Moral Binaries

At heart, I’m an Emotivist. Following Ayer, I don’t believe that morals (and their brethren ethics) convey more than, “I like this, and I don’t like that.” Stevenson’s Prescriptivist extension makes sense, too: “I think this is good, and so should you.”

It seems that Hilary Lawson and I share this perspective. He makes the further point, one I’ll surely adopt, that morals and ethics are effectively ‘designed’ to shut down argument and discussion. It’s akin to the parent telling the kid, “Because I said so”—or “because it’s the right thing to do”.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

I’m a moral non-cognitivist, but people have difficulty enough grasping relativism and subjectivism, so I’m only going to reference moral relativism here. As a moral relativist, right and wrong were both subjective and contextual. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. I won’t derail this with obvious examples. Once one adopts a position, they enjoy the luxury of turning off any critical thinking.

I’ll presume that morals predate religion and deities, but now that the thinking world has abandoned the notion of gods, they’ve replaced it with morals and ethics—and nature, but that’s a topic for another day. The faith-based world retains a notion of gods, but that is fraught with the same relativism of my god is right, and your god is wrong.

As Hilary notes, we’ve transferred the authority, per Nietzsche, from gods to morals in and of themselves, so it again becomes a device for the unengaged. He notes, as I do, that some absolute Truth is a fool’s errand. Echoing Donald Hoffman, what we need is fitness—what Lawson calls usefulness—, not Truth, which is inaccessible anyway—even if it did exist, which of course it doesn’t.

He cites the position Wittgenstein arrives at in his Tractatus. There is and can never be a place where language—words and symbols—intersect with ‘reality’, so the best we can do is to talk about it in a third-person sort of way.

As I consider the works of McGilchrist, it feels like Lawson is establishing moral simplicity as a left hemisphere function. Seeing beyond this is a right hemisphere activity, so that’s not promising. There seem to be few right-brain thinkers and then it comes to convincing the left-brain crowd. In a poor metaphor, the challenge is rather like trying to convey the maths of special relativity to the same crowd. They are going to tune out before they hear enough of the story. The left-brain is good at saying, ”la la la la, la la, la”.  

Without getting too far off track, a major challenge is that systems of government and laws are facile left hemisphere-dominant activities. These are people in power and influential. Rhetoricians have right hemisphere dominance, but they understand that their power depends on defending the status quo that has elevated them to where they are. As Upton Sinclair said, “’It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This holds true for women and non-binary others.

In closing, Lawson asserts that apart from comic book supervillains, people tend to do what they believe to be good, and yet all goods are not created equally, nor all bads. And in the manner that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s good is another’s bad.

This moral discourse is not benign. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to steep this in contemporary politics, but this is being propagandised in things like the Ukraine conflict or the Covid response. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is divisive and creates a rift. That governments are propagating this divide is even more disconcerting, especially when they unapologetically backtrack only a few months later in the wake of people suffering economic impacts, including getting fired, for opposing a position that has turned out to be wrong and that was being asserted in the name of science and yet with little empirical support. These people are politicians and not scientists but attempting to hide behind science like a human shield, it serves to erode trust in science. Trust in science is a separate topic, so I’ll leave it there.

I recommend watching the complete video of Hilary Lawson to gain his perspective and nuance. My point is only to underscore his positions and to say that I agree. What do you think about morals? Are they a device to assert power over others, or is there something more to it than this? If not moral, then what? Leave a comment.

Quarantine and Social Justice

Gregg Caruso is interested in the notion of Agency from the perspective of justice, desert, and sentencing. This is applied philosophy.

My main argument against the possibility of free will is Nietzsche-Strawson’s causa sui argument, which I’ve touched on a few times by now, but I haven’t yet fully articulated my position. I’ll get to that another day. I’d also like to create another video, as I would like to do for this as I explore in more detail.

Ostensibly, this is a compatibilist view that leaves a modicum of free will, even with causa sui in place. I hope this illustration will be helpful.

In the centre of the illustration is you, the self of some arbitrary person who shall act as our subject. Let’s assume a couple of basic premises:

  1. We either live in a relaxed causal, deterministic or indeterministic universe.
  2. Causa sui is in full force and effect: one cannot cause any aspect of one’s self.

I include the term relaxed in the first premise, so I don’t have to deal with a fully deterministic universe governed entirely by the notion captured by Schrödinger’s equation. The second premise is in place to serve as a limitation: even if consciousness is an emergent property, its emergence doesn’t grant some insuperable metaphysical powers. One cannot reach outside of one’s self.

The scenario plays out as follows. You have been apprehended for violating some statute. Let’s say that you’ve taken an item from a retail store. As you are leaving the store, the police stop you. When asked if you took the item, you answer in the affirmative. This is a very efficient municipality, so you are taken immediately to a magistrate to make a plea.

In this scenario, Caruso is your attorney at law. His argument is that, given causa sui, you cannot be responsible for who you are. We’ve been here before. Since you can’t be responsible for who you are, any sentence to punish you would be unethical, as you’ve done nothing to deserve it. This is the notion of desert in the realm of retributive justice.

The judge buys this argument, but s/he counters with three possible courses of action. You may not be responsible for who you are, but we are a community of laws. You are a victim of your circumstances, so we cannot look backwards. For whatever reason—and through no fault of your own, by definition—, you were broken relative to complying with community norms.

Social Justice

Firstly, we may wish to make an example of you, to signal the community that we will incarcerate people who break the laws. This is more a public service purpose than a punishment.

Secondly, if you had contracted a communicable disease—we’re looking at you Covid—, you can be quarantined under the consideration of the common good. Framed this way, it is not a punishment, we just don’t want it to happen again.

Lastly, we may also be justified on the grounds of rehabilitation. I highlight the ‘re‘ in rehabilitation because some people may not have been ‘habilitated’ in the first place. Perhaps think of them as feral. In any case, a computer programming analogy might make sense here.

So what’s this all about? Remember, causa sui says that you cannot be held responsible for creating yourself. The claim is that you are a product of your nature and nurture. Genetically speaking, perhaps there was some reason that you could not incorporate inputs into factors that allowed you to appropriately interpret this law—or any law, more generally. Or maybe, you were never exposed to this law or category of law before.

In the preventative vein, we could be signalling, ‘We caught You taking an item from a shop without paying. Now you know this, and we may make an example of you since you are caught as well’.

Quarantine may be a bit of a stretch in this scenario, so feel free to substitute a more serious offence if it helps you to remember this. Perhaps You killed someone. Even without punishment, we may want to get You off the streets before another killing is perpetrated. I’ll come back to this one.

Rehabilitation makes sense even if one is not responsible for one’s self. Presuming that you are a product of programming—family, culture, peers, and so on—, perhaps you just need to be rewired. Perhaps a particular subroutine was not implemented or activated correctly. This rationality could be used as a non-punitive justification.


The public prevention case may be why offenders were pilloried in by-gone days. Display in a public square may inform some who may have missed the lesson the first time around, hence dissuading taking similar actions. But unless this ‘public service message’ reached enough people, it would probably not be the best rationale.

Quarantine may sound OK on the surface, but it’s actually rather specious. Firstly, that You knicked a trinket. What exactly is the risk of contagion? Petty theft is not known to be particularly communicable. Secondly, just because you’ve done something once is little measure of whether you’ll do it again. In fact, if this were true, then one might have assumed that you could never have committed the offence because of your history.

Rehabilitation may likely be the best option among these. If you missed that particular lesson or had forgotten or diminished the calculus, remediation may do just the trick. However, if your ‘operating system’ is not up to snuff, it’s not a matter of inputs. It’s a matter of processing capability.

Psychological intervention is in its infancy, so the probability of remediating this is low, if not a crap shoot. And not all such processes can be remediated. This could lead one to fall back on the quarantine option, but who is the competent assessor in this case?

It’s easy enough to assess if You is Hannibal Lecter or tells you straight out that s/he intends to repeat the offence. Some cognitive deficiencies are simple enough to recognise. But what about the grey areas—all of that space in between?

And who is making sure that the judges are not being punitive simply because they haven’t yet eaten lunch?


Bringing this to a close, if we have no free will, it makes no sense to punish. Sadly, most justice systems promote retributive justice and punishment in sentencing. I’ll spare you my diatribe on how I believe most people attracted to jurisprudence, law, and law enforcement have been conditioned. And whilst Caruso feels justified in foreword action, I am more sceptical. This said, I’ll take what I can get.

This post is pretty much a stream of consciousness. I hope to give it better treatment in a future video.

Trolly Dilemma

Tom Guald wants us to imagine a different trolly dilemma but with a different pair of options. Or is that the telephone game?

This image speaks for itself, so I won’t editorialise at the moment, save to mention that I find the scenario to be hilarious. If you like eating cooked lobster, I suppose that the elephant path makes the most sense—and of course, the elephant is already on fire.

What would you do?


A runner helps a competing runner to complete and win a race. The competitor had been confused, as signage was in a language foreign to him, so the other helped him out.

Iván Fernández Anaya and Adel Mutai Race

Although the debate in the comments thread on LinkedIn of whether the rules of the event supersede the overarching human condition leans heavily toward cooperation over competition, some are vehemently opposed to the thought of ‘breaking the rules’ of the contest.

I suggest that this is an issue of framing. Sporting events are a wholly contained subset of the human condition. If you visualise this as a Venn diagramme envisaged as camera lenses, you’ll see that the event is a deliberate tight shot. One with the broader human experience cropped out. But the viewer has the ability to pull back and capture a wider shot. This shot recognises factors other than winning a petty sporting event. It emphasises cooperation over competition.

There is no moral imperative here. One may adopt either lens without shame. As for me—and apparently most—, the wider shot is preferred. But a wider lens is not always the default view for humans.


When it comes to how, as people, we fit into the larger universe, we tend to adopt a human-centric view. And one doesn’t need to be a Humanist to take this position. Most religions do this by proxy, where the gods have appointed humans as the Ones.

How can one not be a racist?

This is the same choice as whether to adopt a tight or a wide shot. And some people take an even tighter shot, where the focus is on nationality or race or colour or sex or gender or affluence or whatever. But the wide shot captures all species on the same plane. Peter Singer is the leading Western philosopher in this space. In his world, Humanism, this human-centred view, is Speciesism.

The most common responses to this charge are to dismiss it on the grounds that ‘humans are superior for reasons’ or that ‘as long as we consider the biosphere as a system, we can still take an elevated position’. I don’t truly accept either of these positions. The first is, frankly, narcissistic, as is the second, but humans have an abysmal track record when systems thinking and complexity are involved.

How can one not be a Speciesist?

The obvious question, then, akin to, ‘How can one not be a racist?’ in these #BlackLivesMatter times, is ‘How can one not be a Speciesist?’ But there are still wider lenses as we pull back to capture the entire taxonomy. We can elevate species to genus to family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain, or life. And why stop there except for moral convenience?

Ask yourself: What lens are you using? What is your frame? Where is your focus? What is your depth of field?

Character Arc

The US government are a crime syndicate, a veritable mafioso family. The current Don, quite literally, Donald Trump, The Don, is a conman at all levels. Some forget that conman is short for confidence man. About a quarter of the eligible voters had confidence in him–or at the least had more confidence in him than in his rival.

The US don’t have a vote of no confidence, but the impeachment process may serve as a worst case proxy. Watching the news, much f the political theatre and grandstanding revolves around the issue of character. It all sounds so tidy. A particular legal defence tactic is to impugn character. He’s got character; she doesn’t. One can’t trust that bloke even though he’s in a position presumably predicated on this character thing.

Character is a quaint notion, remnant of specious Virtue Ethics. The warring families–let’s call them Republicans and Democrats–attempt to secure the moral high ground by making a claim on the impeccability of their character pedigree. But what is character?

Character is another weasel word mired in cultural relativism. Essentially, it’s an asymptotic function wherein a person approaches some archetypal ‘good life’, as in eudaimonia. In the end, it suffers the fate of a no true Scotsman logical fallacy.

Is Utilitarianism a thing?

I stumbled across this video this afternoon, and it got me thinking….

I’ve always found all normative ethical foundations to be lacking, from virtue ethics to deontology and consequentialism, each for its own reasons. Utilitarianism falls under consequentialism and is the foundation of much economic theory, the concept that people maximise this notion of pleasure. Aside from the other issues in utility theory, pleasure is not measurable.

But if emotions are also the result of social construction, what would be optimised if we could even maximise in the first place?

Emotions are not what we think they are.

There Are No Accidents

There are no accidents, or so claimed Carl Jung in his work on synchronicity, positing that events may be connected causally or by meaning. Some people see this as the work of some karmic force whilst others use it to suggest that a person is being passive-aggressive.


In the karmic sense, this means that there is no escaping fate, and, as with Santa Claus, he is constantly watching you, like some personified panopticon. See the short post on karma, too.

I’m not sure if the bible story of Judas and Jesus is really a karmic anecdote, but under this paradigm, everything is a no-fault situation. Judas was fated to betray Jesus. And despite this lack of responsibility, Judas still committed suicide once he realised what he had done and despite it not being an accident.


In the passive-aggressive sense, it is to say the event A may be caused by something in person B’s unconscious mind—and not by some collective consciousness or a Universal Overseer. So, secretly, if Person B accidentally backed into your parked car, it may not be by some conscious volition; rather, it’s because or some deep-seated anger or other ill-will harboured and directed for you.

The problem is that if you accept that there are no accidents, then you—intentionally or otherwise—parked your car in a place where it would necessarily be hit by someone—by anyone. It just happened to be this other person for whom there are also no accidents. So, both parties are blameless. But people love to blame, and they like to defer responsibility.


The bottom line is that both of these concepts are a bit sketchy. In a world of no free will, the karma situation might be plausible, but this wreaks havoc on moral-ethical systems. I discuss that in most post on karma.

Geuss Who?

A mate in an online forum turned me onto Raymond Geuss, who’s got just the perspective I’ve been looking for. I’ve felt that the concepts of rights and justice are weak on etymological grounds, but Geuss’ critique is even more fundamental. In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss undercuts the positions of both Nozick and Rawls. I’ve never been a fan of Nozick, but I do consider (have considered) myself to be a bit of a Rawlsian.

Nozick is a key figure underneath Libertarianism, as this movement is very centred on rights. Opting for rights as his starting place as his preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” — Robert Nozick

As Geuss points out, Nozick ‘allows that bald statement to lie flapping and gasping for breath like a large, moribund fish on the deck of a trawler, with no further analysis or discussion, and proceeds to draw consequences from it’. In other words, Nozick leads with an unsubstantiated claim that ‘individuals have rights’, and then ‘advances’ his position tautologically.

As for Rawls, justice is his centrepiece. In his A Theory of Justice, the opening line is “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”. He merely starts from this emotional place and advances his theory based on this basis of justice, yet nowhere does he explain of defend why this should be the foundation. As with Nozick, Rawls simply conjures this out of thin air.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” — John Rawls

On top of this, Geuss comments on the shaky etymologic foundation of both justice and rights. Harkening back to the Latin origin of justice,

As Geuss writes, ‘To begin with the question of the concept of “justice,” it is striking how unclear this concept is in ordinary language and to what extent conceptions of justice differ from one context to another and in different human societies at different times. Thus at the beginning of one of the standard treatises of Roman law, the codification made for the emperor Justinian — one of the most influential texts in European history — we find that the very first sentence gives us a definition of “justice”: “iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.” That is, justice is “the constant and unflagging will to give each person what is due to him.”

What have the Romans ever done for us?” – Monty Python

Then he goes on to clarify that “what is due to him” is radically different dependant on being a citizen, an alien, a slave, a woman, a minor, and so on. To simplify this, we are stuck in a tautological loop: one is due what one is due, as determined somewhat exogenously.

Rights don’t fare any better, being even more ambiguous, so I don’t feel so bad about pursuing the irrelevance of these virtue concepts on etymological grounds.


As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.