Lying by Omission

Lying is wrong, but most people think that lying by omission is special. I partly agree.

Lying by Omission is not

You don’t have to share every detail of your life with everyone, especially when they are not asking for it. For example, if you are afraid to tell your parents about your religious beliefs, you don’t have to (you also shouldn’t be afraid). If you feel compelled to tell a girl walking by that you want to have sex with her, you don’t have to (= shouldn’t). If you are gay and not ready to come out of the closet, you don’t have to (unless you have a girlfriend or boyfriend). If somebody expresses an opinion, and you don’t want to reply with your own, you don’t have to. However, in a perfect world, we would all be able to express ourselves freely to anyone. You also don’t have to tell people what you think of them, just because they are in front of you. That’s just being mean.
What about so called ‘little white lies,’ telling your wife she looks good when she looks bad? I don’t believe it. You married your wife. She’s always beautiful. End of story. If her new haircut sucks, tell her the truth.

A Simple Test

Lying is intentionally giving someone wrong information, while lying by omission is intentionally leaving out information that someone deserves. Lying by omission, I think, is wrong when you are asked a question and don’t fully answer it. You leave out facts that are relevant, details that the person asking would probably want to know. However, a person doesn’t have to ask the question. Some people simply have a right to information, whether they ask or not. When? A good test is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you want to know? Then yes, pray tell sir. The golden rule shows up again. The fact that your information will hurt someone is not the relevant consideration, although it helps to think about. Do they deserve the truth? – that’s more relevant.

“Nazis. I hate these guys.” -Indiana Jones

Immanuel Kant would say the same thing, considering this ridiculous example that breaks down the rule that lying is always wrong. Nazis show up at your door. “Are you hiding Jews?” they say. “No,” you say. “I’m not hiding any Jews.” But, secretly, in your head, you’re thinking: “I’m hiding people, but not Jews; I don’t consider them ‘Jews,” as you do. Well, that’s very crafty wordplay, but clearly that’s lying by omission. If you put yourself in their shoes (scary), they clearly want to know that information. And of course, looked at in hindsight with all the information about what the Nazi’s were up to, it’s the right call. You should not let Nazis kill people. When faced with radical evil, the rules bend I suppose. Statistically, a case like this will not happen to you. It’s just a philosophical thought experiment which helps to prove the rule it was intended to break: that lying is wrong (except when Nazis are at your door and you know the future).

Lying by Omission

Morality: Does it Depend on the Situation? (No)

When it comes to doing the right thing, we have all heard people say “it depends on the situation.” I’m convinced that’s false; it’s a trap, it’s a temptation to justify the wrong we are about to do.

You cheat on your wife. Do you tell her? Yes.
You lie on your resume. Is that okay? No.
You accidentally ran over the pet dog and killed it. Do you tell the owners? Yes. Do you tell your kids a different story? No.

Upon reflection, everyone agrees that lying, for example, is wrong in most situations. Honesty is the best policy. Of course we could make up silly little hypothetical scenarios where lying would be okay, and that would be jolly fun, and that’s what freshmen philosophy majors are best at – but let’s get real for a minute here. Moral decisions are made in real time, in real life, involving real people. When is lying actual okay?

How about never. Smoke that in your pipe, son. Let’s think about the psychology of lying. It’s not until people get into hot water that they consider lying to be a viable option. That should be an immediate hint: it’s wrong, whispers the angel on our shoulder. But, when emotions are involved, we don’t think right. “Well,” we say, “in this situation, lying is okay because of x, y, and z.” We calculate, add, subtract. But that’s backwards. (1) We do something stupid. (2) Then we lie. (3) Then we justify. Coward! Your situation is not special. You are not more special than anyone else.

How about this: (1) we rationally conclude that lying is wrong. (2) We do something stupid. (3) We tell the truth. Even better: we don’t do something stupid in the first place. Morality, after all, is good habits of thought followed by good habits of action. The goal of morality is to live such a virtue-filled life that vice has no place, no time, no situation to live in.

Jesus might have said something like this: You are only honest when the cost is low. Even sinners do that! Be honest when the cost is great. Then you will know sacrifice and forgiveness. Now live in honestly and truth: now you enter the Kingdom of God.

Lying Contradicts the Idea of Communication

Everyone deserves the truth, including yourself (we lie to ourselves perhaps most of all). The fundamental purpose of communication is to tell the truth, to share information. If you think about lying abstractly, you realize that it goes against the very core of human communication; it explodes the whole system. It’s an exception to the rule which breaks the system. Immanuel Kant saw the absurdity in lying and all other irrational vices.  He had the brilliant, simple mind to see that morality involves a few, simple, rock-solid principles that should be followed: never lie, never cheat, never steal, never hurt people, etc. And the means do not justify the ends. Day-to-day morality doesn’t have to be so complicated.  He simplified morality into a test: do not act on those principles that cannot be universalized for everyone. Everyone can’t lie; therefore you can’t lie. We are all legislators in the same moral community. Don’t be the dick head with special interest groups writing your legislation and ruining our lives.

Now, I don’t want to sound like morality is so simple all the time. But I do think it’s simple most of the time, especially when it comes to negative morality (the “thou shalt not” stuff). However, sometimes we really do find ourselves in a moral predicament. Sometimes our values clash and compete with each other. Good luck!

Morality: Does it Depend on the Situation? (No)

Do Morals Come from the Will of God?

This is an old puzzle that comes from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro: if something is wrong simply because God says so, then morality sounds a little arbitrary. For example, what if God said murder was good?–would that make it good? (please don’t say yes psycho). On the other hand, if something is good for independent reasons, independent from God’s will, then morality sounds like it’s…well, independent of God, which is presumably bad for religion (so some people think). Thus I’m in a pickle. For God fearing philosophers like me, I want both. I want morality to be connected to God in some way, but not in a way that leaves out tons of people.

Jeremy Bentham, the atheist Utilitarian philosopher, thought that morality rests upon an independent principle “apart” from God so to speak. That independent principle was this: good is maximizing happiness and minimizing pain. That’s it. But he left room for God. He said that if God exists, then God would operate under this principle:

“The dictates of religion would coincide, in all cases, with those of utility, were the Being, who is the object of religion, universally supposed to be as benevolent as he is supposed to be wise and powerful…Unhappily, however, neither of these is the case…there seem to be but few…who are real believers in his benevolence…if they did, they would recognize that the dictates of religion could be neither more nor less than the dictates of utility: not a tittle different” (125).

In other words, God would be the best embodiment of utilitarian morality. However, people would not have to go through God (or the Bible) to get to morality. Anyone with half a brain can figure it out.

Kant, on the other hand, did believe in God, but he too thought that morality must not depend on God’s will or the Bible, but instead on God’s Reason (that is, reason, or rational thinking). Why? Because nobody really knows what God’s will is; people disagree and that causes a lot problems. Morality, Kant says, must be reasonable, accessible to all, and quite simple: only act on those principles which can be universalized to all. Through this principle we get to the Golden Rule – never treat people as a means but as ends-in-themselves – and we get many of the 10 commandments.

My opinion is in line with Kant. I do think that morals “come from God” simply because everything comes from God, by definition. But how do people access morality? That’s the question. Where do we actually get it? What or who is the gatekeeper? Our parents? Yeah sure sometimes. Religion? Yeah, many times. But where does religion get it from? Like Kant, I think Reason (our minds) ought to the be ultimate judge of what’s right and wrong. In the same way that human beings come from evolution and God, morality comes from Reason and God.

Of course empathy is a huge natural component as well. Empathy, when found in a compassionate, rational, and open-minded person – that’s a beautiful thing.

Do Morals Come from the Will of God?

Testosterone Sucks. Why are Men Needed?

Women are better than men. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Look around dude. Historically, men have dominated women since the beginning, which still continues today. That’s bad enough. But women outmatch men on just about every moral indicator: crime rates, rape, domestic violence, murder, (“murders by women are so rare that they don’t even show up meaningfully in the crime statistics” p.78), ability to trust, giving, sharing, and empathy. Men are psychopaths, sociopaths, and serial killers. These are generalizations of course but they are true as such.

The explanation, according this this wonderful book by Paul Zak, is testosterone. It turns men into assholes, risk takers, sex fanatics, and punishers. To anyone who has entered a college bar, this should be no surprise. How many women hunters do you know? Predictable, as men get older they lose testosterone and get better.

Why Women are Better

Women not only have very low levels of testosterone, but they have an extra special hormone that promotes good behavior: Oxytocin. A multitasker, this hormone is released during sex, pregnancy, breast feeding, and whenever a person shows trust or goodwill. Oxytocin has been linked to many pro-social behaviors in many experiments (detailed in the book), mostly empathy and trust. Women are more empathetic, and empathy is the basis of all moral systems.

Why Men are Needed

The obvious answer is that men are needed to make babies (although with the advent of science that’s probably not true anymore). But more interestingly, testosterone has a nice side-effect: justice. Ironically, testosterone-filled men are needed to keep society in check, to judge and to punish wrongdoers. Natural selection allowed testosterone to hang on for this very reason. We are the enforcers and punishers of a functioning society (and the risk takers). Women, pumped with oxytocin, are too damn nice to punish people. It’s important to know that men do have oxyticin in smaller amounts, but the problem with that: testosterone actually cancels out oxyticin. So when testosterone levels are high, we actually enjoy punishing people for their transgressions, rather than cringing. Who shall throw the first stone?, said Jesus. Crack her fucking skull! shouted some dick.

The good news, of course, is that we can and do transcend these biological limitations. Too much testosterone must be kept in check, and the same goes with oxytocin (too much can lead to too much trust). It’s about balance. With knowledge, critical self-reflection, and love we can become better. Love can be learned, and it comes naturally for most of us.

Testosterone Sucks. Why are Men Needed?

Vegetarianism from a Hunter’s Perspective

Shall I puff out my chest and say meat-eating is natural and noble? Shall I make fun of vegetarians, call them unrealistic, or try to poke holes in their position?

No. If a meat eater is honest with themselves, if we give it an iota of thought, we must admit that vegetarianism is a morally superior position. Simple as that. It’s a no-brainer. One diet is based on killing animals, sentient creatures that suffer. The other diet is based on not killing animals. How much simpler can it be?

If anyone chooses vegetarianism for moral reasons – as my wife and my ex-girlfriend did – it’s a beautiful thing. These people have the moral imagination and empathy to feel for animals, an advanced empathy, an enlarged amygdala perhaps. And that deserves praise from all of us. Moral vegetarianism comes in two flavors: (1) it’s wrong to kill animals and/or (2) it’s wrong to subject animals to suffering, an indictment of the meat industry. I have genuine respect for both positions. If my son Immanuel becomes a vegetarian, I would be glad for him. Other vegetarians may choose for different reasons: they don’t like meat, or the culture, or they want to be healthier and could care less about animals. That’s okay too, but I do think the moral position deserves the most praise.

Let’s not get carried away. Vegetarians should not  judge – they should understand us and accept us as falling short of an ideal; after all, don’t we all fall short of ideals? Judge not. As always, the best way to promote the cause is to simply be (lead by example; be the change you want to see in the world). The vegetarians I have known have been great examples for me. As for meat eaters judging vegetarians, now that’s laughable! – but sadly happens all the time.

Meat eaters want to argue that it’s natural. Yes, eating meat is “natural”, normal, and prevalent, but that’s not a good moral argument. (check out my blog on that). Explaining a behavior does not justify it, although it helps to put it in context. Human beings, looked at as an animal species alone, are indeed omnivores. Historically, we have always ate meat (when and if we could catch it), although I understand that a very small percentage of our diet was in fact meat (because it’s hard to catch), and now we eat too much (from a health perspective). Free will, morality, and modern-day realities and luxury allow us to choose vegetarianism if we want. For most Americans, it’s an open choice. One is better. I choose the worse one.

The fact that I hunt for my meat doesn’t help my position very much. Everyone who eats meat must be comfortable with the fact that they are killing animals. They are complicit. I simply do it. I enjoy the total experience of hunting, but I do not enjoy killing a deer. I kill deer for the meat, which I take care of properly (well, as “proper” as I can). Some vegetarians – the ones who don’t like the meat industry – think it’s better that I kill my own meat and process it in a more humane way.

Morality makes demands on us. Some behaviors are required, others condemned, and others are merely permissible or allowed. Much like drinking beer in moderation is morally permissible, eating meat in moderation is morally permissible in my opinion. It’s allowable. But such a lifestyle is certainly not on the same level as a vegetarian lifestyle. There is a better way, and I imagine that 100 years from now most people will have a plant-based diet. That’s how morality works sometimes.

Vegetarianism from a Hunter’s Perspective

In Search of an Atheist Moral Hero

John Lennon: moral hero and atheist?

I’m not trying to be a dick about it or argumentative. I really want to know about a great person in history who also happened to be an atheist. Much of my inspiration in life has come from reading about great men and women: about St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., the current Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Jesus, Simone Weil…the list goes on. After thinking about this for years, I am yet to land on a figure living or dead who was a great moral hero and who was an atheist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that history has not been kind to atheism, and therefore many atheists never “came out.” I also realize that biographies and (especially) autobiographies are a little exaggerated, and that many of my “great men” were also ordinary people with ordinary problems. But the fact that all these great men and women were great because of their religious beliefs is, to me, indisputable. Get rid of the religion of MLK, for example, and you get rid of MLK. That’s another discussion.

Anyway, please suggest an atheist hero in the comments section below. This is a challenge and an opportunity for learning. I would like to read their biography.

Ground Rules

  1. They must be an atheist, which is simply defined as a person who doesn’t believe in God or a supreme being. So don’t give me Thomas Jefferson (he was a Deist), but perhaps Thomas Paine (although wasn’t he mostly a political revolutionary?). Also, the person cannot be religious. In other words, don’t give me a Buddhist that doesn’t believe in a personal, monotheistic God. Also, several religious people have been fiercely critical of religion. For example Luther, Tolstoy, Isaac Newton. That does not mean they are atheists (far from it, they were real Christians). Give me a real atheist, like Freud for example (but don’t give me Freud…see next rule). Of course I am not saying that their morality has to be related to their atheism in any way (that would be absurd…atheism is a lack of belief). Or, if you must, give me an outspoken agnostic even, I’ll go with that.
  2. They must be really good people. Not great scientists, or great thinkers alone – great moral people. Great people do great things for other people, as all the people I mentioned above. Bertrand Russel perhaps? He was a social activist for peace and was behind some good causes. But I would need more information. Also I heard he was actually a dick in person. I don’t know that, I just heard that from a professor of philosophy whom I respect. Einstein was a Deist as far as I can tell. John Lennon perhaps? Now we’re thinking. How about Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson? Well, maybe. Besides being excellent science popularizers (and great scientists in their own right), what have they done ethically?
  3. No Socrates. He is one of my greatest heroes; in fact, part of my tattoo is based on him. But as I read Plato’s dialogues, I’m convinced that Socrates believed in one God (or at least Plato did…it’s hard to pull apart Socrates from Plato).
Not Fair!
You might find yourself saying “not fair” for several reasons. First, atheists were persecuted so much that they never “came out.” I answer, like Jesus you mean? Great religious people have been persecuted too; indeed that is why they were so great. Or perhaps you think that historical figures lied about being religious, when secretly they were atheist. Setting aside that fact that lying  is not a virtue, you have to provide some evidence. You can’t just name drop historical figures and say they were atheist. If they were silent on the issue, I might even buy that. But mostly I don’t find this argument very successful. My Kant professor in college, for example, thought that Immanuel Kant was secretly an atheist. If you’ve read any of his work, you know that’s silly. The truth is my professor really really wanted him to be. Second, you might say that atheism is not a moral worldview, so my quest to find an atheist moral hero makes no sense. But I’m not making that connection. All I’m asking is for a great person who happened to be an atheist. Now, I do see the connection between religion and morality of course. By definition, religion is a moral endeavor. Third, I’m not suggesting that atheists cannot be good people. My brother is a good person, so is my wife. Fourth, you might argue my rules above are too constricting. How so? Fifth, you might say that history has been dominated by religion; therefore, the atheists have disappeared from the record. I can see that.
In Search of an Atheist Moral Hero

Morally I’m Pro-Life, Legally I’m not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down

Morally I’m Pro-Life
For some of our beliefs and opinions, we should recognize a distinction between the moral belief itself and its legal implications, or its potential legal implications. For example, I believe everyone should love others, including their enemies, but I do not believe that should be a law. I don’t think, for example, that disliking your neighbor should come with a $200 fine. I believe in radical forgiveness, but I would not support getting rid of all prisons and jails (in the name of forgiveness). I believe in God, but I also think government should be secular. These are moral and religious issues that may or may not become legal issues, depending on whether we want to extend them. The more I thought about the abortion debate and how complex it is, the more I realized that abortion is the same kind of issue–it’s moral and legal.

  • Moral Pro-Life: When you believe that abortion is wrong.
  • Moral Pro-Choice: When you believe that abortion is permissible.
  • Legal Pro-Life: When you think abortion should be illegal
  • Legal Pro-Choice: When you think abortion should be legal.

Pick two. Before you think I’m splitting hairs or creating distinctions ex nihilo, check out this Pew survey which suggests we all look at it this way. I believe terminating a pregnancy is wrong, except in the case of rape and the mother’s safety. That’s my moral view. I wouldn’t get an abortion, and if I extend my morals to other people, I don’t think they should get an abortion either (the same way I don’t think they should dislike their neighbor, or lie, or punch people in the face). I would never judge someone that got an abortion, based on the Christian prohibition against judging (Jesus: “judge not”). I would not hate them for it. I would simply think it’s not right. That’s all. Negative emotion is not required. The proper response is compassion, understanding, and sadness (both for the baby and the parents). I believe in contraception, which includes Plan B (in my understanding, it’s preventative, not a termination). More on that later.

Why am I morally pro-life? Five main reasons. First, everyone is pro-life to a certain extent. When having these arguments, we forget that almost all Pro-Choicers are pro-life when it comes to the third trimester (i.e. babies that pretty much look like a real baby). Even liberals do not want to see mothers kill these kinds of babies. So the real question is: where exactly do we draw the line? From sex, to fertilization, to “viability,” this is where the science gets very murky and the place we pick seems a bit arbitrary. Therefore, I don’t blame people for picking “fertilization.” Intuitively, it makes sense, but people don’t even understand the science behind fertilization (I don’t).

Second, actions have consequences. Sex is a big, powerful action with big consequences. One of those possible consequences, even with birth control, is a baby. Generally speaking, we should live with our decisions. This is a case where we use medicine to terminate one of our decisions, almost like asking a Genie to go back in time. But wait a minute, you say…don’t we do this all the time? When we “decide” to go skateboarding and break a leg, should we not go to the doctor and fix it? Well, of course we should, be the key word here is fix. Terminating a pregnancy is not fixing anything. That’s stretching the word fix, heal, or mend a little too much. It’s morally different. In fact, because we are dealing with a living thing (even a bundle of cells), it’s impossible to think of an exact analogy that matches other sorts of medical scenarios.

Third, we are talking about a future person here; or, at the very least, a potential human, barring any complications with the pregnancy or birth. That matters. Existence is a prerequisite for a good life. You can speculate all you want about whether they would have a good life, whether adoption is a viable option, etc–you don’t know. There will never be another person quite like this one. Of course, the bundle of cells could really give a shit, they have no feelings, memory, nothing. They will pop out of existence without a peep. Yet, even under the worst of conditions, you will always wonder what would have happened.

Fourth, there is virtue in the pro-life position. If you get rid of the sexism, the Pro-Life movement could be based on compassion. And, to a certain extent, I think it is. If you take away the men who simply want to control women’s bodies, pro-life, at its core, is nothing more than people who care about life (fetuses), who stick up for those who cannot defend themselves. In this way, it shares the same impulse of the animal rights movement and the environmental movement. These are people giving voice to the voiceless. There is merit and virtue in that.

Fifth, it seems odd for us to want doctors, who took a Hippocratic oath never to harm, to terminate pregnancies. The whole point of medicine is to promote life and health. I realize this argument isn’t that good.

Legally I’m not
When I start to think about actually making a law, then it gets complicated, uncomfortable, and more of a womens’ rights issue. According to Pew, the American public feels the same: although 49% of American adults think abortion is morally wrong, only 40% think abortion should be illegal. Considering all the circumstances and consequences, I cannot support a law banning abortion. First of all, education about birth control and sex needs to improve. A law would disproportionately affect those less educated. Second, poor people would be most affected. Third, religious zealots have convinced too many people that birth control is evil and abstinence the only way, which is very unrealistic. Fourth, quality health care is not accessible to many Americans. And fifth, a lot of the people behind this (not all) are sexist males that simply want to control women. All of these practical considerations must be taken into account when thinking legally, as opposed to morally. Thinking legally considers sociological realities, while moral thinking exists in a vacuum of sorts. Right and wrong are right and wrong no matter what, no matter where, no matter how. Given the political climate, I could never force all women to either get an unsafe illegal abortion or to go through with a pregnancy they did not want. Pro-Choice is the default position, especially when in doubt.

Why Pro-Lifers need to calm down
What really amazes me about the abortion debate is that it has become such a big debate. In the grand scheme of things, abortion should be a fringe issue, a minor moral point that some people squabble over. We are talking about bundles of cells here, about zygotes and one-month-old fetuses. As actual people starve all over the world, as war is still raging in the Middle East, as most people do not have access to quality health care, as we fundamentally change the climate, this is what we argue about? Defending fetuses should be the least of our worries; it should be near the bottom of our priority list, not a major part of political platforms. In other words, what I’m saying is this: pro-lifers should stop trying to pass laws that ban abortion. Keep it a fringe moral issue, that’s it; don’t make it a legal issue. The more emotion people get about it, the more ridiculous it is. The fact that the argument has become so big tells me one thing: sexism is indeed a major part of it.

Morally I’m Pro-Life, Legally I’m not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down