Catholics on Relativism

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.

True For You, But Not For Me

I hate relativism.  I hate relativism more than I hate anything else.  I think that relativism is very probably false.          Steven Pinker

The title is a book from the Christian apologist Paul Copan on relativism.  It is a well-written book which will make some take it at face value.  But it is a piece of Christian apologetics and uses the brute force of Western logic to pull the wool over our eyes.

Steven Pinker presents relativism as irresponsible as Copan does though.  Pinker’s popular books exist primarily to combat relativism within the social sciences but that doesn’t excuse it.  Because someone then has to clean up the mess that is left behind.

Relativism is important because the religious right claims that we are immoral.  We are immoral because we believe in relativism.  They use a caricature of relativism—”true for you, but not for me”—in order to poke fun and have us dismiss it.

Relativism As Threat

In the case of Copan, who has written much on the subject, relativism is a threat to his beliefs.  When things are a threat to our beliefs, then we feel hate and if we feel it is inferior to us, then we feel contempt.  His obsession with relativism reveals it is both.

It makes talking about your faith wrong.

  • Claim: You can’t tell me about your faith as “it’s cramming your religion down my throat”.
  • Response: This is a good thing in the case of Christianity as well as other belief systems that make claims that have no basis in reality.  To make the sharing of misbeliefs wrong is a moral act.

It makes being exclusive to be arrogant.

  • Claim: Being a part of “the club” and to know things that others don’t is arrogant.
  • Response: To be exclusivistic does come across as rejecting and being proud when we claim we know something that others don’t is arrogant.  That is a function of humans being social creatures and not of relativism.

It makes tolerance the cardinal virtue.

  • Claim: Telling someone they are wrong is intolerant since only tolerance is tolerated.
  • Response: Tolerance should be a virtue as long as what we are tolerating doesn’t affect the well-being of others.

Christianity and Tolerance

Though relativism claims ownership of “tolerance,” it is incoherent and self-contradictory (i).  Ironically, it’s more dogmatic than the Christian faith it criticizes—a faith that actually serves as the basis for tolerance, respect, and compassion. [1]

The first claim can be dismissed (i).  The second claim has some truth to it but is framed in a way that makes Christians the owners of the fair treatment of others.  Christianity is what you want to make of it.  The teachings from the Bible were most certainly not always cherry-picked for compassion.  Although the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew are the epitome of compassion, there are an equal amount of teachings that are not.  I have not seen any formalized doctrine on compassion as the focus is on worship.

Copan defines tolerance as being the amount of “error” we are willing to “put up with”.  He is correct that to tolerate does not mean to accept an individual or their beliefs.  To accept a person means that they are “adequate” for our needs.  But we vary in our preferences and abilities to want and obtain the acceptance of others.  We don’t or can’t accept everyone.  The same thing goes for beliefs as we may tolerate them but find them inadequate.  But I don’t think this is what liberals mean when they speak of tolerance.

Liberals most likely mean to tolerate others in a way that is free of bigotry.  Bigotry is to have prejudice towards a class of people (typically race and sex), and prejudice means to have hate and hostility.  So we don’t want others to show bigotry to others or to us.  If we broaden the meaning of bigotry to all classes, then liberals are inconsistent on this since we show bigotry towards Christians and conservatives.  I have brought this up many times, but it may be important to sacrifice principles in favor of pragmatism.

I have offered an alternative to tolerance because I believe it is superficial and can be disingenuous.  True acceptance of others is identifying with their humanity, which requires empathy.  Empathy requires us to feel as others do or to experience as others do.  I didn’t “get” this until I experienced the plight of others myself.  Copan offers the idea of coercion and says that Christians “must show respect for the image-of-God-bearing persons who happen to hold those perspectives”, which is nonsense and doesn’t work.

The most beautiful people I have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths.  These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern.  Elizabeth Kugler-Ross

Atheism and Tolerance 

And what about secular ideologies that pose an incalculable threat to tolerance? Atheistic communism alone resulted in the estimated killings of sixty million under Mao Zedong in China, twenty five million under Bolshevist and Stalinist Russia, two million under Pol Pot in Cambodia, and millions more throughout the rest of the world. [1]

This is not easy to explain away and is shameful.  I don’t know if it would be honest of me if I resorted to the correlation fallacy.  For those that haven’t heard of this fallacy, it basically says that just because a relationship has been established—that is, as atheism goes up, then genocide does too—it doesn’t mean that atheism was the cause.  Finding causes in the social sciences isn’t easy.

I believe, however, that fear of eternal damnation may serve as a deterrent.  It may be the case that with the right personality and situational factors—those that score high for the traits of narcissism and psychopathy and combined with no fear of eternal damnation—that narcissistic, atheistic bullies may be at higher risk to commit genocide.  But there has to be a culture that allows it.

I don’t know enough about the circumstances within these countries during those time periods, but obviously, it was “ripe” enough to allow for authoritarian rogues to come into power.  But I can’t imagine this happening in the United States or within other stable democratic countries.  But we can’t rule it out as a possibility since the consequences of it happening just once are grave.

That said, this isn’t a fair criticism and is a salient exemplar because it takes a few memorable cases and generalizes it to be what is typical of any atheist.  It isn’t typical though.  Since most atheists devote a lot of time and effort to educate themselves in politics and science, they, therefore, have a heightened awareness of the possibility and are likely to become politically active as a result. 

Case in point, Donald Trump meets the criteria for the trait of narcissism and behaved in ways that were characteristic of authoritarian rulers [3].  But conservatives didn’t seem to mind.  Did conservatives look the other way because he was to “make-do” or because they too have authoritarian-like traits?  Liberals were keen to point this out and took action in many different forms.


i) Relativism isn’t self-contradictory but even if it were that wouldn’t diminish its value.  Theologians use logic as the end all be all of settling disputes.  If they can claim incoherence, then they win the game.  There is no universal logic though.  But we can still play their game and see that it is fallacious by their rules.  They claim that we say “all things are relative”, which is a contradiction if we assume the statement itself needs to be relative to be true.  But the statement was never meant to be used as a reference to itself.


[1] Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Copan, Paul. True For You, But Not For Me.  Kindle Edition.

[3] Wathey, John C. Trump’s Narcissism Is a Feature, Not a Bug. HuffPost

A Philosophy Primer

After a survey of Western philosophy, my hypothesis was confirmed: philosophy can only provide us clarity of our, human-made, knowledge within the confines of our language.  It does not give us absolute, objective truths unless we want it to.  

This started as something small but morphed into a survey on Western philosophy.  It is not a critique but may be helpful when I present an empirical philosophy that dismisses most of Western philosophy.  In a nutshell, it says that objective truth doesn’t exist.  

This essentially was my opportunity to learn about philosophy all over again, in breadth but not in-depth.  This is not original to me and is more or less me testing myself after I read, where some portions were copied verbatim from the source I provided below.   

Western Philosophy:  The Traditional Approach

The word philosophy, from Greek, 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.  This is meant to be a concise reference for anyone that is interested in the breadth of philosophy that is not in-depth.

Metaphysics: The Study of Existence and Reality

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 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.  Things can be objectively true within a framework but not be universally true, which is objective relativism.

Subjectivism is the antithesis of objectivism.  It claims that our perception is our reality and that it is dependent entirely on how we experience it.  It is similar to metaphysical relativism and idealism and since it is about how we experience our world, then it is a form of empiricism.  Idealism says that the only things that exist are ideas and thoughts, and we can’t be certain that external reality exists.  This contrasts with realism which is a form of objectivism that emphasizes a reality that is independent of our perception. 

Idealism is a form of Monism (as opposed to Dualism or Pluralism), and stands in direct contrast to other Monist beliefs such as Physicalism and Materialism (which hold that the only thing that can be truly proven to exist is physical matter). It is also contrasted with Realism (which holds that things have an absolute existence prior to, and independent of, our knowledge or perceptions).

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, such as the definition suggests, and is thus called soft relativism.  Subjective relativism, a form of cognitivism, is when things can be objectively true relative to you but not universally true which can be put as “what is true for you is not for me.”

Determinism is the philosophical idea that given an initial state of the universe that only one path of events is physically possible, which means every state is predetermined by a prior cause.  Indeterminism is the idea that things are not caused or not caused deterministically.  When science models phenomena, especially in quantum physics, events are determined in probabilistic terms.

Cause and effect are best understood as a difference-maker; that is, we need to know which variables will make a difference to other variables while holding something constant.  Hume points out that we never really observe the cause and effect relations just the fact that some events are reliably followed by others; so we observe the co-occurrence of events.

“Causal relations need not be regarded as mere explanatory relations, let alone as mere practical heuristics.  For all we know, causal relations may well exist out there in the world. They may well be what philosophers call “ontic” and not just “epistemic”: features of the world, not just features of our cognition.”  [2]

Causal determinism is a principle in physics that says all states (objects or events) have prior causes that are part of an “unbroken chain-of-events.”  The physical level is the classical physics kind of cause and effect and is the level at which causal or physical explanations can be used.  The intentional level is where we can reason about mental states being the cause of our actions, but when we reason here properties are in relation to other properties by semantics and logic not by physical causes.

Epistemology: The Study of How and What We Know

Epistemology can be summed up as how and what we know.  It deals “with the nature (what is knowledge) and scope (what can we know) and asks how we justify our beliefs.  Knowledge is explicitly defined as “the awareness and understanding of particular aspects of our reality.”  It concerns itself with propositions which are statements of knowledge or truth-value statements.  Truth-value propositions have the capacity of either being true or false because they are unambiguous, declarative statements.

So knowledge must meet be understandable and is acquired when reason is applied to reality.  What makes knowledge knowledge—”justified true belief“—is that it meets the conditions of being necessary and sufficient.  In other words, the statements must be truebelievable, and justified.  The justification part is a point of disagreement because what justifies something as being true can either be evidential (based on evidence), reliable (a reliable means of attainment), or infallible (“belief necessitates its truth”).

In its extreme form, rationalism is the idea that reasoning alone is the best way to obtain knowledge.  As Rene Descartes has said, “I think therefore I am.”  Empiricism comes from the Greek word “experience” and says reliable knowledge comes from our senses—that is, how we perceive and experience our world.  Empirical refers to the method of empiricism that relies on observation and experiments, which is known as the scientific method.  In the real world, reasoning can be either a posterior and a priori.

Instrumentalism is about

Logic: A Process for Getting Good Reasoning

Logic is what helps us to separate good reasoning from bad reasoning (fallacious).  We can categorize logic as formal, informal, mathematical, or symbolic.  Formal logic has explicit rules that make it work, which is most often applied to statements or claims within a language.  The statements can be true or false and are known as premises when presented as an argument.  Premises can be axioms—self-evident truths—or theorems—conclusions that come from strict rules of inference as well as its axioms.

We can structure our arguments as deductive or inductive to help find the validity or probability of truth.  The rules of the system—e..g, deductive logic—tell us how the conclusion follows from its premises.  In any logical system, logic needs consistency (no contradicting theorems), soundness (no false conclusion from true premises), and completeness (no true statements left to be proved).  Traditional formal logic boils down to the study of inferences and focuses on deductive and inductive means to do so.

Formal logic also includes formalism, which says that formal statements have no intrinsic meaning but serve specific purposes.  Symbolic logic is “the study of symbolic abstractions that capture the formal features of logical inference (ii)”.   It attempts to solve “intractable” problems that traditional formal logic (e.g., Aristoliean) could not solve.  For example, the statements used in traditional logic cannot include more than one determiner, such as “all” or “many”, because they are unsolvable or “intractable”.

First-order logic, or predicate logic, allows for statements to introduce quantifiable variables.  Since this is done with our language, then these variables could include the determiners “all” or “many”.  Propositional logic is known as zeroth-order logic and contains no determiners, i.e., variables expressing quantity.  It is thus more fundamental and makes use of words that connect propositions together or logical operators, e.g., “not”, “or”.  In our English grammar, these of course are known as coordinating conjunctions.

Mathematical logic is when formal logic is allowed to influence mathematics and vice versa.  Computer science was developed in the 1940s based on Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems which addressed the limitations of all of the formal logic systems discussed above.  Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege were the pioneers in applying formal logic to mathematics, known as logicism, by using set theory, recursion theory, and proof theory.  Finally, intuitionism says that math is not a form of objectivism.

According to Intuitionism, the truth of a statement is equivalent to the mathematician being able to intuit the statement, and not necessarily to its provability. It requires the application of intuitionistic logic (or constructivist logic), which preserves justification, rather than truth, for derived propositions. [1]

Intuitionism essentially says that math does not exist independent of the mind.  Math is not analytic—that is, to deny its truth wouldn’t be a contradiction— but instead is a mental activity of humans.  Mathematical truths don’t reveal “deep properties of existence but rather they are the application of internally consistent methods to realize more complex mental constructs”.    

Any mathematical object is considered to be the product of a construction of a mind, so that if it can be constructed then it exists.  Intuitionism is therefore a variety of Mathematical Constructivism in that it asserts that it is necessary to find (or “construct”) a mathematical object to prove that it exists. [1]

Analytic philosophy was an actual movement and a catch-all phrase for anything within logic that excluded logicism, logical positivism, and ordinary language philosophy.  It says the following which is what I have concluded that philosophy can provide us—that is, clarity within the framework of our limited language. 

philosophy should apply logical techniques in order to attain conceptual clarity, and that philosophy should be consistent with the success of modern science. For many Analytic Philosophers, language is the principal (perhaps the only) tool, and philosophy consists in clarifying how language can be used. [1]

Ethics The Study of How We Should Act

  • consequentialism, utilitarianism, egoism, altruism
  • hedonism, humanism, individualism, deontology
  • moral realism, moral absolutism, moral relativism


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.

ii) Inference comes from “infer” which means “to carry forward”.  It is something we do when we think we know something from something we think we know.  Once presented as a formal argument, then the statement that we inferred becomes a conclusion.


[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—sarcasm, patronizing, 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.

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.

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 science’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.