Thursday, December 26, 2013


By Russell M. Lawson
World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras

Aristotle is considered the greatest scientist and one of the greatest philosophers of the ancient world. A student of Plato, Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great and the founder of the Peripatetic school of thought. His vast writings include Metaphysics, Physics, Nichomachean Ethics, Politics, and Poetics. Aristotle was one of the first empirical thinkers, though he generally relied on established methods of science: observation, collection and categorization of specimens, analysis of data, induction, and deduction. Aristotle's mastery of the subjects he studied gained him the reputation in subsequent centuries as an infallible guide to natural phenomena and philosophy. After 1500 CE, in light of new discoveries by Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and other scientists, many of Aristotle's theories were rejected; nevertheless, his influence on modern science is undeniable.

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE in the small town of Stagira in Thrace, a primitive outpost of Greek culture east of Macedonia. His father was a wealthy court physician to the kings of Macedonia, and Aristotle spent his early years at Pella, the capital of King Amyntas III and his successor King Philip II of Macedon. Aristotle, seeking to follow in his father's footsteps as a scientist and physician, journeyed south to Athens in 366. He studied at the Academy, Plato's school in Athens, where he became that philosopher's most famous student. At the Academy, Aristotle fit in as a wealthy aristocrat, but his Thracian and Macedonian background plagued him among condescending Athenians. In the end, Aristotle's superior intellect silenced all criticism.

From Plato, Aristotle learned of the universal truth, which Socrates termed "the Good." Plato taught his students at the Academy that the best means to approach an understanding of truth was through reason, the study of mathematics and music, intuition, and intense and deep contemplation. Aristotle, less the mystical and more the pragmatic thinker, broke from his teacher by adopting the scientific approach to human behavior, natural philosophy, natural science, ethics, and metaphysics. Aristotle also learned from Plato of being (ousia), the divine essence, from which all things derive. Aristotle did not abandon this religious interpretation of the ultimate reality but brought science to bear to discover and to understand it. For Aristotle, then, science is a pious act to discover the nature of goodness, justice, virtue, and being, and human experience is an essential matter for study, since the better sort of human beings echo being itself.

Upon Plato's death, Aristotle left what was no doubt a competitive situation among Plato's students, each jockeying to take the place of the master. Aristotle journeyed to a small kingdom in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) where he became court philosopher to King Hermias. Aristotle married the king's daughter but soon fled (with his wife) upon the tragic assassination of the king. Aristotle ended up back in Macedonia in 343, this time as tutor to the royal prince Alexander (Alexander the Great). Legend has it that Philip II of Macedon enticed Aristotle to return to Pella, an intellectual and cultural backwater compared to Athens, with a tempting salary and a promise: Stagira having been destroyed and its population enslaved in one of Philip's campaigns, Philip proposed that in return for Aristotle's services the king would rebuild the town and bring the inhabitants out of slavery. Aristotle agreed to the terms.

Alexander eventually became king of Macedonia in 336 upon his father's assassination and then spent the next 13 years of his life conquering Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan—all of which made up the Persian Empire. Alexander was a warrior and conqueror who thought himself the heroic son of the king of the gods, Zeus. Nevertheless, Aristotle, who eschewed the life of a warrior, had been Alexander's teacher for three years during the years from 13 to 16, and below the surface of Alexander's actions are hints that he had adopted the life of a philosopher and that he thought of himself as a scientist, even a physician. Alexander, for example, composed letters to Aristotle that included samples of plant and animal life that he had gathered for his teacher's collection.

In the meantime, Aristotle had left Macedonia for Athens, where he opened his school, the Lyceum. The philosopher eventually broke with Alexander over the death of Aristotle's grandnephew Callisthenes, a philosopher and historian who accompanied Alexander's expedition. Callisthenes was implicated in a plot to assassinate the king and was executed. Even so, the Athenians associated Aristotle with Alexander, who was very unpopular in Athens. Upon Alexander's death in 323, the Athenians felt free enough to throw off the shackles imposed on them by Alexander—and one shackle was represented by Alexander's former teacher. Aristotle was eventually forced to flee the city and abandon his school. He died soon after, in 322 BCE.

Aristotle is perhaps best known today as a logician. He created a system of thought based on fundamental assumptions that one cannot doubt—the famous a priori truths. Whereas Plato believed that one must accomplish knowledge of truth by means of reason and intuition, Aristotle believed that the philosopher must observe particular phenomena to arrive at an understanding of reality, a scientific technique known as induction. Once truth is known through induction from the particular to the universal, the philosopher can engage in the process of deduction from the basis of the universal to arrive at other particular truths. Aristotle's system of logic is known as syllogism.

Aristotle also made contributions in metaphysics, the study of reality that transcends the physical world. Once again a priori truths are the basis for metaphysical studies. Aristotle assumed that there is a First Cause, an "unmoved mover," that he defined as actuality, in contrast to potency, or the potential, which represents movement. Aristotle argued that all reality can be explained according to cause and effect, act and potential. For example, time is an actual phenomenon—it has existence as a form or essence. Time acts upon human movement, providing a temporal context in which humans are born, live, and die, all the while measuring their lives according to the standard of time. Aristotle further argued in Metaphysics that one must distinguish between art and experience. Art as essence is based on abstract thought—what the Greeks termed the logos—whereas experience is based on a series of particular events occurring in time. In Poetics, Aristotle argued that poetry (art) explores universals and how things ought to be, while history (historia) explains the particulars of human existence and how things are. Wisdom represents the unification of art and experience.

Aristotle's treatise on natural science was Physics. Natural science, he wrote, is concerned with physical movement from the first principles of nature. Aristotle associated nature with the first cause. His unmoved mover was an amorphous divine force of creation which establishes the laws through which movement—plant, animal, and human—occurs. The four causal determinants expressed in nature are: 1) the material substance that forms a physical object; 2) the type or class of phenomenon (genos) to which an object belongs; 3) the cause of change in or movement of an object; and 4) the goal or purpose (telos) of movement.

Aristotle's categorizations had a profound impact on the formation of a vocabulary of science. His notion of type or class is the basis for the notion that a species in nature comprises a set genus. Aristotle's idea of goal or purpose forms the philosophical concept of teleology, the study of the end of natural phenomena.

In addition, Aristotle was one of the first students of the human psyche. He wrote treatises on dreams, memory, the senses, prophecy, sleep, and the soul. Aristotle believed that the soul is the actuality within the potency of the body and is the unmoved mover within each individual human, while the mind (nous) is an expression of the soul. Aristotle argued that each human soul is part of a universal whole which is a world soul, the ultimate actuality, and the first cause. Aristotle's study of dreams provided a rational explanation of what the ancients often considered a supernatural phenomenon. Aristotle argued that the only thing "divine" about a dream is that it is part of nature, which is itself the creation of God and hence divine. That events turn out according to one's dream is either coincidence or the result of the subtle impact of a dream on an individual's actions.

In zoological studies, Aristotle's contributions included the treatises Description of Animals, Parts of Animals, and Generation of Animals. In Parts of Animals, Aristotle noted that although animals are a less profound area of study than the metaphysical, nevertheless it is an inquiry accessible to anyone willing to explore natural history. Consistent with his Platonic background, Aristotle studied animals for the sake of understanding the whole of natural history. He assumed that the source of all good and beauty is the same source of animal and biological phenomena and that hence even animals mirror the divine.

In the study of ethics, Aristotle dealt with the question of how the ultimate basis of behavior, the set of rules that establishes the Good, can be understood according to science. Aristotle believed that the tools of science—observation, categorization, logic,and  induction—could be brought to bear on the study of human behavior. The scientist studies human behavior in its incredible variety of contexts to arrive at general laws of how humans act and how they should act: how humans act is the realm of the scientist, while how humans should act is the realm of the philosopher. Once again, Aristotle combined science and philosophy into one organized study. Aristotle believed that the ultimate end of human existence is happiness, which occurs when humans conform to the Good. The Good is accomplished when humans exercise reason in accordance with virtue. Aristotle studied human behavior to arrive at a definition of virtue, finding that it is an action performed for its own sake, that is, an action performed for the sake of the Good or an action performed out of principle. Aristotle believed that vice, the opposite of virtue, derives from actions committed for selfish reasons or for personal motives.

The Greek philosophers before and during Aristotle's time were the first political scientists. Aristotle's contribution, Politics, applied his philosophical methods and assumptions to the understanding of statecraft. He argued that the state is, as it were, the actual, while the citizens are the potential. The latter are the parts (the particulars) that made up the whole, or the universal body politic. Aristotle conceived of a pluralistic society operating according to natural laws based in part on reason and necessity, a social compact among people to promote security and serve the needs of survival. Within this concept of the state (which represents virtue) people move, act, and struggle for power and wealth. Aristotle argued, based on his experience at Athens, that slavery was justified because of the inferior intellect of slaves. Likewise, he assumed that women lacked the cognitive abilities of males and therefore should not participate in democracy. In The Athenian Constitution, Aristotle provided a detailed analysis of Athenian democracy, providing details into the life and political science of the great Athenian lawgiver Solon.

In the study of astronomy, Aristotle explored his ideas in On the Heavens. Based on observation, Aristotle established the spherical nature of the earth. Viewing a lunar eclipse, Aristotle detected a slight curvature of the shadow of the earth on the moon's surface. He also observed that the altitude of stars changes according to changes in latitude. In On the Heavens, Aristotle concluded that the earth's circumference is 400,000 stadia (40,000–50,000 miles, which was an overestimate of 45%). He advocated the view that there is more water than land on the earth's surface. Much of Aristotle's thought on astronomy, however, was erroneous, as observation with the naked eye was insufficient for the study of the nature of the stars and planets.

Aristotle's ideas were advocated and defended for centuries after the philosopher's death. Aristotle's disciples were known by the master's teaching style of walking about while engaged in discussion or disputation (from which the name "Peripatetic" derives). Theophrastus took over the helm of the Lyceum, Aristotle's school at Athens. He organized Aristotle's papers and writings and pursued Aristotle's theories and investigations in the physical and metaphysical worlds. After Theophrastus's death in 287 BCE, Strato assumed leadership of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic philosophers.

Further Reading
Bambrough, Renford, ed. and trans. The Philosophy of Aristotle. New York: New American Library, 1963; Barnes, Jonathan. Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982; Schmitt, Charles B. Aristotle and the Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983; Turner, William. "Aristotle." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913; Wheelwright, Philip, ed. and trans. Aristotle. New York: Odyssey Press, 1951.

MLA Citation
Lawson, Russell M. "Aristotle." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Smog in our brains

By Kristen Weir
American Psychological Association 
July/August 2012, Vol 43, No. 7

Researchers are identifying startling connections between air pollution and decreased cognition and well-being.

That yellow haze of smog hovering over the skyline isn't just a stain on the view. It may also leave a mark on your mind.

Researchers have known since the 1970s that high levels of air pollution can harm both cardiovascular and respiratory health, increasing the risk of early death from heart and lung diseases. The effect of air pollution on cognition and mental well-being, however, has been less well understood. Now, evidence is mounting that dirty air is bad for your brain as well.

Over the past decade, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution may damage children's cognitive abilities, increase adults' risk of cognitive decline and possibly even contribute to depression.

"This should be taken seriously," says Paul Mohai, PhD, a professor in the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment who has studied the link between air pollution and academic performance in children. "I don't think the issue has gotten the visibility it deserves."     
Cognitive connections

Most research on air pollution has focused on a type of pollutant known as fine particulate matter. These tiny particles — 1/30th the width of a human hair — are spewed by power plants, factories, cars and trucks. Due to its known cardiovascular effects, particulate matter is one of six principal pollutants for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established air quality standards.

It now seems likely that the harmful effects of particulate matter go beyond vascular damage. Jennifer Weuve, MPH, ScD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Rush Medical College, found that older women who had been exposed to high levels of the pollutant experienced greater cognitive decline compared with other women their age (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2012). Weuve's team gathered data from the Nurses' Health Study Cognitive Cohort, a population that included more than 19,000 women across the United States, age 70 to 81. Using the women's address history, Weuve and her colleagues estimated their exposure to particulate matter over the previous seven to 14 years. The researchers found that long-term exposure to high levels of the pollution significantly worsened the women's cognitive decline, as measured by tests of cognitive skill.

Weuve and her colleagues investigated exposure to both fine particulate matter (the smallest particles, less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) and coarse particulate matter (larger particles ranging from 2.5 to 10 micrometers in size).

"The conventional wisdom is that coarse particles aren't as important as fine particles" when it comes to human health, Weuve says. Previous studies in animals and human cadavers had shown that the smaller particles can more easily penetrate the body's defenses. "They can cross from the lung to the blood and, in some cases, travel up the axon of the olfactory nerve into the brain," she says. But Weuve's study held a surprise. She found that exposure to both fine and coarse particulate was associated with cognitive decline.

Weuve's results square with those of a similar study by Melinda Power, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology and environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health. Power and her colleagues studied the link between black carbon — a type of particulate matter associated with diesel exhaust, a source of fine particles — and cognition in 680 older men in Boston (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011). "Black carbon is essentially soot," Power says.

Power's team used black carbon exposure as a proxy for measuring overall traffic-related pollution. They estimated each man's black carbon exposure by cross-referencing their addresses with an established model that provides daily estimates of black carbon concentrations throughout the Boston area. Much like Weuve's results in older women, Power and colleagues found that men exposed to high levels of black carbon had reduced cognitive performance, equivalent to aging by about two years, as compared with men who'd had less black carbon exposure.

But while black carbon is a convenient marker of air pollution, it's too soon to say that it's what's causing the cognitive changes, Power says. "The problem is there are a lot of other things associated with traffic — noise, gases — so we can't say from this study that it's the particulate part of the air pollution that matters."

Still, the cumulative results of these studies suggest that air pollution deserves closer scrutiny as a risk factor for cognitive impairment and perhaps dementia.

"Many dementias are often preceded by a long period of cognitive decline. But we don't know very much about how to prevent or delay dementia," Weuve says. If it turns out that air pollution does contribute to cognitive decline and the onset of dementia, the finding could offer a tantalizing new way to think about preventing disease. "Air pollution is something that we can intervene on as a society at large, through technology, regulation and policy," she says.

Young minds

Research is also finding air-pollution-related harms to children's cognition. Shakira Franco Suglia, ScD, an assistant professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, and colleagues followed more than 200 Boston children from birth to an average age of 10. They found that kids exposed to greater levels of black carbon scored worse on tests of memory and verbal and nonverbal IQ (American Journal of Epidemiology, 2008).

More recently, Frederica Perera, DrPH, at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues followed children in New York City from before birth to age 6 or 7. They discovered that children who had been exposed to higher levels of urban air pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons while in utero were more likely to experience attention problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2012). These widespread chemicals are a byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

Meanwhile Mohai, at the University of Michigan, found that Michigan public schools located in areas with the highest industrial pollution levels had the lowest attendance rates and the greatest percentage of students who failed to meet state testing standards, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences and other confounding factors (Health Affairs, 2011). What's worse, the researchers analyzed the distribution of the state's public schools and found that nearly two-thirds were located in the more-polluted areas of their districts. Only about half of states have environmental quality policies for schools, Mohai says, "and those that do may not go far enough. More attention needs to be given to this issue."

Although Michigan and Massachusetts may experience areas of poor air quality, their pollution problems pale in comparison to those of Mexico City, for example. In a series of studies, Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas, MD, PhD, a neuropathologist at the University of Montana and the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City, has investigated the neurological effects of the city's infamous smog.

In early investigations, Calderón-Garcidueñas dissected the brains of dogs that had been exposed to air pollution of Mexico City and compared them with the brains of dogs from a less-polluted city. She found the Mexico City dogs' brains showed increased inflammation and pathology including amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, clumps of proteins that serve as a primary marker for Alzheimer's disease in humans (Toxicologic Pathology, 2003).

In follow-up research, Calderón-Garcidueñas turned her attention to Mexico's children. In one study, she examined 55 kids from Mexico City and 18 from the less-polluted city of Polotitlán. Magnetic resonance imagining scans revealed that the children exposed to urban pollution were significantly more likely to have brain inflammation and damaged tissue in the prefrontal cortex. Neuroinflammation, Calderón-Garcidueñas explains, disrupts the blood-brain barrier and is a key factor in many central nervous system disorders, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Perhaps more troubling, though, the differences between the two groups of children weren't just anatomical. Compared with kids from cleaner Polotitlán, the Mexico City children scored lower on tests of memory, cognition and intelligence (Brain and Cognition, 2008).

Brain changes

It's becoming clearer that air pollution affects the brain, but plenty of questions remain. Randy Nelson, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the Ohio State University, is using mouse studies to find some answers. With his doctoral student Laura Fonken and colleagues, he exposed mice to high levels of fine particulate air pollution five times a week, eight hours a day, to mimic the exposure a human commuter might receive if he or she lived in the suburbs and worked in a smoggy city (Molecular Psychiatry, 2011). After 10 months, they found that the mice that had been exposed to polluted air took longer to learn a maze task and made more mistakes than mice that had not breathed in the pollution.

Nelson also found that the pollutant-exposed mice showed signs of the rodent equivalent of depression. Mice said to express depressive-like symptoms give up swimming more quickly in a forced swim test and stop sipping sugar water that they normally find attractive. Both behaviors can be reversed with antidepressants. Nelson found that mice exposed to the polluted air scored higher on tests of depressive-like responses.

To find out more about the underlying cause of those behavioral changes, Nelson compared the brains of mice that had been exposed to dirty air with brains of mice that hadn't. He found a number of striking differences. For starters, mice exposed to particulate matter had increased levels of cytokines in the brain. (Cytokines are cell-signaling molecules that regulate the body's inflammatory response.) That wasn't entirely surprising, since previous studies investigating the cardiovascular effects of air pollution on mice had found widespread bodily inflammation in mice exposed to the pollution.

More surprisingly, Nelson also discovered physical changes to the nerve cells in the mouse hippocampus, a region known to play a role in spatial memory. Exposed mice had fewer spines on the tips of the neurons in this brain region. "Those [spines] form the connections to other cells," Nelson says. "So you have less dendritic complexity, and that's usually correlated with a poorer memory."

The changes are alarming and surprising, he says. "I never thought we'd actually see changes in brain structure."

Nelson's mice experienced quite high levels of pollution, on par with those seen in places such as Mexico City and Beijing, which rank higher on the pollution scale than U.S. cities. It's not yet clear whether the same changes would occur in mice exposed to pollution levels more typical of American cities. Another limitation, he notes, is that the animals in his study were genetically identical. Nelson says he'd like to see similar studies of wild-type mice to help tease out whether genetic differences might make some people more or less vulnerable to the effects of pollution. "I would suspect there are people who are wildly susceptible to this and people who are less so, or not at all," he says.

Few studies have investigated connections between depression and air pollution, but Nelson's wasn't the first. A study by Portuguese researchers explored the relationship between psychological health and living in industrial areas. They found that people who lived in areas associated with greater levels of air pollution scored higher on tests of anxiety and depression (Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2011).

Back in Ohio, Nelson plans to study how much — or how little — pollution is necessary to cause changes in the brain and behavior. He's also beginning to look at the effects of air pollution on pregnant mice and their offspring. Though more research is needed to fully understand how dirty air impairs the brain, he says, the picture that's emerging suggests reason for concern.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency reviews the scientific basis for particulate matter standards every five years or so, and completed its last review in 2009.

To date, the EPA hasn't factored psychological research into their standards assessments, but that could change, according to a statement the EPA provided to the Monitor. "Additional research is necessary to assess the impact of ambient air pollutants on central nervous system function, such as cognitive processes, especially during critical windows of brain development. To this end, as the number of … studies continue to increase and add to the weight of overall evidence, future National Ambient Air Quality Standards assessments will again assess and address the adequacy of existing standards."

In the meantime, says Weuve, there's not much people can do to protect themselves, short of wearing special masks, installing special filtration systems in their homes and offices or moving to cities with less airborne pollution. "Ultimately, we're at the mercy of policy," she says.

The good news, Nelson says, is that the mental and cognitive effects of air pollution are finally beginning to receive attention from the mental health research community. "We sort of forget about these environmental insults," says Nelson. "Maybe we shouldn't."

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”  which was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. It also won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, the James Beard Award for best food writing, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”, “The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World”, “A Place of My Own”, and “Second Nature”.

A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, Pollan is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including the James Beard Award for best magazine series in 2003 and the Reuters-I.U.C.N. 2000 Global Award for Environmental Journalism. His articles have been anthologized in Best American Science Writing, Best American Essays and the Norton Book of Nature Writing. Pollan served for many years as executive editor of Harper's Magazine and is now the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Money can't buy happiness

By Amy Novotney
American Psychological Association, July/August 2012, 
Vol. 43, No. 7, Page 24

Extremely wealthy people have their own set of concerns: anxiety about their children, uncertainty over their relationships and fears of isolation, finds research by Robert Kenny.

Most of what we think we know about people with a lot of money comes from television, movies and beach novels — and a lot of it is inaccurate, says Robert Kenny, EdD.

In an effort to remedy that, Kenny, a developmental psychologist and senior advisor at the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, is co-leading a research project on the aspirations, dilemmas and personal philosophies of people worth $25 million or more. Kenny and his colleagues surveyed approximately 165 households via an anonymous online survey and were surprised to find that while money eased many aspects of these people's lives, it made other aspects more difficult.
Dr. Robert Kenny

The Monitor spoke to Kenny about his findings and about the significance of his research for those of us who don't have a net worth of $25 million or more.


We wanted to try to understand the deeper motivations of people in high net worth households. They are rarely questioned about this, and instead are asked whether they would like a Mercedes or a Lexus. Do they prefer Tiffany's or Cartier? Most surveys of high net worth households are marketing surveys to sell a product, so the questions that are asked are pretty narrow.

We decided to ask three major questions: First, we asked, "What is the greatest aspiration for your life?" As far as we can tell, no one has ever asked this population that question, yet there are assumptions made about this all the time. The second major question was, "What's your greatest aspiration for your children?" Our third question was, "What's your greatest aspiration for the world?" After each of the major questions we asked, "How does your money help you with your greatest aspiration?" and, "How does your money get in the way?"


People consistently said that their greatest aspiration in life was to be a good parent — not exactly the stereotype some might expect. When asked whether their money helps with that, they answered with all the obvious: good schools, travel, security, varied experiences. But when we asked how their money gets in the way, that was a payload. We received response after response on how money is not always helpful. They mentioned very specific concerns, such as the way their children would be treated by others and stereotyped as rich kids or trust fund babies, they wondered if their children would know if people really loved them or their money, whether they'd know if their achievements were because of their own skills, knowledge and talent or because they have a lot of money.

Some were concerned about motivation. They worried that if their children have enough money and don't have to worry about covering the mortgage, what will motivate them? How will they lead meaningful lives? This is where the money might get in the way and make things confusing, not necessarily better. Very few said they hoped their children made a lot of money, and not many said they were going to give all the money to charity and let their kids fend for themselves. They were, however, really interested in helping their children figure out how they could live a meaningful life. Even though they did not have to "make a living," they did need to make a life.

As for the respondents' aspirations for the world, they focused, once again, on how to help the youth in the world live healthy, meaningful and impactful lives. Their answers were consistently youth-focused: They were concerned about being good parents, they were concerned about their children and they were concerned about the children of the world in general. We found that to be very interesting, and even surprising because it runs contrary to so many of the stereotypes about this population.


One could expect that you might hear things like, "I wanted to make a lot of money and become financially independent and be able to do whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it." But very few said anything like that, although they appreciated the temporal freedom. It was so non-financially focused. I expected that when we asked them about their greatest aspiration for their children, we'd get a lot more people saying they wanted their children to be world leaders, but that's not what they said at all. People said, "I'd like them to think about how to make their world a better place." Not the world, their world — their community, their neighborhood, their family.


A net worth of $25 million or more brings temporal freedom, spatial freedom and sometimes psychological freedom, but it's not always easy. Eventually temporal freedom — the freedom to do anything you want — raises dilemmas about what the best way to use all your time might be. There's also spatial freedom: You get to build anything you want — a house, a business, a new nonprofit — and people often get lost or befuddled with all of their options. And you get choice. You can go to this restaurant or that one, this resort or that one, buy this car or that one. People can get overwhelmed by all the choices and possibilities, and the amount of freedom that they have.

Then the overwhelming question becomes: What is the best use of my time and resources? After a while one can actually become stymied and even dispirited. There are plenty of folks who are more than willing to make suggestions, but it takes a lot of individual work to develop the psychological freedom to make decisions. For most, that's not a problem because time and money are limited, so the choices are limited. Being willing to try to understand the challenges of having an oversupply of time and money can be difficult for therapists.

The takeaway from all of this is that there seemed to be a trend that said you can't buy your way out of the human condition. For example, one survey participant told me that he'd sold his business, made a lot of money off that and lived high for a while. He said, "You know, Bob, you can just buy so much stuff, and when you get to the point where you can just buy so much stuff, now what are you going to do?"


This research shows the rest of the world, who often think that if they just made one more bonus or sold one more item or got one more promotion, then their world and their family's world would be so much better, that this isn't necessarily true. There's another whole level of concerns that parents are going to have about their kids. One of those concerns is this feeling of isolation. That's actually a No. 1 concern for families with a high net worth — this sense of isolation — and the higher the wealth, the worse it gets. We know this is a very powerful feeling when it comes to one's overall sense of well-being, and these people feel very isolated because they have what most of the world thinks they want. But just because you have money doesn't mean you're not going to have a bad day every once in a while. But what you often lose when you have all this money is the friendships that support you through the difficult times.


I think the toughest part about both working with this population and being in this population is that as soon as you say they have a net worth of $25 million, someone will start playing the violin. Like, "Oh, cry me a river, you have all this money and it's causing problems?"

No one is saying, "Poor me, I have a lot of money." In fact, most of them are saying, "I love having a lot of money. But don't get me wrong, there are some downsides."

These people don't have to worry about whether they'll have enough to make the mortgage payment, and they feel very fortunate. But it isn't nirvana either. If their kids have access to a lot of money, and therefore a lot of drugs, that hurts just as much as if they don't have any money and their kids are doing drugs. It doesn't save you from any of that. It's still a parent who has a child who is hurting.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Obligation to Endure

Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964)

Originally published in Silent Spring (1962)

The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth's vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to the earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death. Similarly, chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens lie long in the soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells. As Albert Schweitzer has said, "Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation."

It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth—eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings. The environment, rigorously shaping and directing the life it supported, contained elements that were hostile as well as supporting. Certain rocks gave out dangerous radiation, even within the light of the sun, from which all life draws its energy, there were short-wave radiations with power to injure. Given time—time not in years but in millennia—life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.

The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature. Radiation is no longer merely the background radiation of rocks, the bombardment of cosmic rays, the ultraviolet of the sun that have existed before there was any life on earth; radiation is now the unnatural creation of man's tampering with the atom. The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man's inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature's; it would require not merely the years of a man's life but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped—500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.

Among them are many that are used in man's war against nature. Since the mid-1940's over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as "pests"; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes—nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the "good" and the "bad," to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called "insecticides," but "biocides."

The whole process of spraying seems caught up in an endless spiral. Since DDT was released for civilian use, a process of escalation has been going on in which ever more toxic materials must be found. This has happened because insects, in a triumphant vindication of Darwin's principle of the survival of the fittest, have evolved super races immune to the particular insecticide used, hence a deadlier one has always to be developed—and then a deadlier one than that. It has happened also because, for reasons to be described later, destructive insects often undergo a “flareback”, or resurgence, after spraying, in numbers greater than before. Thus the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.

Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind, by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm – substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.

Some would-be architects of our future look toward a time when it will be possible to alter the human germ plasm by design. But we may easily be doing so now by inadvertence, for many chemicals, like radiation, bring about gene mutations. It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.

All this has been risked – for what? Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done. We have done it, moreover, for reasons that collapse the moment we examine them. We are told that the enormous and expanding use of pesticides is necessary to maintain farm production. Yet is our real problem not one of overproduction?  Our farms, despite measures to remove acreages from production and to pay farmers not to produce, have yielded such a staggering excess of crops that the American taxpayer in 1962 is paying out more than one billion dollars a year as the total carrying cost of the surplus-food storage program. And is the situation helped when one branch of the Agriculture Department tries to reduce production while another states, as it did in 1958, “It is believed generally that reduction of crop acreage under provisions of the Soil Bank will stimulate interest in use of chemicals to obtain maximum production on the land retained in crops.”

All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.

The problem whose attempted solution has brought such a train of disaster in its wake is an accompaniment of our modern way of life. Long before the age of man, insects inhabited the earth – a group of extraordinarily varied and adaptable beings. Over the course of time since man’s advent, a small percentage of the more than half a million species of insects have come into conflict with human welfare in two principal ways: as competitors for the food supply and as carriers of human disease.

Disease-carrying insects become important where human beings are crowded together, especially under conditions where sanitation is poor, as in time of natural disaster or war or in situations of extreme poverty and deprivation. Then control of some sort becomes necessary. It is a sobering fact, however, as we shall presently see, that the method of massive chemical control has had only limited success, and also threatens to worsen the very conditions it is intended to curb.

Under primitive agricultural conditions the farmer had few insect problems. These arose with the intensification of agriculture – the devotion of immense acreage to a single crop. Such a system set the stage for explosive increase in specific insect population. Single-crop farming does not take advantage of the principles by which nature works; it is agriculture as an engineer might conceive it to be. Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds. One important natural check is limit on the amount of suitable habitat for each species. Obviously then, an insect that lives on wheat can build up its population to much higher levels on a farm devoted to wheat than on one in which wheat is intermingled with other crops to which the insect is not adapted.

The same thing happens in other situations. A generation or more ago, the towns of large areas of the United States lined their streets with the noble elm tree. Now the beauty they hopefully created is threatened with complete destruction as disease sweeps through the elms, carried by a beetle that would have only limited chance to build up large populations and to spread from tree to tree if the elms were only occasional trees in a richly diversified planting.

Another factor in the modern insect problem is one that must be viewed against a background of geologic and human history: the spreading of thousands of different kinds of organisms from their native homes to invade new territories. This worldwide migration has been studied and graphically described by British ecologist Charles Elton in his recent book The Ecology of Invasion. During the Cretaceous Period, some hundred million years ago, flooding seas cut many land bridges between continents and living things found themselves confined in what Elton calls “colossal separate nature reserves.” There, isolated from each others of their kind, they developed many new species. When some of the land masses were joined again, about 15 million years ago, these species began to move out into new territories – a movement that is not only still in progress but is now receiving considerable assistance from man.

The importation of plants in the primary agent in the modern spread of species, for animals have almost invariably gone along with the plants, quarantine being a comparatively recent an not completely effective innovation. The United States Office of Plant Introduction alone has introduced almost 200,000 species and varieties of plants from all over the world. Nearly half of the 180 or so major insect enemies of plants in the United States are accidental imports from abroad, and most of them have come as hitchhikers on plants.

In new territory, out of reach of the restraining hand of the natural enemies that kept down its members in its native land, an invading plant or animal is able to become enormously abundant. Thus it is no accident that our most troublesome insects are introduced species.

The invasions, both the naturally occurring and those dependent on human assistance, are likely to continue indefinitely. Quarantine and massive chemical campaigns are only extremely expensive ways of buying time. We are faced, according to Dr. Elton, “with a life-and-death need not just to find new technological means of suppressing this plant or that animal”; instead we need the basic knowledge of animal populations and their relations to their surroundings that will “promote an even balance and damp down the explosive power of outbreaks and new invasions.”

Much of the necessary knowledge is now available but we do not use it. We train ecologists in our universities and even employ them in our government agencies but we seldom take their advice. We allow the chemical death rain to fall as though there were no alternative, whereas in fact there are many, and our ingenuity could soon discover many more if given opportunity.

Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good? Such thinking, in the words of the ecologist Paul Shepard, “idealized life with only its head out of the water, inches above the limits of toleration of the corruption of its own environment…. Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

Yet such a world is pressed upon us. The crusade to create a chemically sterile, insect-free world seems to have engendered a fanatic zeal on the part of many specialists and most of the so-called control agencies. On every hand there is evidence that those engaged in spraying operations exercise a ruthless power. “The regulatory entomologist … function as prosecutor, judge and jury, tax assessor and collector and sheriff to enforce their own orders,” said Connecticut entomologist Neely Turner. The most flagrant abuses go unchecked in both state and federal agencies.

It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.

I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.

There is still very limited awareness of the nature of the threat. This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results of pesticide applications, it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half-truth. We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts. It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts. In the words of Jean Rostand, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Contextual Moral Vegetarianism

By Deane Curtin

'Toward an Ecological Ethic of Care.' Hypathia, No. 6, spring 1991, pp. 68-71
In this [essay] I provide an example of a distinctively ecofeminist moral concern: our relations to what we are willing to count as food. Vegetarianism has been defended as a moral obligation that results from rights that nonhuman animals have in virtue of being sentient beings (Regan 1983, 330-53). However, a distinctively ecofeminist defense of moral vegetarianism is better expressed as a core concept in an ecofeminist ethic of care. One clear way of distinguishing the two approaches is that whereas the rights approach is not inherently contextual[1] (it is the response to the rights of all sentient beings), the caring-for approach responds to particular contexts and histories. It recognizes that the reasons for moral vegetarianism may differ by locale, by gender, as well as by class.

Moral vegetarianism is a fruitful issue for ecofeminists to explore in developing an ecological ethics because in judging the adequacy of an ethic by reference to its understanding of food one draws attention to precisely those aspects of daily experience that have often been regarded as "beneath" the interest of philosophy. Plato's remark in the Gorgias is typical of the dismissive attitude philosophers have usually had toward food. Pastry cooking, he says, is like rhetoric: both are mere "knacks" or "routines" designed to appeal to our bodily instincts rather than our intellects (Plato 1961, 245).

Plato's dismissive remark also points to something that feminists need to take very seriously, namely, that a distinctively feminist ethic, as Susan Bordo and others argue, should include the body as moral agent. Here too the experiences of women in patriarchal cultures are especially valuable because women, more then men, experience the effects of culturally sanctioned oppressive attitudes toward the appropriate shape of the body. Susan Bordo has argued that anorexia nervosa is a "psychopathology" made possible by Cartesian attitudes toward the body at a popular level. Anorexics typically feel alienation from their bodies and the hunger "it" feels. Bordo quotes one woman as saying she ate because "my stomach wanted it"; another dreamed of being "without a body." Anorexics want to achieve "absolute purity, hyperintellectuality and transcendence of the flesh" (Bordo 1988, 94, 95; also see Chernin 1981). These attitudes toward the body have served to distort the deep sense in which human beings are embodied creatures; they have therefore further distorted our being as animals. To be a person, as distinct from an "animal," is to be disembodied.

This dynamic is vividly exposed by Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat (Adams 1989, part 1). There are important connections through food between the oppression of women and the oppression of nonhuman animals. Typical of the wealth of evidence she presents are the following: the connection of women and animals through pornographic representations of women as "meat" ready to be carved up, for example in "snuff' films; the fact that language masks our true relationship with animals, making them "absent referents" by giving meat words positive connotations ("That's a meaty question;" "Where's the beef?") while disparaging nonflesh foods ("Don't watch so much TV! You'll turn into a vegetable"); men, athletes and soldiers in particular, are associated with red meat and activity ("To have muscle you need to eat muscle"), whereas women are associated with vegetables and passivity ("ladies' luncheons" typically offer dainty sandwiches with no red meat).

As a "contextual moral vegetarian," I cannot refer to an absolute moral rule that prohibits meat eating under all circumstances. There may be some contexts in which another response is appropriate. Though I am committed to moral vegetarianism, I cannot say that I would never kill an animal for food. Would I not kill an animal to provide food for my son if he were starving? Would I not generally prefer the death of a bear to the death of a loved one? I am sure I would. The point of a contextualist ethic is that one need not treat all interests equally as if one had no relationship to any of the parties.

Beyond personal contextual relations, geographical contexts may sometimes be relevant. The Ihalmiut, for example, whose frigid domain makes the growing of food impossible, do not have the option of vegetarian cuisine. The economy of their food practices, however, and their tradition of "thanking" the deer for giving its life are reflective of a serious, focused, compassionate attitude toward the "gift" of a meal.

In some cultures violence against nonhuman life is ritualized in such a way that one is present to the reality of one's food. The Japanese have a Shinto ceremony that pays respect to the insects that are killed during rice planting. Tibetans, who as Buddhists have not generally been drawn to vegetarianism, nevertheless give their own bodies back to the animals in an ultimate act of thanks by having their corpses hacked into pieces as food for the birds.[2] Cultures such as these have ways of expressing spiritually the idea "we are what we eat," even if they are not vegetarian.

If there is any context, on the other hand, in which moral vegetarianism is completely compelling as an expression of an ecological ethic of care, it is for economically well-off persons in technologically advanced countries. First, these are persons who have a choice of what food they want to eat; they have a choice of what they will count as food. Morality and ontology are closely connected here. It is one thing to inflict pain on animals when geography offers no other choice. But in the case of killing animals for human consumption where there is a choice, this practice inflicts pain that is completely unnecessary and avoidable. The injunction to care, considered as an issue of moral and political development, should be understood to include the injunction to eliminate needless suffering wherever possible, and particularly the suffering of those whose suffering is conceptually connected to one's own. It should not be understood as an injunction that includes the imperative to rethink what it means to be a person connected with the imperative to rethink the status of nonhuman animals. An ecofeminist perspective emphasizes that one's body is oneself, and that by inflicting violence needlessly, one's bodily self becomes a context for violence. One becomes violent by taking part in violent food practices. The ontological implication of a feminist ethic of care is that nonhuman animals should no longer count as food.

Second, most of the meat and dairy products in these countries do not come from mom-and-pop farms with little red barns. Factory farms are responsible for most of the 6 billion animals killed for food every year in the United States (Adams 1989, 6). It is curious that steriods are considered dangerous to athletes, but animals that have been genetically engineered and chemically induced to grow faster and come to market sooner are considered to be an entirely different issue. One would have to be hardened to know the conditions factory-farm animals live in and not feel disgust concerning their treatment.[3]

Third, much of the effect of the eating practices of persons in industrialized countries is felt in oppressed countries. Land owned by the wealthy that was once used to grow inexpensive crops for local people has been converted to the production of expensive products (beef) for export. Increased trade of food products with these countries is consistently the cause of increased starvation. In cultures where food preparation is primarily understood as women's work, starvation is primarily a women's issue. Food expresses who we are politically just as much as bodily. One need not be aware of the fact that one's food practices oppress others in order to be an oppressor.

From a woman's perspective, in particular, it makes sense to ask whether one should become a vegan, a vegetarian who, in addition to refraining from meat and fish, also refrains from eating eggs and dairy products. Since the consumption of eggs and milk have in common that they exploit the reproductive capacities of the female, vegetarianism is not a gender neutral issue.[4] To choose one's diet in a patriarchal culture is one way of politicizing an ethic of care. It marks a daily, bodily commitment to resist ideological pressures to conform to patriarchal standards, and to establishing contexts in which caring for can be nonabusive. 

Just as there are gender-specific reasons for women's commitment to vegetarianism, for men in a patriarchal society moral vegetarianism can mark the decision to stand in solidarity with women. It also indicates a determination to resist ideological pressures to become a "real man." Real people do not need to eat "real food," as the American Beef Council would have us believe.

[1] Regan calls the animal's right not to be killed a prima facie right that may be overridden. Nevertheless, his theory is not inherently contextualized.

[2] This practice is also ecologically sound since it saves the enormous expense of firewood for cremation.

[3] See John Robbing (1987). It should be noted that in response to such knowledge some reflective nonvegetarians commit to eating range-grown chickens but not those grown in factory farms.

[4] I owe this point to a conversation with Colman McCarthy. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response

Jesse Prinz   is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York. His books include Gut Reactions, The Emotional Construction of Morals, and Beyond Human Nature.

In this article, Jesse Prinz argues that the source of our moral inclinations is merely cultural.

Philosophy Now, issue 82, January/February 2011

Suppose you have a moral disagreement with someone, for example, a disagreement about whether it is okay to live in a society where the amount of money you are born with is the primary determinant of how wealthy you will end up. In pursuing this debate, you assume that you are correct about the issue and that your conversation partner is mistaken. You conversation partner assumes that you are making the blunder. In other words, you both assume that only one of you can be correct. Relativists reject this assumption. They believe that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. The stanch socialist and righteous royalist are equally right; they just occupy different moral worldviews.

Relativism has been widely criticized. It is attacked as being sophomoric, pernicious, and even incoherent. Moral philosophers, theologians, and social scientists try to identify objective values so as to forestall the relativist menace. I think these efforts have failed. Moral relativism is a plausible doctrine, and it has important implications for how we conduct our lives, organize our societies, and deal with others.

Cannibals and Child Brides

Morals vary dramatically across time and place. One group’s good can be another group’s evil. Consider cannibalism, which has been practiced by groups in every part of the world. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday found evidence for cannibalism in 34% of cultures in one cross-historical sample. Or consider blood sports, such as those practiced in Roman amphitheaters, in which thousands of excited fans watched as human beings engaged in mortal combat. Killing for pleasure has also been documented among headhunting cultures, in which decapitation was sometimes pursued as a recreational activity. Many societies have also practiced extreme forms of public torture and execution, as was the case in Europe before the 18th century. And there are cultures that engage in painful forms of body modification, such as scarification, genital infibulation, or footbinding – a practice that lasted in China for 1,000 years and involved the deliberate and excruciating crippling of young girls. Variation in attitudes towards violence is paralleled by variation in attitudes towards sex and marriage. When studying culturally independent societies, anthropologists have found that over 80% permit polygamy. Arranged marriage is also common, and some cultures marry off girls while they are still pubescent or even younger. In parts of Ethiopia, half the girls are married before their 15th birthday.

Of course, there are also cross-cultural similarities in morals. No group would last very long if it promoted gratuitous attacks on neighbors or discouraged childrearing. But within these broad constraints, almost anything is possible. Some groups prohibit attacks on the hut next door, but encourage attacks on the village next door. Some groups encourage parents to commit selective infanticide, to use corporal punishment on children, or force them into physical labor or sexual slavery.

Such variation cries out for explanation. If morality were objective, shouldn’t we see greater consensus? Objectivists reply in two different ways:

Deny variation. Some objectivists say moral variation is greatly exaggerated – people really agree about values but have different factual beliefs or life circumstances that lead them to behave differently. For example, slave owners may have believed that their slaves were intellectually inferior, and Inuits who practiced infanticide may have been forced to do so because of resource scarcity in the tundra. But it is spectacularly implausible that all moral differences can be explained this way. For one thing, the alleged differences in factual beliefs and life circumstances rarely justify the behaviors in question. Would the inferiority of one group really justify enslaving them? If so, why don’t we think it’s acceptable to enslave people with low IQs? Would life in the tundra justify infanticide? If so, why don’t we just kill off destitute children around the globe instead of giving donations to Oxfam? Differences in circumstances do not show that people share values; rather they help to explain why values end up being so different.

Deny that variation matters. Objectivists who concede that moral variation exists argue that variation does not entail relativism; after all, scientific theories differ too, and we don’t assume that every theory is true. This analogy fails. Scientific theory variation can be explained by inadequate observations or poor instruments; improvements in each lead towards convergence. When scientific errors are identified, corrections are made. By contrast, morals do not track differences in observation, and there also is no evidence for rational convergence as a result of moral conflicts. Western slavery didn’t end because of new scientific observations; rather it ended with the industrial revolution, which ushered in a wage-based economy. Indeed, slavery became more prevalent after the Enlightenment, when science improved. Even with our modern understanding of racial equality, Benjamin Skinner has shown that there are more people living in de facto slavery worldwide today than during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When societies converge morally, it’s usually because one has dominated the other (as with the missionary campaigns to end cannibalism). With morals, unlike science, there is no well-recognized standard that can be used to test, confirm, or correct when disagreements arise.

Objectivists might reply that progress has clearly been made. Aren’t our values better than those of the ‘primitive’ societies that practice slavery, cannibalism, and polygamy? Here we are in danger of smugly supposing superiority. Each culture assumes it is in possession of the moral truth. From an outside perspective, our progress might be seen as a regress. Consider factory farming, environmental devastation, weapons of mass destruction, capitalistic exploitation, coercive globalization, urban ghettoization, and the practice of sending elderly relatives to nursing homes. Our way of life might look grotesque to many who have come before and many who will come after.

Emotions and Inculcation

Moral variation is best explained by assuming that morality, unlike science, is not based on reason or observation. What, then, is morality based on? To answer this, we need to consider how morals are learned.

Children begin to learn values when they are very young, before they can reason effectively. Young children behave in ways that we would never accept in adults: they scream, throw food, take off their clothes in public, hit, scratch, bite, and generally make a ruckus. Moral education begins from the start, as parents correct these antisocial behaviors, and they usually do so by conditioning children’s emotions. Parents threaten physical punishment (“Do you want a spanking?”), they withdraw love (“I’m not going to play with you any more!”), ostracize (“Go to your room!”), deprive (“No dessert for you!”), and induce vicarious distress (“Look at the pain you’ve caused!”). Each of these methods causes the misbehaved child to experience a negative emotion and associate it with the punished behavior. Children also learn by emotional osmosis. They see their parents’ reactions to news broadcasts and storybooks. They hear hours of judgmental gossip about inconsiderate neighbors, unethical coworkers, disloyal friends, and the black sheep in the family. Consummate imitators, children internalize the feelings expressed by their parents, and, when they are a bit older, their peers.

Emotional conditioning and osmosis are not merely convenient tools for acquiring values: they are essential. Parents sometimes try to reason with their children, but moral reasoning only works by drawing attention to values that the child has already internalized through emotional conditioning. No amount of reasoning can engender a moral value, because all values are, at bottom, emotional attitudes.

Recent research in psychology supports this conjecture. It seems that we decide whether something is wrong by introspecting our feelings: if an action makes us feel bad, we conclude that it is wrong. Consistent with this, people’s moral judgments can be shifted by simply altering their emotional states. For example, psychologist Simone Schnall and her colleagues found that exposure to fart spray, filth, and disgusting movies can cause people to make more severe moral judgments about unrelated phenomena.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues have shown that people make moral judgments even when they cannot provide any justification for them. For example, 80% of the American college students in Haidt’s study said it’s wrong for two adult siblings to have consensual sex with each other even if they use contraception and no one is harmed. And, in a study I ran, 100% of people agreed it would be wrong to sexually fondle an infant even if the infant was not physically harmed or traumatized. Our emotions confirm that such acts are wrong even if our usual justification for that conclusion (harm to the victim) is inapplicable.

If morals are emotionally based, then people who lack strong emotions should be blind to the moral domain. This prediction is borne out by psychopaths, who, it turns out, suffer from profound emotional deficits. Psychologist James Blair has shown that psychopaths treat moral rules as mere conventions. This suggests that emotions are necessary for making moral judgments. The judgment that something is morally wrong is an emotional response.

It doesn’t follow that every emotional response is a moral judgment. Morality involves specific emotions. Research suggests that the main moral emotions are anger and disgust when an action is performed by another person, and guilt and shame when an action is performed by one’s self. Arguably, one doesn’t harbor a moral attitude towards something unless one is disposed to have both these self- and other-directed emotions. You may be disgusted by eating cow tongue, but unless you are a moral vegetarian, you wouldn’t be ashamed of eating it.

In some cases, the moral emotions that get conditioned in childhood can be re-conditioned later in life. Someone who feels ashamed of a homosexual desire may subsequently feel ashamed about feeling ashamed. This person can be said to have an inculcated tendency to view homosexuality as immoral, but also a conviction that homosexuality is permissible, and the latter serves to curb the former over time.

This is not to say that reasoning is irrelevant to morality. One can convince a person that homophobia is wrong by using the light of reason to draw analogies with other forms of discrimination, but this strategy can only work if the person has a negative sentiment towards bigotry. Likewise, through extensive reasoning, one might persuade someone that eating meat is wrong; but the only arguments that will work are ones that appeal to prior sentiments. It would be hopeless to argue vegetarianism with someone who does not shudder at the thought of killing an innocent, sentient being. As David Hume said, reason is always slave to the passions.

If this picture is right, we have a set of emotionally conditioned basic values, and a capacity for reasoning, which allows us to extend these values to new cases. There are two important implications. One is that some moral debates have no resolution because the two sides have different basic values. This is often the case with liberals and conservatives. Research suggests that conservatives value some things that are less important to liberals, including hierarchical authority structures, self-reliance, in-group solidarity, and sexual purity. Debates about welfare, foreign policy, and sexual values get stymied because of these fundamental differences.

The second implication is that we cannot change basic values by reason alone. Various events in adulthood might be capable of reshaping our inculcated sentiments, including trauma, brainwashing, and immersion in a new community (we have an unconscious tendency towards social conformity). Reason can however be used to convince people that their basic values are in need of revision, because reason can reveal when values are inconsistent and self-destructive. An essay on moral relativism might even convince someone to give up some basic values, on the ground that they are socially inculcated. But reason alone cannot instill new values or settle which values we should have. Reason tells us what is the case, not what ought to be.

In summary, moral judgments are based on emotions, and reasoning normally contributes only by helping us extrapolate from our basic values to novel cases. Reasoning can also lead us to discover that our basic values are culturally inculcated, and that might impel us to search for alternative values, but reason alone cannot tell us which values to adopt, nor can it instill new values.

God, Evolution, and Reason: Is There an Objective Moral Code?

The hypothesis that moral judgments are emotionally based can explain why they vary across cultures and resist transformation through reasoning, but this is not enough to prove that moral relativism is true. An argument for relativism must also show that there is no basis for morality beyond the emotions with which we have been conditioned. The relativists must provide reasons for thinking objectivist theories of morality fail.

Objectivism holds that there is one true morality binding upon all of us. To defend such a view, the objectivist must offer a theory of where morality comes from, such that it can be universal in this way. There are three main options: Morality could come from a benevolent god; it could come from human nature (for example, we could have evolved an innate set of moral values); or it could come from rational principles that all rational people must recognize, like the rules of logic and arithmetic. Much ink has been spilled defending each of these possibilities, and it would be impossible here to offer a critical review of all ethical theories. Instead, let’s consider some simple reasons for pessimism.

The problem with divine commands as a cure for relativism is that there is no consensus among believers about what God or the gods want us to do. Even when there are holy scriptures containing lists of divine commands, there are disagreements about interpretation: Does “Thou shalt not kill?” cover enemies? Does it cover animals? Does it make one culpable for manslaughter and self-defense? Does it prohibit suicide? The philosophical challenge of proving that a god exists is already hard; figuring out who that god is and what values are divinely sanctioned is vastly harder.

The problem with human nature as a basis for universal morality is that it lacks normative import, that is, this doesn’t itself provide us with any definitive view of good and bad. Suppose we have some innate moral values. Why should we abide by them? Non-human primates often kill, steal, and rape without getting punished by members of their troops. Perhaps our innate values promote those kinds of behaviors as well. Does it follow that we shouldn’t punish them? Certainly not. If we have innate values – which is open to debate – they evolved to help us cope with life as hunter-gatherers in small competitive bands. To live in large stable societies, we are better off following the ‘civilized’ values we’ve invented.

Finally, the problem with reason, as we have seen, is that it never adds up to value. If I tell you that a wine has a balance between tannin and acid, it doesn’t follow that you will find it delicious. Likewise, reason cannot tell us which facts are morally good. Reason is evaluatively neutral. At best, reason can tell us which of our values are inconsistent, and which actions will lead to fulfillment of our goals. But, given an inconsistency, reason cannot tell us which of our conflicting values to drop, and reason cannot tell us which goals to follow. If my goals come into conflict with your goals, reason tells me that I must either thwart your goals, or give up caring about mine; but reason cannot tell me to favor one choice over the other.

Many attempts have been made to rebut such concerns, but each attempt has just fueled more debate. At this stage, no defense of objectivism has swayed doubters, and given the fundamental limits mentioned here (the inscrutability of divine commands, the normative emptiness of evolution, and the moral neutrality of reason), objectivism looks unlikely.

Living With Moral Relativism

People often resist relativism because they think it has unacceptable implications. Let’s conclude by considering some allegations and responses.

Allegation: Relativism entails that anything goes.

Response: Relativists concede that if you were to inculcate any given set of values, those values would be true for those who possessed them. But we have little incentive to inculcate values arbitrarily. If we trained our children to be ruthless killers, they might kill us or get killed. Values that are completely self-destructive can’t last.

Allegation: Relativism entails that we have no way to criticize Hitler.

Response: First of all, Hitler’s actions were partially based on false beliefs, rather than values (‘scientific’ racism, moral absolutism, the likelihood of world domination). Second, the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious. Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves.

Allegation: Relativism entails that moral debates are senseless, since everyone is right.

Response: This is a major misconception. Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground. We can also have substantive debates about how to apply and extend our basic values. Some debates are senseless, however. Committed liberals and conservatives rarely persuade each other, but public debates over policy can rally the base and sway the undecided.

Allegation: Relativism doesn't allow moral progress.

Response: In one sense this is correct; moral values do not become more true. But they can become better by other criteria. For example, some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability. If moral relativism is true, morality can be regarded as a tool, and we can think about what we’d like that tool to do for us and revise morality accordingly.

One might summarize these points by saying that relativism does not undermine the capacity to criticize others or to improve one’s own values. Relativism does tell us, however, that we are mistaken when we think we are in possession of the one true morality. We can try to pursue moral values that lead to more fulfilling lives, but we must bear in mind that fulfillment is itself relative, so no single set of values can be designated universally fulfilling. The discovery that relativism is true can help each of us individually by revealing that our values are mutable and parochial. We should not assume that others share our views, and we should recognize that our views would differ had we lived in different circumstances. These discoveries may make us more tolerant and more flexible. Relativism does not entail tolerance or any other moral value, but, once we see that there is no single true morality, we lose one incentive for trying to impose our values on others.