Dagens ord

Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

8 nov. 2020

The claim of social psychology

A while ago, Paul Bloom wrote on Twitter:

The main claim of pre-2012 social psychology is that small changes in the environment can have big effects on thought and behavior. If true, this has important theoretical and practical implications. It's probably not true.

I am trying to write an introduction to social psychology (and more) for high-school students, and I really need to address this statement. My immediate response is: "Of course it's true". Replication crisis, methodological and even metaphysical doubts notwithstanding, is it really controversial to claim that, of course, we humans are affected by environmental stimuli, often subconsciously, all the time?

(I also need to deal with the ideological overtones of this debate, while keeping things fair and balanced.)

What to do? Why not reach out on Twitter?

As expected, Professor Bloom graciously responded almost immediately:
Sure. But just so I can be clear about what we're disagreeing about, can you give an example of where you think I'm wrong - of a social psych finding showing that "small changes in the environment can have big effects on thought and behavior"?
Here are my spontaneous reactions to that challenge. Let me start by setting the scene. Below is a snippet I wrote some years ago:

I don't think it is at all obvious to discuss the climate crisis as a (solely or largely) ethical or moral dilemma. And it's not clear to me that it should be considered an especially hard problem, either. There are many practical problems, to be sure; but they are just that: practicalities. 

"The perfect moral storm" is a grievous misnomer. It seems to imply that there are major obstacles to agreeing (in principle) on what should be done when, in fact, it refers to a confluence of  aggravating circumstances when it comes to acting accordingly.

The tragedy of the commons isn't an ethical problem, but rather a practical one. Sure, there are ethical considerations regarding how we, as a society, should calculate and weigh different interests and risks. But, again, "moral competence" appears to denote only the ability or desire to act consistent with any reasonable calculus. 

I believe that a failure to distinguish between what should (or could) be done, and what people seem willing (or eager) to do, is highly counter-productive. It leads to "moral hazard"; in effect providing people with a perfect alibi for doing nothing; for not acting constructively, and in accordance with everything they actually know - or are told - to be right (and absolutely necessary).

Perhaps this seems circuitous, but one of the messages I wish to bring across to my students is that we humans have a strong tendency - for better or worse - to adapt to our (social) circumstances. That adaption often follows a simple (subconscious) rule: "I'd rather be wrong than alone". We pick up cues in our environment and - courtesy of both evolutionary heuristics and neural plasticity - build chains of inferences according to something like the following sequence:

Occurrence -> Frequency -> Normalcy -> Permissibility -> Correctness -> Morality

We need to fit in, above else. This means being no more far-sighted, logical, consistent, balanced, fair, neutral, or broad-minded than necessary - and not at all if that would mean stigma or exclusion. Our shame-avoidance and status-seeking behavior overrides any cognitive dissonance and dampens any incentive - however weak - to question the status-quo. What is virtuous and who or what is authoritative is highly contingent.

(Then, of course, there are also reasons at the individual level for being less than a saint.)

More to the point, a more general formulation of the overall finding (and claim) of social psychology - as I have understood it - is that people act and think differently depending on where they are - not who they are. If the claim of cognitive science is that, basically, people are people, then (in the words of Depeche Mode) why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully?

There are countless examples of local and regional variations in habits, customs, norms, regulations, laws, etc. that generate and perpetuate drastic differences in how individuals perceive the (social) world. Just to take one example: In one relatively small province of Sweden, the percentage of people who support an ultra-nationalistic party is much higher than anywhere else in the country. There is no reason to think that regional differences could explain this (as there are hardly any in Sweden) other than the fact that a prominent party member happens to live there. These kinds of contingencies crop up everywhere.

On a much broader scale, the World Values Survey shows just how much practical and ideological differences actually hinge on contingencies.

The Overton window changes from place to place and from time to time, and with it, how individuals talk, think and feel.

Marketing, both in the long and short term, drastically influences peoples' ideas of what is valuable.

In the short term, anchoring effects can have huge impacts

The whole concept of nudging is based on changing the "choice architecture" and so changing individual choices (without limiting or forcing them)

Social facilitation affects individual performances in group settings versus in isolation.

Social movements change individuals' attention and values.

The Hawthorne effect is ever present, and keeps bolstering many spurious claims about the effectiveness of various interventions (keeping e.g. educational consultants busy).

Group-attribution creates and increases polarization, even on essentially meaningless issues. There are Robber's caves and Minimal groups everywhere, with diverging world-views as a result.

Social media corrodes what cohesion and societal osmosis we have managed thus far. Neal Stephenson depicts this magnificently in his book "Fall, or: Dodge in Hell" where a part of Utah is still cordoned off, even decades after a hoax about a nuclear explosion that "truthers" still (wish to) believe actually happened. 

Behavioral genetics seems to show that, apart from genes, one's peer-group seems to be the strongest influence on how one's personality traits develop and which trajectory one's life takes.

School rules massively influence what students perceive as "normal", right or wrong etc.

Despite intense critique leveled at Asch's and Millgram's conformity experiments and other classics of social psychology, there is clearly much folk-wisdom contained in them.

In the same vein, priming is clearly a thing - regardless of how many botched and over-hyped experiments are exposed. How could it not be? Our minds are associative networks and most, if not all, of the activity of mind takes place without conscious awareness or control.

Ramblings, to be sure, and not a very succinct answer to Professor Bloom's question. Much hinges on what we mean with "a small change" and "a big effect", and any single experiment might not be able to able to demonstrate this with a sufficient degree of scientific credibility or to allay all ideological wishes and misgivings.

What I want, most of all, is guidance on how to talk about these topics with young people - students for which I am partly responsible - in a way that is bold and progressive while at the same time scientifically and philosophically "kosher". It's a fine balance: As soon as I take liberties with the extremely cautious school curriculum I risk civil disobedience. On the other hand, as soon as I lecture on a new experiment or theory it doesn't take long before that same experiment is dissected, rejected and frowned upon by parts of the scientific and intellectual community.

I suspect that there is sometimes an overblown fear of association with social psychology in general, and with ideologically fraught findings specifically - so much so that even level-headed academics jump on the bandwagon of suspicion or acquiescence just to steer clear of any controversy. (Which, in itself, is a powerful demonstration of social psychology at work.)

19 aug. 2020

Guest post by Hannes Bengtsson: Four philosophical questions

My sixteen year-old son, Hannes, has taken his first course in philosophy during the summer holidays. During this time he has written four short essays on classic philosophical questions. I am very happy to follow his progress and I am proud to present his essays below.

1. Hedonism and the experience machine

The experience machine

The experience machine argument is a thought experiment that serves as an argument against the hedonistic theory of well-being. In the experiment you are faced with a decision: to plug yourself into the so - called “experience machine” or to continue with your daily life.

The experience machine is a machine that, once you’re plugged in to it, will make you experience nothing but uninterrupted high-quality [1] pleasures during your whole life. The pleasures will be suited to your preferences and might be e.g : proving mathematical theorems, saving the world and having wonderful relationships. All your biological needs will always be satisfied and you will be completely solo with no means of interacting with the outside world.

According to the hedonistic theory of well-being the only thing that one’s well-being turns on is the total balance of pleasure (contributing positively to one’s well-being) over pain (contributing negatively to one’s well-being) in your life. Pleasure makes one’s life go better, pain worse. So, the best thing according to this theory would be to plug yourself into the machine. But most likely you wouldn’t want to do it. Why is that? There’s something else than pleasure and pain that matters in one’s life. We want to have authentic experiences, not artificial.

The argument against the hedonistic theory of well-being, formalized (P = premise, C = conclusion)


If the only thing one’s well-being turns on is the total balance of pleasure over pain in one’s life, and we want our lives to go better for us rather than worse, then, if an experience is more pleasurable than another, we should choose the more pleasurable experience.


One will experience more pleasure if one is plugged into the machine compared to not being plugged in.


If the hedonistic theory of well-being is true we should plug ourselves into the machine.

(P3) [2]

People don’t want to plug themselves into the machine.

( P4)

There are other things people value than just experiencing as much pleasure as possible.


Hedonism about well-being is wrong.

This is a valid argument, the conclusions follow the premises and the premises can’t be true and the conclusion false. In this essay I will try to show that the argument isn’t a sound argument by showing that (P4) can’t be taken for granted.

Does it work?

Below I will be presenting two arguments against the experience machine thought experiment. I will call these argument “the authenticity argument” and, ”the simulation argument”. Following my presentation of these arguments I will try to defend them by responding to arguments one may have against them.

The authenticity argument

The experience machine thought experiment rebuts the hedonistic theory of well-being by arguing that a person wants to have authentic [3] experiences we don’t want to be loved and love others artificially. A person faced with the decision of entering the experience machine wouldn’t want to enter because they want to have authentic experiences not artificial. This argument, I think, doesn’t quite hold. How are we to know what is authentic and what is not? Isn’t in the end everything we do, from listening to music to tasting food to feeling the sun warm our skin, just experienced by us? Every sensory input and internal stimuli generated by our brain and body will always just be experienced by us. They are all also processed and filtered by our body, so we can therefore never be certain about what’s authentic and what’s not.

The simulation argument

This argument is an upgraded version of the authenticity argument. We can’t be certain that our universe isn’t part of a bigger, more complex simulation nor can we be certain that we aren’t all already plugged into a machine similar to the experience machine, without us knowing of it. Maybe we were all faced with a similar decision in another universe, time and space, and we all made the decision to plug ourselves into that machine and we ended up where we are now. That simulation in turn could be part of another simulation that is part of another simulation etc., like an onion with infinitely many layers. So, what difference would it make making a jump between one simulation and another, or plugging ourselves into yet another machine? My answer is none, it wouldn’t make any difference because we can never know what’s a simulation and what’s real (if we can even consider some things more real than others). I therefore think that the argument that we don’t want artificial experiences doesn’t hold.

Here people might say that this way of arguing against the experience machine will lead to some radical conclusions. They might say something like this: If we can never be certain of what’s authentic and what is not, then we’ll not be able to distinguish reality from fiction. And this in turn could lead to unwanted consequences like the justification of murder by people arguing that they didn’t know if the person they killed was authentic or not.

To this I would respond that that’s a fair point. But, my argument need not be viewed as a prescriptive argument (how things should be) but rather as a descriptive argument (how things are). We humans may need to believe in something as authentic, or genuinely real, in order to experience living a good life, but that still doesn’t mean that it is authentic. What I wanted to bring forth in my argument is that we should be careful of falling into the belief that we think everything is fixed and that our perspective as humans is the only one possible.

Would you get in the Experience Machine?

I would, after having considered the arguments above, enter the experience machine. In my opinion the arguments for plugging oneself into the machine weighs heavier than the arguments against. But, I must say that I’m acting contrary to my instincts. It’s hard to think outside of my comfort zone and see things through another, maybe more objective, perspective. I guess this feeling has to do with the fact that I’m afraid of, essentially, losing my sense of consciousness and being. Even though I find it hard to not accept or take into account the arguments above I wouldn’t want to jeopardize my being. But I would, as stated above, get into the machine.

What does this tell us about Hedonism?

The experience machine thought experiment conclude that the hedonistic theory of well-being is wrong. Above I have argued that this experiment doesn’t hold to fully rebut this theory of well-being but I have not argued that hedonism is right nor that you can’t prove it wrong. This essay just argue against the experience machine thought experiment and it doesn’t tell us much about hedonism.


[1] High-quality pleasures, as described by John Stuart Mill, are pleasures that only humans have the capacity of attaining, via as an example rational-thought and self-awareness. Having sex and enjoying food are pleasures we share with other animals.

[2] This premise just tells us that some people aren’t hedonists, and says not that hedonism is wrong. We could also ask whether this is based on empirical studies or on armchair intuitions (where you, based on your feelings and thoughts, assume everyone else must feel the same way)

[3] In this essay I will exclusively use the words “authentic” and “authenticity” to represent what we consider reality or what’s real, as opposed to represent meaningfulness.


2. Philosophical Relativism


Can Philosophical Relativism be successfully defended? Explain why this theory is found plausible by some and address the objection to it you find most compelling. Is this objection decisive? If not, how can the Relativist reply to it?


I will in this essay try to argue that philosophical relativism can’t be successfully defended. I’m putting emphasis on “try” since I haven’t taken into account every argument a relativist might have in favor of philosophical relativism and I can therefore not decisively argue that it can’t be successfully defended.

I will first describe what philosophical relativism is. I will then present two reasons why some people might find this theory plausible. Following this I will present my main criticism of philosophical relativism and then respond to three arguments a relativist might have against it. I will call these arguments “Bite the Bullet”, “Contextual relativism” and the “Preference argument”. Following this I will present another respons a relativist might have to counter the criticism. I will call this argument “cultural relativism”.

Philosophical relativism

Philosophical relativism is a theory that argues that every view and belief is equally legitimate - that they are on a par with each other and that you can’t prove that one belief is better or worse than the other. This theory is one of several ways you can go if you think that there are no objective moral truths, because you needn’t be a relativist to think that there are no moral objective truths. A philosophical relativist acknowledges, in an individual or a cultural ethical disagreement, that the other party’s view is on a par with his or hers and that they both have equally legitimate views. Even in a case of fundamental ethical disagreement the relativist would say that both views are equally legitimate.

Why some people find the theory plausible

First and foremost I would like to clarify that there is a difference between what is plausible and what is attractive. If someone finds a theory plausible they needn’t be attracted by it and vice versa. Furthermore, some people might find the theory plausible because they are attracted by it and vice versa.

Some people find the theory of philosophical relativism plausible because they have acknowledged that there don’t seem to be any moral objective truths.

Some people might also find the theory plausible because they have acknowledged that there don’t seem to be any decisive solutions to moral problems.

Criticism of philosophical relativism

One salient counterargument to the theory of philosophical relativism is that it can’t refute views that are morally wrong. If all views are to be seen as equally legitimate it would also allow for the justification of morally wrong actions. A philosophical relativist would have to say that the Nazi’s view on jews is equally legitimate as someone who holds a different view, since everyone is justified to hold their own views as long as it accords with their fundamental values. Below are three responses a relativist may have to counter the argument above:

Bite the bullet

Yes, the Nazi’s view on jews is a view that is as legitimate as any other to hold and all moralities are equal. There are no moral objective truths.

Contextual relativism

The meaning of legitimate, or of right and wrong, or of true or false is dependent on the context. The meaning of these terms are subject to change and the usage of them different from one culture to another, so I can therefore not argue that their view, back then, is morally right or wrong.

Preference argument

Even if someone is a relativist they can favor some views over others and have a strong inner feeling of what is right and wrong, only they are not entitled to interfere with other people’s views. They can’t prove that their view is somehow better than another view but they might still prefer one. So, they can say that they are strongly against how the Nazi’s viewed the jews but that they can’t prove that that view is better or worse than the Nazi’s.

The “Bite the bullet” argument above in defence of philosophical and semantic relativism seems to be a rather extreme argument that could allow for the justification of murder. The consequences of “Contextual relativism” is that the terms lose their meaning. If we can’t be certain that the term “true” means the same thing independent of context then we won’t be able to communicate with each other. The “Preference argument” does not really solve the problem with having to accept the justification of morally wrong actions because it still allows for them. Furthermore, it doesn’t allow for moral progress.

Cultural relativism

A philosophical relativist might also object that one culture should not interfere with another culture and that we should let each and every culture decide what is best for themselves. Why should we think that a culture who fosters a certain set of moral values, different from another culture’s values, are justified to judge or force their values upon the other? Maybe that other culture, by their measurements and standards of what is good and bad, are equally or more satisfied, or justified, to hold their beliefs than the first.

To this argument a person who rejects relativism may object that a person can be part of several different groups and cultures. These groups may also have totally different views and there may be difficulties in identifying which truths are relative to which groups. This means that the person who is part of several different groups may not know which norms or moral values they should adhere to.

I would all in all say that this counterargument to philosophical relativism is decisive but I can still imagine how a relativist might be able to respond to them (see above). We have also seen that the relativist's replies just lead to other problems.


3. Bentham's Arguments for Utilitarianism


In Chapters 1 and 2 of his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham offers three arguments for the claim that Utilitarianism is the correct moral theory. Describe each argument briefly, and then pick out the one that you believe is strongest. Explain that argument in the most persuasive way you can. Then assess the argument from a critical perspective. Raise at least one objection to it. Then consider how Bentham might reply. In the end, are you persuaded by that argument? Why or why not?


In this essay I will first describe shortly what the utilitarian theory of morality consists of. Following this I will describe three arguments of Bentham’s that purport to show that Utilitarianism is the correct moral theory. These arguments will be called 1. “The semantic argument”, 2. “The argument from human nature” and 3. “The incoherence of rival views”. Then I will explain the third argument as persuasively as I can, since I find this argument to be the strongest of the three, and raise one objection to it. I will call this objection the “every moral theory” objection. Following this I will consider how Bentham may reply to my objection, and then explain why I find the “incoherence of rival views” argument persuasive.


Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism which assesses actions as right or wrong based on their results. The utilitarian theory of morality says that, when we are faced with a choice of actions, we should choose the action that promotes the most net good (e.g happiness and pleasure), i.e: the action that maximizes utility when we have subtracted pain from pleasure. That action is said to be the only morally right action to take and all the others morally wrong.

The three arguments

Here are three of the arguments Bentham brings forth to support Utilitarianism.

1. The semantic argument

This argument is based around the notion of what the terms “right” and “wrong” mean. Bentham thought that the terms “right” and “wrong” couldn’t possibly have any other meaning than “productive of benefit” and “productive of harm”. Bentham doesn’t give us any argument in favor of this claim, rather he is asking us if we can argue for the meaning of these terms to be different, and if so, how? The argument also says that Utilitarianism is the only moral theory that uses these terms in that way.

2. The argument from human nature

A second argument Bentham brings forth appeals to the nature of humans. He states that the utilitarian theory of morality is the only theory that is in conformity with human nature. Bentham supports this claim by saying that we humans are all already applying the utilitarian principle in our daily lives (perhaps unconsciously and inconsistently); we tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. He also points out that we humans naturally approve of actions that increase pleasure and that we disapprove of actions that increase pain.

3. The incoherence of rival views

The third argument says that all other ethical systems are tacitly relying on, or are covert applications of, utilitarianism or that they are just unsystematic collections of our likes and dislikes.

Of these three arguments I find the third argument to be the strongest and I will below explain it as persuasively as I can.

The incoherence of rival views

My view is this [1]: If morality is to have worthwhile meaning for us humans, then, it has to be connected to human well-being. Furthermore, I think morality needs to function as a tool for us humans to determine which actions to take and which actions to avoid; that is, have real world applications. Even though there might be other [2] moral theories, such as hedonism, based on this notion of morality, I would argue that these views are applications of Utilitarianism, and that Utilitarianism is the basis on which these other views rely on. I cannot prove my claim since I cannot take into account every possible moral theory, but Utilitarianism is in my opinion the most neutral and grounded moral theory based on this notion: take the action that promotes the most net good, nothing else.

If we look at hedonism or virtue ethics or deontology, and ask ourselves and their subscribers how they would argue in favor their moral theory, and how they would go about convincing others that their moral theory is the best, I think that their arguments would have to appeal to human well-being in some way or another. If they don’t, I don’t think that a lot of people would be interested in the theory. They have to say something along the lines of: “My moral theory is the best since it tells me to do this because this results in that…, and that thing is desirable, or good.... This I think, is the reason why Bentham makes his assertion that all other moral theories are just covert applications of Utilitarianism.

Below I will describe the “every moral theory” counter-argument.

The “every moral theory” counter-argument

A person who disagrees with the “incoherence with rival views” argument might say that the argument doesn't hold since we can never be certain that there are no other moral theories that don’t rely on utilitarian principles; and the “incoherence with rival views” argument says that all other theories are just applications of Utilitarianism.

How Bentham might reply

Bentham would perhaps say that yes, we can never be certain that we have exhausted every moral theory, but we can never be 100% certain of anything. So this counter-argument, even if it works as a counter-argument to refute the “incoherence of rival views” argument, doesn’t carry that much weight because it could be a counter-argument to every argument ever made. Rather, if we look at every moral theory that has been presented so far we can see that they all rely on utilitarian principles [3].

Am I persuaded by the argument in the end? Why, why not?

I am persuaded by the original “incoherence of rival views” argument even though I can see how people can argue both in favor of Bentham’s argument or in favor of the “every moral theory” counter-argument. The counter-argument speaks to me since I am a person who appreciates precision, but still, the “incoherence of rival views” argument is in my opinion the stronger of the two. This is because I have an innate feeling that we humans have to be able to apply our knowledge, our thoughts and our wisdom to the the world, and that morality has to be connected with human well-being if morality is to have any worthwhile meaning for us. I also think that we have to accept that we can’t (at least at the moment), be 100% certain of everything, because if we don’t, we won’t make any progress as individuals or as a society; we will constantly be stuck in theoretical outcomes and never be able to take action.


[1] In this essay I am solely focusing on moral theories that, in my eyes, promote the connection between morality and human well-being, in my eyes: hedonism, virtue ethics and deontology I am fully aware that one could reject my whole argument and my claims just by saying that there is no connection between them, but, as I said I am only focused on this specific area in this essay.

[2] Henceforth when I write “other moral theories” I am only focusing, as stated above, on moral theories, that in my eyes, promote the connection between morality and human well-being.

[3] Let’s take deontology and virtue ethics. Bentham may have replied that “to be a virtuous person is good, or desirable, only because it leads to either an inner feeling of well-being, or to your being viewed by others as a good person, or to you letting others have an opportunity to experience well-being. So, it’s not the virtues themselves that are good, but the good they result in.

Bentham would probably have argued in the same way when it comes to deontology. He may have replied “Well, the rules set for us to follow, will lead to us acting in the right way are relying on utilitarian principles”. I think he would have supported his claim by saying, as has been previously mentioned, that if you ask a deontologist why you should subscribe to deontology he would probably have to (perhaps unconsciously) appeal to human well-being.


4. Killing one to save five


When is it morally okay to kill one person so as to prevent five people from being killed?

- How would an act consequentialist think about this question?

What would an act consequentialist say about the cases we considered in Lecture 13?

- Does the act consequentialist get these cases right?

- If not, what is the right general account of when it is morally okay to kill one person so as to save five?


In this essay I will look at how an act consequentialist (henceforward called “AC”) would think about questions and thought experiments that involve killing one so as to save five other people from being killed. I will also argue that it may be possible to come up with a general principle for when it would be morally okay to kill one so as to save five so long as we don’t mix in our intuitions in the discussion.

When is it morally okay to kill one person to save five people from being killed?

Depending on which moral theory one is subscribed to and which moral intuitions one might have one could respond differently to this question. Some people say that you should never kill one to save five, while others say that you should always do it. Some people are not sure and for some it varies.

Below I will shortly describe act consequentialism and then see how an act consequentialist (“AC”) may reply to this question.

Act consequentialism

Act consequentialism is a form of consequentialism which says that the only morally right action to take is the one that produces the most the net-good (the total bad of everyone subtracted from the total good of everyone), when compared with the net-good of other actions the agent can take.

An “AC”’s response to the question “When is it morally okay to kill one to save five from being killed?”

Given the following presuppositions: Each life in this situation counts for an equal amount of, let’s call them utility-points. The situation takes place in a closed universe, that is, we neglect everything else that has not been explicitly said to be part of the situation, e.g, people that might judge your acting. Given these presuppositions an “AC” would always say that you should kill the one person to save the five from being killed, since it’s the action that results in the most net-good compared with the action of not doing anything and letting five people die.

Below I will explain 3 thought experiments which all are based on, and are modified versions of, the question given above. I will first describe each of them and then see how an “AC” may reply (still given the presuppositions above). These thought experiments combined with the solutions an “AC” gives to them aim to evoke doubts about act consequentialism.

Different cases to test act consequentialism


You are a doctor and you have an anesthetized patient on a table. Five of your other patients need one liter blood each to survive and the anesthetized patient could provide it, but he’d die in the process of donating the blood. Should you suck the blood out of the anesthetized patient (thereby killing him) and save the five others that would otherwise die?

Trolley Problems


A trolley is heading toward five persons on a track and the driver has lost control over it. You and a large fellow are standing on a footbridge that goes over the track. By knocking the large fellow off the bridge and causing him to fall onto the track and die when the trolley hits him, you could save the five persons that would otherwise have died by the trolley (the large fellow slows it down). Should you knock him over?


A trolley is heading toward five people and the driver has lost control. You are now instead standing next to a switch and you can pull the switch causing the trolley to change tracks. On the other track there’s another person. Should you pull the switch and save five persons that would otherwise have been killed but kill the one on the other track or don’t and let the five persons die?

Does the act consequentialist get the cases right?

Given the same presuppositions as above an “AC” would always kill one so as to save five others from being killed. I take it your immediate reaction to this is that the “AC” acts wrongly by killing the large fellow, but you may feel that it seems okay (or at least not wrong) to pull the switch. Personally I’m not entirely sure, but I still feel as though the act consequentialist’s way of acting is a bit radical.

Is it possible to come up with a general principle for when it’s okay to kill one to save five? A general principle that sorts the cases above in the “right” way; not pushing the large fellow off the bridge (Footbridge), but still maybe allowing for one to pull the switch (Switch)?

General moral principle for when it’s ok to kill one so as to save five?

My view is that we can come up with a general principle for the cases above. Maybe that principle encompasses all of our intuitions and gut feelings, maybe not, and my point is that it doesn’t necessarily have to do that. Why should our intuitions set the standard for plausibility or for morally justifiable actions?

We humans have evolved to act in certain ways in certain situations. Why rule out a general principle such as “take the action that promotes the most net-good; in the cases above, kill one to save five.” based on our intuitions? Our intuitions are not only unreliable but they are also inconsistent. Our intuitions of what’s morally right or wrong might change over time and acting on them doesn’t always lead to the “best” outcome.

The reason as to why we humans won’t push the large fellow off the bridge is due to evolution. When we are standing on the footbridge we are unconsciously thinking about how our acting will be viewed upon by others, even if we can’t see anyone there. Maybe there’s someone there, only you can’t see him. If, on the off-chance there is someone there judging your acting, you would be worse off pushing the large fellow than not pushing him since the watcher may then view you as untrustworthy. In the past you’d not want to risk getting alienated from your group.

To say that it is impossible to come up with a general principle for the cases above, or to rule out theories or principles, based on our intuitions, I find short-sighted.

20 juli 2020

Skepticism about growth and clean energy is not anti-humanistic

Jacobin recently published a kind of meta-review of Michael Moore's latest film "Planet of the Humans", portraying it as anti-growth, anti-progressive, anti-working class, Malthusian, anti-humanistic and even anti-human.

The author - with his own agenda - actually agrees with much of the film's content but distorts its underlying message and puts his own ideological spin on the facts.

My main objections to the text are the following.

First of all, there is no connection between the terms: skepticism about the economic growth paradigm or about the feasibility of truly clean energy production does not mean or imply anti-progressiveness, anti-humanism or worse. That's just hyperbole.

Second, there are good reasons to be skeptical about growth (as currently defined) and about de-coupling. There are as yet no convincing case for the possibility of de-coupling, let alone for it actually materializing. Even if it were theoretically possible, the sensible thing to do at the moment is to act on the presumption that it cannot be counted on.

Third, there are no convincing life-cycle analyses that show that truly clean energy can be self-sustaining. (This includes nuclear power.) Until it is, arguing for increasing energy consumption is irresponsible. That is not to say that nuclear power should not be a part of current efforts to reduce climate change.

Fourth, the fact that more people using more energy equals higher energy demand is axiomatic. As long as energy production and consumption entails even the slightest bit of environmental degradation, acknowledging that this is a problem is not in itself an anti-human sentiment.

Fifth, there is no reason to equate the terms "progressive" and "techno-optimist". We should be socially progressive, first and foremost. That may or may not include deployment of technology. Laissez-faire in the hopes of finding a Philosopher's Stone powerful enough to save us is irresponsible.

Sixth, there is a lot more to humanism than the utilitarian goal of populating the universe, or even the Earth, with infinitely many infinitely blissful centers of consciousness.

Seventh, there is no necessary connection between consumption and well-being (beyond a certain baseline).

So, to rewrite the text, I would say that yes, we should certainly make sure that efforts to reduce our environmental impact does not disproportionately impact poor people. Especially since they are not the problem. On the contrary, we should prioritize increasing their well-being, and whatever carbon-budget we decide on should be used primarily for this purpose even if that means tighter budgets for everyone else. Development and deployment of technology should focus on raising standards of living for the least well-off with little or no increase in environmental degradation.

At the same time, people who are reasonably well-off already - and rich people and corporations in particular - must decrease their energy-and-material use drastically and rapidly.

As much as possible, connections between well-being and material-and-energy use must be dissolved. This is where social (and sometimes technological) progress should operate.


See also: Planet of the Humans (in Swedish) and Ekofascism?

The pneumatic theory of atheism

Someone wrote on Twitter:

If we don't consciously and constructively work with the religious impulse that co-evolved with and was indispensable to cultural evolution, it will continue to manifest itself unconsciously and perniciously in ostensibly secular institutions.

I recognize the sentiment. I've heard it many times before. On both sides of the aisle. Even prominent "new atheists" like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have deemed it necessary to address and adapt to it.

I don’t find it convincing.

I guess many people who are brought up in a religious environment take for granted that everyone, inevitably, has a ’religious impulse’ and that atheists are posers or ascetics or exceptions. But I don’t think that’s true.

As a Swede I have lived my whole life with almost no contact with religion at all: personally, socially or in society as a whole. Most people I have ever come in contact with have never shown any ’unconscious’ or ’pernicious’ urges or emotional voids sublimated into anything remotely obsessive or dysfunctional. It just isn’t such a big deal.

Religion, or even ’spirituality’, is certainly not necessary, neither psychologically nor sociologically. It just seems that way to people who are surrounded by it. The zealousness of some ’new atheists’, ’rationalists’ etc. isn’t a symptom of unfulfilled existential needs. It’s just a consequence of the fact that religion is so obviously destructive.

Without religion it would be so much easier to actually get on with building ’secular institutions’ that are the exact opposite of ’pernicious’ to social progress. To someone outside any religious framework, finding meaning by engaging productively with community and society comes as easy, or even easier, starting from neutral ground rather than from within a religious framework, or in opposition to one, or even as an alternative to one.

14 juni 2020

More by Moffett: Nationalists and Patriots

About fifteen years ago, as my friend and I walked across the town square, I remember saying:

There's really only one Big Question remaining: People seem to fall into two categories - liberals and conservatives. Why is that? Is it inevitable?

This split seems to me to be the biggest, possibly the only, real obstacle to genuine progress. How should it be addressed? Can it be dissolved?

Since then, I've read a lot. And a lot has happened. If I was asked yesterday to write an essay to answer my own question, it would hopefully have started something like this.

People's outlooks on many pressing social issues betray how these roles [protection vs. provision] are valued differently depending on whether individuals subscribe to patriotism or nationalism. As most psychologists use the words today, these are habits of thought that represent distinct expressions of how people identify with their society. Sometimes lumped together, patriotism and nationalism become plain, and clash with each other, in troubled times. Depending on the person, perspectives shift to more nationalist or more patriotic viewpoints during periods of stress. Yet each individual usually sticks within a narrow range of attitudes over the course of his or her life; the sentiments emerge in childhood under the dual influence of inheritance and upbringing. 
The fundamental difference between nationalism and patriotism is that while individuals with both outlooks are devoted to their society, they relate to it differently. Patriots display pride in their people and a sense of shared identity and particularly of belonging; such a feeling comes naturally to those born in a country but can be acquired by immigrants. With most of their passion directed at their own group, patriots prioritize the needs of its members: making sure they have food, housing, an education, and so on. Nationalists have similar emotions but couch their identity in glorification. Their pride connects with prejudice. As obsessed as patriots can be with caring for the members, nationalists are absorbed with preserving a superior way of life by keeping the society safe and sound and putting their own people prominently on the world stage. 
Where it gets interesting is that patriots and nationalists have divergent ideas of who constitutes "their own people." Indeed, among the aspects of their identity nationalists admire are those that set the trusted majority apart. It's this position they guard. The extreme nationalist ardently protects each detail of that identity to keep the nation firmly associated with the angels. The priorities of nationalists include staunch demonstrations of loyalty, accepting customary rules of order, obeying leaders whom they see as responsible, and maintaining the established social relationships, most clearly between ethnicities and races. All of these values came to the fore as people settled down and began dominating others. Tradition-driven nationalists believe in their country no matter what. They commit to the status quo, at times at odds with those democratic ideals that allow for transformation: their personalities are less open to new experiences and social change. Compare this my country right or wrong stance to the outlook of patriots, who likewise give their country a high standing yet believe it must be earned rather than fought for, allowing that there are possibilities for improvement. 
In their attention to differences between groups, nationalists treat both people of other nations and minority citizens as outsiders, taking a narrow view of who is, at the heart, truly part of the society. They're more comfortable with the majoritarian idea of democracy in which the dominant people should have the primary say in governance. Their perspectives on moral and legal issues reflects this. I believe it fair to say that to a nationalist, a person of another ethnicity, citizen or not, is relatively more foreign
Earlier I called ants extreme nationalists because they stick tight to their colony marker - its scent - as a stamp of their identity. Indeed, though in our species a patriot can become as teary-eyed as any nationalist in displays of allegiance to a flag or anthem, nationalists are supersensitive to those symbols. For them brief exposure to a flag or an idolized leader incites an intense reaction - as does the absence of such an emblem when one is expected. Thus the uproar about gymnast Gabby Douglas not placing a hand over her heart while the American national anthem played in the 2012 Olympics, a lapse that to a nationalist made her gold-medal win too much about herself and not about the United States. The reaction was a sign of the sentiment that societies are entities: people don't compete in the games, countries do. 
Both the nationalist and the patriot perspectives can be logically consistent, with nationalists being more risk averse and on guard against anything that may contaminate their culture. They prefer to err on the side of separatism, erecting boundaries that might alienate those whose interests could differ from their own, while patriots are more sympathetic to opportunities for trade and cooperation with outsiders. 
In short, the nationalist is suspicious of diversity, while patriots often welcome it. Or at least they tolerate it, because even a patriot, no matter how equality-minded, isn't immune to prejudice: the ardor that patriots reserve for fellow society members of their own race or ethnicity still leads to discrimination as they subtly, and unwittingly, treat those like themselves more fairly. 
Why did these differences in patriotic and nationalistic attitudes evolve? The fact is that a clash in perspectives within societies, although at times so extreme as to verge on the dysfunctional, may have always been integral to human survival. Our varied expression of social viewpoints probably connects back to "timeless social concerns," as one research team put it. Each outlook is beneficial in certain contexts. This dimension of our social identity may be an adaption to balancing the needs for protecting and provisioning the society. Even though people with opposing perspectives might not see eye to eye, a society with too few or too many individuals at either end of the spectrum could be open to catastrophes. This promotion of behavioral diversity has parallells in unlikely animal species. Social spiders are most successful when their colonies contain both individuals that retreat from danger but fastidiously tend the nest, and bold ones that put more effort into defense against social parasites, which steal the colony's food; the colonies of certain ant species function most efficiently when they contain a similarly effective mix of personality types. 
For humans, the hazards of a population overly committed to either the nationalist or patriot extreme are manifest. Nationalists see the patriot's greater openness to weak borders and sharing across ethnicities as promoting social dependence and cheating, fears that reflect the competitive nature of groups present across species. Meanwhile, the prevalence of nationalists, convinced their ways are right and prepared to fight for them, means the dangers that nationalists fear can indeed be realized. Still, by readily espousing oppression and aggression, extreme nationalists bring to mind the historian Henry Adam's description of politics as a systematic organization of hatreds. Their outlook feeds on certain facets of psychology. It's intoxicating to fall in line against an enemy, at times at a whiff of trouble. For those swept up in a nationalist perspective, the swell of group emotions and awareness of common purpose gives life a greater meaning. Not just morale, but mental health improve among civilians when nations face conflict. The fact is, trigger-happy societies have long had an edge, with the impulse for war and the fear of attack critical in driving many social and technical innovations and the expansion of states. What's more, nationalists, adhering to a narrow interpretation about what behaviors are proper, have the advantage of being far mor tight-knit and homogeneous than patriots and better able to act together. All this is to say that the patriot's vantage point is and always will be a more onerous path. 
Because of the partiality for their group, displayed by patriots and nationalists in different ways, the troubles our societies face go deep. It's bad enough that a wicked act by one minority person - the Florida nightclub shooting, for example - can set off outrage at an entire minority population. But mistreatment can carry over to ethnicities unconnected to the tragedy. That's an outcome of how stereotypes strip away detailed understanding, making it easy to conflate groups to the point of creating such fuzzy and nonsensical categories as "brown people." Even when no conflation exists, prejudices can be linked, with the denigration of one people associated with the devaluation of others. Persons who fear for their safety, jobs, or way of life indiscriminately lump them together much as ancient societies did with the "barbarians" beyond their borders. The impulse is so strong that when a sample of Americans was asked what they thought of Wisians, nearly 40 percent regarded them poorly and did not want them as neighbors, even though they could have known nothing about them since the researcher had made the name up. 
Societies contain ethnicities and races that stick together despite the members' prejudices about each other. The usual view, voiced by William Sumner more than a century ago, is that friction with outsiders draws a society together. Clearly, that's not always true. The external forces that promote civil peace primarily galvanize the dominant people while often straining their ties to a society's other ethnicities when those groups are regarded as part of the problem. This tension among the members can cause a kind of social autoimmune disease, turning a society against itself. For all these tribulations, we may reasonably ask whether societies are necessary at all.

--- Moffett, M.W. (2019), The Human Swarm, pp. 340-343

I am eager to read the concluding chapters of Moffett's book. Twenty or so pages remaining.

Just for the record: The fact that 40 percent of Americans shun Wisians isn't primarily attributable to individual nationalist tendencies, but to ignorance - which in turn isn't primarily attributable to individual personality traits, but to engineered anti-enlightenment. Any reasonable system of governance would, over time, not only steer the U.S. towards liberalism - in a broad sense - but would simultaneously narrow the divide between liberals and conservatives. (So conservatives would move more rapidly towards liberal values, even as the gap remains.)

13 juni 2020

Inventing foreigners

The disbanding of a society is a time of reinvention. Any reading of history suggests society breakups mirror the breakup of a marriage. When one can't turn back from a split, years of repressed opinions come pouring out that may express the opposite of what had been professed a month, if not the day, before. As pressures to conform to social norms shift, diminish, or vanish entirely, people on both sides gain the latitude to explore ways of interacting that had been out of favor or considered heretical. Previously unacceptable acts can leap to the forefront, helping each group distance itself from those who are now other, reimagined as outsiders, such that they come to appear ever more foreign.

The evidence indicates that many of the modifications of daughter societies - their character displacement, to borrow again a term from biology - occur in the initial years after they go their separate ways. Their newfound freedom of expression may be a reason why. That's when language - and no doubt many other, less studied aspects of identity - undergoes the fastest rate of change, before settling into a relative stasis thereafter. Indeed, distinctions between societies, often enough, are an outcome not of their ignorance of each other due to geographical separation, but of their awareness of and interaction with each other. This would be conspicuously true after societies split up. The opportunities for independent thought and invention afforded by a newly minted society, leading to a convergence of perceptions around themes the members can celebrate as their own, can make its formative years a golden age. For example, the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution remain the reference points that Americans turn to for guidance when questions about the nation's governance arise. Based on what is known about modifications in identity, I believe this would have been the case over the course of our evolution as it is now.

Yet there would be a deeper psychological impetus for a reworking of identity to bloom right after a division. The sense of being adrift, their fates severed from the meaning and purpose the larger society once provided, would heighten the urgency of the people's search for a strong identity, and essence, that stands apart. Moreover, their identification with each other must actually matter. Certain groups, such as people experiencing homelessness or those who are obese, may be marginalized but don't create societies with identities of their own. Neither do sick or disabled chimps or elephants, even when others treat them as outcasts. These outliers fail to bond since they do not see others with their condition in a good light. They lack what psychologists describe as positive distinctiveness.

Hence the insights of psychologists suggest that the members of a start-up society will toil to distinguish themselves favorably. To achieve this, they improvise cherished attributes or express old ones in a special way. The process is analogous to the development of traits that biologists studying the divergence of species call isolating mechanisms. Whatever commonalities remain with the other society can be denied or ignored. Like divorcees not on speaking terms, the societies can break off contact, which would mean any shared history would be eschewed or forgotten. Regardless, no matter how alike the newbie societies might seem to outside eyes, reunification would quickly be impossible.

From: Moffett, The Human Swarm, pp. 261-262

10 juni 2020


There was nothing in the near-infinite compendium of EU rules and trade protocols of the customs union that prevented a member state from reversing the circulation of its finances. That did not quite represent permission. Or did it? It was a defining principle of an open society that everything was lawful until there was a law against it. Beyond Europe’s eastern borders, in Russia, China and all the totalitarian states of the world, everything was illegal unless the state sanctioned it. In the corridors of the EU, no one had ever thought of excluding the reverse flow of money from acceptable practice because no one had ever heard of the idea. Even if someone had, it would have been difficult to define the legal or philosophical principles by which it should be illegal. An appeal to basics would not have helped. Everyone knew that in every single law of physics, except one, there was no logical reason why the phenomena described could not run backwards as well as forwards. The famous exception was the second law of thermodynamics. In that beautiful construct, time was bound to run in one direction only. The Reversalism was a special case of the second law and therefore in breach of it! Or was it? This question was hotly debated in the Strasbourg Parliament right up until the morning the members had to decamp to Brussels, as they frequently had to. By the time they had arrived and unpacked and enjoyed a decent lunch, everyone had lost the thread, even when a theoretical physicist came specially from the CERN laboratories to set everything straight in less than three hours with some interesting equations. Besides, the next day a further question arose. Would what the scientist said remain true if he’d said it in reverse?

— McEwan, The Cockroach

2 juni 2020

GPT-3: Filtrering eller resonemang?

Kilchers beskrivning känns uppenbart riktig, snudd på trivial. Att artikelförfattarna överdriver hur mycket, och vilken typ av ’resonerande’ som försiggår är förvånande och närmast pinsamt.

Visst finns det mycket som är imponerande, eller åtminstone anmärkningsvärt kraftfullt. (Wow-faktorn minskar ju i proportion till hur mycket tid och plats modellen och träningen har fått.)

Och visst kan det få stora, och eventuellt negativa konsekvenser om det blir riktigt lätt att generera hyfsat kontextkänsliga och åtminstone hyfsat ’unika’ texter vars artificiella upphov inte alltid lätt går att upptäcka.

Och visst kan man tänka sig att detta blir särskilt pikant om och när det kombineras med mer avancerat resonerande.

Men att påstå att den här mekanismen utför något mer än just det Kilcher säger - det verkar bara dumt.

Sen kan man ju alltid fråga sig var gränsen går mellan plagiat och ’försteåelse’, ’kunskap’, ’kompetens’... Om en elev/student får i uppgift att, säg, skriva en resonerande uppsats och lämnar in en kopia av en befintlig text, så är det ett uppenbart plagiat och inget bevis på egen förståelse. Om eleven läser och klipper och klistrar från flera olika texter på ämnet så är risken fortfarande stor att inlämningen flaggas i Urkund.

Men, bortsett från det verkligt originella, är det inte detta alla gör - och uppmanas att göra! - både för att lära sig och för att uppvisa bevis på att lärande har skett? Åtminstone om vi låter mängden lästa och ’plagierade’ texter och textsnuttar växa tillräckligt mycket. Och hur många uppsatser, skrivna ’med egna ord’, ärligt uppsåt och vad vi skulle erkänna som genuin förståelse, kunskap och kompetens, skulle godkännas om vi uppgraderade Urkund till GPT3? (Beroende på hur vi ställer in och tolkar granularitet och känslighet.)

Detta gäller förstås - hittills - bara i specifika typer av uppgifter, som egentligen inte kräver mer flexibilitet än vad GPT3 uppvisar. Men de är ju faktiskt väldigt vanliga i verkligheten. (Om än inte tillräckliga.)

Det mest intressanta var väl det om ’explicability’. Det verkar ju faktiskt vara ganska straightforward i just denna typ av fall. Och det går säkert att generalisera. Men troligen kommer förklaringarna att kännas mer otillfredsställande, ju svårare uppgiften hade varit för en människa att, i princip, utföra. Förklaringen finns där, men (den oreducerbara) komplexiteten och/eller den upplevda irrelevansen (i förhållande till mänskliga kognitiva begränsningar eller tankekulturer) kommer troligtvis att motverka den nytta som man hoppas få.

31 maj 2020

Intellectual asceticism and the collapse of Western civilization

"These so-called 'holistic' approaches still focused almost entirely on natural systems, omitting from consideration the social components. Yet in many cases the social components were the dominant system drivers. It was often said, for example, that climate change was caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Scientists understood that those greenhouse gases were accumulating because of the activities of human beings: deforestation and fossil fuel combustion. Yet they rarely said that the cause was people and their patterns of conspicuous consumption.

"Other scholars have looked to the roots of Western natural science and religious institutions. Just as religious orders of prior centuries had demonstrated moral rigor through extreme practices asceticism in dress, lodging, behavior and food - in essence, practices of physical denial - so too did physical scientists of the 20th and 21st centuries attempt to demonstrate their intellectual rigor through practices of intellectual self-denial.

"These practices led scientists to demand an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind, even those involving imminent threats. In an almost childlike attempt to demarcate their practices from those of older explanatory traditions scientists felt it necessary to prove to themselves and the world how strict they were in their intellectual standards. Thus they places the burden of proof on novel claims, even empirical claims about phenomena that their theories predicted. This included claims about changes in the climate.

"Some scientists in the early 21st century, for example, had recognized that hurricanes were intensifying. This was consistent with the expectation, based on physical theory, that warmer sea surface temperatures in regions of cyclogenesis could - and likely would - drive either more hurricanes or more intense ones. However, they backed away from this conclusion under pressure from their scientific colleagues.

"Much of the argument surrounded the concept of statistical significance. Given what we now know about the dominance of nonlinear systems and the distribution of stochastic processes, the then-dominant notion of a 95 % confidence limit is hard to fathom. Yet, overwhelming evidence suggests that 20th century scientists believed that a claim could be accepted only if, by the standards of Fisherian statistics, the possibility that an observed event could have happened by chance was less than one in twenty.

"Many phenomena whose causal mechanisms were physically, chemically or biologically linked to warmer temperatures were dismissed as unproven because they did not adhere to the standards of demonstration.

"Historians have long argued about why this standard was accepted, given that it had neither epistemological nor substantive mathematical basis. We have come to understand the 95 % confidence limit as a social convention  rooted in scientists' desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity.

"Western scientists built an intellectual culture based on the premise that it was worse to fool oneself into believing in something that did not exist than not to believe in something that did. Scientists referred to these positions  respectively as type 1 and type 2 errors, and established protocols designed to avoid type 1 errors at almost all costs. One scientist wrote: 'A type 1 error is often considered to be more serious and therefore more important to avoid than a type 2 error.' Another claimed that type 2 errors were not errors at all, just missed opportunities.

"So while the pattern of weather events was clearly changing many scientists insisted that these events could not yet be attributed with certainty to anthropogenic climate change. Even as lay citizens began to accept this link, the scientists who studied it did not. More important, political leaders came to believe that they had more time to act than they really did.

"The irony of these beliefs need not be dwelt on"


Transcribed from: Oreskes & Conway, "The Collapse of Western Civilization" (2014/2018), chapter 2 in the audio version, minutes 8-13.

23 maj 2020

The tribalism dogma

Given that, for significant numbers of humans, the First and Second Great Expansions have occurred, people who subscribe to the dogma that human beings have a tribalistic moral nature have two main options. Either they can give up the dogma entirely and admit that they simply didn't appreciate the flexibility of the moral mind because they confused the moral mind with the kind of moralities it was first expressed in; or they can soften the dogma by acknowledging that culture has stretched the tribalistic evolutionary leash in some cases, but assert that its doing so was a matter of going against our evolutionary grain, and that consequently any shift toward inclusion is bound to be anemic and unstable.

Obviously, I think the first response is the best: the belief that we are beings with a tribalistic moral nature should just be abandoned. To those who take the second option, my reply is simple: given that human moralities exhibit great diversity and that some people's moralities are not tribalistic, why should we say that our moral nature is tribalistic? It won't do for the die-hard defender of the dogma to cite evidence of the pervasiveness of tribalistic moral attitudes and beliefs, whether the evidence is historical or based on experiments, even if it is cross-cultural, because any such evidence is compatible with the hypothesis that our moral nature (the moral mind) is neither tribalistic nor inclusive, but rather so flexible as to be capable of being expressed in either tribalistic or inclusive moralities, depending on the environment.

In other words, to take historical or experimental evidence of tribalistic moral attitudes or behavior as conclusive confirmation of the thesis that humans have a tribalistic moral nature is to ignore the biased-sample problem I noted earlier. If the human-constructed niches in which the moral mind can get expressed in inclusive moralities are rare and recent, then concluding that human moral nature is tribalistic because most human moralities have been like that would be no more cogent than concluding that water flea nature includes protective spines and helmets because most of the water fleas you happened to have observed has those features.

The tribalism dogmatist has recourse to one last desperate fallback position: he can admit that human moral nature sometimes permits nontribalistic moralities, but insist that tribalism nevertheless is part of the moral mind itself, and that it is therefore still accurate to say that humans have a tribalistic moral nature. For the reasons given in the preceding paragraph, I don't think that we should say that tribalism is an element of our basic moral psychology, part of the moral mind itself - unless we quickly add that the moral mind also includes the capacity for inclusion. But if one grants that the moral mind is tribalistic in that weak sense - that tribalism is only one aspect of a moral nature that also encompasses inclusion, the result is a Pyrrhic victory.

Why? Because the thesis that humans have a tribalistic moral nature loses its punch if one admits that humans can act contrary to that aspect of their nature because of another aspect of their nature, namely, their capacity for inclusive morality. Admitting that our moral nature is dualistic saps the force of the assertion that we have a tribalistic moral nature.

Suppose that the last-ditch tribal dogmatist rejects the idea that our moral nature is dualistic and in response to the obvious fact that some moralities are now inclusive says that inclusion nonetheless goes against our nature. That is, suppose that he still asserts that our moral nature is tribalistic, period, not tribalistic and inclusive. Allowing for our moral nature to be overridden - saying, in effect, that we can act "unnaturally" - dilutes the notion of the nature of a thing. And that greatly reduces the interest and importance of the grand thesis that we are beings with a tribalistic moral nature. It also renders that thesis incapable of yielding any significant predictions about the scope of potential moral change or the space of possible moralities.

What I have to say in this book will still be important even if you dispense with talk of human moral nature altogether and fall back to a weaker, much less sexy thesis: namely, that human beings, by virtue of their evolutionary history, are predisposed to behave in a morally tribalistic way. To say that they are predisposed to tribalism means that exhibiting tribalistic moralities is the default position for humans, the way they tend to act, even if that tendency is sometimes not realized because of cultural influences. Its the default position, because the disposition to tribalism is an especially powerful aspect of our moral psychology.

If you hold that much weaker thesis, you can read me this way: I will show that in spite of this supposed predisposition, some humans have developed inclusive moralities, moralities that are not merely aspirational but socially and politically potent; and I will explain how they did that. In other words, I'll explain how they moved from situations in which that supposed predisposition largely determined the character of human moralities to situations in which that predisposition was inhibited or overridden or neutralized to such an extent that they developed inclusive moralities. In explaining this shift, I will show that the supposed predisposition to tribalism is not nearly as severe as one might think. I'll show that inclusive moralities are likely to persist, if the environments that are friendly to them are sustained. Inclusive moralities are fragile, in the sense that the capacity for tribalism never disappears; but that doesn't mean that inclusive moralities are inherently unstable and doomed to decay.

Finally, let me emphasize that there is a way of interpreting the experimental and historical evidence of tribalistic moral attitudes and behaviors that is compatible with rejecting the Tribalism Dogma, even in its weaker forms. Such evidence can be explained without concluding that humans have an especially powerful, deeply rooted, biologically based predisposition to tribalism if we make the following reasonable assumptions: (1) the moral mind is highly flexible; (2) most humans have lived in environments in which that flexibility issued in tribalistic moralities; (3) culture has developed in ways that sustain tribalistic moralities, even when they no longer promote reproductive fitness and are no longer necessary for successful cooperation; and (4) some people have an interest in maintaining (or resurrecting) tribalistic tendencies and they have the ability to do so effectively.

Each of these assumptions is highly credible. [...]

From: Allen Buchanan (2020),
Our Moral Fate: Evolution and the Escape from Tribalism,
MIT Press, Cambridge: MA.,
pp. 25-28