Category Archives: Ethics

Calling things by their correct names is an aspect of self-control

From a comment by Bruce Charlton on this post (emphasis added):

Somebody who was married once told me that he was always ready to ‘commit adultery’ (he did not use those words) if ever the opportunity presented itself (plus of course he sought such situations), and that not to do this would be crazy.

From William James’s Principles of Psychology:

[I]n describing the ‘reasonable type’ of decision, it was said that it usually came when the right conception of the case was found. Where, however, the right conception is an anti-impulsive one, the whole intellectual ingenuity of the man usually goes to work to crowd it out of sight, and to find names for the emergency, by the help of which the dispositions of the moment may sound sanctified, and sloth or passion may reign unchecked. How many excuses does the drunkard find when each new temptation comes! It is a new brand of liquor which the interests of intellectual culture in such matters oblige him to test; moreover it is poured out and it is sin to waste it; or others are drinking and it would be churlishness to refuse; or it is but to enable him to sleep, or just to get through this job of work; or it isn’t drinking, it is because he feels so cold; or it is Christmas-day; or it is a means of stimulating him to make a more powerful resolution in favor of abstinence than any he has hitherto made; or it is just this once, and once doesn’t count, etc., etc., ad libitum – it is, in fact, anything you like except being a drunkard. That is the conception that will not stay before the poor soul’s attention. But if he once gets able to pick out that way of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving the various opportunities which occur, if through thick and thin he holds to it that this is being a drunkard and is nothing else, he is not likely to remain one long. The effort by which he succeeds in keeping the right name unwaveringly present to his mind proves to be his saving moral act.

Of course no one speaks of “being a drunkard” now, nor of “committing adultery.” Drunkards have been superseded by “alcoholics” (a medical term), and no one would be so gauche as to commit adultery when it is so much more civilized to simply have an “affair” or an “indiscretion.” (See documentation here and here.) Examples of such euphemistic treatment of vice and sin (two words which are themselves on the way out) could easily be multiplied.

We may think we are doing the drunkard and the adulterer a favor by finding gentler, less judgmental terms for their vices, when in fact the opposite may be true. Without confession — that is, admitting that a sin is a sin and refusing to call it anything else or make excuses for it — repentance is nearly impossible. Modern “sensitive” language makes it harder to think the thoughts which lead to reform. In shying away from judging others, we make it harder to judge ourselves.

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Filed under Ethics, Language, Psychology


I recently read Sam Harris’s short e-book Lying (my first book by Harris; I’ve never read the atheist tracts that made him famous). The message: Lying is wrong, and the exceptions to that precept are about as rare, and about as relevant to most people’s everyday life, as the exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill.”

It’s an attractive principle, and one that I very much wanted to agree with, but Harris’s book nevertheless left me with a few major reservations.


Overall, Harris makes a compelling case against the telling of so-called white lies, but they still seem necessary in some cases.

For example, Harris tells the story of a couple who had invited some guests to stay at their house for a week. The husband, Daniel, didn’t really like one of the guests and had tried to argue his wife out of the idea of inviting them, but had in the end relented. When the unwelcome guest arrived, Daniel greeted him with, “It’s great to see you. We love having you here” — only to have his young daughter, who had overheard him arguing with his wife, blurt out, “But, Dad, you said you didn’t want them to stay with us.” Daniel of course denied having said any such thing, but the damage had been done and the entire week was extremely awkward.

The source of Daniel’s problem certainly seems to be that he incautiously spoke the truth in front of his daughter, who then repeated that truth in front of his guest — but, incredibly, Harris presents Daniel’s story as a cautionary tale against lying! He concludes the anecdote with this moral: “A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie.”

So what would Harris have had Daniel do? Should he have greeted his unwelcome guest coolly or even hostilely in the name of honesty? When his daughter let the truth slip, should he have said, “That’s right, honey. I didn’t want them to stay with us, but your mother insisted”? Such behavior could hardly have made things any less awkward. Should he have concealed his dislike of the guest entirely, lying even to his wife and daughter? Harris would obviously find that unacceptable.

I suppose Daniel’s real mistake was allowing his wife to win the argument in the first place. People who want to be both honest and polite should never allow anyone to set foot in their house whom they are not literally delighted to see.


The behavior of Daniel’s daughter also raises another issue. The decision to either lie or tell the truth is not always a strictly personal one, because the information you share is rarely ever just your information. Suppose that, rather than being a little child who didn’t know any better, Daniel’s daughter had been an adult consciously following principles like Harris’s. Would it have been morally justifiable for her to tell a truth about her father which her father himself was unwilling to tell?

One of the points Harris makes is that lying is a violation of the autonomy of the person being lied to; the liar presumes to decide what another person should and should not be allowed to know. But telling the truth about another person against that person’s will also seems to be a violation of autonomy.

To take an everyday example, say you answer your home phone, and the person on the other end (Bob, let’s say) asks if one of your family members (Alice) is there. Alice says, “Is that Bob? Tell him I’m not here!” Whether or not you approve of Alice’s lie, what should you do in such a situation? You could lie to Bob as instructed (or use some other lie, like “She can’t come to the phone right now”), you could do your best to repeat Alice’s lie without lying yourself  (à la Jeeves: “Mr. Wooster asked me to say that he has gone to Switzerland”), or you could be bluntly honest and say something like, “Yes, she’s here, but she doesn’t want to talk to you.” The first option wrongs Bob, the third wrongs Alice, and the second will be functionally equivalent to one of the other two, depending on how bright Bob is.

In such situations — and they come up all the time — it’s not at all clear that honesty should always trump all other considerations.


Another potential problem is that strict honesty about your own uncharitable thoughts, bad habits, etc., may encourage those thoughts and habits. Giving voice to bad thoughts doesn’t “release” them; it reinforces them. Brigham Young put it well:

Let not thy tongue give utterance to the evil that is in thine heart, but command thy tongue to be silent until good shall prevail over the evil, until thy wrath has passed away and the good Spirit shall move thy tongue to blessings and words of kindness. So far I believe in being a hypocrite. This is practical with me. When my feelings are aroused to anger by the ill-doings of others, I hold them as I would a wild horse, and I gain the victory.

So far I think I believe in being a hypocrite, too. If hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue (as La Rouchefoucauld said), then perfect honesty is a refusal to pay that homage. For those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, unconditional honesty entails shamelessness. If someone asks me what I think of a particular person, and I say, “I fantasize about having sex with her” or “I hate his guts and hope he dies a horrible death,” the implicit message I am sending, both to my interlocutor and to myself, is that there is nothing wrong with harboring such feelings. A too ready honesty about unworthy thoughts and deeds conveys and reinforces an attitude of moral nonchalance. (Even by writing those as examples of thoughts an ordinary person might often have, I convey such an attitude.)


Having said all that, though, I still find myself wanting to agree with Harris and feeling that absolute honesty is indeed a virtue worth striving for. I hope to find some way of addressing the above concerns within the framework of honesty.


Filed under Ethics

Willpower: Exercise or conserve?

After all the more or less fruitless posts on free will as a metaphysical problem, here’s something a little more practical. The following is from a recent article by John Tierney  discussing some of Roy F. Baumeister’s research on what they are calling “ego depletion” or “decision fatigue.”

[Baumeister’s] experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.

According to this view, the best way to maintain a high level of willpower is to conserve it by not using it too much! This can be contrasted with the view that sees willpower as a muscle to be built up by constant exercise — what we might call the Hamlet theory of self-control (“Refrain to-night, and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence”).

As the muscle metaphor suggests, the two views are not necessarily incompatible. Other things being equal, someone who has just run a mile will be weaker than someone who has not — but someone who runs a mile every day will be stronger. Baumeister’s experiments (at least the ones mentioned in the article) only measure the short-term effects of decision fatigue, so they do not rule out the possibility that willpower works the same way. It would be interesting to see the results of a study on the effects of a long-term regimen of willpower training.


There can be little doubt that, when it comes to any one specific behavior, Hamlet is right that each abstinence makes the next easier — but this probably has more to do with establishing or disrupting habits than with building up willpower. Once something becomes a habit, it no longer requires much in the way of decision-making or willpower. The Spartans didn’t have to force themselves every evening to have nothing but black broth for dinner; this habit was probably so entrenched that nothing else even seemed like a live option. Once your brain has got the idea that this is just what we do, that no decision-making is required, willpower ceases to be an issue. When I was a Mormon missionary, I had an enormous number of rules to follow — get up at 6:00 every morning, never put your hands in your pockets, refrain from using the word “guy,” etc. — but after a few months none of them were very difficult to follow. This was not because my willpower had increased, but because the behaviors in question had shifted out of the realm of conscious decision and into the realm of habit. This is what Hamlet means when he says that use almost can change the stamp of nature.


I’m interested in a different question, though: whether exercising one’s willpower can make it stronger in general, aside from the effect habituation may have on any one specific behavior.

Mormons have a practice of fasting for 24 hours (a complete fast: no food, no water) on the first Sunday of every month. Though there are other purposes for this (for example, the money saved by not eating is supposed to be given as alms), one rationale which I often heard was that by practicing self-control in this arbitrary matter, one built up one’s ability to control oneself in general, resulting in an increased capacity to resist temptation. I suppose similar thinking underlies other forms of asceticism and “mortification of the flesh.” Baumeister would probably say that fasting is bad for willpower in the short term (low glucose levels were found to negatively affect willpower), but could regular fasting really build up willpower in the long run?

One thing that makes this difficult to test (or to practice, for that matter) is that, whatever regimen of willpower training one decides to use, it is itself in danger of becoming a habit and thus ceasing to be a meaningful exercise in self-control. The Mormon program of fasting addresses this issue to some extent; because the fasts only occur once a month, they always represent a break in one’s routine and never become fully habitual. Still, though, one becomes accustomed to fasting and it ceases to be difficult. As a Mormon, I was virtually never seriously tempted to break my fast early, and it’s not clear that I was actually exercising self-control in any meaningful sense. Of course I felt hungry and thirsty, but mere desire does not always constitute a real temptation which must be resisted by force of will. Walking down the street on a hot summer’s day, you may feel uncomfortably warm, but are you ever seriously tempted to take off all your clothes? Does it really take any self-control to keep them on? When you see something in a shop which you want but can’t afford, is it really willpower that keeps you from stealing it? Our habits, and our idea of which actions are thinkable and which are not, determine whether or not willpower even comes into play.


I suppose a regimen of real (non-habitual) willpower training would look something like a kung fu movie, where the master trains his student by making a series of unpredictable and often whimsical demands.


Filed under Ethics, Psychology

Sevenfold vengeance

I’m not a fan of colloquial, paraphrastic translations of the Bible (or of anything else for that matter); I generally stick with the Authorized Version, and when I use other translations as a supplement I choose the most strictly literal ones I can find. However, my wife having recently become interested in the Bible, but finding the archaic language of the Chinese Union Version and the King James to be rough going, I now have in my home something called the Good News Bible.

I’ve perused a few parts of it, and the very colloquial language (“Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?” becomes “Who hit you? Guess!”) turns out to be surprisingly useful at times, casting familiar passages in a very unfamiliar way and forcing me to notice what they actually mean. In an essay my brother Luther wrote a few years back (a good essay, by the way; read it), he mentions that

the grave danger of the scriptures is that they are church-talk, and we are so used to church-talk we can hear, understand, and discuss it without ever letting it penetrate beyond the churchy part of ourselves.

Luther goes on to say that we are so used to the word “eternity” that it means nothing to us, and that it can be helpful to mentally replace it with “85,000 years” (“for some reason, eighty-five thousand years seems a lot longer than eternity to me”). He’s right; it is helpful — and the same applies to any number of other overfamiliar “churchy” expressions. The Good News Bible (and other simplified translations) may avoid such expressions because they are unfamiliar to its intended readers, but in so doing it also provides a valuable service for readers with the opposite problem — those for whom such expressions are so familiar as to have lost all meaning.

Here’s how the Good News Bible renders Genesis 4:13-15.

And Cain said to the LORD, “This punishment is too hard for me to bear. You are driving me off the land and away from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me”

But the LORD answered, “No. If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.” So the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the KJV rendition of this — “Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” — without the meaning of those words ever really sinking in. The GNB spells it out in a way which comes as a shock but which is surely correct. To avenge a murder is to kill the murderer, and you can’t kill the same person seven times, so to avenge a murder sevenfold can only mean to kill seven people — including, presumably, six who are not guilty of the murder of the person supposedly being avenged.

It’s hard to see any justice in this, especially given that Abel, despite his blood crying from the ground, is not avenged at all. In fact, the whole point of the promise to avenge Cain seems to be to deter anyone from trying to avenge Abel! Why would Cain’s murderer be punished so much more severely than Abel’s? Perhaps it could be argued that Cain was not truly guilty of murder; since no one had ever died before, he could not have known the full meaning of his act — whereas anyone who might try to kill Cain in order to avenge Abel’s murder must eo ipso understand what it means to kill a man. But could Cain really have been ignorant of what killing meant? After all, he had seen Abel slaughter sacrificial animals before. And even if we assume that Cain’s murderer would deserve death in a way that Cain himself did not, what about the other six victims of the sevenfold vengeance? Why would they deserve any punishment? (And who would they be? As far as we know, the world population hasn’t even reached seven yet at this point.)

Another possible interpretation hinges on a different reading of “shall.” When the Lord says “shall,” we are used to understanding it as a commandment — but perhaps here the Lord is only making a prediction and giving a warning. Rather than ordering that Cain be avenged, or saying that he ought to be avenged, perhaps he is just warning that he will in fact be avenged if anyone kills him. If you kill Cain for killing Abel, someone will kill you for killing Cain, and then someone will kill that guy for killing you, and so on without end. “Sevenfold” could just mean “many times over.” Maybe Yahweh, still a young idealistic God at this point, is warning humanity that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He may later have regretted this policy of allowing murder to go essentially unpunished, since before long “the earth was filled with violence” and he had to wipe everyone out and start over again. And one of the first things he did after the Flood was to introduce a new rule: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”


Filed under Ethics, Old Testament, Translation


“No surplus words or unnecessary actions,” says Marcus Aurelius. “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.” It’s an appealing principle by which to live, but in the end I always give it up because it itself seems random and unnecessary. It’s a principle of poetry, not ethics — and there’s something very unpoetic about a life lived consciously as poetry.


Filed under Ethics

Authority and respect

Of the five Moral Foundations proposed by Jonathan Haidt, “authority/respect” is one of the three which he says liberals tend not to take into account despite its importance in conservative and non-Western moral thought, so I want to spend some time thinking it out. This post is just a quick overview of the territory, which I hope to explore in more detail later.

Two types of authority

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between two very different types of authority: structural and doxastic. This is a simplified version of T. T. Paterson’s fourfold classification of authority, which is summarized on this page as follows:

  • Structural authority: the right to command
  • Sapiential authority: the right to be heard by reason of expertness
  • Moral authority: the enhancement of structural and sapiential authority by reason of proven rightness and goodness of action
  • Personal authority: the enhancement of structural and sapiential authority by reason of the charisma of the personality

My concept of structural authority is essentially the same as Paterson’s: the right to command the obedience of others, held by virtue of one’s social position and without regard to one’s personal merits. If someone has structural authority over you, then you have an obligation to obey him. Other moral considerations may sometimes take priority over obedience, but it is nevertheless a general obligation. Other things being equal, you should obey the boss because he is the boss, regardless of your personal opinion of him. Structural authority is claimed by governments; by the leaders of companies and churches and other organizations; and (depending on the culture) by parents (especially fathers), husbands, slave owners, etc. The authority of God is often conceived of in this way, too, by those who think he deserves our obedience simply by virtue of being our creator.

The other type of authority, the doxastic subsumes most aspects of Paterson’s “sapiential” and “moral” authority types. While structural authority is concerned with issues of obedience and legitimacy, doxastic authority is largely a matter of trust and trustworthiness. If someone has doxastic authority in a particular field, it means it is reasonable to defer to his knowledge and judgment, not because of any social position he may or may not hold, but because you believe that he is more likely to be right than you are — whether because of specialized knowedge or superior moral judgment. Doxastic authority is the authority attributed to teachers, scientists, doctors (in both the original and the modern sense of that word), gurus, and experts of all stripes. It is more morally ambiguous than structural authority; while disobedience to legitimate structural authority is rarely seen as being good in and of itself, questioning doxastic authority — “thinking for oneself” — is often seen as such. Trusting legitimate doxastic authorities is generally considered permissible and perhaps prudent, but rarely morally obligatory. There are cases, though, where those who dare to maintain opinions contrary to “the scientific consensus” — creationists, racialists, and adherents to the various schools of thought known to right-thinking people as “denial” — are condemned in moral terms, suggesting that submission to doxastic authority can in some cases be seen as a moral obligation.

Sometimes a person’s doxastic authority is inferred from his position in society, but this is still not the same thing as structural authority. They key distinction is whether or not the authority’s personal merit or expertise is relevant. “He’s a Harvard professor, so he probably knows what he’s talking about,” is an inference of doxastic authority. “I don’t personally agree, but, hey, he’s the boss,” is a recognition of structural authority. Often the same person holds both structural and doxastic authority. For example, when a student obeys the classroom rules established by the teacher, he is respecting the teacher’s structural authority; when the student believes what he is taught without fact-checking everything himself, the teacher’s doxastic authority is at work. Despite these complications, I think the distinction between the two types of authority is a clear and important one.

As for the last of Paterson’s authority types, charismatic or personal authority, it doesn’t really belong in the same typology as the others. Charisma is an important consideration in the sociology of authority — the question of which individuals are given authority and why — but not (or not directly) in the ethical theory of authority. Charisma is not a valid answer to the question of why people ought or ought not to defer to someone, though it may be useful in explaining why they do in fact so defer. Charisma can be instrumental in a person’s rise to a position of structural authority; and the wisdom and competence of a charismatic person is more likely to be recognized (and overestimated), leading people to grant him (possibly undeserved) doxastic authority — but in the end authority, however acquired, is still either structural or doxastic in nature (or both). Charisma is sometimes a source of authority, but it is not properly considered a separate type of authority.


Respect is a vague and difficult topic, but in at least one of its aspects it is closely tied to the concept of structural authority. The degree of respect you show to a person is a way of communicating what social status you attribute to him. To disrespect an authority figure is, at least implicitly, to challenge the legitimacy of his authority and to encourage others to do the same.  The mechanisms of respect and disrespect allow authority to be maintained, or to change hands, without resorting to actual violence.

There is also an aspect of respect which seems to have little to do with authority, since it is often said that we should respect everyone, not only authority figures. This sort of respect really belongs more to Haidt’s harm/care foundation, since the main purpose is to avoid hurting people’s feelings. It is more a form of kindness or courtesy than of respect in the sense of deference.


Haidt includes deference to tradition under the authority/respect heading. The authority of tradition is probably primarily doxastic in nature, since traditional ways are considered to be “tried and true” — that is, more likely than one’s own ideas to be correct or useful.

It’s not clear whether or not tradition can ever be considered to have structural authority. We do sometimes grant structural authority to the dead — as when we feel ourselves bound by the stipulations of a deceased person’s will — so it is perhaps possible to attribute structural authority to traditions which embody the collective will of our predecessors.

Often, though, the importance of tradition seems to be more of an ingroup/loyalty issue than one of authority or respect. By participating in the traditions of one’s community, one reaffirms one’s membership in and loyalty to that community.

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Muhammad vs. Paul on slavery

I’m still reading the Qur’an. I found this passage on slavery.

God maketh comparison between a slave the property of his lord, who hath no power over anything, and a free man whom We have Ourselves supplied with goodly supplies, and who giveth alms therefrom both in secret and openly. Shall they be held equal? No: praise be to God! But most men know it not (16:77).

Compare this with the familiar line from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (3:28).

At first glance, Paul seems much closer than Muhammad to our modern ideas about freedom and equality, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Paul’s point is not that all people should be made equal, but that in God’s eyes they already are — that the question of whether a person is Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, is simply not important. Paul’s writings make it very clear that he saw no need for Greeks to be made into Jews, and I suspect that he would likewise have seen no need for the slaves to be set free. Abolitionists can argue that if all men are equal in the eyes of God we ought therefore to treat them equally in society, but Paul’s writings could just as easily be used to dismiss slavery as a non-issue.

Muhammad, on the other hand, seems to be enthusiastically endorsing the institution of slavery, praising God that the slave and the free man are not held equal. I think there are two ways of reading his statement, though. Is God saying that slavery is appropriate because men are not equal, or is he saying that men are not equal because slavery exists? Under the first reading, the message is: “Should all men be held equal and equally deserving of freedom? No! Some should be free and others should be slaves.” The second reading would gloss the same passage thus: “Should we pretend [as Paul does] that being a slave is just as good as being free, that the slave and the free man are in fact equal? No! Being free is clearly better.” The latter reading is supported by Muhammad’s focus on the ability to give alms as the distinguishing feature of a free man. If a free man is better able to do good and serve God than a slave is, the natural conclusion is that it would please God if every man were free. Muhammad clearly thinks that his point about slaves is a controversial one (“most men know it not”), and, given that he is clearly familiar with Christian teachings and often argues against them in the Qur’an, I wonder if this passage might even be intended as a direct response to Paul’s feelgooderism: No, Paul, slaves are free men are not to be considered equal, and all men will not be equal until all men are free.

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Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Islam, Politics