The Human Truth Foundation

To Act Morally or With Free Will, You First Need Knowledge

By Vexen Crabtree 2016

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#ethics #free_will #morals #philosophy

1. Freewill Requires Knowledge and Understanding, Not Just 'Choice'

#ethics #free_will #freewill #humanism #morality #morals

If you don't understand the issues and can't comprehend the consequences, then, there is no true meaning in whatever course of action you choose to take. It is so important to have knowledge of a subject before deciding to act that Aristotle in 350BCE said that "ignorance" is a cause of involuntary actions (alongside 'compulsion')1. Therefore, argued Aristotle, it is voluntary and informed decisions that attract praise or blame2. The requirement for extended deliberation over moral choices was also raised by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, who worried that "morals themselves are liable to all sorts of corruption" and it is easy to get lost, and allow biases and subconscious subjective desires to influence our decisions3. In other words, to really act morally requires a lot of thought and attention. Sometimes it requires education, sometimes it requires experience of others' lives4. History has shown that any attempt to enforce ethics based on simple elements of doctrine tend to backfire - the world's religions are mired in the shadows of such attempts. The basis of Humanism and other non-religious naturalistic ethics is in the encouragement of people to devote time to working out what the best ways of behaving are, but without stipulating any particular rules of behaviour. The only exception to this subjective and cultural maze is the absolute nature of human rights, which have been worked-out by scores of dedicated moralists in order to arrive at very basic concepts which it is always wrong to deny. In short, freewill requires knowledge and the mere fact of 'having a choice' is not enough of a basis on which to judge.

Imagine the situation, occasionally depicted on films and in stories, where two adults in a relationship are splitting up, and just one of them will get ownership of a pet. The pet (or even a young child) is asked to "choose" which parent they wish to stay with by having each parent stand apart, and seeing which one the pet or child wanders to. It is easy to see that the ambulator does not understand at all the ramifications of the "choice" it is making, because it doesn't have the required knowledge of the situation nor does it perceive the ramifications. Therefore no particular meaning should be attached to the "choice" being made.

2. Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Kaiten Nakariya

#immanuel_kant #john_stuart_mill

Intelligence allows us to imagine the life of others and to spot our own biases and our own areas of poor understanding. Life experience allows us to draw on complicated situations where people have had to compromise, or have acted in ways that others do not understand. And wisdom brings us an appreciation of where to use moral instincts, and when to sit down and work things out in greater depth. Life isn't simple!

How true it is, as an Indian Mahayanist declares, that 'all frost and the dewdrops of sin disappear in the sunshine of wisdom!'

"Zen - The Religion of the Samurai" by Kaiten Nukariya (1913)5

The moralist and intellectual John Stuart Mill deliberates on the links between good education and moral intelligence, and provides a long series of convincing arguments that the former aids the latter.

Consequently, the smallest germs of the feeling are laid hold of and nourished by the contagion of sympathy and the influences of education.

"Utilitarianism" by John Stuart Mill (1879)4

Some of the most respected writings are those of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He arrives at a final solution to the problem of how to approach moral thinking, because "a metaphysic of morals is ... necessary ... because morals themselves are liable to all sorts of corruption"3. He argues for the 'categorical imperative' which is unfortunately so vague and haughty that it is unusable by most people unless they spend an inordinate amount of time practising long-term thinking about every minor moral choice. And it can be easily mis-applied and abused just like other moral rules such as the Golden Rule.

3. A Mythological Example: The Story of Adam and Eve

[ + A quick introduction to the story of Adam and Eve, as found in the Book of Genesis + ]

Genesis 3 continues the story of Adam and Eve. After warning Adam not to eat from the Tree of Life, but forgetting to warn Eve, God allows the serpent, which many say is Satan, to roam the Garden of Eden and talk to Eve. It convinces her to eat of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as, without that knowledge and without having been warned by God, Eve cannot understand that the Serpent is evilly tricking her. Next to Eve is her "husband by her side", but he gives no objections, and simply accepts the fruit when she gives him one. It is a quite confusing story with some dubious morals (Adam and Eve are horribly punished forever, along with all their non-guilty descendents), but the story makes more sense once you explore the historical myths surrounding the serpent. Read on.

Adam and Eve did not know of good and evil. They were innocent. They did not know of deceit, anger, lust or evil. The serpent lied to them but they would not have known that the serpent's intents were not good. Mistrust is only a thing that is learnt once evil and sin are experienced. There was not yet any sin, so they couldn't have mistrusted the serpent - so they believed what the serpent said. This isn't Adam and Eve's fault. Immanuel Kant in 1785CE eloquently wrote that "Innocence is indeed a glorious thing; only, on the other hand, it is very sad that it cannot well maintain itself and is easily seduced"6. It is only possible to detect lying and deceit once you know what good and evil is! God would have known that Adam and Eve did not understand deception could not have mistrusted the serpent. So why did God not stop the serpent? God itself could easily have picked the serpent up and thrown it out of the Garden of Eden. It is easily seen that to punish Adam and Eve, or anyone, for wrongdoing is only moral if they have the required understanding. In other words, Adam and Eve were not making a "moral decision" when they believed the snake, because they didn't have basic knowledge about the nature of the serpent, and couldn't understand the moral situation..


4. The Effect on Politics of Choices Without Knowledge 7

#democracy #ignorance #knowledge #politics #stupidity #voting

If democracy is to work, the electorate need to be informed decisions and evidence-based decisions8. Too often, mass delusion overwhelms good sense. Such problems undermined several early attempts at democracy in Europe in the 18th century9. Founding thinkers such as Aristotle, Fortescue and Machiavelli taught that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy10. It is sensible to argue that if you don't understand a topic then you shouldn't vote on it11. But the problem is, many do vote on issues based purely on sound-bites, one-liners, sensationalist newspaper stories and anecdotal evidence12. A "race to the bottom" condition is created whereby parties come into power based on who has the most pithy reactionary statements rather than who has the best policies13.

Such are the issues referred to when commentators worry about "post-truth politics". In a world where reality-TV is orders of magnitude more popular than politician's policies most news reporting centres on interpersonal battles that ought to be kept private. News outlets report trash because it sells; and politics continues a nosedive into rash popularism. If the populace do not soon began to vote with deliberation, then, the entire democratic project runs the risk of failure12.

"Voter Stupidity and the Ignorance of the Masses (A Democratic Challenge)" by Vexen Crabtree (2016)

Current edition: 2016 May 31
Last Modified: 2016 Dec 08
Parent page: The Human Truth Foundation

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References: (What's this?)

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Anderson, M S
(1985) The Ascendancy of Europe 1815-1914. Paperback book. 2nd edition. Published by Pearson Education Limited, Essex, UK. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International History in the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Aristotle. (384-322BCE)
(350BCE) Ethics. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Originally published 340BCE (approx).

Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Chomsky, Naom
(2002) Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda. Paperback book. 2nd edition. Originally published 1991. Current version published by Seven Stories Press, New York USA.

Furedi, Frank. Professor of sociology at the University of Kent, UK.
(2004) Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?. Hardback book.

Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913).

Loughlin, Martin
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Paperback book. Published by Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK.

Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co..

Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
(1913) Zen - The Religion of the Samurai. E-book. Subtitled: "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz.


  1. Aristotle (350BCE) book 3, chapter 3, digital location 906.^
  2. Aristotle (350BCE) book 3, chapter 1, digital location 902-906.^
  3. Kant (1785) digital location 43-46.^^
  4. Mill (1879) p50, etc. Author argues quite a few times that education and intelligence aid moral instinct.^^
  5. Nukariya (1913) p103. Author references the Samantabhadra-dhyana-sutra.^
  6. Kant (1785) p27.^
  7. Added to this page on 2016 Dec 08.^
  8. Loughlin (2000) p186-7.^
  9. Anderson (1985) p169-170.^
  10. Loughlin (2000) p124.^
  11. Carroll (2011) p30.^
  12. Furedi (2004) p78-79.^
  13. Chomsky (2002) p25.^

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