Guest post: He called it “Ask First”

Originally a comment by Hj Hornbeck on Salt.

I’m one of the lucky few who’ve heard Shermer talk about his system of morality in person.

He called it “Ask First:” before doing some action, ask the people effected what they think. It has a Rawlsian quality to it, but unlike the Veil it’s much easier to game. Jails and safe injection sites will never be built, because the surrounding populace will never agree to them. Ever heard of Hobo Fights, where assholes pay two homeless people to beat the crap out of one another? Permitted by “Ask First,” banned by the Veil. Thinking of cutting carbon emissions? Don’t ask the experts, do an opinion poll!

Shermer was peppered with similar corner cases during the Q&A, but he had a solution: “no moral system is perfect,” so we’d just switch to another one when problems arose! I think he even mentioned a “greater good” system as a candidate.

You know, the type of system which would give the same answers in the vast majority of cases, and which we could have gone with from the start. But no, he had to saw off the corners to suit his libertarian views, then hastily glue them back on, in an ad hoc manner, when those corners became critical.

I wasn’t impressed.


  1. keusnua says

    Whu, whut? The problem with Shermer is thus that he failed to follow his own moral system and “Ask First” in those situations when it would have actually been useful. The irony. It burns.

  2. says

    @1 Exactly. “Ask first”, if it’s to be labeled a “system of morality”, seems like it would require the affected people/person to at least be capable of answering when asked.

    “Ask First” just seems to be an amoral system, where you’re turning your own moral agency off and acquiescing to a moral authority (whether it be global opinion, the folks in the room, etc). Sure, a particular answer may end up being a morally good or acceptable answer, but unless you use some other system or standards to evaluate that answer, you aren’t actually being moral at all.

  3. Sili says

    Well, he didn’t say anything about whom to ask.

    “Hey, Michael.”

    “Yes, Michael?”

    “Should I rape this drunk woman?”

    “I don’t see why not.”

    “Thanks, Michael!”

    “You’re welcome, Michael.”

  4. Hj Hornbeck says

    I had a flash of doubt when you posted this, as I was working from memory. Fortunately I’d fired something off to a mailing list within weeks of the lecture, so I could double-check.

    Nailed it, thankfully, and discovered some more objectional stuff I’d since forgotten. But first:

    changerofbits @2:

    “Ask First” just seems to be an amoral system, where you’re turning your own moral agency off and acquiescing to a moral authority (whether it be global opinion, the folks in the room, etc).

    The reverse, actually. Past-me used a different example, showing that “Ask First” considers wearing the burqa to be moral. But

    Suppose we ask a Western woman in Kabul about the burqa, and she refuses it. Should our rule apply only to non-Western women? If not, how do we resolve the contradiction? Shermer would point to the science, but what if the science is flawed, as above, or incomplete, or has failed to reach a consensus?

    So Shermer’s advocating a sort of moral anarchy, where the same action can carry different moral weights depending on who’s involved. You could never pass a blanket law outlawing murder, because you’d have to Ask [the murderers] First, and proposing fundamental human rights is out of the question. His primary escape hatch, science, is not a magic cure-all.

    We’ll set up shop on a Kabul street-corner, and observe how women are treated according to how they dress. It isn’t long before we reach a consensus: women who expose more skin are harassed more. Again, we find justification to impose the burqa.

    I run into a lot of scientific papers with dubious assumptions and flawed methodology. Scientists have supported some very dodgy ideas and fallen for group-think; the Tuskigi syphilis project was strongly supported by the scientific community, for instance, until a non-scientist blew the whistle. Will the truth rule in the long term? Sure, but on the other hand I don’t need a century of papers and research to determine withholding effective treatment from patients is wrong.

  5. Hj Hornbeck says

    My email dates back to March 2013, when all I knew was that Shermer was on “the list,” so I was kinder to him than I would be now.

    I think he, and by extension Sam Harris, are really on to something with their science-based moral systems. I would love to see their ideas developed further… but in Shermer’s case I have to shake my head at his sub par attempts. He needs to put more thought into it, shed more of his biases, and maybe then he’ll have something I can wholeheartedly endorse.

    But that’s as close as I ever get to approval. The rest is written in a “I disagree with you strongly but I’ll be kind about it because you’re famous” tone. While I spent a lot of time poking holes in “Ask First,” Shermer also wandered into politics both during the lecture and in Q&A, for instance bringing up drone strikes.

    Shermer pointed out it was an improvement over the carpet bombing practiced in WWII, as it caused less collateral damage, hence it fit into his downward trend.

    No, really, he said that.

    How he could compare a wartime action to a non-war conflict is beyond me. He’s also bought into the rhetoric that better sensors and more accurate targeting automatically means fewer civilian casualties.
    What about the human pulling the trigger? Is every soldier free of racism? Are the drone cameras accurate enough to tell an insurgent from a civilian? No soldier has ever let exhaustion cloud their judgement? I wonder what he’d make of the US practice of bombing funerals and first responders; I don’t think they did that back in WWII.

    Oh yeah, and that “downward trend” was science and increased knowledge making us less violent. Back then, I pointed out this was unfalsifiable.

    His most common defence was “look to the long term.” Notice an uptick in the number of US politicians openly use their religion or pandering to it? Don’t worry, the long term trend in down. Worried about the increasing political interference by preachers? Don’t worry, the long term trend is down. Unfortunately, as many climate deniers have shown, you can demonstrate a downward trend in anything by picking your endpoints carefully. And without a definite time-frame you can kick the can perpetually, until luck hands you a beautiful downwards trend.

    And he had a bit of a crush on democracy.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that form of government is the best we’ve got, but Shermer holds it up as automatically more moral, because it values individual freedom greater than all else. If he ditched his loved of libertarianism, he might realize things are more complicated than that. A democracy reflects the citizens who vote it into place; if they are sexist, racist xenophobes, then you’ll get a sexist, racist, xenophobic government. Citizens are informed through the media; if that media is largely controlled by a few corporations, who’s leaders have some level of control over what gets reported, by intention or accident, then citizens will get a distorted view of reality.

    I wrote quite a rant back then, much longer than what I quoted here, but you get the drift.

  6. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Who should we ask? Well bicycle repair man of course.

    Wasn’t that Sheremer’s previous occupation?

    As a philosophical method it fails on not being decidable. What happens if you ask two people and they give different answers? Is that a yes or a no? What happens if they disagree? And that is before we get to the harder problems of whether consent has to be informed consent or not.

    Ethics is not an easy topic and there are problems with every ethical system proposed. It is really difficult to adopt a pure utilitarian point of view and give a solid argument against consensual gladiator combat to the death. But Rawls doesn’t really rescue the categorical imperative from its problems either because it isn’t possible to perform his decision process in practice. Shermer ignores or is ignorant of the problems with these established absolutist systems and proposes an additional absolutist one.

    But there is also the problem that the criteria for selecting eminence in the field has often if not typically been to provide plausible arguments for projects the establishment were already committed to. So it really isn’t an accident that so many eminent philosophers wrote stirring phrases about liberty and justice in the 1950s on, while entirely failing to explain how those ideas affected their commitment to zionism or the effect their political project would have on others. Nor is it an accident that Pascal’s take on theology pleased the court of his day.

    Ayn Rand is really no exception. Some folk love her stuff because it gives them a plausible rationalization for doing whatever the heck they want without it being too obvious. Like Nietzsche, Rand pretty much divides the world into the deserving elite and the botched and the bungled and does so in such a fashion that allows most people to imagine themselves as being members of the deserving elite.

  7. says


    Whu, whut? The problem with Shermer is thus that he failed to follow his own moral system and “Ask First” in those situations when it would have actually been useful. The irony. It burns.

    While that may be the case when he lunged at someone, I’m kind of wondering if maybe his “ask first” rule is something he still thinks is valid when the person being asked is too drunk to weigh the options properly before they answer.

  8. denaturesd says

    If you are looking to critique Shermer’s views on morality, he wrote an entire book on the subject–The Science of Good and Evil. If memory serves, it’s paraphrased by 1) It’s better to seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind. Avoid seeking happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness. 2) It’s better to seek liberty with someone else’s liberty in mind. Avoid seeking liberty when it leads to someone else’s loss of liberty. 3) The Golden rule with verification.

    It’s the third point most strongly connected to the ask first idea. It’s not sufficient to just treat others as you would be treated, their views need to be taken into consideration. The best way to know their viewpoint if unknown is to ask.

    O.K. I pulled out the book for a relevant passage: “Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel if the roles were reversed. We need to take the Golden Rule one step further, through what I call the ask first principle.”

    Potential criticisms of this system aside, I agree with keusnua–given the preponderance of evidence, Shermer has failed to follow his own advice.

  9. Konradius says

    This may be slightly off topic on 5: Shermer’s crush on ‘democracy’. It seems democracy is seen as just a system of ‘most votes rule’. However to me that is only point 3 of what makes a real democracy.

    1. Rule of law: the law applies to everyone equally.
    2. Universal human rights
    3. Decisions are made by majority vote

    Now all democracies in existence have flaws that keep them from fully realizing those rules. But all three are needed to get a democracy. Most fledgling democracies fail exactly because they ignore 1 and 2.

  10. says

    However to me that is only point 3 of what makes a real democracy.

    1. Rule of law: the law applies to everyone equally.
    2. Universal human rights
    3. Decisions are made by majority vote

    Now all democracies in existence have flaws that keep them from fully realizing those rules

    Then they are not democracies.

  11. Kevin Kehres says

    Problem is, democracies don’t exist. Except in certain Vermont small towns, where town meetings are literally meetings of the entire town and decisions are made democratically.

    And even then, “majority rules” fails as a philosophy when the majority makes a decision to violate the fundamental rights of someone else. The majority could vote to not allow black people to buy houses in their town — and would get into a shitload of trouble for it.

    Our representative democracies have checks and balances against the tyranny of the majority. The most important being an independent judiciary, and a set of precepts outlining the rights of the people.

  12. johnthedrunkard says

    Does ‘the Veil’ refer to actually, Islamist, veiling of women, or some previous trope that we’re ‘supposed’ to recognize?

    Finally, someone else has mentioned Rand. There is a whole rationlazing system behind Shermer’s behavior, the pathology is not just personal.

    ‘Human actors act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral when someone else judges them as such. ‘

    Shermer really sees ‘smash-and-grab’ as the model of human interaction. There are some ‘veils’ between that grim reality and the surface impression. The dude-bro ethos is behind the curtain.

  13. Hj Hornbeck says

    Good point, Konradius, I missed that. Shermer doesn’t love democracy because it explicitly gives the public a role in decision-making, he loves it because it provides the most individual liberty.

    Except it doesn’t. Take Communism, as a counterpoint: in an ideal communist country, there is no overarching “state” to impose itself on the people. Unlike a capitalist society, there isn’t even a boss looking over your shoulder, using private property and money to coerce you into providing them labour. Every action you do is of your own free will, without constraint, so theoretically they’re more free than a democracy.

    That’s not how communist countries have worked in practice, however. The “temporary” state that’s tasked with organizing this utopia becomes a permanent pseudo-dictatorship, imposing all sorts of rules and regulations “for the good of the proletariat.” When you start wading into practical issues, though, democracies also take a hit. The USA post-9/11 has become a bit of a horror show, with things like a No-Fly list that does little more than arbitrarily harass innocent civilians, Obama’s recent announcement that he was bombing innocent civilians outside a war zone again, and the massive surveillance buerocracy that’s been greatly expanded. Nor is this exclusive to the States, as “Five Eyes” refers to five separate democracies which freely share intelligence info and claim not to spy on one another (but apparently do).

    Democracies do not necessarily protect individual liberties that well. But are they at least better than the alternatives? Nope, there’s at least one political structure that runs circles around it there: individualist anarchism.

    Individualism is the sentiment of a profound, irreducible antinomy between the individual and society. The individualist is he who, by virtue of his temperament, is predisposed to feel in a particularly acute fashion the ineluctable disharmonies between his intimate being and his social milieu. […]

    individualism is an attitude of sensibility that goes from hostility and distrust to indifference and disdain vis-à-vis the organized society in which we are forced to live, vis-à-vis its uniformising rules, its monotonous repetitions, and its enslaving constraints. It’s a desire to escape from it and to withdraw into oneself. Above all, it is the profound sentiment of the “uniqueness of the I,” of that which despite it all the I maintains of unrepressible and impenetrable to social influences.

    Sounds rather tempting for someone like Shermer, no? Too bad it’s associated with anarchists; most of them were feminists, communists, and hard-core lefties, who would balk at this related-yet-entirely-different approach to anarchism. Maybe if we dropped the “anarchy” part or changed the name, it could gain some popularity?

  14. Hj Hornbeck says

    johnthedrunkard @12:

    Does ‘the Veil’ refer to actually, Islamist, veiling of women, or some previous trope that we’re ‘supposed’ to recognize?

    This should help:

    The original position is a central feature of John Rawls’s social contract account of justice, “justice as fairness,” set forth in A Theory of Justice (TJ). It is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice. In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of social and political justice. The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances. They do know of certain fundamental interests they all have, plus general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences.

    I think it’s the strongest moral system out there, even if it’s tough to put into practice.

  15. chrislawson says

    HJ, it’s the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, not Tuskigi, and the whistleblower was John Buxton — an epidemiologist who was involved in collecting data on venereal diseases for the USPHS, so hardly a non-scientist. In fact, if he had not been involved in collecting data (albeit not as part of that specific project), he would never have stumbled across the study. Your main point is correct and important, though — the study was conducted under the aegis of the CDC with widespread support from several medical and research bodies and was not halted until Buxtun gave an interview to the Washington Star, after he had tried and failed to correct the problem through official channels on several occasions.

  16. Hj Hornbeck says

    chrislawson @15:

    HJ, it’s the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, not Tuskigi

    Thanks! At least it’s one of the few names you can screw up, yet have everyone know what you’re talking about anyway.

    and the whistleblower was John Buxton — an epidemiologist who was involved in collecting data on venereal diseases for the USPHS, so hardly a non-scientist.

    Maybe I’m guilty of over-simplifying Peter Buxton’s story. His Wikipedia article makes it sound like he went straight to Jean Heller after his attempts to get the experiment shut down through official channels failed. I have a different take, thanks to this citation:

    Blumenthal, Daniel S., and Ralph J. DiClemente, eds. Community-based health research: issues and methods. Springer publishing company, 2004. pg. 48-53

    If I may copy-paste my summary of it, from elsewhere,

    That started to change around the late 1960’s. Peter Buxtun was a major opponent, and managed to get the Public Health Service to form a committee to look into the ethics of the study. It passed with flying colours, and in fact the committee requested and got further endorsements from from both State and County-level health organizations, some of which were even African-American run. What brought down the study wasn’t the scientific establishment, it was the press. Peter Buxtun, who’d left health care for law school, described the project to a friend who happened to be a reporter.

    If you’d like a third opinion:

    A year later he left for Hastings Law School. Haunted by the plight of the Study subjects, Buxtun re-challenged the USPHS in 1968, writing that the men were “quite ignorant of the effects of untreated syphilis.” Further, “The group is 100% Negro. This in itself is political dynamite.” With race riots exploding in major cities, the USPHS convened a blue-ribbon panel of physicians. Although the death rate among the infected men was 23% higher than the control group, the doctors worried about possible side effects of treatment, and the “unfilled debt to subjects who had already suffered and died.” They voted to continue – without treatment or informed consent. Dismayed, Buxtun responded that the men “no longer exercise the choice of ending their days free from syphilis,” and urged the USPHS to provide compensation rather than “await the quiet demise of the survivors and hope that will end the matter.”

    After law school, Buxtun met a reporter who arranged for the Washington Star to break the story on July 25, 1972. The federal Director of Health, Education and Welfare was “shocked and horrified.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Ma) held congressional hearings.

    Should we credit Heller’s article for the AP with bringing down Tuskegee? Was Buxton still employed as a scientist at the time, and does that even matter? I’ll leave that story on an ambiguous note.

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