A Shift In The Ethical Ground

by Chris Horner

The statue of  Edward Colston, 17th century slave trader, is dumped into Bristol Harbour.

There are times when customary evils become outlandish and intolerable. Then there is a call for irreversible ethical change, a transformation of more than the way we judge this or that, times in which which old laws are struck down and new ones framed. I want to suggest that a change in the structure of feeling occurs, when the ethical substance of our lives is transformed. This can happen at a glacial pace, or – as now -very quickly indeed. In Lenin’s famous remark ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. 

In such a time as this, people are mobilised in new ways; symbols like statues and flags that might once have been barely registered take on the significance of exemplars. And an act of cruelty that might once have been part of the drab monotony of unchangeable oppression takes on a paradigmatic, mobilising force. Then everything seems to be moving. Of course, one can see change as merely exchanging one kind of ethical outlook for another, with no way of choosing which is best, the view of the moral relativist. ’They thought X was OK back then, and we don’t. Whose to say who is right?’  This is quite mistaken. For a start there were people ‘back then’ who condemned slavery, the subordination of women, empire and much more. The society of the past, as now, did not speak with one voice: it had dissidents, reformers and heretics. Nor is the past hermetically sealed off from the present: we are what they became.  Read more »

What counts as cheating in sport? And why?

by Emrys Westacott

Baseball has always been a thinking person’s game. Like cricket, it seems able to offer an infinite variety of complicated situations demanding subtle analysis, and these are deliciously frozen for everyone to consider and reconsider during the tense, drawn out intervals between moments of active play. Moreover, although afficianados know the rules well, novel problems can always arise. One such puzzler, amusing and thought-provoking, arose in a 2018 game between

You can watch the incident here. Mets third baseman Todd Frazier ran to catch a foul ball, fell over the barrier into the crowd, and immediately surfaced holding the ball aloft. The umpire ruled it a fair catch. Video replays showed, however, that Frazier had not actually caught the ball that the batter hit. The ball he held up in triumph was an imitation baseball that had been lying on a bench close to where he fell over the fence.

Here’s the question: Did Frazier cheat? Most people to whom I have put this question immediately answer “yes.” I then ask: which rule did he break? A little thought makes it clear that he didn’t break any rule. There is no rule against holding up a rubber ball after missing a catch. And there is certainly no rule requiring players to let umpires know if a decision they’ve made is mistaken. What Frazier did could even, arguably, be compared to “framing,” the strategy catchers use when they subtly shift their catching glove to make the umpire think that a pitch is a strike when in fact it’s a ball.

But even when rules are broken, we may not want to describe an action as cheating. Read more »

Are we being manipulated by artificially intelligent software agents?

by Michael Klenk

Someone else gets more quality time with your spouse, your kids, and your friends than you do. Like most people, you probably enjoy just about an hour, while your new rivals are taking a whopping 2 hours and 15 minutes each day. But save your jealousy. Your rivals are tremendously charming, and you have probably fallen for them as well.

I am talking about intelligent software agents, a fancy name for something everyone is familiar with: the algorithms that curate your Facebook newsfeed, that recommend the next Netflix film to watch, and that complete your search query on Google or Bing.

Your relationships aren’t any of my business. But I want to warn you. I am concerned that you, together with the other approximately 3 billion social media users, are being manipulated by intelligent software agents online.

Here’s how. The intelligent software agents that you interact with online are ‘intelligent agents’ in the sense that they try to predict your behaviour taking into account what you did in your online past (e.g. what kind of movies you usually watch), and then they structure your options for online behaviour. For example, they offer you a selection of movies to watch next.

However, they do not care much for your reasons for action. How could they? They analyse and learn from your past behaviour, and mere behaviour does not reveal reasons. So, they likely do not understand what your reasons are and, consequently, cannot care for it.

Instead, they are concerned with maximising engagement, a specific type of behaviour. Intelligent software agents want you to keep interacting with them: To watch another movie, to read another news-item, to check another status update. The increase in the time we spend online, especially on social media, suggests that they are getting quite good at this. Read more »

What’s so bad about smugness?

by Emrys Westacott

Elaine: “I hate smugness. Don’t you hate smugness?

Cabdriver, “Smugness is not a good quality.”

So goes a popular snippet from Seinfeld. In a 2014 article in The Guardian titled “Smug: The most toxic insult of them all?” Mark Hooper opined that “there can be few more damning labels in modern Britain than ‘smug.'” And CBS journalist Will Rahn declared, in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, that “modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing [is] its unbearable smugness.”

But what is smugness? What, exactly, do people find objectionable about it? And is it really such a terrible moral failing, worthy of being described as “unbearable”?

What is smugness?

For an immediate graphic example of smugness, just look at a picture of Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson smirking in front of 10 Downing Street. For a less stomach-churning way of getting an initial handle on the concept, consider a few concrete instances. Here are four:

  • Someone on a very high income says, “Yes, I am well compensated, but I like to think I’ve earned it, and that I’m worth it. As a general rule, I think it’s fair to assume that pay reflects merit.”
  • A parent whose children have been admitted to prestigious universities, talking to one whose child is at a less selective college, says, “It’s nice to know that one’s kids will be taught by real experts in the field, and that their classmates will be at their intellectual level.”
  • A punter who has won $500 at the race track backing a rank outside can’t help smirking at the crestfallen faces of his friends who all backed the favorite.
  • A couple regularly preen themselves on their healthy and ecologically responsible eating habits.

Smugness is not arrogance. Arrogant people typically display a sense of their own importance and superiority with little subtlety: they strut; they are dogmatic; they are dismissive of others. Smugness shares with arrogance a high degree of self-satisfaction and a sense of some kind of superiority over others, but it typically manifests itself quietly and indirectly, without brashness. Muhammad Ali, who called himself “The Greatest,” was undeniably sure about his own superiority as a boxer, and he was called many things–arrogant, loud-mouthed, lippy–but I don’t recall anyone describing him as smug. Read more »

Do our moral beliefs need to be consistent?

by Emrys Westacott

We generally think it desirable for our moral and political opinions to be logically consistent. We view inconsistency as a failing. Why?

I'm not talking here about consistency between a person's beliefs and their actions. Failing to practice what we preach is the sort of inconsistency we call hypocrisy, and it's easy to see why we disapprove of that. Hypocrites are less trustworthy and predictable than people whose actions accord with their stated opinions. Nor am I talking about remaining consistent over time, never altering or abandoning one's earlier convictions. That's the sort of “foolish consistency” that Emerson ridiculed as “the hobgoblin of little minds.”

I'm talking about logical consistency between beliefs. Why do we care about this? Exposing inconsistency is a standard move in many an ethical argument. Take the debate about abortion, for instance. A standard argument for viewing abortion as immoral is that it is essentially no different from infanticide, which, as it is the premeditated killing of an innocent human being, meets the definition of murder. Note the form of the argument: if you think murder is wrong, then, to be consistent, you should think infanticide is wrong, in which case, to be consistent, you should think that abortion is wrong. On the other side, a common justification for permitting abortion rests on the idea that a woman has property rights over her own body. Essentially, the argument runs: if you agree that a woman's body is her own property, then consistency requires you to accept that she can do with it as she pleases, and if you agree that the fetus is a part of her body, then consistency requires you to accept that she can do as she pleases with the fetus.

Or take Peter Singer's well-known argument for why all of us who can afford to should give more to help the needy. We all agree it would be wrong to not save someone from drowning just because we didn't want to ruin our shoes. Well, Singer argues, if we think that, then we should also accept that we have a duty to save human lives if we can do so by making similar minor sacrifices–and many of us can do this by donating our disposable income to charity. Whether these lives are close by or far away is irrelevant. Again, the underlying strategy here is an appeal to consistency. If you think x, then you ought, for the sake of consistency, to think y. Many other arguments about moral matters take this form.

But why do we value consistency? In science and in our everyday beliefs about the way things are, there is a straightforward answer. Inconsistent beliefs, taken together, form a contradiction: a proposition that has the form “p and not p.” We assume that reality does not contain contradictions (an assumption first articulated by Parmenides). So we infer that an inconsistent set of beliefs cannot possibly be an accurate description of the way things are.

Read more »

Food Fights: Are They about Mouth Taste or Moral Taste?

by Dwight Furrow

Human beings fight about a lot of things—territory, ideology, religion. Food fights play a special role in this fisticuff economy—they fill the time when we are between wars. Beans or meat alone in a proper chili? Fish or fowl in a proper paella? Vegetarians vs. carnivores. Locavores vs. factory farms. These are debates that divide nations, regions, and families. But they are nothing new. Taboos against eating certain foods have always been a way of marking off a zone of conflict. Kosher and halal rules have little justification aside from the symbolic power of defining the Other as disgusting.

PizzaConflict persists even when food is intended as entertainment. The competition for global culinary capo continues to heat up. The French jealously guarded their supremacy for centuries until supplanted by the upstart Spanish with their molecular concoctions, only to be cast out by the Norwegians who have convinced us of the savor of weeds. Meanwhile the Italians wait for the fennel dust to settle, confident that in the end we always return to pizza and pasta.

The dishes we consume or refuse express our style, our values, and the allegiances to which we pledge. And so it has always been. “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” wrote the gourmand Brillat-Savarin in 1825. Food not only has flavor; it apparently has a “moral taste” as well that informs our self-image as individuals and as members of communities or nations. This “moral taste” is no fleeting or inconsequential preference. It matters and matters deeply. The vegetarian not only prefers vegetables and sees herself as a vegetarian but is taking a moral stance, takes pride in the stance, sees it as a project, a commitment superior in value to the alternatives. The Italian feels the same about eating Italian. It means slow eating, communal eating, la dolce vita. A Genoan's taste for pesto is not merely a preference for the combination of garlic, olive oil, basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano but a moral taste that carries meaning. Contemporary foodies exhibit a similar zealous commitment. The search for the best barbeque in town is not merely a search for a good meal, but a quest for a peak experience, a realization of a standard, a moral commitment to refuse the taste of the ordinary.

Read more »

Saintly Simulation

by Evan Selinger

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 17 08.14My colleague Thomas Seager and I recently co-wrote “Digital Jiminy Crickets,” an article that proposed a provocative thought experiment. Imagine an app existed that could give you perfect moral advice on demand. Should you use it? Or, would outsourcing morality diminish our humanity? Our think piece merely raised the question, leaving the answer up to the reader. However, Noûs—a prestigious philosophy journal—published an article by Robert J. Howell that advances a strong position on the topic, Google Morals, Virtue, and the Asymmetry of Deference”. To save you the trouble of getting a Ph.D. to read this fantastic, but highly technical piece, I’ll summarize the main points here.

It isn’t easy to be a good person. When facing a genuine moral dilemma, it can be hard to know how to proceed. One friend tells us that the right thing to do is stay, while another tells us to go. Both sides offer compelling reasons—perhaps reasons guided by conflicting but internally consistent moral theories, like utilitarianism and deontology. Overwhelmed by the seeming plausibility of each side, we end up unsure how to solve the riddle of The Clash.

Now, Howell isn’t a cyber utopian, and he certainly doesn’t claim technology will solve this problem any time soon, if ever. Moreover, Howell doesn’t say much about how to solve the debates over moral realism. Based on this article alone, we don’t know if he believes all moral dilemmas can be solved according to objective criteria. To determine if—as a matter of principle—deferring to a morally wise computer would upgrade our humanity, he asks us to imagine an app called Google Morals: “When faced with a moral quandary or deep ethical question we can type a query and the answer comes forthwith. Next time I am weighing the value of a tasty steak against the disvalue of animal suffering, I’ll know what to do. Never again will I be paralyzed by the prospect of pushing that fat man onto the trolley tracks to prevent five innocents from being killed. I’ll just Google it.”

Let’s imagine Google Morals is infallible, always truthful, and 100% hacker-proof. The government can’t mess with it to brainwash you. Friends can’t tamper with it to pull a prank. Rivals can’t adjust it to gain competitive advantage. Advertisers can’t tweak it to lull you into buying their products. Under these conditions, Google Morals is more trustworthy than the best rabbi or priest. Even so, Howell contends, depending on it is a bad idea.

Read more »

Tripping Over the Bulges: What Really Matters Morally

by Tauriq Moosa

How should we tackle things we believe are wrong and should be illegal, when it seems their very status of being ‘illegal’ gives rise to the problems we oppose. It’s not drugs per se that bothers us, but the violence and destruction that can arise. It’s not sex itself that’s a problem, it’s how we consider sex and apply it to policy decisions. But using our emotions and knee-jerk reactions and letting it simmer within policies can have disastrous effects for us.

I’ve written before that I don’t quite understand the so-called inherent moral problem of necrophilia. Sure, the deceased’s loved ones might be upset, offended and so on. But aside from these interests, what else should we be concerned about? Health reasons, you say? Well, that’s a problem even for living and consensual partners in sex acts, given STD’s, trust, promiscuity and so on. What makes necrophilia particularly a problem?

The main thing about acts of necrophilia, it seems to me, is revulsion. What makes it particularly potent is the combination of ‘sex’ with death. Sex, for many people, is fraught with moral problems – but, as I’ve briefly highlighted above with necrophilia – it’s not particular to sex with dead bodies or sex with live bodies. Both are apparently problematic. It’s how people consider sex in general.

I don’t quite understand why sex should be considered morally problematic in itself. It is not. Just as driving a car is not problematic in itself: Sure, we can kill others and ourselves, and usually we have partners involved, but that doesn’t mean driving a car is automatically morally problematic. Sex offers pleasure and pain, like most of life. I think that many people are still caught up in absolute right and wrong ways to conduct themselves in and toward sex, instead of realising that like most human actions, sexual relations are dynamic and varied. The ways we approach sex more often has terrible consequences than the results of consensual sex between rational persons.

Consider recently a story in the M&G about prosecuting 12- to 16-year-olds engaged in consensual sex acts.

Recently, children's rights activists were outraged when it emerged that National Prosecution Authority head Menzi Simelane had used the Act to authorise the prosecution of at least two groups of children between the ages of 12 and 16 for having consensual sex — six learners from Mavalani High School in Limpopo and three pupils from Johannesburg.

Simelane did withdraw the charges, but compelled the children to complete something called a “diversion programme”. The problem is the Sexual Offences Act which “makes it illegal for any person to engage in ‘consensual sexual penetration’ with children between the ages of 12 and 16.” It has excellent justification of course: “This Act was designed to address the sexual abuse of children [my emphasis]” – but many of you will no doubt see the arising problem: “But in effect also makes it illegal for youngsters of those ages to have sex.”

Read more »

Removing the Blades from Hume’s Guillotine

by Tauriq Moosa

David-Hume-Scotland-17111776-289536 Hume’s Guillotine: “One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. This thesis, which comes from a famous passage in Hume's Treatise [says]: there is a class of statements of fact which is logically distinct from a class of statements of value. No set of statements of fact by themselves entails any statement of value. Put in more contemporary terminology, no set of descriptive statements can entail an evaluative statement without the addition of at least one evaluative premise. To believe otherwise is to commit what has been called the naturalistic fallacy.”

– John Searle, ‘How to Derive an “Ought” from an “Is”’, The Philosophical Review, 1964

Beware, people. This is a long piece. Even I’m uncertain about it. Here we go then.


Major ethicists like Immanuel Kant and indeed – to an extent – Thomas Aquinas sought to establish a rational basis for deriving moral considerations. Why rationality above other justifications? Consider: one and one is two. This is a statement that appears to hold true regardless of the state of the world, whether we’re dreaming or awake (as Descartes famously pointed out in his Meditations), whether we’re in pain, and so on. However there is an implicit assumption being made here, too: that if we do agree that one and one is two, we who agree to this statement are rational agents; that is, beings who accept the constraints and rules of logic and rationality.

This appears to only beg the question: Why should anyone accept that one and one is two? (This problem so vexed the young Bertrand Russell, that he nearly mentally destroyed himself as an adult trying to establish conclusively that one and one is two.) As Sam Harris has said, how do you convince a person not interested in rationality to use rationality? As soon as you start making rational arguments, you’ve already lost.

Read more »

Mob Morality: The Dangers of Repugnance as Moral Authority

by Tauriq Moosa

Clip_image004 What is it about topics like incest, bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism that urges us to pick up pitchforks and torches? A more important question, however, is whether these topics automatically or necessarily should elicit outrage enough for us to target those who perform these acts. I think not.

Considering the purely descriptive side, there has been some interesting but controversial research into our moral psychology and intuitions.

Jonathan Haidt famously provided the following example in a study.

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

Haidt, in an interview, explained the responses of subjects reaching ‘moral dumbfounding’:

People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”

Read more »

Re-Thinking the Ethics of Stem Cell Research

by Tauriq Moosa

There is always the danger of dogmatism lurking within any collection of ideas. A collection of ideas tied together by a singular focus tends to be called an argument. However, it is often refreshing to have such bundles of ideas untethered and scattered after being cut by a sharper focus. It is, I would like to think, the mark of good critical analysis that one is self-critical, too; that you find an argument that you hold destroyed in order to clear the way for a more robust one.

I recently had such an experience regarding the ethics of human embryonic stem cell (HESC) research. Often we secularists, under some weird broad canvas, regard opponents to things like abortion, HESC research and euthanasia as one large pile of dogmatic reactionaries. And no wonder, considering their spokespeople are often dogmatic religious reactionaries who get given airtime on popular news-sources.

But so often forgotten are careful arguments against the typical liberal secularist view that euthanasia and HESC research is not immoral. Consider the insightful abortion debate between two non-believers, Richard Carrier and Jennifer Roth; there we have good arguments instead of speaking from the knee as many people, on both sides, are prone to do in these discussions. It should be immediately apparent that we ought not to perceive ‘our’ side as the sober, good and right, whilst anyone who disagrees as merely fanatical.

To understand the usual arguments for stem-cell research, this quick clip by Sam Harris at Beyond Belief ’06 is an excellent quick overview. But even if you don’t watch it, the arguments will come up during the post.

My experience of this sudden realisation of (possibly) holding fallacious views was through an article by Don Marquis. Professor Marquis is renowned for an article defending a secular argument for why abortion is immoral (see references). However, I encountered him after reading his, again, secular argument against HESC research.

Read more »

Murders, Monsters and Mirrors: The Ethics of Killing and Cannibalism

‘Murder’ differs from ‘killing’ – and must differ for the words to have their moral impact – because killing is a neutral term. Surprising as it may seem, it is most helpful for discussions on killing if we recognise that the word itself is mostly and simply ‘the taking of organic life’. It is another matter whether it is all or certain forms of organic life we are concerned with.

‘Murder’ falls within the category of ‘killing’, in that the organism in question is killed but did not want to be killed. How we assess this is also another matter, but for humans we can infer in most instances whether or not someone willingly wants to die. If she does not wish to die, but still has her life taken away – violently or not is beside the point – then she was murdered.

Armin-meiwes I say this because I think we need clarity in the case of infamous German cannibal, Armin Meiwes. In March 2001, Meiwes killed and ate a willing, consenting man, Bernd Brandes. Meiwes had advertised on online chat-rooms, without euphemism or innuendo, his seeking a “young well-built man, who wanted to be eaten”. Brandes was a year older than his killer, but this didn’t seem to faze Meiwes who held auditions for the position. The other potential candidates thought that “being gobbled up” was a metaphor concerning sexual-actions. Four candidates travelled to Meiwes’ house, but eventually were told the seriousness of the description. Meiwes “let them” leave and was not impressed with another, who he found sexually unappealing.

After finally meeting Brandes, they started up the ritual that would lead to Brandes’ death and devouring. Brandes had drawn up a will and testament, where his money and estate would go to his live-in partner. Also, Meiwes video-taped both Brandes whilst alive and later, after his death. After all these final sentences of conscious human experience were given their appropriate full-stops and commas, Brandes ingested sleeping-tablets. Meiwes cut off Brandes’ penis, cooked it, and ate it with Brandes (eventually it was given to the dog apparently because of a poor recipe choice). Eventually, Meiwes killed (not “murdered”) Brandes, chopped him into pieces, and ate him over several days.

Read more »

Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
Read more »