Monthly Archives: October 2016

Summary of “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 11, 2016.)

I recently read an article in The Atlantic by Tristan Harris, a former Product Manager at Google who studies the ethics of how the design of technology influences people’s psychology and behavior. The piece was titled: “The Binge Breaker” and it covers similar ground to his previous piece “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.

Harris is also a leader in the “Time Well Spent” movement which favors “technology designed to enhance our humanity over additional screen time. Instead of a ‘time spent’ economy where apps and websites compete for how much time they take from people’s lives, Time Well Spent hopes to re-structure design so apps and websites compete to help us live by our values and spend time well.”

Harris’ basic thesis is that “our collective tech addiction” results more from the technology itself than “on personal failings, like weak willpower.” Our smartphones, tablets, and computers seize our brains and control us, hence Harris’ call for a “Hippocratic oath” that implores software designers not to exploit “psychological vulnerabilities.” Harris and his colleague Joe Edelman compare “the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.”

[I think this analogy is extraordinarily weak. The tobacco industry made a well-documented effort to make their physically deadly products more addictive while there is no compelling evidence of any similarly sinister plot regarding software companies nor or their products deadly. Tobacco will literally kill you while your smartphone will not.]

The social scientific evidence for Harris’ insights began when he was a member of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. “Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cult-like following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of ‘behavior design’—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill.” As a result:

Harris learned that the most-successful sites and apps hook us by tapping into deep-seated human needs … [and] He came to conceive of them as ‘hijacking techniques’—the digital version of pumping sugar, salt, and fat into junk food in order to induce bingeing … McDonald’s hooks us by appealing to our bodies’ craving for certain flavors; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hook us by delivering what psychologists call “variable rewards.” Messages, photos, and “likes” appear on no set schedule, so we check for them compulsively, never sure when we’ll receive that dopamine-activating prize.

[Note though that because we may become addicted to technology, and many other things too, doesn’t mean that someone is intentionally addicting you to that thing. For example, you may become addicted to your gym or jogging but that doesn’t mean that the gym or running shoe store has nefarious intentions.]

Harris worked on Gmail’s Inbox app and is “quick to note that while he was there, it was never an explicit goal to increase time spent on Gmail.” In fact,

His team dedicated months to fine-tuning the aesthetics of the Gmail app with the aim of building a more ‘delightful’ email experience. But to him that missed the bigger picture: Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives—or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?

[This is an honorable view, but it is extraordinarily idealistic. First of all, improving email does minimally improve our lives, as anyone in the past who waited weeks or months for correspondence would surely attest. If the program works, allows us to communicate with our friends, etc., then it makes our lives a bit better. Of course, email doesn’t directly help us obtain beauty, truth, goodness or world peace if that’s your goal, but that seems to be a lot to ask of an email program! Perhaps then it is a case of lowering our expectations of what a technology company, or any business, is supposed to do. Grocery stores make our lives go better, even if grocers are mostly concerned with profit. I’m not generally a fan of Smith’s “invisible hand,” but sometimes the idea provides insight. Furthermore, if Google or any company tried to improve people’s lives without showing a profit, they would soon go out of business. The only way to ultimately improve the world is to effect change in the world in which we live, not in some idealistic one that doesn’t exist.]

Harris makes a great point when he notes that “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies”—Google, Apple, and Facebook—“had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention … We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.”

Google responded to Harris’ concerns. He met with CEO Larry Page, the company organized internal Q&A sessions [and] he was given a job that researched ways that Google could adopt ethical design. “But he says he came up against “inertia.” Product roadmaps had to be followed, and fixing tools that were obviously broken took precedence over systematically rethinking services.” Despite these problems “he justified his decision to work there with the logic that since Google controls three interfaces through which millions engage with technology—Gmail, Android, and Chrome—the company was the “first line of defense.” Getting Google to rethink those products, as he’d attempted to do, had the potential to transform our online experience.”

[This is one of the most insightful things that Harris says. Again, the only way to change the world is to begin with the world you find yourself in, for you really can’t begin in any other place. I agree with what Eric Fromm taught me long ago, that we should be measured by what we are, not what we have. But, on the other hand, if we have nothing we have nothing to give.]

Harris hope is that:

Rather than dismantling the entire attention economy … companies will … create a healthier alternative to the current diet of tech junk food … As with organic vegetables, it’s possible that the first generation of Time Well Spent software might be available at a premium price, to make up for lost advertising dollars. “Would you pay $7 a month for a version of Facebook that was built entirely to empower you to live your life?,” Harris says. “I think a lot of people would pay for that.” Like splurging on grass-fed beef, paying for services that are available for free and disconnecting for days (even hours) at a time are luxuries that few but the reasonably well-off can afford. I asked Harris whether this risked stratifying tech consumption, such that the privileged escape the mental hijacking and everyone else remains subjected to it. “It creates a new inequality. It does,” Harris admitted. But he countered that if his movement gains steam, broader change could occur, much in the way Walmart now stocks organic produce. Even Harris admits that often when your phone flashes with a new text message it hard to resist. It is hard to feel like you are in control of the process.

[There is much to say here. First of all, there are many places to spend time well on the internet. I’d like to think that some readers of this blog find something substantive here. I also believe that “mental hijacking,” is a loaded term. It implies an intent on the part of the hijacker that may not be present. Yes, Facebook, or something much worse like the sewer of alt-right politics, might hijack our minds, but religious belief, football on TV, reading, stamp collecting, or even compulsive meditating could be construed as hijacking our minds. In the end, we may have to respect individual autonomy. A few prefer to read my summaries of the great philosophers, others prefer reading about the latest Hollywood gossip.]

Concluding Reflections – I begin with a disclaimer. I know almost nothing about software product design. But I did teach philosophical issues in computer science for many years in the computer science department at UT-Austin, and I have an abiding interest in the philosophy of technology. So let me say a few things.

All technologies have benefits and costs. Air conditioning makes summer endurable, but it has the potential to release hydrofluorocarbons into the air. Splitting the atom unleashes great power, but that power can be used for good or ill. Robots put people out of work, but give people potentially more time to do what they like to do. On balance, I find email a great thing, and in general, I think technology, which is applied science, has been the primary force for improving the lives of human beings. So my prejudice is to withhold critique of new technology. Nonetheless, the purpose of technology should be to improve our lives, not make us miserable. Obviously.

Finally, as for young people considering careers, if you want to make a difference in the world I can think of no better place than at any of the world’s high-tech companies. They have the wealth, power and influence to actually change the world if they see fit. Whether they do that or not is up to the people who work there. So if you want to change the world, join in the battle. But whatever you do, given the world as it is, you must take care of yourself. For if you don’t do that, you will not be able to care for anything else either. Good luck.

Summary of Michael Shermer’s, The Science of Good and Evil

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule 

Prologue: One Long Argument

Page 2 – “All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.” Let’s investigate morality this way, remembering that all claims are provisional, that is, we should maintain a balance between doubt and certainty. Let us begin by noting that “To be a fully functioning moral agent, one cannot passively accept moral principles handed down by fiat.” [This book is the 3rd in a trilogy. In the first he investigated superstition and pseudoscience, which led him to investigate religious claims, which led him to morality.

4-7– As a statement about the universe agnosticism is the rational response; as a personal statement, Shermer (S) is a non-theist. Moreover, he doesn’t think it possible to know if there are Gods or not. Still religion thrives by “providing a foundation for social order and moral edification.” [He claims that religion need not be in conflict with science as long as religion doesn’t try to explain the world.] S differentiates between morality—descriptions, facts about morality (part 1 of the book)—and ethics—prescriptions and moral theories, (part 2 of the book).

7-8 – Religion has been the traditional source that promotes ethics. But to understand the deep source of moral sentiments in humans we need to look at our evolutionary history. For S, answering questions about morality demands that we must understand our evolutionary history. We must engage in “evolutionary ethics.” But other sciences are relevant to answering the question. [Part 1 of this book will reveal the origins of morality and part 2 will advance an ethical theory consistent with those findings.]

Chap 1 – Transcendent Morality: How Evolution Ennobles Ethics

17-19 – Enlightenment thinkers attempted to ground morality without the gods, although they still believed morality was absolute. But does a scientific, empiricist explanation of ethics lead to relativism? If values aren’t transcendent, are they relative? S says people typically assume the answer is yes. But S argues that moral sentiments transcend us, since universal moral sentiments are inherited from evolution, and thus morality is subject to empirical analysis. This is what he calls his transcendent empiricism.

19-21 – This leads to a summary of S’s basic argument.
• Moral naturalism – a secular and scientific approach to morality
• An evolved moral sense – moral sentiments and principles evolved through natural selection either because they are good or bad for a group or individual.
• An evolved moral society – social morality evolved from biology.
• The nature of moral nature – humans naturally display a range of moral traits. The codification of moral principles corresponding to moral traits evolved for social control and group survival.
• Provisional morality – moral principles are neither relative nor absolute; they are provisional, that is, they apply most of the time.
• Provisional right and wrong – happiness and liberty are key values.
• Provisional justice – there is no absolute justice, but there is provisional justice.
• Ennobling evolutionary ethics – “moral principles exist outside of us and are products of the impersonal forces of evolution, history, and culture.”

Chapter 2 – Why We Are Moral: The Evolutionary Origins of Morality

25-31 – Versions of the golden rule are found throughout the world, dating back at least 3000 years. So where did this idea come from? Moral sentiments evolved from the behaviors of our pre-moral ancestors. Non-human animals display moral-like behaviors proportionate to how human animal-like they are. Dogs, cats, and bats display moral-like behaviors, but not to the extent that the great apes, our evolutionary cousins, do. Cooperative, reciprocity, and other moral-like behaviors have been well documented in the great apes as well as in other animals. [Remember that the DNA of a human and chimp differ less than that between some species of birds. For more see: The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.]

31-40 – Moral ideas and behaviors were codified by religions that arose as societies became larger. As food production and population increased, division of labor developed, and organized religion came of age to, among other things, justify and support political power. Religions provide a means of exchange between humans and their gods for things that political powers cannot give or give only rarely. Traditionally, religion and politics are bedfellows. [Consider this famous quote from Seneca, quoted by Gibbon at the end of his famous work on the Roman Empire: Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.] “In addition to sanctioning political power “religion has also served as an institution of social order and behavior control.” Religions back up their moral authority by claiming that moral codes are divinely inspired. Crucial to the survival of religion is a strong focus on accentuating in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, which are themselves near universal human traits.

40-46 – Formal moral discipline, behavior control, and conflict resolution become necessary when a group reaches about 150 members. In small groups, reciprocal altruism [a well-documented behavior in human and non-human animals] is the primary mechanism for behavior control and is re-enforced by gossip. Eventually religion took over the role of moral enforcer, evolving as the social institution that promoted cooperation and altruism, and discouraged greed and selfishness.

47-56 – The key idea of group selection helps explain how morality evolved, since groups benefit from cooperation while individuals often don’t. S suggests that group selection might be useful in explaining the evolution of morality. But however we explain it, morality is a behavior that has evolutionary origins.

56-60 – Morality is deep in our nature. Some are more moral than others, but feeling good or bad about our actions is a human universal. And the best way to convince others one is moral and thereby gain cooperative benefits is actually to be moral. All this is best understood by considering the prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated PDs demonstrate that cooperation is a good—possibly the best—strategy.

60-64 – Moral universals exist cross-culturally and thus probably have a biological basis. As evidence for this thesis, S lists over 200 universal human traits related to morality.

Chapter 3 – Why We Are Immoral: War, Violence, and the Ignoble Savage

66-69 – The “problem of evil.” God’s will is not a good explanation. So from whence does evil come? In the first place, evil is not a separately existing thing all by itself, it is not a Platonic essence. Rather, evil is “a physical concept that exists entirely within the natural realm as behavior…Good and evil are human constructs.” 69

70-76 – We all can be good or bad depending on the circumstances; human nature is malleable, as the Millgram and Zimbardo experiments demonstrate. [So there is no mystery why people torture each other or why apparently normal people with power do extraordinarily bad things.] Thus, there was nothing special about Nazi leaders except that they shared: “overweening ambition, low ethical standards, and a strongly developed nationalism which justified anything done in the name of Germandom.75 ” [Does this sound familiar to modern day Americans?] Given different situations the mass murderer could have been a quiet accountant; and the accountant a mass murderer. “From and evolutionary perspective this makes sense.” 75 Both cooperation and competition have been necessary throughout evol history. Human behavior comes in shades of grey.

76-81 – Adolp Eichmann appeared quite normal. Most of us restrain our impulses normally, but we all have the potential for great violence. And the myth of pure evil—that others are evil and we are not—makes it more likely we’ll be violent.

82-91 – Human behavior falls on a “fuzzy” scale and moral principles have fuzzy values. So are we really fierce and violent, or erotic and loving? Are we, or the Yanomamo tribe, fierce or erotic? We are both, we don’t possess a fixed essence but are capable of various behaviors in various contexts. “We have the evolved capacity to adopt either strategy.” 89 “Homo sapiens in general … are the erotic-fierce people, making love and war far too frequently for our own good…” 91

92-97 – The beautiful people myth is as mistaken as the pure evil myth. Humans are neither beautiful nor ugly; they are capable of doing most anything. The noble savage is a myth. “The evidence is overwhelming that violence, aggression, and warfare are part of the behavioral repertoire of most primate species.” 97

Chapter 4 – Master of My Fate: Making Moral Choices in a Determined Universe

105-06 – Does punishment make sense if our behavior is, at least in large part, determined? [If interested in a view different than the one that prevails in America, see Menninger’s classic The Crime of Punishment. With what horror will our descendents look back upon our criminal justice system.]

107-111 Similar to the problem of evil, there is a paradox of how we can be free if the gods are omniscient, omnipotent, or both? (If the gods can stop us from freely choosing, then we aren’t free; if they can’t stop us from freely choosing, they aren’t omnipotent. And, if the gods know beforehand what we’ll do, then we can’t choose freely; if they gods don’t know what we’ll do beforehand, they aren’t omniscient.) But even without considering the gods, how can we be free when there is a cause for all of our thoughts and behaviors?

[And what besides our genomes and our environments makes us what we are? Is there no cause to our thoughts and actions? Do we create our thoughts and behaviors, ex nihilo? And quantum indeterminacy doesn’t seem to help us because indeterminism or randomness isn’t free will. In fact, one wonders whether free will is even a coherent concept.]

111-120 – The John Hinkley case, which led to the virtual elimination of the “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense. S details the history of the conditions that needed to be met for a successful insanity plea in English law. Today, in the US, it is virtually certain that even severe mental illness will not protect defendants.

120-134 – S himself accepts that: “free will is a useful fiction.” He then looks at some scientific attempts to justify free will. 1) Indeterminism doesn’t work because this isn’t freedom. 2) Sanity and insanity are better explained by fuzzy logic, which leads us to fuzzy freedom. 3) It is easy to induce out of body experiences, religious experiences, and the like by stimulating parts of the brain. In short, “all experience is mediated by the brain.” So the experience of free will reflects the brain’s wiring. Our brains make us feel free, whether we are or not. 4) Genes explain part, but not all, of our behaviors.

134- “Human freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes.” This is S’s solution. There is contingency—randomness, things that just as easily could not have been—and necessity—predictable, things that had to be. History [including our personal history] is moved by both contingencies and necessities. This compels or constrains things, but doesn’t determine them. In his analogy, contingency leads to collisions between atoms while necessity governs the atoms speed and direction. A specific collision was caused, as in compelled or constrained, by prior considerations. The contingencies of history—what might have been—represent a type of freedom. [This seems to beg the question of whether things could have turned out differently.] But in the end, S’s model is of free will as our ignorance of the “causes within a conjuncture that compels and is compelled to a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions.” In short, we feel free even though our actions are really determined. We might as well act as if we’re free.

***Food for Thought (not in the text)
Closing Argument -The State of Illinois v. Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb
Delivered by Clarence Darrow -Chicago, Illinois, August 22, 1924
This can be found at:
Here is a brief excerpt:

Is Dickey Loeb to blame because out of the infinite forces that conspired to form him, the infinite forces that were at work producing him ages before he was born, that because out of these infinite combinations he was born with out it? If he is, then there should be a new definition for justice. Is he to blame for what he did not have and never had? Is he to blame that his machine is imperfect? Who is to blame? I do not know. I have never in my life been interested so much in fixing blame as I have in relieving people from blame. I am not wise enough to fix it. I know that somewhere in the past that entered into him something missed. It may be defective nerves. It may be a defective heart or liver. It may be defective endocrine glands. I know it is something. I know that nothing happens in this world without a cause. ~ Clarence Darrow***

Chap 5 – Can We Be Good Without God?: Science, Religion, and Morality

141-147 – Did bowling cause the Columbine shootings? Social commentators suggested the computer game Doom, fatherless homes, and a myriad of other causes. American politicians—whose ethics Woody Allen once described as “one notch below child molesters,” offered various reasons. Republican Senator Shurden said a lack of physical punishment was the cause. He introduced and helped pass a bill in Oklahoma that encourages parents to spank, paddle, or whip their children. (It was passed easily.) [This would work because you could theoretically whip someone to death in which case they couldn’t kill people!] Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer encourages teachers to break the arms of their students. [This would definitely work since it is hard to fire assault rifles with broken arms.] Noted conservative Newt Gingrich accused newspapers, academics, and politicians who disagree with his politics. [However, he doesn’t advocate any whipping or arm breaking so I’m not sure what he would say we should do to college professors who played a large role in the Columbine shootings.] President Clinton accused Hollywood. [Somehow I have the feeling that this was politically motivated. I doubt that he really believed this.] But the best explanation comes from a pillar of moral virtue, former Republican House Speaker Tom Delay. He says the shooting was the result of teaching biological evolution.

147-148 – But S admits that many believe “a scientific and secular worldview” is inconsistent with morality. In short, without a belief in the gods there can be no morality. [It is curious nonetheless that murder, rape, and other violent crimes (which I assume are immoral) are so rare in cultures with little or no religious belief (Europe, Japan, Scandinavia) while they are so high in cultures with high religious belief (USA, Middle East)] So again, can we be good without god?

148-152 [S mentions Dostoyevsky’s work. If possible, before you die, read the chapter from The Brothers Karamozov, entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It can be read separately from the novel. If everyone in America today read this chapter the world would be a better place.] S begins by summarizing his view of the origin and justification for morality without positing supernatural entities. But he admits that most don’t share his view, believing that without gods there is no morality, all is relative. [Isn’t morality with the gods, theologically relative? In other words, relative to which gods, which holy book, which interpretation, etc.?] Many believe that we are generally bad and will try to not get caught, but since gods can “see through concrete,” we will try to be good. S summarizes this position as: “you’ll be busted by Mr. Big if you sin, so don’t. So without the gods to anchor religion we’ll collapse into relativism and immorality.

153-54 The problem with all this is that history is filled with counter-examples. [It would be mistaken for an honest student of history to claim that religion doesn’t perpetrate much evil. Hitler and the Nazi’s speeches constantly invoked the Christian god as blessing their behaviors and military adventures. [It’s interesting to actually read the Catholic Hitler’s speeches, which typically end with “gott mit uns.” You’d be surprised how similar they are to certain political speeches you hear today.] In fact both of the 20th centuries world wars were fought primarily between god-fearing Christians and Jews. S’s own view is: “what if religion is not the solution but actually part of the problem?”

154-55 This leads to another question “what would you do if there were no god?” As S points out, if you would then commit all sorts of dastardly deeds you are not to be trusted because you might lose your belief. And if you would still be moral, then “apparently you can be good without god.” [in your own experience, have you found religious believers in general to be more moral or trustworthy than non-believers? I doubt it.]

155- Of course one could say that the non-believers are good because the goodness of all the believers around them rubs off on the non-believers. So Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein opposed nuclear proliferation and world war because of the effect that religious individuals of their day. But S thinks the reason most non-believers are good is the same reason most believers are good—it was evolutionarily adaptive to have moral sentiments. He claims that without religion society wouldn’t collapse into moral chaos. [Again the non-religious societies of Europe, Japan, Scandinavia  support his claim.] As S points out, one can even found a society on secular principles. [The word god is not mentioned even once in the US constitution, twice in the entire Federalist Papers, but both times in the “oh god” way, did not appear on coins until the civil war, and in the pledge of allegiance until 1954. For more see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Chap 6 – How We Are Moral: Absolute, Relative, and Provisional Ethics

158-166 – Moral absolutism and moral relativism present a false dichotomy; we can instead accept provisional ethics. The problem with absolutist ethics is that they divide the world into black and white, either/or, binary logic, no shades of grey. Moreover, who is to say one knows the truth? Many claim to know the truth but most disagree with each other leading, ironically, to the following: “it is absolute moralities that leave us with nothing but conflicting opinions and no moral compass. Nowhere is this problem more evident than in religion.” And given that there are literally hundreds of thousands of religions all with various moral viewpoints, it is impossible for them all to be right in their moral beliefs.  Moral relativism is the view that morality is relative to, dependent upon, or conditioned by cultural or personal beliefs. On this view, there is no absolute right or wrongs, only right or wrongs relatively. S recounts his own search for a moral system. He briefly describes: existentialism, utilitarianism, and others. S argues that multiple perspectives must be considered in moral decision-making.

166-169 – S argues that both moral absolutism and relativism are counter-intuitive and contradicted by the facts. Moral absolutism is contradicted by the fact that there is so much disagreement about moral principles (unlike scientific ones, at least among scientists); and moral relativism contradicted by the fact that there are some universally held moral principles. So S asks us to consider how scientific truth, however strong the reasons and evidence, are always provisional. We can be 99% certain of some, 70% or 40% certain of others. Why not do something similar regarding ethics? Why not steer a middle course between absolutism and relativism. Moral principles aren’t absolute, because there are always exceptions, but they aren’t relative either, because moral sentiments transcend all of us. This allows us to see the real fuzziness of life, death, murder, and … ethics.

169-178 – We are both egoistic and altruistic. But the evidence suggests that balancing these tendencies is not purely an exercise in logic. We often use intuition in morality, yet intuition is notoriously misleading. Our intuition leads us to fear things that almost certainly won’t happen—dying in an airplane crash or by anthrax—and not fearing things much more likely—auto accidents or lightning strikes. Again, our intuition is a poor guide to reality. And the fear associated with poor intuition takes a psychic tool on all of us. Still, S thinks the evidence shows that intuition, in conjunction with intellect, provide for the optimal psychic balance. And he offers plenty of evidence to support his claim. Of particular interest is the suggestion that moral rationalizing often comes after moral emotions. What all this suggests is the powerful role moral intuition plays in moral judgments and the extent to which our moral intuitions are unreliable. Still moral intuitions play a role in our moral life.

179- “Provisional ethics fits well with the research on moral intuitions…” Moral intuitions vary among persons and we can best determine moral truths by listening to both our logic and our intuitions. Provisional ethics is transcendent of individuals and belongs to the species and “Moral principles are provisionally true—they apply to most people in most cultures in most circumstances, most of the time.” This is the best we can do “without eschewing reality.”

Chap 7 – How We Are Immoral: Right and Wrong and How to Tell the Difference

181-185 – There are at least two additional problems with theistic ethics: 1) how to resolve moral issues not discussed in sacred texts (cloning, genetic engineering, etc.); and 2) how to selectively read sacred texts since many of the prescriptions are obviously ridiculous. (For example you need to disregard prescriptions for stoning your children or your non-virginal wife, or being a good slave master.) So it seems clear that all of the world’s ethical (and of course scientific) knowledge wasn’t revealed 2000 years ago to shepherds and nomads in the eastern Mediterranean and that it is up to us to think about morality. S is ready to present a 21st century ethics based on rational considerations.

185-186 – S argues that the golden rule probably derived from reciprocal altruism. But he thinks the weakness in the golden rule may be seen in this example: “Since I like to be beat, I should beat you.” Better to ask the other person first if they want something done to them—the ask-first principle. This is his 1st principle. Note how this applies in the adultery example.

187-88 – A 2nd principle is the happiness principle. Most all of us believe that happiness is better than unhappiness, and happiness is a universal good. S formulates this as a principle, roughly, seek happiness but not at the expense of others.

188-90 – A 3rd principle is the principle of liberty. Seek freedom but respect other person’s freedom to disagree with you. And never seek freedom if another’s freedom will be impinged. S argues that overall, liberty has increased for persons as powerful elites are constantly challenged concerning their desire to remain dominant. [I think S is overly optimistic here. At best this is a 5 steps forward and 4 steps backward thing.]

190 – A 4th principle is moderation. [The Greeks considered moderation or temperance one of the 4 cardinal virtues. Plato devotes the entire dialogue, The Charmides, to precisely this issue.] Fanaticism and extremism are to be avoided. “If you are killing people in the name of anything, you are seeking happiness and liberty at the ultimate expense of someone else’s happiness and liberty.” At this point S will discuss how provisional ethics and a science of morality apply to particular moral issues.

191- Truth telling and lying – These exist on a fuzzy scale. What if we ask someone how they would feel being lied to and whether their happiness or liberty increased or decreased as a result of our lie. If we do it to increase our own happiness or liberty at the expense of another, this would be immoral. But if lying protects someone’s life, from an abusive husband for example, lying would be moral. “Tell the truth” is thus a rule of thumb, ordinarily correct but there are obviously exceptions. [This is all consistent with our ordinary moral intuition.]

192-95 – Adultery – S begins with Leibniz’s criticism of divine command theory. This leads us to look for the reasons adultery might be proscribed. Provisional ethics is provisionally against it because of the disruption it causes to “the natural mating condition of our species.” At any rate, there seem to be many reasons to discourage adultery. [I must say, I don’t find the proscription of adultery as rationally self-evident as the one for lying; or the biological argument against incest. After all humans have short-term mating strategies and the vast majority of all known human societies have practiced polygamy.]

195-203 – Pornography – S distinguishes mental, positive, and negative pornography. S doesn’t think the first two are immoral. Autoeroticism or mental pornography is a product of our big brains, enhances our pleasure, and doesn’t hurt anyone. They are “not immoral because the evidence confirms that almost everyone has them, they harm no one else, and thus they are justified if so desired by the individual or couple…” Positive pornography or erotica is also not immoral. The basic argument here is something like “in private between consenting adults.” No one is harmed and the participants are expressing their liberty to increase happiness. Negative pornography is condemned, but not because it causes men to rape.  In fact, the evidence suggests that viewing pornography correlates negatively to the commission of sex crimes. And “a number of studies point to a possible catharsis effect for pornography.” However, there is conflicting evidence about negative effects of negative pornography. So it seems the issue is not yet settled.

203-08 – Abortion – S’s analysis is a “middle of the road” analysis. His conclusion, roughly, is that since there is no good evidence that a potential human is a human (an acorn is not an oak tree), then one should not limit other’s liberty by using the law to coerce them.

208-213 – Cloning – Cloning is a reproductive technology [to help people have children who otherwise can’t] and a source of stem cells. Here are some objections with S’s replies. The identical person myth. This assumes genetic determinism. But as we know, even identical twins aren’t copies. And these identical twins (clones) will be living 30 years apart. [Why would one use this reproductive technology? Say a man is impotent. If his wife wants a child, she will most likely be artificially inseminated with another man’s sperm. Instead, she could have a child without this complication, by being inseminated by her husband’s sperm. When you saw this child, it would be like looking at your baby picture, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual.] The playing god myth. Everything that modern medicine does plays god. The human rights and dignity myth. Identical twins raised in different environments have rights and dignity.

Chapter 8 – Rise Above: Tolerance, Freedom, and the Prospects for Humanity

Shermer concludes his wonderful book by looking to the future as a time of greater tolerance, liberty and friendship for all of humankind. Ultimately he asks us to rise about our primate nature and embrace science and skepticism.  Here is his stirring exhortation:

We can construct a provisional ethical system that is neither dogmatically absolute or irrationally relative, a more universally tolerant morality that enhances the probability of survival and well-being of all members of the species and even the biosphere, the only home we have ever known or will know until science leads us off the planet, out of the solar system, and to the stars. Ad astra!

Brief Thoughts – First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed Shermer’s book and I taught college classes out of it many times. As for evolutionary ethics, it is obvious that our moral behaviors arose in our evolutionary history. Philosophers typically object that this tells us a fact about ethics, but doesn’t imply any values. I have never found this objection very strong. If facts about our nature doesn’t tell us something about what we should value, then where the hell might we get ethics from? I do understand that a straightforward deduction of ought from is doesn’t follow, but surely we can infer something about what we ought to do from what is. I also think Shermer is right that ethics is both relative and absolute, that is it is a provisional system that should aid our flourishing while always being open to changing circumstances.

In the end evolutionary ethics is the obvious extension of evolutionary theory into another realm. Our bodies and our minds are now understood best from an evolutionary perspective. And so too should our behaviors be best understood.

A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 13, 2016.)

Plato argued that we can’t have a good life without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.

To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.

Now if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, not take a vote or ask the cashier in the checkout lane. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist, not a scientifically illiterate politician. Since running the society is of the utmost importance, Plato believed it imperative that those holding political positions be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition, Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic, he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class.

Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations makes them more likely to be qualified to do their jobs than if they were chosen randomly or by a vote of the ignorant.

By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she knows nothing of medicine, but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case, you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You want those who practice to be qualified. And like Plato, I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate knowledge of the relevant issues, in the same way, one must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhD) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting too, as so many are low information voters.]

Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge of the issues; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. Surely all of this is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions, I want someone who understands health care, the economy, the environment, and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.

Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model of observing people for many years to assess their moral virtue, or we may prefer the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of to change our world is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.

Review of E.O. Wilson’s: The Meaning of Human Existence

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

Eighty-five year old E. O. Wilson, one of the world’s most important living scientists, has written another wonderful book, The Meaning of Human Existence . It comes highly recommended with the caveat that the book isn’t a final or novel statement of his views. However, he does summarizes the case against religion particularly well.


Wilson begins by telling us that if we truly understand our evolutionary history, we will realize that:

We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.  (15-16)

We must choose where we are to go as a species, nothing else will choose for us. Wilson thus reiterates a theme which goes all the way back to the opening pages of his Pulitzer prize-winning book, On Human Nature. He makes a similar point a few pages later.

Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for our long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based on a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies. (26)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story of human evolution as only a great biologist and prose stylist could. Self-understanding requires that we accept, once and for all, our biological roots—an animality. Without this truth we deceive ourselves and expedite our extinction. We are thoroughly mammalian; we are connected to the ecosystem. This is the truth, and we reject it at our peril.

Yet reject it we do, for “the evolutionary innovations that made us dominant over the rest of life also left us sensory cripples. It rendered us largely unaware of almost all the life in the biosphere that we have been so heedlessly destroying.” (90) That may not have made much difference when we were small in number, but today it makes a great difference. We are destroying our only home.

Wilson continues to take us on a fascinating journey, telling us about ants, microbes, and more. His impassioned plea for our attention to collapse of biodiversity is perhaps the most moving section of all. We are destroying life because of habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting. When you read these heartfelt sentiments coming from a wise sage like Wilson, it is hard not to contrast them with the short-sighted, self-interested, ignorance of most politicians.

Our choice will be a profoundly moral one. Its fulfillment depends on knowledge still lacking and as sense of common decency still not felt. We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth? (131-132)

In the penultimate chapter, “Idols of the Mind,” Wilson uses his biological expertise to explain why human life is so mysterious and how we might solve that mystery. The key to understanding the mystery is to accept that our minds are products of natural selection, and thus instruments of survival. Our minds are a curious mix of reason and emotions, influenced by instincts and environment, by nature and by nurture. We typically fear snakes, and like music. “Human nature is the ensemble of heredity regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.” (143)

Music releases dopamine, as does food, sex, and religion. In fact, the neurosciences suggest strongly that religion is largely instinctual; it is hard-wired. Of course religion has evolved beyond its biological roots. Today religion typically postulates a deity, hopes for eternal life, provides an extended community and more. The deity “is the final and forever alpha male, or She is the alpha female. Being supernatural and infinitely powerful, the deity can perform miracles beyond the reach of human understanding.”  (149)

For most of history the gods explained natural phenomena, but with the coming of modern science better explanations became available. Still the instinctive appeal of religion remained, as does the comfort it provides to so many. But the cost of religion is staggering.

They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code… It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things. ( 150-151)

Moreover, religious groups define themselves in large part by their creation myths, which assure them that they are favored by the gods. These myths also put them in conflict with other religious tribes. Accepting the myths and miracles constitutes faith, which is “biologically understandable as a Darwinian device for survival and increased reproduction.” (151) Religious conflicts “were widespread through the Paleolithic Era and have continued unabated to the present time. In more secular societies faith tends to be transmuted into religionlike political ideologies.” (152)

Despite all the suffering it causes, religion offers psychological benefits. It gives people an explanation for existence, tells them they are loved and protected by the gods, binds them with other members of the tribe, gives them rules of conduct, and provides meaning to their lives. If the faith is lost, the tribe disintegrates, so myths must be set in stone and dissidents punished. Scientists are generally cautious about religion, so as not to offend. But sometimes they can’t help themselves. When a distinguished scientist heard the 1950 edict by Pope Pius XII that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into heaven,  he replied “that he couldn’t be sure because he wasn’t there, but of one thing he was certain, that she passed out at thirty thousand feet.” (153)

Wilson thinks this is all very important because tribalism causes so much evil in the world today. “The principal driving force of mass murders … is tribalism, and the central rationale for lethal tribalism is sectarian religion—in particular the conflict between those faithful to different myths.” (154) Tribalism, of which religion and religionlike ideologies are expressions, is the real culprit.

Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country—or their creation myth. In America … it is possible in most places to openly debate different views on religious spirituality … But it forbidden to question closely, if at all, the creation myth—the faith—of another person or group, no matter how absurd. To disparage anything in someone else’s sacred creation myth is “religious bigotry.” It is taken as the equivalent of a personal threat. (154-155)

Wilson says “that faith has hijacked religious spirituality.” (155) Religions have come to be dominated by myths, rituals, and gods who oppose homosexuality, contraception, female clergy, abortion, evolution, etc. The founding fathers of the United States recognized that tribal religious conflict was abhorrent. But today politicians must profess a religious faith, almost always Christianity, however little they actually believe in it or how ridiculous that faith is.

Serious Christian thinkers don’t accept creation myth or miracles literally, but tend to think of them as insightful myths nonetheless.

Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battling on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C.S. Lewis, and other persuaded, after deep thought, that there must be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject. (156-157)

But all Christian compromisers face what Kierkegaard called the Absolute Paradox—that the infinite, eternal truth could become finite in time. (Other religions face a similar paradox.) For how can a perfect deity have human-like emotions like “pleasure, love, generosity, vindictiveness, and a consistent and puzzling lack of concern for the horrific Earth-dwellers endure under the deity’s rule. To explain that ‘God is testing our faith’ and ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ doesn’t cut it.” (157-158)

Wilson is doubtful the religious problem can be solved, it can only be outgrown.

The problem is not in the nature or even in the existence of God. It is in the biological origins of human existence and in the nature of the human mind, and what made us the evolutionary pinnacle of the biosphere. The best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods. (158)

Wilson next tackles free will. He doubts that free will exists in an absolute sense, but admits that our ability to explain consciousness is limited. This allows many to go on believing in free will which, he says, “is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the conscious mind, at best a fragile dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism.” (170) A belief in free will seems necessary for our sanity.

In Wilson’ final chapter, “Alone and Free in the Universe,” he brings his beautiful book together. What is the story of our species, he asks? It is the story, not of divine creation, but of biological evolution. And what is the meaning of our lives? “… it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.” (174)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story with vigor. We are a single lineage of Old World primates, who easily could have been something else, or not been at all. Humans are not necessarily wicked, but they are dysfunctional.

We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.  (176-177)

And there is more—we destroy the environment at an alarming rate. People, including our so-called leaders, care mostly about themselves or their own family or tribe. Few speak for the species or the environment. The cause of all this is that our brains are poorly wired, infected with mental parasites. A creation myth is a mental parasite, but it is hard to dislodge. Believers fight challenges to their mythology, although Wilson hopes that we might one day put the dignity of the believers above the dignity of the beliefs.

In an especially prescient passage Wilson says: “It might eventually be possible to hold seminars on the historical Jesus in evangelical churches, and even to publish images of Muhammad without risking death. That would be a true cry of freedom.” (182) And the argument applies to dogmatic political ideologies as well.

The same practice might be adopted for dogmatic political ideologies … The reasoning behind these secular religions is always the same, a proposition considered to be logically true followed by top-down explanation and a handpicked checklist of evidence asserted to be supportive. Zealots and dictators alike would feel their strength diminished if they were asked to explain their assumptions (“speak clearly, please”) and verify their core beliefs. (182)

Religious opposition to evolution is a particularly virulent parasite. Such ignorance is:

a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact. It is not a conception of reality forged by evidence and logical judgment. Instead, it is part of the price of admission to a religious tribe … The cost to society as a whole of the bowed head has been enormous. Evolution is a fundamental process of the Universe … Its analysis is vital to biology, including medicine, microbiology, and agronomy. Furthermore psychology, anthropology, and even the history of religion itself make no sense without evolution … The explicit denial of evolution … is an outright falsehood, the adult equivalent of plugging one’s ears … ” (184)

Still science doesn’t explain everything; we also need the humanities. “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” (187) I would summarize Wilson’s thinking like this. We must grow up, and accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. To make life more meaningful is the meaning of our lives.

Building a Better Human With Science Revisited

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 5, 2016.)

My last post discussed public opposition to “Building a Better Human With Science.” People are generally skeptical of both futuristic technologies as well the scientists developing them. It also turns out that future technologies are disproportionately opposed by religious persons, and most accepted by the least religious. This confirms my experience teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades—a religious worldview is a good predictor of opposition to new technologies.

So the majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! This is truly an astonishing claim. In reply I would say that, while there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if you are really serious about making things better, you should use science and technology—the best means of improving the human condition we have ever discovered.

My post elicited some thoughtful responses. (For the full responses see comments section of my previous post.) Chris argued that “This essay leaves me deeply depressed, because it hits the nail on the head so perfectly. Homo Sapiens are simply incapable of coping with the challenges of modern civilization. The extinction of civilization is therefore inevitable.” This is a depressing thought that I and others have entertained.

Chris also argues that “… the correlation between religious belief and rejection of science is due to an underlying psychology that generates both beliefs.” His point is that religious indoctrination, like indoctrinated racism or sexism, is hard to overcome with rational argumentation. In other words, visceral emotions are not easily expunged from one’s psyche. Dave replied to Chris, arguing that while racism and sexism and other forms of ignorance still exist, there is reason to believe in human moral progress. He offers the recent acceptance of homosexuality in American as an example.

I would add that it takes training in critical thinking for the cerebral cortex to learn to govern the emotional responses that derive from the deep recesses of our reptilian brains. And I also believe we need technologically supplied intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence if we are to survive and flourish. 

Jim commented by saying that “I’m depressed, too, but not for the same reason as Chris.” Jim’s concern is “that corporations would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” He notes that it is the corporate profit motive and not the scientific search for truth that scares him. Jim admits that “many marvelous … new technologies … have proven beneficial … [but] there are also many examples of detrimental and dangerous products that were pushed on an unsuspecting public … So people are right to be a little skeptical and mistrustful—not of the scientists, but of the profit motive of the corporation pushing the product.” I believe Jim’s concerns are legitimate, and I hope that futuristic technologies are well-tested before being used.

Goethe expressed different concerns. He worries that “we are living in an experiment; not one created by nature, but one imposed upon ourselves by ambition. That experiment is unstable, its foundations are centred in our cultural and material perspectives.” His emphasis is on the destruction of the ecosystem, without which life on earth would be impossible for biological beings like ourselves. I completely agree, and no doubt the possibility of any good future depends in large part on our continuing to thrive now, something we cannot do without a clean environment, preservation of biodiversity, control of climate change, etc. Goethe concludes that “For my own view human intellect and moral virtue are enhanced well by meditation and taking time to connect subtly with our world and its inhabitants rather than conquer and profit from it and them.”

I am sympathetic to this Eastern philosophical approach, although I also believe we will need to change ourselves in even more dramatic ways than one can do by meditating if we are to survive and flourish. I would like to thank my commenters for their thoughtful responses to my blog post. I just wish I had the time to give those comments the full replies they deserve. Thanks again to Chris, Jim, Dave, and Goethe.