The myth of a moral sense

Our culture gives us conceptual tools to navigate everyday life. For us in the West, at this point in history, many of these concepts have roots in a basically religious worldview. Specifically, the way we think and talk about morality owes much to the dominance of Christianity (in some form or other) in our collective imaginings. These conceptual tools are largely obsolete. Most of them can’t be salvaged, and we’re better off without them. Morality doesn’t come to us from God; it isn’t a “natural law” written in the laws of physics, much less in our hearts; and the very idea of a ‘right’ answer in ethics is problematic, to my reckoning.

Image What we know is that human beings are hyper-social primates, and that our ability to temper socially disruptive private urges and replace them with pro-social behavior probably evolved because cohesive families and cohesive social groups do better in the struggle for existence (at least in the ecological niches our species has historically inhabited) than less socially-minded animals. Chimps and bonobos are relatively good at getting along, and they’re very clever; but not good enough to form the kinds of units and cultures that allowed human beings to spread out over the globe.

From an evolutionary perspective, the idea of a ‘moral sense’ that tells us what is (‘objectively’) right and wrong is implausible. And in any case, any empirically-minded world-traveler will see this myth for what it is. Freud’s language of a ‘super-ego’ is closer to the truth: we have (to varying degrees–some of us are sociopaths, after all) a sense of what we can and can’t get away with, given our social environment. Most of us aren’t Machiavellian little monsters, of course: we genuinely care about others (especially family members and friends/allies) in addition to caring about our own private interests. But our moral sense or conscience enters the picture not from outside of social life, but rather from within it, cueing us in to where the risk to our reputation is too great for the relative payoff of some behavior. The pangs of conscience are not disclosures of an objective right and wrong, but the internalized sense of what others want us to be (and what we ourselves sometimes want ourselves to be). This is why conscience speaks with as many voices as matter to us. In hyper-hierarchical contexts–those in which we are completely beholden to one ideology–conscience speaks with one voice, and its power is considerable. Outside the Church, the Party, or the vegan community (for example) however, the voice of conscience is fractured, simply because we care about the opinions and perspectives of many people. I might be hesitant to do or say something that my mom wouldn’t like; but with the right group of friends, I can do or say it fearlessly (for good or for ill!).

Yes, this is relativism. That’s our conundrum. There is no moral sense that lifts us above the fray. All we have are these conflicting voices with different priorities, different opinions about what matters more (financial security! consistency! integrity! simplicity! status! power! loyalty! …). And we have to make our way through the cacophony as best we can.

Ideologies that claim we have a moral sense are not so much pushing us to recognize something that is already there (it’s not) as they are trying to indoctrinate us into thinking like a particular group that agrees on the alleged deliverances of this moral sense. When we are brought into a community of like-minded people, the voices of conscience are less discordant. But that harmony is not a deep feature of the world or a disclosure from God–it’s just the effect of strongly belonging to a group of like-minded people. (Beware of such groups!)

The standard disclaimers apply: none of this is to say to all moral cultures are created equal. We always evaluate some set of values from the perspective of some other set of values. But some values are more general and useful than others. For me, considerations of truth and kindness are important. What’s nice about those values isn’t that I can prove they’re ‘correct’ (sorry!), but that I can hold them, tell other people I hold them, and have most people agree that they’re nice. They’re universalizable, I guess you could say. Not a magical property or anything like that, but given globalization, not a bad feature. (Of course, aspects of globalization can be criticized from the perspective of concern for others. That’s fine.)

The idea of a moral sense, at least as a discloser of objective moral truths, is a holdover from Christian modes of thought in which God gives all human beings a law which is written on our hearts. There is no god, and there is no such law, so the idea of a moral sense isn’t helpful. A more useful and a more truthful picture has morality as a communal co-creation, something we work out together (because war and conflict generally suck for most people, and peace is nice). It’s sort of a muddy picture, but that’s only because it’s truthful.



Daniel’s super simple spiritual advice for a happy life

Well, you know, “spiritual”–pertaining to the cultivation of the human spirit or mind.

1. Cultivate self-knowledge. Introspect. Examine your motives, your feelings, your moods. Know thyself. I know I can get caught in a mode of reactivity with no self-awareness. This is usually how I end up engaging in unhelpful behaviors, such as cussing out fellow drivers, staying up too late watching stupid Netflix movies, and so on. The more I learn to monitor my mood, my feelings, my thoughts, the more I’m able to channel my behavior in desirable directions (chilling out behind the wheel, slowing down, going to bed, etc.).

2. Kill your ego. For perfectly understandable evolutionary reasons[1], the vast majority of us engage in constant reputation management. I actually don’t think it’s possible not to do this at least some of the time, but then I don’t think reputation management is intrinsically wrong or anything like that. That being said, it is possible to cultivate a correctable self–to admit wrongdoing or error, to apologize, to laugh at oneself, etc. For a variety of reasons, it’s a good idea not to defend our ‘reputations’ in a knee-jerk way. It’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to make mistakes. You acknowledge them, and you grow. (When we do this, we by the same token cultivate a desirable reputation: the reputation of someone who does not cling to ego.)

3. Always* tell the truth. *you know, almost always. This is simply extending the ideals of self-knowledge and ego killing to the way in which we interact with people in our circle of trust. Telling lies is tiring, distracting, and potentially harmful to trust and to human relationships, which are, you know, the very stuff of a meaningful human life (for those of us who aren’t sociopaths!). Some people may be too dangerous to trust, or some societies may be hostile to certain truths (these are tragedies), so this isn’t an inflexible commandment. But, in general, being transparent brings great peace of mind, and makes possible very open and very healthy relationships (assuming all parties value truth in roughly the same manner). I try hard not to keep secrets, even ‘dirty’ secrets, from my partner. Our relationship is much better for it. And the peace our honesty produces may not pass all understanding (Bible joke, sorry), but it’s pretty nice.

[1] Further reading on evolution and reputation management: Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language; Richard Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems.

Questions and answers

I am a philosopher by training. Recently, however, I’ve been wondering whether my interest in philosophy as such will endure. I have at present no pressing philosophical concerns. My intellectual curiosity, I like to tell myself, is the same as it ever has been. But the drive to find answers to some question or other has been oddly absent.

Three puzzles have driven the bulk of my philosophizing over the past decade: first, the nature of the mind or soul; second, the existence of God; third, the nature of morality. Nothing amazingly original, I know. But these were the questions with the most existential import for me. I was raised a Christian, and so I inherited ways of thinking about my world that left me with unanswered questions. In part through philosophy (and in part through science), I have answered these questions to my satisfaction. There is no soul, and the mind is what the brain does; there is no personal God; and morality is a social construct, a tool we use to get along together and co-construct a form of life. 

These are not original answers, of course. But it took me a while to come to them, and so they’re rather dear to me. Now that I have them, I’m just not sure what there is left to say. The rest seems to flow pretty obviously to me: life is short and absurd; beauty is a function of how we have evolved and been socialized to appreciate certain phenomena; the world’s religions and other ideologies are selling first (a false sense of) certainty and second a (sometimes true) sense of belonging; it’s nice to know the truth, but truth doesn’t always lead to happiness; happiness is pretty important; etc. etc. etc. 

The questions I currently find interesting aren’t really philosophical questions. I’m interested in the future of food and water, in global distributions of wealth, in science education and the popularization of empiricism, in ecology and evolution, in space exploration, in the future of technology, in population control, in politics… The theme that unites these is simply that these are practical matters. They’re questions about how to live in this world we’ve inherited. And in one sense, that’s the natural progression: first you figure how the world works, and then you try to figure out what to do with that knowledge. I can’t claim to have a complete understanding of the world, but I do claim to have ruled out a number of misleading pictures. (That’s something, at least.) 

In a sense, this is the real promise of atheism and of empiricism. Once you move beyond debating whose god is really real, or which afterlife really matters, you can get down to the business of really living–here, now, in this world. Once you clear the cobwebs, and move beyond the smoke and mirrors, you’ve got a shot at collaborating with other clear-sighted folk to make the world a better place. If that’s your thing. 

Religious entanglements

1. Ever since Plato wrote the Euthyphro, philosophers have known that ethics and religion are like oil and water. Or, more precisely, that divine commands as such add nothing to the distinctly moral force of moral prescriptions. Does God command the good because it is good? Or is it good because God commands it? If the former, then the goodness of things exists apart from their being commanded by God. If the latter, then the notion of goodness is vacuous–it is simply what God commands. I take it the standard religious response is to suggest that this is a false dichotomy, that, somehow, it is in the essence of God or of God’s commands to be good. But I don’t get it. So, with most philosophers, I conclude that goodness (whether moral or otherwise) is distinct from being commanded by God. I’ll also go one step further and say, this time with most secular philosophers, that God and religion are completely irrelevant to ethics.

2. That being said, it is nevertheless undeniable that, all throughout the world, ethics is religiously entangled. The world’s diverse cultures all have moralities that are in some way caught up with religious myths. There are gods, or ancestors, or the law of Heaven, to back up the most important moral prescriptions. So, all philosophical arguments aside, there’s a need for an explanation here. Why is ethics, the world over, religiously entangled? 

3. The most plausible story that I’m familiar with runs something like this: our hominid ancestors usually inhabited roughly partitioned environments–i.e. they were in competition with neighboring hominid bands. This is the context in which group selection kicks in. Groups that find ways of getting along at least well enough to reproduce, raise children, make tools, find food, and band together to fend off attacks, raid neighboring territories, or maybe just conquer them outright, win. We are the descendants of such “winners”. Religious entanglement, on this account, is a function of the fact that, being already predisposed to see occult agencies at work in the world, those bands of our ancestors that took the further step of connecting those occult agencies with the enforcement or monitoring of social rules would have had an edge in cultural competition. If you and your tribe already believe there are unseen spirits at work in the world, and if you come to believe that these spirits are watching you constantly, and that they can reward you for being “good” or punish you for being “bad”… chances are, you’ll abide by the social code more consistently than your godless neighbors. And if the conditions are right, that means you’ll also outcompete them. (The basic account here is borrowed from Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project. The bit about being predisposed to seeing occult agencies at work in the world finds substantiation in, e.g., Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained.)

4. So the religious entanglement of ethics is, from the perspective of our best guess, a function of the pro-social effects of religious belief. Thus comes the natural follow-up: shouldn’t we secularists be afraid that exorcizing God from ethics will result in widespread societal breakdown? If believing in God (or the ancestors, or…) helped our ancestors band together and survive to mate another day, won’t “killing” God result in society falling apart? 

5. Not to be too glib about it, but… : I don’t know. I hope not. There’s more that draws us together than just the fear (or love) of God–even if that has played an important role for us historically. So my hope is that we’ll be clever enough to find ways to encourage each other to take others into account. But there’s no guarantee it’ll work, I suppose. More fundamentally however, the key point is this: the cat is already out of the bag. There’s no going back. We can’t wish ourselves back into religious ethics. God is already dead, even if some haven’t gotten the memo. As a humanist then, I conclude that our considerable creativity is best put to use not in trying to revive God, in trying to resuscitate him briefly on his way out, but rather in figuring out how to live without him. 

6. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein’s got this memorable image of kicking away a ladder once you’ve used it to climb up to some new insight. The humanist’s hope, I take it, is that, even if God and religion were necessary in human history to get us up to this point, we might still be able to kick away the ladder in light of the truth (that there is no God, and that none of religion’s substantive claims are true in the relevant way). But yes, I suppose alternatively, we could be unwittingly sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Oh well.


What is morality?

1. We human beings are social animals. All of us who survive to adulthood have been taken care of by someone else. Usually several someones. At a minimum, someone kept us fed and sheltered. This is the context in which most of us come to appreciate–to value–human contact. So not only do we generally need each other to provide for our basic needs, we also, often enough, enjoy each other’s company. 

2. It is in the course of learning to navigate interpersonal relationships that we learn the vocabularies of cooperation. We learn to use words like “friend”, “kind”, “share”, “mean”, “nice”, “obedience”, and so forth. These are the building blocks of morality. By verbalizing and negotiating the expectations we have of each other in our various social roles (mother, father, child, sibling, friend, citizen, student, etc.), we co-create a world that makes sense to us, that we can depend on, and that we know how to navigate. Moral rules and ideals grow naturally out of our social condition.

3. Whether we like it or not, we are also status-seeking primates. We have a strong tendency to want to get ahead, to climb the social ladder. Beautiful people typically have a head start (although what counts as beautiful varies from culture to culture). And in societies with legacies of colonialism and conquest, certain social groups are privileged relative to others. Ever since we moved beyond the hunting and gathering lifestyle of our ancestors, our societies have been stratified in these and other ways. The moral rules and ideals we live by typically codify these arrangements in some form or other. So, at least today, it would be misleading to think we all have an equal role in “co-constructing” morality. Some of us have very loud voices in the conversation. And others of us can’t be heard at all.

4. In very religious societies, religious authorities typically have very loud voices. Popes, prophets, pastors, and the like speak for God (or for the ancestors, or for whomever the dominant mythology credits with creating moral rules). It is assumed that these people know better than others what counts as a good life. Often this is because they tell elaborate stories about what life “really” is. In the Christian circles I grew up in, for example, this life (life “on Earth”) was pictured as a probationary period before the next life (“real” life, life “in Heaven”). And of course, only the pastors really knew what Heaven was going to be like, and how a person could get in. So they got to tell us what rules we had to follow (which they were getting, allegedly, straight from the Bible).

5. Being a pastor or priest in a religious society gives you power over people. It doesn’t matter if your religion is a religion of meekness or sacrifice. What matters is that people believe you speak for God (even if it is oh-so-humbly). Because we’re status-seeking primates, power is intoxicating (even if you can’t tell you’re intoxicated). This means that people who, for whatever reason, end up in power, tend to do what they can to stay in power. Sometimes their power plays are transparently Machiavellian. Other times they’re just the convenient result of maneuvering they think they’re doing for other reasons (for example, ousting and publicly denouncing a trouble-maker for preaching “a different Gospel” out of zeal for “the truth”).

6. The struggle for status and power creates winners and losers. Sometimes, the losers band together to challenge the legitimacy of the rules and ideals that have left them on the outside. This way, you get competing systems of rules. If the society in question is highly stratified, so that there aren’t that many winners, but there are lots of losers, the value system of the winners gets overthrown simply because its appeal is much too narrow. The “losers” include more people, and so, in the long run, they win (the meek inherit the Earth! …).

7. It’s important to notice that even though moral systems can be more or less inclusive, the drive for status is always there. What changes is the cultural expression of the status game. In a racist system, for instance, you have to be of the privileged race to have high status. This can be hard to sustain in the long run, especially if other races are “uppity”–if they band together and challenge the ideology and power structures (laws, police behavior, etc.) that sustains the privileged race in its privileged place. It’s also true that stark inequalities of power and status are often maintained through lies, for example about how much “better” the privileged are than the rest of the human “herd”. So often, the losers of the status game only need to tell the truth about themselves (and about the privileged) to undermine the felt legitimacy of the social arrangement. This was (and still is) an important part of the feminist movement and other liberatory struggles. These transformative moral movements are essentially attempts to democratize the production of our moral ideals. We can’t do without expectations and rules in social life, but we can make those mutual understandings more mutual. Often, the more mutual the understandings are, the more stable they are over the long haul too. These movements often gain the bulk of their momentum from the disenfranchised, since they’re the ones with the most to gain. The already powerful, by contrast, typically resist social change that threatens to weaken their position.

8. Humanists believe we can create moral ideals and moral systems that work well for everyone. We don’t think we can reprogram ourselves not to want social status. But we think we can reprogram our societies so that social status is connected to things that benefit others, rather than things that impoverish others. So humanists value kindness, compassion, justice, and equality of opportunity. We call “good” people who help other people (directly or indirectly). And we call “bad” people who hurt other people. We’re humanists because we try not to draw lines between the kinds of people it’s worth helping. So, according to the humanist view, it doesn’t matter if a person is Black, white, mixed-race, or of any other ethnic background, gay or straight or trans or queer, ugly or beautiful, fat or skinny, able-bodied or disabled, clever or a bit of a dunce (you get the idea). That person should have a reasonable shot at a good life, free from harm, and free to pursue whatever happens to strike his or her fancy, so long as no harm to anyone else is involved. Building that society is hard work, and there are all sorts of practical problems along the way, of course. But the point is that we can make moral progress, we can build a better world, if we set our minds to it.

9. So what is morality? Morality is a tool we use to get along together. It’s also a tool we use to get ahead in life. But bad things happen if we get ahead at the expense of other people. They resent us, and in any case, those of us who aren’t sociopaths usually want genuine, mutual relationships with other people. So we can’t burn every bridge. The solution is to (co-)create moral rules and ideals and systems that work for more or less everyone: to advocate for kindness, understanding, compassion, world peace, and so forth. To hold up as moral exemplars people who inspire us with how they affirm others–or at least, with how they stay out of the way of others. That’s compatible with all sorts of life paths (including competitive ones, like being an athlete–but all good competition presupposes a more fundamental cooperation: it’s not really “winning” if the game is rigged). And it’s a vision I find attractive. How about you?


Naturalism and moral living

Moral skeptics argue that morality is a sham. According to Richard Joyce’s version of moral skepticism, for example, morality is essentially an illusion foisted upon us by our genes. We’ve evolved to view certain social norms as having convention-transcendent authority (when, in fact, there is no such thing) because thinking about things this way made us more altruistic (“nicer”) and ultimately helped our ancestors make more babies.

I think of skepticism as an incompatibilist stance on the relationship between moral living and naturalism. Having a naturalist worldview, on the moral skeptic’s view, is incompatible with ordinary moral living.

Depending on whether a skeptic recommends fictionalism or abolitionism about moral language, we can think of the options as soft or hard incompatibilism, respectively. The hard incompatibilist views naturalism as completely incompatible with ordinary moral living and the ordinary use of moral language, and recommends abolishing its use (come what may, perhaps?). By contrast, the soft incompatibilist views naturalism as, strictly speaking, incompatible with ordinary moral living and language use, but thinks it best for most of us to continue thinking and speaking in such terms, lest the social fabric unravel.

Opponents of skepticism (who are not also realists) tend to fall into what I call an easy compatibilism. Easy compatibilism is the view that (of course!) naturalism and moral living are compatible. The stance is typically justified with a sophisticated, and largely non-cognitivist account of moral language. Ordinary moral discourse can go on, business as usual, because it simply serves to regulate social life. And so the adoption (or not) of a naturalist worldview is, for the most part, irrelevant to moral life.

In contrast to both incompatibilist and easy compatibilist views, I favor a critical compatibilist account of the relationship between naturalism and moral living. The idea is that the examined life and the moral life need not part ways (contra the skeptic), but that their reconciliation is more work than is sometimes assumed (for instance, by the easy compatibilist).

I’ll give the principal contours of this view in my next post.

He is risen indeed?

Easter is the holiday that probably excites me the most as an atheist–in the sense that I get a bit agitated. That’s because the straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, was my realization that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. My evolving Christian faith had always depended on a cosmic happy ending, and that happy ending had been anchored to the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth quite literally overcame death (and that that overcoming would somehow, someday, extend to all or most of “creation”). When I realized how groundless my conviction was, that was it for me.

I could have been a liberal Christian, I suppose. I could have gone the metaphorical route, or whatever. But my Christianity was already so unorthodox that I would have been left with an impersonal “God” unworthy of worship. What’s the point? As a humanist, I get to keep everything good about Christianity–the fun stories about Jesus, the social and political critique–and I get to ditch the bad, all while helping myself to the good in the rest of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions. I get to be a syncretist hack. It’s great! I try to take the good and leave the bad wherever I find it.

Every Easter though, I revisit everything I find stale, frustrating, and false about Christianity. The false hope, the false enthusiasm, the false historical claims. I’ve come to rather appreciate the tragic beauty of the Crucifixion narrative. A peasant prophet man comes into town, railing against the elites and preaching the universal accessibility of God. He then stages a public protest in the temple, and is shortly thereafter betrayed and hung out to dry. If you care about what Jesus of Nazareth obviously cared about, it’s touching and tragic. You know, like all good stories.

But then there’s this silly Easter narrative (silly, at least, on the versions I’m familiar with) that has him overcoming death. I’m happy that’s spawned a hundred or so Zombie Jesus internet memes. From a narrative perspective, it’s a classic deus ex machina. The plot has run its course, things have come to an impasse, and so the narrator has the gods do the dirty work of fixing everything up all tidy. I suppose that “works” for the sake of the story.

But then again, this “savior” of the world gets hoisted up into heaven again, and leaves his followers all alone (convenient, dare I say, to have the man who overcame death take his leave at such an early point in the rest of the story!). What does he leave his followers with? The “Holy Spirit”. An intangible nothing, that means nothing, accomplishes nothing, and is worth nothing.

If Christianity were true, it would be amazing. Life changing. I’d still have plenty of questions for the man upstairs (along the lines of, you know, why so much undeserved suffering?), but at least I’d have something to look forward to. A Happy Ending. But if there is no Holy Spirit–and I haven’t met him, though I pretended I had, for a long time–then Jesus isn’t risen. Jesus is still dead. And if Jesus is dead, then Christianity, in its orthodox form, is false. Worse, it’s probably a waste of time. I suppose there are worse things to believe, a worse ways to waste one’s time, but there you have it.

So Happy Easter. Have some chocolate. Hide some eggs. Play dress up if that’s your thing. But spare us the “he is risen indeed” nonsense. Jesus is dead.


The importance of being visibly pro-choice

In the U.S., I think it’s fair to say that the abortion debate, whatever else it is, is first and foremost a legal debate. That is, it is a debate about whether or not aborting a pregnancy (“killing an unborn child”–pick your terminology of choice) should be legal or illegal, and/or under what circumstances. It is possible to regard the abortion question from a moral point of view and to judge that, for example, abortion is probably morally wrong (say) but should still be legal. I know some people who believe this (more or less). I understand that that stance makes it hard for a person to call herself “pro-choice”. But if a person believes abortion should be legal, in our contemporary context, I think it’s absolutely imperative for that person to self-identify, out loud and in public, as “pro-choice”. Here’s why.

(1) Just a few decades ago, massive strides were made towards making abortion safe, legal, and widely available. And yet we are, at present, making massive strides in the opposite direction. So if you think abortion should be legal, even if you personally don’t like it, even if you personally would never have one, or whatever, even if you think it’s wrong, your (legal) stance is currently being defeated. You need to fight back.

(2) Pro-lifers have been excellent at organizing themselves. They are loud and visible. They have succeeded in making people uncomfortable talking about abortion in neutral or positive terms. They have inundated our cultural meme pool with their framing of the abortion question (which emphasizes the fetus above all else, so that the woman who is pregnant somehow disappears, or appears only contingently related to that fetus [or zygote/blastocyst/embryo/whatever]). Pro-choicers have become invisible.

(3) As a result of the invisibility and stigma associated with being pro-choice, the excellent (winning, I’d say) arguments of the pro-choice position have become invisible as well. Most pro-lifers do not know why a reasonable person might think abortion should be safe, legal, and widely available. But in fact pro-choicers have two excellent lines of reasoning for their position. The first emphasizes the difficulties (economic, physical, emotional) of unwanted pregnancy; the second emphasizes the biological facts about developing human beings in utero.

In brief then, however else you think or feel about the question(s) of abortion, if you think abortions should be legal–that is, if you think pregnant women should, legally speaking, be free to choose whether or not to carry on with their pregnancy or to abort–then you are pro-choice, and the rest of us (and all potentially pregnant women across the country) need you to speak up.

Pro-choice and proud.

What is a soul?

I was perusing my previous posts on this blog, and I realized I hadn’t written anything specifically about the soul. That’s quite an oversight, since reading and thinking about souls is a lot of what pushed me away from Christianity and towards atheism and humanism. Very briefly then, here’s an outline of my thinking on this topic.

(1) Most people today, in North America, believe in souls. That is my experience, and, to the best of my knowledge, the polls bear it out. This means that most people are not materialists. They think there is “more” to us than the stuff of our bodies–our blood cells, veins, muscles, gray matter, etc.

(2) What the word “soul” means is actually a matter of some debate. When I’ve asked my students, at least, they can’t seem to give me a straight answer. The simplest explanation is that soul-talk is something we’ve inherited from the culture, for whatever reason, and its reference is something underdetermined by its use.

(3) From the perspective of the history of philosophy, the evolution of the idea of the “soul” is easy enough to trace. For the ancients (Plato, Aristotle), the soul is what makes a body alive. Having a soul is what separates the animate from the inanimate. Students are typically surprised to learn that plants have souls (on Aristotle’s conception of the soul), but plants are very different from stones and dirt when you think about it. (“Soul” here is an empirical posit of sorts–it does something, it explains something. Not so, nowadays.) The more rationalist and human-centered approach of Plato has recurring appeal, and shows up, in some version or other in the later work of thinkers like Augustine and Descartes (to choose from two very different time periods). In Descartes’ work, “soul” or “mind” is characteristically human. It is known best through introspection, and it is a fundamentally different kind of stuff than material substance (which, unlike the soul or mind, is extended in space). In a way, materialism has been controversial for as long as people have been thinking about what is necessary to explain the world around us. The notion of the soul has been used as a stop-gap for whatever people have thought mere matter couldn’t explain.

(4) Soul-talk, in brief, is essentially dualistic. That is, it encourages us to view human beings (and perhaps other animals) as matter + something else. The view we get from the natural and human sciences, however, is fundamentally monistic. That is, rather than view human beings as matter + something else, it sees us as very complex organizations of matter. Of course, “matter” itself is weirder than we’d ever imagined. But the fact remains that our best scientific theories (our most empirically successful theories) tell us there is one world–not the two worlds of our culture’s “soul”-talkers.

(5) Soul-talk, as a result, has become obsolete. The reason my undergrads can’t pinpoint the nature of the soul is that it has no nature. At this point in our cultural evolution, the “soul” has become little more than a placeholder for that-which-makes-immortality-possible. My soul is me, minus all the material stuff that makes me me, like my body, my face, my feelings, my personality, and so on (fishy, no?). There’s a good story to tell about why thinking about souls is natural to beings with our evolutionary history (see Pascal Boyer’s work, for example). But we’ve got all sorts of cognitive predispositions which have likely been useful to us in the past, without by the same token telling us anything true about the world. The inchoate sense of a something “more” to life or to human persons is, in all likelihood, one more example of this type of phenomenon.

So what is a soul? Nothing much. Just a figment of our imaginations. A holdover of our evolutionary past; a hangover from Christianity. A lie we need to outgrow.

Women and babies

I’ve been working through a body of feminist work in ethics for my dissertation that goes by the label of “care ethics”. It’s a subfield of study that got jumpstarted in the early 1980s, when the American psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote a damning critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on human moral development in her book In a Different Voice. Work on “care” in subsequent decades took the notion in two very different ways. According to Gilligan, and to philosophers like Nel Noddings, “care” is primarily a psychological orientation. It’s a disposition to be responsive to others, to care about them, to think about social life relationally, etc. And, very importantly, it’s allegedly something women are better at than men. According to other philosophers (Sara Ruddick, Joan Tronto, Margaret Walker, and many other feminists), care should be thought of as work, as something people (of whatever gender) do. Whether you frame things in terms of psychological care or in terms of practical care makes a big difference, it turns out.

One of the reasons feminists prefer the practical conception of care over the psychological conception of care, as far as I can tell, is that the psychological conception of care seems like a recycled version of the claim that women are more “naturally” suited for tasks like childcare and so forth. They’ve been wary of that claim at least since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 (which documented the dissatisfaction of white, middle-class housewives with their dull, mind-numbing and “care”-filled lives).

One of the (many) things I do in my dissertation is look at the debate in care ethics over how to think about care. And so I’ve tried to reconstruct the argument for focusing on practical care (how care as work is distributed in our societies) rather than psychological care by assuming that women are more caring than men, and seeing what follows from that.

The argument runs as follows.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

(2) here justifies the femininity of care work in our world. But clearly, the argument as it stands is invalid. We seem to be missing at least one premise. Something like:

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

By “work” I mean simply to include the work entailed by a practical conception of care. The argument thus becomes:

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

This new iteration of the argument from a psychological conception of care to a justification of the femininity of care work is still incomplete however. It assumes a straightforward connection between a person’s psychological orientation and that person’s ability to perform a task (well). We must consequently interpose yet another intermediate premise.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1a) Psychological care consistently drives effective practical care.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

On this iteration, the argument is valid, as best I can see. Is it sound?

Given that I have granted the truth of (1) for the sake of the argument, the soundness of the argument hangs on the truth of (1a) and (1b). Very briefly, I am skeptical that psychological care consistently drives effective practical care. Psychological care may well be a factor in driving effective practical care. It might move a person to try harder to care practically than someone less so motivated, for example. But other factors might be equally or more important in the effectiveness of practical care (effort, or experience, for example). Be that as it may, (1b) is more problematic than (1a), and its dependence on (1a) makes it more problematic still. Even if we grant that women are more “caring” than men, and that this psychological disposition makes them more effective practical carers, there may be a variety of reasons for distributing care work more widely. For instance, the presumption of women’s sole or primary responsibility for care work might prevent the achievement of other goods (as Friedan argued). The lives of men might be enriched by a greater responsibility for care work (as social workers and social theorists have long argued). The lives of women might be enriched by less responsibility for care work. There is no reason to suppose that men are incapable of caring in the practical sense (such a claim would be plainly false [full disclosure: I’m a stay-at-home dad]). And many women express a desire for greater male involvement in care work. These are all good reasons, on my view, for resisting the inference from (1) to (2).

Whether women are “naturally” more caring or not, they are certainly more than just that. And men are not “naturally” uncaring. Feminists have concluded that the distribution of care work is something to be discussed, to be negotiated, to be adjusted, according to the needs and desires of both women and men. Logically speaking then, the psychological conception of care functions to bolster patriarchal distributions of care work only in conjunction with further, problematic, premises.

Of course, the psychological conception of care, in its association with women, is problematic to say the least. Complex human behaviors cannot generally be traced straight back to biology without reference to culture (perhaps with some exceptions). I’m an evolutionist, so of course I think it’s possible that human males and females have certain characteristic cognitive differences. But I also know that one of our evolved traits is an amazing cognitive flexibility, which accounts for the possibility of wide cultural divergences. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no precisely formulated and cross-culturally replicated analysis of care that conclusively shows that human females are more caring than human males by biological nature; although I grant as a matter of course that women in Western culture (and many other contemporary cultures, no doubt) are taught to be more “caring” than men. But then I also see feminism as a movement to rectify the gender imbalance in that cultural lesson.