Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

Childhood is Part of Life

Bryan Caplan and “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua debate parenting styles in The Guardian:

BC: I have three sons – eight-year-old identical twins and a baby. I’m not permissive, we do have discipline, but the point is to make sure they treat people decently. Once my kids were born, I realised that all these things that people say about parenting are wrong according to the best science. Parents seem to think their kids are like clay, that you mould them into the right shape when they’re wet. A better metaphor is that kids are like flexible plastic – they respond to pressure, but when you release the pressure they tend to pop back to their original shape. I don’t know Amy and her kids, but from my reading of the book the mother-daughter relationship seemed strained for many years, and that’s sad.

AC: I instilled a sense of respect and discipline that will last them a lifetime. I don’t think just by doing fun things and praising kids all the time that they develop that inner strength. When my kids wanted to give up on things, I wouldn’t let them, and those are lifelong lessons. The reason my daughters say they would be strict parents themselves is because that represents a mother who loved her children more than anything.

Twin studies aren’t perfect, but they provide the best scientific insight on the effects of parenting. Those studies suggest that parents have far less influence on how their kids turn out than most people think. Chua emphasizes that her style of parenting is truly caring because it sets children up for successful lives. In the book she writes, “everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.  My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.” The Tiger Mom prevented her kids from going to sleepovers, having play-dates, being in school plays, or doing anything else they wanted to do that didn’t fit Chua’s strict model.

As a child I had lots of fun playing at other kids’ houses and would never trade in my time in school plays, although neither will likely determine my level of success in life. Chua’s kids, as she freely admits, missed out a loads of fun and spent countless hours in distress (for their own good). Behavioral genetics shows that all that suffering was largely for nothing. Even absent that evidence, I still don’t understand why some parents believe that success in adulthood somehow outweighs misery in childhood. She can’t possibly believe that if she allowed her kid cut back a few hours on the piano or act in a couple plays they’d turn into homeless drug addicts. Chua ensures unhappiness for her children and, evidently, herself in the hope that they’ll be somewhat more successful as adults. Amy Chua and, more extremely, Kirk Murphy’s mother fail to recognize that misery is misery whether it happens at 7, 15, or 38.

Loving Education

June 2, 2011 2 comments

One of the problems with designing coherent education policy is the lack of clear goals. Should schools concentrate on basics? Should they focus on preparing students for college or for work? Does public education have a responsibility to shape responsible citizens? Does establishing a base of important facts take priority or is teaching pupils how to learn more crucial? Maybe schools should do everything. I tend to think that educators are already overextended to teach values such as empathy, but after watching these amazing videos I’m rethinking my general inclination to narrow education’s aims.

Empathy might be the quintessential attitude for moral behavior. I’m just as suspicious of opening the classroom door to values-education as anyone else. It’s already hard enough to keep out religion and gratuitous nationalism. Yet, for every instinct I have that families are better suited to teach moral values, schools provide a useful environment to foster empathy between people. Humans instinctively create in-and-out groups, but schools – especially American ones – allow kids a unique context to experience others different from themselves.

Studies have shown that reading fiction can expand empathy, but practicing empathy in person has no parallel. If school’s ultimate goal isn’t to improve people’s lives I don’t know what it’s for.

Categories: Educational Policy, Morality Tags:

The Corrosion of Normal Moral Thinking, ctd

January 31, 2011 2 comments

In his New York Times opinion piece Nicholas Kristof highlights how religious thinking can cause people to care more about dogma than living human beings.

The National Women’s Law Center has just issued a report quoting doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals as saying that sometimes they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives.

Of course, stalwart apologist of the liberal religious Kristof champions his version of Jesus against those rule-sticklingly traditionalists.

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.

I happen to agree with Kristof about the absurdity and callousness of the Church’s excommunication of a nun for saving a woman’s life, but how does he justify his judgement on religious grounds? Many sincere believers consider an embryo or a fetus to be an unborn human child equally deserving of moral compassion as a fully conscious adult. From their premises, they are being perfectly rational. Yet, Kristof summons the Nazarene in his court of moral opinion even though Jesus never told us what he thinks on this issue. However, there is certainly some biblical warrant to suppose God isn’t supportive of abortion. It’s not my burden to resolve this issue for either side. This thick haze just doesn’t obscure morally normal vision – there is no need to try to look through it. An unconscious blastocyst does not have the same moral weight as a breathing pregnant woman.

Sadly, it appears the Republican Party is lost in the fog and continues to exhibit more symptoms of moral vertigo with their push to redefine “the definition of rape and incest” in order to limit federal assistance for abortion.

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.”

The sooner we abandon the notion that religion has a purchase on morality the better.

(1st piece)

The Corrosion of Normal Moral Thinking

October 6, 2010 2 comments

I just picked up Sam Harris’s new book and am excited to sink my teeth in, but the USA Today has an article in its “Faith & Reason” section that seems to give a remarkable example of what happens when reason doesn’t guide moral thinking. Only someone whose mind is polluted by theological rot could question if a child born using In vitro fertilisation is still a child!

Do you think a baby conceived in test tube is still a child in the eyes — or mind or hands, depending on your theology/philosophy — of God?

Now, the article certainly doesn’t dismiss this as a ridiculous question but happily quotes church officials and ethicists who disparage IVF. Check out this “staggering” result of advances in reproductive technology. Arthur Caplan writes,

The implications are just staggering. Even some of the arguments about gay marriage spin out from the fact that IVF lets gay people have children.

I know, what a horrible thought… gay people having children! Oh wait… they might not even be children…

As if we needed another let this be a reminder that religious thinking isn’t a synonym for moral thinking, it is a faulty substitute for it.

This is as good a place as any to share a few thoughts I had about another burgeoning reproductive technology. It will soon become easy to choose your baby’s gender. Many ethicists obviously have serious qualms about this. I’m not sure if this is a common philosophical technique or not, but I begin looking at the question as if humans already and naturally had the ability to predetermine their child’s gender. If so, would the government have the right to prevent parents from exercising that capacity? Maybe yes, if the world begin suffering immensely from some major gender imbalance, but it seems under most unextreme circumstances it would be absurd to consider taking that inherent ability away from people. 

If I’m correct about that it suggests that the state shouldn’t prevent people from gaining that ability through medical advancement. After all, just like a child born from IVF is still equally a child, the ability being natural or “artificial” shouldn’t weigh on our judgement of it.

Tell Me Again That Some Cultures Aren’t Better

September 2, 2010 2 comments

After my friend Dave posted an article by Susan Jacoby which targets her fellow “political liberals” for excusing horrible cultural practices for the mistaken idea that we have no right to judge any culture as better than another.

I am an atheist with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect. And I find myself in a lonely place in relation to many liberals, political and religious, because I cannot accept a multiculturalism that tends to excuse, under the rubric of “tolerance,” religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.

An interesting discussion ensued. I’ll just remark that I’m firmly on the side that says we have the ability, the right, and often the duty to point out when certain cultures are increasing suffering and failing to respect the human rights of others.  It’s often argued that to claim a faith or a culture is worse than another is to argue that the people within that culture are worse. Since I’m on my fantasy football kick, let me repeat my loose analogy I used to demonstrate the flaw with this argument.

Take a football team. In Team A the quarterback is the best in the game. Team B’s quarterback is therefore inferior to Team A’s QB. We can go down the list of every player on the roster. It is even possible that every player on Team A is better than the corresponding player on Team B. Most football fans should have already noticed that just because one team has a better player or better players overall doesn’t mean that the team is better as a whole. Football is a game of players, but also of strategy, execution, and will. If the culture/strategy of Team B is superior to that of Team A, Team B might ultimately be better. Obviously, the comparison with football teams and human societies is imprecise. But recognize that to criticize a culture is not to say that the people living with in that culture are necessarily worse people.

In my reading today I came across a cultural practice that results from the religious and cultural beliefs of the people. Don’t bother trying, as many often do, to divorce the beliefs of people to their actions, it’s a foolish endeavor.

For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means “boy player.” The men like to boast about it. 

“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”


Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law. Women are simply unapproachable. Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can’t even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle.

“How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face,” 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. “We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”

Can someone really tell me seriously that a culture that mainstreams the rape of young boys, treats women as “unclean” and unequal, forces them into cloth bags is not worse than a culture that sends pedophiles to prison and therapy, strives to give women equality under law, and allows them to dress as they please? Notice that nothing in this argument excuses mistreatment of sex offenders, lapses in practical gender equality, or the over-sexualization of women in Western liberal culture. Fortunately, our culture also promotes freedom of speech which allows us to stay vigilant in fighting for our greater ideals. But that is just the thing, the ideal that it isn’t ok that children and women are used as sexual objects and that all humans regardless of gender or race have equal rights is a better ideal than the opposite. It is not impossible to say that, even if not perfect, the ideals of the Enlightenment are better than the ideals found in the Bible or the Qur’an. It’s also not just that the ideals are better but by almost every metric the lives as they are lived are qualitatively better for those of us living in liberal cultures compared to religious cultures.

The next most common argument I get is, well even if that is true, we should stick to criticizing the specific cultural practices and not the culture as a whole or that we shouldn’t criticize “moderate” or “liberal” Muslims or Christians because they are the ones we need on our side to fight the extremists.

I concede that as a strategic and tactical matter this argument may be correct. But recognize that even if it is true, it does not mean that in principle we can’t appraise different cultures and value systems. However, I have my doubts about the practical argument as well. This argument is utterly condescending to religious liberals and moderates – are we suggesting they’ll stop standing up against terrorism if they hear criticism or that they’ll become terrorists!? How liberal or moderate are they really if that is the concern?

Aside from the condescension, the argument lacks strong evidence and logical foundation. If religious faith and strict adherence to an ancient and barbaric book(s) are roots of the cultural practices we find abhorrent, shouldn’t we cut the root from under the poisonous and invasive plants? The plants are the cultural practices not the people for the record. Edmund Standing writing at Butterflies & Wheels explains, “On the Validity and Necessity of Atheist Criticism of Islam.”

During the debates over religion that occurred during the Enlightenment, which were often framed in extremely harsh language, it was not violent extremists under attack, but the very notion of God, supernatural authority, and so on. The result of those debates ultimately was that religion in Europe took a beating and no longer represents any sort of threat to liberal democracy. Likewise, religious arguments in the political sphere are longer accepted on ‘divine’ authority, but must be articulated in such a way that they make sense in a secular context. While Muslim moderates are doing – or trying to do – good work in hindering extremism, they must also accept that the Enlightenment critique also applies to their beliefs, and that in the adult world people have every right to make criticisms, even of liberal religion, that may appear ‘nasty’ on first reading. If liberal Muslims are willing to trample on the beliefs of their less moderate co-religionists, then they must also be prepared to have their beliefs trampled on as well. No-one would consider that their personal political views should be exempt from criticism just because they are non-violent political views, and it would be an absurd and worrying precedent to be set were that the case. Religion is no different. Despite the fact that religious people seem to have a lot emotionally invested in their ‘faith’, the fact remains that religion, just like politics, is an ideology, and as such it is a perfectly legitimate target for criticism and debate, even if it is liberal and moderate in its nature.


Ultimately, Islam and the Qur’an do not pose problems because of ‘misinterpretation’, but rather because they belong to a world far from modernity and are actually of no relevance to modernity. Atheists have every right to point this out, even if it means criticising those who are nonetheless doing good work against extremism. Moderate Islam and moderate Quran’ic ‘interpretation’ offer no real bulwark against those who read the text of the Qur’an and take it at face value, as a perfect and divinely authored text. Only by acknowledging that any notion of a divinely authored book is simply false, by accepting the harsh reality that this book is in fact useless (and indeed dangerous) in the modern context, and by embracing human reason and freethinking will the curse of Islamic extremism ultimately be overcome. (my emphasis)

Should we be careful not to demonize groups of people? Of course. But arguing that some cultures do a better job at improving human well-being is perfectly valid and possible. The American Left often has no problem arguing that it is our culture that leads to eating disorders, or stigmatizes the poor or homosexuals, or “commercializes” other cultures. It may be lack of nerve or lack of sufficient time thinking about it, but their failure to recognize that certain cultures are the cause of the cultural practices that lead to greater suffering is dangerous and insensitive. Real compassion is a concern for the well-being of the people that suffer within these cultures, not for the feelings of those that buttress the continuation of avoidable misery.

Is Castrating Males A Good Idea?

July 29, 2010 17 comments

Over at The Hannibal Blog a fun debate took place between me and some other commentators after Andreas posted his thoughts on culture of competition’s effect on violence (which linked my post on Ape/Human violence). One commentator suggested that since testosterone was linked to violence society would be better off if all males were castrated above a certain age. 

If you’re game or interested enough to follow a debate on a topic like that read on. Note to readers: I’ve edited out many comments that aren’t directly relevant to this specific debate. Also I’ve rearranged the order of many comments to make it easier to follow. To read the entire text go to the original post (be aware that the original is not ordered by time so some comments seem out of order).


Since violence is almost wholly a male thing, and since it’s testosterone which fuels male violence, a solution to endemic violence would the mandatory castration of all males above a stipulated age.


hilarious phil! ;0

basically reduce the men to “sperm donor status”! ouch.

uh, i’m probably the only one laughing?


Actually, violence is almost wholly a YOUNG male thing. Has to do with evolutionary biology. Could we just give the 17-year-old lads an estrogen shot or something, to calm them down for a few years? That way, they could keep their jewels for their mellow later years.


My suggestion actually is serious. The innately violent male is a luxury our world can no longer afford. His psychology therefore has to change. Since his reading tomes by dead Greek and dead German philosophers won’t likely do this, his being castrated is the better option.

With innate male violence surgically removed through castration, there would, for starters, be no more wars and no more rapes and no more unwanted pregnancies. In this way, and in other undreamed ways, our world would truly be transformed.

There is, of course, the little matter of how the next generation would be produced. This would be looked after by having the male about to undergo castration, have a sperm sample taken, which would be stored under his name in a sperm bank.

Should he subsequently meet the Beloved of his dreams, and wishes her to bear his children, and she says yes, she would be inseminated with his stored sperm.

All this said, I don’t expect my eminently reasonable suggestion to bear fruit soon, if ever, because the male still runs things, and likely always will.


Has it crossed your mind that the problem may not be testosterone? It does not cause all males, or even the majority of them, to behave in a violent manner. It is a factor, not a cause. It is true that a reduction in testosterone also results in a reduction in aggressive behavior. But aggressive behavior is not always a bad thing. It is part of the reason that we take risks. It gives us test pilots, astronauts, entrepreneurs,football players, firemen, policemen, and capable soldiers who risk their lives to protect the rest of us.

Your solution is, to be blunt, too simple. Sort of like that extra chromosome thing that was once thought to be behind criminal behavior. We are complex creatures and there doesn’t seem to be universal answers to any of our possibly inherent problems.


Did it ever actually occur to you that your “solution” to violence is violence? Leave it to a male to think that is a good idea. Do you think males are just going to willingly agree to be mass castrated? To solve homelessness we could just execute the homeless too or when they freeze we could stack their bodies and build igloos to house other homeless. Jonathan Swift would be “proud” of your modest proposal.

If I were you I’d also consider reading or watching A Clockwork Orange.

@ Dan
“…….Did it ever actually occur to you that your ‘solution’ to violence is violence……..?”

Surgically removing testicles is no more violent than surgically removing an appendix.

“……Do you think males are just going to willingly agree to be mass castrated…….?”


However, males are still conscripted into armies despite that they don’t willingly agree to being conscripted.

As it is for conscription, why not also for castration?

“…….To solve homelessness we could just execute the homeless too or when they freeze we could stack their bodies and build igloos to house other homeless……….”

You are painting with too wide a brush.

“…….,If I were you I’d also consider reading or watching A Clockwork Orange……..

I’ve watched the film many times throughout the almost now 40 years since it came out. Beethoven hasn’t been the same for me since.

@ Paul
“…….violence is not reserved to men. Women can be most violent and destructive when they set their minds to it…….”

I don’t doubt this. However, men commit 90% and more of violent crimes.

Surgically removing testicles is no more violent than surgically removing an appendix. 

Umm… the difference seems to be pretty obvious: People agree to have their appendix removed to save their lives; forced castration would be almost the exact opposite.

However, males are still conscripted into armies despite that they don’t willingly agree to being conscripted.
As it is for conscription, why not also for castration?

For one, I’m not a supporter of conscription. You’ll notice the US and many other civilized nations stopped that practice. Also, to conscript someone you have to be willing to commit violence against them if they refuse. What would you do to someone who refused (which would be the sensible thing I might add) castration? Lock them in jail? And if they resisted that because it’d be a morally injust infringement on their human rights – you’d have to violently force them (gun point probably), would you not? Do you really think forcibly castrating men isn’t violent!? Or no more violent than removing an inflamed organ that can cause their death?

On the homeless analogy to illustrate your extreme suggestion; I could make a case that my satirical suggestion is actually less appalling than your actual recommendation. After all, collecting frozen corpses would happen after their death, not while they are living. It’d mitigate future homelessness by providing shelter to the downtrodden. It’s even a green solution! No more environmentally unfriendly building materials – we are cutting down our forests at an unsettling rate after all – also our new “building blocks” are even organic!

Look I almost never throw out the Nazi card. But this is literally a policy the Nazis used. Except that they used it EVEN LESS universally than you are suggesting.

I’ll put down my broad brush if you put down your capacious scalpel.

Surgically removing testicles is no more violent than surgically removing an appendix.

Except that one is voluntary, the other is forced. And “forced” is always “violent.”

However, males are still conscripted into armies despite that they don’t willingly agree to being conscripted.

As it is for conscription, why not also for castration?

This bit of inanity ignores the protests and riots over the US draft in the late 60′s, not to mention the draft riots of the Civil War era and the numbers who fled to Canada or dodged the draft in the aforementioned 60′s.

I thought you were being facetious when you first suggested this, now I am a bit appalled at the fascism inherent in the suggestion.


Setting aside, for convenience, enquiry into the link between testosterone and violence, female violence and conscription, would you agree, Dan and Douglas that the victims, say, of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Berlin and London were neither consulted nor gave their consent?

And Andreas, do you say that sublimation eliminates raw human violence?


I am not sure what you are trying to say here. Victims of violence rarely give their consent.

As to the particular victims you mention, tacit consent is thought to be given by vote (Germany – election of Hitler and the NAZI party) or tradition (Japan – following the Emperor). We all are subject to the consequences of the actions of our governments. That, of course, is also the justification used by al Qaeda for attacking civilian targets, as well as by terrorists since the late 60′s.


If, Douglas, it is permissible to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the consent of those who live there, why is it not permissible to castrate without consent? Similarly, if it is permissible to bomb European cities without consent in the supposed furtherance or defence of civilisation, why is it not permissible to castrate for a like cause? The nature of consent is a separate question.

If, Douglas, it is permissible to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the consent of those who live there, why is it not permissible to castrate without consent?

Well, first you would need to recognize what made bombing the cities mentioned “permissible” (as you call it). It is called “war” and targeting of non-combatants (i.e. civilians) is not permissible under the Geneva convention. What made the bombings permissible was the military industries in those cities and the inability at that time to make surgical strikes.

Second, individuals were not targeted by the bombings. They would be in a castration plan.

Third, the efficacy of a wholesale castration program is highly questionable because testosterone is NOT the trigger factor for violence, it is merely ONE factor in the violence equation.


I didn’t expect that my suggestion that all males be mandatorily castrated to bring about a violence-free world would be debated as seriously and thoughtfully as it has been in the above comments.

The issues raised may therefore deserve of wider currency.

So, Andreas, how about you suggesting to your employers at the Economist that this topic be the subject of one of those future on-line debates which the Economist periodically stages?


I can foresee all the people jumping at the chance to advocate universal forced castration now! Sorry Phil, not sure The Economist would be able to find someone serious enough for their platform who’s had their sense of morality sterilized.I have to ask, why haven’t you (I’m know I’m making a bit of a presumption right now) had yourself sterilized/castrated? We have the technology to freeze your sperm as you brought to our attention before. I’m seriously interested in these answers – feel free to have a go at my previous arguments as well. Forgive my rhetorical shots, as you seem to have noticed, I and others are seriously considering your modest proposal and I really do find it ethically extreme and abhorrent, but I’d like to pry into your thought processes a bit. Oh, and have you considered the tailor-made-for-you phrase: “The Ends Don’t Justify The Means”?


I’m happy to suggest it. Can’t guarantee it’ll happen. 😉 


@ Dan

“…….Sorry Phil, not sure The Economist would be able to find someone serious enough for their platform who’s had their sense of morality sterilized…….”
Does the Economist know this?
“……I have to ask, why haven’t you (I’m know I’m making a bit of a presumption right now) had yourself sterilized/castrated……..?”
That’s for me to know and for you to find out.
“…..I and others are seriously considering your modest proposal……”
I’m glad to learn this.
“……..I really do find it ethically extreme and abhorrent……..”
It’s difficult to please everybody.
“…….I’d like to pry into your thought processes a bit……”

You’d find it boring. 


Without getting into the morality of specific bombings, battles, or wars – we don’t need the consent of those we’re fighting to use force to stop them from committing crimes against humanity. In a morally justified act of war, we’re not targeting innocent civilians (when we are or when we have: that would be morally wrong). Collateral damage is a can of worms I don’t want to get into now and doesn’t really seem germane to the discussion anyway.  

 Universal male forced sterilization would be purposeful targeting of innocents. Not every male is a violent problem after all. It’s also ridiculous to punish people for the potential to commit crime, isn’t it? Not even the intent – the mere potential. Where does that end? Eugenics at best, probably. Disturbing. 


Please explain your implied assertion this is a discussion about specific bombings, collateral damage and a just war, Dan.

Are you able to define a crime against humanity in a way that separates warfare from other kinds of violence?Please explain your implied assertion that this is a discussion about international law, Douglas, and enlarge upon why individuals are not targeted, either intentionally or necessarily, in bombings.

Please explain your implied assertion that this is a discussion about international law, Douglas, and enlarge upon why individuals are not targeted, either intentionally or necessarily, in bombings.

Because (a) you brought up the bombings of extra-national cities and (b) read the Geneva Convention.

I really don’t like “red herrings”. You brought these issues up. I should have called you on the red herrings but didn’t, thinking you did it innocently enough.We, in the US, have something called “due process” which is mentioned in the 4th Amendment of our Constitution. We can’t even castrate sexual predators without their consent because it would be seen as “cruel or unusual” punishment which we are also protected from by our Constitution. These two things would seem to make a mass castration plan illegal in the US. Further musing on this, I think a Congress enacting such a plan would result in a revolt. Now, could we go back to rational and reasonable debate about violence in society?


Please explain your implied assertion this is a discussion about specific bombings, collateral damage and a just war, Dan.
Are you serious!? Thank you Douglas for already answering; this apparently needs to be hammered in a bit. (1) I specifically said this IS NOT a discussion about those things.
“Without getting into the morality of specific bombings, battles, or wars” “Collateral damage is a can of worms I don’t want to get into now and doesn’t really seem germane to the discussion anyway.” Honestly, did you even read what I wrote? (2) I only brought those things up because YOU started talking about them. I was trying to respond to your ridiculous comparison. “If, Douglas, it is permissible to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the consent of those who live there, why is it not permissible to castrate without consent? Similarly, if it is permissible to bomb European cities without consent in the supposed furtherance or defence of civilisation, why is it not permissible to castrate for a like cause? ” Honestly, did you even read what you wrote? I’m not even going to respond to the other question. As you noticed, it just isn’t relevant. Phil has decided to stop making productive comments.
“That’s for me to know and for you to find out.” “It’s difficult to please everybody.” “You’d find it boring.” I assume (or maybe “hope” is the word) that Phil realized his position is utterly indefensible so he’s ducking any responsibility to respond to my interrogation of his reasoning. I’ll hold out some faith that he’ll just admit his advocation of such a horrific policy was immoral and wrong. Can you at least concede that the policy would be violent, as I originally sought to point out? “Did it ever actually occur to you that your “solution” to violence is violence?”
Phil, it isn’t a bad thing to recognize that your idea, which you probably just tossed out off the cuff, isn’t as moral or peaceful as you first estimated.
I do admit, Dan, that I was hoping later to justify my comments, but in the immediate context I was seeking, politely, to redirect your focus on to the issue of consent. Never mind.


Since, Dan, we have not examined to a conclusion the relation of Phil’s proposal and consent, perhaps you will allow me to proceed direct to the object of that enquiry. That object is to ask you to say, if you will, why you align Phil’s proposal in particular with Nazism, ethical extreme and abhorrence and my consideration of it in general with support of eugenics.


I suppose this is why I didn’t even want to bring up the Nazi example – another tangent. But I thought I was pretty clear: I linked to wikipedia explaining that Nazis forcibly castrated people. Is that really that difficult to make a jump between forced castration of particular groups to forcing castration of all males? Isn’t it actually more extreme? It’s not like the Nazis didn’t think they were acting toward a higher goal – they didn’t think they were evil. They just were. You may think forcing castration on all males is a good thing to prevent future violence, but as I’ve tried to argue: that is evil (or at the very least: violent – that was my original point, which I don’t see how that is in dispute).

“By the end of World War II, over 400,000 individuals were sterilized under the German law and its revisions, most within its first four years of being enacted.”

The connection with eugenics is clear (for one, that’s why the Nazis did it). Also, I was extending the logic of taking action against someone for the potential to do something. i.e. stopping males potential for violence before they have even committed any violent acts. Eugenics prevents the potential to pass on “abnormal” genes. The Nazis and other eugenics supporters wanted to “purify” humanity’s genetic makeup. Phil wants to “purify” male’s inherent nature by altering its “inherently violent” hormonal makeup.


Have I yet expressed support or opposition to Phil’s proposal, Dan?  


Did I say you have? I’m pretty sure I just directly answered your questions. If you’re confusing my “you may think” for saying “you think,” understand that I was making a rhetorical point. Reread the context. The “may” is the key word there. Feel free to substitute “one” for “you” if that makes it clearer for you.


Thank you. 

To compare what I propose, to that which the Nazis did, is to compare chalk with cheese.
The Nazis castrated selected groups of men whom they saw as totally different to themselves, and whom they did not like. I propose castrating people (men) who, as men, are not different to ourselves, and whom we don’t totally not like.
Also, the intent of the Nazis was that they intended that the men they castrated not father any more children. What I propose contains the opposite – that men, by donating sperm before castration, can father children.
These are huge differences, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Your proposal takes away the opportunity for enjoyment, momentary though it may be, of the fathering process.

I wonder, have you volunteered for the procedure?


I just now picked up on the sublime/sublimate connection. Doh.


This fascinating debate was leading to an examination of the nature of aggression and an enquiry into why an advanced civilisation suddenly resorts to primitive brute force. Unfortunately, it has descended to pejorative. Your intervention is soothing, very feminine and welcome. I weary a little and will take my leave.


I surmise that chimpanzees jumping up and down and screeching furiously at each other are saying the same sorts of things to each other in their chimp language as were said in sadly all too many of the above comments.

Given that well-nigh all the comments appeared to come from males allegedly human, they were as good an example as any of innate male irrationality and stupidity.

I too am weary and will take my leave.


I can’t help but assume that you two consider my comments part of the screeching chimp “irrationality and stupidity” that has “descended to pejorative.” I won’t spend my time focusing on the hypocrisy contained in that sentiment. But can someone please point out (if it applies to me) my “primitive brute force,” my “screeching,” and my “irrationality and stupidity?” I honestly thought I was just seriously engaging in your actual proposal to forcibly castrate all males. If strong language can’t be used to discuss a topic such as that I’m afraid you may be more interested in the lack of critical scrutiny than true debate.

Was it the Nazi reference? Is it really “pejorative” to point out a direct connection to a policy if I actually believe it is comparable? I’m not calling you a Nazi; I’m pointing out the policy you advocate is a policy that Nazis used (even if for a different rationale). Anyone is welcome to refute that and I’ll happily recant.

I didn’t spend the time to engage each of your arguments line-by-line in order to make frivolous personal remarks. Phil, how did you go from believing your suggestion was being “debated as seriously and thoughtfully” to believing the conversation was more primal shouting than honest consideration laced with a bit of humor? Most of my strongest comments even came before you acknowledged it was being debated with sobriety even if with vigor. What changed?

I apologize if I gave anyone the impression I wasn’t commenting with the highest intentions for genuine discussion. I enjoy a good barb but always wrap it around an earnest argument; didn’t mean to sting anyone’s integrity. I thought we were being Greek. All the best.


How bizarre. I’m with Dan on this: Following your debate with enormous interest, I also assumed that you were all “being Greek”.

In fact, I still think you were. That was good debate. have more of them.


Well, there it is. We all part from this friends. 


Glad to hear. May we meet in this Andreas’s rhetorical assembly again.


I fear you cut straight through a fragile thread which led to treasure, Dan. 


I do my best 😉 

(image from Wikipedia: testosterone structure

The World Cup, The War in Iraq, and The Moral Weight of Nationalism

First, congratulations to Spain for winning its first ever World Cup! They definitely deserved the honor as the best team. This tournament got me thinking about nationalism and its many faces. After all, isn’t that what the World Cup is really about? It’s fun rooting for your nation – or at least the ones you like better if yours unfortunately gets knocked out. Also who doesn’t like rooting against France if you’re American or against America if you’re from anywhere else? Of course all major sports harness the allure of tribalism for the entertainment of its fans; but the World Cup, probably above even the Olympics, is the ultimate pastime for the nationalist. Sometimes fans take the in-group, out-group rivalries too far, but most recognize that it’s all in good fun. 
In areas other than sports, nationalism has always made me a bit uncomfortable intellectually. After all, why should invisible arbitrary boundaries and the lottery of genetics make one human being more important or valuable than another? Even if one were to accept that certain states are more valuable as a force for good or that certain cultural values within specific nations are more moral that doesn’t mean that each individual within those borders is more useful or moral or valuable. My logic, informed as it is from the enlightenment, tells me that a person’s nationality shouldn’t press on scales of morality. Yet without wading too deeply into the usefulness of states as political entities, we should remember that the Treaty of Versailles enshrined the right to national self-government. This permits individuals, now citizens, who share common values to form a political and legal community of their choosing. Liberals such as John Locke can see the moral value in that; so can I. Thus, if we grant that nations usefully enhance the lives of individuals, can utilitarian hands reach and tip those moral scales at all? 
Let me take a difficult moral question for me to juggle (like any good futbol player) with these ideas. The conflict in Iraq may have been a moral no brainer for many, but not me (which I’m often ashamed to admit). I may be the only person alive who initially opposed the intervention into Iraq but became more convinced of its positive moral case as the situation deteriorated. Before any readers confuse correlation with causation, let me say that it was not because the situation deteriorated. Obviously the intellectual debate raged on after Saddam fell and the reality grew worse. I began reading both sides of the debate including the moral cases built by many in favor of the war prior to its launch. Without rehashing the cases now, just understand that the liberal hawks and intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens had a profound and persuasive effect on my understanding of the moral value in attempting to liberate a people from a tyrannical and sadistic monster like Hussein. 
During the horrible violence unleashed during the attempted building of democracy in Iraq, I read Peter Galbraith’s End of Iraq (while traveling in Spain) which while revealing the most devastating catalogue of incompetency in America’s execution, it also instilled in me a deep sympathy for the Iraqis, especially the Kurdish minority, under the barbarous rule of Hussein. As it became obvious to people like Andrew Sullivan and the majority of the American populous that supporting the adventure into Iraq had been a mistake, I began to wonder if the execution of the mission should carry moral weight about the rational to enter the conflict. After all, it is certainly possible that we had moral justification to try to aid the people of Iraq, but just did a terrible job. Or even if a noble mission is doomed to fail, can it be good? 

Is Iraq worse off now? If so, will it be in the future? The dead Iraqis are clearly worse off.  Many that were previously oppressed are now better off. In the calculation of the complete moral tally of the Iraq enterprise, the sum is unclear to me. When I judge the Iraq conflict now, I can’t help but view the situation through the lens of an American. For the United States, it seems an unqualified failure and mistake. This brings me back to my original point; should I be looking at this as an American as opposed to the perspective of, say, a Kurd who’s family was gassed by Saddam or a Shi’ite who would have been tortured and killed if Saddam remained in power? Nonetheless, if someone forced me to say if we should have gone into Iraq knowing what I know now, I’d have to say, ‘”no.” The neoconservative cheerleaders fail to acknowledge reality, but many opponents and reformed souls too often don’t like to admit the continued difficulty in the moral case for and against intervention. Anytime someone points to the number of dead Americans or cost to American taxpayers, I wholeheartedly empathize but the provincialism registers with me. I’m not discounting it or faulting it. I think those statistics are important, valuable, and persuasive measures for the ethical case against intervention. But if we were Iraqis fighting for our own home, would 4000+ dead servicemen and a multi-trillion dollar price tag be not worth the cost for the overthrow of a brutal dictator and the promise of self-determination? 

These questions puzzle me as a liberal humanitarian. The case for nationalism here is powerful. The nation, as the political entity we’ve created to advance our individual interests, must seek its own self-interest. It is plausible to me that the invisible hand of self-interest works for nation-states causing a greater good for other parties. As for our political representatives, we elected them to represent our interests over others as long as we hold to basic human decency. So, shouldn’t I encourage them to value an American life over an Iraqi’s if that means greater good for all in a utilitarian calculation? If our nation weighted everyone in the world the same, it wouldn’t have the resources to improve as many lives. The combination of scarcity with the practicality of local action suggests that more people benefit by an individual state favoring its own interests.
As may be apparent now, a contrast exists in valuing all humans equally while thinking nations best serve individuals. I haven’t reconciled it yet. Iraq is not only a chockstone for the Middle East, but also precariously wedges together difficult moral precepts for me. The intervention into Iraq may be noble mistake, but both sides in the debate need to acknowledge that strong moral factors sit on both sides of the scale. 
(photo 1: New York Times
(photo 2: Me in Spain at a Kurdish kebab shop)

Science of Morality Roundup

May 7, 2010 1 comment

Ever since Sam Harris’s TED talk went up there has been a healthy debate on the topic. Here are the major links for those interested.  I included some worthwhile excerpts from the various links. 
The TED talk.

The longer Google version. 

The Moral Landscape.

My first reaction. 

[It] seems a strong case can be made that liberty is a moral value that doesn’t rely on well-being as its foundation. Sure, supports can be garnered to strengthen the moral case for liberty but humans, for example, could theoretically be worse off because of liberty and a strong case can still be made for its moral value. Kant, of course, made a strong moral case that humans are ends not means. Therefore, conscious beings as autonomous agents might make suboptimal decisions, but restricting their free choice through a benevolent paternalism might be less moral even if it leads to greater well-being.

Sean Carroll’s initial critique. 

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Sam responds to Sean.

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

 And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume’s arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll’s entire field, or science generally. 

Russell Blackford counters Sam.

To illustrate Singer’s conception of moral action, if I wish to act in accordance with the so-called ethical point of view, and if I see that Φ-ing (say, selling my house and donating the proceeds to Community Aid Abroad) is the unique way for me to do so in my current circumstances, then it can be said that Φ-ing is what I ought to do. 

 Notice, however, that I expressed this as a hypothetical imperative. It is what I have reason to do if I already wish to act from the ethical point of view. At this stage, no good reason (some kind of non-moral, or pre-moral, “ought”) has been given as to why I should, or might, wish to act in accordance with the ethical point of view. It’s no good saying that my interests are not objectively more important than anyone else’s. So what? They are still my interests, and I may desire to further them. How have I made any error if I set out to do so? My desire to further my own interests is not the sort of thing that can entail any truth-claims that might be in error. I simply have desires … and they motivate me. 

 Sean tries to clarify. 

The second point I wanted to mention was the justification we might have for passing moral judgments over others. Not to be uncharitable, but it seems that the biggest motivation most people have for insisting that morals can be grounded in facts is that they want it to be true — because if it’s not true, how can we say the Taliban are bad people? 

 That’s easy: the same way I can say radical epistemological skepticism is wrong. Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!

Sam’s guide to moving from “is” to “ought.” 

FACT #8: One cannot reasonably ask, “But why is the worst possible misery for everyone bad?”—for if the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, the word “bad” has no meaning. (This would be like asking, “But why is a perfect circle round?” The question can be posed, but it expresses only confusion, not an intelligible basis for skeptical doubt.) Likewise, one cannot ask, “But why ought we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?”—for if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone.

Massimo Pigliucci thinks science can inform morality but not answer ethical questions. 

The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris’ talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. AndI certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.

Sam’s response to Massimo. 

That is not exactly what I asked. I asked whether subjecting children to “pain, violence, and public humiliation” leads to “healthy emotional development and good behavior” (i.e. does it conduce to their general wellbeing and to the wellbeing of society). If it did, well then yes, I would admit that it was moral. In fact, it would appear moral to more or less everyone—just as slitting open a child’s belly to perform an emergency appendectomy seems obviously moral to anyone who understands the purpose of this procedure. The patent immorality of corporal punishment relates to the sense that it is clearly bad for children, both in the moment and in the long run (along with the fact that it is generally the product of anger, rather than benevolence, on the part of the brute holding the paddle).

Sean believes morality can’t be answered scientifically even in principle. 

So how are we to decide how to balance one person’s well-being against another’s? To do this scientifically, we need to be able to make sense of statements like “this person’s well-being is precisely 0.762 times the well-being of that person.” What is that supposed to mean? Do we measure well-being on a linear scale, or is it logarithmic? Do we simply add up the well-beings of every individual person, or do we take the average? And would that be the arithmetic mean, or the geometric mean? Do more individuals with equal well-being each mean greater well-being overall? Who counts as an individual? Do embryos? What about dolphins? Artificially intelligent robots?

P.Z. Myers sides with Sean.

I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.

Sam responds to PZ and Sean. 

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy you are?” And yet, these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously. 

Science-Based Morality and The Problem of Liberty

March 29, 2010 1 comment

I promised my thoughts on Sam Harris’s TED talk – I also watched a longer version of the talk which he gave at Google containing a worthwhile Q&A session.

My thoughts below the fold.
Sam Harris always impresses me and I’m incredibly excited about this book. Although I don’t think he completely breaks through Hume’s “is/ought” barrier [update: see below], Harris adequately demonstrates that a science of morality is possible and objective facts can be known about moral systems. His major insight is to recognize that morality is really about answering questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Once that move is made it becomes clear that objective values exist – actions either correspond to promoting greater well-being or they don’t. No matter how you parse it, murdering innocent babies doesn’t lead to greater flourishing of human well-being.

Harris, wisely, doesn’t claim that he or science currently knows all the answers to our moral dilemmas, only that it is possible that discoverable truths exist and that we should admit that we know more then nothing. Furthermore, Harris paints us a picture of our potential moral universe where different answers to moral questions can exist. That does not imply that all responses are equally valid. If you imagine his “moral landscape” it has many peaks and valleys. His analogy to health helps the most: a practically unlimited amount of different types of food can all lead to greater health (itself a fussy concept) but that doesn’t mean that poison is food or that science can’t identify objective truths about health-related questions.

I assume most of my concerns will be addressed in his 300+ page book; I eagerly await. For example, I’m curious if he thinks science can help us adjudicate between different peaks – not just map them. It wasn’t obvious to me how that would be possible. If two peaks are equally tall is the choice just personal or societal preference? Also, he argues that science can inform us about the objective moral worth of different political systems, which seems true if you accept his premises. Of course, if one expands morality to more then just well-being the moral landscape’s bedrock might become more fragile. As soon as I started thinking about various political systems, I began wondering about how the concept of liberty would be viewed through Harris’s moral microscope.

Maybe the argument is invalid but it seems a strong case can be made that liberty is a moral value that doesn’t rely on well-being as its foundation. Sure, supports can be garnered to strengthen the moral case for liberty but humans, for example, could theoretically be worse off because of liberty and a strong case can still be made for its moral value. Kant, of course, made a strong moral case that humans are ends not means. Therefore, conscious beings as autonomous agents might make suboptimal decisions, but restricting their free choice through a benevolent paternalism might be less moral even if it leads to greater well-being. Robert Nozick like Harris argues that values exist (he argues they are independent of us) and makes a moral case for rights and liberty without a necessary appeal to well-being. I know Harris is familiar with Nozick and other philosophers who value rights and liberty, so I’m very excited to see how he deals with these issues. Does he believe that rights are just useful tools to achieving greater well-being or does he believe that they are valuable for their own sake? I hope to expand on this topic further – if anyone finds out Harris’s opinion on these issues or if you want to take your own crack at it feel free to comment.

[Update: Sam writes a lengthy response to a lot of the critiques of his lecture (including some issues I brought up]:

All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.

Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that wellbeing is what we can intelligibly value—and “morality” (whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be) reallyrelates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term “wellbeing” could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.

(my emphasis) 

Sam on The Moral Landscape

March 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Will add my thoughts later just wanted to get the video up:

[update 03/29]: My thoughts.

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