The Purpose of Morals and Laws

What’s the purpose of moral rules? My answer: To prevent people from causing harm to other sentient beings.

Of course, other people have different answers. For example, most conservative people would probably want moral rules that promote family values, purity, loyalty, obedience to authority figures, etc. Personally, I reject such answers.

Growing up in a society, people develop a “gut feeling” about which actions are good or bad. The society instills into us a ready-made set of moral rules, and most people go through their lives without even questioning these rules. In fact, religions and conservative mindsets actively discourage people from questioning the moral rules they were taught since an early age. For example, “Anal sex is bad, it is an abomination. Why is it bad? Don’t ask; don’t even dare to think about such silly topics.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the devoutly religious people who fail to question everything that was taught to them. The rest of us sometimes do it as well. That’s a pity, because once you carefully examine the current moral rules we have in our society, it turns out that many of those are outdated or just silly.

I think that the purpose of moral rules and laws is to prevent people from harming other humans and animals. From there, I can examine every single moral rule or law we have, and determine whether it prevents people from harming others or whether it is merely oppressive and ought to be discarded.

Let’s start with some actions that are currently moral and legal (sometimes even socially encouraged) but ought to be condemned instead. I can think of some examples: amassing billions while sharing a planet with others who are starving and homeless; tolerating sweatshops; every possible form of bigotry and discrimination; keeping farm animals in conditions that cause them pain and suffering; causing avoidable environmental pollution; accelerating genetic erosion among plant and animal species; building nuclear weapons; starting wars; destroying seed banks; engaging in predatory lending; speculating with real estate thus limiting poor people’s access to housing. And so on. By the way, here I intentionally picked a sample of actions that American Christians are happy to do. These actions cause harm, so I think that they ought to be considered immoral.

Now let’s look at the other side of the question, namely, actions that are often considered immoral but should be perfectly fine.

Let’s start with sexual behaviors. I’m fine with incest, as long as everybody involved are adult and consenting. I’m fine with necrophilia, as long as before death a person willingly signs a paper to donate their body to some necrophiliac. I’m fine with polyamory, open relationships, polygamy, etc. as long as everybody involved knows what’s going on and agrees with the terms. I’m fine with kinks, fetishes, consensual BDSM, and all kinds of non-harmful paraphilias (and I think that psychologists shouldn’t label those as disorders). I think that people should be free to do with their genitals whatever they want as long as they don’t cause harm to others (no rape, no pedophilia, no groping, no street sexual harassment, and so on).

Next: appearance. In my perfect world, everybody would be free to do with the visual appearance of their bodies (body modifications, choice of clothing, hairstyles) whatever they want. If somebody wants to cover their entire body with piercings and tattoos, that’s fine with me. If they want to walk around naked, that’s fine. Whatever. Just wear a mask during a COVID-19 pandemic, and don’t intentionally spread diseases. Other than that, whatever.

Modesty norms are problematic and thus fun to deconstruct for multiple reasons. Firstly, there’s gender discrimination. Both men and women have nipples, so women’s nipples cannot be the naughty bits. Does that mean that having a bit of fat under the skin is what’s naughty? But wait, the average male sumo wrestler has bigger boobs than many women. The only possible conclusions we can reach is that women are required to cover their chests thanks to sexism. As for modesty norms in general, they are silly. On this planet we have plenty of cultures (indigenous tribes) where people do just fine by living mostly naked. Thus the society might as well leave all the naturists alone and let them decide how much clothing they want to wear in any situation.

And then there’s desecration. Burning of national flags, lèse-majesté, blasphemy, etc. should be acceptable. People might as well do what they want with pieces of fabric, various objects, and imaginary gods. Just don’t destroy other people’s property and don’t cause fire hazards. And don’t drive while high on weed or other recreational drugs.

And no, I don’t think that free speech ought to be absolute. I am not OK with hate speech, bullying, death threats, expression of bigoted opinions, etc. situations where words can result in harm for some person.

Presence of harm or lack thereof is how I determine whether some action is acceptable or no. For example, in general, I oppose theft, because it causes harm for the victim. But I am fine with dumpster diving (stealing food from other people’s trash bins) and long as you don’t destroy property and don’t make a mess.

Moral Foundations Theory

If you consider discussions about morality interesting (as I do), you might have already heard about the “Moral Foundations Theory.” From Wikipedia:

Moral Foundations Theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. It was popularized in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

The original theory proposed five foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. It now includes a sixth parameter, Liberty/Oppression.

According to Moral Foundations Theory, differences in people’s moral concerns can be described in terms of five (later expanded to six) moral foundations:

1. Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm; care is about “the suffering of others, including virtues of caring and compassion.”
2. Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating; fairness is about the “unfair treatment, cheating, and more abstract notions of justice and rights.”
3. Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal; loyalty is about the “obligations of group membership” including “self-sacrifice, and vigilance against betrayal.”
4. Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion; authority is about “social order and the obligations of hierarchical relationships, such as obedience, respect, and the fulfillment of role-based duties.”
5. Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation; sanctity or purity is about “physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness, and control of desires.”
6. Liberty; opposite of oppression.

According to MFT: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible.” And MFT proceeds to argue that, because humans face multiple social problems, they have multiple moral values—they rely on multiple “foundations” when making moral decisions.

The problem with MFT is that it is partially pulled out of thin air. Sure, some scientists thought about the problem a lot, made some questionnaires, and came up with plausible sounding explanations, but this does not guarantee that their brainchild will be any good. After all, there exist plenty of competing theories that also aim to categorize people’s moral concerns.

But this blog post won’t be a criticism of the MFT. Plenty of people have already written those. For example, here is one. For a moment, let’s put aside the question of whether the MFT actually is a valid framework that proposes an optimal way how to categorize people’s moral concerns. After all, discussing the differences in people’s moral attitudes is much simpler when you do categorize them somehow, even if said categories are pulled out of thin air. When you can add some structure to your blog post and lump various moral concerns into a few categories, then that adds some clarity and simplifies communication.

In case you are interested in learning more about the MFT, here is one of the chapters from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, in which each of the foundations is explained in greater detail.

1. Care

This one is something I care about. Not because of emotions like compassion or shared pain. Right now, on this planet, there are several humanitarian disasters unfolding in front of the journalists who report about them. Yet the overwhelming majority of people don’t lose any sleep and don’t feel much (if any) emotional pain due to being aware of these problems. I assume you know that people, including children, are living in cages on the USA southern border. I assume you know that children die of malnutrition and preventable diseases in various poor countries. Yet all this knowledge doesn’t really make people feel that much emotional pain.

Instead of being guided by compassion (which in people appears to be limited to those in their nearest vicinity), I want to live in a society that strives to increase the wellbeing of all sentient creatures while decreasing their suffering. Moreover, we shouldn’t cause harm for others. Sure, each person should feel free to pursue their own happiness, but they should do it without hurting others in the process. As they say, “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” Besides avoiding causing harm, human societies can increase the overall wellbeing for everybody by cooperating and working together, which allows tackling various problems that a single person cannot solve. This is why the humanity should care for each other and try to reduce harm.

2. Fairness

Equality, fairness, justice, and rights matter for me a lot, because once a society fails to ensure equal rights and equal opportunities for everybody, some unlucky people get harmed. Living in an unfair and unequal world is great only if you were lucky to be born in a wealthy family as a white, straight, cis, able-bodied male. Otherwise you are out of luck.

Also, fairness is essential for human cooperation and thus survival. For example, in a world without refrigerators, every time when one farmer kills a pig or one hunter catches a deer, the entire community shares the food, because it cannot be stored for long. Such sharing and cooperation is impossible among a group of people where everybody seeks opportunities to cheat and steal and nobody trusts each other to return favors and help once they have some problem.

3. Loyalty

This one actually is contrary to my values. I oppose nationalism, which is the main reason why humanity is on the path of mutually assured destruction. Even if we don’t end up with a nuclear war, the bloated military budgets and the inability to cooperate on an international level is among the chief reasons why the global warming is highly likely to wipe out a significant portion of all the people currently living on this planet.

It would be wrong for me to treat better some person merely because they happened to be born within some arbitrarily drawn lines on the map. It would be even worse for me to divide the humanity into my ingroup and outgroup.

When it comes to friends and family, I do treat them differently than strangers, but this isn’t about blind loyalty. After all, I did remove from my life some of my relatives whom I disliked as people. Instead, this is a matter of cooperation, returning favors, and reciprocity.

4. Authority

Again, this one is also contrary to my values. I have little respect for social hierarchy, and a blind obedience to some authority figures is harmful. If I were in an airplane and the pilot told me to not panic and stay in my seat during the emergency landing, I would follow the orders not because they were given by an authority figure, but because following such orders would be the smart thing to do. If I were writing a master’s thesis and my professor told me about some problems with my work, I would follow their instructions, because they are more knowledgeable than me and not because they are automatically right due to their social status. On the other hand, if some authority figure said that putting people in concentration camps is a good idea, I would strongly object. Sometimes people in authority positions are right, on many other occasions they are wrong. I always reserve the right to think and decide for myself.

Overall, whenever possible, I try to exempt myself from various social hierarchies. I prefer being a part of more egalitarian organizations in which everybody’s voice matters, people discuss their disagreements, and try to look for compromises instead of barking orders from above.

I oppose the existence of social hierarchies in many situations where they aren’t crucially necessary, I loathe the obligations of hierarchical relationships, and I have little desire to obey. My respect must be earned on a case-by-case basis (yes, there exist people whom I respect due to me acknowledging their achievements and insights, and no, I don’t start to automatically respect somebody just because of some job title they have). As for the fulfillment of role-based duties, sometimes such duties are reasonable, while on many other occasions they are plain silly.

Of course, I can imagine situations in which a failure to obey orders results in other people getting harmed. But then the problem would be the resulting harm rather than insubordination to the authority figure who happened to give a good order on this occasion.


And this one isn’t just contrary to my values, idolizing various objects and people is something I perceive as abhorrent. No, a woman’s value doesn’t depend on whether she is a virgin on her wedding night. No, various objects like crosses or national flags cannot be considered as sacred, and artists or protesters shouldn’t be punished for desecrating or burning them. Immigrants aren’t “dirty.” Poor people who are forced to do various unpleasant jobs aren’t “untouchable,” and their lives aren’t worthless. Sex workers aren’t “fallen” and thus worth less than other people.

I wouldn’t want any fecal matter in my food, because that would increase my risk of getting sick and not because that would make me impure. Limiting the spread of diseases is a practical concern; this has nothing to do with morality.

I do strongly oppose humiliation and degradation as part of bullying, abuse or torture. When a sentient being is getting hurt, then there’s actual harm being done, and that’s not acceptable. But supposedly sacred objects like crosses or flags are not sentient, thus there’s no need to outlaw the desecration of various objects. And, no, some religious figure shouldn’t be sacred and above criticism either. I am fine with the Pope or some country’s president having the same human rights as everybody else, but they do not deserve any extra protections from criticism.

6. Liberty

I care about liberty, because once some people are deprived of freedom, it causes them harm. Oppression, in its various forms, tends to result in suffering, both physical and emotional for the victim who was denied basic human rights and dignity and forced to do things against their will.


I perceive as immensely important the distinction between harm-inflicting violations of morality and violations of convention. I consider violations of convention and tradition as bad only when they cause harm. Otherwise said tradition or convention ought to be abolished. And I happen to think that preserving and maintaining outdated traditions and conventions is inherently harmful in itself, because they deny people freedom, police their personal lives, limit their choices in life.

Another argument against taking traditions seriously is just how wildly they differ among different communities who share this planet. I simply cannot take seriously a claim that “it is wrong to appear in a public place with a naked chest” if I know numerous societies in which nobody minds people being in public without covering the same body part.

Of course, it’s also possible to argue about what constitutes “harm.” For example, I have no doubt that nationalists feel bad while looking at burning flags in public places (or even due to being aware that somebody somewhere might be burning a flag in private). I have no doubt that homophobes feel bad looking at two men kissing on the street. But I still tend to just disregard statements like, “I feel bad looking at your immoral actions.” In such cases the problem is with the conservative person rather than with the one who engages in some harmless activity. Moreover, “I dislike looking at your actions” cannot be a valid reason for denying other people a right to do with their lives and bodies whatever they want. After all, unlike traditions, freedom is something I value highly.

Unfortunately, for the sake of my own safety, I am routinely forced to follow various moral norms that I consider silly and would rather see abolished, for example, we have all kinds of unnecessarily strict dress codes in this society.


This post has been long already, but I’ll add one more example. From Jonathan Haidt:

5. The Sanctity/degradation Foundation

In early 2001, Armin Meiwes, a German computer technician, posted an unusual advertisement on the Web: “Looking for a well-built 21-to-30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed.”Hundreds of men responded by email, and Meiwes interviewed a few of them at his farmhouse. Bernd Brandes, a forty-three-year-old computer engineer, was the first respondent who didn’t change his mind when he realized that Meiwes was engaging in mere fantasy. (Warning: squeamish readers should skip the entire next paragraph.)

On the evening of March 9, the two men made a video to prove that Brandes fully consented to what was about to happen. Brandes then took some sleeping pills and alcohol, but he was still alert when Meiwes cut off Brandes’s penis, after being unable to bite it off (as Brandes had requested). Meiwes then sautéed the penis in a frying pan with wine and garlic. Brandes took a bite of it, then went off to a bathtub to bleed to death. A few hours later Brandes was not yet dead, so Meiwes kissed him, stabbed him in the throat, and then hung the body on a meat hook to strip off the flesh. Meiwes stored the flesh in his freezer and ate it gradually over the next ten months. Meiwes was ultimately caught, arrested, and tried, but because Brandes’s participation was fully voluntary, Meiwes was convicted only of manslaughter, not murder, the first time the case went to trial.

If your moral matrix is limited to the ethic of autonomy, you’re at high risk of being dumbfounded by this case. You surely find it disturbing, and the violence of it probably activates your Care/harm foundation. But any attempt to condemn Meiwes or Brandes runs smack into John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, which I introduced in chapter 5: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The next line of the original quote is: “His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.” From within the ethic of autonomy, people have a right to live their lives as they please (as long as they harm nobody), and they have a right to end their lives how and when they please (as long as they leave no dependents unsupported). Brandes chose an extraordinarily revolting means of death, but as the Penn students in my dissertation research often said, just because something is disgusting, that doesn’t make it wrong. Yet most people feel that there was something terribly wrong here, and that it should be against the law for adults to engage in consensual activities such as this. Why?

Imagine that Meiwes served his prison sentence and then returned to his home. (Assume that a team of psychiatrists established that he posed no threat to anyone who did not explicitly ask to be eaten.) Imagine that his home was one block away from your home. Would you find his return unsettling? If Meiwes was then forced by social pressure to move out of your town, might you feel some relief? And what about the house where this atrocity happened? How much would someone have to pay you to live in it for a week? Might you feel that the stain would be expunged only if the house was burned to the ground?

These feelings—of stain, pollution, and purification—are irrational from a utilitarian point of view, but they make perfect sense in Shweder’s ethic of divinity. Meiwes and Brandes colluded to treat Brandes’s body as a piece of meat, to which they added the extra horror of a splash of sexuality. They behaved monstrously—as low as any humans can go on the vertical dimension of divinity that I discussed in chapter 5. Only worms and demons eat human flesh. But why do we care so much what other people choose to do with their bodies?

I am not afraid to live a block from a released prisoner (I strongly suspect that I must be doing this already, after all, I live in a city). Personally, I’d happily live in this home for a week for free. I love traveling and I don’t earn much money, so I love free accommodation. And I dislike the environmental harm caused by burning homes.

I’m fine with euthanasia when it is performed by doctors in a tightly regulated setting. I am not fine with random people killing their acquaintances or friends with the victim’s consent. If it was legal for anybody to kill other people with their consent, people would abuse such a law. Charismatic and manipulative people can easily convince others that they want to die, especially if the victim has some mental health issues like depression. For example, we have seen countless cases of cult leaders convincing their followers to gift them all their material possessions and become their sex slaves (or even commit suicide). If it was legal to kill people with the victim’s consent, some manipulative people would abuse this opportunity and cause harm to people who wouldn’t have wanted to die in different circumstances (if they hadn’t met the manipulative person in the first place; if they had access to therapy and received help with various problems in their life). Moreover, it is also possible to trick another person to say something in front of a video camera by convincing them that this is a joke.

Also, I do not oppose cannibalism in cases where the dead person died of natural causes and before death signed a paper confirming that they want to have their body eaten. Modern burial and cremation industries cause immense environmental harm, and doing pretty much anything else with dead bodies would cause less pollution. Personally, I intend to donate my organs after death, and, if legally possible, maybe donate the whole body for scientific research or medicine. But I wouldn’t really mind if somebody just ate my dead body, because I dislike the idea of causing environmental harm even after death. By the way, prior to colonialism eradicating various cultures, on this planet there were groups of people among whom eating the dead remains of their family members was socially encouraged, because this way they demonstrated their respect to the dead person. Again, why was cannibalism supposed to be oh so terrifying? And why is burning or burying dead bodies good? More importantly: why do people expect me to blindly follow such arbitrary norms and customs?

Speaking of consent, something that I have mentioned repeatedly throughout this blog post—just like moral rules also consent should serve the purpose of preventing harm to other sentient beings. When there’s a probability that a failure to obtain another person’s/animal’s consent could result in you accidentally hurting them, then you have to obtain their consent before you do something with them. Before hugging another person, ask if they like hugs (some people feel uncomfortable when touched by others). Before petting a dog you saw in some public place, ask their owner if said dog likes being touched by strangers (some dogs perceive such experiences as scary or stressful). But if some action you are planning to do cannot possibly harm anybody else, then asking for their consent/permission/informing them about your intentions is probably unnecessary.


The final note: please be polite. If you disagree with me (and morality is a matter of opinion, so disagreements are likely), I prefer rational arguments that explain and defend your positions.

After all, if somebody typed “this was a terrible blog post” without even giving any arguments, then I would have no reason to take their opinion into consideration. So please don’t do that.


  1. musing says

    Excellent topic and post. I think Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of our moral feelings being similar to our taste bud palette is very helpful. But he considers these moral emotions as being evolved psychological mechanisms, and this naturally brings up the question of how much of evolutionary psychology does freethought blogs accept as being probably true. What are your thoughts on evolutionary psychology, and its implications to how we live our lives more generally?

  2. Allison says

    IMHO, the biggest problem with attempting to derive moral rules and laws from basic principles is that people are not as wise or rational as they like to think they are. This includes both the people doing the deriving and those who are supposed to follow them. Whenever people try to do this, things never turn out the way they expect. It’s an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

    One area that comes to mind is sexual activity. It’s one thing to say, “it’s okay if it’s consensual,” but in case after case, determining whether both parties really consented, and sometimes even defining whether they consented turns out to be complicated. Even just assuming sex between only two people, there are situations where one might naively believe both consented, yet one party felt like they had to go along with the other one; for example, boss and subordinate or renter and landlord when simply leaving is very difficult. There are certain situations where existing moral/legal codes specify that consent is not possible, because there’s an obvious power differential, such as prisoner and guard, or adult and child. (And others where they ought to, but don’t — e.g., between professor and student at a university.) Moreover, one of the people may believe they are consenting because when there’s a large power differential (BTW, a large experience differential causes a power differential), the weaker party tends to identify with the stronger one (Stockholm syndrom is an extreme example of this.) What kind of moral (or legal) rules can we devise that would be practical for determining whether an encounter is really consenting? It ends up being a trade-off between being easy to understand and apply versus being more accurate.

    In many cases, certain activities are prohibited because the likelihood of harm and the harm that the activity can cause is just too great. Incest is an example. A child’s dependency upon their parents (or other caregivers) and the distress that any threat to the relationship causes that they are likely to go along with whatever the adult wants. (One of the tasks of parenting is to help a child learn to make their own decisions independently despite how much they depend upon others.) This sort of emotional dependency can continue long after the child is grown. It is conceivable that a grown child might be independent enough to truly decide on their own that they are willing to have sex with a parent, but how is anyone (including the participants) to know? It is much more practical to presume that any sex between parent and child is non-consensual, and the harm that comes of defining certain people as automatically off-limits isn’t all that great.

    One advantage to basing a moral code on tradition is that at least with tradition you can see how those rules have worked out in practice.

  3. says

    musing @#1

    What are your thoughts on evolutionary psychology, and its implications to how we live our lives more generally?

    I am not well educated about evolutionary psychology, so I am not qualified to say much about it. That being said, the few ideas I have heard from the field sounded like they could have been pulled out of thin air.

    In general, I prefer to suspend judgment and not believe in some theory that claims to explain the world unless there’s strong and compelling evidence supporting said theory. For example, I accept that evolution theory is true, because the evidence supporting it is very strong. But various theories from social sciences tend to have much flimsier evidence supporting them. My degree is in linguistics, and let’s just say that I am not a fan of current theories that claim to explain how human brains process language. Some scientist came up with a nice-sounding theory that attempts to explain what goes on in human brain. Cool. Now where’s the evidence that this theory really is correct?

    When it comes to morals, I am fine with assuming that evolution probably could have influenced some of our behaviors and attitudes. For example, it makes sense for mammals to evolve some kind of instincts that urge them to care for their babies. Thus a moral rule like “take care of babies and children” could be tied to mammal evolution. But I am definitely not accepting far-fetched ideas about the origin of all kinds of random moral rules (that differ in various cultures to boot).

  4. says

    Allison @#2

    I am fine with laws stating that children cannot consent to sex. Same goes for prisoners not being able to consent to sex with their guards.

    Even just assuming sex between only two people, there are situations where one might naively believe both consented, yet one party felt like they had to go along with the other one

    Indeed, that’s why reports of rape or sexual abuse must be handled on a case by case basis. Lawmakers cannot just say, “We just had a couple of cases in which people who have characteristic X got sexually abused, so from now on people with characteristic X can no longer consent to sex and are always automatically considered victims.”

    Real life relationships are complicated and don’t always follow whatever neat scripts you have in your mind. A sexually experienced 20 years old person can abuse a 50 years old virgin who happens to have a shy personality. An employee can sexually coerce and manipulate their boss. A woman can abuse her male partner. And two adult siblings can happily have enjoyable sex without anybody getting coerced or abused. You cannot just base laws on some scripts with predetermined roles that you imagine must be common.

    By the way, I do think that sex between students and professors is a really bad idea and people shouldn’t do that, but I don’t think that it should be illegal nor should such cases be automatically classified as sexual abuse with the professor getting punished and the student being treated as the victim. (Theoretically, it would be possible for a student to sexually abuse and blackmail their professor. Theoretically, it’s also possible to have a healthy and consensual relationship between a student and a professor, thought it would still be problematic due to conflicts of interest.)

    how is anyone (including the participants) to know?

    With this kind of attitude you might as well criminalize all sex. How can you be sure that those two people who aren’t related, have exact same age, exact same income, exact same social status, etc. truly freely consented to having sex?

    the harm that comes of defining certain people as automatically off-limits isn’t all that great

    Policing the sex lives of other people is no biggie indeed. Putting innocent people who didn’t harm anybody in prisons is no biggie either. No harm whatsoever.

    By the way, I once had sex with a person who was (1) older than me; (2) my teacher (I wasn’t graded and he wasn’t affiliated with any educational institution, so it was legal for me to fuck him). I guess at this point you would claim that I must have been an abused victim. But here’s the catch—he was shy and had less sexual experience than me, thus I had to initiate everything. I invited him to dates, kissed him, got on top of him in bed. Next you could assume that I must have been the bad one who abused a shy and sexually inexperienced person. Believe it or not, that didn’t happen. How do I know? Because the two of us talked and discussed what we want to do. You know, people can talk with each other.

    I loathe strangers who want to stick their noses in my sex life and pass judgments about whether they consider my choices appropriate. Even if I wanted to fuck somebody who was old enough to be my grandparent, that would still be my choice and nobody else’s business. And random strangers annoy me with this regularly. I have a few friends who are older than me, and when we go to public places, some random assholes will tell me that I shouldn’t be having a relationship with this person who is standing next to me. I can’t even peacefully go to a cafe with a friend!
    Once I was having a dinner in a public place with a friend who was several decades older than me, and the following conversation happened:
    Random stranger: “Is he your father?”
    Me: “No.”
    Random stranger: “Is he your husband?”
    Me: “No.”
    She was polite enough not to ask the obvious follow up question, namely, “Are you a hired sex worker?”

    And when I go to public places with friends who actually are my age, the same assholes will assume that the two of us must be married and pass judgments about whether we look like a beautiful couple.

  5. says

    Speaking of professor-student relationships. In my opinion, the problem is the conflict of interest (a professor cannot grade their lover’s essays without being biased) and the risk of extortion (“sleep with me or else I will make sure that you cannot get your degree”).

    I can come up with theoretical ideas how to mitigate such risks. For example, establish a system that a professor or student can request that some other professor grades the student’s work. Or create an ethics committee that takes seriously complaints of sexual abuse/sexual extortion instead of the current situation that such complaints are hidden and victims get silenced. I have no clue how well such changes would work in real life, but I think they would benefit everybody. For example, if dozens of female students filed requests that they don’t want to be graded by a single professor, then the university would be motivated to stop protecting this abuser.

    I theory, if it were possible to change university policies towards something that eliminates risks of conflicts of interests and sexual extortion, then I would have no reasons to oppose students sleeping with their professors.

    In fact, in my opinion, instead of policing people’s sex lives and telling who is allowed to sleep with whom, it would be better for the society to create different systems that mitigate risks for conflicts of interest to arise and make it much harder (and hopefully impossible) for one person to extort sex from somebody else over whom they have power.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    Thanks for the interesting post. You look like you’re tackling the question “What is the best morality to have.” The question I’ve been tacking recently has been “How does morality develop, why does it often take similar forms in dissimilar cultures, and how can a culture’s sense of what is moral change over time?”

    Back when I was a theist, one of the things that kept me believing in some form of deity was the shared morality in so many different cultures – even if I couldn’t believe in a conscious, intelligent deity, perhaps there was some kind of transcendental field that influenced disparate cultures to all value things like honesty, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

    The turnaround from a theistic explanation for me was discovering meme theory. The main reason that evolutionary psychology is bollocks is that cultural evolution has completely supplanted genetic evolution in the progress of our species. It takes generations for a genetic mutation to spread through a species, but a meme can spread through a culture in less than a decade. (Of course, this theory shares with evo psych the severe drawback that it’s practically impossible to test.)

    Still, for my first question – where does morality come from – I’d say that, from the age when the first tribes split up and began competing over resources, they began to develop different sets of memes. Some memes made the tribes that adopted them better taking resources, and other tribes either copied those memes or were wiped out or enslaved by tribes that possessed them. Altruism and self-sacrifice don’t make sense from an individual’s evolutionary standpoint, but if a group promotes those ideals among its members, they will coordinate and outcompete groups that are completely selfish.

    So in my view, all morality originates from shared memes that once caused the cultures that adapted them to be more effective at competing for resources. And from my reading of most of ancient history, everybody seemed to be involved in almost constant conflict with one another, in a struggle analogous to the predators and prey driving much of Darwinian evolution. If we live in a society where we know for a fact that there are groups of people within a several-week journey from our home who would gladly kill us and take our stuff if they were able to do so, then all other moral considerations are going to be subordinated to the overwhelming necessity of keeping our societal unit cohesive so we can stand against the invaders. If we have to persecute a few heretics to keep from splitting apart into civil conflict, then so be it.

    That’s why morality in diverse cultures often seems to be similar – if it works, it works. Whenever I see a social custom that was widespread throughout many cultures – slavery, subjugation of women, aristocracy, poetry, religion – my working assumption is that at least at first, it must have provided some evolutionary advantage in the game of real-world Civ.

    Then there’s my third question – why does morality change? The biggest reason, I think, is that technology has changed the way wars are fought. Take, for instance, the enormous social pressure on men and women, but especially women, to adopt social and sexual practices that prioritize having as many children as possible. That makes sense for a lot of human history. In most ancient battles as far as I can tell, tactics and technology were less important than simply showing up with more troops than the other side. In societies competing in low-level warfare that went on for generations, the side with the higher birthrate would have a definite advantage. Societies whose memes encouraged large families would tend to conquer those that didn’t.
    But since about the 1950s, there have been two big shifts in warfare. One, unless you live in Syria or South Sudan, most humans don’t still live under conditions where their ability to wage war is crucial to their cultures’ survival. It’s a vestigial trait. And secondly, numerical superiority on the battlefield has been growing less and less important over the last few centuries. So with both of those conditions changed, it makes sense that the pressures to have lots of kids have diminished and women who demand more freedom are getting it.

    Andreas, you mention a few times in your essay that a lot of morality is “outdated,” and I agree. I would add that I believe many of the worst evils today are memes that used to be beneficial, but whose defense mechanisms cause them to still propagate long after the culture has evolved to the point where they have become harmful. When I argue against a lot of conservative morality, I try to figure out whether the morality they preach once used to be beneficial under obsolete circumstances, and why those circumstances have now changed.

  7. Ice Swimmer says

    I feel that loyalty, sanctity and authority are tools, some of the ways to realize the more fundamental care, fairness and liberty.

    Loyalty is a way to extend care to the number of people you can care for without overburdening yourself and help them being treated fairly, however jingoism, racism, sexism and nepotism trump the caring and fairness part and go into predatory actions in the name of loyalty.

    Authority is necessary for the functioning of the state and other organizations, but absolute authority is dangerous (see any history book).

    Sanctity is an universal reinforcement for other moral foundations and I think that with sanctity, the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into effect sooner or later, when the taboo or virtue becomes problematic due to different conditions or improved knowledge. For example, sex outside an established relationship is significantly less risky now than it was 200 or 2000 years ago, because of better condoms, IUDs, the pill, antibiotics, safe non-surgical abortions and social programs. Also using sanctity for reinforcing loyalty has brought us a huge amount of arbitrary or damaging rules (dress codes, rules on hair and beard style, genital mutilation).

  8. musing says

    Continuing from #6: Bruce, do you have any recommendations on sources to read on cultural evolution via memes? I discarded this idea years ago but want to give it another fair chance before critiquing. Also, evolutionary psychologists believe that most of our time spent on earth was under hostile conditions where we faced intense competition for food, mates, allies etc. and were quite hierarchical. But a lot of that is a priori reasoning because anthropologists interpret the past quite differently in that 95% of our time on earth was spent as egalitarian tribes that were still hierarchical underneath it all but managed to suppress bullies and free riders because morality, by definition, evolved to assist groups to cooperate by limiting self-interest in others. These moral tendencies are defined by Jonathan Haidt quite well and are very convincing. These tendencies are most likely evolved psychological mechanisms, for a lot of good reasons, and are the raw materials that make up our moral emotions. We may not like evolutionary psychology but certain facets of it and some hypotheses are hard to not to at least entertain.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    I liked “The Meme Machine” by Susan Blackmore. This is the Amazon blurb:
    In The Meme Machine Susan Blackmore boldly asserts: “Just as the design of our bodies can be understood only in terms of natural selection, so the design of our minds can be understood only in terms of memetic selection.” Indeed, Blackmore shows that once our distant ancestors acquired the crucial ability to imitate, a second kind of natural selection began, a survival of the fittest amongst competing ideas and behaviors. Ideas and behaviors that proved most adaptive–making tools, for example, or using language–survived and flourished, replicating themselves in as many minds as possible. These memes then passed themselves on from generation to generation by helping to ensure that the genes of those who acquired them also survived and reproduced. Applying this theory to many aspects of human life, Blackmore offers brilliant explanations for why we live in cities, why we talk so much, why we can’t stop thinking, why we behave altruistically, how we choose our mates, and much more.

    Comparing cultural evolution to psychological evolution — I think a memeticist like Blackmore would say that the primary quality of a brain that allows human culture to evolve quickly is its plasticity and ability to copy memes it comes across, rather than any hardwired moral programming. There are certainly historical indications of cultures that lack all of Haidt’s morals — they just tended to get wiped out by those that developed them.

    Anyway, I’d have a hard time being convinced that any of these moral behaviors are innate — that is, independent of a cultural upbringing. Certainly those wild children who grew up unsocialized seem to lack them.

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