Lightly Held Identities and Ideological Turing Tests

Here is a brilliant passage on identity from Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t:

The problem with identity is that it wrecks your ability to think clearly. Identifying with a belief makes you feel like you have to be ready to defend it, which motivates you to focus your attention on collecting evidence in its favor. Identity makes you reflexively reject arguments that feel like attacks on you or the status of your group.

To counteract this, Galef says to have lightly held identities:

Holding an identity lightly means thinking of it in a matter-of-fact way, rather than as a central source of pride and meaning in your life. It’s a description, not a flag to be waved proudly…

Holding an identity lightly means treating that identity as contingent, saying to yourself, “I’m a liberal, for as long as it continues to seem to me that liberalism is just.” Or “I’m a feminist, but I would abandon the movement if for some reason I came to believe it was causing net harm.” It means maintaining a sense of your own beliefs and values, independent of the tribe’s beliefs and values, and acknowledging—at least in the privacy of your own head—the places where those two things diverge.

So a belief taken to be identity is hard to abandon, because to abandon the belief is to abandon one’s identity. If, instead, a belief is held lightly, it is easy to update the belief upon seeing contradictory evidence.

One example I’ve seen was in the old culture wars of the late 2000s/early 2010s of New Atheism, and I have to admit, I used this argument myself. It went something like, “Shouldn’t Muslims be more willing to leave their religion, after seeing repeated evidence that suicide bombers profess their faith towards Islam right before killing themselves along with dozens of civilians?” Another axis was, “Shouldn’t liberal Muslims be more willing to leave their religion, given they personally support women’s rights and LGBT rights, but Islamic countries around the world have the most sexism and anti-LGBT discrimination?” Needless to say, this was an unconvincing argument.

The reason this wasn’t convincing is that it was psychologically equivalent to an attack on the identity of Muslims. In the New Atheists’ mind, they were trying to help people change to a better belief system, and saying, “Hey, I know you live your life following parts of wisdom in this ancient book, but look, here are some people who are really, really into following the same ancient book—the people who think about this book all the time—and they commit atrocities that are very directly because of their following of this book, so you should probably update to believing in this book a little less than you did otherwise.” But since religion is often not just a belief but an identity, this reinforces belief instead of weakening it.

Religion aside, I’ve always been fascinated by how communism is an acceptable belief amongst educated people—encountered this in both high school and college. Certainly communism isn’t a core part of many people’s identity, though maybe anti-capitalism is? When I mentioned the famines that killed tens of millions as a result of communist economic policies in the Soviet Union or China, the response was not to update to be more skeptical of communism, but instead, something like, “Well, they weren’t doing communism correctly; if we did it correctly, it wouldn’t kill tens of millions of people.” That last argument has a lot of sympathy from well-educated people, yet none of them would sympathize with “Fascism is inherently good because it builds national strength, it’s just that the Germans did it incorrectly by tacking antisemitism and eugenics on it; if we did it correctly…”

What identities would I self-describe as? If you asked me 10 years ago, “liberal” would probably have been at the top of my list. But in 2015, I became quite disenchanted with the left, starting with the now-standard response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting: “I think the shooting is wrong, but something about how France is a racist, colonialist empire and therefore somewhat deserved it.” (Which isn’t far from the more recent, “I think antisemitism is wrong, but….”) I thought I had a lot in common with liberals until the liberal discussion focused mostly on what the West did wrong to deserve a terror attack. This was basically the quote in Galef’s book, “I’m a liberal, for as long as….” (There’s some mental gymnastics that can be done by arguing, “Well, I’m still a liberal in the definitional sense, it’s the other people claiming to be liberals who are abandoning the core tenets of liberalism,” but that I’ll leave out.)

At this point I don’t carry around much identity, because in my experience, the people most focused on their identities seem to be the least amenable to reason. I guess if I had to pick one, I would consider myself an epistemic rationalist, in the sense that I think using logic and probability is the best way to form accurate beliefs about the world.

Relatedly, Galef mentions in her book the Ideological Turing Test, an idea from Bryan Caplan that in order to truly understand an opposing viewpoint, you should be able to convince someone you actually hold that opposing belief. This is hard to do—the book contains an example of someone claiming to do this but failing horribly. From Galef:

Measured against that standard [the Ideological Turing Test], most attempts fall obviously short. For a case in point, consider one liberal blogger’s attempt at modeling the conservative worldview. She begins, “If I can say anything at this bleak hour, with the world splitting at its seams, it’s this: conservatives, I understand you. It may not be something you expect to hear from a liberal, but I do. I understand you.” An earnest start, but her attempt to empathize with conservatives quickly devolves into caricature. Here’s her impression of the conservative take on various subjects:

On capitalism: “Those at the top should have as much as possible. That’s the natural order . . . It’s not a secret; just don’t be lazy. Why is everyone so poor and lazy?”

On feminists: “Those women make noise, make demands, take up space . . . Who do they think they are?”

On abortion: “What a travesty . . . women making these kinds of radical decisions for themselves.”

On queer and transgender people: “They shouldn’t exist. They’re mistakes. They must be. But wait, no. God doesn’t make mistakes . . . Oh dear. You don’t know what’s happening anymore, and you don’t like it. It makes you feel dizzy. Out of control.”

It’s hardly necessary to run this text by an audience of conservatives to be able to predict that it would flunk their ideological Turing test. Her “conservative” take on capitalism sounds like a cartoon villain. The language about women taking up space and making decisions for themselves is how liberals frame these issues, not conservatives. And her impression of a conservative suddenly realizing his views on transgender and queer people are internally inconsistent (“They’re mistakes . . . But wait, no. God doesn’t make mistakes.”) just looks like a potshot she couldn’t resist taking.

[…]

The ideological Turing test is typically seen as a test of your knowledge: How thoroughly do you understand the other side’s beliefs? But it also serves as an emotional test: Do you hold your identity lightly enough to be able to avoid caricaturing your ideological opponents? Even being willing to attempt the ideological Turing test at all is significant. People who hold their identity strongly often recoil at the idea of trying to “understand” a viewpoint they find disgustingly wrong or harmful. It feels like you’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy. But if you want to have a shot at actually changing people’s point of view rather than merely being disgusted at how wrong they are, understanding those views is a must.

I’ve encountered this so many times where people including myself have a ridiculous notion of what the other side of some ideological divide actually thinks. I’m not sure what I think the solution is. One thing I’ve tried recently and would recommend is to go on Reddit and subscribe to a subreddit—but importantly, not of an identity group you belong to, but of one you don’t belong to. On the home page, you can probably find at least one post that you don’t totally disagree with. And if you really internalize that post, you’d be on your way to passing an Ideological Turing Test. (It doesn’t have to be on Reddit. Follow someone you disagree with on Twitter, etc.)

That said, it is still incredibly hard to empathize with opposing views—as Galef said in the quote just above, “People who hold their identity strongly often recoil at the idea of trying to ‘understand’ a viewpoint they find disgustingly wrong or harmful.” It seems like people should, on the margin, hold their ideas less strongly.

2015 and What I’m Thinking About

effective_altruism1

Effective Altruism

One thing I’ve never discussed on this blog is effective altruism. It is basically a movement to optimize doing good, and it does so by number crunching rather than by random donating. Here are a couple of main results:

  • Certain charities are 10 or 100 times more efficient than others. The most effective of them all is to distribute mosquito nets to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the famous site GiveWell, which ranks charities in effectiveness.
  • A high income earner can create more social impact than a social worker. The idea is that a software engineer earning $100,000 a year and donating 50% of it (to efficient charities like above) can generate a lot more good than a non-profit worker. The site 80,000 Hours has more about this.

I am fine with this movement and I really enjoy the discussions it causes. I would defend effective altruism against many of its usual criticisms.

But I am still personally skeptical for now. Which brings me to…

Markets

One thing about working in trading is that I now see everything in terms of markets. (Tyler Cowen’s blog often highlights “markets in everything“.) I naturally think about the cost and value of everyday things and decisions. This mindset probably makes effective altruism become more understandable. If every $3000 in mosquito nets saves one life, why would I ever donate to my alma mater?

Yet the same market mentality also raises some questions. I believe people are generally good, that markets are generally efficient, and that companies are generally beneficial to society. So when billions of dollars go into a tech company like Facebook (market cap of $300 billion as of this post) instead of anti-mosquito nets, there is probably a lot of hard-to-measure good that Facebook is providing and which is widely ignored.

Disenchantment with the Left

I wrote only 3 blog posts this year, and sadly two of them were about terrorist attacks in Paris. Back in college I blogged about atheism, and I kind of want to get into this again considering the Paris tragedies, and I believe that combating religion is still important.

That is also why I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. Both in the media and on my Facebook feed, people are too afraid (of being called racist or worse, Islamophobic) to criticize Islam and its role in the attacks. The Koran says to do horrific things to infidels, and it is emphatically not a tiny minority that believe this literally.

Liberals do a great job standing up for women, LGBT people, and religious minorities—in America and Europe. But in entire swathes of Islamic countries, in both the Middle East and Africa, women are considered second-class, legally beaten by their husbands, and even sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of being raped. And we liberals just look the other way because it would be racist and colonialist to criticize their culture. (That last sentence is just out of anger, I hope nobody actually thinks that.)

Here is a very graphic New York Times video from just yesterday, showing a woman literally beaten and stoned to death by a mob, in a public space in broad daylight, because of rumors she burned a Koran. Can you really watch that and claim Islam had nothing to do with it?

My other disillusionment with being a liberal is the whole safe-space/microaggression/trigger-warning/check-your-privilege movement, which I talked about previously.

Anyway, I want to make a hobby out of writing in 2016, and I’m not sure if I should stick with tame topics like effective altruism and markets, or also include charged ones like religion and politics.

Bonus: My 2015 Reading List

  • The Occupy Wall Street Handbook, Various Authors: This is a compilation of essays written on the Occupy movement. I read this to challenge my positive views towards Wall Street, but I was mostly unpersuaded. The essays presume that you are against Wall Street and then talk about the movement or stats about inequality, without much attempt at persuasion.
  • A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. Malkiel: A decent chronicle of the rise of finance and Wall Street.
  • The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko: An eye-opening book about American attitudes on saving, spending, and the accumulation of wealth. It provides so many instances where two households have the same income yet have vastly differing net worths, even when age, location, education, previous incomes, etc. are similar.
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: I expected Atlas Shrugged to be pure evil based on so many peoples’ hatred of Ayn Rand and this book, but I actually enjoyed it. At least within the story, I cheered at the end. Does this make me a bad person? I definitely agreed with the reverence of scientists/inventors/creators.
  • On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: We are all familiar with classics in literature, so why not in science? Its force and detail are impressive.
  • Average is Over, Tyler Cowen: The title says it all. Jobs will increasingly cluster towards high-wage and low-wage, with little in between.
  • The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen: Good discussion of low hanging fruit in economic growth.
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan: Excellent treatise on voter rationality and the public’s views on economic issues, and how frighteningly different they are from economists’ views.
  • The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham: I didn’t find it very useful.
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker: A useful writing-style guide.
  • The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz: I had a similar reaction as to the Occupy handbook. It basically listed some facts but wasn’t that convincing. I mean, I agree that too much inequality is bad, but this book somehow made the case weaker for me. It had at least one “are you kidding me” moment.
  • Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin: An interesting take on the idea that machines will take over even more jobs than today and that jobs will be all about human-to-human interaction.
  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz: A very refreshing, actual dialog between an unapologetic atheist and a pro-reform Muslim. More discussions like this need to exist.
  • Brief Candle in the Dark, Richard Dawkins: Full of captivating and often humorous tales of Oxford, science, and atheism.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day: Really, thank you so much for creating The Guild and this memoir. It also feels good to read another person’s experience with World of Warcraft.

Caplan’s book discusses anti-market bias, and I feel like I did had lower expectations for books that were pro-market and higher expectations for ones that were anti-market. Both sides surprised me.

The Revenge of Geography

the-revenge-of-geography

This book was very tough to slog through, but the ideas were superb, even if most of them came from thinkers from before the 20th century.

Pros:

  • Well organized. There are three distinct sections: (1) an overview of several theories of geography (most of which are old and not politically correct today); (2) case studies of the most important zones in the current world; and (3) a short prophecy of America’s own destiny.
  • Good synthesis of ideas. Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are the most referenced.
  • Focuses on relevant regions: Europe, Russia, China, India, Persia/Iran, and Ottoman Empire/Turkey.
  • Makes substantive predictions based on geography. For example, the book (2012) forewarned the recent Ukraine-Crimea-Russia situation.
  • Gives a nuanced view of the role of geography. Kaplan carefully says the determinism is only partial. (I originally had the wrong impression from the title & subtitle that it was going to be more deterministic.)
  • The third section, on America’s fate, is particularly solid. If you could only read 50 pages of the book, it should be the last part.

Cons:

  • Often, the writing is neither clear nor concise.
  • Not that much original content, though still valuable as synthesis. (The exception is the last section, which has a lot more content.)

Not sure that this book replaces Diamond or Huntington, but it is an excellent addition.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012).The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.

Kindles and Current Reading List

My Kindle Paperwhite arrived today, and after using it for only an hour, I wonder how I managed to get by without one. It would have made the last 7 years a much more reading-conducive experience. At home, I have bookshelves full of books and I end up not even reading many of them, partly because I don’t have a great non-expensive way of transporting books from Texas to New York. And the physical books I do have in NY can get weighty. For practicality, I should have used the library system more. But there’s a certain irreplaceable feeling of having your own books that you can read at your own pace. Anyway, I think a Kindle solves all my reading problems and perhaps I can reassign my old books to other uses.

BookHatFamilyGuy

In this link is the past reading list. And currently on the summer plate:

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty
  • The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz
  • An Appetite for Wonder – Richard Dawkins
  • The Big Short – Michael Lewis
  • Drift – Rachel Maddow
  • The Virtual Executive – Debra Benton
  • Nudge – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
  • Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

The Fountainhead

TheFountainhead

This has been a rough read. I’ve had a relatively easy semester, but every time I tried to read this book, I invariably got distracted. I don’t know if it says more about this book or the Internet.

The Fountainhead left me with more questions than answers. I’ve heard mixed opinions of Ayn Rand’s works, and this book was recommended to me twice, both times over Atlas Shrugged. I cannot comment on the comparison yet.

I’m really not sure how to react to what I just read. On one hand, I agree with the exaltation of the “prime mover” and the condemnation of the “second-hander.” But I cannot reconcile that with the rejection of altruism (though the concept in the book is slightly different from our contemporary notion of altruism).

From Howard Roark’s final courtroom speech (emphasis added):

Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.

I fully agree up to this point. However, the speech continues:

No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men.

His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man’s spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness.

To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego. The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.

And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.

I’m not sure whether I agree that achievement is solely for oneself.

Later on, Roark talks about the parasitic nature of second-handers, that “the parasite faces nature through an intermediary.”

Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.

The statement that “the need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary” is debatable, but I definitely agree that in our society, the creator is undervalued compared to the gift dispenser.

On morality and altruism from Rand’s framework:

The ‘common good’ of a collective—a race, a class, a state—was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men. Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism? Does the fault lie in men’s hypocrisy or in the nature of the principle? The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere. They believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine and the firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was accepted that man must be sacrificed for other men. Actors change, but the course of the tragedy remains the same. A humanitarian who starts with declarations of love for mankind and ends with a sea of blood. It goes on and will go on so long as men believe that an action is good if it is unselfish. That permits the altruist to act and forces his victims to bear it. The leaders of collectivist movements ask nothing for themselves. But observe the results.

I’m not as pessimistic about humanitarian efforts, and it’s important to note that in the 70 years since the book was written, there have been many changes to society. Among them, just the Internet has caused us to think much differently about others, and I’d like to continue thinking about what the correctness or relevancy of ideas in this book applies today.

The Signal and the Noise, and Other Readings

The Signal and the Noise

The Signal and the Noise

Since last year’s presidential election, everyone has heard of the legendary Nate Silver, who predicted the outcomes of all 50 states correctly. Given that he also correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election, this repeat feat seemed like clairvoyance, not coincidence. So the question is, what did Silver do right that so many polls and pundits did wrong?

Statistics.

The Signal and the Noise (2012) is basically a popular applied statistics book, with more history, philosophy, and psychology than formulas. The first half of the book illustrates the failures of prediction including the 2007/8 financial crisis, elections, sports, and natural disasters; the second half explains how to predict the correct way, using Bayesian probability. Overall it does an excellent job at explaining the concepts and not going into mathematical detail (which is probably a plus for most people; even for a math person like me, I know where to look up the details).

Sidenote: While I was reading the chess section, my mind literally blanked for about 10 seconds upon seeing the following:

signal-and-the-noise-chess-error

My chess intuition immediately told me that something was wrong: there is no way this position could have occurred “after Kasparov’s 3rd move.” Since Kasparov was white, this implied the white position must have 3 moves, but clearly there are only two moves: the Knight on f3 (from g1) and the Pawn on b3 (from b2). Yet this book was written by Nate Silver, so he couldn’t have gotten something wrong that was so simple. Once I realized it must have been a mistake, I looked up the game and found that at this point of the game, the g2 pawn should be on g3. I thought it was an interesting mind lapse.

Breaking the Spell

Breaking_The_Spell

This book argues that scientific analysis should be applied to religion. Namely, the title refers to the taboo of preventing rational discussion of religion, and that to “break the spell” is to break the taboo. In addition, it discusses the theories as to how religion arose; ironically the names for such theories are evolutionary theories, as they concern how modern religion has evolved over time from ancient spiritual beliefs (e.g. which specific doctrines maximize a belief system’s chances of survival, etc.).

Reading this means I have now read at least one book from each of the four “horsemen”: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Of the four, Dennett is by far the least provocative. While the other three make arguments that outright use logical analysis on religion, in this book Dennett is the one carefully arguing that one should be allowed to make arguments that analyze religion just as one can on any other phenomena. This book should be nowhere near as controversial as The God Delusion or The End of Faith.

Overall the book makes good points but is quite slow, makes overly cautious caveats, and has a very formal tone. I think if someone like Dawkins had written this, it would be much more readable. I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone who doesn’t have a lot of interest in philosophy.

CEO Material

CEO_Material

The main competitive advantage of this book over the typical leadership book is that it quotes very often from 100+ real CEOs. Overall these first-hand experiences supplemented the author’s main points quite well. However, for the sake of privacy I presume, the quotations are not labeled with the speaker, so it is sometimes difficult to tell how any particular passage applies to a given situation. For example, do I want to listen to the advice of a food company CEO on a particular issue and apply it to run a tech company? Perhaps the overall message is similar but clearly the details matter. Some say that context is everything, and without the context of who said it, each quote has much less power.

Most of the points seemed like common sense, although that is to be expected—the system is efficient enough that if the most effective behavior for a CEO were radically different from what we already do, then we would have adapted to that already (hopefully). Even so, there are still some interesting points made with real justifications, though again it would be helpful if we knew who said each quote, even for a few of them. In all, Benton did make points that changed the way I look at things, so it was worth reading.

The Blind Watchmaker

Blind_Watchmaker

While The Selfish Gene focuses on how genes propagate themselves and how they dynamically compete over time (evolutionary game theory), The Blind Watchmaker covers an entirely different issue: How did complexity arise?

Some of its answers, written at an earlier time (1986), seem somewhat outdated now, ironically more so than The Selfish Gene which was written even earlier in 1976. This is probably due to The Selfish Gene being more of “Here’s the progress we made in the last decade” when it was written, while The Blind Watchmaker is more along the lines of “Here’s why this work from 1802 is nonsense” and that this counter-argument doesn’t particularly need to invoke the most up-to-date findings.

But anyways, we don’t judge books by how outdated they seem in 30 years, so let’s move on to the content. Due to its premise, the book is more philosophical than The Selfish Gene, which is itself more scientific, hardly addressing at all the conflict between evolution and religion. While The Blind Watchmaker still has a formidable amount of science, it addresses some philosophical questions as well and confronts the conflict head-on. I would recommend it to those looking to question philosophical beliefs, whether of others or of their own.

Mortality

Mortality_Christopher_Hitchens

Of the books in this post, Mortality is the answer choice that doesn’t belong with the others. While the other four are strict nonfiction works that try to explain or teach certain something, Mortality comes off more as a dramatic story, the story of coming to terms with terminal illness. Hitchens opens up with the stark statement, “I have more than once in my life woken up feeling like death.” As usual, Christopher Hitchens’ signature writing style and tone are apparent.

“What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”

“It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory.”

“The politicized sponsors of this pseudoscientific nonsense should be ashamed to live, let alone die. If you want to take part in the ‘war’ against cancer, and other terrible maladies, too, then join the battle against their lethal stupidity.”

“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”

“I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”

“Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”

The Moral Landscape

“She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.
She: But that’s only your opinion.
Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
She: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, ‘Every third must walk in darkness.’
She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

The Moral Landscape

This is a passage from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (2011). The book is controversial and very thought-provoking, both philosophically and practically, especially to the liberal notions of the West. It has certainly changed my views of morality.

Namely, Harris argues that moral relativism has gone too far in our current world, and that it has caused morally inferior practices (such as the burqa) to persist without serious criticism. In addition, he notes of these practices, several are especially difficult to criticize, because to criticize them would be considered offensive to religion. Moreover, because morals are associated by many to religion, it is difficult to seriously argue what is right or wrong, again out of fear of being labeled as offensive or intolerant. And out of this, many moral issues are left unresolved because to debate them is considered wrong.

Can One Culture Be Inferior?

Consider two societies that had the same moral code in all ways except, as in the example earlier, one society required removing the eyes of every third-born, while the other did not. Can we say that the former has an inferior culture? Maybe, maybe not. But this question has an answer, according to Harris, although most of the world would think that it does not. In our world, the tendency is to say that all cultures are equal, that they deserve the same respect, or something along those lines. We would be viewed as supremely intolerant if we were to say otherwise.

And yet, there are issues with this: Can we really view a culture that plucks out the eyes of third-borns out of tradition as an equal culture? What about a culture that condones slavery, or one that requires the burqa, or one that isn’t taken aback by suicide bombing? In the back of my mind, at least, I think such cultures can be viewed as wrong in those areas, but of course, it is an entirely different thing to say it publicly. (See what I did there?)

In the section “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance'”:

There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those discussed here. Near the end of my lecture, I made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues…. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
…”