Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

Different people. Different values. Can’t we all just get along?

Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene. We need an ethical code that transcends each particular ethical code.

And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. That’s it. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad. Act accordingly.

Can we agree on that?

Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?

As for me, I must say, I am convinced…in theory at least. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now; specifically, Kant and John Stuart Mill. Kant I named my son after. Kant’s morality is a strict, rule based, “no exceptions” kind of system (never lie, never kill, never cheat, never steal). You can think of it as a religious ethics with a rational foundation. Kant also didn’t think that happiness was the most important thing (Mill did). John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. His system, as I mentioned, is very simple: morality has one rule: in all your actions, reduce suffering the most and maximize happiness the most impartially (counting yourself as only one person). It’s hard to disagree with that. Finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. This book says that Kant is right and Mill is right, depending on which context you find yourself in. Within groups, Kantian morally works the best. Which means that when dealing with your family, friends, and church, you should be a strict Kantian. Never cheat on your wife. But when it comes to dealing with “others,” with global issues, public policy — then you should put on your utilitarian hat and start calculating, weighting, crunching the numbers. Sometimes you have to break an egg for the greater good.

I was so blown away by this conclusion, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.

But…

The end of the book, which is supposed to apply the theory to actual cases (conflicts between groups), is very deflating and depressing. He only talks about abortion in detail, and that discussion was painfully abstract and intellectual (after making a strong case for pro-life and pro-choice, he falls on pro-choice). You can tell he is trying to make everyone happy. Does he really expect normal people to be able to philosophize in this way? The tree is good, but not its fruit. It almost feels like he built up all my expectations, and then, at the end when it really counts, he quits. Utilitarianism, which on the face is very simple and powerful,  ends up being very complex, abstract, and subtle – a puff of smoke. Worse, his version of utilitarianism ends up being very close to what everyone already believes: punishment is good, inequality is okay (some), buying presents for your kid is good, capitalism is just fine. All things that, on the face of it, are not utilitarian. The message, at the end of the day: just be a little less selfish, a little more altruistic, okay? He even calls himself a hypocrite at one point for not being a “true” utilitarian. C’mon Greene, where’s your balls? That’s why I have such respect for guys like Jesus or Gandhi. They set the bar extremely high and put their life into it, they make no excuses and make no accommodations for the morally weak. They say: love your enemies. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it goes against human nature and how our brains are wired. Do it anyway. And they did. And you can too.

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Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

Women are more religious than men. Why?

According to Pew, “Atheists and agnostics are much more likely to be male (64%) than female (36%).” Not only that, women are more religious when it comes to a variety of measures:

http://www.pewforum.org/2009/02/26/the-stronger-sex-spiritually-speaking/

But why? Well, I’ll take my best shot at it. First, my short answer:
Women are more empathetic then men. Religion is tied to empathy. Therefore, women are more religious.

Not convinced? Let me explain. I admit this is a bit of a stretch, and I hate to shit on my own gender; but here’s my long answer:

Let’s start by asking: Are men different from women at all? Yes, I think we all agree. In what ways? Well, size and musculature, but that doesn’t seem to be relevant, does it? What else… We know men have more testosterone which is linked to aggression. We also know that women have more oxytocin which is linked to cooperation and empathy (the so called “love” hormone, which now conveniently comes in nasal spray form!). Okay… How does this link to religion? Hmm. Broadly speaking, if you look at religion without prejudice, I think it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that religion generally promotes cooperation (especially within-group), good will towards others, empathy, and love. For example, the entire core of Jesus teachings is two-fold: love God, and treat others as you would like to be treated. Indeed, the golden rule is at the core of all major religions. Therefore, if women tend to be more empathetic then men, then they will be more religious than men. And they are. Oh crap. Am I making a link between morality (empathy) and religion? Yes, I am. Again, this is just my best guess really, I’m not claiming these links are rock solid. Perhaps the different between men and women is not big enough to even require an explanation.

Women are more religious than men. Why?

atheism and intelligence: is there a link?

No. Judging by the latest statistics by Pew (a reputable, unbiased source for this kind of information), there is no link, not in America at least (I didn’t look into other countries yet). I’m not saying atheists are dumb by any means, far from it (I would guess that minorities who have to defend intellectual positions tend to be smarter than normal actually). But, let’s be clear here: it would be flat out incorrect to say that smart people tend to be atheists. Not even close.

The Numbers
What if we filled an auditorium will all the very smart people who have attained post-graduate degrees? What percentage of those people, do you think, would be atheists? The answer is 3%. Of all the really smart people, only 3% are atheists. 68% would be Christian, 6% Jewish, 2% Buddhist, 2% Hindu, 1% Muslim. 5% are agnostic and 8% are “secular unaffiliated”. So a fairly religious bunch of people (over 80%). Now, let’s imagine a room of people who are smart but slightly less smart. What if we filled an auditorium will all the smart people who have graduated college? What percentage of those people, do you think, would be atheists? The answer is only 2%; even less atheistic, a little more Christian but less Jewish. Again, a fairly religious bunch of people (over 80%).
source: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-chapter-3.pdf
So the point is fairly clear: the link between intelligence and atheism, although talked about by some people, is really not there. In getting smarter, we do not lose God. To make a connection, to even start the conversation you simply need more atheists to begin with. Out of all the people in America, only 2% are atheist. That’s such a small number, it’s hard to really say anything about it. However, you could say, perhaps, that people who happen to be atheists also happen to be smart. In other words, you could analyze the small group internally to find out more about it. So you could say “atheist people tend to be smart,” but you cannot flip that around: “smart people tend to be atheist”–that’s clearly not true. We are talking about 2% of the population here! Obviously there are tons more smart people who are religious (shown above), so that’s really not an argument that atheism wants to make (unless they want to be very elitist and arrogant and claim that 98% of Americans are really dumb, even all the ones with degrees). 
What about You?
Do you fall in line with these statistics? Or do they not match for you? As for me, they do match. I have a Master’s degree and consider myself a Christian. So I’m part of the 68%. If you do not match, either you are weird or not a real American. Just kidding. ha. 
Of course, all these statistics do not speak to the deeper truth that “religion,” “Christianity,” and “atheism” are all very complex things, complex ideas. Like people, they really cannot be pinned down without the category bursting at some point. What’s in a label? Sure, I’m “religious” I suppose (in my heart, attitude, mindset); but I don’t go to church. Sure, I’m “Christian,” but I don’t believe in the Trinity doctrine. You get the point.
There are so many other fascinating statistics and trends when it comes to religion. Another time.
atheism and intelligence: is there a link?

in praise of the moderate person (Churchill, not you buddy)

We pay attention to the loud people, the extreme, the newsworthy. Instead of the person who silently pays his taxes and goes to work, we lend our ears to the idiot Texas rancher, grazing cattle on federal land, who doesn’t believe in the federal government, is racist, and is part of a militia that apparently would use their wives as shields. Why are we listening to this guy? Who gets a voice? Or how about Mike Tyson, who is now the darling of the UFC, a guy who probably raped several women. Instead of listening to public debates with big ideas, we consume pointless details of the lives of the rich and famous: brainless, materialistic, drug addicted nobodies that history will not remember. We praise the guy who runs around telling people: “I’ve been sober for a year now!” Congratulations! What about the guy who never had a problem to begin with? Is there a way to praise him? We love the person who lost 300 pounds, but what about the person who was never obese to begin with? It’s fascinating how much we cling to underdogs, to people who did something horrible and then turned their life around (like the apostle Paul, who we all love of course but certainly wasn’t the best apostle by a long shot…wink wink).What about the person who drinks in moderation, eats in moderation, and (most importantly) thinks in moderation? What about the person who lives a quiet, moderate, good and simple life? The people who never do anything horrible to anyone? Forget about giving to charity, just stop the nonsense, right?

Aristotle thought that virtue was essentially being a moderate person – or, as he put it, aiming at the “mean” between two “extremes.” So, for example, never steal but also never give all your stuff away; instead, aim for the middle path, between those two extremes. Was Aristotle right? Is moderation the king of all virtues?

Luckily, on the whole, the typical person actually is moderate. Americans, for example, contrary to what we hear in the news, are moderate people with moderate views, even politically. That’s just how it is. So cheers to that.

I must admit, I do love reading biographies about the heroes of history. And I do think history if largely the biography of great and horrible men. But even our most cherished heroes, real heroes like Gandhi, led such extreme lives that they sacrificed certain virtues for others. At one point Gandhi disowned his son. MLK cheated on his wife, Einstein was a bad husband, Saint Francis of Assisi despised his body. And, even worse, why do we make up heroes? Why, for example, do we pay lip service to the war mongering, manly man Winston Churchill? With all the actual heroes to choose from, we choose him? really? (I really shouldn’t pick on Churchill, I’ve only watched a couple TV programs on his life and was totally disgusted by it…history buffs feel free to correct my view on this amazing man who pulled a country through a horrible war…(as if history buffs read my blog).

So raise up a beer and drink to the moderate. Don’t drink to much!

in praise of the moderate person (Churchill, not you buddy)

to my fellow Believers: evolution is true. Move on.

If you believe in God, you do not need to worry about evolution. I’ve spent most of my life thinking about religion and science, so trust me. It’s all good. Or, don’t take my word for it. Here is Charles Darwin himself on evolution: “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume [Origin of Species] should shock the religious feelings of any one.” In fact, here’s my best advice to any religious person who worries about evolution: go read Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. You might be surprised. I read it. I loved it. As a religious person myself, it made a ton of sense to me, it gave me another way to think about God. Just please read it – or stop having an opinion about it.

I would like to stop here. It’s really not worth the effort. The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that evolution by natural selection is true (they disagree on the details). Scientists are real people like you and me. There is no conspiracy here. Can we please just accept it, be humble, and move on? That should be enough. Why waste our breath.

Okay, fine. Let’s play on.

I suppose it’s a little more complicated than this. In all honesty science does make us change our religious beliefs sometimes. And that can be hard for some people. Smart theologians, like Augustine, were well aware of this. They said you should never read the Bible as a scientific text. That solves the problem before it starts. So if the Bible implies that the sun moves around the sun, then stop reading it as a book about astronomy; treat it as a metaphor (or myth, or just disregard it…they obviously didn’t know that back then, c’mon give them a break!). With evolution this is no exception. If you believe that God created human beings in one instant – as if we just popped into existence like some ghost or something – if you believe that, then you probably have to reconsider. Human beings were created very slowly on this earth, over millions of years. We adapted, mutated, procreated, changed, and fit into our habitat the best we could. We all have common ancestors, we all share roots, we are all connected to animals, to life, to everything. That’s how God chose to do it, and it’s amazing if you think about it. Like the heliocentric theory, it’s humbling.

Consider this: Evolution is a beautiful system that you could thank God for (I do)

We wouldn’t be here if not for evolution! Evolution is a system whereby the species that are best fit for a particular environment survive. If you believe in God, then you believe that God “thought up” the system, engineered it, guided it, made its’ laws. If you don’t believe in God, then evolution stands on its own. No harm in that, right? But let’s be clear: evolution allows species to adapt and thrive. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty smart to me, pretty wise from a survival standpoint. Let’s just say that if it wasn’t this way, if survival depended on blue eyes or short legs instead, the endangered species list would be much, much longer. We would’t be around to enjoy our huge brains.

Evolution says we came from monkeys!
Well, apes actually. Chimps and Bonobos are our cousins. The point is that we all come from common ancestors, a tree of life with probably one trunk – which means we all probably came from a single-celled organism. God made us from dust, and to dust we go, right? I find it humbling that we came from animals. The moral message is clear: respect animals, respect life, respect the earth. Again, when moral principles are practically written into nature, as discovered by science, we should probably be thanking God.

But Richard Dawkins says…
Don’t listen to him. He’s dumb (as a philosopher, not as a scientist).

Doesn’t evolution paint a bloody picture of nature?
Animals that are not fit to survive tend to die out, yes. And animals fight over resources. I suppose you could call that harsh. But how could it be any other way? The earth is finite, resources are finite. Luckily human beings have the ability to transcend this. “Blessed are the meek, the downtrodden,” says Jesus. We don’t need to kill our weak, or let them die. Because we have morality. However, we are not off the hook just yet. There is something to this. God is all powerful. Could He have made a better system? Perhaps. Something to think about at least.

to my fellow Believers: evolution is true. Move on.

Why I still love my ex girlfriends and always will

I am not ashamed to admit that I still love my ex girlfriends. Rather than suppressing, I celebrate. Our love passed the test: it was real. It’s a beautiful thing and the greatest gift from God. I admit, nothing compares to my marriage, and my past relationships were not perfect by any means – nothing close to the near-perfection I actually have with my wife – but when I think of Elyse, or Tracy, as I do occasionally, I feel nothing but love, fondness, and well wishes. There is really no other emotion to explain it. It’s pure, and I’m grateful.

Of course the lust is gone; but lust, as we know, is only a small part of the picture. I feel privileged to have had such an intimate connection with other human beings. To have learned, laughed, and cried with them. In a world of isolation and sadness, true love is the greatest privilege of all. Does wealth compare? fame? power? No. Love cares not for time, or distance. It simply is. We know that. Love has a way of sticking, even haunting. Elyse and Tracy invade my dreams, my unconscious, my thoughts. My wife and I both talk about our past relationships on occasion, which is productive. It helps to remember what you learned. I thank her for open-mindedness. Elyse and Tracy represent my evolution as a person, my education of how to love (and how not to love – just as important) – a better education than all the books at the library.

Love has a way of erasing bad memories. That’s called forgiveness. Without it, all you have are bitter memories. Given the circumstances, I could be bitter. But I’m not. Thank God. Thank my psychology. Even if I remember Elyse at her worst, I am glad we both learned lessons. I know that, whoever Elyse is with now, she is better. I’m glad to be part of that. I remember breaking up with Tracy Waitz because, embarrassingly, I hadn’t reached puberty yet. We couldn’t take “the next step” because I wasn’t ready yet (biologically speaking). In hindsight, it makes our relationship precious, innocent, and interesting.
The fact that we can love many women at the same time is not more surprising than the fact that we can love many men at the same time. It’s a very odd thing that I have an extra special place in my heart for all my high school friends: DJ, Dylan, Jared. There is something really special, I think, about first relationships. Even though we rarely speak, I love Jared Hoffman as much now as any time.
We need to stop worrying about sex so much, it’s an extension of love we give to one person. I believe we put too much pressure on romantic relationships, as if they are the most special thing in the world. Really? What about your mother? daughter? humanity? Keep it simple. Don’t get me wrong, sex is an amazing thing. But when we consider the depth and breadth of love proper, sex is an add-on, a decoration. Well, I take that back. It’s rather the capstone to a perfect union, it’s symbolic of the most intimacy you can have physically with another person. And by God it produces a baby! But the foundation – agape love, compassion – is the same exact thing you share with your mother, your friend, your son, even God.
And when I am old, and the end is near, love will be my only solace: perhaps I will still think of Elyse and Tracy with a smile. Perhaps they will fade. What matters, I think, is that we all took part in something greater than ourselves.
Why I still love my ex girlfriends and always will

How I payed off my Student Loans

I’m so happy to say that as of today, May 1st 2014 – over a decade after college began – my student loans are no more. That includes undergraduate and graduate loans, about 25k each (at least..I’m afraid to look). So long! The horrible weight has been lifted.

Here’s how I did it.

1. I lived in Poverty

When you are $50,000+ in debt, you are poor. Simple as that. You might not think you’re poor, but you are. Therefore, you should live that way. Don’t live like other people. Bad news: the chance you will get job in your field is about 50%. Good news: your education will probably pay off financially in the long run. But for now, you still need to aggressively pay off those loans. With 7% interest rate, time is not on your side. Interest will sap your soul.

As for me, I’m naturally a simple man for the most part. That helped. I don’t buy much crap. Stoicism: “knowing that you have enough is abiding contentment indeed.” As Jesus said, don’t be worldly. I remember living in a really shitty, cold, small studio apartment one year, sleeping on an air mattress, working well over 40 hours in food service jobs. The floor was so cold that I would wake up because the air mattress was completely deflated. Yet I loved living there. A guitar and a laptop were my biggest expenses (the laptop I needed for an online degree). And a fridge full of Natty Light. I never had cable, just Internet. No smart phone. I didn’t buy a TV until recently (it was for hulu, not cable). We walk to work. I rarely buy clothes, we eat out once a week, never go to the movies, rarely buy gifts for other people (my wife and I rarely buy gifts for each other). We use freecycle, garage sales, and hand-me-downs. I cut my own hair, brew my own beer, and roast my own coffee. As for hobbies and entertainment, a library card works 90% of the time.

The point of living in poverty, of course, is to free up all extra income, pumping a large percentage into your debt. But – this is really important – you still have to invest some of that money into your retirement (401k, IRA). If you can. That’s also a numbers game. I once read a Dummies book on investing, which opened my eyes. Time is not on your side if you wait to invest.

2. I got a decent job

It’s hard to pump all your money into student loans when you are working well over 40 hours in food service jobs. You get by. Then something amazing happened. Liberals like me call it a “living wage.” Luckily, I was able to get a one at the library, getting my Master’s Degree in Library Science at the same time (another huge debt). I was able to pay off some of my undergraduate student loans while I was getting the degree.

Every month counts, every payment counts. A few promotions later, I was making extremely aggressive payments: $1,000 dollar payments every other month, sometimes even more. When you are 50 grand in debt, that’s a drop in the bucket. Importantly, I was still putting money into my 403(b) for retirement.

Unbelievably, I was able to actually start a family and have a kid. It’s sad to say that many people my age are not able to do this because of their massive student loan debt. This is a political issue, but blaming it on politics will not make your loans go away. I’ll save that for another post.

3. Help from my wife

Perhaps most importantly – and you probably think this is cheating, that’s okay – my wife agreed to help me out by giving me a 0% interest loan, which took care of some of my student debt (about 1/3 or so). I had already payed several thousand dollars in interest alone at this point. I’m extremely lucky, but this saves our family thousands of dollars in future interest that I would be paying to Citibank, or SallieMay, or Educationloans.org, or the various other banks that have “serviced” my loan (yeah, it’s fucking ridiculous that private companies make huge profits off so called “federal” student loans, but I won’t go there). Anyway, without her help, I would be paying for years to come (maybe 2 years). Now, I can pay her off much faster.

Not only that, but my wife must have lived during the Great Depression. She is the epitome of frugality, an amazing saver, and a great example to me. She was raised that way. She could save money on minimum wage – she’s that good.

4. Pay aggressively

There is only one smart way to pay off your loans–aggressive, often, and as much as possible. To make the “minimal” payment is absurd. And forget about stupid payment plans – that will make them rich and you poor; you will never be able to start a life that way; the debt will hover over your entire life like a black cloud. Live poorly, get a living wage, and pay aggressively – and some day, just some day, you might be able to buy a house, have a kid, or do other things you want to do. Good luck!

How I payed off my Student Loans