Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

This article on goal-oriented and process-oriented objectives is interesting and well articulated. The distinction is important, and worth picking apart if you want to gain some useful insight into human motivation generally.

I’m still not convinced it makes a conclusive argument against wireheading.

This is where I get the impression that I’m somewhat out of step with much of the rationalist community. I think the potential of wireheading deserves much more time and serious attention than is generally fashionable.

At least, if the term can be interpreted widely enough. One understanding of it specifically refers to stimulating the “pleasure centres” of the brain; whether or not “pleasure centres” is itself rigorously defined, this presumably relates only to the more immediate or straightforward physical pleasures available to humans. A shortcut to the experience of delight usually available only through sex or food would be interesting, but probably not something we’d all want to embrace to the exclusion of all other avenues we could be exploring. (At least, most of us probably don’t want that now. If we actually had access to such a device, studies suggest we’d end up wanting to do exactly that – another reason it doesn’t appeal from our putatively rational position of indifference, made possible by not currently experiencing overwhelming pleasure.)

But this doesn’t apply much imagination to wireheading’s potential. Our capabilities are clearly limited at the moment, but taking a longer-term view of the science of neuro-hacking, superior technology could in principle get around any objection to wireheading that isn’t purely ideological. It’s understandable to suppose that constant physical pleasure might get “boring” after a while, because in our natural lives we do get bored. We never go very long without craving some variety in the stimuli we’re experiencing, even those stimuli we rank among our favourites and return to again and again. It seems like any attempt at wireheading would fall prey to our same fickle tendencies.

But come on, we’re already talking about using futuristic technology to hack the human brain. Think bigger! Boredom is just as much a result of physical processes in your grey matter as pleasure is, so hack that too! Why not have a brain implant which stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain and simultaneously puts a hold on whatever accompanying brain processes would normally make you get bored? You’re right that nobody enjoying a game would want to just skip to the end, because the challenge of playing it is what they’re enjoying – but then why shouldn’t wireheading include porting that feeling right there directly to your brain? Why not have a more complex implant which directly interacts with multiple areas of the brain, and provides some “higher-level” desirable mental states, such as the satisfaction of completing a tough physical job, or the sense of comforting rightness that comes from a deep and heart-felt conversation with another person with whom you share a complete mutual love and understanding? Why not have it regularly switch to something else joyous, blissful, fulfilling, or otherwise desirable, in whatever manner currently provides the most positive adjustment to that particular brain-state?

Of course, if any device claims to be able to offer a short-cut to all these good feelings without the need to slog through reality like usual, you should be very suspicious of just how much it’s actually going to fulfil all your current desires. And you should definitely be wary of the effect on other people of your withdrawing from the world – maybe a futuristic implant really can artificially provide you with all the flow you get from your real-world work, but if you used to work as a heart surgeon, there are other considerations than whether you’re missing out on job satisfaction. There are good reasons to want our experiences to be generally rooted in the real world. But I’m not convinced it’s important for its own sake.

A follow-up post discusses this to an extent, but I don’t think the “simulated reality” distinction saves the argument. Pull-quote:

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

I totally agree with the latter point, and it’s worth bearing in mind how much more likely something like that is than any of the sci-fi hypotheticals I’m talking about above. But cutting other human minds out of one’s life would only be an impoverishment if they couldn’t be replaced with some equivalent experience, to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Obviously anything like that is a way off. But I’m intrigued as to the direction things are going, and I wonder if this kind of direct brain-stimulation won’t be a significant part of the post-trans-humanist techno-utopia we’re all supposed to be pontificating about.

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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The whole idea of a moral basis to capitalism seems inherently broken to me.

The Pope recently made his first “apostolic exhortation”, which is totally what I’m going to start calling my tweets in future in a further attempt at self-hype and aggrandisement. (“Apostles, I exhort you. Look at this picture of my cat making a derpy face. LOL. Please RT.”)

In this exhortation, he talked about poverty, and wealth inequality, and all the stuff that’s increasingly been interesting me lately. Pontiff Frankie Prime seems to genuinely give a crap about the whole poverty deal, at least by Papal standards. I get the impression he genuinely sees people suffering because of economic injustices and wants to prioritise improving this situation, even if he is only doing a minuscule fraction of what’s within his power from that massive palace of his.

Anyway, his description of the tyranny of “unfettered capitalism” got a lot of people agitated, and often with good reason. I’m not sure that his proposed improvements to the global economy are cogent, or that his statement of the problem is even internally consistent; part of what defines capitalism is the fetters, in the form of property rights and so forth.

I don’t have any especial interest in analysing the Pope’s proposed economic policies, not least because by his own admission he’s not really trying to speak in economic, academic terms. But I just listened to a Freakonomics podcast which discussed the Pope’s ideas with a number of economists, and a few things bugged me about the defenses of market systems that ensued.

Joseph Kaboski, an Economics Professor and a Catholic, argues that ethics comprise an important part of a market economy. He provides a simple example in which they come into play, of someone getting over-charged at a car dealership because they didn’t speak great English, and so weren’t in a position to fully inform themselves of the details which would have helped in their negotiations. The point he’s trying to demonstrate is that “ethics are important in markets”.

But being “important” is a vague concept – what role do ethics actually play here? It’s clear that unethical behaviour would be an option for some unscrupulous person in this situation, and that it harms some innocent bystander as a result (and arguably damages market efficiency) – but none of that needs to matter to the unethical actor. He’s just made a tidy profit off of some hapless loser, beyond what was merited by the quality of the product – and he’s strongly incentivised by the system in place to do so whenever he can get away with it. Unethical behaviour makes those doing it better off.

There’s no solution proposed to this. It’s not even recognised as a problem. Another contributor to the episode, Jeffrey Sachs, says that “our indifference, our brazenness, our hard-heartedness, is no favour to ourselves or to the functioning of our societies”. But sometimes brazen, hard-hearted, unethical behaviour is a favour to ourselves, at least in the short-term. It might screw over the functioning of society if we all act that way, but why should I care? I got mine, Jack.

Obviously I think I should care. There is a moral obligation, I’m not going full relativist here. But when people who flout that obligation flourish as a direct result, and do better than those who act more ethically, the system is inherently broken. There’s no point arguing that your system will work fine if people would just behave more ethically, when the system is designed to reward those who don’t. There needs to be something built-in to the system so that socially harmful and undesirable behaviour isn’t massively appealing to anyone with flexible morals.

On a briefer note, here’s another quote from Kaboski, amid some more detailed statistics of how much things have been improving lately:

More people have escaped extreme poverty in the past 25 years in part through the growth of China and India than in any period of human history.

There are aspects of this whole debate to take heart in. Things do get better. But I call bullshit on this limited success as a vindication of any given application of capitalist market economics in recent years. There are still billionaires collectively hiding trillions of dollars offshore, for whom sums of money equivalent to whole countries’ GDPs act like a meaningless high-score, and there are still thousands of children starving to death every day.

It might be better than it’s ever been. It’s still not fucking good enough.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Do we have any obligation to care what the Pope says about anything, given the global extent of the child abuse network he oversees?

2. What would “unfettered capitalism” actually look like? What, if any, role would the government play in such a system?

3. Shouldn’t we have figured out how to sort out all the money without being dicks about it, by this point in our civilisation?

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Theists often like to set the bar unreasonably high when demanding that atheists rationally or empirically support their position.

One obvious example of this surrounds the whole “you can’t disprove God” thing. It’s sometimes claimed that we have to go a really, implausibly long way to show that their god doesn’t exist. Given the limits of human knowledge even about the planet we live on, let alone the entirety of creation, it is asserted to be the height of arrogance to assume the “perfect knowledge of the universe” necessary to deny the possibility of God’s existence.

This, clearly, doesn’t stand up. I don’t need to know the exact position of every particle of matter in my bedroom to forthrightly assert that there’s not an elephant in there. And most gods that have ever been described are purported to be much grander and more noticeable than an elephant. Is Jesus hiding on a rock on Titan that we haven’t looked under yet, waiting for the right moment for the Second Coming?

We’ve been up Mount Olympus, and we didn’t find Zeus. For the same reason that believers don’t give the Greek gods much thought these days, atheists are fine ignoring Yahweh until he bothers to actually show up either.

But there’s another way I’ve noticed some theists expect atheistic standards to be impossibly high: morality.

Atheists often act morally to other people, making large charitable donations and demonstrating love for their fellow humans. Meanwhile, Christians are quite capable of ignoring what they think God wants or failing to stick to the rules (otherwise why would they be asking forgiveness all the time?). Sometimes they rationalise selfish and harmful acts as being part of some “greater good”, or just ask forgiveness later. In other words, they can do bad things and decide that it “doesn’t count” for any of the myriad reasons that people regularly use when they’ve acted in contradiction to their image of themselves as a moral person.

Given the obvious truth that both atheists and believers are capable of tremendous good or terrible harm, why should an ultimate religious source of morality be important? And, in particular, if atheists want to do good, to value humanity, and to care for other people, why isn’t that enough? Sure, they often fail to meet their ideals, but they’re not alone in that, and generally they’re striving toward morality and compassion. Isn’t that as much as you can hope for?

Seriously, what more do you want?

A secular morality is based on doing good for goodness’ sake. It depends on compassion and love for others, on community and caring and kindness, and yes, to a degree, on social structures and restraints designed to reprimand or discourage behaviour that doesn’t line up with this moral ideal.

If that’s not good enough for you – if that’s not an admirable system of ethics, which commendably aims to promote happiness and harmony and well-being and to nurture the best parts of us and bring out our optimal glorious humanity – then what do you think morality means?

I hope we’re not back to the tedium of “just do what God says” again. Surely we’re above that by now.

No matter how much we try to explain the basic concept of humanism, it’s still sometimes asserted that we have no “basis” for morality; that there’s no fundamental ethical bedrock giving meaning to our morals, in the way that religious people have God to define good and evil.

This is widely believed, even in the absence of any reliable trend toward more moral behaviour by the religious. Atheists are a tiny fraction of a minority of the prison population, and some acts – honour killings, for instance – are driven by religious motivation, but are deemed morally repugnant despite the religious basis that condones them. Theists and atheists alike are often quite capable of telling right from wrong, regardless of what they think about God’s opinions. (Also genocide.)

But it’s apparently vital that atheists come up with a way to provide an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that anybody who doesn’t believe in God will always act without the slightest hint of selfishness or cruelty. Any time they can highlight an atheist doing something immoral, it becomes a demand that we infallibly ensure that we never cross the line of moral dubiousness ever again. The mindset keeping the ungodly on the straight and narrow is expected to be completely impermeable, and 100% successful at all times, or else it’s deemed a dismal failure proving the whole concept of godless ethics to be impossible.

The people making such claims, of course, show absolutely no interest in concocting a similar system for their fellow believers. Religious folk “sin” all the time, because we’re human and fallible, and no abstract belief system is ever going to be able to exert a total, unbreakable hold over your behaviour.

But at least they still have a solid “basis” for their morality, in a way that’s totally different from how atheists behave, and obviously superior, because… umm…

It’s not. People do good when they care about other people, and when they’re not strongly incentivised to act selfishly in a way that’s harmful. In some people, religious beliefs help nudge them toward compassion; in others, quite the opposite. At best, belief in God is unnecessary for any kind of moral behaviour.

I just want people to care about each other and be kind. The idea that atheists have any loftier expectations to meet than that, to simply be taken seriously as moral beings, is misguided and deeply biased.

And if you’ve got a system of ethics which you think reliably produces more good in the world than “care about each other and be kind”, I’d love to hear it.

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Here’s something I got told this week:

I fear your embrace of compassion is fleeting and ungrounded.

This was a pertinent comment in the context of a discussion about morality and religion, not just a weird, out-of-the-blue attack. The surrounding discussion was about God’s involvement in questions of moral behaviour, and what constitutes “good”.

In particular, it was being questioned how atheists can have any motivation to do good things, and proposed that, even if I seem to hold compassion for other people as a value for now, it’s a shaky and unreliable kind of morality if it’s not grounded in something.

Like belief in God, somehow.

No, I’m as confused as you are.

If you’re after a cast-iron, completely unmalleable, 100% guarantee that I am absolutely never going to have a change of heart that sends me on a rampage of cruelty and violence, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. But what bizarre inhuman logic makes you think religion allows anyone to make such a claim?

The idea that people who believe in a god, and believe that this god wants them to behave in a particular way, are people who can be unerringly relied upon to follow this god’s edicts to the letter, never letting let this semblance of moral behaviour waver for a moment, is simply not borne out by even a cursory glance at the history of the planet.

People who read the Bible and take it seriously also kill, steal, lie, covet, and adulter…ise? Adulterate? They do some adultery, whatever the word is for that. They know they shouldn’t, and they know it’s not what God wants, but it happens all the time. Otherwise asking forgiveness wouldn’t ever be necessary within Christianity, let alone one of its central foundations.

Sometimes religious people do these bad things because they’re twisting the teachings of their holy book to suit their own ends. Sometimes they’re just human, and fallible, and not always completely frightened into compliance by any given set of divine instructions.

And other times, people do adhere perfectly to their understanding of how God wants them to behave – but this behaviour is harmful and damaging and cruel to their fellow humans, and completely detached from anything a reasonable person with a shred of basic humanism or decency would recognise as “moral”.

My morality might not be absolute, but it’s based on compassion and a desire to do good for other people; a genuine consideration for conscious creatures and their well-being. Looking at the comparative rates at which religious and non-religious people do bad things, I don’t see any reason to suppose that “grounding” your morality in obedience to God is in any way superior to letting compassion and love themselves be the fundamental, grounding factors.

I’d be much more comfortable around someone who feels compelled to do good for its own sake, than someone whose entire concept of right and wrong is dictated to them by some external force – particularly an external force which they themselves proudly assert is beyond human understanding.

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I think religion can help people to be moral.

This may seem to directly contradict what I’ve said before, and which has been repeated at length many times, in many religious debates, for the benefit of religious people who seem to need it repeated many times. But I stand by the familiar secular humanist trope: God is entirely superfluous for morality to exist, and no worthwhile system of ethics can be defined simply in terms of obedience to some more powerfully coercive force.

Religion does not equate to morality. One does not remotely depend on the other. But there can be a positive causal link there.

Ask a humanist about the source of their morals, and they’ll probably mention compassion for other humans as an end in itself – being good for goodness’ sake, and all that. This, for many, is where true morality lies: we don’t need to be told not to murder and rape each other by God to figure out that we just shouldn’t do it. And, conversely, if we are told that, say, homosexuality is somehow inherently evil, then we can look at the plain facts and figure out for ourselves that there’s no moral basis whatever for such an assertion.

But while this is all ethically sound reasoning, it does many religious people a disservice to assume that the motives for their behaviour go no further than the whim of their god. Many of them aren’t so monomaniacally fixated on their divine delusion; they live most of their lives in the real world, and engage with it in the same ways, and for the same reasons, as I do.

I know religious people whose love for their children has nothing to do with their belief that God placed us all on this earth with some deliberate purpose in mind. The humanistic idea of loving people because they deserve it, because it brings about greater happiness and comfort and joy and well-being which are all good things in and of themselves, are precisely what motivate a lot of devout believers in the good they do.

Everyone who understands the inherently good purpose of being a good person, learned it somehow. The experiences in their lives brought them to that point. For some, this journey is kick-started simply by loving parents, and other similar positive influences, who nurture a positive approach to the world. For others, what gets them there is the idea that God wants them to be good to people, and that belief inspires them to find a sincere, innately good compassion for others. They’re not just behaving themselves because they think it’s what God wants; but the idea that God wants this has shaped how they truly feel, prompted them to think about loving their neighbour and realise on their own what a good idea it is.

It doesn’t always work, of course. For some, the divine edict really is the be-all and end-all of moral meaning, and actual care or love for humanity doesn’t enter into their picture of how anyone should behave. Then it’s all about using God’s will to enforce and justify their own prejudices and bigotry, and it all gets rather ugly. It’s largely because of these people that the “Good without God” slogan is still worth repeating; an alarming number of people still don’t get it.

But many roads can lead to love and kindness, and it’s not the most terrible thing in the world if some of those roads aren’t too rational. Good with God deserves a chance, too.

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There was an edition of the BBC’s discussion programme The Big Questions recently which covered the topic: “Is religion good/bad for children?” (I can’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but it was about children and religion, broadly speaking, and a good part of the conversation focused on faith schools.)

Most of the guests invited to talk were religious figures, but they all fell on different points of the sliding scales of fundamentalism, reasonableness, and over-enjoyment of shouting, so there was generally at least some modicum of sanity being expressed, even before Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association put in an excellent defense of a non-religious approach to life.

One thing that struck me about the show was how much the religious guests enjoyed explaining what secular humanists believe and how they think, and how little they were diverted from this course by the one secular humanist among them repeatedly explaining where they were going wrong. No, he said, humanists don’t just think that morality is arbitrary and we should teach kids to behave however they like. We actually have a reality-based system of ethics founded on caring for other people, on good for goodness’s sake. No humanist I’ve ever met actually holds the views you’re describing.

Another recurring point was the confusion over what humanists want when it comes to religious teaching in schools. The idea keeps coming up that secularists don’t want God or gods ever to be mentioned in an educational environment, or that we want some kind of ban on prayer or religious activity. Which, again, is a misunderstanding that can only plausibly be a result of either never talking to any humanists, or not listening when they talk to you.

Of course we want kids to learn about religions in schools. The more they know about the variety of religious belief in the world today, and the origins and histories of religions that have come and gone, as well as those still prevalent, the better. I was reminded of a poster that recently appeared on an American university campus, put up by a freethinkers’ group, and featured on The Friendly Atheist, which neatly explains why humanists feel this way:



For the graphically impaired, it reads:

Study one religion,
and you’ll be hooked for life.

Study two religions,

Slightly over-simplified, perhaps, but it makes a good point.

The original “Big Question” was about whether religion was good for children – whether it was healthy or unhealthy to bring them up teaching them to adhere to a faith, the proven benefits that come from being a member of a church, and so on. What didn’t seem to come up was the value of teaching kids things that are true.

And, well, maybe I’m just being pedagogically old-fashioned, but that’s basically the trump card for me. We should be teaching kids things that are true. We should be teaching them how we come to know what’s true, how we can measure our levels of certainty about what we believe to be true, and how to think so that we’re likely to believe more true things than false ones in the future, rejecting old ideas in favour of new ones as necessary.

So, sure, let’s not hide from them the fact that around two billion people on the planet adhere to some form of Christianity. It’s not like we’re hoping they don’t notice. But let’s not leave out any other part of the factual context surrounding religious claims for the sake of maintaining our own biases, either.

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(This is kind of a Roman Railway post.)

Every so often, I decide it’s time to revisit something that I know just makes me happy.

Here’s a couple of YouTube videos that exemplify what I mean. This one’s got a guy playing music from Peanuts on the piano to a roomful of old people:



And this one’s got a guy called Matt doing a silly dance all over the world:



Both these things make a mixture of feelings well up in me. Joy, hope, optimism for the future, delight at the beauty that’s possible in the world. That kind of thing. It’s a happy, positive, self-reinforcing delight.

Of course, there are other kinds of delight that are less well intentioned. Every good action movie needs a good come-uppance, where we take pleasure not just in the positive outcome for the good guys, but in the much-deserved suffering of the villains. If the bad guy isn’t frustrated, furious, or dead at the end of it all, why bother?

I think this second kind of delight, while common and understandable, is morally problematic. I’m not sure that outwardly exhibiting pleasure directly stemming from someone else’s distress is ever actually okay.

I don’t mean to casually label basically everyone on the planet as a monster, here. The urge to revel in an opponent’s defeat is a very strong one, and a very human one. You probably don’t have to go back very far in this blog to find examples of me being just as guilty of it as anyone. It’s far from the worst thing you can do.

But still, I’m not sure it’s ever the right thing to do. Taking pleasure from someone else’s negative emotions might be something we should, in every instance, strive to avoid. It’s beneath us as compassionate human beings.

One particular example of the uglier side of joy, which springs most easily to my mind, is the malicious glee that repeatedly emerges from certain quarters every time a news story about Margaret Thatcher’s failing health emerges. There are plenty who find pleasure in these facts, and have long since announced the excitement with which they’re anticipating the week-long street party when she finally dies.

I don’t agree with any of Thatcher’s politics, but the crowing over her eventual passing just seems unnecessary and vile. There’s nothing positive about it to celebrate; it’s not like her despotic hold over us is finally being broken, or the things she did which you disagree with will somehow be undone. Another human consciousness will simply cease to be, and another woman (who you also probably don’t like very much) will mourn the loss of her mother.

She might be close, but Margaret Thatcher’s not the ultimate right-wing boogey-man. Let’s bring this one all the way. It’s time to talk Hitler.

Was it a good thing when Hitler died?

Millions were filled with joy when they heard the news, and it’d be insane to begrudge them that. It wasn’t just one man’s death they were celebrating; it was the prospect of an end to a war that had killed millions over the course of too many years. They were delighted by the prospect of being able to live again in safety, of not having to live under a brutal Nazi regime, of no longer having to live in terror regarding the fates of their loved ones. There was a lot to celebrate when Hitler died.

Its consequences were joyful, of course. But the death of a man itself? I still say there’s no joy in that.

Many of those millions would disagree. They’d have been thrilled to be rid of him, not just for the hope of peace that ensued. And I can’t criticise anyone too harshly for that. None of my loved ones have ever been torn apart by shrapnel or taken away and gassed. I can’t condemn anyone for finding a grim satisfaction knowing Hitler was dead, or even outright jubilation that the bastard finally got what was coming to him. Of course I can see their point.

But still I think there’s a better way to be. A more positive way to approach the world. And while I’m not so unreasonable as to chastise anyone who can’t get there immediately, and can understand entirely why the catharsis of schadenfreude might sometimes feel necessary, I think this better way is always worth aspiring to.

Take heart from the positive. Move on from the negative.

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I’m still slowly learning more about the idea of anti-natalism, on the grounds that it’s intriguingly counter-intuitive. It’s one of those things that tends to get immediately shut down in more mainstream conversation, generally by people who don’t seem to be fully understanding it or giving it even partial credit where it may have a point (as is also the case with anarchism).

The latest post in one explanatory series focuses on “body ownership”, and while I’m still not finding the approach of this particular series entirely satisfactory, it’s inspired what might be an interesting thought experiment.

Let’s assume that you’re like the majority of people I interact with online: not an anti-natalist, but in favour of a woman’s rights to choose what to do with her own body as far as reproductive health goes. If she wants to terminate a pregnancy in the early stages of development, she should be allowed to do so safely and legally. If she wants to have the baby, it will be legally her child, assuming she doesn’t display a serious dereliction of parental duties. While carrying an infant to term, there should be some legal restrictions on the activities she’s allowed to engage in, such as using drugs, for the sake of the baby’s welfare.

Most of the controversy in all this tends to surround the abortion side of things. On the other hand, a woman wanting to become a mother is usually seen as positively admirable.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical woman called Linda. She’s healthy and financially comfortable, and she and her husband want to have a child together. Millions of children are born in the US every year; however you might feel about the suitability of some of these parents to the task of raising a new child, Linda and her husband are as uncomplicated and controversy-free as possible. They’re in an excellent position to be great parents.

But Linda’s hypothetical world is a slightly different world than ours. In Linda’s world, scientists have learned something about fetal development in the womb (which doesn’t apply in our world). From the stage when Linda’s baby starts developing a brain and central nervous system, and for the rest of the pregnancy, it will be in extreme pain. As its consciousness starts to appear, the first sensations it experiences will be of constant anguish and torment, which will continue unabated for several months.

This happens to all babies. Pregnancy is an agonising experience, until the point of birth, and this can only be prevented by terminating the pregnancy before the fetus reaches that stage of development. There are no long-term effects from this pain, no trauma that causes any suffering later in life. But every unborn child will begin existence by experiencing several months of torture.

Is it morally acceptable for Linda to deliberately try to become pregnant, and purposefully put an infant through this pain?

In fact, let’s say it’s even worse. Let’s say that Linda’s baby will be in the same unceasing pain for the entire first year of its life, as well. It won’t be able to express its suffering usefully; it’ll just cry and flail a lot, like most babies do, and regularly wear itself out and fall asleep. Again, the pain stops after about a year, and there’s never any trauma or suffering later in life associated with these experiences in infancy. But we know that this is what unavoidably happens to every child that’s born.

Here’s my point: In Linda’s world, taking the same attitude to motherhood that we do in our world would be actively immoral.

To create new consciousnesses as cavalierly as we do here, knowing what will happen to them, is morally unconscionable in Linda’s world.

To have the option of artificially preventing fertilisation, or terminating the embryo’s chance of developing into a conscious being that will experience months and months of excruciating pain, but to refuse to do so, is something for which you’d need a seriously convincing justification.

Perhaps it’d be part of some regulated scheme to keep the human species alive while doing everything we can to minimise this pain. There’s perhaps an interesting set of questions to explore there too, which I’m not going to get into too deeply right now. But I think it’s clear that “I just really want a baby, I think it’d bring me and my partner closer together, plus they’re so cute, and anyway we got drunk and couldn’t find the condoms” isn’t going to cut it any more.

In that world, there’d be a seriously strong case that pregnancies should not generally be permitted to reach such a stage of development.

Sexual and reproductive health there would probably go in a very different direction than it has here. But it’s conceivable that it would reach a point where enforcing mandatory abortions, in the cases of a high proportion of pregnancies, becomes the least evil option.

Are you still with me?

If you think I’ve already parted ways with reasonable ethics, common sense, or basic decency, I’d love to hear what mistakes you think I’ve made in the comments below. I think that, in this imaginary scenario, the conclusions I’ve drawn are tragic, but valid.

And if you agree, then you’re at least playing in the anti-natalists’ ball-park. You might not be on the same side, but you’ve stipulated to one of their primary ideas: that the potential future suffering of a conscious being may morally necessitate us to terminate its existence, for the sake of its own well-being, before it has a chance to experience said suffering.

In Linda’s world, this moral obligation seems unavoidable. What about ours?

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As you may have noticed, there’s been rioting in certain areas of London, which has spread across the UK, for the last couple of nights.

Vehicles and buildings have been burnt, windows have been smashed, shops have been looted. People have died.

It’s been horrible.

So you’ll be pleased to know that I’m here to explain exactly why it’s all been happening and what we can do to sort it all out.

Not really.

In fact, there may not even be a question to ask. Maybe we don’t need so many Guardian-reading bleeding-heart liberals asking why these violent scum do what they do. Perhaps they’re just evil, and these constant attempts to excuse evil is why liberalism is the greatest blight on modern society. The Prime Minister described the destruction as “criminality, pure and simple“. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

As another commentator notes:

What we are seeing in London and other English cities is an outpouring of evil. To try to explain evil as the result of something else is almost always a mistake. The urge to do evil is a primary motivation, not the indirect consequence of something else… The British riots, like similar events in any time and place, are a reminder that while the existence of God may be debatable, the existence of the Devil is not.

Theological sound-bites aside, the message is clear: some people are just plain bad, evil, rotten to the core. Nothing provokes them to their evil actions except their own twisted purpose and selfishness, and any response except to forcibly restrain their capacity to inflict their malevolence on the rest of us is futile.

As an explanation for what’s going on, it’s reassuringly easy to understand, and provides a satisfyingly retributive solution for dealing with those rampaging hoodies out there. They’re probably all hoodies, aren’t they? And chavs. And other bad sorts like that.

Very satisfying. But it raises some awkward questions.

If some people are “just evil”, with no prior root cause except an inbuilt and irreparable inhumanity, you’d presumably expect them to be evenly distributed among our species, by whatever chance or unknown force systematically removes some people’s empathy for their fellow man. You wouldn’t expect this evil to occur mostly in socially disadvantaged ethnic minorities, where unemployment is unusually high, benefits are being cut, and residents have long since been complaining of having no prospects and being treated unfairly by police.

It seems odd that this inherent evil seems to be so demographically weighted. Almost as if social demographics played some sort of role in social unrest.

It seems even odder that so many separate incidents of rioting broke out in so many different parts of London, and then in further-flung parts of the UK, in such quick succession. It would be a tremendous coincidence for so many evil people to decide it was time to do some evil in such close succession, if they weren’t in some way responding to external events. It’s also strange that Bromley, which had had some looting the night before and rumours of an escalation yesterday, ended up being so quiet last night. Could the evilly motivated evil-doers have been steered away from all that evil by the large police numbers on the high street?

And there seems little doubt that a crucial catalytic factor to the riots was that Mark Duggan was shot dead in Tottenham a few days ago. He was a local resident, and there was no evidence that he fired any shots himself, before being killed by a single bullet fired by police.

That so much evil – which, remember, is not a result of anything else – would suddenly burst out in Tottenham, a relatively disadvantaged area with a large population of ethnic minorities, who have already complained of feeling antagonised by the authorities, such a short time after a young black man is deliberately killed by the police… well, it’s almost too tremendous a coincidence to be believed.

It must be, though. I mean, you can’t allow for any external explanation of any of these violent actions, or let yourself understand how a sense of frustration and disenfranchisement and political impotence might have arisen in some people. If you go down that road, you’re basically absolving all blame and justifying every stolen TV and incinerated bus in the country. Right?

I’m losing track of my own use of irony here. It may be time to stop being disingenuous.

Here’s my main thesis, for want of a less pretentious word:

“Evil” is the political equivalent of “Goddidit“.

It saves you from having to think any further about what’s happening, and provides a nice uncomplicated explanation for everything that seems scary and uncertain. But it rests on an immeasurable, unverifiable assumption, which stops any potentially fruitful discussion dead in its tracks.

It’s neat and tidy, but shouldn’t we care if it’s also true?

I can’t imagine anyone arguing there were no external factors at all that influenced the exact details of the recent rioting. The geography and timing of the various incidents make it impossible to write them off as a series of isolated, independent events, simply evil things done by evil people for evil’s sake. However evil they are, the rioters are very likely to have been influenced by factors such as the presence of police, the availability of suitable targets for aggression, the prevalence of other rioters, and so on.

It also flies in the face of everything we understand about human psychology to assume there was no impact at all from the broken windows effect, the bystander effect, or deindividuation in crowds, to name but a few fascinating and well established nuggets of research into human behaviour. Anyone passingly familiar with the field of psychology will be aware of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures, which gave alarming insight into how far people can be persuaded into performing immoral acts they would never usually condone, if the surrounding circumstances are conducive to it.

And if you can acknowledge this, then it hardly seems implausible that some rioters’ behaviour might have been influenced by less immediate factors, perhaps present in their social background. That the extremely well-off and secure are less likely ever to break shop windows and assault passers-by is supported both by reality and common sense.

It’d be very, very strange if the kinds of social factors I’ve mentioned didn’t play some part, in some people, in fomenting a sense of injustice and anger. The kind of anger which might build, directionless and impotent, toward some kind of boiling point, a threshold of poorly expressed fury and manic, stupid delight at watching destruction reign.

If the problem is simply one of evil, the solution is comfortably simple to understand – but also limited. It means we can reassure ourselves that the perpetrators are “not like us”, but it means they must be abandoned as being beyond hope of salvation. It also means that there’s nothing we can do to prevent more truly black souls from arising in the future; we just have to wait until they can be identified by some sufficiently evil act, like mugging an injured man, or throwing a brick in a public venue to the cheers of their friends, or whatever other unquestionably evil criteria can be agreed upon.

On the other hand, the paradigm that allows for the effect of social factors, although it requires a more complex human psychology to be considered, offers hope for the future. It says that there are circumstances which exacerbate and promote the kind of dissatisfaction that leads to such civil unrest, and that these circumstances can be changed so that fewer such events are induced in the future.

Understanding does not equal condoning. There have been acts of vandalism, violence, arson, and thuggery committed, and there deserve to be arrests made and prosecutions brought. I expect some people will and should be jailed for what they did. But it’s a fantasy to imagine that the yearning to angrily set fire to buildings was with them since the womb. If we want to make our society better for everyone, we need to figure out how to do exactly that: make it better for everyone. Even the ones who sometimes seem to want to make it worse.

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