The Kantian Slaveholder

Immorality is not reducible to inconsistency:   a Kantian can consistently own slaves as long as he doesn’t believe that they are ends in themselves.

If this isn’t the final word, we must distinguish between actual consistency and what we can call ideal consistency, concede that the Kantian slave-owner is actually consistent, and maintain that he is ideally inconsistent.

It is easy enough to make the distinction and the concession but we cannot show that he is ideally inconsistent.

To prove that the Kantian slave-owner is ideally inconsistent despite being actually consistent, we must establish both 1) that he morally ought to believe, or logically must believe, or willy-nilly ends up believing, and 2) that what he believes ought to be true, or must be true, or willy-nilly ends up being true.

The reason we must establish both is that someone can maintain actual consistency either by failing to add an inconsistency-causing belief to his repertoire or by adding its negation.  This is a general point about consistency. For any consistent set of propositions and for any proposition that would render the set inconsistent if it were added to the set, the consistency of the set can be maintained either by not adding the proposition at all or by adding its negation. This set is consistent: {If we are in Saskatoon, we are in Saskatchewan; If we are in Saskatchewan, we are in Canada; We are in Saskatoon}.  Adding “We are not in Canada” would render the set inconsistent.  We maintain consistency if either we don’t add “We are not in Canada” or we do add “It is not true that we are not in Canada.”

But it is impossible to establish both that the Kantian slaveholder ought to believe and that his beliefs ought to be true on the ground that he would be inconsistent unless he believed and unless his beliefs were true.  You need some other grounds to prove that he ought to believe and that he ought to believe truly.  There is the same problem with the logical and causal options.  Therefore, immorality is not merely inconsistency.

Some try to appeal to the contention that beliefs necessarily aim at the truth.  But it will not get us what we need. First, it does not show that the Kantian slave-owner ought to believe, must believe, or willy-nilly ends up believing the relevant propositions.  Second, even if he has a propositional attitude that is like a belief in all other respects but that does not aim at the truth, it does not follow that it is a defective belief that ought to be replaced. What follows is that either it is a defective belief or it is a perfectly good specimen of a different kind of thing – it is impossible both to use an essential property to categorize things and to use its absence to criticize the same things.  But if we can’t establish that it is a defective belief, we can’t establish that it ought to be true.

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Ptolemaic Ethics

It would be scandalous if there were university departments in which Ptolemaic cosmology still predominated, if there were journals devoted to publishing clever papers by Ptolemaic scholars, and if Ptolemaic scholars were oblivious to the challenge posed by Copernican cosmology.

An even more scandalous situation exists with respect to ethical theory.  It has been more than 150 years since Darwin published On the Origin of Species but ethicists are still grinding out papers about the theories advanced by Bentham and Kant, and their intellectual descendants.   And many ethicists who lost hope that either of those approaches would ever succeed have responded by returning to Aristotle.  They are all oblivious to the challenge posed by the theory of evolution by heritable variation and natural selection, as are proponents of the divine command theory and Thomistic natural law.

In the long run, natural selection would destroy the lineages of people who tried to live according to any of those theories.  First, people can violate the obligations the theories hypothesize.  Consequently, evolution can create dispositions to act discordantly with the theories.   Second, the theories require their adherents to do something other than try to maximize their genetic legacies.  Thus, trying to live according to the theories would reduce fitness to a significant extent.  And, third, ‘strongly inadaptive features hold little prospect for an evolutionary legacy because natural selection must soon eliminate them.’  [Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press, 2002), p. 1247.]   The upshot is that if any non-evolutionary theory were true, humanity would have ended up being amoral.  Since humanity still cares about morality, the non-evolutionary theories must all be false.

The question that arises in these circumstances is why people continue to promote these theories.  One factor, I suspect, is the availability error.  The theories are regular fodder in courses on ethics, which results in people taking them more seriously than they should, which results in their being taught in ethics courses.  Another is probably that you can make a good living contributing to these intellectual traditions.  You can be hired by other devotees of the tradition and you can be published in the journals they edit.  As Upton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  [Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor:  And How I Got Licked (Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 1994), p. 109.]   Finally, these traditions have massive defenses in the form of the literature.  Critics can be dismissed when they have not read and rebutted a great deal of theoretical bumf.

But the fact remains that a great deal of philosophical ethics is no better than theology.

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Naked Usurpation

The limited liability corporation is a wonderful invention, which has made us collectively much richer than we would have been otherwise.

The limited liability corporation is a legal person.  As a legal person, it cannot have all the rights of a natural person, that is, a human being.  It cannot enter into marriage, for instance.

The limited liability corporation is the creation of legislation.  As the creation of legislation, it cannot be other than a person for commercial purposes only.  It is a person so that it can enter into contracts, for instance, and so that lawsuits can be brought against it.

Under our system of law, the role of judges is not to legislate but to interpret legislation.

I submit that judges who decide that corporations are persons for purposes other than commercial ones are engaged in “a naked usurpation of the legislative function under the thin disguise of interpretation,” to quote Lord Simonds’ magnificent put-down of Lord Denning in Magor and St. Mellons [1952] A.C. 189.

I submit that any judge who would interpret the personhood of a corporation so as to attribute to it the right of free speech other than for commercial purposes, say, is as daft – and acts as unlawfully – as a judge who would give corporations the right to marry.

I submit that it is the duty of superior courts to quash extravagant interpretations of corporate personhood by lower courts and that, if it is the highest court that has been extravagant, then it is its duty to reverse itself.  It is the duty of the legislature to explicitly reject the extravagant interpretations.

“Realists” will retort that these things will never happen but sometimes the first step in achieving a goal is stating what ought to be the case.


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Do you know what you believe?

Many people in fact don’t know what they believe.

For instance, there are people who say that they believe that government should be run like a business.

They say it but they don’t believe it.

Consider a single person and a family of four (consisting a mother, a father, and two young children) in which there is only one wage-earner.

If the single person and the family go to a restaurant, and if the single person and the wage-earner order the same things, the single person will pay less than the family will pay.

However, if the single person and the wage-earner make the same income, the former will pay more in taxes than the latter.  If the tax is flat, the former will pay more per capita than the latter.

If the government were run like a business, not even a flat tax would be available.  If the government were run like a business, the family would have to pay more in taxes than the single person.

Unless you believe that the family should pay more, you do not believe that the government should be run like a business.

Of course, most people think that the family should pay less.  If so, you are fine, in principle, with transfers from the better off to the worse off.  If so, you are fine, in principle, with being taxed at a higher rate to help others in society.  The question for you is not whether there should be transfers but to whom the transfers should be made.


Of course, now that the implications have been pointed out, people who have said that government should be run like a business will say that they meant it should be run like a business in terms of efficiency, say.  To which I reply, then you should have added your qualifiers sooner.

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Are Republicans like Buddhists?

The owner of one place I worked was a Buddhist.  He believed that his success in this life was an indication of his virtue in past lives.  I have heard that he has since gone to prison.  I do not know what he thinks now.

Buddhists hold a version of the just world hypothesis, which is that everyone gets what they deserve.

Republicans supposedly do, too.

I do not think it is true.  If everyone gets what they deserve, then whatever is the case ought to be the case.  If the poor die from lack of medical care, then they deserve it.  If the government taxes the rich to provide medical care for the poor, then the rich deserve to be taxed and the poor deserve the medical care.

But Republicans do not just go about singing “Que sera, seraad nauseum.

Republicans say that people are poor because of lack of effort.  This shows that they do not understand market economies.  In market economies, governments maintain what is supposed to be the natural rate of unemployment.  If too many people get jobs, the government says euphemistically that the labor market is “overheating” and raise interest rates to “cool” it.  In other words, if too many people get jobs, the government raises interest rates to make them unemployed again.  If people could get jobs by making increased efforts, the government would just raise interest rates again.  Governments maintain the natural rate of unemployment because it is believed that the system would otherwise be destroyed by accelerating inflation.  In other words, governments sacrifice some people in order to keep the system running.

Republicans also think that rich people have worked harder.  But effort can be amplified by institutions.  People can make more when there are corporations than when there aren’t.  They can make more because they are more willing to invest.  They are more willing to invest because they risk only what they have invested and not everything they own.  That’s what limited liability means.  In other words, rich people are beneficiaries of government action.

The system enriches some people without regard to merit and impoverishes others, also without regard to merit.  There is no reason why we should not tax the lucky and good reason to compensate the unlucky with the revenue raised.

Republicans are not proponents of the just world hypothesis.  They just rationalize keeping their windfalls.




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In What Respect?

The American television personality Jimmy Kimmel made the following statement recently.

We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world.

I am not going to criticize American nationalism.  Instead, the question is:  If it were true, how could we show that it was true?  And I am asking about this type of statement and not this particular statement.

Whenever someone says that something is better than something else, I immediately want to know this:  In what respect?

One individual can be more intelligent than another, say, but it does not make sense to say that someone is more than another.  Or that someone is the most.

And, obviously, superiority in some respects does not guarantee superiority in all respects.  The fact that the USA is the world’s greatest military power does not guarantee that it has the world’s best medical system, or the world’s greatest cuisine.

Furthermore, superiority on average does not guarantee superiority in every case.  If the average member of one group is more intelligent than another, it does not follow that a particular member of the former group is more intelligent than another.

People who make statements like Kimmel’s (without “We were brought up to believe that” appended at the front) demonstrate that they are not as good as they could be at reasoning.



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Freedom of speech

“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything without sufficient evidence.”  W. K. Clifford

If it is morally wrong for people to believe without sufficient evidence, then it is morally wrong to bring it about that they believe without sufficient evidence.

But should it be illegal?

Well, the reason over-believing is immoral is that it can lead to wrongful acts, so it is enough to forbid the acts.  Specific laws against over-believing are not necessary.

Similarly, we may not need specific laws against propaganda or proselytizing — although a broader definition of what it is to be a secondary party to a crime could perhaps be justified.

But just because propaganda and proselytizing are legal does not mean that anyone has an obligation to listen to or read the statements of propagandists or proselytizers, to provide a venue in which they can make them, or to refrain from expressing the opinion that their makers are immoral, irresponsible and contemptible.  We do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater but neither do we want to concede that the bathwater is worth keeping.



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People are over-impressed by salient differences.  Thus, people will frequently conclude that cultural relativism is true, where cultural relativism is the view that morality is relative to societies — different society, different morality.

But evolutionary intuitionism predicts the differences.

It says that there are factors that distort our view of the morality that we all share.  Ignorance, error, and rationalization are all such factors, and since they differ from society to society, they will lead to different distortions of morality, which means that cultural relativism will appear to be true.

In other words, evolutionary intuitionism says that the “genotype” of morality is the same but that its “phenotype” varies because of environmental factors.  Relativism says that the “phenotypes” are all independent of one another.

Of course, evolutionary intuitionism also says that there is a true “phenotype,” at which point, proponents of relativism will cry “intolerance.”

Well, frankly, we should be intolerant of avoidable injuries and loss of life, we should be intolerant of people who use other people, and we should be intolerant of inequality and unwarranted privilege, which sums up the normative output of the theory.

The doctrine of cultural relativism can be used to condemn one society imposing its norms on another, but it can also be used to excuse oppressive norms within societies.




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A Summary of Evolutionary Intuitionism

This is a summary of my ethical theory in under 1000 words.

In the right neighbourhood

If morality were a matter of principle, reason, or virtue, and we were capable of acting immorally, there would be natural selection for acting immorally whenever acting immorally helped us promote our genetic legacies.  In other words, natural selection would trump morality if morality were non-evolutionary.

If there were selection for morality, morality would be just another way in which we could promote our genetic legacies.  But morality requires that we perform actions that are biologically altruistic.  Therefore, morality is neither adaptive nor an adaptation.

Boyd and Richardson point out that altruistic groups could not be invaded by non-altruists provided that the latter had a conformist bias.  But the conformist bias is speculative.  Moreover, non-altruists who lacked a conformist bias would be fitter than those who possessed it and the the former would eventually supplant the latter.   Variation would ensure that some non-altruists lacked a conformist bias.

The only way to explain a morality that endures and that requires us to do something other than maximize our genetic legacies is to explain it as an evolutionary by-product of an adaptation from which it cannot be separated.  In that case, morality could impose a cost but the adaptation would provide a benefit, and the combination would endure because the benefit would still outweigh the cost.

An evolutionary by-product theory

Here’s what could work.  First, we have naturally selected beliefs that we are of value.  There is natural selection for them because they improve our ability to complete longer range plans when the completion is in our interests.  They are not true and do not come with a rational justification.

We acknowledge others with the same belief in order to gain their cooperation on the same kind of projects.  We acknowledge them as being equally valuable.

Once we acknowledge some other believers we are committed to acknowledge all others, because we have no grounds on which to distinguish the former from the latter.

Our belief switches itself off in situations in which acting in accordance with it would require us to sacrifice ourselves, our kin, or our friends.

Its evolution and confirmation

The original belief increases our viability.  So does the extended belief that enables cooperation, and the acknowledgement of equality that prevents the breakdown of cooperation.   The switch offs ensure that sacrifices are always voluntary and not required when they are not in our biological interest.

We can make empirical predictions that are confirmed, such as the prediction that the truly amoral should be bad at long term projects, a prediction that is borne out by the existence of psychopaths.

Moral facts 

It is stipulated that acts are morally permissible when they are consistent with someone’s extended belief that others are of equal value, that an act is morally obligatory when it is the only morally permissible act available, and that forbidden acts are those that are inconsistent.


The normative ethics that results is one such that we should minimize losses unless we have to sacrifice ourselves, our kin, or our friends to do so.  It is a principle of minimization because the commitment is a result of our relations with others rather than a function of our possessing quanta of value.

It is also an ethics that forbids us to  use others because that would amount to treating them unequally.

In sum, it is a limited consequentialism that is deontologically constrained.  It is not unreasonable.  It leaves plenty of room in which people can live rich lives in a variety of ways.

Moral motivation

As for moral  motivation, all that is required is that if we believe something, then, if we act, we act consistently with the belief.  So the default is that if we act, we act consistently with our extended belief that we and others are of equal value.

We can deviate from the default if we lack relevant true beliefs or possess relevant false beliefs.  Sometimes, it is in our interest to lack true beliefs or to possess false ones, in which case we rationalize.

Ignorance, error, and rationalization result in different cultures developing different moral codes, with the result that relativism may appear to be true.

Ignorance, error, and rationalization do not change the the moral facts:  actions are permissible when they are objectively consistent with the extended beliefs, not when they are merely subjectively consistent.  Even a rationalizer would judge someone else in the same situation as the rationalizer to be a wrong-doer.

Moral reformers and moral saints are possible because they may have little ability to rationalize, including an inability to rationalize their society’s moral code.


The theory is realist, objectivist, and cognitivist.  We have moral intuitions that are like the linguistic intuitions of native speakers of Standard English about when to use the active and passive voices.

The output of the theory should not be intuitively outlandish because the theory explains our intuitions in terms of the same theoretical postulates that generate normative output, and it would be odd if they diverged.  It is the only moral theory that explains why its output should be intuitively acceptable.

Our intuitions should agree when we share all relevant beliefs, and they should be correct when we possess all relevant truths and no relevant falsehoods.  To do  right, we must believe right.


The theory has a number of theoretical virtues such as simplicity and conservativism.  It harmonizes ethics and biology.  It puts moral facts in the right place:  not so distant that their influence becomes a mystery but not so close that they become subjective.  It makes us into each other’s brothers and sisters.

Evolutionary intuitionism explains the origin and development of an objective, universal morality in a way that no other theory does.  It explains the persistence  of a recognizably human morality in a world that is existentially hostile to it.


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The moral necessity of single payer health care

The moral theory which I developed requires us to minimize human injuries and loss of life, provided we can do so without significant injury to ourselves, our kin, and our friends.

It is obvious that we should do so in rescue situations.  It is obvious that we should save the drowning if we can do so safely.  It is obvious that we should help people who are in a burning house if we can do so without risk.

Minimizing injuries and losses sometimes requires us to work together.  It sometimes requires us to amplify our efforts through the development of institutions.

Ultimately, it follows, I believe, that we have a moral obligation to create and support a single-payer healthcare system, or one that is as good at providing health care, when we have an advanced industrial economy.


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