Why and Because – An author’s response to reviews

For those interested in having a physical copy of this website (with slight deviations), click on this link: Why and Because – The Art and Science of Moral and Ethical Understanding.

The nice thing about having a blog, is the ability to respond to people. I’ll add to this post as new reviews come in.

1st review: Great

“Lawrence Sheraton is a genius! Great Book”

[My Response: I’m not sure who this is from but my first thought was “Thanks Mom :-)”

I’ll take the compliment and place the first statement in the category of hyperbole and the second in good judgement.]


2nd Review: Intriguing, but pretentious and dismissive

This does have some interesting philosophical ideas. It talks about some research surrounding ethics, and it broadly mirrors my own positions in this regard (i.e., in viewing the avoidance of harm and fairness as the most important ethical principles). It also seeks to improve society, which is always welcome.

However, it also has some issues:

1. First, most of the relevant material seems to be available online at the author’s blog. It seems to be hard to justify paying money for the Kindle version, at least, with that being the case. [Response: Yes. I published EthicsDefined.org years before Why and Because – The Art and Science of Moral and Ethical Understanding. My priority is to reach as many people as possible and some people prefer books, some e-readers, and some websites. Blogs are free, e-books, and hard copy books are not. The proceeds from book sales (if they ever become something of significance) will go to supporting the EthoLiberal Society.]

2. It engages in slight misrepresentation of certain research. For example, Haidt’s research on ethics identified six moral principles, but Sheraton only recognizes two. That’s perfectly fine, but it’s misleading to present Haidt’s research as supporting Sheraton’s ideas. [Response: When I wrote this book in 2008 (published the website in 2010, and the book in 2017) Haidt’s moral principles in 2008 numbered 5, which are the one’s I noted in both the website and book. I fully acknowledge Haidt’s 5 moral pillars and I agree with his assessment that they are all present in every culture and even in the animal kingdom to some extent. We differ in how we interpret his data. Haidt added a 6th moral metric relatively recently, I believe relating to Liberty which I felt was an attempt to keep his ideas fresh. His 6th principle only adds a 4th item to the moral sphere and that is irrelevant to the two ethical pillars I focus on when defining the innate abilities we have that transcend time and culture (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). Also, his sixth and newer principle was not part of his www.yourmorals.org study, which is referenced in the book.]

3. The big downside is that it’s both pretentious and condescending. [Response: Why?] Merely reading this book will help you make others moral people [Response: No, but better understanding of ethical reasoning will help you detect moral arguments and relate your ethical analysis to them better] – but, as Sheraton helpfully tells us, only if we can convince ourselves first. [Response: Yes. To effectively argue an ethical point, you need to first analyze it yourself, using introspection and good questions. Once you have that bit in hand, you can engage other people.] Ethical reasoning, we are told, is simplicity itself! [Response: There is a paradox to ethics. Ethical knowledge “know-how” is innate. Ethical Understanding “know-why” is a skill that needs to be developed. Ethical understanding can be helped or harmed by cultural influences. Cultural memes are so powerful, they can subvert one’s intrinsic ability for ethical reasoning. Unraveling this paradox is what a good portion of the book is about.] Everyone is endowed with infallible innate ethical reasoning, [Response: “Infallible” – NO; “innate” – Yes.] and any actions that are contrary to Sheraton’s conception of ethics are the result of cultural interference. [Response: I don’t offer any of my own conceptions of ethics, i.e. value judgements in the book, outside of my views on gay marriage, which is used to make a point about how purity/sanctity memes can warp people’s ability to derive ethical truth with something that is pretty simple to evaluate from an ethical perspective. The focus of the book is defending the idea that ethical knowledge is innate, ethical understanding is key for deriving ethical truth in every circumstance, providing a mythology for doing so, and shining light on the elusive obvious fact that cultural memes have authority over people’s mental models of the world, and these memes warp ethical judgement.] Conservatism, religion, and assorted other elements of human experience are relevant mainly as obstacles to Sheraton’s perfect ethical reasoning. [Response: Cultural memes that warp ethical judgement are everywhere, just like bacteria. Just like bacteria, some keep us healthy and some make us sick. Ethical understanding is required to inoculate yourself from bad memes. I did not invent the Golden Rule, that’s pretty old. I think this reader missed many key points I labored to make throughout the book. This may be a failing on my part for not having better communicated my points, or maybe their personal frame is such that they could not see the points I was trying to make. Regardless, I would encourage others to read the book and share their conclusions. Criticism is like a honing stone if you view it the right way, some of it is valid, some is not, but it will make you sharper if you engage with in properly. I appreciate the input.]

Left unaddressed:

– What happens when one’s innate sense of ethics leaves one torn between two sides of an issue. [Response: This is address but not in great detail. Ethical deliberation weights the good and the bad. Difficult ethical matters are not B&W/Good or Bad, they exist in the gray-scale, where only better or worse best describe thoughts, actions, and options. Sometimes there is no right or wrong course, only a better or worse course given the information and options at hand. If you continuously approach a better arch, you will end up in a better place.]

– How one decides which objects or creatures are worthy of being considered for ethical reasoning by analogy. [Response: This is a function of one’s empathetic response to “others”, be it individuals, groups of people, animals, other living things, and even non-living things like issues of “the commons”, etc. Ethics is circumstantial (not to be confused with relative), so each circumstance has to be evaluated to determine the right course of action.]

– What the proper meaning of “this” is in “how would I feel if this were done to me.” [Response: “This” is whatever is being evaluated. In an moral context, it is the potentially unethical act in question that is being done to someone or some “other” entity. By asking this question, you are using the Golden Rule and your innate power of introspection to test a fundamental premise (the Golden Rule) with regards to core ethical considerations relating to harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Doing this allows you to derive ethical truth.]

– Why ethical reasoning based on the Golden Rule (basically what Sheraton is advocating) should be considered independent of culture, when different cultures vary in what they would have done unto them. [Response: A large portion of this book goes into great detail on this very issue. Cultural memes are ethically relativistic; and that’s a problem. Cultural memes are tools. Haidt’s 5-moral pillars (6 if you prefer his new set) are the tools that societies use to enforce ethical principles AND provide additional social control over matters of convention (non-ethical matters). Ethical principles are those society ought to promote and defend. They are innately knowable, they transcend time and culture; which makes the useful to resolve cultural conflicts. Social progress occurs when cultural memes more closely reflect ethical ideals. Societies decay when ethical principles are subverted by submission to authoritarianism, in-group bigotry, and purity memes that conceal the misdeeds of those claiming moral authority. A culture is king model of ethical understanding is a shallow understanding of ethics. A full understanding of ethics provides the insight that ethics transcend culture and time. It’s universally and innately knowable.]

– And assorted other issues that come along with asserting that an issue that humans have wrestled with for millenia is both trivial and something that everyone innately knows the answer to. [Response: Science has given us answers to many millennia old questions. There are a few key insights in this book that add to these age-old debates. I’ve provided a proof for innate ethical knowledge, “I feel, therefore I know ethics.” I’ve provided a context for the application of the Golden Rule. It should be asked to answer questions related to harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. I’ve provided an answer to the paradox, “If everyone is born with the innate knowledge of ethics, how come the understanding of ethics is so varied among people and cultures.” The answer is knowledge and understanding are not the same thing, AND cultural memes have authority over us and can subvert our ethical insights. Individuals have the power to affect cultural memes, but cultural memes affect individuals on a constant basis, from birth, and are exerted by everyone we know in various ways. Introspection is a powerful tool to unlearn the bad stuff and derive the correct course irrespective of the group or authority figure you are confronting. There are likely more insights, but you’ll have to read the book 🙂]

One suspects that one thing, at least, is true: until you can convince yourself that Sheraton’s sense of morality is correct, you likely will not be able to find that innate sense of morality that he mentions, nor even begin to convince others of it. [Response: If this person read the book completely, they would have use the term ethics :-/]

3rd Review: Great read!
[Response: Thank you!]

The core issue with religion and faith in general

I have compassion for religious people who finds comfort in faith; especially if it’s born out of personal trauma.

As an atheist, I’ve been advised not the challenge people’s religious faith. The atheist, by pointing out reality to the faithful, is seen as mean, or unethical for stealing a security blanket away from people. People often find themselves in a fragile states, and religion is said to offer great comfort. I fully understand that perception, I sympathize with it, and there is a partially reasonable, and ethical argument to be made in favor of allowing the faithful to maintain their faith unchallenged.

The larger problem is, the faithful do not realize the true costs of their faith. Most people accept, as a matter of faith, that having faith in God is a net good. If that is one’s default assumption, then anything that chips away at faith is a net bad.

If someone could maintain faith in private, and not bring their private thoughts on faith into the public sphere, then in theory their would be no issue with faith. But faith, by definition, forces one to warp reality to believe things that aren’t real. It trains one’s mind to reject uncomfortable realities. So in a very real sense, faith steals your sense of reality, and that is extremely dangerous. There are high societal costs associated with people training themselves to reject reality.

If faith and reality are at odds, and they are, consider weighing these two alternatives . . . What is more unfair: For someone of faith to insist I and all others reject reality, or for those of us who do not shy away from reality to insist the faithful accept what is real?

Facts are real regardless if you believe them. When a powerful group within society refuses to face facts, it puts society as a whole at risk. The high costs for maintaining faith are born on those forced to subsidize the them. Having to play along and pretend people of faith have equally valid claims on facts or reality in general is not only unfair, but harmful to social trust and human progress. The “faith subsidy” paid by society has real world effects, and the net effects are largely negative.

Faith is inherently unethical; it’s harmful and unfair to others. The scales of justice favor the atheist.




When Purity/Sanctity are claimed, be wary

I am slowly realizing that the Purity/Sanctity moral framework is the literary curtain of OZ.

I first became aware of this elusive obvious issue when I read Freakonomics and they statistically uncovered the high rates of cheating in sumo wrestling.  Sumo wrestling has a high level of purity/sanctity associated with it and so to even question the honor of the athletes or the institutions that it embodies is a type of amoral thought (i.e. sin).  Of course this curtain of purity/sanctity is designed to have power over people.

The players have social and finical incentives to keep the status quo going.  The sumo institution does as well.  And the fans of the sport, self sensor any skeptical ideas for fear of being ostracized by their society.  So who care’s about sumo wrestling… good question.  It’s not something I think about much.  That said, I started to look at all institutions that make claims of purity/sanctity and almost without fail, I see very unethical things going on.

Here are a few examples:

1)  The NCAA and its idea of “amateur” athletes.  See “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” for an in-depth look at the unethical “rules” that make indentured servants out of college athletes.  Watch this film with an ethical lens and ask yourself, “How would I like it if that was done to me?”  Place this in terms of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  See how those benefiting from the unethical climate justify their spoils through appeals to purity/sanctity.

2) The U.S. political system & current economic structure.  See “Park Avenue: Money, Politics, and the American Dream”  This is one of the best documentaries I have seen that does a good job of illustrating the devolution of the American political system and structures of mobility.  It’s truly amazing how entitled those on top are and how they appeal to notions of purity/sanctity to defend their spoils.  In addition, they warp notions of fairness/reciprocity with false premise arguments.  As the simple skewed monopoly study illustrates well, the idea that  everyone starts off with equal opportunities to succeed is crazy.  This reality alone is enough to make us question much of the status quo.

While an individual can with extreme effort increase their lot in life, effort is not always a determining factor.  For the vast majority of those born in poverty, they can quickly become the preverbal rat in a cage who received shocks with no means of controlling the shocks.  Eventually this rat will become apathetic.  Even if the rat somehow maintains energy and hope, as the rigged monopoly game shows, he’s not going to win the game.

When you are done watching that, watch the Frontline documentary, “Two American Families”   This documentary shows the impact of the “Shrink-to-Grow” corporate strategy, the “free trade agreements”, the weakening of union power, and the disastrous effects of not having a minimum wage tied to inflation.

3) The Catholic Church.  Concepts of purity/sanctity are almost thought to be the exclusive domain of religion, even though there are countless other examples.  The Catholic Priest is an interesting entity.  It’s a quasi-demi-god role, its a role that forces human males to be celibate, not to have a family, and exist in a isolated and lonely existence.  They are presented as unquestionable authority figures to entire communities; not to mention their complete authority over little boys – the alter boys.  Women, typically a dampening factor on all bad male behaviors are given very few roles in the church.

If you look at the world through a topsy turvy lens, you might ask the question, “how does one institution rack up over 100,000 instances of child abuse?”  “How is it this same institution has this same problem worldwide?”

Many people think gay men who are conflicted about their sexual identity try to avoid it and do so via repression by entering the priesthood, which turns them into pedophilies.  Of course there is a simpler idea, maybe pedophilies are attached to the church because it is custom built to allow them to do what they want to do with impunity.  You quite literally could not design a better institution than the Catholic church for a pedophile.  If you consider that, and let it sink in; it’s quite possible this “epidemic” of pedophilia is a fundamental design of the Catholic priesthood that dates back as far as the rules around celibacy for the clergy.

4) The U.S. legal system The U.S. legal system is one set of rules after the other.  There are procedures for procedures.  All of these legal procedures are designed to give the legal system an appearance of impartiality and a guise of justice.  Justice, in the conventional sense deals with ethical considerations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  It is rarely considered during a legal trail.  Lawyers and judges (typically former lawyers) are trained to eliminate ethical concerns from their considerations and especially from their legal arguments.

Legal arguments have devolved into a pure focus on legal chess.  Lawyers must reference legal laws and precedence to out play their opponents.  Judges feel constrained by, and self sensor their judgements based on existing law.  This creates a vicious cycle for those caught-up in legal debates about “wicked laws”.  Wicked laws are laws that by definition, by enforcement, or by intent inherently unethical.  If you have to appeal to the law to defend yourself, and if the existing laws are not questioned by judges, then a wicked law creates a vicious cycle.  The only appeal you can make to fight such a law is a constitutional appeal, which is really an appeal to a fundamental ethical argument but because fundamental ethical arguments don’t reference existing laws, lawyers have to stretch into contortions to tie ethical arguments back to any referable constitutional language that supports a basic ethical argument.  A system of justice that can not accept a direct ethical argument is a broken system of justice, which is what we currently have.

Lawyers, judges, and police officers who have drank the Cool-Aid believe the legal system is just and they will point to the purity/sanctity of the institution.  Most people uninitiated to the legal system will hear those appeals and nod in agreement.  Those in the know, and anyone who has experienced the legal system first hand knows better.  The current system is rigged to allow the person with the deepest pockets to drag on a court case until the other party runs out of money or has to let their case go so they can go on living their lives without closure.

Conclusion.  If someone is making a purity/sanctity argument, they need further scrutiny.  I think you will find a high correlation of unethical behavior behind most of these curtains.  If they are so pure, they should not be afraid of a little light.  Don’t let those in moral authority wave their hands and use their jedi-like mind tricks of purity/sanctity on you.

Many of our trusted institutions have devolved into lower states.  This doesn’t not mean that the foundation of the institution is fundamentally flawed, but it does mean that they may need a complete overhaul.  If there is enough decay, you may have to tear the structure down to the studs and rebuild.

Most of the seemingly intractable institutional and systemic problems have somewhat simple solutions.  The hard part is to get individuals to be less apathetic and start to care.  The rich and powerful are getting richer and more powerful but the level of consolidation is unbelievable.  There are way more of us than there are of them. So we need to organize around a few key principles.  I recommend a new school of thought.

Etho-liberal.  An etho-liberal would be someone who understands how to derive ethical truth in any circumstance; and who is liberal enough to question themselves and their culture using ethical understanding to improve themselves and their culture.

I think we should start Etho-Liberal meetings to replace a few institutions (Religions and Political Parties) with the goal of educating our people on ethics & civics so that we can rebuild our institutions through group efforts founded on ethical principles.

Historically, political parties organized through churches, other civil organizations like the Rotary Club, 4-H, and business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, etc..  Churches are a place people come together once a week and shared common memes about the world.  They are prime organizations that can execute grass roots campaigns.

The secular individual in the U.S. is too fragmented to organized.  An Etho-Liberal weekly meetings could take the place of a weekly church visit.  People would be encouraged to attend in person but could attend and engage virtually.  It would be a place of learning for adults and kids.

If this idea grew, it would enable large scale grass roots political action.  We could rebuild our failing institutions.  There has never been a time that it is easier to organize.  Let’s leave this world better than we found it.



Economic Justice

To question the innateness of ethics is to question the nature of man.  Ideas on harm/care and fairness/reciprocity date back to the earliest social memes and recoded laws.  “An eye for an eye” has been codified in written law for millennia and it appears in some form amongst all cultures (including some social animal cultures).  More recently, it has been worked out mathematically in tit-for-tat game theory.

The fairness/reciprocity aspects of an eye for an eye justice are obvious.  Maybe less obvious is the embedded harm/care aspect.  Reciprocal Justice memes clearly serve as a deterrent but they also serve to regulate the severity of the punishment.  Personal injuries are felt more severely than offenses that we do onto others.  So if punishment is left up to the victim, a “personal reciprocal justice” (based on reciprocal feelings) tends to be ratcheted up, thus escalating a single event into an increasingly severe feud.

An eye for an eye does not leave the whole world blind; it ensures only the aggressors, and of course their victim are blind (and possibly in just one eye).  If followed, it limits the harm done in the world by hopefully dampening aggressive individuals rage and by limiting the rage of the victim (and their groups’ rage) when seeking justice.

Aristotle defined ethics as, “giving someone what they deserved”.  Applied to harmful circumstances, it is simply another way of stating “an eye for an eye”.  Aristotle applied his ideas of reciprocity to positive circumstances as well.  He thought the best violin player should be given the best violin.  It is an interesting concept whose closest social system would be a Meritocracy.  Capitalism as an economic theory may attempt to indirectly make this happen but to directly apply Aristotle’s ideas to economic principles would likely be impossible and fraught with complicated issues regarding who is best at whatwho gets to decide on the distribution, etc. Communism in theory makes an attempt at Aristotle’s ideas; of coarse it fails because the concentration in power due to inherent the centralization of resources corrupts people making appropriate distribution of resources improbable and envy a constant corrosive element.  Try to define appropriate distribution of anything without creating envy… even a monkey can tell when it is being treated unfairly.

Capitalism in its current form has less to do with ethical principles than with concentration of power; something Adam Smith, a humanist philosopher would likely not be happy with.  The distribution of wealth in capitalism will always have foundations in external markets, which is why power tends to wax and wain in Capitalism and there is always some aspect of ethical principles inherent to the system.    Unfortunately, nobody has dreamed up a better economic paradigm.  I would encourage people to think hard about imagining a new paradigm, or better ways to regulate the excesses of Capitalism, because a model only works well when it matches reality well.

Our human nature has not changed much in millennia, so the parts of Capitalism that relate to human nature likely won’t change.  It is due to our nature and our sense of ethical justice that modifications to the current incarnations of Capitalism will have to change however.  As Jared Diamond so eloquently noted (and I’m paraphrasing) – When societies are faced with changes to their environment, then tend to double down on the core aspects of their culture which prompted them to success in the past, thus accelerating their demise.

Russell Ackoff studied corporate behavior, design, and failure and he provided good models for social systems that work just as well for government organization as for corporations.  His ideas can be applied to any social system.  In, Recreating the Corporation, he quoted his army training to bring home the point of the value of a good model, “If the map you have doesn’t match the terrain, then you need a new map”.

Institutions, and the memes they are built on are unfortunately slow to change and they consider the memes they are built on to be sacred.  So the typically response to a liberal thinker’s suggestion that they should be evaluated and improved is taken as well as a person smelling someone else and saying, “Hey, you stink.  You should take a shower.”  Even if the observer is correct, the smelly person will likely take offense, and the mob behind him, while recognizing the smell, will likely defend the smelly person’s “right to stink”.

Which brings us to Rights.  How to we define someone’s Right?  It is typically derived from cultural rights, i.e. – social memes either written down (law) or understood (social rules of etiquette).  Laws are typically enforced the authorities, i.e. people in positions of power within a society.  Social memes are enforced by everyone, i.e. people who have internalized the memes (in a very real sense, the memes have authority).  It is for the latter reason that memes, i.e. ideas – are very powerful if disseminated and absorbed.  Memes quite literally infect and change the behavior of their hosts.

If we desire a set of rights that are not culturally based, i.e. ethically relative, then we need to dig a bit deeper into natural rights.  We derive our natural rights, or human rights from our understanding of ethics.  Luckily, ethical knowledge is innate.  Unfortunately, ethical understanding, like all understanding require education.

Ethics can be self taught – derived from innate ethical knowledge; similar to how Newton derived calculus from innate mathematical principles.  Luckily, deriving ethical truth is much easier than deriving calculus; so instead of making people memorize ethical rules like most people learn math, we can teach people how to properly derive ethical truth, which will benefit individuals and society as a whole.  Unfortunately, the historical approach has been to make people memorize simple rules, i.e. The Ten Commandments and almost every other rule that followed.

So bringing this rambling divergence into economic justice and personal rights back to core ideas on justice… how to we design better systems of justice?  First, we need an educated population who understands how to derive ethical truth.

Does our system of justice need fixing?  Yes.  Luckily for the human race, western culture appears to be the most advanced economically, militarily, and ethically.  Our current systems of government and justice where derived from the principles of justice provided to us from the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment thinkers took us from the 10-yard line to the 90-yard line regarding ethical thinking.  Unfortunately, none of them got us to the goal:  a universal understanding of ethical principles.

I think the reason they failed to make the touchdown is they were looking for “Thee Rule or Rules” that applied to all circumstances and that was a fools errand.  They should have been looking for Thee question – “How would I like it if someone did that to me?” coupled with Thee Proof, “I feel, therefore I know ethics”.  Understanding ethics dissolves ethically relativity which allows us to design better models of our world using a foundation in universal ethics.

Unfortunately for the human race, the Enlightenment’s failure to finish with true ethical understanding, led to multiple moral theories – many of which worked well in certain circumstance but none that applied to all.  This led to ethical relativity being the place where western culture stopped its progress.  The ideas of the Enlightenment have been good tools, but they have been insufficient.

Philosophy as a course of study teaches people to question what they know, which is good.  As Mark Twain so wittingly observed, “It’s not what you know [that is the problem], it’s what you think you know that just isn’t so.”  That quote should be on every philosophy book.  The benefit of an education in philosophy is it get’s people to question what they think is so.  The bad part of philosophy as it is currently taught is the tools it provides only allows people to build 90% of a ethical world…. in theory.  Quality errors aren’t additive however, they are multiples.  If you average: .90 + .95 + .89 + .85 + 99 = .916 and 91.6% is pretty good.  If you multiply the same numbers, you get 0.640 and 64.0% is far worse.

Our system of justice is consider sacred because it is the foundation that everything is built on.  If it were to crumble, everything would crumble around it.  The problem with revolutionary ideas is people fear they will topple the existing social structure.  This fear is not irrational but revolutionary ideas don’t have to topple, they can simply transform.  Revolutions don’t have to be violent, they can be subtle and push ships onto better paths with incremental force over time (like a tide).  The amount of corrective actions and the resistance to said actions are what creates the friction that can heat up the transformation process.

Fundamental ideas and institutions typically surround themselves with walls of purity/sanctity.  These walls shielded us from questioning their worth.  They also shield the decay of said foundations, sometimes to the point where the foundation gives way and the institution completely fails.  Such catastrophic failure is preventable but it requires light to disinfect the rot.

Is it doing a good job?  More importantly, how do to we determine if it is doing a good job?  Ethical understanding is required to derive the proper answers.  Liberal thought is required to simply ask these questions of our sacred institutions which use memes of purity/sanctity to hide behind.

Our systems of justice should be rooted in ethics; not in procedures.  If our procedures create unethical outcomes, they diminish our systems of justice.  Our laws should have to state the intent of each unique aspect of the law; doing this would allow for ethical understanding of the law and a means of defense based in ethics; not in black and white interpretations of legal text which can be counter to the intent of the law in the first place.

Many of our institutions are smelly…. many need a bath.  We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water, but the baby certainly needs to be cleaned.