect, well-being, rights, justice, and simple decency? I fear that in our enthusiasm for the benefits of the marketplace, we too easily become complacent to what can be lost.

What we can lose is the respect we should have, as a central feature of our character, for the moral worth of others, and that if we let that slip, we undermine ourselves as social creatures, and in turn, everyone’s prospects for well-being. If our dignity, our moral worth, is up for sale, then the marketplace, ideally a highly cooperative, mutually beneficial institution, devolves into an arms ace where the most ruthless thrive in the short term, while trust erodes and the whole system of collapses in the long run. We can recognize this by comparing and contrasting various societies and their market systems, contemporary and historical. Oligarchies, tyrannies, rigidly enforced class systems and aristocracies, ideologically-based planned economies, are all extreme examples of how the disregard of individual human worth and dignity cause a marketplace to lose its ability to benefit all, and ultimately to self-destruct.

So, from a matter as minor as rudeness to a salesperson, to as serious as slavery, the same principle applies. The exchange of money for something we want or need makes no difference, morally, to the basic way we should treat anyone. That’s because, while goods or services are marketable, a person’s moral worth can never be, and should never be, up for sale.

It’s true that we’re sometimes justified in expressing anger and disappointment when doing business. Sometimes others fail, a little or a lot, in performing their part of the bargain or duties of their job, and we feel quite unfriendly when that’s the case. Sometimes others fail to provide good customer service, and are rude and unhelpful from the start. Sometimes others provide ‘services’ and products that are faulty, useless, or even harmful. In these circumstances it’s just to criticize their work, or to withhold or take back payment if the terms of the exchange aren’t fulfilled, or to let them know that you won’t be patronizing their business again. It’s appropriate, in such cases, and to voice one’s displeasure.

But this just reaction to the failure of the other to fulfill their part of the bargain is not what I’m criticizing here. It’s the unspoken attitude, unfortunately too widespread in my observation, that the person with the money in the exchange is automatically entitled to be abrupt and impersonal, to always demand, command, act impatient, and even abuse those they’re paying, in a manner inconsistent with respect for human dignity. It’s implied in the adage ‘the customer is always right.’ Are you the recipient of a payment, for goods or services, or as an employee on the clock? If so, many think, you are immediately transformed into a legitimate target for frustration, impatience, desire, greed, and sense of entitlement, whether or not you were responsible for the disappointment. In this sense, it feels as if you are no longer a person to them. Because if they consider you a person, wouldn’t they feel that they should be polite, respectful, or at a minimum, not rude or hateful to you, just as they would any other person?

Again, to argue that business is not personal, that it removes much or even all of the human element, is to make a very serious claim, with dire repercussions. It would imply that the moral worth of a human being is calculable in dollars and cents, and that it can be bought and sold. I argue that the number value of money and the degree of significance of a human life can never be aligned, and that you can’t ‘pay away’ your moral obligations towards any human being. When you pay for a good or a service, that, and only that, is what you pay for. Your payment does not apply in any way to your moral obligation to respect others.

One might object: ‘I didn’t choose to enter into any kind of relationship with the person I’m doing business with, they just happened to be the one I had to interact with to get something I need or want. Shouldn’t relationships be a matter of choice? Why, then, can’t a business interaction be impersonal, especially if members of a society agree that it’s impersonal?’

To begin with, all human interactions ultimately belong in the category of unchosen relationships. We stumble upon interactions with people all the time, and it’s a fact of life that all relationships occur because of chance circumstances, at least at first. We don’t choose for ourselves who we pass by on the street, who the open seat on the subway is next to, who our classmates, colleagues, or the new neighbors will be, who the people we already know will introduce us to, or who our parents, siblings, and relatives are. They become part of our world via circumstances out of our control. Since all human interactions belong in the same category. I argue, the same basic obligation to be just, polite, and respectful applies equally in all human interactions.

Secondly: one can no more give away or sell one’s own moral worth than they can choose to negate or buy another’s. That’s because human worth, mutual obligations of respect and duty and mutual dependence, are not merely a part of some unspoken contract. They are a feature of human nature by virtue of the fact that we are social and rational, and therefore, moral beings. ‘X cannot buy or sell away the moral with of Y‘ is equally true, if we are indeed rational, social beings, whether the variables X and Y are replaced in that statement by ‘you’ or ‘I’. (1)

It’s a fundamental part of the human condition that we are all bound together in a mutual web of obligation and dependency. Without one another, we would not get very far in life, and all we achieve, all we do, are the result of the combination of our own efforts with the contributions of others. One needs the ingenuity and knowledge of physics of the inventor and the architect when one needs a car, a bridge, a home, and owes a debt of gratitude for the resulting vast improvement in the ease and comfort of life. The inventor and the architect, in turn, needs the labor of the miner, the smelter, and the carpenter, and owes not only money, but respect and gratitude for supplying the raw material, without which their designs could not be realized, and for being among their clients, without which their wealth could not be earned and their work would not be needed. One needs the knowledge and skill and of the physician when health fails, and owes to her gratitude, admiration, and respect for the services she provides, and the hard work and intelligence it required to attain her abilities to heal. The physician needs the fruit of the work of the laborer in the field to sustain her life, and owes the laborer gratitude, admiration, and respect for the difficulty of the work performed and the fact that her life is sustained through his labor. The exchange of money is simply the means by which the exchange is organized; the basic fact that we all depend on each other, and have moral obligations to each other, is not altered by its usage.

(1) Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, Viking Penguin, New York. pp 647-648

On Morality: Objective or Subjective?

The Good Samaritan by Jean de Jullienne, 1766, after, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsIs morality objective, or subjective?

If it’s objective, it seems that it would need to be something like mathematics or the laws of physics, existing as part of the universe on its own account. But then, how could it exist independently of conscious, social beings, without whom it need not, and arguably could not, exist? Is ‘objective morality’, in that sense, even a coherent concept?

If it’s subjective, how can we make moral judgments about, and demand moral accountability from, people of times, backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures different than our own? If it’s really subjective and we can’t make those kinds of moral judgments or hold people morally accountable, then what’s the point of morality at all? Is ‘subjective morality’ a coherent concept either?

Take the classic example of slavery, which today is considered among the greatest moral evils, but until relatively recently in human history was common practice: could we say it was morally wrong for people in ancient times, or even two hundred years ago, to own slaves, when most of the predominantly held beliefs systems and most cultures supported it, or at least allowed that it was acceptable, if not ideal? Does it make sense for us to judge slave owners and traders of the past as guilty of wrongdoing?

From the objective view, we would say yes, slavery was always wrong, and most people just didn’t know it. We as a species had to discover that it was wrong, just as we had to discover over time, through reason and empirical evidence, how the movements of the sun, other stars, and the planets work.

From the subjective view, we would say no. We can only judge people according to mores of the time. But this is not so useful, either, because one can legitimately point out that the mere passage of time, all on its own, does not make something right become wrong, or vice versa. (This is actually a quite common unspoken assumption in the excuse ‘well, those were the olden days’ when people want to excuse slavery in ancient ‘enlightened, democratic’ Greece, or in certain pro-slavery Bible verses.) In any case, some people, even back then, thought slavery was wrong. How did they come to believe that, then? Was the minority view’s objections to slavery actually immoral, since they were contrary to the mores their own society, and of most groups, and of most ideologies?

Morality can be viewed as subjective in this sense: morality is secondary to, and contingent upon, the existence of conscious, social, intelligent beings. It really is incoherent to speak of morality independently of moral beings, that is, people capable of consciousness, of making and understanding their own decisions, of being part of a social group, because that’s what morality is: that which governs their interactions, and makes them right or wrong. Morality can be also viewed as subjective in the sense that moral beliefs and practices evolved as human beings (and arguably, in some applications of the term ‘morality’, other intelligent, social animals) evolved.

Morality can be viewed as objective in this sense: given that there are conscious, social beings whose welfare is largely dependent on the actions of others, and who have individual interests distinct from those of the group, there is nearly always one best way to act, or at least very few, given all the variables. For example, people thought that slavery was the best way to make sure that a society was happy, harmonious, and wealthy. But they had not yet worked out the theoretical framework, let alone have the empirical evidence, that in fact societies who trade freely, have good welfare systems, and whose citizens enjoy a high degree of individual liberty, are in fact those that end up increasing the welfare of everyone the most, for the society as well as for each individual. So slavery was always wrong, given that we are conscious, social, intelligent beings, because as a practice it harmed human beings in all of these aspects of human nature. Slavery is destructive to both the society and the individual, but many people did not have a reasonable opportunity to discover that fact, other than through qualms aroused by sympathetic observation of so much suffering.

In sum: it appears that in many arguments over morality, where people accuse each other of being ‘dogmatic’, or of ‘moral relativism’, or various other accusations people (I think) carelessly throw at each other, is due to a basic misunderstanding. To have an ‘objective’ view does not necessarily entail one must have a fixed, eternal, essentialist view of morality which does not allow for moral evolution or progress. Likewise, to have a ‘subjective’ view of morality does not entail thinking that ‘anything goes’, or that morality is entirely relative to culture, religion, or belief system. Here, as is the case with so many important issues, simplistic, black-and-white explanations do not lead to understanding, nor to useful solutions to life’s most pressing problems.

* Also published at The Dance of Reason, Sac State’s philosophy blog

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Money and Deservingness

A little while ago, I took part in a discussion about how medical care is paid for. It took a negative turn, as you would expect, since American health care is the world’s most expensive and the medical insurance field is highly dysfunctional. But the complaints were aimed especially at patients, since a couple of people I was talking to were jaded by observing apparent Medi-Cal fraud too many times over the years

I’ve been working in a medical office for nearly a year now, my first job in the medical field, and for the first time am getting a close look at what goes on behind the scenes at a doctor’s office: how many things can go wrong with skin (it’s a dermatologist’s office), how much patients are cheered and made to feel better by the simple act of talking with someone who can perhaps heal them, the complexities of billing and navigating the disparate requirements of insurance companies, the difficulties of receiving adequate medical care when one is disabled or poor, and so on.

The limits on what one can earn while receiving Medi-Cal, a free (to the patient, of course) state-run health care, are quite low, set at only 138% of the federal poverty level. For a state like California, with its relatively high cost of living, those limits are very much a low-ball estimate of what one can actually live on in an average California city. The qualifying limit on the yearly wage for a household of two, for example, is roughly the same as an average year’s rent alone.

Anyway, in the aforementioned conversation, anecdotes were passed around of people who present with Medi-Cal insurance, yet own expensive smartphones (data plans are not cheap, either!), nice clothes, talk about their vacations and nice cars, have tattoos and elaborate salon hairdos, and so on. This, of course, raised the question: how could they afford these things if they’re actually poor enough to qualify for Medi-Cal? Putting aside obvious objections, that they may have purchased those things before losing their jobs or becoming disabled, or that their family and friends supply the ‘luxuries’ as gifts, etc, the implication was that applying for taxpayer-funded health care should be an option of last resort, only after the smartphone is returned and the data contract expired, the nice clothes worn out, the valuable car sold.

One person proposed this solution: those too poor to afford health care insurance and other necessities of life should be given a one-time check. If they choose fritter it away and don’t spend it wisely, let them suffer the consequences. People who are responsible enough to have the money to pay for health care when they need it, should be the ones who get it; the rest are on their own.

I understand the frustration of those fellow conversationalists. We all know people who chronically don’t (can’t?) ‘keep it together’: they don’t (can’t?) get and keep decent jobs; they squander their money on junk food and useless luxuries and cheap trendy things that don’t last more than a season; they date or marry or make babies with ‘losers’ who drain their finances and don’t contribute; they don’t have a savings account for emergencies, and so on. Those habits are maddening, and don’t endear the possessor to those around them. Many of those habits drive their family and friends crazy, and arouse much resentment in others who end up paying the costs.

But I never hear the opposite argument: some people who have the money to pay shouldn’t get the healthcare resources. We know that some people who have money don’t contribute anything of value to society, and even do a lot of harm. There are some who make their money polluting or from sweatshop labor; there are some who are the lazy, spoiled, entitled children of wealthy parents; there are some who defraud their customers or knowingly sell toxic drugs to addicts; and so on. Why should they get to use up valuable, finite healthcare resources, then, if they, too, have lousy habits and are a drain or a bane to society?

So why the discrepancy? Does having money make one, generally, more deserving somehow? I think the discrepancy in our attitudes toward who should get health care, and who should not, reveal what most of us in the United States implicitly, unquestioningly accept, as a core value of American culture. It’s not so much that might makes right. Cash does. If you have the money to pay for something, you not only should get it, you deserve to get it. Period.

It’s not hard to see why we assume that this is so. We are a capitalist society, founded on the values of our country’s Calivinist founders. Money is the reward for our labor, and a sure sign, described as such in earliest Biblical times, of God’s approval. To accept money-as-deservingness as a core value is to encourage hard work, thrift, and innovation. Money is the surest way that a capitalist society automatically rewards its most productive, contributive members; obviously, those who work hard deserve the most money.

And very often, this is the case: doctors and other healthcare professionals, leaders of industry, civil-rights and defense lawyers as well as prosecutors, scientists, judges, professors and leading public intellectuals, and so on, do vastly important work, and they are, justly, well rewarded.

But wait a minute. How about those examples we just considered, of people who have money that don’t work hard or don’t contribute? There are myriad exceptions to the rule that the most deserving get the most money. A money-centric society also encourages theft, cheating, lying, fraud, ‘let-the-buyer-beware’ selling tactics… the list goes on and on.

And how about all those people we know whose work is among the hardest and most contributive, but who don’t make much money? In our country as in much of the world, for example, we are awash in a wealth of ready accessible, super cheap, delicious, quality food, such as the world has never seen before. That’s largely because masses of people work for subsistence wages, often in harsh conditions, for most of their waking hours, for years if not all of their life. In fact, the health and wealth of our society absolutely depend on these people’s labor, since without it, we are all impoverished, and would have little time and energy to expend in innovation, the arts, all the best things society a society produces, without a steady, high quality food supply.

But of course, the wages of field workers are not mostly determined by deservingness in accordance with the importance or value of the work done or the contribution made, and neither are the wages of most people. Wages are determined by supply and demand, or by how easy it is to replace one worker with another. Laboring in a field requires stamina and the will to work, but not education or highly skilled work experience. There are a seemingly endless supply of people who are willing to work in the fields for low wages in order to escape even worse living conditions or starvation, or increase the chances of success in their children’s future. The same conditions determine wages for myriad other areas of work, such as factories, restaurants, in-home and facility care for children and the elderly, and so on. And of course, there are those who did valuable work all their lives, until advances in technology rendered a lifetime of experience and skill useless. The stenographer, the postal worker, the journalist, the machinist, the autoworker, are seeing their jobs replaced by robots, computers, pundits, and overseas low-paid workers, and they are left middle-aged, suddenly unemployable, with large bills and children still demanding they make decent salaries, to start all over again in a job market that doesn’t need them anymore, with depressed wages for the entry-level work they must now accept when and if they can get it.

In contrast, there are those whose work is in demand because the product of their work is desirable, such as luxury goods, but the people who produce them are in short supply. Designers and developers of video games and movies, including violent and misogynistic ones, can make a great deal of money. Same goes for high-end fashion designers, CEOs of pharmaceutical companies, speculative bankers, plastic surgeons, lobbyists, and so on. The product of these people’s work range from the most beneficial, beautiful, and life-enhancing, to the most useless, harmful, and ugly; either way, the work they do can be highly lucrative, since their work is in high demand.

As we can see, the value of money-as-deservingness may originate from some of our best instincts and desires, such as justice in compensation, the liberty to pursue our own goals, and the drive to better the lives of ourselves and our children. But in the real world, things don’t play out that way, not by a long shot. The cynic, the cheat, the liar, the predator, is all too often more adept at making money than the honest, hard worker. The possession of money is not a reliable reflection of character, nor of the actual value of one’s contribution to society.

So as we’ve just seen, money-as-deservingness is deeply problematic at best, and nearly useless at worst. Money is a tool, nothing more, and the fickleness and vaguaries of the market, not worthiness of the work done, mostly determines who get the most.

So to return to the example we opened with: what conclusions should we have reached in our conversation about health care and who should have access to it?

It’s hard to say, exactly. It seems that collective action problems (the tragedy of the commons, for example) are part-and-parcel of every real-world society, and capitalism is one way around them, as it’s an (ideally) impartial, and therefore fair, way of allocating resources. This may solve many efficiency problems, but to my mind, it doesn’t solve a far too many other, even more important problems, including those that arise from our concern with justice, human flourishing, dignity, the value we place on individual human lives, and so on.

And we haven’t even considered the dilemma of how we are to care for people who are not ‘marketable’: constituted in such a way that they can’t contribute in the ways the market rewards: they don’t have the health, mental capacity, or perceived attractiveness that make them likely to get a decent job, even if they are able to try. Do we return to a society that depends only on elective charities to care for them, reneging on the commitment we’ve made over the years to take their care on as a collective responsibility? Remember, public assistance programs arose precisely because elective charities weren’t doing the job: if they were, there would have been no-one to need public assistance. Do we return to a eugenics-based belief system, where only the ‘fit’ deserve to survive? But this ignores that which makes human beings simultaneously the most intelligent, capable, and successful species: our highly developed social skills, in which we cooperate, pool our resources, and build on on the work and ideas of others to invent language, technology, and culture such as the world had never seen or likely will again if we eventually go the way of the dinosaurs. If we undermine our own moral sense and hard-heartedly ignore and dispose of the ‘unfit’, we blunt our moral sense and head down the path of mutually assured destruction, where it takes more and more qualifications to remain in the category of the ‘fit’. We’ve gone down that slippery slope before, have already caught a glimpse of such a dystopia in mid-century Europe.

My proposed solution? Re-classify and institute healthcare as the same sort of infrastructure as our system of roads and bridges, the military, the water supply, food-safety administration, our currency, and so forth, as all of these are basic necessities of life, communication, and trade. Collective action problems always have and always will exist, in the free market as well as in public welfare systems, and to give healthcare over to the vaguaries of the free market as if it’s an elective luxury, is a failure of our society’s commitment to the value of the life and liberty of each individual person. Our free-market healthcare system, which leaves so many without the care they need, is not a solution, it’s the result of a lack of political will and imagination, and a moral disgrace to boot.


Sources and inspiration:

Ariely, Dan. Multiple works on behavioral economics, including his TED talks, lectures, and articles.

Heath, Joseph. Economics Without Illusions, 2010.

The Myth of the Divide Between Individualism and Collectivism

Mirrored from http://halftimemag.com/articles/web-exclusives/encore-magazine-extras/top-10-marching-moments-of-2008-Details-photos-and-videos.html

What!?‘ you may well ask.

These are diametrically opposed, are they not? Those in favor of one of these views of personal identity, the economy, and public life generally despise the other. Proponents on one side of the ideological divide often shudder at the very thought of being identified with the other. So what could I mean by this?

I’ll start, then, by defining my terms.

Individualism, I think, is easier to define in a way that’s generally acceptable. In this view, protecting the rights and liberties of the individual is the ultimate aim of morality and politics. It holds that each human person has their own integrity of mind and body (and by extension, property) and should not be subject to coercion, harm, or theft. Individualism is preeminent in American culture, and the values associated with this worldview are emphasized by most modern democratic, capitalistic societies. It’s also, at first glance, most consistent with the ideals of the Age of Rights, which places the highest value on the rights of individuals, which should not be infringed on by the state nor by others.

Collectivism is harder to define. The 20th century saw the rise of collectivist, or socialist, states, the largest and most influential of which (ostensibly) valued the society more than individuals. When many think of collectivist societies, they think of Chairman Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, or Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. To my mind, however, these societies were collectivist in name only: since it was the will and interests of one individual or few individuals that were imposed on those societies, usually to the detriment of everyone else. There was little or no willing collective effort for the collective’s sake, little to no public input regarding the collective’s rights and interests, and little to no collective benefit.

For the purposes of this piece, I define collectivism more broadly as the idea that a good society, in which people flourish and live as freely as possible, can only be achieved by some significant level of collective action. In this view, there is such a thing as the public good, and morality demands that everyone should do their part to sustain it. The full details of what the public good consists of and how it can be achieved should be debated by the public, but its characteristics include the idea that all human persons have as much moral worth as much as any other, that all have rights regardless of ‘merit’ (real or perceived) and wealth (or the lack thereof), that all are morally accountable when they fail in their responsibility to protect and nurture those rights, and that the fates of all are intertwined.

It may seem to you, as it does to me, that these conceptions of individualism and collectivism each have their attractions, and each contain some level of truth. Both are ultimately concerned with the well-being of all people, even if they might seem to start from a different end of the spectrum in deciding where the foundation of values should be (with the individual, or with the group). Both focus on human rights. So why are people so divided in their views on this matter, at least as presented in the mainstream media and by political parties?

Perhaps it’s because the arguments that we hear so often present a distorted view. Not only do public figures, pundits, commentators, and even educators offer caricatures of others’ views, they often present a misleading, even simplistic view of their own. Here are some ways I see the how we make [non]sense of the tension between individualism and collectivism, between the one and the many, as manifested in public discourse:

From libertarians and the far right:

– A tendency to systematically overemphasize the individualness of individuals. In other words, they represent individual achievement as attributable entirely, or almost entirely, to the innovation, creativity, and hard work of the individual. But in almost every case, each great ‘individual’ achievement is possible because they had the infrastructure of ideas, innovations, inventions, technologies, and discoveries of those who came before available to build on. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example, were able to accomplish what they did because their admirable hard work and creativity enabled them to take the discoveries of mathematicians, physicists, metallurgists, etc, to the next level of technological advancement. The widely-mocked (and admittedly clumsily worded) ‘you didn’t build that’ quote from a 2012 Barack Obama speech was a cynical reaction of the radicalized right against any sort of public recognition that while individual talent and effort are crucial, we also rely heavily on each other in achieving what we do.

– A tendency to underestimate the degree to which a robust morality of social responsibility makes individual freedom not only more expansive, but possible in the first place. Without morality, without a social framework of cooperation, self-restraint from plunder and violence, and the generosity that’s more the rule than the exception in any human group, individual human beings would be left in the narrowly circumscribed situation of the forager and lonely hunter. We would have little time and leisure left to such luxurious pursuits as the acquisition of knowledge, the sharing of ideas, artistic creation, and technological innovation that human beings are so uniquely good at, if we are constantly busy simply feeding ourselves, warming ourselves, and fighting each other off of what little stash of goods we’ve managed to obtain. It may be objected that since human beings naturally desire to better their situation, self-interest would lead to cooperation through the desire to trade. But that only begs the question of why we would engage in fair trade, and not simply plunder if we are the strongest. Why has this instinct for reciprocity has become part of the fabric of the human personality?

From 20th century-style communists and socialists

– A tendency to devalue the importance of the individual out of proportion, and even divorced from, the importance of society. The major autocratic socialist regimes ruthlessly quashed opposition, disposed of enemies, and systematically repressed all but the most insipid, and most propagandist, forms of the arts (and still do! Though not so many). Societies ended up in the odd state of being glorified by their leaders as the greatest in the world, while simultaneously made up of citizens that were each so worthless that any one of them could be legitimately disposed of like so much garbage, if it seemed in the best interests of the state.

From liberals:

– A tendency to declare that government should not be in the business of ‘legislating morality’, while at the same time demanding that government demand accountability for some forms of wrong-doing. Government is a moral enterprise by definition. For example, when a law is made that one person may not kill or injure another, it’s made because of a society’s moral position that life is better than death, and that it’s wrong to infringe on another person’s right to live and thrive. Morality, and law, have everything to do with a society’s deciding what people should or should not do; in other words, it’s normative. There are many who try to downplay the relationship between law and morality, including this blogger who described the law as simply a set of rules to ensure that society is ‘harmonious and safe’, while morality has to do with your ‘personal sense of right and wrong’. But this is not at all how law works now, and not at all how law emerged as a product of human psychology as a social. From the beginning, the law has always had to do with retributive, distributive, and restorative justice, though the balance of these three differ from society to society. Laws that attempt to harmonize society, for example, are based on the notion that harmony is better than discord, that people ‘ought’ to maintain harmony by refraining from violence and disturbing the peace. Laws that govern parking originate with the idea that public spaces ought to be used and maintained for the benefit of everyone. Laws that protect people from assault originate from the idea that people have a right to life and health.

– Closely related to the above, a tendency to incoherence as to whether they themselves view government as moral, or morally neutral. Many liberal people decry any governmental attempts to interfere with some behaviors, such as those pertaining to sexuality and drug use, on the basis that these are moral, and therefore strictly personal, issues. But at the same time, they will demand that government regulate or prohibit other behaviors, such as fraud committed by financial institutions, or in the use of torture and the targeting of minorities in stop-and-frisk policies, on the basis that the latter practices are wrong or unfair. Yet all of these issues have everything to do with morality: what we ought and ought not to do, and why. For example, a democratic government is based on the moral norms that every individual has rights and that every individual’s well-being matters. Therefore, a good government is based on the moral norm that every individual should have a say in what their government does. A society with such a government also, by the very fact they have a government at all, think that all members of society have responsibilities to one another. After all, if there is no moral accountability, there are no norms, no law, no society. We end back up where the radical individualists left us: lonely scavengers or predators, without the vast resources social cooperation offers.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly disparate views?

I think we need to realize that the very idea that there is a sharp dividing line between individualism and collectivism is an illusion. In fact, individualism is not only reliant on collectivism, but is a product of it. We get to pursue such energy-expensive, extravagant projects as music, literature, art, government, architecture, and the rest because at some point we started banding together in a network of support rarely seen in other creatures. We rallied to protect our big-brained, long-vulnerable young, share the fruits of the hunt and of foraging, and invented such social-cohesion-strengthening practices as making music, telling stories, taking part in rituals of marriage and burial, and creating art.

And how do we craft societal practices that promote the rights and interests of the free individual, without undermining the collectivism that makes individual freedom possible?

As we have seen, 20th-century-style ‘socialist’ governments revealed how a society is undermined when it 
under-emphasizes the individual and overemphasizes the collective. But given the utter disregard for individual human life, and individual human rights, it’s not so hard to recognize how badly they got it all wrong. When your ideology holds that a great society is made up of individuals that are so worthless that they can be eliminated at the whim of the government, or have no personal rights or value outside of their value as laborers or fulfillers of some pre-determined role, or have no say in what their government or their autocratic ruler does, than the whole society is undermined by being made up of powerless, dehumanized, devalued, uninspired, unmotivated people.

It’s also the case that those social instincts that make us such successful cooperators combine with other instincts sometimes in a way that leads to atrocious behavior. Anti-Jewish pogroms, racially motivated massacres such as those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and rampages following sports games are such example of violent mass-hysteria. The tendency of people to ‘follow the leader’ in heartless behavior is as thoroughly documented in laboratory studies as it is in the history books. Democracy and reason are the two best tools human beings have come up with to correct the excesses of our strong social instincts. The secret ballot box allows us to participate in governance without coercion or in-the-moment peer pressure, and reason allows us to step back and reflect on whether or not we we’re doing, or what we’re about to do, is really in our own, and everyone else’s, interests. 

Independent-minded individuals, less prone to coercion, herd instinct, and social pressure, are also absolutely essential corrective not only to mass cruelty, but to to entrenched laws and norms that have outlived their usefulness, and whose immorality have been overlooked, explained away, or overridden due to other social interests. Slavery is a classic example of this: a popular desire for attaining personal wealth combined with entrenched racism (the ugly side of tribalism), led a majority in many societies to ignore their own moral sense of sympathy, justice, and beneficence in favor of policies that catered to their baser instincts. It was a few dissenters that reminded society of what morality is for, and how institutionalizing cruelty and indifference to the interests of other human beings harms everyone, that led societies to reform themselves and change their policies to better serve both individual and collective interests.

On the other hand, oligarchic, fascist, and other ultra-capitalist societies, which hold that government’s only job is to enforce contracts, prevent invasion, and prevent people from assaulting one another, also undermine themselves, because they have only a negative conception of freedom as their moral foundation. When a government is structured according to the idea that human beings have few responsibilities to each other than fulfilling contracts and respecting property rights, they become a society where fewer and fewer people are enjoying the fruits of everyone’s labor. For example, monopolies develop (as Adam Smith pointed out), which set prices and wield most of the power over legislators. You have fewer and fewer wealthy individuals and organizations that pay to influence the halls of power, that 
monopolize the dissemination of information trough mass media, while the voices of those that have little or no money to do so are drowned out. You get societies made up that look like the early industrial towns when capitalism first flourished without regulation, where many got rich, while a great bulk of others ended up doing crippling labor in squalid conditions, withe the empty ‘choice’ of accepting such work, or facing privation or starvation. You end up a society that drives down wages for most people while fewer and fewer funnel all or most of the gains made by an economic system to a few, more ruthless individuals that are left at ‘the top’

Because I see individualism and collectivism as intertwined, I’m in favor of a strong democracy and a mixed economy. In a healthy, democratic society, it’s the innovators, the creative geniuses, the ‘weirdos’, that ensure that a society is adaptable, rich in ideas, technologies, and creativity, and does not stagnate and wither away. Human beings succeed not only because we are social, we succeed because we are adaptive and innovative, and it’s the freedom of the individual to come up with new art forms, technologies, ideas, etc, that make a society dynamic. The incentive of improving one’s lot in life through one’s own hard work also fuels the drive to better ones’ self.

A ready analogy for this is the necessity of genetic mutations in evolving a successful, adaptive species. While not all mutations (innovations, new ideas) are beneficial, there are some that are, and without those pioneering one-offs, a population cannot adapt to meet new and challenging circumstances, and does not possess that wonderful variety of traits that make it both capable of much, and fascinating to behold. A society of individuals free to pursue their own goals and protect their own interests, so long as they contribute to the public good and don’t harm others, is that which is likely not only to survive, but thrive. For example, free trade, sometimes derided by modern liberals, is an excellent tool that is both highly individualistic and highly socialistic. It incentivizes and rewards individual innovation and hard work, though an elaborate framework of cooperativeness that includes, but is not limited to, a strong commitment to fairness and reciprocity, a conception of justice that demands recompense for hard work, and a distaste for theft and exploitation. But like all tools, it must be used wisely and well, and within certain parameters.

And this this is why I also believe in such collective projects and institutions as publicly-funded roads, public education, and health care. I believe in regulations such as gun control and strict regulations for drivers, since these don’t prioritize the rights of some individuals to put others in danger for insufficient cause. I don’t believe in society-aggrandizing, anti-individualist enterprises such as war (in most circumstances). After all, you have few rights when you are incapacitated by injury and disease, and none at all when you’re dead. A society that places few restrictions and responsibilities on gun owners and operators of motor vehicles make it all to easy for one individual, in a moment of temper, carelessness, or mental instability to permanently remove all or most rights from fellow human beings. As we can see from (most) heavily-armed, hyper-individualistic societies such as the United States, we kill and injure one another at enormous rates with our guns and our cars. A more morally robust concept of civic duty would lead to the creation of laws based on the premise that a right which bears greater risks engenders a greater burden of responsibility. And since government is a moral enterprise, its laws should not only hold people accountable for doing wrong to one another, but demand some responsibility to do right by each other. 

Why morality requires both accountability and responsibility is another Big Question. Sounds to me like a great topic for another essay…


Some sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy’, 2012 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy
Darwall, Stephen. ‘Moral Accountability’, 2014, Philosophy Bites podcast

Ellis, Joseph. Revolutionary Summer, 2013

Heath, Joseph. Economics Without Illusions, 2010

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011

Sandel, Michael. ‘A New Citizenship’, 2009 Reith Lectures

Review / critique: Frans De Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

I’ve just finished Frans De Waal’s excellent new book, which is a combination of a popular science exploration of primatology and the origins of human morality, and a critique of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. De Waal, a nonbeliever himself (as a scientist, he finds the question of whether or not God exists ‘uninteresting‘), nevertheless finds the confrontational style of the New Atheist movement ill conceived, counterproductive, and probably futile.

Anchoring the themes of his book is a series of reflections on Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Traditional interpretations of the painting, De Waal writes, are generally based on the view that human beings, ever since the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are naturally wicked, prone to cruel and hateful behavior, and it’s only by straining hard against our sinful nature that human beings can hope for redemption by adhering the moral code provided by God through religion .

De Waal has a different interpretation, seeing the painting thorugh the lens of his own understanding of human nature. His lifelong study of primate behavior, especially of bonobos and chimpanzees, reveal a tendency to prosocial behavior that strongly resembles human morality in many important ways. De Waal concludes that not only does morality predate religion, since it’s rooted in the same social instincts we share with our cousins the great apes (as well as other social animals), but it’s most accurately viewed as a key component of human nature. Based on modern findings of human psychology and evolutionary biology, ‘It is now widely assumed that we are designed in body and mind to live together and to take care of each other, and that humans have a natural tendency to judge others in moral terms. Instead of being a thin veneer, morality comes from within.’ (De Waal, p 42).

Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution.jpgBosch’s painting, De Waal thinks, actually reveals his humanism, the idea that the human race is naturally good and worthy of admiration in it own right. The figures frolicking in the garden in the center panel enjoy the best that the world has to offer, especially the joys of one another’s company. The figures being punished in the hell of the right panel, revealingly, are not being punished for sins against religion. Rather, they have trangressed the moral laws pertaining to just and fair treatment of one another, such sins as greed, gambling, and cheating, and those pertaining to the proper care and comportment of our own bodies, such as gluttony and drunkenness.

In this, De Waal agrees with the bonobo (in this book, the bonobo represents the naturally moral side of all social creatures), the humanist Bosch, and the atheist: human beings are moral beings, and ‘sins’ are those tendencies and behaviors which lead individuals to act against the interests and moral codes of the group. He provides a wealth of evidence, from his own years of fieldwork, experimentation, and research, that prosociality and morality are natural phenomena without which human beings and their social cousins would fail as a species. Morality originates as an evolutionary adaptation, giving us the ability to transcend our individual limitations, to thrive as a species through cooperation, sharing, and mutual protection.

However, De Waal has found himself disturbed by the militancy (as he sees it) of the so-called New Atheist movement: their rhetoric that disparages religion, calling for its immediate demise, ridiculing it as entirely outdated, useless, stupid, and destructive, and for their ‘dogmatic’ God-denial, and their tactics of anti-religious propaganda and political activism. He quotes A.C. Grayling, who compares militant atheism to ‘sleeping furiously’, asking: ‘What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?’ (De Waal, p. 84) He finds that the New Atheist movement shares this with religious fundamentalists: they both misunderstand the origins and nature of religion, which originated and still functions as an evolutionarily useful social tool, encoding and helping to enforce moral behavior.

I found De Waal’s book a refreshing and entirely approachable summary of the best of our current knowledge of human psychology, evolutionary biology, and animal behavior. I also admire the evidence of his knowledge and understanding of philosophy, which he applies to and compares with the findings in his own field. He admires Hume, the prosocial moral philosopher, and both agrees and disagrees with Kant: the moral law is indeed within, as Kant says, but altruism is not confined to those behaviors that are devoid entirely of self-interest, as Kant defines it. It’s actually a good thing that altruism, though it does carry a personal cost, also benefits the altruist, as De Waal sees it: it firmly grounds altruism as a natural product of a human nature that is more social than selfish. (This is not to say that human nature is not selfish as well. It’s rather that we have methods of making sure selfishness does not run amuk and result in mutually assured self-destruction of the human species.) All in all, De Waal offers a compelling and persuasive view of the natural origins of morality and that the good rules human nature more than the bad.

It’s De Waal’s critique of the New Atheist movement and of atheists overall with which I find myself only in partial agreement. I do agree that too many prominent atheists refuse to publicly acknowledge that religion appears to be a product of natural adaptations, and a historically (and prehistorically) useful one at that. Many other atheists, however, do acknowledge this, notably Daniel Dennett, who De Waal sometimes lumps in with the New Atheists, though he does give Dennett some credit for his view of religion as a natural phenomenon. (De Waal, p 94) I also agree with him that an overly confrontational attack-oriented approach is unlikely to be overall as effective as a more humanism-positive, common-ground seeking approach, based on what we know about human psychology and belief formation (Kahneman, Haight, Ariely, and others have done extensive work on this recently; even in antiquity, Aristotle revealed how well he understood this aspect of human psychology).

But contrary to De Waal, I think that atheism, as a movement, does have some important things to offer. When he criticizes atheism as lacking in substance or utility since it’s an ‘anti-‘ stance, he fails to account for the historical abusive and destructive applications of religion. As well as promoting good behavior and bonding within groups, it’s also been used to persecute out-groups of religious minorities and non-believers, to oppress women, children, and the poor, to prop up and protect corrupt regimes and clergy (dictatorships and absolutist monarchs, the sale of undulgences, murderous popes, rapist priests), and as a justification of cruel and oppressive practices (the institution of race-based slavery, the punishment of heretics). There are plenty of ‘anti-‘ groups and ideologies that have plenty to offer precisely because they arise out of opposition to destructive or morally repugnant institutions, belief systems, and natural forces: the abolitionist movement (anti-slavery), the feminist movement (anti-oppression of women), various organizations that combat disease (anti-AIDS, anti-cancer, etc). To ignore what the atheist movement as a whole has to offer is to ignore the history of how and why the atheist movement originated, and that it’s generally united in humanism-derived values and goals (equal social and political rights and protections for non-believers and religious minorities, for example). In his blanket dismissal of atheism as ideologically empty, De Waal fails to adhere to the same standards of applying evidence and history to this issue as he does for the rest of the scientific and philosophical issues he discusses in his otherwise excellent book.

Work Cited:

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.

Morality Evolves, Thank Goodness! Or, ‘Survival of the Moral-est’

What is a moral community? To whom do we owe love, respect, allegiance, and caring, and why? What does it mean to be ‘good’?

As communications technology progresses at an exponential rate, we’re all coming into closer and more constant contact with people from all over the world. One result of this: some clashes between people of disparate cultures and belief systems seem particularly violent and extreme, but such partisan violence is commonplace throughout history. Yet we’re also cooperating as a worldwide community as never before, adapting practices and beliefs, with an increase in tolerance and mutual respect between people who might have had trouble finding enough common ground for fruitful interaction in times past. Since we can now see the faces, hear the voices, and observe the lives of people far away as if they’re next door, we identify with them more, perceive them no longer as abstractions but as people like ourselves, and come to care for them nearly as much, and sometimes just as much, as people that just so happen to live their whole lives geographically near to us. Conquest, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, holy war: all of these violate moral beliefs now common throughout the world. We seem, as a whole, to be enlarging our moral communities.

So what binds these moral communities, and where so the morals by which they live come from?

As a direct result of this new virtual cosmopolitanism (in a sociological rather than a philosophical sense), many are now convinced that morality is relative to cultures and belief systems. All ethic and cultural peoples have moral systems, and while most contain a few common prohibitions and values (child murder is wrong, health is good), all vary on at least some points, and some widely (women should / should make important decisions independent of men; sexual liberty is / is not good).

While the relativistic view of morality is understandable and generally comes from a generous spirit of tolerance, I believe this theory is, for one thing, ultimately of little use in solving the problem of how the worldwide community is to live together. If morality is entirely relevant to belief system, for example, how can we be justified in claiming that a man does wrong when he kills his wife accused of adultery, if his belief system teaches that this is right? How can we be justified in claiming that a trader in finance does wrong when she gambles her clients’ life savings away, when the business culture she works in operates on the premise that this is the right way to do business? A moral theory which explains the nature and workings of human morality  needs to demonstrate that it works, that it offers compelling answers and workable solutions to such challenges, in order to qualify as a candidate for a true theory. If the global human community wants some firm moral grounds on which to promote human flourishing, we need to look elsewhere than moral relativism.

Most importantly, the current evidence from the findings of clinical psychology and other disciplines that study human behavior just don’t appear to support the theory of moral relativism.

Thomas Aquinas

Another moral theory is moral realism, which many believe is the only acceptable alternative to moral relativism. Mores (moral conventions or laws), according to the moral realist, need to be fixed, immutable, and eternal in order to be true or binding. A highly influential, widely accepted version of this view was thoroughly described and explained by theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which in turn is an interpretation of Aristotle, the great philosopher and logician of 4th century Greece. Aquinas argues that morality is built-in to reality and can be discovered in the “natural law”. Natural law is the totality of the observed, predictable workings of the universe: just as the law of gravity is an unchanging feature of the universe, so is the moral law, and to discover either, we need only carefully observe the world without and within us. To put Aquinas’ view most succinctly: we can derive the ‘ought’ directly from the ‘is’. This is a compelling theory, in my view, reassuring in its promise to deliver concrete and universal results.

David Hume

Yet David Hume, the great Scottish skeptic philosopher, famously overturned this view in the 18th century, pointing out that there is no direct logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. To say something is the case is not the same as saying it should be the case.

One example that illustrates why I think Hume is right is the set of complex issues regarding human reproduction. As Aquinas, modern evolutionary biologists, and indeed most of us, would agree: human beings, and indeed all living creatures, generally have strong instincts to mate, and the biological equipment which most individuals have makes it so that the result of frequent mating is the production of offspring. You could even say that we mate because we are equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively.

Here’s the presumed logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ in this case: Aquinas (and many modern evolutionary biologists) would say that because human beings generally reproduce, one of the main, if not the primary, purposes of the human race and therefore, all individual human beings, is to reproduce. Since we’re generally equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively, individual human beings should have sex only to reproduce.

‘But wait a minute!’ one might say, with Humean skepticism. The scientific evidence reveals to us that at least half, and probably more, of all offspring who are conceived are naturally aborted by the mother’s body well before birth, sometimes because of genetic defects, the current state of health of the mother, or some other reason. And that’s just before birth. In some places in the world today, and especially in Hume’s day, a very large proportion of all children born die before the age of five because they have no access to effective treatments for most diseases. If you put that number together with still births and natural abortions, you end up with a very, very large number of unsuccessful reproductions, a majority, in fact.

So if you try to derive the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’ in the case of human reproduction, you can just as well end up, logically, with the weird result that since attempts to successfully create offspring are usually unsuccessful, well, then, human beings ought not to reproduce! Most would find this conclusion not only weird but unacceptable, I think for the very good reason that people generally place a high value on continuing the human species and on the individual’s right to decide whether or not to have children.

Now, to be fair to Aquinas, it’s still the case that, despite so many failed instances of reproduction, the human race generally is successful at reproduction. Added to that, say some evolutionary biologists, the fact that all living beings evolved some sort of  reproductive capacity, it’s still the case that every being that has a choice should try to reproduce, whether or not individuals fail. But how if you belong to a species where reproduction is so successful that if everyone reproduces, the species as a whole is threatened from overcrowding? Or, as it is in the case of a highly social species such as humans, the young do very well in a community where there’s plenty of individuals around who don’t have offspring of their own? In fact, the human species (unusually) far outlive their mating years, and biologists believes it’s a survival mechanism for children to also have grandparents to help rear them. Aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends fulfill the same roles in society, as auxiliary parents and as overall contributors to the flourishing of the human race as a whole.

Perhaps Aquinas was only partially mistaken, and instead should have said that we should place a high moral value on the reproductive function of the human species as a whole: maybe having children is one among many virtuous choices we can make. He did allow that some instances of refraining from procreation are good (he was a celibate monk, after all!) but he also used procreative instinct arguments to say that any and all sex acts that don’t involve reproductive intent are immoral This, to me, represents an attempt to derive a universal moral law, then apply it to get a predetermined result: people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they do have sex do wrong, and people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they don’t have sex do right. (Hmmm… did he accidentally end up a moral relativist here, in this matter at least?)

http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021519,00.htmlThis is only one of countless examples where we find that morally committed, good people disagree on the fundamentals of what constitutes goodness and virtue. We find that this disagreement is among individuals and communities not only across space, but also across time. A classic example of this in Middle Eastern and Western cultures is the contrast between the moral precepts of the Old and the New Testaments, and also between the morals in the whole Bible compared to the morals of today. According to the New Testament, after all, it was still acceptable to own slaves and prevent women from speaking in church, which would be morally impermissible according to the mores of  most societies and religions today.

It could be that the moral relativist and the moral realist theories are both implausible. Maybe morality is not relative nor immutable: maybe it evolves. Maybe you can say something is true about morality just as you can say something is true about the human species itself: although the human race is neither immutable or eternal, it still evolved. Yet human beings all descend from a common ancestry and are identifiable in that they share in a distinctive spectrum of traits, so the criteria for being human is not relativistic either.

I think that human sexuality, in fact, also provides an excellent example of not only how a species, but how morality itself, evolves.

Originally, for human beings as for most other creatures, sex evolved for the purposes of reproduction, but over time, as our brains got bigger and our behavioral, emotional, and cultural capacities became more and more complex, sexuality began to be expressed for other purposes as well. As our ancestors became more social and formed larger and larger supportive groups, the young were better protected and better fed and therefore, were more likely to survive. The pressure for individuals to reproduce as often as possible was greatly reduced. Human beings (like our large-brained and social cousins the bonobos and dolphins) also began to enjoy sex for its own sake and re-purposed it: using sex to court potential mates, express friendship love, and dominance, use it for recreation, politics, and so forth. Some of these purposes of sexual expression have, over time, come to be recognized as beneficial, some have not, and some are still debated.

Just as sexuality evolved, so have the moral precepts surrounding sexuality. With the exception of certain

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Warren Cup

groups who seek enforce a traditional sexual moral code (usually for religious reasons), over the centuries and millennium sexuality has been appreciated as a much more rich and complex domain of human social relations. As we look back in history, a favored few in society have enjoyed a more liberal set of sexual mores (Greek and Roman elite males enjoyed gay sex without fear, and European nobility and royalty not only regularly enjoyed the company of paramours, they were expected to), but as societies became more democratic and open, these liberal moral codes were extended to the general public. Overall, people are now more prone to judge the morality of sexual behavior according to principles of consent, honesty, reciprocity, and respect, rather than a traditional list of prohibitions.

Here’s a story of how the larger evolution of morality could have happened:

In prehistoric times, human social groups were very small, since survival depended both on strong social cohesion to feed and protect everyone, especially the young, and on not exhausting natural resources. Over time, as the body of human knowledge increased and new technologies were created and perfected, human societies grew to include larger numbers of people. So new adaptations, institutions, and practices arose to create and cement human solidarity in these new larger groups who were less homogenous, even though many general characteristics still tended to remain the same (skin tone, hair color, bodily morphology, etc).These adaptations, institutions, and practices included languages, epic stories, religions, national and ethnic identity, cultural practices, political affiliations, and so on. All of these were constantly being invented, were growing, changing… evolving. And as we’ve already seen, the size of our social groups are growing as rapidly as the communicative capacities of technology. To a cosmopolitan (in the philosophical sense this time), it’s likely only a matter of time before the human race will and should consider itself one large community, with a commitment to upholding basic shared moral principles, though particular or localized secondary moral systems could add their own restrictions or requirements.

Morality is not immune to evolution, and I think doesn’t need to be in order to be capable of being understood in terms of true and false. Again, many things change over time, often drastically, and still can be correctly or incorrectly described and referred to. Not only do I think that morality evolves, I’m also glad that it does, comparing some ancient moral codes to some modern ones. Again, we can look to the Bible for examples of this: consider the ancient Biblical endorsements of slavery and genocide, and compare that with their modern near-total rejection. And the Old Testament notion that women and children were chattel that could be killed for any number of transgressions fills most people today with righteous horror.

These and other changes in moral convictions could be entirely attributed to conditioning, of course. Yet, such conditioning that informs the behavior of most individuals can, perhaps, constitute a form of social evolutionary pressure over time. Whatever the precise mechanism(s), when I consider what history and archaeology tells us about moral attitudes over time, and when I put that together with the fact that human beings evolved from small-brained, non-moral creatures, it seems that morality must have evolved too.

For an organism to evolve, it must be a dynamic system, composed of multiple parts that can be added, subtracted, or changed. If morality evolves, it appears that it likewise can’t be reducible to a single foundational principle. If it’s a traditional monist system, there’s no room or impetus for change, since there’s only one, continuous element or substance that determines the nature of the subject at hand. It’s partly for this reason, and partly based on other evidence (such as how human actually make moral decisions), that I suspect that human morality is actually a pluralist system. Our moral judgments result from balancing various norms against one another, combining, elevating, or rejecting one or more depending on the situation at hand. For example, most cultures place a high moral value on personal integrity, reciprocity, mercy, punishing the guilty, love, protecting the innocent and vulnerable, and more, and consider at least a few of these while making each moral judgment. There are many that I just don’t think are reducible to a more basic principle or value.

So where do these moral values come from? How do we justify judgments based on them? How do we

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Code of Hammurabi

know how, when, and to whom to apply them?

Morality not only appears to be based on more than one value or principle, it also involves more than one type of mental processes or cognitive tools. Daniel Kahneman provides one account: a fast, instinctive, emotional process, and a slower, reflective one; Daniel Dennett provides a related explanation of the human mind, originally less capable, enhanced by a ‘toolkit for thinking’. We can apply such a tiered or multilevel system to this story of moral evolution. One is instinctive or more basic, where morality appears to originate. The social instincts, such as empathy and cooperation in humans and other intelligent social creatures, belong to the set variously described as Kahneman’s ‘system one’, or as Hume’s ‘passions’.  The slower ‘system two’, Aristotle and Kant’s ‘reason’, is the part of us that self-consciously reflects on our own emotions and thoughts. So far as we know, only human beings engage in this sort of multi-level mental activity. What the research of social psychologists as Jonathon Haidt reveal is that most of us, most of the time, make our moral judgments quickly and emotionally, and only justify ourselves afterwards, selecting those arguments that best support our own case and neglecting other concerns. This evidence favors Hume’s theory of ‘passion’-centric morality over Kant’s almost wholly rationalistic theory. Yet, we do apply rationality to create, universalize, and enforce a more consistent, regularized moral system on communities, to the benefit of most.

So the basic, foundational instincts that fostered increased cooperation and a drive toward reciprocity were, over time, bolstered by conscious reflection and perfected, enforced, and made more sophisticated through culture. Sounds to me a little bit like the selective, ‘ramping-up’ natural process of evolution by natural selection!

The evolution of morality can be illustrated by analogizing our moral instincts as the genetic mutations, and the use of our slower reasoning process as the selective pressure that allows the instincts to be enacted, or overrides them in order to create a system that best leads to our flourishing. Consider racism and ethnic hatred, instincts that, even today, seem unhappily all too pervasive. The instinct to bigotry might still be a part of our ‘moral DNA’, so to speak, arising as they probably did in the aforementioned circumstance of reinforcing solidarity in small communities struggling to survive. But over time, as we’ve seen race and ethnic hatred lead to suffering and mass slaughter that need not have occurred, the selective pressure of reason, aware of the lessons of history, overrides these ancient instincts and motivates us to value the widely beneficial attitudes of empathy, tolerance, and a sense of shared dignity instead. We used our reason first to regularize moral instincts into rules that apply to the community at large instead of just to the beneficently inclined. Then, we used our technology to widen the spheres of our moral communities, and these spheres are widening as moral communities absorb into ever larger ones.

Over time, we have developed a concept of goodness as that which fosters human flourishing, those instincts, guided and perfected by a natural-selection-like process and by reason, that inspire nurturing and just behavior on the largest scale possible. We can credit goodness, that expanded, instinct-derived and rationally-perfected sense of justice, reciprocity, and beneficence, as the driver of the human race’s ever more cosmopolitan sense of morality.