Got logically consistent ethics?

May 24, 2013


There is a contingent of ethical thinkers who believe that our moral instincts are the best guide to deciding what’s moral. Our moral instincts, these folks argue, constitute a reliable epistemology for ethics in a similar way that the scientific method constitutes a reliable epistemology for physics (and all that silly, unimportant stuff that relies on physics, like biology and chemistry*).

But the evidence seems to indicate that our moral instincts arrived at their current state through evolution, just like our other instincts. And since evolution is imperfect, inefficient, and undirected, we are not justified in concluding that our moral instincts are perfectly reliable.

In fact, there’s a way of testing this. It arises from the observation that some of our moral instincts are broader than others. For instance, our penchant for fairness is broader than our aversion to lying. Lying is quite a specific area of moral interest, while fairness features in almost every moral topic.

The test of our moral instincts is therefore this: Are our more specific instincts consistent with the broader instincts they fall under? For instance, does our aversion to lying ever interfere with our desire to be fair? (Put differently, are there instances in which telling a lie would be the most fair thing to do?).

If a specific moral instinct prompts us to go against a broader moral instinct, then our instincts are not logically consistent with one another, and we need to rethink our reliance on those instincts. And the only way to determine if one instinct conflicts in a logical sense with another, is to take the broadest (and therefore most fundamental) of all the instincts, extend its logical structure down to the more detailed levels, and see what these more specific instincts ought to be telling us under conditions of logical coherence.

This, in essence, was the purpose behind my essay (now short book) on morality: To take a simple and fundamental idea like the desire for happiness, and see where it logically leads.

So, while moral instincts can certainly be useful as a quick guide to moral thinking, they should constantly be checked to see if they support the basic principles of the moral system being used.


* Only kidding.

Gods and sproogles

May 13, 2013

I recently got involved in a dialogue that started with a fairly frequent complaint among theists: Why does science so quickly and casually rule out the possibility of supernatural explanations in favor of natural ones?

My response began with the following analogy.

A friend of mine ate a piece of fruit the other day. She said it was a sproogle.

I asked her what a sproogle was, and she said it wasn’t an apple, a banana, a pear, or any other fruit I had likely come across.

When I asked her what it looked or tasted like, she said it didn’t look or taste like an apple, banana, pear, or any other fruit I had likely come across.

You can see where this is going. Try as I may, I could not get her to describe a single unique, positive attribute of this strange fruit. Her descriptions were purely in terms of characteristics the sproogle did not have.

I wondered how I could prove that what she’d eaten was, in fact, a sproogle rather than a better known fruit, perhaps one eaten by folks in another part of the world.

It seemed my only option was to eliminate all the known fruits from the list of candidates, so that only the sproogle remained. I would have to collect a specimen of every fruit and ask my friend if it was like the one she had eaten.

Science is very much in the same boat when it comes to investigating supernatural claims: There is no positive definition of the supernatural. The very word itself means “of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural”. It is defined by its contrast with something else, not in terms of its own unique properties.

So if science wants to determine if a supernatural explanation is correct, it must first eliminate all possible natural explanations, in the same way that I must first eliminate all known fruits to determine if my friend ate a sproogle.

Science therefore has no choice but to consider as many natural explanations as possible before settling on a supernatural conclusion. It’s the only option.

And it’s a laborious option. Given that we have gaps in our understanding of the natural world, there could be feasible natural explanations we aren’t even aware of yet. An exhaustive elimination of all natural explanations is therefore practically impossible, and a supernatural explanation will always remain elusive.

Of course, theists could make the entire enterprise a whole lot easier if they discovered some unique identifiers of the supernatural – properties that were not shared by natural phenomena. Imagine if my friend told me that the sproogle she ate was luminous purple with a smattering of tiny orange stars, and two long, thin grey leaves emanating from each end. On the basis of this information, it would be reasonable to conclude, with little further investigation, that she had eaten a strange new fruit that could not be confused with known varieties.

But no attributes unique to the supernatural have been proffered. Not even the “omni” properties often attributed to God (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.) are necessarily supernatural. It is entirely feasible to imagine a purely natural being with these properties – they are simply natural properties writ large. Even properties like those of pantheistic conceptions of God (the all pervasive presence) cannot escape from a natural interpretation. After all, gravitational fields also pervade all space, and they are perfectly natural.

In the end, I don’t think this problem is solvable. We are stuck inside nature. We have no possible way of observing or understanding anything else. We’re built by nature, for nature. Therefore, any property we think of assigning to supernatural objects will always be borrowed from nature. We can’t help it.

What this means for the theist, like it or not, is that the supernatural inevitably boils down to a vanishing act. “Supernatural” refers to objects that are hidden from investigation. They are indistinguishable from imagined objects but, at the mere insistence of their supporters, remain card-carrying members of “things that exist”.

Things that exist, but cannot be seen, heard, or detected in any way. It’s a pretty good gig, if you can get it.

Using intuition to assess moral systems

May 10, 2013

If you want to poke holes in someone’s ethical system, you can come up with a bizarre, highly implausible scenario and show that the ethical system recommends an apparently perverse or reprehensible response.

I’ve seen this quite a lot in philosophical and religious discussions. Indeed, I’m pretty sure I’ve used it myself. (This despite the fact that, at the end of the day, I don’t think we should rely too heavily on our moral intuitions, since there is no guarantee they are optimal on any particular metric).

But, assuming that moral intuition is useful to some extent, I’d like to propose an alternative to the one-off implausible scenario test.

For starters, implausibility should be explicitly taken into account. It seems to me that a moral system has much bigger problems if it produces unreasonable solutions to common, everyday problems than to rare, highly contrived ones.

So let’s imagine applying more than one moral scenario to the ethical system under question. Let’s put a list of scenarios together, some of which are common (should I cut in line at the deli if I’m in a hurry?) and some of which are rare (if I’m forced to choose between killing one person or five, what should I do?).

For each scenario in the list, the ethical system will produce a prescribed course of action that either conforms well to our moral intuition (it “sounds right”) or does not (“sounds wrong”).

We therefore have two scales. We have the frequency of the moral scenario (how commonly it occurs) and the degree of conformity its ethical solution has to our moral intuition (how “right” it sounds).

How do we combine these scales to get a reasonable idea of the ethical system’s performance?

I’ll present one possible solution here, with the use of an example. Let’s say that our list of moral scenarios contains ten items ordered by frequency: The first scenario in the list is the most common, while the last item is the most rare. We then label them A through J. Here they are:


(Exactly how frequent each scenario is, is not important, so I’ve not included labels on the vertical axis.)

Now let’s apply these scenarios to our (hypothetical) ethical system and see how intuitive the proposed solutions are:


It turns out that, in this particular case, the intuitiveness of each moral scenario decreases from left to right, just like the frequency data: The most commonly occurring moral scenario (Scenario A) also produces the most intuitive moral prescription, while the rarest scenario (J) produces the least intuitive moral prescription.

This sounds like the sort of situation we could live with because, at the very least, an ethical system should get the most commonly occurring moral problems “right”. And if it gets some problems “wrong”, it’s better that these be very rare.

We can get a more specific measure of this combination of frequency and intuitiveness by multiplying the above two graphs together. Let’s multiply scenario A’s frequency by its intuitiveness. This will give me a “reasonableness” score for scenario A. Then I’ll do the same for scenarios B, C, D, etc. Here’s what I get:


Moral scenario A is the most “reasonable” because not only does it produce an intuitive result when applied to our ethical system, but it’s also quite a common scenario, which means that a lot of intuitive moral decision-making will be going on.

Scenario J, on the other hand, gets a “reasonableness” score of almost zero because it’s associated with a counter-intuitive moral solution. It’s impact is also reduced thanks to its rarity.

One way to make a single numerical assessment of these findings is to add up the reasonableness scores of all ten scenarios. With the numbers I’ve used to generate the above graphs, I get a total of 220 points.

Now let’s see what would happen if the trend of intuitiveness was reversed:


Now our ethical system is giving us a highly counter-intuitive solution to Scenario A. This is unfortunate, because Scenario A is still the most commonly occurring one. This means that a whole lot of counter-intuitive moral decision-making will be going on.

At the other end of our list, Scenario J produces a nice intuitive result. But this is not much consolation because Scenario J is so rare.

Once again, let’s multiple the frequency of each scenario by its intuitiveness. Here’s what we get:


Overall, the reasonableness scores are lower than before. Scenario A now has a low score because it has a counter-intuitive moral solution. Scenario J (like before) has a low score because it’s rare. When I add up the reasonableness scores, I get a mere 32 points.

Ideally, we want an ethical system that will produce an intuitive solution for all scenarios, regardless of how common they are. If this were the case – if scenarios A through J all had the maximum intuitiveness value seen on the blue graphs above – then the resulting reasonableness scores would add up to a whopping 1100 points.

It’s fun playing with these numbers, but the central message is that there are more sophisticated ways of assessing a moral system than simply throwing one highly implausible scenario at it, and judging it on the basis of that scenario alone.

Besides, no ethical system I’ve come across can escape at least one or two counter-intuitive results. Unless we’re prepared to throw all ethical systems out, we need to find a better way of assessing them.

When style becomes substance

May 7, 2013

Surely God MUST exist in a place like this?

Science is very hands-on. It’s all about experimenting, observing, manipulating. You can see science happen.

The same applies to sports. And the arts. And almost every other human endeavor. The core ideas and beliefs refer to real, physical things.

Religion is a little different. It’s core ideas and beliefs refer to an entity that cannot be seen. Its narratives involve events that occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago, and whose participants are therefore long gone.

This presents a bit of a problem. How do you make a system of beliefs seem real and relevant if its main players can’t be detected and its founding events are long over?

The solution, I think, is to construct rich physical manifestations of those beliefs. Build elaborate and beautiful cathedrals, temples, mosques, synagogues, and megachurches. Put your leaders in elaborate costumes. Compose music, create art. Build a Wailing Wall or a Kaaba. Devise traditions like the Eucharist.

It’s good to have your beliefs confirmed by the senses, to be shown how concrete they are.

So perhaps religious paraphernalia are more than expressions of religious worship. Perhaps they are also vitally necessary components of a stable religious faith. Without them, the core beliefs become naked ideas – less grand, less compelling, and less relevant without their physical expression.

I would even venture to say that the physical manifestations of religion can serve to misdirect. What the cathedral visitor interprets as a sense of God’s presence may simply be his feeling of awe at the magnificent architecture. The sense of reverence he feels during the Eucharist may be due, in large part, to the ornate design of the altar area and the elaborate robes and hats worn by the priests. The religious fervor felt during the singing of a favorite hymn may simply be due to the believer’s innate enjoyment of music. And so on.

Personally speaking, the bottom line of all this is very positive: Even if the beliefs underlying religion may not be accurate, they have inspired people to produce all manner of wonderful art and architecture. And we can all enjoy it.

Suffering makes free will harder

April 30, 2013

A common theodicy attempts to explain the problem of evil by claiming that our ability to choose God can only be truly free if we are able to do evil also. Suffering is a necessary consequence of free will.

There are several problems with this theodicy, some of which I have discussed before (see my post on the firing range theodicy, for example). But a further problem struck me just recently.

The best decisions are made, I believe, when we are calm, comfortable, unhurried, and in possession of all the necessary facts.

A world full of suffering is not conducive to this ideal decision-making state. We struggle to make wholly rational decisions when we are in pain. We also struggle to make rational decisions when we are grieving someone else’s pain (or death), or when we are worried about our (or others’) possible future suffering (as a poor person in need of food may be).

It would therefore appear to be against God’s interest to allow suffering to occur. Suffering lowers the probability that we will make wholly rational decisions about whether to follow him.

The Bible is not a philosophy paper

April 26, 2013


Some folks claim that the Bible’s message is clear and precise. That its moral outlook is unambiguous. However, before even opening to the first page, there are several reasons for doubting this claim. These reasons can be discussed by comparing the Bible to the genre of well-written, peer-reviewed academic papers, which can, I think, be regarded as reasonably precise, unambiguous literary forms.

1. A well-written academic paper has a single focus. It is constructed, from start to finish, with one fairly specific concept in mind.

The Bible does not have a single focus. It is a long and complex narrative containing a very large number of different messages, teachings, and reportage.

2. A well-written academic paper is written by either a single worker or multiple closely collaborating contemporaries. This lends itself to a cohesive, internally consistent product.

The Bible has a very large number of authors, on the order of several tens, most of whom never met a another contributor.

3. A well-written academic paper expresses the original ideas of the author (or authors). In other words, the distance between the origination of the ideas and their arrival in the literature is short and direct. The ideas are described by those who know them best, and who are therefore in the best position to explain them.

In many, if not most cases, the Bible does not express the original ideas of its authors. It reports ideas that had already existed for some time, either in other written works or in oral traditions. As a result, the ideas may have been significantly degraded or transformed between their original conception and their appearance in the manuscripts we have in our possession today. Furthermore, the authors of these manuscripts might not have understood the ideas as fully, or in quite the right way, as originally intended.

4. A well-written academic paper has a specific audience in mind. It is usually directed at people who have some prior understanding of the subject matter, and are therefore in a good position to interpret the language used.

It is difficult to see what the intended audience of the Bible is. It’s tempting to say “everyone”. But if this is the case, then precision communication might be made more difficult, because everything must be explained in broad enough terms for any reader. In a sense, this argument appears to run counter to what I’ve already said: I’m suggesting that greater precision and clarity might be achieved by the use of more difficult language – language that the lay person might not understand. But I don’t think there is any great problem here. A physics author, for example, will not be able to communicate her ideas with optimal rigor and precision if she is unable to use equations or scientific jargon. The same goes for people in other fields too, including moral philosophy.

This does depend on the complexity of the material, of course. Some ideas are just not that complicated, and can easily be expressed in prose that anyone could understand. I’m of the view that such ideas form the bulk of what’s found in the Bible, so I concede that my fourth argument may fail. However, many Christians consider God’s moral worldview to be so complex that no human can properly describe it, regardless of the language used.

The final step, of course, is to open that first page. To read the book and see if it somehow escapes the above problems. Having read it myself, I’m not optimistic. Better, I think, to stick to those well-written academic papers.

Before and after: Prayer

April 25, 2013

On this blog, I’ve written a lot about my various objections to religious belief. But I haven’t really discussed my own experiences as a religious person. I was, after all, a self-proclaimed Christian until my late twenties, so there’s potentially quite a bit to talk about.

So, I thought I’d write a post or two on my personal “before and after” experiences with particular Christian phenomena. This post will be about prayer.


I don’t have a clear first memory of praying. I grew up with it, and simply took it for granted. My general habit, as with most Christians, was to close my eyes and “speak” to God inside my head. Most of my time in prayer was shared with other people: Usually in church on Sundays or in bible studies. However, I do remember praying alone fairly regularly.

The prayer experience itself was limited to a one-way stream of supplications, expressions of gratitude, and other odds and ends, usually expressed through my thoughts. I never actually heard God speak, nor did I expect him to. My belief was that God was a close but silent presence, always willing to listen.

I don’t remember ever asking God for anything material, like a bicycle or a stereo. God was not a Santa Claus-like being to me. Instead, I prayed for help with personal issues, usually relationships. I suppose I thought that God could somehow influence how other people saw me.

Not until I began to have serious doubts about my faith did I ever question the efficacy of prayer. I simply assumed that if a prayer wasn’t answered, God just didn’t want to answer it, not that he wasn’t listening, or didn’t exist.

Overall, prayer was something of a comfort. It was nice to feel there was someone there, any minute of the day or night, to hear me out, even if he never offered a verbal response. It was a bit like having a friendly dog to talk to: Someone who was never going to respond, but was always listening. (Of course, I thought of God as more intelligent than a dog, so that made the experience a little different!)


When I look back on my prayer experience, I see it as a positive, if minor, influence on my life. Psychologically, it was helpful.

But prayer also looks rather odd to me now. Weirdest of all is the idea of closing one’s eyes while praying. What’s the point? Presumably it’s designed to eliminate visual distractions. It’s quite hard to talk to someone who isn’t there – where, exactly would one look?* – so the natural thing, I suppose, is to shut one’s eyes.

Today, I’m also quite impressed with how firmly believers believe in the power of prayer, even though it’s never been shown to be effective, and looks for all the world like a one-sided psychological phenomenon. Many religious people balk at the idea of their beliefs being scientifically tested. This idea must be very threatening, because most people understand that scientific conclusions, in today’s advanced technological world, are difficult to dismiss offhand.

Rather, it’s much easier to maintain your beliefs when you can draw on anecdotal stories that appear to support them, and ignore those that do not. In this way, the believer can live in a comfortable cocoon of apparent confirmation, and reserve what they think is deserved scorn for the baseness of scientific investigations of something so sacred.

But, as with my own experience, I think prayer probably has a real, beneficial effect. It really can help the person praying, even if not in the way they think it does.


* Some people still look upwards, as if to the “heavens” when they pray or worship (and some still shake their fists at the sky when angry with God). I can’t help but find this a little funny. We all know very well that God isn’t among the clouds, or floating somewhere in outer space. Yet the temptation is still there to imagine God somewhere in the sky.