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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 the 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

image source

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 is "Moment" by Wisława Szymborska, while the text for the meditation is 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 cells 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 non supernaturalist.  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 Dennet 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 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. Maslows 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 scientist 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 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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Noah Smith: Why Do Americans Like Jews and Dislike Mormons?


I am delighted to host another guest religion post by Noah Smith. Don’t miss Noah’s other religion posts on

  1. God and SuperGod 
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell
  5. Buddha Was Wrong About Desire
  6. Noah Smith: Judaism Needs to Get Off the Shtetl

Here is Noah:


The Pew Research Center recently did an interesting survey asking Americans how they felt about various religious groups.Here are the findings in a single table, shown above.

was actually surprised by the low numbers across the board - there was almost no category in which more than 70% of people of one religion felt warmly toward people of another religion. But I wouldn’t put too much stock in that, actually - answers to these surveys usually tend to change a lot depending on how you phrase the question. The relative ratings are more interesting. Some of the findings are easily explained—the low ratings given to Muslims, for example are obviously an unfortunate result of the current political troubles with jihadist terrorist groups. But other findings are more surprising and intriguing. Here are some thoughts I had, looking at the numbers. 

Why do Americans like Jews?

As many have noticed, Jews received the most positive ratings of any religious group in America. This confirms that American society is not in any meaningful way anti-Semitic, which is good news. But why do people like Jews so much? 

Hypothesis 1: Nobody knows what Jews even are. When I was in high school in a medium-sized Texas town, another kid asked me about my religion. He asked: “Are you…Hanukkah?” So maybe people just have no idea what Judaism is, and figure it must be a minor thing that is no threat to their own faith. 

Hypothesis 2: Jews are no threat. Jewish culture has a strong stigma against proselytization. I’ve criticized that insularity, but maybe it’s paying dividends. People don’t like threats - that’s why Japan and Germany are such popular countries these days. Judaism is not going to knock on your door and ask you if you’ve heard about Yahweh. 

Hypothesis 3: The entertainment industry. There are lots of Jewish actors, comedians, etc. If you ask the average American to name someone Jewish, she’ll probably think of a funny guy like Jerry Seinfeld or a cute girl like Natalie Portman, or maybe a musician like Bob Dylan. If people knew that Drake, Scarlett Johansson, and James Franco were Jewish, they’d probably like us even more! 

In addition, the two main drivers of anti-Semitism—European conspiracy theories and Muslim anger about Palestine—are both notably absent in America.

Why don’t Americans like Mormons more?

Mormons get middling low ratings in the poll. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, given the prevalence of anti-Mormon discrimination in America. But what is the cause of the discrimination? David Smith, a political scientist at the University of Sydney (and no relation to Yours Truly, though we have clinked a few glasses over the years), finds that many Americans consider Mormons as an “outsider” group, which is strange considering that Mormonism is the only major religion to begin on American soil. Why do people see Mormons as outsiders?

Hypothesis 1: Proselytizing. One possibility is that the rapid spread of Mormonism poses a threat to other, more established religions. In this respect, Mormonism is the polar opposite of Judaism—every Mormon man must go out and convert people. That’s threatening, no matter how politely it’s done.  

Hypothesis 2: The perception of secrecy. There is a perception of secrecy and exclusivity surrounding Mormonism. Anyone can go participate in any Jewish prayer service. But not even all Mormons can enter “dedicated" Mormon temples! Some Mormon weddings exclude non-Mormons. And there’s a perception that many other aspects of the religion are secret. Secrecy seems alien, and exclusivity is suspicious.

I think anti-Mormonism is a bad thing, but I don’t know how to combat it.

Why don’t Jews like Evangelicals?

One interesting finding from the poll is that although 69% of Evangelical Christians expressed positive feelings toward Jews (one of the highest ratings given), only 28% of Jews expressed positive feelings toward Evangelical Christians (one of the lowest ratings given). This is weird, since Evangelical Christian sects - unlike, say, the Catholic Church - have no history of anti-Semitism or persecution of Jews. Also, the asymmetry itself is strange. Why don’t Jews like Evangelicals more?

What’s going on? 

Hypothesis 1: Instinctive fear of dominant religion. Jews in Europe and the Mideast had a long history of being persecuted by whatever the dominant religious sect in the area happened to be - the Catholic Church, Islam, or the Eastern Orthodox Church. Jewish culture may have simply inherited an instinctive distrust of whatever the most powerful religious group seems to be. 

Hypothesis 2: Politics. American Jews are generally liberal, while Evangelicals are generally conservative. In America, politics is often a stronger religion than actual religion. In addition, some Jews may be afraid that Evangelicals only like them because of a millenarian desire to see Israel recreated and then destroyed (in accordance with Biblical prophecy), or perhaps a cynical desire to use Israelis as expendable shock troops against the Muslims. This is probably not a motivating factor for most Evangelicals, but it does get some play in the media.

Hypothesis 3: Anxiety about the end of Judaism. Non-Orthodox Judaism is a dying religion. In America (and Britain), Jews are marrying non-Jews and ditching their ancestral religion at an astounding rate. It turns out that integration and assimilation destroys Judaism, while pogroms, ostracism, and oppression keep it going (someone might have bothered to mention this to Hitler!). Many Jews are naturally anxious about the end of their distinctive culture, and may tend to displace this anxiety by feeling bad about America’s “dominant” religion - Evangelical Christianity.

I think this attitude is a bad one. Evangelical Christianity is far more pro-Jewish than any other branch of Christianity has ever been. Furthermore, Evangelical Christianity has been an important factor in the creation of American society, the most philo-Semitic Western society in history. Jews should have a more positive view of Evangelicals.

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John Stuart Mill’s Rejection of Anarcho-Capitalism


British policemen in Manchester (illustrative photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Anarcho-Capitalism of Murray Rothbard does not recognize the legitimacy of taxation even to fund police protection. John Stuart Mill has a broader view of what a state can legitimately do. In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraphs 1-3, he writes:

What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?

Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.

Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. This conduct consists first, in not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights; and secondly, in each person’s bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation. These conditions society is justified in enforcing at all costs to those who endeavour to withhold fulfilment. Nor is this all that society may do. The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law.

John’s argument that “every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit” is one that Elizabeth Warren has been echoing to argue for the legitimacy of taxation to support a wide range of government activities. E. J. Dionne’s review of her book A Fighting Chance  in the Washington Post offers these quotations from the book:

1. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” she said. “Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.” …

2. “There’s nothing pro-business about crumbling roads and bridges or a power grid that can’t keep up,” she writes. “There’s nothing pro-business about cutting back on scientific research at a time when our businesses need innovation more than ever. There’s nothing pro-business about chopping education opportunities when workers need better training.”

Although her specific examples of government action in these quotations sound fairly benign, the way Elizabeth is using the argument that ”every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit” does not provide any obvious principle for putting a bound on what the government can legitimately raise taxes for. I suspect that, if magically revived in the modern world, John Stuart Mill would argue for a more limited government than the one Elizabeth Warren advocates. (And it is clear from the passage in On Liberty quoted above that he would not go along with her invocation of a “social contract.”)     

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Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood?


Mormon women lining up to get into the Priesthood Session of General Conference to highlight the fact that women are barred from the Mormon priesthood

Until I was almost 18 years old, the Mormon Church would not ordain men of black African descent to the Mormon priesthood. That all changed in 1978—a change I wrote about in these posts:

Having changed its policy to allow men of African descent to be ordained, could the Mormon Church ever allow women to be ordained? On the one hand, the Mormon Church recently excommunicated Kate Kelly for founding and leading the group Ordain Women, which advocates allowing women to be ordained to the Mormon priesthood.  (See Emma Green’s June 24, 2014 Atlantic article "Kicked Out of Heaven for Wanting Women Priests." And here is a podcast of an excellent interview with Kate Kelley that Sid Sharma alerted me to.) On the other hand, it seems as if Ordain Women’s efforts are having some effect. Among those efforts, one of the most powerful has been organizing women to line up to get into (and get turned away from) the “Priesthood Session” of the Mormon Church’s twice-a-year “General Conference.” The Mormon Church’s sensitivity to this bit of activism is indicated by the efforts it has made to ban news cameras from Temple Square to avoid more pictures of Ordain Women’s protest about women being excluded.    

Kate Kelly did not want to be thrown out of the Mormon Church. My view is that, given the realities of how the Mormon Church as an institution operates, Kate Kelly’s sacrifice of being willing to stand her ground and be excommunicated was an important contribution toward greater equality between men and women in the Mormon Church, for two reasons. First, organizing women for a highly visible protest of women’s exclusion—and Kate’s excommunication itself—get Mormons talking about the issue.

Second, the advocacy of Ordain Women creates space for quite a bit of movement toward greater equality under cover of saying “Those women trying to get into the Priesthood Session of General Conference are going too far, but …”. In other words, progress often requires someone to volunteer to be the hippie for “hippie-punching.” (See Josiah Neeley’s guest post “The Science of Hippie-Punching on Noah Smith’s blog Noahpinion for an explanation of the term “hippie-punching.”)

Even top leaders of the Mormon Church can now push for greater equality between men and women while reassuring more conservative colleagues that they won’t go too far in undoing the traditional exclusion of women from positions of power by agreeing that Kate Kelly had to be excommunicated. (The concern of more conservative Mormon leaders would be to (a) keep the Mormon Church from looking bad and (b) to set limits.) Given the likely discussions among top Mormon leaders about what to do about Ordain Women before Kate Kelly was actually excommunicated, it is appropriate to see Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks’s General Conference talk "The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood" as the outcome of such dynamics within the leadership of the Mormon Church. (As you can see from Suzette Smith’s Ordain Women blog post "Reflections on Elder Oaks’ Remarks in the Priesthood Session of General Conference,” I am not alone in seeing Dallin Oaks’s talk as a favorable development for women’s equality in the Mormon Church.) 

In the Mormon Church, the longest-serving apostle still alive becomes the head—President and Prophet—of the Mormon Church. And seniority in this sense of time in rank is also very important in how Mormon leaders interact with one another. Dallin Oaks is currently the 5th most senior apostle, and several of the more senior apostles are in poor health due to advanced age. Also, before being appointed to high church office, Dallin Oaks was a high-powered lawyer. So  other Mormon Church leaders trust him to present their position well. Given his lawyer’s training, Dallin is careful to represent the collective views of the Mormon Church leadership, but he himself has a mild liberal streak, having served as founding member of the editorial board of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which sometimes hosts articles in opposition to official positions of the Mormon Church (including key articles that helped prepare the way for the extending the Mormon priesthood to men of black African descent.   

Here are some key passages from Dallin’s General Conference talk "The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood" with my commentary after each passage. 

1. With the exception of the sacred work that sisters do in the temple under the keys held by the temple president, which I will describe hereafter, only one who holds a priesthood office can officiate in a priesthood ordinance. 

Mormon temples are at a much higher level of sacredness than the regular meetinghouses where Sunday services are held. They are the site of many powerful and very interesting rituals that non-Mormons never see. The passage just above from Dallin’s talk is remarkable for openly acknowledge that in Mormon temples, women officiate in certain rituals in what to all appearances is a priestly capacity fully parallel to the way in which men officiate in a priestly capacity in the corresponding rituals. If Mormon women took roles this closely parallel to those taken by men in rituals outside of temples as well, they would have a version of the Mormon priesthood in all but name.  

2. We are accustomed to thinking that all keys of the priesthood were conferred on Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple, but the scripture states that all that was conferred there were “the keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16). At general conference many years ago, President Spencer W. Kimball reminded us that there are other priesthood keys that have not been given to man on the earth, including the keys of creation and resurrection.

Dallin’s reference to one of my (unfortunately deceased) grandfather Spencer W. Kimball’s statements is a reminder that, as the official distillation of Mormon belief into thirteen “Articles of Faith” says, “we believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” In context, this is a positive note that God could open the door to ordination, or at least more extensive priestly or priest-like roles for Mormon women. (A good example of an additional priest-like role for Mormon women that would not be too radical a change from current policy would be if Mormon women were once again encouraged, as they were in the 19th century, to give healing blessings—that is, when appropriate, to put their hands on someone’s head while saying a prayer for that person to recover from a sickness.)

3. The divine nature of the limitations put upon the exercise of priesthood keys explains an essential contrast between decisions on matters of Church administration and decisions affecting the priesthood. The First Presidency and the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who preside over the Church, are empowered to make many decisions affecting Church policies and procedures—matters such as the location of Church buildings and the ages for missionary service. But even though these presiding authorities hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.

Just as Mormon Church leaders said about extending the Mormon priesthood to men of African descent, Dallin is saying it would take a special revelation from God to extend the Mormon priesthood to women. But of course, Mormons believe that God did give a special revelation in 1978 that the Mormon priesthood should be offered to all faithful men. So that is not at all ruling out more extensive priestly roles for women, only saying that Mormon Church leaders would have to feel they had a powerful subjective spiritual experience (which they interpreted with confidence as an actual communication from God) in favor of such a change before they would think they had the warrant to do so.    

4. In an address to the Relief Society, President Joseph Fielding Smith, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said this: “While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, it has not been conferred upon them, that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. … A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord. They have authority given unto them to do some great and wonderful things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding just as thoroughly as are the blessings that are given by the men who hold the Priesthood.”

In that notable address, President Smith said again and again that women have been given authority. To the women he said, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you.” He also said that the Relief Society “[has] been given power and authority to do a great many things. The work which they do is done by divine authority.” And, of course, the Church work done by women or men, whether in the temple or in the wards or branches, is done under the direction of those who hold priesthood keys. Thus, speaking of the Relief Society, President Smith explained, “[The Lord] has given to them this great organization where they have authority to serve under the directions of the bishops of the wards … , looking after the interest of our people both spiritually and temporally.”

Thus, it is truly said that Relief Society is not just a class for women but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood.

We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.

In giving this quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith, an earlier church leader who later became President of the Mormon Church, Dallin not only alludes again to the clearly priest-like functions women perform in Mormon temples, but also says that while women do not have “the priesthood," they routinely have "the authority of the priesthood" in the many "callings" (appointive church volunteer positions) in which they serve in the Mormon Church. The effect is to more nearly equate the prestige of the callings women serve in to the callings men serve in.  

5. As stated in the family proclamation, the father presides in the family and he and the mother have separate responsibilities, but they are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Some years before the family proclamation, President Spencer W. Kimball gave this inspired explanation: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.”

In the eyes of God, whether in the Church or in the family, women and men are equal, with different responsibilities.

Despite its origins as a document hoping to hold the line against legal gay marriage (a topic I address here), and its essentialist views on gender, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” does say that men and women are equal. This and other official statements that men and women are equal because they have the potential to counteract the very understandable inference by Mormons that since only men hold the priesthood, men are more than equal to women. It is this difficult-to-suppress inference that is the most damaging aspect of Mormon women being excluded from priesthood offices—much more damaging than the (significant) hurt from not being able to perform certain rituals. 

6. In his insightful talk at BYU Education Week last summer, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave these teachings:

“Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other. …

“When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which is priesthood power. … Access to the power and the blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children.”

In most religions that have ordained women, women have gained the opportunity to take on exactly the same offices as men. That is the usual pattern. But in Mormonism, what the threads of past tradition point to as a more likely resolution of the current structural inequality between men and women is (a) the recognition of a parallel priesthood for women that is different, but of equal dignity and (b) inclusion of women in all the decision-making councils of the church on the basis of their separate but equal priesthood. Already it is well within the discretion of the bishop who leads a Mormon congregation to include female leaders in the key decision-making meetings. (And many do.) A simple step for the Mormon Church would be to insist that all bishops do this, rather than merely allowing it. A more radical step would be to recognize the top female leader in a Mormon congregation as the co-equal of the bishop, just as the church leaders Dallin quotes recognize the wife as a co-equal of the husband in a marriage.    

One of the great strengths of Mormonism is its adaptability. Unlike in Catholicism, where the Pope is limited to interpreting the preexisting tradition, the Mormon Prophet can declare de novo revelations from God. And to the extent precedents are desired, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was creative enough (and other Mormon leaders also felt latitude to be creative given the doctrine that they could get inspiration from God) that a wide variety of precedents are available. The Mormon hierarchy is set up in such a way that it is led by old men, who have a great deal of wisdom from their life experience. So it is resistant to fads and sometimes resistant to changes that should happen. But with the lag one would expect from the age structure of the leadership, many changes that should happen eventually do happen. Someday, I expect women to have a much more equal station in the Mormon Church than they do now. As part of that equality, I see a future Mormon Church that is led by wise old women as well as wise old men.

Despite being a non-supernaturalist myself, I know that religions that expect belief in the supernatural matter a lot to their adherents, just as religions that fully welcome non-supernaturalists matter to people like me. And having grown up within Mormonism, and having many friends and family who are still believers, makes me care about Mormonism. I think that equality between men and women is important for both supernaturalist and non-supernaturalist religions. However, in religions that believe in the supernatural, beliefs about the distribution of supernatural gifts between men and to women matter. One way or another, I hope that Mormonism finds its way to a greater level of equality between men and women, as I think it will.   

—written in Rome

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Safe, Legal, Rare and Early

image source

Even in a year when the abortion issue has been relatively quiet, the struggle over abortion policy continues to make news. On June 26, the Supreme Court decided that a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics was too great an imposition on the free-speech rights of anti-abortion activists. On June 3, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down restrictions on pills that induce abortion early in pregnancies.

And Wendy Davis’s uphill campaign to become governor of Texas was jumpstarted by her filibuster against restrictions on late-term abortions

The American politics of abortion generates a lot of heat because of the passion of those with extreme views. Yet most Americans have moderate views on abortion. The debate over abortion restrictions involves a tragic conflict between a human life—however small and undeveloped—and the freedom of a potential mother to determine the course of her life.   

Bill Clinton famously said during the 1996 presidential campaign:  “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.” In saying this, he missed another important proviso. According to most Americans, abortion should be not only safe, legal and rare—when there is an abortion, it should be done early in pregnancy. Gallup polls from 2012 indicate that only 31% of adults think abortion should be illegal in the first trimester, but 64% think abortion should be illegal during the second trimester, and 80% think abortion should be prohibited in the third trimester. And these attitudes have been remarkably stable over time.

I agree with the majority of Americans. It makes sense to me that someone ought to have the right not to be killed the day before they would otherwise have been born. And it makes sense to me that, despite its potential, the interests of a single human cell from a recently fertilized egg cannot weigh as much in the balance as the interests of a woman in choosing one of the most basic aspects of what her future will look like. In between, I see the ethical weight of nascent human life as increasing gradually over time. There are milestones along the way: fertilization, implantation, getting a heartbeat, becoming able to feel pain, being born. But even those transitions, seen up close, are gradual ones.  For example, birth is not one moment of transition, but many: the breaking of the water, the emergence of the baby’s head, the first breath, the cutting of the umbilical cord, and many key moments along the way.

Even after birth, loving parents feel a baby becoming more and more precious with every passing day. And with passing time, the child gains a greater and greater consciousness of its own existence, and (in all but pathological cases) its own strong desire to live. At the other end, even before conception, I like to think that even the unconceived have at least some small ethical interest in getting a chance to become an actual human being.

So to me, there are no sudden ethical jumps, but instead, a gradually increasing ethical weight to a developing human life, at least from shortly before conception to shortly after birth. What this ethical view means for policy is that when an abortion does happen it is better to have it occur early. Laws against partial-birth abortion seem ethically appropriate to me just as laws against killing the baby one day later are, but attempts to discourage women from using morning-after pills such as “Plan B” do not. It takes many, many fertilized eggs to equal the ethical weight of a single one-month-along fetus aborted because a woman was kept from using a morning-after pill. And while it might be reasonable to consider short waiting periods to encourage people to think things through, restrictions on abortion (or harrassments to drive out abortion clinics) that force women to go to another state at the cost of weeks of delay magnify the horror of the abortion that ultimately does take place.   

Unfortunately, the extreme viewpoints that have driven much of the policy debate have left little room for us to focus on trying to insure that the abortions that do occur are early ones. The politically most active parts of the pro-life movement claim that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of a baby, while the politically most active parts of the pro-choice movement are loath to give any rights to a human being the day before birth. So it is the duty of the rest of us—who have both pro-choice and pro-life leanings jostling in our hearts at the same time—to work toward policies that will insure that abortions are not only safe, legal and rare, but also early.



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