Tag Archives: Ethics

Ethics and Philosophy: A Defense of Egoism

In my previous post about ethics, I explored the normative question through the works of Christine Korsgaard. I concluded that ethics are not normative, or at least that ethics have no collective normativity, and I rejected Korsgaard’s theory that we may ethically obligate others.

This post will attempt to provide an overview of how I do see ethics, and will primary discuss the works of Dan Fincke.

I. Ethics are About Self-Interest

In my previous post, I rejected the strongest arguments that I could find in favor of normativity, and specifically in favor of the idea that we have ethical duties to others. What remains, then, are duties to ourselves. One on Korgaard’s arguments that I do find convincing is the idea that anyone who takes an action must have a motivation. Everyone wants something. Everyone has desires. If we had no desires, we would never do anything. And so the goal of any action is to satisfy one or more of those desires. It is therefore universal among all creatures which take actions that we have desires we wish to satisfy.

Because we have no moral obligations toward others, but we all wish to satisfy our own desires, ethics becomes a discussion regarding how to best meet our own desires. This way of thinking about ethics is commonly known as egoism.

Within an egoist framework, what is “good” is whatever best satisfies our own subjective desires. Our desires are complicated and dependent on various factors, but for purposes of this discussion, the term “well-being” will be used to refer to the satisfaction of our subjective desires, whatever they may be.

Dan Fincke agrees that our our well-being is the appropriate starting point for an ethical system:

Ultimately, I think that justifying my interest in a good is going to require, on the most fundamental level, reference to my own egoistic good. My own thriving is the most fundamental, instrinsic, and unavoidably objective good I have.

Once we recognize that we have no moral duties to anyone or anything outside of our own subjective self-interest, the rest of the conversation is about how best to satisfy our desires.

II. Empowering Ourselves by Empowering Others

Dan Fincke sees the ultimate good as empowerment. In his ethics, what is “good” is whatever increases our power:

“What best advances our functioning, best advances our being, and is thereby our objectively greatest interest. This can be theoretically be determined according to facts about the nature of our characteristic functioning and facts about what effectively constitutes or advances that functioning the most.”

My disagreements with this approach are discussed below. However, if “power” is replaced with “well-being” (as defined above), I mostly agree with everything else Fincke has to say on the subject. In particular, I completely agree with Fincke that increasing our own well-being relies in part on increasing the well-being of others:

“On the purely egoistic level, the development of our own powerful functioning depends to an incalculable extent on others’ flourishing. To maximally realize our potential, we need the conditions of stability and prosperity which others’ thriving creates and sustains for us and we need the cultivation of our powers by those already powerful who can advance us far beyond where we would ever have been in isolation and make it so that our own efforts can attain to even greater extents than would otherwise have been possible.”

I’ve previously written about how I support feminism out of self-interest. This principle holds true in many areas. In most circumstances, my well-being will best be served by increasing everyone’s well-being. I have no desire to see others suffer, and tend to take substantial joy in seeing others doing well. My more material goals are likewise accomplished by increasing everyone’s well-being. I make money by empowering my employer to profit from my labor. I purchase things from people and organizations who would rather have the money paid than the product purchased. For many ways my life could be improved, society will have to improve, which benefits everyone. Most of the political changes I support would benefit the majority of people affected. Life is not a zero-sum game. In almost all ways I can think of, improvements in my well-being involve improvements in the lives of others.

Further, my strongest attachments include a desire on my part for others to have their desires met. Part of attachment, for me, is a sort of convergence between my own well-being and the well-being of another person. At baseline, I have a weak attachment like this with every other person in the world. Imagining or being exposed to unhappy people makes me unhappy. Imagining or being exposed to happy people makes me happy. Therefore, I have a strong incentive to empower others to be happy for purely egoist reasons.

III. Newcomb’s Problem, or Honesty Is the Best Policy

Dan Fincke discusses how much of morality is the process of sacrificing short-term gains for larger or more long-term gains:

What I think is ultimately happening in morality is that it is overriding our misperception of our interests and our tendencies to subjectively desire in short term and micro level ways, in order to fulfill our ultimate interests on the macro and long term level, considering our good from a third person standard of what maximizes our total power.

With this in mind, there is a strong argument that egoism is best served by, in most circumstances, conforming to virtue ethics. This argument can be understood through an understanding of Newcomb’s Problem:

In Newcomb’s problem, a superintelligence called Omega shows you two boxes, A and B, and offers you the choice of taking only box A, or both boxes A and B. Omega has put $1,000 in box B. If Omega thinks you will take box A only, he has put $1,000,000 in it. Otherwise he has left it empty. Omega has played this game many times, and has never been wrong in his predictions about whether someone will take both boxes or not.

This is referred to as a “problem” or a “paradox” because, once the boxes have been filled, nothing we do could affect what it is them. So long as Omega thought we would only take one box, we are free to take both boxes and reap the profits. However, doing so means that if Omega correctly predicted our behavior, there would be only $1,000 in the boxes. So in order to “win” the game, whether one takes one or both boxes is irrelevant. To win, one must be the type of person who would only take one box. Newcomb’s problem, then, does not depend on what you do. It depends on who you are.

The relevance is that life is made up of many situations which resemble Newcomb’s problem:

Most real decisions that humans face are Newcomblike whenever other humans are involved. People are automatically reading unconscious or unintentional signals and using these to build models of how you make choices, and they’re using those models to make their choices.


I know at least two people who are unreliable and untrustworthy, and who blame the fact that they can’t hold down jobs (and that nobody cuts them any slack) on bad luck rather than on their own demeanors. Both consistently believe that they are taking the best available action whenever they act unreliable and untrustworthy. Both brush off the idea of “becoming a sucker”. Neither of them is capable of acting unreliable whilesignaling reliability. Both of them would benefit from actually becoming trustworthy.


You can’t reliably signal trustworthiness without actually being trustworthy. You can’t reliably be charismatic without actually caring about people. You can’t easily signal confidence without becoming confident. Someone who cannot represent these arguments may find that many of the benefits of trustworthiness, charisma, and confidence are unavailable to them.

Because life resembles Newcomb’s problem, people have strong incentives to behave in ways that are seen as virtuous, as those behaviors are generally rewarded, and “bad” behaviors punished. If society is doing its job, there is no need to appeal to a higher morality to encourage people to behave in prosocial ways. Rational actors will recognize that it is in their best interest to do so.

All these tools can be fooled, of course. First impressions are often wrong. Con-men often seem trustworthy, and honest shy people can seem unworthy of trust. However, all of this social data is at least correlated with the truth, and that’s all we need.

It doesn’t matter that omega isn’t real. Overall, the best way to gain the social benefits of appearing virtuous is to be virtuous. In my estimation, the gains of doing so outweigh any short-term gains that one can obtain by taking advantage of others. Malicious behavior, in most circumstances, is ultimately self-defeating.

From that standpoint, the main goal of society is to make sure that it is in everyone’s best interest to behave in prosocial ways. Society must reward virtue and punish vice. To build a world that is beneficial for all, society must keep incentives properly aligned.

IV. Well-Being, Not Power, is Not The Goal

Because the goodness of an action is determined by our own subjective self-interest, goodness is dependent upon our own motivation. This idea is my primary area of disagreement with Dan Fincke. Fincke advocates for empowerment as the ultimate good:

But pleasures and pains or consciously formed preference attitudes, etc. are not themselves “conferrers” of goodness on things. Goodness is intrinsic and our pleasures, pains, attitudes, reasoned judgments, can either effectively align with our objective goods and contribute to maximizing our attainment of them or fail to do so.

I disagree. Fincke’s empowerment ethics rely on the idea that functioning is a good in itself. In the same way that a “good hammer” is effective at pounding nails, Fincke feels that a “good person” is effective at expressing their humanity. Human powers consist of “rational powers, emotional powers, social powers, technological powers, artistic powers, physical powers, and sexual powers” with associated sub-powers. Fincke’s argument is completely internally consistent, but I don’t find it convincing because I don’t think humans have a purpose.

A good hammer is effective at pounding nails because people designed hammers for that purpose. It’s reliant on the idea that a person using the hammer desires to pound a nail, and its goodness is derivative of that desire. If nobody wanted to pound nails, it would not be good for a hammer to be effective at that task.

Similarly, human powers are only good because people want to exercise them. If people do not desire to exercise their powers, then doing so has no intrinsic goodness. All the goodness in an action is derivative of the desires of those affected. This goes back to my original argument – that we all have motivations, and that the only reason we act is to satisfy those motivations. It’s not that satisfying our motivations is intrinsically good. It’s that, no matter what we may tell ourselves or others, satisfying our motivations is the only thing that causes us to take actions. Satisfying our own subjective, egoistic desires is our goal, no matter how we choose to conceptualize it. So, for each individual, what is “good” is what satisfies our desires.

Ethical dilemmas, then, are places where a single person’s subjective desires conflict. I may want a fancy car, but I also may want a healthy bank account. To resolve the conflict, I need to decide which I want more. Similarly, I don’t want to take the trash out, but I also want my wife to be happy. A resolution of that conflict requires me to estimate the effect that my actions will have on both me and my wife, and decide which I want more.

People have these kinds of dilemmas all of the time, and we are notoriously bad at acting in our own self-interest. While it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves what is in their own self interest, I’m partial to the idea that the degree to which something satisfies our desires is a fact about the universe, and could be measured, given enough information. AI researches refer to a concept called coherent extrapolated volition:

In calculating CEV, an AI would predict what an idealized version of us would want, “if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished we were, had grown up farther together”.

Obviously, this sort of thing is impossible to measure, given our current level of technology and understanding of the brain, but I support the idea that our subjective desires are not always what we think they are, and that a lot of our thinking about ethics should be thinking about what we actually want.

V. Implications

My vision of egoism is functionally very similar to R.M. Hare’s two-level utilitarianism, which starts from utilitarian ethics, but concludes that, in most situations, it’s best to operate according to a series of heuristics, and that actually trying to estimate the full effect of our actions should be reserved for special circumstances (or for the process of selecting heuristics).

My egoism works in a similar way. As a general rule, one is encouraged to adopt the heuristics that benefit all of humanity, as those are likely the ones that benefit the individual as well. One is encouraged to be a virtuous person, as society generally rewards the virtuous and punishes those seen as wicked.

However, there are important distinctions, the most important of which is the understanding that there is no such thing as moral superiority. When one understands that the most moral thing is to act in our own self-interest, and that everyone is attempting to act in their own self-interest (even if they are doing a bad job), it is unreasonable to feel morally superior to another person. It is likewise unreasonable to feel morally inferior. Such concepts become incoherent.

From this standpoint, it is easy to see that nobody “deserves” any more or less happiness than anyone else. This has important implications for the justice system, which tends to include an element of retribution, or the idea that it is important to punish bad acts based on how intrinsically bad they are. From an egoist perspective, the only purpose of rewarding or punishing behavior is to affect future behavior, and all such rewards or punishments are measure by their effectiveness at doing so. This attitude would quickly lead to the wholesale reform of our prison system and the end of most forms of incarceration (as it is ineffective at preventing recidivism). It would also lead to a lot less moral condemnation and righteous anger, as moral disagreements would instead be seen as simple differences in preference and not high-minded judgments of a person’s value. The strongest statement a person could make about someone else’s morality is “I want something different,” or “I don’t think that will actually help you.”

Accepting that ethics are all about our own egoistic desires would also make it easier to analyze moral dilemmas. Classic moral dilemmas (such as The Trolley Problem) are much easier from an egoistic perspective – we just have to figure out which option makes us feel worse and choose the other. The same goes for questions about animal welfare. Animals have moral value to the same extent that other people have moral value, which is the extent to which we desire their well-being. If enough people desire animal welfare to a sufficient extent, society will reward protecting animal welfare and punish actions that harm animal welfare. Most advocates already understand this, and concentrate their advocacy between actual caring for animals and attempting to convince others to care more about animal welfare. Even utilitarians who love debating ethical questions understand that concessions must be made for egoistic reasons.

I’ve previously argued that

Life is a series of moral dilemmas. Every day, we make decisions that a different person, with different ideas of right and wrong, would make differently. Ethics aren’t just about political questions – e.g. war, civil rights, socialism, taxes – thought it’s about those too. Ethics tell us what time to wake up, which jobs to apply for, what to eat, where to shop, and whether to give $1 to the homeless man on the street.

Part of being able to make those kinds of decisions is a firm understanding of right and wrong. Most of the time, we rely on heuristics to make those decisions, but as in two-step utilitarianism, the process of choosing the best heuristics requires us to know what the ultimate goal of our ethics is. Once we understand that the goal is to satisfy our egoistic desires (and understand how our well-being is intrinsically linked to the well-being of others), we can more effectively make decisions.

Egoism also makes it much easier to forgive people for their bad behavior. When someone mistreats me, I understand that they are only doing what they think is right, and I understand that, no matter how bad their behavior, they deserve just as much happiness as me. This doesn’t mean that they continue to have access to me, but it does mean that I rarely wish to see people suffer (though it happens on occasion – I am human).

Ultimately, I favor egoism because it is true. As my friend Kaveh Mousavi recently wrote,

We need people whose main concern is not activist effectiveness. We need intellectuals whose primary concern is speaking the truth. We need people who push the boundaries of our thinking, who dare think the impossible, we need moral watchdogs saying things they know will be unpopular, we need people who are willing to be polarizing and controversial, we need people who are harsh and blunt. Without them human history would be impoverished, and they have achieved much in other areas of life if not in activism.

Likewise, even if the implications of egoism were terrible for the world and would result in disaster if widely adopted, I would still believe in it because I think it is true. I just probably wouldn’t write blog posts about it.

A Better Way to Ask for An Apology

How to Give an Apology

Last year, there was a really great post going around by JoEllen at cuppacocoa.com about a better way to give apologies. Ostensibly, the post was about how parents or caregivers should ask children to apologize, but it soon became clear that the advice was applicable to anyone. JoEllen’s suggestion for how to phrase an apology takes the following form:

I’m sorry for…
This is wrong because…
In the future, I will…
Will you forgive me?

Each step is important and serves a different function. The first section (“I’m sorry for…”) shows that you understand what it was that you did.

Wrong: I’m sorry for being mean.
Right: I’m sorry for saying that nobody wants to be your friend.

In the “I’m sorry for…” section, apologizing for hurting someone’s feelings is inappropriate, because it doesn’t show show that you understand the specific action you took that was wrong. This section requires that you be specific about your actions.

The second section (“This is wrong because…”) shows that you understand not just that your action was wrong, but the reasoning process behind why it was wrong. It shows that you have a good chance of effectively avoiding causing similar harm in the future, because you know how to recognize right from wrong and apply it to your actions. This is the section where it is appropriate to say “it was wrong because it hurt you.”

The third section (“In the future, I will…”) shows that you are taking the understanding you’ve shown in the first two section, and translating it into concrete action. The fourth section (“Will you forgive me?”) empowers the other person to decide if the apology is accepted. I also think it’s a good idea to add an extra section along the lines of “how can I make it up to you?” This shows your commitment to making things right, and empowers the other person to decide the best way to do that.

How to Ask For an Apology

Effectively asking for an apology is simply a mirror of the effective apology. If you feel wronged by someone, and you are interested in approaching the issue constructively, then it’s important that your request for an apology adequately empowers the other person to give an effective apology. It also sets the tone for the entire exchange, and shows that your goal is constructive dialogue, rather than vengeance or retribution.

An effective request for an apology would look like this:

Here is what you did…
This is wrong because…
Here is what you could have done instead…
I would like an apology [or another specific action]

Be Specific About the Actions That Were Wrong

The first section (“Here is what you did…”) is critically important because it informs the other person of what specific action you have a problem with. Similarly to the first section of an apology, it is inappropriate here to say “you were mean” or “you hurt me.”

Merely saying “you hurt me” doesn’t give the other person the information they need to effectively apologize. In order to be able to give an effective apology, the person needs to know which actions they took that you consider wrong. Be specific. The most effective way to adequately describe a person’s actions is to imagine that you’re telling a third party what happened, who knows nothing about the situation.

Bad: you made it so I couldn’t participate in the conversation.
Good: both times I tried to tell my story, you cut me off and talked over me.

Being specific when asking for an apology helps avoid confusing the issue. I know that I get offended when people lie to me, even inconsequential or “white” lies. However, people tend to lie to me when they are afraid that I will be angry if they tell me the truth. For instance, if a partner has a date with a new romantic interest, but says that they are going out with a different friend, I would be angry. But it’s important that I specifically state that I am angry about the dishonesty, not about my partner going on a date. Demanding an apology for having a date would be controlling and disempowering, and my partner might reasonably refuse to apologize. However, if I’m specific that it’s the dishonesty that upset me, we sidestep that trap. Merely saying “your actions hurt me” is insufficient to let my partner know that it was only the dishonesty that bothered me.

Being specific about the actions for which you want an apology also helps avoid a situation where one or both parties have bad facts. Sometimes, you can say “here is what you did…” and the other person will say “I didn’t do that.” Even if you don’t believe them, it refocuses the disagreement onto the disputed facts. Any constructive conflict resolution requires that the specific conflict be identified, and if it’s factual, that’s really important to know.

It is also important to clearly distinguish between things you’ve observed, things you’ve heard secondhand, and your interpretations of your observations. “You hit me” is a direct observation. “Terry and Jean said that you hit them” is a secondhand observation. “You like to hit people” is an interpretation. In particular, it’s often not helpful to present your interpretations as facts. Your interpretations are not facts, and all observations are open to interpretation. Leaving room for the fact that your interpretations are not certain, and remaining open to alternative explanations, is important in any constructive discussion.

Explain the Problem

The second section (“This is wrong because…”) serves as another way of narrowing the dispute. Often, two people can agree on what happened, but disagree over whether it was wrong.

Merely pointing out that you were hurt by the actions of someone else is insufficient to show that their actions were wrong. Healthy boundary-setting can hurt people. As Emma Fett has pointed out, “‘I was victimized by acts of control’ is not the same as ‘I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.'” As Franklin Veaux has noted:

people who abuse genuinely feel that if they tell a partner to do something and the partner doesn’t do it, they’re the ones being abused. I’ve talked to so many people who complain, “My partner isn’t doing what I tell them to!” It hurts me when my partner doesn’t let me control them! That’s abuse! My partner is abusing me by not obeying me!

Obviously, that is a situation where a party is feeling wronged, but has not actually been wronged. But the larger issue is that people are allowed to have different ethics and preferences in their relationships. Ethics are complicated, and reasonable minds can disagree about what is right or wrong in any given circumstance. While some things are not up for debate (e.g. violating clearly communicated physical boundaries is wrong), much of the ethics surrounding interpersonal relationships is highly debated and not at all obvious.

Much of the process of building a social circle involves finding people whose ethics and preferences align with each other. I like to be treated a certain way, so I look for people share my preferences on how people ought to treat each other and avoid people with conflicting preferences. I try to be as open as possible about my opinions and preferences regarding interpersonal relationships, in part because they’re not shared by everyone and I want everyone to know what they’re getting into. Being so open about my preferences tends to attract compatible people and repel incompatible people.

However, it’s not a perfect system, and no two people ever agree 100% on everything. So even among friends, it’s possible to have pretty substantial disagreements about ethics and preferences. When asking for an apology, it’s unreasonable to expect the other person to already know and agree why their actions were wrong unless it’s particularly obvious. Spelling out the reasons why you feel the other person’s actions were wrong makes sure the other person is aware of your ethics/preferences, and invites them to either agree or disagree. Even if the process leads to disagreement, disagreements about how people should behave can be very informative to future decisions regarding your boundaries with that person, and what kind of relationship you want to have.

Tell People How They Could Have Done Better

The third section (“Here is what you could have done instead…”) is important, in that it’s a way of showing that you respect the other person’s needs, and that you have considered the context. Just pointing out problems isn’t constructive unless you offer a potential solution. And if you offer a solution that satisfies the other person’s needs but also avoids the problematic behavior, then the other person knows that you are trying to be constructive, and that you consider their needs to be equally important to your own.

Bad: you shouldn’t have eaten the last piece of chicken.
Good: you could have asked if anyone else wanted the last piece, and you could have eaten the leftover pasta if you were still hungry.

When asking for an apology, it’s easy to give the impression that your perspective is the only one that matters. When you are in pain, it’s difficult to focus on anything but your pain. This section lets the other person know that their perspective still matters, that you have taken their needs into account, and that you have not committed the fundamental attribution error (where your own actions are seen as a reaction to the situation you’re in, but others’ actions are seen as indicative of their character).

By offering a reasonable solution, you are also communicating your own preferences. While the second section communicates your preferences in the abstract, this section translates them into actions. Often, a disagreement that appears large when it is discussed on the abstract level will turn out to be rather small when it comes to how it manifests as action. It is another way of focusing the disagreement and allowing people to either reach consensus or drill down to reach the heart of the disagreement.

Ask for What You Want

The final section (“I would like an apology [or another specific action]”) is important because it informs the other person how to make amends. If an apology is sufficient, it tends to be helpful for the other party to know that. If some other action is needed, it’s critically important that the other party is aware of what is needed. Asking for what you want is an important part of any interpersonal relationship, and it’s especially important when you feel wronged. If there is a path to healing, draw the other person a map. It’s not always reasonable to expect the other person to be able to find their way all on their own.

Plan for a Dialogue

If the steps above are followed, the other party will have a good idea of where you stand, and will have the information they need to understand your perspective. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will agree with your perspective uncritically. The above steps are meant as a starting point to a conversation. Done properly, they will demonstrate that you are approaching the disagreement from a constructive standpoint, and will provide necessary information. But even the most well-meaning and understanding people can have disagreements on facts, interpretations, ethics/preferences, and the reasonableness of the requested solution. In some situations, consensus will be easy. You will articulate your issues, the other person will see their error, and they will apologize. Other times, it will take some back-and-forth. The thing to remember is that a lot of the areas of disagreement are places that reasonable people can disagree.

Even when it comes to factual disputes, reasonable people can disagree. People’s memories are unreliable, and memories of traumatic events are especially unreliable, so any dispute that relies on human memories to determine what happened is dangerous. In such situations, it may be prudent to consider the other person’s fact pattern, and give the response you would give if it were true. Recognizing the unreliability of memory may mean that it’s never possible to conclusively say what happened, but that’s ok. You can still agree on what should have happened under the different factual circumstances presented, and agree that certain actions would be wrong. It can also be helpful, in those situation, if you are the accused party, to try to make amends regardless, in recognition that your memory is fallible and that the other person may be correct about what happened. At the same time, if you are the aggrieved party, it can be helpful to recognize that your own memory of the events may be flawed, and show understanding if a different person has a different recollection.

When To Ask For an Apology

Like giving an effective apology, an effective request for an apology take substantially more time and effort than the usual variety. When you’re in pain, you may not have that bandwidth, and that’s fine. If someone is hurting you wrongfully, you don’t owe it to them to communicate that fact in the most helpful way possible.

But at the same time, it’s difficult to be sure that the other person is definitely in the wrong until hearing their side of the story. If you can imagine a situation in which their actions may have been appropriate, it’s often best not to treat them as though their guilt is predetermined.

Generally, the quality of your request for an apology should be proportional to your desire to receive an apology and/or have a constructive dialogue. Usually, this will correspond to a desire to have a well-functioning relationship with a person. If your hope is to have a constructive discussion regarding the ways in which you were hurt, and come out the other side feeling positive about each other, it’s to your advantage to make your request as effective as possible. Likewise, if it is tremendously important to you that the other person understand what they did for some other reason, it’s probably best to follow the steps above. If it’s less important to you to get through to the person, it might not we worth the time and energy. It’s always a personal decision, and not every expression of pain needs to be as constructive as possible. However, if your goal is to improve a relationship, it may be worth the investment of time and energy to effectively ask for an apology.

Ethics Are Important

In my last post, I talked about why I’m unconvinced that ethics are normative (i.e. why they don’t have universal right and wrong answers), and why I think egoism is the only reasonable foundation for any ethical system. That post was probably boring and uninteresting to most people, because most people who haven’t studied philosophy don’t care about ethics, and most people who have studied philosophy would find it painfully amateur.

I am sad that most people don’t care about ethics, though, because having a coherent ethical system is really important. Ethics are what tells us right from wrong. It’s a key ingredient in how we make decisions. Thinking about right and wrong and forming a coherent system is one of the best ways to make your life and the world better.

I. We Are Surrounded By Moral Dilemmas

Life is a series of moral dilemmas. Every day, we make decisions that a different person, with different ideas of right and wrong, would make differently. Ethics aren’t just about political questions – e.g. war, civil rights, socialism, taxes – thought it’s about those too. Ethics tell us what time to wake up, which jobs to apply for, what to eat, where to shop, and whether to give $1 to the homeless man on the street.

Further, ethics are ever-present in our communities. Polyamory is often defined as “ethical non-monogamy.” Well, what about the ethical part? The atheism community is often fractured along ethical lines. Social justice communities are founded on ethical grounds, and most activism involves making ethical appeals. However, these appeals inevitably lead to a lot of disagreement because people have different ethics.

Most activism has, as one of its goals, convincing people to support a certain cause. This is really difficult to do without a shared ethical system. I’ve written before about how feminism is a self-interested issue for me. Most feminist writing comes from a much more altruistic foundation, and as a result, I find much of it unconvincing. Egoists, utilitarians, virtue ethicists, and deontologists will all approach social justice issues differently, and one group’s ethical appeal will often fail to move someone who follows a different ethical system. And since most people don’t have a coherent ethical system, most people are unable to effectively advocate in favor of their personal ethics. It is incomprehensible to tell me to “be good” if you can’t tell me what “good” means. It is impossible to tell me to do the right thing when you are unable to define “right.”

II. Our Ethical Intuitions Are Unreliable

Most people, rather than try to come up with a coherent ethical system, rely on their ethical intuitions. Certain things just “feel right,” and so that’s what people think of as right. Unfortunately, doing what feels right is unreliable at best and downright harmful at worst. Altruism is one example that, for most people, feels right. I’ve written before about why I think attempting to act altruistically often makes the world worse, and why encouraging and promoting altruism as a virtue harms people, especially people socialized as women.

Bigotry feels right to the bigots. Sexists are sexists because their ethical intuitions tell them that men and women should be treated differently. Racists are racist because their ethical intuitions tell them that the races aren’t equal. The same goes for other forms of bigotry. Explicit bigotry aside, we naturally care more about people the more we can identify with them; we care more about a single person than we do about millions of people.

A rogue’s gallery of cognitive biases are working tirelessly to confound our ethical intuitions. Biases that affect our thinking in other areas don’t just take the day off when it comes to ethics. Doing what feels right means surrendering to every bias that we have. If we don’t have a rational way to challenge our ethical intuition, there is nothing we can do when our intuition gives us faulty messages. It astounds me how many people will glorify and exalt rational thinking when it comes to understanding the world, but will abandon it when it comes to deciding ethical dilemmas.

III. Incoherent Ethics Lead to Incoherent Actions

This article by Leah Libresco is what inspired this post. Libresco was responding to Scott Alexander’s suggestion that, if one could offset its effects by doing enough good in the world, it may be ethically permissible to kill someone. Libresco also considered several other hypothetical situations which were contrived to justify breaking a popular ethical maxim. Libresco feels that the hypotheticals add so many caveats and contrived details that the situations become not just unlikely, but paradoxical. She closes with:

The major rhetorical peril I want to warn against is when you impose straining-credulity hypotheticals on yourself, and keep looking for the flaw in your philosophy, rather than the paradox in your premise that led you into confusion. It’s trivial to say, “Imagine an easily tamable mountain lion L… an immune to long-term disturbance from incest couple C… a perfect murder subject M… a hairy ball combed perfectly flat B” without checking whether such a creature still carries the normal traits of a mountain lion, a set of lovers, a human being at all.

The world is large enough to contain many rare things, but no contradictory ones. There’s no point in contorting your beliefs to make them accommodate the wholly imaginary.

While Libresco has a point that one’s ethics need not accommodate the paradoxical, I disagree that ethics need not accommodate the imaginary. The examples that Libresco gives are not paradoxical. There is nothing inherent to the definition of a mountain lion that makes them untameable. There is nothing inherent to the definition of brother and sister which makes incest harmful. It is the context and details surrounding these circumstances that makes mountain lions wild and incest harmful. These situations are not paradoxical; they are merely incredibly unlikely to the point of being absurd. But if your ethics cannot accommodate the absurd, your ethics are flawed.

The world is absurd. Very, very unlikely things happen every day. There is literally no way to foresee all situations where your ethical judgment will be necessary. A useful ethical system must apply to situations that you can’t imagine. The very fact that you can imagine a situation means that it’s worth considering on ethical grounds. Because inevitably, you will be called to make a moral decision in a situation that you’ve never thought about. If your ethics are unable to be applied to all situations you can imagine, then they will surely not be applicable to all situations you encounter. If your ethics can’t give you a good answer to the trolley problem, then your ethics will not be able to give you an answer when you are faced with an unforeseen dilemma. If your ethics do not apply in the least convenient possible world, then your ethics do not apply to this world.

IV. Alexander’s Morals Are Incoherent

From her piece, though it’s not explicitly stated, it seems that Libresco is tacitly admitting that her personal ethics don’t have an answer for the contrived hypotheticals. Alexander, too, seems to be suggesting that he is having trouble reconciling his ethics. To me, this is an indication that their ethics need refinement.

Let’s start with Alexander. Alexander posits that it may be moral to have someone killed if an overwhelming amount of good is done elsewhere to offset the immorality of the killing. Alexander’s post seems to assume utilitarian ethics (which is consistent with his other writing and several comments made on his post), since from any other mainstream ethical viewpoint, this would not be a difficult question. However, rather than prove his point, Alexander merely proves the incoherence of his ethics. From a utilitarian standpoint, if a person is capable of doing an overwhelming amount of net good, that person has a moral obligation to do so. The moral choice is to do all of the good, but not kill the person. Utilitarianism makes no distinction between “less moral” and “immoral.” The only question is how much utility flows from the act. In Alexander’s hypothetical, it’s possible to do all the good while avoiding the bad, and so that is the ethical choice. Doing all the good AND the bad creates less utility, and is thus less moral (i.e. immoral).

It’s not mentioned in the post, but Alexander’s misstep relies on his determination-by-fiat that giving 10% of his income to charity is enough to keep him morally in the clear. As I said above, utilitarianism makes no distinction between “less moral” and “immoral,” so as a practical matter, utilitarians must either draw an arbitrary line somewhere, give as much as they possibly can of themselves, or make peace with the fact that they are acting immorally. Alexander chooses to draw the arbitrary line. However, this throws a wrench into the remainder of his moral machinery. Alexander’s hypothetical murderer is extremely rich, and offsets his murder using targeted spending. Under actual utilitarian reasoning, the murderer would be obligated to give away nearly all of his money in the most utility-maximizing way possible in order to behave morally. Thus, a moral millionaire would be a contradiction. The only way Alexander can even reach the question is through the assumption that the millionaire is not ethically required to do as much good as possible, but at that point, he’s abandoned utilitarian ethics and the whole conversation changes. This does not point out a flaw in utilitarianism itself, but it does point out a flaw in the reasoning of almost all utilitarians that consider themselves to be acting morally.

Libresco seems to be hinting that she has an actual answer to the dilemma (“‘moral damage’ is a bad in and of itself”), though she never actually says what it is, so I’m unsure of her position on Alexander’s hypothetical. I do think, however, that’s it’s worth considering, and that it’s important that one’s ethics have an answer.

V. Conclusion

Ethics matter. Ethics are the way we determine right from wrong, on big questions and small questions. It is important that our ethics are applicable to all situations, because at some point, we’re going to encounter a situation we didn’t plan for. If our ethics can’t accommodate that situation, then we will either freeze up or attempt to revise our ethics on the spot, which can lead to disastrous results. It’s much better to consider difficult ethical questions in times of calm, where we have the time and energy to work out the answers.

If we are unwilling to consider hypothetical situations, even absurd hypothetical situations, then we are not taking our ethics seriously, and we will not be prepared when life throws us a serious curveball.

Altruism and the Patriarchy

eleanor-roosevelt-2“If anyone were to ask me what I want out of life I would say- the opportunity for doing something useful, for in no other way, I am convinced, can true happiness be attained.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt

It is taken as a given in our society that the highest good is the transcendence of selfish desires and the service of others. Our paragon on virtue is Mother Teresa, who lived in poverty in order to dedicate her life to work in service of the poor (and pushing her religion, but we overlook that). Selfishness is generally considered the worst of all sins. Heroes sacrifice themselves to save their loved ones. Villains say “greed is good.” Our dominant religion is centered around the story of a man sacrificing himself for the good of mankind. The greatest evil is an angel who selfishly sought to exalt himself above god.

Above all, we are told that shallow, selfish desires lead to life devoid of meaning:

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

The relationship between meaning and happiness was the subject of a recent study. In the study, researchers surveyed 397 adults about how happy their lives were, and how meaningful. The terms were not defined, which allowed each study participant to interpret them as they wished.

The study found, rather unequivocally, that a meaningful life is not a happy life. The study gave the lie to the Roosevelt quote above, and found that when we put our own desires aside and focus on helping others, we end up less happy. This finding reinforces the previous finding that having children does not make people happy. The study found that “meaning” is actually largely achieved through trauma and misery.

Emily Esfahani Smith at The Atlantic, through some bizarre reasoning, spun this finding as proof that people should focus more on living meaningful lives and less on being happy. Smith’s article is heavy-handed in its suggestion that everyone would be better off to pursue meaningful lives through sacrifice, not “mere happiness.”

Smith’s position is not only diametrically opposed to my ethical position that the most ethical decision is often the one that makes the decision-maker happy, but it also reinforces the cultural status quo outlined above, where righteousness is only found in the service of others.

So, according to the conventional wisdom, which Smith reinforces, the way to be a good person is to sacrifice what you want in favor of devoting your life to the service of others. Individual desires don’t matter. What matters is the service of others. Anything else is shallow and selfish.

This is a problem because one of the patriarchy’s main tools of oppression is its ability to convince women that their desires don’t matter. In addition to the “everyone should serve others” meme pervading our culture, there is a complementary meme that says “women should be subservient to men.”

That dominant religion I mentioned earlier? Its scriptures explicitly instruct women to be subservient to men. Women’s reproductive rights are continuously under assault because women’s needs aren’t seen as important. Women’s sexual autonomy is constantly under attack because women’s desires are seen as less important than men’s. The male gaze is constantly catered to. The vast majority of our leaders, from CEO’s to elected officials, are men.

There are thousands of other examples of how the message is sent every day, that women’s desires don’t matter, and that they should be happy in subservient roles. Implicit in this message is the message to men that our desires ARE important, and that we should get what we want. We are told to “be a man,” and to stand up for ourselves. We are taught to be confident and even violent in pursuit of our own happiness.

So men end up receiving two conflicting messages: one is that our individual desires don’t matter, and that we should serve others, but another that we should get what we want and be aggressive and tenacious in pursuing it. Receiving both messages gives men options about how to balance our own individual desires vs. the desires of others, and generally facilitates healthy decision-making. It’s not the best system, of course, but it does have some flexibility. Generally, men are permitted by our society to display a wide range of selfish and altruistic behavior and still be considered acceptable.

Women have no such luck. Because there is no countervailing message, women ONLY get the message that being subservient is virtuous. On one hand, they are told to be subservient to everyone. On the other hand, they are told to be subservient to men. There is no message (except a small-but-growing message from the feminist movement) that what they want as individuals matters.

So it’s no secret why the vast majority of rapists are men, women end up doing most of the housework and child-rearing, women ask for raises far less than men, and men generally make fewer sacrifices than women.

So when I see an article like Smith’s, which denigrates and demonizes the pursuit of individual happiness as “selfish” and “shallow,” I see it for what it is: an oppressive tool of the patriarchy. I think there’s a place for encouraging altruism in our culture, but not at the expense of individual happiness, and not in a way that suggests that anyone trying to make themselves happy is a bad person. People can take the pursuit of individual happiness too far, but the answer is balance. People should be encouraged to balance their individual desires against those of others (or, even better, shown how their individual goals can be served by helping others). Rather than be taught, as they are now, that everyone’s happiness matters except theirs, people should be encouraged to view everyone’s happiness (including their own) as equally important. People should not be told that the only way to live a good life is to sacrifice what they want. People will listen, and most of those people will be women.

This is the main reason I push back so hard against the dominant cultural idea that virtue is found only in sacrifice. I’ve seen first-hand the devastating effects that such ideas can have, particularly on women. As a staunch advocate of Ask Culture, creating space for people to voice their desires is a top priority for me. And step one of that process is encouraging people to value their desires.

Atlanta Poly Weekend was Awesome, and you Should All Go Next Year


[UPDATE: I am no longer supporting Atlanta Poly Weekend because they support abusers and scapegoat their victims]

Atlanta Poly Weekend was this past weekend (June 6-8, 2014), and it was an awesome experience for the Living Within Reason crew. It was a 28-hour round trip drive, but totally worth it, and we’re definitely planning on going again next year.

We left from South Jersey on Thursday evening. Jessie, Gina, and I picked up our friend Miri (the amazing author of Brute Reason) after a few Bolt Bus-related difficulties, and started the 14-hour drive to Atlanta. Gina & I switched off driving, and managed to get there by 10am. Thankfully, our room was ready (check-in was supposed to be at 3pm) and we all went upstairs to take a nap.

Click to Preorder!

Click to Preorder!

I made sure to be up by 12:30pm for Franklin Veaux’s and Eve Rickert’s workshop on creating a culture of consent. It was a great workshop, mostly consisting of a guided discussion about what a culture of consent would look like, and how to create a culture of consent in our spaces. Franklin and Eve have a lot of credibility on this issue due to their well-established public advocacy, as well as their new book More Than Two, which was available at the conference. I picked up a copy, and I’m excited to see what’s in it. Highlights from the consent culture discussion:

ConsentCultre Storify

Next up was my workshop on skeptical monogamy: good reasons to be monogamous. The workshop was based on my linked blog post, but included a much more in-depth discussion on how to apply skepticism in our relationships, and how that fits with concepts like love, trust, and rational decision-making. I had a lively and enthusiastic audience, and I really enjoyed hosting the discussion. Miri tweeted a few highlights:


After my workshop, we decided it was dinner time, and had some delicious cheeseburgers at a place called Farm Burger. Good stuff. Then we came back, and got ready for our burlesque performance. Our troupe, Bust & Trunks Burlesque (joined by local performer Candi LeCouer) put on a 45-minute show doing a few of our Doctor Who numbers, as well as some Stepford Wives and Labyrinth. Candi did an amazing Maleficent number. The crowd was great. People were enthusiastic, but respectful, and everyone had a good time. The rest of the evening was spent socializing, playing Cards Against Humanity, and getting to know the other attendees.

Saturday morning, Gina led a burlesque 101 workshop. I caught the latter half, which was a fun time for everyone. People learned a few moves, and we discussed our philosophy about how to do burlesque in an empowering way, consistent with the idea of consent culture and sexpositivity. Sadly, it meant we had to miss a workshop by the always-excellent Sterling Bates on personality types and relationships, but we’d attended it last year and was able to interrogate him about it later.

The next workshop we attended was The Five Love Languages for Poly by Joreth Innkeeper. I absolutely loved this workshop. Joreth has clearly done this before, as her presentation was professional, well-organized, and informative. The Five Love Languages are usually a mixed bag. While the concept is great, the original author is coming from a conservative, Christian, monogamous perspective, and it shows in her work. Joreth was able to extract the key concepts and present them in a more skeptic-friendly and poly-friendly way. She also went a little deeper, and broke each love language down into separate dialects. I’m extremely glad I caught her presentation. Small sample of Twitter highlights below. See the full list on Storify:

Five Love Languages

Next up (after a quick Starbucks run with some excellent new friends) was the charity auction for Lost N Found Youth. Gina donated a number of her drawings, which all sold! One even went for $45! She’s officially an artist! She also bought a cool 3D abstract art piece which will be hanging on one of our walls soon.

Following the auction, I attended the Breaking Up Poly panel, hosted by Joreth Innkeeper and Sterling Bates. Joreth and Sterling are two of my favorite people (they’re going to hang out with us when we go to Disney! Woo!), so I knew I had to attend this one. The presentation was Joreth’s usual excellent quality, and it gave a lot of helpful suggestions. The idea was that bad breakups are bad for the community, and often people break up just because they aren’t compatible as lovers, not because either party is toxic or abusive (though they gave the caveat that their advice was not meant to be followed in abusive situations). They gave a lot of useful suggestions regarding how to break up with someone in a compassionate and respectful way, which lays the groundwork for continuing a relationship as friend, or at the very least, not enemies. Highlights (see Storify for more):

Breaking up Poly Tweets

After dinner at the local Mexican restaurant, it was time for my presentation on Relationship Anarchy and the Spectrum of Relationship Control. I was nervous about this one, because relationship anarchy can be a controversial position, and it’s sometimes difficult to talk about the negative implications of relationship rules without offending people. Also, my visual aides didn’t really work, so I’ll be preparing something else next time I do this workshop. The reactions was largely positive, however, and I think people got a lot out of it, especially for a concept that many people probably hadn’t encountered previously. Twitter highlights:

Relationship Anarchy Tweets

Afterward, Gina taught a workshop on Costuming for Burlesque (mostly pastie-making), then there was a dance party in the main panel room. Good stuff! Unfortunately, there was an incident where the same creepy male attendee approached both Jessie and Gina with crude, objectifying, sexual propositions (in Jessie’s case, it was before he even introduced himself). Jessie reported him to the conference organizers, who took appropriate action. While a warning probably would have been enough, unfortunately, the offender (and his partner), rather than express understanding and contrition, attempted to escalate the situation, resulting in a future attendance ban. Situations like this are always regrettable, but the APW staff handled it beautifully, and we all feel safe attending in the future. Aside from that incident, the dance party was a great time. I didn’t get to bed until after 3am!

Sunday morning, given the 14-hour drive ahead of us, we were anxious to get on the road. However, we couldn’t leave before Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s discussion on putting the ethics in ethical non-monogamy. The polyamory community lays claim to the title “ethical non monogamy.” If we’re going to do so, argue Franklin and Eve, we have a responsibility to create a community where ethics are defined an enforced. More Than Two (available in September) is primarily about ethics in the polyamory community, and Franklin and Eve led a discussion on how to create ethical communities, and what kind of ethics we need in our spaces. Twitter highlights:

Relationship Ethics tweets

Afterward, we said our goodbyes to all the new friends we made, and the old friends that we got to see for the second time, and made the brutal 14-hour drive home (complete with horrible traffic jam)! However, despite the drive, the experience was definitely worth it, and we are definitely planning to attend next year.

The Value of Reluctant Attention



“Seduction isn’t making someone do what they don’t want to do; seduction is enticing someone into doing what they secretly want to do already.”
-Benjamin T. Russell

Enthusiastic consent is a phrase that’s rather familiar to anyone with any exposure to the feminist movement. As Project Respect describes it:

Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.

Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal “yes” or “no” – it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well.

Consent is also mutual (both people have to agree) and must be continuous. You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.

Among decent people, this idea has proliferated for reasons that ought to be self-evident. Showing respect to a partner means respecting their wishes, and deferring to their wishes when it comes to whether to have sex.

That last sentence in the quote above is one of the most important: “You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.” No matter what you’ve agreed to or implied, you can change your mind at any time, and you are under NO obligation to meet your partner’s (admittedly legitimate) expectations.

Undeniably, this idea has caught on among decent people. It appeals to me (and I suspect many others) for the reasons given by its advocates (i.e. it shows respect for your partner), but also because reluctant sex is unfulfilling and ungratifying. Why would I want to have sex with someone who doesn’t actually want to be having sex with me? How is that any fun at all? Isn’t that what masturbation is for?

grumpy-cat-says-noThis begs the question, then: why not require enthusiastic consent for ALL social interactions, not just sex? I can’t see any reason not to do so. This is an idea that’s being advocated as part of consent culture:

I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.

When I previously wrote about consent culture, I was baffled by people’s insistence that checking a smartphone while you were out socially with someone was rude:

I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event.

Since then, I’ve debated this topic several more times, and these attitudes are shockingly common. People truly think that agreeing to spend time socially with someone creates an obligation to pay attention to that person throughout the experience. Directing your attention elsewhere (or in particular to a smartphone) is “rude.” More than one person has analogized the situation to the signing of a contract, whereby both parties have pledged their attention to one another.

In these conversations, I am finding myself increasingly bewildered. Do people really find this sort of attention – the type given reluctantly as part of a bargain – valuable? I don’t. In the same way that I don’t want sex with people that don’t actually want to be having sex with me, I don’t want conversation with people that don’t actually want to be talking with me. Reluctant social attention is no more rewarding for me than reluctant sex.

So why do people buy into these etiquette rules that suggest that directing your attention where you want to direct it is rude? If looking at your phone (or a newspaper, or a TV that’s on, or whatever) is rude, the implication is that the polite thing to do is to give your reluctant attention to the person you’re with (often without even letting them know that you’d rather do something else). That’s a terrible solution! In that circumstance, nobody gets what they want. You don’t get to direct your attention where you want, and I end up with only our reluctant attention. I think it’s a much better that you look at your phone and enjoy yourself until you think of something (or I suggest something) that you’d like to discuss with me. In a social setting, your job is not to entertain me. I can entertain myself if you’d rather do something else, and I’d much rather entertain myself than receive your reluctant attention.

I get the other side. It’s no fun to go out expecting to spend time with someone only to find that their nose is buried in their phone the whole time. I’m not arguing that people should go around agreeing to hang out with other people, and then ignoring them the whole time. That would suck. I don’t want to hang out with people who do that. I’m arguing that the fail in that situation occurs when you make the agreement if you had reason to know that it was likely that you would not be interested in actually spending time with that person. If something unpredictable happened which changed your mind (and you communicated that in a timely fashion), then nobody is to blame. Likewise, if you prefer to interact with people in short bursts (interrupted by something more solitary), rather than in a continuous hours-long interaction, that’s fine, and if people can’t deal with that, they just shouldn’t make plans with you.

What I’m strongly advocating against is the suggestion that, because you’ve agreed to pay attention to someone, then you should do so, even if you don’t really want to. I’d rather live in a culture where people only value enthusiastically consensual interactions. This idea is intuitive when it comes to sex, so why not apply it to all social interaction?

The Mentally Ill Are Just as Responsible For Their Behavior as Anyone Else

responsibilityRecently, Greta Christina has asked whether the mentally ill are responsible for their behavior.

On the one hand: We cut sick people slack. We don’t hold them as responsible for their behavior as we do healthy people. We understand that sick people can’t always keep promises; can’t always do their share; get irritable; lose their temper. We understand that it’s the illness causing this behavior. We get angry at the illness, not at the people. And mental illnesses — including alcoholism and other drug addictions — are illnesses.

On the other hand: There’s a limit to that. We cut people some slack if they’re sick, but we don’t cut them infinite slack. We’d probably cut a sick person slack for losing their temper and snapping at their spouse, but we wouldn’t cut them slack for losing their temper and beating their spouse with a tire iron. We would condemn that. And rightly so.

Greta’s analysis ends up inconclusive. I empathize with Greta’s struggle, but I do not identify with it, mostly because I don’t really understand the question. What is meant by holding someone responsible? Is she talking about punishing people for wrongdoing? Moral disapproval? Shaming? Is she talking about responsibility in the personal sense or the collective sense? Mostly, she seems to be asking whether it is justified to get angry at people for exhibiting symptoms of their mental illnesses.

Most of my confusion is due to the lense Greta is using. She seems to be acting under the assumption that people should be blamed for actions that are within their control and absolved for actions that are not. I do not view the world this way.

I do not believe in free will. All of the available evidence suggests that the choices we make are the result of purely physical processes that are subject to the law of cause and effect and the laws of physics just like all other physical processes. When we talk about “making choices,” we’re talking about a physical process by which our brain is responding to stimulus and outputting commands to the rest of our bodies (and other parts of the brain). The process is fantastically complicated and impossible to fully understand at our current level of neuroscience, but that does not suggest that the process is anything but a physical chain of cause and effect. It often makes sense to treat people (and ourselves) as if free will existed, as the attitudes and expectations that flow from such treatment are often beneficial. However, recognizing that the concept of free will is merely a useful heuristic is important, especially when dealing with moral/ethical questions.

Calvin Free Will

Because I don’t believe in free will, it makes no sense to me to distinguish morally between actions that are freely chosen and actions that we are compelled to do by our brain chemistry. Everything we do is compelled by our brain chemistry. Mental illnesses are not distinguished in this way. Mental illnesses are just certain patterns that we’ve recognized as sub-optimal and (hopefully) developed treatment for. The difference between someone who behaves badly because of mental illness and a person who behaves badly because they are a jerk is merely that the former has treatment options and medical science available to help. Reasons are not excuses, and we should not treat them as such.

Because I don’t believe in free will, I attach no objective moral character to people’s actions. When talking about optimal ways to behave, I generally use the term “ethics,” because I think that it better suggests that I’m talking about a man-made system that has no objective moral character. So if the question is “should we morally judge the mentally ill for their actions?” my answer is no, we should not. We should not morally judge anyone for their actions, because people are all compelled to behave as they do.

If the question is “should the mentally ill be punished for their actions?” my answer is generally that it depends on circumstances. Reward & punishment are two powerful stimuli that can cause people to change their behavior (thogh punishment is often less effective than we would hope). In my mind, it is justifiable to punish someone for one and only one reason – to influence future behavior. So in that sense, whether the mentally ill should be punished for their actions requires an individualized determination of what will be effective. Greata briefly touches on this idea:

And when mentally ill people are held responsible for our behavior … how does that affect our illness? Does it help, or hurt? When the people we love tell us that we’re hurting them and driving them away, when they demand that we see the consequences of our behavior in their lives and in our own … what effect does that have?

Does it shake us into awareness and insight, help motivate us to take action? Does it shame us into feeling worse about ourselves, make us even less able to see ourselves as worth taking care of? Does it do some of both? Does the answer depend on the person, the illness, the degree of illness, the closeness of the relationship, the day of the week?

To me, this is the ONLY question that matters when you’re talking about potentially punishing someone. What will be the effect of the punishment? I am in no way a neuroscientist or a mental health professional, so I can’t give a general answer to that question,* but I firmly believe that it’s the question that we should be asking when discussing imposing potential punishments.

If the question is whether we are justified in using a person’s mental illness as a substantial factor in deciding what kind of relationship we want with a person, my answer is an unequivocal and emphatic yes. Our relationships with people are not reflections on their moral character or their value as people. All relationships should be absolutely consensual. We can choose to have relationships with people for any reasons we choose. Some of those decisions are better than others, but they are not necessarily a reflection on the virtue of the other person.

I often hear people use mental illness as a reason why they must forgive a person for their actions. The argument is that if a person’s mental illness compelled them to behave badly, then it would be unfair to then “punish” that person by changing the relationship (e.g. terminating the relationship, deciding not to see them alone, refusing to interact online, limiting contact to once a week, not inviting them to parties, etc.). I do not like this view, or any view that suggests that our decisions regarding what relationships we should have with people need to be fair. Fairness, in this sense, is a tool used by abusers and manipulaters to coerce people into having relationships that they don’t want. It’s bullshit.

For instance, if you have a friend who is always late, does it really matter whether their lack of punctuality is due to a mental illness or just garden-variety carelessness? I don’t think so. The question for me isn’t “why is this person always late?” The question is “how does this person’s lateness affect me?” If I can deal with their lateness, fine. If I can’t, that’s also fine. I don’t have to be friends with someone who behaves in ways that bother me, regardless of the cause.

I often point out the absurdity of the social stigma of mental illness by comparing mental illness to physical illness. Greta does this when she points out that “we cut sick people slack.” While this is generally true, I don’t cut sick people any more slack than I would a non-sick person. If my friend has a physical illness which causes them to, e.g., be unable to leave their house, that’s certainly going to factor in to what form our relationship can take. If I really like that person, it might be worth it to routinely travel to their house to spend time with them. Maybe not. Maybe I would decide to only have an online relationship or (shudder) talk on the phone. It’s not really “fair” to my friend that our relationship is limited because of their illness, but illnesses aren’t fair to anyone, and there is NEVER an obligation to maintain a (non-dependent) relationship that doesn’t make you happy, no matter what the reason is. Social relationships are not contracts, and we are all free to leave at any time.

Understanding mental illness is often helpful, not so we can forgive people for their actions, but so we can accurately set expectations. If someone’s bad behavior is due to a mental illness, if we make an effort to understand that illness, we can better know what to expect from that person. Some mental illnesses have a bounty of research available that can clue us in on how is best to interact with this person, what sort of communication will be effective, what behaviors can be changed with sufficient motivation, and what behaviors can be expected to continue regardless of effort.

Greta’s article revolves around her ambivalent feelings about her father and his alcoholism. To what extent, she asks, was her father responsible for his alcoholism (and his actions that occurred as a result of his alcoholism)? I would never ask that question. To me, nobody is ultimately responsible for their own behavior. The relevant question to me is – how should I treat this person? What kind of relationship would be best for me to have with him? Should we have any relationship? What treatment would allow us to have the best relationship possible? When discussing a personal relationship with someone, these are the relevant questions.

I tend to curate my social circle pretty tightly. If someone does not treat me how I like to be treated, I feel no guilt about excluding that person from my social circles. The cause of their poor treatment of me is not important, only the fact of it. My life is better when I surround myself with people who treat me well and avoid people who treat me poorly, and improving my life is the only reason why I have interpersonal relationships.

itsatrapEmpathy is a good thing. The ability to view your circumstances from other people’s perspectives is a skill which we should all develop and improve as much as possible. But sometimes we can go overboard. Sometimes we can allow ourselves to be abused or maintain a relationship that is not serving us well because we feel it would be unfair to hold another person responsible for actions that are a result of mental illness. In a relationship context, focusing on a person’s responsibility for their actions is a trap. A much better focus is the effects that a person’s action have on you, and whether that’s a relationship that you want to have.


*I am an attorney, and I feel qualified to state that our current criminal justice system is not creating socially beneficial effects, and requires major reforms if it is to achieve its stated goals.

Ethics and Philosophy – The Most Ethical Choice is Often The Selfish One

I’ve just started reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I’ve only gotten up to Plato so far (edit: I’m now to Epicurus, who is awesome!), but I find it fascinating. My goal in reading about philosophy is to potentially improve and/or refine my own philosophies, particularly in the field of ethics. To that end, I’d like to sketch out a brief overview of my current take on ethics. I’ll call this the “before,” and hopefully I’ll make another one after I’ve gotten a good overview of the various ethical philosophies which have influenced Western though through the past few millennia. And then hopefully a few more as I continue reading, but we’ll see. Here is my current stance on the question of ethics, in brief:

UPDATE (Jan. 2015): Russell provided little guidance in the field of ethics. After reviewing some of the contemporary writing in the field, I find my thought on this unchanged. Further writing on ethics can be found here.

tl;dr: (1) happiness is all that matters; (2) we are vastly more in control of our own happiness than anyone else’s; therefore (3) the most ethical actions that individuals can take are usually those that make themselves happy.

1. Happiness is All That Matters

There is no higher ideal than the happiness of conscious creatures, or what Sam Harris calls “well-being.” There is no objective morality. Other ideas taken from Sam Harris with which I agree:

  •  The only goal of an ethical system should be to increase the well-being of conscious creatures as much as possible. Nothing else matters.
  •  Well-being (what I call “happiness”) consists of positive mental states. Feeling good = good. Feeling bad = bad. There are no objective criteria to measure well-being. It is entirely dependent upon the perceptions of the creature experiencing it.

These are my premises, and they are largely uncontroversial among skeptics. My goal is not to defend these premises, only to list them. If you are interested in a comprehensive defense of them, I would direct you to Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, linked above. Note: this is not intended as an endorsement of the entire book, just those ideas which I’ve noted above.

2. We are vastly more in control of our own happiness than anyone else’s

My next premise is this: the capacity of human beings to control any person’s happiness other than our own is extremely limited. We cannot “make” anyone but ourselves happy (and sometimes we can’t even do that). Most (though not all) actions we take that are designed to increase another person’s happiness are ineffective at best, and often harmful.

This belief is probably the most vulnerable of mine. The science of happiness is very underdeveloped. I have not encountered any reliable studies which cast doubt on this belief, however I also have very little objective evidence of it. It is mostly something I believe because it has been my experience. I find it largely impossible to force anyone to be happier. The best I have ever accomplished is to assist other people in making themselves happy. To the best of my memory, any time anyone has ever tried to force me to be happy (rather than assist me in making myself happy), it has backfired.

I have, however, had success in making myself happy, and I have witnessed other succeed in making themselves happy. Often, this takes the form of exercising control over my environment to surround myself with things that boost my happiness. Sometimes, it involves doing mental work. Sometimes, it involves taking medication (though it could be argued that this one, at least, can be forced on people, and sometimes is).

3. The most ethical actions that individuals can take are usually those that make themselves happy.

Once the first premise is accepted, it necessarily follows that sacrificing one’s own happiness, unless it results in a commensurate increase in someone else’s happiness (or in one’s own future happiness), is an unethical act.

Once the second premise is accepted, it becomes clear that most of the time, the most ethical action to take is the one that makes yourself happy, as that is where most of your control lies.

However, the conclusion is qualified the way it is because there are many situations where one can assists others in making themselves happy and/or increase the likelihood of another person’s happiness at little or no cost to our own happiness. Such situations include (but are not limited to):

  • collective action, which costs little to each individual but results in broad increases in happiness/well-being, such as raising money for disaster victims
  • situations in which we enjoy the act of helping another person to be happy, often called “love.” Many activists enjoy the work they do advocating on behalf of others, and thus their actions are ethical regardless of whether their efforts are successful
  • situations in which we can increase our own happiness by increasing the general well-being. A functional political system would serve this goal, and this is generally the reason why I support the social justice movements that I do.
  • situations where there is a massive resource imbalance, where a minor sacrifice on the part of the privileged can result in large gains by the underprivileged. An example would be an American who donates money to indigent citizens of Burundi.
  • where a person whose judgment you trust indicates to you that your actions will increase their happiness.
  • situations where what we desire is nearly certain to be harmful to others in proportion to the joy we receive from it (either because it is obvious or because they have told us).

My main rule is that when balancing competing interests, one should weight one’s own happiness as significantly more important than anyone else’s. A sacrifice of one’s own happiness is only ethical where the gains in someone else’s happiness are either (1) very certain AND proportional to the sacrifice required, or (2) exponentially greater than the sacrifice required.

It is, of course, impossible to measure happiness/well-being with any precision, so there is wide latitude for argument about what individual actions are ethical and which are not. As will all coherent ethical reasoning, this system requires us to employ assumptions and estimation about things which are ultimate unknowable to us as individuals. However, I feel that such valid criticisms only mean that we must remain open-minded and ready to change our moral calculus when new information is presented. However, I believe the main idea is solid. What do you think?