Archives for posts with tag: ethics

I need to do a good long piece on the casino industry, but here’s a little introduction.

Get that winning feeling! promises this billboard. All casino billboards say the same thing, either explicitly or implicitly: come here to make money. But this is of course a lie. So why do we let them do it?

Though it’s possible you’ll walk out of the Eldorado richer than you walked in, this is unlikely. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll lose. That’s what a casino is: a place where you lose. The purpose of the casino is to take money from the customers and give it to the house. That’s why it was built. If people don’t lose more than they win, the casino can’t stay in business. The casino exists to take away your money. That’s what it’s for.

Isn’t it weird that casinos are allowed to lie so blatantly to the public? In other industries there is at least a token attempt to enforce some sort of truth in advertising. But with casinos (and state lotteries), the core proposition is perfectly false and everyone lets it go. “Come here to win!” No, that’s exactly the opposite of what’s going to happen.

Why do we let them get away with this?

I want to take issue with some remarks made by Russell Blackford in the context of a review of Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life. I believe that he misunderstands the utilitarian project. He writes, for example:

Once we question the burden of utilitarianism, any attempt to justify it becomes circular.

It is true that utilitarianism has no a priori foundation; this is true of all moral systems. I share his resistance to Singer’s suggestion that we avail ourselves of “the point of view of the universe”. It’s close to obvious that the cosmic point of view is tout ça m’est égal — nothing we humans do can make much difference to the sum total of everything existing.

But this does not mean that every argument for utilitarianism is circular, only that, as Wittgenstein said, every explanation comes to an end somewhere. The idea that there could be an objective justification for any moral system is a myth. Religious apologists tell us that they have such a system; in their case, the claim is risible, but the idea of such a possibility has caught on. We need to discard it. There is no a priori basis for any ethical system; that’s not how life works. But it doesn’t have to be a priori to be convincing, practical, or beneficial.

The justification for utilitarianism is utilitarian. But this is not a circular argument. It starts with the factual observation that we are conscious beings with desires and aversions. One can imagine a universe in which this were not true, so it is not true a priori; still, for us humans on this planet it does happen to be true. Call it contingent if you wish, but in this world it is a fact. Now, the observation of this fact is easiest in the first person, but one sees routinely, indeed one cannot help seeing, that it is true for everyone else as well. I am clearly a conscious being with desires and aversions, and just as clearly I am surrounded by similarly configured beings. This means that everyone in the world divides experiences and situations into preferred and rejected; sought and avoided; enjoyed and detested. Everyone in the world can sincerely say, “From my point of view, temporarily putting aside everyone else, I prefer a world in which A, B and C happen, and not-A, not-B and not-C do not.” This means that it is at least conceivable that there exist (potentially) worlds in which everyone on Earth is happy, is satisfied, has no reason to complain.

OK, right away, several hands go up. And, yes, dozens of philosophers have devised hundreds of clever cases, designed to show either that the utilitarian proposal is incoherent, or that it would not have the positive results that are claimed for it. What if, for example, some people are only happy if their neighbors are suffering (sadists) — or when they themselves are suffering (masochists)? Such hypotheticals miss the point. Any system is going to have gray areas, edge cases and outliers. Such problems are not special to utilitarianism. Let’s stick to the basics for a bit.

What is the utilitarian principle? What does it tell us to do? It says that when deciding on a course of action, it is best to take account of your actions’ probable effects on all the sentient beings around you, and to choose those actions which will maximize (to whatever extent this is possible) the satisfaction of the preferences of those beings. Why is this the “best” thing to do? Because it maximizes utility. Do we know that maximizing utility is a good idea? Not “objectively”, but not a single person whose utility is getting maximized is likely to object! And if everyone who is affected is in favor, isn’t that pretty much all the approval one could ever need?

Here is what I take to be a second misconception. In the same piece, Blackford writes:

Utilitarianism’s burden would destroy our freedom to live our own lives, turning us, in effect, into slaves of the general utility of all others. … Utilitarianism requires us to treat ourselves and other individuals as mere instruments in the greater cause of maximising general utility, which is incompatible with having loving relationships where we care for other individuals for their own sake. … A utilitarian must suppress the dispositions to show love or loyalty, or friendship or tenderness, if ever she believes they are detracting from her goal of maximising general utility.

It seems to me that this description ignores the symmetry of the utilitarian ideal. I am no more a slave to others’ utility than I am to my own. Besides, how on Earth would maximizing general utility be incompatible with having loving relationships? There’s a heck of a lot of utility in loving relationships. Under what conditions would there be a genuine conflict between my loving someone and my being kind to others? That sounds like a very special situation, which means that the considerations mentioned earlier apply. First, there will always be puzzling cases, and second, all systems will have them, not only utilitarianism. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet describes a world in which to help one person is inevitably to harm another. And the playwright’s explicit moral is: that world is far from optimal.

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.

Arguing that utilitarianism is wrong-headed strikes me as perverse — like insisting that “aim for the best result possible” is not known with certainty to be good advice. What the heck is the alternative? Utilitarianism is not so much an argument about how things should be as it is an observation of how things are. People do suffer, and you can sometimes prevent it. And if you can, you should probably want to. That’s what it is to be good. The typical counter-proposal seems to amount to, “You can’t tell me that I have to care about other people.” Well, that’s true. You don’t have to care — but not caring hardly constitutes a coherent framework for moral action.

Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]

Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)

  1. It’s not about belief
    1. That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
      1. Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
      2. One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
      3. Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
    2. Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
      1. Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
      2. Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
    3. Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
  2. Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
    1. Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
    2. People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
    3. Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
  3. What we should do
    1. Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
      1. End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
      2. Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
      3. Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
      4. Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
      5. Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
    2. Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.

Going through “security” this morning in the Denver airport I was even more disgusted than usual. Look at this phonepic.

This is one of those ugly plastic bins you have to put your stuff in so it can get “x-rayed.” At the bottom it has a glittering ad for The TSA are selling ad space on the bottom of those bins. Is there no high-traffic enterprise so sleazy, specious or destructive that it cannot find buyers for its captive eyeballs? Who is the amoral opportunist behind this nauseating innovation?

Someone will say: What exactly is wrong with this kind of advertising? Well, setting aside any concerns regarding the ethics of advertising generally, it’s wrong to advertise with the TSA because the TSA is a scam. Zappo’s advertising dollars support the TSA in its mission (otherwise, I think we can fairly assume, the TSA would not solicit such dollars). And this mission has nothing but negative value for the travelers who endure its effects and the taxpayers who fund it. Good organizations do not give money to bad organizations, neither in exchange for valuable goods nor for any other reason. It is unethical to support unethical institutions.

Zappo’s should not support the TSA, and we should not support Zappo’s.

This is not the place to make a detailed case for the fact that the “Transportation Security Adminstration” provides us no real security and we’d all be better off without it. This has been amply demonstrated elsewhere. Let me just remind you of three points.

  1. The TSA has never apprehended a single would-be terrorist.
  2. This is partly because the TSA’s procedures are inadequate to catch any reasonably determined terrorist.
  3. Most important: the TSA’s very existence is based on a lie. The international terrorist organizations from which it is supposedly trying to protect us do not exist. The primary and sole purpose of the TSA is to make this completely fictitious threat more credible.

Every year since 2001, we taxpayers and travelers have been wasting tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of millions of hours on this absurd, insidious charade. I call on Zappo’s to terminate their relationship with the TSA immediately and to issue a public apology. Only if they do this will I stop telling everyone I know not to shop there.

There are many other wonderful places to buy shoes online. These include DSW, Endless (an Amazon offshoot), Gotham City Online, Piperlime (part of the Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy empire), and ShoeMetro.

Roy Sablosky, 2008.

~ 3,000 words.


So-called “religious” considerations have no place in any discussion of public policy. The reason is seldom mentioned but perfectly straightforward: there are no gods. Not even one. Therefore, no one’s “beliefs” regarding the opinions of their chosen deity are of any consequence. This much is obvious. Yet, we secularists are often remarkably tentative in our position that public policy in the United States must remain thoroughly secular.

Perhaps we hesitate because, though the gods are gone, people’s belief in them appears to be deep and sincere; and we are told that it is unseemly, or positively immoral, to challenge this special kind of belief.

In the crazy, mixed-up argument the American populace is having with itself over the role of religion in public life, from the Pledge of Allegiance to the teaching of biological evolution in public schools to the Plan B pill to the funding of “faith-based” organizations by the federal government, secularists have at least one serious disadvantage. We can be instantly stymied by talk of the “sincere and profound religious beliefs” on the other side. Even when we are certain that a given religiously-motivated proposal is morally debased, we are intimidated.

“You can’t withhold antibiotics from your child who is about to die from a simple infection like in the Dark Ages,” we say.

“But I have a profound conviction that X, Y and Z,” they say–and we wimp out.

“Oh, then maybe it’s OK… so hard to judge… political correctness… cultural identity… blah, blah, blah.”


In this paper I offer a possible corrective to this shameful timidity: the “sincere and profound beliefs” we keep hearing about are nothing of the sort.

Of course, even without such a finding we always were and still are justified in adopting a consequentialist stance, wherein it matters not at all what people believe in their minds, only how they behave in the world. But the Religious Right is ruthless and relentless. We need all the strength and will and intelligence we can gather. So this is the bit of intelligence I can bring today. It does not matter what religious apologists “believe,” because they don’t. I am hoping that this insight will provide an extra shot of courage or patience to secularists in their painful dealings with people who think that “religious beliefs” can justify the most appalling behavior.

In their recent, best-selling and delightful books Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris trounce every possible argument for the idea that religion is a good idea. Dawkins is both meticulous and funny; Dennett, a philosophical colossus, shines more light on the topic than it even deserves; and Harris provides a swift, no-nonsense defenestration. I really admire these guys, so it pains me to suggest that they are expertly solving the wrong problem. But if my hypothesis is correct, the whole program of disabusing believers of their belief is misconceived.

Here is the argument in a nutshell. First, ideas about deities are not incorrect but incoherent. That is, they are not ideas. And an idea cannot be refuted if it was never even proposed in the first place. Second, if an idea is without meaning–not really an idea–then no one can believe it. You cannot believe a concept that is not even a concept. I do not say you shouldn’t; I say you can’t.

The exposition that follows may seem abstract. But I would not have written it had I not believed that it might offer real help for real people. The “take-away” is that we should not bother trying to convince people to outgrow “religious beliefs” they don’t subscribe to in the first place. Let them have their so-called beliefs–but insist that in a public context such propositions become pseudo-rhetoric and will be ignored. People are free to express their “beliefs,” but cannot thereby justify any actions or policy, ever. In a public arena we want to know what people are doing or trying to do; religious considerations are simply and entirely irrelevant.

Epistemological considerations

Here is how the argument starts. Ideas about deities are not wrong, they are meaningless. All of them. Ayer said it this way:

Theism is so confused and the sentences in which “God” appears so incoherent and so incapable of verifiability or falsifiability that to speak of belief or unbelief, faith or unfaith, is logically impossible.

– Dennett, this way:

The proposition that God exists … is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds–or billions–of quite different possible theories, most of them disqualified as theories in any case, because they are systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation.

– and Wittgenstein, like this:

You cannot mean a senseless series of words.

For example. Someone comes into the room and asks us, “Europe artichoke?” Why can’t we answer this question? Well, because nothing has been asked. It is not actually a question. It is a random string of words with a decorative curlicue at the end.

The question, “Does God exist?” has the same meaning–that is, none. So the correct answer is neither Yes, nor No, nor even “I don’t know.” Actually, we do know!–because obviously, a statement with no meaning has no truth-value, and a question with no meaning has no answer.

I will devote no more space to the defense of this one point. (See the References for more support.) I take it as established that religious propositions are empty of meaning. But the implications of this fact have been inadequately explored.

Here is the one I want to pursue.

As Wittgenstein points out, a nonsensical phrase cannot be meant. I want to add: if it cannot be meant, neither can it be believed. After all, what would be the content of such a belief? You believe… what?–a senseless series of words? How would that work?

The idea of believing a meaningless idea is itself meaningless.

Someone says: “I strongly believe that Europe artichoke.” But if “Europe artichoke” has no meaning, then what meaning can “I believe that Europe artichoke” have? And just so, if “God is perfectly compassionate” is an empty proposition, then “I believe in a perfectly compassionate God” must be empty as well.

Someone might say, “But people don’t know that the items in which they believe are incoherent. They believe in them as if they are meaningful. They might be mistaken about the content, but the belief itself is real and sincere.” No. The question is still valid: You believe in what? You can believe that the Earth is a conscious being, because after all the Earth is a real thing and consciousness is a real thing. As a theory this would be hard to test, but it would still make sense to say that you are entertaining it. But a proposition containing the word ‘God’ cannot be a hypothesis, because the word and therefore the whole sentence has no meaning. You cannot meaningfully say it, and you cannot meaningfully believe it, no matter how much you want to, because there is no proposition there that can be the subject of your attention.

All ideas about gods are incoherent. They cannot be meaningfully transferred from one person to another (except as rote verbal formulas); they cannot be productively discussed; and they cannot be believed. Dawkins and Harris see religious belief as inadvisable. I see it as impossible. It cannot be done. It does not happen.

But, if, when people say they “believe,” that’s not what’s actually happening, then what is happening instead? What are these people doing, and why? What is the activity we call “religious belief”?

The saying of it

We do know that they are saying things. Meaningless things, as far as we can tell, but they are speaking–that, at least, everyone can agree on! Let’s follow another suggestion from Wittgenstein.

Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose do we say this? What kind of actions accompany these words? (Think of a greeting.) In what scenes will they be used; and what for?

For example. Here is a man saying, “I believe there’s a post office down the block from here.” We can picture him with his arm extended, pointing the way. Now, why did he say those words? Probably not to hail a cab, or to frighten away the pigeons. Almost certainly, someone asked him a question; his utterance is an attempt to answer the question.

Now here is a woman saying, “I believe God is good.” Why did she say that? We can easily imagine a plausible context: preaching, proselytizing, defending her faith to an atheist… and so on. And what would be the purpose of such a remark, in those contexts?

I hear words from someone’s mouth and I imagine that a thought is being transferred from her mind to mine. And so does she. But, in the case of “religious belief,” there is something very different going on.

Practical considerations

Is this too intellectual?–too much about thoughts? Let me cite a few supporting considerations of a more practical nature.

First, the more metaphysical sorts of religious claims, things like “God is One but also Three but also One,”–even if you can stretch your imagination to make them seem as if they mean something, have no practical implications. Almost by definition, they don’t inform or affect one’s behavior. If you are deciding whether to jump in the river to rescue a cat, whether God is Three or One or 42 does not matter. There is no point in thinking about it at that moment, or indeed at any moment except during Tuesday night Bible study.

Second, those few snippets of doctrine that might seem to be simple, understandable guidelines (“Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” for example) are generally ignored by everyone, including the people who constantly avow them.

Imagine that we ignored people’s words and tried to deduce the content of their beliefs from their behavior. Someone tells us: “These folks believe that adultery is punishable by an eternity of torture.” We watch for a while and say, “Jeez–it sure doesn’t look that way.”

Third, even when such guidelines seem to be obeyed, people can be following the rule because it agrees with them rather than the reverse. After all, other people might be “following” the same rule without even having heard about it. I believe that it’s wrong to kill other people. And that’s what it says in the holy books, but that’s not why I believe it. The book and the belief are independent–for me, and for everyone else.

You might still insist that belief is more a “feeling” than a “thought.” To this I would simply object that a feeling cannot be a belief. A belief is a thought, by definition. If you want to insist that the phenomenon in question is properly called belief, describing it as a feeling as well will not help you.

No, I don’t think any feeling or thought is or results in the avowal of “belief.” I think it’s the other way around. The avowal prompts thoughts and feelings, which become post hoc explanations for a speech-act whose true cause goes unnoticed by the speaker.

Phenomenological considerations

Sam Harris, speaking at the “Beyond Belief” conference in November 2006, brings up an interesting point but misses the big picture.

[T]he greatest problem with the rest of us–with secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists–is that we find it very difficult to believe that people actually believe this stuff. Secularists and religious moderates, almost by definition, don’t know what it’s like to be certain of God. To be certain of Paradise. To be certain that the book they keep by their bed is the perfect Word of the Creator of the Universe.

I’m not sure I know what it would be like to believe in an all-powerful deity. On the other hand, I’m not sure I see anyone doing it. Can you demonstrate, Mr. Harris, that people “actually believe this stuff”? Is there any evidence for this famous “belief,” besides their talking about it?

Maybe people don’t believe in deities, they just feel that they should say that they do. Maybe that’s what “being religious” is.

Maybe to be “religious” is to say certain words. The funny thing is, that when you say them everyone figures you mean them. Including you. As if the words are a report, a portrait, of your inner state. What if this assumption is wrong?

Wittgenstein again:

The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts … .

When secularists ask whether you “really” believe, the answer seems obvious, so you don’t check. You don’t meticulously introspect to try to improve your understanding of the phenomenology of your own belief. That’s certainly not what your pastor and your congregation want you to do! They simply want you to say the word ‘Yes’.

What really trips us up–we “secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists”–is not that we can’t imagine that people believe in gods but that we do imagine that people believe in gods. What we can’t imagine is that folks would make strong public statements without first checking that they’re true or at least mean something.

Well, they do mean something–but something entirely different from what we or the speaker would imagine. “I believe that Jesus was the son of God,” for instance, is not a philosophical position. It is not about Jesus, or God, or belief. Though made of words, its function is non-verbal. It is a social gesture, like a smile… a handshake… a badge to pin to your lapel.

“Believers” and “nonbelievers” alike have misunderstood the phenomenology of “religious belief.” It is not a thought, feeling, opinion, intuition, mood, or desire. It does not take place in anyone’s head, but in their circle of acquaintances. Church attendance, Bible study sessions, public confessions and exhortations–even private prayer–these things are not done because people believe; they are what constitute “belief.”

Avowals of “belief” are tokens of mutual affiliation. You say certain words to identify yourself as a member of a group of “believers.” One of the requirements for membership is precisely that you say those words–those special phrases called “beliefs.” The name is misleading, because as propositions they are incoherent and as beliefs they cannot be held. But that does not matter to the group. The requirement is that you pronounce certain special verbal formulas out loud, not that you actually believe them (whatever that would mean).

The whole fabric is woven of public behaviors, not private thoughts.

The unavoidable conclusion everyone is avoiding

In practical ethics it doesn’t matter what you believe in your mind, only what you do out in the world. And this applies with extra force when you don’t believe it, but only say it a lot! The fact that religious “beliefs” are not, as is always claimed, “sincere and profound convictions,” but something more like club-house badges, should change the way we deal with those who claim “religious beliefs” as their motivation.

So, here’s what we should do. When someone says, “I’m building a shelter for snowy owls, because Freyja says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “How nice of you.” And when someone says, “I beat my children because Wotan says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “Well, it happens that here in California beating your children is illegal and you have to stop immediately.” Georges Rey nicely articulates the consequentialist view:

If you think some particular war is right, or some sexual practice wrong, fine; then provide your reasons for why you think so. But don’t try to intimidate yourself and others with unsupportable, peculiarly medieval claims about how the “Lord of the Universe” approves or disapproves and will punish people accordingly.

To which we can add the observation (tentatively endorsed by Rey himself) that people don’t believe that there is a Lord of the Universe, but only feel obligated to say so.

No matter how many times the claim of divine permission is repeated, it should be ignored. It should be as if the batterer had said, “I beat my children because rivers flow into the sea.” The former does not follow from the latter.

Don’t argue about religion. Refuse to discuss it, not because people won’t pay attention to secularist arguments but because there’s nothing to discuss. Ignore any claims of religious motivation or justification. Pretend you didn’t hear! Bring the conversation back to actions, not beliefs. What are they doing, or planning to do? How much will it cost? Who will it benefit? This would be the real separation of church and state.

Imagine what it would be like if we started responding to religiously-motivated initiatives on a purely consequentialist basis, just totally ignoring the religious rhetoric, every single word of it! Wouldn’t that be great?



A.J. Ayer, Language, truth, and logic. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1936

“Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, November 5-7, 2006. Video available at

Richard Dawkins, The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006

Sam Harris, The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

Georges Rey, “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in Martin, R. and Kolak, D., The experience of philosophy, 6th ed., Oxford UP, 2005

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 3rd. edition, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003

There are only two moral positions: it’s OK to hurt other people, or it’s not. None of us hold either position consistently; on the other hand, it might still be fair to divide people into good and evil—based not, please note, on some notion of how they “really are,” but on their external behavior at a given moment.

We can make this absolutist dichotomy more reasonable-sounding by calling it a scale instead. We can say that there is a whole gamut, a spectrum of people, or rather of people’s behavior: something like

evil > conservative > liberal > good

Evil is when people act as if hurting other people is perfectly fine. The conservative style is to behave as if it’s a good idea to hurt at least some people, at least some of the time, if you reckon you’ve got a good reason. Liberalism when you treat other people as generally precious and generally not to be harmed, except under certain circumstances and only if you are exceptionally confident of your reasons. (Of course no one can ever agree on which circumstances are appropriate, or which reasons sufficient.) And finally we have the good person, who does not hurt other people, period.

I repeat. Our scale measures behavior, not ideas or words. A good person is one who does not hurt others, not one who thinks or says that hurting others is wrong. If you can refrain from hurting other people, you can ignore the whole idea of right and wrong. Tell us you’re doing it because Jesus told you to, or because you despise people who complain; tell us that you don’t know why you’re doing it. If you’re being good, it does not matter why.

Of course, if you’re hurting people, that too is independent of any ideas you might have of what’s right or wrong. There may be ideas that can reassure you that although you’re doing something bad, it’s not as bad as people might think, because you have good reasons for it; you’d be doing something good if you could, because you’re basically a good person. Well, I’m here to remind you how seriously lame an excuse that is. The people you are hurting do not know or care why you are hurting them. Nor should they. Hurting is hurting and while you are doing it, you are wrong, because hurting is always wrong. In fact, hurting is wrong by definition. That’s what ‘hurting’ means. You can’t do it and be in the right. The upside is, you will be right as soon as you stop—at that very moment (but no sooner!).

An interesting aspect of our simplistic scale is that almost everyone tends to rate themselves a notch or two higher than they are. People who exhibit evil behavior tend to say that sometimes you have to harm other people, it can’t be helped—a conservative position. In practice, of course, they do it anytime they want to. Die-hard conservatives will tell you that it’s only OK to hurt other people under exceptional circumstances. However, their behavior implies that most circumstances qualify as exceptional. And many liberals will swear that harming people is never OK; what they seem to mean is almost never, which is a whole different thing, seems to me.

Only being good is being good. It doesn’t matter what you think in your mind. It doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter what books you read or what posters you have on your walls. Bad is never good. You can’t fake this or talk your way around it. It’s too high, you can’t get over it; you gotta come in at the door. Only good is good.

one panel from ScaryGoRound

From Scary Go Round, 9 April, 2008.

One’s beliefs regarding the parameters of ethical behavior depend on one’s beliefs regarding the structure of the world. For example, if one believed that suffering in this world leads to pleasure in the next world, one would be that much happier to endure pain, and that much happier to inflict it.

Fortunately, no one believes this.

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