On the Burning of an LGBTQ Flag

Last summer, Adolfo Martinez, 30, of Ames, Iowa, stole the LGBTQ pride flag hung above the entrance to the Ames United Church of Christ, and burned it in front of the nearby Dangerous Curves Gentleman's Club. He pled guilty to the crime—for which he was sentenced to 16 years in the state penitentiary.

This surprising sentence will be infamously controversial. Of course, stealing and destroying property is very wrong. But when the property is a flag, 16 years in prison is ridiculously and obviously excessive.

The Facts and Disposition of the Case

Adolfo Martinez

By his own admission, as you can see in a video, Martinez tore down the flag from the church, took it in front of a local dive, and burned it. That was the whole extent of the crime.

Aggravating circumstances made it worse than just that. Martinez is not a pleasant character, to hear Cmdr. Jason Tuttle of the Ames Police tell it. Martinez was a "regular patron" of the bar—where he had been kicked out, after causing a disturbance—in front of which he burned the flag:

He came back [to the bar] at some point and told the bar, the people in the bar, that he was going to burn the place [presumably, the church, not the bar] down, and at that point made a reference to burning "their flag."

The case files((To access the case files, click here, then input (exactly) "Martinez" for "Last/Firm Name", "Adolfo" (with an "f") for "First Name", set County to Story.)) indicate that the charges against Martinez were: arson in the third degree (by itself, in Iowa, an aggravated misdemeanor), considered by the court a hate crime; harassment in the third degree (a simple misdemeanor); and reckless use of fire.

Martinez represented himself. Clearly, that was a bad idea.

Judge Steve Van Marel

Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds said Judge Steve Van Marel "agreed to the 17-year sentence because Martinez has a long history of harassment and is a habitual offender and never showed any remorse." Maybe he has a long history of serious crime elsewhere, but not in Iowa. According to Iowa court records, the worst he has done in the last four years in Iowa is one count of drunk driving.

Reynolds, the prosecuting attorney, also claimed, "The defendant stated that there was nothing the judge could [do] to stop him from continuing this behavior and that he would continue to do this no matter what."

Not Actually a Nice Guy, But...

Martinez is shamelessly outspoken against the pieties of the Ames United Church of Christ. "It was an honor to [burn the LGBTQ flag]. It was a blessing from the Lord," Martinez declared to a KCCI reporter on camera. My view is that this sentence is an official state repudiation of that religious view, and so it violates Martinez' First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion.

Ames United Church of Christ

"But given the threatening things he has said, why think so?" you might ask. "Surely it's not so clear-cut." That is true. Let me spend some time explaining why it is not, in fact, quite as clear cut as it might appear at first.

Martinez stole and burned a symbolic piece of cloth. He was clearly making a statement that was doubtless obnoxious to everyone in the courtroom. The statement itself is not the crime, but stealing and burning someone else's property is. He was charged with arson, but of course it was only misdemeanor arson since the burned property was just a flag. Still, his crime was aggravated since it was a hate crime, and as the law is written, this label seems credible.

It is credible, in fairness, maybe not just because of the flag burning but especially because of what he said after the flag burning. See Iowa Code sect. 729A.2: “...committed against a person’s...property because of the person’s...sexual orientation...” He did say some pretty threatening things about the church. Not only did he reportedly (though this is hearsay) threaten to burn the church down, he said on camera: "It is a judgment and is written, to execute vengeance on a heathen and punishments upon the people." You can easily imagine how ominous such Biblical-sounding language would sound to the worshipers at the Ames United Church of Christ.

Not a popular Bible verse at the Ames United Church of Christ

So if we are going to be quite fair, we must admit that Martinez's own statements make it clear that he lacked remorse, and he no doubt continues to believe that the church—and its LGBTQ community—deserved what he gave them. Moreover, if you can credit the prosecutor (I would need to see a direct quote), Martinez threatened to do the crime again.

But let us look even more closely.

The Sentence Represents a Violation of Martinez's Free Speech

Martinez was not prosecuted or convicted for a barroom threat or invocations of divine justice. That was not his crime. Presumably, if he were imprisoned for a while, that might make him think twice about carrying out any such threats; prevention is a prime purpose of punishment, after all. But it is decidedly not a principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence that criminals should be punished in order to prevent them from committing crimes they have not committed, even if they have threatened to do so. Yet if we take the prosecutor, Reynolds, at her word, that seems to be what she and the judge did.

This is, however, not even why Martinez was punished. It is a fig leaf covering a shameful sentence. Let us concede that Martinez stole and burned a flag, was a reckless and drunk driver who smoked pot, issued barroom arson threats, and was wholly unrepentant—and he even implied that he might do it again.

Even if all that is the case, does it deserve 16 years? Of course not. If he were to do the same crime two or three more times, surely he still wouldn't deserve 16 years, regardless of any sentencing guidelines. In this case, the maximum sentence for third degree arson as a hate crime was five years. Martinez was given 16 years in total just because he had priors. But what was his worst prior in Iowa? Drunk driving. Did you know that the average sentence for rape was about 12 years (in 2006)? So this man, who burned a flag—a gay pride flag—had a more severe sentence than most rapists receive.

Clearly, the real explanation for Martinez's excessive sentence must be that he expressed something deeply offensive and hateful to the LGBTQ community, period.

Protected free speech, say the Supremes. Only if it is your flag?

Moreover, and importantly, the defendant's right to free expression by the burning of a flag, upheld by the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson, seems not to have been considered in sentencing. After all, national origin is a protected class. But if someone were to steal and burn an American flag, making imprecations and calling for divine vengeance against (say) the outrageously immoral American way of life, would that be a hate crime? Of course not.

Martinez was certainly expressing his religious point of view by burning the flag. He is not free to burn other people's things; I do not deny that, of course. But neither was the judge free to pretend that the presence of a "hate crime" made it possible to punish the content of Martinez's speech, and to ignore his freedoms of speech and religion.

Stealing the flag and burning it are punishable misdemeanors, certainly. We can even concede that they should be punished harshly, because Martinez expressed no remorse and made threatening statements. But none of that removes the fact that expressing a religious statement by burning somebody else's flag is protected free speech. The question is not whether you have a right to burn someone’s property to express your opinion. You absolutely do not. The question is whether the court has the right to mete out more severe punishments for offensive opinions. It absolutely does not, and yet that is precisely what happened in this case. Just because Martinez committed a misdemeanor, it does not follow that the court can regulate the content of Martinez's speech by sentencing him more harshly for what he had to say.

When hate crime legislation was first introduced, I remember being disturbed and worried about the implications for free speech. This case perfectly illustrates that worry. What can we expect next? Doubtless, certain speech being outlawed on grounds of being the hate crime of harassment directed at a protected class.

Punishing the misdemeanor of third degree arson (flag burning) more severely than a serious felony, like rape, means the court had essentially treated a minor hate crime as hate speech—which, no matter how obnoxious it might have been to the court, is protected by the First Amendment.

Again, it was obnoxious, wrong, and deserving of punishment to steal and destroy the church's flag. A fine was certainly warranted, and perhaps a bit of jail time. But 16 years for this misdemeanor is such an outrageously imbalanced response that the sentence itself should be made an example of.

- fin -


A Response to Jack Dorsey on Decentralizing Social Media

Jack,

Let me begin by telling you (and my blog readers) a personal history of decentralizing social media and content generally.

Decentralizing social media

It began in January when I decided to lock down my cyber-life. Among the items on my "to do" list was: "Quit social media, or at least nail down a sensible social media use policy." I rather quickly decided to get rid of Facebook and a number of others. I grudgingly conceded that I would keep using Twitter for career purposes.

By February, I was still not satisfied with how I was using social media, basically because I did not have control over my own data. When trying to download my own contributed content from Facebook, Medium, and Quora (which did not even offer a tool for downloading my answers), I got seriously frustrated. "This is my data," I thought, "and they act like it's theirs."

I got to thinking. My data was not easy to download. It wasn't even easy to search—almost all Big Social Media platforms have minimal search tools. And there was no standard, as is there is for address books, blogs, and email, that would enable me to move this data to a competitor.

The latter is probably what gave me the idea, which of course is not a new idea at all, that what we really need to do is to decentralize social media. I wrote a blog post about that, which TheNextWeb printed. The idea was wildly popular on Twitter and in a few speeches I gave last spring and summer.

In one of these speeches, at South by Southwest in March—in a shortened version of this Wired article—I said there desperately need to be open standards for a new system of decentralized social media, and that we should have a social media strike to raise awareness of this.

Decentralizing Twitter?

In the speech, I asked you, Jack, three questions. I reiterated them on Twitter, and you answered "yes" to all three:

  1. Once the standards for microposts are properly settled on, will you, Jack, enable Twitter users to incorporate Twitter-style microposts that are hosted elsewhere inline in their Twitter feeds? [Q] [A]
  2. Will you create tools to let people export and sync their tweets with microposts from outside of Twitter? [Q] [A]
  3. And will you give users a lot more control over their feeds? [Q] [A]

Shortly thereafter, you DM'd me and offered to chat on the phone about Twitter's plans. Since you are now, nine months later, coming out publicly with your plans, I'm now going to share the notes I took then:


My piece in Wired [i.e., this] is “spot-on”

They’ve had
discussions about similar plans for last six months

Run some ideas past
you: problems we’re trying to solve; then solutions

CR2019, execute 2020

Pressure testing the
ideas now.

Want to encourage
greater amounts of healthy conversations

Four leading
indicators of health of corpus of conversation: shared attention,
shared reality, variety, receptivity. MIT lab is measuring these
against talk radio.

Six problems with
the poor health of conversation on Twitter: (1) focus on following
accounts rather than topics; problems with variety and shared
reality. (2) Attention problems, is dissipating. (3) Global enforced
policy is not scalable. (4) Burden of moderation is placed on the
victim. (5) Permanent bans and takedown do not promote health. (6)
Tech trends challenge content hosting.

Principles going
forward that address the problem:

  1. An account or
    tweet can only be deleted by the account owner.
  2. Anyone can
    follow any account, topic, keyword/question.
  3. Anyone can
    mute any account, topic, keyword, question.
  4. By default,
    we’ll only promote “healthy” accounts/tweets.
  5. Everyone can
    quickly switch off to see all accounts and all tweets in all
    conversations.
  6. Everyone will
    have incentive to participate in healthy conversations.

You could use a
different recommendation engine purposes of filtering feed.

CTO is working on how to implement principles.


I was cautiously optimistic in March. But now, I don't think you were sincere. I still don't after your recent announcement.

We were going to circle back after a month. We never did. I said in my speech that I wanted to organize a social media strike, and I suggested July 4-5 as the date.

Still, Twitter finally gave me a blue checkmark in May, I suppose in an attempt to appease me. (Didn't work.)

The social media strike

I organized a social media strike and asked strikers to sign this Declaration of Digital Independence. I'm pretty sure Twitter noticed, because it was then that my tweets, ironically, started being throttled as "sensitive content," which has happened dozens of times since, and when the content was nowhere near being "sensitive"—unless it's Twitter being quite sensitive about the idea of a social media strike. Throttling. Kind of pisses me off, Jack.

The strike got quite a bit of news coverage, even though it was quickly and informally organized, with no backing organization, no PR firm, no nothin'. By July 6, it was not clear how successful the strike was, because of course the social media companies were not going to supply data. It is possible the strike might have had something to do with outages at Facebook and Instagram, but I heard nothing specific about that.

I'm not terribly surprised that no one at Twitter (or any other social media giant) contacted me about the strike. I'm sure it didn't help that I went on Fox to talk about the strike:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK6BHGu9SD4

Or CNN:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8m-F8C2lrU

Consequences: traffic decline and throttling?

The strike did have one very clear and beneficial effect: it spread the idea that there was something wrong about social media companies having exclusive control over our social media data. I speculate—and saw a fair bit of anecdotal support of this—that people started abandoning social media in general more last summer. I started tracking to the Alexa Rank of various social media sites, as an imperfect way to check up on this.

After Twitter's rank kept dropping throughout the summer, I looked at other sites in September, and I noticed their ranks, too, had precipitously and noticeably declined recently—and yet, strangely, nobody had reported this remarkable news. So I reported it myself here on this blog. A fair few opinionated techies follow me, but none of them told me this wasn't news; still, the tech press was entirely silent. And weirdly, within days, the Alexa Rank of my own blog plunged by around 500K places, and did not come back up for a few months, while the ranks of almost all of the sites I reported on slowed or stopped their decline, and started plateauing and even slowly climbing back. Could be a coincidence, of course. But the ranks have not yet climbed past where they were in late September.

Anyway, Jack, I confess that those notices of "sensitive content" slapped on my social media strike-related tweets began to bother me quite a bit. It especially bothered me when Twitter stopped me (for a day) from linking to my own blog. I wasn't the only one who noticed. Of course, I can't prove that my posts about the social media strike had anything to do with censoring links to my blog: it did turn out someone had been using my blog's password reset functionality in a simple spamming exploit. But if that was the reason, it was a frankly boneheaded excuse to block the domain; and there was no excuse to ignore my repeated requests for explanation.

So it has become personal for me, not that I wasn't already thoroughly pissed off about Big Tech encroachments on free speech and privacy.

Decentralizing Encyclopedias

When we last spoke, I was working for Everipedia, the blockchain encyclopedia. In September, I left in order to start a new, independent nonprofit project to define open standards for encyclopedia articles, which will, I hope, create a new encyclopedia network called the Encyclosphere (after the Blogosphere). This was the plan all along with Everipedia, but I figured I needed to develop the standards independently of any for-profit organization, or the standards would probably never enjoy mass adoption. You can learn about our new Knowledge Standards Foundation here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PrWGMyJgpI

The plan for the Encyclosphere is very similar to the plan I was proposing for social media. In both cases the proposal is:

  • Define open standards for sharing content.
  • Content is published in a feed; everyone controls their own feed.
  • Content aggregators bring many feeds together and make them available via an API or (probably decentralized) database (such as WebTorrent).
  • Reader apps (analogous to blog readers) make is possible to read (and contribute) the aggregated content.

Your announcement

So I'm going to be honest. When you say you're going to create "an open and decentralized standard for social media," I don't believe it. My reaction to this announcement is similar to my reaction to Mark Zuckerberg giving a speech in favor of free speech: to laugh.

Twitter used an open standard in its early days—then abandoned it. Twitter said they were the "free speech wing of the free speech party," then started banning and throttling people for political speech.

A lot of people are working on decentralizing content in reaction to your mishandling of social media.

We don't need Mark Zuckerberg's "help" to support free speech, and we don't need your "help" to make content decentralized.

Sincerely,
Larry Sanger


Why Pedophilia Is Evil

However it is defined, pedophilia is wrong; but beyond that, it is evil. In a deeply disturbing trend in the last few decades, pedophilia apologists have tried to soft-pedal the condemnation of this horrible crime and criminal ideation. They are very wrong. Here is why.

Prefatory notes, July 13, 2019—I wrote the first draft of the following essay about the horror of pedophilia in late 2016 or early 2017 and posted it on Medium and Quora, where it got quite a bit of attention. Since I deleted my accounts on those sites last winter, this essay (and a number of others) have been unavailable. But I want this and a number of other essays to keep circulating, so I will be posting them here on my blog. The following essay in particular seems important in light of the Jeffery Epstein imbroglio.

But it was not the Epstein case, or any particular case, that originally led me to write about pedophilia. It was, rather, a long-standing interest in applied ethics in general, together with the (to me) jaw-droppingly incredible fact that people defend pedophiles. (As was the case with philosopher G.E. Moore, a lot of my philosophical writing is basically in reaction to absurd positions that other people take.) When I first encountered this rhetorical phenomenon in 2002—that was when pedophiles first descended upon Wikipedia—I simply could not believe it. My naive incredulity disappeared through repeated encounters with pedophiles in connection with Wikipedia. In fact, I came to believe I had an obligation to do at least a little something about it, which is why I reported Wikimedia Commons' pedophilia pages to the FBI in 2010 (which took no action that I know of).

All that said, this is no more a pet cause than any others in applied ethics. I have also written about the evils of murder, racism, antivitism (a neologism of mine), censorship, violations of privacy, and other topics in applied ethics. I especially like my essay on "Our Moral Abyss."

I have rewritten the essay slightly, and follow it with some replies that I made to comments by real, live pedophiles (they are online and quite shameless, in fact) that I hope will clarify my arguments.

Updated again December 6, 2019.


The word “pedophilia” has two senses. I want defend the thesis that pedophilia in both senses is not just “bad” but deeply evil. This is not a thesis about either psychology or the law, but instead about morality.

Everyone seems to agree that the word can mean (a) sexual attraction to prepubescent children (or, sometimes, any children below the age of consent). This is the clinical definition. But we often more colloquially use the word to mean (b) actual sex with children, i.e., what is more correctly described as child sexual abuse or (these mean the same) child rape.((Pedophiles sometimes quibble, absurdly, that only sense (a), only the attraction to children, counts as pedophilia; but we hardly need consider the bizarre case in which an adult has sex with a child without feeling sexual attraction to the child. It is reasonable to assume that if sense (b) applies, so does sense (a).))

It is distressing how poorly the evil of pedophilia seems to be understood. When I first sat down to write this essay, I was shocked at how little was available online explaining why it is evil. So I wish to make this quite clear, beginning with (b) actual sex with children. The evil of the act is easier to explain, and the evil of the criminal ideation ultimately depends on the evil of the act.


The moral horror of child rape

The rape of children((I.e., any sex between adults and children. Since, as we will see below, children cannot consent, all such sex constitutes rape.)) is a horrific evil because it traumatizes the child for life. In this regard, it may be compared to torture and rape of adults; even after the act is over, it continues to wound. It fills the child with undeserved shame and low self-esteem for life. For some adult survivors, this pain becomes so unbearable that they take their own lives. It can permanently alter—pervert—the child’s understanding of sex. Some suffer, and that is the right word, from hypersexuality (sometimes called "nymphomania"), and some become completely closed off to all sexual relationships. Horrifyingly, it also makes victims more likely to become abusers when they grow up—perpetuating what has been called a "cycle of abuse."

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.

So the immediate moral horror, the physical shock, and the pain of the act itself often give way to a lifetime of psychological suffering and dysfunction. The act of child sexual abuse is horrifyingly harmful. It is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.((As I put it in my essay on this blog, "A Theory of Evil," "Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others." Child rape is not merely cruel, it evinces contempt for the very humanity of children. Therefore it is a textbook example of evil by my definition.))

I want to assert very clearly and forcefully that anyone who presumes to evaluate the morality of child sexual abuse without discussing the horrible facts about these consequences is, by that omission, perpetuating the evil. The proper moral evaluation of child rape absolutely requires confronting its appalling consequences. That is why we must condemn those pedophile advocates who want to speak only about positive experiences with children—as if such were really possible—and who do not discuss the more typical and probable trauma the act causes. Even if the probability of trauma were relatively slight, the severity of the harm can be so extreme that the act is simply not justifiable.

Indeed, one of the most shocking indications of just how extreme the trauma caused to children by rape is the fact that it can result in dissociative identity disorder (once known as "multiple personality disorder").

Every discussion of the subject should make unequivocally clear that sex with underaged children is a horrific evil and is intolerable. Unfortunately, ignorance has meant that pedophilia is not understood widely enough to be the terrible evil that it is. But, however defined, shameless advocates of pedophilia really do exist and can be found all over the Internet, as I will explain below. So, for the sake of those who might be at all confused on this point, it is incumbent on the rest of us make it quite clear.

Another shockingly incorrect stance on this topic is that sex with prepubescent children is wrong only when the child “does not consent.” We may reply that legally, children cannot consent, of course. Sex with prepubescent children is always rape. This is for good reason: children are not capable of consenting, because they do not understand the nature of the sex act or its consequences. But I think a stronger reply is this: the trauma described above will happen whether or not “consent” seems to be given by the child. Anyone using such phrases as “if the child consents” is using the language of pedophilia apology and is very highly suspect. It is, after all, the design of many confirmed, repeat pedophiles to groom children to win their "consent." No one ought to credit what a child says in such a sickening situation; blame falls every bit as much with the raping adult as in the case in which if a child says "no" and resists.

There are other reasons why sex with children is wrong. Children can be physically injured by sex—there are cases in which small children died of injuries sustained from abuse. It can result in pregnancy among pubescent girls as young as 11 or 12. STDs can be contracted by both boys and girls, which only compounds the horror. Child rape is one of the most egregious violations of the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It deeply damages families and family life. And of course it is against the law, and age of consent laws exist for very good reasons, as I hope I have explained.

But it gets worse. There is a dimension of the evil of child rape that bears special mention: as with young women, children can be and are enslaved and sold for sex throughout the world. It is estimated that perhaps hundreds of thousands of children—many young teens—are sold into sexual slavery, incorrectly described as "prostitution," every year in the U.S., and two million globally.

Child sex trafficking pedophiles: the wealthy Jeffrey Epstein and the famous Jimmy Savile.

The normalization of pedophilia, therefore, supports not only individual instances of child rape, but an entire $99 billion-per-year sex trafficking industry in the U.S. alone; compare the movie industry, which earned $43 billion in 2017. We are battling not just an individual crime, but organized crime. When we consider that men and women seek enslaved children to buy and sell for sex compounds what is already an unthinkable horror.

It gets even worse. There are multiple instances of child sex trafficking rings not just among the lower classes, but among the richest and most powerful eschelons as well. One needs only to investigate the cases of Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, the NXIVM cult, the DEN pedophile ring, and many more.

When I first drafted this essay, I thought pedophilia was mainly a criminal and moral issue. But I now understand it to be one of the most pressing civic issues of our age. It is crucial that we make no excuses for pedophilia. We must come to understand it for the horrific evil that it is.

One sometimes hears that the word "pedophilia" applies only to desire for sex with pre-pubescent children, and that sex with older children is better called "hebephilia" and "ephebophilia" depending on the age. One can draw this distinction, but narrowing the scope of the term has little moral import. That is precisely why the word "pedophilia" continues to be popularly used as a general term. It applies to the crime of sex with the too-young in general. Let us be quite clear. The moral horror can attach just as much—or nearly as much, anyway—to sex with teens as with small children. One ex-offender confessed, in response to this blog, to the profound damage that he had done to the life of a 16-year-old girl. Plenty of women bravely revealed the great harm done to them, when they were teen girls, by Jeffrey Epstein and his elite cadre of rapists. The suggestion that what happened to them is not bad enough to be tarred with the brush of "pedophilia" is beneath contempt.

Illustration by Winsor McCay: let us agree that sex trafficking is "the shame of civilization."


An evil mental disorder

Some writers demand that everyone use the words “pedophilia” and “pedophile” according to senses defined by psychiatrists. But, just as we may opt not to extend our everyday use of “fruit” to tomatoes, even though biologists tell us they are fruit, so we may opt to continue to use these words in their popular senses.

As a philosopher, i.e., someone trained in the definition of concepts and argumentation over how to apply words, I want to advise the opposite: you may and should continue to use these words as you always have, at least in most contexts. A pedophile, in this popular sense, is someone who sexually abuses children, or who tries to do so, or who wants to. To be clear, I am not saying that these ought to be the scientific or clinical uses of the terms. I am saying that the everyday use, which I am discussing here and which is catalogued in many dictionary definitions, need not mirror the clinical use.

The medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation, and the broader category is morally relevant, which is why it stays in currency.

But now let us discuss the clinical sense: the desire to have sex with children. This, too, is a moral evil.

Some will bristle at the mere claim that this "clinical condition" is evil. They act as if the fact that psychologists write about, and treat, pedophilia means that, since pedophilia is just a medical condition, it is off-limits for moral evaluation. This argument is so obviously fallacious that it actually serves better as a reductio of the premise; in other words, the medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation. Just because psychiatrists, who do whatever is necessary to eliminate a condition, adopt what sounds like a nonjudgmental stance, it hardly follows that we need do so as well.

After all, consider what we are talking about here: desiring and fantasizing about sex with children, also called child rape. The word for such thoughts is criminal ideation, as psychiatrists often speak of homicidal ideation.

Others will say that mere desires obviously cannot be morally evaluated. Among the people who write about this subject, it is a less popular stance to say the desire and not just the act is evil. But in fact most of us are perfectly willing to place the label "evil" on it. No polls are available, but doubtless a large majority would find pedophilic ideation to be "evil."

I do not, of course, present this as an argument for the claim that desire for sex with children is evil. But it does put into a sobering context the practice of some—which is frankly bizarre and disturbing—to treat pedophilia as merely a psychiatric disorder, as if it were not a very deeply serious problem for other people as well. Let us grant that pedophilia, in the sense of desire for sex with children, is indeed a psychiatric disorder; indeed, there seems nothing well-ordered about it. But most of us simply could not care in the slightest that it is a psychiatric disorder, i.e., we do not care that there is something wrong with the brains of pedophiles, except insofar as such people pose a threat to our children. Pedophilia as a disorder per se rightly strikes us as a threat, and such a monstrous threat that it is evil.

So, yes, well spotted, pedophilia is a disorder. But that is not incompatible with our condemning it as something quite evil, and not just a clinical condition like, say, high blood pressure. I do so condemn it, and so should we all.

Why are we talking about sympathy, again?

I do not mean to say I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for the psychological condition of a person who wakes up one day finding himself wanting to violate little boys and girls. It is, rather, that I prioritize the health of families and communities far above whatever pain an illicit desire might cause such a person. In fact, the priority of the former is so much greater that I can say that the only significant reason that most of us need care about the mental health of a pedophile is that, through caring, we might perhaps prevent child sexual abuse. There is no other important reason. It might well turn out in some cases that strong moral condemnation, rather than sympathy, would motivate pedophiles to rid themselves of their desire more effectively.

We may draw an analogy with people who want very badly to rape women. They fantasize about it, they watch rape porn, they might have come close at times. Some have actually done it, although others have never done it. Call such a person a rapeophile. That is a label we might place under an extreme form of a DSM-5 category, sexual sadism disorder. Now, if pedophilia is a mental disorder, I think it is safe to say that rapeophilia is one too. To be sure, being a rapeophile might cause a person great mental anguish; it certainly should. But in this situation, whom do I care more about: the rapeophile, or women who might possibly be in danger from the rapeophile? Obviously, the latter — even if the rapeophile has never acted on his desires. And rapeophilia constitutes criminal ideation, of course: would we not, in an age in which the Establishment fights against "rape culture," deem it to be profoundly evil?

Do we care about the violation of innocent children less than we care about the violation of grown women? Surely not.


How can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control?

But, some critics will say smugly, you are missing an obvious objection: how can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control? The short answer is that it is not entirely beyond a person’s control. But first I want to back up a bit.

As a philosophy instructor for many years, I taught undergraduates the common maxim that "ought implies can": if you ought to do something, you should be able to do it. That in turn means that one cannot be responsible if one has no ability to do something, if one lacks freedom; if we ought to do something then it must be the case that we are free to do it. How can we be obligated to do something that is not in our power?

When psychiatrists inform us that pedophilia is a mental disorder and when certain (I think quite contemptible) activists insist that pedophiles cannot control their desires, these claims are sometimes used draw the definitely false conclusion that pedophilia, in the psychiatric sense, is not bad.

So I deny the premise. I claim that pedophilia, or the desire to have sex with children, can be controlled.

Another mental disorder

Alcoholism too is a mental disorder and it can be controlled, albeit with great difficulty. That is why I maintain that alcoholism can be quite morally bad, in the following sense. (By the way, many recovering alcoholics agree wholeheartedly with me on this.) All acknowledge that alcoholism is an addiction, and I can concede that it exhibits features of a disease. But this does not absolve anyone caught in the grip of this addiction of any moral obligations. Few would object to the good advice that we should not allow ourselves to sink into that awful swamp in the first place, before the addiction gets that bad. Indeed, we bear a huge obligation to ourselves to avoid it, especially if others in our family were alcoholics. Even if we cannot easily stop ourselves from drinking once we are addicted, we can stop ourselves from overindulging if we are not addicted.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature. This is a profound feature of our lives as moral beings with free will.

Admittedly, once we are addicted, it becomes more understandable if we do not suddenly and heroically de-addict ourselves. Still, even then we bear a very heavy burden—and it is a moral burden, what else?—to lift ourselves out of addiction as well as we can, and, after the fact, we can still be blamed for allowing ourselves to become addicted. Perhaps we are less to be blamed if we are genetically predisposed to such addiction; but there are people with that genetic predisposition who never touch alcohol for that very reason. We have free will. As we exit addiction, we will bear this burden until the addiction no longer afflicts us. Then we will still bear the burden of not letting ourselves sink back into it. To deny these platitudes is to deny both common experience and the reality of free will.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature. This fact is a profound feature of our lives as moral beings with free will; it must not be passed over lightly, much less dismissed. It is entirely unrealistic—as well as cynical and corrupting—to deny the malleability of desire. After all, a great deal of morality and psychiatry both, as well as rehabilitation in criminal justice, are concerned with changing unwelcome desires. To treat desires and compulsions as unchangeable forces of nature is essentially to give up on moral improvement, psychiatric recovery, and criminal rehabilitation.

Universal experience teaches that intense desires rarely arrive full-blown in our heads. They creep in, as it were, experienced as mere possibilities. We consider them, perhaps briefly, musing. If something is quite taboo — for example, murder, incest, or uttering certain forbidden words and thoughts — then most of us will drop the idea immediately, and the desire has little chance to germinate.

Let us suppose there is a person who, for whatever reason, has unusually weak self-control. If this person finds himself with a desire, he has no filters to rein it in; it does not occurs to him that he should not reject it. Instead, he nurses his desire. He thinks about it. He considers and discusses with himself; he imagines; he plans, but without acting on the plans.

Suppose that person is a pedophile.

The pedophile then, finally, decides that he has a problem, that it might be wrong for him to have these desires. Is such a person not morally culpable, foolish at least if not actually evil, for allowing such desires to fester unchecked? Why would he not be? Think about any illicit or undesirable desire you might have had in the past — for cigarettes, too much porn, dessert, alcohol, drugs, game time, or whatever your vice might be. It can be hard to stop yourself from indulging in bad habits, especially if they are quite addictive. But do you not also remember when you developed those bad habits, and when you could have much more easily reined them in?

Why should the desire for sex with children be any different? Do not just claim that it is different; explain very carefully how and why it is different. It is not.

Someone might argue that I am comparing bad habits like overeating or drinking too much alcohol — and those are actions — with an undesirable desire, which a pedophile does not act on. If he or she never indulges the desire, why think the mere desire is bad?

The desire is horrific, because it might lead to a horrific action. Would we not also be horrified by a big man with poor self-control who confessed that he had recently started thinking, constantly, about raping women?

This is a fair question, but there is a clear answer. The thoughts are bad, of course, because people who lack the self-control to order their thoughts often lack the self-control to restrain the behavior that the desire would lead to. We do not leave children alone with people who confess that they have pedophilic desires, because desires might lead to action.

The desire is horrific, because it might lead to a horrific action. Would we not also be horrified by a big man with poor self-control who confessed that he had recently started thinking, constantly, about raping women? I certainly would be. And why? Because he might start actually acting on his thoughts. Should we ignore his desires because they are “just desires”?

This is the main reason, then, that pedophilia in the clinical sense is horrifically evil: it can, and sometimes does, lead to a horrifically evil action. It is idle and sophomoric to insist that, after all, it might not lead to that action. A person who lets such an evil desire fester and grow strong has for that very reason demonstrated a lack of self-control. The risk is significant, and it is a risk of a great evil.

Let me consider one final reply. What if someone claims to have this desire but that it is fully under control — that he would never rape a child, and would only ever fantasize. Putting aside worries about the risk, surely mere fantasizing hurts no one.

Well, no; it is not fantasizing per se that makes pedophilia so evil. It is, first and foremost, the risk. Anyone who is so out-of-control as to permit these feelings to fester in himself is a risk, so far as the rest of us know, no matter what he may say. And while the fantasizing considered just by itself (without regard to its consequences) might not hurt anyone, it certainly does increase the risk.

Pedophilic feelings have other ill effects. They can cause someone to go looking for child pornography, which creates a market for actual child rape. Even drawn child molestation can increase the chances of a desire for the real thing, thereby creating a market. After all, if a pedophile enjoys looking at drawn pictures of children being molested, surely he or she might get even more excitement from actual photographs.

It is also an undesirable desire because the pedophile must never act on it. It is, for that reason, in addition to be horrifically evil, also pointless.

Let me clarify one last point. In this section I have been arguing that pedophilia, considered simply as a desire for sex with children, is appallingly evil. But I am not saying that psychiatrists or clergy or others who are working directly with pedophiles should be highly judgmental. I have no opinion on that; I suppose psychiatrists should do whatever in their clinical experience reduces the disorder most efficiently and permanently, while remaining humane, of course.((It is interesting to me, in this connection, that a pedophile wrote a whiny reply to this essay, to which I wrote a scathing answer; he then responded by saying that this harsh judgment was exactly what he needed. Of course, this one case proves little in itself regarding a proper course of treatment.))


Sophistry

Stop the pedophilia apology

Online discussions of pedophilia should always clarify how evil child sexual abuse is. So, do they? All too often, they do not. The more typical narrative is that pedophilia is just a feeling, and feelings cannot be controlled, so non-offending pedophiles—"virtuous pedophiles," in their Orwellian self-description—are not bad. The horrors of abuse, and the fact that "just a feeling" can and too often does lead to abuse, are often not mentioned or quickly passed over. This popular narrative is not only wrong, for reasons I have already explained, it is also quite dangerous.

Even those who acknowledge that child rape is a great evil can unwittingly contribute to this problematic narrative, when they speak as if pedophilic desires were unalterable facts of nature. When a behavior seems to spring from a desire, maybe especially when it is a psychiatric diagnosis, modern commentators and even psychiatrists are in the unfortunate habit of treating the desire or diagnosis as a morally neutral medical condition for which the "patient" is not quite responsible.

To debunk this narrative, the services not of a doctor but of a philosopher are in order. There is a funny thing about free will: the more we believe that something is in our control, the more control we have over it. By contrast, the more we believe that something is out of our control, the less we will be inclined to do anything about it. It is as if a belief in free will gives us free will—more precisely, though, the belief in the thing gives us the willingness to exercise it. And inversely, abandonment of the belief in free will saps your motivation to act contrary to your present inclinations.

Therefore, I am afraid that those who characterize pedophilia as an unchangeable desire are contributing to the very problem of pedophilia. It would be like telling alcoholics that they are not responsible for becoming alcoholics and cannot ever free themselves of their hankering for alcohol, as if their compulsion were doomed to be as strong as it is at its strongest. If they believed that, then why would they even try to beat their addiction? If the rest of us believed that, why would we try to resist the slide into alcoholism in the first place? Just imagine saying something similar aloud to, again, those "rapeophiles": "It is a shame that you find yourself with a strong compulsion to rape women. But it is not your fault, because it's just a desire and desires are out of your control. Still, now that you have it, make sure you never act on it." We cannot imagine anyone with such a complacent attitude in the #MeToo age. Why countenance such an attitude toward those who desire to rape children? Again, are children less worthy of protection than women?

If your illicit desires are absolutely unalterable, you bear no responsibility for them—and then why fight them? This morally enfeebling message is repeated throughout those parts of our decadent culture that reject personal responsibility. Addicts everywhere hear and obey.

Heeding this message too,  many pedophiles regard their condition as just “another sexual orientation” that may be responsibly indulged (i.e., only in fantasy). One can find a sympathetic group for practically anything online, including pedophilia. I am sorry to report that pedophilia propagandists are online, active, and emboldened.

The logo of the "North American Man-Boy Love Association."

Propaganda produced by pedophiles—and on their behalf—is disturbing. Consider:

  • Media discussions of pedophilia are dominated by pleas that we should “understand” pedophiles first and foremost. Somehow, this will make children safer. Such articles rarely give much attention to the risk of abuse, and they of course never take the position that pedophilia is evil.
  • Establishment sources have tried, over the years, to normalize pedophilia via organizations. Everyone has heard of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA, which still exists and is actually online. NAMBLA's perhaps most famous member is its co-founder, the lauded poet Allen Ginsberg, and the organization was defended by the ACLU. Incredibly, such "activists" have argued for decades for “age of consent reform,” as if advocacy to abolish one of the most horrific crimes imaginable were somehow “progressive.” Other groups online include "Virtuous Pedophiles" and "Celibate Pedophiles," who make it their business to defend non-offending pedophiles online. Pedophiles merely have another "sexual orientation”—a position that has been discussed in at least one college course.
  • There are aggressive demands of tolerance of drawn depictions of child molestation , which are  created by and for pedophiles , because it is a “victimless crime." Never mind that what is depicted is, for all decent people, one of the most heinous of crimes, worse than ordinary rape because it is the rape of children. Never mind that the consumers of such depictions are pedophiles derive great pleasure from fantasies of committing this crime, and that they must restrain themselves from that crime. Wikipedia documents in remarkable detail the state of the law on this in various places in the world.((I reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI over such illustrations in 2010, and many people on the group blog Slashdot, for example, roundly condemned my position.))
  • Then there is the tone. The tone taken is always high-minded, as if the defenders of pedophiles were better and smarter than you and I. Writers condescendingly chide society for failing to consider that non-offending, long-suffering pedophiles really are a thing. One German program treats pedophiles as "victims, not offenders." They seem to sneer that we are ignorant of the science, due to our hatred of what is a deep moral evil and societal cancer; the implication is that pedophilia a matter of clinical study and treatment, never moral evaluation, which would be somehow unscientific and reactionary. (Of course, my response to this is to laugh in disdain at this tone-deaf propaganda.)

Such propaganda seeks to normalize pedophilia.

If there is one reason that we as as society should insist that pedophilia constitutes criminal ideation as well as a disorder, and that it is horrifically evil, it is that we must take a firm stand against those who would, quite deliberately, try to normalize it. If it is normalized, this state of affairs will embolden all too many of the weak and the malevolent to indulge their desires. Indeed, to the extent that it has already been normalized, the weak and malevolent have already indulged their desires—and they do so with devastating frequency.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

Perhaps, indeed, we do have less to fear from those who are strong-willed enough not to act on their desires. That is all very well, but no one is going to admit to being weak-willed, and malevolence always wears a mask of lies—criminal pedophiles are no different on this score. Faced with criminal charges, most offending pedophiles will pretend to be "virtuous." For all their talk of virtuous pedophilia, many of the activists and activist scientists writing on this subject seem curiously reluctant mention of vicious pedophiles. In this regard they strike me as being, ironically, both unrealistic and irrational. A more realistic and rational view acknowledges that the world is filled with weak and malevolent people who only too readily indulge their desires when the opportunity arises, and indeed who go out of their way to give themselves opportunities.

There is no social or individual benefit to be gained from normalizing pedophilia. If there is one thing that deserves to remain taboo, it is this. Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

- fin -

One personification of evil


Note: what follows are some replies I made to some real-life pedophiles, who commented on the Medium copy of the above article. I'm not including the pedophiles' replies because I did not save copies of what they wrote when I left Medium.

Reply #1

This is a reply to a teenage self-confessed pedophile who said he'd never acted on his feelings and that I was very mean for lacking empathy for his plight.

I’m writing so that unformed minds, who might be confused by the likes of you, won’t be. I have absolutely no desire to have “empathy” for pedophiles, any more than I want to have empathy for rapists. Frankly, I think child molestation is considerably worse than rape of adults; it is a truly horrific crime. “Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons” is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than “Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.” The only reason to empathize with such a person’s pedophilia is to prevent crime; and the way that crime might be prevented by empathy is not by making the criminal (or would-be criminal) feel better about their criminal ideation but by coming to understand their patterns, motivations, and other things that allow us to (a) catch and punish criminals and (b) aggressively prevent actual child abuse.

If any teen of mine confessed to being sexually attracted to little children, I would (a) explain in great detail why pedophilia is not just a little bit wrong, but horrifically evil (and probably make them read the essay I wrote, and demonstrate excellent understanding of it) and (b) immediately seek professional help from a therapist who agreed with me that pedophilic desires must be treated as criminal ideation, with a goal of eliminating them as much as possible.

It’s silly and absurd to be accused of having a “look-how-morally-upstanding-I-am” tone as I patiently explain how evil pedophilia is. I have also carefully and patiently explained why murder is wrong, and nobody accused me of being self-righteous. That’s because normal people don’t think they’re particularly great because they don’t commit crime. For normal people, that’s just the baseline.

But I will, of course, show no compunctions about telling pedophiles directly and without regret that you are not just “sick,” but deeply morally corrupt, and I don’t mean a little bit or in a hip and edgy way (like, e.g., drug abuse seems to some people), but in a straightforward your-heart-is-black way. Pedophiles are evil. They don’t need empathy. They need therapy in the way that muggers could use rehabilitation — not because we feel sorry for the pedophiles (or muggers), but because society desperately needs them to refrain from their evil behavior. And the notion that pedophilia is a sexual orientation that needs to be normalized is horrifying and beyond obscene.


Reply #2

This is a reply to someone describing himself as a European graduate student in the humanities, who thought he was being clever by making sophistical replies to the arguments in my essay. These are my rebuttals.

Matt, as you are speaking as a pedophilia apologist, and as you are speaking to someone who believes pedophilia (in both senses defined in my original essay) is evil, you have no credibility or authority. So when you adopt a tone of condescension, you merely come across as ridiculous. I’m still laughing at you; you deserve derision and contempt. And this is why I’m not going to reply to your stupid attempts at zingers; they just make you look creepier.

Here are a few replies:

I wrote: “ 'Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons' is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than 'Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.”

You responded, irrelevantly: “Exactly how is it not legitimate? Are you suggesting that it is impossible for a pedophile to control their actions? You’ve already argued that they can in your previous article.”

“Rapeophilia” — defined, say, as the exclusive or predominant desire to rape women — is about as legitimate as pedophilia, defined similarly but with regard to children. So imagine someone came up with “Non-Offending Rape Attracted Persons,” or NORAP, and said the various sorts of things about their desire to rape women that you say with regard to attraction to children. They just need help; they shouldn’t be ostracized; they should be “understood”; don’t judge them as a potential rapists because most of them don’t rape; etc. Well, it’s pretty damn obvious that saying these things in defense of a fictional NORAP category is no different from saying similar things in defense of NOMAPs (i.e., pedophiles). Considering that defense of rapeophilia is utterly illegitimate, we can also say that defense of pedophilia is utterly illegitimate.

Now, I’m glad that you at least pay lip service to the notion that pedophiles can control themselves. But I say more than that they can stop themselves from raping children. I say, furthermore, that they bear a heavy burden to deny and rid themselves of their desire to rape children, which they should have denied and repressed the moment it appeared. Instead, they went with it. It is playing with fire to indulge potential criminals by saying that their desire to rape children is a “sexual orientation” on a par with heterosexuality or homosexuality, by saying that there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing, etc. Imagine a group of people, the worst of whom are regular rapists, who say, “There’s nothing morally wrong with people who can only get off on rape fantasies. They can’t control themselves. We should understand them. Some women actually secretly want to be raped, you know — but of course, we believe rape is very, very wrong. (Except, of course, for the people who think it’s just fine, right?)”

You’re not even nearly as clever as you think you are. You’re an idiot. Your bias in favor of people who commit horrific crimes has made you unable to understand basic reasoning. I don’t have many opinions about the best way to rehabilitate pedophiles. I know I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t generally opine about such things. But I do have an opinion about social mores: it should never be an acceptable part of society to encourage adults to accept within themselves their attraction to children. That is, and should remain, one of the strongest taboos we live by. I don’t know or particularly care what therapists say to pedophiles in their therapy sessions.

I also have an opinion about the goal of therapy is the same as the goal of therapy with rapists or alcoholics or drug addicts: to rid themselves of the desire. In this regard, it’s very, very different than the goal of therapy for homosexuals. Most people think we shouldn’t try to “cure” homosexuals; I’m one who thinks we shouldn’t. In that regard, homosexuality can be regarded as a sexual orientation whereas pedophilia and rapeophilia cannot. Similarly, wine tasting and being a whisky connoisseur can be regarded as more or less healthy pastimes; alcoholism isn’t, and alcoholics bear the heavy burden to rid themselves of their compulsion.


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.