Category Archives: Essays

On the inadequacy of a crude utilitarian morality

It is not especially uncommon to hear Humanists  espouse a crude form of Utilitarianism: “Maximize happiness; minimize suffering,” and on the surface this seems sensible. We like happiness, in both ourselves and others, and we dislike suffering just as broadly.

There are, however, a number of problems in implementation that render the idea virtually useless. The most important of these are quantification and aggregation.

It is an open question whether emotional states like “happiness” and “suffering” are quantifiable and consequently whether “utility” is.  Certainly no current scientific technique has the ability to unequivocally quantify these things. We can start scanning brains and having people fill out surveys, but at the end of the day, none of that is conclusive. People lie on surveys, and there are large differences in individual brain structure.

At most we could hope to discover (as, in fact, we have) some crude insights about human nature. What’s likely to make us happy, what’s likely to make us suffer, but as valuable as these insights might well be they don’t begin to make individual utility quantifiable much less comparable.

Comparability is a problem specifically to aggregation. How do we weigh one person’s happiness against another person’s suffering? If we can’t do that, how can we aggregate their individual utilities if making one person happier requires that another suffer? Can we rely on that never being the case?

Which brings us to a final problem. Are these goals even compatible? Can we maximize happiness while simultaneously minimizing suffering, or do we have to accept some exchange of happiness against suffering to make this problem tractable? If so, what exchange should we accept?

Or is this whole idea unworkable?

Why privileged people get confused about privilege.

“Privilege” is one of the most important words to learn when learning to look at the world in a social justice framework, whether as a feminist, as an anti-racist, or whatever. This is in part because the social justice use of the word is actually a little odd if that’s not the world you’re from.

In this sense, “Privilege” refers to any unearned systemic advantage one group of people has over another. What makes this odd is that the advantage is often something privileged people think everyone should have and that it shouldn’t be impossible for everyone to have. Like being treated decently by strangers and fairly by the justice system.

The way I think most SWMs (Straight White Male; you can pronounce it “swim” if you like) learned the word is our parents telling us they would take away our “privileges” if we were naughty.

So the definition that gave us was “A thing I want but am not entitled to.” Which, to be clear, for most of us probably doesn’t actually include our black friends and neighbors getting shot by police or our female friends and neighbors being terrorized by other men.

In its original use, “privilege” referred to matters of formal law where the law was different for one person (say, a king) than for anyone else. Thus a word derived from “private law.” Over time, it was applied to aristocrats and plutocrats to describe the things their positions gave them that others didn’t have.

Consequently, here’s what privilege means to a typical SWM:
1) A thing I want but am not entitled to.
2) The non-monetary advantages the rich enjoy over the poor.
3) The advantages the aristocracy enjoy over the common people.

And so when you say we “have privilege,” that’s weird and confusing, because we don’t on the whole actually want other people to be treated like crap (and generally don’t get what we want) and most of us aren’t rich or aristocrats.

Our systemic advantages are a thing we have trouble seeing and don’t tend to think about, so “not getting shot today” doesn’t generally show up in the list of things I want beside “finally getting my car fixed.”

A lot of social justice advocates seem to think this confusion is feigned, and it probably is in some cases, but a lot of it is also genuine. and perfectly understandable. I’d even suggest that there may be value in finding another way to talk about these things.

Hume’s Guillotine

David Hume (1711-1776) is a colossus among philosophers, and one of his more important ideas is called Hume’s Guillotine. This is the assertion that a moral claim can’t be derived from a factual claim alone. In other words, you can’t go from an “is” statement to an “ought” statement.

It turns out the reverse is also true, which means that these two types of claim are entirely separate.

This turns out to be important because we have a good way of evaluating the truth of factual claims. Broadly, this method is called science, but because it’s a way of evaluating factual claims, it has nothing to say about purely moral claims.

Now, that’s not to say that moral decisions can’t be informed by science, where those decisions have a factual underpinning, but science has no dominion over the moral. Moral claims are arbitrary.

Take one of the classic moral dilemmas: An actor can save two people by killing one. Is the actor justified in killing the one? Science is silent on this point. It could in principle confirm that the actor can save the two by killing the one, and that inaction would result in the death of the two.

But it can’t tell us which action is right.

Mr. Spock can. The good of the many outweighs the good of the few, right? So the actor should kill the one to save the two.

But wait. If the actor kills the one, the actor is a murderer. If you think murder is bad, then you can’t agree with Mr. Spock.


It’s almost like moral dilemmas are hard and there’s no objective way to resolve them.


I was called out not too long ago on Twitter for including Libertarians as a category of Conservatives (actually, what @Crommunist said was that Libertarian wasn’t “a good synonym” for Conservatism, but of course I hadn’t actually used it as a synonym.) I didn’t respond at that time or in that medium because the moment had passed and because I’m bad at Twitter.

So I’d like to try to clear up why I think of Libertarians as a kind of Conservative.

In theory, there’s a difference between a Libertarian and what we in the United States call a Conservative. What we call Conservatives are nothing of the sort, but that’s a different conversation altogether.

In theory, at least, a Libertarian is basically a Liberal who doesn’t understand  economics:  They’re all for liberty, equality, and fraternity, but they just don’t know how we’re supposed to pay for all of this.

And there are, so the joke goes, exactly three honest Libertarians out there….somewhere.

In practice, real-world Libertarians are a wing of movement conservatism. Particularly, they’re the wing that seeks to recruit people who aren’t ready to panic at the impending loss of their demographic dominance, who aren’t enthusiastic about freedombombing far away brown people, but for whom a working understanding of the functioning of real-world economies is a bridge too far.

Billing themselves as “fiscally responsible,” they focus on the economic end of the movement conservative message: There’s nothing wrong with the large and growing gap between the rich and poor and in any case, attempts at corrective action by the government are not only ineffective and wasteful but ultimately immoral. In candid moments, they will occasionally admit that they want to dismantle the mass of programs we call “welfare” or the “social safety net:” Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, and so on.

This fiscal fundamentalism is ultimately incompatible with any quest for equality. Money is power, and where a large money differential exists, there too is a large power differential. In a society as stratified as ours, the poor are also the voiceless, the invisible, and the powerless. And so something must give.

A typical Libertarian’s fiscal dogma is far more unyielding than his social positions, so while Libertarians don’t think the government should be hassling them for smoking pot, they’ll cheerfully vote for the most odious specimen of right-wing social nastiness so long as he promises to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

Indeed, the now almost universally reviled Tea Party — the party-within-a-party that rides the Republicans like a brain parasite and controls their behavior by perpetually running to the right of whoever the Establishment fields — has its foundations in this pop-political Libertarianism.

So I reiterate that it is in no sense surprising that Libertarian-leaning (and therefore right-leaning) members of the gamer and atheoskeptic blagotubes are using conservative-born anti-woman memes in attacking women.

What’s GamerGate?

In a word? Misogyny.

In a few words? Proof we still fucking need feminism. 

In the twenty-first fucking century.


Who is Zoe Quinn? There is absolutely no reason you or I ought to have any idea. She’s a super-small-time indie game developer and if you’ve heard her name before the beginning of this paragraph, you probably have a legion of misogynist trolls to thank.

So, thanks, Trolls. </sarcasm>

Zoe Quinn developed an award-winning game called Depression Quest (you can go here to get it for free, Fair warning: the page contains web audio, so you might want to mute your browser) which I normally would not know or care about. She then broke up with her boyfriend (which I still *really* don’t care about) who then summoned the legion of trolls on 4chan to get his revenge.

The trolls, in turn, have spent weeks now on a truly epic campaign of harassment, including the usual rape and death threats, and they’ve launched the hashtag #GamerGate because apparently we’re not tired enough of people using the suffix -gate to make things seem scandal-y as if that made any kind of actual sense.

They want to pretend it’s about ethics in gaming journalism, but there’s no “there” there. There’s no evidence of any corruption around Zoe or her game, and Zoe is such a small fish in such a small pond that I don’t see why we should care if there was.

They also want to pretend they speak for gamers. They don’t speak for me, and I suspect they’re nothing more than a tiny minority of gamers, the ones who are actually gamers I mean.

The saddest thing is that they’ve succeeded. They terrorized Zoe Quinn. They made me pay attention to them, and they’ve managed to tar the name “gamer” across much of the Internet. has been managing an epic pushback against this bullshit:

Which is pretty good for a site about dick jokes.

What’s a gamer?

I don’t have a deep expertise in a lot of fields, but one thing I’m more qualified to comment on than most is gaming. I have been a gamer most of my life.  “Gamer” is one of my most foundational identities, and gamers are a community I keep in touch with.

There seems to be a lot of confusion in media sources about what a gamer is. The impulse seems to be to try to define it as “a person who plays (video) games” and then express bafflement when community members don’t want to include people who play Solitaire on their lunch break.

The problem is that that isn’t and hasn’t ever been the definition of a gamer. Humans have been playing games since there have been humans, but gamers are a fairly recent phenomenon. People who play sports aren’t gamers. Gamblers aren’t gamers (despite regulatory bodies for gambling often being called “gaming commissions.”) Playing monopoly doesn’t make you a gamer.

The best approach, as with almost any identity group, is to start with self-identification. A gamer is someone who self-identifies as a gamer. You can stop there, that’s a complete definition.

But what would lead someone to identify themselves as a gamer? What does gaming mean to gamers?

There could be as many different answers as there are gamers. But if you look closely you’ll find some common themes. I call myself a gamer because I play tabletop roleplaying and strategy games and sophisticated PC games (shooters, strategy games, RPGs, MMOs, just to name a few genres.) I don’t call myself a gamer because I play chess or because I play Tetris on my phone. Magic: The Gathering players call themselves gamers. Poker players do not.

More important than what you play is how important gaming is to you. Do you see it as an important part of who you are as a person? Then you’re in.

As with being a “geek,” a genuine enthusiasm for the hobby is the only requirement.

And that’s really all there is to it.