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August 2010
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The Enemy

How do we come to call people our enemy? We all assume many different identities in our lives, including those associated with our national, local, ethnic, religious or secular, sporting, gender and age circumstances (not to mention the brand of car we drive, the TV shows we watch, the music we listen to). This repertoire of traits constitutes a set of beliefs about oneself and the social groups one belongs to, and different individuals feel the influences of different identities to varying degrees. There are people, for instance, who are not interested in sports, and others for whom their sporting identity is paramount to how they view themselves.

Naturally, cognitive biases work on these identities as much as any other belief, and Henri Tajfel has demonstrated that it takes very little impetus for people to form a group identity. Even arbitrary assignment to a group results in a sense of membership in the "in-group", and a natural rivalry with an "out-group". When an out-group is perceived as physically or economically threatening, they become distrusted and cognitive dissonance pushes towards discrimination or persecution. They become enemies. And hostilities on one side inevitably escalate the equivalent response on the other.

Modern secular intellectuals are quick to point the finger at religion for these failings; they are sometimes slow to recognise that other institutions are just as guilty. Even science falls prey: the labels 'heretic' and 'pseudoscience' are born of the same psychological process. When anti-religious firebrands point the finger at religions for setting up in-groups and out-groups, they frequently seem to have missed the rather obvious point that they too are defining an out-group (religion) to be their hated enemy. Paradoxically, pushing against this tendency has been a key theme in all the major religions – the ethics of Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad and others have stressed compassion and the unity of mankind. That attempts to institutionalise such ideas have only intensified the problem is perhaps the cruellest irony in the history of religion.

Part 18 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


Why is it easier for partisans to fight than to recognise common ground? An answer can be found in the psychological phenomena of cognitive dissonance. In 1949, Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman demonstrated that despite the aphorism 'seeing is believing', the reverse is often the case – our beliefs can dictate what we perceive. Using a unique deck of playing cards which contained some colour-reversed cards (e.g. red spades) they demonstrated that the expectation of what a deck of cards should look like was more important than actual observation: nobody noticed there was anything unusual about the deck.

In the 1950s, studies of this kind led Leon Festinger and his colleagues at Stanford University to develop the theory of cognitive dissonance. This holds that when a person is facing contradictory cognitions there is a driving force that compels their mind to acquire or invent new beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, in order to reduce the dissonance between these thoughts. Cognitive dissonance is thus the uncomfortable feeling of being confronted by things that 'should not be, but are'. The need to avoid this causes people to create rationalisations to help dismiss the disconfirming evidence, a situation rendered even more problematic when people have committed to a belief publicly.

To reduce cognitive dissonance, people will either adopt other people's beliefs (peer pressure), adopt a view that makes the person who believes differently significantly distinct from themselves (discrimination), or apply pressure to those who believe differently (persecution). The same mechanism can account for "myside" bias (or confirmation bias), whereby people find it easier to accept information compatible with their prior beliefs, and harder to acknowledge contradictory observations. There are dozens of other phenomena that psychologists have observed which show the same general trend.

These cognitive biases may seem to reopen the case for egoism, but nothing in their working suggests all behaviour is self-interested, let alone selfish. Rather, they show that our minds work subconsciously towards maintaining a consistent set of beliefs. I'm inclined to suspect that it's just as well they do, otherwise any kind of rationality or reason would be nearly impossible. The surprising thing is how easily we adopt new ideas when they fit with what we already believe, and how vehemently we oppose them when they do not.

Part 17 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Common Ground

What moral issues can be agreed upon in the absence of universals? The answer to this depends upon who is trying to agree. Despite the tremendous variety between religious traditions, commonality has not been hard to find between them, and in 1993 the Parliament of the World's Religions declared the Golden Rule (treat others as you would wish to be treated) as the shared principle that ran through most religions. Representatives from 143 different spiritual communities agreed to principles of non-violence, respect for life, solidarity, just economics, tolerance, truthfulness, equal rights and partnership between men and women.

Naturally, not all religious people support this view: those that don't are committed to the idea that only their way is correct. The most vocal opponents of religion express a similar position – all the other approaches are wrong, since they and they alone hold valid beliefs. The people in all these disparate camps are clinging to the expectation of a universal good. This single-minded commitment to a sole universal framework of morality denies any possibility of compromise by insisting that what must be pursued is the ultimate victory of a single correct system. But why should there be such a system? And what, beyond arrogance, fuels such narrowly absolute beliefs?

The conflict between religion and non-religion tends to focus on issues concerning the justification of moral beliefs. Religion (its opponents claim) must be wrong because its ethics are derived from stories that include what are deemed fallacious supernatural elements. But this obscures the common values those stories embody. It is true that a religious minority cleave to an ancient absolutist stance that states murder is wrong and evil because God commanded it so. It is equally true that more modern perspectives deem murder wrong and evil because of a rational assessment of the harm caused. But both agree that murder is both wrong and evil. Disagreements focus on what does or does not constitute murder, not on whether murder is morally wrong or on whether or not it is evil to murder.

Part 16 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

What is the Appeal of Brutal Games?

Ever wondered why people play brutal games? This is the subject I'm exploring on ihobo today, via the work of Slavoj Žižek. Here's an extract:

Žižek's claim is thus that players of brutal games do so because they would wish to be this brutal in real life, but are prevented by social norms and so forth. I get the sense that Žižek wants us to take this claim as applying to a very wide range of individuals, but of course the sales figures we see for brutal games only account for at most 5% of the market for videogames. If Žižek's explanation is to carry any force at all, we would have to conclude that the players who buy and play the brutal videogames are closet sociopaths or, at the very least, would be given the right circumstances. He may be right – it's certainly not easy to prove or disprove such a claim – but I find something about this account suspicious.

You can read the entire post over on

Universal Standards

Can either the right or the good be universal? Is there such a thing as absolute good? A believer in God or cosmic justice may believe there is, but they are not in a position to claim that they can know with certainty what it is. To assert, as some Christians do, that the Bible specifies without a doubt our moral and ethical standards is a kind of idolatry – the only way to elevate one's own interpretation above other people's is to raise oneself up to equal in status to God. As Taylor has noted, an unfounded total belief in one's own version of the truth is what truly deserves the name "heresy".

Attempts to produce universal ethical principles from outside of religious traditions are equally flawed – the obvious candidate method is science, and as we have already seen, science cannot bear directly on questions of values. Reason and logic alone are insufficient to the task as they must first be given some raw material on which to work and there are many possible foundations on which to build. This does not mean that one cannot reason to a system of ethics, only that such a system cannot have any absolute claim to universality. The applicability of the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights ends at the nations who have agreed to this statute; to force these rules unwillingly on other cultures risks great evil, even if the rights themselves embody a great good.

In Kant's ethical thinking, from which modern ideas of Human Rights are descended, a basic tenet is that of the ethical as the universal, which is to say, that to think ethically is to think in terms of expecting everyone to be bound by the same rules. But this universality is only part of the picture. Kant also insists on mutual respect (never treating others as purely means, but also as ends in themselves) and communal autonomy (the "Realm of Ends", where all people's objectives are to be balanced against one another). This is by no means as simple as is sometimes taken; the pursuit of the third principle may have to change the meaning of the first. The quest for universal good may have to settle for common good.

Part 15 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Right vs Good

What is the relationship between our imagined ideals? While the moral notions of right and wrong are usually conflated with the notions of good and evil, these concepts do not mesh as neatly as is presumed. Right and wrong are judgements within an ethical system, or within a legal system – the laws of any country being an attempt to codify a common set of ethical principles. It has generally been easier to make laws from action or consequence-focussed ethical systems, however – indeed, the role of duty in action-focussed ethics makes rules (and rights, the positive form of a rule) flow naturally from this kind of reasoning.

Good and evil are quite distinct moral concepts from right and wrong. It is perfectly possible to behave in the right way with respect to one's ethics and the law in general and yet still cause evil. This need not show a flaw in the ethical system in question; it may just as easily reveal ignorance or carelessness. We might judge these as moral failings, but a word such as 'evil' has come to mean something far more damning.

Similarly, civil disobedience shows that sometimes the usual ethical and legal norms must be transgressed because our understanding of what is good or evil takes precedence. We might express this by saying that a particular law is wrong, which is another way of saying what is deemed right by the law is wrong by our personal ethical judgement. It would be an even stronger objection to say that a certain law is evil. We would not usually judge the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that stripped Jews of their German citizenship as merely wrong (like unfair taxation) but as a great evil.

Thus what is good and what is right need not match and good people can inadvertently cause evil. The simplistic story that all evil must be caused by evil people draws us into fallacious reasoning. Since only a cartoon villain revels in evilness, one consequence of thinking along these lines is an inability to recognise the evils to which we have all contributed indirectly.

Part 14 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Best Learning Game Award

Greenmyplace_certificate I'm pleased to announce that Green My Place, a serious game project for which International Hobo has been serving as design consultants, was awarded first prize in the category of "Best Non-Professional Functional Game" in the 1st European Best Learning Game Competition. Congratulations to Ben and the rest of the team at CKIR for their success in the contest – it's been a great pleasure working with you on this project, and the recognition is well-deserved.

Cross-posted from, please leave comments there.

Three Ethical Paths

What alternatives to egoism are available for moral thought? There are in fact many possible ethical systems, so many that it has become quite difficult to tackle ethical questions today. Fortunately, all the different approaches to ethics are to a considerable degree simply different focuses within the same general framework. Consider that any ethical situation consists of an agent taking an action which produces an outcome. Whichever system of ethics one chooses will have to deal with these same elements, although different approaches naturally prioritize different aspects.

Virtue ethics focuses on the nature of the agent, duty ethics (deontology) focus on the nature of the action, while consequentialism focuses on the nature of the outcome. In a very real sense, all major ethical discussions can be transformed between these three perspectives, although there are some boundary cases which are better dealt by the specific spins. For instance, Phillipa Foot's Trolley Problem shows that we cannot escape consequentialism in all instances since there are some ethical situations which can only be judged in terms of outcomes. But this does not mean that consequentialism has any prior status to validity, especially given the transformability of one system into another.

All three approaches have long histories. The agent-focussed approach is the oldest, dating back to Aristotle and Plato in the West and to Confucius and Buddha in the East. The action-focussed approach found its full flowering in the work of Immanuel Kant, the 18th century Prussian who many consider the greatest philosopher who ever lived; from the train of thought that Kant put in motion emerges modern moral concepts such as freedom and Human Rights. Finally, the outcome-focussed approach finds it roots in the writing of Machiavelli (who reported on the pragmatic requirements of leadership in the 16th century) and flowered in the utilitarian ideas of Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mills. While today the panoply of specific ethical systems is dizzying, by necessity they all represent variations on these three basic themes.

Part 13 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Myths of Selfishness

What kind of secular stories are used to derive moral values? Perhaps the most common are stories concerning selfishness and self-interest, which support a position known as egoism. A great many people subscribe to the rather naïve view that all human action is selfish or self-interested, but such reasoning is confused. A person with a toothache and a fear of dentists will probably not act in a manner consistent with their self-interest, and either way the term 'selfish' is not appropriate for their actions, whether or not they go to the dentist.

Hobbes set up a view of the world whereby the only possible motive was self-interest, but this perspective borders on the nonsensical. 'Selfish' points to a lack of care for other people, but if the only possible motive were self-interest a notion of selfishness could never have arisen at all. Many of the arguments advanced for egoism rest upon suspicious reasoning. In the 18th century, Bishop Joseph Butler noted the central problem in the idea: if a person willingly performs an action, they must derive personal enjoyment from it, therefore people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment. The conclusion is identical to the hypothesis in this piece of circular logic.

Nonetheless, the view remains persistent, and even infiltrates scientific thinking. Although sociobiologists insist they are not talking about personal motives, their use of the term 'selfish' frequently exceeds its technical meaning of maximising future gene populations. Mary Midgley makes a comparison between this use of 'selfish' and the preposterous suggestion of using the word 'cruelty' to describe any behaviour which will cause suffering to anyone in the future, or 'sloth' to describe what will fail to affect people in the future. She questions why 'selfish' was chosen as a term at all, if it was not intended to draw the usual inferences, suggesting that what started out as a reasonable scientific enquiry has ended up pursuing some rather scurrilous myth-making.

Part 12 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Representation in Counter-Strike

Continuing the discussion I began with Slaying the First Colossus, this week on ihobo I briefly look at the role of representation in Counter-Strike:

In a game of paintball, the participants are prescribed to imagine they are fighting with real weapons, and that hitting someone with a paintball in the agreed target areas (often excluding the face for safety reasons) prescribes that someone is "killed" and no longer participates in the game. You will not find a paintball arena decorated in fairy, unicorn and flower motifs because this is not a suitable representation for the game of make-believe to be played. Rather, you will find props such as barrels, tyres and towers which allow the players to imagine they are in a warzone. It is part of the fun of paintball that this fantasy can be maintained. This is true also of Counter-Strike, where the value of the representation begins at the point that one team is denoted counter-terrorist and the other terrorist.

You can read the entire post over on the ihobo site.