A counter to the objectiveness of religious morality

Video version of this available here.

Some theists have argued that atheists lack morality, because objective morality can only come from a deity like Zeus (supposedly). Atheists might act like they are moral, but really they are selfish and would do awful things if they could get away with it. Only the arbitrary rules their god(s) has given them are objective, from which they derive their moral realism.

Let’s grant for a moment that Zeus is real, sits atop Mount Olympus, and has rules that we must follow in life or we will go to the underworld when we die. A follower of Zeus might claim that this set of rules is objective, and constitutes moral realism. What makes their version of moral realism more real than my version of moral realism?

In what way is this any more or less arbitrary than when a human says ‘utilitarianism is the best code of ethics because it focuses on felt positive and negative felt experience, which are the only things a sentient mind can actually care about intrinsically’?

A god, if one exists, is just another being. That they demand we do something does not in itself make it objectively good or bad. I don’t think there is a way to convince someone that obeying Zeus is good and disobeying Zeus is bad without the carrot/stick of heaven and hell. In what way is following their arbitrary rules objectively good? If one claims that we cannot get moral realism from any human argument, how can we get it from an argument made by a god?

The god will send me to heaven or hell depending on what I do, but a parent may give their child dessert or send them to their room depending on what they do, but this reward/punishment system has no basis on morality.

What is special about the nature of a god that makes their word moral realism? The mere fact that they created the universe or have power over it and the afterlife doesn’t actually seem sufficient here. Consider someone creating a simulation of a universe, within which sentient minds will live out their lives. The creator of this simulation may as well be a god of it, and they might ask their creations to do certain things like worship them or they will put them in a different simulation full of suffering rather than a different simulation full of pleasure (for some reason???). In what way is the arbitrary list of rules this simulation creator comes up with objective morality?

In conclusion, I argue that ones’ view of moral realism should be consistently applied whether talking about morality as defined by a human or by a god.

As an additional related thought, I find it odd that a theist might call an atheist selfish or immoral when they are (often, I think) primarily doing what they see as ‘good’ to get heaven and avoid hell. Atheists do this without the carrot and stick reward/punishment system of afterlife. Wouldn’t this make theists more selfish?

The best steelman I can think of for the actions of a theist is that, if their god(s) were real, they might very well constitute a utility monster. Maybe keeping their god happy and not upsetting them becomes the most important thing they can do, and it would be worth not optimally reducing suffering (or actually causing suffering) in this universe to optimise for how good their god(s) feels. For example, imagine if donating $100 to your church instead of feeding 10 starving children makes your god feel so good that it outweighs the suffering of the children. Kind of abhorrent, but this is one of the strongest cases I can make for theists.

In addition, converting people to their religion can be seen through a new light. If it is indeed the case that we will get infinite suffering or bliss, a theist convincing other people about this and getting them to do ‘good’ things may very well be the most utilitarian thing they can do. This might make theists who don’t try to convert everyone selfish and awful (assuming their whole religion is true, of course) for robbing people of infinite bliss.

I’m genuinely interested in hearing from some theists about these thoughts. Is there something relevant that I’m missing that would make a gods’ morality objective if they did exist? ‘They are a god’ is not an answer.

How we treat wild animals in Australia doesn’t make sense

This post was submitted to the Sydney Morning Herald as an opinion piece, but was not accepted.

I’ve been contacting UNSW Sydney, where I am a PhD student, to try and stop them from killing a fox who has been living on campus. They seem to have ‘moved in’ because of the reduced numbers of staff and students on site. Thankfully, it looks like they won’t be going through with it. But the university’s responses have me irked.

They make the point that we need to be protecting native species. I don’t deny that the fox may kill native animals, but what I do disagree with is the prevalent idea that we should put the lives of native animals above and beyond the lives of introduced animals. I want to reduce the suffering of all animals, not just native animals.

Foxes and other introduced species didn’t ask to be introduced. They were brought to Australia by humans. Why should the foxes have to suffer for this error of human judgement? Surely we bear some responsibility for introduced species. It shouldn’t just be the introduced animals themselves that have to suffer for this.

Currently, it’s illegal in NSW to move a fox once it has been captured, even to a rescue shelter. Legally speaking, they must be killed. This limits our options. We can leave the fox alone and hope it will move away when staff and students return to campus, or we can use other non-harmful means of moving them away, like removing their food sources and installing fox lights.

Rather than jump to killing as the solution, we should be considering other things, like immunocontraceptives to make some of the animals infertile. This is a more long-term solution than culling attempts, since after culling the population will typically rise again to fill the gap. Immunocontraceptives and trap, neuter and release (for those animals where we are legally allowed to do so) will mean we don’t have to perform a slaughter every few years.

Given that we kill kangaroos, a native animal, en masse, I’m suspicious as to whether the true motivation is for the benefit of the animals. Is it just for us? We kill kangaroos because they are competing for the food that farmed animals, such as cows and sheep, who both introduced animals, are eating – grass.

Further, if we really cared about native animals, maybe we’d stop cutting down forests to make way for farms and housing development. From 2015-16, the NSW Government allowed the clearing of over 7,000 hectares of native vegetation. It is unknown how much of this was to clear land for grazing, however from 1988 to 2009, 93% of land clearance in Queensland was to make room for livestock grazing.

NSW land clearing laws introduced in 2017 expose 99% of identified koala habitat on private land to clearing. 92% of land degradation in Australia is caused by animal agriculture. Globally, animal agriculture is the leading cause of species loss.

So I hope you will forgive me if I’m suspicious as to whether the laws we have in place around wild animal management are actually in place for the benefit of the animals themselves. If they’re solely for the benefit of humans, we really ought to reconsider our laws. Humans and non-humans are all animals, and we can all suffer. Perhaps it’s time we learned how to share this planet with our fellow earthlings.

Does veganism actually do anything?

By way of introduction, I wrote a long response to some questions on my recent Youtube video which I thought might be of interest. I’ll just throw up the original comment and my response.

They were arguing that an individual being vegan doesn’t do anything (at all) for animal suffering, and were arguing in favour of advocating for systemic change (replacing capitalism with socialism was the example they gave previously).


“Also i dont think that its possible to be perfectly moral.

Does your being “vegan” contribute something to reducing animal suffering?

Probably not. You as an individual, your choice to be vegan has zero effects on the industry.

So your individual choice to abstain from eating meat and consuming animal products. Isnt really rational in that sense, just like it is not with voting. I mean your vote alone doesnt decide elections.

So if you want really signifact changes you should advocate for a total system change. Just being an individual vegan only strokes ones ego and thats it.”

My response

“It depends on what you mean by moral of course. To take the utilitarian view, being perfectly moral might be something like doing the optimum thing for reducing suffering and increasing wellbeing at all stages of your life. Sure, probably impossible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for as much as possible.

“Does your being “vegan” contribute something to reducing animal suffering? Probably not. You as an individual, your choice to be vegan has zero effects on the industry.”

What makes you say it has zero effect? Supply elasticity shows that 1 fewer product purchased will lead to somewhere between 0 and 1 fewer products produced. The true number depends on the product and context, but usually it’s around 0.5. See the below quote from a paper I coauthored (here).

“But the purchase of one fewer animal product does not necessarily result in the production of one fewer product. Estimates on effects that changes in consumer behaviour have on the number of animals raised (or killed, in the case of wild-caught marine animal consumption) for food must account for the sensitivity of the market to changes in the quantity of animal products demanded and supplied (i.e. the price elasticities of demand and supply). Using elasticity estimates, ACE estimates that one person consuming 30 fewer land animals will result in 1.8 – 21 fewer animals being farmed, and one person consuming 232 fewer marine animals results in 35 – 144 fewer being killed (ACE n.d.d).”

If you extrapolate your view that it has zero effect, it implies that the same number of animals would be farmed regardless of how many humans are born, which doesn’t make sense. This is an economic effect that is quite well studied. I wouldn’t expect it to suddenly not work for specifically animal products.

I also disagree that voting has no effect. See the below from here.

In short, you have a small chance of making a huge difference. Elections are decided by 1 vote from time to time.

“The estimate of the value of voting being $5,200 USD as calculated by MacAskill is briefly described here.

Political analyst Nate Silver, Professor Andrew Gelman (Statistics) and Professor Aaron Edlin (Law) calculated that the odds of an individual changing the outcome of the 2008 USA presidential election was, on average, around 1 in 60 million, which is a low probability, but we have to also look at the potential impact.

Estimating simplistically that the benefit per person of the $3.5 trillion annual US budget being spent 2.5% more effectively ($1,000 per person per 4 year election term), the benefit that you would expect to receive personally over an election term based on your vote is 0.0016 cents. However, looking at the benefit received by all Americans ($1,000 multiplied by 314 million), the expected value of voting is $5,200 ($314 billion of value multiplied by a 1 in 60 million chance of swaying the outcome).

This is further simplified by the fact that the policies of parties aren’t always opposite, and there is significant overlap, however it does demonstrate that the value of one person voting, when spread over the population of a country, can be big.”

You said: “So if you want really signifact changes you should advocate for a total system change. Just being an individual vegan only strokes ones ego and thats it.”

Couldn’t you apply your same reasoning to systemic change as well? It’s unlikely for one person advocating for systemic change to have an effect? Why would this be any different? Couldn’t you argue that just being an individual socialist advocate only strokes ones ego and that’s it? I wouldn’t argue that, but it feels like you might, if you were consistent.”

Why I, a Vegan Environmentalist, Worked for an Oil & Gas Company

I worked for oil and gas exploration company Santos for 18 months between my undergraduate degree and my PhD. Why did I do this, even though I was (and am) a vegan environmentalist who is concerned about climate change?

This week’s video was going to be a critical review of environmental documentary Planet of the Humans, but it’s not finished yet. I’ve needed to do a lot of research for that one, so I’ll have it out next week.


On suicide and online communities

World of Warcraft and Hearthstone streamer Byron ‘Reckful’ Bernstein died by suicide today. WHO estimates that around 800,000 people die by suicide each year, but hearing about this death just now hit me a little harder. Maybe because I’m feeling down myself lately, or maybe because Reckful was a giant in the videogame community which I consider myself a part of. I only recently watched a video of Reckful talking about depression with psychiatrist Dr. Alok Kanojia.

Looking at his recent tweets, there were warning signs. Hindsight can be strong, but I wonder how many people saw those and really thought about what they might mean, and acted on that? Think about your own sphere. Are there people who you think, just maybe, might be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts? Don’t ignore it, don’t assume someone else will talk to them, don’t play it off. You can do something.

This is a callout to people in both the gaming and social media community. I *very* often see people in videogames tell other gamers to kill themselves. And for what? Because your team mate played bad and you lost? So what? Maybe it’s a joke, maybe it’s not. This doesn’t matter – what matters is how someone else might perceive and react to that.

I’m not perfect, and I can think of many examples where I’ve done or said something in a videogame or social media that I’m ashamed of. What if I said something to someone who was already feeling vulnerable? I need to do better, and I need to call it out when I see it.

It’s not just videogames. I see people literally wishing death or some other atrocity on others on social media for disagreeing about facts or ethics. The world is complex and we probably all think things that aren’t true. Do you deserve death wished upon you for that?

I see some people in the vegan community wishing death on animal farmers, and I see animal farmers and non-vegans wishing death on vegans. One atrocity doesn’t justify another. Cut that shit out. Don’t celebrate when a hunter is killed by an animal they were hunting. I hate what they do, but we shouldn’t wish death or suffering on anyone.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2012. I don’t think I’ve been at the point of wanting to kill myself, but I can understand how hopeless things can seem, and how someone can get to that point. While suicide affects everyone around the individual, I don’t think it’s fair to characterise it as just selfish. People who take their lives may feel like a burden to others, or they may realise how it will affect others, but their suffering is just too great, and they want a way out.

That doesn’t mean we should accept it. Mental health is a neglected issue, and we need to be doing more, as a society and as individuals, to alleviate that suffering.

Please look out for each other. We can all do better.

I want to say for anyone who might be worried after reading this, while I feel very sad lately, I’m not feeling suicidal.

I don’t love animals

A few miscellaneous thoughts on animal rights

When people find out I’m vegan, occasionally they ask whether I’m an animal lover, or they just assume it. I’m not. I don’t love all animals any more than I love all humans. However, just like I don’t want humans to suffer for my pleasure even though I don’t love them all, I don’t want non-human animals to suffer for my pleasure.

Health comes up a lot in vegan outreach. People have concerns about health, and that’s reasonable. Many think you need to eat animal products to be healthy, and that’s definitely not the case. Some think you need animal products to be optimally healthy, and this is likely not the case, but I’m necessarily less sure about this than the first claim.

Nutrition is a hard science by its nature, and there may well be one animal product which when consumed in a certain quantity alongside a vegan diet will lead to a slightly better health outcome than a vegan diet. This is not a thing that is impossible, even though I don’t have evidence for it right now. Of course, I’m not arguing that we should act like this is the case until we see evidence for such a thing, but the question remains – what if this was optimal for health?

I’d say – so what? Even if consuming a non-vegan product* was optimal for health, I still wouldn’t do it. I’m not trying to be a purist, in fact I see this as pragmatic. If we really think non-humans matter, their flesh or secretions being a little bit healthier still shouldn’t justify us causing suffering to them. This is for the same reason I wouldn’t eat humans if it turned out to be a little healthier to include humans in my diet.

How much healthier would eating animal products have to be for me to do it? There is probably some amount of increased health outcome that would make me include some animal products in my diet, somewhere between ‘a little bit sick all the time’ and ‘dead’. But I’m quite confident that if there is some reduced health outcome from being a purist vegan, then it’s so small that it’s worth it.

Someone might say that this line of thought isn’t very utilitarian of me, but I disagree. I’m being utilitarian, I’m just not being human- or me-centric. I fail to see how the slightly increased health outcome (reduced suffering) could outweigh the significant increase in suffering experienced by the animals now being farmed because of me. Intrinsically speaking, being a little bit sick for a year straight shouldn’t outweigh even a single animal suffering for a whole year.

What about flow on effects? Me being a little sick for a whole year will probably mean I advocate for animals a little less good. What if I could be a little sharper of mind by eating animal flesh once a year? Well, I’d factor this in to the utilitarian calculation. And I still don’t think it’s worth it, even if eating the occasional non-vegan product makes you a little healthier (and to be clear, I don’t think it does). Does the world we want really look like us eating others to be a little bit sharper of mind?

I recall a conversation with a friend who was almost entirely vegan at the time but said they would eat a non-vegan meal on a flight if the airline forgot to get a vegan meal. I wouldn’t. The meal has already been made, sure, but refusing it still affects supply, and therefore animal suffering. They should be less likely to make that extra non-vegan meal in the future, and more likely to get the vegan meal right (I hope…). And in any case, it’s just one meal, being a little hungry isn’t that big a deal. If it was a week long flight, I’d eat the non-vegan meals so as to not die, but gosh would I lay in to the company about it.

To conclude, I want to clarify that I do think a well-managed vegan diet is optimal for health, that I feel perfectly healthy, and that my annual blood tests continue to be perfect. But I did want to cover this, since I think advocates and non-vegans alike care a bit too much about nutrition.

*Note that I’m not talking about medicine or vaccines here. I’m appalled that these involve animal products or testing, and will fight until they don’t, but we need vaccines and so I won’t stop taking them.

Trolley Problem Meme Review

Some of my recent videos have had a rather serious tone (‘Would Human Extinction be Good or Bad?’ and ‘Why I Will Never Have a Child – Antinatalism and ethics’), so I wanted to do something a little more light hearted.

This week, I explain what the trolley problem thought experiment is in philosophy, and rate some trolley problem memes.


Morality is Hard podcast update

I’m chuffed for the Morality is Hard podcast to have been featured in a list of vegan podcasts by Vegan Liftz (thank you!). If you want to see the other podcasts that made the list, you can check them out here.

By way of update, I should be 2-3 months out from finishing my PhD, which means I’ll be starting my podcast up again soon. Please keep sending any recommendations for people to interview or topics to discuss!

In the meantime, you can continue to find Morality is Hard on itunes, Soundcloud and Youtube.

Animal rights message in The State of the Art, Iain Banks’ science fiction

This is a science fiction writers’ take on the hypocricy of lamenting past human tragedy while contributing to a current non-human tragedy by eating meat. For context, the book The State of the Art was written by Iain Banks in 1991.

Diziet Sma is a member of an advanced dual humanoid/AI civilisation on a covert mission to Earth to study the planet. In this passage, she is exploring Paris while pretending to be an Earthling in the late 1970’s Earth time. I skipped over the text I didn’t think was necessary for transcribing brevity.

It was the memorial to the Deportation [the holocaust].

I came out stunned. I was angry at them, then. Angry at them for surprising me, touching me like that. Of course I was angry at their stupidity, their manic barbarity, their unthinking, animal obedience, their appalling cruelty; everything that the memorial evoked… but what really hit me was that these people could create something that spoke so eloquently of their own ghastly actions; that they could fashion a work so humanly redolent of their own inhumanity. I hadn’t thought them capable of that, for all the things I’d read and seen, and I didn’t like to be surprised.

I had lunch in a smoky little place near the St Sulpice Metro; you sat on high stools at a bar and they selected a piece of red meat for you and put it, dripping blood, on a grid over an open pit filled with burning charcoal. The meat sizzled on the grill right in front of you while you had your apertif, and you told them when you felt it was ready. They kept going to take it off and serve it to me, and I kept saying, ‘Non non, un peu plus… s’il vous plait.’

The man next to me ate his rare, with blood still oozing from the centre. After a few years in Contact you get used to that sort of thing, but I was still surprised I could sit there and do that, especially after the memorial. I knew so many people who’d have been outraged at the very thought. Come to think of it, there would have been millions of vegetarians on Earth who’d have been equally disgusted (would they have eaten our vat-grown meats? I wonder).

The black grill over the charcoal pit kept reminding me of the gratings in the memorial, but I just kept my head down and ate my meal, or most of it.

My reading is that Diziet is miffed that the humans can mourn the holocaust, and yet contribute to something just as bad (just for different species) when they eat meat. Thoughts?

Some thoughts on the recent spike in SARS-Cov2 cases in Victoria

A natural reaction of many was to assume that the recent spike in SARS-Cov2 cases in Victoria was in part related to the Black Lives Matter protests a few weeks ago, but there does not seem to be direct evidence for this. Instead, the explanation at the moment is that the current spike comes from “extended family gatherings inside homes where people weren’t following social distancing were largely to blame for the “concerning” rise in cases.”

I haven’t looked at the data that lead them to that conclusion, but ok, fair enough.

However, I have seen some people arguing recently that you would be an idiot (or just misguided) for thinking that the protests could have lead to the spike in the first place. One rationale given for this is that we should have expected a spike in all states, since they all had protests.

Well, not necessarily, and here’s why.

Victoria has had the highest number of new daily cases of any state since the 2nd of May, with NSW being second on most of these days. Victoria has comprised 68% of all Australian cases since the 2nd of May (NSW was 21% over this time).

If the number of cases was higher in Victoria than other states and *if* protests had contributed to community spread of SARS-Cov2, we should naturally expect to see a larger increase in Victoria. Now, this doesn’t seem to have been the case on further investigation, but it could have been, so calling people idiots by this logic seems not nice.

Of course if this was the case, perhaps we should have expected a smaller but noticeable uptick in NSW cases. From the data I’ve displayed below (from the above linked source), it’s kind of hard to tell. No major trend of uptick can be seen in NSW at least.

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On a less related note, I think it’s possible to support the BLM movement but think at the time that the protests may have lead to an increase in SARS-Cov2 cases (this is especially notable since Covid19 disproportionately affects black communities). Everyone makes their own judgement, whether they realise it or not, on whether the benefit of the protest outweighs the risk (if they’re not thinking about it, they’re deciding it’s worth the risk by default).

The point I’m about to make is less strong, since I don’t have evidence that the same individual people are making these two conflicting claims, but it seems like it might be the case. Here goes anyway:

There were probably some people who railed against the anti-lockdown protests (particularly those in USA) for being reckless and leading to an increase in SARS-Cov2 transmission, but think that the BLM protests were worth it. Unless they’re just saying that they think the risk of transmission is only worth it for causes they think are right, this seems hypocritical.

It’s like when people criticised animal rights protests in Melbourne last year for blocking traffic, but supported the union protests for blocking traffic in Melbourne in the same week. You don’t get to do that and claim that you are arguing against the protest method – you need to admit that you just support one protest message and not the other. The same applies for BLM vs anti-lockdown protests in the times of Covid19.