Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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John Stuart Mill on Other-Regarding Character Flaws (as Distinct from Self-Regarding Character Flaws)


Image source: Personality and Spirituality blog: “Character flaws: The seven chief features of ego.”

One of the things people forget about John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is that he lays down rules for when society can appropriately apply social pressure against bad behavior as well as when society can appropriately use the apparatus of law to punish people. When what is at issue is the appropriate use of the powerful apparatus of social pressure, John feels it is appropriate to act against a wide range of anti-social acts and character flaws. The following passage from  On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 6, is an important list of antisocial acts and character flaws. I think we would have a better society if we all took seriously this list of things for which society can appropriately apply “moral reprobation”: 

What I contend for is, that the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interests of others in their relations with him. Acts injurious to others require a totally different treatment. Encroachment on their rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights; falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them against injury—these are fit objects of moral reprobation, and, in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment. And not only these acts, but the dispositions which lead to them, are properly immoral, and fit subjects of disapprobation which may rise to abhorrence. Cruelty of disposition; malice and ill-nature; that most anti-social and odious of all passions, envy; dissimulation and insincerity, irascibility on insufficient cause, and resentment disproportioned to the provocation; the love of domineering over others; the desire to engross more than one’s share of advantages (the pleonexia of the Greeks); the pride which derives gratification from the abasement of others; the egotism which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in its own favour;—these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character: unlike the self-regarding faults previously mentioned, which are not properly immoralities, and to whatever pitch they may be carried, do not constitute wickedness. They may be proofs of any amount of folly, or want of personal dignity and self-respect; but they are only a subject of moral reprobation when they involve a breach of duty to others, for whose sake the individual is bound to have care for himself. What are called duties to ourselves are not socially obligatory, unless circumstances render them at the same time duties to others. The term duty to oneself, when it means anything more than prudence, means self-respect or self-development; and for none of these is any one accountable to his fellow creatures, because for none of them is it for the good of mankind that he be held accountable to them.

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"Keep the Riffraff Out!"


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Mormonism is a proselyting religion. Close to 35 years ago, I was one of many Mormon missionaries trying to persuade people in Tokyo to become Mormons. And most of you will one time or another see Mormon missionaries at your door, wherever you are in the world. 

One of the positive features of a proselyting religion that is not always fully appreciated is that newcomers are fully welcome, as long as they make even a minimal attempt to fit in. And if they so choose, it is not hard for them to become full members of the community.

Sometimes, members of the Mormon Church question the virtue of bringing someone into the community who has enough needs that they are likely to require more help from the community than the amount they are able to help others. But the young women and men serving for a year and a half or two as full-time missionaries and higher Mormon Church authorities quickly overrule such sentiments.

I don’t believe in the supernatural any more, so I don’t believe in Mormonism. But I do believe in America. 

I wish America were a proselyting nation, eager to bring newcomers into the fold. I believe it would be a better world if more of the world’s 7 billion people were Americans. There are many people who would be willing converts to being Americans, but we keep them out.  

I have written a lot about immigration policy. For example, see “The Hunger Games is Hardly Our Future: It’s Already Here" and "You Didn’t Build That: America Edition.” But sentiment “Keep the riffraff out!” shows up in other contexts as well. It is an important motivating force behind the lobbying for occupational licensing as well, which I wrote about in "When the Government Says “You May Not Have a Job." And the sentiment “Keep the riffraff out!” is a serious barrier to affordable housing, as it leads many cities impose regulations that severely limit the construction of new housing, as Ryan Avent and Matthew Yglesias talk about in their respective books:

To me, a central ethical principle is that people are people, and all human beings deserve to be treated as human beings. “Keep the riffraff out!” should not be our first impulse in relation to other human beings.  

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John Stuart Mill on the Middle Way Between Criminalization and Acceptance

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In our culture, we have a dangerous tendency to act as if a given pattern of conduct must be either criminalized or fully accepted. There are many things that are so self-destructive that they should not be simply accepted. Yet writing into the law statutes defining victimless crimes and jailing those who commit them has enormous costs. One of the costs is to freedom itself.

Given the difficulties our culture has in seeing clearly a middle way between criminalization and acceptance, in my post "Allison Schrager: The Economic Case for the US to Legalize All Drugs," I argued for leaving narcotics use technically illegal, in a way that is mostly unenforceable, to set down a clear marker that society was not just accepting narcotics use as something OK. Here is what I wrote:

I agree with Allison that we need to legalize the production and sale of drugs in order to take revenue, and therefore power, away from criminal gangs. But I think it is important that we do whatever we can to drive down the usage of dangerous drugs consistent with taking the drug trade out of the hands of criminals:

  • Taxes on dangerous drugs as high as possible without encouraging large-scale smuggling;
  • Age limits on drug purchases as strict as consistent with keeping the drug trade out of the hands of illegal gangs;
  • Free drug treatment, financed by those taxes;
  • Evidence-based public education campaigns against drug use, financed by those taxes;
  • Demonization in the media and in polite company of those who (now legally) sell dangerous drugs;
  • Mandatory, gruesome warnings like those we have for cigarettes;
  • Widespread mandatory drug testing and penalties for use of dangerous drugs—but not for drug possession;
  • Strict penalties for driving under the influence of drugs.

If our culture were better at pursuing the middle path between criminalization and acceptance, the right answer to drugs might be more like what John Stuart Mill describes In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 4 and 5:

In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise. Considerations to aid his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others; but he himself is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.

I do not mean that the feelings with which a person is regarded by others, ought not to be in any way affected by his self-regarding qualities or deficiencies. This is neither possible nor desirable. If he is eminent in any of the qualities which conduce to his own good, he is, so far, a proper object of admiration. He is so much the nearer to the ideal perfection of human nature. If he is grossly deficient in those qualities, a sentiment the opposite of admiration will follow. There is a degree of folly, and a degree of what may be called (though the phrase is not unobjectionable) lowness or depravation of taste, which, though it cannot justify doing harm to the person who manifests it, renders him necessarily and properly a subject of distaste, or, in extreme cases, even of contempt: a person could not have the opposite qualities in due strength without entertaining these feelings. Though doing no wrong to any one, a person may so act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a fool, or as a being of an inferior order: and since this judgment and feeling are a fact which he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a service to warn him of it beforehand, as of any other disagreeable consequence to which he exposes himself. It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming. We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which directly concern only himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they are the natural, and, as it were, the spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves, not because they are purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment. A person who shows rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit—who cannot live within moderate means—who cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgences—who pursues animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect—must expect to be lowered in the opinion of others, and to have a less share of their favourable sentiments; but of this he has no right to complain, unless he has merited their favour by special excellence in his social relations, and has thus established a title to their good offices, which is not affected by his demerits towards himself.

There is a lot of overlap between John Stuart Mill’s recommendation and mine. I am willing to push somewhat past what he would be comfortable with. But I am  much, much closer to John Stuart Mill’s recommendation than I am to current policy in the US.       

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John Stuart Mill: People Should Be Allowed to Govern Their Own Lives Because They Care More and Know More about Themselves Than Anyone Else Does


Image source: "Self-knowledge, A Path to Happiness" by Karem-Barrett

Even if the self is an illusion, what we call the self reflects a fundamental fact about the aggregate of all human consciousness: informational links are much thicker within a human being than between human beings. Even a Utilitarian social planner who has no doctrinal attachment to Libertarianism should take advantage of those dense informational links within a human being by allowing each person to make decisions about his or her own life. 

John Stuart Mill makes that case in On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 4:

But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action.

John talks not just about an individual knowing more about his or her own situation but also about how the individual cares more about him or herself than others do. Letting people make decisions about their own lives does a lot to take care of bringing the the strongest preferences into social choice.

But in addition to simply making sure that all strong preferences are well represented in social choice, letting each individual make decisions about his or her own life makes sense also because each person also typically has a knowledge advantage not only with regard to circumstances, but also with regard to his or her own preferences. Without a great deal of tricky inference, one of the most difficult things for someone else to know about me without me telling them, is what I want and how much I want it. One of the most basic jobs of any adult is to carefully figure out what he or she wants. It is difficult for anyone else to do that for the individual, though software designers for websites like Amazon, Netflix, Pandora etc. are trying hard to be able to predict what someone will like.   

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The Book of Uncommon Prayer

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The Book of Uncommon Prayer is a collection of prayers for non-supernaturalists. I plan to keep this updated, and to add a section of shorter mantras.

"The Litany Against Fear" was written by Frank Herbert, the rest by me. The title of each prayer below also serves as a link to the original post that has commentary on each prayer.    

Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet

In this moment, as in all the moments I have, may the image of the God or Gods Who May Be burn brightly in my heart.

Let faith give me a felt assurance that what must be done to bring the Day of Awakening and the Day of Fulfilment closer can be done in a spirit of joy and contentment.

Let the gathering powers of heaven be at my left hand and my right. Let there be many heroes and saints to blaze the trail in front of me. Let the younger generations who will follow discern the truth and wield it to strengthen good and weaken evil. Let the grandeur of the Universe above inspire noble thoughts that lead to noble plans and noble deeds. Let the Earth beneath be a remembrance of the wisdom of our ancestors and of others who have died before us. And may the light within be an ocean of conscious and unconscious being to sustain me and those who are with me through all the trials we must go through. 

In this moment, I am. And I am grateful that I am. May others be, now and for all time.

An Agnostic Prayer for Strength

May I be strong and steadfast, 

calm and collected, 

as I set out to serve 

the God or Gods who may be.  

An Agnostic Invocation

May this gathering uplift our hearts, enlighten our minds, and inspire our endeavors to bring us closer to, and glorify, the God or Gods Who May Be.

  • Gratitude: (We are thankful …)
  • Hopes: (We hope …)
  • Concerns (We are concerned …)
  • Worries (We are worried about …)
  • Thoughts (We are thinking of …)
  • Addition wishes (May …)
  • etc., in no particular order

And may we understand more fully the mystery of the humanity we all share, and act as one family to bring this Earth nearer to Heaven. Amen.

An Agnostic Grace

May the works that we do, sustained by this food, bring us closer to, and glorify, the God or Gods Who May Be.

  • Gratitude: (We are thankful …)
  • Hopes: (We hope …)
  • Concerns (We are concerned …)
  • Worries (We are worried about …)
  • Thoughts (We are thinking of …)
  • Addition wishes (May …)
  • etc., in no particular order

And we remember Jesus Christ, symbol of all that is good in humankind, and thereby clue to the God or Gods Who May Be. Amen.  

The Litany Against Fear (from Frank Herbert’s Dune)

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

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John Stuart Mill Fails to Treat Children as Hyperrational


Image source: “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do”

Models in which human beings are always maximizing their utility perfectly are the simplest kinds of models. But it is hard to maintain that children are always maximizing their own utility perfectly. In a discrete-time model, it is easy to have an initial period in which someone is not nonrational, followed by later periods of full rationality. But In continuous time, there are likely to be an in-between period in which some types of decisions are close to full rationality, while other decisions are far from fully rational in advancing self-interest. (For example, this post on the Edutopia blog talks about the “hyperrational adolescent brain,” but is about anything but.)

In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 4, John Stuart Mill has to face the lack of full-scale rationality on the part of children, using the phrase “self-regarding virtues” to talk about the kind of rationality that allows one to advance one’s own interest. He writes:

I am the last person to undervalue the self-regarding virtues; they are only second in importance, if even second, to the social. It is equally the business of education to cultivate both. But even education works by conviction and persuasion as well as by compulsion, and it is by the former only that, when the period of education is past, the self-regarding virtues should be inculcated. Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it.

Notice that in American custom, we tend to add to the kind of deference John is recommending for another adult’s decisions in regard to that adult’s own life, a deference for a parent’s decisions in regard to that parent’s own children. But the logic is unavoidably weaker for deference to parent’s decisions about their own children than it is for an adult’s decisions regarding his or her own life. 

One interesting area where our culture is shifting in regard to parent’s decisions about their own children is in our attitudes towards spanking. When I was a child, we children took the possibility of spanking (including many elaborated threats of spanking) and sometimes the reality of being spanked for granted. Not long into my experience as a father myself, I realized that social tolerance of spanking was waning. And nowadays, parents who spank their children often have a niggling, if perhaps exaggerated, fear that child-welfare arms of the government (“Social Services”) will punish them.   

John Stuart Mill allows for the possibility that compulsion might be necessary in bringing up children. And I find it hard to rule out the possibility that there may be situations in which some form of corporal punishment for a child may be the best available option. But compulsion (of which corporal punishment is only one type) should only be used when absolutely necessary, since it tends to have unwanted side effects. For example, in "John Stuart Mill Argues Against Punishing or Stigmatizing, but For Advising and Preaching to People Who Engage in Self-Destructive Behaviors," I wrote

…punishing and stigmatizing may often be ineffective because the elements of a riven psyche one wants to encourage may have trouble seeing a punisher or stigmatizer as friendly.  

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The Mystery of Consciousness


The Flaming Chalice Labyrinth

This is the text for my August 10, 2014 Unitarian-Universalist sermon to the  Community Unitarian-Universalists in Brighton, Michigan. This is the seventh Unitarian-Universalist sermon I have posted. The others are 

This is the second sermon I have given that I have known in advance I would post. I wrote it with my online readers in mind as well as the Unitarian Universalists in Brighton. 

For the Unitarian-Universalist “Celebration of Life” service, the text for the “reading” was "Moment" by Wisława Szymborska, while the text for the meditation was my ”Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet.” 

Here is the abstract I wrote a few weeks in advance for the sermon, followed by the sermon itself:

Abstract: The mystery of consciousness is central to religion. Many religions even claim that consciousness is supernatural.

A major job-to-be-done for religion is improving our conscious experience. In particular, much of what seems transcendent to us is in conscious experience, and encouraging certain types of subjective spiritual experiences is a central part of many religions. 

Although we care deeply about our own conscious experience, it is not the only thing we care about. Most of us also care about the conscious experience of others, and some of us care about the state of external reality even apart from any difference in conscious experience.

I once read a book by the philosopher Colin McGinn called The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World. True to the title’s claim that consciousness is a mystery, I felt no wiser about the nature of consciousness when I got to the end of the book than when I started. But I like the image of consciousness as a flame. The symbol of Unitarian Universalism is a flaming chalice; it is easy to see that flaming chalice as in part a symbol of the flame of consciousness.

Conciousness makes possible our perception of beauty, goodness and truth. Beauty, goodness and truth make up the trio of ideas Renaissance Humanists identified as central to the Plato’s philosophy.  In his distillation “I think, therefore I am,” René Descartes emphasized the quest for truth as a demonstration of consciousness, but the appreciation of beauty and the judgment of goodness are equally hallmarks of consciousness.  

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins begins his book Unweaving the Rainbow with these beautiful words about death and life and the consciousness we are granted by life: 

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

But it is a broader theme of his book Unweaving the Rainbow that I want to talk about: beautiful and wonderful things are just as beautiful and wonderful even when we understand them. We do get a thrill from secrets and suspense, since it gives us the hope that something might be even more awe-inspiringly beautiful, wonderful or interesting than it really is, but apart from that illusion, there is no reason for understanding to destroy beauty. A rose is still a rose, even if you know that the softness of a rose petal comes from its papilla cells. And a rose with any degree of understanding of its biochemistry would smell as sweet. I want to see if I can’t demystify consciousness a bit, but then point to the preeminent value of improving both our own conscious experience and the conscious experience of others. 


Colored scanning electron micrograph of rose petal papilla cells

Is Consciousness Supernatural? 

Some people are horrified by the idea that according to a standard nonsupernaturalist worldview, you and I are very sophisticated robots. But on the principle that a rose is still a rose, even if you understand the science of roses, if we are robots, then robots are not necessarily robotic. Our notion of “robotic” comes from our experience with relatively simple robots, not our experience with very sophisticated robots such as you and me.  

Among the things that make human beings amazing is our consciousness. That consciousness is often pointed to as evidence of the supernatural. The argument is the challenge “How could such a wondrous thing arise from nonsupernatural, mechanical causes?” In the one computer programming class I took in college, back in 1981, one of the assignments was to write code for Conway’s Game of Life. Conway’s Game of Life is a cellular automaton based on extremely simple, mechanical rules, but it can do many things lifelike enough to justify the name of the game.

Here is how simple the rules are: on a chessboard with many, many squares, “live” squares are in black and dead squares are in white. At each tick of the game’s clock (the Game of Life’s third dimension), the following transitions happen (see the Wikipedia article on Conway’s Game of Life):

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if caused by under-population.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overcrowding.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

Here are a few examples from the Wikipedia article on Conway’s Game of Life of what can come from these extremely simple rules:









Light-Weight Space Ship:




Gliders can be Created by Gosper’s Glider Gun:


I first got an inkling of the philosophical importance of Conway’s Game of Life when I read Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which, more than any other book, tugged me toward being a nonsupernaturalist.  In his earlier book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, Daniel Dennett talks about something being inevitable or unavoidable as the opposite of free will. He argues that any creature that can avoid something therefore has at least the most rudimentary imaginable form of free will. Animals avoid many things, and so have a bit of capability for voluntary action. But there are also creatures in Conway’s Game of Life that can avoid some of the moving objects coming at them. So by that standard those patterns of black and white squares also have a bit—though a much smaller bit—of capability for voluntary action.

To my human eye, so eager to interpret things in terms of intentions, even a simple blinker seems full of intention. And if Game of Life blinkers, toads, beacons, pulsars, spaceships, gliders and glider guns enchant, intrigue and amaze me, how much more enchanting, intriguing and amazing are human beings. 

Not everyone is a fan of Daniel Dennett’s argument that the existence of avoiders in Conway’s Game of Life means that determinism does not imply inevitability. Aaron Swartz says it all rests on a pun between unavoidable and inevitable, which really have two very different meanings. But that depends on what kind of inevitability you care about. The idea that things are in some sense inevitable at the fundamental particle level (which is consistent with at least some interpretations of quantum mechanics) is interesting, but otherwise makes no difference in my life. To me the key fact is that at the human scale bad things can be avoided and good things can be pursued. And if even an avoider in Conway’s Game of Life can avoid things, then maybe we as individuals and as a species can avoid possible catastrophes that might overtake us if we didn’t take care. Acting as if the hand of fate makes it impossible for us to steer our path toward better things is just a way of substituting a stupid deterministic process for a smart deterministic process of trying to predict the consequences of our actions and modifying them accordingly. We are fortunate that for the most part, deterministic processes have favored our being smart in seeing that we have what Daniel Dennett calls a “variety of free will worth wanting,” that we need to exercise carefully.   

Let’s now turn to consciousness proper. Consciousness does seem magical. So I have felt some temptation to think that while a sophisticated robot can act as if it is conscious, it can’t really be conscious. “I feel, therefore I am really conscious.” So suppose there was a robot that was an exact copy of me in terms of its quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons, etc. that could only pretend to be conscious, while only I would actually  be  conscious, since only I would have a supernatural spirit attached to me. Either the supernatural spirit has an effect on the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons etc. in my body or not. If it does have an effect on those quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons etc., then that effect of that supernatural spirit on fundamental particles should be detectable by the extremely sensitive instruments used by physicists. (Of course, if there is a supernatural realm that is intentionally trying to hide itself, then all bets are off.)

What about the possibility that the supernatural spirit attached to me has no effect on the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons, etc. of my body, but is what really feels the experiences that my body is going through? The trouble is that, however hard it is for us, and however much we might claim that things are inexpressible, we actually talk about our conscious experiences, and seem to understand to at least some extent what we are saying to each other in that regard. What that means is that if there are  supernatural spirits that feel, but have no effect on our bodies, that extra bit of consciousness is not the consciousness we are talking about. We speak and write and talk in sign language with our bodies. So a supernatural consciousness would have to be able to affect the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons etc. of our bodies in order for us to be talking about it.

The implication that a supernatural spirit would have to have some effect on the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons, etc. of our bodies is even stronger if the supernatural spirit was supposed to be the source of free will. The Mormonism I was raised in was and is quite anti-alcohol. For a supernatural free decision of my spirit to make the difference between me walking into a bar or resisting the temptation and walking past it, that supernatural spirit has to be able to either directly or indirectly affect some of the particles known to physicists enough to cause a neurochemical/neuroelectrical cascade to go one way as opposed to another. Even if that were by a subtle change in quantum-mechanical probabilities, the kind of diligent efforts that convinced the world of the existence of the Higgs boson could detect an effect big enough to do that.

Does that mean there is no such thing as spirit? Not at all. Daniel Dennett points out that there are two very different categories of things: matter/energy and information. Information can be embedded in matter/energy in many, many different ways. For example, the genetic code can be embedded in DNA, RNA, or in the bits and bytes of computer code that store the results of the Human Genome project and its sister projects to sequence the genomes of Neanderthals, Chimpanzees, Horses, Cows, Honeybees,  and Grapes. So, body and spirit can be interpreted as matter/energy and information. And surely, the information embedded in human beings is what makes us precious. The unorganized elements alone of which we are composed is little more than a handful of dust. In that sense, by value, human beings are spirit, even with a totally non supernatural view of things. 

It is clear that consciousness operates on the spiritual, information side of the ledger. It may be embedded and written in matter, but it is its own thing.The same can be said for free will. It may be embedded in matter and energy and operate according to the laws of physics, but 99.99% of what makes free will of special value is all on the spiritual, information side of things.   

Humans as Spiritual Beings

The fact that we humans are spiritual beings who care deeply about the informational side of things is one of the most important things about us.

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. I am drawing my account from the Wikipedia article on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s idea was that there are some very basic needs that usually need to be satisfied before we start focusing on other needs, that Maslow represented as being at a higher level. At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs, such as breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. At the next level up are safety needs, such as security of body, security of employment, security of resources, security of the family, security of health and security of property. At the third level up the pyramid are love and belonging needs, such as friendship, family, and sexual intimacy. Above that are esteem needs, such as self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect of and by others. Finally, at the top of the pyramid are self-actualization needs such as morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, and facing the truth, even when the truth is hard to bear or goes against one of our prejudices. 


 Link to the Wikipedia article on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Notice that, in general, as you go up Maslow’s hierarchy, things move markedly toward the spiritual, informational side of things. Love and belonging needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs all seem equally spiritual to me in this sense, but those all seem more spiritual than safety needs, which in turn are obviously more spiritual than immediate physiological needs, since judgments of safety require trickier thinking about the future than immediate physiological needs do.  

Touched by commerce, but in very much the same vein, there has been a trend toward more and more of an informational content to Gross Domestic Product—GDP—in the process of rich countries getting richer. We can define what is informational by whether something can be sent as an electronic file, or in the olden days, as the contents of a document. By that standard, I am not counting agriculture as an informational component of GDP—at least not in those days when agricultural products used to make up the bulk of GDP. After the period when agriculture dominated GDP, came the rise of manufacturing. Then came the rise of services. And now we see the rise of information goods proper: software, digital music, digitized videos, computer games, Kindle books, mobile apps and communications, the cloud, including the blogosphere and online social networks, and things we are barely beginning to get an inkling of. But so far, the way we compute GDP does a bad job at counting up the true value of information goods. For example, so far, the value to you of anything you can read or see free online when surfing the web isn’t counted in GDP at all, though the value to advertisers of influencing you with online ads is counted according to their willingness to pay for advertising. And the way economists now calculate GDP is even worse at measuring the transformations of human existence that I think are coming next. 

Looking forward to the future of cultures fortunate enough to collectively provide more and more opportunities and choices for people—which in economics is the deeper meaning of “getting richer”—I see people wanting in turn food, clothing, shelter and physical security, and of course basic family relationships, then refrigerators, cars, washing machines, indoor plumbing and then the books, movies, radio shows, TV shows etc., that become progressively digitized. Now, I think the big thing people want next, if they have all of those things with some level of security, is an interesting, challenging, rewarding job, with good coworkers. But after that, I think people will turn in earnest toward improving the quality of their own consciousness and the consciousness of others they care about more directly. 

It is easier to be happy if you understand how happiness works. And social scientists are beginning to understand better the things that go into happiness: things like good news, sleep, exercise, time with friends, meditation and antidepressants.

Antidepressants are an easy way to get happier, and many people quite appropriately take advantage of them. In the surprisingly distinct spiritual realm of pain and pain reduction, I have been very glad for ibuprofen in the 13 days since my dentist replaced a crown, with all of the disturbance of the roots of my tooth that entailed.   

Meditation is a path to raising happiness and otherwise improving the quality of one’s consciousness that I think people will turn to more and more in the future as the other things on their wish list besides quality of consciousness get checked off as attained. In my own household, we do a little bit of Transcendental Meditation and a fair bit of Mindfulness Meditation, as well as meditations based on words. 

But meditation is part of a larger class of spiritual exercises that have powerful effects on consciousness. With the Dalai Lama’s encouragement, Tibetan monks have been scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging machines while meditating. Just google "Tibetan monks MRI" to learn about the fascinating results. I would love to see the result from Mormons praying sincerely in MRI machines as well. And I think most religions have some spiritual practice that powerfully affects consciousness. My bet is that, by and large, each changes consciousness in a different way, that would show up differently on the brain scans. I don’t think all religious experience is one experience. It is many, many different experiences.  

Internal spiritual experience is a more important strength to religions than many sociologists of religion give it credit for. People value religious community a lot. But it is not uncommon for people to demonstrate by their actions that they value internal spiritual experience—both for themselves and others—even more.

A key moment in my transition away from Supernaturalism was when a friend who was also a Mormon pointed out that subjective spiritual experiences—even subjective spiritual experiences that fulfilled in a striking way a prediction by Mormon scripture—didn’t necessarily mean that there was a supernatural God out there in the universe. What it did mean was that there were remarkable and powerful spiritual experiences here on earth. I am glad I had those spiritual experiences as a Mormon, even though I no longer believe they were supernatural. Not only for the sake of curiosity, but also because the feelings themselves seem valuable, I have an ongoing, though slow-going, project of trying to investigate how close I can get to those spiritual states without having to believe things that I now don’t believe.

My friend Andrew Oswald, who like me does a lot of research on the Economics of Happiness, believes that essentially everything we value can be thought of as some kind of internal mental state. I wouldn’t go quite that far. Most of us at least care quite a bit about the internal mental states of those we love, as well. Many of us care about the internal mental states of animals. And some of us care about things being a certain way in the external world even if no human being could ever know for sure that it was so—and don’t want to be deceived about whether it is so. Nevertheless, internal mental states are a very big part of what we value. And that is as it should be for spiritual beings like us.  

People often say “Don’t be so materialistic.” But as I see it, that isn’t the big issue. It isn’t “You shouldn’t be so materialistic,” it’s “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are more materialistic than you really are.” One of the great values of a religious community is having someone to remind us that we are spiritual beings, whether we like it or not, and even if our spirits could not exist without being etched into patterns of quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons and the other particles and forces we are in the process of discovering, governed by equations that will someday be in every truly advanced physics textbook. 

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John Stuart Mill Argues Against Punishing or Stigmatizing, but For Advising and Preaching to People Who Engage in Self-Destructive Behaviors


Link to Wikipedia article on “Self-harm.”

When it is treated as anything more than a convenient simplification—or a solid starting place for thinking things through—one of the silliest conceits of economics is the idea that people never act against their own interests. Most often, people act against their own interests because cognitive limitations make it hard for them to figure out the right choice, even though strictly speaking, all the information they need to make  an informed ex ante choice is in front of them. But sometimes, people’s psyches are riven by internal divisions. When someone’s soul is embroiled in a hammer-and-tongs civil war, it is natural and appropriate for others to want to weigh in on behalf of one side or another in that struggle. And sometimes, even when one side of an internal psychic division seems firmly in charge, others may want to foment regime change.  

In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraphs 3-4, John Stuart Mill lays down rules for such an intervention. In particular, he argues that punishment and strong social stigma should be off limits, but that other efforts to help people improve their lives are a  good thing:

As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.  It would be a great misunderstanding of this doctrine to suppose that it is one of selfish indifference, which pretends that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved. Instead of any diminution, there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others. But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good, than whips and scourges, either of the literal or the metaphorical sort.

One big reason to limit efforts to change what seems like someone else’s self-destructive behavior to advice and preaching rather than punishing or stigmatizing is that one might be wrong. But another reason is that punishing and stigmatizing cause direct harm. For example, the many people in prison for drug use have lives that were already blighted by drugs now blighted by prison as well. Finally, punishing and stigmatizing may often be ineffective because the elements of a riven psyche one wants to encourage may have trouble seeing a punisher or stigmatizer as friendly.  

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