A Catholic Wedding

The key point here is that the relativism that the religious right accuses us of is a strawman.  Most of us don’t believe in a “hard” relativism which means, at the very least, that everything is relative and that no one point of view should take priority over another.  If we think we meet these criteria of “hard” relativism, we need only ask ourselves where Christianity ranks in our mind.

A Catholic Insider

The topic of relativism is usually not relevant until we hear from the religious right on absolute morality.  I recall going through a Catholic interview to get married, and their attempt to bring me back to the faith came in the form of a pamphlet.  This pamphlet was a pathetic two pages in length.  The first thing in the pamphlet was an attack on relativism, which, for them, is a very bad word.

All things are relative.

If all things are relative, then this isn’t true. (i)

I was presented with a self-refuting statement.  This of course was not a reason to accept Jesus but to accept their worldview.  But to me, this seemed to be a quirk within our language and logic not a stake through soft relativism.  What bothered me more was when the priest mistook me as an insider and said, “those atheists don’t believe in anything greater than themselves like we do”.

Catholics’ Contempt

The contradiction “all things are relative” doesn’t diminish the value that relativism holds.  The claim says that “all things” are relative, which means that we can’t rule it out as being absolute.  But if it is an absolute claim, then it itself can’t be true since all things are relative.  The reasoning we just went through is what apologists expect us to do.  They don’t, however, tell us that this is a trap.

This contradiction is disingenuous and non-existent (i).  First, by all things do we mean the statement itself, or do we mean what the statement is referring to?  Things themselves just are and can’t be true or false.   Second, in order to communicate that all things are relative, we must assert the claim that all things are relative.  So by virtue of how language works, this will contradict itself.  

This is an artifact of language, not a refutation!  The fact that the Catholic church would use this strawman to put down a worldview that they perceive as evil, “those liberals”, speaks more to their contempt towards liberalism than it does as an earnest and valid criticism.  I suppose showing contempt towards our enemies always and everywhere is absolutely relevant.


i)  The insight of a “quirk of language” has been verified by Dr. Richard Carrier, who has formal training in philosophy and in the historical sciences.  “What theologians are doing is “taking a colloquial phrase, “all things are relative”, that was never meant to be “self-referential”” to be as if it were in order to make it self-contradictory.  This is known as the equivocation fallacy.

A Philosophy Primer

The word philosophy literally means the love of wisdom.   I understand why scientists may view philosophy with contempt because they associate it with deductive logic and the weapon of the religious right.  But it is a useful way of organizing knowledge and can assist science in understanding its assumptions, theoretical foundations and enlighten us on its moral implications.  Here, I will briefly go over concepts that are pertinent to upcoming posts, which are on topics of objective reality and relativism.

Ontology and Metaphysics

When concerned with the nature of existence, reality, and being, then we are talking about metaphysics.  Metaphysics is similar to ontology.  Whereas metaphysics is on the nature of reality and what sorts of things are real, ontology concerns itself with what exists and what does it mean to exist.  We may hear the word ontology used in science – as an entity’s “ontological status” – which deals with figuring out “how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.”

The word objective means that we have agreed-upon standards that allow us to assess the truth of something.  If something is subjective, then we lack such criteria.  For example, if we say that dogs are the best kind of pets, then it is subjective because the word “best” is not defined.  If by “best” we mean any kind of pet that is loyal and affectionate, then we would be closer to objectivity.  Otherwise, we would never be able to settle the issue or argument on what the best pet is.  Truth then depends on something.

Objectivism (i) is the idea that there is a reality, or realm of objects and facts, which exists wholly independent of the mind [1].  And objective (i) truths or facts remain true always and everywhere independent of the mind [1].  Math is an example of objective truths as 1 + 1 is always and everywhere 2.  We will also see it phrased as objective reality which means a reality that exists independent of us perceiving it or independent of the mind.  As to whether or not objective reality exists, to me, is a matter of how we define it.

In contrast to objectivism, relativism is a philosophical doctrine that at the very least says that all things are dependent upon a point of view or framework and that no one point of view or framework should take precedence over another.  When we use the word relative, we don’t use it in the strict sense, as the definition, and is thus called “soft” relativism.  There is also objective relativism which says that objective truth is possible but only within a framework or point of view is it valid.  This is a form of soft relativism. 

Logic and Epistimology

Logic is the difference between good and bad reasoning.  We can structure our arguments as either deductive or inductive to help find the validity or truth of claims.  We usually think of logic as something that we apply to reason to see if it is true or valid.  This is true for formal logic, which is either deductive or inductive, but not true of real logic, that which comes from the mind.  There is no universal logic because people use different types of reasoning to reach their conclusions.  For example, what drives a conservative’s logic is different than what drives a liberal’s logic.

Philosophy Resources

Epistemology – the study of how and what we know

Metaphysics – the study of existence and reality

Ethics – the study of how people should act



i) There are nuances within each of these terms worth discussing.  When we speak of absolute and objective, these concepts can be relative to other things just as relativism is.  The difference is that once a relationship with another thing is established, it is the “essence” of that thing that matters.  On the other hand, when terms like relative and subjective are addressed, then it’s the “representations” of the thing that is used by something else.  Relative and subjective are reserved for things that have agency.


[1] Mastin, L. (2009, January). Existence and Consciousness.

When to Keep the Snark

Here, I briefly talk about myself as a gateway to the idea that perhaps we should be more tactful in our use of contempt in our own lives.  As for the Blog (i), sarcasm is too integral to its appeal; people know what to expect and that is fair enough.

If it wasn’t for my experiences with work and tough relationships, there would be no need to “reverse engineer”.  In short, I have found that when I take the “war out of my words” that the message is more likely to be heard by those that don’t share my beliefs.

Reverse Engineering

At work, which was a gun-toting, god-fearing, military-loving, and, liberal-hating kind of a place, is where I decided to take a turn from engineering to psychology.  I wanted to understand why we were so different because I certainly did not fit in.  I drove a Prius, hated God, loathed the military, and disliked my lunch being served to me as a “hit” of dopamine.  Thank you shooting-range.

This was a company that did some “important” work like aiding and abetting the Predator (ii) for our “freedom”.  Now to my point.  I asked a coworker who used harsh punishment on his kids if he was aware of the psychological costs?  He told me to not “reverse engineer” his technique.  He analyzes electronic circuits, so why can’t he analyze himself?  Because he perceived criticism.

The Four Horsemen (iii)

In my household, most everything was an argument.  I wanted to understand what was in my words and style of relating that triggered others.  Therapists didn’t help but the research did.  I found Gottman’s empirical work on relationships to be of most value.  There are four styles of relating to one another that turn arguing into fighting: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

These styles of relating to one another should be minimized in personal relationships.  In fact, being on the receiving end of contempt increases stress hormones and inflammation in the body, which makes us more susceptible to physical and mental illnesses.  Contempt and hostility are early warning signs that relationships are heading south.

  • Contempt is when we feel that someone (or their idea) is inferior because we view them (or their idea) to have a negative characteristic, which makes them unworthy of our consideration.  We show this by using body-language – mockery, eye-rolling, sneering, dismissiveness – and with how we use our words – patronizing, sarcasm, snarking, name-calling.  
  • Criticism is to find fault in something.  Unlike contempt, it doesn’t take on a position of superiority.  Even if indirect, criticisms are usually taken in a “global” way and personalized.  I suppose what we do, what we have, and who we know are about us.
  • Defensiveness is the result of criticism.  When criticized, we don’t like the person and the message will be lost, unless they are our superiors.  Instead, we make excuses for the fault and fight back, anything to feel the sting and keep our reputations.
  • Stonewalling is either a deliberate or unintentional refusal to communicate and get on better terms with someone.

The War Out of Words

There is no way to take the war out of contempt as it is meant to hurt.  It’s up to us to be mindful when we start feeling contemptuous towards someone and find ways to prevent it from escalating, see an example.  Not surprisingly, this is what causes a bad marriage.

You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do is sit and expect me to do everything. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Your are pathetic?”

As far as criticism, there is a way to make it less direct.  If you are already at the stage of resentment and indignation, then contempt may be a few steps away and this won’t work.  Otherwise, just reformat it to be in terms of a complaint instead.

  • Criticism: Why do you always do it like that?  I hate when you do that?
  • Complaint: “I feel” hurt when you don’t wash your dishes because it creates extra work for me.


i) I am impressed with the writing at freethought blogs.  We get our points across in a very colorful and pointed way.  Depending on our goals, it may be too “sharp” though for some.  On the other hand, studies show that when we debate, we end up only believing more strongly in what we originally believed.  In other words, what is the point?  Those that believe need to be entertained.

ii) The Predator was a remotely piloted aircraft by General Atomics.  I am pretty sure it was in combat for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It was something to be proud of, but no one would dare talk about the casualties that it left behind.

iii) The Four Horsemen is from the Apocalypse and means impending doom.  It’s a metaphor for what status your marriage is in if you are using contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  It is empirically validated by the Gottmans with over 30 years worth of research.

“Know Your Place”

People don’t always tell you what they are thinking. They just see to it that you don’t advance in life.

It comes in the form of subtle messages that can leave us feeling inferior, inadequate, and resentful.  It can be the kind where nothing is said but felt.  It is a kind that erodes confidence and leaves us in a state of wonder as to what others really think.  It can keep us “in our place” at work and in life and make us the subject of dismissal or ridicule.  It is contempt, hate, and hubris.

Racism, ableism, and sexism come from contempt, hate, and hubris.  I have two challenges for liberals: one, we are exclusive in our use of fairness and, two, we use contempt on our enemies.  Why focus on some – race, ethnicity, and sex – but not on others?  As feeble and soft as it sounds, the theme that makes liberalism what it is is caring for others.

[Break-Down Right-Wingers is on hold.  It is more involved than I thought and needs to be done right as it is immensely important.]

Contempt Explained

We here at freethought blogs love to use contempt.  From comments to our posts, it is always present.  Contempt is the feeling that a person or idea is not worthy of our respect because it or they are beneath us.  It works by us finding negative characteristics in ideas and in people and then attributing the whole idea or person to being inferior.  It is a form of stereotype since it generalizes.

Contempt is at the heart of racism and sexism since we feel above them and generalize their “inferior” qualities to be what defines them.  Hate, by contrast, is when others pose a threat to our status, which is our need to advance in the eyes of others, or to our wellbeing.  Contempt and hate involve social hierarchy, that is, who is above us and who is below us, but do so in different ways.

Someone can feel contempt for a very lazy person, but not hate him, because he poses no threat.  Similarly, someone can feel hate for a rival, as they pose a threat, but not feel contempt, because they are not seen as inferior.
If we care about others, then should we limit its use?  When is it justified and effective, other than to inflate ego?  I argued that “bullying the bullies” is moral, but I must be a wimp because I struggle with it.  I am, however, guilty of using it on my enemies.

The Forgotten Persons

For me, there is nothing more disturbing than when Trump ridiculed and mocked the reporter from the New York Times.  If we define ableism to mean the ability to accomplish things effectively and efficiently, then there are a lot of people in trouble.  There are thirteen million people in the United States that have intellectual disabilities.  But at best we pity them and at worst we ridicule them.

If we define social value as what another person has to “offer us”, which boils down to our appearances, likability, and capabilities, then this class of people is at risk of being dismissed and ridiculed.  But these people have been underrepresented up until the 1970s.  In fact, we actually had “ugly laws” at one time that barred “undesirables” from making appearances.  I am speechless.

Think about the movies “Unhinged” and “The Joker“.  What “drives” these hypothetical characters is that they were “dismissed” in life and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t compete and cooperate.  This class of people, let’s call them the “Losers”, decided to not “take it”, “it” being their subordinated role in life, and “do something about it”.  But it was at the cost of the well-being of others.

Why Is Jesus So Special?

[Much of this is my interpretation of the incredible work of Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Mike Licona.]

No, not another one of these parallel-mania posts, where everything that is about Jesus parallels other gods!  It is interesting how things that we were once passionate about lose their luster.  I wrote a lot about Jesus.  But people still don’t realize how strong the argument from analogy is, which says that Jesus’ deeds and words were literary creations.  He is irrelevant to me, yet he persists.

To be sure, I view the writings about Jesus as literature, which Helms reminds us of below, but I can’t put Jesus to rest.  Because recently I was reminded how a significant other would use Jesus as a refuge from being accountable to others(i).

The Gospels are, it must be said with gratitude, works of art, the supreme fictions in our culture, narratives produced by enormously influential literary artists who put their art in the service of a theological vision. It is, of course, not uncommon to recognize literary artistry in the Gospels; there is perhaps no more beautiful short story than “The Prodigal Son,” no more moving sentence in all world literature than “I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matt. 28:20) [6]

This is an old post rewritten for the sake of brevity and clarity.  In my distant past, this was influenced by my heroes: Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Mike Licona.  At the time, I wasn’t too careful about citing.  But I assure you that I was very conservative with the evidence and even used Christian scholars’ and theologian’s own research that actually works against them.

Can’t Take Him Seriously

I’m baffled when others ask why I don’t take Jesus Christ as a god and savior seriously, especially when we remember that Jesus is not the only god.  It would be nothing but special pleading for me to take one serious and forget the others.  In fact, there are other dying and rising sons (daughters) of gods who go through a passion (suffering) to obtain victory over death [3].

The ones predating Christianity include Osiris from the mystery religions – a son of a deity that offered an afterlife for those baptized into his death and resurrection – Romulus, a Roman God – whose death and resurrection was celebrated in annual passion plays and born of a virgin – while Inanna, a Sumerian goddess – had a resurrection and escaped from the underworld [3].  

They Knew It in Advance

Robert Price, a once Jesus worshiper with a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology, has the following to say about religious leaders that admitted to parallels that were obviously problematic at the time.

The early Church fathers understood [parallels] as a problem because they were already getting the same objections from pagans. They said, “What you say about Jesus, we’ve been saying about Dionysus and Hercules all the time.”

What’s the big deal? I mean, they didn’t believe in them either anymore. And so the Christian apologists (Justin Martyr) – the defenders of the faith – would say, “Well, yea, but this one is true. And you see Satan counterfeited it in advance because he knew this day would come.” 

Boy, I’ll tell you that tells you two things right there that even they didn’t even deny that these other Jesus like characters were before Jesus or they would never have resorted to something like that Satan knew it would happen and counterfeit it in advance?

I enjoy Robert Price’s creativity enough to include this quote from him that is talking about how defenders of Christianity argue over something that never happened…it is just a story.

What evangelical apologists are still trying to show…is that their version of the resurrection was the most compatible with accepting all the details of the gospel Easter narratives as true and non-negotiable…[D]efenders of the resurrection assume that their opponents agree with them that all the details are true, that only the punch line is in question. What they somehow do not see is that to argue thus is like arguing that the Emerald City of Oz must actually exist since, otherwise, where would the Yellow Brick Road lead?….We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true.

Theologians Know This

Many more mythical gods were often transformed into historical figures, although they may not predate Christianity, perhaps because the evidence did not survive or was destroyed by their competitor’s religion (Christianity) [5].  I bring up the similarities because this was obviously not made from whole cloth because the motifs and themes from these others are too uncanny.

How can we be sure that it wasn’t the other way around?  That is, what if Jesus was more original than the others?  Does it matter?  The point besides an argument by analogy is that people are mythmakers.  What is more likely the authors had a creative vision, or Jesus actually said and did what the authors said he said and did?  

Gregory Boyd, a Christian apologist, sums up my argument from analogy for me. Gee, thank you!

We know the Jesus story is about God visiting us and/or about a God who does something along the lines of dying and rising is not altogether unique. The history of religion and mythology is full of “incarnation-like” stories and “resurrection-like” stories.

So, one could argue, if we assume that all these analogous “incarnations” and “resurrections” are mythological, we should similarly concede that the Christian version of these stories is mythological, its unique features notwithstanding.

The Motif Is What Counts 

The following list of mythological gods, some from the mystery religions, share some characteristics with Jesus.  Now, for these, there is by no means a one-to-one parallel here, but they share some similar features nevertheless.  On the other hand, if you emphasize the differences, then you’d rightly conclude that these are quite different from Jesus.  But that’s not the point.

The point is that the human imagination and intellect are capable of creating etiologies – things that attempt to explain common mysteries – for example, what happens after death.  Mythology is nothing more than etiology expressed in a dramatic way and may be used to comfort and satisfy human curiosity, while often being used as a tool for propaganda.

Gods That Become History

All of this below was sourced from the Christian and theologian Mike Licona.  Mike Licona is a bright guy and knows his history although he has concluded in debates with Richard Carrier that Jesus was resurrected.  This of course isn’t surprising.

These are mainly gods that have been historicized in that they were gods at first but then were cast as actual historical figures on earth, by way of mouth or through literature.  As far as Jesus, I am indifferent to whether or not he was mythical or if he existed as an actual person (iii).

  • Jesus: born a virgin, son of a god, divine judge, communal meal, savior, miracles, crucified, resurrected, ascended
  • Adonis (Syria) – ascended to heaven before death, resurrected on the 3rd day (later Christian interpretation)
  • Attis (Asia Minor) – virgin born
  • Baal – son of El a God, descends to the underworld, could have resurrected
  • Dionysus (Greece) – son of a God Zeus, a savior, descends to under-world, communal wine, rival of Christianity
  • Hercules (Greece) – performed miracles, ascended to Mt Olympus and became a god
  • Hermes (Greece) – guides souls to under-world, son of Zeus, created miracles as an infant
  • Horus (Egypt) – son of Osiris and later son of Re, performed healing magic as a child
  • Krishna (India) – born of a virgin, performed miracles as a child, resurrected, ascended to heaven
  • Mithra (Persia) – a savior, divinity of light and salvation, communal bread and wine, ascends to heaven
  • Orpheus (Greece) – descends to under-world
  • Tammuz (Sumeria) – resurrection debated, descends to under-world
  • Zalmoxis () – death assured an afterlife (immortality of the soul), resurrection debated

History That Becomes Legend

In addition to mythological gods transformed into history, there were also people transformed into legend by mythologizing them.  These characters all share common attributes or fit common themes known as the mythical hero archetype.

Jesus, as expressed in the Gospels, represents a lengthy mythical hero archetype quite well (not shown here).  The following is adapted from Robert Price and note that some gods are apt for this archetype as well, not just miracle workers.  There are many more attributes if curious, so please see the work of Alan Dundes for further details.

  • Persecuted as a child by a tyrant: Caesar Augustus, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus Christ
  • Postmortem appearances: Romulus, Appolonius, Jesus Christ
  • Performed miracles:  Appolonius, Onus, Hanina Ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius, Mohammed, Jesus Christ
  • Passion narratives: Appolonius, Jesus Christ
  • Empty tomb stories: popular contemporary novels, Jesus Christ

There is reason to believe that Appolonius came after Jesus.  Either way, this is still evidence that humans are mythmakers.  It doesn’t matter who influenced who.  Even if we assume that God exists and naturalism can be violated, the argument stands that it is so highly more probable that the literary writers were being creative than Jesus’ divine deeds being grounded in reality.

Argument by Analogy

The fallacy of special pleading is when we are unwilling to apply the same set of standards when evaluating our own god as we would do for other gods (iv).  The argument I’m making is an inductive, or analogical-type, so the more features the comparing god has in common with Jesus, then the more likely Jesus is similar to the comparing god.  That is, our inference drawn will be stronger.

  • some gods are sons of gods
  • we accept these sons of gods as mythical
  • Jesus is the son of a god
  • therefore Jesus is mythical too. [his qualities not Him (iii)]
  • [add more similar attributes to make argument stronger]

But this, like all inductive reasoning, is only in probabilistic terms, and the conclusion is not guaranteed.  The argument is only as strong as how good the comparison is.  So just because we have one attribute in common – both sons of gods – that doesn’t necessarily justify us in saying that Jesus was also similar in a further respect.  But in what “further respect” is important here? (ii)

This “further respect” is that most of these features are divine-like.  We know from experience that divine-like or supernatural is most definitely a result of human creativity.  That is, it is mythology.  It is a fact that humans engage in myth-making, we always have, and always will.  Why in the world would we then jump to the conclusion that God did it if we know that we do it all of the time?


i) I noticed that this person not only had a better relationship with Jesus than with me, but it was OK for her to behave in ways that would severely affect the emotional wellbeing of another, just as long as she confided in Jesus.  That is not only delusional but pathological.

ii) Was that sleight of hand?  I said just because Jesus has some similar qualities in some sense that we can’t jump to the conclusion that He is similar to the others in some “further respect”.  I am saying that this “further respect” is that one thing that all of these attributes have in common is that they are supernatural.

That is the thread that ties them together, and the one that counts!  It makes no difference if one is a son and the other one is a daughter.  The variation can be easily explained by other processes of syncretism, creativity, and or fabrication.

iii) There is a good chance that Jesus is mythical.  It took me a while to be convinced, but Richard Carrier’s book “On the Historicity of Jesus” did it; it’s a masterpiece for anyone interested in history and logic.  As Einstein has said if the idea is not absurd at first, then there is no hope for it.

iv) Technically the fallacy of special pleading is that we ignore evidence that would work against our argument by making our case “special” and exempt.  But that is the same thing as saying that we don’t apply the same evaluative standards as we do for other gods.


[1] Boyd, Gregory A.. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Book Group.

[2] Carrier, Richard. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed.

[3] Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield Phoenix Press.

[4] Carrier, Richard. Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith. Philosophy Press.

[5]  Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[6]  Helms, Randel. Gospel Fictions. Kindle Edition.

Science on Morality

You have your way.

I have my way.

As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

Nietzsche (i)

These posts are meant to go over the basics of morality in an easy to understand way.  The following is one possible way of how to make sense of morality.  I prefer this way because it makes the most sense out of the most facts and has empirical support.  If you aren’t familiar with this stuff, it may seem like I am peddling my religion.  I am.  But if you like to debate, then this stuff is essential.

Philosophy: “It Should Be”

Normative statements: these are prescriptions on what “should be” and can be social norms

  • Morality: is about what is “right” or “wrong” and what should and ought to be
  • Moral Reasoning: we do this when we reason by using reasons to justify why we are right

We understand morality as being the difference between right and wrong.  This definition is an important one, but it leaves things wide open.  Moral absolutism only exists if we say it does, but this doesn’t mean that moral relativism is inevitable.  I used to listen to Catholic radio, no joke because I like to dissect arguments; I had such contempt towards their contempt on relativism and still do.

Although I don’t view philosophy as antagonistic to science but rather complementary, moral philosophy is mostly normative, which means that it is a prescription for what is right or wrong.  That is for another post.  This is from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist.  If it doesn’t appeal to you, then you may not be interested in science, which is about what is, not what we want to be.

Science: “What It Is”

Positive Statements: science has the job of describing and not prescribing what is right and wrong

  • Morality: is behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that bind us together and makes us care about the wellbeing of others
    • but in the right circumstance, we show a preference towards the wellbeing of in-group members
  • In-Group: this is a tough one because we can show altruism to strangers; can reciprocal altruism save the day?
  • Reciprocal Altruism: we are “moral accountants” and know what we’ve done for others, expecting others to reciprocate

What does the everyday meaning of morality have anything to do with biology?  There is a connection because our language is a reflection of what we feel and think.  Think about the statement that it is moral to help the weak.  This is a normative statement that makes a prescription on what is right, namely to help the weak.  We use post-hoc reasoning though because we usually feel first.

We feel that we need to care for others and then we seek reasons to justify it.  It usually ends up like, We need to raise the minimum wage because we can’t rely on the free-market.  Notice that our moral reasoning “encodes” or hides our thoughts and feelings.  That is exactly how biology gets connected to moral reasoning.  It must, however, meet the condition of the definition above.

Science on How It Is (iii)

It must meet the condition of the above definition because evolutionary biology only cares about the bottom-line, that is, what helped us in the past to reproduce or survive.  There is a problem though because to an evolutionary biologist the selfish person will always outcompete the altruist in an environment of limited resources.  So it is perplexing how we could have evolved morality.

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. [1]

We all know how natural selection works at the level of the individual, but in some cases, it can work at the group-level.  That is, traits that helped the group to survive and reproduce when competing with other groups were more likely to be passed on from one generation to the next.  Without traits that we link to “goodness” (iv), as described below, the world would be “red in tooth and claw”.

The traits that we associate with evil triumph over the traits that we associate with good within groups, and the counterforce provided by between-group selection is not strong enough to save the day. These are “life’s a bitch and then you die” societies. We would not want to live in them. [1]

It should be obvious that “binding” with one another and caring about the “wellbeing of others” benefits the group and helps it to survive and compete against other groups.  This also explains the propensity to favor in-group members.  For those that argue that this reasoning is a priori, I would argue that it was a priori.  There is empirical support for group selection occurring in nature (ii), [1].


i). No, I am not a fan of Nietzsche.  This just fits this post and nothing more.

ii) The top-level organization of group selection is what gives harmony to our species because it suppresses self-interest.

Our moral psychology is the societal equivalent of cancer-suppressing mechanisms in multicellular organisms. The coercive side of morality is required to suppress the potential for disruptive self-seeking behaviors within groups. Once the coercive side is established, then it becomes safe for group members to freely help each other without fear of exploitation [1].

iii) Yes, through the eyes of science, the Nazis in Germany during WWII were behaving morally because they meet the definition of sciene’s morality.  In-group morality is powerful and makes sense out of a lot of things that we label as “evil”.  But if you understand the difference between a prescription on morality versus a description, then it becomes an utter waste of time to argue over this.  We must create social norms making this immoral.  We should seek to understand how we work, so we know what to prevent.

iv) Then how does group selection work if selfish genes prevail within-group selection?  I will defer to Wilson:

Between-group selection is strong enough to prevail against within-group selection, favoring the traits that we associate with goodness. Many social species are mosaics of both kinds of traits, some maintained in the population by within-group selection, others by between-group selection.

However, the balance between levels of selection is not static but can itself evolve. In rare cases, mechanisms evolve that largely suppress the potential for disruptive forms of selection within groups, making between-group selection the primary evolutionary force for most traits of the species. Then something magical happens: the group evolves to be so cooperative that it is transformed into a higher-level organism in its own right. [1]


[1] Wilson, David Sloan. This View of Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Morality Explained

I decided to take a step back and go over the basics as I was told that I’m too technical.  I suppose that I lack self-awareness and must be self-interested (not funny).  Because I forgot that I’m not writing for me.  I honestly believe that this is a prerequisite to becoming an effective liberal.  If we don’t know this, then we don’t know our own morality and won’t be able to stand our ground.

Self-Interest and Evil

To an anthropologist or biologist, morality is an adaptation or a set of adaptations.  An adaptation is something that helped solve a problem in our past.  The problem always involves one of helping us to survive and reproduce.  We know what an adaptation does but what is it?  An adaptation is a set of behaviors that were useful in helping us cooperate with others.  Bear with me here.

Behaviors are goal-oriented actions that result from us thinking and feeling in certain kinds of ways.  So if we think and feel that something may harm us then we may behave cautiously or fearfully.  But isn’t morality about what is right and wrong and what should be?  It still is.  The rights and wrongs that we set are social norms that help us to protect the wellbeing of others.

When we feel safe with social norms to protect our wellbeing, then we are more likely to cooperate with one another.  This is why the definition of morality is that it evolved to help solve the problem of cooperation.  What we are doing when making social norms to protect one another, say by coming up with legal and penal institutions, is that we are suppressing the self-interest of others.

How is suppressing the self-interest of others related to keeping us safe?  Ask yourself what is evil?  From a biologist’s perspective, evil is usually an act that harms another person for the benefit of the evil-doer.  So self-interest is related to evil.  That is why liberty, which is like self-interest, is the freedom to do what we want as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the freedom of others.

Self-Interest and Good

Self-interest is not well defined, but we can think of it as anything that benefits us with or without a cost to others.  Adam Smith gave us the belief that benefiting ourselves will help maximize the wellbeing of others by making the proverbial economic pie bigger.  If we act in our self-interest by buying things and specializing in what we do best, then others can benefit from these selfish acts.

But it is absurd to think that acting in our self-interest will always benefit others.  Adam Smith was smart enough to know that not all selfish acts benefit others.  He knew that we need to exercise sympathy for others and set social norms to protect the weak.  This is not how classical economics took it though.  This had consequences and people now believe that life is a competition.

Classical economics perverted Smith’s message in favor of self-interest always creating good outcomes for society at large.  Economics assumes, just like conservativism, that life is always a competitive struggle for survival because their model assumes that we have scarce resources.  But in an age of plenty of resources and innovation, life doesn’t have to always be a competition.

Bullying the Bullies

So if morality is about protecting the wellbeing of others, then it only follows that bullying the bullies is moral.  This may seem like hypocrisy, but morality could careless about hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy is just a word that we use to criticize our opponents.  Morality only cares about protecting the wellbeing of others.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t try to say what we mean and do what we say.

If you want to argue that hypocrisy is immoral on philosophical grounds, then go right ahead.  But biology doesn’t care about philosophy either as it does what worked at some level in our ancestral past.  Anthropologists have argued that egalitarianism can only be achieved by us bullying the bullies.  This is because social hierarchies emerge naturally whenever people form groups.

If you argue that egalitarianism is about equality, then you are correct from a political theory perspective, but what is the mechanism that makes it work?  In short, it is about bullying the bullies to equalize things.  You are only fooling yourself if you think that we can just tell people to not bully and that we are equal.  We naturally compare our weaknesses and strengths to others.

When we compare ourselves to others, and this is not taught but innate, in a way that is favorable, then we tend to feel confident in our social value and are more likely to be the ones that get deferred to and submitted to.  This is the formation of rank and is the basis of social hierarchy.  We can’t stop this as it is too instinctive and natural.  But we do need an equalizing force to regulate it.

Morality Also Bonds

Many will argue, as I do, that true morality is about the well-being of others.  This definition is justified from a biological perspective, which means liberals’ preferences with caring and helping others is scientifically justified as being a moral act.  But we can extend this since morality is not just about the wellbeing of others and is also about behaviors that cause us to bond together.

This is why experts on moral psychology, like Jonathan Haidt, can include multiple moralities in their definition.  Let’s take Haidt’s definition of morality below from “The Righteous Mind”.  He uses the word “interlocking” which means to bond with one another, and he is consistent with our definition of morality which is about regulating the self-interest of others to protect the wellbeing of others.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. 

This is why he can also include almost, quite frankly, ridiculous moralities that conservatives believe in such as purity and sanctity which involves the chastity of females and the disgust caused by diseased people.  Haidt argues that fear and disgust from things that looked diseased and abnormal helped us to survive and reproduce by causing us to avoid that which could make us ill.

When we all believe that something is bad, then this is a shared belief that helps us to bond.  These beliefs, as Haidt says, are norms, virtues, and practices.  This should all make sense that these things help us to cooperate with one another on some level by also identifying with similarities in others.  The institutional part in the definition is the penal and legal institutions that create norms.