How Are Values Formed?

Written over the course of two days, and finished in Starbucks in San Jose, CA with electronic dance music pounding in my head, and a grande blonde roast that tastes horrible because I’ve given up sugar. Enjoy the essay!



When I look back at my belief system while growing up in Dallas, Texas (1976-2001), they are much different than my current belief system that’s been enculturated in liberal Silicon Valley (2013-2019). I remember being taught and believing that inter-racial marriage was wrong, that being gay was immoral, and that any type of governmental distribution of wealth was wrong because hand-outs to those in need simply incentivized laziness. I distinctly remember as a junior in college, cutting and gluing a picture of a grotesque dead fetus to a sign that would later be used at a nearby pro-life rally. When I look back, I can’t believe the contrast in values from then to now. Currently, my more liberal values are a vast contrast to the prior ‘me’.

How did the ‘me’ of 2001 have such contrasting values than the ‘me’ of 2019? Was ‘southern me’ just a red-neck with antiquated values; while the ‘Silicon Valley me’ is enlightened?

When I contemplate my contrasting selves, I can’t help but want to explore the question: how do we form our values? Are values given from the heavens (i.e. God), are the genetic, or are the dynamic and happen as we simply experience life. This begs a follow-up question: are values absolute or cultural?

I truly believe that values are formed based on our life experiences. With that, I do believe they are also bound by culture. I don’t, however, believe that values come from the heavens, rather, I believe that values are imposed on us as children from early on while forming the basis and justification of our morality and ethics. Values such as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion, and liberty/oppression are ingrained in us from early on, and while they are malleable, they inform our ethics and politics. Moreover, I believe that all values are ingrained with intentions to promote ‘the good’, however, because values are culture bound, what’s good for one culture may be (and often is) deemed an abomination by another. Herein lies the ultimate irresolvable dilemma.


How are Values Formed?

Value formation is the confluence of our personal experiences and particular culture we are entwined in. Values are imposed from our family in childhood and reinforced through culture and life experiences. The value of, for example, kindness was imposed on me from my parents, and reinforced throughout early childhood. Then I applied that value on the school playground and experienced how it helped me create greater social bonds with my school mates. My personal experiences growing up reinforced the value of kindness as I experienced the adaptive effects of showing kindness and the maladaptive effects when choosing malice over kindness. All through my upbringing, both my personal experiences and cultural surroundings both reinforced the value of kindness.

Having been born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the values of rugged individualism, church, and God was ingrained in my psyche from birth. Each of those three values, as I grew older, eventually formed the foundation of my worldview and politics. In a sense, our values, imposed upon us early in childhood, become the spectacles in which we view and judge the world.

Our culture plays a huge role in our value formation. Culture gives us a community and shared reality so that we can cooperate in activities and customs that give meaning, purpose, and significance to our existence. Culture gives us prescriptions for appropriate conduct so that we can learn best how to get along with others. All you have to do is travel to another country to see how values ebb and flow with culture. You can travel to China and see how they elevate the group and family over the individual in contrast to most Americans; you can see how South Americans elevate hospitality and care for their elderly unlike most Americans; and how Hawaiians elevate relaxation and balance unlike most urban metropolitan cities in the U.S. (I am obviously speaking in general terms rather than absolutely)


If you live in the hills of West Virginia and coal mining is your life, and it’s what feeds your family, then you are less likely to support environmental policy that does away with coal mining. If, like I was, you are brought up with the value that every life is sacred, then pro-life values become your spectacles in which you view the the sanctity of a fetus. Likewise, if you lived in Ohio through the 1990’s and you witnessed jobs supplanted overseas, then the Republican platform doesn’t look so bad. But if your personal experiences were lived in, say, San Francisco, California, then it will contrast greatly with West Virginians as liberal values of tolerance, preserving the earth, and multi-culturalism is elevated to supreme importance.

It’s not that West Virginian’s, pro-lifers, and Ohioan’s are dumb or ‘deplorable’, they simply elevate certain values over others. Keep in mind, with the examples I provided, each value is seen as a noble virtue. Sanctity of life, even for an unborn fetus, is based on the pursuit of establishing what is noble and virtuous.  Coal miners and Ohioans value loyalty to one’s country, which involve the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Let’s be honest, I think most of us want our government to be loyal to hard working Americans, rather than betray us in order to profit from setting up jobs abroad.

My greater point is this: whether it’s West Virginia or San Francisco, these are virtuous goals that have their aim at virtuous ends. By and large, children in Red States are raised by parents who impose on them values that seek the good. I should know, I am a product of Texas and a stereotypical Texan ideology. Where things get muddy is when you have competing values that compete for supremacy. I mean, if all values seek the good, can we say that some are wrong?


Right/Wrong or Better/Worse

When judging values, we should not speak in terms of right or wrong, rather we should look at competing values in terms of better and worse. When talking about values, thinking in terms of right and wrong will result in completely invalidating the other side of the discussion.

Your values are your baby, so to speak. You hold them dear, because they speak to your life experiences and cultural upbringing. When someone says that your values are wrong, the conversation is off to a bad start from the beginning. Invalidating someone’s values shifts the conversation to a defensive mode. Instead, you can validate someone’s values, and then become ‘Socratic’ by asking questions back-and-forth as you hash out which values actually advance progress, human rights, justice, etc. Common ground is good foundation to have, and this begins by understanding that the other side is truly trying to come from a place of virtue.

When talking about values, thinking in terms of better and worse will recognize the virtuous aims of both sides, while also recognizing that some values ought to be elevated over others. Moreover, better or worse dialogue frames the dialogue in a way that doesn’t get personal, rather, you can simply discuss the effects of values in the public sphere.  Given that values are noble and based on virtue, it’s their externalities that need to be discussed. By externalities, I mean the side effects, blow-back, and consequences of the value when it is fully cashed out in everyday life. For example, early missionaries would visit foreign tribes and not only try and convert them, but also provide food and supplies to help them flourish. From this standpoint, the missionaries can be seen as virtuous. But some missionaries also brought over (unintentionally) diseases that devastated the villages. Thus, we can assess the externalities or consequences and conclude that this was probably not the best idea given the negative side effects it brought upon innocent villagers. It’s not that the missionaries immoral, per se, it’s just that there are better ways to advance the value of generosity and compassion.

In addition to a better or worse thinking rather a right or wrong way, there is another clarifying point I’d like to make. There is a common tendency to confuse value judgements with moralistic judgements. Value judgements reflect our beliefs of how best life can be served. We make moralistic judgements of people and behaviors that fail to support our values judgments; for example, “Anyone who votes for Trump is off their rocker.” In this example, the claim is trying to classify and judge a huge swath of people on moralistic grounds, with a tacit jab that labels Trumpians crazy. This tactic is similar to the one used by Ronald Reagan when calling the U.S.S.R.  an “evil empire.” The Germans also resorted to this by classifying the Jews with negative connotations like “cockroaches.”. Going back to the Trump claim, a more compassionate and enlightened way to articulate this sentiment would be, “I am worried about many of Trump’s policies; I value policies that unite the country and help the poor economically.” Now, this is a value judgment that doesn’t classify or analyze on moral grounds every single Trump voter, rather, it gives voice to your values and needs.

Final Words

Values reflect what we find important to make life better. The formation of our values is cultivated and refined based on our life experiences and influenced by our cultural surroundings. When I was in Texas preparing myself for a pro-life rally in 2001, my actions were guided by values rooted in virtue. Granted, my values were much different than most people in blue states. However, my values later changed due to personal experiences with liberal thinkers who lived out a value system that spoke to my heart. Moreover, I was able to live in the U.K. where I was exposed to different values and thinking that called into question my worldview. What didn’t change me was an intellectual argument or some liberal calling me a ‘southern redneck’. What didn’t change me was someone telling me I’m wrong, or that I needed to be more educated. Rather, it was through compassionate discussions where we worked through, not right and wrong, but the question: what makes life better?

Who’s to say what my values will be in 2030? Or what they will be if I move to Mississippi? All I know now is that I am guided by a value system that is surrounded by a plethora of other value systems. My value system is not the “right one,” rather, it simply speaks life into how I live and make my decisions. And when I hear competing values shouted by a person from a different culture than mine, I hope to take a deep breath, realize that he/she is simply expressing a deep need they have, and then perhaps I can share my values and needs without fostering judgement, evaluations of their character, or moralistic analysis. In the end, compassionate dialogue changes lives, not right/wrong judgement.


Legislating Morality


Legislating Morality

The topic of legislating morality is an issue that impinges on the ramifications of individual liberty, freedom, and values. Of course, arguably any law passed is a legislation of morality, from seat belt laws to public smoking. But whose morality are speaking about? And on what justificatory basis does one have –  or group have – to impose morality on others? Recent hot button issues have created a cultural divide with regards to rights of LGBT members, specifically people who identify as a different gender. The liberties of same-sex marriage is a continued bone of contention for many in the U.S. who feel that the liberalizing of America [e.g. abortion] is a spreading contagion that is infecting our young generation with unholy values. Undoubtedly, the current topic of legislating morality is between two camps: secular and religious people. I easily grant that there are secular groups, divided by secular reasons, who promote their secular values with regards to, for example, redistribution of capital, privacy laws, and U.S. interference in Middle Eastern affairs. However, in our colloquial way of understanding the meaning of “legislating morality,” it connotes a divide by secular and religious values.

There are four foundational questions that have arisen – within me – regarding the topic of legislating morality. First, what is the role of the citizen and the role of the elected official when discussing legislation? Second, is there a difference between public morality and private morality? How can you begin to even consider legislating a particular morality if you do not have access to that morality? Finally, is there a way to use objective methods to deliberate between morality, rather than relying on subjective religion?

The Roles of the Citizen and the Elected Official

Without getting too deep into political science, I think we can agree that we live in a representative democracy, based on the Constitution of 1787. Through the electoral process, citizens vote for candidates to represent their values on how to organize society as a whole. This is the simplest way I can put it, without parsing or debating every political term I just used. Given this process of representative democracy, the domains of the ordinary citizen and elected official are in completely different hemispheres.

When the ordinary citizen enters the voting booth, he/she is free to vote for whoever and for whatever reasons. In other words, they can draw from their own personal moral [and religious] convictions on “what society should look like” [to them] and select the candidate that best matches those convictions. The elected official, in contrast, is in a domain that is both pluralistic and non-private. Therefore, while the ordinary citizen can vote in either a sensitive pluralistic fashion or with a narrow dogmatism that benefits a certain sect, the elected official ought to view legislation from a vantage point of religious neutrality that takes into consideration the 320 million people living in their heterogeneous and pluralistic society.

On what justification, however, can I say the “elected official ought to view legislation from a vantage point of neutrality?” Well, we have a Constitution with amendments that fosters a Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ between the secular and religious state. The First Amendments states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (1791)

In addition, there is an Establishment of Religion Clause written into the First Amendment to prevent the federal or state governments from endorsing or supporting any specific religion in any manner. This includes endorsing any religion over a non-religion, and vice versa. This is why I say that elected officials and judges ought to act from a position of neutrality with regards to religion, by uplifting the betterment of human values over and above their personal conviction based on a particular religion. This First Amendment right is by no means clear to understand, and as you can see, it’s fairly abstract. Despite its somewhat ambiguous language, the essence of the First Amendment has provided a strong basis from which we can begin to have substantive debates on the parameters of freedom.

There is one particular court case that later provided a litmus test for religious neutrality. In the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether the state should support a program that would provide aide to religious schools. In determining whether the government could give aid to an educational institution operated by a religious entity, the court applied a three-part test, now known as the Lemon Test. The three questions that must be answered in the Lemon Test include:

  • Does the action taken by the government, or the law established, have a legitimate secular purpose? If the answer is no, the violates the Establishment of Religion clause.
  • Is the primary goal of the government’s action, or law established, have the effect of advancing or inhibiting any religion? If the answer is yes, it violates the clause.
  • Does the action taken, or law established, allow for an intertwining of government with religion? If so, it violates the clause.

My intention is not to say that any law passed must contain absolutely no religious affiliation. The morality of love, respect, and altruism can be found in both Judeo-Christian and secular humanism ideals. The separation, however, occurs in the process regarding the justificatory reasons that takes into consideration a pluralistic United States. Written with the oppressive history of the Church of England in the back of the minds of the Framers, the First Amendment exonerates America from living under a religious or theocratic state morality, so that individual liberty can flourish.

It does not matter to me what religion you are, just know that your religion is a belief system and does not cue off of objective truths, otherwise we would call it science. And if you have a belief system, that belief system is constitutionally protected and I don’t have any problems with you holding that belief system or voting for issues that coincide with your religious values. But the moment you hold office where now you are making decisions that affect a pluralistic electorate, any laws you pass need to be based in objective reality. Otherwise you are bringing a personal truth to bare on other people who do not have a privileged access to your truth. And that is a recipe for disaster; a recipe for revolution.

Public Morality and Private Morality

When discussing the legislation of morality, I think we need to draw a distinction between public morality and private morality. And then, as a follow up, ask if any morality is actually really private? Growing up, I was indoctrinated with a morality, courtesy of my parents, that emphasized no cussing (moral speech), doing daily chores (work as morally good), and respecting those around me. Now this was a private morality under the roof of my parent’s house. My parents had no vested interest in making their morality public by, say, advocating that every child in the U.S. should do daily chores.

Public morality, in contrast, is concerned about the moral impact upon an entire society. For example, the Republican congress policy of cutting $210 million dollars for low-income women that grant mothers and their children access to healthcare highlights a morality that is public. This is based on the innate human ethic of care for those who need their basic needs met. Concern for public morality says it’s wrong for the Republican congress to reduce Medicare and give massive tax breaks to corporations. This too is based on the principle that exploiting the poor to increase the wealth of the elite is wrong. As you can see, public morality is concerned about the vast population’s ability to flourish and thrive in a heterogeneous America. Since Roe V. Wade, America can and will continue to move towards moral progress as women possess more rights to make decisions about their own body. Furthermore, fighting to take rights and/or minimize rights of the LGBT is a prime example of taking a private morality – based on values of a religious sect – and limit the flourishing of individuals who are simply trying to pursue love and a create their own loving families. Public morality is based on Enlightenment values that seek to minimize pain and increase freedom. These are values that elevate the ethics freedom, liberty, and justice so that people can, as the Declaration of Independence states, “pursue happiness.”

Insidiously lying dormant within this point is a distinction that I cannot leave unattended: the difference between social conventions and moral rules. Social conventions (e.g. daily chores) are contingent, local, and facilitate social coordination through shared understandings of etiquette and legal codes. Psychologist Elliot Turiel proposed a set of features that sharply distinguished moral from conventional transgressions. Moral transgressions are (1) more wrong, (2) more punishable, (3) independent of structures of authority and (4) universally applicable. For instance, rape, genocide, and pedophilia carry an almost universal moral repugnancy that transcends cultural norms. History as shown us that in order to normalize these types of moral transgressions [within groups], it takes religion or a macabre ideology in the remotest and uncivilized parts of the world. Thus, we can claim – objectively – that the holocaust, female genital mutilation and southern segregation in the 50s has crossed the threshold into moral rules that are wrong whether you are in Mississippi or Uganda.

Social conventions however, are likely to lie along a continuum, stretching from transgressions of norms that are little more than matters of personal preference (e.g. getting tattoos or wearing black shoes with a brown belt) to normative transgressions that are more likely to be matters for legitimate social sanction (e.g., violating traffic laws or not paying your taxes). A vast majority of psychologists and anthropologists would also add discrimination of homosexuals and abortion to the category of a social convention. This claim is supported by the fact that these are “moral mores” that are customs within a particular group. The same in-group morality is found in (most) Jehovah Witnesses refusal of blood transfusions, (most) Buddhist’s refusal to eat meat, and (most) Jewish people eating kosher foods. For these groups to take their private in-group morality into the public sphere – which they have not – would be insulting and egregious to a pluralistic society. My point is this, we as citizens in a pluralistic society, need to proceed with a calibrated caution when thinking about legislation because what is private morality to you may be an act of oppression to another.

A common rebuttal is to claim that not all private morality is private. In a recent group discussion with people from different backgrounds, several Christians pointed out to me that what two men do in the privacy of their own home, does in fact spread to laws that impact the whole community concerning “family values.” I can understand their point. I can also add that, likewise, the private acts of a dad beating his son or a majority of southern states endorsing this form of punishment, ought to be a public concern. Here is the problem with these contrasting points. Spanking or beating a child is a violent form of punishment that has empirical evidence to back the negative and harmful effects. Such that, the American Academy of Pediatrics is against this form of punishment. This stance against corporeal punishment is not based on ideology, religion, or a sect of doctors wanting a utopian society. Rather, it’s based on the empirical facts of the potential grave consequences [based on morals of care and harm] that spanking has on young minds.

The religious argument, that homosexuality involves public morality, is based solely on fear and doctrine-driven-ideology.  Anyone can comb through the database of their arguments and paltry justifications and you will find that a reasonable justification based on objectivity is completely missing.  Reasons such as the “Bible says it’s wrong,” or “it’s not natural,” or that “it’s a slippery slope and soon women will be marrying their dogs” has absolutely no substantive value. Whether it’s homosexuality, abortion, or racism, we can look at history and the consequences and benefits of accepting a progressive outlook and conclude that granting rights rather than oppressing civil liberties has moved America into a more compassionate and understanding domain. Even though we still have a long way to go.

Imposing Morality: Double-Talk

Before I move on to my next point, I would be remised not to address a common phrase that is shouted across the moral lines from both religious and secular people which is: “It’s not right to impose your morality on me.” I’ll take this one step further and see if you can notice the double-talk:

 “It’s not right to impose your morality on me, but let me tell you how society ought to be like.”

Imposing morality, or saying aloud “this is how society ought to be” is unavoidable and should be expressed in a country of free speech. However, when the religious express their moral ‘thou shalt’ and ‘shalt nots’, they are speaking from the side of a subjective sectarian ideology. While it is protected and a Constitutional right, this type of talk is not helpful in the public domain. On the other hand, the secular perspective can engage in a substantive debate based on tangible notions of moral foundations as was done by John Stuart Mill, John Locke, James Madison and Thomas Paine, to name just a few. When deliberating how society ought to flourish and thrive in a pluralistic fashion, there is absolutely no need for the injection of theologies of Christians, Mormons, Catholics, or Islam.

So in order to avoid double-talk, we should ask: is there a type of morality that should be imposed? I say yes. It is a type of morality that the Constitution speaks of when stating our individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a morality that, as I said earlier, seeks the flourishing of all people, where individuals can have ample opportunities to thrive. This, I believe, is not necessarily a salient answer, rather, it’s a good foundation to start with as laws and legislation come into the scope of public policy. It’s an answer the elevates human well-being over what a particular religious sect thinks. I do, in fact, want to impose a morality that seeks the flourishing of human beings. And I am more than happy to speak from a sensitive and pluralistic viewpoint that draws from verifiable empirical evidence rather than revelation from a deity in the sky or that lives in my heart. So when it comes to imposing a morality that has its basis and justificatory foundation in religion, that is when you have a recipe for tyranny and revolution. No theocratic or religious state in the history of civilization has thrived or has provided the blueprint for human flourishing. So in order to avoid double-talk, the type of morality that shouldn’t be imposed is one from a subjective, unverifiable, Utopian ideal.

 Making Morality That is Accessible to All

When we are discussing the justificatory reasons for such-in-such law, the moral fibers of that policy need to be accessible. Religious sects have claims that are not accessible to everyone because millions of people in America don’t have a Holy Spirit inside of them, they cannot comprehend the Bible, and they use reason to reject access to a salvation based on a gruesome human sacrifice. In contrast, the justification for the moral wrongness of 1st degree murder, Ponzi schemes, and drunk driving are rooted in a shared logic and agreement that those actions cause a tremendous amount of harm and should be stopped. After all, we don’t see any protests on the steps of the Capital from people advocating the right to drive drunk behind the wheel. Furthermore, we have data and evidence that show the harm caused by these actions. I don’t need a deity to speak to my heart, in order to realize that I should not plan the murder of the next guy that cuts me off on the highway. Since the Enlightenment, we have done quite well with moral progress by using empirical reason rather than the Word of God, revelation, or conviction.

Can you imagine what it would be like if America became a theocratic Mormon state? Both the Judeo-Christian and the Atheist would be in complete agreement as to their shared confusion and incomprehension. Why? This is because laws would be legislated based on the Mormon scriptures which are God-breathed. Revelation would come from God or the current Mormon prophet who is in charge. Modifications to law would be made based on a felt conviction. The reason this would be so incomprehensible for the both the Judeo-Christian and the Atheist is because they have no access to these Mormon world-views. They simply don’t share in the Mormon belief. The Christian cannot relate to the Mormon scriptures and a living Prophet that speaks for God. The twist, however, is that the Christian is no different than the Mormon. Both world-views take their cues from subjective beliefs that have no basis in objective reality. If It’s not accessible, then it shouldn’t be imposed upon a pluralistic society.

Lastly, I want to anticipate a rebuttal and state that while the secular person does not have access to the privileged Enlightenment of the religious person, the religious person does in fact have accessibility to secular notions. Ethics is built on universal tangible foundations with regards to (1) care/harm, (2) liberty/oppression, (3) sanctity/degradation, (4) authority/subversion, (5) fairness/cheating and (6) loyalty/betrayal. All six of the moral foundations show up in every society around the globe. They form the scaffolding and provide the moral architecture of legislation, property rights, contracts, economic policy, and social relations. Allow me to reiterate that these six foundations are accessible to all people. The religious person or group has a lot to contribute to any moral discussion or act of legislation because of the universality of these six foundations of morality.

Using Objective Data to Inform the Legislation of Morality

It is often said that science, unlike religion, has nothing to say about meaning and values. Another way to put it is that science may discuss the “how” (i.e. causes) but it doesn’t have anything to contribute to the “why” (i.e. meaning). If this were true, then it would render this essay completely useless since I have devoted much time minimizing religion’s impact in legislating morals and elevating the need to use objectivity. Fortunately, we have sufficient evidence to support the claim that science can help lead us towards moral progress with regards to legislating morality. Allow me to quickly weave through several quick points to buttress my claim within this tapestry of thought.

We can begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.
  • We know from behavioral game theory about within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  • We know from behavioral economics about the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, and that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater prosperity for both trading partners.

These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well. But let’s move to a specific example that helps us move from what science says is descriptively so, to what is prescriptively right.

Take homosexuality and same-sex marriage, the latest of the Rights Revolutions that are unfolding in our time. Descriptively, science tells us that human beings have an evolved, innate drive to survive and to flourish, and that one of the most necessary and primal requirements among the many preconditions for life, health, and happiness for most people is a loving bond with another human being. Prescriptively, we can say that granting only a select group of privileged people the right to fulfill this evolved need – while simultaneously depriving others of the same basic right – is immoral because it robs them of the opportunity to fulfill their essence as evolved sentient beings. This is true even if the case could be made (as it has been by those who oppose same-sex marriage) that such discriminatory practices are better for the group (in a type of utilitarian calculus where the sacrifice of the few is justified if it leads to the greater happiness for the greater number). It is still wrong because the individual is the moral agent, not the group. It is the individual who feels the sharp pain of discrimination the sting of being excluded, and the insult of being treated differently under the law. Science tells us why they feel this way and reason instructs us what to do about it if we want to continue the moral progress of the Rights Revolution.


The divide that engulfs the subject of ‘legislating morality’ does in fact involve secular vs religious camps. On the surface it looks like an impasse: no matter what camp is talking, the other is going to not be able to relate. But this ignores the universality of morality. As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us criteria by which can judge actions as right or wrong: do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings? Morality is not arbitrary, relative, or completely culture-bound. Morality is universal. We are all born with a moral sense, with moral emotions that guide us in our interactions with other people, and that are influenced by local culture, customs, and upbringing. Nature endowed us with the capacity to feel guilt for the violation of promises and social obligations, for example, but nurture can tweak the guilt dial up or down. Thus morality is real, discoverable, “out there” in nature, and “in here” as part of our human nature. From these facts we can build a science of morality – a means of determining the best conditions to expand the moral sphere and increase moral progress through the tools of reason and science. This is what we have been doing since the Enlightenment, after the idea of Divine Right of Kings fell on its head. My hope is that when it comes to legislating morality, we can keep expanding our moral sphere.

-Wes Fornes




[Part 2] America’s Immoral Morality: Manifest Destiny Continental Empire, 1828-1898

So if conquest and exploitation was wrong early in American history, is it right if we do it today in the Middle East? And if it’s OK for the US to occupy or build numerous bases in foreign countries, is it OK for Iran to build bases in the US?

Written over 2 days and finished at Starbucks in Los Gatos (9:47pm)) with a hot chocolate while listening to Metallica on Pandora. I did not proof read this because I am too tired and I wanna go home.

Basic universal moral principles, which become accepted as social norms, are critical to any type civilization. For instance, principles such as respect, diplomacy, and cooperation are paramount to the vitality of any group of people, whether it’s a large territory like Canada or a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. While respect and diplomacy are a two-way street, laying the foundation for these principles is what increases the overall well-being of countries. I am contend that humanitarian ideals come to fruition when the pursuit is for the flourishing of all countries through cooperation and diplomacy dictated by the law of universality.

The law of universality, in the context I am speaking of, is an affirmation which states that if a government engages in actions which cause unjustified and illegitimate suffering and harm, then it is wrong for every government. The law of universality is applicable when looking back to the bombs US dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or the indiscriminate fire blasting of napalm on thousands of Vietnamese. We weren’t thinking, “what if every country took action like this?” Or, “how would we like it if Iraq set up bases around the US just we are doing with them?” Of course, the law of universality is thwarted when countries elevate self-interest and greed while pursuing personal gain to the detriment of others. What if governments functioned, universally, with the goal of elevating freedom and equality while advocating for the civil liberties of its citizens? It is here that my utopian conceptions of universality fall the wayside because history has proven that power, wealth, and control, function like a narcotic whose insatiable high gives the sense of invincibility.

America’s Second Empire

The Second Empire (1828-1898) in US history’s sociopathic policy shows a bourgeoning American empire intoxicated with making its God ordained destiny a reality. This empire expanded its reach all the way to the Pacific Ocean, annexing a good chuck of Mexico in the south and west and uniting a vast continent under one government. The strategic plan for land acquisition slowly secured a beachhead for economic expansion across the Pacific. The expansion was adorned in eloquent immoral morality, with the famous creed called Manifest Destiny, drawing on the Chosen People motif of the Romans, the White Man’s Burden code of the British, and America’s own vision of spreading democracy and civilization.

The Second Empire was led by General Andrew Jackson who symbolized the swashbuckling fighter and imperial aspirations of the age. Jackson promoted violent expansionism mainly to help the Southern plantation economy that was depleting its own land and needed more. Jackson inaugurated the pre-bellum phase of the Second Empire, which unsuccessfully sought to reconcile expansionist interests of Northern capitalism and the slave south. It was Jackson that proposed the

Indian Removal Act of 1830 which discussed how “removed Indians” would, under US guidance, advance “from barbarism to the habits and enjoyments of civilized life.” Jackson told Congress of its desires to uplift the Indians: “Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people.”

The Indian Removal Act was just one policy of many that gave credence to American exceptionalism and the ideal of the US as a beacon on a hill – a light unto all of the world. In 1839, the phrase Manifest Destiny became dogma, giving a righteous justice to America’s sociopathic immoral morality. Coined by editor and journalist John O’Sullivan, Manifest Destiny was the “moral mission” taken upon the US with the goal of civilizing barbaric people. In Sullivan’s essay, “The Great Nation of Futurity,” he discusses how an exceptional America is destined to be the great nation of futurity. It thus gained legitimacy and virtue because it was cloaked in the righteous lie that it was America’s moral duty and obligation to civilize the distant lands for the sake of peace throughout the world.

Stephen F. Austin, an American General, became entranced with O’Sullivan’s concept of Manifest Destiny. Seduced by the lustful power of forcing people to genuflect before America’s feet, General Stephen F. Austin set his eyes on Mexico. Austin led colonists into Texas and seized Mexico and capitalized on this moral mission. They are, as Austin wrote, “the self-evident dictates of morality.” As in Rome, and as reinterpreted by Madison, Jefferson, and other Founders, this universality of America’s moral vision of liberty and equality – as codified in the US Constitution – gave it both the right and “duty” to expand its influence around the world.

It’s important to note that Austin was not only one who had his hand in the annexation of both Texas and Mexico. Our 11th President, James Polk (1845-1849 as President), combined Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine in order to justify relentless expansion. Abraham Lincoln was even astonished at Polk’s brazen policy and called him an “imperialist.” Polk was simply one man in the line of many who was infected with Constantine Syndrome. Polk and others in power used Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine as the sociopathic policy to view Native Americans in the US and “colored” people in surrounding countries as vile vermin in need of salvation.

The annexation of Texas and Mexico is good place to look when discussing sociopathic policy. The deceptive rhetoric informed US citizens that the US is doing Mexico and Texas a “favor” by bringing civility. But what was cloaked under this lie was that expanding into Mexico and Texas ensured vast profit from a valuable resource: cotton. A good analogy for the 21st century person is: what oil in the Middle East is today, is what cotton in Texas and Mexico was the 19th century. And just as the US had to cloak their hostile takeover in righteous language in order to manufacture consent for its citizens, nothing has changed. Then, it was “bringing salvation and civility” and now it’s “bringing democracy to the Middle East.” The reality is that the brutal takeover of both, means an economic explosion for the ones in power in the US.

This is sociopathic imperialism. It’s economic and political policy that is initiated unilaterally when we put our boots to the neck of the weak, and force them to capitulate to our demands. Cotton was the narcotic, and wealth and power was the insatiable high. I will close with a poem by Rudyard Kipling:

Take up the White Man’s burden

Send forth the best ye breed, Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild,

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.

(Part I) America’s Immoral Morality: A Sociopathic Foreign Policy of the Founding Fathers

Written over two days and finished this morning at Starbucks by my office in San Jose with a grande mocha (no whip) and my Pandora station set to Lady Gaga.  

“Blessed are the cynical, for only they have what it takes to succeed.” C. Wright Mills

Sociopathy is anti-social behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money, while harming others and attacking the fabric of society.

I find it interesting that if an insane man guns down 20 kids in a school we are horrified at the maniacal act, yet when we hear of nascent American conquest of genocide and mass killings of Native Americans we simply shrug our shoulders. If you have ever had somebody break into your home or car, then you know that visceral feeling of having been violated. Now think about how natives of Hawaii felt in January of 1893 when America initiated a coup d’état of Queen Liliuokalani and instituting an American regime that took over the land and proceeded to profit from Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Again, while we have all experienced the feeling of disgust from being taken advantage of we nevertheless function almost as sociopaths when it comes to over 200 years of conquest by the United States.

If you think hard about it, it is mainly psychological distance that propels us to either rage or to yawn at atrocities. As an example, most individuals will feel more moral outrage at witnessing first-hand the torture of a man rather than simply hearing a CNN report of a man being tortured 6,000 miles away in, say, Japan. That is psychological distance. So if 19 maniacs steer 2 planes into the Twin Towers killing thousands of Americans we are outraged at the injustice. Yet if thousands are killed abroad so that we can control the 2nd largest oil reservoir in the world and maximize profits by setting up private businesses in the Middle East then we sit back and drink another latte inside an air conditioned Starbucks comforted by the lie: we’re bringing democracy to a bunch of savages. Because there is distance, our morals crumble. But when it hits close to home, we become pious moral philosophers pontificating on theories of justice. We’re sociopathic in our thinking when we kill 4 year olds in the Middle East, but become protective righteous Messiahs flooded with empathy when it involves our children. And this begs a crucial question: should the mere psychological distance of an immoral action be the chief arbiter?

A sociopathic society, paradoxically, creates dominant social norms that are antisocial – that is, norms that assault the well-being and survival of much of the population and undermine the social bonds and sustainable environmental conditions essential to any form of social order. It is here that we are confronted with the United States’ murderous conquest and relentless expansionism. We can either shrug our shoulders like sociopaths or we can be intellectually honest with our past which continues to wreak havoc and chaos in the Middle East today – thanks to a sociopathic foreign policy led by the U.S.

I will highlight the sociopathic 5 Empires of the United States, beginning in 1776-1828 and ending with our current empire, World Domination 1991-Present. My inspiration of this text comes from respected political scholars such as Noam Chomsky, Stephen Kinzer, Charles Derber and Immanuel Wallerstein.

First Empire: The Constitutional Empire 1776-1828

In 1776, Americans began a revolution to free themselves from the British Empire and to recreate themselves as an independent and great power. What can be called “Constitutional Code,” would concretize the ideology of the Founding Fathers. Here are 5 key principals that highlight the Constitutional Code:

(1) Americans are a free people on a free land.

(2) The Constitution is sacred and may have been sanctioned by a higher power.

(3) All Americans have the constitutional right to freely contract with others and to protect and accumulate property.

(4) Freedom requires prosperity. Resources must expand, and the state must be prepared to help citizens acquire, trade, and market their goods everywhere.

(5) As a beacon to the rest of the world, America has a manifest destiny to extend from seas to sea and, in fact, beyond the oceans.

The United States constitution would prompt George Washington to see America as a “new and rising empire.” The ideology of the Founding Fathers constructed an empire built upon a Constantine foundation where expansion plus conquest would equal ultimate power. Alexander Hamilton would go on to state his desire to see the thirteen colonies unite to create one big empire, “One great American system, superior to the control of all trans-Atlantic force and influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and new world.” Hamilton sentiments were widely felt among American leaders, and morphed into concepts like White Man’s Burden and American Exceptionalism. The result was the idea of American as a city on a hill, a beacon of light in the midst of a world of savages. It was precisely this new American Empire that saw as its God ordained duty to bring civility and order to the natives. Truly a sociopathic conception.

Two things are needed for this sociopathic behavior. First, we have to develop a language that dehumanizes the “other.” So the indigenous Natives were commonly referred to as “savages” and “ignorant.” Second, the ends will always justify the means. Even though the “ends” are almost always built on utopian lies with regard to American interventionist policy, it will nevertheless justify the “means” no matter how brutal they are. John Adams words personified this so-called altruistic utopian quest when justifying conquest in his reference to “the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind.” It’s like we are doing them a favor. So a murderous conquest is justified if it emancipates the ignorant Native Americans.

This type of sociopathy is realized in the way that expansionism and brutality was justified with such righteous ease. The justification for the expansionist doctrine goes like this: killing, exploitation, and the enslavement of millions is justifiable if, and only if, the greater good results in an empire that promotes the values of the wealthy White nobles in power. Again, the ends justifies the means. This is usually where most American high school history teachers shrug their shoulders and then in the next breath express moral outrage at Adolf Hitler’s end goal of a pure race by means of a genocidal regime.

In what I call consensual hallucinations, here is the sociopathy of over 200 years of American politics: America’s interventions and foreign policy are always carried out with noble intentions. This is the consensual hallucination, whether it’s driving out 12 million Native Americans in America’s infancy, initiating coups that gave U.S. support to tyrannical dictators like Pinochet and Pol Pot, or even the 1953 coup that disassembled Iran’s government and has since created monumental blowback and collateral damage in our relations with the Middle East. The consensual hallucination moves us to say such ridiculous things like, “but the Founding Fathers were trying to bring peace to a barbaric land,” and, “It was necessary to invade a third world Iraq because they were going to take our freedom away,” and of course, “We need to invade in order to keep us safe and establish democracy in other countries.” Perhaps it’s time that we become intellectually honest with ourselves and take off our red, white and blue colored glasses that has blinded us to over 200 years of walking on the backs of people whom we think are “lesser” than us.

Going back to the Constitutional Empire, the empire required two main ingredients: land and resources. As early as 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote that expansion for surplus land was crucial to creating prosperity and liberty and to avoid domestic corruption. So in 1783, in the Treaty of Paris, Britain ceded its territory south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River to the Americas. In 1803, President Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, the largest expansion in the New Empire’s history, adding 526 million acres that constitute 22 percent of the land territory of the modern United States. In the War of 1812, the United States tried to take all of Canada from the British but failed. In 1821, Andrew Jackson conquered Florida since slaves were escaping there to gain Spanish protection. With the accumulation of such vast territories, markets would later establish trade and maximizing profit for wealthy land owners and businessmen that would bolster the next two empires in American history.

All the ingredients were there during the birth of America for expansion at the expense of innocent natives. Empires never become empires through altruistic and humanitarian means. History has shown that empires only flourish when a rising nation has its combat boot to the neck of smaller nations. Knowing this, the Founding Fathers created a blueprint that would pursue world hegemon through conquest and exploitation. The correlation I draw between early American policies and sociopathy is meant to expose how catastrophic harm can be justified when people are just objects used as means to an end with an end goal that is strictly self-interested.

The onus is on us as to whether we simply shrug our shoulders at this type of sociopathy or do something about it.

~ Wes

Anarchism: A Worthy Consideration?

Written this morning after reflecting on Noam Chomsky’s book entitled Anarchism. While I do not subscribe to anarchism, I do believe it is a topic worth extrapolating for the purpose of questioning our current norms. This is a short 750 word introduction to anarchism without [my usual] verbose arguments.

“Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.” – Edward Abbey

Should the wealthy elite have a vast majority of the power? I wonder what it would be like to live in a truly anarchist country? I understand anarchy in pure form to mean that the individual is at the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life. Of course, this also means that there is no centralized or system of government with rulers. Anarchy thus thrives by maintaining that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. Furthermore, anarchism acknowledges that (1) religion is the dominion of the human mind, (2) that property is the dominion of human needs, and (3) that Government is the dominion of human conduct. These represent the stronghold of man’s enslavement and all the horrors it entails. And it must be stated that anarchy is not a proponent of lawlessness and mass chaos where laws are null and void. Rather, anarchy elevates human liberty above absolute power that exists within most, if not all, governments today.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -The Lord Acton

In the current American political climate, neither Republicans nor Democrats are the dominate party. This is because the corporate party, encompassing both Republicans and Democrats rule absolutely. And if the American people wish to cast their vote, our representatives will most often ignore us due to the lobbyists who lurk in every corridor on Capitol Hill. Economically, the middle class voice is but a whisper while patrimonialism is reigning supreme as all power flows to and from our top leaders. Did you get to vote on how much our government spends on military defense? You didn’t. $125 billion a year went towards wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Men and woman are fighting in the Middle East for our politician’s quest for expansion of power, not freedom. Just look at the multi-national companies who have profited from the recent wars, especially Halliburton and Bechtel. Moreover, we have a broken healthcare system and educational (K-12th grade) system that show no signs of improvement during the next decade. America, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Indivisible? 

“Government is best when it governs least.” –Thomas Paine

Individualist anarchists believe in mutual exchange, not economic privilege. They believe in freed markets, not capitalism. They defend a distinctive response to the challenges of ending global capitalism and achieving social justice: eliminate the political privileges that prop up capitalists. Anarchism borrows from both classical liberalism and socialism. Classical liberals (a.k.a. market liberals) advocate a free market economy. Socialism seeks a world where the means of production are owned by workers. Many market anarchists believe that freed markets lead to that world. The state-granted monopoly privileges and rents deigned to the purchasers and wielders of political power removed, the amount of economic opportunity available to working class people would outpace the bureaucratic and artificial economies of the existing corporate-dominated marketplace.

In more simplistic terms, within anarchism, the individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence–that is, the individual–pure and strong. “The one thing of value in the world,” says Emerson, “is the active soul; this every man contains within him. The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth and creates.” In other words, the individual instinct is the thing of value in the world. It is the true soul that sees and creates the truth alive, out of which is to come a still greater truth, the re-born social soul.

While I do not subscribe to anarchism as a political goal, I cannot help but wonder if it is a worthy hypothesis. I do not believe that anarchism will ever be the ideal of an entire country, rather, we could see anarchist movements of protest spawning in rebellion due to suppression. The key idea to remember is: when you centralize power in the hands of the wealthy elite, the middle and lower class will inevitably suffer. This net result is one nation divisible by class.