Disagreement

This post starts with a somewhat technical exploration in the philosophy of language, which I hope that I’ve made fairly accessible to a lay audience. It finishes off with a very important, practical lesson for our eberyday discourse that is very dear to my philosophy of how we should do political discourse. Please bear with me as I plow through the abstract philosophy in the first half in order to appreciate the political conclusions of the second half.

Adam and Beth are having a disagreement about the weather outside. A. says that it’s raining outside and B. says that it isn’t. This a disagreement that can easily be solved by peering out of the window. If it is raining outside, then A. is right and if it isn’t then B. is right.

Suppose that A. and B. are inmates in a maximum security prison where they gave no access to the outside world. Simply peering out of the window to check the weather is not possible. Their disagreement is not one that can easily be settled, but it is still a well-defined disagreement with well-defined truth-conditions and verification-conditions. Let me explain what these last two terms mean.

The truth-condition of a proposition p (e.g. the proposition “it is raining outside”) is the state of the world that would need to obtain in order to make p true. For example, the state of the world in which it is raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth-condition of Adam’s proposition “it is raining outside”. That is the state of the world that renders Adam’s proposition true. Similarly, the state of the world in which it isn’t raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth condition of Beth’s proposition “it isn’t raining outside.”

The verification-conditions of a proposition p is what it would take for an agent uttering p to verify that p is true. In our initial scenario, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing water droplets raining down. Similarly, the verification conditions for Beth’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.

While the truth-conditions for Adam’s proposition in both scenarios (the one where they are at home and the one where they are in prison) are identical (i.e. that it is raining in their vicinity), their verification conditions are very different. In the prison scenario peering out of the window is not a legitimate verification-condition, as there is no window. Instead, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition are, leaving the prison, stepping outside and seeing rain drops pouring down.

Similarly for Beth’s proposition, the verification conditions for her proposition in the prison scenario are, leaving prison, stepping outside and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.

Now, in the prison scenario Adam and Beth have no way if settling their disagreement as they cannot fulfill their verification conditions. That is, they cannot leave the prison and step outside to assess the weather. Nevertheless, their disagreement is very well defined. The truth-conditions and verification-conditions for their respective claims are very clear. They both know what state of the world would show which of them is right (the truth-conditions) and they both know how one would (hypothetically) obtain knowledge of that state of the world (the verification-conditions).

For this reason, their disagreement is very clear, even if they might not be able to settle it.

Let’s now look at examples of disagreements that might not be so well-defined. Suppose Adam and Beth are eating a curry and Adam says, “this is spicy”, to which Beth replies, “no, it isn’t”.

On the surface, this looks like a classic disagreement about the state of the world. A. is saying something about the curry (that it us spicy) which Beth negates. But let’s try and find what might be the truth-conditions and verification-conditions of their respective propositions. First the truth-conditions.

What does the world need to be like such that Adam’s proposition comes out true (or, “obtains”)? Well, intuitively, we’d say that Adam’s proposition is true if it is the case in the world that the curry is spicy. But is “being spicy” an objective state of the world? Spicy to whom? How spicy? Surely having a micro-trace of chilly doesn’t make it spicy, so “containing chilly” won’t do as an objective criterion, so how much chilly does it need to contain for us to be able to say that it us objectively spicy?

Well, at this point you are probably thinking that “being spicy” is just not an objective state of the world. Rather, it contains subjective and traditional qualities. And you’d be right. But that also means that we can’t construct truth-conditions for Adam’s claim or for Beth’s. That means that we cannot specify what state of the world would make Adam right and what would make Beth right.

We can go through a similar process with the verification conditions and we’ll find out that there are no objective tests or experiments that we can carry out to discover whether the curry is indeed spicy or not.

So we have seen that Adam’s and Beth’s disagreement about the curry is nothing like their disagreement about the weather. In the latter case it was a well-defined disagreement about the state of the world, whereas in the latter case it isn’t.

But what is it then? Are they disagreeing at all? I won’t go into this in this post (maybe in another one!), but what is taking place is definitely not a surface-level disagreement. They might be disagreeing about whether most people would find this curry spicy (this has well-defined truth- and verification-conditions. The truth-conditions are that if all people in the world eat this curry, they find it spicy. The verification-conditions are feeding this curry to all people in the world and nothing down their response on whether or not they found it spicy and then tallying up all responses to find that a majority reported that they found it spicy).

Alternatively, Adam and Beth might not be disagreeing at all. Adam’s claim is really just shorthand for “I found this curry spicy” and Beth’s response is shorthand for “I didn’t”.

Now all of this was me just building up philosophical tools in order to make a very important claim about social, political and moral disagreement. I think if people took on board what I’m about to say and that they took it seriously and internalised it, then our political landscape would be far less toxic, polarised and dogmatic.

Here is the claim:

The vast majority of our political, moral and social disagreements are like the curry disagreement and not like the weather disagreement. That is, our political disagreements almost always lack truth- and verification-conditions. As a result it is never clear what we ate disagreeing on and whether we are even disagreeing at all.

“There is systemic racism in the police force”. “No there isn’t.”

“We live under a patriarchy.” “No we don’t.”

“Religion is the opiate of the masses.” “No, it gives people meaning and fulfillment.”

“The government is being incompetent in handling this situation.” “No, it is doing whatever it can to keep this country running.”

These are just a few examples of seeming disagreements where defining truth- and verification-conditions is impossible and it is as a result not even clear what the disagreement is about, or whether there even is a disagreement at all. I’d love to go into the details to show why these cannot be analysed as surface-level disagreements, but for now this is left as an exercise to the reader. Hint: try defining the truth- and verification-conditions for the seemingly opposing propositions. Try to find the state of the world that would render one of the interlocutors as clearly right and the other as clearly wrong. Try to find verification conditions that will satisfy both interlocutors that one of them is right and the other wrong.

So what are the implications of this analysis for how we do political discourse? Well, I think it should make us all far more sceptical in the certainty of our own beliefs and opinions. I think it should make us far less angry at our political opponents and far less certain that they are wrong or bad. I think that it should make as have a far more nuanced position on politics and morality and a deeper understanding of their limitations. I think it should make us overall more tolerant of opposing beliefs and of those supporting them.

Let me know what you think and whether you’d want me to expand any particular point or in any particular direction.

An Ode to my Dead Family

She was 3 years old when she first played mummies and daddies. Her brother-husband, just 2 years her senior, was the proud daddy of a small silicon doll who was older than both of them combined. But it was she, the young mummy, who would show her little baby all the love that she knew to give, rocking it, caressing it and making sure that it is well fed and looked after. Although this looked like play to the adults around her, this was really the start of a lifelong career.

A few blocks away in a noisy house a young boy is playing bride-and-groom with his niece. Under the canopy he puts a ring on her finger, her smile shining through her veiled face. His brothers around him shout out “mazel tov!” and the young couple break out in a joyful dance. They know that really only huge boys and girls can become daddies and mummies, but it’s not really fair that just because they are so tiny they cannot have a wedding and a baby, is it?

The 3 year old girl will steadily grow older, all the while receiving the best possible training for her career ahead. Every week she babysits her neighbour’s little children even though she is only 14. She gets hands on training on how to rock a crying baby to sleep, how to calm a whining toddler and how to break up a fight between two seven year-olds. Even before she has hit puberty, she is already praying 3 times a day for healthy, God-fearing children. She will give her all to be a dedicated mother and in return she is sure that God will grant her her wish for pious and obedient children. She can see God nod in agreement, “It’s a deal”, His divine voice rings in her ears.

The young boy also grows older. He knows that his first commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply” and he cannot wait to fulfill this, joyous duty. In his long days in yeshiva when he is meant to be concentrating on his texts, his mind sometimes wanders off into pleasant fantasies. He sees himself pushing a double buggy from which childish chuckles emanate. He imagines himself standing at the barmitzvah of his eldest giving a sermon, his father – the grandfather – looking on with pride. Now he is supporting his son under the chuppah. His son’s face is a blur, but he is wearing the unmistakable chassidic garb that he – his father – is wearing. Father and son look like majestic royals in their broad shtraymels, black silk caftans contrasted with their snow white socks. The stern voice of his lecturer interrupts his sweet day-dream. Back in reality he is 15 years old and not married himself. There’ll be many years before he can marry off his own son.

Mom and dad were teenagers when they met. They knew very little about each other or even about each other’s sex, but they were united in one common life-goal – one that they knew that they are ready to sacrifice their whole life to. That goal is to establish another chassidic home that will be pleasing to God, to their parents and the whole community. Theirs will be a model for a home that stands firm against any foreign influences or temptations that can lead one astray. They would pamper, protect and preserve their future children’s innocence. Whatever it takes, their children will grow up to be pious and God-fearing chassidic Jews who don’t deviate an iota from the path of tradition.

Mom and dad never needed much in life. They had no desire for expensive furniture, cars or holidays. They never had any personal ambitions. All they ever wanted was to raise a family of God-fearing chassidic Jews to make them and the community proud. Their only meaning and possession in life is their family and their vision of their family. If this fails there is no plan B. It cannot fail. Surely God would not let His faithful servants down. Surely He would not cast away decades of prayer and cupfuls of tears! Mom and dad have a single life mission. If it fails, why live?

Mum and dad brought me and my siblings up in line with this vision of theirs. No efforts or money was spared in educating us to be Torah scholars and chassidic Jews. From the youngest ages we knew that we are different. We don’t just go through the motions because others do so. We do what we do because we have a mission and a duty. We are God’s servants and we dedicate our lives in His service. Dad had the highest expectations of us because he wanted us to have a good life. And what better life can one have than doing God’s will to the best of his ability? Mum and dad didn’t send us to academies or private schools. They didn’t even send us to legal schools! But they did give us the best education and upbringing a child could wish for. That is if his life is to be dedicated to the service of God as a chassidic Jew. But that that would be our path in life had already been decided for us back when mum and dad were young children playing “house” with their dolls.

Mum’s and dad’s tragedy was that whilst it is clear to them that their children ought to follow on the path that they have chosen for them, some of their children have ideas of their own. What in their worldview is the obviously one and only correct path in life, is in my worldview an insular cult that they were brainwashed into. What in their world was a stellar upbringing is in my world denying a child his rights to education and choice. What for them is a child’s duty to follow the path that his parents have cut out for him, is for me personal autonomy and freedom to live my life as I see fit.

But how silly of me to think that my “rational” arguments will convince them to see things how I see them? How deluded of me to think that mum and dad will come around to accept my liberal and secular perspective? How dare I come and ruin their lives’ project, their childhood dreams? How cruel of me to kill what they have spent their lives creating? How can my progressive newfangled ideologies about freedom and choice override their age-old understanding of a child’s place in the world and his role in the family?

Of course they are angry at me! I am the enemy on the inside who single-handedly tore their family apart, extinguished their dreams and brouht on them immense shame. I am the child who ungratefully spat in the face of all that his parents did for him and went on to murder their feelings again and again and again. I am the boy who robbed them of their only possessions, doing so head held high, without showing any bit of remorse or guilt. How much evil and cruelty must one possess – how callous must one be to be able to destroy the lives of his nearest and dearest like that? Of course I deserve no love. Of course I deserve to be banished from the family, to be cut off, shunned, ignored.

Look what liberalism has done! Look how it turned son against father, pupil against teacher! The sheer arrogance and selfishness of the liberal to think that everything is about him and his wants and desires! The chutzpah of absolving yourself from all duties towards family and heritage and going out to forge your own way with complete disregard for the beliefs and traditions that your ancestors died for! How evil this liberal individualism is with no sense of duty towards family and community! Look how much pain these secular atheistic ideologies have caused; how many parents they have robbed of their children; how many parents they have brought to the grave before their time.

Of course that’s not how I see things. Of course from where I sit it is their religious fanaticism that is the cause of all their pain. Of course for me parents have no right to expect their kids to be little copies of themselves. Kids are not there to live out the dreams and visions of their parents. We kids are individuals in our own right who must live as we see right whilst respecting our parents as family. In my world you take pride in your children not because their lives follow your blueprint, but because they live fulfilling lives in their own right through their own agency. In my world you don’t cut children off for making their own choices and for having their own beliefs. In my world you don’t brainwash kids to believe what you believe.

But that is my liberalism talking again. My parents are grieving and hurting and I talk ideology! This isn’t some abstract philosophical discussion: this is people’s lives we are playing with!

Mum and dad love me. They have to as I’m their firstborn. But they also know that I have betrayed them, hurt them, murdered them. They can’t forgive me – not that I have asked for forgiveness. They know that I have destroyed their family, their dream. They know that I am responsible for the tragedy that befell them. How can they not be upset? How can they not be angry at me? How can I expect them to show me love? Isn’t it just proper that they ignore me, forget me, excise me from memory? Why shouldn’t they mourn me like a dead one?

Mum and dad don’t talk to me for now. They say that it is too painful for them. Just remembering that I exist and that I have hurt them like this is too much to bear. Just picking up my call, answering my text is too much. Seeing me live my guilt- and remorse-free life is unbearable. Hearing my unrepentant voice, hearing that I am doing fine and thriving whilst they are the living dead – it’s all too much. God has once again let the righteous suffer whilst the wicked prosper. Why should they see me – the wicked and sinful – happy whilst they – the righteous and obedient – are in perpetual suffering? Where is God’s justice?

But mum and dad, whilst I am not repentant or remorseful, I do grieve and hurt with you. I don’t need to feel your pain because I have plenty of pain of my own. Whilst you grieve on your lost dreams and destroyed family, I grieve the loss of my parents and the disconnect from my siblings. I grieve being a son who is told that his parents must cut him out simply because the pain of hearing his voice is too great for them to bear. I suffer the knowledge that you blame on me all the ills that befell you and our family. It’s not an easy burden to carry.

I wish I could be for you a son. I wish that you were parents to me. I wish I could just pick up the phone to ask how you are without hearing the deep insufferable pain in your voices. I wish I had a normal family. I wish I could hear my brothers’ voices, my sisters’ laughter. But I can’t. I can’t because I have deviated from the path of tradition. I can’t because you have banished me. I wish you could accept me for how I am. I wish you could love me as your son. I wish you could take pride in my life achievements. But you can’t. You can’t because God told you to send me away from home like Abraham banished Yishmael. I can’t because liberalism – my new religion has put weird ideas into my head about autonomy freedom and choice.

Fuck God and fuck liberalism. Fuck those stupid, silly ideologies that have torn father and son apart, that have estranged mum from the first fruit of her womb.

Mum, dad, it is not you or me it is these stupid ideologies. Your God and my liberalism have conspired to destroy our lives. Let’s murder them! Let them both go and fuck themselves together so that we may live in peace happily ever after. Mum, dad, are you coming? Will you join me?

A grieving liberal who’d rather be a son

The Value-Ladenness of Theory

In our societal moral discourse we often claim to be able to justify our values by recourse to some empirical facts. We say that we care about group x because group x is oppressed; we fight against y because y is harmful. Here we are trying to justify our values (that we care for x and fight against y) in terms of empirical facts (that x is oppressed and y is harmful).

But as I have argued on here on multiple occasions recently and as is well known in philosophy, there is no strictly empirical way of of finding out exactly who is oppressed and what is harmful. In fact, that quest doesn’t even make sense, as terms like “oppressed” and “harmful” are highly normative terms (meaning that they have values built into their meaning, unlike terms like “chair” or “moon” etc) and normative facts cannot be discovered empirically.

This result is called in the philosophical literature “the value-ladenness of theory”. It means that theories are not strictly descriptive and empirical, but have values built into them. There is also a related result called “the theory-ladenness of observation”, which means that all gathering of evidence already presupposes some theory and so there is no way of gathering data in a purely detached manner and letting it guide us to a conclusion. Rather, in the choices that we make for the data-gathering and the ways in which we choose to interpret the data, we are bound to presuppose some theory.

In several of my recent posts I have given examples of how terms standardly used in sociological discourse are heavily value-laden. But it is worth repeating, as it is a result that is widely ignored even by educated people and which has far reaching consequences for our political and moral discourse.

The first thing to notice about society is its sheer complexity. Society is the most complex entity in the universe by far. Nothing in the universe – even complex star clusters, chaotic weather and turbulent flow – come even close to the complexity of society. In fact, we have good mathematical models to deal with some very complex systems, but we have no such models to deal with society as a whole. We cannot predict when pandemics will happen, when war will break out, or even who the next ruling party in government will be.

How do we make sense of such complex systems? How do we go about explaining what’s happening in society? We do this by reifying (bringing a concept into existence) highly abstract metaphysical entities and by artificially isolating and cutting off causal paths. Let’s look at these two in turn.

Strictly speaking, there are no men, no women, no races, no classes. There are only people, over 7 billion of them. Each of these billions of people are different from each other in an infinite number of ways. This is all we can say about humanity if we want to be precise and accurate and not presuppose any metaphysical, non-empirical entities. But this view isn’t very helpful, as we will need infinite pieces of information in order to describe people’s behaviour on this level. That’s why we reify sociological concepts.

We pretend that there is such a thing as “a woman” and we ask what it’s like to be a woman, what are some things we can say about women, etc. Strictly speaking, there is nothing what it’s like to be a woman; there is only what it’s like being person x at time t and person y at time t. Feminist philosophers have long questioned the meaningfulness of talking about “women” as a well defined concept. Let’s break it down.

Asking what it’s like being a woman seems like too broad. It seems obvious that your experiences will be impacted by other factors besides for womanhood. So let’s try being more specific: what is it like being a black woman in the UK? But this still seems too broad. Surely other factors besides for your gender, race and country will impact on how you experience the world. Let’s try again: what is it like being a black, working class woman in the UK? Still too broad, as different black, working class, UK women will experience the world differently depending on whether their (dis)ability, health, income, age, sexuality, etc.

Ok, so how about we try factoring all these in? What is it like being a black, cis, abled, straight, working class, …, woman living in the UK? Are we done now? Let’s ask this question differently: Do all black, cis, abled, straight, working class, …, women living in the UK experience the world identically? Well, obviously not. If we want to be more precise with our categories we are going to have include more identity factors. Once we have finished including all factors for which we have names in our language (such as gender, sexuality, class etc), we can now include factors for which we have no names. Here are examples of some factors that will have a bearing on one’s experience: having 3 children; having 3 children aged, 2, 5 and 13; having 3 children – a boy aged 2, a boy aged 5 and a girl aged 13; having 3 children – a neurotypical boy aged 2, a boy with autism aged 5 and a girl with back-problems aged 13; having 3 children – a neurotypical boy aged 2 who likes to play with friends, an autistic boy aged 5 who doesn’t like cereal and a girl with back problems aged 13 who is bullied in school.

As you can see, we can be more and more specific in describing a person’s experience and in trying to isolate what it feels like to be them. Eventually, we get down on the level of individuals and we are simply describing an individual’s life. So what has happened to the category of “woman”, or of “black woman”, or of “black, working class woman”? We have seen that there is no such thing as a woman or a woman’s experience and there is no such thing as a black woman or a black woman’s experience. But, conversely, having 7 billion sociologies, one for each individual member of society is completely uninformative.

What we therefore do is we reify metaphysical concepts (essentially, make them up) to help us simplify society. We imagine that there is this entity called “womanhood”, or “being a woman” and we try to find common experiences for all those that fit in with certain criteria who we are happy to call women. We do the same thing with race, sexuality, etc. The crucial point, however, is that these “carvings up of society” into these categories are not unique. Who to count as “black” for example is not unique: how dark does your skin colour need to be in order to count as black? How much black ancestry do you need to have in order to be black? Etc.

A second way in which these “carvings” are not unique is in making sense of the data. A topical example is police violence. We can show data that there is disproportionate police brutality against blacks. But the same data interpreted differently will say that it isn’t disproportionate violence against blacks, but against men. Yet a third interpretation will say that it’s about income; a fourth interpretation will say that it is black, men of a certain income; a fifth interpretation will find a psychological component to it as well; finally, a sixth interpretation will just enumerate all the victims of police brutality, name this group of people as “people likely to experience police brutality”, or “brutalisable” in short, and claim that the people whom police brutality really affects are “brutalisable” people.

If we want to ask which hypothesis is most supported by the data, we will find that the last one is. In fact there is 100% correlation between “brutalisable” people and people who are victims of police brutality. So it isn’t really about race, gender, income etc, but about “brutalisability”. Of course this is utterly uninformative. But here we are again at our result that there is always a trade-off between informativity and precision. What level of precision to sacrifice for what level of informativity is not a trivial matter and there is no unique way of doing it right.

So far we have looked at the reification of abstract entities (womanhood, race, class, etc) in order to make sense of the complexity of society. We have seen that there is no one unique way to do it and that there are an infinite number of possible entities that we can reify (such as “brutalisables”), depending on how it helps us understand society. Now I want to look at the second way in which we analyse society and that is through isolating and cutting off causal chains.

Suppose I ask for the reason of a specific sociological phenomenon. To give you a full picture of the reason, I can look at some causal chains, by asking what caused this phenomenon (very often asking for a reason, is asking for a causal chain). Strictly speaking, the cause of any phenomenon is the Big Bang. If not for that, then this phenomenon would not happen. But this is probably not informative and not what you asked for. You may ask for a more proximate cause, or for a cause that would explain why x happened instead of y, rather than a cause that would explain why there is something rather than nothing. I may then move on to the formation of the solar system as a more proximate cause. Still not informative. The evolution of life? Slightly more informative. The evolution of culture? A bit more informative. The history of Western society? Even more informative.

We see here the same trade off between giving the full picture and being informative. The fullest explanation of any phenomenon would be giving the full causal chain starting off from the Big Bang. But that is very uninformative. The more informative we want to be, the less of the causal chain we should be including. But deciding what bits of the causal chain to include and what to omit is not a trivial matter. Let’s make this more concrete through an example:

If I ask why single mothers are often poor, I can give any one of the causal components in the following list: because they have no one to feed them whilst they look after their children; because they got divorced; because they are not supported by the state; because we live in a brutal, capitalist society; because we live in a patriarchy; because we have an institution of marriage in the first place; because they chose to have kids; because they chose not to have abortions; because they haven’t given up their kids for adoption; because their exes are dicks who don’t pay their share; because thy don’t work hard enough; because they don’t kill themselves; because they don’t kill their children.

All of these listed are part of the causal chain in the sense that it is true that if one of these hadn’t happened then the plight of single mothers would have been different. It is true that it single mother all committed suicide then they wouldn’t be poor. Should we then include “not being willing to commit suicide” amongst the causes of poverty for single mothers?

But this brings us back to the idea that there is no unique way to conceptualise societal causes. Ultimately, what causes to include as the reasons for a phenomenon is a choice and there is no unique, or empirical, way of doing it.

I think that the way in which we settle these questions is by introducing a paradigm (what I am proposing is itself a paradigm). How do we decide what entities to reify and what parts of the causal chain to include in our analyses as informative? I think that we build up a paradigm, or a way of looking at things and we interpret the data through the lens of this paradigm. This paradigm is both theory-laden and value-laden in the following sense. For the theory-laden part, we use past results and conceptualisations to help us understand the data. The reason why we see police brutality as a race issue and not as a “brutalisables” issue, is because we already have a “theory” or conceptualisation about race and so we use the lens of race to interpret the data. We have no analogous theory of brutalisables.

For the value-ladenness, the reason why we don’t include the lack of suicide as a cause of poverty is because we don’t believe that poor people SHOULD commit suicide. Or, in other words, we don’t believe that our society SHOULD solve poverty by encouraging suicde. Whether we include capitalism or lack of government support as amongst the causes of poverty will depend on whether we believe that we SHOULD bring down capitalism and whether we believe that the government SHOULD support the poor. Thus our theories are value-laden.

Coming back to ideas of harm and oppression, I claimed that there is no uniquely empirical way of determining those without value-ladenness. If we want to decide who is oppressed, we need to have presuppositional values about how our society SHOULD look like, how rights SHOULD be distributed, what inequalities SHOULD be avoided and so on. We don’t count it as oppression of white people when a disproportionate number of mega-rich football players are black. We don’t count is as oppression that plus-sized people are underrepresented amongst Olympic athletes. Do we count it as oppression that rich people live more comfortably? That will depend on our values. If we have a communist bent, then we might count that as oppression. If we are more on the libertarian side of things, then we are unlikely to. What we count at oppression depends on our values and on how we envision the ideal society to be. There is no empirical way to determine this.

Likewise with harm. We don’t count it as harmful to throw sex offenders into jail, even though they will definitely suffer harm there. We don’t count it as harmful to drive a car, even though there is a statistical probability that you will kill someone. What we count as harmful is, again, dependent on what we envision the ideal society to be like and, ultimately, on our values.

Coming back to where I started, empirical data cannot be used to justify values. You cannot justify your values by appeal to what is harmful or oppressive, as to interpret these concepts you are already presupposing values. Ultimately, the data and our values are in a symbiotic relationship where they both need each other and both reinforce each other. Your values tell you how to interpret the data and the data – having been interpreted by your values – further shapes your values. To think that the data empirically vindicates your perspective and your paradigm is to misunderstand this relationship.

Ultimately, we think in paradigms. We build up a metaphysics of society based on our values and based on what conceptualisations and reified entities we find most conducive towards our understanding and our political aims. We are never talking about objective facts (unless we are referring to the raw, uninterpreted, data-points), but always about constructions and conceptualisations. Internalising this can help us understand better where disagreements in the moral, political and social realms come from and why they are here to stay. It can also help us be more compassionate and understanding towards those who see things differently to us. Rather than seeing them as “bad” or “wrong”, we can understand that they are operating within a different paradigm and are conceptualising things differently. There is no way of showing that they are wrong and we are right.

(Btw, none of this is novel. These results have been well known at least since Quine’s work in the 50s.)

The Value-Ledenness of Harm

When we care about issues, or feel empathy towards those who suffer, we do not deal with raw pain levels, degrees of suffering, or phenomenological experiences. Rather we build up a whole metaphysics based on our values and our conceptualisation of society and that informs us on how to act. This is the relativity of harm.

In society we deal with impossible causal complexity. Every possible action can result in any possible consequence in ways which are impossible to foretell. But since we do want to be able to blame some specific actions for some specific consequences, we have to build up an ontology, or a paradigm involving metaphysical entities such as structures, in order to tell us which causal paths to consider as more important than others. Which structures to include in our ontology and which causal paths to take into consideration will depend on our values and on how we envisage the ideal society.

Does divorce cause poverty for single mothers, or is it patriarchy? Well of course the complete causal chain leading up to poverty in any given case is infinitely complex, going back to the beginning of time. But that isn’t helpful. So depending on our values and how we hope a better society can look like, we will focus on one small part of the causal chain. Both divorce and patriarchy are metaphysical entities that we have reified in order to help us make sense of society. We are at liberty to choose either of them as the focus of our analysis and conceptualisation. Which one we choose will depend on our values.

Is police brutality caused by crime, or by racism? Again, both crime and racism or reified metaphysical concepts that are not empirically found in nature. Depending on our values we will choose to focus on one of them as a way to conceptualise the infinitely complex causal chain involved in any event. Both of these are paradigms that try to make sense of infinite complexity using a simplified model. Neither can be empirically verified. Neither are falsifiable.

Any set of sociological data can be cut up in an infinite number of ways. The variables we choose to focus on and the way in which we choose to cut up our data will ultimately depend on our values.

Is gender self-ID harmful or beneficial? Well, the actual chain of consequences from such a policy is infinitely complex. Will it harm women? Well, it clearly hurts and angers some of them. Should we care about that hurt? Or should we look at the hurt and anger that trans people feel in the absence of self-ID? Whose hurt should we prioritise? Whose hurt is more legitimate?

In general, we do not look at raw pain and make decisions based on that. Neo-Nazis have pain and anger too. Do we care about that? Should we listen to their grievances? Well, we don’t. Is it because their feelings is less important than those of others?

What we do is we have a set of values and reified metaphysical entities. This web of values and beliefs tells us whose pain to listen to and whose hurt to prioritse. We decide what our ideal society looks like and we sympathise with those who are hurt because our society does not look like that yet. We do not sympathise with those whose hurt comes from the fact that our society looks a bit more like our ideal society and a bit less like their ideal society.

To hammer home the point, it is very possible that traditionalists who dislike homosexuality feel as much pain now from the public presence of homosexuality than the pain that homosexuals felt during the time when homosexuality was not accepted in our society. So when we declare our support for the acceptance of homosexuality and decry homophobia it is not some kind of utilitarian minimisation of pain. We might not actually be reducing the overall pain in the world by making our society more accepting of homosexuality. Instead we are redistributing the pain. We decide that it is the traditionalists who should feel the pain and not the homosexuals.

Why do we decide that? That’s because of our vision of our preferred society. We prefer a society where people can express their sexual attraction and love, no matter what it is (well, that’s not actually true; we still don’t accept pedophilia, incest, bestiality, non-consensual sexual acts, etc). And that’s why we care about the homosexual’s pain because it is derived from the fact that our society is not yet at the ideal we want it to be. And we don’t care about the traditionalist’s pain because that derives from the fact that our society is a bit closer to our ideal society.

In general, there is no unique, empirical way to decide which actions are harmful and which aren’t. When you start thinking about you see that pretty much any act can be justified in some framework and pretty much any act can be condemned in another. The obvious ones in this category are abortion, capital punishment, gun rights, animal rights. None of these can be empirically shown to produce net happiness or net suffering according to a utilitarian calculus (which is why utilitarianism is useless as a normative ethical framework). Rather, we have to use our values about our ideal society to tell us which side of these debates to side with.

Doesn’t this analysis lead to moral relativism? Hell yea it does! It is impossible to understand society from a moralistic perspective. To understand society scientifically, you have to naturalise morality, which means seeing morality as emerging from people’s opinions, values and emotions. You cannot understand society if you take morality as some metaphysical entity over and above society.

Taking in and really becoming comfortable with the fact that morality is simply something that emerges from society’s values and attitudes, will help make sense of why society is so messy, why we will keep on having culture wars and emotive moral debates. In all these debates we are not dealing with “true” or “false” that we can just solve empirically and scientifically. We are dealing with personal values, emotions and experiences. These are bound to be subjective and are bound to differ from group to group. No two groups have the same reified metaphysics (which is why some of your friends don’t agree with you that the patriarchy exists, no matter how convinced you are that that is a proven fact) and no two groups have the same conception of harm.

All of this is inescapable and inevitable. You will never be able to convince the world that your morality is the right one because there is no such thing as THE right morality. So you face a choice: either you keep on getting angry and mad at people who don’t hold your values, or you embrace the subjective nature of values and learn to live in a world where people have different priorities to you and where people conceptualise harm in different ways to how you do.

Tl;Dr: There is no one, unique way to conceptualise harm. What we regard as harmful or not harmful has to do not only with the empirical facts, but with our values. Since there is no way to empirically or conceptually prove which values are the right ones and which the wrong ones (It’s not only impossible to prove; that endeavor is also conceptually meaningless), you are never going to convince others to conceptualise harm in the same way that you do. Understanding this helps explain the inevitability of culture wars and moral disagreements.

Intersectionality

We cannot treat people as having the same experiences of the world – we are told by intersectionality theory – as different identities intersect to give different people different experiences of the world.

Men and women experience the world differently. But so do black and white people. So we have four categories: white man, white woman, black man, black woman. But class interacts with these identities too, so each of these four categories split into two and we’ve got 8 categories to consider in our sociological descriptions of the world. Instead of talking about “people” in our theories, we need to talk about “white, working class woman” etc.

But we’re not finished. We have age, (dis)ability, sexuality, sexual identity, gender expression, religion, etc. Each of these categories multiplies these categories at least by a factor of 2 and so we get geometric growth. 10 identity forms gives us 2^10=1024 categories of oppression.

But of course there is no reason for why we should stop there. These identities will also interact with mental health, with character traits (for example whether you are introverted or extroverted), with family support, with health, with height, with looks (how handsome you are), etc etc.

But really, to give a complete description of how identities interact, we need to recognise that no two people experience the world alike. So really, the ultimate intersectionality is to have 7 billion+ sociologies, one for each person on the planet. To fail to do so is to fail to recognise that we each experience the world differently and that our identities interact with our experiences of the world in complex ways.

But of course describing the experiences of every person on the planet (even if that were possible) is not a theory, but a description of state of affairs. Inherent to a theory is the ability to be able to explain large and disparate classes of phenomena with one theory.

Here is an example from physics. In statistical mechanics we want to describe the behaviour of a gas. Any container of gas contains on the order of 10^23 particles (that is a 1 with 23 0s following it). Describing the motion of each particle is a) impossible (even with the most powerful computers that we have today) and b) uninforming. Having 10^23 equations of motion would not tell us much about the emerging thermodynamical properties we are interested in, such as temperature, pressure, entropy etc. Instead, we make a number of simplifying assumptions. We pretend that all the particles have the same, average energy, alongside some other simplifying assumptions. This allows us to make some easy, and surprisingly precise, calculations about the macro-properties of the gas.

The moral is, that a theory always makes simplifying assumptions. A theory never gives you the exact truth about every datum involved in it. It is a theory, rather than a mere inventory because rather than listing the data, it interprets it. It makes some simplifying assumptions (or models) and hopes to provide us with informative results.

In sociology too. Every theory is going to make some simplifying assumptions. It is going to assume some uniformity amongst people in order to give us some overall insights into society. By the very fact that it is a theory and not an “experience inventory”, it is not going to give us an accurate account of the experiences of each individual in the society.

But nor does an intersectional approach to sociology achieve that. You can describe the experiences of disabled, black, working class, transwomen and you still would have had to make many simplifying assumptions, as there isn’t one disabled-black-working-class-transwoman experience, since every individual in this group experiences the world differently based on a myriad of factors.

So ultimately you’ve got to make a choice about what level of analysis you are happy with. You might decide that you are happy with your sociology splitting the world into 16 categories and that you are happy with the simplifying assumptions that that level of analysis makes. Alternatively, you might want to have your sociological description of the world deal with 64 categories and will be happy with the simplifications that that level of descriptions has tom make.

But in equal measure, you might be happy with a sociological theory that treats all of humanity as one group. Or perhaps as 2, or 4. Ultimately, it is completely arbitrary which level of intersectionality you will find acceptable. All theories make simplifications and it is just a matter of preference how much simplification you find acceptable.

Fact, Theory and Value

Following is a distinction that I find helps me clarify many of the topical debates and that may help shed light on why people often seem to be talking past each other and just ending up getting angry with each other.

The distinction is between the data, or the empirical facts on the one hand and the paradigm, or the theoretical terms on the other.

The relevant data or facts are all those statistics and figures that keep on being brought up: what is the mean income of self-identifying group x compared to the mean income of the rest of the population? What is the likelihood of someone belonging to self-identifying group x of experiencing police brutality compared to those of the rest of the population? What are the relative crime rates in self-identifying group x? What is the average IQ of self-identifying group x?

The paradigm is the lens through which these data and facts are interpreted. Here is where theoretical terms come in: structural racism, white privilege, oppression, marginalisation, white supremacy, etc. These terms are theoretical, as you cannot precisely quantify them or bring direct empirical evidence for their existence. They are also highly normative terms, rather than merely descriptive, meaning that they come with a moral value, as well as a truth value. This makes these terms political and philosophical, rather than empirical.

Take “structural racism” for example. The first thing to notice is that it is not a morally neutral scientific term. Terms like these are morally loaded. You say them with a certain tone and use them with an idea of how things ought to be. Pretty much anyone using this term believes that we oughtn’t be structurally racist and that to be a structurally racist society is morally bad. Contrast this with theoretical terms like “electron”, or “chemical bond”, etc.

Secondly, it is impossible to say whether or not a society is structurally racist without having an idea of what a non-structurally society ought to look like. This is the conceptual question of what we mean by structural racism. Well, we can say that a society is racist if it is geared against a self-identifying racial group. But then we can ask what it means for a society to be geared against a group. Maybe this group finds it more difficult to achieve certain things in our society or to achieve certain positions? But this question is politically and morally loaded, as it assumes a certain position on what different kinds of people SHOULD be able to achieve and how. This in term boils down to what we mean by equality.

Suppose an athlete with a certain muscle disease wants to make it as an Olympic medallist. He or she might have to put in double the effort to achieve half the result in the games due to their condition. Has this athlete been discriminated against? This will depend on your political and moral ideas of how inclusive or exclusive the games should be. You might argue that the games are by nature competitive and that it is right that they exclude those with lower ability, even if that is due to a disease. Or you might argue that this athlete should be given a head start to level out the playing field. Whether or not you believe that the athlete was discriminated against will depend on which of the moral/political camps you fall into.

The lesson is that seemingly descriptive terms like “discriminate” are actually normative terms. When you call something discriminatory you are making a moral claim, not a mere descriptive one.

It’s the same with equality. When you say that a society is unequal, you are saying something about how you envision the perfect society. Clearly no one wants everyone to have exactly the same of everything. We recognise that different people have different interests, talents and abilities. Not everyone can be the CEO of a company, a professor, or the PM. Likewise, not everyone can be a professional footballer, a weightlifter, or a chess master. So when we use terms like “equality” some of us want something like equality of outcome, some want equality of opportunity, and some want something anywhere in between on the spectrum. Calling a society unequal is telling us something about your politics, as well as the facts.

It’s the same with “racism”. Calling something racist is saying something about how we envision the ideal society. Should we treat each other as only human, completely ignoring skin colour – like some civil rights activists of the 60s wanted? Or is that “colour blindness” and instead we need to recognise our privilege and the struggles unique to people of different racial groups? Is affirmative action racist? Or is a lack of it racist? Is racism simply discrimination on a racial basis, or do we need to include a power analysis in the definition? These are complex moral and philosophical questions that are often encapsulated in naive looking terms like “racism”.

Going back to the distinction made earlier, whilst the facts and data are often readily available and known, the theory or paradigm through which to read them is not at all determined by them. We cannot simply look at data and say, “right there is structural racism”. Rather, that is an interpretation that is part of a specific paradigm (in our case, perhaps Critical Race Theory). But one can look at the same data and not see those theoretical concepts there. Maybe the inequalities have to do with ability, IQ, motivation? Maybe the inequalities are there but desirable? Maybe these inequalities are unavoidable in a free, democratic society?

These theoretical concepts cannot be empirically shown to exist. One can only show that they fit in within a larger paradigm and that they help us make sense of things in a way that fits with our politics. To illustrate this, I’m going to make up a concept now. The concept is “indoorsism”. In our society we have an obsession with living indoors. We face pressures to always find a roof over our head. This “culture of indoorsism” means that many suffer from mental health issues because they cannot pay their rent. Indoorsism is responsible for countless suicides. I can go on and on about the evils of indoorsism. If only society didn’t tell us that we had to live indoors, then we would have been happier and less stressed, as we could sleep in nature, in caves, under trees etc.

Now I want to ask a question: does indoorsism exist? Well, I can pull out data showing that, indeed, we are told from a young age that we need to live in houses and that indeed stress about rent and mortgage is responsible for poor mental health. But this concept will only be useful if I can use it constructively in advocating for a different way of doing society, or if I indeed wanted to abolish living in houses. You’d be right in rejecting this idea, even if you agree with all the data that I bring you. You have not disagreed with the facts, but with the paradigm through which I interpret them.

Now activists often accuse us of ignorance, or of ignoring the facts when we disagree with their way of seeing things. They will point us towards books or articles on “theory” to “educate” ourselves. But this is because they are conflating data with paradigm. It is difficult to disagree with data, but much easier to disagree about paradigm.

If I don’t see structural racism or white supremacy where you do, there may be 3 reasons for that. 1) I’m ignorant of the data, 2) you’re ignorant of the data, 3) we use different paradigms to interpret the data. Most often in discussion between educated people it is the third. I’m aware of the data just like you are, but I don’t find calling that structural racism useful in understanding what is happening or in leading us to my vision of the ideal society.

Activists often make the mistake of accepting the paradigm of their theory as settled scientific fact. It isn’t. It is just one paradigm amongst many possible one and you cannot accuse those who don’t find that paradigm helpful as “ignorant”.

And btw, this analysis is quite general and applied to terms like “patriarchy”, “toxic masculinity”, etc.

Summary/Tl;Dr: the theoretical terms used in theories on race and society belong to a certain paradigm. They are not scientific facts in the same way that figures and data are. Rejecting a certain paradigm and its theoretical terms does not mean ignorance of the data. The same data can mean racism for one person and mean something completely different for another. Neither of them is wrong; they’re just operating within different paradigms.

Musings on Responsibility

“The Tories are directly responsible for x number of deaths.”

You’ve come across this claim – at least if you hang out in circles ideologically similar to mine. In this post I’m not going to look at the figures to see if they are reliable, nor I am going to discuss the justification, or lack thereof of Tory policy. What I will do is philosophically analyse the phrase “directly responsible”.

“For £10 you can save a life,” charities tell you. This is roughly true. With £10 another African household can be equipped with anti-mosquito nets, which can save from death by malaria. Having been convinced that you can save a life with £10 you happily give that amount to charity. You’re not rich, but you can spare £10 to save a life. Having given to charity and saved a life, you feel good and spend the evening in the cinema watching a movie with friends. The cinema ticket cost £10.

That £10 that you spent on the movie could have gone to save another life from malaria. But it didn’t. Instead it was spent on your non-essential entertainment.

Are you “directly responsible” for a death every time you go to the cinema?

The moral of this story is as follows: no matter how much we do to help others and no matter how much money we give to charity, we can always do more and we can always give more. We can forgo on that cinema visit. We can say no to that new dress. We can wear our old shoes for a bit longer. We can eat cheaper food. Surely, a life is worth more than nice shoes, good food and non-essential comforts?

If you are convinced by this argument, then you will be living a life of extreme austerity, poverty and will forgo all comforts. You will live on bread and water and wear torn clothes, for surely a life is worth more!

For those of us who don’t choose this way of life, are we “directly responsible” for lots of deaths?

Well, no. Here’s how language works. Terms like “direct” and “responsible” only carry meaning relative to expectation and a system of values. I’m responsible for something happening if I am expected to prevent that from happening. And whether or not I am expected to prevent that from happening will depend on the value system that I and the society I live in buy into. Here’s an illustration:

Suppose your rubbish hasn’t been collected in several weeks and you blame the council for failing to do their job and taking your rubbish. You are holding the council accountable because you believe that they are responsible for taking your rubbish. Suppose the council comes back to you with an argument that you own a lorry and that there is plenty of space there for all your rubbish. “Why don’t you load it all in your lorry and take it to the dump yourself?” they ask you. You won’t be impressed by this argument because you are working within a framework that believes that it is the council’s responsibility to collect you rubbish and not yours. So even though you CAN take your own rubbish to the damp, they are the one RESPONSIBLE for it and you are therefore upset with them.

Coming back to our case, we don’t regard ourselves as responsible for lives lost in Africa, as our system of values is such that we don’t believe we ought to give up everything we own in order to prevent a death that is happening on another continent. Whether this form of reasoning is sound, the fact is that we don’t regard someone going to the cinema as being “directly responsible” for a death, as our value system does not require people to give up everything in order to prevent deaths.

Coming back to politics, all governments can do more. You can claim that Labour governments have been “directly responsible” for millions of deaths, as they could have given more to foreign aid. It is true that they could have given more: you can always give more. But presumably you believe that at a certain point we fulfill our obligation and that the deaths that could have been prevented by giving more are no longer our responsibility.

So when you are saying “the Tories are directly responsible for x number of deaths”, what you are really saying is that your value system is such that you don’t regard them as having exhausted and fulfilled their responsibilities by the amount of money they have allocated to public services. But you will only sound convincing that they are indeed responsible for these deaths to someone who shares your values about the extent of the government’s responsibility to give. You won’t convince someone who is more right leaning than you that they are responsible for these deaths, as their value system is such that they regard the government as having fulfilled its duties by through the amount of money that they have allocated.

The lesson here is that a seemingly factual statement Tories being responsible for deaths, is not really a factual statement, but a statement about values – values that the Tories might not share in the first place. You can bring data and figures to back up your claim about the deaths, but to disagree with your claim is not to disagree with your figures, but to hols a different value framework, one that assigns responsibility differently to how you do. You don’t regard cinema goers as “directly responsible” for deaths and the Tory doesn’t regard the government as responsible for deaths that happened as a result of cuts – cuts that the Tory regards as justifiable because she doesn’t share your value system.

A wider lesson that can be learnt from this is that many political disagreements in politics that seem to be about factual matters, aren’t really factual disagreements but value clashes. These clashes cannot be settled by recourse to data or figures. They cannot be settled through empirical evidence, as they are not disagreements about empirical facts to begin with. To settle them you’d need to settle the complex debates in normative ethics. It will be a long time (read “infinite time”) before those will be settled.

Metaethics (part 1): Moral Realism

There is a whole subject in philosophy dedicated to investigating the nature and status of moral claims and expressions. It is called metaethics.

Think of a moral expression, such as “stealing is wrong”. Philosophers ask what is the nature of this property “wrongness”? The phrase “stealing is wrong” has the same syntactical form (subject-predicate) as the phrase “snow is white”. In the latter phrase we understand that whiteness is a property of snow, so it seems that in the former phrase we are saying that “wrongness” is a property of stealing. But now we can ask what kind of property “wrongness” is.

Suppose we make a huge list of all the known facts about stealing. We list the legal matters, the consequences, the pain it causes, the disorder it would bring to society if everyone did it, our attitudes towards theft, how we feel about thieves etc. For this exercise I want you to not make use of any moral terms. The list should not contain terms like “wrong”, “bad”, “immoral”, “mustn’t”, “oughtn’t”, etc. But it should contain feelings, attitudes, impacts, etc.

After we’ve finished this list we will go back to the expression “stealing is wrong” and we are going to ask the following question: if we were to add this expression to our list would we be adding another fact about stealing, or have we already said it all? In other words, does this phrase give us any more information about stealing not already contained in our list? If you think that this phrase does add information contained in the list, you are what’s called a “non-naturalist” about morality. That is, you believe that moral facts are not the same kinds of facts as natural facts like the whiteness of snow. That is why you think that even after we’ve listed all the natural facts about stealing, the phrase “stealing is wrong” still adds something not contained in the list.

However, if you think that this phrase is true, but adds nothing to the list, i.e. that it is implicitly already contained in the list, then you are a “naturalist” about morality. That is, you believe that moral facts “supervene” on natural facts – that moral statements are just a shorthand way of listing a bunch of natural facts. For example, perhaps “stealing is wrong” is just shorthand for “stealing causes pain; if everyone did it society would collapse; etc.”

The naturalist and the non-naturalist face different challenges. The non-naturalist needs to explain what kind of property moral properties are. If they are not natural properties, then what are they? Relatedly, if they are not natural properties, then how do we know about them, given that we are physical beings and part of the natural world and, presumably, gather knowledge through natural means?

The naturalist needs to explain where “normativity” arises from if moral facts are just natural facts. Normativity is anything like “should”, or “ought to”. Natural facts don’t seem to have normativity as a property. That is, natural facts seem to just inform us, but cannot tell us what we ought to do. I can tell you that the house is on fire, but that doesn’t tell you that I ought to leave. In fact, maybe you want to get burned to death! But moral facts seem to have normative properties to them, such that when I say “stealing is wrong” you can deduce from that that I ought not steal. But if moral properties are natural properties, then how does the normative element arise?

Next time we’ll see if these questions might lead us to reevaluate our view of moral expressions. What if moral expressions are simply false? What if they aren’t to be interpreted as subject-predicate phrases, like “snow is white”, despite their deceptive syntactical similarity?

On Gatekeeping

I wrote about how Unorthodox was inaccurate in several respects and how that was a missed opportunity. However, this is just me expressing my opinions about a show in a similar way to how a film critic would. It is absolutely not me saying that the show should not have been made or that the writers are guilty of prejudice or responsible for negative perceptions of the community in question.

Many times when we engage with people or ideas that are not fully familiar to us we will get things wrong and be inaccurate. We will be corrected by those who are more familiar with the subject matter, but that does not mean that we should not talk about something unless we are absolute experts on it. If this were the case, only people with PhDs would get to talk.

I think that activists can be quick at accusing us of prejudice or of leading to harmful consequences when we talk about other communities and ideas without being experts on them. This is a form of gatekeeping, keeping us silent from discussing important issues and engaging in our natural curiosity as engaged humans living in society.

There is plenty of scope for talking even when we are not full experts. As long as we are humble enough to be corrected by those who know better, we are in our full right to discuss all kinds of issues. Could there be possible harmful consequences when talking about issues we were not experts on? Sure! But I believe that the consequences of silencing society from having these conversations are far more harmful. Societal conversation informs experts on what might be important to look in to and, besides, experts can have prejudices of their own by virtue of them belonging to a tight and often uniform community of knowers.

Coming back to Unorthodox, I don’t believe in telling people that they cannot discuss my community just because they haven’t lived in it for 20 years like I have. For sure, I’ll spot inaccuracies and prejudices and I will correct them, but in the meantime, you talk to your intellect’s delight and don’t worry too much about mistakes. We all make mistakes: we’re only human. And talking is better than not talking!

On the Relativity of Harm

(This is somewhat of a raw sketch of ideas, rather than a coherent essay.)

People often say things like, “do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm others”. People also often judge the norms of other cultures in contrast to their own as follows: the norms of culture x aren’t justified because breaking them does not lead to harm. However, breaking the norms of my culture is justified because it doesn’t lead to harm.

Let’s think of a concrete example. People in secular cultures often think that blasphemy laws aren’t justified because blasphemy doesn’t harm anyone. However, laws against saying offensive things against minorities are justified because saying those offensive things harms minorities.

Here’s another example. Many people in my circles believe the following: you may not walk around naked in the streets, for that can harm people who do not want to have your genitalia in their face. However, a lesbian couple kissing in public cannot possibly be harmful. If it offends your sensibilities, that’s just because you are homophobic.

What I won’t to argue below, is not that the above statements are right or wrong, but that they are relative to a given worldview. I want to argue that “harm” is not a concept that can be evaluated without recourse to a certain worldview and value system.

To start off with a point that should be obvious, whether or not you think that someone has been harmed depends on your factual beliefs about the world. For example, if you believe in an afterlife where only believers get to dwell in pleasure, but where disbelievers get tortured, then blasphemy is obviously harmful. In fact, it might be one of the most harmful things you can possibly do, as you can can doom people to an eternity of misery due the heresy they will have heard and perhaps internalised.

I think that this point is obvious and doesn’t need arguing for. However, you might argue as follows: the belief in an afterlife and in a punishing God is obviously false, so even though people might believe that blasphemy is harmful for them, they are obviously mistaken about that. And this would distinguish blasphemy from offensive words against minorities, since the former is mistaken harm, whereas the latter is real harm.

OK, so let’s narrow down our conception of harm to what you and I agree is harmful. We’ll assume that we’re all in agreement that supernatural harms aren’t real and that you have nothing to fear from a potentially angry God who will punish you. So let’s restrict ourselves to real, physical or emotional harm – the harm that we experience as pain and hurt on this world.

Let’s take our second example as our case study here. We understand that exposing ourselves naked may be harmful to others. We understand that we don’t want ourselves or our children constantly being exposed to others’ private parts. We would consider that harmful. But surely lesbians kissing in public doesn’t harm anyone, right?

Well, if one of the residents happens to be a very conservative Christian, Muslim, or Jew I think we all agree that that would hurt them to see that. They have been harmed, not supernaturally or spiritually, but on a very real natural level, by having their deep rooted sensibilities offended.

Going back to the blasphemy case, there might be real, immediate harmful consequences to blasphemy. It evidently deeply hurts many people when they are exposed to blasphemous talk. And this isn’t some kind of spiritual hurt either; it is deep and emotional. Moreover, the blasphemy may lead to runaway consequences: it may lead to many people leaving the faith and thereby causing great pain to their parents and family; it can lead to a secular revolution, which can lead to widespread violence and bloodshed; it can lead to an infinite number of consequences that are impossible to foresee.

What’s the point I’m making here? Am I saying that lesbians shouldn’t kiss in public? That blasphemy should be made illegal? Of course not! In fact, the lesbians who are prevented from kissing will themselves experience harm and so will the atheist who is not allowed to speak his mind.

Rather, my point is that there is no way to define harm non-circularly, without recourse to a system of values. Given the infinite complexity of causation, the consequences of any given action are literally impossible to calculate even approximately. It is physically impossible to say whether the consequences of an action are overall harmful or not harmful. Rather, as a society we adopt a value system and relative to that we define what’s harm. We don’t see the conservative Christians being exposed to the lesbian kiss as harmful because as a society we have decided that sentiments rooted in homophobia need to go. That is not to deny that the conservative Christians aren’t feeling real pain when they see the kiss, but we decide that relative to our societal goals of moving towards progressive values, their pain is a worthy sacrifice. The same goes for blasphemy laws.

In my previous post On Heresy I compared questioning the orthodoxies of our modern, liberal societies, to questioning the orthodoxies in highly conservative, religious communities. An objection that I anticipate is that the difference is that religious heresies aren’t harmful, whereas liberal heresies are. Questioning God’s existence doesn’t harm anyone, whereas questioning the oppression of group x does. I hope that the above analysis shows why this objection is fallacious.

As discussed, there is no way to evaluate harm unless by recourse to a given value system. Within a religious, conservative value system questioning God really can cause harm, as it can offend people, make them unhappy and lead to runaway effects. Conversely, an utterance in secular society is only harmful relative to our progressive values or to our particular conception of the world. Questioning orthodoxies are therefore the same regardless of the society or the community. In both cases members of the given community in question will see them as harmful, offensive and heretical, and there is no substantial difference between the two heresies.

Any given society or community will set the standards of what is considered acceptable and what isn’t. There will be orthodoxies and dogmas. Harm will be defined relative to the worldview and goals of the given community. The heretic will question the dogmas and will be accused of saying harmful things. And what the heretic is saying is indeed harmful relative to the worldview, dogmas and orthodoxies of the community in question.

But the heretic speaks truth – or at least tries to speak truth. This transcends the orthodoxies of any given community, as long as we believe in some kind of objective reality and true facts associated with it. It is true that the world is older than 6000 years and it is true that there is a racial IQ gap. Both of these statements are true, but the former is heretical relative to my former highly conservative community and the latter is heretical relative to my current secular and liberal community. The former is harmful according to the worldview of my former community and the latter is harmful according to the worldview of my current community.

For me, neither of them are harmful, since, as a heretic, I follow the truth – or at least I attempt to. There are many ways in which to build up a worldview and a set of values, but I will only accept one that is guided by the truth and that does not negate facts that we know about the world. Therefore, for me, the most harmful thing is to negate the truth or to propagate falsehoods and it is relative to the truth that I evaluate harm.

If I want to know if saying x is harmful, the first thing I ask is whether or not x is true. If it is true, I don’t regard it as harmful. (There are some exceptions, such as disclosing sensitive intelligence, teaching how to make bioweapons, etc) And I think that there is an intuitive sense in which many of us understand this. Here’s an example:

Suppose I raise questions about the gender-transitioning of minors in terms of its long term health impacts. An activist will usually come and say that saying that is harmful, since it can lead to policy that denies transitioning options to kids.

But see what the activist did here: they’ve assumed that transitioning is really good for the child and that therefore denying the child this opportunity is harmful. But I don’t disagree that if transitioning is good for the child then denying it from the child is harmful. Rather, I’m suggesting that transitioning might not be good for the child and that therefore not denying it from the child is harmful. Essentially, our disagreement boils down to “is transitioning good for the child?”

So it is no use telling me that I shouldn’t question child-transition as it is harmful, for by questioning the long-term safety of transition I am precisely disagreeing with the premise that child-transition is beneficial to the child and I am actually pointing out that it might be harmful. In fact, I can turn back to the activist and say, “actually, advocating in favour of child transition might be harmful!”

But who is right? Is questioning child transition harmful, or not? Well, this obviously depends on the truth of the matter. If it is true that child-transition may lead to long-term health issues, then I am right and pointing this out is not only not harmful, but will actually save the child. If on the other hand the truth is that transitioning is healthy and safe for the child, then indeed what I am saying is false and thus harmful, as it denies the child this procedure which is beneficial for him/her.

Thus, to know if an utterance is harmful or not, it is often enough to know if it is true or not. If it is true it usually won’t be harmful and if it is false it will. At least this is the value system under which the heretic operates. And it is relative to this value system that harm is defined for the heretic. The heretic will thus keep on pointing out false assumptions and dogmas in society and will continually be told that what they are saying is harmful. Indeed, what they are saying is harmful relative to the value systems of that society and that community. But for the heretic it is truth that matters and it is only relative to the truth that he judges and evaluates harm.

A quick clarification before I finish: I am not saying that truth is the only thing that matters and that something that is true cannot be harmful to say. I can hurt someone by saying that they are ugly even if it is true! Rather, I am claiming that we cannot keep track of harm without keeping track of truth. If we want to know what is harmful we need to know what is true in the world. To use a somewhat provocative example, the Nazis were wrong in wanting to get rid of the Jews because their claim that Jews are vermin who will corrupt humanity and infect it was false. If their claim were to be true, then perhaps getting rid of the Jews would have been justified, in the same way that we get rid of mosquitoes that spread malaria.

In this sense harm tracks truth. It is impossible to keep track of what is harmful without keeping track of what is true. Therefore, whilst not every truth is appropriate to be said in every context, there is a need to occasionally say what’s true and remid people of what’s true, especially when these are truths that society wants to bury and suppress. Not only is talking the truth not harmful, but it would actually be harmful to leave the truth uncovered, as society would the lose track of how to evaluate harm on a factual basis.