The Origins of Moral Intuition (And Why Rule-Based Morality Fails)

Conscience Book CoverWhen thinking about morality, people generally make two mistakes: 1) that moral certainty can be achieved by consulting some external, objective source, and 2) that if this is not the case, and moral certainty cannot be attained, then we all have license to do whatever we want and there’s nothing left to discuss.

As analytical philosopher Patricia Churchland explains in her latest book, Conscience: The Origin of Our Moral Intuitions, both ideas are false. Moral dilemmas always involve conflicting priorities, and the call for “objective morality” is nothing other than the desire to escape uncertainty and to have someone or something else do the thinking for you. As Churchland writes:

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Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It – Book Review

Out of Our Minds Book CoverSummary: a wide-ranging intellectual history of the world that prioritizes ideas over a simple catalogue of thinkers and texts. The author makes the persuasive case that ideas drive history and that much of what we believe is the result of the intellectual work of others—whether or not we’re aware of the origins of those ideas. To truly become an independent thinker, and to fully comprehend our collective history, requires understanding and grappling with the intellectual currents that made the modern world. While the book is mostly objective, the author does fail to recognize the epistemological conflict between religion and science, downplays the danger and divisiveness of faith in politics, ignores the moral element of science, and mischaracterizes atheism as “just another religion” while minimizing the importance of secular moral philosophy.

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Astra Taylor on the Paradoxes and Tensions of Democracy

Democracy May Not Exist Book CoverWhile democracy can be difficult to define and challenging to implement, the primary purpose can be stated as the prevention of minority powers from dominating majorities. The rule by one (monarchies and dictatorships), or the rule by few (aristocracies and oligarchies), gives disproportionate power to one person or a small group, allowing the minority group to impose their preferences on the majority, often at the majority’s expense.

Democracy, under the ideal of “one person, one vote,” is established to prevent this tyrannical rule. However, the introduction of democracy introduces its own challenges, the main one being the inverse problem of the “tyranny of the majority” imposing its preferences on minority groups. Democracy, unabated, can result in disastrous consequences for minorities and moral atrocities, the earliest example being the execution of Socrates by Athenian democracy for his crime of “corrupting the youth,” i.e., teaching people how to think for themselves.

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Review of Conscious by Annaka Harris

Conscious by Annaka Harris Book CoverThe argument is familiar. It begins with an honest account of the mystery of consciousness and how there is, as of yet, no adequate or complete scientific explanation for how subjective experience of the material world can arise from the material world. The subjective experience of seeing the color red, for example, is very different from the scientific accounts of wavelengths of light or electrochemical activity in the brain.

It is then pointed out that there is no direct external evidence of consciousness, and that only one’s own consciousness can be known with any degree of certainty. The problem of the “philosophical zombie,” however improbable, is nevertheless unnerving as there is no way to definitively prove that consciousness is driving the behavior of others. Consciousness is therefore one of the deepest mysteries in the universe.

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Jill Lepore’s Call for a New Americanism

This America Book CoverIn 2018, Jill Lepore wrote what I would consider to be the best single-volume history of the United States, titled These Truths. The theme was clear, that the US, despite its messy history, was founded on admirable principles that it has slowly and arduously fought to live up to—and continues to do so. The result was an objective history, one that didn’t hide from the atrocities or ignore the positives, centered around a unifying and inspiring theme.

It is in comparison to this 789-page masterpiece that makes it difficult to fairly judge Lepore’s latest book, This America: The Case for the Nation. At a short 138 pages, This America is more a long-form essay than a book, as the author acknowledges. It also, in what is both a positive and a negative, repeats much of the content and underlying themes from These Truths.

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Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American

The Founding Myth Book CoverWas America founded as a Christian nation? As we’ll see, the answer is so obvious and the argument so lopsided that it’s a wonder the counter-argument is ever made at all. But unfortunately, Christian nationalism, which should be a politically impotent fringe movement, is in fact a powerful force that not only got Donald Trump elected but that has, with surprising success, redefined what it means to be an American.

That something as specious as Christian nationalism has and continues to influence public policy is the reason The Founding Myth, written by constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel, is so important. Ten years in the making, this phenomenal and deftly argued book comes at the perfect time, laying to rest the claim that America is in any way founded on Christianity.

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The Top Nonfiction Releases for June 2019

Conscious by Annaka Harris Book CoverHere are the top eight nonfiction books coming out in June 2019. My plan is to review the first four. Conscious is a brief history of our understanding of consciousness; Conscience examines how we determine right and wrong from science and philosophy; Out of Our Minds is a fascinating take on the history of ideas; and The Royal Society is a new take on the history of the Royal Society, the club that created modern scientific thought.

  1. Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind by Annaka Harris
  2. Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition by Patricia Churchland
  3. Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
  4. The Royal Society: And the Invention of Modern Science by Adrian Tinniswood
  5. Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
  6. The Doomsday Calculation: How an Equation that Predicts the Future Is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe by William Poundstone
  7. The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life by John Brockman
  8. This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta

How Psychological Blind Spots and Illusions Shape Our Reality

The Reality Bubble Book CoverIf the history of science over the last 450 years has taught us anything, it is that there is a major mismatch between perception and reality. The invisible forces so important to our understanding of the world—from heliocentrism and gravity to evolution and microorganisms—were discovered only by scientists bold and radical enough to see what everyone else was blind to. It is only through the extension of our senses and the transcendence of our cognitive limitations that we have made any progress in our knowledge of the world at all.

That human sensation and perception is limited is a major understatement: humans can see less than 1 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum (visible light), making us literally blind to 99 percent of it. Other animals can not only see better and farther than us, many have greater sensitivity to a wider range of colors while others can see ultraviolet and infrared light and even magnetic fields. We are deaf to most frequencies and incapable of experiencing many smells, tastes, and sensations. We are blind to the smallest scales (and to the trillions of bacterial cells that inhabit our bodies) and to the farthest reaches of the known universe (46 billion light-years across).

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The Case for Progressive Capitalism: A Review of People, Power, and Profits by Joseph Stiglitz

People, Power, and Profits book coverFirst, let’s start with some statistics: Over the last 30 to 40 years, every major statistical measure of income inequality in the United States has increased significantly, now approaching the same extreme levels as prevailed before the Great Depression. If you visit, the charts speak for themselves.

Over the last third of a century, the income share for the top 1 percent has doubled while the poverty rate has remained the same. The richest Americans have experienced the fastest income growth while middle class incomes have stagnated (imagine if middle class incomes had doubled and what that would mean for home ownership). From 1979 to 2017, worker productivity has increased by 138 percent while worker hourly compensation has increased by only 23 percent. The difference in wealth creation has gone to the top. In 1965, CEOs made 24 times the wages of the average production worker; in 2019, they made 185 times the average salary.

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What Marcus Aurelius Can Teach Us About the Practice of Stoicism

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor book coverStoicism is a practical philosophy that emphasizes rationality and virtue as the only true goods. Unlike other religious or spiritual practices, Stoicism does not require that you abandon reason or strain your grip on reality; rather, it provides an ethical orientation to life that is fully consistent with our nature as rational, social beings.

Stoicism therefore embraces the original Greek conception of philosophy as a way of life, a subject matter to be practiced rather than simply studied. Far removed from the logical hair splitting of academic philosophy, Stoicism is about living well, with an emphasis on ethics and the attainment of true contentment and excellence of character.

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