Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Squirt guns and the foundations of morality

I have a friend who, recently, had a problem with little boys playing with squirt guns indoors. She called a Kids Meeting. There had not been any Kids Meetings before at this house, but that got the kids to sit down. She asked who was responsible, and all of the boys pointed at the one who was the most drenched. My friend did not believe them, but she then asked them what happens if people shoot squirt guns inside. The boys raised their hands and gave answers like, “The furniture might get messed up.” or “The squirt guns might make a puddle and then someone might slip and fall.”. My friend said, “Let’s make a rule: no playing with squirt guns inside.” The boys agreed, and they didn’t squirt guns inside anymore; at least, not for a couple of days.

The boys were not squirting guns because they had failed to grasp their prime moral imperative; they were squirting guns because they are little kids and were having fun, they just needed help to see how squirting squirt guns could harm people. And, by being encouraged to develop thoughts about their actions, they figured out, with a little help, how they ought to behave. My friend acted as an authority, but more like a teacher and less like a police officer.

I do not believe in any moral absolutes, but I think that harming people is bad and that helping people is good. I do not think that the moral beliefs that I do have are controversial. I would expect constructive controversies regarding things like whether aid should be given to kids in Somalia if warlords collect taxes on this aid, or what constitutes self-plagiarism, or whether people should eat chickens.

If two people are talking about right and wrong, they can have a good conversation if they agree on some basic points (eg, it is wrong to harm people); agreement on how they arrived at these points is not necessary. And yet, it’s often the case that secular people get asked by religious people how they have any morals at all. This is unfortunate. Although I disagree with religious people regarding whether God exists, I have more agreement than disagreement with them on how people ought to treat each other.

Human beings have a variety of beliefs about how morals come from God, or gods, or inside of people, or the structure of the universe, or something else. Human beings also have diverse sets of specific moral rules: what constitutes a stingy tip or who should be in charge in a family or how many times you need to say “thank you”. Between the source of morality and specific rules that people follow is a narrowly similar thing across humans: we think that it’s important to take care of family members, to not harm neighbors; we have empathy, especially toward people that we are related to or people with whom we can relate.

The next step for human beings to become more good is not the development of a more thorough or uniform or precise ethical basis; instead, it’s expanding the idea of who family and neighbors are by developing understanding of the commonality that humans have.


  1. I was once discussing the morality of sexual thoughts with a Christian who said that he didn't see women as sexual objects because "the bible says we are all brothers and sisters...I don't lust after my sisters." I asked facetiously "But, you expect to meet one of your sisters and eventually have sex with them?"

    How does that inform your conclusion? While on one hand the idea of "one big human family" seems ideal; it's also somewhat untenable. I would be much more upset that a waitress who served me didn't get a tip than that a person starved in Somalia, even if the same money was worth much more to the starving person than the annoyed one, because I can relate to the waitress and she's in my community.

    And so the question is, where do you draw the line, or do you draw any line? I'm not sure that an expansion of one's perceived community is always a good thing; or possible.

  2. I think they did some experiment on apes that concluded that there was a limitation to immediate community - something like 200 for them - and it is likely that with humans there is something similar.

    However, Cobe, I don't think that's what your friend meant. If he was telling the truth, and he may well have been, he simply means that he treats them and thinks of them *like* sisters, even though no relationship may be able to be present. This is similar to the idea of the 'good samaritan' in which the moral stranger treats another more like family than those whom we might assume would have the responsibility to do so.

  3. Again, Alex, I think you've written an excellent blog post and deliberated to a logical conclusion. However, I think all of your reasoning rests on the assumption that we're dealing with educated, rational, thoughtful people who agree on what it means to be human and what it means to harm someone. Unfortunately, that is not applicable to the great majority of the world's population, as there are quite a few people in the world who (in practice more than in theory) totally disagree with your premise that it is a bad thing, generally, to harm others. Even some of the more sophisticated and professional among us think that it's okay to break a few eggs to make an omelet (e.g. George Bush) or that the rules simply don't apply to them (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, all the doctors I hear about who abuse their patients or their positions, etc. etc.)

    You say: "Human beings have a variety of beliefs about how morals come from God, or gods, or inside of people, or the structure of the universe, or something else." Your conclusions about morals have, as you have rightfully deduced, put you into a place where you find yourself in agreement on what to do in a lot of cases with most other people who are like you in social status, educational attainment, income level, etc. However, for a vast number of people, the morality that they come to is not really congruent with a functional, flourishing, healthy society. Furthermore, when those values conflict (for example, with issues like torture, abortion, FGM, etc.), I feel like you don't leave any way for resolving such a conflict because both parties, in your mind, have arrived at their conclusions by equally valid methods.

    I think Cobe's comment is a great example of this-- I hope I'm not picking on you too much, Cobe-- but we as humans tend to look out for #1 first and then our family, tribe, and then if we have time/money/energy we'll look out for other people. I think it's entirely natural (and even a good thing) to take care of people in these concentric circles going outwards. Yet at the same time, it is such a short step from "my tribe takes priority" to "the other tribe must be disadvantaged if necessary." The basic recognizance of human commonality is a nice idea, but I don't think it's going to make anyone move to Somalia to provide medical care in a war zone.

  4. @Cobe:

    >How does that inform your conclusion? While on one hand the idea of "one big human family" seems ideal; it's also somewhat untenable. I would be much more upset that a waitress who served me didn't get a tip than that a person starved in Somalia, even if the same money was worth much more to the starving person than the annoyed one, because I can relate to the waitress and she's in my community.

    Sartre talked about the idea that what one wills for oneself, one wills for everyone. This is a nuanced idea, because if I will myself to be a fireman, that doesn't mean that I will everyone to be a fireman. But, if put out fires because I'm concerned for wellbeing of people in my neighborhood, what I am willing for my neighbors is that they concern themselves with the neighborhood being in good order, also.

    I hope this analogy is not strained. I can see strangers as equal to myself, as human beings, and afford them equal standing, for example, by being concerned that laws are not discriminatory. At the same time, I can act more in the interest of myself and the people I am familiar with, and this is a good thing because 1 I can do more about myself and my close spheres than I can do for humanity broadly and 2 I have better information about what contributes to my wellbeing and the wellbeing of other people close to me. I think that this is a practical justification for the many cases in which we do more for ourselves and our neighbors, and I don't think that this means that we cannot regard all people as having equal standing as persons.

    You raise the issue of being more concerned for a waitress getting a good tip than with whether Somalis get fed. This is an appropriate concern and it's constructive that you recognize that this is contradictory. I recommend improving people's sense of empathy at the margin. That is, if it's easier for you to feel compassion for the waitress than for a Somali, that's not ideal, but it's better than having no empathy for others. And perhaps making sure the waitress get a good tip helps you develop a stronger sense of empathy that can help you enjoy helping strangers more.

  5. @River:
    >I think they did some experiment on apes that concluded that there was a limitation to immediate community - something like 200 for them - and it is likely that with humans there is something similar.

    I've heard of this and I think this is a powerful idea. (I do not have a good source on this experiment, I'm not sure that it happened, but I do think that the intuition in this idea is correct.)

  6. @Matthew:

    First, thanks!

    Second, I do not think that my reasoning depends on people being "educated, rational, [or] thoughtful". I think that empathy is intuitive, to some extent, to almost all humans.

    I do agree that there is disagreement on what constitutes a person and what constitutes harm—this is what I mean by where I would hope the controversy to be. These are norms, but these norms can be informed by empirical facts. For example, acceptance slavery in the US was rationalized by the false belief that black people are innately less capable than white people; this is demonstrably false, and the spread of the truth contributed to the end of slavery. There is an apparent consensus that more information and more consistency make for better morals.

    I do not think that class, as such, has much to do with a sense of empathy, and I agree that George Bush, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and many professionals (not just doctors :-) ) compromise empathy for the sake of their own material gain. I do think that they can develop the insight that their actions result, to some extent, from delusions about themselves. (The Family,, is a particularly chilling example of this.)

    To be clear: I think that my moral suppositions are common across humanity, but my conclusions might not be. The problem is making moral conclusions, in the form of concrete norms, laws, and even etiquette. This can be improved by better information, concern for consistency, and a cultivation of empathy. So, I think I might agree with a person who approves of FGM that not harming people is good. I expect that the disagreement is whether FGM is harmful, and the pain that women suffer as a result is a fact. I might think that our moral presuppositions are about equally valid, but our conclusions are not.

    I think that I address your ideas in the last paragraph in my comment @Cobe. Also, there are many reasons why people move to Somalia.

    Thanks for the thoughts; I hope that this comment makes my position more clear.

  7. Regarding the limit on sizes of social groups, see:'s_number

    There was no experiment, but there was observation.

  8. So two things jumped out at me after I read this, one is that the phrase "I do not believe in any moral absolutes" is followed by something that someone who believes in moral absolutes would say, even if it's the almost child-like and innocent "harming people is bad and that helping people is good".

    Which sounds good (don't get me wrong, I agree with the general spirit of that "harming->bad, helping->good" idea), though the trouble is that it becomes hard to put that into practice: Do you tax a rich person more to be able to help a poor person? Do you cut out a piece of one person's liver to keep someone who destroyed their own alive? Do you help a blind person cross the street slowly and carefully when you're late for an important job interview?

    In practice we're rarely faced with a clear "help or harm" choice: we're faced with tradeoffs -- the difficult moral questions arise when we can help one person by harming another. The difficult part is to weigh those measures against each other, and that's where people disagree. People -- not religions, not just the religious against the secular, not just those who subscribe to one moral theory against another, but just different people with different experiences that have different values in mind.

  9. @Anonymous
    Yes, the Dunbar number, that's what I was thinking of. There's also the hundredth monkey effect, which is superstitious and unsupported:
    These two are often confused.

  10. @Alex: I read about it long ago. I don't have the source for it though the article I read back in the day did.

    As for the content of the article, here's what I think.

    1. There are absolute universal morals. But the problem with this reality is twofold:
    a. We often mistake our own feelings and experiences, or our parochial morays for them
    b. We assume that if they are absolute and universal they must also be all-encompassing

    Consider the idea of Beneficence (cause no harm) and of Thoughtfulness as two examples of universal, absolute morals.

    2. The absolute morals are not all-encompassing, thus we are not provided in any form with a checklist wherein we can for any act determine if we/they were wrong or right.

    This means that situational ethics and just plain mercy need to fill in the spaces where the universal morals do not speak. If in fact we do have free will, then the notion, like that of the correctness of a computer program goes like this:

    1. There are many ways to succeed
    2. There are also many ways to fail
    3. There are ways to succeed which will be in certain circumstances, failures.

    In short, if universal morals dictated all, there would be no place for the human will or decision. But that does not mean that there are not certain things which are always immoral or moral.


    If we assume that the possible situations that might arise are infinite, then it is actually impossible to have an 'absolute moral code' that is both totally complete and also absolute. Even if we begin to generalize, we quickly run into unusual situations that don't fit the rule if we're dealing with a population of any significant size.


    This is the problem of pluralism. On the one hand, the more advanced society can afford a detente because most people have internalized civilization; even if methods disagree most people swim in the same water and have internalized the same values. On the other hand, if factions gain hold that come to different conclusions, this way of thinking does not provide a way to say the other party is wrong, but merely offensive.

    I disagree, however, and there is evidence that 'Beneficence' is indeed a universal moral, but we must assume if we're Christians that people have always had a choice to follow or turn from the Way, and more often than not we create 'values' which are perfect opposites of what is actually 'good'.

    My two silver dollars.

  11. @River:

    I'm a little surprised that you said that there are moral absolutes, but not all situations have a "right answer" that is dictated by them; I think this is very reasonable.

  12. Alex,

    I guess that while I agree with you that more information and consistency will often lead to better morals, it's pretty clear that a rising tide won't always lift all boats in that respect. For example, Egypt is one of the more progressive and well-educated of the Middle Eastern nations and the rate of FGM is >90%. The issue of abortion is another clear example, I think, of very thoughtful, educated people who have a wildly different moral conclusion on the matter of life and death. If more empathy is all we need, I think that people, in general, should have more empathy towards 1st-trimester fetuses. But I don't think that's been very effective lately.

    Again, I feel like in your conversations with people who disagree with you on some important moral point, you could appeal to empathy or better information, but I can rarely get someone to treat themselves better as a result of better information, much less other people. One would hope that we could just talk some sense (and empathy and consistency) into people, but that is very often not the case from the humblest mother who continues to smoke in the house even when her kids get diagnosed with asthma to the most glorious dictator who murders his own people. Oftentimes, doing the right thing is very costly, this is very hard to convince others (or yourself) to do unless there's a much bigger reward at stake.

  13. Matthew,

    The "rising tide" lifts boats in general. Equality across gender and race, in particular, is rising in general, especially in societies that are industrializing.

    Of course there are exceptions to this. I don't think that the case of FGM in Egypt actually supports your claim strongly. FGM was banned in Egypt in 2007 as a result of a girl dying from this practice—a salient piece of information. Of course, banning, legally, is not the same as the practice actually ceasing. I think that this is an indication of the direction of that country's norms, though. Also, FGM has, apparently, been more prevalent in Egypt than in many other places for a long time. We wouldn't necessarily say that Iceland is a great example of information and empathy reducing FGM because Icelandic culture hasn't had a tradition of FGM. It's more appropriate, I think, to see how information and empathy affect an individual or group over time, than to focus on comparisons across people or cultures, unless some controls are used to factor out other influences.

    I do not think that human experience is enough to eliminate human wrong, at least, it hasn't done it yet. I don't think that there is anything else though. I do think that it is apparent that the trends are in a good direction.