Oefeningen ter bevordering van je rationele ethiek

Een rationele ethiek bestaat uit het hebben van accurate overtuigingen die je helpen bij het kiezen van effectieve middelen om je consistente doelen te bereiken. We spreken dan van epistemische rationaliteit (hoe goed is onze kennis van de wereld?), instrumentele rationaliteit (hoe goed zijn onze middelen?) en axiologische rationaliteit (hoe goed zijn onze morele doelen of waarden?). Maar telkens zijn er twee soorten van irrationele invloeden die ons parten spelen: verstorende emoties en verstorende gedachtepatronen (spontane denkfouten, hardnekkige vooroordelen). Die twee verstorende factoren creëren allerlei morele illusies en hebben daardoor een negatieve invloed op de drie vormen van rationaliteit. Hier volgen 6 oefeningenreeksen van het Centrum voor Rationaliteit en Ethiek, geschikt om die irrationele invloeden te verminderen.

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Reflections on male privilege

Our biggest concern in ethics is unwanted arbitrariness. That is why I am against all kinds of discrimination (because the victims of discrimination cannot want their arbitrary exclusion). One form of discrimination is sexism. However, the discussion of sexism is often accompanied with the notion of ‘male privilege’. Here I want to reflect on this notion, and argue that it would be better to delete the word ‘male’ and simply speak about ‘privilege’.

Male privilege in the animal rights movement

The notion of male privilege is sometimes used in contexts where a lot of big questions can be raised. The best example is in the context of the animal rights movement. Some activists claim that the AR-movement is not women friendly, basically because of two reasons.

  1. Looking at the top positions in the major AR-organizations, we see mostly men. The same goes for spokespersons and public speakers. For example, most speakers at AR-conferences are men. It is as if men have a privilege to be leaders.
  2. Some male activists in the movement are responsible for sexually transgressive behavior towards women. It is as if men have a privilege to be sexually violent.

First of all, these two reasons should not be confused with each other. The sexually transgressive behavior is generally regarded (also by male activists) as illegal, immoral (a violation of basic rights such as the right to bodily autonomy) and counterproductive (it chases female activists away from the movement), whereas the fact that the CEO or director of an AR-organization is male is not considered as illegal or a basic rights violation. Feminist AR-activists want leadership positions for women, so they want women to have the first kind of privilege (being allowed to be a leader or public speaker). This means a leadership position is not problematic. But the second kind of privilege, the sexually transgressive behavior, is problematic: not even women are allowed to do that, according to feminists. So the two reasons (the two types of privilege) are very different. It is not self-evident that those two reasons are parts of the same ‘patriarchal’ system.

Second, strong claims require strong evidence. The vast majority of members in the AR-movement are female (some speak about 75% or higher). So the claim that a movement where more than 75% of the members are women is women unfriendly, is a pretty strong claim. Let us look at those two reasons in more detail.

The first reason is actually very strange. If 75% of the movement members are women, then why do we not see more women at the top of those organizations? Because they are excluded by the men? No, because those women could as well start their own organizations and become the leaders in those new organizations. They can organize their own conferences and speak at those conferences. Perhaps those women are not allowed to start organizations? No, we are living in a free society with freedom of organization (article 20 of the universal declaration of human rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”) Perhaps those new organizations directed by women would not gain much support? No, because most supporters in the movement are women (they can fund or volunteer at those new organizations). Perhaps those women would not be capable to lead organizations? Definitely not: women are as smart as men, and in our culture women perform better at schools and colleges (more women than men earn a college degree). Because those women doubt that they are capable to lead organizations, because through patriarchy they have internalized their subordinate position? Some people claim this is the answer, but it can be easily interpreted as being disrespectful towards women. Were men really capable to ‘hypnotize’ women into believing that they are not capable to lead organizations? Are we going to say to those women: “Look, even if you believe that you are not capable to lead, I know better than you, so you should go and lead an organization”? Did women really get a kind of Marxist ‘false consciousness’ about their possibilities and capabilities? Did a patriarchal system made women develop an ‘internalized oppression’ that distorts their perceptions?

One can easily think of a straightforward story that could explain what may be happening. 1) Feminists claim that more women should be leaders. 2) Many women say that they do not prefer to be leaders, that they have other ambitions and goals. 3) This does not fit with the feminist story about patriarchal suppression. 4) Some feminists respond that those women have ‘internalized’ their oppression. I suggest, before we start believing that women have developed a kind of cognitive deficit that makes them poor assessors of their own capacities and situations, we first have to do much more scientific research to find very strong evidence for such claims. Otherwise it might be too disrespectful towards women.

My guess is that there is something else going on here, with the question why most leaders are men. Something else than ‘male privilege’ or ‘patriarchy’. That has to be researched further (Steven Pinker has some interesting things to say about this). In our society, we see mostly men in top positions (e.g. politics, businesses). This is often explained as a result of a patriarchal system. However, the fact that a movement dominated by female members also has this male presence at the top might indicate that we have to look for other explanations than patriarchy and other solutions than ‘fighting patriarchy’. Such solutions often remain hollow slogans (just like ‘fighting capitalism’), which means they are lacking concrete, effective actions.

As a reaction to the male leadership problem, some feminist animal rights activists claim that the movement should have at least 75% female leaders (“First, hire women. In a movement that is 75-80% women, no organization should be run by a man. If men are hired to serve as staff, they ought to be hired in proportion to the larger movement – no more than 25%.”) There are several worries with such quota: can the movement become men unfriendly? Doesn’t it violate freedom (letting those who want to be leaders freely strive for leadership positions)? Isn’t this a kind of sexism where women are privileged? Imagine that 75% of AR-activists were men (or consider another movement containing 75% male members), and now there is someone claiming that those organizations should be led by men. Wouldn’t that be considered as highly problematic and sexist? If this becomes problematic, then why would it be unproblematic if we change the rule by writing ‘women’ instead of ‘men’? It is worrisome that some feminist activists propose sexist solutions. Hiring women as staff members, not because of their capabilities, motivation and interests but because they are women, introduces a rule that explicitly refers to gender in a context (leadership) that has nothing to do with gender. Having a vagina or having a female identity is irrelevant for being a good leader or CEO.

The above asymmetry indicates a sexism bias. There is an asymmetry when interchanging the words ‘men’ and ‘male’ with ‘women’ and ‘female’ would imply other conclusions and solutions. For example, if a movement would consist of 75% male members, the reaction would be to increase the number of female members, because otherwise the movement is too women unfriendly. But if a movement has 75% female members, who is going to argue that we should increase the number of male members to make the movement more male friendly?

The possibility that antisexist feminists can make sexist judgments or propose sexist solutions, is comparable to the possibility that antispeciesist animal rights activists can make speciesist judgments, for example when it comes to wild animal suffering. Those animal rights activists propose moral rules that explicitly refer to a species, such as the rule that human caused suffering is worse than non-human caused suffering. It is as if non-human animals have more rights to cause suffering. Similarly, those feminists propose rules that explicitly refer to a gender, such as the rule that X% of leaders should be female, or in other words, that male leadership is worse than female leadership. It is as if women have more rights to leadership positions. One thing they have in common, is that their speciesism and sexism are the reverse of the speciesism and sexism they are fighting against. Instead of privileging humans and males, they are privileging non-humans and females. Nevertheless, these kinds of speciesism and sexism remain discriminatory, because the morality of who can cause suffering has nothing to do with species and the morality of who can be a leader has nothing to do with gender.

The second reason – sexually transgressive behavior – is of course a serious concern, because it concerns an immoral violation of basic rights. Animal rights activists are against speciesism, so one would expect that they are against all kinds of discrimination. So it is extra troubling if they exhibit sexist behavior. It is as if they arbitrarily condone some kinds of unwanted arbitrariness.

Luckily, this second concern has a clear, tractable, specific, concrete solution: a prohibition of sexist behavior (with exclusion, punishment or psychological therapy of the perpetrators). It should be easy to do in a movement where 75% of the members are female.

If the culprit is sexual harassment, wouldn’t it be better to speak about sexual harassment instead of using the term male privilege? That would have three advantages: 1) it makes the problem clearer (more precise), 2) men who are not responsible for sexual harassment would not feel accused and 3) it will not be possible to accuse or silence men who do not commit sexual harassment. With the notion of male privilege, one could say to every men (even those who are not sexist): “You have a male privilege,” and conclude that every men has distorted perceptions or biased ideas.

Some people argue that from a tactical point of view, it is counterproductive to treat women as sex objects such that in the end they leave the movement, being afraid of the men. That is not going to help the animals. Even if this argument is true, it is of secondary concern, because if it were the primary concern, we could again interpret it in a women unfriendly (misogynistic) way: it is as if men would believe that they should not rape women, not primarily because that violates women’s rights, but primarily because those women are instrumentally valuable in achieving other goals (such as animal liberation). It is as if women are machines: of course we should not break machines, not because breaking them violates the rights of machines, but breaking them is ineffective or counterproductive.

Finally, speaking about the tactical point of view and counterproductivity: it not only applies to female victims. Also men are being excluded or leaving the AR-movement because they were emotionally or physically harmed. We can collect stories of victimized men, but I’ve seen this happening at a direct action organization I was involved in, where some male activists became disillusioned by how they were treated by other activists (ranging from conspiracies, false accusations, interpersonal conflicts, bullying…). Some men were even physically harmed by other activists in those stressful situations (in general, most victims of interpersonal violence are men). It is like what happens in nature: males competing against males, and the winner is going to rape females. Those outcompeted males do not have a male privilege. Speaking about male privilege might be disrespectful towards victimized men.

Male privilege and conflicts of interest bias

When I wrote an article about a documentary about the men’s rights movement (The Red Pill), I was accused of being biased due to my male privilege. We can first note that the documentary was made by a woman and contains interviews with women who were involved in the feminist movement but changed their minds about men’s rights issues. So my male privilege bias seems to be a too easy an accusation. (By the way, the woman who made the documentary was also accused by feminists.)

If I criticize this notion of male privilege, one could say I have a conflict of interest, because I am a man. Some believe that this decreases my credibility, because my male privilege gives me a distorted perception. However, if male privilege leads to a bias amongst men because they are privileged, it also leads to a bias amongst women. One could say that female disprivilege gives women a distorted perception. If men want to protect their privilege and are therefore less reliable or credible in some matters, we can as well say that women want to achieve privilege and are therefore also less reliable in those matters. Everyone can be said to have a conflict of interest: those who have power want to keep it, those who do not have power want to achieve it. It is not obvious why the latter would have a weaker conflict of interest and would be more credible.

In general, we often have a conflict of interest bias, where we see the conflicts of interests of the opponent but not the conflicts of interest of those people holding our own views. This is a version of the disconfirmation bias, where we are more critical and distrustful towards those people or studies that disconfirm our prior beliefs. A clear example of conflict of interest bias is organic food: proponents of organic food claim that a lot of scientific studies that indicate that organic food is not better for our health and the environment, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the non-organic agricultural industry (e.g. with companies like Monsanto). Those proponents overestimate the conflicts of interest of the counterparty and they underestimate the conflicts of interest of their own party. A lot of scientific studies that claim that organic food is better for our health and the environment, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the organic agricultural sector. Some names include: Charles Benbrook (had undisclosed conflicts of interest: worked at the Organic Center and research was funded by Whole Foods, Organic Valley, United Natural Foods, Organic Trade Association and others), Gilles-Eric Séralini (consultant of Sevene Pharma that sells homeopathic antidotes against pesticides), Judy Carman (her anti-GMO research was funded by Verity Farms and published in a journal sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia) and the Rodale Institute (a research institute that has a commercial interest in organic farming).

Male privilege as an ad hominem fallacy

The accusation of having a male privilege is often used as an ad hominem fallacy. Simply because someone is a man, that person loses credibility when accused of having a male privilege. It is an ad hominem, because the truth of the claims that one makes are not dependent on one’s gender, on having a penis or having a male identity. Instead of attacking the argument or idea, with an ad hominem one attacks the person associated with the argument.

Male privilege and the association fallacy

The notion of male privilege makes an ad hominem even worse, because it allows for a guilt by association (the association fallacy): all men can be accused, even the non-privileged. There are more than 10 examples that indicate that the non-privileged men are not better-off than the non-privileged women. But using a notion like male privilege risks associating all men (including the non-privileged) to the same group of males.

Male privilege and falsifiability

Another problem with the male privilege accusation is that it is often unfalsifiable, because one cannot simply change one’s gender. I did not choose my gender, I was not responsible for being born as a man, and we can never know what my beliefs could have been if I were female. Even if I become a transgender person, one could accuse me of being privileged and biased, having inherited this male privilege.

One often claims that male privilege works unconsciously, and that men who are skeptical about the notion of male privilege are (unconsciously) trying to protect their male privilege. According to this fallacious line of reasoning, denying male privilege would prove that one has something to protect, namely male privilege, and that proves that one there is a male privilege. This is the same kind of unfalsibiability as the Freudian unconsciousness (e.g. “If you deny that you have an Oedipus complex, it is because you unconsciously want to suppress those uncomfortoble feelings, and that proves that you do have an Oedipus complex”) or some conspiracy theories (e.g. “If the government denies that it is involved in the 9/11 attacks, it proves that the government has something to hide and hence that it was involved”).

There are however ways to test male privilege or sexism. For example, with job application letters: one group of letters had male names, the other group of letters had female names. If the content of the letters are the same (both groups of applicants had the same experience levels, capabilities, motivations) but the males where more often asked for a job interview, this indicates a gender bias of the recruiter.  If we see such gender biases, we can counteract them, for example by hiring more women at the rate revealed by these bias studies.

Male privilege, intersectionality and the true Scotsman fallacy

Intersectionality is the idea that different kinds of oppression intersect with each other. In the context of male privilege, this intersectionality idea can be misused to make the male privilege theory unfalsifiable. For example, if I claim that male privilege is a misleading concept because there are non-privileged men, such as poor, black men, the proponents add extra layers to the concept, by arguing that they meant rich, white men. If there are still such rich, white men in nonprivileged positions, for example homosexual rich white men, then the proponents add extra layers: heterosexual, cisgender, rich, highly-educated, upper class, not-disabled, white,… men are now the privileged people. In the end, their claim becomes trivial, by narrowing down their concept of privileged people until one could as well say that the privileged men are the privileged. This is a kind of true Scotsman fallacy or ad hoc reasoning.

The mirror image of the above line of reasoning (the true Scotsman fallacy) in intersectionality theory is an oppression Olympics, where we look for the most oppressed person, as if the most oppressed person is the one who is most correct about social justice issues. Look for the homosexual, transgender, poor, poorly-educated, disabled, black woman. Is she the most authentic, unbiased person who is the most credible because she has the least privileges and hence the least conflicts of interest? That is far from clear.


We have seen that speaking of male privilege can sometimes be interpreted as being disrespectful towards women, for example in explaining the high ratio of male leaders in the animal rights movement where most members are female: do women have developed a kind of cognitive deficit that makes them poor assessors of their own capacities and situations, so they start believing that they are not good leaders? Do some feminist animal rights activists know better than these unself-confident women what they can do and want to do? Are those women in our free society really not capable of founding their own organizations?

We have seen that speaking about male privilege might be disrespectful towards victimized men, for example men in the AR-movement who were emotionally or physically harmed.

We have seen that some feminist activists propose sexist solutions to the women unfriendliness of the AR-movement, by putting quota on the number of male leaders where putting quota on the number of female leaders in the reverse situation (e.g. if the AR-movement contained mostly male members) would clearly be considered sexist. These quotas reveal a sexism bias (an asymmetry where conclusions are different for situations where ‘male’ and ‘female’ were interchanged) and they also violate freedom to some degree (by not letting everyone freely decide to become leaders, spokespersons or people in power).

We have seen that the notion of male privilege can generate a conflict of interest bias, where someone sees the conflicts of interests of the opponent (e.g. men) but not the conflicts of interest of those people holding one’s own views (e.g. feminists).

We have seen that the notion of male privilege can often be abused, when used as ad hominem or accusation fallacies. This is disrespectful towards non-privileged men. With intersectionality theory, the notion of male privilege can result in a true Scotsman fallacy.

These problems will all be solved if we deleted the word ‘male’ in the notion of ‘male privilege’, i.e. if we became really gender neutral, focusing on all kinds of privileges and all kinds of discriminations (including those where men are discriminated or victimized and women are privileged). I would say: just don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman. Let everyone (men and women) freely decide whether to take up a leadership position, give a high stakes presentation or become a spokesperson.


PS: if people think that the above means that I deny my male privilege, or that I want to deny it in order to keep it, what privilege am I actually denying? What male privilege do I want to keep for me(n)?

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On the interpersonal comparability of well-being

This is a simplified, introductory text to ‘Why I became a utilitarian’ and ‘Variable critical level utilitarianism.


The problem of interpersonal comparability

Is your feeling of pain stronger than the pain experience of someone else? Are you happier than someone else? How can you tell? How can you find out the answers to such questions?

In ethics, increasing each other’s well-being is a good thing (all else equal). But to find the best choices or actions, we need to be able to tell by how much we can increase everyone’s well-being. If I increase my happiness with one unit, is it as much as your increase of happiness with one unit? Perhaps our units of measurement of happiness are different. That makes an interpersonal comparison of well-being difficult. It is like the old philosophical problem: if you and I see a cloudless sky, do we experience the same color blue, or does your experience or perception of blue differ from my experience? Perhaps your blue corresponds to my green and your green to my blue, even if we both call the sky blue?

The utility function

Our utility is a function of all the things that we value or prefer. We not only value our own happiness and well-being, but we value more things, such as the well-being of others, the fairness of the distribution of happiness amongst people, and so on. These values are all included in the utility function. Hence, if we have different options, we mostly prefer the option that gives us the highest utility. And impartiality implies that we have to pick the option that maximizes total utility (the sum of everyone’s utility). But how do we add up different utilities of different persons if we do not know an interpersonal unit of measurement for utility?

There is an interesting analogy between utility and temperature that I want to explore here. This analogy describes the problem and offers some directions to find a solution.

The analogy between personal utility and room temperature

Suppose there are two rooms, each having a thermometer. One room contains a mercury thermometer, the other a digital thermometer. The readings of the thermometers are different: the mercury thermometer measures the temperature in terms of degrees Celsius, the digital thermometer has other units. You cannot move the thermometers from one room to the other. The rooms can have different air temperatures. How are we going to find out which room is the warmest?

This is the analogous situation of the interpersonal comparison of utility between two persons. The two rooms correspond to the two brains of two persons. The air temperature corresponds to our objective utilities. The readings on the thermometers correspond to the subjective utilities: our subjective valuations or stated preferences. For example, when I feel a little pain from a small scratch, I give it a subjective utility minus hundred. When you feel extremely happy, you give it a subjective utility plus ten. When you feel very depressed, you give it a utility minus ten. These numbers represent our own subjective preferences for different situations. But we cannot simply compare my numbers with yours. My little pain is not ten times worse than your extreme depression.

The point is: our subjective utility function is not uniquely defined. If I multiply all my subjective utility values with the same positive constant number, or if I add a constant value to all my subjective utility values, it describes the same objective utility. The same goes for the thermometers: different thermometers with units in degrees Celsius, Fahrenheit or Kelvin measure the same objective temperature of a room. So we have to figure out a way to compare different subjective utilities, or to compare the readings on the two different thermometers. Specifically, we have to determine the values 0 and 1.

Determining the reference point and the unit of scale

Let us start with determining the value 0 for the thermometers. We have to find a reference value. As mentioned before, if we add a constant value to the temperatures, this still gives us a consistent thermometer that measures temperature. What we can do for the temperatures of the two rooms, is to find an extremal value that counts as 0 degrees. Let us see how far we can cool down the first room. As physicists have discovered, there exists an absolute minimum temperature at minus 273 degrees Celsius. So we can take a new unit of temperature, the Kelvin, such that 0 Kelvin corresponds to minus 273 degrees Celsius (and 273 Kelvin corresponds to 0 degrees Celsius). The same can be done with the digital thermometer in the second room. As a result, in terms of the new units of temperature, 0 degrees in the first room corresponds with 0 degrees in the second room.

Next, we have to determine the unit 1 on the thermometers. We can multiply the values on the thermometer with a positive constant and the result will still be a valid (consistent) temperature scale. So how can we determine whether 1 degree on the first thermometer corresponds with 1 degree one the second?

In the case of the two rooms, we can change the environmental temperatures (e.g. seasonal variations in temperature) or heat the rooms, and see how the two thermometers respond. For each room, we can write down the thermometer values under a lot (ideally all) environmental circumstances. For example, the mercury thermometer in the first room measures temperature in units of Kelvin: 290K in the first situation, 315K in the second, and so on. With all these values, we can calculate the standard deviation, a measure that is used in statistics to quantify the amount of variation or dispersion of a set of data values. Next, we can divide all values by this standard deviation. The same can be done with the thermometer in the second room. Now both thermometers have comparable scalings: their new standard deviations are both equal to 1. For example, if the two thermometers had units in Kelvin and degrees Fahrenheit respectively, we can derive that a difference of 1 degree Fahrenheit corresponds with a difference of 0,556 Kelvin. Instead of using the standard deviation, other scalings are possible. For example, we can look for universal natural processes, such as the boiling of water at constant air pressure. The temperature at this boiling point can be used to rescale the thermometer, to determine the unit.

After determining the reference temperature (the value 0) and the unit of scale (the value 1), the two thermometers are now fully comparable. We can follow the same procedure with our personal (subjective) utilities. But here we can have one extra freedom: each of us can freely choose his or her own reference utility level and unit of scale.

Let us start by fixing the reference value. You can choose your reference value of utility that allows us to calculate your relative utilities: the differences between your personal utility values and your reference value. For example, if an option gives you a utility of 10 units, and you take 20 as your reference, then your relative utility becomes minus 10 units. Both positive and negative relative utilities are possible.

Next, we have to fix the unit of scale for our relative utilities. You can think of all possible situations or options, and for each of them you can give your preference or personal relative utility value that measures how strongly you prefer or dislike that option. This gives us a set of numbers. Now we can calculate the standard deviation of this set, and divide all numbers by this standard deviation. I can do the same thing with my personal relative utilities. As a result, our relative utilities have the same range: they become normalized relative utilities. Now we can compare an increase of one unit of my normalized relative utility with one unit of your normalized relative utility.

Other normalizations for our relative utilities are possible as well. For example, you can take your maximum relative utility, and define that as a normalized relative utility of 1. A normalized relative utility between 0 and 1 now corresponds with a subjective preference between your reference point and your maximally preferred state.

You are free to choose your reference value and unit of scale (normalization method), and so am I. Our normalized relative utilities are now completely comparable, so we can add them. As a result, we can now formulate a utilitarian theory that says that we have the choose the option that maximizes the sum of everyone’s normalized relative utilities.

Population ethics and the relevance of reference points

However, even if you can choose your own reference value freely, you have to be careful. There is a range of possible reference values, from the lowest safe value to the highest safe value.  If you pick a reference value outside of this range, and you calculate your normalized relative utilities with this extreme reference value, maximizing the sum of everyone’s normalized relative utilities might result in the choice for a situation that you strongly dislike, such as a situation where you have a negative well-being or where you do not even exist.

Here we enter the area of population ethics, where our choices determine who will exist in the future. The reference value is important, because it helps us avoiding many problems in population ethics (called ‘repugnant’ and ‘sadistic’ conclusions by population ethicists). The moral theory that gives us a duty to maximize the sum of everyone’s normalized relative utilities, is also called variable critical level utilitarianism, where the critical levels of utility are the reference values. Here we see another analogy with room temperatures. The absolute zero temperature (0 Kelvin) actually corresponds with an ideal vacuum in the room (no air molecules present). This empty room is like a non-existing or permanently unconscious person who has no preferences (no utilities).

From subjective to objective utility

Some problems remain, though. We assumed that people can give their preferences or subjective utilities. Similarly, we assumed that the rooms have thermometers. But what about babies, mentally disabled humans or non-human animals who cannot give us their utility values? What about rooms without thermometers, or with thermometers without displays?

In the case of the rooms, physicists have discovered something very remarkable: the temperature that we can measure corresponds to physical properties of the air in the room. There are several candidates of physical properties: the size of the room, the number of molecules, the velocities of the molecules,…. These are all objective properties that are independent from the readings on a thermometer. It turns out that the temperature is determined by the average velocity of the air molecules (at least if the velocities form a certain statistical distribution of thermal equilibrium). Size matters not: if the number of air molecules increases but they all follow the same velocity distribution, the temperature remains the same. This non-trivial result in physics is very remarkable, because now we can couple the readings on a thermometer with an objective, physical property: the velocities of air molecules.

Can we do the same thing with our utilities? Can we couple our subjective utilities to objective utilities? Is there a connection between your subjective experience of wanting something and some physical properties or processes of your brain? This question is important, for example when we have to compare human well-being with insect well-being. The brains of insects are smaller, so are insects less conscious? Does the size of the brain determine the strength of preferences or the strength of pain experiences? If yes, then the suffering of insects is much smaller than the suffering of whales. But perhaps the strength of preferences and feelings is determined by the speed of neurons firing in the brain? Some insect brains are in some ways faster than human brains (that is why it is so difficult to catch a fly), so that would mean some insects can have stronger experiences (e.g. more pain per second).

The holy grail in neurobiology is finding the connection between brain activities and personal utilities, just like physicists discovered the connection between molecule velocities and room temperatures. When we find this brain-utility connection, we can objectively determine the utility levels of all sentient beings, even of those who cannot communicate their utilities.


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Waarom uw kat weldra geen dieren meer moet eten

Opiniestuk verschenen in De Morgen (27-06-18)

Van de ecologische voetafdruk heeft zowat iedereen al gehoord, maar de Britse krant The Guardian bracht deze week op basis van recent onderzoek de ‘pootafdruk’ van onze viervoeters onder de aandacht. Een hond kopen is even milieubelastend als een wagen kopen, omdat de productie van vlees in het diervoer zwaar weegt op het milieu.

Vlees is voor mensen niet noodzakelijk: met het huidige supermarktaanbod kunnen we gezond leven met een diervrije voeding. Veganistische voeding is waarschijnlijk de belangrijkste maatregel om onze ecologische voetafdruk te verlagen. Maar kunnen onze huisdieren overleven zonder vlees? Volwaardige veganistische voeding voor honden blijkt volgens dierenartsen wel mogelijk te zijn, maar bij katten is er nog onzekerheid. Zelfs mijn veganistische vrienden die erg begaan zijn met dierenrechten, twijfelen aan de gezondheid van veganistisch kattenvoer en voelen zich genoodzaakt om vlees te kopen voor hun katten.

Moeten we onze trouwe viervoeters dan laten sterven van de honger of doodschieten zoals leeuwin Rani in dierenpark Planckendael vorige week? Want ook daar maakte iemand de opmerking: “Maar hoeveel dieren zouden er gedood worden om Rani te voederen? Tellen die slachtoffers dan niet mee?” Nee, we gaan iets anders bedenken om deze problemen te ontwijken. Kunnen we de levens van onze geliefkoosde carnivoren respecteren zonder daarbij andere dierenlevens op te offeren en het milieu te belasten?

Er is hoop, dankzij het revolutionaire onderzoek naar diervrije eiwitbronnen die ook geschikt zijn als diervoeders voor carnivoren. Kers op de taart is het diervrij vlees waarbij enkel het spierweefsel en niet het hele dier gekweekt wordt. Dat is veel efficiënter (geen kweek van dieren met hersenen en organen die veel energie en voedingsstoffen verbruiken) en hygiënischer (geen gevaarlijke darmbacteriën en virussen). De eiwitsamenstelling van de gekweekte spiercellen van diervrij vlees is dezelfde als van dierlijk vlees, dus de kat krijgt haar portie taurine.

Wij mensen hebben in het verleden voedingsrevoluties meegemaakt. Van de Galliërs tot de Parijse hondenslagerijen begin 20ste eeuw: in vroegere tijden stonden honden en katten nog op ons menu. Tijdens de oorlog was hondenvlees soms noodzakelijk om te overleven. Nu is dat eten van honden niet alleen ondenkbaar, maar volgens de meesten ook zeer verwerpelijk en walgelijk.

Wij hebben nu niet enkel de luxe om hondenvrij, maar ook om volledig diervrij te eten. De moraalfilosoof stelt zich dan de vraag: “Waarom zouden we varkens en kippen in de veeteelt dan mogen behandelen op manieren die we een hond nooit zouden toewensen?” De gevilde kip op het bord en de geknuffelde kat op de schoot, is dat geen pure willekeur? Heeft de kip pech dat ze het recht op leven verliest omdat ze lelijker is dan de kat? Sommige mensen hebben nu ook varkens als huisdieren. Dan wordt duidelijk dat die dieren ook graag geaaid worden, met de bal spelen en met de staart kwispelen van blijdschap.

Met het diervrij vlees evolueren we naar een nieuwe situatie waarin ook onze carnivore huisdieren de luxe krijgen om geen dieren meer te moeten eten. Welke argumenten blijven dan nog overeind om onze katten toch nog dierlijk vlees voor te schotelen? Misschien vind je die diervrije vleesalternatieven onnatuurlijk voor je kat. Maar noch de natuur, noch je kat, noch de koe die verwerkt wordt in het kattenvoer, interesseren zich in jouw opvattingen van natuurlijkheid. Kattenvoer is niet alleen sterk bewerkt en verrijkt met allerlei voedingsstoffen, maar het bevat ook rund en tonijn, nu niet bepaald dieren die een kat van nature zou bejagen.

Om af te sluiten nog enkele concrete tips. Koop geen dieren van dierenkwekers, maar adopteer ze uit dierenasielen. Laat je kat steriliseren om overpopulatie te vermijden. Geef je huisdier af en toe veganistisch voer om de ontwikkeling van diervrije alternatieven te stimuleren. Geef ze niet te veel eten om zwaarlijvigheid te vermijden.

Stijn Bruers is moraalfilosoof en auteur van Morele Illusies en Beter Worden in Goed Doen


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Why I became a utilitarian


In this article I explain how a specific utilitarian theory (variance normalized variable critical level rule preference utilitarianism that says we have to choose the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s variance normalized self-determined relative utilities) avoids and solves many problems in moral philosophy (e.g. about personal identity and population ethics) and incorporates many moral values and theories (e.g. prioritarianism, justice, equality and deontological principles). 

For an easier introduction, see ‘On the interpersonal comparison of well-being‘.


In the past, I developed a pluralistic ethical system combining several principles from a utilitarian-consequentialist ethic (dealing with the value of well-being), a deontological ethic (dealing with basic rights and the value of bodily autonomy) and an environmental ethic (dealing with the value of biodiversity). However, in recent years, I shifted towards a utilitarian ethic because of new insights I developed about utility functions. These utility functions are more important and useful than I expected.

John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern proved that under certain assumptions about rationality, every individual has a utility function that measures the preferences of that individual. This utility function gives a real-valued number for every option (possible situation or choice that we can make). The higher this number, the stronger the preference for the corresponding option. An individual i in situation S has a preference or utility for situation T given by the utility function Ui(S,T). The utility for the actual situation S is Ui(S,S). This measures how strongly an individual in situation S prefers situation S. The total preference or utility Utotal(S) of the whole population for situation S is the sum over all individuals of their utilities for the situation S. A utilitarian ethic says that we should choose the situation that maximizes the total utility of the population (including all present and future sentient beings).

Things I’ve learned

A first thing I’ve learned about utility functions, is that they relate to individuals who have preferences, i.e. sentient beings. Sentient beings have preferences and value things such as their own well-being. They prefer a higher well-being, so the well-being of sentient beings becomes important. In contrast, non-sentient entities do not value anything. For example, we cannot violate the preferences of an insentient computer, no matter how we treat it, because computers do not have subjective preferences. If something matters morally, it should matter for at least one sentient being who values it. In other words, the utility function of a non-sentient entity becomes trivial (i.e. a constant). We automatically take the utilities of non-sentient entities fully into account, no matter what we choose. We can say that we already have maximized the utility functions of non-sentient entities, because there is no other choice that we can make that increases their utilities. We automatically respect the autonomy and preferences of all non-sentient entities. This means that those entities are not and cannot be discriminated. Focusing on the preferences of sentient beings is not discriminatory.

Second, I learned that we should value autonomy. Individuals can autonomously decide their own preferences. I started to value autonomy because I learned about the philosophy of effective altruism. Altruism means helping others, doing things that other individuals want or prefer. To avoid egoism, egocentrism, paternalism or chauvinism, the preferences of other individuals are what matters. Altruistically speaking, we should let people decide for themselves what kinds of moral values they prefer. For example, in utilitarian ethics, there is the discussion about what kind of quantity we should maximize. Should we maximize subjective experiences such as happiness as in hedonic utilitarianism? Or maximize desire satisfaction as in preference utilitarianism? Or is there a list of preferable things such as creativity and friendship, as in objective list utilitarianism? (See the three theories of well-being.) What about the different evaluations of the experiencing self (valuing moment-to-moment happiness or moment utility) versus the remembering self (valuing life satisfaction or remembered utility)? (See Daniel Kahnemans work on well-being.) What about Robert Nozick’s experience machine that gives you maximum happiness in a virtual reality? What about deathbed promises whose non-compliance will never be experienced? My answer would be that people can decide for themselves what they value, what counts as well-being, how important promises are, and so on. For example, if they only prefer momentary experienced happiness maximization of hedonic utilitarianism, then we should respect that. But in the end it is about their preferences, about what they want or prefer, so a preference utilitarianism is the most fundamental theory.

This respect for autonomy also means we can basically delete environmental ethics, because ecosystems themselves do not value anything. They do not care about values of an environmental ethic, such as naturalness, integrity or biodiversity. Ecosystems do not have autonomous preferences for naturalness or biodiversity, so we cannot violate the autonomy of ecosystems, even if we destroy nature. That means biodiversity becomes merely instrumentally important, i.e. only when it is useful in the sense that it contributes to the well-being of sentient beings.

Third, I learned that the utility function can be a non-linear function of well-being or happiness. Hence, a utility function not necessarily equals well-being or happiness. Someone’s utility function can be a concave function of his or her well-being, i.e. with decreasing marginal utility of well-being. The more well-being that person has, the less an extra unit of well-being adds to the utility. If everyone has a concave utility function of well-being, this results in a prioritarian ethic that says that we should Increase the well-being of all sentient beings alive in the present and the future, whereby improvements of the worst-off positions (the worst sufferers, the beings who have the worst lives and the lowest well-being) have a strong priority. We should improve the well-being of the worst-off, unless this drastically decreases the well-being of others. As a result, if we have to choose between two situations that have equal total amounts of well-being, the situation with the more equal distribution of well-being should be chosen. This counters an often heard criticism against utilitarianism, that it doesn’t value justice or equality. People can decide for themselves how concave their utility function is, and if they all choose a very concave function, then this issue of justice or equality becomes very important. A utilitarian theory that respects autonomy does not state in advance how important equality is. The importance of equality or justice is a derived property, determined by the people.

Fourth, I learned that a utility function is not necessarily only a function of an individual’s well-being. Other values, including moral values, can determine someone’s utility function. For example, someone who prefers a deontological ethic that values the basic right to bodily autonomy (the right not to be used against one’s will as merely a means to someone else’s ends), might have a very different utility function that can even be very negative in situations where someone’s basic right is violated. For example, I strongly care about animal rights, so I would prefer a world without animal exploitation in livestock farming above a world where I have a lower well-being myself, or above a world where I do not exist even if I experience a happy satisfying life in the actual world.

In other words: if everyone’s utility function becomes very negative when basic rights are violated, we arrive at a deontological ethic. From the deontological right to bodily autonomy (which corresponds to the mere means principle that says that we should not use someone as merely a means), we can also derive other deontological principles, such as the tolerance for some levels of partiality and the difference between imperfect or less absolute positive duties (to help others) versus perfect or more absolute negative duties (not to harm others). (See the extended mere means principle In Born Free and Equal, chapter 6.6).

As with a prioritarian or egalitarian ethic (that values justice and equality), a deontological ethic can be derived from a utilitarian ethic, if people value deontological rights and principles. If some people but not everyone values equality, justice or rights, we arrive at a hybrid theory that partially includes those values. But fundamentally it remains a kind of preference utilitarianism, because those values are all based on personal preferences. If only I value equality or justice, imposing my preference for equality on others violates the autonomy of others.

What about people who have discriminatory (e.g. racist or speciesist) values? Are racist judgments allowed in someone’s utility function? The answer is no, if we impose a fundamental restriction to avoid unwanted arbitrariness. The restriction says: if you make a choice, you are only allowed to make that choice if you can give a justifying rule of which you can consistently want that everyone follows that rule, in all possible situations. You can consistently want something only if it is compatible with a consistent set of the strongest things that you want. This restriction, which slightly resembles a Kantian categorical imperative or a golden rule, is probably the most fundamental and important principle in ethics. Without this restriction, not everyone can consistently want an unrestricted utilitarianism. With this restriction, all kinds of discrimination are excluded, because discrimination involves unwanted arbitrariness. This restriction means we have a kind of rule utilitarianism, because the restriction refers to the importance of following rules.

Fifth, I learned that a person is allowed to have a different utility function in each different situation and moment in time. For example, in situation S1 (or time t1), individual i has a utility Ui(S1,T) for situation T. But in another situation S2 (or time t2) that individual might have a different utility Ui(S2,T) for situation T. In fact, we do not need to know if those two individuals are the same. We could as well have written Uj(S2,T) for another individual j in situation S2. This avoids the problem of personal identity over time and through situations. Are you the same person as your alter-ego ten years ago, if you have different preferences now? Are you the same person as your alter-ego in a different possible world, where you would have different preferences due to different experiences and circumstances? We don’t need to know the answers to these questions. All that matters is the total utility of a situation, and this is the sum of everyone’s utility in that situation for that situation (i.e. Ui(S,S)) over all moments of time.

Sixth, I learned that someone’s utility function is uniquely determined up to adding a constant and multiplying by a positive scalar, and that this offers elegant solutions to two problems of utilitarianism. As pointed out by John Harsanyi, John von Neumann and others, the total utility can be written as the sum of affine transformations of individual utilities: Utotal equals the sum over all individuals of aiUi+bi, where ai is a positive constant (scalar), Ui is the utility function of individual i and bi is a constant.  The values of ai and bi are not determined. This seems to be very problematic, as the aggregation of everyone’s utility function into a total utility of the whole population seems to become arbitrary.

The problem with the scalar multiplication (selecting the values of ai) relates to the problem of interpersonal comparability of utility. How can we compare the happiness levels of different individuals? Is my painful experience equally painful or bad as yours? If I say that my utility for this situation is 10, does that correspond with a value of 10 for you? This problem of interpersonal comparability can be solved by variance normalization. This method goes as follows. Consider the preferences of an individual in situation S for all possible situations T. These preferences are the utilities Ui(S,T) for all possible T. Now we can calculate the variance Vi(S) of these utilities over all possible T. The standard deviation SDi(S) is the square root of this variance. The scaler values ai can now be set equal to 1/SDi(S). This means all utilities are normalized to a variance equal to 1. There are other possible normalizations, but variance normalization is in some way special. For example,  Owen Cotton-Barratt proved that under certain assumptions, variance normalization is the only weighted sum method that is immune to strategic voting.

What about the undefined parameters bi? They offer an interesting solution to the problems in population ethics. If everyone has the same level bi = -c, we arrive at critical level utilitarianism, where c is a critical level of utility. This theory says that only when someone’s utility is higher than this critical level, it contributes to the total utility of the population. But to respect autonomy, everyone can determine his or her own parameter bi, i.e. his or her own critical level. This theory is called variable critical level utilitarianism.

The reason why this solves many population ethical problems, is because the parameters bi depend on the situation. The total utility Utotal(S) of the population for situation S can be written as the sum of ai(S)Ui(S,S)+bi(S) over all individuals. If an individual exists in situation S, the parameter bi(S) can be non-zero. But if this individual does not exist in situation T, the parameter bi(T) (and of course also the utility Ui(T,T)) equals 0.

The parameters bi always lie within a range between a lowest and a highest safe value. No-one would prefer a negative critical value. Suppose someone took a negative critical value c=-bi=-10. The contribution to the total utility is Ui(S,S)-10, which is the relative utility (relative with respect to a critical level). This relative utility can be positive even if Ui(S,S) is negative but higher than -10. So if a person has a negative utility -4, that person still positively contributes to the total utility. Therefore, a critical level of 0 is the lowest safe value.

Similarly, if someone took a very high critical level c (much higher than Ui(S,S)), the relative utility Ui(S,S)-c is negative and hence the contribution to the total utility becomes negative, even if Ui(S,S) is positive and very high. Then it would have been better if that person did not exist, even if that person has a positive utility Ui(S,S). In other words: if everyone took a very high critical level, we should stop procreating, because adding new people will negatively contribute to the total utility. Of course, if we have a preference for procreation and we cannot procreate, our utility for the non-procreation situation is lower than for the procreation situation. We have to compare this decrease of our utility from non-procreation with the negative relative utilities of the potential future people. The maximum safe critical level that still guarantees procreation and existence of future people, is determined by our preference for procreation. Respecting the autonomy of (future) people, everyone can choose his or her own maximum safe critical level. Choosing a higher critical level becomes dangerous, as one risks a too negative contribution to the total utility and that would mean a situation that is less preferred (e.g. a situation where one does not even exist) should be chosen.

In population ethics, there are several theories and we face the problem which theory to choose. Our approach avoids this problem, because people can decide for themselves their own preferred critical levels. We can choose our own critical levels somewhere between the lowest safe value and the highest safe value. If we all preferred the lowest safe value, we arrive at total utilitarianism in population ethics. This means we all accept the very repugnant conclusion where a situation of maximally miserable people (with very negative utilities) plus a huge population of extra people with slightly positive utilities (e.g. lives barely worth living) is preferred over a situation where the miserable people become maximally happy and the extra huge population does not exist. If we all took the same critical level between the lowest and highest safe values, we arrive at critical level utilitarianism. If we all took the highest safe value, we arrive at a kind of negative utilitarianism, which also comes close to person-affecting utilitarianism and antifrustrationism (see e.g. Arrhenius’ Future Generations dissertation). In reality, different people might prefer different critical levels, so we arrive at a hybrid theory which I call variable critical level utilitarianism.

What moral philosophers have to do now

If our variance normalized variable critical level rule preference utilitarianism solves and avoids many problems in moral philosophy, what is left to do for moral philosophers (and moral psychologists)? Here are some suggestions.

  • Help people construct rational utility functions. In particular, help people clarify their own moral values: how important are values like rights, justice or equality to them? What kind of well-being do they value? What other values do they have and how can we accurately define them? People’s preferences are not always consistent or clear. For example, sometimes they have incomplete preferences (that A is neither preferred nor dispreferred nor equal to B) or intransitive preferences (that A is better than B, which is better than C, which is better than A).
  • Find out the moral preferences (utility functions) of people. For example, how many people choose the maximum safe critical level? How many people value deontological rights and how strongly do they value them?
  • Study the flexibility of utility functions. How easy is it to change someone’s utility function? For example, can you make someone prefer another critical level or another definition of well-being?
  • Estimate the utility functions of sentient beings (e.g. babies, mentally disabled humans, non-human animals), who are not able to clearly express their preferences.
  • Find out what we have to do when we cannot reliably estimate someone’s utilities. E.g. what about insects and fetuses?
  • Find out easy but reliable methods to aggregate everyone’s relative utilities. Calculating and adding up everyone’s variance normalized relative utilities for all possible situations, including the far future, might be far too data intensive, so we need easy rules of thumb. Compare it with physics, in particular the study of thermodynamics and the statistical mechanics of many-particle systems, avoiding the numerous complex interactions and properties of all the particles at the microstate level. We need a thermodynamics of moral philosophy.


In summary we see that a utilitarian theory that maximally respects autonomy – in particular where everyone can determine his or her own utility function – solves many problems in ethics. First if we take a version of preference utilitarianism, we avoid discussions about what is valuable, what counts as well-being and what people should value. As the utilities in preference utilitarianism are not necessarily linear functions of only well-being, we can take into account preferences for justice, equality and deontological rights. So if people have preferences for such moral theories and values, we can derive a prioritarian ethic as well as deontological principles (the mere means principle, the difference between perfect and imperfect duties, the difference between positive and negative rights). We can also avoid problems related to personal identity through time and situations. Second, if we take a version of rule utilitarianism, we avoid immoral unwanted arbitrariness (e.g. a preference for situations involving discrimination) in our utility functions. Third, if we take variable critical level utilitarianism, we avoid many discussions in population ethics. Fourth, if we take variance normalized utilitarianism, we solve the problem of interpersonal comparability of utility.


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Why naturalness is a misleading value

A lot of people have a preference for naturalness. They prefer natural disease prevention instead of vaccines, natural foods instead of foods containing GMOs, chemical additives and vitamin supplements, clothes with natural fibers instead of synthetic fibers, animal meat instead of lab-grown clean meat, and so on. As argued before, this naturalness preference can sometimes be very harmful or dangerous.

Here I will explain why naturalness is becoming a very misleading value. During our long evolutionary history, we were basically confronted with only natural processes and products. In fact, naturalness can be defined by our evolutionary history: if our ancestors were confronted with it, it is natural. It is much easier to harm someone than to benefit someone, and that is why most of those natural processes and products are harmful (toxic, dangerous to eat,…). In our very long evolutionary history, we learned to avoid those dangerous natural things. As a result, we became very familiar with the good natural processes and products. We focus on the good natural things. Most of those good processes and products are a little bit good, a minority are very good. So when we think about naturalness, we tend to think about those good natural processes and products that we started to trust a long time ago.

But in recent decades (and centuries), scientists were able to invent a lot of new, unnatural things. These things are unnatural in the sense that they are recently invented and hence were not available to our ancestors. We did not have much time to trust those things. The only way we can trust them, is through science, but most people are unfamiliar with the scientific method and do not see the strength of scientific research and evidence.

Naturalness space

The important fact is that the ‘space of all unnatural processes and products’ is much larger than the space of all natural things. This space of unnatural things is the set of all the things that we can ever invent or that are possible according to the laws of nature but do not (yet) exist in nature. This is much larger than all the natural things that life on earth offered us so far.

This space of all unnatural things can also be divided in bad things, good things and very good things. As with the natural processes and products, most unnatural things are bad (dangerous, unhealthy or not useful to our survival and well-being). Only a minority is good. However, because this space is so big, the number of good unnatural things is also probably very big. And more: the space of all very good unnatural things can even be bigger than the space of merely good natural things.

The more good and very good unnatural things we invent, the more harmful it becomes to stick to the natural things. The very good unnatural things might be more safe, healthy or useful than the merely good natural things. Eating natural fruits and vegetables is good, because it helps in the prevention of diseases, but adding unnatural vaccines might be better still. It would be bad to avoid the unnatural vaccines and stick to the natural things. The same goes for GMOs, clean meat, synthetic pesticides and fibers,…

In the past, sticking to the trusted good natural processes and products was the most rational thing to do. But with technological and scientific development, we evolve to a society where good and very good unnatural things can strongly increase our health and well-being. Then it becomes irrational to avoid those unnatural things. The reason why people tend to stick to the natural things and want to avoid unnatural things, is because they underestimate the size of the space of unnatural things, and in particular the space of the very good unnatural things.

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Boekbespreking De Olijke Atheïst

De Olijke Atheïst is het sluitstuk van een trilogie waarbij Floris Van den Berg drie blinde vlekken bespreekt. Ten eerste hebben mensen die vlees eten een morele blinde vlek die besproken wordt in het boek De Vrolijke Veganist. Die blinde vlek geldt zeker ook voor vleesetende humanisten en liberalen, die toch beter zouden moeten weten dat ze hun morele regel om anderen niet te schaden niet consistent toepassen als ze louter omwille van hun smaakgenot de lichamen van anderen – bijvoorbeeld het spierweefsel van kippen – voor zichzelf claimen op een manier dat die anderen helemaal niet willen.

Ten tweede hebben mensen die geen kritiek hebben op expliciete vrouwenonderdrukking in sommige culturen, in het bijzonder binnen de Islamitische culturen, ook een morele blinde vlek die besproken wordt in het boek De Vrolijke Feminist. Deze blinde vlek geldt zeker ook voor westerse, anti-islamofobe feministes, die toch beter zouden moeten weten dat ze hun morele regel om mannen en vrouwen gelijkwaardig te behandelen niet consistent toepassen door hun afkeer van Islamkritiek en hun tolerantie van de vrouwonvriendelijke Islam.

En ten derde hebben gelovigen die geloven in onwetenschappelijke of bovennatuurlijke entiteiten een intellectuele blinde vlek die besproken wordt in het derde boek van de trilogie: De Olijke Atheïst. (De titel “De Vrolijke Atheïst” was al in gebruik door Jean Paul van Bendegem.) Deze blinde vlek geldt zeker ook voor de geschoolde en de hoger opgeleide gelovigen die op school of aan de universiteit toch voldoende kritisch denken zouden moeten hebben ontwikkeld om in te zien dat ze hun kennistheoretische regels niet consistent toepassen. Die kennistheoretische regels zijn bijvoorbeeld dat buitengewone beweringen (zoals het bestaan van een almachtige God) buitengewoon bewijs vereisen, dat inconsistente entiteiten (zoals een almachtige algoede schepper van een wereld waarin kwaad geschiedt) niet kunnen bestaan en dat we niet zomaar naar willekeur het bestaan van extra entiteiten moeten aannemen als we de wereld (alles wat we empirisch kunnen vaststellen) kunnen verklaren of begrijpen zonder die entiteiten.

Deze laatste kennistheoretische regel is Ockhams scheermes. Het is de reden waarom een gelovige weigert om in miljarden denkbare bovennatuurlijke entiteiten te geloven. Een Christen bijvoorbeeld weigert om in het bestaan van Vishnu, Osiris, Zeus, Tohr, Iluvatar, Allah, Quetzalcoatl en de vele andere denkbare goden te geloven. Alleen past die Christen dat zuinigheidsprincipe van Ockham niet consistent toe en gelooft hij of zij toch nog naar willekeur in een bepaalde godheid.

Wat deze trilogie van Floris Van den Berg uniek maakt, is het gebrek aan politieke correctheid. Van den Berg zegt openlijk wat waar is, zonder daarbij rekening te houden met de vorm van de boodschap. Het gaat bij hem in deze boeken althans enkel om de inhoud. Die inhoud is dus regelmatig verpakt in een politiek incorrecte vorm die voor anderen kwetsend of ineffectief kan overkomen. De inhoud is nochtans wel correct, in de zin dat de gekwetste lezer zelf wel tot die conclusie zou komen als hij of zij de eigen morele en kennistheoretische regels correct toepast.

De duidelijkste voorbeelden zijn de uitspraken dat vleeseters immorele monsters zijn (in De Vrolijke Veganist) en dat godsgelovigen naïeve dommeriken of epistemologische uilskuikens zijn (in De Olijke Atheïst). Deze uitspraken zullen vleeseters en godsgelovigen niet meteen overtuigen om veganist of atheïst te worden. Maar het gaat bij van den Berg hier even niet om het kiezen van de meest effectieve communicatiestrategie om de tegenpartij te overtuigen. Het gaat om wat het geval is, om de inhoud. Het punt is dat als die vleeseters en godsgelovigen consistent zouden zijn, ze zelf ook tot die conclusie zouden komen dat vleeseters immorele monsters zijn en godsgelovigen naïeve dommeriken zijn. Ze vinden het zelf, als ze er goed over zouden nadenken.

Vraag maar eens aan een vleeseter wat immorele monsters zoal doen. Stel bijvoorbeeld iemand die voor het plezier honden, katten en baby’s doodt en opeet, en die baby’s ook nog eens zonder verdoving castreert zodat dat babyvlees ietsje beter smaakt, en die honden ook nog eens doorfokt op extra zware spiergroei, en die katten ook nog eens kunstmatig zwanger maakt, na de bevalling de kittens wegneemt en doodt, om zo de kattenmelk op te vangen en er kattenkaas van te maken. Als dat geen immoreel monster is, wat dan wel? Het argument dat je koeien, kippen en varkens niet kunt vergelijken met honden, katten en baby’s, houdt geen steek, want dat onderscheid tussen de eetbare voelende wezens en de niet-eetbare voelende wezens is louter willekeur.

Zo ook kunnen we aan bijvoorbeeld een Christen vragen in wat naïeve dommeriken zoal geloven. In een stokoude Sinterklaas die midden in de winter met lange baard, vreemde kledij, een paard en zwarte slaven in één nacht tijd miljoenen spekgladde daken beklimt om speelgoed en lekkers te droppen door schoorsteenpijpen? In Osiris, omdat er lang geleden iemand wat tekeningen heeft gekerfd in grote stenen? In onzichtbare tuinkabouters? In oude verhaaltjes en sprookjes? Als het geloof in dergelijke zottigheden geen vorm van naïeve domheid is, wat dan wel? Het argument dat je Osiris, tuinkabouters en Sinterklaas en zwarte piet niet kunt vergelijken met God, engelen en Adam en Eva, houdt geen steek, want dat onderscheid tussen die onwetenschappelijke of bovennatuurlijke entiteiten en sprookjesfiguren is louter willekeur.

Hoewel het boek al wel behoorlijk veel gedurfde, politiek incorrecte uitspraken doet, zijn er nog enkele gemiste kansen. Een voorbeeld is de jongensbesnijdenis. Van den Berg haalt als anekdote een TV-programma aan waaraan hij deelnam. In dat programma Rot op met je religie zat hij naast een jodin die jongensbesnijdenis ‘een mooi ritueel’ vond, waarop van den Berg snauwde: “Je blijft met je poten van kinderen af!” De kijkers zullen de reactie van van de Berg waarschijnlijk niet sympathiek gevonden hebben en niet goed kunnen duiden. Maar in de stijl van van den Berg kunnen we hier een vergelijking maken met een andere praktijk waardoor de reactie van van den Berg wel duidelijk wordt: pedofilie. Bij zowel jongensbesnijdenis als pedofilie worden de geslachtsorganen van een baby gemanipuleerd door een volwassene, op een manier dat die baby niet wil. Het enige verschil is dat het bij pedofilie gaat om seksueel genot van de volwassene terwijl het bij besnijdenis gaat om een vorm van bijgeloof van de volwassene (dat er een onwaarneembare entiteit zou bestaan die opdraagt om de geslachtsorganen van jongens pijnlijk te manipuleren). Nu lijkt het me onmogelijk om te beargumenteren dat het motief bij besnijdenis, namelijk het bijgeloof, de ongewenste manipulatie van de geslachtsorganen van minderjarigen wel rechtvaardigt, terwijl het motief bij pedofilie, namelijk het seksueel genot, geen rechtvaardiging is. Als een jood kan zeggen dat besnijdenis een mooi ritueel is, dan kan een pedofiel ook zeggen dat babyseks een mooi ritueel is. En omgekeerd, als we vinden dat pedofilie pervers is, dan moeten we ook vinden dat besnijdenis pervers is. Of zoals van de Berg het zou kunnen zeggen: jongensbesnijders zijn bijgelovige pedofielen.

Voor sommigen zal de directheid en het gebrek aan politieke correctheid in De Olijke Atheïst leuk en verrassend zijn om te lezen. Anderen zullen waarschijnlijk aanstoot nemen aan de controversiële uitspraken. De Olijke Atheïst laat alvast wel toe om verder na te denken en de ideeën verder te ontwikkelen. Zo kunnen we bijvoorbeeld de analogie tussen atheïsme en veganisme verder uitwerken. Van den Berg stelt in zijn boeken dat atheïsme en veganisme respectievelijk de intellectuele en morele nullijnen zijn. Het atheïsme verwerpt elk religieus geloof in bepaalde bovennatuurlijke entiteiten, zonder willekeurige uitzonderingen. Het veganisme verwerpt elk schadelijk gebruik van bepaalde welzijnsgevoelige wezens, zonder willekeurige uitzonderingen.

Religieus geloof staat tegenover redelijk geloof. Het redelijk geloof dat jij als natuurlijke entiteit bestaat is iets helemaal anders dan het religieus geloof dat God als bovennatuurlijke entiteit bestaat. Bij religieus geloof gaat het om een soort van gevoelsmatige overtuiging of onweerlegbaar, blind vertrouwen dat iets bestaat zonder dat er redelijke aanwijzingen of bewijzen voor zijn. Bij redelijk geloof heeft men nagedacht en is men tot de voorlopige conclusie gekomen dat iets bestaat op basis van het voorlopige empirische bewijs. In de natuurlijke entiteiten waarvan het bestaan door de natuurwetenschappen en de empirische, wetenschappelijke methode te achterhalen is, kunnen we wel redelijk geloven, en een religieus geloof in die natuurlijke entiteiten is dan eigenlijk zinloos of overbodig geworden. “Als je God kunt bewijzen, hoef je niet te geloven.” (OA, p.286)

Schadelijk gebruik staat tegenover onschadelijk gebruik. Het onschadelijk gebruik van het eten van planten is iets helemaal anders dan het schadelijk gebruik bij het eten van welzijnsgevoelige dieren. Het schadelijk gebruik van welzijnsgevoelige wezens houdt in dat men hun lichamen gebruikt als middel voor de doelen van anderen, op een manier dat die welzijnsgevoelige wezens helemaal niet willen. Wezens die niet welzijnsgevoelig zijn, hebben geen wil en kan men dus ook niet tegen hun wil in gebruiken. Het doden en eten van planten of het bewerken en wissen van computerbestanden zijn bijvoorbeeld geen vormen van schadelijk gebruik van planten en computers, want planten en computers hebben niet eens een bewustzijn en dus geen wil. Een wezen dat niet welzijnsgevoelig is, kan men niet schadelijk gebruiken.

Het schadelijk gebruik van een willekeurige verzameling van welzijnsgevoelige wezens is analoog aan het religieus geloof in een willekeurige selectie van bovennatuurlijke entiteiten. Het feit dat een schadelijk gebruik van welzijnsongevoelige wezens onmogelijk is, is analoog aan het feit dat een religieus geloof in een natuurlijke entiteit absurd is.

Wat een religieus gelovige eigenlijk doet, is een willekeurige verzameling nemen van bovennatuurlijke entiteiten waarin men gelooft. Men gelooft bijvoorbeeld in God en engelen, maar niet in andere denkbare bovennatuurlijke entiteiten die even onwaarschijnlijk zijn. Wat een vleeseter eigenlijk doet, is een willekeurige verzameling nemen van welzijnsgevoelige wezens wiens lichamen men tegen hun wil in gebruikt als middel voor de eigen doelen. Men eet bijvoorbeeld wel koeien en kippen, maar niet andere wezens die even welzijnsgevoelig zijn. Een gelovige is een inconsistente atheïst, want hij of zij weigert te geloven in vele bovennatuurlijke entiteiten van andere godsdiensten. Een vleeseter is een inconsistente veganist, want hij of zij weigert het eten van honden, katten en baby’s. In het wereldbeeld van een gelovige zit willekeur, in het ethisch systeem van een vleeseter zit willekeur. Als we die willekeur vermijden, komen we uit op de intellectuele en morele nullijnen.

Bij zowel religie als vleesconsumptie is er sprake van een vorm van kindermishandeling. Godsdienstig onderwijs is een vorm van indoctrinatie. Neem de meest gelovige Christen, en vraag hem of haar of het ok was geweest als hij of zij door ouders en leerkrachten enkel maar onderwezen werd in de Islam, zodat men rotsvast in Allah in plaats van in God was gaan geloven. Die Christen zou dus geïndoctrineerd worden tot een geloof in de verkeerde god. Als die Christen het geloof in de Christelijke God zo belangrijk zou vinden, gaat die Christen helemaal niet graag willen geïndoctrineerd worden tot het foutieve geloof. Die Christen gaat niet willen dat alle kinderen enkel nog maar over de Islam zouden leren. Die Christen gaat spreken van kindermishandeling wanneer alle kinderen zo hard misleid en belogen zouden worden, wanneer die kinderen niets leren over de ware Christelijke God. Een diepgelovige moslim gaat natuurlijk hetzelfde denken van Christelijk onderwijs. Elke godsgelovige gaat telkens zeggen dat er telkens godsdienstig onderwijs is dat kindermishandeling is. Het logische gevolg is dat een seculier onderwijs de enige onderwijsvorm is zonder dergelijke kindermishandeling.

Hetzelfde geldt in mogelijks nog sterkere mate bij de vleesconsumptie. Vraag maar aan een hardnekkige vleeseter of het goed was geweest als hij of zij in de kindertijd door zijn of haar ouders gedwongen werd om honden, katten en baby’s te eten, zodat men het eten van die welzijnsgevoelige wezens normaal en lekker zou gaan vinden. Die vleeseter zou dan iets doen dat botst met de eigen morele waarden, en daardoor een cognitieve dissonantie krijgen. Die persoon gaat dan zichzelf wat wijs maken, bijvoorbeeld dat honden niet pijngevoelig zijn, dat babyvlees noodzakelijk is voor een goede gezondheid, dat het doden van baby’s toegelaten is omdat het in de natuur (bijvoorbeeld bij leeuwen) ook gebeurt. Wil een vleeseter graag dergelijke cognitieve dissonantie waardoor men zichzelf wat gaat wijsmaken en men welzijnsgevoelige wezens gaat eten die men volgens de eigen morele waarden niet had mogen eten? Wil men graag door de ouders zo sterk misleid worden dat men bijvoorbeeld kannibalisme of hondenvleesconsumptie gaat goedkeuren en actief steunen? Nee, natuurlijk niet. Als ouders dode honden en baby’s op het bord van de kinderen leggen, is dat kindermishandeling. Maar waarom dan wel varkens en kippen op het bord leggen? Een kind voelt geen weerstand bij het breken van een wortel, maar wel een emotionele weerstand bij het breken van de nek van een kip. Dat zegt iets over de waarden van het kind. Het logische gevolg is dat een volwaardige veganistische voeding de enige voeding is zonder kindermishandeling.

Er is nog een analogie tussen atheïsme en veganisme. Van religie denkt men vaak dat het de basis is voor de moraal en de zingeving. Zonder God zou alles geoorloofd zijn en zou niets nog zin hebben. Van de veeteelt denkt men vaak dat het noodzakelijk is voor een volwaardige voeding en een duurzame landbouw. Zonder landbouwdieren zouden we noodzakelijke voedingsstoffen missen en zouden we de akkers niet vruchtbaar kunnen houden met mest. Er bestaan nochtans veel ethische atheïsten (bijvoorbeeld effectief altruïsten), zingevende atheïsten (bijvoorbeeld humanisten), gezonde veganisten (bijvoorbeeld vegan topsporters) en duurzame diervrije landbouw (veganistische landbouw).

Om te eindigen wil ik nog even de moeilijkste kwestie aanhalen: het recht op vrije meningsuiting, en in het bijzonder het recht om te beledigen. Voor van den Berg is het duidelijk: extreme beledigingen zijn toegelaten, oproepen tot haat en geweld niet, omwille van het niet-schaden principe. Nu worden beledigingen ook als schadelijk beschouwd door diegenen die zich sterk beledigd voelen. Sommige beledigingen zijn vormen van verbaal pesten, en die kunnen zelfs leiden tot zelfdodingen. Of een uitbater van een winkel kan zijn klanten verliezen als hij publiekelijk sterk beledigd of verbaal vernederd wordt. Dat is inkomensderving.

Van den Berg heeft veel kennis van denkfouten die vaak voorkomen in debatten, zoals de stroman drogreden waarbij men de standpunten van de tegenpartij vervormt tot een eenvoudig aan te vallen ‘stroman’. Hier wil ik het omgekeerde doen: de staalman. Hoewel ik nog niet overtuigd ben van het standpunt van van den Berg, wil ik zijn standpunt versterken en dan kijken in hoeverre die staalman aan te vallen is.

We kunnen schade opvatten als alles wat een slachtoffer niet graag heeft. Dan bestaat er fysieke schade, bijvoorbeeld bij fysiek geweld, en emotionele schade, bijvoorbeeld bij een belediging waar het slachtoffer gevoelig aan is. Bij schade hebben we gradaties, waarbij de ene vorm erger is dan de andere. Het is dan niet eenvoudig om een niet-willekeurige grens te trekken en te zeggen dat de schade die binnen die grens valt nog wel te aanvaarden is. Dit is een probleem van een hellend vlak. Dus ofwel laten we alle vormen van schade toe, wat onwenselijk is, ofwel geen enkele, wat ook onhaalbaar en onwenselijk is. Of we kunnen het volgende doen: we proberen de verzameling van schadelijke handelingen onder te verdelen in deelverzamelingen die wel duidelijk van elkaar te onderscheiden zijn. Een voorbeeld is het onderscheid tussen lichamelijke schade door lichamelijk geweld zoals een vuistslag versus emotionele schade door verbaal geweld zoals een belediging. We kunnen kijken naar de verdeling van de ernst van die twee vormen van schade, en dan zou het best kunnen dat de lichamelijke schade gemiddeld genomen erger is dan de schade veroorzaakt door verbaal geweld. Er zullen natuurlijk uitzonderingen zijn waarbij verbaal geweld erger is dan bijvoorbeeld een duwtje. Maar globaal genomen is verbaal geweld sneller te tolereren. En dan zouden we wel categoriek alle vormen van (oproepen tot) lichamelijk geweld kunnen verbieden en alle vormen van verbaal geweld kunnen toelaten. Dit is een mogelijke staalmanredenering van het standpunt van van den Berg. De vraag is natuurlijk wat we dan zouden doen in het hypothetische geval dat verbaal geweld gemiddeld genomen wel erger was geweest dan fysiek geweld.

De Olijke Atheïst is uitgegeven bij Houtekiet


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