The Duty to Shut Up

Psychologists once conducted the following experiment.  Small children were left in a room with toys, one of which was particularly attractive.  Some were told that they would be punished if they played with the attractive toy.  Others were told that it was wrong to do so.  Some weeks later, the children were again left in the room.  Nothing was said.  Those that had been told that it was wrong to play with the attractive toy were less likely to play with it than those that had been threatened.  They had accepted the belief that it was wrong to play with the toy, rationalized it in their own way, and acted accordingly.

This story shows that human beings are vulnerable to moralists.

It shows that moralists have power.

It illuminates the fact that moralists ought to act responsibly.

Moralists disagree with each other and, as a matter of logic, at most one can be right.  If at most one can be right, most are wrong.  You don’t have to be right to act responsibly but you have to try.  They way in which to act responsibly is to proportion your affirmations to the evidence.

The set of moralists include preachers, teachers, ethicists, newspaper columnists, and television pundits.  It is obvious that many do not act responsibly.  If they cannot bring themselves to act responsibly, they have a duty to shut up.

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Religious ethics

Religious ethical theories are no improvement on secular ones.

Followers of St. Thomas Aquinas argue, for instance, that human beings are essentially reproductive and that therefore homosexuality is wrong.  But if human beings are essentially reproductive and homosexuals are not, what follows is that homosexuals are not human beings.  Since homosexuals are human beings, human beings are not essentially reproductive.  The fact is that you cannot use a property to categorize things and then criticize the excluded on the ground that they lack it.  Catholics constantly equivocate.

Adherents of the divine command theory have no alternative but to maintain that revelation of some sort or other provides the only reliable guide to morality.  If God is always truthful, then revelation is reliable.  The trouble is that a necessary condition for establishing that something is in fact a revelation from God is establishing that it is entirely true.  Consequently, either they end up effectively maintaining that we know that it is true because it is from God and that we know that it is from God because it is true, which is a case of circularity, or they commit petitio principii by dogmatically affirming a clutch of moral injunctions that suit their prejudices.  Either way, revelationists beg the question.

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Supervenience and Procrustean Tendencies

There is no legal difference between two states of affairs without a difference in the material facts.

There is no moral difference between two states of affairs without a difference in the material facts.

Both of these statements appear to be true.  Philosophers allude to supervenience in the latter case but not in the former.  Given the parallelism of the two statements, however, it would be odd if supervenience were necessary in the latter case but superfluous in the former.

We speak of acts being lawful or unlawful.  Synonymously, we speak of acts being consistent or inconsistent with the law.  Hence, it is also possible to speak of acts being consistent or inconsistent with morality.

Indeed, we can speak of acts being consistent or inconsistent with morality, when morality is based on the commands of God, Platonic moral principles, or the foundational attitudes I postulate.  Each of these can function in ways analogous to the ways in which statutes function.

Now, although almost no beliefs are products of evolution, it is not impossible for there to be selection for beliefs.  If the content of a naturally selected belief included normative concepts, then we could explain how normativity could originate in a world that started out lacking it.  Explaining the origin or morality in this way is not a matter of deriving prescriptions from descriptions – natural selection is not logical inference.  It is probably the only realistic way of explaining how normativity came into the actual world.

It would be Procrustean to require talk about consistency and evolution to be translated into the idiom of supervenience.

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Supervenience and Hume’s Law

I have yet another criticism of contemporary ethics.

Hume pointed out that prescriptions do not follow logically from descriptions.

Most contemporary ethicists assume that they do.

Most contemporary ethicists derive prescriptions from descriptions by means of the hypothesis that moral properties are supervenient properties.

This moral property supervenes on these natural properties.  These natural properties obtain.  Therefore, this moral property obtains.

The first premise is a description, not a prescription.  It is not the kind of moral principle that shows up in elementary textbooks to illustrate Hume’s observation.

Worse, there is no evidence of any sort that any claim of the type is true.  There is no empirical evidence, no logical proof, and no conceptual analysis that shows that it is true.

I am aware that if two actions are otherwise identical, then it is impossible for one to be right and the other wrong, say.

But it does not follow that moral properties are supervenient properties.

Instead, it could be the case that it is impossible for one action to be right and the other wrong because it is impossible for both to be compatible with a moral principle.  (More precisely perhaps, it is impossible for their true descriptions both to be compatible.)   A legal analogy helps here.  If a new statute is enacted, actions are either compatible with it or not.  But we never say that the lawfulness (or unlawfulness) of the actions supervenes on their non-legal properties.  If supervenience talk is superfluous in the legal case (and it is), it could be superfluous in the moral case as well.  Furthermore, if “supervenience” is defined so broadly (and its meaning is stipulated by philosophers) that it includes the consistency case, then it is defined so broadly that it mystifies rather than clarifies.

Mystification enables the implausible to abstract credibility from the plausible. It is no virtue.

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Ways in which philosophy depends on ignorance of evolution

Not all philosophical cleverness and sophistication is relevant to an understanding of the actual world.


Natural selection is destructive.  If being ethical reduces fitness, it will destroy any ethical organism.  So, if your ethical theory does not explain how ethical beings endure in a biologically hostile environment, it is worthless.  Bentham, Aquinas, Kant, and Aristotle – none of them provides a useful starting point.  Contemporary philosophers who follow in their footsteps contribute nothing of value.

Freedom and Responsibility

Do we have free will?  The question is whether organisms with specific properties, including an evolutionary and an individual history, are free.  The boundaries of the organism are determined by its skin.  You cannot use its own properties or its own histories to prove that it is not free.  With arguments that appeal to either excluded, it is obvious that we are free enough to be morally responsible.  You can get started on an argument against free will only if you reduce individuals to something less than an organism, only if you philosophically alienate their bodies.


Beliefs are not adaptations.  There is no natural selection for the beliefs we acquire throughout our lives.  What is an adaptation is the capacity to acquire beliefs.  The beliefs have to be advantageous to the organism.  But advantageousness is not always revealed at the time of acquisition.  Instead, it is revealed in the future.  Since advantageousness is not detectable in the present, we need a proxy for it.  The only plausible proxy is truth as correspondence.  Therefore, the correspondence theory of truth is true.

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Geocentric Politics in a Heliocentric World

The normative content of my moral theory boils down to this:  we have to minimize the losses (deaths or significant injuries) suffered by other members of the moral community, but we do not have to do so by ourselves suffering death or significant injury, and we must not act as though we are worth more than any other member of the moral community.

The equality provision entails that free riders are wrongdoers.

I will now speculate.  I suspect that people on the left emphasize the importance of minimizing losses in the community while people on the right emphasize minimizing the number of free riders.  I suspect that people on the right think that people on the left are abetting the free riders out of a misplaced sympathy for them.  If so, the more people on the left attack people on the right, the more the latter will be disposed to resist and reject the positions advanced by people on the left.

One question that now arises is whether, if there are free riders, people on the right have correctly identified them.

In the old days, when we were hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers, it was fairly easy.  Free-riders were individuals who could support themselves but who did not.  They were people who did not hunt, gather, or farm.  They were people who did not work.

In the contemporary world, however, employable people who do not work are not necessarily free riders.  The government maintains what is called the natural rate of unemployment in order to keep the system functioning.  If too many people get jobs, the government raises interest rates to throw some of them out of work again.  The interaction of government policy and employer preferences results in people literally becoming unemployable.  Such unemployables are not exploiters but the exploited.  They deserve compensation because they have been sacrificed to keep the system running.

I will now speculate a bit more.  The problem with the contemporary right is not their principle but their overemphasis on it and their application of it.  The problem is that they think that it is possible to identify free riders using a criterion that is inappropriate in the contemporary collectivist world of the market economy, whose institutions and operations they do not understand.

Misguided righteous indignation is a potent political weapon.

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Not Fit for Purpose

Here are two questions for moral theorists.

1)  Could people do wrong if your moral theory was true?

2)  Could people do right if your moral theory was true?

It is obvious that most moral theorists would answer both questions in the affirmative.

But if people could do wrong, then there could also be natural selection for a disposition to do wrong when doing wrong would increase the wrongdoer’s fitness.  (There are obviously cases in which doing wrong could increase the wrongdoer’s fitness.  For example, stealing food during a famine could make the thief more viable and committing rape in wartime could make it more probable that the rapist would have offspring.  Biological fitness is a function of viability, fertility, and the trade-offs between them.)

If there were natural selection for a disposition to do wrong when doing wrong would increase the wrongdoer’s fitness, the disposition would tend to render people unable to do right.

So, in a world in which people are products of evolution by heritable variation and natural selection, if people could do wrong, then they would tend to be unable to do right.

Conversely, there would be selection for a disposition to do right when doing right increased fitness.  In such cases, people would tend to be unable to do wrong.

We take it as obvious that the answers to the questions set out at the beginning are both affirmative.  In an evolutionary world, however, the answers should both be negative.  Hence, moral theorists have to explain how the answers could be affirmative in the actual world, which is an evolutionary world.  Therefore, moral theorists have to engage with the theory of evolution and have to explain how their moral worldview can be compatible with evolution by heritable variation and natural selection.

As a matter of fact, most moral theories are not fit for purpose.

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The Uselessness of Utilitarianism

Why do philosophy courses still include utilitarianism?  Why is it regarded as a contender?

There is literally no evidence that any utilitarian principle is true.  There never has been and, after hundreds of years of its failing to appear, there is no reason to think that there ever will be.

Bentham attacked a straw man to make his own theory appear credible in comparison.  His bete noir was intuitionism.  He contended that there was no way to distinguish reliable from unreliable intuitions.  But he ignored the intuitionist explanation that intuitions were unreliable when they were contaminated by error or ignorance with respect to what lawyers call material facts.

It is impossible for utilitarians to undermine that reply to his objection because utilitarian judgments can also be contaminated by error or ignorance.  They have the same problem, and need the same solution, as intuitionists.

The best explanation for the rise of utilitarianism is English politics:  parliament found its “alternative facts” useful in its struggle with the judiciary over whether judges could invalidate legislation.

Utilitarians like Peter Singer declare that we should reason with ourselves.  But there is a difference between using reason to apply the utilitarian calculus and using it to justify its application.  It is easy to do the former but impossible to do the latter.

Utilitarianism has counter-intuitive results.  In the trolley cases, our intuitions tell us to direct the trolley so that it kills one stranger on one track rather than five on another but that we should not throw a fat man in front of the trolley to stop it.  Even if we can convince ourselves that we should sacrifice the fat man, we cannot convince ourselves that we should throw ourselves or our children in front of the trolley.  But utilitarianism is just as insistent that we sacrifice ourselves or our children as it is that we sacrifice corpulent strangers.

The fact that utilitarians see no difference between the two types of trolley cases reveals the crudeness of their thinking.  We have a different relationship to the fat man than we have to the stranger on the track.  If we throw the former onto the track, we commit ourselves to conceding that it would be all right for others to do the same to us or our offspring.  We do not acquire the same commitment when we switch the trolley to a different set of tracks.  Given the odds and our ignorance of the identity of the individuals involved, we are happy to commit ourselves straightforwardly to minimizing the loss of human life in those circumstances.

The fact that utilitarians are committed to sacrificing themselves or their children for strangers puts them at odds with evolution.  The commitment would reduce their viability or fertility – their fitness – and utilitarians need to explain how morality could persist in an evolutionary world if their theory were true.  In other words, they need to explain why they are not as crazy as creationists.

The one thing utilitarians are good at is churning out results by applying their theory.  Thus, it provides jobs for philosophers – easy jobs.  And keeping it on the curriculum gives philosophers something to talk about in classes.  But the jobs are not worth doing.  And the teaching is counter-productive insofar as it serves to discredit morality as an idea and to make it easier for psychopaths to pass.

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A Victim of the System

I attended a social event at which another guest expressed indignation about injustices he had suffered or would suffer.

First, he was indignant that the gay man who spoke to Ivanka Kushner on an airplane had not been arrested.  He was certain that the man would have been arrested if he had not be gay.  I investigated later and the witnesses said that he did not raise his voice.   It sounded as though he was nervous and steeled himself to speak up but he did not shout.   Consequently, I do not know what the hypothetical heterosexual would have been arrested for.

Second, he was indignant that Canada’s health care system treated people for knee replacements on a first come/first served basis so that sometimes undeserving individuals got repaired before deserving individuals.  I believe he needed a knee replacement and regarded himself as deserving because he worked at a well-paid job.

He regarded these complaints as legitimate grievances.  If the privileged can regard themselves as hard done by, it is no wonder that politics can become bizarre.

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The Wrong Role Model

Some ethicists argue that we have obligations in virtue of our nature.

“You are a rational being.  Rational beings are consistent.  Therefore, you ought to be consistent.”

I suspect that they think they are modelling their argument on the following kind of argument.

“You are a trustee.  Trustees act in the best interests of the beneficiaries.  Therefore, you ought to act in the best interests of your beneficiaries.”

But I think their argument actually resembles the following kind of argument.

“You are Japanese.  Japanese exhibit gaman (我慢).  Therefore, you ought to exhibit gaman (我慢).”

The second argument is plausible because the role of a trustee is a creation of the law and that is in the background.  The third argument is implausible because we do not have the same kind of normative background.

Some ethicists are no more rational than Japanese nationalists.

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