Archive | October 2015

A Musical Guide to How Morality Works

(WARNING: This article presents a significantly simplified taxonomy. Further, there are many meta-ethical views within Christianity; this article is incompatible with some of those views, including Divine Command Theory and moral absolutism.)

Until confronted with moral dilemmas, right decisionmaking — after we untangle our interests — seems pretty straightforward.

Like this guy. One happy fellow, playing his guitar:


And when we’re no longer “in dilemma,” we can forget about the complexity of morality, and revert to this “straightforward” / “common sense” / “plain to see” / “easy” falsity.

But it turns out that our moral practice is — roughly — a trio of three guitarists, all playing at the same time.


  • Red is all about the rules. He represents moral stipulations that you’ve been taught, or that you’ve “red,” or what have you.
  • Green is all about seeking goals in service of all sorts of interests. But that’s not all; he’s also clumsy. Very clumsy. In the day-to-day, we’re rather inadequate at forecasting the innumerable consequences of each action we take. But, Green tries his darndest.
  • Blue is all about intuition; his feelings and gut-reactions to moral situations. His moral force is powered by direct appeals to conviction, disgust, anger, felt affection, etc.

A Beautiful Song…

For the most part, the three musicians play together very nicely.

Even if one musician rests while another plays, it sounds good.

Even if one musician plays a major and another its relative minor, it sounds pretty neat as a minor seventh.

… Usually

But sometimes, one musician plays a radically mismatched chord vs. the other two.

And it sounds terrible.

In other words, sometimes the gut and the clumsy goal-seeking go way against the rules. Sometimes the clumsy goal-seeking goes against both the rules and the gut. And sometimes the rules and clumsy goal-seeking are allied, but the gut dissents.

Judging the Musicians

So when one musician is out of sync, how do we figure out if he’s right to be out of sync?

To explore this question, let’s examine the three out-of-sync dilemmas in the abstract.

Red Out of Sync

This is when a common moral rule seems very counterproductive according to Green (clumsy goal-seeking) and Blue (gut intuition).


  • Maybe Red is wrong. It may be that times, culture, or circumstances have changed so that the rule is no longer useful.
  • But maybe Red is right. It may be that the rule remains good, but the ways by which the rule is useful are very difficult to understand or untangle, and the gut and clumsy goal-seeking fail to ascertain them.

Green Out of Sync

This is when clumsy goal-seeking feels wrong and violates the common rules. The tension here is whether the person can be certain enough in his goal-driven analysis that he can say, “I’ve gotta do it anyway.”


  • Maybe Green is wrong. The forecast was incorrect.

    Example: You live in poverty and your family is very hungry. You see an opportunity to steal some groceries. You do not notice a plainclothes officer nearby, who will arrest you if you do; you will then be put in prison, and your family will be even worse off.

    And this is just considering the interests of you and your family. Ideally our actions are in the best interests of our other relationships and even the world at large. Perhaps you won’t go to prison, but your theft will damage other people irreparably through unforeseen butterfly effects. And perhaps it may do damage to your own conscience, setting you on a dark path that ends in ruin.

    You are not omniscient. You cannot know about every detail of your circumstances and what exhaustively will come of your actions. This is what makes your forecasting clumsy. The rules tell you not to steal, your feelings tell you not to steal, and even though your clumsy goal-seeking says to steal, you’d be best — here — to ignore it.
  • But maybe Green is right. The forecast, though clumsy, is indeed correct.

Blue Out of Sync

The rule says “do it,” the decision analysis says “do it,” but it feels wrong anyway; the gut says, “No, don’t!”


  • Maybe Blue is wrong. The intuition is molded and crafted by experience, but that doesn’t make it impeccable — in fact, it’s largely driven by momentum and unconscious “preprogrammed” feelings of disgust, loss-aversive fear, righteous indignation, and even vengeance without fruitfulness. Good decisions can yet rub it the wrong way.
  • But maybe Blue is right. The rule is counterproductive (perhaps outdated, or should have been regarded as context-constrained) and the clumsy analysis was incorrect. Thankfully the intuition had been molded and crafted by experience to rebel against both the official rules and the incorrect analysis (clumsily performed).

The Common Denominator

Let’s simplify the above to answer our earlier question.

  • When Red is out of sync, Red is right when the rule is useful (beneficial and constructive).
  • When Red is out of sync, Red is wrong when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive).
  • When Green is out of sync, Green is right when the analysis (albeit clumsy) is correct. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
  • When Green is out of sync, Green is wrong when the analysis is incorrect. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
  • When Blue is out of sync, Blue is right when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive) and the clumsy analysis (which measured benefit and constructiveness) was incorrect; thankfully, the intuition’s formative experience and other “preprogramming” raised warning flags.
  • When Blue is out of sync, Blue is wrong when the intuition’s limited formative experience and other “preprogramming” yields a gut-feeling contrary to usefulness (benefit and constructiveness).

See the pattern?

It’s consequence. Consequence is schematically “king.” We know this because it is the common judge against which all the musicians are measured.

  • A rule is bad when it makes things worse.
  • A prospective analysis is bad when it through erroneous forecasting makes things worse.
  • One’s intuition is bad when it bends toward making things worse.

Let’s call “consequence as schematic ‘king'” CASK for short.

The Danger of Pure Consequentialism

As we’ve talked about several times, pure consequentialism can be dangerous. CASK can be true, but Green is still a clumsy analyzer.

We are not equipped for pure consequentialism; we are clumsy.

A practical adoption of pure consequentialism has us pitiful, clumsy humans deferring to Green every time, foolishly hoping that Green is a perfect “oracle” for CASK.

But as we’ve seen above, Green can be wrong.

Conflation of CASK and “always defer to Green” is a modal scope fallacy, and — tragically — fosters doubt in CASK.

The Danger of Deontology

But it’s also horrible to proclaim that the rules are schematically “king,” as if “Do this and not that” is the fabric of moral decisionmaking. It isn’t. Rather, rules are very useful ways of helping to guide us pitiful, clumsy humans to good decisions.

Rules are tools. And Red can be incorrect — or become incorrect over time, as circumstances change.

As Emergent Patterns

These strategies — rules, robust character guides called “virtues,” clumsy goal-seeking, and gut intuitions — emerge when CASK collides with the “real world” of human limitations.


When we recognize them as emergent from CASK — and not “more fundamental” than CASK — things make a whole lot more sense.

  • Deontology, the idea that rules are the schematic “king” of meta-ethics, is misguided; rules emerge as useful under CASK.

    It surprises us that Red and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t; this surprise is a product only of the aforementioned modal scope fallacy. Red and Green can fight all day; only the referee of true consequence — something to which we humans have limited access — can judge the winner.
  • Similarly, moral intuition is not the schematic “king” of meta-ethics. It likewise emerges from CASK, through both genetic and memetic evolutionary patterns.

    It surprises us that Blue and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t. Blue is a bit “stuck in the past” due to how it’s made, and Green makes clumsy guesses about the future. It stands to reason they’d be prone to argument.

Retaliation as an Emergent Pattern

There are other patterns that emerge as well.

One of the biggest relates to justified moral reaction.

Under CASK, a justified moral reaction (to some bad thing) ideally has three missions: Repairing the situation, repairing the person, and repairing the institution.

  • The situation was such that the transgressor was free to transgress and hurt others. Attempt to repair that situation by restricting that person.
  • The person needs to learn — convincingly — not to transgress anymore. Attempt to repair the person by whatever means are most feasible and practical.
  • Society as an institution seems to be producing people who behave this way. Attempt to repair the institution by going after institutional cofactors, like domestic abuse, poverty, and lack of education and mentoring guidance. (One very common play at institutional repair is to overpunish people for its deterring effect… but we’d hope to find a better way.)

It goes without saying that if all of these missions were “easy” for us, we’d do them with every transgressor, and with no rational hesitation.

But they aren’t easy for us. They’re really hard.

And thousands of years ago, they were even harder.

  • It’s not easy to restrict a person when you have no secure prisons and a lack of sufficient infrastructure to sustain prisoners indefinitely and humanely.
  • It’s not easy to repair a person. Even to this day, our most common remedial response is “put them in a prison for a long while and see if that teaches them a lesson.”
  • And it’s not easy to repair an institution. It’s especially difficult when people’s views of culpability view institutional repair as “excuse-making” and dismiss the exercise entirely.

So, what happens when the “three missions” are incredibly difficult, but correct under CASK?


For beings that aren’t very developed — either in terms of biology or civilization — this “rough approximation” is remarkably optimal (as compromise between “CASK” & “doable”).

It’s so optimal that we see it baked-in to the intuitions of birds, fish, dogs, and a host of other animals.

(After all, that highly complicated network of causes and effects is vaguely triangle-like.)

But this — purely retributive justice, “just deserts,” lex talionis, etc. — isn’t the schematic “king.” This isn’t really how morality “works” underneath.

Retaliation is just a crayon-drawn approximation of silicon circuitry. It’s an emergent result of CASK being confronted by the complexity and challenge of the real world, which includes our amazing-and-pathetic (depending on your reference point) brains.

And as human civilization “grows up,” we should be graduating more and more toward a more nuanced and difficult understanding of justified moral reaction, even including decisions that come at personal cost for a better, greater good.

More Reading

  • “The Fourfaced Writ.” A thought experiment that shows us how, under Christianity, the New Covenant points us to greater recognition of CASK with the goal of loving others.
  • “The Angelic Ladder.” How one’s place on the “ladder” — the degree to which a person or a people-group is truth-aware, altruistic, and good at forecasting — determines one’s allowed moral freedom (even as this freedom comes with New burdens).
  • “Omniscient Prole Dilemmas.” Certain thought experiments will try to convince you that CASK is untenable by granting you CASK-knowledge in a situation, then watching you squirm with resultant Red/Blue dissension. These hypotheticals are loaded garbage. The answer against these people is, “Give me a hypothetical with Clumsy Green instead of CASK, and I’ll tell you what I’d do.”


Schrödinger’s Cup: A Closed Future of Possibilities

Adequate determinism (or determinism for short) is the idea that on the level of human decisionmaking, history flows into the future in a deterministic way — there aren’t really multiple futures, but we talk and imagine as if there are.

Because we talk and imagine as if there are really multiple futures, confronting an assertion of determinism often yields Kochab’s Errors, where folks think that determinism fundamentally “changes” things and destroys all sorts of stuff we value.

With determinism, the fear is typically that we lose morality, choice, volition, agency, efficacy, and free will. This fear is called “incompatibilism” — where one believes that our treasured “volitional dictionary” is not compatible with determinism.

Incompatibilism usually prompts people to reject determinism, but there are deterministic incompatibilists as well, like atheist Sam Harris. Indeed, for some this isn’t a fear, but something to accept with open arms.

Compatibilism, by contrast, is a semantic response to determinism that avoids Kochab’s Errors, remembering that the world remains just as it was, but commits to a refined edition of the “volitional dictionary” when speaking philosophy and theology with precision.

Compatibilism is exciting because — though it’s a bit mind-bending at first — it yields more robust, coherent, and resilient philosophy (especially with regard to meta-ethics), but also a theology under Christianity that finally proclaims both human choicemaking and God’s exhaustive sovereignty. We assert that the Bible is compatibilistic by means of “heterophroneo.”

The Open Future

No matter which position we hold, we all nevertheless use open language to talk about the future.

Consider the diagram below.

Before me is a choice between two mutually-exclusive options. One option will yield “Future A,” and the other “Future !A.”


This seems pretty intuitive. The past is on the left, and the future possibilities on the right.

Only one problem, though. Those futures are colored the full black of “reality,” as real as “Me Right Now.”

But we know this cannot be. They have not yet been “real-ized.” In other words, they’re not “act-ual” because nothing has “acted” them yet.

The simple answer is that these prospects aren’t floating around in the future, but floating around in my mind.


We who have well-developed neocortices can very vividly project, using our imaginations, possible futures. This is very useful to us, because we can “see future worlds” as concepts and pictures rather than being burdened to forecast detail after detail. This generally helps us make better decisions more quickly (to a point).

But still, we’re seeing these prospects as full black. Even though we’ve done the correct thing by encasing these prospects where they truly live — our minds — we haven’t accounted for the fact that these things are mutually exclusive. If one happens, the other cannot, and so even in our brains, they should not simultaneously be full black.

Rather, they should be faded according to their plausibility.

If they’re each about 50% plausible, like a coin-flip, then we could imagine them as 50% ghostly:


It’s very important, however, to note that we don’t intuitively take this step.

Equally plausible options — especially arbitrary decisions, such as whether to get seconds at a potluck — tend to stay fully black in our minds. This quirk is so stubborn that we commonly employ language about these being “real possibilities” even though we know they’re doubly non-real: (1) They’re mutually exclusive, and so cannot be simultaneously real, and (2) they’re in our minds (not yet “real-ized”).

Seeking precision with quietude would have us admit that we use “real” as a nickname to describe prospects that are simply “plausible,” “appreciable,” “real-istic,” etc.

Now consider when one prospect is extremely implausible:


Here, we say things like, “Future !A isn’t a real option,” because we see it as so difficult or otherwise unlikely.

This includes unlikely prospects about behavior that I’d never see myself doing. If someone asked me, “Could you strike your partner?” I’d quickly shout, “No, never!” This isn’t because I lack arms or motor functions therein, but because that prospect is so un-real-istic.

The Open Past

Just as we use open language to talk about the future, we use open language to talk about the past (and the present, which for our purposes is a part of the past, that is, it is the immediate past).

It’s true!

Even though we know the past is closed, we still use open language to talk about the past. Isn’t that strange?

So, when do we do this?

We do this when we’re uncertain about the past.

Put a coin in a cup, shake it around, and slam the cup onto the table.


You can see just enough that you know the coin has fallen. But the cup is just opaque enough that you can’t tell whether it’s fallen heads or tails.

Let’s call heads “Fact A” and tails “Fact !A”:


Because I cannot ascertain the result, the most I can do is imagine the two possibilities. It may be heads, but it may be tails. It certainly can’t be both.

But look! I just talked about possibilities. I talked about what “may be the case”; I’m not talking not talking about a future reveal — perhaps I never plan to peek — but talking about what was and is currently the case, using the word may.

That’s open language!

We don’t just do this with the coin/cup game — (everyone’s favorite pastime) — but with any past-or-present thing of which we’re uncertain:

  • “Is Harriet already at the restaurant?”
    “It’s possible. But maybe she got held up.”
  • “I don’t know what the bug in the code is. It’s possible that it’s a null pointer exception.”
  • “Did you remember to feed the dog today?”
    “For the life of me, I can’t remember. It’s possible I forgot.”
  • “I didn’t speak to George before he left for vacation. Did he get those e-mails sent?”
    “Possibly. I saw him hurrying to get something done.”
  • “Did God use some degree of evolution to yield the diversity of life we see on Earth today?”
  • “It’s possible that some supposed Apostolic martyrdoms are legends that didn’t actually occur. We don’t know for sure.”
  • “Is Janice a double agent?”
    “Possibly! We’ll need to keep an eye out to find out.”


Open language is a function of uncertainty — it is not at all evidence for the simultaneous reality of mutually-exclusive prospects.

Open Language as Strategy


Little Davi’s birthday is coming up, and you’ve told him that you plan to give him a present.

“What is it?” Davi asks. Davi is ignorant, that is, he does not know what the gift shall be.

“It’s something from your birthday list,” you say, “but it needs to be a surprise. I’ll tell you this: It could be a skateboard, a video game, or a jacket.”

You’ve already bought Davi’s gift. It’s definitely a skateboard. But it suits your goals to use open language with Davi nonetheless.


Later that year, you’ve planned a vacation at a famous theme park. Airfare, hotel, tickets, etc. have all been booked.

The night before the flight, Davi’s behavior is out of control. You make the following threat, “If you don’t behave immediately, Davi, we will not be flying anywhere tomorrow. I will not be rewarding this behavior.”

You know for sure that this will be compelling. You know for sure that you’ll be flying tomorrow. These are closed facts for you.

But the hypothetical remains true; if he didn’t behave, there would be no flight. You weren’t lying about that.

This is because true hypotheticals can have false — even knowingly false — antecedents.

In other words:

  • You can be a truth-teller,
  • and convey a contingency using open language,
  • while simultaneously knowing the falsity of the antecedent and what tomorrow’s outcome shall be.

And why would you do this? To get Davi to clean up his act; to meet your goals (including sanity) and his (like a long-game interest in self-control).


For a couple more examples, you could tell Davi, “If you don’t finish your chores today, then we won’t go to the movies tonight,” even if you know for certain that he’ll finish his chores; it may even be that obedience is contingent upon hearing that threat, which you know.

Or, you could tell him, “If you don’t finish your chores today, then we won’t go to the movies tonight,” even if you know for certain that he won’t. You could do this as a sort of investment to further prove that your “threats have teeth”; that is, you consistently follow-through with the punishments you threaten.


Open language does not at all suggest that multiple mutually-exclusive things can all be “real.” It is not a “gotcha” vs. determinism. We use open language with past facts which are commonly regarded as closed.

Furthermore, a person can honestly and productively use open language with regard to certain events even if that person knows the facts of those events in a closed way. That person can nevertheless employ “maybes” and other hypothetical statements, and this communication strategy can be very useful for interaction and relationship.

As such, whether or not determinism is true, we can say confidently that determinism is compatible with the common and purposeful use of open language about the future.

Further Reading

One can be a Christian deterministic compatibilist without becoming a Calvinist; Calvinism entails several further assertions, and I am not a Calvinist.