To the delight of many Christians and the chagrin of many atheists, the activist and (former) atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared herself for Christianity. Some atheists and Christians seem quick to point out that her article does not explicitly say she accepts Christian doctrine about Christ dying for our sins, resurrecting, the hypostatic union of the trinitarian God, and so on. Her article is more about politics and resisting Islamism than spreading the Good News. She does say, in the last paragraph, that she attends church, which is likely a good sign that she does accept (or is coming to accept) the Christian doctrine. But is she right to convert to Christianity?
Does morality exist? What would it even mean to say that morality exists? And if morality does not exist, then how can there be moral progress (e.g., how can we say that it was moral progress to end slavery)? These are meta-ethical questions, in other words, not questions describing or prescribing what one ought to do, but questions concerning whether describing or prescribing what one ought to do is even coherent. I will examine these questions, and more, in this post.
Since early November of 2022, when the cryptocurrency exchange FTX went bankrupt, there has been growing criticism of a movement for which Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), founder and CEO of FTX, was a sort of mascot: effective altruism. Broadly speaking, this is the idea that people should take a rational approach to charitable efforts, rather than a sentimental approach. Empathy can lead us astray, appealing to our cognitive biases, like the availability heuristic, recency illusion, mere-exposure effect, the streetlight effect, and others. A touching story about a single person can move us to act better than any statistics about the suffering of millions. As such, instead of following our emotions, we should seek to get the most bang for our buck with our charitable efforts, i.e., save the most lives and do the most good with our donations of time, money, and resources. This means that the problems we address, and the means of addressing those problems, should be considered rationally and scientifically, going based on what the numbers tell us will do the most good, even if it doesn’t immediately give us that fuzzy feeling we achieve from helping the single person with the touching story. Since the downfall of SBF, this philosophy has garnered some criticism, often with what seems like more than a hint of schadenfreude.
A hallmark of conspiratorial thinking is that even disconfirming evidence can be interpreted as confirming the theory. If, for instance, all evidence points to an election having been fair, the theorist will think “aha! That’s exactly what the nefarious conspirators would have us believe!” thus demonstrating, in their mind, the truth of the theory. The Marxist critique of ideology (which, in the Marxist sense, means that part of the superstructure in which ideas that legitimize the current economic order are engineered), and more particular the cynical ideology of Slavoj Žižek, appears to be just such a conspiracy theory.
Authenticity is a somewhat ambiguous term, and yet many believe it to be very important. People strive for their own authenticity while admiring it in others. In modern times, authenticity tends to mean something like “being who you actually are on the inside” in a way that clears away the corrosion of social expectations to reveal the perfect gem of our authentic selves. But is it really that simple? What does it even mean to find some hidden inner authentic self? Is this even a helpful way of conceptualizing authenticity?
A few days ago I wrote a post about the origins and nature of morality where I talked a bit about the Moral Foundations Theory. The 5 + 1 moral foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, with liberty/oppression as a potential sixth. Jonathan Haidt, one of the progenitors of Moral Foundations Theory, says in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion that WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultures tend to rate care/harm and fairness/cheating high while downplaying, or even ignoring, the others (except perhaps liberty/oppression, if we include it). In his book, Haidt defends the other three of the main five foundations. But it has me wondering if abandoning them, primarily sanctity, is a good thing or not.
Philosophy is, broadly speaking, divided into three general categories: metaphysics (what is the nature of existence and reality?), epistemology (what is knowledge and how is it possible?), and ethics (what is the nature of good and evil and how should people live their lives to accord with what is good?). It’s this latter one that tends to have the most practical impact on people’s lives. Indeed, things like business ethics, governmental ethics, medical ethics, bioethics, and so on are where the rubber really meets the road. Yet, they still fail to answer the very basic question of “what is good?” and “how should I live my life?” for our everyday, mundane situations.
It’s been in vogue to say that we live in a post-truth society (never mind that this is making a truth-valued statement). Fake news, wokism, QAnon, standpoint epistemology (i.e., “my truth”), distrust of institutions and experts, postmodernism, social media echo chambers, internet algorithms, Donald Trump, bias in mainstream media, secularization, and so on have all been viewed as the death knell of Truth by some subset of the population or another within the past couple decades or so. But what do people mean when they talk about truth or the truth? Are people talking about the same things? Let’s look at this a little deeper.
One of the reasons that belief in free will persists is because it so vividly feels like we have free will. This intuition is better than any philosophical, scientific, or religious argument for or against free will. We believe ourselves to have the ability to freely take actions of our own volition, despite much scientific evidence that our preferences, desires, and even behaviors are biologically and culturally determined.
Here I will be laying out the main ideas of some of history’s most important philosophers. These will be extremely brief, simplified explanations of some of the big ideas for each of these philosophers. This should not be construed as a replacement or substitute for a deeper reading on these philosophers.
In recent years the difference between equality and equity have been discussed more and more. Equality is taken to be the idea that people have equal opportunity while equity is the idea that people (ought to) have equal outcomes. In the former, it means there should be no legal or political impediment to someone entering the market, whether that’s the buying and selling of goods and services or of one’s labor. The latter, equity, says that things like racial, sex/gender, and economic disparities need to be corrected through legal and political policies. But are these the only notions of equality?
The dialectical method, popularized by Plato’s characterization of Socrates, and then updated by Hegel and Marx, is often thought of as a three-step process: person/group A proposes a thesis P, person/group B offers an anti-thesis that contradicts it ~P, and then there is a synthesis of the two that results in a new thesis Y. Hegel introduced the idea that the thesis contains within itself its own antithesis, that a thesis contains contradictions that must be worked out in a process that repeats through multiple aufheben until we arrive at the Absolute. Marx took this and applied it to history: the material conditions of an age contains its own contradictions that must be worked out in a process that eventually leads to a classless, stateless utopia known as communism.
I have written a very lengthy review of The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One (Metamodern Guides), by Hanzi Freinacht. Because it is so lengthy, it will probably have very few people who read the entire thing. But an argument I made in my review of the final chapter is something interesting that I thought deserved some of its own consideration, and so this post is adapted from my review of the final two chapters in The Listening Society. Keep in mind that although it is not a necessary requirement to have read my review of all the prior chapters to understand this post, it would be helpful.
The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One (Metamodern Guides), by Hanzi Freinacht; Metamoderna ApS (March 10, 2017), 414 pages
Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy by David J. Chalmers, W. W. Norton & Company (January 25, 2022), 544 pages
An important aspect of many religions, perhaps even the most important aspect, is worship. This is entailed by the facts that 1) the deity or deities are deserving or worthy of worship and 2) people have an obligation to worship the deity or deities. But why are either of these things true?
Most people have some intuitive notion of what freedom is. When I’m at work and have an obligation to dispatch my duties, I am not free, because I’m obligated to do one thing at the expense of any other things I might want to do – take a nap, watch a movie, read a book, etc. During my free time, though, I have the freedom to make those decisions if I wish. Someone in prison is not free because they are not allowed to go where they want; those of us not in prison have the freedom to go where we please. But are these intuitive notions of freedom a good definition for being free?
Possibly the guiding principle of modernity is that any problem can be solved if people just put their minds to it. Science and liberalism have been astonishing successes in raising the standard of living, in an objective sense, for more people than at any other time in history. People like Steven Pinker love to wax optimistic about how Enlightenment values and scientific progress have made the world an objectively better place to live than ever before, with the implication that things will only get better. But is this really true?