Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Punishment Does Not Work

In this video, I'll discuss some of my thoughts on the fact that punishment very rarely has the intended effect. By the word punishment, I mean any kind of sanction, whether violent or non-violent, that is applied with the intention of managing behavior.
You've probably heard my examples of the retaliatory conditioning that occurs among social animals everywhere. Animal A steps on the foot of Animal B. Animal B reacts impulsively to the pain, biting or kicking Animal A, or whatever that species does when you step on their feet. This conditioning works best when the offense is accidental. If Animal A intends to harm Animal B, then the mechanism begins to break down. Fear of being bitten might discourage an attack, but if A is determined to harm B, then B's retaliation will most likely condition A simply to be more cautious in future assaults. Retaliatory conditioning is great as a means of minimizing the accidental injuries that tend to occur in social groups, but it is not reliable at all as a means of minimizing deliberate attacks. Unfortunately, the advent of larger brains did not help our ancestors to see this; they remained the victims of their intuitions, as do we.
Consider the caste systems among some primates, for example, capuchin monkeys. If a low-born capuchin searching for food discovers a bird's egg, one of the high-born might confiscate it and eat it himself. If the low-born resists, he could be punished severely. Capuchins have discovered that the threat of suffering can be used to control behavior, just as our ancestors did. But this scenario plainly shows the spectacular failure of retaliation when it is applied to deliberate acts. What is the low-born capuchin's response to the punishment? Does he reform himself? Does he learn the proper behavior of surrendering eggs to the authorities? Perhaps, but probably not. Far more likely the low-born will work harder in the future to avoid being caught by those who might punish him.
This is the key problem: retaliation doesn't generally discourage misbehavior. Rather, it encourages those who misbehave to work harder at not getting caught. It happens in capuchin society, and it happens in human society. It happens in the relationships between parents and children, bosses and underlings, states and citizens.
We tell ourselves that justice must be served, but what we really mean is that our desire for vengeance must be satisfied. Consider: you're out in the world somewhere, and a stranger steps on your foot, shoves you to the ground, and runs away. What purpose can be served by chasing him down and retaliating? Revenge, and nothing else. Sure, he might hesitate to repeat such an attack in the future, but that's only one possibility, and not the most likely one. If he sees you coming, he might be in fear for his safety, given his knowledge that most people intend their vengeance to be more severe than the original offense. Therefore, he might cause you serious injury in order to avoid injury to himself. Further, even if you are successful in taking your revenge, he will almost certainly feel that you have punished him too severely, and will feel the need to avenge himself on you. Finally, and most importantly, if you have conditioned him at all, you have conditioned him to avoid capture, not to refrain from harming people, because it is being caught, not the harm he inflicted, that is the most immediate cause of the suffering you inflict on him.
Fine, you might say: chasing someone down and exacting revenge isn't a good idea. Call the police and let the justice system take care of it. But justice miscarries with alarming frequency. We've all heard stories in the news about the constant stream of unfair conviction and sentencing that comes out of our so-called justice system. People who have suffered a lifetime of squalor and hopelessness are convicted far more often and sentenced far more severely than those who have lived a life of unimaginable luxury. If a homeless man steals $400 from you, he could go to prison for two years, while the ultra-rich who regularly steal millions, billions, even trillions of dollars from all of us, wiping out the life savings of countless families, are rarely even charged with a crime. If we had better methods for preventing crime, methods that didn't involve punishment, then gross unfairness like this could be minimized or even eliminated.
Common sense tell us that state punishment helps make law-abiding citizens safer from criminals. Can we trust our common sense? Let's look at some facts: If Wikipedia is to be believed, the United States has the highest per-capita imprisonment rate in the world, well over four times that in, for example, the United Kingdom. Am I, living in the US, four times safer than I would be in the UK? Am I even marginally safer than I would be in the UK? I think not. Rather than greater safety for citizens, our policies result in greater desperation among criminals, making them far more dangerous, far more likely to kill in order to avoid capture, significantly reducing our safety.
Science has shown repeatedly that punishment is problematic at best. How many studies will tell us that imprisonment harms all of us before we stop putting people in prison? How many studies will tell us that deliberately causing pain to a child is psychologically damaging before we outlaw all forms of physical violence against children? How many do-it-yourself science experiments will we perform on our own children before we realize that even non-violent sanction is rarely anything more than a way to vent parental frustration? But we can't just let people get away with misbehavior and crime, can we? Wouldn't that encourage social chaos? Criminals would overrun the rest of us, and our kids would become spoiled brats. I suggest that these intuitions about the relationship between punishment and behavior, these intuitions rooted in our retaliatory impulses, are incorrect. We need science and facts to educate our intuitions.
Punishment does not have the desired effect. Some people tell me that the ethics I have proposed relies too much on everyone voluntarily being good. Like the other religions, our current system of coercive ethics causes us to believe the exact opposite of the truth. It is coercive ethics that relies too much on people voluntarily being good, voluntarily practicing restraint due to the fear of punishment. Invitational ethics suggests that we base our policies on the certain knowledge that people will behave in their own self-interest whenever possible. It is time we stop punishing people for being human beings. We don't need to change people. We need to change the system.
That's all I have to say, for now. Thanks for watching.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Invitational Ethics Addendum #1

Some of you wanted to see more examples and more details concerning how our society might work if we all rejected the religion of coercion. I'll tell you some of my visions, but I need to emphasize that I'm not proposing any of these things; I give these examples as elaboration, not prescription. All I'm proposing is that you give up coercive ethics. I'm not saying we need to implement these specific changes.
In the series I discussed some of the unacceptably high ethical costs of state punishment, and suggested a couple of possibilities concerning how we might treat potential offenders. Some of you asked me to elaborate. Let's say that we want to protect children from pedophiles. Of course, we wouldn't use the coercive word pedophile. We'd say we want to prevent a certain kind of suffering among children. In this case, the psychological scarring that goes along with being sexually molested by an adult. This is not just word play; by leaving the perpetrator out of our goal, we emphasize the victim, which affects the way we approach the problem. Second, we get our best experts to provide recommendations on the most effective ways to prevent that suffering. Imagine a list of such recommendations. Doing anything that singles out a group of potential perpetrators is probably not even in the top five. Maybe just by implementing the top five you can all but wipe out this kind of suffering among children without ever applying restrictions to anyone. But let's say that we can't wipe it out that way, that to reach our goal we must consider profiling and pre-emptive restrictions.
How would we decide what kinds of restrictions? First, we look to science to quantify and estimate the total suffering of all children due to sexual molestation each year, then quantify and estimate the total suffering of all potential child molesters under various different kinds of restrictions. Then we could clearly see, perhaps for the first time in history, not only the ethical costs of passing our laws, but also the ethical costs of not passing them. Second, we analyze the data and find an optimum solution, where we keep the suffering of children below a chosen level. Why not zero? Because we understand the law of diminishing returns. Sadly, zero cases of child molestation per year would require total mind control. So we balance the amount of suffering we estimate will occur due to child molestation against the amount of suffering we know will occur when we impose restrictions on those who fit the profile.
Note that the restrictions don't involve hunting down and electronically marking those who fit the profile. We could simply restrict their employment opportunities, for example, to keep them out of the kinds of situations that foster molestation. Naturally, we'd always want to track our efforts and use science to improve the results whenever possible. Improved results could mean a reduction in the number of molestation cases, or lighter restrictions on those who fit the profile, although I'm sure we'd tend to favor children on that particular score.
Note that I've used an idealized scenario for simplification. I don't have any details on the criteria we would use to quantify the total suffering of anyone. I would leave that to the scientists. But I think you'll agree that some standard means of measuring it could be contrived, and even if it were imperfect, it would still be a huge aid in making laws that balance the suffering of potential victims and potential perpetrators.
It occurs to me that when I propose the end of coercive ethics, in a sense, I'm saying that it's time for us to grow up as a society. Little kids on the playground think primarily in terms of should and ought, in terms of coercing each other. Adults, at least when we're on our game, can think in other terms, such as looking at the big picture, planning ahead, and especially, complex judgment calls. Adults can make difficult choices without having to appeal to an authority. Kids look to adults as final arbiters. Adults, at least sometimes, are able to make choices that have no apparent justification other than, "It seems like the right thing to do."
Our society still thinks like a child, looking for absolute justifications for our behavior. We say that society is justified in punishing you because you deserve it. If we ditch coercive ethics, then society must think like an adult: doing the best we can, knowing that there's no justification anywhere, just knowing that we want everyone to flourish, and what we impose on anyone is demonstrably necessary to prevent certain kinds of suffering. Who chooses which kinds of suffering? We do. Naturally that leads to the question of how we decide, which leads me to the idea that science could be brought to bear on our very system of governance.
Consider the process we use for selecting lawmakers, that is, democratic election, the supposed salvation of the world, and note that the process provides entirely the wrong incentives to attract people skilled at making good laws. Rather, it provides incentives for charismatic speakers with good hair, no intelligence or even soul required. Surely the game theorists have already come up with ideas that would work better at attracting qualified candidates and discouraging empty shells. Surely there are better ways to govern ourselves. Again, I propose that we look to science for answers.
That's #1. Thanks for watching.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Invitational Ethics #6

In the previous video I began revisiting the examples of coercive ethics applications. In this video I'll finish revisiting those examples in the light of invitational ethics. I think I've caused some confusion with these examples. I think they're coming across as my proposals for shaping a new society. That's not the case. I'm not really proposing anything except that you renounce coercive ethics in favor of science. These examples are simply for illuminating the different emphasis of the two ethical systems. One emphasizes the protection of rights, waits for a crime to be committed, then punishes the criminal. The other emphasizes the prevention suffering and looks for ways to prevent it ahead of time, not by pre-punishment, but by the methods recommended by science, which will often have no direct effect on potential lawbreakers.
Consider the captain who abandoned his drowning passengers. Did he cause any suffering? Perhaps not directly, but let's ask the more general question in case there's a class of suffering we can prevent: is suffering likely to result if a captain abandons his sinking ship? I won't venture an answer, because we'd ask the question of science, not of me. The important thing is to consult science instead of religion. As for duty, that's another coercive concept based on an imaginary foundation; he wouldn't have any duty to go down with the ship, or to risk his life to save anyone. You might want to ask, "What if he signed a contract?" A good question, but outside the scope of this discussion. I'm not trying to shape a new society. I'm inviting you to give up religion. My musings on how the world might be different are just that: musings, not proposals.
Let's say that he abandoned ship well before the accident, and the ship could not be operated properly without him. His abandonment then would have been a direct cause of suffering. What shall we do to prevent such suffering in the future? We could change the rules for being a ship's captain, requiring psychological screening, perhaps, to detect applicants likely to abandon ship. We could train the crew in ways to cope with a missing captain, or better yet, look into ways to operate the ship without requiring the presence of one special person. Punishing the captain, either by law or by social sanction, would not even be among the top ten most effective ideas for preventing that kind of suffering in the future.
Finally, reconsider society's response to a burglar. Maybe the police do have to attack him. Maybe they have to cause him some pain. But they're trained to use the most effective methods for subduing him, not in the most effective methods for causing him to suffer. He has to be confined for a while, but under humane conditions. The legal system looks for the causes underlying the crime. Does the burglar have a drug problem? Is he chronically underemployed? Does he live in grinding poverty? Is he mentally ill? The legal system would ask such questions and let the answers inform their judgment. Under no circumstances would he ever be sent to a place where he is cut off from his friends and family and degraded, not even for a little while.
I'd love to see a world where every single person, from birth to death, with no exceptions, is treated as humanely as possible and has proper health care, nutrition, education, clothing; and a safe place to live. I don't imagine a world where these conditions are forced on everyone in the name of invitational ethics. I imagine a world that naturally progresses to that pinnacle as more and more people use science to think about human behavior, rather than imaginary concepts.
I can imagine plenty of other awesome goals humanity could pursue, but it's not likely they could be achieved in my lifetime. I'll leave the really cool stuff for the people of the future to work out. For now, I think that these ideas could bring improvements long before we'd ever talk about lofty concepts like global health care. This is an important point, because for some people, imagining a different kind of ethics involves shifting the entire world over to the new system abruptly. If invitational ethics really is what I think it is, we wouldn't need any immediate changes in our law or public policy. Just a few people walking around perceiving each other more accurately would improve our society dramatically.
Consider how the experience of one kid in school might change if just one teacher addressed the reasons for the kid's so-called undesirable behavior, supportively, rather than taking the shortcut of coercing him into stuffing down his feelings. Consider how the experience between you and your own kid might change if you explored the reasons for her undesirable behavior rather than just punishing her to get her to stop. Or if you explored the reasons and found out that the reasons you consider her behavior undesirable turn out to be inside yourself. This one in particular has significantly improved my relationship with my daughter.
I've personally benefited from these ideas. I've observed improvements in the lives of some of my friends when they simply tried to look past coercive judgments. Even if this isn't some world-changing philosophy, it apparently has benefits at a personal relationship level. I think it would benefit us at higher levels too, but I don't have to become a dictator to find out. All I have to do is make sure I express the ideas clearly and then wait to see whether people start applying them. If enough people do, then we'll find out what effect invitational ethics has on society.

In this series I have attempted to reach three primary goals. First, to describe the concept of coercive ethics and show some examples of its results on society. Second, to describe various fatal weaknesses in coercive ethics, to demonstrate why I'm bothering to propose an alternative. Third, to propose the alternative and contrast it against our current system. I leave it to you to decide whether I've met those goals. I invite you to renounce coercive ethics in favor of facts and science.
That's #6, and the end of the series. Thanks very much for watching.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Invitational Ethics #5

At the last minute before I recorded this video, an interesting thought struck me, another shocking weakness of coercive ethics. The framework explicitly calls for punishment, which means that some people deserve to be made to suffer, and that is a proper function of government. But consider, if we give that power to government, then we must fear government all the more. Invitational ethics makes no calls for punishment; It seems that a government without the power to punish would behave better than what we're used to.
In the previous video we discussed some of the things that invitational ethics is not. Now, what it is: the short, catchy invitation goes like this: I invite you to renounce the religion of coercive ethics in favor of facts and science. The formal version sounds like this: I invite you to seek to enable the utmost happiness and well-being of everyone, and to be guided by facts, science, and humanity's best thinking instead of coercive judgements of yourself and others. Of course, that's for anyone who wants it formal. I'm sticking with the catchier version.
The central idea of invitational ethics is that what really matters in the world is suffering. That is, I invite you to explore the idea of suffering versus not suffering as a foundation for making ethical choices. The goal of invitational ethics is to enable the utmost happiness and well-being of every person, except when it interferes with the utmost happiness and well-being of anyone else.
You might want to ask for a definition of these words suffering, happiness, well-being. But consider, the request for a definition often comes with a request for a defense of the definition, because often it's the defense that matters and not at all the definition. You might worry that some despot could corrupt my definition of suffering to include everyone who doesn't agree with him. He could then round them all up, and put them somewhere supposedly safe. You might want to hear how I plan on protecting my definition from misuse. This is the invitational part of invitational ethics: we want to impose our will on people only when it is absolutely necessary to prevent them infringing on someone else's happiness. I can't use a silly interpretation of the word suffering to round up anyone, because if you're suffering willingly, it's none of society's business, and if you're suffering at someone else's hands, it's not you who would be arrested.
But still, we have to define the words for them to be useful, don't we? Actually, they're more useful if we don't define them. Consider: on the left hand, you have a person with AIDS. On the right, you have a person identical to the other, except that he doesn't have AIDS. Flourishing, happiness, and well-being are to the right, and suffering is on the left.
Let's revisit the applications of coercive ethics from earlier. What would invitational ethics have to say about the child who is regularly disruptive in the classroom? He is causing suffering according to our definition; we want to stop the suffering now and prevent it happening in the future. Stopping it in the moment might involve some coercion; the teacher might even have to remove the kid from the classroom, but without using humiliation or unnecessary physical force. As for preventing the problem happening in the future, we want to use sound problem-solving techniques, starting with the question of why.
Why did the kid disrupt the class? Because he's a bad kid? Unruly? Disrespectful? No. These are the coercive explanations. The real explanations are usually not terribly complex. It's usually some difficulty going on in the child's life, something he doesn't know how to cope with. It might be something episodic, like a death in the family, or it might be something more long-term, like dysfunctional family dynamics at home. Note that I'm not attempting to make a global diagnosis of all kids' problems. Rather, I'm offering examples to contrast with words like unruly and disrespectful.
Whatever the cause of the behavior, it seems clear that we'd contribute a lot more to the child's utmost happiness and well-being by at least trying to find the cause and offering understanding and support, and if we find the cause, helping the kid find ways to cope. How many kids have gone through the school system not knowing how to cope with certain kinds of feelings because their parents never taught them? How many kids have been punished by the school-system-parent tag-team until they just stopped expressing those feelings, sucking them up inside so they can explode back out in ten or fifteen or 25 or 50 years? How much better-adjusted might we all be if we didn't grow up with, "Fuck your feelings"?
Consider the couples relationship problems we looked at earlier. Selfish, weak, lazy, incompetent, all of these labels are empty. Problem-solving again, we start by asking why. Why did I use the label selfish in particular when describing my partner? What does selfish mean, really, in terms of behavior? What is it precisely that my partner does that I want to label as selfish? What is my partner's interpretation of that precise behavior? It's far easier to relax and be creative in problem-solving when your energy is not diverted into defending yourself against a coercive label. Note once again that I'm not proposing a global solution to relationship problems. These questions aren't derived from the ethical system. They're just the questions I ask myself when I find myself labeling someone.
All of these ideas on couples can also apply to one's relationship to oneself. Instead of calling myself a glutton, I can explore the reasons, asking myself what I really mean. No, it won't cause me to lose ten pounds in two weeks, but it will help me to understand myself better, and the better I understand myself, the more effectively I can address my eating or weight or body image issues, whatever they turn out to be.

That's #5. Thanks for watching.

Invitational Ethics #4

In the previous video I showed that coercive ethics is a religion, in support of my argument that the framework is structurally defective. In this video I'll conclude that argument with two examples of the shockingly high ethical tolls society must pay to the framework, and I'll move on to begin describing the aforementioned alternative.
Coercive ethics calls for punishment of the guilty, but punishment raises the stakes of due process and crime prevention to astronomical heights. The first high toll has to do with false convictions.
Some people are of the opinion that it's better to convict one innocent person rather than let a hundred guilty go free. Others say it's better to free a hundred who are guilty rather than convict one innocent person. I say we would stop having nightmares about faustian bargains if the stakes weren't so high. Although fear of punishment has some merit as a means of maintaining social order, its use comes with ridiculous ethical costs. If we wrongly send an innocent man to prison, we have done one of the worst possible things we can do as a society, not only unfairly restricting his physical movements, but putting him in a place that will scar him and his family for the rest of their lives. Even if we continued the institution of imprisonment, if we were simply more humane in our treatment of convicted criminals, then errors in the justice system would not carry such terrible weight. If we found ways of preventing crime that are more effective than imprisonment, then many terrible miscarriages of justice could be reduced to the status of minor annoyances.
The second high toll has to do with crime prevention. There are numerous safeguards built into our justice system to prevent law enforcement arresting you before you've committed a crime, even if there are pretty good reasons to believe you will commit the crime. We need such safeguards to prevent government from making arbitrary arrests. It would be great if we had some way to detect pedophiles and prevent their crimes with preemptive arrests, but we can't, and real children experience real suffering because of it.
If punishment weren't the only option, we might see things differently. Say, if you fit the profile of a high-risk pedophile, then we do something about you, but it doesn't involve prison. Maybe some special requirements concerning working with children. Or if you're especially risky, disallowing you from working with children at all. Or if you are the type who grabs kids at random on the street, we might have to find a special place for you. But if you were treated humanely, not entirely cut off from society, and enabled to live the most fulfilled life you can within constraints we place on you only very reluctantly, then the stakes of crime prevention would be tremendously reduced, along with the need to fear government.
Coercive ethics is a harmful religion rooted in false concepts. I propose an alternative. So far, I've been calling this alternative invitational ethics, using the word invitational as an antonym for coercive. It's a very simple idea, but it's somewhat of a departure from common sense, so it tends to confuse people at first. To prepare you for the idea, I'll first tell you some of the things that it is not.
My use of the word invitational, along with my criticisms of coercive ethics, has caused some people to think that I'm proposing a world where no one is ever coerced in any way. This is not the case. Coercion will always be necessary in some cases. We still have to confiscate scissors from children who aren't yet developmentally ready for scissors, and we still have to protect children from pedophiles. Instead of invitational ethics, you might say non-coercive or even a-coercive ethics. What I propose here is not so much a new thing, but the removal of an old thing so we can see more clearly.
While my use of the word invitational has caused some to think I'm proposing that extreme idea, my use of the word ethics seems to have caused some to think that I've simply invented a new way of moralizing, of identifying and correcting undesirable behavior, of identifying and applying disincentives to evil people, of arbitrating power struggles—generally, a new way of coercing. That is not what I'm proposing. Rather, I propose that we do away entirely with all moral theories, and engage in coercive behavior only when we must do so in order to stop Person A infringing on Person B's utmost well-being and happiness. Instead of invitational ethics, you might call it coercion-last ethics. Our existing framework makes liberal use of coercion, while under the invitational framework, coercion would be among our last choices when seeking ways to reduce undesirable behaviors.
It seems that most everyone throughout history has concluded that the only way for an ethical system to work is to get everyone to adopt it and make vigorous efforts at adherence. Many people with this notion have attempted to impose their ethical system on everyone. A few of those people over the course of history have actually gained power and imposed their will, to the detriment of all of us. Invitational ethics will be of no use to any megalomaniac, as it makes no moral prescriptions, dictates no set of rules. There is no personal code of conduct to adopt and strenuously adhere to, or to coerce others into adhering to. There is nothing to impose on anyone.
Invitational ethics is not some new psycho-babble generator that enables me to dismiss everyone else by explaining that you all have issues while I do not. It is also not a new way of organizing various “sins” against the framework into categories. There are no sins to categorize.
That's #4. Thanks for watching.

Invitational Ethics #3

I have described what I mean by coercive ethics, and I've shown some examples of its application that most of you will recognize. Now I'll turn to some of the reasons that even if you found the previously mentioned applications acceptable, you might consider the system inherently flawed. In this video, I will argue that our system of ethics is literally a religion, with all of the important characteristics of the supernatural religions.
The most obvious religion-like aspect of coercive ethics is its reliance on falsehoods. We sometimes complain that Jefferson's Declaration muttered lofty incantations about self-evident, equal, inalienable rights over the din of slavery. The most fundamental falsehood of coercive ethics is the notion that anyone has rights. Rights are imaginary. A legal fiction, like corporations. It perhaps isn't much of a surprise that a claim based on a legal fiction turns out to be false itself.
Another religion-like aspect of coercive ethics is the infinite regress contained in the vital question, "Who says?". John Stuart Mill, one of the towering figures of utilitarianism, struggled heroically, but in vain, to find rational support for the concept of justice. He concluded that it comes down to everyone having an equal claim to happiness. By this he meant that if I have any claim to happiness at all, then you have an equal claim, and society ought to defend you if I infringe on your claim. Unfortunately, as Mill admitted, he could not answer the question, "Who says that society ought to defend you?" This is infinite regress in the fundamentals, exactly the same as, "Who created 'god?'" You have to take it on faith, as they say.
A third clue that coercive ethics is a religion lies in the fact that in order to believe that it works, one must ignore most of the science humans have accumulated over the centuries. Half a billion years of animal evolution seem to suggest that our notions of justice, rights, and should are based on natural and useful instincts. But if they're natural and useful, then common sense suggests that they're suitable as the basis for our ethics. Why would we change? For the same reasons that we changed our previously common-sense notions such as the earth being flat, or humans being the center of the universe. Science has shown us that our common sense is not a useful guide to human progress, until, of course common sense has been informed by science. I propose that this applies to our ethics as well.
Our current ethics, especially as it pertains to the law, looks very similar to the other religions. The legislators and judges are the priests, the attorneys are intercessors for the masses. The law is cumbersome and complex, full of arcane theory and jargon, based on eons of priestly interpretation of oral and written traditions. It relentlessly grows ever more unwieldy and dysfunctional, always accumulating contradictions and difficulties that must be resolved by the priests.
Religion has been referred to as a thought virus, especially resistant to treatment because it hooks into your primitive feelings of shame and guilt and fear. Coercive ethics is similarly resistant because it hooks into our primitive feelings of fairness and especially into our retaliatory impulses. Having so infected us, it causes us to view punishment as the most effective means of maintaining order in society, encouraging us to take shortcuts with a lot of hidden costs.
When I propose that we do away with coercive ethics, one question I often hear is, “But how will we keep people from going out and murdering each other?” If you've ever observed an atheist trying to convince Christians that there is no god, you'll recognize this question.
The fact that the bible is fundamentally based on falsehoods is one of the primary contributors to sectarianism. If the Wikipedia article is to be believed, there are well over 30k denominations of Christianity. If you have no facts, no bedrock, no means of anchoring your system in reality, then you have to make stuff up, and no two people make stuff up exactly the same way. Ultimately, everyone constructs a very personalized ethical system.
Our secular system of coercion, lacking a foundation, fails in exactly the same way. Most of us fall back on some version of moral relativism; we can't define right and wrong, and it would be dangerous to impose anyone's particular version on society, so anything goes, although this sentiment doesn't feel right. Most of us make an exception: anything goes, as long as it doesn't infringe on anyone else. But the question of whether your behavior is infringing is answered from individual intuitions. Again, everyone constructs a very personalized ethical system.
Coercive ethics, the ethical system practiced by almost everyone, is a religion.
That's #3. Thanks for watching.

Invitational Ethics #2

In the previous video, I explained the meaning of the term coercive ethics. In this video, I'll describe a few examples of the applications and results of coercive ethics.
First, consider a child who is regularly disruptive in the classroom. In the hopes of preventing future disruptions, the teacher sanctions the child in some way. The sanction might be some form of physical or emotional violence, or something mind-numbingly tedious, such as requiring him to fabricate a promise to behave better, then write it down over and over for a couple of hours. If the child disrupts class again, the sanction is modified to increase the child's suffering, then reapplied, in the hope that at some level of suffering the fear of the sanction will convince the child to suppress the undesirable behavior. Why was a sanction applied? Because the child was behaving badly, and punishment stops bad behavior. If a little bit of punishment doesn't work, then more and more and more punishment eventually will.
Second, consider some typical problems faced by couples. She says he's selfish in bed. He says her cigarette habit is a sign of personal weakness. She says he's lazy, never cleaning up after himself. He says she's incompetent as a parent. The solution to our relationship problems, according to the partner making the claim, is for the other partner to change. He needs to become less selfish and lazy; she needs to become less weak and incompetent. We expend a lot of energy attempting to change each other, although only rarely do I agree with the changes you recommend for me. We read self-help books and talk to couples counselors to learn better communications skills, better negotiation techniques, that turn out to be awesome new tools for browbeating each other. We watch some movie or program in which a fictional therapist spouts psycho-babble at her clients and we conclude that the solution to our problems is to bludgeon each other with lofty-sounding but ultimately moralizing, coercive caricatures.
Third, consider society's response to behaviors generally considered immoral. Recently a ship's captain abandoned his passengers to their fate while the ship sank. Many people called for the man to be punished by the law. Many branded him a coward, another coercive label. When the legal system is finished with him, society will continue to punish him. People who recognize him will treat him badly. He will receive all sorts of unsolicited communications for quite some time, scolding him for his actions, reminding him of his character flaw, reminding him that he deserves punishment, perhaps even threatening punishment. And with that, he might have to live his life wondering when some crazy person will carry out the threat.
Fourth, society's response to immoral acts is the same at all levels, from global civilization down to family dynamics, which of course contributes hugely to the way individuals treat themselves. I've met many people, both kids and adults, who seem constantly to flinch as though they will be scolded for their every action. Are these people bad, or have they committed some unforgivable sin? I don't think so. It's likely they were simply taught as children to feel guilty all the time.
Finally, consider society's response to a lawbreaker, let's say a burglar. We send police to attack and subdue him. They put him in a holding cell indefinitely, an artificially cold concrete room, with inadequate clothing. The legal system grinds him up and spits him out into a prison, where he can expect to be robbed, beaten, raped, or even killed, regardless of how much remorse he feels over his crime, regardless of any effort he might make at rehabilitating himself. Further, just as we treat the disruptive child in the classroom, if this burglar continues to offend, we increase the severity of the punishment, hoping that finally, the terror of returning to prison will deter his infractions, or that he will simply be put away for life, solving our safety problem nicely.
That's #2. Thanks for watching.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Invitational Ethics #1

I propose an alternative to the ethical framework we currently use across all civilization.

In this series, I will discuss the weaknesses and failings of our current system of ethics, and I will describe said alternative. In this video I'll explain what I mean when I refer to our current ethical framework, and I'll openly speculate a little bit about its origins and development, in the hopes of illuminating some of the flaws in that framework.
A quick word to everyone who gave me feedback in my previous video series. Your contributions have been a major help to me in clarifying these ideas. Thanks very much.
What exactly is this ethical framework everyone supposedly uses? It's the ethics of good and evil, right and wrong. It's based on notions like justice, rights, claims, people getting what they deserve. Based on the idea that we're imperfect, that we must battle our imperfect nature within to maintain proper behavior, and as a society battle the imperfect natures of cheats and lawbreakers to maintain order. Based on the idea that punishment is among the first answers to questions of limiting undesirable behavior in the world.
I consider this ethical framework coercive, because its ultimate aim is to enable one person or group to impose its will on another person or group. The ideas of should and ought that form the foundation of the system are among the more obviously coercive ideas lying around. Also consider the moralizing labels we use on each other, such as greed, selfishness, vanity. When I apply these words to you, I'm saying that there is something about you that should change, a moral failing, an imperfection that should be corrected. We spend a lot of time telling each other how to behave, that is, trying to coerce each other to behave properly, each one of us having his own ideas about what counts as proper.
Where did this framework come from? Its earliest beginnings probably lie in the simple, retaliatory conditioning we now observe in social non-humans everywhere. If you've ever observed a group of them, you've probably seen it in action. In a herd of wild donkeys, one donkey, "Donkey A," steps on the foot of "Donkey B." Donkey B has an impulsive response to the pain, retaliating against A with a bite or a kick. This unpleasant stimulus conditions Donkey A such that it will be less likely to step on another donkey's foot. This scenario has repeated itself countless times among countless different species of social animals over the last half-billion years.
We see that evolution has given social animals an instinct for simple, retaliatory conditioning, and it obviously works really well among most of the non-humans, so it might seem safe to say that it's a highly adaptive trait among social animals. But when early primates started simulating each other's mental states, the mechanism began to show signs of weakness, resulting in new kinds of unnecessary suffering, as you can see in colonies of capuchins and geladas, monkeys who share many of our social ills.
It has been observed that human children, even from a very young age, have a sense of fairness. If you've ever accidentally given one child more ice cream than the other children in the room, you have probably witnessed this phenomenon yourself. It seems to be built in: we know when we're being treated unfairly, and it's an extremely unpleasant feeling. It triggers in us an impulse that is very hard to suppress.
Learning from David Attenborough about macaques and capuchins in their stratified societies, I imagine that our distant ancestors knew this feeling of injustice very well long before they had words to assign to their feelings. They would have felt the pain of it, just as we do, and would have wanted to retaliate against the person who seemed to be the source of the pain. Those whose childhoods were filled with that feeling would have fallen victim to various, often outrageous social handicaps, prevalent among them the need to impose strict and often arbitrary rules of proper behavior on everyone. If you're in a culture that talks to deceased ancestors, all you need is one dead control freak to invent a coercive religion. Who says? Grandpa's ghost says, and he will punish you if you don't follow his rules...according to my interpretation, of course.
That's #1. Thanks for watching.

God's Quality Control 8.9: Reincarnation

I'm tired of talking about Jesus. I'm tired of reading about him. I've read the bible more in the last couple of years of making videos than I ever did when I was superstitious. If you guys are just dying to hear more from me on Jesus, let me know, but for now, I'm taking a break from this guy.

I'll bring Series 8 to a close here, and I'll start a new series soon in which I discuss invitational ethics and nothing else. It doesn't seem likely that I'll make any more Quality Control videos; it just doesn't make sense after I've done Jesus. Because this is the last one, I'm sure that many of you will stop watching my channel. Thanks for hanging out for as long as you did, and special thanks to everyone who joined in the conversation.

That's 8.9, the end of Series 8, the final God's Quality Control video. Thanks very much for watching.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

God's QC 8.8: Who's Better? Boys or Girls?

Here I continue my thoughts on Jesus and ethics, although we'll skip the Jesus part today.
Let's try another case study, this time from a real-life experience. Not long ago there was an "Occupy the Courts" day. I wanted to be a part of the gathering in Sacramento, but it was also my girlfriend's birthday. To my surprise, she didn't think of political protest as a fun way to celebrate. I'm assuming that most of you have had, at some point in your life, a conversation at least somewhat similar to the following:
  • Girl: "My birthday is more important. You should skip this one."
  • Boy: "America is more important than one person."
  • Girl: "You don't care about me."
  • Boy: "I rub your back every night until you fall asleep."
  • Girl: "I did that thing you wanted me to do, and I hated it! You owe me!"
  • Boy: "That was different."
  • Girl: "If you knew how important this is to me, you wouldn't hurt me like this."
  • Boy: "I'm not doing anything to you. I'm just living my life. I'm sorry it hurts you."
  • Girl: "You don't get to kick me in the leg and say you're sorry it hurts."
  • Boy: "More like you're chasing me with a knife and hurt your leg on a tree stump. I'm sorry it hurts you."
Again, I imagine that this exchange will seem familiar to most of you. Consider a couple of different interpretations. She says that I was being selfish, callous, intentionally obtuse, avoiding the fact that most reasonable people would actually want to spend that day with, as she emphasized, their primary provider. I say that she was trying to bully me, to grind me into compliance. You might have completely different interpretations, based on your own life experiences and intuitions.
What does invitational ethics have to say? First, the whole conversation boils down to "Fuck your feelings." She wanted me to count her feelings as more important than mine, hoping that I would respond by staying for her birthday. I wanted her to count my feelings as more important than hers, hoping that she would just leave me the hell alone and let me live my life. Second, consider some of these charged words we used, such as selfish and bully.
When I say that she was bullying me, I mean that she was making arbitrary and unfair demands, trying to intimidate or humiliate me in order to gain better control of my behavior. Was she doing any of these things? Probably not. Why would I think that she's doing these things? Because my default world, the world I see when I'm stressed or tired or depressed or just not paying close attention, is all about people dominating each other in exactly these ways. Why does the world look that way to me? Because we're set up by evolution to learn the basics when we're children, and that's how my family operated. Her word selfish comes from the world she knew as a child. Her dad was an emergency worker, almost never at home because he was forever out saving lives, but he always made it a point to be at home for her birthday and Christmas. In her world, the only kind of partner who skips her birthday is a selfish partner.
Some of you aren't sure what I mean when I talk about coercive words. Labels such as selfish and bully are coercive, in that they both refer to a personal--possibly fundamental--character issue that calls for change. She believes that I would behave properly if I weren't being selfish, that is, if I were to suppress my selfishness, which all good people should do, I would stay for her birthday. I believe that she would behave properly if she weren't a bully, that is, if she were to stop being a bully, which all good people should do, she would leave me alone. Every one of us learns the doctrine according to our own denomination of coercive ethics during childhood. Then we go out into the world and argue with each other over the meaning of important but entirely subjective words like deserve and justice and selfish. We're like Christians arguing over whether it's possible to lose your salvation. These are imaginary concepts, components of a religion, no longer worthy of our study.
Finally, what was really going on in the conversation? Her disappointment about my decision is unsurprising, but entirely blown out of proportion by the violation of fundamental rules of her universe, causing her to fear the stability of the relationship, creating a need to enforce better and safer behavior on my part. For me, well, I get fixated on things, especially the notion of trying to be useful in the world. One of the ways I got approval at home was by being useful.
Now, for the grand finale. What was the conclusion of the argument? Who was right? Who needs to apologize? Who gets to gloat? What delicious forms of disincentive shall we apply? Given some of the comments I've seen, I get the impression that many of you still think I intend to answer such questions. Invitational ethics is not about right and wrong, and especially not about who wins the argument. It's about getting at the truth. For us to argue about right and wrong would have been a waste of time, yet that's exactly what people do, interpersonally and as a society.
The conclusion is this: naturally, she wasn't happy with my decision, but after stripping away the coercive elements of the conversation, we could both at least see clearly what the conversation was about. Rather than getting into a serious but fruitless argument and incurring all the associated relationship costs, we were able to see each other as human beings, able to have a little bit more compassion for each other. It's a lot easier to have compassion for someone when you recognize the coping mechanisms of a little kid who didn't know any better, rather than spending all your energy defending yourself against someone who is telling you that you are faulty, that it is your moral duty to change.
That's 8.8. Thanks for watching.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.7: Groupies

Here I continue my thoughts on Jesus and ethics.
I've mentioned before that the ideas I'm presenting have benefited me and the people in my small circle. Given the responses from some of you on that point, it seems I'm still not convincing anyone of the invitational nature of invitational ethics. The benefits I've observed haven't been predicated on anyone adopting the framework. In fact, I'm not even sure it's a framework. I'm still trying to figure that out. But it definitely is not some new attempt to rely on everyone's inherent generosity. Neither is it a new way to bind people into some sort of agreement. The benefits I've observed have mostly been the result of simply looking beyond coercive judgments in our assessment of people's behavior, including our own.
Let's talk about coercive judgments, the grotesque rationalizations of coercive ethics. Imagine a herd of wild donkeys. One donkey, "Donkey A," steps on the foot of "Donkey B." Donkey B has an impulsive response to the pain, retaliating against A with a bite or a kick. Donkey A, behaving according to principles of conditioning that we understand pretty well, will associate something of these circumstances with the suffering he just experienced, and will be less likely to repeat the action that resulted in his own suffering. This scenario has repeated itself countless times among countless different species of social animals over the last half-billion years.
We observe that evolution drives social animals toward simple, retaliatory conditioning, and it obviously works really well among most of the non-humans. When early primates started simulating each other's mental states, the mechanism began to show signs of weakness, resulting in new kinds of unnecessary suffering, as you can see in colonies of capuchins and geladas, who share many of our social ills. When humans started thinking about the world, and especially creating words to describe it, we invented concepts like deserve, claim, and should. These are some of the many grotesque rationalizations I'm referring to. Did Donkey A deserve to be caused to suffer? Did Donkey B have a claim on A being caused to suffer? Did some kind of should or ought come in to play? No, not until our big brains, and especially metaphor and language, crashed the party.
But aren't notions of justice built into our brains? Even very young human children sense something like justice, something like fairness. As Sam Harris has pointed out, normal children, from a very young age, recognize both the legitimacy of receiving special permission to drink soda in the classroom and the illegitimacy of receiving special permission to punch another kid in the face. They easily distinguish between social convention and something more fundamental. Surely these primitive notions are built into us for sound evolutionary reasons.
How could a highly adaptive idea like child-approved fairness be transformed into a pillar of coercive ethics? Perhaps something like this: during our big leap into the metaphor of language, someone asked himself, Why did I hit that guy just now when he hurt me? You can imagine the internal dialogue. Why did I hit him? Because I was mad. Ok, why was I mad? Early in our evolution, the dialogue would have been based on facts: Why was I mad? Because of the pain. If we could have stayed with that reality-based thinking a little longer, we might have prevented much of the suffering we've seen throughout history. But somewhere along the line, the answer became disconnected from the facts: I hit that guy because he did something wrong. He deserved to be hit. He hurt me, and I have a right not to be hurt when I haven't done anything to deserve it.
This is what I mean when I talk about grotesque rationalizations. The ideas of wrong, deserve, and having rights are entirely imaginary. They have nothing whatsoever to do with any external reality. In other words, even our current, secular ethical system is a religion. It is based entirely on imaginary concepts. Consider our historical need to separate ourselves from the animals. One clear reason for this need is that although we concede the reality that animals have no rights, we need a way to afford ourselves rights, because rights are the basis of our religion. John Stuart Mill concluded that I have the same claim to happiness that you have. He assumed the existence of a positive right possessed by each and every human. He was dead wrong, just as we all have been since the beginning.
The final two verses of the 7th Chapter of Matthew gave me a good laugh. Matthew tells us that the crowds were amazed at Jesus teaching, "because he taught as one who had authority.” After all that horoscope-talk, Jesus sounds like Deepak Chopra. It reminds me of my Politics & Religion Tour, when the General Assembly fawned over Chopra. It's funny to think that Matthew was trying to make us impressed with Jesus by saying that the crowds were amazed, while the amazement I observed had the opposite effect, making me less impressed with the crowd.
In Chapter 8, Verses 5-13, a Roman military officer asks Jesus to heal his servant, who is at home, suffering terribly. When Jesus agrees to help, the officer suddenly starts gushing like a teenager about how awesome Jesus is. Jesus responds with a public service announcement that being Jewish no longer gets you in the door, although a nice blow-job apparently will. Of course he puts it in polite terms, admiring the great faith of the officer. For further study of Jesus' emotional fragility relative to his esteem in the eyes of others, see also verses 23-27, where he takes very personally the fact that his disciples express perfectly reasonable fear, as somehow they're supposed to know that with him nearby, they are in no danger. I don't know how Jesus got such a reputation for compassion, given that every one of his appropriate expressions of compassion is utterly swamped by some other expression of zero tolerance for anything resembling human frailty.
In Verses 14-17 Jesus constructs a gigantic millstone and crushes the sciences of medicine and psychology, then proceeds to hang it on the necks of everyone who has ever been physically ill or psychologically impaired. He supposedly heals a lot of sick people and drives out a lot of demons, but apparently he never bothers to explain that physical and mental illness aren't typically addressed by magic tricks. I know, I wasn't going to complain about his lack of scientific knowledge. Still, it's clear that he never did spend even ten minutes thinking about the world around him. If he had, he might have started to have some suspicions, at least about the whole demon-possession thing. It makes me wonder what he was doing all that time in the desert, supposedly meditating.
That's 8.7. Thanks for watching.

Friday, June 8, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.6: Who Says?

Here I continue my thoughts on Jesus and ethics.
I realize now that I have impeded the conversation somewhat by emphasizing this new concept of flourishing. It turns out that Bentham's utilitarian concept of happiness works just fine for invitational ethics. Sam Harris' idea of flourishing will be useful, I'm sure, but we don't need it in order to determine whether the framework itself is useful. After a lot of banging my head against the wall, I've discovered that the advantage of invitational ethics lies not in a new measure of well-being, but rather, a change in our relationship to well-being.
When Bentham talked about happiness, just like everyone before and after him, he was talking about a basis for coercion, a way of deciding when and how to treat each other badly, and how to justify said bad treatment. Without even blinking, John Stuart Mill asked, "What is the sanction of this moral system?" In other words, "To what authority can I appeal when attempting to impose my will on other people?" Or as the renowned ethicist William Lane Craig put it, “Who says?” Sorry, Billy, I called you childish. It turns out you were in good company. Everyone has been asking this question since the first glimmers of morality began to appear in human minds. The reason we ask it is because we can't see past the coercive framework.
Consider Mill's musings on justice. He tortured himself interminably, trying to locate the origin of the so-called "superior binding force" that justice seems to carry. He thought he had found something; he called it "the equal claim of everybody to happiness." A fatal flaw, the coercive word claim. Justice is an imaginary concept rooted in a false framework, a description that I note also fits perfectly the concept of blasphemy. Both presuppose the existence of a person somewhere who has some kind of claim. Invitational ethics makes various concessions to reality, among them that no one has a claim to anything. The lofty words of Jefferson's Declaration are the stuff of pipe dreams. Too bad George Carlin wasn't around in those days to dump a bucket of cold water down the pants of anyone who spewed nonsense about humans having rights at all, much less self-evident and inalienable rights.
You might object to my casual dismissal of the entire edifice of human justice. You might suspect a semantic game, as surely no one can conceive a society without some notion at least similar to punitive justice. Yet that is precisely what I propose. I imagine a world where we do nothing to diminish anyone's utmost happiness and well-being except when absolutely necessary to balance it against everyone else's utmost happiness and well-being, where causing any kind of suffering is a last possible resort. I don't mean that we would never cause suffering; obviously, we would continue to confiscate scissors from two-year-old children, knowingly causing some measure of suffering in the form of disappointment. I mean that we would cause suffering only when it is absolutely necessary, only when its contribution to well-being outweighs the potential contribution of all other feasible courses of action.
My experience as a parent suggests that the most effective way to prevent the aforementioned suffering among two-year-olds involves low-effort, proactive measures such as keeping scissors out of their world, hopefully thereby keeping scissors out of their minds and out of their hands. I'm sure that most of you parents out there will agree with me. My intuition suggests that alternatives to imprisoning lawbreakers are as obvious, as effective, and as supremely amenable to cost-benefit analysis, as the simple expedient of hiding the scissors.
An aside concerning the word lawbreaker. In the world of my fantasies, our ideas concerning law would differ radically from our current notions, and the notion of a lawbreaker would no longer exist. And I'm not talking about Big Brother imposing Newspeak. I simply see the idea fading from our minds as the ethical connotations associated with law and criminal behavior evolve away from coercion. One of the beauties of invitational ethics is that it could happen organically and from within society, being voluntarily adopted by people who see its usefulness, rather than as a new and arbitrary system forced on you by the priesthood of GreatBigBore. This voluntary and organic propagation would allow us to begin to apply the principles even now, while we still consider lawbreaker a valid concept. In other words, we don't need some big, unlikely, preliminary societal change in order to start seeing benefits right away. As I've mentioned in other videos, these ideas seem already to have benefited me, my kid, and my small handful of close friends. If they benefit you as well, then maybe we're onto something.
Most of the 7th chapter of Matthew is just more horoscope-talk. You've heard it all in some form or another: pearls and pigs, wolves in sheep's clothing, houses built on rock, houses built on sand. But in Verse 12, we have the Golden Rule. Finally, Jesus gets it right. Right? I mean, no, he didn't invent the idea, but at least we can commend him for lining up with other great ethical thinkers? No, they were all wrong.
First, it's a command. And, I just noticed, an oxymoron. Imperatives have brought us only so far, and this one certainly hasn't produced any significant positive change in the world, at least as far as I can tell. Second, just like every other moral maxim ever delivered, it is subordinate to considerations of punitive justice. We want to apply it to our general behavior, but everyone forgets it when the time comes for administering punishments. No one sits in courtrooms reminding judges—or society—of the Golden Rule during sentencing. No one implores the executioner to pause and ask himself whether he would like to be tortured and/or executed. Like many other concepts rooted in coercive ethics, there is just no way to apply it without having to make complicated and often arbitrary exceptions, because the concepts themselves are false, rooted in a disastrous misunderstanding of human nature.
Finally, golden would have been some specific advice about how to be at peace with oneself and one's neighbors, or maybe some thoughts on having compassion, on looking past the horrible caricatures we draw of each other, on seeking a genuine understanding of actual human beings.
That's 8.6. Thanks for watching.

Monday, May 21, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.5: Fasting

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Administrative stuff first. As always, my numbering system is unpopular and confusing. I'm hoping that among the many hundreds of you following this conversation, there are a few of you who are skilled in the art of explaining anal-retentive stuff to non-anal-retentives. If you're one of these, please send me a PM so we can work out a way to make it easy for everyone to understand. Don't bother imploring me to change the numbering. I'm too old and crusty for that. In the mean time, you'll have to live with my best explanation: it's like an outline.

It seems that there's some confusion around my thoughts on hypocrisy. Rather than getting bogged down in it, let's move on from the hypocrisy issue for now and see if we can find simpler ideas to tackle until I can make the fundamentals a bit clearer to everyone. I expected it to be difficult to get this conversation off the ground, as I've been trying and failing to systematize these ideas for a long time. One of my primary reasons for making this series is to get everyone's help in pounding out some kind of framework. I appreciate you guys hanging in there while we try to get liftoff.

Let's try a case study in invitational ethics. My annoying and confusing series-numbering system might be a good place to start. The way I number my episodes is a symptom of an anal-retentive personality, obviously. Some of you will see this trait of mine in a moral light: for you, it might be associated with righteousness or conscientiousness, or, more likely, with sadism: maybe I remind you of your cruel math teacher or the floss-obsessed dentist. If you understand my episode numbering, you might conclude that all these confused people are lazy whiners who slept through math class. If you don't understand my numbering, you might conclude that I'm a pompous windbag, or I'm trying to make you feel small, or both, or worse. I will argue that all such moral judgments are figments of our imaginations. Fabricated. Insane rationalizations built upon primitive instincts. The grotesque offspring of our Ptolemaic theory of morality, which looks more like a religion the more I look at it.

What would Jesus, mouthpiece for coercive ethics, have to say about these moral judgements? Skip ahead a bit in the Gospel of Matthew to 7:1-5: Don't judge. If you do, it's ass-kicking time, courtesy of Casper the unfriendly ghost, or, if you like, the people around you, in the form of shame, humiliation, maybe even life-threatening ostracism. P.S. Hypocrites suck, in case you didn't hear me the first twelve times I said it. In today's society, this seems to translate into something like Before I criticize anyone publicly, I'd better work out how likely it is that they'll publicly turn my criticism back on me. At times I've also seen it translate into I'd better think about my own faults before I say anything about anyone else's faults, even if those other people's faults are real, horrible faults while mine are just little faults, and I have really good reasons for having every single one of them. I'll just judge them in silence instead. Jesus planted the seeds of all kinds of neuroses.

What does invitational ethics have to say? First, anal-retentiveness is the result of brain chemistry. Is my brain chemistry my responsibility? In some senses, yes: I can practice math and get better at it, so obviously I can take a measure of responsibility for my brain chemistry. What I have no responsibility for is the aspects of my brain chemistry involved in personality and aptitude. Some of us tend to be anal-retentive unconsciously, others are more relaxed. Some people are lucky enough to be born with an aptitude for math. These people find it relatively easy to become proficient mathematicians. Others are so unlucky that no reasonable amount of work will ever make them competent even to manage a bank account. This is all the result of features of brain chemistry over which no one has any control, therefore for which no one has any responsibility. The ability or inability to understand my numbering system has zero ethical weight.

Invitational ethics takes the point a step further: Even someone with the ability but not the inclination to work hard enough to understand my numbering would not be slapped with a label of judgment, such as lazy. There are reasons for our behaviors, reasons that we can't see clearly through the murk of coercive ethics.

Going back to Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus gives us his wisest advice concerning fasting: do it secretly. He believed that fasting is all about your relationship with Casper; wiser humans know that the reasons for fasting are asuperstitious. But I've said that I'll leave Jesus alone about the supernatural, so when he said, "your father who is in heaven," we'll say that he meant something like "your own personal higher self." Still, he obviously doesn't understand the importance of fasting. Fasting is a means of conditioning the mind or inducing various numinous states. The best advice we can get on the topic from the sage among sages is, Don't make a face when you're in public? How about advice on when and how to fast most effectively for different states, or better yet, a simple reminder that fasting is a matter of personal choice and is never to be forced on anyone else?

In Verses 19-34, Jesus encourages the poor, as it was so well paraphrased to me recently, to stay poor and shut up. He seasons this excellent advice with some horoscope-talk about the eye being the lamp of the body. Fans of Jesus may understand this to mean that whatever you set your sights on is what you're likely to get, so be careful not to set your sights on money. In other words, you guessed it: “Fuck your feelings.” Suppress your greed. Not a single word about self-examination, asking yourself where your so-called greed comes from. No allowance at all for the possibility that what appears to be greed is actually a compulsion, brought on by childhood experiences or simply atypical brain chemistry. A morality that doesn't account for human brains can hardly be the best morality for human brains to adopt.

That's 8.5. Thanks for watching.

Monday, May 14, 2012

God's QC 8.3.2: Whose Friend?

Here I'll explain how Jesus is a friend to the rich.

In Matthew 26:6-13, expensive burial preparations are performed on Jesus. Someone among Jesus' followers seems to have understood that "the poor" aren't just an abstract policy issue, but rather real human beings who suffer every moment of every day. This enlightened follower balks at the expense and suggests that the money could have been used for the poor. Jesus responds to this suggestion with, "The poor you will always have with you." Really. He really says that. Am I the only one who reads this as Jesus' resignation that poverty is here to stay? Am I the only one who suspects that Jesus is unaware of the actual human beings he is talking about when he says, "the poor"? This is a horrible thing for Jesus to say, and a condemnation to the poor throughout history.

In Matthew 6:1-4, Jesus gives us some advice on charity. In these four verses, he mentions the needy a couple of times, but again he seems to recognize them only in the abstract. He doesn't see that any alleviation to a suffering person is desirable, regardless of the internal vagaries of the brain doing the alleviation, especially if the owner of said brain is giving through an intermediary such as a charity and probably will never meet the suffering person.

In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus has all sorts of wonderful advice about just living for today and accepting what you have. Special thanks to the YouTuber with this name, which I'm too dignified to pronounce (sluggdiddyyddidgguls), for pointing out that this advice is basically, "Hey poor people, accept your situation and be quiet."

Here we have seen the following from Jesus:
  1. A casual disregard for the genuine suffering of real human beings, resulting in
    1. Unflinching resignation to perpetual poverty
    2. The conceit that a giver's attitude counts for anything when contrasted with suffering
  2. A command to poor people to stay poor and shut up
Jesus is no man of the poor, but clearly, a tool of the rich. He has been of great service to the rich in general for two thousand years, setting an example of casual disregard for the poor. This has perpetuated the genuine suffering of generations of real human beings, all to the benefit of people who, as I have said, have enough luxury in their lives to have a conscience about the attitude the have when they give. Jesus is no savior. He is no champion. He's a poverty-sustaining cancer in sheep's clothing.


That's 8.3.2. Thanks for watching.

Friday, May 11, 2012

God's QC 8.3.1: Jesus, Enemy of The Poor

Here I will explain how Jesus is an enemy of the poor.

Some of you disagreed with my claim that Jesus erred in exhorting us to be secretive in acts of charity. I reconsidered my claim, trying to make room for having been too harsh on Jesus, but on further reflection I've realized that I was far too easy on him. Jesus seems not to have realized that poverty involves real suffering. Instead he trifled over whether the giver is behaving with the appropriate attitude. As Sam Harris says of the "god" who clears up your eczema while allowing children in Africa to starve, this is obscene. Relative to the poor, Jesus is a laughingstock. Or, rather, he would be, except that his ridiculous sentiments have poisoned our water supply. We accept poverty. Obviously, it's something that will never go away, as even Jesus, the boldest, most radical moral thinker of the last two millennia, tells us so. We put band-aids on poverty because so few people believe that it can be addressed systemically. This Jesus robbed the poor of their only hope and dressed up his crime in words that are useful only to those with the luxury of a conscience about giving with the proper attitude. I'll pretend for a moment that I have some right to speak for the poor and I'll say, Jesus, thanks for nothing.

As if you couldn't tell already, I consider this an important point, so if you see flaws in my argument, speak up. I claim that there is no version of Jesus that deserves the accolades he receives relative to his concern for the poor. Later on in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus actually defends expensive burial preparations with, "The poor you will always have with you." How many children could have been fed with the money for the burial preparations? No one knows, and obviously, Jesus neither knew nor cared. Just like no one knows how many children could be fed with the tens of millions upon tens of millions that have been, and are continually being spent to prevent gay marriage. And obviously, most, if not all, of those spending the money neither know nor care. Perhaps it's unfair for me to say that they don't care; that might suggest more callousness than is actually present. Still, it is fair to say that the welfare of the poor takes a lower priority in their minds than the so-called sanctity of marriage, even if their prioritization occurs unconsciously. At least in this case they are justified by their teacher: Jesus exemplified this sort of casual disregard for the genuine suffering in the world in favor of trifles. If you still think Jesus had any words of practical value to the poor, please do let me know.

On a completely unrelated note, I am looking for two people willing to volunteer their technical skills in exchange for the glory of being publicly embarrassed by Yours Truly, GreatBigBore. First, I need an audio engineer type who knows how to use GarageBand and can make my music sound less like leaf blowers and garbage cans. Second, I need a merciless editor for my scripts. I'm having a problem with this video series, making each episode way longer than the time limit imposed by my attention span. PM me if you're interested.

That's 8.3.1. Thanks for watching.

God's Quality Control 8.4: Hypocrisy

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Before I start, I'd like to draw your attention to an error in the public-service announcement I made in a previous episode, concerning the video library titled, "The Web's Best Videos on Evolution, Creationism, Atheism, And More." I said that the library is the work of bdwilson1000, but actually it's the work of the YouTuber known as Underlings. I'll put a link to the original video in the Consummation Bar. Don't worry, it's not plagiarism; bdwilson1000 is one of many channels that have mirrored the Underlings video. Thanks very much to Underlings for all the hard work, and to bdwilson1000 and all the others who have mirrored the video recently. Those crazy kids might find a practical use for that Interwebs thing after all.

One of the themes that comes up in all of the examples involving a child with scissors is a concept that I reluctantly call "personal responsibility." I worry about using such a phrase, because its usual use is as a reason for dismantling existing social programs and a tool for discrediting of the idea of social welfare. When I say "personal responsibility," I mean something entirely different from the meaning employed in such arguments. Again, I hope that with some examples I can show you what I mean, rather than overloading you with a complex definition.

If I, as a normal adult, cut myself with scissors, then my suffering is my own responsibility. If scissors fall out of the sky and cut me, then my suffering is not my own responsibility. If you, as a normal adult, cut me with scissors, then my suffering is not my own responsibility. If you are a person who is mentally incapable of handling scissors properly, child or otherwise, and you cut me with scissors that I've allowed you to have, then my suffering is my own responsibility, not yours, even if I've told you ten times not to touch the scissors.

So far, I imagine that most of you would agree with me, and you might expect that if we disagree it would be over the boundaries of the gray area in a child's life between unreadiness and readiness. But here is a point far more important than that gray area: it's not up to anyone but the child to determine when readiness occurs. Your well-being is negatively affected if I transfer responsibility for your welfare from my shoulders onto you before you're ready. If I make scissors available to you and then tell you not to touch them, then transferring the responsibility is exactly what I've done. Naturally, given that invitational ethics cares about flourishing, a seven-year-old who is still unready for scissors would be treated with the same compassion and lack of judgment as a seven-year-old with a speech delay, not as a kid with an attitude problem.

If you are developmentally unready for scissors, and you find some scissors and cut me with them, then my suffering is not my responsibility, but neither is it yours. Responsibility, if there were any, would lie on those whose job it was to make the scissors unavailable. If you are unready, and I know it, and I give you scissors that you then cut me with, then the responsibility lies with me, not with you. If you are unready, but I believe you to be ready, and I give you scissors that you then cut me with, the responsibility is still not yours. It might be mine, or it might be that of whoever told me you were ready, but it's definitely not yours.

Again, just a few examples to give you a sense of where I'm coming from. Let me know if these don't make sense, so I can find some better examples. My reason for bringing up this idea of personal responsibility is that punishment always seems to involve an attempt to transfer responsibility to someone who isn't naturally responsible for the charge being assigned. If you're too young for scissors, and you cut me with scissors that I gave you, then taking the scissors away involves no transfer of responsibility, so it's not a punishment. If, after taking the scissors, I tell you that you're a bad kid, that's a transfer of responsibility. I am making you responsible for my suffering, although you aren't responsible for it. That's a punishment. It occurs to me that perhaps all cases that I would call punishment could always have an element of this kind of transfer. That might help us a bit toward having an intuitive sense about what counts as punishment.

In Matthew 6:5-13, Jesus has some words on prayer. Again, in this series I won't comment on the supernatural element, but Jesus brings up an important point in these verses: hypocrisy. Everyone hates a hypocrite. Every time we hear about a gay-basher who turns out to be gay himself, we express outrage at the hypocrisy. Every time we hear about a socialism-basher whose family business has been receiving government subsidies for decades. Every time we hear a terrible driver complaining about terrible drivers. Every time someone complains about anything, someone hearing the complaint will observe the complainer's behavior and be outraged at the hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is a poorly understood phenomenon. The reason it's so poorly understood is that most of us interpret it in the framework of coercive ethics.

Consider the shape of hypocrisy through the lens of invitational ethics. What kind of talk can lead to the charge of hypocrisy? Basically, any time I use the word "should," I open myself to the possibility of being called a hypocrite. What we seem to overlook is that any time I use the word "should," I'm really talking to myself, even if I think I'm talking to you. Even if I (and you) think I'm shouting at you. In fact, if I'm shouting at you, it's because the message I'm trying to deliver is one that I really, really don't want to hear.

If I frequently advise young people to take basket-weaving classes, it's likely that I have a personal, if unconscious, reason for doing so; perhaps I feel that my life would have been richer if I'd learned basket-weaving; perhaps my mother wanted me to learn it and now I feel disappointed that I never did; perhaps I lost a basket-weaving competition when I was a kid. When I advise you, I'm telling you something about myself, about how my mind works. When I complain about anything, I'm telling you something about how my mind works. When I guess at what you're thinking, or what your motivations are, or when I talk about how people should behave or how the world should operate, I'm telling you something about how my mind works.

A hypocrite is nothing more than a person with an opinion that involves the word "should." If I loudly proclaim an opinion about how people should behave, it makes perfect sense that I don't behave that way. If I were entirely at peace about the behavior, I wouldn't have a strong conviction about it and therefore wouldn't feel the need to announce my opinion about it. Hypocrisy is a perfectly normal behavior, not to be treated as any kind of pathology or error in judgment, and obviously not a moral failing. It's just how our brains work, and has no more ethical weight than our tendency to talk about the weather as a social icebreaker.

That's 8.4. Thanks for watching.

Monday, May 7, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.3: Punishment

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Before I start, I'd like to direct your attention to YouTuber bdwilson1000. He has compiled an awesome library of YouTube videos that he calls "The Web's Best Videos on Evolution, Creationism, Atheism, And More." I'll put a link to his short introductory video in the Consummation Bar. Thanks much to BD for all the hard work, especially considering that he must have watched every single one of my 400-or-so videos. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll note that my videos are very well-represented in his library.

A few of you asked for clarification on my claim that no one has ever been persecuted because of righteousness. Persecution can never be more than indirectly connected to the morality of your behavior. The most important factor in persecution is whether enough of the right people in the world feel motivated to go to the effort of persecuting you. Clearly, the existence of persons with both the motivation and political muscle to persecute you is not a reliable indicator of the morality of your behavior. In some senses it's meaningful to say that you're being persecuted for your behavior, but it's never meaningful to say that you're being persecuted for your motives or for the merit of your motives. If Jesus had been a great thinker, he would have thought it through, and not only would he have refrained from spouting such nonsense, he would have eliminated the need for us to have this interesting, but ultimately tangential mini-discussion. In other words, let's move on, unless you find something highly relevant to the main discussion.

Naturally, there are lots of questions about the definitions of the words I'm using. Let's talk about the word punishment, but let's postpone attempting a formal definition. I really want to avoid this becoming a technical conversation if at all possible. Let's see if we can get a general idea of the meaning from some examples.
  • There are horse stables near where I live, and I recall hearing a horse owner explaining an idea he'd learned in a horse behavior clinic. It was something to the effect of loving the horse enough to be as harsh as necessary, but also loving the horse enough to be no harsher than necessary. If I'm harsher than necessary with a horse, that's punishment. We don't have to dig down into the meaning of the word necessary. Just assume that we can agree in principle on what's necessary.
  • When I was a young man I once brought home a forlorn little dog from the humane society. I took her to the vet for shots, and during the examination she bit the vet. I reacted by hitting the dog. The vet explained to me that hitting is not part of a dog's natural social life, and gave me the name of an excellent book on dog ownership. If I hit a dog, that's punishment. If I attempt to relate to a dog in a way that is difficult or impossible for it to understand, that's punishment, or at least something akin to it, something that's not conducive to anyone's flourishing.
  • Say you're a child who is not yet developmentally ready to handle scissors. In this example I'll be an adult. If I see you handling scissors I will confiscate them. I know that you might experience some grief at the loss of a toy, but that is unavoidable for me, given my motive of promoting the flourishing of everyone involved. With the exception of this unavoidable discomfort, I endeavor not to cause you any further discomfort. I might in fact cause you further discomfort, but I'm not making any deliberate attempt to cause you avoidable discomfort. In spite of your discomfort, this is not punishment. However, any deliberate attempt to cause you discomfort beyond the unavoidable definitely is punishment.
  • If, after I've recovered the scissors, I do or say anything that causes you any kind of emotional or physical discomfort (including sending you somewhere you don't wish to go), that's punishment.
  • If I kindly explain to you that the scissors aren't safe, that's not punishment.
  • If I tell you that scissors can cut you (in the hopes that you know what it means to be cut), that's not punishment. If I go beyond simple words like "cut" or "hurt," elaborating on the kind of injuries you might sustain or the pain you might experience, that's punishment.
  • If I threaten to cause you discomfort in the future if you handle the scissors again, that's the threat of punishment, also known as coercion. 
  • Say that I mistakenly believe that you're developmentally ready for scissors, so I allow you to handle them, and then you stab the family dog in the eye. At that point I'm no longer deluded about your readiness, and everything previously said about taking the scissors away still holds: gently confiscating, kindly explaining, and showing you sympathy for your grief are not punishment. Scolding you, browbeating you, sending you to your room, scaring you, physically harming you, all of that is still punishment.
I've given a few examples here to give you an idea of what I'm talking about when I use the word punishment, what I'm proposing we remove from our lives. I assume that these few examples will generate lots of questions and challenges, so I'll stop there for now. We can come back to the discussion of what punishment is after I see which direction the conversation goes.

In Verses 27-30 in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus has some extremely harsh words concerning our inner lives in general and our inner sex lives in particular. Regardless of how you interpret Jesus' specific prohibition, it's clear that in his world, you definitely can cause harm simply by thinking, even with zero intent to act. This is obviously superstitious baloney. Also, it's clear that Jesus had some poisonous ideas on sex. As I've said, suppressing our impulses, especially the impulse to fantasize sexually, is a formula for madness.

In Verses 31-37, Jesus has some words on divorce and oaths. I find nothing in these verses even worth criticizing. If any of you guys see something good, please let me know.

In Verses 38-42 we find the best justification for living as a doormat any superstitionist will find in the words of Jesus: turn the other cheek, give more than you're asked for, go further than you're asked to go. Some of you have suggested that I'm misinterpreting the bible, but my interpretation is unrelated to the point of the discussion. I'm talking about large segments of the superstitionist community that have interpreted Jesus' words in this way. This is one of the many reasons I say that the words of Jesus weren't all that great after all: too many of the reasonable interpretations have clearly unreasonable results.

In Verses 43-48 we are exhorted to love our enemies. It would have been a lot better if he'd given us some practical advice on how not to have enemies. Enmity is just another expression of coercive morality.

In Chapter 6 Verse 2 Jesus delivers a command that I find utterly shocking, given his reputation as champion of the poor. Here he tells us to be quiet about giving to the needy. Talk about irony. If I give to the poor quietly, the poor do benefit from my gift, but consider: if I make a lot of noise while giving to the poor, maybe some of the people who hear my noise will consider giving to the poor as well. Surely it couldn't hurt. Seems to me Jesus should have kept his mouth shut on this topic.

That's 8.3. Thanks for watching.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.2: Anger

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus. I'd like to thank everyone who has joined the conversation so far, from supporters to skeptics to hecklers. It seems that my hopes for a rich discussion are already being realized. Some of you have asked about the intro/outro music. It's a new piece I'm working on; I haven't completed it yet. It will probably evolve with this series. The title is, "If I can't punish my kid, then what am I supposed to do when he stabs the dog in the eye with a machete every 20 minutes?"

The ideas I'll present in this series have been forming in my mind for many years, but I have searched in vain for a rational underpinning. Sam Harris' recent works on morality have addressed that problem. Harris summarizes his underpinning as "the flourishing of conscious creatures." This is the foundation of invitational ethics. I invite you to define "good" as conducive to the well-being of creatures that can suffer. Now, if this were a philosophy course, we might here start a long discussion about utilitarianism or the like, but let's put that discussion on hold for now and explore some of the humbler practicalities of this definition. There's no point spending any time thinking about its applications to utilitarianism if we're going to find out early on that it can't be used in everyday life.

It seems that I haven't been clear on a couple of points, so let's get those worked out. First, there is some question about exactly who or what is the object of my criticisms in this series. Some of you have pointed out that the New Testament as we have received it may differ significantly from the actual words of Jesus. Others have pointed out that Jesus may have been addressing only his immediate audience and cannot be held responsible for 21st-century understanding. And of course it's possible that no such man ever existed. Let's make sure we're all weighing the same apple.

I think you'll agree that almost everyone, superstitious or otherwise, who has made any serious study of Jesus, will describe him as some combination of wise teacher, great moral innovator, promoter of peace and compassion, spiritualist, holy man. Even Gandhi, although he is burning in hell right now, is said to have found Jesus to his liking. If we were to ask Gandhi for a concrete example of some excellent attribute of Jesus, he would point to something in the canonical Gospels. The point of my complaints is that what I find in the Gospels is not a great man, but at best, one of the horde of run-of-the-mill street-preachers who roamed first-century Palestine.

I need to clarify a point about eliminating punishment. I don't mean to propose that we eliminate disincentive. Coercive morality confuses punishment and disincentive. Punishment is counterproductive. Disincentive has been shown with scientific research to be useful. Let's use science some more, to discover the most effective disincentives. Science is already telling us that prison is a terrible idea, as well as the use of emotional and/or physical punishment on kids.

I have a similar point concerning the elimination of prisons. I don't mean to propose that we allow serial murderers to roam the streets. Obviously, at least for a little bit longer, there will be people that we must remove from society in order to protect the rest of us from harm. But there is an enormous gap between that and the idea of prison. I propose, for reasons I hope to make clear in this series, that we treat everyone with kindness, and do our best to enable everyone to live the most fulfilled life they possibly can, including those who must be constrained for the safety of the rest of us.

A few of you have asked me for my thoughts on applying invitational ethics to child-rearing. I've been experimenting with these ideas for many years, in my relationships with my daughter and other people. I've also been making suggestions to my friends concerning their relationships with their own children and other people. These experiments and suggestions are starting to look like case studies in invitational ethics. I will probably present some of these case studies to you, but it might be more fun if any of you guys want to give me some material for a case study from your personal life. It doesn't have to be about child-rearing. Anyone who's interested, send me a PM so we can discuss details.

In Verses 21-22 in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus introduces an idea that many of his admirers consider an excellent condemnation of legalistic thinking, but legalistic thinking is an inevitable outcome of coercive morality. Coercive morality assumes that people are fundamentally broken and need some sort of external mechanism to control them. This leads to the endless production of rules, often pointless and arbitrary rules, which leads directly to legalism. Jesus knew that legalism was a symptom of a larger problem, but he got it wrong when he guessed at what the problem was. The problem is the whole moral framework.

Sadly, many admirers of Jesus also see in these verses a ruling that anger is a bad thing. Or perhaps more sadly, many people admire Jesus because they agree with him that anger is a bad thing. This pronouncement, especially in light of his later words about turning the other cheek, has been taken by intelligent people the world over to mean that we should live our lives as doormats, never speaking up when someone steps on our toes, accepting injury meekly (or at least with the appearance of meekness). I will argue that habitually suppressing the most basic of our impulses induces in us all a kind of insanity from a very young age.

In Verses 23-24, I almost want to give Jesus some credit. He's telling us not to let bad blood linger between ourselves and others. But then what advice does he give us on how to attain reconciliation? Not a word. Similarly, in Verses 25-26, he urges us to settle legal matters privately, without going to court. But again, no practical advice on how to reach agreements. These enormous gaps in Jesus' message are key to the problem of people assuming that we're supposed to suppress our impulses so thoroughly as to live as doormats: given that Jesus is so wise, if he'd known of any better advice to give us, he would have done so. Unfortunately, when I step on your toes, the best anger-management advice Jesus has for you is, "Fuck your feelings."

That's 8.2. Thanks for watching.