Trolley Problem Updated (again)

Most people will not drown a passing stranger if terrorists tell them that the alternative is that they will kill five innocent people. They will not push a fat man off a bridge in order to save five other lives. There is a good reason for this, and it is that the prohibition on murdering innocent people is the most fundamental of all moral rules. Once that is removed, then that is the end of people living together. And yet, the majority of people think it is OK to pull a lever that means the death of an innocent person, in order to save five others – though they will not drown or push that one innocent person. This contradiction then has morally nihilistic implications – namely it suggests that morality makes no sense and moral intuitions are not just unreliable, but irrational.

Previously, I had suggested that the lever acted like a magical talisman that distorts our moral intuitions, putting enough emotional distance between us and the impact and significance of taking an innocent life, much as Dresden was bombed with incendiary bombs dropped from thousands of feet up in the air that roasted people alive. There is a good chance that the occupants of that same plane would be loath to push someone into an oven, lock the door, and then turn the temperature up and listen to them scream as they baked to death, even though the result is identical and just as painful either way. Continue reading

Clare Graves, Spiral Dynamics, and the Purple/Blue Hybrid


The pathological version of Green thinking flattens Clare Grave’s hierarchy of moral development because it rejects the notion of superior and inferior. Strangely enough, the tendency has been to reject all of Western civilization as though leaving the caves and the savannah were terrible mistakes, and that we would be better off without such amazing cultural contributions as those of Homer, Plato, and Shakespeare.. This connects to Rousseau’s fantasy that life in “the state of nature” was a paradise. If you read Discourse on Inequality (notice the title) it is clear that “the state of nature” never existed. Rousseau imagines a completely solitary man wandering through the forest, lying down to sleep when he is tired, drinking from the river when thirsty, and helping himself to fruit from trees when he is hungry. There is no notion of parents, or family. Women get pregnant from chance and random encounters in the forest, and no one ever makes the connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Rousseau, in real life, impregnated his housekeeper multiple times and immediately sent the children to orphanages where they died. He commented that he had no interest in his housekeeper as a person and that she served merely to relieve him of sexual frustration. He obviously had no interest in his children either. Arguably, Rousseau’s attitude towards romantic love, sex, and children has become rather popular – with some people seeing children as nothing but a nuisance and a misery to be got rid of through abortion or birth control – and sex as impersonal and unrelated to love. Continue reading

Logos Free Zone

A universe with no God can be expected to be random, chaotic, and meaningless. The fact that there even is a universe, is of course a problem for the atheist. Why is there something rather than nothing? Is the slightly odd query. In the Godless universe, Darwin is king. There is even an oratorio for Darwin, a musical form normally reserved for Christ and saints. The religious impulse pops up in another guise. Natural selection and, the later developed concept, of random mutation is supposed to drive organismic life – with the impossible miracle happening; order coming out of chaos, still with no Logos in sight. So, with neo-Darwinism, the random and chaotic, nonetheless has an apparent telos. If organisms exist, the very least they could do in this supposedly chaotic universe, would be to be some monstrous pulsating blob of slime churning between grotesque structures, rather than being frequently rather beautiful and even graceful. Continue reading

Reflections on moral and cultural relativism

KittenPaul Johnson, in his A History of Christianity, wrote that when Catholics were in power in Europe, the Protestants promoted and asked for tolerance, and when Protestants were in ascendance, then Catholics pleaded for tolerance. This dynamic is likely to appear in any power dynamic of that kind.

Moral subjectivism and cultural relativism were explicitly introduced to US elementary and high school students at least since the 1980s. Both concepts are nihilistic and destructive. Moral subjectivism asserts that morality is whatever anyone claims it is and that no one is right or wrong, per se. It is whatever you “feel.” This aligns with the distinctively American manner of speech where the speaker says “I feel that…” New Zealanders of my generation would instead say “I think that…” having not got so advanced in the therapeutic mindset at the time. If morality is whatever anyone says it is, then it is nothing. And, if cultures are immune from criticism the outside, then they are also worth ignoring, as Allan Bloom pointed out. Why learn about a culture if one is forbidden to evaluate it in any way? Continue reading

Moral Relativism and Realism

Moral relativists, also known as moral “subjectivists,” believe that all moral perspectives are equal. Thus, we should be tolerant of Madonnaother people’s moral views even when they disagree with us. Since all moral perspectives are equal it is wrong to rank moral perspectives as better and worse. All value judgments involve ranking attitudes, actions, feelings, perspectives, etc., as better and worse, more and less valuable.

The first problem with moral relativism is that it is self-contradictory and is therefore false. In the very act of asserting the truth of moral relativism you are denying the truth of this assertion.

  • First, if all moral perspectives are equal, then moral relativism, being a moral perspective, is no better than the alternatives. If you believe moral relativism is true and therefore the best moral position, then you are committed to saying that it is no better than any other theories because all moral perspectives are equal. You cannot advocate moral relativism without contradicting the assertion of moral relativism that all moral perspectives are equal.
  • Secondly, moral relativism claims that all moral perspectives are equal, therefore, it is wrong to rank one moral theory as superior to another. In other words, not to rank is better and superior to ranking. But this means you are ranking not ranking as better than ranking, which is ranking. The more you hate ranking, the more you are committed to saying that ranking is morally wrong and involves making a moral mistake, the more you rank; ranking not ranking as better than ranking. Thus, ranking is unavoidable and you are back to having to decide which moral perspectives are better than others.
  • Thirdly, if you a moral relativist because you are in favor of tolerance, then you rank tolerance as superior to intolerance, thereby contradicting your position.

Continue reading

Dear Class

Socrates, the teacher of Plato, was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest person. Socrates was baffled by this because he knew that he knew barely anything – he actually said that he knew nothing, which was a slight exaggeration – though it became a useful pretense when dealing with arrogant know-it-alls. Then he realized that this was precisely what made him wiser than other people. He knew that he knew nothing, while they thought they knew a lot. Thinking you know a lot makes you incapable of becoming educated because why would you search for answers or listen to anyone else if you already knew them all!? So, Socrates made it his life mission to convince famous, successful, and powerful Greeks that in fact they knew nothing – so that they could become “life-long learners” like him. He did this in public to ensure the lesson could not be denied or ignored, and so his audience too could learn something in the process. These dialogs he had with famous judges about the nature of justice, and generals about the nature of courage, demonstrating their cluelessness, earned him the undying hatred of the rich and powerful who had no interest in wisdom, but only in their reputations which had now been destroyed. They got their revenge by sentencing him to death for “corrupting the youth” by all this querulousness.

There are prodigies in music. There prodigies in mathematics. But there are no prodigies in ethics and philosophy. Nobody at all goes to a twelve-year-old and says “My wife and I are thinking of getting divorced. What do you think?” Thus, it is impossible to be very advanced in philosophy at the age of twenty. People simply have not had enough life experience to test the truth of what they have read, heard, and thought, about topics like ethics. Twenty-year-olds have typically just left home, are still trying to find their way in the world and have no idea yet how anything works, but they often want to put a brave face on it and pretend like they have a clue what is going on. This stance is counterproductive in the classroom. Better to acknowledge that you know nothing. Continue reading

Cultural Relativism

The argument for cultural relativism is this:

  1. All moral principles and rules apply only to the culture, time and place from which they arise. There are no universally true moral rules that apply to all cultures, at all times and all places.
  2. Therefore, it is always morally wrong to criticize another culture; regardless of time, place or culture.

Criticizing one culture while inhabiting another presupposes moral truths that transcend any particular culture, time or place and no such truths exist, claims the cultural relativist.

The premise is factually wrong

The cultural relativist does not actually care about the premise of this argument; which as an empirical (factual) claim, is probably false. Every culture that has lasted for any length of time will have a general prohibition on murder and lying. Thus, there are universally true moral rules applying to all cultures. To lift all restrictions on murder would mean instant self-annihilation. Not constraining lying would be a slower cultural suicide, but by eliminating any possibility of trust, it would have the same result. Friends, family, lovers, workmates, would all lie to each other. Families would fall apart and the economy would cease to function. So, the premise is wrong, which means it cannot be used to provide evidence of the truth of conclusion. Continue reading

How to Approach a Philosophy Class

This was written in lieu of an in-person introduction in the times of Covid-19


Philosophy is very much a rational exercise in pursuit of truth. The word “philosophy” is a combination of two words: “philia” – “friend,” “love of,” or “fond of” something and “sophia” which means “wisdom.” So “philosophy” means lover or friend of wisdom. Wisdom is not the same thing as being clever or intelligent. It implies that someone has wise things to say about what matters most in life and lives according to those insights. Wisdom does not mean knowing lots of “information.” “Information” is something available in Wikipedia pages and Wikipedia pages are not “wise.”

Originally, the love of wisdom included all kinds of knowledge and a good philosopher should take an interest in a broad range of subjects. However, these days modern science covers most factual matters discernible through measurement. The word “scientist” has only existed for 200 years. Before that scientists were called “natural philosophers.”  What is left to philosophy are all the most important parts of human life. These are all the things that cannot be measured and thus about which science is silent. They include all the invisible things like value, meaning, purpose, friendship, love, morality, emotion, consciousness and beauty – both inner and outer. Physical beauty is one thing that is actually visible but it cannot be measured and, oftentimes, is just an introduction and lure for more important things. If someone does not find the good and the true beautiful, he will not pursue them.

Every human being is implicitly faced with philosophical questions – the most fundamental, perhaps, being “Why get out of bed in the morning? Why not just lie here until dehydration terminates my existence? Life can be an awful hassle and a bore – why bother?”  Philosophy is the study of what some of the most intelligent and wise people have had to say on that topic.  Philosophical questions are by their nature controversial. A controversial assertion is one about which there is large scale disagreement. Thus, philosophy is not a series of facts to be memorized like some beginning science class.

Rationally, no one should believe a controversial assertion without good evidence being supplied in the form of reasons. And because philosophy can become very unclear and also very abstract, it is important to provide examples of what you claim.  If someone says “fluoride is good for your teeth” no reasons; no evidence, is necessary because almost everyone already knows this. But if he says “atheism and moral realism are not compatible” then reasons will need to be provided before any rational person should believe the assertion.

Reasons given in support of an assertion is called an “argument” in philosophy. In colloquial English an argument means a disagreement where two people contradict each other. In philosophy, it is at least one premise (a reason or evidence) and a conclusion (an assertion.)  The most important thing in philosophy quizzes, exams and classroom lectures and discussions are reasons. Since the conclusions of philosophy will be controversial, it is always necessary to back them up with reasons and examples.  Philosophy has to look outside itself for its subject matter. Its subject matter will include life experience, scientific findings, novels, and religious experience. Philosophy is very much about analysis but it needs something to analyze. It does not supply its own subject matter.

As soon as anyone starts writing about beauty, morality, or God, he is inherently engaging in philosophy. Those are areas in philosophy called aesthetics, ethics, and theology or philosophy of religion. There are some scientists who hate philosophy and want to get rid of it, Stephen Hawking, for instance, but this is a controversial view, and they need to supply reasons why philosophy should be abandoned, and when they do that, they are doing (bad) philosophy. It takes a philosopher to attack philosophy well. In fact, some of the most interesting philosophers have discussed the limits of philosophy, which is a somewhat related idea. Plato was very interested in that, and often modestly expressed humility about what he thought he could possibly understand or explain.

When it comes to reasons, there are two rules: reasons must be true and they must be relevant. Having true and relevant reasons for decisions does not guarantee that an assertion is true, but it makes it more likely that it is right. It is better than having no good reason for beliefs and decisions about how to live.  Being rational can be compared to being the “house” in a casino. It is highly irrational to go to a casino unless you like to lose money because the “house” will always win in the long term. The odds are in favor of the house 52/48. That 4% difference is enough to mean that in the long run, the casino will win and the gamblers will lose. Casinos care not at all if some person wins and beats the odds partly because they put limits on the size of the biggest bets. Being the house is a winning proposition. Likewise, being rational does not mean that every decision that is made will be the right one, but it is likely to swing the odds in your favor in the long term. Hopefully, you will do far better than chance – merely flipping a coin every time an important life event comes along.

Very few positive truths can be known with certainty. However, it is possible to know negative truths, namely, contradictions are never true. If someone catches you in a contradiction then you are wrong. If you say “People should do whatever they want.” And someone asks “What if people want to kill puppies for fun?” Then you should reply “Well, not that of course.” That means your original assertion must be false and you will have to withdraw it. That is called a “reductio ad absurdum” argument. You are showing that one belief “people should do whatever they want” is in conflict with your other belief “people should not murder puppies for fun.” Thus, they cannot both be true. You will have to withdraw your assent from one of them. Hopefully, the second assertion! This kind of argument fails if someone just bites the bullet and says “Right then – killing puppies for fun is just fine!” But whatever you do, according to the rules of rationality and thus philosophy, you cannot maintain both assertions. It is necessary to choose between permitting all actions and forbidding the murder of puppies.

Since philosophy is about being wise and not about being clever, it is extremely important that a philosopher lives by his philosophy, or at least tries to. If a philosophy professor says that he believes in determinism and that no one has free will, and then he gets very angry at the behavior of other people then that professor is a hypocrite and a liar, unless he admits that his anger is irrational and gets angry at himself instead!

There is no point at all in studying philosophy if you have no intention of putting any of it into practice. At most you will become a smart aleck who enjoys winning arguments and making people feel foolish, but you will not qualify as a lover of wisdom.

Philosophers learn to be careful with their words. Do not say “everyone likes the Beatles” when what you mean is “many many people like the Beatles.” First, it is not true that everyone likes the Beatles. Plus, it is extremely easy to prove such extreme claims are wrong because only a single example is necessary to do so. So do not say “everyone” unless you enjoy being wrong; unless you are really sure that is right.

Exactly what philosophy is, is itself a philosophical question, so expect some variation between philosophy professors and philosophy classes. Nearly all of us, however, will emphasize the importance of arguments and the law of non-contradiction. Some professors abhor “vagueness” and want rigid definitions for everything, while others of us think there are plenty of things like “beauty” for instance, that obviously exist, are resolutely important, but admit of no nice, clear definition. In this particular class, you are taking a professor of the latter sort! In fact, one philosopher wrote that philosophy begins with an intuition of the divine, and then the attempt to figure out the implications of that. That was certainly true of the most famous philosopher of them all that in many respects got the ball rolling; Plato. Alfred North Whitehead wrote that Western philosophy is largely footnotes to Plato.

It should be added that some of the best philosophy can be found in fiction and myth. Dostoevsky, for instance, is overtly philosophical, and can turn narrative into evidence for various philosophical ideas. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles is a notably rich source of philosophical speculation. Writing novels is, in some ways, harder than straight philosophy because a philosopher merely describes, discusses, and theorizes, while a novelist has to prove what he is saying using believable characters and plots. It is one thing to say – “people act in such and such a way” and it is another to prove it by showing imaginary people acting in plausible ways driven by character and circumstance.

Why Insider Trading is Unavoidable

The insider trader acts on his special knowledge of the new likely price of stocks. Should he be morally or legally compelled to communicate what he knows to prospective buyers or sellers? No. It would not be possible.


One of Nassim Taleb’s key concepts is “skin in the game:” having something concrete to lose should things go wrong. A general who leads his army from the front has skin in the game, as did the invaders of Spain who burned their ships, putting the sea at their backs and making retreat impossible. Socrates and Jesus had skin in the game. Skin in the game means exposing oneself to the downside of being wrong. Talking heads on the news have no skin in the game, nor do academics, nor do commission-driven stock brokers who have only upside.

One of the few references to insider trading that Taleb makes is simply the dictum to pay more attention to actions than words – always good advice. The claim that those defending insider trading make is that insider trading “informs the markets” of facts relevant to the value of stocks. It is not about the “true” value of the stocks, since the price of anything is determined by supply and demand. But they are facts that will probably affect the price nevertheless. Continue reading

Taleb and Business Ethics

Nassim Nicholas Taleb first rose to fame with his 2007 book Black Swan, the title of which refers to rare Black swan 1events. Northern hemisphere inhabitants took the whiteness of swans as a key defining feature of them, only to discover that New Zealand and Australia are home to black swans – a thoroughly unexpected and unpredicted eventuality. Black Swan outlines many of the ways our modes of thinking simply break down and fail when it comes to rare events – in attempting to predict them, in efforts to explain them after the fact, and finally, in trying to plan for them in the future in order to mitigate their worst affects.

Taleb has made a lot of his money by noticing when markets are fragile and betting against them. He became financially independent – meaning he made enough money to live on for the rest of his life – due to the market crash in 1987. He also made money from the drop in the Nasdaq in 2000, and he was one of the few people warning of the likelihood of the real estate crash in 2008, a black swan (there had never been such a crash before), and made money by shorting the market (betting against it). All this has added to his general credibility and gave credence to his criticisms of the financial world’s failings on the topic of risk. Continue reading