The Basis of Morality Outside Religion

Today’s post is a contribution from a reader, Duncan White:

Premise: Many religions contain a moral code, indeed that’s arguably how many of the world’s moral codes got going. But suppose that, in Hypothica, we got to start again.

Let’s define religion as a purely private matter between consenting individuals, and therefore not wanting it to intrude on state life, how is Hypothican society to decide upon a single moral code to serve as the basis of their laws? Assume that the Hypothicans will debate this among themselves. But perhaps they’d like some advice: from us!

What are the principles? Will a consensus be possible? Will everyone want to choose their own incompatible set of morals? Will people want to steal a moral code from some religion, or not?

Is it even valuable or necessary for the Hypothican society to share at least some baseline of morality?

Freedom to Secure Information

There’s been a lot of news recently about a showdown between the FBI and Apple concerning a court order to break into the iphone of the San Bernardino shooters:

There are 3 points to unpack here:
1. Whether Apple *can* get into a locked iphone
2. If yes, whether Apple can be forced to do it
3. If no, whether Apple should be forced to bake a backdoor into it’s products.

The government’s position is that a company is responsible for providing them access to any information that a customer might be using their product to secure. Rush Limbaugh, an apple enthusiast, gives a pretty lucid analogy to a safe:

Think of it as a safe, and the FBI needs to get into Syed Farook’s safe. The safe is in Syed Farook’s house, but they can’t crack the safe. Every time they try to move the combination, the safe doubles down and locks even further, so they go to the safe manufacturer, “You need to get us the combination to unlock that safe.” The manufacturer says, “We didn’t set the combination, the customer did.”

“We know that you can do it. You better do it! And while you’re at it, we want the combination for every safe you’ve ever made.” In other words: “We at the FBI want to be able to open any safe you have ever made.” How many of you would go for that? Just change the device but leave the circumstances the same.

But no way would you support the government being able to tell the manufacturer to give them a way to unlock every safe they’ve ever made, which is what’s being asked here. This is not about a search warrant, because what the FBI is doing is asking Apple to make something that doesn’t exist: A backdoor into every device.

So, suppose a similar situation has made it to the Hypothican Courts. This allows us to look past US law and precedent, and focus simply on the core issue of balancing freedom to secure information and complicity with government agencies in their quest for national security.

What is basically being argued here, is that a manufacturer is not allowed to provide a lock that they themselves cannot pick. This has never come up before in Hypothica because any physical lock was at some level, brute-forceable. But with digital technology, the concept of an unbreakable safe is closer to a reality and the government is now questioning the legality of selling one.

Should a manufacturer be forced into building a backdoor into all its devices?

Where is the line in being free to hide or encrypt information, even when it makes the government unable to access it in a potential terrorist situation?

Marijuana in US Politics, 2016

I was attempting to clarify the policy differences candidates in the upcoming primary. While reading sundry sources, I came across a marijuana activist who was “definitely voting for Cruz.” That caught my attention, because his rationale surprised me. He was an ex-Sheriff who was against the criminalization of Marijuana because he had seen so many people’s lives destroyed — he had been complicit, even — because of a minor lapse in judgment that had little social impact. He had personally spoken with Ted Cruz, he claimed, on many occasions and Cruz had promised him that he would decriminalize marijuana use at the federal level.

Perplexed, I decided to look into the candidate’s Marijuana platforms. The landscape was very different than I imagined. In short:

Clinton: For re-classifying Marijuana as a schedule 2 controlled substance, instead of schedule 1. (bizarrely, she also wants to stop arresting people for breaking the law)

Sanders: For eliminating all federal control on marijuana (or federally legalizing it?)

Trump: For eliminating all federal control on marijuana (let the states decide. At one point was for legalizing all drugs for all purposes including recreation, but more reserved today).

Cruz: For eliminating all federal control on marijuana (let the states decide, personally opposed, would down-vote in Texas)

Rubio: Ambiguously for eliminating all federal control on marijuana (let the states decide, personally opposed, still wants it criminalized)

Bush: For eliminating all federal control on marijuana (let the states decide, but has personally been VERY against loosening marijuana controls in Florida)

The part of this that genuinely surprised me is that Hillary Clinton appears to be the most anti-Marijuana candidate in the 2016 Presidential election.

The other part that struck me as odd is that regardless of who becomes president, Congress will hypothetically be holding back marijuana reform, and marijuana reform appears to be positively supported by both parties.

So, the question I pose today, is what role should the federal government have in this regard? What change do you think we will see in the coming presidential term?

The United States of Hypothica

Today’s post is a contribution from a reader, Kingfisher12:

The island of Hypothica is home to four separate nations. While historically these nations have been in conflict, the last 100 years or so has seen an era of unbroken peace and friendship. All of the nations share a language and have similar cultures. Migration in the last 50 years has mingled the population to a level of assimilation such that an outsider would have a hard time telling the difference between a North Hypothican and a South Hypothican.

Over the last 50 years or so a number of formal treaties and alliances mean that economically and militarily the nations act more or less as one. There are talks now of a greater desire for making the marriage official and combining the four sovereign states into a single sovereign nation; the United States of Hypothica

There are a handful of separate committees and conventions that operate as de facto federal agencies, but there is no unifying principle behind them, they were just created to fill a specific need.

Foreign nations do not trust the authority of these treaty organizations, They are viewed from the outside as four small countries, rather than one strong nation, and are treated accordingly. Hypothicans in all four states have held referendums and overwhelmingly support starting the process of unification.

There are a few essentials in this confederation. All four states must agree or it doesn’t happen. Once they sign up there is no going back. When it comes to foreign nations they present a united front. The states can still compete with each other, but international treaties are the domain of the new federal government. National defense will be strictly a federal matter. All state militias and paramilitary organizations will be immediately disbanded or merged into the national armed forces. The federal government must also have the power to fund itself through taxes.

So there are three questions

  1. What powers and responsibilities should the federal government have beyond these, and what powers and responsibilities should the individual states retain?
  2. There will be opposition. Each state has minorities opposed to unification for whatever reason. Considering three potential forms of resistance (legal protest, civil disobedience, and violent resistance) What is the responsible way to deal with each type of opposition?
  3. What form of government is best for this federation? Is bicameralism the best? Is it democratically elected or appointed by the states, or some combination?

Remember that the vast majority of Hypothicans have expressed a desire for becoming one nation.

Rights vs Democracy

Hypothica is a country that has traditionally had a reserved culture and a strong central government. It has been mostly isolated from Western thought until recently (The internet and all that). Traditionally free expression has not been emphasized and speech laws are rather restrictive, especially criticism of the government.

A poll shows that close to 90% percent of the population support the status quo restrictive speech laws. But a slowly growing minority wants a system that protects freer speech.

The emperor of Hypothica is a hip and forward thinking guy who has dabbled in Western ideologies. He plans to slowly experiment with some of these ideas in his own land, starting with free speech.
However, he is conflicted between the idea of honoring the “democratic will” of his country and “protecting freedoms”.

He has asked for your advice about whether to implement freer speech laws, in a move that would be, at least initially, overwhelmingly unpopular or put it to a vote that is certain not to pass.
Your advice in this matter will also influence how he handles other liberty issues such as women’s right, privacy laws, religious freedoms, gay rights, etc.

How do you advise him?

Is free speech something that is good in itself?
Does free speech always to produce better results in the long run? If so what are the results if not furthering the will of the people?
Or is free speech only good insofar as it’s what the population wants?

UPDATE: Don’t get hung up on free speech. As G.O.B. Bluth would say, “bad example”. It should have been a jumping off point talk about “spreading democracy” and other Western ideas to an unwilling populace:

The emperor, in essence, is open to viewing freedom as a good and a path toward a better country in the future, but he is left weighing the will of his people against ideas that Western philosophy says are fundamental, self-evident rights.

You as his advisor are tasked with arguing for keeping the status quo, even if you find it unjust, or arguing for implementing radical and unpopular cultural changes, for the country’s own good

Hypothica’s Renovated Economic Strategy

Hypothica is a country of 50 million people. They have agriculture, mining, manufacture, and are capable of some self-sufficiency. However, as part of a global economy, Hypothica’s undeveloped economic policy has led to a quality of life that lags neighboring countries.

The people of Hypothica have been somewhat jealous of citizens in neighboring countries, and have started to perceive Hypothica’s own economy as broken. Being a representational Democracy, they overturn old leadership with new leaders who have ideas on how to make the economy work better. You are among these leaders.

Hypothican’s want you to find policies related to the below topics to help stimulate Hypothica’s economy and bring more wealth, at every socioeconomic level, with some emphasis on expanding the middle class.

  • Tax — Some Hypothicans want higher taxes to fund development projects, and others want low taxes to keep businesses competitive.
  • Law — Hypothica has some laws, including copyright, patent, and industry trade group protections, which limit competition. Many Hypothicans support these, and many oppose.
  • Globalized Labor — Some of Hypothica’s businesses outsource labor to countries with comparatively predatory labor conditions where that labor can be done very cheaply. Existing law neither protects nor prohibits this.
  • Immigration — both in terms of those who do lowly jobs that Hypothicans resist, and educated immigrants who bring talent to the country. There is some concern that immigrants are indentured or denied normal labor protections and consequently compete in their labor markets at a much lower price than natives.
  • Imports — Hypothica doesn’t have all the natural resources it needs, Hypothicans enjoy produce that won’t grow there naturally, and a lot of technology is produced much cheaper in countries with predatory labor conditions.
  • Exports — Hypothica wants its goods to be competitive in the global market.
  • Infrastructure — Hypothica has mediocre infrastructure in terms of transport, power, and water.
  • Education — Hypothica’s education is not perceived as economically competitive with neighboring countries.
  • Support Programs — Some Hypothicans want government support programs that allow Hypothicans lower on the socioeconomic scale to develop more valuable job skills.
  • Other Economic Areas — Hypothicans are also interested in areas of economic policy which have received less attention in the past.

Hypothicans want everything carefully evaluated from the ground up, and a comprehensive economic strategy. What new ideas do you bring to the other leaders? What new ideas and old ideas will you oppose? What “status quo” will you support? Hypothicans are predominantly interested in economic results, and have a sufficiently varied interest in ethics and foreign relationships that prioritizing tangential topics will be seen as a failure to live up to campaign promises.

The future aint what it used to be

I remember a time when the Atari 2600 was the best video game console around.  By todays standards, of course, the games that you played on it sucked.  But we didnt know that, so we were happy with them.  Also there was a kind of thrill in playing the 2600 games at home and then going to the neighborhood arcade to see superior versions of those same games.  Those games too sucked compared to todays games, but we were still happy with them.  I think thats something missing from kids lives today.
Instead the kids of today have to worry about having their lives ruined at the age of fifteen because they sent a naked picture of themselves.  Or because a crook conned them into giving them their social security number.  Or because that stupid playful video that seemed like a good idea to post for their freinds is looked down on by the lawfirm they try to get a job with a few years later.
And then theres all the grief organizations have to deal with these days.  In the old days you didnt have to worry about someone from another country stealing all your data or locking it and forcing you to pay ransom.  And all kidding aside I dont believe major companies and governments should be at the mercy of teenage hackers.
Sometimes I think about all of this and more and wonder if the information age is really worth it.  Yes, it has its advantages, but mostly those are advantages we could do without or had an equivelant in the old days.  Yes, those equivelants were usually inferior and more expensive, but we were happy with them anyway.  Observe:

-Wikipedia:  The neighborhood library mostly fills this function.
-Cell phones:  They have their advantages, certainly, but not for everyone.  Im sure some people are tired of their friends and their boss expecting them to be available ALL THE TIME.
-free pr0n:  In the old days we got along well enough with dirty magazines and strip clubs.
-mp3 players:  Anyone else remember the walkman?
-GPS:  I still prefer maps.  You may say GPS is useful for finding your stolen car and such, but the bad guys these days are finding ways around that.
-Google:  The phone book and neighborhood library mostly fills this function.  And for when it doesnt…do you REALLY think its a good thing that anyone can google you?
-Video streaming:  In the old days we were content to watch whatever was on TV and to plan our schedules around the TV schedule.  Yes, you got less than a dozen stations in those days, but those dozen stations were free.  And they were better quality than you would beleive from what they’re broadcasting today.
-Amazon:  Anyone else remember the Sears catalog?

What do you think?

Pulse Check

How is this blog doing so far?

I am flattered by the response I got for launching this blog, basically on a whim. And I appreciate that there has been a steady stream of lively discussion. I’m having fun. But I’d like to get your guys’ feedback as we move forward for improvement

What’s the pulse on the range of topics? Too broad, too narrow?
Would anyone prefer that I stick with themes for sequential posts, like say a week, or is the jumping around interesting?
There have been a couple posts that have strayed from the “Hypothica Island” context. Is the occasional diversion appreciated? Or would you rather I solely stick to hypothetical situations?

Look and feel
I’ve been planning to update the theme, but haven’t found the exact right one and haven’t had the time to tweak any existing themes. How much does this matter?

You may have noticed that a few of the posts are coming from whtllnew. I’ve set him up with author privileges and he’ll be a regular contributor.

I’d be interested in recruiting one more regular contributor so we can get about 5-7 regular posts a week (I plan to continue averaging 3). I’m also interested in posting one-off contributions if anyone has the occasional idea, like I did with Duncan last week. Feel free to email me topic suggestion or full scenarios at I can’t promise I check that email every day, but I’ll get to them. Maybe we can dedicate a day to “User Submission” day


Update: Mr. Drow will be that additional regular contributor. As we mature, I’ll likely extend an invitation for more in the future if there is interest. Otherwise, please feel free to shoot stray contributions to my email.

Angry Atheists vs. the Mormon Option

Please Note: I can honestly say that what follows describes none of the atheists I’ve had pleasure of regularly interacting with on this blog or Scott Adam’s Blog.

I frequent a lot of religious blogs and run into the “angry atheist” quite a bit. There are a subset of atheists, who are ex-believers with a great deal of anger and animosity toward their old faith. They are vehemently opposed to it and are on mission to let the world know. They combat it everywhere they can (mostly on the internet). Now these are not people who happen into a discussion on faith and take the opportunity to share their disagreement. These are people who take residence in faith blogs just to argue with every post. People who seek out their former belief just to pick fights with it.

In my experience, the closer they were to the faith, the more vehemently they oppose it. I understand the emotional reaction. It makes sense. You were “burned”. You invested in something and came out broke. But from a reason perspective: if they were that close to it, I would assume that they actually liked their faith, found enjoyment in its practice, and agreed with the faith’s moral philosophy and social teaching.

Is their reversal and subsequent disdain, purely an emotional reaction? Likely not. So where does the rational value-rejection come into play?

See, if you told me you only believed X was wrong because the Bible said so, and you have always considered it very damaging for society beyond that, then I’ve got little respect. Surely there are some who felt that way, but do not most people also believe there is empirical evidence that their moral teachings are good for society? When does that evaporate for the atheist?

Oddly, in my experience, there’s one group that seems to have a larger incidence of anomaly: I’ve read multiple experiences from Mormons who stopped believing but (publically) kept it to themselves and continued practicing, because they simply liked the community, morals, and social outlook so much. Maybe this phenomenon exists across denominations and my encounters have been coincidence. I don’t know, but I’m going to call this the “Mormon Option”.
Read the rest of this entry »

Why don’t we crave veggies?

Think about it.  If veggies were that good for us you would expect us to crave them.  But we dont.
Its easy enough to understand why we crave foods that are bad for us.  Its only in the past century that its been possible to die from too much ice cream.  But, logically, we should also crave foods that are good for us.
Until recently I wouldnt dream of having veggies on my pizza.  Then I had a sudden craving for onions.  Since then Ive had onions on my pizzas.  I interpret this as my body telling me I needed more onions in my diet.  Same thing for my cravings for peas and lettuce.  At the same time I still have a repulsion to squash, broccoli and spinach.  I interpret this as my body telling me these foods are bad for me, in spite of what science says.