Quotes & Commentary #50: Campbell

Quotes & Commentary #50: Campbell

You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.

—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

I ended my last post with the dreary thought that we cannot help harming others. Almost inevitably, a system we must operate within—be it the economy, the school system, or a company we work for—will have undesirable consequences: it will exploit the disadvantaged, increase inequality, reinforce the status quo, or any of the other ugly things our social systems do.

Apart from this, it is worth considering that, even if we were operating within a relatively just and fair system, we could still unintentionally harm others. What if I take the job you had your dreams set on? Or if I marry the girl you’ve always had a crush on? Or take the last spot in your ideal university? A promotion, the lottery, the last potato chip in the bag—all these are limited resources, of which you deprive others by using.

As long as we live on a finite world with infinite wants, as long as our desires outpace our means, we will inevitably have to compete for some resources; and this competition will make us get in the way of each other’s happiness.

It is easy to get angry or depressed about this. The gazelle who has just been tackled by the lion probably thinks that life is monstrously unfair, and that the lion is being very unjust. The lion, for her part, probably thinks that it is perfectly fair that she eat this gazelle, since he was the slowest in the herd.

And I think they’re both right. From one perspective, life is horribly unfair; and from another, life is fairness itself. As long as there is limited gazelle meat in the world, there will be some competition for its use—the gazelle for its body, the lion for its food.

To be alive means participating in this struggle for resources; and in that respect, being alive means harming others, since any resources you take for yourself are unavailable for others. And if inflicting harm means doing evil, this means that, to some people, sometimes, you are evil. Being alive means participating in this basic, universal evil.

So if evil is inevitable, what does it mean to be moral?

Well, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think that morality is a system of behavior that allows individuals to live safely within the same community. This system consists of interpersonal rules: how you need to act towards others. For example, a safe community isn’t logically possible where theft and murder are considered permissible; thus moral rules prohibit these behaviors. These rules are enforced by the community through punishments. This way, behaviors incompatible with safe communal living are discouraged and diminished, allowing each member to live in relative peace and security.

Provided that these communal rules are not flawed (and historically they often have been) then by following them you are a by definition a moral person. Accepting a promotion—and, by doing so, depriving a coworker of the same promotion—may be “evil” from your coworker’s perspective, but it is not strictly immoral, since granting and accepting promotions are morally allowable actions. (By “morally allowable” I mean that these actions don’t inflict any harm, other than the unavoidable harm of allocating limited resources; and that they don’t make an exception of anyone, in that they don’t violate anyone’s rights.)

Moral systems (and their offspring, the concept of rights) are how we have learned to negotiate the crisscrossing pattern of desires, the unavoidable conflicts of interest, that exist when any two creatures inhabit the same space. By having general guidelines of conduct, we have an impartial, communally approved standard of deciding what is fair or unfair, a standard that treats every member of the community equally. In a way, a moral system is a way of imposing order onto the tragedy and comedy of all creation. It is a set of rules that tells you what desires you can or can’t satisfy—where, when, and how it is appropriate to obtain what you want. Moral systems legitimate some desires and delegitimate others. 

And the beauty of moral rules is that, by curbing some desires, and disallowing certain actions, it actually benefits for each community member in the long run, since it is these rules that make the community possible at all. Without them, the community would disintegrate into chaos, or at the very least would need oppressive force to hold it together, both of which are undesirable situations.

The problem is that any moral system, however well-constructed, cannot make life fair. Morality makes social life fair, but not life itself. No matter what, some people will be born with certain talents, some people will be born into wealthy families, some people will be born into privilege, and others will be cursed with abusive parents or struck down by disease. Aside from the accident of birth, luck intervenes at every important junction: relationships, careers, school, friendships, everything.

The omnipresence of luck—the enemy of fairness—and the finitude of life, makes unhappiness unavoidable, even in a perfectly constructed utopia. Our desires will always outpace our means, and reality will always baffle our attempts to control it. We want the impossible. We want to live forever with all our friends and family, eating wonderful meals five times daily, never feeling any pain or discomfort, bedding every attractive person we see. Of course we know this can’t happen, and so feel little bitterness, usually, that life is very different.

Nevertheless, how often do we feel that life is treating us unfairly? How often do we resent those around us for taking what we want, or shake our fists at the injustice of the universe for giving other people all the luck? This feeling of injustice most often results in anger; indeed, I think anger is the ego’s defense against the feeling of impotence. When we can’t get what we want, and things aren’t going our way, we naturally grow resentful and feel that the situation is somehow wrong. It is not our desires that are wrong—to the contrary, the universe should be cooperating, since the universe created me with these desires!—but the universe that is wrong. Right?

This is the reverse-side of Campbell’s point: Not only will you be evil to somebody, but somebody will also be evil to you, even when everyone is abiding by the dictates of morality. The wise course, I think, is to try to keep the whole in perspective, to realize that what seems unjust to you may seem perfectly just to others, and vice versa.

From up close, life is tragic, since we can never get everything we want, or even a fraction; but from a distance, seen as a whole, life is also comic, because we want the impossible and don’t appreciate what we have. This double-aspect of tragedy and comedy is, indeed, one of the ironies of creation. 

Quotes & Commentary #43: Hemingway

Quotes & Commentary #43: Hemingway

So far, about morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.

—Ernest Hemingway

It is an essential part of the process of maturing, I think, to come to terms with your own emotions. Can they be trusted? How far? In what circumstances are they misleading? Do they make you act irrationally or do things you don’t normally do? Are you afraid of your emotions? Are you afraid of communicating them to others? Why? Do you tend you bury your emotions, or to ignore them? With what consequences? All these questions, and more, are unavoidable as we grow older and learn how to deal with ourselves.

It is worth pointing out the odd fact, taken for granted by nearly everyone, that our emotions are discussed as something essentially separate from ourselves. They are things that happen to us, things that strike us, things that affect us like a sickness. And yet they are ourselves, aren’t they? What could be more integrally a part of yourself than your feelings?

Perhaps we think of emotions are outside events, comparable to snowstorms or car accidents, because we recognize that they are universal experiences. Being angry, depressed, giddy, the feeling of being in love—the triggers of an emotion vary, but the experience itself binds us together. And in that way, the emotions can be said to be objective facts, not the most intimate part of ourselves, because they are the same for everyone.

Or perhaps we talk of our emotions as separate from ourselves because they come and go, sometimes at random, and are often beyond our control. Feeling melancholy on a lonely walk is like being caught in the rain—an event that depends on the whims of fate.

As someone who prides himself on being logical—although, heaven knows how silly I can be—my relationship with my emotions has always been rather skeptical, even suspicious. My friends in elementary school used to tease me for being robotic. As I grew up, I lost most of this robotic coldness, but some traces of it remain. I am still quite skeptical of emotions, and I still find my feelings to be suspicious.

In my experience at least, emotions cannot be trusted as sources of information. A classic example is walking out the door and feeling that you’ve forgotten something, or packing for a trip and feeling sure that there’s something your missing. In my case, this feeling is almost inevitably wrong; my feeling of worry or confidence have almost nothing to do with whether I have actually forgotten something.

It was a major discovery—which I only made in university—that my mood had very little to do with the things I normally hold responsible for it. Sometimes I would get angry and think about all the unpleasant things my friends did and said, all the inanities of my roommates, all the annoyances of my classes. Or I would get melancholy and think about things I missed from home, or convince myself that I was lonely and unloved, or castigate myself for being a failure.

And yet all of these things I blamed for my mood were totally irrelevant. Almost inevitably, if I sat down and ate something, or if I had a coffee and a candy bar, my mood improved dramatically. Indeed, after I drink coffee I am often ecstatically happy, and I think equally unrealistic thoughts about how great my life is.

Experiences like these reinforce my skepticism about feelings. I can feel sure I’ve forgotten something, even after checking three times. I can be enraged and curse the world and everyone in it, and yet this is only due to hunger. Feelings come and go, each one seeming to tell me something clear and definite, only to be replaced in the next moment by another feeling that tells me the exact opposite thing. Each one is convincing in its strength, and yet each is totally devoid of substance; they give me the feeling of certainty without any evidence to support it.

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is a form of cognitive distortion, erroneous thinking, called “emotional reasoning.” This consists precisely in trusting your emotions. Depressed people often feel ashamed, worthless, and hopeless, and then reason that these things must be true, since why else would they feel that way so persistently? Similarly, anxious people feel afraid, and believe that this fear is justified and is telling them about a real threat to their safety.

Indeed, it seems to me—or at least it’s been my experience—that getting over anxiety and depression involves learning to distrust your own feelings. I have learned, for example, that my feelings of fear often have nothing to do with something bad that might actually happen; and that my feelings of shame are not a reliable indicator of what other people will actually think.

To a certain extent, I think most people would agree, in theory at least, that emotions can be misleading. Nevertheless, there is one domain in which nearly everyone puts implicit faith in their emotions: morality.

I remember reading a book by Steven Pinker in which he demonstrated the emotional basis of our moral thinking in this way.

Consider this short situation: A family’s dog, who had lived with them for many years, was killed in front of their house by a car. The family heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog and cooked him for dinner.

Now, in this situation, did the family act immorally? If you’re like me, you feel somewhat disgusted by this; and maybe you have decided that you’d never want to be friends with this family; and maybe you think it heartless that they could eat their loyal friend and companion. But did they do anything immoral?

I don’t think they did, because they didn’t hurt anyone or act out of accordance with the categorical imperative. And yet I admit that the first time I read this, I felt disgusted and almost outraged at this family. This illustrates Pinker’s general point: we have moral feelings first, and then try to rationalize them later. In other words, our moral reactions are not based on any logical standard but instead on gut feeling.

It is, of course, difficult to rationalize morality. Philosophers still struggle with it, and there are no easy answers. Be that as it may, this is no excuse to substitute feeling for thinking. Even a slight acquaintance with history shows that people have thought many things were terribly immoral—mixed-race marriages, or premarital sex—that nowadays don’t raise an eyebrow. The world is full of taboos and prohibitions that, to outsiders, don’t make any sense. We are capable of having strong moral reactions about activities that don’t harm anyone or pose any threat to society.

I do not know why people continue to trust their feelings of disgust and outrage when it has been shown again and again, even in my lifetime, that these feelings are often based on nothing at all. We trust our gut like it’s the Oracle of Delphi, handing out moral verdicts from on high; but out guts often disagree with one another, and just as often contradict themselves on different days.

Take the example of gay love. I remember when I was young, the idea of two men kissing was considered, by nearly everyone I knew, to be absolutely obscene; and now, we have a movie the features homoerotic love winning Best Picture. (I do not mean to suggest, even for a second, that we have overcome homophobia; but we have made progress.) The controversy surrounding trans people seems to be based on this same gut reaction of disgust. The “argument” about the “dangers” of trans people in public restrooms is so devoid of substance that I can only conclude it is feeble attempt to rationalize a feeling.

And yet I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, being transgender was considered as unremarkable as gay love. I can see no logical reason to regulate, ban, or even worry about sexuality, gender, and orientation, because they don’t hurt anyone and don’t pose any threat to society. You may not like gay love, you may find the idea of trans people gross, and that’s fine, but this feeling is no valid indication that these things are wrong.

This brings me around to Hemingway’s quote. Hemingway said this in connection with bullfighting. He expected to find bullfighting disgusting, but he loved it, and for that reason didn’t think it was wrong. Well, it’s obvious by now that I don’t agree with this method of telling right from wrong. If bullfighting is right or wrong, we need to explain why, with reference to some standard.

My problem is that I normally think of morality as a relationship between humans, and I actually don’t know how to think about morality regarding animals. A bull cannot understand a duty, an obligation, or the idea of consequences; a bull can’t be reasoned with or convinced. All of these things are necessary, I think, for a creature to be a moral agent, to be bound and protected by a system of moral injunctions. So when we’re dealing with animals, can an action be right or wrong?

My gut feeling is that bullfighting is wrong, because it involves animal cruelty. But this feeling, however intense, is just that: a feeling. Can I rationally believe bullfighting is wrong while continuing to eat hamburgers? I really don’t know. Thus I am in the uncomfortable situation of having a dilemma for which my moral reasoning provides no solution; and this leaves me with nothing but a feeling. I suppose I’ll have to read and think some more about the subject.

Quotes and Commentary #30: Burns

Quotes and Commentary #30: Burns

It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that it can be extremely difficult to do something when you sense you are being forced into it.

—David D. Burns, Feeling Good

Today I taught a class on modal verbs. This is my favorite subject to teach in English, since modal verbs are the most philosophical area of the language. What is the difference between will and would? Between can and could? Between may and might?

Every time I teach this lesson, I pause on the word “should.” I have the following problem. Very often we use the word “should” for recommendations, such as: “You should avoid eating at McDonalds.” In this situation, there is no moral element; we are telling our friend to avoid McDonalds for his own benefit, not for any ethical reason.

In other situations, “should” has an unambiguously moral connotation, as in: “You should always leave a tip in the United States.” Here, we are being exhorted to do something, not for any personal benefit, but because it is the “right” thing to do.

In many cases, however, it is ambiguous whether the word does or doesn’t carry a moral imperative. This most often occurs when we’re talking to ourselves: “I should really jog more,” or “I should quit smoking,” or “I shouldn’t eat so many donuts.” The situation here is strange, for there is no moral rule involved—is it immoral to eat donuts?—and yet we feel we feel guilty when, as so often happens, we don’t follow our own advice.

David D. Burns, in his popular self-help book on depression, cautions against this last usage of the word should. We are always telling ourselves we “should” be doing this, and “shouldn’t” be doing that. But this leads us into a depressive spiral:

A deadly enemy of motivation is a sense of coercion. You feel under intense pressure to perform—generated from within and without. This happens when you try to motivate yourself with moralistic “shoulds” and “oughts.” You tell yourself, “I should do this” and “I have to do that.” Then you feel obliged, burdened, tense, resentful, and guilty.

The process goes like this. You tell yourself you “should” quit smoking. Then, you create resentment in yourself, since you feel like you’re being forced to do something. This resentment and guilt leads to a spiteful rejection of the advice; smoking becomes, not only a pleasure, but a guilty and rebellious pleasure. The habit thus continues, while your self-esteem is eroded by your inability to do the “right” thing.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing happens to me all the time. It was thus a revelation when Burns, in his book, pointed out this common tendency and also explained why it is illogical.

The error originates from a confusion of the first and the second usage of the word “should.” That is, when we tell ourselves we “should” quit smoking, we are really saying that it’s a good idea and we would benefit in the long run. We are appealing to our self-interest and not our moral sense. But we feel guilty and resentful nonetheless. Why? Because we are importing the moral imperative of the second usage into our understanding of the meaning. We are, in other words, judging something to be an ethical duty which is only a potentially beneficial activity.

This is very easy to do, I believe, because we don’t tend to think very clearly about obligations. I have heard philosophers say that the metaphysical distinction between the sphere of moral and amoral reality is the distinction between “ought” and “is.” Moral statements, in other words, do not report what the facts are, but how they should be. Many books have been written about where this “ought” comes from and what it says about the universe.

For my part, I do not find anything special or mysterious about “ought” statements. Indeed, I’d argue that, at bottom, the first and second of usage of “should” rest on the same basis; that is, recommendations and obligations both rest on self-interest.

That the power of a recommendation rests on self-interest is not controversial. The motivation to follow a recommendation is that you will personally benefit in some way. Usually recommendations consist of suggested ways to satisfy certain long-standing desires. We are recommended to apply to a certain job or to eat at a certain restaurant, and these are strategies for satisfying our insatiable desires for money and food.

The second assertion—that obligations rest on self-interest—is sure to raise an eyebrow. Well, let me give you an example. Imagine that you promised to pick your friend up at the airport, but you then your crush invited you to hang out at that same time. You are very tempted to blow off your friend and make him pay for a taxi, but then your mom tells you: “You should always keep your promises.”

Now, at first glance this is obviously not appealing to self-interest. You are being told to do something that will be dreadful instead of something fun. So why “should” you do it? Simply because it’s the “right” thing to do? But why is it “right”?

Now you must ask yourself: Do you want to live in a world where promises exist, or a world where they don’t? Think carefully about this. What if you could never trust somebody’s word, and you could not depend on anybody to follow a verbal agreement? I don’t know about you, but such a world seems unlivably dreadful to me.

The world seems to have come to the same conclusion, since promises exist. And the reason we have agreed to have the institution of the promise is that, although occasionally painful in the short-term, it is beneficial in the long-term to live in a society where you can trust somebody’s word. Thus people make a compromise. Accept some incidental annoyances as the price for the boon of general honesty. You gain more than you lose with this bargain.

This is, I think, the nature of all moral rules: they are rules of behavior that, while occasionally painful in the short-term, benefit every individual member in the long-term by enabling a society wherein people can expect their neighbors to be respectful, peaceful, and honest. But these rules only work if everybody abides by them. For a moral rule to be beneficial to its followers, it must not allow others to take advantage of them, but must lead to a long-term gain. If enough people chose not to follow a rule, and instead take advantage of its followers, then it will collapse. All moral action is motivated by long-term self-interest, and morality collapses when it is no longer in the long-term self-interest of its members to comply.

To return to the above example, you must realize that, by breaking your promise, you are making an exception of yourself. You want to live in a world where people keep their promises, but you don’t want to keep yours. Indeed, in a small way you are undermining the institution of the promise, and taking advantage of your friend’s trust. You are choosing to indulge in a short-term pleasure rather than consider the long-term consequences of this action.

To conclude, I think the moral force of the advice “You should always keep your promises” is related directly to self-interest. In almost every situation, the benefits of living in a society where you can trust the word of other people outweigh many times over the benefits of breaking a single promise.

Now, of course, in practice the fabric of society doesn’t collapse when a few promises are broken. Moral systems are human things, and thus imperfect. Moral laws can survive with a surprising amount of noncompliance and hypocrisy. But you also have to consider the potential consequences of acquiring a reputation for being untrustworthy. Besides that, by doing your friend a favor, you earn yourself social goodwill and might be able to call upon him in the future.

This brings me back to my earlier point. A moral obligation is, at base, simply the realization that you have more to gain by following a moral rule than by breaking it. A moral obligation is thus like a piece of especially good advice; and at bottom, the first and second usage of the word “should” are identical.

I have found this way of thinking personally beneficial, since it allows me to avoid the feelings of guilt, bitterness, and resentment that I get when I tell myself “I should do such and such.” Now, I remind myself of how I will personally benefit from the action in the future. I remind myself that the things I “should” do are just ways of satisfying certain long-standing, insatiable desires of mine. And nobody feels guilty when they don’t efficiently satisfy a desire.

Quotes & Commentary #22: Charlotte Brontë

Quotes & Commentary #22: Charlotte Brontë

Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and the soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolable they shall be.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

This passage made a lasting impression on me the first time I read it.

In the story, Jane is at her lowest ebb. She just agreed to marry Rochester; and at the last moment it was revealed that he was already married. Rochester begs her to run away with him, to flee the hypocritical, pretentious morality of England and to have a happy life together. Jane is sorely tempted. She recognizes the injustice of the situation, and she is deeply in love with Rochester. But in the end, her principles overrule her passions, and she forces herself to leave him.

My feeling about this were mixed. On the one hand, it was clear to me, a modern, secular American, that the law preventing Rochester and Jane from marrying was idiotic and unjust. There was simply no logic behind it, just dumb prejudice and unthinking tradition. If I were Jane, I would have ran off with Rochester, and left all those dimwits to live within the narrow confines of their self-righteous morality. So I was a bit disappointed in Jane, normally a rebellious spirit, for being such a slave to custom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring Jane for doing what she thought was right, even though it caused her so much pain. The second time I read the book, I found myself admiring her even more. What seemed at first to be obeisance to an old-fashioned prejudice looked now like loyalty to herself.

Jane knew that the negative opinion of eloping existed for a reason. Even though it was extremely tempting, she knew that running away with Rochester would ultimately be a betrayal of herself. It would be compromising on what she wanted and deserved: to be legally bound with someone she loved, in a union accepted and recognized by the community.

Remember that Jane was poor, and Rochester rich. Running away with him without the sanction of society would thus have put her fully and completely under his power. She would have no recourse if, one day, Rochester suddenly changed his mind and decided to leave her. She would have no claim on him. Thus her apparently unselfish act—to run away from Rochester—was really a more intelligent form of selfishness. (In my opinion, nobility normally consists, not in acting unselfishly, but in being more intelligently selfish.)

This quote and this story encapsulates why humans create moral rules. Most of the time, in daily life, our short-term and long-term desires are in harmony. We can satisfy our immediate desires without jeopardizing our future goals. In these situations, moral rules become rather irrelevant, or at the very least automatic, since the function of moral rules is, at base, to harmonize individual interests with group interests.

For example, no moral injunction is needed for me to go to work; nor is one needed for my employer to hire me. Both of us act selfishly, but in harmony, because each of our desires is satisfied by the other. I have something to gain from work (money), and my employer has something to gain from my work (English classes), so what need is there of any rule?

There are situations in life, however, when our short-term desires are so markedly out of harmony with our long-term goals that rules are needed to guide behavior. Jane Eyre’s situation was one such example; and in the end the choice turned out to be the right one.

The difficulty is that, sometimes, the temptations to have one’s cake and eat it too can be overwhelming. This especially applies in cases where, even if it is against the rules of society, an unethical act will most likely escape detection, and thus escape consequences. Every human has an interest in maintaining the rules of society as far as other people are concerned, and strategically breaking them in their own case. This is why E.O. Wilson, in his book about human nature, said: “It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken.”

But every breach of the moral code, however carefully concealed, carries a risk of detection. And even if you aren’t detected, the stress associated with concealing a secret can be punishment in itself. Epicurus made this point: “It is impossible for the person who secretly violates any article of the social compact to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for right on to the end of his life he is never sure he will not be detected.”

Thus I think it is wise, as much as possible, to be consistent with your words and deeds, with the code you hold others to and the code you hold yourself to, and to act as though everything you do will one day be revealed. But, of course, all this is easier said than done.

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.

Notes on a Spanish Bullfight

Notes on a Spanish Bullfight

Ernest Hemingway was, to put it mildly, not an animal rights advocate; but even he felt misgivings before attending his first bullfight—not for the bull, but for the horses. (More on the horses later.) He went for reasons of art; he wanted a chance to see death for himself, to analyze his own feelings about it, in order to escape what he regarded as the trap of the aspiring writer—to feel as you’re expected to feel, not as you actually feel. Much of his book on bullfighting is dedicated to persuading the reader to do the same; he enjoins us to attend at least one show, and to do so with an open mind—to see how it really affects you, instead of how it’s supposed to affect you.

I put down Death in the Afternoon and decided that I would give it a try. But I still felt uneasy about it. Not many things are more controversial in Spain than the bullfight. The country is split between aficionados and those who object on moral grounds. In several parts of Spain, including Catalonia, the bullfight has even been outlawed. It is easy for me to see why people find the custom unethical. Six animals are killed per show, and they are not killed quickly. Nevertheless, from my studies of anthropology I have retained the conviction that you ought to try to understand something before you condemn it. Thus I wanted to see a fight with my own eyes, to analyze my own reactions, before I came to any sort of verdict.

This post will follow that course, first by providing a description, and then my attempt at analysis. Probably everything I say will seem infuriatingly ignorant to the aficionado, but that is unavoidable. I’m a guiri and there’s no escaping that.


The Fight

The big time to see bullfights is in May and June, during the festival of San Isidro. A fight is held every day for eight weeks straight. The fight I saw took place in Madrid’s bullring, Las Ventas. It is a lovely stadium, built in a Neo-Mudéjar style with horseshoe arches, ceramic tiles, and elaborate ornamentation in the red-brick façade. I’d bought the cheapest tickets I could. In any bullring, the price of the ticket depends on the distance from the action, as well as whether the seat is in the sun or the shade (the seats in the shade can be twice as pricey). The seats are hardly seats, just a slap of concrete. You can rent a pillow to sit on for €1, which is probably a good idea.

Las Ventas
The stadium was completely full; the vast majority of the crowd were not tourists, but Spaniards. Unlike flamenco, the bullfight has retained a strong fandom among the natives here. There were people of all descriptions: young children, teenage girls, twenty-something men, married couples, and senior citizens. Almost everyone was dressed in their Sunday best.

A bullfight is a highly organized affair. Each event has three matadors; each matador fights two bulls—not consecutively, but by turns. The matadors fight in the order of reputation, with the most famous (and presumably most skilled) matador taking the last turn. A complete fight takes less than fifteen minutes. It is divided into three parts, each announced by a trumpet blast.

First the bull runs out, charging into the arena at full speed. The bull is fresh, energetic, and haughty. It charges at anything that moves, trying to dominate its environment. This bull has hardly seen a dismounted man before in its life; it has been reared in isolation, to be both fierce and inexperienced. Before anything can be done with the bull, the bull must be tested. Thus the matador and his banderilleros begin to provoke the bull. To do this, they are each equipped with large capes, pink and yellow, which they use to attract the bull’s attention. It runs at them, and they hide for safety behind special nooks in the arena’s edge. Sometimes the bull tries to pursue them, ramming the wooden wall with his horns; but there is nothing the bull can do once they get into the nook.

Hiding from the bull
The only person who comes out and stands in the ring is the matador, who performs some passes with his cape. Really impressive capework is impossible with the bull at this stage, since it is too vigorous and belligerent. But these passes are not for show. The matador needs to see how the bull moves, the way it charges, whether the bull favors any specific area of the arena. Each bull is different. Some will charge at anything, and others need to be coaxed. Some are defensive, others offensive. Some slash their horns left and right, and others scoop down and lift up. The matador needs to know the bull to work with it.

Testing the bull
(It sometimes happens that they decide the bull is unsuitable. This happened once during my show. Suddenly everyone left the ring, leaving the bull alone. Then the gates opened, and half a dozen heifers ran into the ring. The bull, seeing the heifers, immediately calmed down, and followed them out of the ring. I assume that the bull is killed in this case, since it isn’t useful for anything; a bad bull won’t be bred, and a bull cannot be fought twice, since they learn from experience.)

Next the picadores enter the ring. These are men armed with lances, riding on horseback. The horses are blindfolded and heavily armored with padding. The bull is led by the bandilleros towards the horses and provoked to attack. For whatever reason, the bull always tries to lift the horse on its horns. This doesn’t work, because the horse is significantly bigger than the bull; indeed, the horse seems hardly to react at all to the bull’s attack. Meanwhile, the picador stabs the bull in its back, jabbing his lance into a mound of neck muscle. As the bull ineffectually tries to lift the horse, it drives the spear into its own flesh. The pain is usually enough to discourage the bull after about a minute. By the end of the ordeal, the bull’s back is covered in blood.

picador facing a bull
(In the past, when Hemingway wrote his book, this part of the bullfight was considerably more gory. The horses wore no armor, and were thus often killed. There are some terrible photos of horses being impaled in Hemingway’s book. The bull would rip them apart. The picador thus had a narrow window to do his job, and would often end up on the ground, pinned under his dying horse. I am glad that this isn’t the custom anymore, though doubtless a purist like Hemingway would mourn its passing.)

The bull gives up, the picadores leave the ring. Next the bandilleros must further weaken the bull. They do this by stabbing barbs into the same area of the bull’s back. This is a really dangerous job. The bull must be running straight at them in order to drive the barbs deep enough into its muscles. The bandillero runs at an angle to the bull’s charge, holding the barbs high above his head with outstretched arms, and stab the bull right over its own horns. The pain makes the bull pause for a second—which gives the bandillero much needed time to get the out of there. Even so, the guys have to run like hell, and often end up jumping straight over the wall out of the arena in order to escape. Three pairs of barbs must be speared into the bull. These barbs, which are covered in colorful paper, don’t fall out, but hang from the bull’s back for the rest of the fight.

A bandillero preparing to attack
Finally the matador enters the arena. This is the culminating phase, the part that everything else has been leading up to. By now the bull has been thoroughly weakened. It is tired, injured, and, most importantly, disillusioned of its own power. The bull does not charge at anything that moves anymore, but conserves its strength carefully; it does not heedlessly waste its energy sprinting across the field, but makes more calculated attacks. The bull also holds its head lower, and does not slash with its horns, since its neck muscles have been damaged. In this state, the matador can work with the bull.

The matador
With a red cape in one hand and a sword in the other, the matador dominates the bull. It is incredible to see. In just a minute, the bull goes from a dangerous, wild animal to mere clay in the matador’s palm. The matador can let the bull pass within a hair’s breath of his chest; he can stand a mere footstep in front of the bull’s face; he can turn his back and walk away. The bull is completely under his control. I cannot imagine the amount of time spent around bulls necessary to achieve this seemingly mystical ability.

Working up close with the bull
After about three minutes of capework, wherein the matador lets the bull come nearer and nearer to him, then it is finally time for the kill. The matador walks to the edge of the ring and exchanges his sword for a heavier one. (What was the first one for?) A hush comes over the ring. Hundreds of people hiss, urging all conversation and cheering to stop. The matador stands before the bull, holding the sword above his head. With his left hand, he shakes the cape. The bull charges, the matador lunges with his sword, stabbing the bull over its horns and into its back. The crowd erupts in applause. The bull begins to stagger. The bandilleros come out, sweeping their capes at the bull, who is now too weak to properly attack. Finally the bull gives up. It limps away from its harassers, making its way to the opposite corner of the ring. But soon it loses its strength; its legs collapse and it falls to the ground. A bandillero walks over and finishes it off with a dagger.

The fight is over. The bull’s body is tied to a team of mules, and dragged around the arena in triumph before being removed from the ring.



The bullfight is not considered a sport, but an art form. This is important to note, for as a sport the bullfight would fail utterly. There is no winning or losing, only a beautiful or an ugly performance. There is also hardly any element of suspense, since every bullfight follows the same course and ends the same way.

Of course there is a certain unpredictability to a fight, since everyone who enters the ring risks his life. No matter how much you practice around bulls, you cannot eliminate the chance of being gored. During my show alone, the bulls managed to knock down two people, and probably would have killed them if the others hadn’t managed to quickly get the bull away. But the occupational hazard of being killed by the bull, while certainly integral to the fight, is not what excites aficionados. Rather, it is the skill and artfulness of the matador they enjoy.

It does not take an imaginative eye to see symbolism in a bullfight. The bull is a force of nature. It is stronger and faster than any man, a heedless, seemingly indomitable force that will indifferently trample anyone in its wake. The bull is elemental. It is fought by men in elaborate costumes, following a prescribed ritual. The bull moves with violent impulse; the men move with elaborate grace. The bull stands on four legs, his dark brown body close to the ground; the men stand on two legs, holding their brightly clad bodies rigidly erect.

The men defeat the bull because they have intelligence. The bull cannot understand the difference between the cape and the man, and thus all its strength is wasted in pointless attacks. The men use an animal they tamed—the horse—as well as tools they invented—the pike, the barb, the cape, the sword—in order to dominate and vanquish the bull. Thus the bullfight dramatizes the triumph of human intelligence over mindless power, the victory of culture over nature.

Or perhaps you can interpret the spectacle as a psychological allegory. Bulls have been a symbol of the beastly side of human nature since the story of the minotaur in the labyrinth, and probably long before. The bull thus represents unbridled instinct, the untamed animal that lurks within us, the impulses that we have but must repress in order to live in society. The matador controls and then destroys these impulses, restoring us to civilization. In this light, the bullfight represents the triumph of the ego over the id.

In any case, the spectacle is meant to be tragic. The bull is a beautiful, noble animal, who fights with tenacity and courage. The bull is feared, respected, and envied for its power and its freedom. The tragedy is that this sublime animal must be killed. But its death is necessary, for the bull represents everything incompatible with society, everything we must attempt to banish from ourselves in order to live in civilization. To be absolutely free, as free as an untamed bull, and to be civilized are irreconcilable states. Living in society requires that we give up some freedom and remove ourselves from the state of nature. Although we gain in peace and security from this renunciation, it can still be sorely regretted, for it means leaving some impulses forever unsatisfied. Thus we identify with the bull as much as with the matador; and even though we understand that the bull must be killed, we know this is terribly sad, because it means a part of ourselves must be killed.

This is how I understand the bullfight. I am sure many would find this interpretation terribly jejune. But the more important point is that the spectacle is one that can be seriously analyzed for its aesthetics. It is not a mere display of daring and skill, but an artistic performance that touches on themes of life and death, nature and culture, animal and man. It is as ritualized as a Catholic mass, and just as laden with symbolism.

But is it moral? Should it be tolerated? Is it ethical to enjoy the spectacle of an animal getting wounded and then killed? Is it wrong to cheer as a matador successfully stabs a sword into a living creature?

Ernest Hemingway had this to say about the morality of bullfighting:

So far, about morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.

If I adopt Hemingway’s view, and take my emotional reaction as the basis of my moral judgments, then I must come to a different conclusion. Of course, I had many emotions as I watched. First I was impressed by the spectacle of the bull charging across the arena. Then I admired the stoicism of the horses as they withstood the bull’s attacks; and I felt pity for the bull as the lance was driven into its back. I was again impressed by the physical courage of the bandilleros as they let the bull charge full speed towards them. And of course I was filled with awe at the skill of the matador, who sometimes seemed more god than man.

But finally I was disgusted. Hemingway described the bull’s death as a tragedy, but for me it was not sad; it was sickening. I felt weak, dizzy, and nauseated. And it was not the type of nausea that I get in long car rides. It was a feeling I’ve had only a few times before. The first time was in the sixth grade. I was performing a dissection on a pig in science class. My partner was a vegetarian, but I was the one who had to leave midway through, because I thought I would vomit.

During that dissection, I felt that I had swallowed a stone, that I was covered in filth, that my blood was rancid, that my skin was alive and crawling. I had this same feeling when I saw a goat have its throat cut open in Kenya, and I had this same feeling as I watched a bull struggle across the arena, its chest heaving, its legs shaking, blood dripping from its mouth, only to collapse into a heap of quivering pain, and die.

If I followed my emotions, I must condemn the bullfight as unambiguously immoral. But I have read enough psychology to know that emotional reactions can often be illogical. And I have read enough Nietzsche to know that moral judgments are often hypocritical and self-serving. Indeed, as somebody who eats meat, I feel odd drawing a line between a bullfight and a slaughterhouse. Does it really make such a big difference if the animal is killed painlessly or not? We do not make this distinction with humans. You simply cannot kill a human “humanely,” though we think we can kill animals that way. So if I want to condemn the bullfight, ought I to become a vegetarian?

Hypocrisy aside, I have trouble deciding how animals should be considered in a moral framework. As I have written elsewhere, I think humans can be held accountable for their actions because they can understand their consequences and alter their behavior accordingly. Bulls obviously cannot do this; a bull cannot reason “If I kill this man, I will be killed as punishment.” Thus a bull cannot be held accountable in any moral framework; and this also means that a bull cannot enjoy the protection of moral injunctions. The golden rule cannot be applied to an untamed animal—or to any animal, for that matter.

For this reason, I am not against meat eating or hunting (except endangered species, of course). But bullfighting is distinguished from those two activities by the amount of pain inflicted on the animal, and all for the sake of mere spectacle. Now, I can understand why this didn’t bother anyone in the past. Death and suffering used to be far more integral to people’s lives; infant mortality was high, childbirth was dangerous, and most people lived on farms, constantly surrounded by birth and death. But nowadays, as we have banished death to slaughterhouses and hospitals, seeing an animal stabbed and killed before our eyes is shocking and gruesome. The reason the bullfight is tolerated is because it is cloaked in ritual and hallowed by time. The tradition and aesthetic refinement stops people from seeing the bullfight as animal cruelty.

As I said before, animals cannot operate within a moral system, so they cannot be protected by moral codes. The morality of bullfighting is thus not a question of the bull, but of us. How does it affect us to watch a creature suffering without feeling compunction? How does it change us to witness a ritualized death and to cheer it on? How does it reflect upon us that we can be so desensitized to violence passing right before our eyes? The willingness to turn a creature into an object, and to use pain as a plaything, is not something I want for myself. I do not want to be so totally insensitive to the suffering of a fellow creature.

Nevertheless, I have serious misgivings about condemning the bullfight. For one, it is an art form, and a beautiful one. But more importantly, I feel remarkably hypocritical, not only because I eat meat, but because my modern, luxurious lifestyle allows me to completely banish the killing of animals into the background. Instead of having to witness it, I allow death to happen behind the scenes, as I go about my day blissfully unaware. Perhaps having to witness death is a good thing, to bring me back to reality and to prevent me from living in a kind of bourgeois fantasyland.

In conclusion, then, I have to admit that I don’t really know what to think. I would be sad to see the tradition disappear, but I also find the spectacle sickening. In any case, I’m happy I went, but I do not plan on going again.



On Morality

On Morality

What does it mean to do the right thing? What does it mean to be good or evil?

These questions have perplexed people since people began to be perplexed about things. They are the central questions of one of the longest lines of intellectual inquiry in history: ethics. Great thinkers have tackled it; whole religions have been based around it. But confusion still remains.

Well perhaps I should be humble before attempting to solve such a momentous question, seeing who have come before me. And indeed, I don’t claim any originality or finality in these answers. I’m sure they have been thought of before, and articulated more clearly and convincingly by others (though I don’t know by whom). Nevertheless, if only for my own sake I think it’s worthwhile to set down how I tend to think about morality—what it is, what it’s for, and how it works.

I am much less concerned in this essay with asserting how I think morality should work than with describing how it does work—although I think understanding the second is essential to understanding the first. That is to say, I am not interested in fantasy worlds of selfless people performing altruistic acts, but in real people behaving decently in their day-to-day life. But to begin, I want to examine some of the assumptions that have characterized earlier concepts of ethics, particularly with regard to freedom.

Most thinkers begin with a free individual contemplating multiple options. Kantians think that the individual should abide by the categorical imperative and act with consistency; Utilitarians think that the individual should attempt to promote happiness with her actions. What these systems disagree about is the appropriate criterion. But they do both assume that morality is concerned with free individuals and the choices they make. They disagree about the nature of Goodness, but agree that Goodness is a property of people’s actions, making the individual in question worthy of blame or praise, reward or punishment.

The Kantian and Utilitarian perspectives both have a lot to recommend them. But they do tend to produce an interesting tension: the first focuses exclusively on intentions while the second focuses exclusively on consequences. Yet surely both intentions and consequences matter. Most people, I suspect, wouldn’t call somebody moral if they were always intending to do the right thing and yet always failing. Neither would we call somebody moral if they always did the right thing accidentally. Individually, neither of these systems captures our intuitive feeling that both intentions and consequences are important; and yet I don’t see how they can be combined, because the systems have incompatible intellectual justifications.

But there’s another feature of both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics that I do not like, and it is this: Free will. The systems presuppose individuals with free will, who are culpable for their actions because they are responsible for them. Thus it is morally justifiable to punish criminals because they have willingly chosen something wrong. They “deserve” the punishment, since they are free and therefore responsible for their actions.

I’d like to focus on this issue of deserving punishment, because for me it is the key to understanding morality. By this I mean the notion that doing ill to a criminal helps to restore moral order to the universe, so to speak. But before I discuss punishment I must take a detour into free will, since free will, as traditionally conceived, provides the intellectual foundation for this worldview.

What is free will? In previous ages, humans were conceived of as a composite of body and soul. The soul sent directions to the body through the “will.” The body was material and earthly, while the soul was spiritual and holy. Impulses from the body—for example, anger, lust, gluttony—were bad, in part because they destroyed your freedom. To give into lust, for example, was to yield to your animal nature; and since animals aren’t free, neither is the lustful individual. By contrast, impulses from the soul (or mind) were free because they were unconstrained by the animal instincts that compromise your ability to choose.

Thus free will, as it was originally conceived, was the ability to make choices unconstrained by one’s animal nature and by the material world. The soul was something apart and distinct from one’s body; the mind was its own place, and could make decisions independently of one’s impulses or one’s surroundings. It was even debated whether God Himself could predict the behavior of free individuals. Some people held that even God couldn’t, while others maintained that God did know what people would or wouldn’t do, but God’s knowledge wasn’t the cause of their doing it. (And of course, some people believed in predestination.)

It is important to note that, in this view, free will is an uncaused cause. That is, when somebody makes a decision, this decision is not caused by anything in the material world as we know it. The choice comes straight from the soul, bursting into our world of matter and electricity. The decision would therefore be impossible to predict by any scientific means. No amount of brain imaging or neurological study could explain why a person made a certain decision. Nor could the decision be explained by cultural or social factors, since individuals, not groups, were responsible for them. All decisions were therefore caused by individuals, and that’s the essence of freedom.

It strikes me that this is still how we tend to think about free will, more or less. And yet, this view is based on an outdated understanding of human behavior. We now know that human behavior can be explained by a combination of biological and cultural influences. Our major academic debate—nature vs. nurture—presupposes that people don’t have free will. Behavior is the result of the way your genes are influenced by your environment. There is no evidence for the existence of the soul, and there is no evidence that the mind cannot be explained through understanding the brain.

Furthermore, even without the advancements of the biological and social sciences, the old way of viewing things was not philosophically viable, since it left unexplained how the soul affects the body and vice versa. If the soul and the body were metaphysically distinct, how could the immaterial soul cause the material body to move? And how could a pinch in your leg cause a pain in your mind? What’s more, if there really was an immaterial soul that was causing your body to move, and if these bodily movements truly didn’t have any physical cause, then it’s obvious that your mind would be breaking the laws of physics. How else could the mind produce changes in matter that didn’t have any physical cause?

I think this old way of viewing the body and the soul must be abandoned. Humans do not have free will as originally conceived. Humans do not perform actions that cannot be scientifically predicted or explained. Human behavior, just like cat behavior, is not above scientific explanation. The human mind cannot generated uncaused causes, and does not break the laws of physics. We are intelligent apes, not entrapped gods.

Now you must ask me: But if human behavior can be explained in the same way that squirrel behavior can, how do we have ethics at all? We don’t think squirrel are capable of ethical or unethical behavior because they don’t have minds. We can’t hold a squirrel to any ethical standard and we therefore can’t justifiably praise or censor a squirrel’s actions. If humans aren’t categorically different then squirrels, than don’t we have to give up on ethics altogether?

This is not justified. Even though I think it is wrong to say that certain people “deserve” punishment (in the Biblical sense), I do think that certain types of consequences can be justified as deterrents. The difference between humans and squirrels is not that humans are free, but that humans are capable of thinking about the long term consequences of an action before committing it. Individuals should be held accountable, not because they have free will, but because humans have a great deal of behavioral flexibility, thus allowing their behavior to be influenced by the threat of prison.

This is why it is justifiable to lock away murderers. If it is widely known among the populace that murderers get caught and thrown into prison, this reduces the number of murders. Imprisoning squirrels for stealing peaches, on the other hand, wouldn’t do anything at all, since the squirrel community wouldn’t understand what was going on. With humans, the threat of punishment acts as a deterrent. Prison becomes part of the social environment, and therefore will influence decision-making. But in order for this threat to act as an effective deterrent, it cannot be simply a threat; real murderers must actually face consequences or the threat won’t be taken seriously and thus won’t influence behavior.

To understand how our conception of free will affects the way we organize our society, consider the case of drug addiction. In the past, addicts were seen as morally depraved. This was a direct consequence of the way people thought about free will. If people’s decisions were made independently of their environment or biology, then there was no excuses or mitigating circumstance for drug addicts. Addicts were simply weak, depraved people who mysteriously kept choosing self-destructive behavior. What resulted from this was the disastrous war on drugs, a complete fiasco. Now we know that it is absurd to throw people into jail for being addicted, simply absurd, because addicts are not capable of acting otherwise. This is the very definition of addiction, that one’s decision-making abilities have been impaired.

As we’ve grown more enlightened about drug addiction, we’ve realized that throwing people in jail doesn’t solve anything. Punishment does not act as an effective deterrent when normal decision-making is compromised. By transitioning to a system where addiction is given treatment and support, we have effectively transitioned from an old view of free will to the new view that humans behavior is the result of biology, environment, and culture. We don’t hold them “responsible” because we know it would be like holding a squirrel responsible for burying nuts. This is a step forward, and it has been taken by abandoning the old views of free will.

I think we should apply this new view of human behavior to other areas of criminal activity. We need to get rid of the old notions of free will and punishment. We must abandon the idea of punishing people because they “deserve” it. Murderers should be punished, but not because they deserve to suffer, but for the following two reasons: first, because they have shown themselves to be dangerous and should be isolated; and second, because their punishment helps to act as a deterrent to future murderers. Punishment is just only insofar as these two criteria are met. Once a murderer is made to suffer more than is necessary to deter future crimes, and is isolated more than is necessary to protect others, then I think it is unjustifiable and wrong to punish him further.

In short, we have to give up on the idea that inflicting pain and discomfort on a murderer helps to restore moral balance to the universe. Vengeance in all its forms should be removed from our justice system. It is not the job of us or anyone else to seek retributions for wrongs committed. Punishments are only justifiable because they help to protect the community. The aim of punishing murderers is neither to hurt nor to help them, but to prevent other people from becoming murderers. And this is, I think, the reason why the barbarous methods of torture and execution are wrong, because I very much doubt that brutal punishments are justified in terms of further efficacy in deterrence. However, I’m sure there is interesting research somewhere on this.

Seen in this way, morality can be understood in the same way we understand language—as a social adaptation that benefits the community as a whole as well as individual members of the community. Morality is a code of conduct imposed by the community on its members, and derivations from this code of conduct are justifiably punished for the safety of the other members of the community. When this code is broken, a person forfeits the protection under the code, and is dealt with in such a way that future derivations from the moral code are discouraged.

Just as Wittgenstein said that a private language is impossible, so I’d argue that a private morality is impossible. A single, isolated individual can be neither moral nor immoral. People are born with a multitude of desires; and every desire is morally neutral. A moral code comes into play when two individuals begin to cooperate. This is because the individuals will almost inevitably have some desires that conflict. A system of behavior is therefore necessary if the two are to live together harmoniously. This system of behavior is their moral code. In just the same way that language results when two people both use the same sounds to communicate the same messages, morality results when two people’s desires and actions are in harmony. Immorality arises when the harmonious arrangement breaks down, and one member of the community satisfies their desire at the expense of the others. Deviations of this kind must have consequences if the system is to maintain itself, and this is the justification for punishment.

One thing to note about this account of moral systems is that they arise for the well-being of their participants. When people are working together, when their habits and opinions are more or less in harmony, when they can walk around in their neighborhood without fearing every person they meet, both the individual and the group benefits. This point is worth stressing, since we now know that the human brain is the product of evolution, and therefore we must surmise that universal features of human behavior, such as morality, are adaptive. The fundamental basis for morality is self-interest. What distinguishes moral from immoral behavior is not that the first is unselfish while the other is selfish, but that the first is more intelligently selfish than the second.

It isn’t hard to see how morality is adaptive. One need only consider the basic tenets of game theory. In the short term, to cooperate with others may not be as advantageous as simply exploiting others. Robbery is a quicker way to make money than farming. And indeed, the potentially huge advantages of purely selfish behavior explains why unethical behavior occurs: Sometimes it benefits individuals more to exploit rather than to help one another. Either that, or certain individuals—either from ignorance or desperation—are willing to risk long-term security for short-term gains. Nevertheless, in general moral behaviors tend to be more advantageous, if only because selfish behavior is more risky. All unethical behavior, even if carried on in secret, carries a risk of making enemies; and in the long run, enemies are less useful than friends. The funny thing about altruism is that it’s often more gainful than selfishness.

Thus this account of morality can be harmonized with an evolutionary account of human behavior. But what I find most satisfying about this view of morality is that it allows us to see why we care both about intentions and consequences. Intentions are important in deciding how to punish misconduct because they help determine how an individual is likely to behave in the future. A person who stole something intentionally has demonstrated a willingness to break the code, while a person who took something by accident has only demonstrated absent-mindedness. The first person is therefore more of a risk to the community. Nevertheless, it is seldom possible to prove what somebody intended beyond the shadow of a doubt, which is why it is also necessary to consider the consequences of an action. What is more, carelessness as regards the moral code must be forcibly discouraged, otherwise the code will not function properly. This is why, in certain cases, breaches of conduct must be punished even if they were demonstrably unintentional—to discourage other people in the future from being careless.

Let me pause here to sketch out some more philosophical objections to the Utilitarian and Kantian systems, besides the fact that they don’t adequately explain how we tend to think about morality. Utilitarianism does capture something important when it proclaims that actions should be judged insofar as they further the “greatest possible happiness.” Yet taken by itself this doctrine has some problems. The first is that you never know how something is going to turn out, and even the most concerted efforts to help people sometimes backfire. Should these efforts, made in good faith, be condemned as evil if they don’t succeed? What’s more, Utilitarian ethics can lead to disturbing moral questions. For example, is it morally right to kill somebody if you can use his organs to save five other people? Besides this, if the moral injunction is to work constantly towards the “greatest possible happiness,” then we might even have to condemn simple things like a game of tennis, since two people playing tennis certainly could be doing something more humanitarian with their time and energy.

The Kantian system has the opposite problem in that it stresses good intentions and consistency to an absurd degree. If the essence of immorality is to make an exception of oneself—which covers lying, stealing, and murder—then telling a fib is morally equivalent to murdering somebody in cold blood, since both of those actions equally make exceptions of the perpetrator. This is what results if you overemphasize consistency and utterly disregard consequences. What’s more, intentions are, as I said above, basically impossible to prove—and not only to other people, but also to yourself. Can you prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your intentions were pure yesterday when you accidentally said something rude? How do you know your memory and your introspection can be trusted? However, let me leave off with these objections because I think entirely too much time in philosophy is given over to tweezing apart your enemies’ ideas and not enough to building your own.

Thus, to repeat myself, both consequences and intentions, both happiness and consistency must be a part of any moral theory if it is to capture how we do and must think about ethics. Morality is an adaptation. The capacity for morality has evolved because moral systems benefit both groups and individuals. Morality is rooted in self-interest, but it is an intelligent form of self-interest that recognizes that other people are most useful as allies than as enemies. Morality is neither consistency nor pleasure. Morality is consistency for the sake of pleasure. This is why moral strictures that demand that people devote their every waking hour to helping others or to never make exceptions of themselves are self-defeating, because when a moral system is onerous is isn’t performing its proper function.

But now I must deal with that fateful question: Is morality absolute or relative? At first glance it would seem that my account would put me squarely in the relativist camp, seeing that I point to a community code of conduct. Nevertheless, when it comes to violence I am decidedly a moral absolutist. This is because I think that physical violence can only ever be justified by citing defense. First, to use violence to defend yourself from violent attack is neither moral nor immoral, because at this point the moral code has already broken down. The metaphorical contract has been broken, and you are now in a situation where the you must either fight, run, or be killed. The operant rule is now survival and not morality. For the same reason a whole community may justifiably protect itself from invasion from an enemy force (although capitulating is equally defensible). And lastly violence (in the form of imprisonment) is justified in the case of criminals, for the reasons I discussed above.

What if there are two communities, community A and community B, living next to one another? Both of these communities have their own moral codes which the people abide by. What if a person from community A encounters a person from community B? Is it justifiable for either of them to use violence against the other? After all, each of them is outside the purview of the other’s moral code, since moral codes develop within communities. Well in practice situations like this do commonly result in violence. Whenever Europeans encountered a new community—whether in the Americas or in Africa—the result was typically disastrous for that community. This isn’t simply due to the wickedness of Europeans; it has been a constant throughout history: When different human communities interact, violence is very often the result. And this, by the way, is one of the benefits of globalization. The more people come to think of humanity as one community, the less violence we will experience.

Nevertheless, I think that violence between people from different communities is ultimately immoral, and this is why. To feel it is permissible to kill somebody just because they are not in your group is to consider that person subhuman—as fundamentally different. This is what we now call “Othering,” and it is what underpins racism, sexism, religious bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia. But of course we now know that it is untrue that other communities, other religions, other races, women, men, or homosexuals or anyone else are “fundamentally” different or in any way subhuman. It is simply incorrect. And I think the recognition that we all belong to one species—with only fairly superficial differences in opinions, customs, rituals, and so on—is the key to moral progress. Moral systems can be said to be comparatively advanced or backward to the extent that they recognize that all humans belong to the same species. In other words, moral systems can be evaluated by looking at how many types of people they include.

This is the reason why it is my firm belief that the world as it exists today—full as it still is with all sorts of violence and prejudice—is morally superior than ever before. Most of us have realized that racism was wrong because it was based on a lie; and the same goes for sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and xenophobia. These forms of bias were based on misconceptions; they were not only morally wrong, but factually wrong.

Thus we ought to be tolerant of immorality in the past, for the same reason that we excuse people in the past for being wrong about physics or chemistry. Morality cannot be isolated from knowledge. For a long time, the nature of racial and sexual differences was unknown. Europeans had no experience and thus no understanding of non-Western cultures. All sorts of superstitions and religious injunctions were believed in, to an extent most of us can’t even appreciate now. Before widespread education and the scientific revolution, people based their opinions on tradition rather than evidence. And in just the same way that it is impossible to justly put someone in prison without evidence of their guilt, it impossible to be morally developed if your beliefs are based on misinformation. Africans and women used to be believed to be mentally inferior; homosexuals used to be believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Now we know that there is no evidence for these views, and in fact evidence to the contrary, so we can cast them aside; but earlier generations were not so lucky.

To the extent, therefore, that backward moral systems are based on a lack of knowledge, they must be tolerated. In this why we ought to be tolerant of other cultures and of the past. But to the extent that facts are wilfully disregarded in a moral system, that system can be said to be corrupt. Thus the real missionaries are not the ones who spread religion, but who spread knowledge, for increased understanding of the world allows us develop our morals.

These are my ideas in their essentials. But for the sake of honesty I have to add that the ideas I put forward above have been influenced by my studies in cultural anthropology, as well as my reading of Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Spinoza, Santayana, Ryle, Wittgenstein, and of course by Mill and Kant. I was also influenced by Richard Dawkins’s discussion of Game Theory in his book, The Selfish Gene. Like most third-rate intellectual work, this essay is, for the most part, a muddled hodgepodge of other people’s ideas.