Can Ethics Be Taught?

Peter Singer asks an old question.
In The Righteous Mind, Haidt draws support for his views from research by the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California, Riverside, and Joshua Rust of Stetson University. On a range of ethical issues, Schwitzgebel and Rust show, philosophy professors specializing in ethics behave no better than professors working in other areas of philosophy; nor are they more ethical than professors who don’t work in philosophy at all. If even professors working in ethics are no more ethical than their peers in other disciplines, doesn’t that support the belief that ethical reasoning is powerless to make people behave more ethically?

Perhaps. Yet, despite the evidence, I am not entirely convinced. I have had a lot of anecdotal evidence that my classes in practical ethics changed the lives of at least some students, and in quite fundamental ways. Some became vegetarian or vegan. Others began donating to help people in extreme poverty in low-income countries, and a few changed their career plans so that they could do more to make the world a better place.
This is a question that Socrates asked with some desperation, according to Plato; he seems to have died without answering it. Plato tried to answer it himself, but ended up with significant problems. In the Protagoras, for example, he has Socrates defending the weird proposition that ethics is a kind of knowledge but that it can't be taught (teachability being an ordinary characteristic of knowledge). He is debating Protagoras, who is defending the equally weird proposition that he can teach the virtues, but that they are not a kind of knowledge.

Not to steal Tom's thunder, but Aristotle's ethics is the place where the question really gets answered. Aristotle bridges the gap by showing that virtue is taught by habituation. So it's not knowing what is right that constitutes 'teaching ethics,' but practicing doing what is right. In doing that, one develops a character that does right by habit, and thus crosses the gap that Socrates and Plato and Haidt and Singer are worrying about.

To practice what is right, it is helpful first to know what is right. Ethical theory has a place, even if it isn't the place Socrates and Plato hoped it would hold.

BB Opinion: Why Can't We Return to How Peaceful the World Was Before Guns?

In the long, long ago, people lived in harmony. They had no choice but to, as they had nothing to shoot each other with. Theoretically, they had bows and arrows, but if you’ve ever actually tried to use one, they’re basically impossible to hit anything with. So if they had a problem, they just talked things out. If things got really heated, they’d settle things with a riddle competition. And men were respectful to women, as there were no guns to enhance toxic masculinity....

This all changed, though, when the inventor of guns (Bob Gun, I believe) created guns in his racism laboratory while trying to find ways to enhance racism. Since then, gun deaths have increased infinity-fold, from zero to more than zero.

The Freedom Caucus on Gun Rights and Safety

I have an official letter today from Rep. Mark Meadows, the head of the House Freedom Caucus, on the issue of the day. Since such a letter is a public record, I'll reproduce it here as I would not with genuinely private correspondence. I omit the opening and closing courtesies, though his office did not.
On August 3, 2019, a gunman cowardly took the lives of 22 innocent people in El Paso, Texas. Sadly, another gunman murdered 9 individuals in Dayton, Ohio. I continue to pray for the victims and their families, who are undergoing terrible, unexpected loss. I am thankful for the brave men and women of law enforcement that selflessly responded to these tragedies.

Violence committed with firearms is a serious problem in our nation, and it must be addressed with common sense solutions that ensure firearms are used according to our founders’ intentions: self-defense and freedom, not murder and terror.

I agree with President Trump when he said, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.” As Americans, we must stand up against acts of hatred and violence anywhere. The President also tasked the FBI to identify all resources they need to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism. Earlier this year, the FBI established the Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell to target domestic terrorism influenced by hate. The Department of Justice has launched a centralized website to educate the public on hate crimes and encourage reporting. You may view this website here.

I support proper enforcement of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which licensed gun dealers are required to contact, either directly through the FBI or indirectly through state and local law enforcement, before selling or transferring a firearm. Since its implementation in the 1990s, NICS has stopped over three million-gun sales or transfers from licensed dealers. I have also supported the FIX NICS Act, which improved the federal background checks system. This law requires federal agencies to make annual reports and certifications of compliance regarding the NICS system and it penalizes agencies that fail to comply. It also reauthorized the NICS Improvement Act and increased assistance to states to help them submit complete and accurate records to make the NICS system more thorough. This legislation was signed into law by President Trump on March 23, 2018.

For my part, I have introduced two measures to specifically protect schools in the United States. The Protect America’s Schools Act, which would provide adequate funding to the Community Oriented Policing Services’ School Resource Officer program; and the Veterans Securing Schools Act, which would allow Veterans hired by a state or local agency to serve as School Resource Officer – giving state and local law enforcement agencies greater flexibility in hiring Veterans to protect school campuses. These two bills are the direct results of input from sheriffs and law enforcement officers across Western North Carolina. You can read more about these bills here:

Additionally, I am a current cosponsor of H.R.1339, the Mass Violence Prevention (MVP) Act of 2019. This bill would establish a Fusion Center at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to better share critical information and intelligence across federal, state, and local channels. The authorities failed to share information about threats at Columbine, Charleston, and Parkland for example. The MVP Act would also strengthen the penalty for a burglary of a Federal Firearms Licensee and authorizes the DOJ to hire attorneys to prosecute cases of violence committed with firearms under Project Safe Neighborhoods. These efforts will give law enforcement additional tools to protect schools and communities and will dismantle gangs and other criminal organizations that trade in violent crime.

Great Moments in American Rhetoric

And that wasn't even the craziest moment that happened in our political discourse today.

As for yesterday, it turns out that "#MassacreMitchMcConnell" is supposed to be a nickname rather than a set of instructions. Like "Cocaine Mitch," only "Massacre Mitch." If you thought they were actually inciting violence instead, you were mistaken (although the one protester at his house calling for him to be stabbed in the heart may have aided your confusion).

I thought the Kavanaugh hearings were going to be a high-water mark for wild-eyed craziness. Apparently they were just getting warmed up.


But causation?
Venker goes on to explain that of CNN’s list of the “27 Deadliest Mass Shootings In U.S. History, only one was raised by his biological father since childhood.

“Indeed, there is a direct correlation between boys who grow up with absent fathers and boys who drop out of school, who drink, who do drugs, who become delinquent and who wind up in prison,” she writes. “And who kill their classmates.”
It's bad news if so. We've been talking about fixing failing families since I've been alive, and the problem has not improved outside of those wealthy and stable elements who were in the least danger to begin. Our culture has turned aside from family, even though family is the source of much of -- and much of the best -- human meaning.


The famous Mars rover has been in place for seven years. Here are some things it's found.

NYT Accidentally Does Journalism, Repents

Involuntary Commitment

I think I'd like to get AVI's opinion on this issue.

It's hard for me to imagine trusting the government with the power to involuntarily commit people for "mental issues," given that there's no lab test for mental health and our opponents are eager to assign diagnoses to things like conservatism (or reasoning from principles, rather than from feelings). The potential for abuse is obvious and huge.

On the other hand, I hear AVI saying things periodically that suggest that there are clear-cut cases with no vagueness that might be usefully addressed in this way. Whether these kids who engage in shooting up the world are such cases is another question.

Hold the Line

I sent the following letter to my Congressmen:
While recent mass shootings receive tremendous media attention, they are statistically a small fraction of gun violence, which is itself a fraction of criminal violence. It would be irrational to react to the spectacle instead of moving in a reasoned way toward the whole spectrum of criminal violence.

The fact is that the 2nd Amendment protects a free state in a crucial manner. International comparisons cherry pick mono-ethnic states with strong central cultures like Iceland or Japan, where violence is relatively uncommon with or without guns. The proper comparisons are to diverse American nations with a similarly troubled history to our own. Mexico has strict gun control, but is overrun by cartel violence. Brazil has until recently strictly forbid private ownership of firearms, but has recently begun re-introducing private arms as a way of addressing similar criminal violence. These states have found that even a large police force can be dominated by criminal organizations; resisting them requires a distributed capacity for defense of liberty among the citizenry as a whole.

Similarly, a free citizenry can protect itself against tyrannical government if it is properly armed. The people of the Philippines endure extrajudicial killings; the Uighur population in China is undergoing ethnic cleansing and "re-education" because they cannot resist. The people of Hong Kong, though engaged in a noble and enviable defense of their liberty, are likely soon to feel the weight of the People's "Liberation" Army. If they had rifles, they would have less to fear.

The Founders were correct. The militia, meaning the ordinary citizenry's capacity to defend its liberty, is the first and best defense of a free state. I mean to pass every single liberty to my children that was passed to me by our fathers. Hold the line.
After I wrote that, I found out that the folks in Hong Kong agree.

OODA Loops

Instapundit today carries a piece from Shooting Illustrated, which describes a five-step attack cycle. As the title of this post is meant to suggest, that's too many steps. John Boyd's OODA loop only needs four: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The SI piece collapses "orient" into "observe," and then adds two more steps: stalk and close.

The SI piece isn't terrible, but bear in mind that it's about a subset of criminal violence. You don't have to stalk a victim, or take care in choosing a victim, if you are merely interested in chaotic violence. If you want to get inside an attacker's OODA loop, you have to get inside the first three steps. Once they've made their decision, action follows.

It's important to remember, in these moments of heightened emotion, that mass shootings are a tiny fraction of gun homicides; and that most of America is perfectly safe, with a county-level homicide rate that is most likely (54%) exactly zero. Not 'near zero,' not 'zero percent rounded down,' but zero: no murders whatsoever.

Make decisions about how to respond to threats advisedly, and rationally: 'stop feeling, start thinking.' If you decide to carry a weapon and be prepared to respond to threats, do that rationally too.