Category Archives: Ethics


A friend on my Facebook posted this image:

Spock says:
“Neither of you can prove or disprove God”
“Checkmate Christians & atheists”

I replied as follows (and wanted to repost it here):

Ignoring that science is not actually in the business of “proving” things, but rather gathering evidence through investigation.

Ignoring that if you’re going to use a standard of knowledge that requires “proof” or “absolute certainty” then you actually can’t prove or know anything. And I mean *literally* anything. You can’t prove that the sky is blue because for all you know we’re in the Matrix right now and the actual sky is violet.

Ignoring that Christians can’t even agree among themselves as to the characteristics of the god they believe in; let alone the hundreds of other religions in the world.

Ignoring that, actually, if your claims about gods require preconditions that contradict things that we know about reality, then yeah… you can eliminate the possibility of that god existing. Further, if your the preconditions of that god are logically impossible then you’ve again precluded the possibility of his existence.

Ignoring that absence of evidence is, in fact, the only *possible* evidence of absence, and that you don’t believe in leprechauns, unicorns, fairies or mermaids for the exact same reason that atheists don’t believe in gods (ie: complete and utter lack of evidence for their existence).

Ignoring all that and supposing for the sake of argument that we have absolutely no idea whether or not any gods exist:

Without being able to prove that religion is correct, you don’t get to impose it on other people. There’s no reason to deny loving same-sex couples the right to marry. There’s no reason to institute mandatory prayer in schools. There’s no reason to splash acid in the faces of women for wanting to go to school or drive a car. There’s no reason to refuse to help the poor because they’ll just get some really good shit in their next life. There’s no reason to deny women their rights to bodily autonomy. There’s no reason to deprive children of necessary lifesaving medical technology like vaccinations or blood transfusions.

In the argument between atheists and religious folks guess who’s fully on the side opposing all those things?

That’s right, the atheists.

We don’t do it for ourselves, we do it for everyone. So that nobody has to be oppressed by the religious segments of society.

And you know what? If nobody on the planet were harmed in any way by religion, then I’d still argue with religious people, but it would be in the same way I argue with people who think that Star Wars is better than Star Trek: at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because neither of us are going to go home and starve our children because of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where all the things I listed above happen. A lot.

And before you throw up the “not all religious people are like that” argument, let me just tell you: I don’t care. I don’t give one half of the tiniest shit about that. The fact that it happens AT ALL is the problem.

That’s why the atheists fight.

And if you’re a religious person who lives their full life without harming anyone in the slightest, whether inadvertently or not, because of your religious beliefs? Good for you. Captain Kirk could still kick the shit out of Han Solo.

On a related note, the bit about going home and starving one’s children over religious belief is a reference this story. I worry that it seems like I’m just picking a recent bit of news that proves my point, but the sad thing is whenever I go to write about the horrific things that people have done in the name of religion, I don’t need to dig back very far in recent news to find something. Like, ever. There’s a constant source of terrible, depressing things done by religious people, in the name of religion, easily available for reference in the news stories of the past week or so.

Remind me again how you can’t have morality without God?


Batman: Capital Punishment & Self Defense

This is an essay I wrote on Facebook about the morality of Batman, on November 6th, 2009. As I recall, it was prompted by a particular playthrough of the most excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum and the scene where Joker gives Batman a free shot to take him out “once and for all” (around 1:45 in the clip).

I’ve recently been contemplating the ethics of Batman. Specifically, his refusal to kill. For the sake of argument, I’m going to use the Joker as the primary case.

The question at hand: Should Batman kill the Joker?

Three sets of circumstances come to mind: capital punishment, self defense and defense of others.

I maintain the position that capital punishment is wrong in all circumstances. If the Joker is already in Arkham, whether for treatment or simply for containment; the state has no right to kill him as he is no immediate danger to anyone. It may be argued that, in the case of the Joker, treatment is not an option: he’s just that crazy. But even if he is a hopeless case, we can still hold him in custody so that he isn’t a danger to others. Of course, this is the Joker: Batman’s greatest nemesis. Sooner or later he will escape from Arkham. Why not execute him now and be done with it?

The problem with that line of thought is, from a legal perspective, once you apply that reasoning to the Joker, you can apply it to any criminal. The possibility that that criminal will someday escape or be released, at which point they could be a danger to others is present regardless of the criminal. Why not execute them all? Well the general arguments against capital punishment (which I will omit here) still apply to those criminals. It’s a legal mistake to make an exception for a single one.

The second case, self defense, I choose to ignore due to circumstance. After all, we are talking about Batman, and physically the Joker is no match for him. The threat of the Joker comes from the threat he poses to others, the games he plays of which it is Batman’s job to stop. From a legal standpoint, it would likely be justifiable for Batman to kill the Joker if he truly had no other choice in order to survive. However, if given the option to take down the Joker with either lethal or non-lethal methods, I believe it’s fair to allow his personal ethics of not killing to inform his judgments.

The final case, defense of others, is, I believe, the relevant one: if the Joker is an immediate threat to another person. The term “immediate” is important and meant to distinguish between, for example, holding a gun to the person’s head and having planted a bomb. The difference being that the Joker’s death would resolve the first situation, but not the second. So, if the Joker is an immediate threat to the life of another person (whom we’ll refer to as a hostage), should Batman kill him?

One of the first considerations that comes to mind is how a regular law-enforcement officer (police, soldiers, etc…) would be entitled to handle the situation. Well that officer would be permitted to take lethal action. Shouldn’t Batman be able to take the same action?

There’s a crucial difference between a law-enforcement officer and Batman, however. Law-enforcement officers are governed by the state. They have strict restrictions on when they can or cannot kill. Batman has no such standing (unless we look at the “deputized agents of the law” of the 1960’s Batman and Robin, but they aren’t the typical representations of the characters). If Batman is permitted, by whatever ethics, to kill the Joker, there’s no real oversight to it.

That being said, this is Batman we’re talking about. We know (at least “we” the audience and not necessarily “we” the people of Gotham) that, even if he allowed himself to kill, Batman would never abuse this. His moral compass is sufficiently strong to never kill when it wouldn’t be allowed for a law-enforcement officer to do so.

But what about any other vigilantes? In a number of interpretations of Batman (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight) there are groups who take up Batman’s mission, only with less discriminating moral codes. If Batman, a man with no oversight, is permitted to kill, such men might do the same, only under circumstances not typically permitted. People without proper training and oversight being given implicit permission to kill does not seem like a morally justifiable course of action.

Every way I look at it, the rational conclusion I come to is that Batman shouldn’t be morally permitted to kill the Joker. And yet, intuitively, I feel that he would be completely justified in doing so. I’m not quite certain how to resolve this incongruity. Perhaps it points to the idea that emotion shouldn’t dictate law, but rather rational thought and logic. There are a number of such laws which seem motivated more by emotion than insight, including the above-mentioned capital punishment, prostitution, drug use, bans on gay marriage and bans on polygamy.

Perhaps, rather than turning to intuition to decide laws, it would be best to consider them reasonably. Nothing ought to be sacred and everything ought to be questioned. If emotion leads to the same conclusion as rational thought, then all the better. On the other hand, if they don’t, then perhaps there ought to be some introspection to figure out why.

That quickly turned away from the topic at hand: should Batman be allowed to kill? But as I said, reason seems to disagree with intuition on that one. In the end, I suppose, I’ll have to give it some more thought to figure out why.


This is an e-mail I sent to a friend whose official position on abortion I would hesitate to characterize, but leans towards the pro-life side. The actual conversation we had was via text messaging, so I don’t have a record of her questions but I basically wanted to hit all the points of what it is that I think actually makes killing wrong, why society needs to enforce that, why I don’t consider abortion murder, why I think that abortion is okay, and why it shouldn’t matter (from a legal point of view) if the mother wants an abortion and the father does not.

To put it in some context, she and I had already had a previous discussion where I had explained that I think killing is wrong because it severs the attachments that people have to the world around them, and vice-versa. Her hypothetical example that I mention in my opening is whether that makes it okay to kill a reclusive person who has no such ties. I’ve edited it to remove some personal stuff that I had in a preamble and ending.

If someone is a recluse then killing them is morally wrong. While true that nobody will care about the result (in the hypothetical), we don’t live in a vacuum. What we’re talking about is two different types of morality: legal and metaphysical. If truly nobody cares about the death of our hypothetical person (note that this must include himself), then you’re correct: there is no metaphysical moral issue with killing him. However the legal morality of this is problematic. We create our own society and then we all have to live in it. If we allow people to kill other recluses, then we are also subject to the lawlessness of being killed ourselves. Thus, from a legal moral perspective, it is wrong to kill the recluse.

However, in a very slightly less constrained hypothetical where nobody cares about the man, but the man still has attachments to the world around him (art, music, hobbies, whatever), the metaphysical moral issue reappears. In my opinion, it is once again subject to the premise that the reason killing is wrong is the severing of these attachments. Granted that the man won’t care after the fact, but there’s a difference between caring and being affected. While he won’t realize it, the loss of these attachments is an effect, and I do believe that when making a decision about morality, the opinions that matter are specifically the opinions of those affected (in this case, the man). You could argue that his opinion is voided by his death, but that’s not quite right because we are talking about the moral *decision*. A decision which, by necessity, precedes the action, thus his opinion at the time of the decision is what we base our moral choice on.

Furthermore, while I do believe that it’s severing these attachments that make killing wrong, not all killings are equally wrong. In the same way that snow and dry ice are both cold, one is certainly colder than the other. With this in mind, it is more wrong to kill a person with a lifetime of these attachments than it is to kill an infant whose only attachments may be the love of its parents. This runs counter to the intuition that evolution has programmed us with, but I think the reasoning is enough (for me at least) to trump the gut instinct of biology. Note again, that killing the infant is still wrong, but simply less so than the adult.

This brings us back to abortion. Everything I just said about killing being metaphysically morally wrong because it severs attachments then fails to apply (if one assumes the desire for an abortion on the part of the parents). The fetus has no such attachments. At the point where it is legally allowed to be aborted, it hasn’t developed sufficiently to even have these attachments. As such, even if abortion counts as killing, it is not a form of killing I find morally quarrelsome.

A quick aside: I will not be using the term “murder” because it confuses the issue. Murder is a legal distinction, and has nothing to do with morality. Furthermore, murder is illegal, and is distinct from merely “killing”. This is why killing someone in self defence or by accident is not called murder by our justice system, and since we live in a society where abortion is legal, it too cannot honestly be called “murder”.

Anyways, this whole argument deals with the premise that aborting a fetus is “killing”. I actually deny this premise as I don’t consider the fetus to be anything more than a cluster of cells that will develop into something to which the term “killing” can be applied. Unfertilized eggs and sperm share this description, but we don’t think of menstruation or male masturbation as “killing” any more than we ought to think the term applies to a fetus. There’s nothing magical about the moment of conception, it’s just one step along the way to creating a person. The line between fetus and person isn’t a clear cut one. It reminds me of the question “how many grains of sand does it take to have a pile”. There isn’t a concrete answer. At some point it just stops being a few grains and becomes a pile. While answers will differ in the intermediate stages, we can look at a couple of grains and come to a consensus that they don’t form a pile. We ought to be able to do the same with the early stages of fetal development.

As for father’s rights, I consider that an entirely separate issue. If the father wants to keep the child but the mother does not, it is a tragic situation but the final say should (and currently does) belong to the mother. This goes back to legal morality above. Should we create a society where one person can be forced to carry an unwanted child? Considering all of the risks and efforts involved on the side of the mother (with none being involved for the father) it is unfair for a man to be able to force this upon a woman against her will. Imagine a society where a rapist could force his victim to carry his child. I hope you’d agree that this is not a society we would want to live in. Perhaps you’d suggest building in an exception for rape, but now all of a sudden all a woman has to do to get out of a forced pregnancy is accuse a man of rape, which I think causes more problems than it solves. Even at the end of the day, if abortion services are made unavailable to these women, it won’t stop them from obtaining one; it will simply stop them from obtaining one safely.

I’m prepared to change my opinion on this if it ever becomes possible to bring a baby to term without having to incubate it inside of the mother (artificial wombs or surrogacy transplants, for example) depending on what’s involved with the process. But for the time being, situations such as these are tragic but must fall to the decision of the woman.