An interesting revelation

I got some correspondence from a person at Portland State University, who tells me a bit about Peter Boghossian’s teaching. He teaches an introductory philosophy course on ethics, a subject with a deep history. Guess what his textbook is?

The one and only textbook?

The one that’s supposed to introduce students to philosophy and ethics?


Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape.

Does anyone think that is good philosophy? Comprehensive, even?

Next up, we’ll replace all theology courses with a reading of The God Delusion.

(I am well aware that some people will think that is an excellent idea. They’re wrong: you’ll learn nothing about the history and philosophy of theology from that book.)


  1. DrVanNostrand says

    What we should really replace all theology classes with is anything that’s actually worth studying.

  2. says

    Obligatory reminder that The Moral Landscape was edited down from Sam Harris’s PhD dissertation in cognitive neuroscience. I can’t take his academic cred seriously because of that.

    This is also the same book that completely dismisses moral philosophy in a footnote on the grounds that Sam Harris finds it boring.

  3. Matt G says

    I thought it was going to be a book he himself had written, but one by one of his cronies is close.

  4. says

    Ooh, yeah. I think I’m qualified to talk about teaching ethics at the college level, since I’ve actually done it.

    That book doesn’t cover anything like what my very excellent professor of introductory ethics taught me, and it wouldn’t even touch feminist ethics, not even in an oblique way sufficient to help a student decide whether they would like to take a specific class in feminist ethics at a higher level.

  5. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    Has anyone confirmed this with the syllabus?

    If it’s true, then Boghossian has absolutely zero right to whine, ever, about academic freedom. He is objectively not teaching a useful textbook. Unless his class is entirely about using good peer-reviewed philosophy articles from a wide variety of perspectives to interrogate Harris’ text, so that he’s effectively writing his own supplementary text, that’s just incompetent. If the class has a single requirement outside of ethics, then the Moral Landscape straight up can’t teach it. No rooting in epistemology, no discussion of ontology or worldviews. And that’s before we get to the immense bias of that book (like Crip Dyke noted, there’s no way that Harris’ book or any of his other material would introduce you to feminist ethics, or critical race theory-derived ethics, or intersectionality, or numerous other perspectives).

  6. ORigel says

    I read The Moral Landscape back when I was a fan of Sam Harris in 2016. I wish I had seen him for who he was earlier.

    Doesn’t Harris promote virtue ethics now? As in it’s wrong to lie even to the Gestapo? Or did he change his position again? I don’t pay attention to him except if you (or Adam Lee or a commentor on RtD) mentions him.

  7. garnetstar says

    I knew immediately. Who else on the alt-right has written something allegedly on that topic?

    siggy @4, really, it was part of Harris’ Ph.D. thesis? The department accepted that as neuroscience? I thought I’d met some uneducated Ph.Ds, but this takes the cake. Perhaps at UCLA they must take all the Hollywood kids they can, in hope of lots of alumni donations.

  8. blf says

    I suspect Small Gods by Terry Pratchett — or indeed, any Discworld books — would be a superior text.

  9. ORigel says

    He is hoping to ride Harris’ coattails to greater fame, but like Satan in Paradise Lost he is merely heaping greater damnation on himself.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    blf @ 11
    Small Gods provides an excellent insight in how monorheistic religions are wont to develop.

  11. says


    Just finished “I shall wear midnight”, and I fully agree. Terry Pratchett didn’t shun difficult questions in his books. But always in an engaging and humourous way while staying down-to-earth and reasonable.

    “There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.”
    ― Terry Pratchett

  12. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @9: I don’t know about Harris in specific, but if he claims to be doing virtue ethics, then the lying thing makes no sense. It was Kant with deontological ethics who basically argued that, since if everyone lied you would undercut the very possibility for communication. Virtue ethics would suggest more that you balance the virtues of honesty and prudence. The Stanford Encyclopedia argues that virtue ethics would say, that “‘The honest person recognizes ‘That would be a lie’ as a strong (though perhaps not overriding) reason for not making certain statements in certain circumstances, and gives due, but not overriding, weight to ‘That would be the truth’ as a reason for making them”.

    Of course, my understanding is that modern deontological ethics recognizes that the demand for absolute honesty would be inappropriate. For example, the duty of those who have a confidence to keep information secret would demand silence and even dishonesty if necessary.

  13. ORigel says

    @17 I had only heard of that through commentors on Patheos. With my Google-fu, I found that in 2013, Harris wrote a book called Lying in which he argued lying is ALWAYS wrong.

  14. DanDare says

    The Moral Landscape was a mess and my first inkling of how crap Harris was at thinking things through.
    Short version.
    Science something something fitness landscapes therefore something something Islam is bad.

  15. says

    @Frederic Bourgault-Christie

    I don’t know about Harris in specific, but if he claims to be doing virtue ethics, then the lying thing makes no sense.

    That’s on top of the fact that the people who SAY they practice virtue ethics these days are more likely to define good as “what the people like me do” as they are to define good people as “the people that say they have the right values, whether there’s any evidence at all that they actually do hold those values or behave according to them”.

    Virtue ethics as practiced these days is a completely different system of thought, basically “in group/out group ethics”, than anything Aristotle would have recognized.

  16. hemidactylus says

    I got a weird flag trying to login.

    Anyway Sam Harris is used as a text in Boghossian’s class? Is he on the level of Simon Blackburn, Robert Audi, or Alasdair MacIntyre? Has Moral Landcape used as a text been corroborated?

    I can’t find anything other than upcoming courses:

    Boghossian is teaching ;

    “ PHL 306U – Science and Pseudoscience
    An examination of basic issues in philosophy of science through an analysis of creation science, faith healing, UFO abduction stories, and other pseudosciences. Some of the questions addressed: What distinguishes science from pseudoscience? How are theories tested? When is evidence reliable? Must we invoke the supernatural to explain certain aspects of reality?”


    “ PHL 320U – Critical Thinking
    Boghossian, Seppalainen Online
    Designed to improve reasoning and skills of critical assessment of information. Focuses on practical methods that are applied to case studies from public media such as editorials, essays, propaganda, advertisements, and newspaper reports of scientific studies.”

    Someone else is teaching:

    “ PHL 308U – Elementary Ethics
    Weber, Cohen Online
    General introduction to ethical theories and topics such as whether there are objective moral distinctions, what makes right actions right and wrong acts wrong, and how we know (if we do) that actions are right or wrong, and how we know (if we do) that actions are right or wrong. Topics also include relativism, egoism, utilitarianism, and Kantianism (deontology).”

    Deontology and egoism don’t seem to be coverable using Moral Landscape and Harris’s weak stab at eudaemonia wouldn’t be sufficient for utilitarianism or consequentialism or even eudaemonia.

    Are you sure someone isn’t pulling your leg? As much as Boghossian is an obnoxious ass I dislike I have a hard time believing Harris’s book would be the text. Maybe assigned reading if Boghossian indeed teaches ethics? I recall a psych professor assigning an Oliver Sacks book for a physiological psychology class taught by a prof different than the class I took. There was still I assume a standard text though professors don’t always rely on a text.

    Here’s a weird syllabus for Boghossian’s atheism class (which has some references to Harris):

    Anywho more than enough armor against Harris:

  17. hemidactylus says

    @17- Frederic Bourgault-Christie

    Probably dated but I would assume Kantian deontology has been blown out of the water by WD Ross’s prima facie (or pro tanto) duties which also explodes Sam Harris’s silly fMRI tube well being monomania.

    Moral philosophy proper is about weighing conflicting duties, virtues, values, consequences… Or about rationalizing unconsciously driven or gut feeling “choices” after the fact with a self-serving narrative that at least deludes oneself if not others.

  18. PaulBC says

    The mission of introductory courses should always be to explain the field consensus. You can question it later on, but you need to know what it is first! As PZ points out, ethics has a long history that did not start with Sam Harris.

    I didn’t even know Sam Harris was qualified to write any textbook at all, but a quick Google says he has a PhD in neuroscience and wrote a dissertation with the title “The Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values.” Conceivably that could be the basis of an interdisciplinary monograph touching on ethics, but nobody should take an introductory course from it and believe they have a sound basis.

    This is entirely independent of merit. Assuming this is true, and assuming it is listed in the catalog as an introduction, what Boghossian is doing is malpractice in teaching the same way a doctor prescribing an unapproved drug is malpractice. If the doctor makes it clear that you’re accepting an off label therapy, maybe it’s OK. If they are giving the impression that they’re providing standard care, they’re lying. Again independent of the merit of the text or the efficacy of the drug.

  19. PaulBC says


    Damn, I guessed it was a Jordan Peterson book. Close, but no cigar.

    No. That’s used for the introductory course in Nutrition.

  20. hemidactylus says

    @26- PaulBC

    Sam “Bored By Moral Philosophy” Harris is completely irrelevant to morality/ethics except as comic relief. I recall watching some videos featuring CosmicSkeptic and the now infamous Rationality Rules talking moral philosophy and they resembled fish flopping in a boat not realizing they were no longer swimming in the water. They were both influenced by Sam Harris, who has done great damage to popular atheist discourse on morality.

  21. ORigel says

    @23 Re: The Suggested Reading for Boghossian’s Atheism course:

    The reading list suggests that Boghossian is trying to convert his students to atheism rather than teach his students about it.

    And Letter to a Christian Nation (it’s on there) is a really terrible book. He might as well have taken a screenshot of a Youtube evolution/creation comment section and put THAT on his reading list.

  22. Erp says

    I have to agree with @23 hemidactylus Boghossian isn’t teaching Ethics in Fall 2021 (or Summer 2021).

    I have had a history professor way back assign a book (among many) in large part for us to find the faults in it though one wants to start with a book with some virtues.

  23. hemidactylus says

    @5 Matt G and @14 Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y

    He actually used his own A Manual for Creating Atheists as one of the texts in this Atheism class:

    Which is fair enough I guess. It’s not expensive (13.66 pbk and 8.99 kindle) if you check the Amazon site.

    I would prefer something like The evolution of atheism : the politics of a modern movement by Stephen LeDrew


    New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates edited by
    Christopher R Cotter, Philip Andrew Quadrio & Jonathan Tuckett

    Boghossian’s class doesn’t seem to rise to the level of an immanent critique.

    If he were to highlight street epistemology this is free:

  24. John Wilkins says

    Not to defend Boghossian here, but I could usefully teach such a subject using that text but raising philosophical issues (such as the Naturalistic Fallacy) to the students and having them work it through.

  25. VolcanoMan says

    The irony is that with the right teacher, The Moral Landscape might actually be an extremely useful textbook. Obviously Boghossian isn’t such a teacher, but in a class about ideas, analyzing BAD ideas that sound, upon shallow examination, to be good ideas is a great way to teach critical thinking. I don’t currently agree with Harris on most things, I’d wager, but I did start out, years ago, as a fan of his (as I’m sure many other people here did as well…back in the day where atheism was all about dunking on dumb religious people). And in my journey to who I am today, it was figuring out exactly how Harris manipulates his audience, finding the holes in his arguments, and identifying the (pretty crucial) things he glosses over (or ignores altogether) to “prove” his points, that benefitted me the most. So his least offensive book (arguably…I’ve read most of his books, and The Moral Landscape is certainly offensive to, y’know, philosophy…but not so bad to actual groups of people), which is written well enough to actually sucker a lot of people into initially siding with his views, would make a good text in a class that was truly about teaching critical thinking, about learning how to question your biases and preconceived ideas. Getting first year students to agree with Harris, and then spending the term teaching them ideas that allow them to eventually find all of the flaws in the arguments they had supported upon first reading his book, is a pretty genius way to structure a course.

    That’s almost certainly not what Boghossian’s doing though.

  26. hemidactylus says

    I wonder what Boghossian would think about Boghossian:

    “His research interests include epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language… Much of his later work, including his book Fear of Knowledge, criticizes various forms of relativism, especially epistemic relativism, which claims that knowledge and reason are fundamentally cultural or subjective rather than objective.”

  27. kome says

    Just because he isn’t listed as teaching an introductory philosophy of ethics course this upcoming semester doesn’t mean he hasn’t taught one in the past. Not every prof teaches the same selection of courses each year. I think the question for PZ is whether the person he’s corresponding with about this mentioned when the course in question was taught.

  28. nomdeplume says

    “you’ll learn nothing about the history and philosophy of theology” – but why would you want to? Theology seems to me a continuing debate about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin without first demonstrating the existence of angels.

  29. birgerjohansson says

    VolcanoMan @ 32
    “Bad ideas that sound, upon shallow examination to be good ideas”
    You have described maybe 60% of political discource (more than that if you focus on USA)
    “Tricke-down, scared straight, the invisible hand of the market, convict teenagers as adults, three strikes you’re out, stand your ground, zero tolerance, full spectrum dominance, rugged individualism, etc etc “.

  30. says

    #37: Why would you want to learn about war, or racism, or disease, or colonialism? You can’t make them go away by pretending they never existed.

  31. ORigel says

    @37 I’ve read that the debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin didn’t happen; it originated as a smear against scholasticism by anti-intellectual Protestants.

  32. mnb0 says

    @2: “What we should really replace all theology classes with is anything that’s actually worth studying.”
    Oh yeah, excellent idea – you’ll decide for others what’s worth studying and what’s not.
    I enjoy studying chess openings. So after I’ve done the paperwork necessary to get your decision that my study is worth studying too, how many copies do I need to send to you?
    Really, it never ceases to amaze me that self-proclaimed enlightened rationalist sceptics like you eagerly want to decide for other people what they can study and what not.
    I’m a 7 on the scale of Dawkins and my reply to you is:

    fuck off.

  33. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @21: My read of modern virtue ethics is that you combine Aristotle’s focus on trying to have balances between goods with a focus on how people’s actions express their virtues. Virtue ethics may be one of the most practical perspectives and the last time I read some of the literature I really found it pretty accessible.

    What I find funny is how Harris himself so clearly doesn’t actually practice any of the literature. IIRC Harris also has talked about Buddhism and what not (he talked about Dzogchen), but his practice as far as empathy, emotional intelligence, etc. shows a total lack of getting the fundamental point.

    @24: Not really. I would need to look really carefully to estimate how many deontological ethicists there are versus other perspectives (e.g. I can’t think off the top of my head about a Kantian with the same kind of impact on the field and popular culture as Peter Singer has from utilitarianism), but basically any introductory course these days is going to note that your classical three (virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and utilitarian/consequentialist ethics) are all pretty robust and have modern theorists. I personally think that it’s actually most useful to look at all three, plus other perspectives like social contract theory and what not.

    Basically, what I respect about the Kantian perspective is that it tries to put an emphasis on absolute integrity and morality: Better the whole world be destroyed than injustice be done. That kind of perspective is useful for those who take on professional duties. The underlying Kantian framework probably has the biggest and most obvious issues of all of the major perspectives (e.g. there’s not really a rule utilitarian equivalent in deontological ethics that I’m aware of, where there’s a perspective that tries to fix some of the most obvious problems with the classical model, the way rule utilitarianism actually solves a lot of the Kantian and virtue ethics objections to act utilitarianism).

    @25: That’s fair, but I do think that there’s an argument to be made that philosophy tends to be so concerned about its own history and revisiting a lot of ideas that you will now find are going to be viewed as antiquated by modern philosophers that it could be good to teach somewhat differently. I’d be curious to look at some of the introduction to philosophy texts to see if one of them actually does cut to the modern consensus.

    @31/32: Yeah, I made the same point, that you could use it as a text example of someone providing flawed but interesting ideas from outside of the field and then looking at the ideas within the field that would then let you look at it more robustly.

  34. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @18: I haven’t watched the show much, but every clip I’ve seen actually is really useful. Moreover, even from the perspective of promoting atheism, The Good Place would be a more thoughtful place to start as well. Not sure how tongue-in-cheek you were being, but actually, an introductory course could totally use episodes of the show as a framing for the literature. In my cultural anthro class we watched The Next Generation’s “Darmok”, and I thought that was genius, because it really does show the challenges of anthropology.

  35. chigau (違う) says

    The Good Place episode on “the trolley problem” does a good job of showing how stupid the trolley problem is.

  36. PaulBC says

    chigau (違う)@46 That was my favorite episode! Not that I learned any ethics, but it was hilarious to see it carried out literally.

    I think the later seasons leaned too much on in-jokes. Jeremy Bearimy and similar contrivances got tiresome.

    I also don’t think the series finale was all that insightful. Like, the big reveal is assisted suicide? I mean, OK, fine, but not having an afterlife in the first place seems like a much easier solution to the conundrum of eternal boredom. I liked the Brent Norwalk storyline, but it just fizzled out instead of having a resolution.

    The acting and dialogue was good. D’Arcy Carden as Janet would get my vote as most versatile, but it was a great cast overall.

  37. Rob Grigjanis says

    Frederic Bourgault-Christie @45: Speaking of ethics and TNG, do you ever discuss its shallow and basically sociopathic development of the Prime Directive in your class? Maybe that doesn’t fall under the purview of cultural anthro…

  38. John Morales says

    So, some people think a show whose very setting is one where Powers that Be implement an Afterlife is a good basis to promote atheism?

    (Presumably, by showing the absurdity of the scenario?)

  39. hemidactylus says

    @44 Frederic Bourgault-Christie

    The read I got from Ross is that pure categorical imperative of the one sort is crap and duties will offset. Do no harm to Jews hidden from Nazis and don’t be cruel to acquaintances with brutal honesty.

    CI of the other sort is not treating people as tools, which is pretty solid advice. Subjection of people to brutal ridicule for ones own benefit might qualify as such.

  40. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @49: It’s all a dream in the few seconds/minutes between loss of consciousness and death. Haven’t you been watching telly in the last twenty years or so?

  41. John Morales says

    Rob, here is Word of God (

    Speaking to Rolling Stone, Schur confirms that the sitch Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani were left in – that being a second chance at life, avoiding their deaths – wasn’t a dream, product of a simulation, nor anything else, but the real thing: “a new timeline where they didn’t die.”

    A world where magical beings take note of your actions in life and where and where death is not a final thing is hardly an atheistic setting, is it?

    (And no, I don’t watch TV, though I sometimes record stuff to watch later — I cannot bear the ads, and I research what I’m about to watch before watching it, because I find that to be a worthwhile investment)

  42. PaulBC says

    John Morales@52

    A world where magical beings take note of your actions in life and where and where death is not a final thing is hardly an atheistic setting, is it?

    Geez, I dunno. Maybe they’re higher dimensional beings who are running a simulation of our absurdly limited k-dimensional universe (where k is whatever our physicists say it is) and sometimes they screw around with us. Is that theistic or not? Granted, it’s unfalsifiable. Also, the beings would be “godlike” but could be explained as something other than gods if you are into mechanistic explanations.

    The supposedly supernatural beings in The Good Place are so confused about what’s going on, that you really have to assume they’re not the supreme beings at all. But at the same time, the supreme being could be entirely natural and explicable in some other physics.

    None of that bothers me, but it is just a little too arbitrary. Sometimes it’s funny, like Mindy St. Claire. Other times… I don’t know why I hate the whole Jeremy Bearimy thing so much… well, never mind I hate it because it is tied to the conventions of a specific writing system. (OK, so the Mindy St. Claire story is tied to very specific cultural assumptions about lawyers.) I think it’s just that the writers are way got way too pleased with their supposed cleverness. Whereas Mindy is farcical, “Jeremy Bearimy” is just too precious.

    BTW, I enjoyed the series overall, but I have friends who seemed to think it was a lot more brilliant than it was.

  43. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @52: Ah, there’s your problem. You believe the show’s creators. The current dominant paradigm for ‘cutting edge’ TV shows is that the viewers can’t know what’s really going on. That keeps them watching to actually find out. But the dirty little secret (most of the time) is that the writers don’t know either. Ratchet up the tension, throw in lots of ‘smart’ dialogue, and hope that everything somehow comes together in the end. It rarely does. It’s not about anything except making money.

  44. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@54 I think a few things have definitely gotten better about TV since I remember watching a lot as a kid in the 70s (and will probably never watch as much again).

    It goes without saying that production values are better, but the acting is also much better for the most part. The research is way better. E.g. it’s a period piece, they rarely just make shit up. Somebody finds out what was going on during the year in question.

    Watching Halt and Catch Fire, for instance, I started out picking apart things that did not match the tech timeline I lived through, and usually I was wrong. If there were any anachronisms at all, they were rare. I mean, I’m sure they get some things wrong, but they hired people to try to get it right, and that’s a shift. They may have misidentified the significance of certain events, but that’s different issue, and some of the exposition was forced: 20 minutes where 4 people in a room predict everything that’s going to happen with the web. However, they made their best effort at avoiding factual errors.

    On plot. I don’t know. Maybe about the same. I thought Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul both had compelling storylines. On dialogue… tough. Maybe they’re just solving a different problem. I think that in old sitcoms, the characters were ordinary people and funny things happened to them, whereas in modern sitcoms, probably since the 80s, the characters are the ones who have to come up with witty observations. In that case, I will still go with the old style sitcoms. Note: I haven’t watched an episode of Bewitched in many years so I may be wrong.

    But TV is certainly no worse than it was. Was it ever about more than making money? Actors, directors, and screenwriters have to eat too, and they provide the service of entertainment. That’s the magic of the marketplace, and it was for Shakespeare as well.

  45. John Morales says

    Rob, I do like your pirouettes.

    So, first you assert the show is “all a dream in the few seconds/minutes between loss of consciousness and death”, and when I point out the showmaker says it’s not, you say it’s actually whatever the viewer decides it is, and nobody actually knows. OK. But my point @49 remains unchallenged; point being, as a stepping stone to atheism, it’s pretty damn inappropiate, what with the afterlife thingy, and the magical powerful beings that decide based on lived lives, and that sort of stuff.

    I can’t see how it would be any better than Sam Harris’ effort, which at least is atheistic in nature.

  46. PaulBC says

    John Morales@59

    But my point @49 remains unchallenged; point being, as a stepping stone to atheism, it’s pretty damn inappropiate

    Indeed. It’s a silly character-driven supernatural comedy with occasional nods to philosophical questions like the trolley problem. Anyone who treats it as a stepping stone to any life-changing insight is loading it with more weight than the structure can bear.

    Likewise, Lost in Space was not a stepping stone to my dreams of traveling to Alpha Centauri. OK, maybe it was, but Jonathan Harris’s affected mid-Atlantic delivery of insults like “blithering booby” to Robot is the takeaway for me as an adult and what made it worth watching.

  47. John Morales says

    PaulBC, I’d respond more (if it weren’t for the bumbling Dr. Smith, they’d’ve done alright) but it’s too much out-of-topic.

    But yes, as you note, the idea of basing real-life determinations on some work of fiction primarily designed for entertainment is fraught even in principle.

    I’d have gone for the example of taking moral guidance from Dante’s Divine Comedy — the title gives no less away. More generally, it’s the case that any given proposition can be validly proven given appropriate premises.

    Back to the topic, I note that the merit of using Harris’ work as a textbook hinges on whether it’s taught as a source of ideas to be discussed and criticised, or as some sort of authoritative explanation.

  48. DanDare says

    The Good Pplace seemed to be to be an argument to absurdity. Propose an after life and a structure and then demonstrate its untennable.

    However I don’t care, I just enjoyed it and sensed various themes running through it that I found stimulating and satisfying.

  49. PaulBC says

    Back to the topic, I note that the merit of using Harris’ work as a textbook hinges on whether it’s taught as a source of ideas to be discussed and criticised

    For a second, I was still thinking of Jonathan Harris. His work could be the basis of a course in elocution, though the results would go unappreciated in these benighted times.

    I think Sam Harris’s book could hypothetically be supplemental material. I don’t know enough to judge it on merit. I stand by my comment @25. It can’t be the “textbook” to an introductory class, because it’s not an introduction to ethics.

    Technically, it would be possible to teach an introduction to ethics that did not have a textbook but used handouts or equivalent (web pages) for the main material. Harris’s book could be a supplement that just happened to be the only published work you had to buy for the course. In that case, I suppose it works out, but I doubt that’s what we’re talking about here.

  50. PaulBC says


    The Good Pplace seemed to be to be an argument to absurdity. Propose an after life and a structure and then demonstrate its untennable.

    I don’t really think it was intended that way. I am thinking less of Schur’s take on it than some of the interviews with the actors. I got the impression that at least some people involved with the show thought they were making important points about karma and second chances at leading a good life, or something, especially towards the show’s conclusion, which they seemed very proud of. This is different from supernatural comedy like Good Omens where I agree the whole point is to produce comedy by taking ridiculous assumptions to their logical conclusions.

    I’ve often thought (and said before) we’d all be better off if the Little Mermaid had just listened to her sisters. Enjoy life while you can, because you’re eventually going to return to sea foam. And there’s nothing wrong with that. (Why couldn’t Hans Christian Andersen see this?) There are very few Hollywood productions that take that angle. People are really attached to some kind of eternal life with ghosts coming back and teaching lessons in how to avoid their mistakes, or angels intervening, etc. Our “liberal” entertainment establishment is brimming with religion.

    The Good Place was novel for its medium in eventually acknowledging that eternal existence could potentially get boring. So they propose a solution for that, but given that it’s a solution to a non-problem, it’s just not as interesting as they seem to think.

  51. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @56: The dream thing was a joke. Point is, there is no ‘message’, or, for that matter, a point. Except an hour’s entertainment.

    Personally, I don’t need messages in my entertainment. Just a narrative with some coherence, or at least the appearance of it. And a bit of rug-pulling is OK, but being arse over tit for half the time is just annoying to me. And if there is a message artfully concealed, that’s fine.

  52. John Morales says


    Point is, there is no ‘message’, or, for that matter, a point.

    It’s a meaningless and pointless show. Got it.

  53. hemidactylus says

    Moral Landscape is an exercise in an arrogant dilettante engaging in polemics. How useful is that for intro philosophy?

    Owen Flanagan has articles available online that are much better.

  54. garnetstar says

    Frederic Bourgault-Christie @45, Darmok was absolutely the best and most worthy contribution that TNG ever made! So original, so deep. Really worth thinking through, completely new ideas for most people.

    Also, you really seem to know what you’re talking about with ethics and philosophy, so, if you ever have time to waste on getting really annoyed, you might want to hate-read The Moral Landscape. I assure you that it’ll drive you into a towering rage.

    But, it might be more valuable just to bang your head against a wall until you’re unconscious, so……

  55. pacal says

    It is interesting to note that Kant’s notion that even lying to a potential murderer to save someone’s life is always “wrong”, (A violation of the responsibility of “reason” and selfish.), is not original with Kant, in fact that some of the European Medieval Scholastics argued that it was better the whole world perish than tell even the most insignificant lie.

    It is fascinating to note that when someone responded to Kant’s absolutish fetish about lying with “Do you tell a potential murderer the truth about where his potential victim is?”. Kant’s response was pretty pathetic aside from saying that telling a lie was somehow selfish he went into a series of non sequiturs about the potential victim not being where you last saw them and other fantasy narratives, to avoid admitting that telling the truth made you possibly an accessary to murder. Kant also pontificated that since it was your duty to always tell the truth you are not in anyway responsible for what someone does with that truth and besides maybe the murder may not happen. Why? Because how can you be sure? Whatever.

    To me it is obvious that Kant’s demand for absolute honesty under all circumstances is idiotic and in fact utterly immoral. And of course Kant had no trouble with killing in self defence.

    Today the classic rejoinder to Kant’s silliness is Do you tell Nazis looking for Jews about the Jews in the attic / basement? The obvious answer is you lie. We still get today idiots who argue that lying to the Nazis about the Jews in the attic / basement is so wicked you should tell the truth. And we get the same evasions – you can’t be sure, why do you ha ve to be sure?, something bad will happen to them etc., etc. And what you get in massive amounts is the people uttering this drivel feeling morally superior to those who at great risk hid Jews from the Nazis. Ugh!! None of these people seem to have a problem with killing in self defence.

    A couple of years ago there was an absurd article in Answers in Genesis about this in which the author argued, or at least seemed to that lying was incredibly evil sin and unforgivable. And of course attacked the morality of those who hid Jews. He also argued that since everyone eventually died these people dying wasn’t really a big deal. Considering how much Answers in Genesis lies about Evolution and Science I found all this amusing.

    But the bottom line is that people who think like Kant seem to think that telling a lie is a greater sin than murder!! Bluntly Kant’s position on lying is in certain circumstances simply evil.

  56. PaulBC says

    pacal@66 The more I think about ethics, the more I like Aleister Crowley’s “‘Do what thou wilt ‘shall be the whole of the law.” It doesn’t mean go out and be evil. “What thou wilt” could just as easily mean doing something nice for people. Don’t most healthy human beings want to be appreciated? Often our instincts are quite reasonable, and it’s the role of guardians to develop these and peers to reinforce them.

    The worst kind of existence is when everything you want to do, that is true to your nature, is punished and the things you’re rewarded for just make you miserable. Does ethics require you to enslave yourself? (Whether to truth, like Kant, or anything else.)

    And nobody is keeping score, so you may conclude based on Kant or any other source that something is “wrong” but what is the material consequence of that analysis? Does it have more weight than what you develop through your own desire and your empathy for others?

    As a caveat, it’s true there are greedy people out there, sociopaths, and serial killers. Their first instincts would be to do something horrific. But I still don’t think the point is about keeping score. Society has to protect itself. Someone who wants to harm others should be imprisoned to protect potential victims, but not to save the perpetrator’s soul or to enact some kind of retributive balance. It’s a pure stopgap because we don’t want people to be harmed.

    Clearly an ethical analysis is important in determining social policy. Well for one thing, Crowley’s “what thou wilt” cannot apply to a society because it’s not a conscious agent. It is fine if society in aggregate is bound by moral strictures, and philosophers may make a useful contribution here.

    For individuals though, it is absolutely vital to align what you believe to be right with what you are most inclined to do. Of course I’d lie to save someone from being murdered. I wouldn’t give it a second thought. The idea that some kind of “rational” analysis would lead me to the opposite conclusion is absurd. I do not have to justify that behavior. If someone thinks my moral intuition is wrong, they can fight me over it and stop me from acting it out. They cannot argue me out of it. For my part, I cannot demand that they see me as a good person. I have to accept the onus of my action.

  57. PaulBC says

    pacal@66 Could I cut the Gordian (Kantian?) knot by disclosing honestly that the truth of my future communications is contingent on circumstances and you should not expect to hear the truth from me in a situation where most reasonable people would consider truth-telling deleterious? I do not have a contractual obligation for reliable communication, though I disclose that fact in all honesty (which you may choose to believe or not).

    The reason the law requires statements under penalty of perjury is that we understand that people lie for all kinds of reasons and it is only a crime in very precise circumstances. I would argue that it is also only unethical under certain conditions, one being whether the recipient is entitled to the information, including what they’d infer from your reluctance to speak, and that in fact telling the truth or refusing to speak at all is an act of moral cowardice when the only way to prevent serious harm is to make a best effort at telling a lie.