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Eric Schwitzgebel is Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside. His most recent book is Perplexities of Consciousness. We discuss his article "Cheeseburger Ethics" on his research into whether ethics professors are any better behaved than anyone else. See http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com
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Behind John Rawls' veil of ignorance, an American ethics professor would imagine himself or herself choosing a society of wonderful economic and social justice, unheard of equality and liberty, and the "right" to "defend" itself through the counterproductive and self-destructive instrument of military empire and war. Peace isn't permitted even in utopia, in U.S. academe. Why? Because John Rawls murdered Japanese people "in defense" and occupied their nation as philanthropy.
And why do others support other wars? Principally because of where they happen to have been born and what flavor of fairy tales they have been told as children. Which ancient religious claptrap were you fed? Where were you born? Which political party do you identify with? Answer those questions and nine-and-a-half times out of ten we'll know which wars you support. We'll be wrong mostly in the cases of people who have rejected the acceptability of war.
What if, in the moral "original position," you chose to be born into a society that didn't accept murder, including government sanctioned mass murder? To reject the killing of non-human animals you'd just have to include them in the list of possible beings you might be born as. You wouldn't choose a carnivorous society if you might be the carne. You wouldn't choose an environmentally destructive society if you might be born as someone who cared about their offspring. And you wouldn't choose a warmaking society any more than you would choose an extreme plutocracy, because your chances of being a war profiteer experiencing short-term and superficial benefits would be miniscule compared to your chances of killing or dying or being injured or being traumatized or losing a loved one or being hated when traveling or paying an economic price or losing your civil liberties or experiencing vicious blowback or bitter shame.
You also wouldn't choose a warmaking society because you would have no war propaganda behind your veil of ignorance. Despite being defined as an impossibly isolated individual, you would have no reason to choose massive suffering even if the odds were against your being one of the victims.
And, of course, if you imagined yourself ignorant of whether you were an American or an Iranian, it might jolt you into some reluctance to support dropping bombs on Iran.
Extremists who reject all racism do not exist, because such a position is not deemed extreme at all. The same applies to extreme opponents of rape, child abuse, or polygamy, of cannibalism, human sacrifice, or slavery, of the torture of kittens, or of criticism of John McCain. Opposing these things does not involve extremists, only good liberal participants. But oppose all war and you are simply going too far.
But if you are going to support some wars, how do you pick which wars not to support?
Let's take the proposed U.S. war on Iran. Let's suppose you don't oppose it simply because you obey President Obama or because you were not raised a particular sort of Jewish or Christian. Let's suppose you came to your opposition to a U.S. attack on Iran against all demographic odds and after considerable thought. What thought was that?
I really want to know this. Because a good majority in the United States opposes attacking Iran for the moment. Is this just because Iran elected a new president and the new guy hasn't yet been properly demonized? Or is it just because there have been no reports on videos of Iranian beheadings? Isn't it more likely because no emergency outcry has been raised to defend innocent civilians from imminent slaughter by Iranians, requiring that Americans bomb them first? Isn't it even more likely because the FBI is posing as ISIS members, not Iranians, when it entraps troubled and challenged people in charges of terrorist violence? Or -- dare we hope? -- is it because, after so many years of holding off a war on Iran, the idea that there's something urgent about starting one now just doesn't pass the smell test?
If you could choose what sort of economic and political structure to be born into, wouldn't you choose one that learned from trial and error, and from trial and success? Wouldn't you place yourself in a society that couldn't avoid war through basic diplomacy in one instance and not notice that the same basic tactic could be applied in many other instances? And if you chose a society that rewarded success in the pursuit of the social good, you would be choosing a society that viewed war as on a par with cannibalism. Tragically, if you published such a claim in academia, it would not make you feel any better about your colleagues when they roasted and devoured you.
A note from David Swanson:
The three laws of robotics, according to science fiction author Isaac Asimov, are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
I would gladly have accepted a $20 million Pentagon contract for the job of pointing out these three laws.
OK, maybe $25 million.
Sadly, the Pentagon has instead hired a bunch of philosophy professors from leading U.S. universities to tell them how to make robots murder people morally and ethically.
Of course, this conflicts with the first law above. A robot designed to kill human beings is designed to violate the first law.
The whole project even more fundamentally violates the second law. The Pentagon is designing robots to obey orders precisely when they violate the first law, and to always obey orders without any exception. That's the advantage of using a robot. The advantage is not in risking the well-being of a robot instead of a soldier. The Pentagon doesn't care about that, except in certain situations in which too many deaths of its own humans create political difficulties. And there are just as many situations in which there are political advantages for the Pentagon in losing its own human lives: "The sacrifice of American lives is a crucial step in the ritual of commitment," wrote William P. Bundy of the CIA, an advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. A moral being would disobey the orders these robots are being designed to carry-out, and -- by being robots -- to carry out without any question of refusal. Only a U.S. philosophy professor could imagine applying a varnish of "morality" to this project.
The Third Law should be a warning to us. Having tossed aside Laws one and two, what limitations are left to be applied should Law three be implemented? Assume the Pentagon designs its robots to protect their own existence, except when . . . what? Except when doing so would require disobeying a more important order? But which order is more important? Except when doing so would require killing the wrong kind of person(s)? But which are they? The humans not threatening the robot? That's rather a failure as a limitation.
Let's face it, the Pentagon needs brand new laws of robotics. May I suggest the following:
1. A Pentagon robot must kill and injure human beings as ordered.
2. A Pentagon robot must obey all orders, except where such orders result from human weakness and conflict with the mission to kill and injure.
3. A Pentagon robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
This set of laws differs from Asimov's in a number of ways. For one thing, it completely lacks morality. It is designed for killing, not protecting. By prioritizing killing in the First Law, rather than protecting, this set of laws also allows for the possibility of robots sacrificing themselves to kill rather than to protect -- as well as the possibility of robots turning on their masters.
This set of laws differs much less -- possibly not at all -- from the set of laws currently followed by human members of the U.S. military. The great distinction that people imagine between autonomous and piloted drones vanishes when you learn a little about the thought habits of human drone pilots. They, like other members of the U.S. military, follow these laws:
1. A Pentagon human must kill and injure human beings as ordered.
2. A Pentagon human must obey all orders, except where such orders result from human weakness and conflict with the mission to kill and injure.
3. A Pentagon human must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The job of the philosophy professors is to apply these laws to robots while neither changing them nor letting on to have figured out what they are. In other words, it's just like teaching a course in the classics to a room full of students. Thank goodness our academia has produced the men and women for this job.
The film, The Unbelievers, now playing in theaters, documents a world tour of speaking events by a pair of scientists opposed to theism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss. They take the refreshing approach that tolerating nonsensical beliefs establishes damaging habits of thought, and that therefore nonsense like religion should not be continued. They're also quite optimistic that it won't be.
And when you watch these guys speaking to large crowds and selling millions of books, it's possible to imagine that they're right. In their view we are surrounded by closet atheists, including many politicians. So, the advance of atheism could involve coming out as much as coming around.
Belief is a muddled concept. I believe I'm typing these words. I believe the earth revolves around the sun. Everyone is, in this sense, primarily a believer. I also "believe in" my team, my family, humanity, loyalty, honesty. That is, I place confidence and trust in things, devote myself to principles, wish people well, and am sometimes optimistic about something.
But then there is the notion of "believing in" the existence of imaginary beings or places or events, in contrast to simply "believing" that something exists, precisely because we don't believe it, the evidence being all against it. We see death and "believe in" eternal life. We see a world with no god and "believe in" a god. In this sense we should all be unbelievers. And once we are, then, as the film suggests, atheism will become unnecessary, because theism will be as unthinkable as belief in the ancient gods of Rome.
One person in the film says that Romans used to call Christians atheists for refusing to believe in all the gods, and so an atheist today is someone who just believes in 1 fewer god than a Christian does. True. And an atheist can place irrational belief in other things. But an unbeliever in the sense I've described above is someone who strives to reject wishful thinking. Such an unbeliever can be a good, caring, strong, admirable person. Or such an unbeliever can be a greedy, arrogant, destructive jerk. But the effort to be honest in understanding the way things are is itself admirable and important.
The criticism of atheism that this atheist or that atheist is flawed in this way or that way hardly hits home -- as if we don't have religious role models and religious mass-murderers. Another criticism is that atheism lacks "meaning" or "awe" or "mystery." The film counters this line of thinking fairly well. The protagonists argue that being able to create your own meaning in life is better than having to find it in a religion. And both of them are in awe of the wonders of the universe, which they consider to be revealing itself as ever more remarkable with each new advance in scientific understanding.
The choice the film presents between religion and science is not beyond questioning, however. Many of us are not much attracted to science. While astrophysics and evolution may be particularly relevant to debunking the myths that religions create, a great many people -- including myself -- don't want to be scientists. And of course a great many theists are scientists, so that being scientific most of the time hardly seems to prevent being theistic too. I don't think theism/science is the only contrast that should be presented. What about theism/active-political-engagement-to-improve-the-real-world? What about theism/care-for-humanity-and-species-and-ecologies-beyond-just-humanity? What about theism/history? Theism/art?
Some of us believe that science, in combination with greed and arrogance, has a lot to answer for, that there is in fact a danger in prioritizing learning more, regardless of the risks. I would prefer that nuclear energy and weaponry had not been figured out, at least not yet. I would prefer that the science behind the consumption of fossil fuels had never occurred to anybody. To its credit, The Unbelievers suggests that global-warming denial is part and parcel of reality denial, of the sloppy sort of wishful thinking that Dawkins and Krauss are opposed to. Beyond that, the film has disappointingly little to say about the advantages of atheism, beyond its just being right -- which, in fact, may not be a higher value for a every member of our species than being sustainable.
When you listen to global warming deniers, they'll tell you that arrogance is the problem: the arrogance of believing that mere humans can impact the earth. But reality-based global warming commentators blame the arrogance of believing that humans can expect nothing to go wrong as they plow ahead recklessly disregarding their enormous impacts on ecosystems they've barely begun to comprehend. We're all against arrogance, and we're all a bit arrogant, I'm afraid. So the imperative to base our understanding of things on evidence rather than pleasant fantasies is indeed crucially decisive. I just wish we wouldn't get carried away with the notion that knowing ever more is more important than living with more wisdom and kindness.
Peter Boghossian's A Manual for Creating Atheists is a curious and ultimately very valuable book.
It's curious because it doesn't make much of a case -- or at least not the sort of case I would have liked -- for why we should create atheists.
It's valuable because, if you believe we'd be better off with more atheists, this is a remarkable tool for accomplishing that goal.
I don't view sloppy thinking as a great evil in itself. It doesn't offend me the way hunger and lack of medicine and Hellfire missiles offend me. So, I look for the argument -- which I think can be made -- that sloppy thinking has serious results, or that belief in a god leads to a lack of responsibility, or that belief in eternal life diminishes efforts to improve real lives. This book does not focus on those arguments.
Boghossian points to abstinence-only sex-ed, bans on same-sex marriage, teaching Creationism, corporal punishment in schools, and other offenses in the United States, as well as pointing to various more-severe abuses by the Taliban, as the undesirable results of theism. But, with the possible exception of Creationism, these things could continue without theism or be ended while maintaining theism. Perhaps they would be less likely to continue in a theism-free society in which good arguments against those practices had been introduced. I'm inclined to think that atheistic openness to questioning assumptions leads toward swifter and more radical political change, whether for better or for worse, and that because we need positive radical change so desperately we need the ability to take that risk.
In arguing against the assumption that we must always have war, or poverty, or private health insurance companies, or corporate television networks, or oil drilling, or billionaires, one could do much worse than to appropriate some of the arguments that Boghossian uses to argue against the assumption of theism. This is the great value in this book. The author provides a guide and numerous examples of how to gently nudge someone away from what Boghossian calls "faith," as distinct from "religion."
I think the shift toward the word "faith" has largely been driven by people's desire to unload the baggage of specific religious beliefs while maintaining a vague conviction in the existence of some vague something that one has no evidence for the existence of. Boghossian chooses to tackle people's "faith," meaning their practice of believing something with no justification, in order not to challenge their social attachment to church attendance, ceremonies, and support structures of religions. However, I've had people tell me they were theists because they are not omniscient and they appreciate profound mysteries, even though they reject such notions as "god" and "heaven" (as if atheists must claim to be omniscient just because they don't celebrate their ignorance). So those wanting to cling to religion as they lose faith may themselves describe it as their faith evolving.
Boghossian's approach to talking people out of faith is a subtle jiu-jitsu -- part therapy, part community organizing, part Socrates. He cites evidence that people can be talked out of faith, as well as that the process often takes far longer than does conversion to faith. Seeking to encourage those using his manual, the author explains how reactions that seem to reject arguments against faith can actually be signs of making progress.
Boghossian advises targeting people's habits of faith, not the beliefs they hold. He advocates a non-combative, helpful, and questioning Socratic approach. Richard Dawkins comments in a blurb on the back cover: "Peter Boghossian's techniques of friendly persuasion are not mine, and maybe I'd be more effective if they were. They are undoubtedly very persuasive -- and very much needed." I think that's right, but I also think that for a certain type of person, reading this book would be a way to cure them of their god virus.
Still, Boghossian does little of what I think he could have done to persuade us of the desirability of working as evangelical atheists. When, in the course of a conversation, Boghossian wants to provide examples of very moral people who are atheists, he picks Bill Gates (who hoards tens of billions of dollars while thousands of children starve and suffer for lack of it; something one doesn't question if faith in trickle-down economics dominates your thought) and Pat Tillman because he chose to "give his life for his country" (Tillman joined in the senseless slaughter of the people of Afghanistan, came to regret his decision, was killed either accidentally or intentionally by U.S. troops when no Afghans were anywhere nearby, and has been blatantly lied about by the U.S. military and media -- a case where skepticism and freethinking would seem to have been badly needed, but where our brilliant producer of atheists seems to have followed his faith in nationalism in choosing this example.)
Of course, most atheists don't practice cut-throat computer software monopolism, hoard vast wealth, or join in wars. In fact, atheists tend to be more generous and more antiwar than theists. But among those who truly behave morally, including by working and sacrificing for peace and social and economic justice, civil liberties, and the natural environment, are many who say they're motivated by religion. Boghossian, in advocating steering conversations away from abortion or school prayer, says to aim for the root: "Undermine faith, and all faith-based conclusions are simultaneously undermined." One has to hope that doesn't include the good conclusions along with the bad.
Oddly, Boghossian's approach, in which he strives to understand and sympathize with the person whose faith he is attempting to remove, gives very little mention to such motivators of religious belief as the desire not to die. Boghossian uses Socratic questioning to get people to see the error of their ways. He doesn't try to open them up by addressing their unstated fears of death or a world without an authority figure. When death finally gets mentioned, far into the book, the author refers to the atheist's position as "the unknowable" and "not knowing." Not knowing what, exactly? That everything goes blank and ceases? We do know that.
Maybe Boghossian is right that there's nothing to be said on that subject, and a society in which people are not taught religion will be a society with much less religion in it, even while death remains horrifying. Toward the end of the book, the author claims that sound reasoning will give someone a feeling of control that is superior to the feeling of comfort in imagining that their loved one is still alive in a magical place. But this depends, I think, on recognizing that belief in "heaven" is weak and unsatisfying because at odds with most of one's other beliefs. (See In Bad Faith by Andrew Levine.) Surely actually believing that nobody dies and that one prioritizes rational belief formation would be the most preferable combination. But we don't have that choice.
Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible, and the Humanist Press has just republished it together with selections from what Jefferson left out, and selections labeled the best and worst from the Old Testament, the Koran, the Bhagavadgita, the Buddhist Sutras, and the Book of Mormon.
Jefferson created his Bible using two copies of the King James Bible and a razor blade. He cut what he liked out of the New Testament, and left the rest. What he chose to include was supposed to tell the story of a teacher of morality, stripped of all supernatural pretensions. In Jefferson's Bible, virgins don't give birth, dead people don't walk, and water doesn't turn into wine. But Jesus teaches the love of one's neighbor, of one's enemy, of strangers and children and the old.
It's an admirable effort. Someone raised in Christianity but convinced that death is death and humans are responsible for their fate might want to read the good bits of their religious heritage and not be bothered by the rest. Congress printed 9,000 copies in 1904 and handed them out to new House and Senate members for a half century.
But I find Jefferson's Bible a fairly weak and incoherent concoction. Someone who insists on being treated like a god without actually being a god comes off as an inexplicable egomaniac. Someone who engineers his own death and really dies appears to be nothing more than a suicide. Jesus, stripped of the context of his deity, ends up looking like Socrates without all the cleverness.
Imagine if we told the story of Thomas Jefferson without the Declaration of Independence, without the role of founding father. He'd be transformed into an over-educated self-indulgent slave owner, rapist, and advocate of genocide who began a tradition of U.S. warmaking in the Middle East and bestowed upon us the two-party system.
Jefferson's Bible, ironically, serves a purpose other than what he intended. It ends up revealing that the good moral lessons in Jesus' teaching don't amount to all that much. Yes, of course, we should be kind to each other and learn to forgive and befriend our enemies. There is nothing more important, and nobody says that basic lesson better. Jefferson included the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But should we take polygamy and patriarchy and slavery and cutting off hands and other ancient practices for granted as Jesus does? Should we take currently unquestioned practices like war, meat-eating, and fossil-fuel consumption for granted as many do today? What should we question or change? What should we keep as it is? How should we be good and kind? In what way should we love our neighbors and enemies? Should we also love future generations?
Jefferson is thought to have believed that his Bible would educate Native Americans. His policies, in reality, helped to destroy them. Rather than editing an ancient text and translating it into four languages from another continent, might Jefferson have better spent his time giving native Americans the respect that Jesus -- on one occasion but not others -- recommended giving to Samaritans? Jefferson might have discovered that no people exists without an understanding of kindness, love, and humility. The Indians needed Christian kindness, not Christian arrogance. But the Indians weren't called Samaritans, and Jefferson didn't recognize them.
The Humanist Press edition of Jefferson's Bible does help broaden our understanding, as it includes similarly nice and horrific excerpts from a variety of the world's ancient religions (plus Mormonism, the text of which largely mimics ancient cultural norms).
Jefferson was not aiming for the "historical Jesus" but for a naturalist one. The Humanist Press, in its selections of the worst of each religion, is not aiming for simply the most immoral bits but also the most supernatural. The immoral is there in abundance however:
Matthew 10:34-37 "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword. . . ."
Luke 14:26 "If a man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
John 6:43-55 "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life. . . ."
The Old Testament includes the same good lessons and the same out of date barbarism, or very similar, as the New Testament. The lessons are deeper and more expansive, the barbarity more horrific -- including numerous instances of advocating genocide, slavery, sex-slavery, war, the mutilation of corpses, torture, the mass-slaughter of children, and the celebration of revenge.
The Koran and the other texts, too, contain basic fundamental moral precepts, but few specific recommendations of much use to us right now. I don't mind being advised not to bury female infants alive, but I had no plans to do so. I want to know how to balance duty to family with duty to humanity. I want to know how to integrate charity and respect. I want to learn how to oppose militarism, corruption, oligarchy, greed, consumption, environmental abuse, and all forms of bigotry. I want to know how to be kind to real people in real ways.
Religion doesn't seem to help much. Neither does atheism, of course, except by clearing the deck. The lessons of Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions are packaged in arguments from authority and promises of imaginary rewards and punishments. When that packaging is stripped away, something is lacking. We now need to be told the actual benefits to ourselves of being kind to others: the sense of satisfaction and joy, the love of oneself that is facilitated, the widening of one's knowledge and understanding that comes from accepting the viewpoints and experiences of those unlike oneself.
We do not, of course, need a new Bible. We need novels, memoirs, autobiographies, essays, histories, and poetry. And we need to feel as free as Jefferson did to slice out the parts we find most valuable, piece them together, and expand our understanding from there.
At this year's Veterans For Peace convention in Miami, VFP President Leah Bolger challenged members to take risks: "Many of you have risked a lot for war. What will you risk for peace?"
One VFP member, S. Brian Willson, gave his legs and part of his skull for peace. It was 1987, and the U.S. military was shipping weapons to port, in order to ship them to El Salvador and Nicaragua, where they would be used to slaughter the people of those nations, where, in Willson's words "In one country, we supported a puppet government against a people's revolution; in the other, we supported a puppet revolution against a people's government."
Willson had decided that his own life was not worth more than the lives of non-Americans, that they were losing their lives and limbs as a direct result of our inaction, and that he had a moral responsibility to act. Willson and others sat down on a train track in front of a train full of weapons. The train usually traveled at 5 miles per hour. The train would stop. The protesters would be removed from the tracks. That was the standard practice, and that was the law. But that's not what happened the day Willson lost his legs.
It seems that the military had decided that nonviolent protesters did not exist, that everywhere in the world the only tool available was violence. Therefore, Wilson must be a violent terrorist. Therefore, he and his companions must be planning to jump aboard the train. Therefore, the train must speed up and stop for nothing and nobody. That was the order given. The other protesters moved out of the way in time. Willson, sitting cross-legged, could not. The train ran him over. And then the men driving the train sued Willson for causing them to suffer post traumatic stress.
But something else happened too. Hundreds of people ripped up the track and built a monument out of the railroad ties. People formed blockades of trains on that track for years to come. Every train and nearly every truck was blocked until January 1990. Celebrities showed up and held rallies. Ronald Reagan's daughter wrote a kind letter to Wilson, as did professional sports teams and other big whigs congratulating him on his courageous stand. And similar actions sprang up around the country. Visiting Nicaragua, Willson was treated as a national hero.
But Willson is from our nation, and he's a global hero. Probably his most valuable act, however, has been performed behind a keyboard. "Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson," with an introduction by Daniel Ellsberg, is an epic. This is the long and careful transformation from an eager soldier accepting of rightwing dogma to a principled and courageous advocate for peace and ecological justice. Willson now strives to live sustainably, and brings the reader to question not only the paying of war taxes but the consumption of corporate products generated by the cruel threat of force in foreign lands.
"One day," Willson writes, "the corporations that allow and often enable terrorism in countries like Colombia will be pushed out of those countries. We will no longer be able to buy one-dollar Cokes or ninety-nine-cent-a-pound bananas. Maybe when that day comes, we will finally realize that we do not even desire cheap goods at the cost of others' lives. Maybe we will finally realize that we all share a common humanity."
Willson's book is a tour, with him, of much of the world, from the killing he participated in in Viet Nam, to that he has tried to prevent in Latin America, Palestine, and elsewhere. It’s a philosophical journey, through the course of which Willson learns much from the people he is trying to help. The Zapatistas, the Cubans, and others are not just victims of imperialism, but pioneers in sustainable (and enjoyable!) living. If that idea strikes you as crazy but you're willing to consider a careful argument from someone who began far to your right and doesn't change easily … or if the idea strikes you as plausible and you like to see it laid out in a very human story … either way, you can't do better than to read "Blood on the Tracks," and perhaps we as a people -- and I mean the human people, not the people of some nation -- would be better off if a little more of the blood we are still spilling in such great quantities were spilled on railroad tracks for peace.
Until now, I've always opposed the idea of posting the 10 Commandments on government buildings.
I don't want a theocracy. I don't want religion at all, even separated from government. I'm embarrassed for my species that so many people imagine we haven't advanced at all in millennia. Must we really turn to an ancient book that sanctions slavery and rape, stonings and genocide, to find not only guidance but unquestionable dictates? I'm disgusted by the notion that we should behave decently merely because of an imaginary system of rewards and punishments. Even mice only behave for real cheese and real shocks. How pathetic are we, exactly?
The New York Times published an op-ed on May 7th by a professor here in Charlottesville, Va., arguing that celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden is actually a good thing, because in so celebrating we are building solidarity with those we view as part of our exclusive group. Implicit in this argument is that we can do no better. Bonding over our common hatred of an outsider is better than no bonding at all, and therefore we should rebrand such hatred as altruism. Or so says psychology professor Jonathan Haidt.