A Celebration of Winsor McCay

My favorite illustrator ever, Winsor McCay (1869-1934), worked for decades as a newspaper political cartoonist, illustrator, and animator.

I learned about McCay while browsing through books in the 1990s, I think it was, in a shop in Seattle's Fish Market, and I just stumbled upon a collection of his work titled Daydreams and Nightmares, which has many (not all) of the items below.

What has always struck me about McCay, aside from his sheer skill as an illustrator, is his ability to express important values in a striking and beautiful way.

I found that most if not all of his values were my values, and indeed, the words are right in the images: things like thought, knowledge, truth, hard work, duty, wisdom, books. And many more, too: his political cartoons show that he was deeply opposed to war on principle, a view I tend to support; he hated drugs (and mind you, he was illustrating from the late 1800s to the 1930s); he was serious about Christianity, a theme that came up now and then in his work; there's one that shows he was deeply disturbed about "The White Slaver," with a caption reading, "The most sinister and degraded member of the race! The shame of civilization!"; he has illustrations on the importance of taking life seriously in the face of death; at least two about women's rights; several visions of a fascinating (often incorrect) future; and one against "technocracy," portrayed as a futuristic machine-monster, which seems newly relevant in the age of Big Tech. I saved one of the best for last, "The Children of Ignorance," which I have used several times online throughout the years.


Against Anti-Natalism

The anti-natalist's bête noir.

Anti-natalism is the view that that human beings should not have children, because it is unethical to do so. Different reasons can be offered for this startling position, but the position I discuss in this essay specifies that life has negative value for those burdened by it. It is more bad than good, or the bad that there is in life is somehow more significant or weighty than the good.

Better Never to Have Been—published.

Perhaps the best-known anti-natalist, David Benatar, maintains that since life includes suffering and nonexistence does not, and since nonexistence has nothing bad about it—he is much impressed by this "asymmetry," i.e., that suffering only occurs for life—it follows that nonexistence is preferable to life. But since it is impossible for parents to obtain consent from their future children for their coming into life (this looks like nonsense, as I will explain), we are imposing that pain onto our children without their consent. Anti-natalists can often be found blaming parents for all the suffering that their children ever have.

I will be honest: it is hard for me to take this view seriously. Moreover, I have little taste for pretending to take it seriously. On my view, any more elaborate or precise versions of the foregoing arguments do not make them any more plausible. The arguments are simply awful, and their social consequences strike me as deeply pernicious. Still, a few people reading this might disagree with me: maybe you think anti-natalism needs a hearing; maybe, even, it sounds plausible. If that is your reaction, after reading the previous paragraph, then I suspect it is not because of the excellent quality of the arguments. It is probably because it appeals to your more basic pessimism—perhaps a pathological condition. After all, we are talking about about a view according to which no one should ever have children because life is just that terrible.

In this brief essay, I will try to refute anti-natalism in the sense defined above. It is very possible that my arguments will not address or refute versions or arguments that some people have come up with. But they will, I hope, address some common versions. In any case, bear in mind this just an essay, an attempt, not a carefully-formulated position paper giving my final word on the subject. I might update this if conditions warrant.

Pain, ergo a worthless life?

As I understand it, there are two main parts to the case for anti-natalism. First, there is the part that says that it is morally wrong to foist a life of suffering onto children without their consent. Second, there is the premise that the suffering inherent in human life makes it indeed worthless, or worse than worthless. Both parts seem necessary. If human life were a good thing, then it would not be so objectionable to give life to new people. And simply claiming that human life is worthless does not clinch the case unless you draw the further conclusion that parents are doing wrong by creating worthless life (or life with negative value).

So I will take these two parts separately, beginning with:

The Question of Consent

The very idea that unconceived children have a right to consent whether or not they wish to be born is, of course, strictly nonsense. If something does not exist, it has no rights, no wishes, and no way to assert rights or wishes. Indeed, it makes no sense to speak of "it" at all; the pronoun stands for a posited individual which does not exist yet. Some people (who do very much exist today) point a finger of blame at their own parents: "I had no say in this life; I was not consulted," they say. The answer is straightforward: "You could not have been consulted, because you did not exist yet."

My answer leaves anti-natalists unimpressed. They are determined to blame their parents for making the bad choice of birthing them: there seems to be real resentment there. "You did decide to give birth, and the person you gave birth to happened to be me. This was a bad move and I resent it. You took this action, and it resulted in a life, which just happens to be my terrible life."

This genius sued his parents because they did not get his consent to be born. Here, he may be indicating the value he places on his life.

If this is to be the line, then it is pointing toward a slightly different argument. After all, the original argument was supposed to be that parents did not obtain consent from their as-yet unconceived children, and parents have no right to consent on their children's behalf. But that argument really is nonsense. "Ought" implies "can": if I ought to obtain consent from my future children, then I should be able to obtain consent from them. But as this is a metaphysical impossibility, it is not the case that I ought to obtain consent. At the time, there is no one to obtain consent from.

But if the argument is, instead, that parents make a poor choice generally by bringing a sad new life into this vale of tears, then no mention of (impossible) consent need be made. Then the idea is that the parents are doing something that has bad effects; the anti-natalist has, essentially, a consequentialist argument, i.e., one about the goodness or badness of consequences. People experiencing existential anger at their parents feel personally affronted because they are the recipients of these purportedly bad consequences.

But then the strength of the blame we assign to parents depends on the strength of the argument that life is worthless; on that, see the next section.

Whether he wants to or not.

Even if, contrary to fact, some sense could be made of the notion that parents are making a decision for their children which they have no right to make, we can simply deny the latter: parents decide things for their children all the time, after all. Parents raise children in a particular place, teach them a particular language, send them to a particular school, raise them in a certain religion, punish them for doing wrong and reward them for doing right, and so forth, all without consulting the children. The law recognizes this right. Reasonable people can, of course, disagree about specific cases; parents do not own their children, and they do not have unlimited authority over them. But one particular area of authority rests in the basic right to have children in the first place. The law certainly recognizes procreation as a basic, fundamental human right.

Admittedly, this is just a legal right, however; if to be born is to be harmed, then perhaps a moral right has been violated. That remains to be hashed out in the next section.

I want to make one further point on this head: the argument (again, that we should not have children because doing so does not respect their autonomy) proves too much, as philosophers are wont to say. Consistency on the point has some decidedly unpleasant consequences that could make anti-natalists look like monsters.

Let us agree, just for the sake of argument, that adults should never have children. But life sometimes throws us a curveball: suppose a gal gets knocked up. What is she to do? Well, if she decides to have an abortion, is she not making a decision on behalf of her child, just as much as if she were to bring it to term? It is misplaced to insist on the word "fetus" in this case, by the way: anti-natalists go far beyond pro-lifers, who talk about the rights of unborn persons, to claim that nonexistent persons have rights, or at least the right to consent to come into existence.

Too late.

Let us suppose the anti-natalist advises her to get an abortion. After all, that baby has not given consent. Very well. But if, before conception, there is a hypothetical person there with a right to consent, surely after conception there is a person there with a right to life. Which right—the right to deny consent to exist, or the right to live—should prevail? The anti-natalist is faced with a dilemma. Either there is a person with rights there, and hence a right to life that must not be violated, or there is not. It will not do to say, "Well, that mother should not have conceived." Let us suppose she has conceived; that is just a sad fact. This dilemma must not be ignored. Its existence does not imply that anti-natalism is wrong, but it does make it hard to be a consistent anti-natalist, for abortion rights advocates anyway.

The problem is this. If you (i.e., an anti-natalist) think a child has a right to consent, then immediately after conception at least it certainly is capable of having other rights. If, in that case, the you conclude that abortion is justifiable, then you are in effect denying that this growing human life has a right to life. One way out of the dilemma is to bite the bullet and find some reason to deny that this person, who has at least one other right, has no right to life. And, come to think of it, the anti-natalist does have a reason ready to hand: if life really is worthless, perhaps we should reconsider the very idea that there is a right to live, at least for the very young.

In that case, the dilemma is not over. Suppose the mother decides to have the baby after all, and now it is one year old. The baby still has not given consent, of course, and the usual human suffering has already started (e.g., colic). By the anti-natalist's lights, is the mother perpetrating an ongoing harm to her baby, by continuing to support it? It certainly seems she is. After all, if bringing a child into existence harms the child, then surely continuing to care for the child does as well. Should she not, in that case, snuff out this nonconsensual life? Why not?

Possibly an anti-natalist.

The idea fills us with moral horror, of course, or it should. But what resources can the anti-natalist bring to bear to avoid the consequence? From the point of view of a philosopher considering that life is worthless, and that the child has not consented to live, there really is not much difference between a newly conceived child and a one-year-old child. Both are lives that should not have been, according to the anti-natalist. If you could abort a newly-conceived fetus because (despite having other rights) it lacks a right to life, then why would it have gained a right to live by the very tender age of one?

The anti-natalist might say, "But there are other reasons we would not commit infanticide. Obviously we cannot have people going around killing babies." Yes indeed, well spotted. There are other reasons. But the anti-natalist cannot help himself to those reasons, because they generally presuppose the value of human life, and human life, especially the life of the very young, has no value—remember?

You cannot rest on the comforting practices and beliefs of civilized society as it is now constituted to escape these moral horrors—not without abandoning the premises of your position. If you begin to tell me about the comfort the baby feels in her mother's arms, or the joy the mother feels in her baby, I will remind you that none of that seemed to matter when you were advocating against birth in the first place. Such maternal joys were, after all, perfectly predictable.

Maybe not actual anti-natalists, but hippies on an island commune.

To bring out this point, I imagine a secret anti-natalist cult—a colony on a desert island, say. Everyone there is an anti-natalist, all planning to die childless. But some of these are young people and, of course, nature will sometimes take its course. The mother (nature intruding, again) opts not to have an abortion, and to the horror of the island cult's anti-natalists, a child is born.

In such a society, "enlightened" as it is by anti-natalist sentiments, I imagine there would be an immediate demand to kill the child—humanely, of course. After all, that child did not choose to live; its mental capacity is unequal to a dog's. On what grounds would the anti-natalists—far from the "corrupting" and "unenlightened" influence of broader society—choose to preserve the life of the child? Perhaps a right to life; but most anti-natalists will be fine with abortion, of course, so that theoretical expedient seems unavailable. No one who understands the issues wants the baby to endure a life of suffering. The baby can die peacefully and painlessly—and so, one imagines the anti-natalist cult concluding, in its "enlightened" wisdom, the baby should die.

But then, one wonders why they, themselves, would choose to continue living, but that is another question, to consider below.

The Value of Life

Experiencing intrinsic value.

In another essay I argued that the value of life is intrinsic, i.e., human life itself just is that in virtue of which everything else is evaluated. I am not going to argue this claim much further here, except to point something out: the reason pleasure is good, when it is, is that it is the natural biological response to a life well lived. But sometimes, pleasure is very bad indeed, as when we are motivated to gain pleasure from activities that will kill us (as for example in drug addiction). Similarly, there is a reason suffering is bad, namely, it is the natural biological response to harm to the organism. Sometimes, however, the painfulness of suffering means no such thing. The suffering we endure from exercise is often a sign of a healthy activity. The suffering a rescuer endures from saving lives belies the notion that all suffering is bad: enduring it can be courageous and heroic.

The point is that pleasure and pain are imperfect qua signals of whether life is lived well or not. But ultimately the thing our pleasures and pains—and our bodily and cognitive systems, needs, desires, and in short the operation and flourishing of our entire human nature—aim at is the preservation of our lives and more generally of life wherever it is found. (I add the "more general" point because sometimes, arguably, we have biological urges to preserve someone else's life, as when a parent risks all to save a child.)

I have gone into a bit of detail about this in order to clarify why, as I will now maintain, the anti-natalists' notion of the value of human life frequently seems desiccated.

Your future.

"We live only to be faced with an often painful death, and typically after a whole lifetime of suffering," these pessimists intone. "Suffering is always much more awful than pleasure is pleasant. Pleasure really can be understood as the satisfaction of needs, i.e., the filling of a void. What is the significance of the mere absence of a negative in the face of profound suffering?"

Now, if this line of thinking is supposed to justify the conclusion that it is wrong to have children, it can only be through an intermediate conclusion, because it certainly does not follow immediately. Let us concede that life is a 100% fatal condition, that death is often painful, that suffering is often more intense than pleasure (not always—there are "peak moments," after all, that people say they live for). Now, it seems to me that the needed intermediate conclusion is that life is worthless, or worse than worthless; or, to put it more simply, not living is preferable to living.

Benatar and many anti-natalists are constantly found assuming the truth of this claim, but it strikes me as not just (a) unsupported by the weak premises, but also (b) quite obviously false. Let us consider the latter first.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood

Not Typically a Vale of Tears

Take the latter point first: it seems obviously false to say that not living is preferable to living. Most of the time, most people find life to be life worth living, not a "vale of tears." Various surveys of "average happiness" have been conducted around the world, and with few exceptions, on average, people in most countries are more happy than not.

Older folks are, typically, filled with regrets about mistakes and missed opportunities; but rarely do you hear them regret having lived at all. If they say, "What has it all been for?" it is because they feel they have not been productive enough, or maybe because they have left no family behind. Sometimes it does enter into their calculus that their life was filled with physical and emotional suffering. But few lives are burdened by unremitting suffering. There are, of course, exceptions, i.e., people who are depressed or miserably schizophrenic their whole lives long, or whose bodies were never-ending sources of pain. But the portion of humanity that fits into those categories is small.

How do anti-natalists respond to this? There are two ways to respond. One is to look down upon all those small-minded happy people with contempt. Happy people are living a lie. This strikes me as arrogant and, in any case, unpersuasive. One common reason is for such arrogant pessimism is the observation that we will all obviously die eventually. It is supposed to follow from this that our lives are meaningless and pointless. That has never struck me as being a good argument. It is a stance some anti-natalists take, but, in short, I think there is no way to defend it. After all, the value experienced in a life clearly has a time limit, this is well-known to everyone but the young and foolish, and yet people continue to find meaning in that value. A mother might have only fifty years in which to love a child; but that love is certainly one of the things that gave her life meaning for those fifty years. Why not? Who is the anti-natalist to tell the mother that that love is meaningless just because it has an expiration date?

(There is, of course, more to say on this point.)

Anti-natalists are glass-half-empty kind of people.

A second type of response has the anti-natalist realistically acknowledge that some people are happy, but the problem is that there is no way for a parent to know, in advance, if a child will end up being one of them. There is massive risk inherent in life—the risk of having a life of misery.

To this I reply that indeed, it is true that life is risky, and that some (I think few) people might justifiably conclude, in their own cases, that it would have been better never to have been born. Given that, it seems parents must be courageous on behalf on their children, so to speak—a concept that I think will be perfectly familiar to parents. There is a kind of existential courage every new parent ought to muster: making the most of a new little life in the face of possible disasters is a very big responsibility. Then, a part of what it means for the child to grow up is to accept the mantle of that existential courage on one's own behalf. It is cowardly to reject that mantle. When we want to admonish a young person who seems to be cowardly in the face of this existential challenge, the usual thing to say is: "No one said life would be easy."

Leo anti-natalis

This is not to deny that, sometimes, the challenge is beyond a person's power. If you have a disease that leaves your body racked with pain, and there is no end in sight, no one will blame you terribly if you declare you want to give up. Fortunately, life is rarely so awful. If you have a typical life, with typical diseases and typical heartbreaks, you are better advised to get up the courage that a typical life requires.

In any event, to argue that parents should not have children because they might have a life of misery is to counsel the opposite: cowardice. And as far as I can see, the mere risk of disaster is by itself an obviously terrible argument in favor of such cowardice.

The Bad in Life Is Not More Profound than the Good

We were discussing the anti-natalists' key claim that not living is preferable to living. My first response is to point out that this is unpersuasive; indeed it simply seems false (and cowardly). My second response is that the anti-natalist is guilty of a rather obvious non-sequitur. Clearly it does not follow from the ancient platitude that life is a vale of tears (something poets, prophets, and philosophers have told us for millennia) that life is not worth living. It seems one hardly needs to say more than that. It simply does not follow from the patent and prosy fact that life kind of sucks sometimes that life is not worth living.

The fact that it is such an obvious non-sequitur is probably why David Benatar felt it necessary to bolster that patent and prosy fact with what sounds like a very logical, technical, and irrefutable argument. To wit—living and nonliving are asymmetrical, he correctly points out. Or rather, he is correct just insofar as the former features something decidedly bad (viz., suffering), while the latter has nothing either good or bad in it. Benatar also, curiously, wants to insist that nonliving lacks suffering, and that is good; but I will not admit this feature, because something nonexistent cannot have either good or bad features.

The problem is that the anti-natalist conclusion still does not follow, even given Benatar's observation about the living-nonliving asymmetry, and for a few different reasons.

First, the asymmetry goes both ways. It is true that whatever is nonliving lacks suffering and other bad things, and that is all very well. But life has value in itself, as I said above. This is a belief we have naturally, even despite ourselves; even animals of different species value the life they see in each other enough to be found rescuing each other.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44iIJGDJlwQ

Even if you did not agree that life is valuable in itself, you must at least admit that life has all sorts of good aspects, and not just some vague unspecified pleasures, but love, beauty, truth (or knowledge or learning), productivity, worship (for religious people), and more. Only someone with an arid, hedonistic view of the value of life could possibly be intellectually impressed by Benatar's argument if it is couched only in terms of pleasure. And only a pessimist, or someone with clinical emotional difficulties, could actually be persuaded by it.

After all, we rightly congratulate people for their new babies. We celebrate birthdays. We honor the dead and their lives in funerals. When we do this, we are not saying, “Oh, this person had some pleasure and on balance avoided pain.”

Now, Benatar is at pains, sometimes, to point out that by "pleasure" and "pain" he really means "anything good" and "anything bad," and that he is happy to recast his argument in terms of most any value theory. The problem is that the asymmetry he insists on is really obvious only in the hedonistic version of the argument. In other words, we can agree with him that suffering is more intense and long-lasting than pleasure—i.e., when the goods are pleasures and pains. We cannot agree with him so easily that the bad in life (more generally) is more important or consequential than the good. After all, this is precisely why we undergo such painful sacrifice, sometimes, in our lives: in order to secure things that are more importantly good. Students will rack their brains and stay up many late nights in order to gain knowledge. New parents will go to great trouble for the well-being (not merely the pleasure) of a new baby. A soldier will sacrifice everything in a key battle, or undergo awful torture, for the sake of a cause he regards as much more important than himself, such as freedom. There is something rather shabby in the suggestion that these reasons we have for living and even dying are somehow less important or profound than the the various troubles that life throws at us.

Even those who are living with painful disease, the memories of abuse, or profound personal tragedy usually—with grim determination—admit that it is better for themselves and the rest of the world that they continue to struggle on. To dismiss such brave thinking is shabby. A few supposedly sober and serious philosophers do seem to dismiss it—such trials are a reason never to have children, they say. We more normally attribute such pessimism only to terminally depressed mental patients. Why should we expect there to be any good argument for it? Why should we be surprised when, upon examination, the arguments put forth are terrible?

Beauty, freedom, peace—among the things we live for.

There is a fact known to everyone facing life's challenges with grim determination: some deeply important values are worth upholding in a full, rich life. Again, we live for family, knowledge, beauty (e.g., music), freedom, security, and much more. These values, which together comprise the value of human life, are incredibly profound and worth living for. They are worth risking pain. Hence no person inspired by the vision of our limited, all-too-human, but still grand works can be persuaded by the anti-natalist conclusion.

Is Anti-Natalism a Death Cult in the Making?

So far I have merely been defending the value of new human life against attacks upon it by anti-natalists. Now I wish to take the offensive.

Anti-natalism is difficult to distinguish from terminal depression: its grim assessment of the value of life closely resembles that of a suicidal person. So one really has to wonder: why would a consistent anti-natalist not simply end it all? Death, or at least nonliving, is preferable to life, or so the anti-natalists maintain.

Some anti-natalists might disagree with Benatar.

Benatar's response is that killing yourself and dying are quite different from never coming into existence in the first place, which is easy to concede. To say that parents should not give birth to children is very different from the claim that you should commit suicide. True, acting on both will result in a person not living. But the difference is that killing yourself happens only after you have lived at least some of a life. Throwing that life away can be an awful thing, Benatar says—and, of course, he is very right about that—in a way that never creating a life is not awful at all.

Benatar is a bit too much impressed with this point, however, because it does not do the work he wants it to do. Before a new life begins, anti-natalists want to say, the suffering and risk to be expected in the new life are so awful that we cannot justify creating it. But if that observation is true, does it somehow change when a new person is born? Surely not. The suffering and risk we can anticipate in the life of a newborn is the same as that in a person who has never been born—or, for that matter, in a person who is 50 years old and facing declining health.

Very well. Benatar's suggestion must be that killing—whether we mean a baby being killed (out of "mercy"), or a 50-year-old committing suicide—has awful consequences. There are fear and pain associated with the killing itself; grieving; the loss of support to a family, or the loss of future generations if a young person dies.

But if human life is so worthless that we can confidently tell in advance that it is not worth living, then what, really, is the loss once life has begun? If nonliving is better than living, then an enlightened anti-natalist would not fear but welcome death. The pain of dying can be minimized with drugs. Anyone who cared about a person who has died would not grieve but celebrate that another person has left this vale of tears, if they take the anti-natalist assessment of the value of life seriously. And while loss of support to a family is unfortunate, this is bearable; those still remaining usually make do. As to the loss of "future generations," of course anti-natalists think that is a good thing, not a bad one.

The Jonestown Cult—and one way of expressing anti-natalist belief.

Let us return to the island with the secret anti-natalist cult. I speculated that cult would have no trouble with infanticide. But I would go farther to say that there is no reason to think they would, if consistent anti-natalists, all eventually commit suicide; perhaps it would be a mass suicide, like a real death cult. Why not? Nonliving is preferable to living, and the cult members are already surrounded by like-minded people who will understand and properly celebrate their passing.

If you are an anti-natalist, you might well find this to be an insulting and silly thought experiment. You've probably heard it all before. If that is your attitude, you must take your own view more seriously. After all, why should you be able to help yourself to the attitudes of ordinary natalists, and of a society constructed by natalists, in defending an anti-natalist philosophy? What, will you say the reason you abstain from killing yourself is that you are part of a society in which doing so is considered impolite, wrong, and shocking? But that is the view of natalists. Your view is that it would have been better if you had never been born. That means that, if we compare a possible world in which you exist to one in which you don't exist, the one in which you don't exist is better. Given that bold assumption, why not assume that a world in which you are dead tomorrow would be better than one in which you stay alive as long as possible?

Is it because you can anticipate that, probably, the rest of your life will be adequately happy? Well, most conscientious new parents may make a similar assumption behalf of their children, may they not? I just don't know how you can have it both ways. Either human life is worth living, or it is not.

The anti-natalists' preferred scenario.

In any event, one thing that anti-natalists can agree on is that humanity should die out. After all, if our lives are worthless and no new humans should be born, then if we followed that principle consistently, humanity would be extinct in about 100 years. Anti-natalists are committed, therefore, to the incredibly ugly and indefensible proposal that mankind as a whole, all our works, everything we have ever produced, fall into oblivion. This might not involve any killing, but it is worse than anything Hitler, Mao, or Stalin ever advocated for.

Let us not forget that it is not exactly a leap from Benatar's view to the view that we should all be put out of our misery. There are environmentalists and occultists who take exactly that view. They are not Benatar's "philanthropic" anti-natalists, but "misanthropic" ones; but they share with Benatar the key premise, the radical and dangerous premise, that human life is worthless or worse than worthless, and that it would be better if the human race were to die out entirely.

I hope this makes it clear why I view anti-natalism as a thoroughly evil philosophy, and I mean this quite literally. There are not many philosophical views one can say that about. But it should not be surprising if anti-natalism earns the label. After all, it is opposed to the very thing that gives life its value—the preservation and development human life itself—and it literally displays profound contempt for human lives individually and for the entire human race. That fits the very definition of "evil" that I formulated last week, before writing this essay: "Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others."

If you prefer this end result, we're going to have some words.


A Theory of Evil

First posted Aug. 16, 2019. Revised and reposted Nov. 4. Good to read alongside "Why Be Moral."

For a long time, the nature of evil eluded me. But dark contemplation of the Jeffrey Epstein case and of the very existence of pedophile rings has clarified the nature of evil for me. Here, then, is a brief and provisional theory.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others. I will explain what I mean by this, but first let me clarify what, on this theory, evil is not.

One personification of evil: Jeffery Epstein

First, evil is not contempt for this or that person; contempt can be deserved. Epstein himself richly deserves our contempt. But evil is something more far-reaching: it is contempt for the humanity of others. That qualifier is very important, as we will see.

Another thing evil is not is mere old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy. Misanthropes might claim to "hate everybody," and they are very much distrusting, but they aren't necessarily bad just for that. Most self-described misanthropes do not hate human life as such; they're just deeply, profoundly disappointed with everyone. They have ideals that we fall far short of, and it is actually their unyielding principles that make them misanthropes. They are impressed with the idea that we are all sinners, so they have not given up the idea of sin. They do not reject the principle that we should value all human beings; they just believe that, due to the inevitable foibles of humanity, we cannot justify admiring or trusting anyone. Distrust and disappointment are not evil at all.

Quite a good book

I have come to the conclusion that a proper understanding of evil—i.e., understanding the very idea of contempt for the humanity of some others—is profoundly important if you are to have a mature, clear-sighted view of your own life and of the world and its history. We might define naïveté as the failure to accept that anyone has such contempt. I have been rather naïve, in this sense, all my life. I have always liked Will Rogers' charming sentiment that he never met a man he didn't like. I have become increasingly impressed, over the years, by the Christian elevation of love, or agape, as a virtue—love for one's fellow man. I thought it was something of a failing in myself that I disliked some people. One of the fictional characters I rather admired was Dostoyevsky's Idiot, Prince Myshkin; his trusting nature, his unwillingness to accept the existence of evil, was his problem, too. I am coming to the conclusion that I myself have been rather idiotic about evil, and that has to end.

Kant

An evil person looks at another person and says: this is a non-person; this is a piece of trash; this is an obstacle or tool to be used and then discarded. Psychiatrists call such people sociopaths. A Kantian would say they treat others as mere means to their selfish ends, not as ends in themselves. That formulation is close, perhaps, but limited. After all, there is also a kind of nihilistic evil, which seeks to destroy pointlessly, due to the deepest contempt for a person, and hatred of their humanity as such—not to advance any further goal. Such dark, twisted, broken souls exist in real life, not just in horror stories.

With that long preamble finished, let me now explain what I mean by the key phrase "contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others." How do I distinguish this from mere contempt of some disagreeable human feature? If the big bad boss sees that an employee does poor work, the big bad boss might look down on, or have contempt, for the employee, but it might be due only to poor work. The stereotypical mean girl in high school has contempt for "ugly girls" and "nerds," but that might only be contempt for ugliness and nerdiness.

However nasty they can be, I don't propose to call the boss or the mean girl positively evil unless they demonstrate contempt for something deeper: their target's humanity.

Not quite evil

So, what is that? I add "human life" as a clue: I mean contempt for the very life or existence of a person, not just for perceived weaknesses, faults, sins, or mistakes. This could entail careless disregard for a person's mind or body, or both; it could entail active desire to harm without regard to ultimate consequences. Certainly this comes in degrees. Perhaps a bully who relentlessly teases is on the road to something like evil, if over time it becomes clear that the bully thinks of the person as merely a plaything for pleasurable torture. But most bullies have some regard for their victims: killing, for example, is out of the question. An accidental killing would inspire deep guilt in most of the world's bullies, who are merely bad, not evil. Lack of a sense of guilt indicates positive evil.

But clearly, evil is not an all-or-nothing affair. There are degrees of evil because there are degrees not just in the scope of one's contempt for humanity (as I will explain shortly), but also in the amount or strength of one's contempt.

I take the latter to be a truism: some people are merely bad, some are inconsistently evil (for example, reformed), and some are "pieces of work." The concept of a "piece of work" has long interested me. Perhaps it can be understood as a person who consistently has a mild amount of contempt for the interests of those who surround him, but who hides this contempt well. In any event, bad sorts have contempt for the basic humanity of others, contempt that waxes and wanes with their moods, their society, substances imbibed, and even their philosophy or religion.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

But generally, I think that for us to call a person evil requires strong and consistent contempt for the humanity of others. By the way, whether a person actually acts on their contempt seems unimportant. An evil monster, locked away with no opportunity to work evil, is still an evil monster.

How should we understand the other key term, "contempt"? A brief gloss is "considering someone to be inferior or worthless." It is typically regarded as an emotion, but there is a distinguishable attitude of contempt as well, one that could be cold and unfeeling, insofar as it merely involves a low evaluation of others. The attitude of contempt would be the contemplation of another person as being unimportant. Someone who regards some others with "nothing but contempt" will not credit them with rights, interests, or consideration typically accorded to (respected) peers.

But contempt for the humanity of others is a special sort of contempt. Note that we sometimes speak of dignity as a sort of "baseline value" that people have, in virtue simply of their being human. Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Root of all evil?

Evil is essentially dehumanization. If love of money is the root of all evil, that would be because it reduces human beings to commodities—which is to dehumanize them.

So far I have omitted to mention the varying scope, or target, of evil. Sometimes, the scope is quite narrow. A person obsessed with just one other person can have quite evil feelings and motives toward just that person. Perhaps this is how we should understand certain relationships that go terribly wrong. In addition, some criminals who are prone to outright evil may experience that type of contempt—for the humanity of their victims—on an individual basis. Two particularly evil crimes often directed at individuals are murder and child rape.

If evil can be manifested toward single individuals, can it be manifested toward families and small groups? Certainly it can. The motive of revenge may be understood as the utter rejection of the humanity of a person, well beyond a righteous demand for justice. When the revenge motive occurs to an extreme degree across families, clans, and gangs, we have a blood feud, which is sometimes regarded as a particularly dark sort of evil: members of opposing tribes regard each other as worthless vermin in need of extermination.

"I am a man."

Widening the scope even further, racism is revealed as one of the varieties of evil: it involves the very destructive notion that there is no difference among all members of a race, that they are all equally undeserving of respect. It can be horrifically evil in its more extreme forms, in which contempt rises from lack of respect as a peer to positive desire to harm or exterminate some dehumanized vermin.

War crimes are a tremendous evil: they reveal profound contempt for the humanity of the enemy. War is a terrible plague, because success at the endeavor often seems to require that one dehumanize, or lose all respect for the humanity of, one's enemy. By contrast, noble warriors have respect for their foes and refuse to treat their humanity with contempt. Perhaps that is an old-fashioned notion of war, but it seems the only defensible one. Good soldiers may have to participate in terrible, destructive battles, but they never sink to the level of war crimes because they retain a basic respect for the enemy's humanity. I wonder: Is war psychologically devastating for very good people, unusually so, because it requires they kill people they respect?

Child rapists would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

Jimmy Savile—a child rapist, pure evil, was knighted and allowed to thrive for decades by powerful people. Ask why.

One very broad possible scope (21% of the U.S. population) is children. There are some people in the world—believe it or not—who have contempt for the humanity of children. They are the child rapists. They would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

In the broadest scope, there is an evil, if thankfully small, movement afoot in the world. It appears to be hostile to human life as such, wherever it occurs. In lieu of a better word, which I couldn't find, I invented one: antivitism (anti-life-ism). This is, I want to suggest, an evil movement, however organized or disorganized it might be. "After birth" abortion and active euthanasia of teens for depression are two examples: only those contemptuous of the value of human life as such could champion such things. Again, pedophilia advocacy is another example: the harm to children is so horrible and so obvious that it seems only contempt for humanity as such can explain the defense of it.

One strand of this movement does have a name: antinatalism. As a dictionary definition has it, this is "a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong." More generally, antinatalists hold that human life is itself a tremendously bad thing, as they never tire of telling you.

One of the original anti-natalists, Théophile de Giraud

Now, let me be fair: I don't claim that antinatalists feel contempt toward their fellow humans. They certainly sympathize with human pain, which of course suggests decency. But anyone who takes such a theory seriously enough to act on it, I think, would have to be among the most inhuman monsters conceivable. If human life is on balance so awful, then the antinatalists would seem to be doing us all a favor by literally putting us out of our misery. This does raise an interesting theoretical challenge to my definition of evil: if antinatalists have contempt (as in, a very low estimation) for human life, but they do not in any obvious way have contempt for people, are they evil according to my definition?

My response to this is not to revise my definition of evil but to accuse antinatalists of incoherence. If they value human pain, then as a matter of fact they do value human life over human death, regardless of their protestations. Please, though, antinatalists, remain incoherent if you must remain antinatalists; please don't start taking your contempt for human life to heart.

I accuse no one of evil of the broadest possible scope, for the simple reason that the accusation would be absolutely extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Perhaps some of history's worst murderers were that evil—perhaps many. I would not rule that out.

Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos, The Monster of Génova, admitted to rape, torture, and murder of 138 children and teenagers

So much for this brief discussion of the scope of evil. Next I want to maintain that it is of the utmost importance that we accept that evil actually exists. Naïve people have had too little experience with extreme evil to accept that it exists. They react with horror and incomprehension when confronted with it. I myself have willingly used the concept of evil (as in essays I linked to above about murder and child rape) but with some incredulity. I suppose I used it as shorthand for "extremely bad." That's not wrong, but it fails as a definition because it leaves out the essential feature of contempt for humanity.

The existence of evil is simply hard for some people to accept, and that is precisely because they can't imagine anyone having such contempt for innocent life. It was only after wrestling with the Epstein case—only after confronting the increasing evidence from this case from my own lifetime, of monsters callously, deliberately, joyously violating innocence, demonstrating extreme contempt for the human life in their sway—that I was really able to believe it.

A modern impulse, which looks naïve, is to be highly suspicious of the concept of evil. Old-fashioned ideas of evil strike "sophisticated" people, sometimes, as mean, stupid, and insensitive. So they try to sympathetically "understand" evil, to explain it reductively in terms of vague, impersonal root causes rather than the unambiguous attitudes of specific, real people.

I don't recommend it

This modern notion that the concept of evil is somehow insensitive is highly pernicious, I believe. If we are not willing to name evil as such, we will understand evil motives badly, we will judge evil actions improperly, and we will punish evil crimes leniently. To deny that evil exists is to make it easier to be evil.

Indeed, in the last few generations—since in the mid-20th century—clinical, merely descriptive, sympathetic, and even celebratory depictions of evil have become the norm in Western culture. I will not here speculate on why this has been the case. I will say, however, that I believe this attitude to explain why crime rose in the same time period (until mass incarceration began), and why horrifically evil crimes seem to have proliferated and to have become ever more popular to this day.

This is a result of the moral abyss we find ourselves in—an echo from its depths, so to speak. If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive. That is a fact, a very awful one. It should give us all pause.

If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive.

We have been allowing evil to thrive. A good first step to stopping it is to re-examine the notion of evil and begin, once again, to name it for the unspeakable, but very real, horror that it is.

I leave you with a related thought.

What makes humanity loveable, and what inspires the most devotion toward heroes and leaders, is the capacity for creation, the ability to invent, build, preserve, and restore whatever is good, i.e., that which supports and delights flourishing, well-ordered life. What makes evil individuals worthy of our righteous anger is their capacity for destruction of the good, due to their contempt for human life as such.

Ary Scheffer, The Temptation of Christ

If so, then the love for God may be understood as a perfectly natural love of the supremely creative force in the universe. For what could be greater than the creator of the universe, and what could be more loveable? And then it certainly makes sense that they would regard Satan as a force most worthy of our hatred and condemnation, since Satan is held to be an essentially destructive entity, the one most contemptuous of human life as such.


A Civilizational Creed

DRAFT UNDER REVISION

I propose this creed as neither specifically ethical, nor religious, nor yet political; it is what I will call a civilizational creed. Religious creeds define religions; ethical creeds define theories of right and wrong; political creeds define ideologies or parties. But this, a civilizational creed, defines an outlook on what our goals and views that define what our civilization is about, if it is to survive. And when I say "our civilization," perhaps I mean mainly Western civilization, but there need be nothing specifically Western or regional about the sort of civilization I mean, nothing chauvinistic at all, considering that elements of it have spread to various points East. What I am defending is the best elements of the culture I have grown up in. There is nothing wrong with defending that; for anyone to object to my defending that is to indeed to be bigoted.

This creed is not just a statement of belief. It is, in addition, an attempt to galvanize and regain a sense of public spirit, of a shared mission.

What We Stand For, and What We Stand Against

This is not a conservative creed: many old-fashioned Democrats and Liberals could get behind this. It is not a uniquely Christian or Western creed.

It is, however, opposed to a lot of left-wing radicalism as well as racist, bigoted attitudes, both—and maybe most of all the leading Establishment attitudes inculcated through education and media. The attitudes of many "elites" are anathema to much of the following, and we must not be ashamed to place ourselves at variance with them, as necessary. Much of "elite" culture today represents a deep perversion of Western ideals and deserves to be rejected, mocked, and sternly rebuked.

Ethics

We stand for: The deep value of individual human life as the basis for morality; love and kindness; the tragically lost but deep importance of honesty and integrity; hard work; a few other virtues. A belief in human nature.

We stand against: Nihilism; relativism; any view that permits contempt of whole large groups of others.

Religion

We stand for: Deep respect, at the very least, for religious belief as a moral influence; the belief in an objective reality, something larger and ultimately more important than oneself, that places moral constraints upon us; human love and kindness enshrined as a transcendental requirement on us all.

We reject: Radicalism that inspires people to violence; massive, centrally-controlled and -controlling bodies that are not answerable to the believers; bigotry and intolerance toward those with different beliefs; atheism as a destructive, critical project.

Social attitudes

We stand for: The unique value of the individual; volunteerism, public spiritedness; value of the uniqueness of our own local cultures; the deep importance of passing on our cultures; in the case of Western culture, this means reaquainting ourselves and our children with the classics; the deep importance of learning; a deep support and valuation of the traditional family.

We reject: Bigotry, racism; mob thinking (so easy for powerful ideologues to manipulate); cultishness; anti-intellectualism; the sickening influences of degrading pop culture.

Politics

We stand for: Democracy, tolerance, individual rights, free markets, entrepreneurship, the ability of individuals to pave their own way, a fair playing field, equality before the law, equal educational opportunities, beautiful, uplifting public art and architecture

We reject: Far-left socialism; giant faceless bureaucracies passing massive regulatory frameworks that only giant corporations can satisfy; egalitarianism of outcome; ugly public art and boxy, emotionally flat or depressing places of living and working.

Our Obligation

We accept an obligation—we believe it is our obligation to help bring about this civilization, which has never quite existed. We are worried that it will not survive if we don't help.

We should begin discussing this (very common) body of beliefs and come out strongly in its favor, championing it, creating groups supporting it, etc.


Introducing the Encyclosphere

This is the text of a speech I gave yesterday (October 17, 2019) at TheNextWeb's Hard Fork Summit in Amsterdam.

For now, you can go to Encyclosphere.org to sign up for news of the project. We'll also give you opportunities to get involved within the next week or two.

Update: I've added a video (produced later, after giving the speech).


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cIUk-K_ZT4
Here's a video of the speech.

We are fed up.

After ten years of domination by big social media—which might finally be in decline—we are tired of giant Silicon Valley corporations using us contemptuously. We still remember an Internet in which we charted our own destiny and owned our own data.

It’s not just social media. It’s Wikipedia, too. If you want to participate in the world’s largest encyclopedia, you must collaborate with a shadowy group of anonymous amateurs and paid shills on exactly one article per topic. If you’re new, you won’t be treated very nicely. If you don’t play their strange game, you’ll be summarily dismissed. Like the social media giants, Wikipedia has become an arrogant and controlling oligarchy.

Like Facebook, Wikipedia is also controlling its readers. It feeds them biased articles, exactly one per topic, does not let users give effective, independent feedback on articles (you’re forced to become a participant if you just want to give feedback) or to rate articles. They have, in a very real way, centralized epistemic authority in the hands of an anonymous mob. This is worse than Facebook. At least with Facebook, Congress can call Mark Zuckerberg to testify. There isn’t anyone who is responsible for Wikipedia’s content—certainly not Jimmy Wales. The situation is, in some ways, more dire than with Facebook, because you can’t effectively talk back to Wikipedia.

The old proverb tells us that knowledge is powerful. More specifically, authoritative statements of what is known on various subjects are powerful. How? Such statements can be used to influence elections, justify policies, and articulate controversial points of view—in effect to gain, wield, and build and consolidate power. The power to declare what is known is nearly the power to rule the world. No small group—no person, corporation, oligarchy, or cadre of insiders—should wield such power.

We believe in democracy: we believe that political power is best spread out, not concentrated in the hands of a few, where it is apt to be abused. We should also believe, therefore, in epistemic democracy: the power to declare what is known should also be very widely distributed.

So it should not be concentrated in the hands of Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, or any such exclusive group. The history of publishing, including Internet publishing, makes all too clear that the authority to declare what is known is wielded by selfish, powerful interests to advance their own agendas, which always unsurprisingly have the effect of consolidating their own power.

We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to be at the mercy of these people.

A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more than are working on Wikipedia—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world's largest collection of knowledge.

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

The Encyclosphere

Blogs give everyone an independent voice. All blogs taken together are called the “Blogosphere,” but there is no single, central blog repository and no blogging authority. It’s a good thing, too. Can you imagine what it might be like if all our blogs were ultimately controlled by a giant, powerful organization like Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia?

What made the Blogosphere possible were technical standards for formatting, sharing, and interlinking blog posts: the RSS and Atom specifications. The nontechnical basics about these standards are easy and important to understand. They are simply a way to format info about blog posts in a consistent, machine-readable way, and to let bloggers alert the world when their blog has changed. In general they allow for an organized type of interconnected, networked activity—blogging—without a central, controlling body.

Plenty of websites, like WordPress.com (currently the leader according to Alexa.com), Tumblr, Medium, and Blogger.com, have tried to become the home of blogging online. But none has been able to gain exclusive dominance, because it’s just too easy to move your blog elsewhere. The existence of common blogging standards makes that possible.

We need to do for encyclopedias what blogging standards did for blogs: there needs to be an “Encyclosphere.” We should build a totally decentralized network, like the Blogosphere—or like email, IRC, blockchains, and the World Wide Web itself. The Encyclosphere would give everyone an equal voice in expressing knowledge (or claims to knowledge), and in rating those expressions of knowledge. There would be no single, central knowledge repository or authority.

So, considering that RSS and Atom enabled the development of the decentralized Blogosphere, we clearly need to develop technical standards for encyclopedias. That is the mission of a new organization I want to introduce: the Knowledge Standards Foundation. (Note, the website of the future Foundation will be Encyclosphere.org, while our Twitter account is @ks_found.)

Writers and publishers would be able to post feeds of encyclopedia articles (or metadata about articles, and ratings of articles). App developers would be able to collect the data from all of those feeds and use the data to construct massive search engines, and other neat features, for all the encyclopedia articles in the world. No one app would be privileged, but all would tap into—and help build—a “knowledge commons.” Ultimately there would be a massive knowledge competition to best express human knowledge on every topic and from every point of view.

There’s never been anything like this. But if we get together, we can build it. Nobody’s stopping us. We need only the desire to get it done. We’ll never run out of runway because it’s not a startup. It’s a distributed, collective project, an open source movement that is bigger than any of us—and certainly much bigger than the Knowledge Standards Foundation, which will serve only as the catalyst, not the owner. The Encyclosphere will have no owner just as the Blogosphere has no owner.

Epistemic power should be spread out among the public. But how? I call it the “Encyclosphere,” but how would a more democratic Encyclosphere work?

  • Writers should be able to publish their own articles wherever and whenever they want, without asking anyone.
  • Raters—the general public, including people identified as experts—should be able to rate those articles.
  • The data for both articles and ratings are published according to standards, or a single common format, in a feed, similar to an RSS feed.
  • Users should be able to sort and re-sort articles according to all ratings, or selected ratings.
  • The control over whose ratings to pay attention to should always be in the hands of the user.
  • The data is slurped up and aggregated into different databases, including distributed databases such as IPFS, and open APIs.
  • Many competing apps, all around the world, use the aggregated data to build encyclopedia readers according to their own editorial standards. The Foundation’s technical standards will be completely neutral with regard to such editorial standards.

This is not a completely new concept, but I’m sure it will sound somewhat confusing. So I want to try to clarify by listing a few things that the Encyclosphere is not, or will not be:

  • The Encyclosphere is not an encyclopedia. It’s a network of encyclopedic content. It’s no more an encyclopedia than the Blogosphere is a blog.
  • The Encyclosphere is not a platform or network for building encyclopedias. It will be basically just a series of feeds. It’s not a piece of software or a library or API you can build on. It’s an old fashioned Internet network.
  • The Encyclosphere is not a blockchain. You could put it on a blockchain, sure, but it will be built directly on the World Wide Web.

By building the Encyclosphere, we, all of us little people, can, in a decentralized and democratic system, do an end run around giants like Google and Wikipedia.

The Knowledge Standards Foundation

This is the vision I’ve had for encyclopedias since around 2014. That was when I first started talking about something I called “GreaterWiki”; I even started learning to code more seriously partly in order to execute the vision. I went to work for Everipedia, the blockchain encyclopedia, in late 2017 with the promise that I’d be able to work on this project. When I joined the startup (three years after the co-founders began work on it), one thing we discussed would be the necessity of creating a nonprofit organization holding technical standards for encyclopedias. I thought that heading up such a foundation was a job I’d like to have.

For almost two years, I’ve been developing and promoting this vision (and related ideas, like decentralizing social media) as CIO of Everipedia. I’m grateful to Everipedia for the opportunity to develop and share the plan. But now it’s time for me to get to get serious about actually executing the plan. And for that, I’ve decided to get that independent foundation started.

Therefore, I am announcing that I have left my position as CIO of Everipedia to start a new Knowledge Standards Foundation. To demonstrate that the Foundation and Everipedia are independent entities, I have given back my equity to Everipedia—without compensation, i.e., they didn’t pay me for my returned equity and I did not receive or cash in any IQ tokens.

Everipedia has already committed to being among the first or the first to use the open standards that the Foundation develops, and I will continue to work with Everipedia’s technical team—along with other reference publishers and the general public.

The Foundation’s purpose will be to publish technical standards for the Encyclosphere. We will host open source tools and other software mainly for the developer community. And we will serve as a neutral public forum for discussion of such standards. We will be mostly a volunteer organization. Already over 40 people have stepped forward to help. I expect many more volunteers in the coming months.

There are also a few things that the Foundation is not, or will not be doing.

It is misleading to call the Encyclosphere “a project” of the KSF, insofar as that implies a centralized development project. We just want to be the organization to get the ball rolling and to articulate the encyclopedia specification.

The Foundation is not itself developing an encyclopedia. There will be no KSF Encyclosphere reader. We want there to be lots of competing reader software, just as there are competing blog readers.

The KSF is not an industry consortium; it is not a project paid for and controlled by reference publishers. I will have an announcement about how we’ll raise money for our modest operations next month.

I and future Foundation staff and volunteers will confer with the leadership and technical teams of a number of different app developers, standards experts, online reference publishers, and other potential stakeholders—including, of course, anyone from the interested general public. We will develop draft standards together, while vetting them in a very public, open, civil, and moderated process. As we develop software, we will host it in a Git repository controlled by the Foundation.

If you are interested in learning more, or even getting involved at this very early stage with the Encyclosphere project, please go to Encyclosphere.org and add your name and email address to our mailing list.


Want to help build an open encyclopedia network—an "Encyclosphere"?

We are fed up. After ten years of domination by big social media—which might finally be in decline—we are tired of giant Silicon Valley corporations using us contemptuously. We still remember an Internet in which we charted our own destiny.

It’s not just social media. It’s Wikipedia, too. If you want to participate in the world’s largest encyclopedia, you must collaborate with a shadowy group of anonymous amateurs and paid shills on exactly one article per topic. If you’re new, you won’t be treated very nicely. If you don’t play their strange game, you’ll be summarily dismissed. Like the social media giants, Wikipedia has become an arrogant and controlling oligarchy.

Like Facebook, Wikipedia is also controlling its readers. It feeds them biased articles, exactly one per topic, does not let users give effective, independent feedback on articles (you’re forced to become a participant) or to rate articles. They have in a very real way centralized epistemic authority in the hands of an anonymous mob. This is worse than Facebook. At least with Facebook, Congress can call Mark Zuckerberg to testify. There isn’t anyone who is responsible for Wikipedia’s content. The situation is, in some ways, more dire than with Facebook, because you can’t effectively talk back to Wikipedia.

We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to be at the mercy of these people.

What if all of humanity wrote encyclopedia articles, and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole?

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

If we do this, we won’t create just one website or app. We will create a truly decentralized, leaderless network of the people, by the people, and for the people. A commons, like the Internet itself. As to apps and editorial policies, let a thousand flowers bloom.

But that means we the people need to roll up our sleeves and get to work making it happen.

To this end, I recently tweeted:

https://twitter.com/lsanger/status/1180700522799611904

As of this writing it was liked over 1,100 times and RTd 360 times, and the new Knowledge Standards Foundation Twitter account, @ks_found, jumped from 60 to 1,441 followers in a few days. Please follow if you haven't already!

We have been calling for early participants to prepare the site for an upcoming announcement (Oct. 17, rather than Oct. 18 as stated above). We have over 30 volunteers now—and now it's a matter of getting them (and others who might sign up after this CFP) together building stuff.

Bear in mind this isn't a for-profit startup, it's not a coin, there is no ICO, and we're not building an app. Nobody is going to get rich here (unless they build a for-profit app on top of the resources we're building, which is totally OK). No, we're simply launching the discussion, the supporting nonprofit Foundation, starting work on supporting technical tools, and building an open source volunteer-driven movement.

Do you want to be among the very first participants/builders in a completely centerless, leaderless, open source network, like the Blogosphere, that I propose to call the Encyclosphere? The organizing site isn't public yet, but it is far enough along for our first participants (just not observers or the idle curious—actual participants only, please).

So, what's going on?

We are now calling for the new network's first participants. Do not write unless you're willing to get to work. We don't want observers, we want motivated participants. If that's you, please tell me a bit about yourself and which of the following you could put in some time doing in the next few weeks?

  • Social media managers: share and promote using #Encyclosphere. We need somebody to maintain Knowledge Standards Foundation accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Gab, and Minds; if interested, get in touch.
  • Reporters, bloggers, podcasters, vloggers: interview me, invite me on your news program, video series, or blog. I promise to be interesting.
  • Writers or any sufficiently smart person: various stuff.
    • List all online encyclopedias. Make a massive list. Work with developers on doing any initially needed data about said encyclopedias (one thing I can think of is whether they have an API and if so, where and if there are instructions somewhere).
    • Help author and keep up-to-date text pages on Encyclosphere.org (such as "Site Map" and "About").
  • Developers: start doing exploratory coding. Like what?
    • Create scrapers to get metadata about encyclopedia articles out of Wikipedia, Everipedia, Britannica, Ballotpedia, etc. Scrape responsibly. Don't overload servers.
    • Create a regularly-updated (not too regularly-updated) database (or multiple databases) of encyclopedia articles.
    • Set up a GitLab group.
    • Install Matrix (as in Matrix.org) for developer discussions or advise about a better chat app, preferably OSS. I can give you access to an Encyclosphere.org subdomain & subdirectory.
    • Then let's share both the code and the data generated (both as a downloadable database and a queryable API). If you're interested, let's post on the blog and solicit ideas for requirements. If you already have such a database, please get in touch and let's talk next steps. There are lots of other potential projects; let's brainstorm.
  • Legal beagles:
    • Advise us on the legalities involved in the aforementioned scraping.
    • Advise us on and help us to set up a 501(c)(3).
  • Connectors of all sorts: outreach to experts. If you know interested people, reach out to them and introduce them to the project (and me).
  • Experts on anything closely related to our mission: give us advice. When it comes to executing on the early stages of a project, doing the most effective things can spell all the difference to success and failure. We know we don't have it all figured out, so if you have useful practical advice and ideas we can act on, we'd love to have them.
  • Encyclopedists and technologists: discuss, discuss, discuss. For all the work we can immediately start doing, when it comes to the standards themselves, I refuse to go off half-cocked. We're going to do this right. There are many deep, difficult, and important questions about every aspect of this endeavor. For this reason, the main method of extended deliberation about the standards will be via a group blog (as opposed to exploratory coding, which we can organize via the ordinary sort of chat). We'll have up to eight posts per day, whoever wants to post can submit something; I'll post a fair bit myself, probably, and I'll be the lead moderator. Mutual respect and staying on-topic will be requirements.
  • Foundation volunteers generally: get in touch. Send me your name and strengths; let me know if you're in central Ohio. I'll add you to a growing list, and if you help us get useful stuff done, we'll put you on Foundation's Team page. Send me your name and strengths here or DM on Twitter here.
  • Encyclosphere enthusiasts generally: also get in touch. We'll try to give you some pointers depending on what you might want to do.

Note, the above list is likely to change rapidly as we learn more and get to work. I'll let you into the "pre-alpha" site (encyclosphere.org) and introduce you to people who are working on similar things.

Also, you must be an alpha tester: that means you're OK with bugs and rough design (that will, of course, be fixed and prettied up).


Big Tech In Decline?

Massive Shakeup of Major Players Under Way, Especially in Social Media

LarrySanger.org does not usually break news. But since this is such a huge story and no other outlets seem to be covering it, we thought we would do so.

Note: Updated rank numbers (not images), below, with data from Sept. 30.

Sep. 29, 2019 (THE INTERNET) – Many of the websites that have come under attack in recent years for violating user expectations of privacy, free speech, autonomy, and neutrality are now in decline, according to data published by Amazon's web traffic ranking website, Alexa.com. The decliners include many of the best-known names of Big Tech: Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, Instagram, Quora, and more.

LarrySanger.org has been unable to locate any recent articles in the technology and Internet press making similar observations of these startling declines. We rely on our readers to fact-check us. The observations are much in line with declines in downloads of Facebook and Instagram apps, noticed by ReclaimTheNet.org.

Twitter traffic ranking 90-day trend, to September 30, 2019.

Twitter plunged from Alexa rank 11 to 26 in the last three months. The microblogging site, dominated by celebrities and news, now trails Reddit in the rankings. Reddit itself has recently declined from a peak of 12, in July, to 18 today. Twitter was the focus of a "Social Media Strike" campaign last July 4-5. At the same time Wikipedia ex-founder Larry Sanger and others, who organized the strike, promoted a Declaration of Digital Independence.

Facebook traffic ranking 90-day trend, to September 30, 2019.

Facebook slid from Alexa rank 3 to rank 5. This might be significant, though a drop of only two spots, considering that it is within the top five. The social media giant has come under severe attack for its failure to respect user privacy rights, and has been abandoned by millions of users. The two sites that now occupy Alexa ranks 3 and 4 are Chinese sites.

Wikipedia traffic ranking 90-day trend, to September 30, 2019.

Once a mainstay of the top five, Wikipedia, too, has sunk with surprising speed from rank 5 to rank 9—all of this decline just within the last six weeks. Conservatives and libertarians have become more vocally fed up with the website's noticeable abandonment of its neutrality policy, which Sanger originally articulated and still champions. "This is not surprising to me," Sanger said, "considering everything that I have heard from Wikipedia's readers in the last few years. The dominant tone among anyone not on the political left has shifted from grudging respect to outright hostility." A relevant consideration is that the encyclopedia site's traffic can decline over the summer, when school is out, so we will see if it bounces back in the coming months.

Instagram traffic ranking 90-day trend, to September 30, 2019

The Facebook-owned Instagram, which has also come under attack for its privacy and free speech violations, skidded from rank 13 to rank 23 in the last three months. This is in line with a study claiming Instagram engagement declined from May through July this year. As with Twitter, a common criticism of the social photo sharing site is that it tends to induce otherwise quite nice people behave nastily. Left-wing media and activists, as with many others on this list, have pressured the site to adopt policies that disproportionately impact conservative views, leading the right to exit.

Quora traffic ranking 90-day trend, to September 30, 2019

Perhaps the most dramatic decline is that of Quora, which plummeted from the respectable rank of 82—similar to the BBC website's rank—all the way to rank 235, with no sign of a slowdown. The once-dominant social Q&A site has moved gradually left over the last five years or so. The site has shed many disgruntled contributors in recent years, who frequently complain of biased moderation.

Other major recent decliners include Amazon's gaming video site Twitch (slid from 26 to 37), Jimmy Wales' for-profit wiki site Fandom (formerly Wikia; down from 53 to 74), and social sharing site Pinterest (dropped from 71 to 111).

Assuming the data is reliable, it is possible that users of major corporate offerings are finally leaving because they have decided "enough is enough" and that their privacy, free speech, and other legitimate interests will never be properly respected by the Big Tech companies that dominated the scene throughout the past decade. Other explanations are possible, of course.

Not all famous and big brands declined, but it is notable that the English language websites that gained include a few competitors of those that have come under the most severe criticism. Notable gainers include Bing (rose from 38 up to 29, a competitor of much-criticized Google Search), Office (51 to 30, a competitor of Google Docs), eBay (40 to 35), Stack Overflow (50 to 44), Apple (59 to 48), Medium (151 to 93, a competitor of Quora), and some pornography sites.

Some familiar news brands have probably absorbed traffic that might otherwise have gone to the declining social media sites: BBC (87 to 78), ESPN (113 to 85), The New York Times (117 to 103), Washington Post (287 to 178), FoxNews.com (245 to 219), Breitbart (333 to 285), and WSJ (627 to 466).

Some of the risers are of Chinese or Russian origin, the most notable of which is the Chinese TMall (rose from 9 to 4).

It is possible that these are all somehow reflections of some internal changes to Alexa's ranking algorithms; LarrySanger.org has not contacted the company for this report. But this explanation is perhaps less likely since the declines did not happen all at once but have been spread out gradually, over a period of weeks or months.


Why Be Moral

This essay represents my basic approach to ethics rather well, so although I do not feel quite certain about everything here, I feel comfortable enough to post this theory here on my blog. It is rather long for a blog post (well over 7,000 words), but different sections are often reasonably self-contained, so you could skip through it to parts that are of interest to you.

Philosophers often study the question, "Why be moral?"—one of the very most important topics in philosophy. If you do not understand it, or if you fall prey to false beliefs about it, those beliefs can quite literally ruin your life. That well exemplifies how important philosophy can be, come to think of it: having true beliefs about life's most important questions can turn your life around, while having false beliefs can ultimately prove deadly. In philosophy, it simply does not get more important than this.

Philosophy classes, taking up this question, sometimes end up discussing what are only side-issues, such as, "Should I steal if I can get away with it?" Or: "If I had a ring of invisibility, should I murder and otherwise do whatever I wanted in order to get ahead in life?" It always struck me with a kind of horror that there was always a sizable minority of students who openly declared that, in the absence of law and order, they would run amok and commit all sorts of moral crimes. The fact that they were capable of saying such things only made me realize how impoverished our moral understanding and education had become, in an age that is both anti-intellectual and irreligious.

Questions such as "Should I commit selfish crimes if I can get away with them?" are barren. You see, the reasons we should be moral are deep, profound, and even sublime; to plumb these depths, we much examine the fundamental problem of ethics. And this cannot be reduced to explanations of the wrongness of thievery or cleverly deciding what you would do with magic rings.

I think I know why we should be moral. I have a plausible theory, anyway. I invite you to critically evaluate it.

But unlike most philosophers, I do not stop at theorizing. Ethics does, after all, have both theoretical and practical parts. I will tell you, as I have told people for many years, that philosophy has consequences and that we should be living according to principle. If you accept this answer, then you bear a burden to put it into practice in whatever way you know how. For this, mere rational deliberation can certainly help, but is rarely sufficient on its own. This is why so many turn to religion, i.e., as a guide to right living. Perhaps conscience, in its various incarnations—humbly reflecting as you best know how and listening to the "still, small" voice within—is the universal guide.

But first, such guides should be informed by a correct answer to this question: "Why be moral?"

I say that the question requires that we tackle the fundamental problem of ethics. What is that? It is, in short, the problem of value: What is good? What things ultimately have value? You can explain the value of money in terms of what it will buy, but what is the thing that has value in itself, not as a means to anything else?

This problem exercises philosophers a great deal. It is famously thorny. Variants on hedonism—the view that the ultimately valuable thing is pleasure—is one common answer. One main problem with that answer is that there are things that seem extremely valuable but which do not, on first glance, have anything to do with pleasure. One such thing is human lives—or do we stay alive merely for pleasure? Another thing is knowledge. A third is happiness or well-being. Do we seek such broad things as happiness, well-being, or flourishing, merely in order to maximize our pleasure? I would think it would be the other way around. Pleasure has just one role to play, that is all.

There is a commonly-cited problem with hedonism that, I think, is particularly fruitful to examine: Whose pleasure is it that matters? Your own? Taken quite consistently, such a view could have disastrous consequences. Suppose mass murder is what gives you the greatest joy in life. But if it is not only personal pleasure that matters, how wide should our circle of concern be? Our family, our acquaintances, our countrymen, all of humanity, all sentient beings, or all living organisms? We will get to these questions further down.

Enough preliminaries. Let me give you my theory. See what you think.

The thing that has ultimate value, for anything that is alive, is life itself. There is an excellent reason why this should be so and even, on reflection, inevitable: only living things are capable of having interests, i.e., of having anything that it is good for them. Mountains and lakes do have not have interests. A mountain becomes neither better nor worse off if it wears away, nor is it better for the lake if it evaporates or grows. You might say that certain transformations become less beautiful or useful to us, or to plants and animals, but then we are talking about the interests of living things, not of mountains and lakes. The mountains and lakes do not care. Inanimate objects have no interests.

So far, I have established only that living things have interests, not that life is itself the thing of ultimate value. But all in good time.

We can say that there are various systems that keep an organism alive, such as the circulatory system, the respiratory system, and the digestive system. For each system, we can speak of something the organism needs: circulation requires warmth (among other things), respiration requires air, and digestion requires food. Those in turn are all needs of living bodies such as ours.

The fulfillment of those needs quite naturally causes us pleasure, and their deprivation, pain; a warm blanket, or gulp of fresh air or food, can give us great pleasure, especially when greatly needed. Pleasure and pain are the natural mechanisms whereby we are driven to meet our needs.

Corresponding to each need, and to each natural source of pleasure and pain, is what we might call a natural desire or want; we naturally desire warmth, air, and food.

We can even define biological flourishing or the well-being of an organism as the abundant fulfillment of all of its biological needs. The deep reverence, by some, of all things "natural" can be understood as simply trying to flourish naturally, to live in tune with the needs of the organism.

I mention all of these concepts because they are essential to several theories of value or goodness that come up in one way or another when people (philosophers and others) discuss value or goodness: systems, needs, pleasure and pain, desires or wants, flourishing, and nature. Each of these features has been proposed by somebody or other as a theory of value, but when one lays them out in their conceptual relations like this, singling one of them out looks rather silly. We should consider them all together. And what ties them together? The answer is clear: life itself.

Now, admittedly, this is a rather vague theory so far. "Life itself?" you say. "And this includes pleasure, needs, desires, and the rest? What am I supposed to do with that?" Fair question, and my answer is: nothing quite yet. I am still doing groundwork.

But you can understand my point, I hope. If you want to know what is ultimately valuable to a tree, or a dog, or a person, it is: those things that keep it alive. When I put it in that way, it seems almost tautological, I think; do you agree? That certainly seems to be the common scientific approach as well. A farmer, veterinarian, or doctor studies the needs of the things in their care and quite naturally considers what is good for the organism as what is life-preserving (or life-enhancing).

At this point you might have an objection. "But I thought values were basically subjective. I can have different values from you, of course, and there does not seem to be any basis on which we can tell which of us is right. I do not think you are even considering the same concept of value as I do."

This is incorrect. I am considering the same concept of value as you do, just at a more basic level. The fact that there is much that is objectively good for you only goes to show that subjectivism is not just wrong, but pernicious and positively harmful. That said, let me concede that we can certainly differ in our opinions about what things are valuable. A child declares a bag of candy is "good" even if it turns out to be unhealthy, and that is an instance of a (rather simple or primitive) value system in action. But when it comes to diet, there is a fact of the matter about what is best for our organism, what will satisfy our needs without having any deleterious effects such as being overweight or underweight, having stomach problems, or having rotting teeth. So let us distinguish a person's sense of value, or subjective value, from what is factually best for us, or objective value. That is, I think, a perfectly useful distinction.

As strange as it might sound to some of us, in our cynical and miseducated age, there are indeed objectively value things for us. Simply reflecting on the obvious fact that adequate heat, clean air, and healthy food are determined by the human organism in relation to its environment, we can easily acknowledge that those things are objectively valuable. They are, really or in fact, good for us. Other species have other and sometimes differing objective values, by the way: what is good for you is not necessarily good for trees or for deep-sea fish.

I imagine that some readers will be puzzled at this point. I announced that I was going to talk about value theory, and I did not mention such basic ethical concepts as right and wrong, principles, and virtues, all of which are loosely described as "values." I also did not mention religion, politics, and art, approaches to which essentially differ based on different "values." Well, these are values in a different, broader sense, the sense in which "values" is more or less the entire scope of ethics (and beyond). I will indeed broaden my scope some more, and talk about some ethical concepts: right and wrong. This will be necessary to understand at a basic level, if we are to understand why we should be moral, or why we should care about doing the right thing. But first, I want to get more flesh on the bare-bones theory of value I have articulated so far. After all, what is good for us qua human beings is not just that which is good for our bodies.

So far, I have not spoken of any unique features of human beings. I have spoken of us by analogy with all different sorts of organisms. But ethics tells us how to live as human beings; moral rules, or ethical principles, depend very crucially indeed on human nature. I say that life itself is what is valuable; but now I will qualify that by saying that, for us humans, it is human life that is valuable, not mere biological flourishing.

The effect of adding the qualifier is to acknowledge that human beings have additional features, the flourishing of which is particularly valuable to us. We are not just vegetables or dumb brutes; we do not merely want to survive; we place the highest value in that which allows us to exercise our very human capacities.

While philosophers disagree about a lot, a perennial observation throughout the history of philosophy is that human beings are essentially rational. As Aristotle put it, man is, by definition, the "rational animal." Over and over one finds philosophers dwelling on this basic idea; so now it is my turn. But come to think of it, you might notice, if you are familiar with Aristotle, that my theory here is broadly speaking Aristotelian.

Aristotle's dictum does not mean that we are always quite logical, like Mr. Spock, or that we like, prefer, or are good at reasoning. As cognitive scientists enjoy reminding us, most of us are pretty bad at it. Aristotle meant that we have the capacity for reason, and "reason" here means not reasoning but something much more modest: we have the ability to mull things over, consider options, follow a train of thought, make up our minds, or, as philosophers sometimes put it, to deliberate. We might be better or worse at it, but we all have the capacity (at least—whether we exercise it is another matter) to deliberate.

This means we have a mind, and while a horse might also have a mind, the human mind involves the capacity for such complex and far-sighted deliberations that, we say, we have free will. That at least is my view on what free will is; see my essay on the topic. As long as this capacity for deliberation and our bodily movements are unencumbered, we are free to act. And this freedom of action is what explains why we are morally responsible. I maintain that it is our unencumbered capacity for deliberation that indeed makes us morally responsible.

Ask yourself if this makes sense: The thing that makes it appropriate to credit us with good actions and to blame us for bad ones is precisely the fact that we had the ability, and the opportunity, to think our actions through and to act on the results. If you were an unthinking zombie, under the influence of mind-altering drugs, or literally insane, then your rational, deliberative capacity would not be in charge; then nothing would really be your fault, which is what the courts do generally say.

Now let us return to the results of the previous section. Good food is good for us, again, because it satisfies the operation of digestion; so it plays a role in "living well" or good biological flourishing. Why not take the human capacity for action as a whole, and say that it serves as another biological function? When we make big decisions in life—concerning career, marriage, family, and much more—we do better if we act out of at least some deliberation.

Very well, then: a wise decision would be one that best satisfies our capacity for deliberation. But of course, that is vague and not very useful. It is a pat but useless formula, because it leaves totally mysterious what "best satisfies our capacity for deliberation."

"Creature comforts" like warmth, food, drink, sex, and their accompanying pleasures, might be called lower values. We have these in common with dumb animals. Just as the lower values are associated with the satisfaction and good functioning of our bodies, the higher values would be those associated with the satisfaction and good functioning of our minds (such as emotion, cogitation, and yes, deliberation).

Two of the most important higher values are truth and beauty (or, perhaps, appreciation or knowledge of these). They are not the only two, but they are two of the more fundamental, in the sense that you might have difficulty giving an adequate theory of the veritable cornucopia of things we human value without them. It seems to me you can better explain the value of the sense of your own worth (as in self-righteousness or pride), just to take an example, if you can first explain the value of any knowledge whatsoever. Similarly, there are countless varieties of aesthetic reactions to the world and to human creations—delight, excitement, profundity, etc.—but what they have at bottom is the sense of beauty. And truth and beauty satisfy a fundamental capacity that we all have: judgment.

Let me take a step back, though, because I imagine this is going by very fast and becoming off-putting. Of course there is more to life than an abstract list of the variants of "truth and beauty." What about love? Family? Country? Peace? Freedom?

I agree. These things are all deeply important. But want to explain why they are part of the good life by actually taking up the topic my essay, "Why be moral?" So let me, finally, turn to the main event.

Why be moral? This question is meant as a challenge to justify other-regarding behavior. But the fact is that we, like all living beings, are built for moral action, which we might briefly gloss as life-affirming action. That is just how people and, indeed, animals are. To do what we ought, to do what is right, is to take that action that preserves and secures life. That is what organisms just do.

So I want to say that, as a general question, "Why be moral?" strikes me as rather pointless. We are naturally moral; it is not unlike asking "why breathe?" The answer is that, short of killing ourselves, we have no choice and that we are built that way.

I know this will sound glib, especially to philosophers, so I want to develop the point enough so that it becomes at least minimally plausible. The point is that right action is, in a certain way, simply normal. When confronted with the extremely wicked, we do not merely say, "That is wrong." That does not capture our usual and natural reaction adequately. If we are decent ourselves, we look upon evil with incomprehension. We say such things as, "That's messed up" or "That's insane" and often shake our heads in disbelief, saying, "How is that possible? How could he (or she)?"

But this could be due to internalization what are mere societal taboos. But I claim to the contrary that morality is part of the normal and natural order. To explain why I mean by this perhaps puzzling claim, look at the many remarkable instances of inter-species altruism. The latter words are linked to a rather heartwarming video of animals of one species helping and rescuing animals of other species; I recommend watching. Such instances give me pause. Why do the animals do this? Well, it seems obvious to a child: it is the nice thing to do. So should we agree with the childish view that animals just naturally want to be nice? Surely it is not that simple?

Ethologists (biologists who study animal behavior) and ethicists (philosophers who study right human behavior) alike are quite aware of and much taken with animal altruism. One biological theory has it that this behavior constitutes reciprocal altruism, i.e., one animal undertakes some costs or risks in helping other animals in anticipation of benefiting from such behavior in return. Reciprocal altruism, then, is supposed to be an evolutionarily adaptive behavior, despite the plethora of evidence of cross-species concern. Ethicists, too, when they take up the question of the justification of altruism, often look for explanations in terms of some benefit to oneself. That is, in fact, how the question "Why be moral?" is often couched: "Of what benefit is it to me not to steal when I can get away with it?"

I reject this framing of human and animal motivations as small-minded and ultimately bankrupt. We need not seek for selfish motives for other-regarding behavior. I think we animals generally and naturally value life where we find it; we are built to be life-preservers. Those helping animals do not seem to love only their own kind. They seem to care and have deep concern for friends of all species. The simplest explanation of this is that animals, and human beings must be included here, quite naturally care about life, period.

But what, for example, about all the vicious people and animals in the world? Rest assured, I will address that. But first I have another point to make, which should clarify my view even further.

A perennial theory in philosophy and religion, and in cultures throughout the world, is the notion that we can simply reflect on a situation and then "know" what is right or wrong. This is perhaps most often called conscience, but philosophers sometimes call this the moral sense, sentiment, or intuition. Many and sometimes quite elaborate theories and concepts explore this general idea; in Christianity, there is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that "still, small voice" that, if we listen to it, will tell right from wrong. Even Socrates believed in what he called his daemon, the sole function of which was to restrain him from wrong action. But again, this need not be anything particularly mysterious, mystical, or "woo." Very sober, science-minded ethicists simply acknowledge that we have what they call "pre-theoretical moral intuitions" about specific cases, and they generally leave aside where these intuitions come from.

Do we all have the same moral intuitions? Does our conscience operate the same way? Common experience and research both show the answer to be complex: in some broad principles, yes (reciprocity seems to be a universal norm, and killing requires a very good excuse, at least), but in many specific cases, no (sexual morality varies quite a bit across cultures).

Now, if the desire to do good were natural, then, a critic might challenge me, would not conscience be the same in everyone? But it does not seem to be. And then children would be pure, benign beings, would they not? It is a rare child indeed who is not occasionally a little monster.

These topics (whether children are morally pure and whether conscience is the same in all of us) are, in fact, connected. Children are born crooked. They should be straightened out in a gentle, loving way by their parents. Doing so develops a child's conscience or sense of right and wrong. Their parents are from a wide variety of cultures, with a wide variety of mores, to be sure. But nature and universal human experience are useful teachers—their operation looms large in what is called "growing up" or "maturing," beyond the more deliberate "raising up" and "nuturing" by older, wiser humans.

To say that people are naturally good or that they naturally value the good is not to say that such refined moral sensibilities are automatic. It is merely to say that nature and common situations create common, indeed universal influences in us all and indeed in all animals. The cat that saved the puppy knows how helpless the young are, knows that being in precarious places is fraught with pain and danger. Due to its quite natural (and, maybe especially to children fascinated by the video, perfectly understandable) valuation of such potential precious life, it decided to help the puppy. Another cat might have acted differently, of course.

When there is similarity of conscience, therefore, it can be partly due to common upbringing or culture, but it can also be due to even more common, impersonal life circumstances (which can be common even in the broader animal world).

Another point worth mentioning helps to clinch the conclusion that we are naturally moral. It is certainly perfectly moral—and many traditions would say deeply important—that we act effectively to preserve our own lives. Not only should we not be killing ourselves, but we also typically bear a burden, sometimes a difficult and heavy burden depending on our circumstances, to care for ourselves once we are adults. This might sometimes look selfish when our well-being is in some competition with someone else's; but when we are merely trying to survive and stay comfortable, we are surely doing something quite right. And I dare say nobody denies that desire for self-preservation is "natural," if anything is, and that animals do the same. Yet, for all its naturalness, preserving one's life is an injunction so important that breaking it is regarded a mortal sin by the Catholic Church.

Very well, I hear my critic say. Perhaps there are natural circumstances that make us look out for ourselves and each other, and this behavior is perfectly moral or right. We are naturally moved to be moral, in that limited sense. But you've glossed over so many important issues. Why should you not lie, cheat, and steal if on balance it improves your life? Morality, you say, is life-affirming action. But whose life should be affirmed? Maybe I want to say: mine only. And if I should disagree about who benefits from moral action, you do not seem to have given me any grounds on which to prefer your answer over my own.

It is absolutely true that my theory is not finished. I need to put some further touches on it.

I want to begin by admitting that, indeed, I could not convince anyone that it is exclusively in their self-interest to be moral. It might be, sometimes, in your self-interest to be completely immoral. Of course, it depends on what you mean by "self-interest." Immorality is bad for the soul and you will, it seems to me, ultimately have a more satisfying life if it is a moral life. But surely not always. I do not see how one can always justify a moral life, complete with much other-regarding action, simply because doing so is always in your own personal self-interest.

In other words, I am inclined to reject a view philosophers call ethical egoism, i.e., that ultimately, the reasons we have for doing right can be explained in terms of our own rational self-interest. That is the view of Ayn Rand, for example. I used to put some stock in that theory, but no longer. There are simply too many difficult cases. Why should an ethical egoist ever become a soldier or police officer or fire fighter, putting his life on the line for others? I regard that as admirable heroism. For that matter, why should a woman ever have children and sacrifice a large part of her life doing so? Mothers are generally among the finest and most admirable human beings. Such self-sacrifice does not redound to the egoist's own benefit. The rather stretched answer that egoists sometimes give is that they quite deliberately and rationally extend their sphere of concern beyond themselves to their family or country. But then, I respond: by definition, you are no longer an egoist if your values extend beyond yourself.

What is this "sphere of concern"? This will turn out to matter. It basically means the things we ought to be concerned about when making our moral deliberations. Our sphere of concern extends to whatever things figure in our moral calculations. From items closest to furthest away from me, potential items in my sphere of concern could include: myself; my family; my neighborhood; my community; my state or region; my country; all of humanity; all intelligent beings; all sentient beings; all living beings; and finally, absolutely everything in the universe.

To get a taste of what philosophers say about this topic, it is sometimes said that if we limit our sphere of moral concern to just human beings and do not extend moral concern to animals, then we are guilty of a kind of bigotry called speciesism (like racism, but about the human species). I am not going to try to adjudicate that now. All I want to point out is that even plants can fall into my sphere of moral concern. I would not just start stripping a tree (even out in the middle of the jungle, far from where anyone would miss it) of its leaves for no good reason. Closer to home, we generally find it to be a moral concern that we treat pets humanely, and we (should) teach our children not to torture even small animals, even insects.

It is less common, however, for philosophers to discuss what I will call a sphere of influence. While on the one hand your sphere of concern includes everything you care about in deliberating, on the other hand your sphere of influence includes everything you might reasonably be thought to have some more or less direct influence on. The universe makes up a vast web of causality, but clearly, we should not be held responsible for distant consequences we cannot possibly predict. What we are responsible for is whatever we could reasonably predict. If my taking a Sunday drive somehow, inadvertently, causes an accident across town, I am not responsible for that. But if I might cause an accident by failing to use my left turn signal, then any such accident is in my sphere of influence.

More generally, though, we can say that our sphere of influence increases the more power we have in the world. A young person fresh out of high school working in a factory has little power or influence in the world. The CEO of a multi-billion dollar international corporation has influence ultimately on millions or even billions of people, and so has a much larger sphere of influence.

I went through these platitudes to set up two general claims:

  1. We should take all of life as our sphere of concern.
  2. Our actual moral obligations vary considerably based on on our sphere of influence, i.e., how great of an effect we can have on others (and on all life).

Generally, our obligation—perhaps, indeed, our purpose in life—is to do the most good we can within our sphere of influence.

In other words, the young factory worker has the greatest impact on his own life and that of his immediate family and friends. His own life usually comes first (your obligation is generally to yourself first and foremost); his family and friends, on whom he can have a significant impact for good or ill, are very important; beyond that, he has some impact on his workplace and his local community; beyond that, he has even less in the way of obligation to his country or all of humanity, but even these obligations can matter. But the young factory worker has the greatest impact on his own life and that of his immediate family and friends.

Matters are very different for the CEO, whose personal and family obligations must sometimes and quite reasonably take a backseat to what are more profound and wide-ranging impacts that action or inaction can have.

The reason you should not steal another person's stuff, then, is that in doing so, you are hurting that person. Simply by virtue of the immediate effects of your contemplated crime, your victim would be within your sphere of concern.

But there is more to it than this.

After all, perhaps you are poor and the other person is rich, and you will benefit hugely while the other person will lose comparatively little. Perhaps the rich person has an obligation to you, who have a clear and present need, after all. Maybe, just maybe, stealing from the rich would be the right thing to do. It is easy to see someone constructing that argument.

To explain why such reasoning would be incorrect, and why you should "be moral" according to conventional ideas of morality (such as that stealing is wrong), I must expand my theory again. So far I have spoken mostly about value theory, i.e., about what things are good and bad for us, what is valuable and why, and how far our sphere of concern should extend. I do say "our obligation is to do the most good we can," but I do not really say what this means. I need to produce what ethicists call a theory of obligation or of right and wrong.

In approaching this enormous and forbidding subject, it would not be a bad idea to begin with the case before us now. If you were to steal, and if you wanted to be quite deliberative about the case, you would naturally ask yourself, "Where does it end? What is my policy now? Should I always steal from the rich whenever I have the opportunity?"

And then a more enlightened soul can give you the sort of platitudes that you were probably expecting at the beginning of this essay: if you stole, you would have to cover up and hide your crime; you would risk severe penalties; you would cause fear and upset to your victim and your victim's loved ones; you would create more work for the police, undermining society's laws; you would be teaching yourself to become dependent upon others' honest work; etc. Even if you were quite poor, regardless of how much you stole, it would make everyone worse off, and not the least you. I do not intend to make this case in any more detail. Especially if you are able to make reference to spheres of concern beyond yourself, understanding why stealing is wrong is not the hard part. It is rather easy to explain. I am not saying this is unimportant, either; understanding why you should do this and not do that, applying general principles in many particular cases, is admittedly a central part of a moral education. It is part of growing up and, as I said, getting less crooked.

But I wanted to discuss the general question: Why be moral? An individual explanation is meager fare. You wanted a full meal. Why, in general, should you embrace those principles that are regarded as representing "morality"? And if it is not clear what those principles are, how do you decide on them?

I could go in some depth at this point about about what is called ethical theory. I would discuss virtue ethics and rule consequentialism (which are two of the type of theoretical approaches I like best), but I think for a general audience it would be most useful if I avoid the jargon and stick to matters that have more obvious and easily-graspable substance.

Here then is my answer: We should be moral, we should do as much good for the world as we can, because that is our natural purpose in life. Given the proper understanding of what morality is, or how it actually functions in our lives, this turns out to be a fairly easy answer to defend. And I will defend it in more detail further down, but first I want to explain what I mean.

People who discuss the question "Why be moral?"—and here I would include many philosophy instructors and students—seem to regard it as a hard problem because we are tempted to do all sorts of wrong things, and philosophy should provide us with motivations to resist what is wrong and to do what is right instead. But that seems to be a difficult feat for philosophy to perform.

The thing that makes it difficult, however, is that so many of us (including those philosophers) simply do not understand that doing good for the world is, in a sense, why we are here. If our purpose is to do good, that in itself makes it clear why we should avoid wrong action. This is, I maintain, a perfectly natural, ordinary, commonsensical idea.

Evaluating a life in the long term, as in a funeral encomium, we might call a person a "good man" and a "good woman" simply to convey that they made it a habit to abide by some narrow list of moral maxims, such as the Ten Commandments. That would not be wrong, exactly, but in many cases, it significantly mischaracterizes the praise we are giving the dearly departed. Clearly, we are not merely saying that they followed some rules. We are saying that they had a massively beneficial impact on the world, or at least on everyone around them (in their sphere of influence). They made the lives of everyone they touched at least a little bit better: you have heard that said of people. Are you rather envious when you hear that? I am. I think many of us are. We have moral ambitions, and when we hear this said of a deceased person, we think: "She succeeded. Will I?"

Who does not want to be good in that sense? Maybe you say, "Well, I do not work in soup kitchens or teach kids to read; I build skyscrapers" (or whatever). Indeed. And if your skyscrapers are excellent and help many people, are you not rightly honored for your contribution to society? Have you not done good? I think so. There are, after all, many ways to improve the lives of those around you. There is a division of highly moral labor. Modern industrial society shares work in many ways, and helping the helpless is of course not the only beneficial role to play, as important as that is.

"She left the world a better place than she found it"—that we can say such things about our life's work, or about how we treated others, rightly strikes many of us as encapsulating what the purpose of life is. Funerals as well as near brushes with death sometime inspire us to re-examine our lives in broad strokes, to evaluate whether our lives really have meaning. There are lessons to be gleaned from the examination of a life lived "in full." In the ancient Greek apothegm, "Count no man happy until he is dead."

In a speech, I argued that what makes it difficult for young people (and some older people, e.g., those undergoing a personal crisis) to figure out the meaning of life, or what they should do with their lives, is the uncertainty involved in deciding how we can best impact the world. This is inherently hard to predict; there are too many variables and too many unknowns. When you are starting life, you naturally want to know the greatest impact you can have on the world. Perhaps a good way to view this is by speculating about what you want your funeral encomium to contain. But there is no easy way to know whether it is possible to get "from here to there." Thus the difficulty.

Some people, of course, seem only want to "get ahead." They seem to be entirely selfish. Perhaps, but "getting ahead" is only one aspect of their ambition. What really matters is why they want to get ahead or to get power. It all depends on the ends: If you seek wealth in order to get women, or to satisfy your vanity by impressing others, or simply to bend others to your whim, then you are ignoring a great deal in life that is truly valuable. Such people end up losing their loved ones; or they do the popular rather than the correct or right thing, and so the effectiveness of their work suffers; or they have power indeed, but no love and no real achievement. All that said, there are some who are equally ambitious, but whose ambition is perfectly well-grounded: they want to be a doctor because they want to benefit the human race by curing people; they want to be a lawyer because they actually do care about law and justice; they want to be a programmer because they care about making life easier for others through innovation and usability. If I am correct, then your motives are deeply important.

Let me see if I can sum up this answer. It is life, I said at the beginning, that has value in itself. To live and to flourish just is the securing of valuable things and conditions that make life easier, safer, and more pleasant. But it is perfectly natural for us, like all well-functioning animals, to support and affirm life wherever it is found. It is not merely about our own lives, but about life in general, in ever-widening circles of influence beginning with our own lives. So:

What is ultimately valuable? Life itself.

But what sorts of things are objectively good, then? Whatever supports or enhances life.

Whose life? Whose good am I to be aiming at? Your own first of all, but beyond that whoever (and indeed whatever living thing) you can have a positive impact on, i.e., that which is in sphere of influence. This is just right action.

But why should I seek to do right in this sense? You do, as a matter of fact, unless you are broken. It is the nature of life itself to seek that which is good. This is the purpose of life itself.

I know this is apt to seem very inadequate to many people, who were, like those philosophers and philosophy students, expecting me to say something that would motivate them to do good. And here I am saying only that if they are not broken, then they are already so motivated!

Very well. If you are seeking moral inspiration, then let me see if I can offer a bit of that.

Right action is life-affirming, and superlative action is unusually so. In other words, as you do more good, the more wonderfully, deeply, broadly other lives is benefited. We reserve our most unrestricted and enthusiastic praise those who go out of their way to save lives, or to make lives much better. We honor fallen heroes for making the ultimate sacrifice that allows others to go on living, or living freely. We honor inventors who make the lives of millions easier. We honor great leaders, if they lead whole societies to deeply beneficial improvements. We honor messiahs, prophets, scholars, and scientists whose great works orders our thinking and shape our cultures and remove the confusion of the ages, so we can act more correctly and confidently.

At the same time, the folks at home honor honest laborers and providers, for making a home life possible. We honor our mothers and caretakers for making home life easier, more loving, and more pleasant. We even honor our children for their comparatively trivial achievements, because of what a crucial role they play in helping life to go on; and we honor our elders for their long lives of good work and for the wisdom and guidance they can continue to pass on.

At whatever scale, small or great, this is what life is about. What could be more motivating than a life that is productive of all the good things, material, intellectual, and spiritual, that make a richer life possible? Is this not what you are (as I said) already motivated by? You might say, "But that is just life," but I am telling you that a life well lived is a moral life; it is, in Jesus' excellent phrase, "abundant life." We naturally want that, and that is why to be moral.

Perhaps you want to complain that I have still not really answered the question. Why should you not steal if you can get away with it? Why should the holder of the Ring of Gyges not make himself a wealthy king? I will give you two answers.

First, unbroken people avoid such crimes not because crime is not in their self-interest, but because the gains that crime provides do not make up for the fact that it simply gets in the way of, and indeed puts at grave risk, so many more important things in life. They put at risk the very purpose of life. They will make your life not only chaotic, but also meaningless. Law-abiding citizens around the world and throughout the ages are not dupes, as criminals sometimes say; they are the wise ones. They have known all this and lived by it. What I say is simply a matter of common sense to them.

The second answer requires that we examine evil in more depth. Some thieves will not find any of this satisfactory. What about those students of mine who declared they would run rampant if society broke down? I seem to be implying that we all, because it is "natural," seek to do well; and that, of course, seems obviously false. There are bad people out there, no doubt. Indeed, evil people exist. (I have a blog post explaining what I mean by evil.) So is it my claim, perhaps, that those people are confused, thinking they do good when they do evil? Or are they good sometimes and evil sometimes? But is that really possible, on my theory?

The simple and uncontroversial observation that some behavior is normal does not entail that abnormal behavior does not exist. It only requires that we produce an explanation of what makes behavior normal or abnormal. I have already explained what makes life-affirming, life-enhancing action normal. But what exactly is abnormal about evil people?

I have already said that bad people are broken. They are not functioning properly. I do not mean that they are mentally ill; they might be sane enough. Evil people are broken in a specific way. I mean they have lost the natural desire to benefit the life around them. They are not merely bad but evil if they have contempt for life itself.

There are people who are so broken, indeed, often because they have been so abused (and were unable to recover), that they go through life filled with spite, contempt, black cynicism about anything held up as important or true, anything beautiful, anything innocent, anything showing great promise. They are so broken that they are motivated to do quite the opposite of what I claim is the "natural purpose in life." They are prepared to throw their lives away and, if they can, to ruin others' lives in the process. Such people do exist.

They are most nihilistic elements of society. Nihilism is a much darker concept than many people in our cynical society seem to think. "Nihilism" in general means the position of rejecting value per se, but that then means rejecting everything that is, in fact, good for us. Such nihilism comes in degrees. You might be nihilistic with respect to art or certain (say) Christian values you think are bourgeois, while retaining a firm grasp on the value of human life and property. But there are people who are even more broken, who see no special value about human life, property, law, happiness, or anything that well-functioning people naturally value. Such nihilists can act on such their contempt for human values by taking action that is entirely unguided by such ends, or that is hostile to those ends. When they do, we should avoid them, improve them where we can, and punish them if necessary.


I have not answered all moral questions in this essay; I have not tried to. I have not even finished answering the question, "Why be moral?" to my own complete satisfaction. Long books can be and are written about the subject. All I hope to have done here is to sketch a theory and an explanation that, if you did not have anything better, you could use to understand why you should seek to do as many good, life-enhancing things in the world as you can, while avoiding bad, life-defeating things. In the process, I hope I have helped those readers (most people, in my experience) who have a very limited view of what morality is really about to embrace a much broader view. After all, if to "be moral" is to live well, with everything that entails, then the scope of morality is life itself, and you should be moral to live most abundantly.


Against Cannibalism

I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that eating people is wrong.

Psychologists Jared Piazza and Neil McClatchie, however, appear to believe this position is just a little bit unenlightened. If we are clever, as they are, then we will not be too dogmatic in our aversion to human flesh. That, at least, is what seems to be the upshot of their recent article, which appeared in The Conversation and then in the Daily Mail.

For my part, I happen to think that certain things, like murder and pedophilia, deserve to remain taboos. Apparently, I must now explain why cannibalism, too, should continue to be taboo.

The fact that I must defend the taboo, apparently, is further evidence that we are struggling with an insidious antivitist tendency in the West: that is, there is a strange contempt for the value of human life. As I argued in an earlier blog post, instances of antivitism include support for active euthanasia for the depressed (even for teenage girls); enthusiasm for late-term ("partial birth" and "after birth" abortion) and even infanticide; antinatalism, the view that it is harmul for a human being to be brought into existence; and the more radical elements of the childfree movement. When I wrote that blog post, I hadn't considered that there might be some silly-clever academics who would test the daring, edgy position that eating people might, perhaps, be OK.

Let me roll up my sleeves, then, and see what can be said in reply to an article titled "Is it time to drop the cannibalism taboo?" I'd tell the authors to "bite me," but I'm afraid they might take me literally.

Our intrepid authors begin by listing certain species that eat their own: tadpoles, gulls, pelicans, various insects, rodents, bears, lions, and yes, our fellow primates (famously, chimps). Very well. And what conclusion are we to draw from this? It's not clear. They don't draw any clear conclusion. They draw, instead, a contrast:

For humans though, cannibalism is the ultimate taboo. In fact, our aversion to cannibalism is so strong that consent and ethics count for little.

This is a very curious thing to say, however. Is it supposed to be clever or funny? As far as I can tell, looking at the context, the authors seem to be in earnest. "Consent and ethics count for little"? The implication is that consent—as in a person saying, "Sure, go ahead, eat my finger" or "eat my dead body" or "have a cupful of my blood"—ought to count for something. That's odd enough, but much odder is the bizarre implication that ethics might counsel us to eat humans, that the taboo against cannibalism might represent a rejection of ethics.

This is bizarre in two ways: first, there's the utterly bizarre, and even horrific, suggestion that ethics would have us eat people; second, there's the casual and even smug wording or tone, as if this were a clever movie review and not about devouring people. If it's supposed to be funny, I don't get the joke.

The problematic tone only gets worse. Our authors go on to describe a thought experiment they had experimental subjects do:

In one of our own experiments, participants were asked to consider the hypothetical case of a man who gave permission to his friend to eat parts of him once he died of natural causes.

Participants read that this occurred in a culture that permitted the act, that the act was meant to honour the deceased, and that the flesh was cooked so that there was no chance of disease. 

Despite this careful description, about half of the participants still insisted that the act was invariably wrong.

"Imagine that," seems to be the authors' implication, or so I imagine. "We explained that the person was dead, that a culture regards eating him as honorable, and that the flesh was cooked and germs destroyed. But they still thought consuming human flesh was wrong! How curiously narrow-minded!"

The authors don't say that, though. They refuse to be pinned down. They leave it a mystery what they really think themselves.

Another thing they don't say, though I would expect sane scholars to, is: "Of course, philosophers and priests throughout history have had a thing or two say about the value of human life, so their position is defensible." But no. The only justification of the taboo against cannibalism they are willing to entertain is one based on "essentialism."

To introduce this idea, the authors speak about the famous case of the crash in South America in which some survivors ate bodies of the dead in order to stay alive:

One survivor, Roberto Canessa, felt that to eat his fellow passengers would be 'stealing their souls' and descending towards 'ultimate indignity' – despite recalling that in the aftermath of the crash, he like many others had declared that he would be glad for his body to aid the communal survival mission.

The tragic anecdote above illuminates why humans are the exception to the animal cannibal rule. Our capacity to represent the personalities of the living and the departed is unparalleled. 

One does not get the impression that the authors quite approve of Roberto Canessa's theory: note the distancing scare quotes around "stealing their souls." Modern scientists do not believe in souls, much less stealing souls. One suspects, beyond that, they they do not put much stock in the idea of placing an unusually special value on human lives.

Why do I say that? They go on:

This deep connection between personhood and flesh can mean that careful reasoning in certain situations over the merits of cannibalism is overridden by our feelings of repulsion and disgust.

Here their views begin to come out. Careful reasoning—which only sophisticated academics such as themselves are capable of, no doubt—is overridden not by morality, not by concern for the value of human life, not by concern for the soul (our own or that of the consumed), but by repulsion and disgust.

I believe disgust has become a bête noire for the academic left, ever since it became common knowledge that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Disgust strikes us as an irrational, even an involuntary physiological reaction. This use of language (the section of the essay is titled "Categorical Disgust") thus allows the authors to imply that a sort of deep-seated irrationality lies beneath our resistance to eating people.

Of course, they wouldn't have to be committed to that view. After all, murder and rape and pedophilia disgust every decent person, as well, but there are independent reasons to think they are deeply wrong. Disgust isn't the only reason for our aversion to such crimes.

So maybe Piazza and McClatchie will, reasonably, avoid implying that it is only disgust that would explain why we avoid cannibalism. But no:

So why our disgust for human flesh but not that of other animals? Philosopher William Irvine has us imagine a ranch that raises plump babies for human consumption, much like we fatten and slaughter cattle for beef. 

Irvine suggests that the same arguments we apply to justify the killing of cows also apply to babies. For example, they wouldn't protest, and they're not capable of rational thought.

Although Irvine is not seriously advocating eating babies, the scenario is useful for illuminating our bias when considering the ethics of cannibalism. 

This passage pisses me off. I find it repellent and disgusting—and yes, my reaction is physiological, because I get sick to my stomach reading it through—though I can certainly articulate why. The authors actually suggest that there is merely a bias against cannibalism, and that, if we lacked this bias, if we were more enlightened, then we would have no more objection to eating babies as to eating cows. Really—a couple of university researchers make this implication, and the Daily Mail thought it was a good idea to publish an article that says so.

Well, biases are of course unfair and unreasoning; they indicate bigotry and prejudice. So, do our noble and eminently rational authors explain why the firm stance against eating babies amounts to little more than a bias?

Of course they do:

From a young age, we tend to think about categories, such as humans or cows, as having an underlying reality or 'essence' that cannot be observed directly but that gives a thing its fundamental identity. 

For example, humans are intelligent and rational thinkers, we have personalities and a desire to live, and we form bonds with each other.

This psychological essentialism is a useful shortcut to guide our expectations and judgements about members of the category – but it doesn't work so well when the typical qualities of that category don't apply, for example upon death. 

You see, if you think eating babies is much worse than eating cows, it is because you buy into a very Aristotelian-sounding folk theory that small human beings have a mysterious "essence" that gives them their fundamental identity qua valuable human beings.

Essentialism, like disgust, is another bête noire of the academic left. If you find yourself saddled with essentialism, then rest assured: you have been dismissed. That's because the idea itself is rather ridiculous. Essentialism, as it is typically understood, isn't just that categories have defining properties (as when Aristotle says that the definition of human being is 'rational animal'). It is that those properties represent some strange metaphysical beastie that, as our authors put it, "cannot be observed directly."

But it is, surely, a straw man: who believes in essences in 2019? A few philosophers, maybe, and some Catholics theologians impressed with Aristotle. But Piazza and McClatchie actually claim that ordinary people find cannibalism abhorrent due to some essentialist views they hold. That doesn't even pass the chuckle test.

But probably, they are trying to put a patina of folk science on religion. While pretty much nobody believes in essences, lots of people, like the aforementioned Roberto, do believe in souls. Perhaps these psychologists just lack the philosophical or theological sophistication to distinguish between essences and souls; and probably, they would have the precise same objections to souls. Souls, too, might not appear observable, and they depart upon death, i.e., when "the typical qualities of that category [a human being with a soul] don't apply, for example upon death." Of course, one view that is apt to be commonly cited for the abhorrence of eating babies (aside from the murder and infanticide thing) is that babies are held to have souls.

Belief in souls doesn't require essentialism, but it is perhaps a fair representation of a certain religious attitude toward baby eating. But what if you don't believe in souls, as I am pretty damned sure our brave authors do not? Does that mean you must resign yourself to accepting the inevitable baby meat farms in some horrific "enlightened" future?

Besides, even if you do believe in a soul that has a special attachment to a body, and that's why you don't ingest those bodies while alive, what's to stop you from ingesting them after they're dead?

To answer that, I will finally leave this silly article and offer up a theory of my own. Mind you, I fully support the taboo: we don't need no steekin' theories to justify our absolute abhorrence of the very topic. (My wife refused to discuss it after about two minutes. I couldn't really blame her.) But I find that, over and over, we find the obvious ignored and called into question, and it is useful (and philosophically interesting) to articulate the obvious and defend it. As I said, I've already defended the obvious views that murder and pedophilia are evil, and also that human life has inherent, special value and that purpose of education is the getting of knowledge. I rather like defending obvious but important truths against idiotic attacks on them.

Cannibalism is wrong because it sets a very bad precedent. If anybody gets a taste for human flesh, they are a threat to the rest of us.

Decent people (unlike some philosophers with idiotic thought experiments) are inclined to wildly irrational hostility toward baby-eaters. (Well, let's face it, I'm not sure any restraint on hostility toward baby-eaters is irrational.) Why? Because the last thing we want to have to deal with is a society with baby-eaters in it.

But how about corpse-eaters, when permission is obtained in advance and some bizarre society I'm sure I've never heard of thinks it's respectful toward the dead? It's the same thing: we don't want corpse-eaters stalking among us because we don't want them getting any ideas about bodies that are still alive. It's very much like concern over drawn child molestation: that's abhorrent to decent people because people with a taste for it might move on to child porn, which is absolutely horrific because its production requires truly horrible crimes being done upon children. You just don't go there.

This, I suggest, is ultimately what fills us (all of us) with horror when we hear of or merely contemplate the idea of eating babies, body parts, or fresh corpses. We might have religious ideas about the soul in addition, for sure; if life, for you, is a holy thing only to be disposed of by God, the idea of consuming the body is surely sacrilegious. But the threat, the monstrous threat—the shiver-inducing Hannibal Lecter threat—of someone going around looking for people to eat is why it is a no-no for absolutely everyone.

It was only in researching this post that I came across news reports from 2015 that some people drink human blood. Described as "real vampires," people do it for health reasons (which are reasons I would avoid the practice, but never mind). Though the BBC claims (citing one such vampire) that there are "thousands" of Americans who regularly drink blood, I would venture to say that the vast majority of people, people I would describe "sane people," would find the practice utterly abhorrent. And why? My theory explains this very handily: nobody wants to live around vampires. I for one don't want to have to worry whether someone is coveting my blood.

Even worse is the suggestion one can find in a few articles, like this Vice article, that the blood of young people is highly desirable to the very rich: Peter Thiel apparently touts the health benefits of transfusing the blood of youths into his own veins, and he avidly follows studies in China of this very thing. Well. Not only do I not want to have to worry about vampires, I don't want to have to defend children, especially poor children (think third world orphans), against amoral, soulless, wealthy vampires.

This sounds like fiction, but the BBC and Vice inform me that my fears may be well-founded.

I hope that my simple theory of why eating people is wrong, and the above excursus about the evils of drinking blood, will put Piazza and McClatchie's article into perspective. It turns out to matter that we have the right reasons to reject their insanity. If we rely only on "essentialism" or harm to the soul, we might lack the intellectual ammunition to ward off the proliferation of vampires.

In the end—after dryly considering the merits of eating corpses to ward off third world famine—our authors explain that they're still against cannibalism:

For now, we're as happy as you are to continue accepting the 'wisdom of repugnance': human flesh, despite its biochemical similarities to that of other mammals, shall remain firmly off limits.

This might seem droll, but I find it unsatisfactory and am not at all convinced of its sincerity. After all, the authors suggested over and over that resistance to eating human flesh is irrational and rooted in mere biology or superstition, that it is "natural" (since savage animals do it), and that it might even be beneficial.

The authors do not consider for one moment, however, the fact that cannibalism is a human action, that human actions typically take place in the context of habit, and that morality may be understood as the recommendability of good habits (which we bless as virtues or principles) and the deplorability of bad habits (vices).

For some strange reason, those writing about ethics often speak in terms of specific, often highly contrived or unusual cases. But that is not how we approach matters of personal policy in our daily lives. We decide, rather, whether we want to take some action of some general type. Peter Thiel decides not whether to sample a bit of blood just now, but whether the habit or policy of drinking blood in general is recommendable.

That is the sort of question we should be asking ourselves, too: are there any circumstances, perhaps beyond the direst and most absurdly unusual emergencies (which basically never happen), in which we should consider ingesting human flesh? The answer, clearly, is no; the reason is that this would give evil, unbalanced, and insane people a taste for it, and perhaps especially for the flesh of the very young. The horrors are so great while the need basically nonexistent.

Even less could I seriously countenance the idea of young blood (or, God forbid, flesh) for the very wealthy: the moral and ultimately criminal dangers are much too great just to give the super-rich a slight edge in health and youthful appearance. Indeed, nothing could be more evil, more contemptuous of the humanity of others, than the willingness to use wealth to directly consume the flesh of a child, especially if the child dies, or if children in general are put at greater risk.

There are some things that civilized societies just don't do. Indeed they are taboos, and cannibalism certainly deserves to remain one.


Why I haven't read Lolita

I posted a Twitter poll recently, by way of unburdening myself of the following opinion about Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the book about a middle aged man who has a love affair with a 12-year-old girl. Here is the question:

How many of you, like me, always found it bizarre and even a little hard to believe that a book about a pedophile and his victim—Lolita—should wind up being a classic for the ages? Never could read the damned thing. Just ugh. Can I finally say that now?

In another tweet I elaborated slightly:

Supposedly highfalutin “art“ that sympathetically portrays monsters of all sorts always struck me as deeply pathological. Natural Born Killers, The Collector, Pan’s Labyrinth...and Lolita...all trash. All pretentious and pernicious garbage.

How does it improve us? Not at all.

While most of my followers agreed with me (maybe not surprising), I thought I would explain my view on this a little less briefly, for the sake of those literature lovers who think it is weird and surprising—if not positively philistine of me—that I would judge a book without reading it. So here goes.

I am not totally ignorant about the book. I watched the 1997 movie adaptation. I read the first chapter or so, and flipped through the rest at various times over the years, trying and every time failing to persuade myself to read it. It has always left me sick to my stomach. A great deal of this has to do not just with the subject of the book, but the sort of glowing praise people give it, people who, it is perfectly obvious, would never dare to judge the book on its moral content, because that sort of things is just not done. Not anymore.

I've read much more about the book, over the years. I'm passingly familiar with what is said about it. Moreover, I have consumed my fair share of clinical and mostly nonjudgmental portrayal of criminals, monsters, and twisted characters of various kinds. John Fowles' book The Collector was one I read as a graduate student. It's a book about a young man who kidnaps and holds an art student in his basement; she eventually dies of illness, and he gets away with his crime and learns nothing. I read it to the end and I simply could not believe that it was a popular or well-regarded book. I regarded it as wholly without merit.

I wholly reject the notion that art is a self-contained, closed system, that we must simply accept the latest ejaculations of a morally corrupt art world as being profound and worthy of contemplation. I think the dictum "art for art's sake" is a canard that serves as cover for an art world mired in corruption.

If depictions of evil are thought to have any merit at all, it will be for one of three reasons: stylistic excellence, profound insight into human nature, and the tendency to edify or uplift us—to improve us.

Now, it is common (but completely puzzling to me) to suppose that stylistic excellence is enough to make some work of art noteworthy. But to my mind it clearly is not enough. Graduate schools are full of all sorts of brilliant wordsmiths whose work is immediately forgotten because they just don't have anything interesting to say.

But Lolita, we're told, isn't just beautifully written—an assessment I'm afraid I don't share, by the way, based on what I've read. It is also supposed to give us dark but necessary psychological insight into the mind of a pedophile. That may be so; I'm not going to gainsay such claims, because I haven't read the book and I wouldn't be able to say for sure without reading it. Let's stipulate that Nabokov has plumbed those depths.

But what I will say is that mere clinical insight, as opposed to moral perspective, into some dark corner of human nature does not make for great or classic art. It might be useful for law enforcementa and psychologists, perhaps, if it is a faithful portrayal of this sort of evil. It is a bizarre quirk of cultural life in the modern period that otherwise intelligent, sober people have thought such psychological perspective was enough to justify us taking some art seriously. On my view, it isn't enough; it never has been. There is no classic art that does not take an essentially moral (not to say moralistic; that's different) perspective on any evil it portrays. Perhaps Fowles, for example, laid bare the soul of a kidnapping madman (I couldn't say), but what he didn't have was an interesting moral perspective on such a madman.

It would be revolting enough if such clinical depictions of evil were characterized as important art. But lift the curtain back just a bit and you will find all sorts of appalling admissions that people find such art thrilling or titillating. For example, one not infrequently sees the comment (as, for example, here) that readers sympathize with Humbert Humbert, the antihero of Lolita.

Hence it really looks as though this kind of art is basically degrading to its more enthusiastic consumers. They like the degradation. Maybe it is comforting to them, or exciting; I wouldn't be able to say. All I can say is that I want absolutely nothing to do with it.

For me the sine qua non of good art, the one absolutely necessary (if not sufficient) requirement, is the tendency to uplift or improve us effectively. We are made better people for having seen it. But in the case of Lolita, and in the other examples I cited, it actually does the opposite of what good art is supposed to do, on my view. A merely clinical or sympathetic portrait of evil—if that's really all it is—tends to deaden the soul of its audience. It's a bad influence. I actually wonder if it can really appeal only to people who actually like such bad influences, or who believe them not really to be so bad.

It is not that I think all art should be "moralistic," like parables, fables, Sunday School lessons, and 19th century children's literature. That is not the point at all. There is a profound difference between being really uplifting or edifying, on the one hand, and merely didactically inculcating (through obvious example to emulate) various moral or religious principles. I am a big fan of Shakespeare's tragedies, which do lay bare the evil in man's soul, but which also edify the reader or audience by indicating, in what is ultimately an exquisitely beautiful and satisfying way, that such evil will be justly repaid, why it is indeed evil, and how the world can move on in spite of it. Those are important lessons, too; we need not just to understand evil, we need the tools, moral and emotional, to fight it. Good art provides us some of those tools in a very basic and necessary way.

The reason we do and should assign our children to read classics is to teach them by inspiring example many moral principles that our lives might be too humdrum to illustrate. For example, I've been reading David Copperfield to my son lately. He, as as American middle-class boy, has no way of knowing what it might be like to live through a period of absolute poverty and bereavement (as David does when working for Murdstone and Grinby) and yet retain a sense of dignity and decency. Having read those pages, however, he will begin to have some inkling of that sort of life, sympathy for those going through it, and admiration for those who stay basically decent as David does.

If a modernist writer took up the same subject, the book would not be appropriate for children, because David would be shown helpless in the face of molestation by Grinby and violence by Murdstone, and he would ultimately become a nasty piece of work with no way out. Also, Little Em'ly would become a whore and the Micawbers would die in the gutter; and nobody would learn any lessons. And it would be hailed as a great work of literature because it provides such an unflinching, realistic look at the life of the poor.

That is, of course, just one example. Great literature is absolutely full of examples. It is why most of us read it. Most of us have no interest whatsoever in reading literature and consuming other art as mere psychologists or clinicians. We love a good story because we care about characters we relate to, showing what we, too, might want to do in their interesting or exciting situations.

More generally, we consume art as a way to appeal to and develop our sense of what life is really like, what it ought to be like, on the best view. What the purveyors of modern art do is substitute "sophisticated" or "edgy" for "best" and then proceed to convince themselves that art that essentially celebrates monstrous behavior is fine art.

So that's why I haven't read Lolita. I don't care if hoity-toity people tell me Nabokov was a brilliant stylist, or that he had insight into the criminal mind, or the modern mind. I regard criminality and twisted modernism as things to avoid, fight, or repair—certainly not to examine clinically or lovingly.