Meditate on this

Arbitrary-Humean sources of normativity are subjective, internalist, and “egoist” but in a trivial rather than substantive way. You prefer for art to exist and therefore cet. par. you have a reason to create art. This is the most basic, taken-for-granted level of normativity, including: wanting to be happy rather than sad, wanting to be sad instead of happy under certain circumstances (to mourn a friend’s loss, say,) wanting people you personally care about to be happy, wanting humanity to explore the stars, simultaneously somehow wanting animals not to suffer and for there to be a large diverse “natural” biosphere, wanting to do heroin, wanting to hurt people who piss you off, wanting anything. (Trivial formulation: if you don’t achieve your ends your ends won’t be achieved.)

Phronetic-Aristotelian sources of normativity are instrumental rules you have to obey to sustain yourself as an agent and exercise power over the world to achieve preferences. This morality is externalist, objective, and nontrivially egoistic. In order to function you need to eat, acquire a reputation for deal-keeping and reciprocity, gather more power and resources that can be deployed for ends you haven’t figured out yet entirely, and so on. (Trivial formulation: if you can’t do anything you can’t achieve your ends.)

Superrational-Kantian sources of normativity involve reasoning that you are not special, and that if you’d rather be a partner to cooperate-cooperate deals with strangers you’d better start cooperating. This morality is internalist, objective, and only derivatively egoistic. (Trivial formulation: generic agents cooperate with each other to the extent that generic agents cooperate with each other.)

Things with no normativity: rocks, numbers, suns.

Things with AH normativity only: children (in the limit case), most other animals considered as individuals, maybe primitive AI.

Things with AH and PA normativity only: bad people, including counterfactually bad people who are just some incentives and norms shifts away from from being bad. (I think most people hover between this and the full normative experience.)

Things with PA normativity only: cancers, corporations, (another limit case) the sort of bad person who simply only cares about power itself rather than power as a means to sex or ideology or whatever.

Things with SK normativity only: reasoners behind the veil of ignorance

Things with AH and SK normativity only: God prior to the creation of the world

Things with PA and SK normativity only: angels

Things with AH, PA, SK normativity: you (imperfectly)

a wise philosopher

How Darwin Lost his Religion

What an old-fashioned way to start a blog in 2021!

Parasitoid wasps are wasps whose lifecycle involves laying their eggs in other small animals, such as caterpillars.  When the eggs hatch, they begin to consume the host from the inside. Eventually the host is killed by the larvae.  If you want to see what this looks like, there are some illuminating images on Wikipedia.

After publishing On the Origin of the Species, Darwin wrote to a devout friend  about these charming creatures:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always  painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write  atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do,  & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design &  beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the  world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God  would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitoid wasp] with the express  intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars [emphasis added]


What interests me about this passage is that, normally, the plight of insects doesn’t really move me very much. I swat flies like anybody else. When I had bed bugs, I hired an exterminator. But when I think about parasitoid wasps, I have the same reaction that Darwin does. Parasitoid wasps strike me as an ostentatiously evil thing, one whose design by a benevolent creator would call for explanation. Thinking about insects dying in other ways doesn’t have the same effect. Even if we stipulate, just for the sake of the argument, that caterpillars cannot feel pain, there is something a bit sick about the design of parasitoid wasps. Something is wrong here.

When I mentioned this letter to a devout friend of my own, he said that these aspects of the natural world reflect the influence of Satan. But I don’t find this very satisfying because either it implies that God is not strong enough to overpower Satan (this is the Gnostic heresy), or that God allowed Satan free reign to design parasitoid wasps. In a way, this kind of natural evil seems like an even more potent objection to omnipotent omnibenevolent omniscience than natural evil affecting human beings. Maybe if I get mesothelioma next month and die horribly, I will wake up in heaven and God will explain to me what lesson I was supposed to derive from that experience. Perhaps I would be bothered at first, but I would have eternity to get over it. It is hard to believe that God has some explanation that a caterpillar could understand of what parasitoid wasps are supposed to teach.  So I think parasitoid wasps present a major problem even for theodicies that offer universal salvation.

There is a way out: skeptical theism, the idea that the Lord works in mysterious ways. If there is an omnipotent entity with perfect access to the facts about morality, perhaps we should assume that He knows what He is doing, even if it looks bad from our fallible perspective. This argument is not logically incoherent.

But to the extent that parasitoid wasps represent either a strong reason to disbelieve or a mysterious way for the Lord to work, it seems like I incur a duty to not behave like a parasitoid wasp myself. After all, I know I don’t work in mysterious ways. When I do something bad, it isn’t part of the working of Providence, it is just bad.

I’m not sure exactly what the implications of not wanting to be like a parasitoid wasp are, but I think they probably involve not eating the bugs.