Friday, 26 April 2013

A History of Lying

In The Method of WLC’s Madness, I talked about William Lane Craig’s misuse of “explanatory power” – explaining that he tries to use historical method inappropriately.

In A Pop-Up Refutation of the Resurrection, I pointed out that WLC (along with other apologists) refer to New Testament scholars as expert witnesses for the historicity of the biblical character Jesus.  There’s a major issue with this because those who devote their lives to studying the New Testament are biased.

This is not to say that there aren’t some scholars who emerge from all that study no longer believing the accuracy of the bible.  There are some indications that many who study the Bible deeply begin to doubt it, not just New Testament scholars, but also Seminary College students.

There is a psychological predisposition to avoid the sense that one’s life has been wasted on a complete fabrication.  This can be seen in the fact that even Bart Ehrman, who debated the historicity of Jesus with WLC, claims that Jesus existed, was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate and his body was not found in the tomb by whoever it was who went to check (the four gospels have four different accounts on this last item).  Ehrman does not, however, accept the resurrection as historically factual nor does he accept that Jesus was divine.  One is left to wonder why, once the key elements of the gospel accounts are removed, should any of the stories necessarily be true.

In this article, I want to address another problem, one which brings WLC’s intellectual honesty into question.   First, let us have a little closer look at some of words that WLC uses, repeatedly, in his resurrection argument.  Check out the following excerpts from debates (and two websites) spanning a period of eighteen years:

WLC-Krauss (2011): The historical person Jesus of Nazareth was a remarkable individual. Historians have reached something of a consensus that the historical Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God’s place. He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come, and as visible demonstrations of this fact he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms.

WLC-Law (2011): The historical person Jesus of Nazareth was by all accounts a remarkable individual. Although Dr. Law has recently defended the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed, historians have reached something of a consensus that Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God’s place. He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come, and as visible demonstrations of this fact he carried out a ministry of miracle working and exorcisms.

WLC-Ehrman (2006): most New Testament scholars, as Bart Ehrman knows, do believe that Jesus of Nazareth carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms. Whether you believe they’re supernatural is an additional step. But there’s no doubt today that Jesus of Nazareth was what he thought was a miracle worker.

WLC @ BeThinking (2003): Today the majority of New Testament scholars agree that the historical Jesus deliberately stood and spoke in the place of God Himself, that he claimed that in himself the kingdom of God had come, and that he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms as signs of that fact. According to the German theologian Horst George Pöhlmann,

Today there is virtually a consensus ... that Jesus came on the scene with an unheard of authority, with the claim of the authority to stand in God’s place and speak to us and bring us to salvation. With regard to Jesus there are only two possible modes of behavior: either to believe that in him God encounters us or to nail him to the cross as a blasphemer. Tertium non datur. [There is no third way.]

WLC @ ReasonableFaith (2001): The historical person Jesus of Nazareth was a remarkable individual. New Testament critics have reached something of a consensus that the historical Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God's place. That's why the Jewish leadership instigated his crucifixion for the charge of blasphemy. He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come, and as visible demonstrations of this fact he carried out a ministry of miracles and exorcisms.

WLC-Crossman (1995): The majority of New Testament critics today agree that the historical Jesus deliberately stood and spoke in the place of God himself. The German theologian Horst Georg Pöhlmann reports, “Today there is virtually a consensus that Jesus came on the scene with an unheard of authority – namely, the authority of God…”

WLC-Zaas (1993, quoted in “Who Was Jesus”, Copan and Evans, 2001):

I want to close with a quotation from the German theologian, Horst Georg Pöhlmann. He writes,

“In summary, one can say that today there is virtually a consensus concerning that wherein the historical in Jesus is to be seen. It consists in the fact that Jesus came on the scene with an unheard of authority - namely, the authority of God - with the claim of the authority to stand in God’s place and speak to us and bring us to salvation.”

Pöhlmann concludes,

“This unheard of claim to authority, as it comes to expression in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, … presupposes a unity of Jesus with God that is deeper than that of all men, namely a unity of essence.

This . . . claim to authority is explicable only from the side of his deity. This authority only God himself can claim. With regard to Jesus, there are only two possible modes of behavior: either to believe that in him God encounters us or nail him to the cross as a blasphemer. There is no third way.”

So, actually, they are not Craig’s words, they are Horst Pöhlmann’s words.  And who, exactly, is this Horst Pöhlmann?  He’s an obscure German theologian whose book, from which Craig quotes <<Abriβ der Dogmatik>>, does not have an English translation – this is despite being quoted by Craig repeatedly since as early as 1993 and despite having been in print (in six German editions) since 1973.  Nobody other than Craig seems to quote Pöhlmann, other than indirectly when quoting Craig.

When using the quotation (which he often fails to credit, possibly because Pöhlmann is so obscure), Craig doesn’t use the same words every time as one would expect with a quotation but rather employs “creative tailoring” to the extent that he thinks he can get away with it.  I’m left wondering whether a less obscure author, or one who regularly wrote in English, might have been less forgiving of such flagrant and repeated abuse of his work.

On his websites, and, Craig is relatively honest – assuming that, prior to his summarisation, Pöhlmann had made clear that he was talking about slightly more authoritative “New Testament scholars”, rather than just “Christian Apologists” or “Christians”.  He seemed to have been more honest in his early years, in the debates with Zaas and Crossman, although there are a couple of early debates in which he did not present this argument at all.

The crib notes that WLC now appears to work from, if he hasn’t simply memorised the entire speech – which seems quite likely – now have him saying that historians have reached a consensus on the nature of the “historical Jesus of Nazareth”.

This simply isn’t true, except perhaps if the consensus in question were to be “this whole resurrection thing never actually happened”.

I don’t think you could call this misuse or a mistake on Craig’s part.  This is – plain and simple – an oft repeated lie.

You can go to Hell for that sort of thing …


If a visitor from Germany ever pops in, one with access to <<Abriβ der Dogmatik>>, and they could be so kind as to inform us as to what Pöhlmann actually had to say on the “consensus” and whether it was a consensus of theologians, New Testament scholars, Biblical scholars, Christian Apologists or historians, I’d be very grateful.

Friday, 19 April 2013

When Morality Breaks Down

Over the past few months, I have developed the basis of a morality based on no more than the emergent need to survive.  I say “emergent need to survive” because survive is what every single creature, human or otherwise, from which we descend has done – at least long enough to produce at least one viable child.

Before I started though, I posted a prelude – Being Bad – in which I mused on why we do bad things:

So, the question that really intrigues me is this: why do we have (or pretend to have) this morality when we so often, and often so easily, throw it away?

Are there specific situations in which acting contrary to our morality might, paradoxically, be the right thing to do?

I now want to return to these questions.


Living and letting die

If we live in a community in which the principle of not killing each other is held high, then we stand to gain security if we avoid acting violently towards each other.  We might not, however, be so forgiving when we come upon strangers from outside our community.  While we might be “good” to our immediate neighbours, we are quite likely to be “bad” to our more distant neighbours for at least two reasons.

Firstly, we do not know with any certainty that a foreigner is as committed to the concept of not committing violence towards others as we are ourselves.  Secondly, a foreigner may not be considered to be as human as a member of our own community.  This means that our moral injunction is weakened with respect to a foreigner and we can rightly fear that even if the foreigner considers killing people to be wrong, they might not consider us to be real people.

(Note also that when it comes to be being observed, the killing of another human being is not entirely a moral question.  It is illegal to kill another person under the vast majority of circumstances.  For that reason, when planning to kill another person, it is not primarily for reasons of protecting their image as a moral person that a killer tries to avoid detection.  It is in order to avoid the legal consequences.  Even in more primitive social groupings, the power over life and death is usually vested in a leader or leadership group.  There will exist rules, if not laws, about who is allowed to kill whom and when.  These more formal rules generally override moral considerations.)

When it comes right down to basics, we are not overly concerned with the survival of others – even if we might make a show of thinking that way.  It certainly seems to be true that those who are close to us are considered to be important but the greater the separation between us and some “other”, the less we truly care whether they live or die, irrespective of whether we think we should care or not.

What we are primarily concerned with is not being killed ourselves, to the extent that if our survival is threatened many of us would be quite capable of bringing about the death of another and the vast majority of us would stand by while another dies if intervening were to put us at some sort of risk.  (Note that almost everyone reading this will have sufficient wealth that they could make a completely painless sacrifice in order to help save lives in other countries, but only a small percentage will do so.  The rest just stand by while other, distant people die.)


The same sort of argument as presented above applies to theft.  When someone engages in theft, they generally do not do so merely because they think that their need overrides the moral injunction, but more often because they do not expect to get caught or that if they do, they believe that they can laugh it off.  Many a time when pushed, a person who has committed a theft – especially someone who is not known to be dishonest – will give as a reason for their action: I thought I could get away with it.

That said, sometimes we do justify stealing because we consider our need to be sufficiently great.

Being able to steal without getting caught conveys considerable evolutionary benefits, similar in form to the benefits which accrue from the ability to kill first by betraying another’s trust (their belief that you will not try to kill them).  As has been stated in earlier articles, we are all the descendants of people who did better at the “trustworthiness” game than others.  Our ancestors were sufficiently willing to take from others when necessary, even when doing so threatened the survival of those taken from.  At the same time they were able to maintain an image of trustworthiness amongst their peers, at least sufficiently well enough and long enough to produce viable progeny.

In a functional sense, the ethical structure that I have presented is not overly concerned with the rights of others to own things.  The primary concern is the ability to maintain ownership of one's own belongings. 

Again, the moral injunction is weakened when we consider people outside of our own community.  Powerful nations take land from smaller nations, soldiers pillage towns and hamlets and professional thieves steal happily from those outside their own circle – but of critical importance not within their own group.

Perhaps there are modern day saints in the world who have never taken a towel from a hotel, or soap or toiletries, or eaten a grape in a store, or taken a morsel of food from a platter or display that they were not entitled to, or been aware that they have been overpaid but not said anything, but they are likely to be extraordinarily few in number.  An overwhelming majority of us frequently take things which do not belong to us, which we know to belong to someone else.

Geographical considerations

The Ethical Hierarchy applies within a community.  When we meet a person from outside our community we are aware of a few things: they do not know our rules; we do not know their rules; they are not necessarily our friends and are possibly our enemies, and we have good reason to suspect that they might feel the same way.  If a stranger looks different to us, the distance between us and that stranger lengthens.  Nevertheless, we do seem to apply our ethical structures in relation to those outside our community – to a certain extent.

We expect strangers and foreigners to be less moral than us: most travellers carry their belongings very close to themselves partly for this reason.  Those who are so inclined (pick pockets, scam artists, tourist booth operators) prey on tourists for two reasons: firstly, they have money to steal and secondly, they are foreigners - they are not part of the community.  Equally, as tourists we will sometimes haggle to the point where we may feel that we might be cheating a stall owner.  This may not dissuade us because that stall owner is not part of our community.

That said, we do not all become totally immoral when in other countries.  Let us use the example of prostitution, noting that a number of countries which are popular tourist destinations also have a thriving sex industry.  In a few instances (Thailand for example), the sex industry caters largely to the natives and tourists may merely take advantage of it, if they chose.  While the morality associated with frequenting prostitutes may be quite different in these countries, sometimes being expected rather than frowned upon, the majority of westerners would still consider themselves bound by their own community’s moral standards rather than those of the nation they are visiting at the time.  This is for two reasons (at least).

Firstly, the moral standards on the issue of prostitution are quite strong in most western nations.  Not everyone can turn off many years of conditioning and operate according to a new moral standard during a short visit to another country.  Westerners generally consider the sex industry to be fundamentally wrong  and even a moral argument about the benefits of providing much needed financial support to people who earn their living from the industry in other countries is insufficient to overcome the imperative to conform with one’s native societal views on prostitution.

Secondly, there is a slight chance that tourists who take advantage of the opportunity to consort with a prostitute might be caught by a member of their own society, someone who knows them, and that they would as a result be judged according to their own community standards rather than by the standards of the visited community.

However, longer term exposure to another culture, or being in the company of others who have had longer term exposure to another culture, can break down one’s standards.  Expatriates living in countries in which prostitution is condoned begin to express a much more liberal view towards the practice.  This may not necessarily mean that expatriates become regulars at the types of places that they would never frequent in their country of origin, but they certainly become more accepting of those who do.

It is also well known that military men who visit foreign lands regularly take advantage of the opportunity to consort with prostitutes.  Usually there are “leaders” among the group who have already been exposed to the foreign culture and have had their moral standards “compromised”, for want of a better word.  These “leaders” demonstrate by example that contravening this particular moral injunction in a particular situation brings no consequences.

It is interesting to note that military men who have regular dealings with prostitutes in other countries do not necessarily become regular clients of prostitutes in their own country.  This may be a financial consideration but is more likely a result of returning to their own community in which injunctions against prostitution remain in force.

So, in short, we tend to apply our ethical structures in foreign situations according to how it would reflect on us among people of our own community.

If no-one cares whether we apply our community standards in a foreign lands or not, then we don’t care (or we care less) – meaning that we can feel free to cheat a poor stall owner by means of excessive and intimidating haggling.

If our fellows do care, then we also care – so we do not automatically avail ourselves of the local sex industry when travelling.

However, even if our community of origin does care about our behaviour in other countries, but we think we can get away with otherwise immoral behaviour without being caught or are in a group of people all (or most) of whom are complicit in contravening a specific set of moral injunctions, then we may be liberated to contravene similarly.

Caring about others – or not

A slight variation of the application of our ethical structures in a foreign situation comes up when we hear stories of events in other countries.  It is worth comparing two horrendous events from the 1990s – the genocide in Rwanda and the massacres committed during the war in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia.  I read with horror the stories of brutality in both countries and truly wished that someone would step in and do what it took to stop the madness (NATO, the UN, the African Union or even unilateral action by an interventionist nation like the US or France).  However, when images from the refugee camps in Bosnia were televised, I felt a far more visceral response than when I saw images from the refugee camps in Burundi.

It is sad to say that seeing a group of Africans suffering in squalor was nothing particularly new, especially after events in South Africa, Mozambique, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia.  Seeing Europeans in the same situation however, came as more of a shock.  In part that might be due to the association with the death camps of World War II, but there was also an element of the fact that the people being depicted were Europeans.  And I am of European origin.

Watching horrible events happen to other people does affect us.  Some might argue that when this is considered in relation to the Ethical Hierarchy, we should be surprised that we care at all about events that clearly have no impact on our own personal safety.

This is erroneous because we humans have the ability to consider what it would be like for us if we ourselves were in such a situation.  Certainly we can see that other people rather than ourselves are currently suffering on television, but we can understand that we would be threatened if such a situation were repeated in our own communities.  Therefore we perceive this situation as wrong.

When we see the suffering of a type of person that we can associate more closely with, in the way that most westerners could when presented with images of Europeans in refugee camps, the sense of outrage and unease is heightened.  For a westerner, seeing a large group of third world people suffering is “comfortably” wrong.  We would not like to see ourselves in their situation, but we might see it as completely unlikely.  When we see people very like ourselves suffering, it is much less comfortable and we tend to place more emphasis on how wrong the situation seems to us.  In such a situation, we perceive the threat to our survival much more clearly.

A conclusion to the Morality as Playing Games series

Game theory, some would argue, is about winning games and for that reason has nothing to do with ethics.  I have shown, however, that game theory can also show us how to not lose, and not losing is key to survival.  I have used this understanding to develop a conceptual ethical structure which can act as a mechanism for promoting our survival in a community in which we would otherwise have little basis for trusting others.

My argument is that the fundamental basis for what is morally “right” and “wrong” is a consideration of what promotes the longer term survival.  And while the ethical structure that results from such a consideration may be characterised by self-interest in one sense, it is fully consistent with what we observe in reality with people frequently appearing to act against their more immediate self-interest – in part because their small but ostentatious acts of self-abnegation in the near term can mean the difference between survival and death in the long term.  With the introduction of the concept of “legacy survival”  we are provided not only with a further explanation for acts which are inconsistent with apparent (short-term) self-interest but also an understanding as to why, under certain circumstances, people may be motivated by their morality to accept potentially lethal risks.

However, in order to maximise the chance of long-term survival, we must not only espouse the morality which results from our ethical structures but also have the capacity to act against that morality when necessary – we need to be bad when being bad is called for.  This allows the fact that we humans almost universally consider ourselves to be fundamentally moral to be reconciled with the fact that we are wracked by human failings, consistently failing to uphold the moral injunctions and imperatives that we espouse.  If the emergent function of an ethical structure is to promote survival, then it is entirely rational for us to work tirelessly towards establishing ourselves as morally upright individuals while not permitting ourselves to be locked too securely into a morality that only promotes our survival prospects in under certain circumstances.  It is entirely rational to retain some freedom to manoeuvre, including the option to abandon key aspects of our morality when circumstances change, such as when it becomes apparent that persisting on a moral path is no longer consistent with the best chances of survival.

It is in this way that one could even say that occasionally, by acting against the imperatives and injunctions of our ethical structures – that is by “acting immorally” or “being bad”, we are not only being rational but we are doing what is right in terms of our survival prospects and, as a consequence, we are doing what is fundamentally moral.

Friday, 5 April 2013

An Ethical Structure

As I have previously argued, the function of an ethical structure is to promote survival.

If this argument is valid, given that we are social animals, then the concepts of right and wrong which emerge from an ethical structure should align with what is best for our survival within a community (in either the physical or legacy sense).  Apparent deviations from what is right will be punished as a protective measure by that community and following the dictates of the ethical structure is rewarded by continued survival.

There will be some variability in ethical structures due to the fact that we don't all live in a single homogenous, static community.  There will be geographical variations, across continents, within nations and even across socio-economic groups within cities and towns as well as variations through time as cultures evolve.  A common feature, however, will be the fact that ethical adaptation will be driven by that which promotes survival.  In other words, what we are encouraged to think of as right and wrong will correlate with the rules and behaviour that ensure that we, as communities, do not lose the survival game.

Despite being social animals living in communities, each individual must make his or her own decisions and therefore these rules and behaviours must be, primarily, conducive to individual survival.  A very simplified ethical system, therefore, could be represented thus:

The term “Destroy” is used to indicate that what is at stake is more than merely physical survival (which could be expressed with the more intuitive “Do Not Kill Me”).

An ethical structure that consists of only one injunction, that being not to destroy the owner of the ethical structure is not going to be particularly useful.  Remember, however, that this structure works within a community – each member of which, one could assume, holds the same injunction to be primary.  The injunction serves as the basis of an agreement with other members of the community: “I’ll act in line with your injunction with the understanding that you will act in line with mine”.

But a problem still remains.  If someone is likely to break the implied covenant and destroy you, you may not be aware of the danger until you have a knife in your back – when it is far too late to protect yourself.

Community acts as a layer of defence against this.  Initially communities were defined by common heritage and therefore a shared legacy to maintain.  As communities increase in size, however, this effect is diluted – in part due to more distant genetic links and in part due to a diminished share in the shared legacy.

Another layer of defence is provided by numbers, rather than community per se.  Once we gather in herd like numbers, we can take advantage of the safety that comes in numbers.  In other words, we can use the fact that we are two hundred times less likely to be killed by a predator (or covenant breaker) if we are one in a thousand than if we are one in five.  Additionally, when we observe a fellow human breaking the implied covenant not to kill another, we get a vital warning to be on our guard and perhaps even act pre-emptively to eliminate the threat in collaboration with others in the community.

Like all animals, we are extremely sensitive to such threats.  Unlike most, however, we can extrapolate.  This means that we can observe the behaviour of animals (human or otherwise) and assess whether that behaviour increases the risk that we might be attacked and killed.  For this reason, it is not rational to restrict our concern to relatives and those in our immediate community.  A person who kills indiscriminately will be equally likely to kill anything.  A person who kills companion animals (as opposed to animals we eat) is more likely to kill a human.  A person who kills people in your tribe, age, social or heritage grouping and so on is more likely to kill you.

And a person who deliberately harms you is more likely to kill you, not only because the damage might be extreme, but also because if the inhibition against harming you is missing, there is a greater likelihood that the inhibition against killing you is also missing.  Therefore, we can build on the ethical structure:

Note that the meaning of “Me” can be interpreted widely to incorporate “people like me”, “people in my community”, “animals similar to me” and even “things”.  If you like, you can imagine another dimension extending into the screen, with the things that are least like you at the furthest remove and the screen image representing that which is most like you.  A three dimensional pyramid would thus be formed which, if viewed from above, might look something like this:

A potential threat who expends all his anger on kicking rocks is not going to be much of a concern.  Someone who has harmed your pets is a concern, but not as much of a concern as a person who has killed them.

Note also that, like the concept of survival, the concept of “damage” can be extended beyond the physical to include legacy considerations.  We don’t want our children killed or our good name destroyed and similarly we don’t want our children hurt or our good name damaged.  Similarly, the notion of similarity is flexible, particularly when one is considering legacy issues – so an attack on a stamp collector might be construed as representing a potential threat to you as a collector of paper doilies.

The representation of the ethical structure is such that you can imagine the “Do Not Damage Me” element being removed, corresponding to a contravention of that injunction such that the pyramid topples (returning to the more simple two dimensions):

The concept being illustrated is that when someone harms you (or things like you), the risk that you might be destroyed is higher – as high, in fact, as if there were no injunction against damaging you.  The “to the extent that it might destroy me” element is indicative of the fact that being damaged can lead to destruction, even though this destruction may be unintentional.

We should not focus exclusively on how we assess the risk of others to ourselves, but rather consider also how others might assess the risk that we pose to them.  This layer of the ethical structure provides us with a mechanism by which we can demonstrate that we are not a risk – by making it clear that we consistently do our best to prevent damaging others.  The same applies to not destroying others, of course, but as that is the last line of defence, one obtains more benefit from an ostentatious show of harm minimisation.

Interestingly, there is no explicit commandment to do no harm in the Abrahamic religions, but a generous reinterpretation of the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself could have it including an exhortation to do no more harm to your neighbour than you would to yourself.  Doing no harm is an explicit feature of Buddhism, being an aspect of Right Action.  Minimising suffering is a centrepiece of secular forms of morality championed by people such as Sam Harris.


Now that we have introduced a second layer to the ethical structure, it should be clear that more layers may conceivably be added, establishing an Ethical Hierarchy with each layer or level of the hierarchy giving us another opportunity to be seen to act to in accordance with the implied covenant with our fellows.  I don’t want to labour the point, so I will just provide a brief justification for each additional layer.

The more commonly stated moral injunction is against stealing but I use the more neutral term “take”.  Stealing is more than just taking something that is not yours.  It presupposes that that which you take rightfully belongs to someone else.  That which is given freely cannot be stolen and equally that over which no one has a rightful claim cannot be stolen.

For example, there is a range of morning papers in some cities, including some which are distributed free of charge.  When you come across a pile of these free papers, they do not yet belong to anyone.  If you take a copy and tuck it under your arm then by your actions you have claimed ownership and indicated that that particular copy yours – while you did not pay for it, you did not steal it.  However, if someone were to yank the paper out from under your arm and run away with it you could then accuse that person of stealing what had become your newspaper.

If on the other hand, you left the paper on the seat next to you on the train and someone picked it up as soon as you left, then that act could not be justifiably considered theft, because by leaving the paper behind you gave an indication that you had revoked any claim to it.

If we are talking about a disposable item like a freely distributed newspaper, the moral issue is trivial.  Someone taking a paper which you did not invest any significant effort in securing is little more than an annoyance.  However, not all of our belongings are so simple to secure and we hold a much stronger and binding claim to ownership over certain things.  For the most part, we all have belongings which we are not capable of watching all day every day.  It serves us well if other people have a good understanding of, and respect for, ownership of property.  It is unreasonable to expect that other people will be willing to respect my claims for ownership if I fail to respect their claims for ownership.  Therefore it benefits me to act morally with respect to other people’s belongings and not steal them.  I can then take a moral position that stealing is wrong in the hope that others will respond in kind.

We want others not to take our things in general, but even more importantly, we want to hang on to those belongings which are essential to our survival and well-being. For this reason “Do Not Take from Me” is the third layer of the Ethical Hierarchy, with elements corresponding with each of the two upper layers.

While the traditional Biblical injunction “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” can be construed to refer to lying in general, "bearing false witness against one's neighbour" could well have been intended more literally since giving false evidence in a trial was looked upon quite unfavourably by the supposed recipients of the commandments. 

While lying is generally considered morally wrong, it is perhaps the most commonly transgressed injunction.  We lie frequently with experts putting the figure at up to one hundred times a day.  Not only that, we expect to be lied to.  We rarely seem to mind that we are lied to so frequently and in some instances we welcome it, given that entertainment is often geared around that special form of untruth that we call fiction.

However – when it comes to something that truly matters – we take lying very seriously indeed.  Bearing false witness in the literal sense matters because it has an implication of telling a lie to either protect someone who has done wrong or providing false evidence against someone who has not.

Such an injunction benefits us, as long as we do no wrong ourselves.  It also provides us some protection against those who would wish us ill, because a witness would ostensibly be compelled to report faithfully any wrongful act committed against us.  More importantly, this moral injunction applies to a person who commits a wrongful act as well, that person has a moral injunction to tell the truth about their wrongful act.

The injunction is also important in a general sense.  To be able to rely on people not stealing from me and not trying to kill me, I need to be able to trust them.  In order to be able to trust them, I need to be able to believe what they say.  Equally, for them to be able to trust me, they need to be able to believe what I say.  For this reason it is important that I establish the notion that I consider lying to be inherently wrong, even if I might not always tell the truth, I must be able to justify my lies and prove that they were inconsequential.  For mutual trust to be established a moral injunction against lying is required.

Again, our concern is more about being lied to ourselves than about us lying to others.  We tend to realise that in some instances it truly is better to lie than to tell the truth.  Despite this, when someone’s lies to us are brought to our attention, we can become considerably incensed at the betrayal of trust it implies.  Therefore “Do Not Lie to Me” constitutes the fourth level of the Ethical Hierarchy.

Once we have assembled into some form of community, fairness becomes very important especially in interactions involving shared resources and labour.  In order to trust someone and to believe them, there has to be some fundamental concept of equality, give and take, wherein for instance I believe you are willing to commit to responding to me in kind.  Why should I commit to respecting your belongings if I believe you are not willing to respect mine?

The concept of fairness underpins all higher moral injunctions.  Without fairness, there can be no trust.  Without fairness, there is no imperative to not take the belongings of others, because without fairness, there is no reason for others to not take your belongings just because you did not take theirs.  Without fairness, you cannot be sure that another person will respond to your peaceful overtures peacefully so to be safe you would be better off acting violently first and securing a victory over a potential aggressor.

Interestingly, fairness is a concept learned very early by humans and one that is exhibited by other social animals.  Experiments have shown that primates punish others for their lapses and are demotivated by unfair distributions of treats.

Consistent with the other layers, our concern with fairness is primarily about others being fair with us, rather than us being fair with them – although our showing a commitment to being fair illustrates to our fellows that we are trustworthy and not, therefore, a risk.  Therefore “Do Not Cheat Me” constitutes the fifth level of the Ethical Hierarchy.  Again, this layer has elements corresponding with the four higher layers.

There may be a question at this point as to whether “Do Not Cheat Me” should not appear above the “Do Not Lie to Me” layer.  Lying is a form of cheating in that the liar presents something that is not true as if it were.  Considering a conversation as an exchange of information, a lie is false and therefore useless information and if I provide you with false information in exchange for correct information, then I am being unfair – I am cheating you.  There are, however, other ways I could cheat you, or be unfair, without lying at all.  I could be quite open about the fact that I might pay you lower than standard wages if I considered you to have the wrong gender, or the wrong eye colour, or if you supported the wrong football team, irrespective of the quality of your work.  Or if I were big enough, I might openly take the lion’s share of any reward for labour that we contributed to equally, without having to resort to any subterfuge at all.

Therefore, when one treats “Do Not Cheat Me” as synonymous with “Act Fairly in Respect to Me” the relevant layer could absorb “Do Not Lie to Me” layer, but not sit above it.

In Saving the Dog, I discussed a hypothetical set of rules the last of which was “All of these rules must be obeyed at all times”.  As I said in that article, the problem with such a rule is that you are only obliged to obey it if there is an inherent (and absolute) obligation to obey rules in general, in which case any “Obey the rules” rule is redundant.

The injunction “Do Not Break My Rules”, however, is not a dictate imposed on other people unilaterally.  It’s one half of an implied covenant, “If you do not break my rules, then I will not break your rules”.  Additionally, these rules are generally communal – so “Do Not Break My Rules” can be read as “Do Not Break Our Commonly Held Rules and Any Unique Rules which I Express as Being of Particular Importance to Me”.   In other words, a community will establish common rules, but each individual may establish special rules commensurate with the status of that individual. 

For example, whistling is generally considered acceptable, but in the house of a friend of mine, I know that there is a specific rule against whistling.

Like any other rule in the other layers, the infinite variety of rules that may exist in this layer can be used to assess the potential risk of someone attempting to contravene a higher level rule.  If I ignore the whistling rule in my friend’s house, he will be justified in thinking that I hold him in low regard.  If I hold him in low regard, he could reason, my inhibitions against cheating him or lying to him would be weakened.  Furthermore, my whistling could be seen as an attack on him – an attempt to force him to change his rules in his own house.

The same sort of logic can be used to assess the behaviour of strangers.  In any large community, we regularly come across people who we do not know well.  While regular interactions allow us to gauge how far we can trust certain people, to what extent they will be fair, to what extent we can expect them to tell the truth, how inclined they are to violence.  For a person we do not know well we need a method by which we can assess how well they obey the moral injunctions against cheating, lying, taking, harming and killing.

We need to know to what extent this person conforms with our ethical structure.  We can make an assessment of overall conformance based on their overt conformance with minor rules.  “Do Not Break My Rules” therefore relates to all the rules, regulations, conventions, habits, laws, routines, practices and norms we have in any society (while noting rationally that we don’t generally expect strangers to understand our unique rules).  We can judge a person from little things like their hygiene, their choice in clothes, their use of language and even their physical appearance.  If a person demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to follow convention in their clothes and speak with civility in situations where everyone is expected to know that one should not swear, what basis do we have to believe that this person will follow other more important rules and conventions?

On the other hand, when we see a person who clearly understands and follows the rules of our society, we have a basis for assuming that this person understands and also follows the more important rules.


The Ethical Hierarchy can be likened to a form of layered physical security.  For example, valuable items may be surrounded by a range of protective measures – a remote location, high razor-wire fences, a patrolled open space behind the fence, solid walls and doors, a vault arrangement and alarms associated with each measure.  With physical security, our confidence in the safety of our valuable item is highest when none of the protective measures have been breached, and no alarms are ringing.

The same applies when applying ethical hierarchy: if I am surrounded by people who obey each of the injunctions, then I can be confident that I am safe.

However, if a protection measure is breached, or an injunction is breached, a figurative alarm goes off and my confidence is reduced as a consequence.  The extent to which my confidence is reduced is commensurate with the nature of the protective measure, or injunction, breached – I might just shun a person who can’t follow the rules but prepare to fight someone who demonstrates a tendency towards violence.


The question now is, is this Ethical Hierarchy a useful model of our morality?

The primary benefit of the model is an understanding as to why, although almost all moralities share common elements (injunctions against violence, stealing, lying and cheating), they may appear so different.  The differences tend to reside in the lowest layer, in a set of rules which are often arbitrary.  There are also differences in legacy considerations, matters of prioritisation which may also be arbitrary.

Another benefit is an understanding of why obeying apparently arbitrary, and in some cases completely stupid, rules may make good sense.  Being overtly moral, by obeying these odd rules, conveys a benefit.  If our survival in a community depends on our ability to convince others that we are not a threat to their survival then our shared ethical structures are the mechanisms by which we do so – by conforming.

Finally, it should be noted that the minor rules are not fixed in stone.  The important thing is that the rules are communal, commonly held and commonly understood.  They can be based on a myth that a god wrote rules on rocks, or they can be based on the product of rational discourse.

It is at this point that my view of the world converges with that of people like Sam Harris.  I don’t agree that the minimisation of harm is an absolute basis for morality, but rather I contend that the minimisation of harm serves as an excellent basis for developing the set of rules which could underpin a rational morality.


Before leaving this series, one more issue needs to be addressed – the one which most plagues ethical theories.

Why does morality break down?  We shall look at that in the concluding article.
This article is one of a series. It was preceded by Morality as Playing Games and will be finalised by When Morality Breaks Down. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.