Economics, Society

A Rant Against Capitalism, and Why I Believe We Should Aim Higher

Here are some reasons why I believe we should be devoting ourselves to the development of an alternative economic system.

Reason #1: Capitalism’s Focus on Compound Growth is Unsustainable, and Destructive to Society and the Ecosystem

A minimum of 2 to 3% GDP compound growth per year has been the average rate of economic growth in the U.S., and has been necessary to maintain a decent level of employment in a capitalist economy. But as Marxian theorist David Harvey has pointed out, compound growth eventually becomes unsustainable if you continue to run the numbers out for a sustained period of time. The economy must grow at a faster rate every year, and doing so has mostly exhausted the earth’s natural resources and destabilized the environment. Financially, it has led to expansionist economies dominated by large amounts of fictitious capital and debt in hyperinflated financial markets.

The 19th century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote  regarding the mathematics of compound interest*:

If men, united in equality, gave to one of their number the exclusive right of property, and if this single proprietor placed with humanity a sum of 100 francs at compound interest, repayable to his successors of the twenty-fourth generation after the lapse of 600 years – this sum of 100 francs would, if invested at 5 per cent., amount to the sum of 107,854,010,777,600 francs, a sum 2,696 times as large as the capital of France, estimated at 4,000 millions (50 years ago), or 20 times as large as the value of the whole globe with all movable and unmovable wealth.

Mathematically, it doesn’t take long before compound growth engulfs everything.

In order to keep the economy growing at a compound rate (through increased profits) there also must be increased exploitation of workers and devaluation of their labor power. This arguably defeats the purpose of keeping employment steady through growth. Capitalism was built on slavery, and now much of industrial production is occuring in Chinese sweatshops. Undeveloped countries are exploited by global powers in order to remain mere exporters of cheap goods or resources with little to no global bargaining power.

Domestically, the FIRE sectors (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) contribute more to our GDP (20.2% as of 2014) than any other industry by a very wide margin. And most of this is simply funneling money from the average person to the rich through interest charges and rents. The total domination by these sectors has led to instability in the global system, as speculation accounts for an increasingly large amount of our economic activity.

Decoupling our economy from GDP and other measures of growth, and committing to the creation of a steady state economy  is a change we need to make. Such an economy would aim to stay within ecological limits and prioritize human well-being over profit.

Reason #2: Capitalism is an Inequality Producing Machine

As I mentioned in a previous post, Oxfam estimates that the richest 1% globally will own more wealth than the bottom 99% combined by 2016. Meanwhile 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day. In the U.S., the bottom 40% of Americans own only 0.3% of the wealth, while the top 20% own 84%. And since the recession, the trend in income inequality has been exacerbated, with the top 1% capturing  91% of all new income. Economists Piketty and Saez, among others, project that we are heading into a neo-feudalistic economy, where ownership of capital and inheritance will largely determine outcomes, and produce an increasingly disconnected plutocracy of global elites.

These elites have almost godlike powers as a result of their wealth. We have already seen them take over our political system. Gilens & Page concluded in a 2014 Princeton study that:

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.

Capital accumulation = power accumulation = manipulation of the political system = subversion of democracy.

Reason #3: Efforts to Reform Capitalism Through Tax Policies and Regulation Can Only Go So Far

Progressive taxes are largely an attempt to counterbalance the financial exploitation which occurs in the labor process, and reduce inequality on the back end. Regulation is an attempt to prioritize certain externalities which are often in conflict with profit seeking activities. Without changing the totalitarian, strictly hierarchical structure of multinational corporate institutions (many of which receive more revenue than the average country produces in GDP), we will remain in a losing battle with them at every turn. And without reforming our financial system, and escaping the stranglehold it has put us in, we will continue to be a nation of debtors.

Contrary to the idealized conception of capitalism as a decentralized and unplanned ‘free market’, what actually exists is a highly centralized, planned economy. The planners are located primarily in New York City. This is where most of the profits are distributed by a small handful of oligarchs (the One Percent). CEOs, shareholders, bondholders, and bank managers plan where our resources are allocated, with little interference from goverment regulators or practically nonexistent worker unions. Over the last thirty-five years these funds have almost entirely been used to inflate asset markets through massive lending and speculation, while simultaneously cutting investment in production and destroying the power of labor, along with their benefits. Investment in production, when it has occured, has been largely focused on developing technology and acquisition of cheap foreign labor power, both of which have been rapidly replacing domestic workers in numerous fields.

A fair amount of the money collected by the One Percent has been used to subvert the political system, as mentioned above. This has resulted in deregulation (e.g. repeal of Glass-Steagall), and shifting the burden of taxes largely off of the wealthy (Reagan cut the top income tax rate in half) and onto the middle and lower classes (through increasing payroll taxes for example). Bank bailouts under the Bush and Obama administrations were examples of how much the financial sector has infiltrated government for the purpose of socializing the costs of their reckless activities.

The defense department likewise is largely a means of subsidizing industry, whether it be directly (e.g. Lockheed Martin), or indirectly (e.g. opening up oil markets through foreign intervention). The military has also developed much of the technology that private companies now profit from.

The poor are given enough handouts to allow them to consume (and subsidize the food industry, retail, etc.) and keep them voting for Democrats, but little in the way job training and higher education to get them on their feet and out of poverty. Since the lower classes have a higher marginal propensity to consume, there is little incentive in a consumer culture to help them move up in society. Private colleges and lenders use the market to exploit high school grads who must go deep in debt to gain an education in an economy which now has little room for non-college educated workers. Hence the hyper-inflated college tuitions (up roughly 600% since 1980).

Privatized health care has also been a way to exploit the poor and jack up prices. And likewise, the compromises capitalist reformers must make to avoid the appearance of socialism has led to the subsidization of private health insurance companies through costly Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits, and now Obamacare. A single payer system would eliminate such exploitation, but there are no insurance companies to enrich, so it stays out of the discussion.

Decentralization and democratization of profits through worker cooperatives and alternative business models is necessary if we are to tackle our economic problems head on. Capitalism as it exists doesn’t really avoid the problem of centralized power accumulation. Usually the right argues in favor of decentralization, mainly through limiting the federal goverment, and emphasizing state power; but without decentralizing the private power of capital, this only continues to weaken the one democratic institution which can act as a counterbalance to private corporate tyrannies.

Reason #4: Capitalism’s Fetishization of Profit-Seeking Degrades Us as Human Beings

Our culture celebrates activities which are profitable and add to GDP, regardless of whether such activities ultimately benefit human beings. Does our work lead to more good in the world then bad? This disconnect was described in Marx’s theory of alienation . When our work is meaningless, it demoralizes us, and degrades our communities. A sociocentric economy, which prioritizes the well-being of people over profits is necessary to achieve the world we wish to see. This means looking beyond GDP, the Dow Jones, NYSE, and even official unemployment rates for alternative measures of a good society.

*For further reading on compound interest, I recommend the economist Michael Hudson’s article The Mathematical Economics of Compound Rates of Interest: A Four-Thousand Year Overview Part I

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The contents of this article may be used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Credit should be given to

Economics, Society

The Invisible Hand of God: Evangelical Economics

It is no secret that evangelical Christianity has played a significant role in uniting poor and middle class white Americans with big business to form what is called the religious right here in the states. The rise of Reagan and Volcker in the eighties, and Greenspan in the nineties brought the doctrines of neoliberalism into alliance with a newly engaged voting bloc: theologically motivated social conservatives led by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson. Likewise supply-side economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek gave the movement legitimacy, and helped neo-classical economic theory displace Keynesianism. This turn of events created an extremely powerful political coalition, which still dominates U.S. politics today.

Without the alliance with evangelicalism, it would have been significantly harder to sell lower and middle class voters on the merits of neoliberalism. Domestically speaking, free trade is code for ‘flexibility for corporations to outsource, or at least threaten to, if labor groups demand such frivolous things as living wages’. Lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations cause capital accumulation, inequality, and budget deficits which can be used as a political tool to force cuts in social spending. Likewise financial liberalization (i.e. policies that favor Wall Street over Main Street and liberal monetary policies) frees up excess capital for speculation in order to boost short-term profits for a few, while exacerbating systemic risk and socializing costs. The wealthy and opulent grafted opposition to legalized abortion and gay rights among other social issues into the Republican platform, effectively pitting the average worker’s moral convictions against their well-being, and solidifying support for these anti-worker economic policies.

In this article I’d like to explore a few ways in which evangelical theology mirrors the conservative view of the economy, and why it is such an effective alliance.

God and the market are both absolutely just, and should not be questioned.

It is widely believed that all people will be judged by God according to their actions, and rewarded or punished accordingly in the afterlife. Likewise, conservatives believe in a form of economic karma (i.e. hard work produces financial wealth and laziness produces poverty) guided by the equitable “invisible hand” of the market; a belief which establishes a selfish incentive for effort and moral grounds to blame the poor for their predicament. This belief in economic karma and it’s connection to conservatism is described in detail by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in relation to Moral Foundations Theory.

This overreliance on mythology was put on display several weeks ago when Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul said that “income inequality is due to some people working harder and selling more things,” This is a textbook example of what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error, which may be cute when expressed by a child, but is not so appealing when you contemplate the fact that Paul wants to lead our country.

It goes without saying that the supposed justness of the market, if defined by an equitable effort-to-compensation ratio, is contradicted by some very basic facts. According to the AFL-CIO, in 2013 the average CEO earned 331 times as much as the average employee. And what is even more shocking is that they earned 774 times as much as those who earn minimum wage. If the ratio of effort-to-compensation is fairly consistent, then we should expect that the average CEO works 774 times as hard as someone making the minimum wage.

To put that in perspective, it is estimated that a 155 lb. fast food worker making minimum wage could burn more than 1,500 calories in an eight hour shift. If calories burned were proportional to compensation, then the average CEO would burn 1,161,000 calories in the same eight hour time period. To replenish those calories, the CEO would have to consume the equivalent of 2,639 McDonald’s double cheeseburgers daily; roughly five-and-a-half-burgers-per-minute over another eight hour period of time, leaving him or her with eight hours remaining to sleep and do it all over again after presumably being 774 times more productive than the average minimum wage earner.

If it isn’t sheer effort that determines compensation, one might say that it must be intelligence, ambition, and creativity; the intangibles which lead to success. But if we allow this, then what we are effectively advocating is social darwinism. It is an attitude which suggests that a person’s worth is almost entirely dictated by how well they can increase the bottom line for shareholders through utilizing the natural abilities they were born with.

I think it is fair to assume that the right series of events, partially determined by the person’s disposition, and partially by non-dispositional factors culminate in the diversity of financial outcomes we see in the market. Ultimately neither a person’s disposition, nor their environments (the product of disposition and chance) were the result of the person’s conscious choice. And how we approach this issue as a society has a lot to do with how we view human responsibility in light of the determinism vs. free will debate.

Ultimately, this obsession with rewarding an incredibly small few with a repulsively large share of our resources and punishing the many who do not rise to the top (through the “discipline of the market”,  as Chomsky likes to say) is quite fitting when you consider the projected gap in well-being between those who enter Heaven (and enjoy infinite joy) and those who enter Hell (and endure infinite torment) according to orthodox theology.

Nicholas Fitz of Scientific American reported this year that “the top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%.” He went on to add that “The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined”. Likewise Oxfam projects that the global 1% will own more than the remaining 99% by 2016. Despite these alarming figures, Americans have been indoctrinated into the belief that the outcomes are just and deserved, regardless of whether situational factors (e.g. being born into a low income household in an inner city ghetto) have greater power in predicting outcomes.

All of us deserve Hell, and likewise we all deserve poverty; so we should be grateful to God and the market for the blessings they bestow upon us, which is more than we deserve.

This low sense of self-worth can be promoted by instilling an undue sense of gratitude within a culture. Pastors tell us that we are all sinners (depraved and selfish by nature), worthy of nothing more than Hell, the just punishment for the sin of being born as a sinful human. Likewise, the average worker should not be ungrateful by asking for more than is necessary to remain productive, even if impoverished, for the wealthy elite (who are so generous to allow the selfish masses to be their wage slaves). After all, we don’t deserve anything more than poverty. Likewise God is infinitely generous in allowing all to be His slaves, and serve Him in fear and submission. He would’ve been justified in torturing us all forever.

Orthodox theologians fear populist preachers who present watered-down gospels emphasizing love without retribution, which they warn can result in a loose form of morality. Likewise politicians warn that without the threat of poverty and starvation (enforced through the curtailing of social benefits), the selfish, depraved masses would rebel against the societal order. ‘Rebellion’ in this context may be defined as protesting the form of work and degree of compensation which is optimal for growth of corporate profits. Protesting this form of work may be the right thing to do if such busyness ceases to contribute  to the well-being of society, or becomes detrimental to it. Much of our current economic activity fits this criteria.

Rigid forms of evangelicalism and conservatism discourage independent thought when such intellectual experimentation challenges authority. This is largely rooted in fear, as numerous findings in the cognitive sciences have shown us that conservatives are on average more fearful (to be fair, liberals may run the risk of being oblivious to threats). It’s easier for many to assume they are taking the safest route and avoiding the possibility of Hell and poverty by conforming to the existing social and religious order.

Nietzsche had noted that Christianity encourages and enforces a form of humble and submissive “slave morality”. Because of this it is no wonder that capitalism has thrived within Christian cultures, creating powerful growth engines fueled by submissive labor forces. This may not be a problem if you are fairly comfortable with your life, but for those who are at the bottom of the social stratum here or among the exploited workers in imperialized nations, the ever-present injustice within the global economic system must be difficult to bear.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The contents of this article may be used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Credit should be given to

Philosophy, Society

When Humanistic Ideals Collide with the Myth of Anthropocentrism

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagorus famously said “Of all things the measure is Man,” which is usually paraphrased as ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Despite it’s poetic value, Protagorus’ statement represents what is essentially the pinnacle of human arrogance. This paradigm of thought is reflected in religious beliefs about humanity’s eternal destiny, superiority over wildlife and the earth, and the supposed importance of individual purity and morality. But it  was also a cornerstone of enlightenment ideals, which still strongly influence secular thought.

Yesterday I met an atheist in my town through a Unitarian Universalist event. He is a fascinating British man who gave me some great ideas to chew on. One of which is a provocative philosophical concept called inhumanism, which at first blush sounds horrifying until the meaning is explained. As a self-identified progressive Humanist, this idea appeared to contrast strongly with certain tenets of my own philosophy.

The term inhumanism was coined by the 20th century poet Robinson Jeffers to describe his philosophy. He elaborated on it in the preface to The Double Axe  (1948):

The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

Essentially, inhumanism is about shifting the focus off of humanity, and the myth of anthropocentrism, and onto the universe at large, which we are inseparable from. No longer should we view ourselves as the center of the universe. Instead we should recognize that we are but one tiny part of an enormous whole.

The catalyst for such a worldview shift should be obvious. With looming ecological, geopolitical, and economic disasters staring us down, we, as if looking up the barrel of a gun, must stop denying the nature of reality, and admit that the world, and the universe may go on without us very soon. We should recognize that at the very least, the destruction of civilization as we know it may very well be inevitable.

The prognoses appear grim on most fronts. As exemplified by the sobering title of the great intellectual Noam Chomsky’s 2014 article for In These Times:“The End of History? The short, strange era of human civilization may be coming to a close.” Whether it be the possibility of nuclear war, environmental collapse, or socio-economic upheaval, we are facing some damn scary hypotheticals as a species.

There is still human optimism, but much of it seems naive or pragmatic at best. I am no scientist or economist, so I could be wrong.  Like most people, I am only capable of second-hand knowledge of such matters.  Maybe human civilization will rise to the challenge and work it’s way out of the messes we are facing. Maybe something unforeseeable will occur which changes everything. Who knows?

But it seems like the cracks in humanity’s optimism are showing. Are we really so confident? Is progress inevitable? Are we just hitting another speed bump along the road to victory?

Why do we assume that the Earth needs us? Can we imagine a universe without humans? It seems almost scandalous to suggest that humanity may just be a passing fad, subject to the arbitrary whims of the universe’s ever-changing taste in cosmic fashion.

A concept so unorthodox as this can easily be opened up to the charge of unproductive pessimism or fear-mongering. I think at it’s worst, a sense of hopeless, nihilistic determinism could be a potential side-effect. At it’s best however, it could challenge those who can accept it to reprioritize their lives accordingly. For example, I continue to feel more and more inclined to see art as a more noble ‘purpose’ so to speak, of mankind’s existence. Rather than being concerned with humanity’s self-aggrandization, illusions of progress, and anthropocentric fantasies, maybe we should focus more on living a life of beauty and harmony while we are here.

I believe that these sort of ideas should probably be tempered by the pragmatic ideals of Humanism. Progress can still be valued, even if demoted to a lesser role;  human optimism has a important psychological role to play; and sometimes artistry and beauty must compromise with the ugliness involved in facing difficult humanitarian crises. Secular Humanism and inhumanism may not be as mutually incompatible as they appear. Maybe more complementary.

I’d encourage you to check out the  Dark Mountain Manifesto, from the website created by a group of artists and activists. They create art and writings based on this philosophy of inhumanism, which they somewhat euphemistically label uncivilisation. If nothing more, it will give you some food for thought. It resonates with my skeptical side; especially when it comes to criticizing political, economic or scientific optimism.

This story has many variants, religious and secular, scientific, economic and mystic. But all tell of humanity’s original transcendence of its animal beginnings, our growing mastery over a ‘nature’ to which we no longer belong, and the glorious future of plenty and prosperity which will follow when this mastery is complete. It is the story of human centrality, of a species destined to be lord of all it surveys, unconfined by the limits that apply to other, lesser creatures . . .

. . . Today, humanity is up to its neck in denial about what it has built, what it has become — and what it is in for. Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch. Centuries of hubris block our ears like wax plugs; we cannot hear the message which reality is screaming at us. For all our doubts and discontents, we are still wired to an idea of his- tory in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present. The assumption remains that things must continue in their current direction: the sense of crisis only smudges the meaning of that ‘must’. No longer a natural inevitability, it becomes an urgent necessity: we must find a way to go on having supermarkets and superhighways. We cannot contemplate the alternative.

Dark Mountain Manifesto, via

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The contents of this article may be used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Credit should be given to


Atheists vs. Evangelicals – Negative Stereotypes and Mutual Dislike

I have been thinking recently about relations between Christians and atheists, and the gulf of animosity between the two. I’ll go ahead and share some of my thoughts on the dynamics involved.

There was a Pew poll last year which highlighted something we already knew: Americans have a very negative view of atheists. On a scale of 1 to 100 representing negative to positive emotions, Americans ranked atheists a chilly 41, only one percentage point above the most negatively perceived religious group, Muslims, who got a rating of 40. This is 8 points below the third most disliked group, Mormons, who got a rating of 48. When it comes to atheists’ and evangelicals’ rankings of each other, there is a mutual dislike between the two. Both groups ranked each other worse than any other group. Atheists gave evangelical Christians a score of 28, while evangelical Christians gave atheists a score of 25.

Religious Tension Even more alarming than these numbers are the studies which have suggested that Americans distrust atheists less than rapists (!) I find this incredibly saddening. It is also unjustified.

Just the other day I was having a conversation on one of my Twitter accounts with someone who I’ve followed since before I left the faith. We had brief conversations before, but we were more like Twitter acquantainces. I didn’t intend on turning it into a debate but as you know, sometimes certain personalities can’t resist sparring. I didn’t mind it, as I enjoy a good, respectful (key word) debate. But it took a turn which annoyed and angered me. I took a bunch of screenshots so you could see it. Keep in mind that Twitter convos can be somewhat hard to follow, depending on which tweet is replied to, the order can be confusing.

Tweet1 Tweet2 Tweet3 Tweet4 Tweet5 Tweet6

This man revealed his biases about atheists, by trying to suggest we are okay with rape and murder. As much as I find this thinking offensive, I feel sorry for him. I personally am not easily hurt by fundies’ opinions; this case is no exception. From his perspective, he really thinks I’m going to Hell. Can I blame him for not having tact? It’s unfortunate when people embrace false beliefs which require unbending devotion. Having been on both sides I know that there are many factors which lead someone to accept these stereotypes and biases. Fear of punishment, mixed with indoctrination is a potent combination.

Now it would be unfair of me to say that this guy is representative of most Christians. Most of my followers on that account are Christians I’ve known since before my conversion, and immediately several of them started to chime in with apologies for what this guy said. It truly is nice to be reminded of the amount of love within Christianity. That sounds strange as an atheist, but I believe it. There are great Christians; some of the best people I know are believers. There are also great atheists; something I hope more Christians would see. People are individuals. Stereotyping is wrong; regardless of what a person believes or doesn’t believe. I listed some stats on my feed regarding atheism and crime which I thought I’d share here. uq3hYhp

There is evidence that atheists are overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding. 2013 data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows that atheists make up only 0.07% of the prison population; Protestants on the other hand make up 28.7% and Catholics 24%. Atheists make up 2.4% of the American population according to a 2012 Pew poll.This means that atheists are 34 times less likely to be incarcerated than those who do not identify as atheists. The caricature of lawless, conscience-devoid atheists running wild is absurdly inaccurate. We have consciences, and societies don’t necessarily crumble due to a decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, there is considerable evidence that secular societs fare better than religious ones.

All of this however, has nothing to do with the truth value of Christianity or the debate of it. But what it does show is that the negative stereotypes of atheists are simply invalid; in addition to being unproductive to society. We don’t need more Phil Robertsons saying “You lose your religion, you lose your morals.” And on the flip side we don’t need more New Atheists in the vein of Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens agitating Christians (as much as I can appreciate some of their work.) What we need now is respectful dialogue and a more positive approach on both sides to help restore some civility between the two groups.

I might add that there are still a few statistics that favor religiosity as well; such as higher charitable donations. However it is not surprising that giving would increase if you pass around an offering plate once a week and urge people that it is their duty to give.

Some atheists caricature Christians as stupid and intolerant. Some Christians caricature atheists as immoral and obnoxious. These stereotypes will continue to hinder forward progress in relations between the two groups if both sides don’t commit to changing the focus. It shouldn’t be ‘us vs. them.’ We can disagree respectfully, and commit to loving each other regardless. We may not gather together and sing kumbaya on the weekends, but we can learn to respect each other and not stir up animosity. We have a long way to go, and I’m a work in progress myself.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

10721328_278062212388486_378808137_nMy name is Zach Van Houten and I am a secular Humanist with progressive values who enjoys good discussions with intelligent people. I was a passionate conservative Christian from childhood until I found intellectual freedom in November of 2014. I take an interest in Humanism, general philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, eastern religious philosophy, atheism, politics, Biblical studies, and most importantly, the life cycle of sea turtles. Email me at if you’d like to offer tips on how I can make myself less boring or start up a convo about the weather.

© Zach Van Houten and, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Zach Van Houten and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Atheist logo by Chookbeatle via DeviantArt – image modified by me.

Paridigm Shift – Human Responsibility and Neuroscience

I came across an incredible article the other day, which perfectly sums up my thoughts on human responsibility. I remember this topic was something I wrestled with when I was a Christian long before I started to experience any serious doubts. It’s often conflated with the ‘free will vs. determinism’ debate, but the subject of human responsibility or blameworthiness is a slightly different issue.

Here’s the article:

I hope you get a chance to read it, as it’s well worth your time. This topic has important implications for our justice system, as well as for society as a whole.

The crux of the issue is whether humans can truly be blamed for their actions. Or more specifically, whether a person’s actions can make them worthy of punishment. I take the stance that the writer of the article, neuroscientist David Eaglemen takes: vengeance and retribution should play no part in our justice system. Rather, we should be placing our emphasis on creating a healthy, and safe society. It is not necessarily an argument against incarceration or all forms of punishment. Rather it is a call for a progressive philosophy of justice which takes into account the scientific evidence which suggests that our decisions are inseparable from our biology and cognitive makeup.

I have been familiar with mental illness for as long as I can remember. My mom is paranoid schizophrenic, and one of the most amazing people I know. She did not choose to have her brain malfunction. The traditional view of human responsibility cannot explain things like her illness. Our minds are intimately connected to our physical brains. We cannot remove ourselves from the causal chain.

Eaglemen goes into many examples, from those who suffer from Tourette’s to people who have become violent as a result of brain tumors. It reminds me of what Neuronotes wrote a while back about how brain injuries can affect a person’s moral character and lead to violent, uncompassionate behavior. The point is clear: we cannot look at another person and accurately predict that we would act differently in the same situation since we don’t have that person’s genes or brain. It’s apples and oranges. Those of us who are mentally stable should be profoundly grateful that we weren’t dealt the same biological hand as a psychopath; who did not choose to have a messed up brain.

Does anyone deserve pain? I would say no; regardless of what that person has done or how evil a person is perceived to be. Does that mean we never inflict pain on other humans? No. Sometimes it is necessary. The point is, all pain inflicted should have a purpose. Punishment for the sake of retribution or vengeance is a lingering relic of past assumptions about libertarian free will that are demonstrably false, and should have no place in our justice system.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, modified by myself.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.