How To Choose the Moral Path: Step 1c, Examining the Conscience
I discuss two types of conscience and go into detail about what I call the Everyday Conscience, how it works, and what it's best at.
Different people mean different things when they talk about the conscience. Some talk like it’s inner spiritual wisdom, a voice from the Divine or the Higher Self, while to others it’s a natural instinct, always available for snap decision-making.

I want to suggest that these are two different feelings. I do believe that everyone has access to both, but I believe that each has different utility. I’ll call the two inner voices the “Everyday Conscience” and the the “Deeper Conscience”, just to stay belief-system-neutral about it.

The Everyday Conscience is something that people gain as part of normal early childhood development. It’s inherent to the human mind, and some other animals appear to have glimmers of it. Sometimes a problem in brain chemistry or certain types of trauma can cause people to not have access to this emotional tool, but the vast, vast majority of humans feel the pricklings of the Everyday Conscience without making any effort at doing so. The Deeper Conscience, on the other hand, takes skill to access, and most of us never bother to learn how. I’ll go into it in more detail another time.

For now, I want to discuss the Everyday Conscience and its strengths and weaknesses as a tool for moral choice.

I personally view the Everyday Conscience as a mush of instinctive impulses that help one to determine “proper” behavior in social situations. I don’t see it as a spiritual thing. The Deeper Conscience is the one with a spiritual vibe, while the Everyday Conscience is much more “primate”.

The Everyday Conscience mixes together things like the information from your mirror neurons and empathy, the cultural norms you’ve absorbed from the people around you throughout life, your own self-concept and sense of place in society, your deeply held beliefs, your fears, your sense of disgust, and whatever other spare bits of socially-oriented data it finds lying around. It decides based on this tangled information whether to stab you with guilt and/or shame over possible courses of action.

Guilt shows remorse for the actions, or at least self-dislike over them. Shame only shows that you don’t want other people to know you did them (or, if you’re already caught, it’s the sense of losing status as a result).

The Everyday Conscience is something that a lot of people in our society learn to ignore from a young age. To maintain or increase one’s privilege in an unjust world, the Everyday Conscience must be regularly numbed. Humans are an inherently egalitarian species, like many other primates. Status must be earned and maintained, and doesn’t vary a huge amount between members of the group. Sure, some people are prettier or stronger or more charismatic, but everybody matters, and everybody is just people in the end. Choosing to maintain a position far above others requires forcing down the guilt and shame inherent to denying human natural egalitarianism.

This is just a small piece of the complex relationship between privilege and morality, and I’ll go into other aspects another time, but the numbing of one’s conscience among the powerful is how many social ills are maintained.

The higher your status in an unjust system, the more you deep down you know that if the structures of the current order were suddenly removed, the greater your chances to be mobbed and killed by those whose oppression you have actively or passively condoned. Some assuage this guilt or shame by donating or acting in the public good. Others rationalize justifications for being horrible, numbing themselves with defensiveness. Others shut out all information that might bring guilt or shame to the painful forefront of their consciousnesses (a major component in most cognitive dissonance). Others still compartmentalize, choosing to believe that egalitarian justice is only required within a small in-group, such as only the super-rich, or only white evangelical Christians.

The truth is, most of us do a little of all those things, especially when functioning within an unjust society. (Ordinary Examples: Generosity—tipping well. Defensiveness—tipping badly over minor, human errors. Not Listening—Only watching news that agrees with you. Compartmentalizing—Only humans matter; it’s okay for pigs to suffer horribly.)

From all of that, it may seem obvious that the Everyday Conscience should be relied upon heavily, being super useful in determining morality. That’s not untrue, but it’s important to remember that the Everyday Conscience only cares about one’s status within one’s social context. It isn’t reasoning out the best course of action. It isn’t weighing anyone’s well-being on its own merits. The Everyday Conscience just wants as few people as possible to violently hate you, and as many as possible to help you if you need help. It’s about stacking the deck in favor of your own future survival.

As such, the Everyday Conscience can be downright unhealthy when society’s norms tell you to hate yourself. It can decide you deserve to die over something like who you love, or the color of your skin. If society is telling you you’re wrong just for existing, over things you can’t possibly change, your Everyday Conscience can’t tell the difference. It only knows you’re “wrong”.

Similarly, the Everyday Conscience can advise grossly immoral behavior based on the culture surrounding you or what you were taught to be ashamed of. Your fears and the things that disgust you can make cruel acts feel strangely moral, as in the case of self-righteousness.

In other words, all the Everyday Conscience really tells you is how to be seen as a good person. It can help you to genuinely be one in certain ways (especially in understanding that status-differences should be minor and flexible, not vast or systemically enforced), and I therefore DO recommend cultivating and listening to this inner voice, but I also recommend constant self-examination to contextualize its messages. Sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to do it despite the guilt and shame.
How To Choose the Moral Path: Step 1b, Quieting the Inner Ape.
Here, I talk about our non-empathy instincts, their inevitable influence on us, and how to be decent anyway.
Last month, I urged avoiding reliance on rules or principles, which can confuse the reasoning process, but I also recommended a triad combo of compassion, acceptance, and courage as a guideline (rather than actual rule) in cases where the data for reasoned decision-making may be lacking. Today I want to talk about other instincts and where they fit into morality.

The most important thing to remember about our other instincts—ALL our other instincts—is that they are morally neutral. They are not good or bad. Your gut is neither righteous nor wicked. Your fear is neither vile nor saintly. The only human instinct that offers MORAL information is empathy. The rest of them are just trying to keep you alive, and are sometimes better adjusted for the world we live in than others.

None of them are inherently good.

None of them are inherently bad.


You see, for thousands of years, at least in the dubious grouping of cultures we call Western History, human beings with privilege have been telling other human beings that their emotions and instincts are useless and bad, and that they must suppress them in order to be moral and civilized creatures.

This is silly, impossible, and simply incorrect. It’s also kinda morally reprehensible, but a useful way to keep the population quiet and controlled. As long as the oppressed feel bad about themselves whenever they lose their tempers, it’s a bit harder for them to get a good riot going, to tear down the unjust establishment.

Here’s the reality though. Whether you like it or not, your feelings and instincts affect every single thing you do, think, or say. You are always biased, and you are always acting like a monkey, even when you think you’re being coldly logical. Cold logic isn’t a real thing the human brain can do. But it can TRICK the user into falsely BELIEVING cold logic is taking place, which is when the decisionmaking process gets really, really dangerous.

You’re not rational. No one is. Stop trying. It’s not a thing.

But … reason is so useful!!

It really is, and I highly encourage its cultivation and use. But you can’t use reason if you don’t start by understanding yourself to be inherently unreasonable. Reason is a tool that can only be properly applied by those who know how very, very hard it is to use.

You see, our reason-touting philosophers throughout history have been starting from the assumption that humans are not animals. Based on this foundation of ridiculous opposite-day nonsense, they went on to determine that if we act like animals, this is bad. Civilization, they assume, comes from being above animals, ruling over them.

This is a great excuse for exploitation and cruelty—infinitely expandable to include whatever people you’ve decided to oppress or conquer this week: women, neighboring countries, poor people, other religions, those who look different … whatever you want! Those people are no better than animals! We’re the truly civilized ones.

Yeah, sorry. That’s not a thing either. None of us are better than animals. Everything about us is wet, messy, and bestial. And the less you’re willing to admit that, the worse your behavior is likely to be.


Okay, so let’s say we’ve accepted that emotions and instincts are both unavoidable and morally neutral. They’re still really disruptive influences when it comes to rational thought and action. How do we focus on compassion, courage and acceptance, when our instincts are pushing us to be selfish, cowardly, and judgemental?

Well, first of all, that’s one reason I emphasize empathy so much. It’s inherently human, inherently ape, and very instinctive. By concentrating on your empathy, honing it, spending more and more time doing compassionate things for others, really working to understand others’ points of view, you can quiet your more potentially disruptive instincts—by letting empathy drown them out.

However, there are other good tricks to use. I’ll go into some of them in a later post, when I talk about the conscience and “feeling the Force”, as it were. For now, though, here’s the bottom line:

We humans are not that different from dogs. They’re not primates, but they’re pack-minded apex predators like humans, and they’re familiar enough to make a good example. In the case of dogs, you get the best behavior by accepting the dog as a dog, and communicating to the dog in a way that the dog understands. It takes time, attention, patience, and education.

If you beat the dog and mostly leave the dog locked in a cage in the back yard, you get a mean, uncontrollable dog. If you communicate to the dog in ways the dog doesn’t understand, you get an anxious, neurotic dog. These are more or less the same outcomes you get if you treat yourself in those ways too. If your inner ape is kept chained deep in your psyche and beaten with cruel criticisms every time you notice its presence, it’s gonna make you a scary mean bastard every time it manages to surface. And if the only way you ever talk to your inner ape is with reason and logic, your reasoning mind might understand, but ape-you is just lost, and increasingly neurotic with every passing crisis.

Me, I have two neurotic dogs at home, so I can hardly claim to be a master at any of this, but I think I’m slightly better at speaking to my inner ape than I am to my furbabies. And here’s the thing: the scolding and criticism don’t work. Producing the behaviors I want in my life requires me to understand a) what instinct is causing the unwanted behavior, b) how that instinct is trying to keep me alive, c) how I can trick that instinct into feeling like it’s doing its job without causing unwanted behaviors, and d) what new behavior I want and why.

The inner ape can only be tamed through compassion and understanding.

Because we’re animals.
Critical Thinking Starts Before You Engage
A short, simple critical thinking crash-course for surviving the Internet.
I read an article recently that said critical thinking was bad actually, which annoyed me, because I’ve often said that critical thinking is the single most important survival skill in the Internet age. However, once I read the article, I realized what it actually said was that you need to vet sources before you engage with them deeply, because deep engagement with crappy sources can cause more harm than good.


So, when I was taught critical thinking (which wasn’t until my 4th year in college, by the way), I was taught that you’re not doing critical thinking AT ALL, unless you start BEFORE engaging deeply with the text. So to me, the article basically said, skipping the all-important first steps of critical thinking makes critical thinking bad.

Which … yeah. But to me, of course, if you skip those steps, you’re not engaging in critical thinking in the first place.

So I thought I’d offer a critical thinking crash course that includes ALL the steps of the process. Skipping ahead is bad.

Step 1: Critique the Source.

Before evaluating content—before engaging with the content at all, if possible—examine the source. Is this a reasonable source for such information? Is this source likely to offer reputable or reliable information? What are the source’s known biases? What might some unknown biases be (like the money trail, who makes money from this)?

It’s okay for sources to be biased. They all are (repeat: THEY ALL ARE). But you need to *know* the biases before you decide whether or not to spend your time and mental energy on them.

Example: Universities will tend to have a “liberal” bias or very little bias on social issues, because they cater to young people (usually more progressive-leaning), and because having professors who say shocking, progressive things is a low-risk and inexpensive way to look cutting edge and forward-thinking. However, deep down, universities’ focus on retaining the loyalty of big donors will tend to make most universities a lot more traditionalist under the hood than they might initially look on the surface. Their most popular degrees, with the highest chance of being lucrative post-graduation, will tend to offer far more traditionalist course-content from far more traditionalist professors. The progressive content is for degrees you can never get hired to use, like arts and humanities, and the less well-paid sciences.

That said, if a university publishes something factually wrong, the university’s reputation for scholastic excellence takes a hit. In order to avoid this (since it might lose them money), universities tend to be pretty careful to publish only works that will, at minimum, be taken reasonably seriously by peers around the world, making publications from scholastically-accredited universities a relatively reliable source of factual data.

A bias analysis like this can be done of almost any organization. Here’s another: major news outlets will usually not tell you outright lies, because getting caught later makes them look less reliable as news sources. The words they say are usually more or less true. However, since they care more about money and advertisers than they do about news, you can expect them to hide news they don’t want you to hear, and spin news in whatever way best fits their brands and their advertisers’ and producers’ preferences.

These complex layers of bias-understanding can help you to vet content before you ever waste your time watching or reading it. Hint: most content is WAY LESS reliable than accredited universities or major news sources, money-bias and all. Better sources are rare and precious.

Step 2: Choose Engagement Level.

Level F

You might choose not to engage at all, at this point. This article or video or Internet comment may be likely to decrease, rather than increase, your understanding of anything. We humans have finite time in this life. You have no responsibility to expose your mind to useless garbage. It’s not good for you. Reject spending your time and energy on things that are likely to be lies, confused ramblings, deliberate manipulation, opinions falsely presented as facts, or any other form of misinformation. You have better things to do.

This is an example of appropriate and deeply intellectual critical thinking. To examine the source and choose to simply not engage is completely fine.

Levels D and C

Alternatively, if you have some deep reason to engage with a questionable source (like you really, really, really love the person who’s asking you to read it, or it’s somehow your job to engage with this content), or if you consider the likely quality of the information to be worth the bother of compensating for the known biases (a paper from a super weird scholar, but on that scholar’s area of expertise), you might engage warily. Go in knowing that you can’t take anything at face value.

It’s much easier to engage warily with content that cites sources for all of its data, so prioritize well-cited content over content with no sources listed (yes, Wikipedia is better than average as Internet information sources go, even though it’s written by packs of randos, because you can trace the content’s origins and editing history, and observe clearly when sources are nonexistent or terrible).

Levels D and C engagement are not about having an open mind. They’re about having a rationally guarded mind and taking the time and energy to question every single claim, and make sure they’re all backed up. It’s hard work and not to be undertaken lightly. If you encounter a Level D source and don’t have time to do the work of properly questioning all the nonsense, you’re probably better off not engaging for now. Just don’t read or watch it until you have time to do so responsibly.

With Level Cs, at least be sure not to take them too seriously, and don’t pass them along until you can find time to fact-check. If they’re super interesting, pass along only with disclaimers, preferably in small, private groups instead of in public.

It’s also particularly important with C and D sources to compensate for your OWN biases. Just because something agrees with you, that doesn’t make it credible, and taking it too seriously can decrease your understanding of the subject matter. In fact, things you agree with, or find very appealing, are more dangerous to your grasp of the facts than things you reject instinctively by preference. Anything you instinctively hate the sound of, you’ll apply critical thinking to because you want to. It’s the things you *love* the sound of that’ll getcha.

And again, treating sources with critical wariness is intelligent and ethical. You don’t have to be open to every pea-brained notion you stumble across. Being open-minded is about being open to new actual information, not about being open to new garbage.

Level B

Finally, you might choose to fully engage, with an open mind. **Within Reason** (see below). Adjust your read of the data to counter biases, but otherwise accept that it’s probably more or less accurate. Level B sources, once you’ve adjusted for bias, are probably worth your full, deep engagement and thought, even if you don’t have time to track down every claim and fact-check for yourself. They’re also usually safe to pass along to other people.

(You still have to track down sources if you’re using something for a scholarly paper, btw.)

With main-stream Level B sources, like most major news outlets and universities, keep in mind also that they are comfortable parts of the current social system, and doing well in it. They will be incentivized to defend the status quo and unlikely to share very radical ideas unless spun to help their brand in some way. To get perspective on main-stream blind spots, I recommend consuming responsible journalism from other countries. If you can read in other languages, that will get you the best perspective (I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about American politics by watching Swedish shows about us). English-language news from other countries can also be useful, but BBC America doesn’t count as being from another country (the rest of BBC content does).

News outlets from other countries are just as biased as our news and have just as many blind spots, but their biases are in regards to their own countries and their countries’ relationships with ours. That means that it’s easier for us, as outsiders, to spot and adjust for their biases, and then use their perspectives on us to readjust our own understanding of the biases in our home-grown news sources.

And those are the engagement levels.

You might notice at this juncture: there’s no Level A. Keep reading.

Step 3: Engagement

Once you’ve decided whether and how to engage with a source, go ahead and consume your supposedly-factual content. This is where you read or listen, and think through the logic of what you consume. You know … do the stuff that the other article was calling critical thinking, and it IS critical thinking. It’s just only the final PART of critical thinking. Steps 1 and 2 are crucial. Most Internet content should only be engaged warily, if at all. You don’t have time for the bunny trail. Leave it to the people who do.

But if you’ve decided to fully, deeply engage, here’s some advice for how to do it, even if it’s a Level B source.

If the information sounds really out there, or unlikely, or (especially) too good to be true, double check with other sources to make sure everyone’s reporting the same thing (and if there’s disagreement, keep in mind that your source may be incorrect, despite having passed the source-critique stage of critical thinking). If most other reasonable-quality sources agree, however, even weird-sounding things might be true.

If you’re not writing a paper, and consuming content just for your own understanding, then—provided you’re keeping a level head about it—you can probably mostly trust what you’re seeing from a Level B source. As stated, most accredited universities and major news outlets (NOT including opinion sections or commentary) tend to be Level B sources, at least on the topics they are qualified to talk about (and so long as biases are acknowledged and accounted for). Sometimes other sources can also be Level B, based on stellar reputation for accuracy, a nonprofit structure (nonprofits with disclosed or small-only donors can be great!), and similar considerations.

Definitely continue to question everything, however, and never just rely on other people to vet your information for you.

But what about discovering new things? you may ask. Or studying really different ideas?

Original research is a whole other topic, as is deep-dive reporting. This advice is just about usefully critiquing the content you encounter in day to day life.

And it’s always _okay_ to engage with anything, however questionable, as Level D content. Just make sure you have the time and dedication to do so responsibly, BEFORE you wade in. And DEFINITELY before you click “share”.

You don’t owe bad content your attention.

But, but, but … trust!

As I said above, in critical thinking, there’s no Level A content. Never, ever, ever trust anything without question. Questions are vital to reason. Always keep in mind that any given fact might eventually turn out to be wrong. None of us actually knows anything for certain.

Not even my holy book? Your holy book is open to interpretation, and other deeply faithful, good people don’t see it the way you see it. Always question your interpretation, even if you don’t feel comfortable questioning the book itself. Even if the book is infallible, your understanding of it (or your pastor’s or imam’s etc) might still be wrong. So question.

No humans alive today are perfect, not even divinely-inspired humans.

There is never a Level A content engagement.

Question Everything.

And that’s a super quick-and-dirty run-down on critical thinking. I hope it helps you to survive the scary, scary, wonderful world that is the Internet.
How To Choose the Moral Path: Step 1a, Determining Complex Morality.
In this post I talk about the use of reason and principles in determining the moral path.
Last month, I talked about using empathy instincts to determine the most moral path on the fly, relying on millennia of human evolutionary survival advantage to quickly guess what will probably be your best moral bet. Today I promised to talk about more difficult cases, when instinctive compassion isn’t necessarily the most compassionate path.

I’ll talk another time about the relationship between morality and our other animal instincts, as well as about the semi-instinctual, semi-conscious conglomeration of impulses most call the “conscience”. Another “inner voice”—which some call the conscience, some the Holy Spirit, and some perhaps the Force (or higher self, or whatever)—may also get its own post. For today, however, I’m going to talk about principles and reason.

When using reason to make decisions, the most important thing you need is good data. Reason is a wonderful, irreplaceable skill, the single best decision-making tool humans have available to us, but bad inputs make for bad outputs. You can’t get to a solid, reasoned answer without gathering good data. For this reason, I cannot recommend using principles or rules to determine morality.

There is, in fact, no principle or rule that can’t lead you to committing immoral acts. They will all eventually fail you. Even compassion can lead you down ultimately cruel paths by making you unwilling to stand up for yourself, thereby encouraging immoral behaviors in others (as only one example). Other principles are far less reliable than compassion. Courage can lead you to stand up AGAINST truth and decency. Loyalty or obedience to the wrong person can lead to all manner of evil. Humility can get in the way of protecting others. Honesty to the wrong person can get good people hurt. The list goes on and on and on. There are NO reliable rules.

In other words, there’s no shortcut to knowing what’s right.

If you have to choose quickly—and sometimes you do—default to whatever your empathy tells you. But if you have time to decide properly, you have to do the work of gathering the relevant data and making a real decision. Principles will lead you astray.

So rules are out the window, and we’re choosing the moral path based on data. Of course, most of us don’t have the resources to gather ALL the necessary data for a rational moral decision—about much of anything. If reason won’t work without good data, and our data is more or less doomed to be incomplete, and if principles can’t fill in the gaps where data is lacking, what do we do?

Well, we accept that we’ll make mistakes for one, and things like the conscience and the higher self might play into the process too, as I’ll lay out later. However, while rules may be bad, I do find that certain principle-like _guidelines_ (pirate’s code style) are very useful.

Compassion is your best bet as the core, leading guideline.

For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

Something like that.

To temper and strengthen your compassion, give it the “edge” it needs for tackling those fussy edge cases, I recommend setting your second-strongest guiding value to “acceptance”. By acceptance, what I mean is: choosing not to try to control. It’s human nature to crave personal liberty (more on this another time, but this may be more or less universal to living creatures), so accepting other people’s autonomy and liberty is actually a vital component of compassion. Things that may seem compassionate on the surface may not be, if they do not also accept others’ personal choices.

Accepting others’ personal liberty is often terrifying, however. People can be foolish, cruel, incomprehensible, and all manner of other things that might be dangerous to us. That’s why acceptance probably won’t function well as a value unless paired with courage.

Alone, any one of these values might lead you to do harm, but when working together in concert, with compassion as the core or overriding value, these three combine to form an excellent supplemental moral compass, to help your reasoning mind to compensate for bad or incomplete data.

That said, though, even this excellent moral compass is never going to be good enough to get you off the hook from thinking through each situation on a case-by-case basis and taking responsibility for whatever choice you make. These are guidelines. Rules will only cause you trouble, and you’re still responsible for harm you cause by following rules when the rules are wrong.

But wait, what about self-defense? Compassion, acceptance, and courage sounds like a great way to get yourself killed!

I hear that, but no, not really. The key is, full compassion requires that you also offer compassion to yourself. If you don’t, you’re not doing it right. Love thy neighbor, AS THYSELF. That doesn’t mean, “Love your neighbor too, you selfish bastard.” It means, “Love your neighbor and yourself, the same way.” You have to do both. You also need to have compassion for those who rely on you and need you to be healthy and strong for their sake (which is just another reason why loving yourself IS loving others).

With self-compassion in the mix, it’s easy to see how self-defense is a moral good, and sometimes it’s actually more compassionate to all involved for you to place your own needs over those of others, especially if you can do so in a way that is courageously accepting of others’ autonomy and liberty.

But … you keep quoting Jesus. Is this a Christian thing?

No. I see Jesus as an excellent moral philosopher and a human being, not a supernatural entity. I value him alongside Socrates as one of my two favorite moral philosophers, and that will tell you a lot about my ethical process right there:

Love One Another, and Question Everything.

Between the two, you … will still be human and flawed, but you’ll tend to be ahead of the moral game, at any rate.
How To Choose the Moral Path: Step 1, determining morality.
I discuss how to determine what morality is, and how our instincts can help us in behaving morally.
Last month I talked about the moral degeneracy of our times and about restoring or creating a moral society. Today I want to talk about determining what is and is not moral.

Rationally speaking, it’s increasingly clear, from study after study, that the kindest, most compassionate policies consistently prove to be the most rationally utilitarian as well: the fewest number of people suffer the least harm and the largest number of people enjoy the most utility from taking a compassionate, generous approach. The most obvious example of this is that it would cost all of society less money and make us all safer and more secure to give homeless people homes rather than allowing them to stay homeless. Being nice is being smart.

Many people want to make decisions based on rational data, everything cold and objective, but the reality is that this is impractical in day to day life. First of all, we rarely have time and resources to gather all the necessary data. Second, if the data is bad, which it can easily be due to flawed methodology, human error, bias in gathering or interpreting data, and so many other factors, the results of the “rational” decision-making process will turn out to be flat wrong. Third and finally, we are all biased people, with our own irrational filters on our data interpretation processes. We are not likely to be able to be objective about anything—especially those of us who believe ourselves to be objective. That just means we’re totally unaware of our hidden biases.

Rational determination of morality is a nice idea, but in interactions with the real world, we need something faster and more reliable. I suggest the best tool for determining moral action is empathy.

The human ape evolved to have what seem currently to be the most intensive and perceptive mirror neurons of all known species. We humans need to ask ourselves how such tools for empathy evolved. What is the evolutionary drive that made them so distinct a survival advantage?

I postulate utilitarianism. The greatest advantage to the human organism is in caring for other human organisms. The instinct toward empathy is what makes us able to accomplish the vast, world-shaping things we accomplish. It is also what gives each individual human the greatest chance for survival.

Yes, a small minority of humans do well for themselves by hurting rather than helping others, but there is simply not room at the cruel, selfish top of society for all of us. Play king of the mountain with your sad little life if you must, but your odds of stability and security are much higher when you focus your efforts toward your compassionate instincts. Your empathy.

This is morality. Morality is the choice to help others rather than to hurt them. The core of any moral philosophy must therefore always rely on the compassionate instincts.

This is great news! It means that we have a built-in, instinctive tool for determining quickly what is most likely to be the most moral course of action. It’s true that our society is complex enough that determining morality is sometimes more complicated than just “what feels kindest”, but empathy can and should be the core starting point of any attempt to determine the morality of a given choice, and falling back on empathy in a pinch will tend to have a lesser chance of disastrous long-term consequences. Mercy, at worst, will give you time to think through your actions with more clarity, at least in the majority of circumstances.

I’ll go into more detail next month about how to determine morality in circumstances when empathy is insufficient (such as giving needed medication to a child who refuses to take it, or harming another person in order to prevent worse harm to yourself), but empathy is the first step.

Some of us, especially most female-assigned people, are taught from early childhood how to recognize and utilize these instincts at the highest possible capacity. This is taught to female-assigned children for very much the wrong reasons, but if it was taught equally to all children, the world would be a much better place.

It is also taught out of many children, especially those who have been assigned male, as well as young adults entering male-dominated fields. This is very, very much a rationally counterproductive way for society to behave, and we would all be better off if it didn’t happen.

If you were never taught to place empathy at the forefront of your decision-making, or if you have had your empathy trained out of you, here are some tips for reconnecting with this useful and basic human instinct*.

The best way to stimulate compassionate instincts on a biochemical level is to spend more time around tiny babies. If there are any tiny babies in your social circle, volunteer to take regular shifts caring for these helpless little people. Hold them. Smell their baby skin. Rock them. Dance with them. Sit still with them. Gaze into their eyes, and do everything you can to imagine what the world is like for them. Be patient when they cry, and curious about the source of the tears. Use empathy to determine what they need. It may just be attention and being held.

Engaging in this process triggers literal chemical changes in the human body, guiding our neurochemical impulses to emphasize compassion more highly than it did before.

If no babies are available, practice deep, attentive empathy with pets, lovers, older children, and friends. This won’t cause neurochemical changes of the same intensity, but it will still increase your overall capacity to determine the most moral course of action instinctively, at a moment’s notice.

*Note: if your empathy has been beaten out of you by torture or oppression, understand that I do not presume to advise you. In a later post, I’ll address the complex relationship between morality and privilege, but for now simply assume I’m offering advice to people who are more societally privileged.
Moral Degeneracy and Reason
Thoughts on moral philosophy, the Parable of the Sower, and where to go from here. Yes, my blog posts will probably usually be philosophical rambles. It's my nature.
My Patreon special ended while I spent a week without power, huddled near our home’s inefficient fireplace, reading Sherlock Holmes and Michelle Obama’s Becoming, sometimes by candlelight. Fascinating juxtaposition, though I don’t feel qualified to comment on all the layers of “whoa”.

More than either Sir Arthur or the former First Lady, however, the author I’ve been thinking about most in recent months is Octavia Butler, about whom I’m quite serious when I say I believe she was a prophet. Not some silly seer or oracle, deliverer of fiction-style “prophesies”, but a prophet in the Old Testament sense: one who sees the truth of society’s ills and calls upon us all to return to spiritual alignment.

The Parable of the Sower may have failed to predict one or two things: the Internet, the exact date of total collapse … but realistically speaking, its setting is more or less in the process of coming true. This is terrifying. Then again, it’s also comforting, because the story is about hope rising from the ashes of hate and fear and chaos. It’s about people who refuse to give up, even as the world they know is inexorably ending around them.

There will be people like Lauren who will rise to the challenge and strive to preserve and rebuild, to create a better, wiser civilization than the one that was lost. I am already grateful to these people in advance, just as I am grateful to the visionaries and organizers of today, who are so many and so vital.

My original concept of this post was bitter and cynical, but before I sat down to write it I saw that Democracy Now had republished an old interview with Octavia Butler, as if they’d heard me thinking about her. After watching, I found myself moved by her words to approach the matter differently.

But I do still want to acknowledge the moral degeneracy of our times. I don’t think there’s anyone of any philosophical outlook who would disagree that we live in morally degenerate times. We only disagree on what aspects of society are degenerate, and how we should respond to the overall problem.

I could write a whole series of essays on the nature of moral degeneracy, human perception of it, and our societal responses to the degeneracy that we perceive, but I try to keep these posts to 1000 words, so for now I just want to offer a few thoughts for your consideration:

Responses to degeneracy usually fall into three categories, often mixed and matched haphazardly.

1) We have to put a stop to the degenerates, by any means necessary.

2) Everyone is morally degenerate, so it doesn’t matter if I am too. In fact, it is better if I am.

3) We need to work together to restore a sustainably functioning community.

All three of these are instinctive human responses to the uncomfortable society we’ve created.

The first instinct is to scapegoat those who do not fit in, or who frighten us, assuming we can fix the problem by amputating the “infected” segments of the population.

The second instinct is to fit in with the crowd (in order to avoid falling prey to the first instinct), and also to strike proactively against threats perceived to be unavoidable.

The third set of instincts urge us toward empathy, teamwork, and community-building, instincts not unique to the human animal, but among our greatest strengths.

Our society bends over backwards to rationalize the first two instinctive responses as valuable. They are not, nor are they rational. In bestial survival situations of the past, they have their place, but for a functioning human society, we must acknowledge that they are gorilla fear-responses, no more.

Our society also bends over backwards to paint the third response to degeneracy as irrational: wet, naive, girly stuff that smart people should reject. The problem is that the compassionate instincts—even while they come from our emotional impulses (just like the other two responses do)—are born out to have rational utility, unlike either of the others.

In study after study, on topic after topic, we continually learn that our empathic and compassionate instincts are supported by rational fact. We save more money by giving homeless people homes than by leaving them on the streets. We help more people to recover from drug addiction by compassionately drawing them back into healthy community than we do by punishing or judging. We grow our economy more rapidly by giving directly to the poorest than we do by letting money sit unmoving in rich people’s bank accounts. Free education improves everyone’s lives by increasing the speed of innovation. Etc, etc.

Being kind is the only logical thing to be.

Now, I don’t expect human beings to suddenly become logical after all these centuries. We are more or less a bunch of tailless, bald monkeys with delusions of grandeur, and we will not be anything more anytime soon.

However, I do see hope for a moral reawakening in society’s future—not due to logic (which can be corrupted by bad data anyway)—but due to our compassionate and empathic instincts. Love is actually as instinctive to us as fear. Kindness is the instinct that is still of use in modern society, more than any other. So when we look to the problems around us and how to address them, remember and spread the word: Of your various instinctive responses to the moral swamp around you, the useful one, the rational one, is empathy.

Your other instincts do have a place, of course they do. But only in immediate life-or-death circumstances. The rest of the time, take them out on video games.

And when your turn to act comes, your turn to put your mark on society’s moral future, be on the side of the visionaries and organizers, the people around you who are most like Lauren Olamina.
Witchblood Excerpt
Here's an excerpt from the novel I'm currently sharing with patrons on Patreon.
“You know that's illegal.” Raven pitched his voice to cold authority.

His young aunt, Kestrel, didn't even bother to look up.

“Slipped my mind,” she replied to Raven, her tone absent, elsewhere. “I'll be sure to stop immediately.” She hunched in front of a flickering two-dimensional screen. The delicate wires of her custom control headset were almost hidden by her hat, not that anyone in the palace could do anything to her if they caught her. She and the queen had an understanding, and no one else had authority to prosecute her for her crimes.

Raven laughed as his aunt's screen froze on an image of two humans in historical garb, holding pre-Merge pistols.

“What are you sensing?” Raven asked her.

“It's just called 'watching' when it's only two-D with no stim,” Kestrel replied. “Pre-Merge television. I've been on a kick. How's your English? I'll put it on the speakers for you.”

Raven's English was decent. Unbeknownst to his mother, Raven spoke three human tongues. He didn't feel like sitting still just now, though—didn't want to be entertained.

Politely declining his aunt's invitation, he turned to leave Kestrel's “lab”—a room full of complex electronics in various states of repair.

“You're angry,” Kestrel said as Raven reached the door. When he didn't respond, she went on, “You always crack bitter jokes about the rules when you're angry. What did my sister do this time?”

Raven felt his shoulders sag, in something between relief and exhaustion. Instead of leaving, he shut the “lab” door and returned to stretch out in one of Kestrel's swiveling, cushioned chairs. His aunt's screen was blanked now, and she'd turned to give him her full attention. Her bright, black eyes observed him coolly from her slate-grey face. Kestrel almost never showed emotion.

Raven far preferred this to his mother's falseness.

“She dismissed my bodyguard,” he said. “Out from under me, with no warning.”

Kestrel raised an eyebrow. “Bearthew? Is this a survival test of some kind?”

Raven spread his hands and shook his head. “That's the best case scenario,” he answered. “She might just want me dead.”

Kestrel pulled up a blank, simple-looking program in the air between her own eyes and Raven's. She stared at it for a moment. A few words appeared in a tiny font, backwards to Raven's perspective, and were gone before he could read them as the program closed once more.

“I've made a note to look into it,” his aunt told him.

That was unsettling. “I thought you'd reassure me that my own mother doesn't want me dead.”

“I don't like the rumors lately.” Kestrel frowned. “Between the bay pirates and the rebel camps in Manhattan's ruins, anti-human sentiment is getting bad,” she said. “The Trads fear you, and the Rennies are scrambling to reassure everyone that their views are nothing like yours.”

None of that was news. Raven had trouble imagining even his mother wanting him dead over it. Before he could say as much out loud, Kestrel went on.

“Yesterday, I went out to do maintenance on my routers, and sissy dearest didn't realize I was on the roof,” Raven's aunt confessed. “I heard part of a meeting with the Duke about strife between the nine families, and I could have sworn I heard her say she thought someone was considering a coup.”
Kestrel sounded bemused, which was unusually emotive for her.

A nervous laugh escaped Raven. “That's far-fetched, isn't it? The nine families have shared power for millennia. The rotating monarchy is a stable system.”

Kestrel shrugged. “What's really stable, post-Merge?” she asked. “Half the elves and most of the dragons alive today remember a world with different maps, easier magic, portals to other realms, and no such thing as electronics. My sister is the first high queen to be born since the Event. There's no way our culture is done recovering from the shock of the change.”

She had a point, but . . . “That still seems extreme, even for the most rabid fringe-Trads.”

Kestrel nodded and sighed. “I hope you're right.”

“Well, whether I am or not,” Raven conceded, “it sounds like a shithole of a time to be without a bodyguard.”

“I don't trust them,” Kestrel said.

“Yes, well, people don't try to kill you as often as they do me,” Raven replied. “I've more than once had a use for a second pair of eyes to watch my back.”

Kestrel pulled up another program, a simple game with colored balls. Playing it idly in the projected hologram that hung in the air between herself and Raven, she shrugged again. “Who in the Void can you hire?” she asked. “You can't trust anyone in Fellveil right now, with Rowan acting this way. In the other eight states, well, which families are loyal to the oligarchy, and which have gone radical? And how will you know who's a Trad sympathizer and already wants you dead?”

She made better points than Raven liked to admit.

“I'll figure something out.” He found that he'd run out of patience for the topic. “Tell me more about your human show there. Judging by the pistol-styles that's what? One century pre-Merge? Two?”

Perhaps he was in the mood to be entertained after all.
Patreon Launch!!! Woohoo!!!
Launching my Patreon this week, and philosophical ramblings (mostly) thereupon.
I’m super excited (read: terrified) to be launching my Patreon! Here’s the link to sign up:

<3 <3 <3 Join before Valentine’s Day, and I will write a short love poem just for you! <3 <3 <3

I’m doing something a little different from most writer Patreons I’ve seen. Mostly I just want to send people my stories, and this is my plan for how to do that. You can click on the Patreon link above to see how I’m going about things.

See, my whole life, I’ve been an anti-materialistic hippie freak. The problem is, that this does not pay rent or utilities, nor does it buy groceries. This is (indirectly) why we need UBI. But I digress. My real point is that I deeply believe in principles of trusting in generosity, like Amanda Palmer talks about, except that, from having spent most of my adult life hard up for cash, I understand that—as society currently stands—just trusting in generosity is an unrealistic way of life for most people. Most of those who manage it are coming from a place of more privilege than we realize.

As such, I have always struggled between a strong desire to give my work away for free and trust the universe to take care of me, and a strong desire to support fellow struggling artists by valuing art highly and demanding fair pay for content produced. And these two desires don’t mesh super well. They set me at odds with myself, constantly undermining my own efforts to build an audience OR keep food on my own table.

I’ve been deeply blessed and privileged in my life to have been supported more than once on this journey by dear friends who believe in me despite my internal philosophical paralysis (Chidi Anagonye is what ethics scholars are really, actually like, true story). And now I’m embarking on a new step of my path.

Patreon, I hope, will provide me with something of the compromise I’ve always hoped to achieve. It has a paywall, which isn’t my favorite, but due to that paywall, I don’t have to fear that I’m costing other creators money by undervaluing my own work (especially those creators with fewer life advantages than I have been lucky enough to have).

And after stories are released on Patreon, having been funded by my patrons, I hope to put a certain number of them out for free with a clear conscience. If my patrons generously put me in a position to be able to give the world a small gift of the fruits of my labors, it’s not that I’m giving it up for nothing. It’s that my patrons financed the present.

Depending on how well the Patreon does, I may even put all of my stories out for free (though patrons will always get early access, of course).

In other news (since I’m nowhere near my 1000-word self-limit for blog posts), the relief that comes with our nation’s current reprieve from fascist assault is already giving my brain space to worry about other things. For example, I’ve been having stress dreams about Israel and the West Bank. Consciously, I’m far more focused on problems here at home, but this isn’t even the first time I’ve dreamed about Israel. Apparently my subconscious is trying to tell me something. (I am not Jewish, or Muslim, and I have no relatives in the region: full disclosure.) I suppose I’ll have to write something about it once I figure out what my own mind is trying to communicate to me.

In the mean time, I’m just here, hiding from the plague, grateful for the good luck that allows me to do so, and angry at the social structures in place to deny such luck to so many others. My advice to those like me, who are able to work from home and take cover well away from the pandemic’s front lines: pester your representatives to get healthcare and vaccines to essential workers and poor communities. They all deserve hazard pay and then some. And tip servers and delivery drivers WAY more than usual. People need the extra.

And I guess that’s it for now. I plan to try to post a minimum of once a month, usually in the latter half of the month.

Much love to all of you reading this. Stay safe out there. Wash your hands. Wear a mask when you go out. Apply critical thinking to your news sources. Here’s hoping we can all hug each other again sometime this year. <3
First Blog Post of the New Website!!
Lessons from 2020, and more!
We have almost reached the end of 2020. Will we make it the last few weeks? Will the world end before we get there? It’s hard to say.

But hey! I have a new website. It’s kind of retro-90s, I think. It’s my obsession with purple. And soon I’ll have a Patreon. Links forthcoming. It will be mostly for novels, released a few chapters at a time. Game design tidbits and other randomness will make appearances (some posted here too). I’m a musician, a scholar, and a philosopher, so … this should be fun. Or pretentious. Or both! Whee!!

I will say, though, that 2020 has convinced me of a few things.

1) It’s important to stand up and stretch every half hour. As a person who works from home at a desk job, I was already doing this, but not reliably. Once quarantine happened, though, I started to have back and tailbone problems unless I stayed very strict about stretching. I also try to dance to whatever music is playing after my stretch. I think I’m both happier and healthier when I dance for 3 minutes a couple times an hour.

2) I have a good life. I have lost more or less nothing, personally, in the various 2020 disasters. I am grateful beyond all words, and I am not remotely free from survivor guilt in the face of how much so many others have suffered and lost. As a response, I donate as much as I can, to causes that I hope will ensure a better future for everyone.

3) Board games are better in person. I would not give up our online-since-March weekly Game Night for all the world, but dear gods I miss playing with physical cards and pieces. It’s kinda convenient when a computer does the bookkeeping for me, but I just think better with a physical board in front of me. I need the sound of the pieces moving and the feel of the cards in my hands to really know my strategy.

4) If I had a political party (which I never have) it would be the Movement For Black Lives (which isn’t a party). I watched a couple of their long-format political action videos on YouTube this year, and I have never seen another political party that hits the points I care about so well, and in a grounded, practical way too. White people need to get on board, because we will all be a thousand times better off if we put M4BL members in charge of everything. Like, everything.

5) Breathing is good. Poorly-regulated asthma can make deep-breathing cause panic instead of calm. As I wrestled my asthma under control this year, George Floyd was killed, like so many state-murdered Americans who die gasping for air. Covid 19 slew 1.5 million, all unable to breathe at the end, and summer flames brought smoke to block out the sun, choking everyone, and … Listen, I just want us to be able to breathe. Clean air is a human right. Healthcare is a human right. A house that isn’t on fire is a human right. Not being choked to death is a human right. Let the people breathe.

6) Walking in the park is a spiritual practice. We walk our dogs in a neighborhood park every night, and I got into a habit of pausing for a moment of communion with the local spirits. I’m feeling more spiritually in-tune than I have in decades. Fellow members of my congregation include a flock of night-quacking ducks and the occasional low-flying bat. The local nutria show interest at times, but I’m always moralizing to them about environmental concerns, so they aren’t as engaged. During the deepest phases of the spring quarantine, we even had guest testimonials from a pair of beavers and a coyote.

7) 5-htp has magic powers. Despite the horrors of 2020, I have had one of the mentally healthiest years I’ve had since my asthma first got bad over a decade ago. I am still horrified, enraged, and sickened by so much (so much!), but I am able to regulate, calm back down, find patches of hope (like the M4BL <3), and wildest of all, I can SLEEP AT NIGHT. Sleep is amazing. I highly recommend it!

8) I enjoy being alone. I’ll probably go through a social burst once it’s safe to do so, and attend a few parties, but honestly, if I could be in quarantine for six months of every year, I think I would be thrilled to pieces. Especially if I got to have a cuddly cat, cuddly dog, and spaz-monkey dog with me (for spice), as well as the love of my life upstairs. This is an existence to which I am extremely well-suited. I feel bad for the extroverts going through all this, but I sure ain’t one of them.

9) The apocalypse is here. Every empire falls, but not always with a bang. Ours is in the process of crumbling. We’re just deciding how painful the transition will be. We can embrace improved democracy and a groovy solar punk future, providing health and prosperity for all humankind, or we can cling to the past and end up with a global desert hellscape of constant war and universal deprivation. Or we can split the difference and compromise to a scary cyberpunk future, where the rich are despots and only the strongest of the poor survive, but at least we still have Internet. You, dear reader, must decide which sci fi setting you want to live in. Because you don’t get to keep the world you have. This era is kinda already over.

So there you have it; nine tidbits of the wisdom I have gleaned from 2020. I hope you find them useful!

See you next post! Stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask when you go out. Much love.