Thursday, January 09, 2020

The Accountability Theory of Condemnation

This is the last post in a series that examined theories of condemnation that compete with that proposed by desirism.

I am using the following text:

Dill, Brendan and Darwall, Stephen (2014). "Moral Psychology as Accountability" in Moral Psychology and Human Agency (D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, eds.). Oxford.

So far, I have looked at:

The Egoistic Theory of Condemnation: the theory that people condemn others because they seek some personal gain - compensation, cooperation in the production of a public good, satisfaction.

The Deterrence Theory of Condemnation that explains condemnation as a threat that will give people a reason not to perform those actions that will result in condemnation.

The Retributivist Theory of Condemnation which attempts to explain condemnation as an attempt to inflict retribution on the guilty party in proportion to the wrongness of their crime.

The theory that the authors defended was one that they called the accountability theory.

the accountability theory views punishment as a means to the end of getting the perpetrator to hold himself accountable for his wrongdoing (p. 48)

This theory is still going to encounter the problem that we have come up with before. This is the problem of the condemnation of historical, fictional, and hypothetical individuals. It would be quite difficult, as I understand it, to hope to get Hitler to hold himself accountable for the Holocaust. Similarly, given Trump's psychology it is highly unlikely that he will ever hold himself accountable for anything either. Yet, we condemn both of them.

This problem also occurs in the case of third-party condemnation. This applies to cases like those where the people of the household condemn others who are not present and who may never hear of the condemnation. Clearly, this form of condemnation cannot hope to cause the condemned to take responsibility for his actions. Yet, the condemnation of historical, fictional, and hypothetical figures is quite common, as is the condemnation of people who are not present and who cannot hope to made to hold themselves accountable by these actions.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The Retributivist Theory of Condemnation

I am looking at theories of condemnation to measure how they compare to the role that condemnation plays in desirism.

I am using the following text:

Dill, Brendan and Darwall, Stephen (2014). "Moral Psychology as Accountability" in Moral Psychology and Human Agency (D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, eds.). Oxford.

So far, I have looked at:

The Egoistic Theory of Condemnation: the theory that people condemn others because they seek some personal gain - compensation, cooperation in the production of a public good, satisfaction.

The Deterrence Theory of Condemnation that explains condemnation as a threat that will give people a reason not to perform those actions that will result in condemnation.

This time I wish to look at the Retributivist Theory of Condemnation.

The authors describe the retributivist theory as follows:

This theory claims that condemnatory behavior is motivated by the goal to cause harm to the perpetrator in proportion with the blameworthiness of the perpetrator’s wrongdoing (p. 48).

Research on condemnation show that "subjects’ punishment judgments are sensitive to the perceived blameworthiness of the perpetrator" according to the authors. However, this leads to a question. How do we measure the blameworthiness of the perpetrator? If blameworthiness is measured in terms of the amount of punishment that the person is thought to deserve, and punishment is proportional to blameworthiness, then we have a vicious little circle linking blameworthy attitudes and punishment attitudes. Of course, in this case, punishment is going to be proportional to blameworthiness, because blameworthiness is determined by the amount of punishment one judges the agent to be due.

Retributivist theory is going to suffer from the fame fault identified earlier for both egoistic and deterrence theories. It fails to account for our condemnation of those who have died, fictional characters, or hypothetical characters. Historic and fictitious characters cannot be made to pay compensation, nor can they be coerced or shamed into participating in projects that benefit the community (egoistic theory), nor can our condemnation deter them from performing similar crimes in the future (deterrence theory). Similarly, we cannot harm them. If the motive of condemnation is to obtain retribution in proportion to the wrong, and we cannot harm them, then the motive for condemning them cannot be coming from that source.

A moral education theory of condemnation can handle these types of cases. This theory states that the motive behind condemnation is to alter people's character - to create and promote useful desires to perform or aversions to performing certain types of actions, not only in the person condemned, but in others as well. We condemn historical figures to tell people, "Don't be like them." This is the same reason we create and condemn story-book and movie villains. The purpose is not to bring about any change on the part of those who are condemned, but to bring about a charge in the population as a whole based on that condemnation.

I should add - these are not entirely either-or choices. Obviously, deterrence and incentive are reasons behind reward and punishment. And we do sometimes threaten punishment to coerce people into contributing to a public good. So, there is some truth behind the egoistic and deterrence theories. The retributivist theory has an additional problem that these other theories do not have. Retributivist theory seems to hold that harming certain people is good for its own sake - that it is to be pursued as an end independent of any benefit that may come from it. If intrinsic value does not exist, then punishing people in order to bring about or realize a state of intrinsic value that does not exist can never justify punishment.

Desirism does have a way to handle that objection. Recall that desirism concerns the benefits of manufacturing certain desires - and that means manufacturing certain ends. A person with a desire to keep his promises views keeping a promise as an end in itself - something to do for its own sake independent of the benefits it creates. It does not look to the benefit of keeping promises, but to the benefits of promoting a universal desire to keep promises. One can make the argument that there are benefits to promoting, universally, a desire to see the guilty punished. A person with this desire will seek to punish the innocent even in cases where punishing the innocent produces no additional benefits in the same way that a person with a desire to keep promises will keep a promise even when it produces no other benefit. It is useful to universalize such a desire or aversion even if they lead to these rare cases in which no good comes of it - good still comes from universalizing the relevant desire or aversion.

Desirism, then, provides us with a way of understanding retributivist condemnation without the metaphysical magic of intrinsically prescriptive properties.

Monday, January 06, 2020

The Deterrence Theory of Condemnation

In our last exciting episode, I explained how the theory of condemnation that comes from desirism defeats the egoistic theory of condemnation.

This week, we are playing against the deterrence theory of condemnation.

I am employing Dill, Brendan and Darwall, Stephen (2014). "Moral Psychology as Accountability" in Moral Psychology and Human Agency (D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, eds.). Oxford.

Recall that the value of this article is found in the fact that it not only identifies the various theories of condemnation, of which the egoistic and deterrence theories are but two examples, but it then examines the empirical research to determine if the theory actually fits what people are doing when they condemn or punish. The deterrence theory of condemnation say that people engage in condemnation as a way of giving others a reason not to perform actions of the type being condemned. According to the authors:

The deterrence theory predicts that subjects will judge that a more severe punishment is appropriate when the potential deterrence benefit is high, and that a less severe punishment is appropriate when the potential deterrence benefit is low.

They then went on to discuss a number of experiments that show that this is not the case.

At once level, I do not think that the deterrence theory implies that greater potential deterrence implies greater punishment. We could probably get a great deal of deterrence against littering or jay-walking if we were to hang, draw, and quarter perpetrators. However, if we were to do this, the wrongdoing would be found in the hanging, drawing, and quartering of perpetrators far more than in the crimes that the guilty are thought to have committed. Even somebody who holds to a deterrence theory of punishment has reason to refrain from harsher punishment, even where it will do good, on the grounds that it will not do enough good to warrant the suffering that would be found in that punishment. So, this is a poor test for the deterrence theory.

However, it is relevant that this research shows that people will punish even when there is no deterrence effect because the punishment cannot in any way influence the agent's or anybody else's future action. This would be the case if an electrical shock were delivered against the perpetrator even though the perpetrator would have no way of knowing why he got shocked or to relate it to his wrong action.

According to desirism, people condemn in order to promote universally aversions to doing actions of the type being condemned. The deterrence effect of condemnation applies not only to the person being condemned, but to others who experience the condemnation as well - even when they experience it third hand or experience it as being inflicted against an imaginary or hypothetical character that has no home of being deterred about it. We cannot prevent the subject from telling his friends that, "I punished him, even though he has no way of knowing that it was me or why it happened." The telling of the story that those who perform of actions of that type merit some sort of harm promotes in others an aversion to doing acts of the type that the agent is punishing.

One problem with the deterrence theory is that it can not explain the condemnation of historical figures, fictional figures, or hypothetical figures in a story. Our condemnation is not going to change their action. Yet, we have reason to condemn them because of the effects of that condemnation on others in our community. Condemning a historical figure tells others, "do not be like him." Creating a story in which the villain gets it in the end - and the audience both within the story and observing the story cheer - tells viewers that they will be the recipient of the same type of attitude if they should act as the person the movie acted.

So, now, we have two problems with the discussion of the deterrence theory of condemnation. The first of these is that it does not consider reasons why agents might want to temper their condemnation for other reasons - it takes deterrence to be the only reason relevant to the amount of compensation. The second is that it does not consider the effect of condemnation on third parties. The third is that it considers only the effect of giving people a reason to avoid condemnation. It does not consider the effect of condemnation in promoting a simple aversion to doing acts like the type being condemned. I may refrain from taking property because I fear getting caught (and the punishment that would follow). However, the main reason that I do not take the property of others is because I have an aversion to taking the property of others. It is not something that I want to do, and it does not reflect the type of person I want to be. The effect of condemnation in promoting attitudes like this is missing from the discussion that Dill and Darwall provide.

It would actually be a mistake to call this a deterrence theory of condemnation. It is, instead, a moral education theory of condemnation - and not necessarily the education of the person being condemned. It can involve the education of anybody growing up in a community where actions of the type of in question are routinely condemned.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Egoistic Theory of Condemnation.

I read an article yesterday that I found extremely interesting.

Series Introduction

Dill, Brendan and Darwall, Stephen (2014). "Moral Psychology as Accountability" in Moral Psychology and Human Agency (D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, eds.). Oxford.

In this article, the authors look at several theories of condemnation, discuss the merits and demerits of each, and present a theory of their own.

Readers will know that condemnation plays a central role in desirism. Condemnation is a tool that people employ to act on the reward and punishment pathways of the brain so as to create universally aversions to performing acts of the type being condemned. Condemnation is legitimate when it serves this purpose, and illegitimate when it does not.

Dill and Darwall presented the first systematic account I have come across concerning competing theories of condemnation. So, this gives me a chance to weigh the account that desirism provides to other theories - and a listing of what those theories are.

A part of what makes this interesting is that the article draws heavily on empirical research on the subject . . . and I like empirical research.

I am going to go through a series of posts discussing these theories.

The Egoistic Theory of Condemnation

The egoistic theory states that we condemn others for self-interested reasons. We condemn because it makes us wealthier, improves our reputation, or just because it feels good.

The idea that people condemn for the sake of wealth involves the use of condemnation to get people to contribute to public goods. Public goods have what economists call a "free rider" problem - people can benefit even if they do not contribute to the costs. If a community builds a dike to protect the town from floods, everybody in the town benefits, even if they do not donate to the effort of building the dike. Condemnation is used to get everybody to contribute to the dike, thus profiting those who condemn.

However, as the authors point out, empirical research shows that agents punish other agents even at a cost to themselves. This is shown in various "public goods games" where people will pay to impose costs on a perceived wrongdoer. They sacrifice $20 to impose a $100 cost on a perceived wrongdoer.

They also punish wrongdoers anonymously, which means they forego any advantage of reputation.

And, finally, research shows that punishing others does not improve one's mood. Dill and Darwall report on two studies that examined this hypothesis. These studies report no relationship between willingness to punish and an agent's expectation that doing so will make them feel better.

There is another problem with the "feel better" hypothesis that the authors did not discuss. The "feels good" hypothesis says that we punish people because it pleases us to do so - we enjoy it. Punishing people involves harming them. But it is hard to see how we can justify puishment on the grounds that it feels good to do so. Indeed, harming others for the pure pleasure of doing so seems to be the paradigm example of malevolent evil.

Desirism can be seen as a type of egoistic theory. We condemn people in order to promote, universally, an aversion to performing certain types of actions. We have reasons to promote these aversions on the grounds that actions of that type tend to thwart our desires. In a sense, it is a mistake to call this "egoistic" since the desires that provide our reasons to condemn others can be other-regarding desires. We may be interested in the well-being of people other than ourselves when we condemn liars, thieves, rapists, and murderers. But it still serves our interests - even if some of them are altruistic interests - to do so.

None of the research that Dill and Darwall pointed to discredits this theory. An immediate short-term cost can easily be offset by the larger gain of promoting certain types of aversions universally. It would be hard for an experiment of the type typically used to test this, since promoting certain desires universally will include talking to others about the punishment one has inflicted outside of the experiment. Student subjects promote such aversions by sitting around the cafeteria with their friends talking about how they refused the money to punish the selfish individual, promoting the aversion to selfish activity among that circle of friends.

Of course, anonymous punishment has the effect of promoting certain aversions. Since inflicting punishment involves causing harm, and we have reasons to promote aversions to causing harm, we can expect punishment to "feel bad" at least in the sense that one worries about whether they have inflicted the punishment justly and against somebody who is actually guilty.

So, the desirism theory of condemnation stands up well against the egoistic theory of condemnation.

In the next posting, I will compare desirism to the deterrence theory of condemnation.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Manufacturing Motives: Creating Desires

It has been suggested that a podcast about value should be able to say something about the value of listening to a podcast on moral value that I am planning to start in a few months.

In the previous posting I looked at the value of listening to a podcast in terms of fulfilling the desires that the potential listener already has. Such a podcast could fulfill the potential listener's desires in one of two ways. It could fulfill the desires directly in terms of being entertaining, containing a subject matter that the listener is intrinsically interested in. A clear and easy to understood speaking voice and good sound quality are important to prevent thwarting some of the listener's desires by preventing the podcast from being hard to follow or annoying. I am not guaranteeing that this podcast will have those qualities, but they will be required to give the podcast value to any given listener.

The other method goes as follows:

Spoiler alert: The method of creating value that I will talk about here is the method that will turn out to be the most important when it comes to morality.

What if I could create within you a desire that would be served by listening to the podcast. For example, assume that I could make an elixir and put it in your drink that would make you fall in love with the sound of my voice. Under the effect of this magical spell, you want nothing more than to hear my voice. You would then have a motive to listen to the podcast over and over again just so that you can hear my voice.

This illustrates the second method of giving somebody a motive to perform some action. One creates a desire that the action would serve. In giving them such a desire - and making them aware of the fact that the action will serve that desire - one gives them a motive to perform that action.

We do not have magical elixirs. However, we do have something else. Humans evolved to have a reward and punishment system. It is a pathway through the brain, fueled mostly by the neurotransmitter dopamine, whereby if you reward somebody for performing some action, then that person acquires a desire to perform that action. He already has a motive to perform the action - for the sake of obtaining the reward. However, over time, people come to value performing the action, not for the sake of the reward, but for its own sake. Similarly, if you arrange for it to be the case that a person is punished if he should perform some action - is given an electrical shock, for example - and you make him aware of this fact, you give him a reason not to perform the action. Furthermore, he will come to value not performing the action, not just for the sake of avoiding punishment, but for its own sake.

When it comes to activating the reward system, praise serves as a type of reward, while condemnation serves as a type of punishment.

This, as I said, has more to do with morality than it does with listening to a podcast. If we praise people who keep their promises and condemn people who break their promises, we give people a motive to keep promises. At first, they keep promises as a way of obtaining the reward - praise, and of avoiding the punishment - condemnation. But, over time, people come to simply like to keep their promises and to hate breaking their promises, even when they will not get caught. By giving people an aversion to breaking promises, you give them a motive to keep their promises even when they have other reasons not to, and even when they cannot get caught.

This suggests that if people were praised for listening to my podcast and condemned for failure to do so, then this will eventually result in people having a desire to listen to the podcast that would be served by, of course, listening to the podcast. Insofar as they have such a desire and know how to listen to the podcast, they have a motive to do so.

This, then, will bring up the question of whether there are reasons to praise people who listen to this podcast, or to condemn those who do not. There probably is not. However, the degree to which we can provide information that would be useful in making better communities, to that degree there might be reasons to encourage people to listen.

Are there reasons to praise people who keep promises and to condemn people who do not? Are there reasons, in other words, to create in people a desire to keep their promises that will motivate them to do so even when they otherwise do not want to? Actually . . . yes. There are a lot of reasons to do so.

What, then, is the value of listening to this podcast? Hopefully, I can make it pleasing or useful - such as to fulfill the desires you already have. It might also be useful in that it can help to fulfill desires you should have - desires that there are reasons to create. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. Insofar as this podcast can actually provide information that would be useful in creating better communities - making the world a better place, to that degree it may be useful to praise those who listen to it and to condemn those who do not, thereby creating within people desires that would be served by listening to this podcast.

That seems to be taking a huge step outside of the bounds of reality. Let's return to earth and answer, directly, the question: What is the real-world value of listening to this podcast?

Listening to this podcast will have value insofar as it is entertaining and provides useful information. The information that I hope to provide is information on the nature of value that will be useful in creating better communities - in making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. Better communities, in turn, are those in which people obtain the benefits of their association with other people in terms of getting the things that they value, while avoiding the risks and harms that humans often inflict on others.

The value of listening to this podcast is found in the degree to which it is successful at reaching these goals.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Manufacturing Motives: Linking Action to Desire

This is the podcast about value. Because it is a podcast about value, you should expect that I can say something about the value of listening to this podcast.

Let me give it a try.

In order for me to get you to choose to listen to this podcast, I have to provide you with a motive to listen to it. How do I do that?

Well, there are two ways I can do that.

Here is the first way.

You have a set of desires. Now, I am using the word “desire” in a very broad sense. It includes all sorts of likes, wants, preferences, interests, and the like. When I speak about desires, I am including things that would more accurately be called aversions. I am assuming that you have an aversion to pain. You might have a desire to live on Mars or an aversion to spiders, or an aversion to living on Mars and happen to like spiders.

Desires are the source of motivation. Take your aversion to pain as an example – your desire that you not be in pain. This aversion to pain can give you a motive not to put your hand on a hot stove. If somebody were to ask you, “Why did you not take that pie out of the oven with your bare hands?” it is perfectly sensible to answer, “Because it will hurt!” The aversion to pain gives you a motive to find a pot holder to use when you remove the pie. A desire to live on Mars might motivate you to study Martian geology, or to research ways to grow food on Mars. Your interest in spiders might motivate you to get a pet spider. Your interest in that classmate might motivate you to ask her if she would be interested in studying for the exam together.

So, one way to get you to listen to this podcast is to create some sort of link between your listening to this podcast and something that you desire.

I could, for example, arrange to inflict on you a severe electrical shock if you fail to listen to the podcast. The combination of your aversion to pain, and the belief that you can avoid the pain of an electrical shock by listening to my podcast, means that you have a motive to listen to my podcast.

I regret to report that I have not found a cost-effective way to hit you with a painful electrical shock if you do not listen to my podcast, so I am going to have to find some other method.

I could pay you. One nice thing about money is that a great many of the things that most people desire they can get if they have enough money. This means that most people have a motive to do things that result in their receiving some money. Your desire for something that you can get if you have money, plus the fact that you can get the money if you listen to this podcast, means that you have a motive to listen to this podcast.
But, I am not going to pay you to listen to this podcast. I’m selfish that way.

There are two other ways that I can get you to listen to this podcast. I can make something that you enjoy doing, or I can make it useful, or I can try to do both at the same time.

To make this podcast something you want to listen to, I can work to make sure that the sound quality is good. I can try to speak clearly so that my words are easy to understand and speak in a tone that does not cause listeners to fall asleep. I can add a joke here and there for entertainment value. With any luck, they might even be good jokes – but that might be beyond my ability.

Perhaps you are like me. You simply have an interest in what it is for something to be good or bad, in which case I need to provide you with content that will help you to answer some questions you may have on that subject.
In all cases, I motivate you to listen to this podcast by identifying something that you desire and incorporating it in this podcast to the best of my ability.

To make this podcast useful, I would need to make it something that you can use given something you desire outside of this podcast. Perhaps you are having trouble falling asleep and this podcast provides a useful cure for your insomnia. Technically, I would not count that person as somebody who “listens to the podcast,” but that does not change the fact that this is one way this podcast can be useful. It is not the way I want it to be useful, but it could be useful in just that way.

Or, perhaps I could encode the next winning lottery number into my podcast. Then, anybody who believed that they had a reasonable chance to figure out the code has a motive to listen to the podcast. Again, given that money is useful in the fulfillment of many desires, and listening to the podcast would provide one with a reasonable chance of getting some money, one has a motive to listen to the podcast.

In all seriousness, I hope that you will find this podcast useful in helping to get a better understanding of the nature of value – the difference between what is good and what is bad – as a useful start in contributing to making a community that is better than it would have otherwise been. I hope that I have already showed you some of that in the material we have covered so far.

I have tried to cover one of the ways in which I can create a podcast that has value. It would be a podcast that is such as to fulfill the desires of others.

The podcast can fulfill those desires directly – by being entertaining, pleasing, and providing information that the listeners are interested in for its own sake. The podcast can fulfill those desires indirectly by providing listeners with information that they can use to acquire more of that which is good and avoid more of that which is bad.

This is a very small scratch on what is a very large surface. What I have covered so far should give rise to a large set of new questions. For example, I have said that something is good if it is such as to fulfill certain desires, either directly (is pleasing) or indirectly (is useful). Does this mean that everybody is selfish – seeking only the fulfillment of their own desires? We will cover this issue in more detail in a future episode, but the short answer is “no”. Almost everybody has at least some altruistic desires. They genuinely want what is best for their friends and for their family, and they are genuinely distressed at people being maimed, killed, abused, or exploited and are strongly motivated to prevent these things from happening. A selfish person is not a person that does what he desires. A selfish person is a person who only desires a better life for himself, and does not care whether others suffer or die so long as he gains wealth and power.

Let’s set those questions aside for now. We have some unfinished business. I said that there are two ways I can build value into this podcast. I have discussed one of those two ways – by making it such as to fulfill the desires you already have. The other way would be to give you new desires that would be served by this podcast. I will discuss that option next.

The Value of True Morality

One would think that if I blog and intend to produce a podcast on the nature of value that I should be able to say something about the value of particpating in such a podcast.

Let us assume that you are working for a company that is seeking to relocate you and your family to a new city. They are giving you an option as to which city you would like to move your family to.

Option 1: This office is in a community of individuals who are well known for their kindness and helpfulness. Its citizens not only help others at times of need, but they seem to genuinely enjoy doing so. They get along peacefully with each other and experience little violence - though they are intent on defending themselves and others when people threatening violence appear in their community. In fact, stories of individuals stepping up to defend those who cannot defend themselves are quite common. If they make a promise, they are inclined to keep it unless something truly significant prevents them from doing so. They have similar attitudes towards repaying a debt and fulfilling their side of any bargain or negotiation in good faith. They actively dislike taking advantage of others and prefer to deal honestly and openly.

Option 2: This city is filled with people like Donald Trump. They lie constantly, borrow money with no intention of every paying it back, engage in bargains with no intention to living up to their part of the bargain if they can get away with it. They engage in acts of cruelty and abuse at a whim, and even seem to enjoy their cruel and abusive treatment of others as expressions of their own worth and power. You can count on them to ignore any plea for help, being fully confident that they will give you aid and assistance only if and insofar as it is profitable towards them. Though, do not pay them in advance for helping you because once they get the payment then they will recognize no obligation to help.

What is the value of Option 1 over Option 2?

We do not actually have much of a choice over which type of community to live in. But we do have a choice as to what type of community to make for ourselves and our friends and family. The question of which is better - Option 1 or Option 2 - is not a question of what type of community to move into. It is a question of what type of community to create.

Also, we should acknowledge that this our choice is not between one community or the other. These represent end-points on a continuum. We cannot create Option 1, but we can nudge the community in that direction. Alone and individually, we can make but a small impact (though, importantly, we will have that impact on the part of the community closest to us, which is a point in its favor). Yet, when we combine our efforts with the efforts of others, we can move some pretty heavy loads. No single worker could move the stones that made the Great Pyramids of Egypt. However, when you get enough people pulling in the same direction, you can do quite a bit of work. We all have reasons to pull together in building a community built on honestly, kindness, trustworthiness, helpfulness, peace, and justice.

Or, we could build a community of lies, corruption, dishonesty, brutality, and exploitation. That's certainly an option. I wouldn't recommend it. In such a community, there might be a few people "on the top" who get to profit from their lies, corruption, dishonesty, brutality, and exploitation. However, the vast majority of the population will be those who are abused and exploited by corrupt officials at the top. So, there are far more of us with far stronger reasons to prevent building such a community than there are with an interest in building it. Though, unfortunately, those who are interested in building a community of lies, corruption, and exploitation seem to have power that is out of proportion to their numbers - as any student of history can attest.

This is about building a better community. Insofar as this is our goal, we have reason to get together to discuss and compare notes about what such a community would look like and the best ways to go about building it. Naturally, we are going to disagree. But no one of us has perfect virtue and wisdom. Consequently, we have something to gain by getting together, comparing notes, sharing what we know, and seeing how we can work together so that our children and grandchildren, at least, get to live in a community that is closer to Option 1 than Option 2.


Thursday, January 02, 2020

Discussing Morality

This post relates to the podcast I am wanting to start in a few months.

I very much value public input and comment. This is not like a movie or television series where avoiding spoilers has a high priority. This is an honest attempt to generate an improved understanding of morality among a larger group of people.

And, I am not the master of all virtue and wisdom. I hope to tap into the virtue and wisdom of others to make the best podcast available.

Towards that end, I have been thinking about how to introduce the podcast -an “episode 0” that will be about a 5 minute “trailer” that will get people interested in the content.

So . . . How does this sound? Comments welcome . . . encouraged . . . strongly encouraged.


Fact: We all depend on other people for the best things in life.

I recently enjoyed a week in my home, alone with my cats, reading, writing, and not talking to another human being.

However, I was it in a house that other people built, reading material that other people provided, delivered to me across an infrastructure that other people build and maintain, eating food that other people grew and delivered, secure in the knowledge that other people were standing by ready to help me if something went horribly wrong.

At the same time, some of our biggest threats come from other people. We and those we care about are the potential victims of theft, rape and other forms of violent assault, enslavement, and murder.

It is no coincidence that these threats all fall under the general category of “immorality”. We consider these things “wrong” precisely because we have reasons to want other people not to do them to us and those we care about.

Deciding what these things are and getting people not to do them is not easy.

How about we simply arrest and imprison anybody who engages in vandalism, theft, assault, rape, slavery, or murder?

Two things.

First, now we face a new threat - the threat of being falsely accused and imprisoned.

Second, what if we need to conscript people to build a dike before a flooding river destroys the whole community, or to fight an enemy intent on conquering and enslaving us? What if funding some infrastructure will make everybody better off, but most people want to enjoy the benefits without contributing to the costs? What if we set up an institution for identifying and arresting thieves, rapists, and murderers, and somebody hijacks it to use it to enslave others and adjust those who would oppose him?

When we succeed at harvesting the benefits of living with other people and minimizing the threats, we live together in a peaceful and prosperous community. When we fail . . . whole cities end up as piles of rubble filled with bloody corpses. When it fails, even a little, somebody - possibly you, possibly somebody you know and care about - ends up murdered, raped, injured, exploited, robbed, or otherwise harmed.

Here’s an example of morality gone wrong.

In the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent declared a crusade against Catharism. The Cathars believed in two gods – one good and one evil – which was contrary to the Catholic belief that there was only one God. The town of Beziers was one in which the citizens supported and sought to protect its Cathars – so they refused to turn their Cathars over to the Church. The crusaders laid siege to the town. They managed to get in through one of the city gates and commenced to slaughter its residents – about 20,000 people of all ages.

Why did this happen? Naturally, when there are a lot of people involved there are a lot of different reasons. There was a desire to protect people from eternal torment in hell by protecting them from a heresy that would result in divine punishment after death. There was a Catholic Church who did not want to share power with a different group of spiritual leaders. There were nobles seeking each other’s lands. There were citizens of Beziers who simply wanted to protect and defend their friends and neighbors. There were crusaders who were told that 40 days of service would erase all of their sins. There were obviously a few people who just like killing and, for whom, a chance to walk down a city street slaying everybody one sees and have all of one’s sins erased at the same time was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

There was, above all, a failure of morality. The institutions that people adopt to harvest the benefits of sharing the planet failed, and the result was widespread theft, rape, and murder.

Any student of history knows that its pages are soaked in this kind of blood and violence. The Crusades, the 30 Years War, the English Civil War, slavery, thousands of years in which women were mere property – moral failure is all too common.

Moral failure is all too common - even today. And people suffer and die as a result.

So, I think we are due for a serious discussion about the demands of morality. And I want to invite you to join me.

And it has to be a discussion. I was not granted with perfect wisdom and virtue. Several times, I have thought I have known some important answers, only to have somebody step up and prove to me that I was mistaken. Consequently, I am in no position to preach the truth of morality. I have, on the other hand, put a great deal of effort into understanding the issue, and I think that I am in a good position to facilitate such a discussion. Perhaps we can contribute something to harvesting more of the benefits of living in a community with others, while reducing or eliminating some of the threats.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020


A new year. A year of transition.

This year I will:

(1) Defend my master's thesis

(2) Hopefully be accepted into the PhD program in Philosophy at the University of Colorado. (I have submitted my application)

(3) Lose my job of 20 years. They have already notified me of an intention of ending my employment at the end of the current project in April.

(4) Graduate with an MA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado.

(5) Begin a new podcast on morality.

(6) Turn 60 years old.

By this time next year, my life will have totally changed. Well, not totally. Almost totally. I will have more time devoted to making the world a better place, and a lot less income to do it with.

This means that this blog is ending the dry spell it has suffered while I held down two jobs and finished my MA thesis. NOTE: For the next 4 months I will still be holding down 2 jobs, and still taking graduate-level courses at the University of Colorado. But, I fully intend to begin transitioning to my new lifestyle now rather than wait until graduation in May. And that means regular posts.

I hope that this is a good year for all.