Metaethics – Foundations of Morality

Hi Ethic Nutters,

Crashcourse is a great resource for those getting into ethics. I wish I had these when I was in first year.

Of the many available I wanted to share the Metaethics video. See below.



A WEe Conflict of Interest

As many Canadians have become aware in the past week, Prime Minister Justine Trudeau is currently under investigation for a possible conflict of interest in awarding an extraordinarily lucrative contact to a not-for-profit that in the past has paid substantial amounts of speaker fees to both his mother and brother. The PM Trudeau for reasons that are still a mystery did not recuse himself of the decision in awarding a whopping $912 million dollar contract to the WE charity.

Conflicts of interest are commonplace in all countries. The need for businesses both profitable and not-for-profit to have decisions made in their favour pressures those with authority in these organizations, to exert influence upon those making the decisions that affect them. It is a fundamental human behaviour and one which can only be managed through objective oversight.

The influencing of politicians to go along with a vote in parliament, or typically awarding government projects to friends who have paid for campaigns is as old as perhaps government and politics itself. When the WE charity paid for PM Trudeau’s mother to speak at their events, it was certainly not intended so that this essentially pandemic project would be awarded to them. There was no intention on their part for this and given their role it would be difficult to say that a large government contract was their motivation. In this way, it was not akin to what some private sector actors are known to do in providing payments to family and friends for the right decisions. Nevertheless, the fact that PM Trudeau’s very own mother benefited greatly can be said to influence a decision to the extent were recusing yourself is warranted. Whereas the WE charity never hired the mother of PM Trudeau so that this pandemic related contract would be awarded, there was sufficient influence to sway a decision. Is the WE charity the best organization for the role that it has been given? Certainly. This decision, however, should have been made by far more objective government staffers. That they would have made the same decision does not mean the act of recusing oneself should not have been done.

The topic of influencing politicians is an interesting one and the influencing certainly does not go in one direction. Some international political thinkers have posted about whether there is a difference between paying $20 to each villager for a vote in the “developing world”, to the promise of thousands in tax benefits for a vote in the “developed world”. Hard to see a practical difference. A union boss may after a night out or the typical side benefits, some tangible some not, may offer to push for support to a union several thousand members strong. The other side is equally as susceptible to coercion, whether it is a large annual donation, gifts, nights out, those influencing politicians offer then what they subsist on, votes or the means to get them. Donations and gifts turn into the opportunity to speak with the politician and that can translate into real action and tangible outcomes. The game is so dirty Henry Kissinger once said: “Ninety percent of politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation”. A soft bit of realpolitik.

There is also the matter of foreign influence when a foreign entity exerts influence on a sovereign government for much of the same reasons as companies do locally. The same methods are used, direct payments, non-monetary favours, or indirect benefits such as a gift to a loved one who then passes on a strong suggestion to their child the politician. The widespread practice indicates it is effective or it would not be continued. Foreign influence, unlike standard corruption, has really nothing which stops a visit home overseas becoming an initiation into benefits for sharing information, or for favourable decisions. Nothing is out of reach so long as the person can keep their silence up.

Brain Creates Religion

Hello Ethic Nutters,

Recently found a philosopher by the name of Lionel Tiger who has several video’s on Youtube where he expresses his thoughts on the brain and its role in creating religion and idea’s such as God. Really interesting stuff for the summertime.


The Brain Creates Religion 

Can Animals Be Religious

The World Is Becoming “More Dangerously Religious”

This is some interesting watching. Clearly, some of this is up for debate with more than one side having good arguments. Hope you enjoy this little bit of education.



Morality without Religion

Hi Ethic Nutters,

While some people consider Morality and Religion as one and the same, others see them as separate.

Here is a great short video on the above: Frans de Waal – Morality without Religion



Imposing Values and Ideas: When and Why – An Armchair Ethics Post

The idea or desire to have everyone behave and act as you do is common and an underlying part of the human elements that make up who we are and how we interact. It is far easier to understand someone if they are “just like you” rather than something that is other or different. There is little effort needed to understand what motivates the person, what their needs and wants are, and what they are striving for in this life. Often today and especially more pronounced in the past, there has been an understanding that we should try and teach others to be more like us. To become “smarter” and behave the way we do which was seen as the best way to live and most advanced. Slowly in the late 20th century and into the 21st this idea that we should impose our values upon others to better them, has lost some prominence in the way people and nations interact. Now, common thinking is to learn about the other person and engage in a manner that values their unique identity.

At the same time as we can appreciate the other person or government as unique and from which lessons can be drawn, there are other times when the difference cannot be accepted. This is due to objective harms both major and minor that are caused by a particular behaviour, value, or idea. On the individual level, these behaviours can range from a generally rude and surly individual who puts down people that he comes across, to a husband who physically abuses his wife and bullies her into submission and servitude. At the national level, values and ideas that cannot be accepted are widely recognized as those which go against our fundamental human rights, cause harm to innocent citizens, and causes deadly international conflict.

With both a strong idea to allow for individuality and sovereignty and yet a desire to avoid harm and protect people from harm regardless of location, the question arises when can we impose our values and ideas on what is right and just. Knowing that such imposition requires justification, the reasons for why there can be this imposing upon another person should also be known. In the few paragraphs that follow, the example of an individual citizen will be used to explore what should be taken as a first approach when thinking of imposing values and ideas, the reasons for going beyond that first approach, and why it may be needed.

An example for the purposes of this discussion is the following:

Jeremy is a church fairing catholic who very much lives up to the teaching of the church and is steadfast that the word of God is the truth. Knowing the importance of the word of God, he believes it is his mission to spread the teachings to everyone he meets so that as many people can be saved as possible and the greatest good can be achieved. The values and ideas of the church are a part of his identity which he profoundly believes is the right path in life.

Ken is a transitioned man who was kicked out of his household at a young age for his differences in values and ideas from his typical nuclear family that while did not go to church, followed standard Anglo-Saxon values and beliefs. Ken is open to differing opinions, values, and ideas, and started as a hobby a small Not-for-Profit to raise awareness of the barriers and struggle for those in his community. His main job is for the same insurance company as Jeremy and in the same office space. The values and ideas of the LGBTQ2+ are a part of his identity which he profoundly believes should be respected as a fundamental human right.

Jeremy and Ken are both top performers at their jobs. While Ken is apprehensive or Jeremy knowing he follows strictly the teachings of the church, there have been no disagreements and office life has been normal. After a church sermon that asks the congregation to try and save through the teachings of God someone you know, Jeremy asks to meet with Ken after work to talk. When Jeremy and Ken meet, Jeremy has the intention of trying to impose his values and ideas onto Ken. Knowing Jeremy, Ken figures that the point of the talk is to try and convert him, and intends to respond by attempting to impose his values and ideas onto Jeremy.

The first question for discussion is what either intends to do plainly wrong? The concept of negative freedom might lead one to say that it is wrong. Under negative freedom, we are free from others inhibitions on our free will. Jeremy would be attempting to impose his values and ideas onto Ken in a way that would constrain Ken’s way of life. It would also be true, however, that Ken’s attempt to impose his values and ideas onto Jeremy could be seen as inhibiting Jeremy’s free will. Is this taking it too far though? Can we not suggest to other people, perhaps not impose, but suggest and argue for a change in values? Much in the same was as one political party staffer might try and persuade a supporter of the opponent. It seems intuitive that it can be attempted and that this is part of our human nature. Perhaps we can say the discussion itself is not plainly wrong, but at what point should it stop? At what point has it actually constrained an individual’s free will.

When thinking of negative freedoms it cannot be said that merely the attempt to change a person’s values and ideas, and therefore, their way of life, is constraining their free will. It actually must be the case that the imposition was effective and has changed the values and ideas and the person’s free will. There is quite a long way from the discussion to actual realization. In a free society, the imposition should stop when the individual makes it clear no change in values and ideas is desired. This upholds their freedoms. Perhaps, Jeremy makes it clear to Ken that he will not change his Sunday routine of going to church and following its tenants. If Jeremey has his freedom, Ken should not take further action to change the values and ideas of Jeremy. Similarly, if Ken is steadfast with his values and ideas, upon letting it known no change will be made, attempts to do so should be stopped. No measure beyond persuasion through dialogue can rightly be justified and indeed dialogue should be ceased in order to be respectful of the other’s decision.

We each clearly have freedoms from others constraining our free will and what we hold as our values and ideas. Is there, however, times when going beyond just dialogue is justified. Can we say that although the individual wants the imposition to stop, it must continue until there is a change? Arguably it is when there is a known risk of physical or significant emotional harm. If either Jeremy or Ken held values or beliefs that would cause physical or significant emotional harm, it could be said that imposition of values and idea which do not cause those harms can be justified. Since neither Ken nor Jeremy holds values or beliefs that meet that criteria, both should be said to be allowed to live freely from someone imposing their values and ideas onto them. What if, however, there was an individual who if left to their free will, would cause harm to others? Then it would be permissible to impose values and ideas onto them to eliminate those harms.

There are several important necessities in life. At the top is freedom from harm. If there is only one reason why you can impose a change in the values and ideas of another person, the reason to be free from harm must be taken as absolute. If someone’s values and ideas may directly, and arguably even indirectly, cause harm, there is the right to change as best possible those values and ideas that would cause harm. If we think freedoms can be ranked, and perhaps not everyone does, but if we can, then freedom from harm must trump freedoms of belief and the values and ideas that accompany. A belief that causes harm should not be given freedom to propagate. Freedom from harm is a shared necessity as social animals. Those necessary benefits of security and freedom from harm, extend far beyond an individual, to neighborhood, city, country, region, and globally.

Freedom from harm, both physical and significant emotional harm, is such a core human right that all measures to be free from harm can be rightly seen as justified. Those measures include, as a base level, imposing values and ideas which would reduce future harm.

Throwing a person in front of a Trolley: When it’s Right and Why – An Armchair Ethics Post

Would you kill one person to save a group? Sounds like the worst choice anyone would ever have to make. How can you weigh one person’s life against another or multiple lives? Are all lives weighted in value equally? Are some people more worth saving than others, worth more than another person’s life? A commonly referenced moral dilemma that is used to explore this question is the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem is the following. Imagine yourself standing beside tracks with a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up people lying on the track. There is also a single person lying on a side track and you are close enough to the lever to change the direction of the trolley so that the five lives are saved and only the single person is killed. The standard question asked to students are:

Do you do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the track? or

Do you pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track with only the one individual?

In some examples, the person must actually be thrown in front of the trolley from an overpass. How do we make that decision? There are a number of factors that need to be considered and it should be noted that not all ethical theories come to the same conclusion. For those familiar with Utilitarianism, one of the leading ethical theories today, the answer to this dilemma may seem fairly simple.

Under Utilitarianism, every rational agent must seek to maximize utility. Bring about the greatest good. Utility being often taken to mean happiness and pleasure. Through our actions, the happiness and pleasure that is generated, which is part of the outcome, is measured as utility. For example, if I spend time feeding the homeless, a consequence of that is that more people are happy, there is a greater good generated, and there is a lot of utility. On the other hand, if I spend time feeding myself, a consequence is that I am happy, there is a greater good generated, but there is not too much utility. Feeding many homeless versus myself generates more good. Within this logic, it is very clear that we should save many people over just one. The good that is generated from multiple people outweighs the good generated for just the one person. But under Utilitarianism, we run into difficulty. A critique has always been that perhaps the one individual would generate far more good i.e. utility, in the long term through his or her actions than the other five combined.

If the person that is saved goes on to invent the cure to cancer or writes a literary masterpiece, while the five others do very little and contribute little to humanity, it intuitively now seems true that we should save the one person. In response, it seems clear that we should not play with hypotheticals. Whether the one person can generate more good in the future than the other five combined is entirely unknown. Since you could easily say one of the five, or even two of the five, can just as likely do the same as the one, we must make the decision on what is known. In this example as shared, the only thing that is known is that either five lives will be saved and one life ended, or five people will die. Based on what is known, while not a simple decision, a clear and rational mind would choose to save the five by diverting the trolley to the track with just the one person.

So we know that five lives trump one. But what about the moral agent? Does the action of pulling the lever, or throwing the person onto the track to derail the train, imply the moral agent is doing something that is wrong? Another way to look at the problem is that by doing nothing, events unfold along the path that they are currently on. It is a difference of letting something happen that kills people and actually taking action that would kill someone. Many people do see this as a determining factor in whether to throw the person onto the track to derail the train or pull the lever. It, however, does not seem reasonable that a person’s conscience should be more bothered by letting five people die than to pull a lever that they are standing beside to save the five lives. That is actually what is being done. Rather than see this dilemma as an act of killing because a life is taken, it should be seen in its true sense as the act of saving five lives. For the bystander who must take the action, they should know that pulling the lever, pushing the person on the track, is the right thing to do because lives are being saved in that action.

Some thoughts on what “being mean” means

We have all been mean at some point in our lives. The act of “being mean” to someone is a common component of our societal lives. While it would be ideal if at all times we can treat each other with respect, compassion, and understanding, a part of our humanity leads us to at times doing just the opposite. We can be disrespectful, hateful, and bigoted. Is that though what “being mean” is? This short article discusses a few facets of what “being mean” means. First I will classify what we are talking about, then raise points on its effects, and will ask the question should it be our civic duty to forbid and cast judgement on people who are mean.

When someone is “being mean” to you, you know it. We learn that at a very young age. Whether it’s your brother or sister, or a school bully, we have this ingrained sense in our psyche to know even when there is a hint of sarcasm that may offend our sensibilities. A mean person is someone we do not like at that moment. That is not to say we cannot see past a moment of disrespect, for example when it is your sister, but it is certainly an action that generates a guarded response in the recipient. It can be said to be an action, verbal comment, gesture, or similar, that puts us on guard and causes use to dislike the individual. Is it just the opposite of being friendly? In many ways, it is the opposite. When the two are combined, I believe it is how we learn how to treat another person.

Can a person be mean and not know it? I think many would agree that, yes, a person can be mean and not be aware of it. It could be the mannerism a person has is not compatible with a new group of acquaintances who treat, for example, debating, as something which is not seen as a friendly activity but rather argumentative and confrontational. The example just given may, in fact, be extreme. There are many who see aggressiveness and assertiveness, even in the absence of debate and shouting, as not being entirely friendly and leaning on the side of mean. So we can add to how we are classifying it as at times a conscious action and at times an unconscious mannerism. But has this distinction now separated what it means to “be mean” and what it means to be immoral or bad? I think to an extent we can, in fact, say yes that with the conscious and unconscious element it is sufficient to say the conscious or active actions that put us on guard, in fact, are immoral and bad. If it is, on the other hand, an unconscious manifestation of the persons self, then it can be said to be “being mean”. It is interesting that we often in common language differentiate between saying “that person is mean”, and “that person is evil”. I believe the active and passive element is what provides the distinction between the two. The act of “being mean” is, therefore, not an action which a person is necessarily conscious of when they are said to be “being mean”.

So what does “being mean” to someone do? What are its effects? Without generating an exhaustive list I want to mention just two effects. The first is that it causes us to distance ourselves in the moment and in many cases for prolonged periods, from the person socially. It is often said a mean person is no one’s friend. The second is that it makes us often question what it is we as an individual did to perhaps cause the negative outward action. Thinking that it is surely something the individual did to cause or trigger the mean action is not uncommon.

If someone were mean to you, would you want to hang around them? Certainly, the answer is no. The action of “being mean” is an anti-social action. You are pushing someone away, albeit unknowingly, and can most often even see the disagreeing response immediately. It is from the response that we learn we have been mean. Is it inherently an anti-social action? I would say no. It can be a process whereby individuals in a group learn each other’s persona. It can be said to be a part of learning how best to be social with a particular person or group.

When someone is mean towards another person the one on the receiving end often wonders why. Why was this person mean to me? The act of “being mean” makes us at times question ourselves. This is a strange response. With common phrases such as “He woke up on the wrong side of the bed”, or “He’s just having a bad day” we reassure ourselves consistently that our question of whether it was our fault is, in fact, no, it was some other factor. Perhaps, someone he or she spoke to just before seeing the person who was offended. This supports the idea that “being mean” is not the same as being evil or bad, although often not differentiated.

With all of the above in mind, should we cast judgement on people who are mean? How far do we put up with a person whose characteristics are not compatible? I would suggest we do not cast judgement and see it as a part of the social phenomenon that is our existence. Rather than judgement and casting out the individual from the group or setting, we can ask why this person said or did those actions that they themselves may not understand as negative. A critic might say to tolerate mean spirited individuals as simply being misunderstood is a big ask. Why should we care what causes the action? It was the fact that a person was offended that matters. In response, it can be said that it should be tolerated because it is unconscious, and is a part of the socializing aspect where we learn the do’s and don’ts of a social group. “Being mean” in small measure may be a part of a person’s persona. Change cannot be mandated but must be the result of socializing of the individual into the norms and boundaries of a new group or person.

Virtue and Achieving Eudaimonia

Hi Ethic Nutters,

Just spending a little time today before the Superbowl seeing what is on YouTube on the subject of Ethics. CrashCourse is a great channel with a few videos on Ethics. I particularly like Virtue Ethics so I thought I would share this one first. It’s a perfect short summary with easy to understand examples.




Thoughts on Aesthetic Judgments and Ethics

Often we think of what is right and wrong in terms of the outcome of academic reasoning which is not entirely tied to our physical world. Is that entirely what happens though when we come to think of an action or outcome as morally permissible or impermissible? This short post will provide a glimmer of some of my thoughts on a subject otherwise hidden from mainstream discourse.

When we see something such as a starving child, or the victim of a murder, is our judgment of that action (i.e. disparity, violence) based on what we have rationalized through reason as wrong, or is it that we are responding in a very human manner to the result of an action that is aesthetically appalling. When the question why is asked, there are already parts that are known but also parts that we do not know which matter deeply but which are in doubt. Read another way, I expect to cut through the cloud of doubt to an understanding of what sets into action our judgments. I have an idea of the answer formulated over time, although it will help to discuss and put into writing. I will not be mentioning the implications of this thinking which may be the subject of another blog post.

Typically speaking the history of morality and ethics has been usual suspects. Old white male academics in an ivory tower philosophizing on matters which frequency in the real world is up for debate. Through this questioning discourse, however, learning can happen that sheds light on matters of daily life. Is this really though the nature of morality? When I am insulted or my life is threatened, is it wrong because I have reasoned it to be so based on abstract moral principles or is it because that action is not agreeable to my senses? I believe truth is closer to the reactive nature in humans which is then rationalized afterward and explained.

So, when there is a pleasure to the senses, whether that be sight, touch, etc. there is agreement and we see that as good. When there is recoil and fear to the senses, we see that as not agreeable and quite correctly rationalize contributing factors as wrong and bad. It is clear that what has been built in terms of societal moral constructs is what is agreeable to our basic nature as social beings and our reaction to stimuli. The quest has always been to explain our response to nature. Read another way, input from the environment touching upon our senses, in a way that finds agreeability, is the good.

Subjectivity? No doubt this is subjective to what some may think of as an advanced degree. There are others who may say we share this environment and these senses with everyone and our responses to shared stimuli or often the same. Universals can become objective facts while the more mundane and individualistic experiences resting in the subjective. Neither its subjectivity or objectivity is of great importance for this post.

Art with its play on the senses is praised for its aesthetic value. We feel generally pleased when viewing the work of Monet and others, and it is in my opinion that indicates good or rightness. How we know this is our base of senses. Whether it is further rationalized through a moral theory to explain why we see that as good in a non-hedonistic view is not of importance. As I wrote in an earlier paper, found on this blog, there is an essential question to morality and that is whether pleasure is the only intrinsic good, and pain the only intrinsic bad. I think that is true. Furthermore, I believe that many moral theories have attempted to explain a truly pleasure-based morality in a rationalized approach for reasons of societal acceptability. Time has changed though and so too must our moral constructs.

Questioning the base of moral reasoning should be done. I have only mentioned above a few of my points. To summarize and highlight my opinion, the underlining purpose of action is to find agreeability with our natural response to the environments around us and our sensory responses to those environments, whether it is sight, touch, or other. It is the agreeability in its positive or negative that determines good or bad, right or wrong, and our objective should be to seek maximum agreeability without diverting to non-Hedonistic based moral theories.

CRISPR Babies – Update

Dear Ethic Nutters,

Every week as I read through the latest CRISPR news I’m cautiously optimistic about the progress and hope we can find a way to regulate before going too far.