Eavesdropping on God and the Devil

Eavesdropping isn’t exactly a sin, but it’s certainly impolite.

And yet I couldn’t help it. Much.

I was getting some coffee in the break room. Outside, in the hallway, God was having an argument with the Devil.

I tried not to listen. But God has that deep, booming voice that kind of commands your attention. If you doubt me, just ask Abraham.

I peeked around the door to watch the fireworks.

What’s that you say? You didn’t know that the Devil works for God?

Well, he does. He’ll never be named “Employee of the Month” — attitude problems — but he’s essential. He provides the alternative to goodness. Without alternatives, there’s no choice; without choice, no free will; without free will, no sin or sainthood. That’s why God made him.

But now, the Devil was claiming to be more compassionate than the Deity. You’d expect him to have learned a lesson from the last time he challenged the Throne, but it’s his tragic flaw: pride. God knows, of course, and it’s probably why He tolerates the insubordination.

“I accept people as they are,” said the Devil. “I accept both the good and the bad about them, without discrimination or conditions. I don’t care what they’ve done. I don’t care if they’re batsh-t crazy. My embrace is open to all; it’s the ultimate of inclusiveness.”

“You, on the other hand” — he pointed impudently at the Lord — “You tie them down with rules and regulations: Be kind, not cruel. Forgive, don’t revenge. Be honest, don’t cheat. You forbid everything that their nature commands, and you command everything that their nature forbids. Is it any wonder that so many of them are screwed up?”

God let out a weary sigh — of course, He doesn’t actually get weary, but He seemed a little bored. He’s been listening to the same kind of complaints for millennia.

“Yes, you do accept them as they are,” God said. “You’re happy to let them wallow in the mud of ignorance and depravity. In fact, you prefer it that way.”

“I gave them the ability to be more than they are — to become their best selves. The choice must be theirs, or it means nothing. So I provide both the carrot and the stick to motivate them. If that’s exclusionary, well then too bad. People who choose to live justly should be rewarded for it. People who choose to lie, plunder, and murder have to answer for it.”

The Lord looked at his watch. He doesn’t actually need a watch, but wearing one seems to make Him feel closer to humanity.

“Are we done here?” He asked. It was only a rhetorical question, since God is omniscient. “I’ve got a meeting, and you should be getting back to DC.”

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Your Curse Can Be Your Blessing

Is your life “cursed” in some way?

A traumatic childhood? Health problems? Poor self-esteem?

You can turn your curse into your blessing.

The American novelist Ernest Hemingway said it well:

“Life breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places.”

We’ve all got broken places. We can either sit and cry about them, or we can get strong. We can use our pain as fuel to improve ourselves and to do good in the world.

For example, I live in the shadow of a great man. My younger siblings compare themselves to each other. But as the eldest, I compare myself to our father. It’s a humbling experience. I feel as if I can never be good enough and can never accomplish enough.

But it’s also a blessing. It spurs me to work harder and to do more. Both I and the world are better off because of my “broken places.”

I’m also a slight hypochondriac. It motivates me to exercise daily and to watch my diet. I’m better off as a result.

What are your broken places? How can you turn them into your strongest places? How can you use them to make your life better?

It’s a question worth asking.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Who Gets Veto Power?


A while back, I worked for a tech company where I reported to the company’s CEO.

The main thing I learned was never to take a job at a company founded and run by a business-school professor.

The other thing I learned was that in the wrong hands, veto power can cause a lot of trouble.

Even though I reported to the CEO, the company’s board had to approve everything I produced.

By itself, that requirement was stupid but okay. If the board members wanted to be involved at that level of detail, fine.

The problem was that each individual board member had veto power. The board had to approve my plans unanimously. A single “nay” vote sent me back to the drawing board.

And two of the board members always disagreed with each other. No matter which one I tried to please, the other would veto what I did.

That’s the kind of brilliant setup you get from a business-school professor. My actual work was easy; getting the board to agree was damn near impossible.

So are there any general lessons to be drawn from that situation?

Fewer veto holders

Let’s simplify things: Suppose that only one board member wanted to veto everything. Then the company could never do what the majority thought was best. It would only have two choices:

  • Do nothing, or
  • Do what the single veto-holder wanted, against the judgment of the majority.

Applied to society

Similarly, consider a society in which, say, 0.15 percent of the population has trait X. In other words, 99.85 percent are not X, and fifteen-hundredths of one percent are X.

If you took the United States as an example, its current population is about 329,000,000. Then 328.5 million of the people would not be X, and 500,000 of them would be X.

Should law and social policy support the happiness of the 328.5 million people who aren’t X? Or should they be tailored for the 500,000 people who are X — in effect, giving them veto power over the majority?

Giving the X group veto power means hurting the majority to help the small (less than one percent) minority.

And suppose that in addition to group X, another small minority is Y, while another is Z. Do they all get veto power?

Then we’re back to the board of directors situation: multiple people who always veto each other. It becomes impossible for society to function.

Personally, I think that if other factors are equal, every person’s welfare should count equally. If you’ve got 328.5 million people whose welfare conflicts with the desires of 500,000 people, then you take care of the 328.5 million.

You do your best to avoid unacceptable harm to the 500,000, but you’ve done the math: 328.5 million is a lot more than 500,000. You take care of the vast majority. The minority will have to adjust. It shouldn’t get veto power.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Why Common Sense Is So Uncommon

Why is common sense so uncommon?

I’ve been reading Robert Curry’s excellent new book Reclaiming Common Sense.

It got me thinking about why I and many other people often lack common sense.

For example, in college I was a libertarian. Mainstream libertarians believe that each of us has rights limited only by the same rights of other people: e.g., “my right to swing my fist ends where your face begins.” As long as we don’t commit aggressive violence, coercion, or fraud against others, we may do anything we like. Government exists to defend our rights.

However, a friend pointed out a contradiction. If we may do anything we like, then we may delegate our right of self-defense to any third party, not just to the government. That leads to anarcho-capitalism, under which private businesses would perform all the functions of government. So for a while, I was an anarcho-capitalist. I eventually grew out of it, mostly by studying history. If a utopian social order has never existed anywhere for longer than five minutes, you start to think there’s a reason. There is.

Here’s another example. After college, I worked on Capitol Hill for a while. I had a libertarian acquaintance who took a lack of common sense to a whole new level. He argued publicly that child pornography should be legal because if it had already been made, it was not at the current time abusing any children. The abuse had happened previously. He said that child abuse itself should be illegal, but not its result after the fact.

I want to add that I don’t believe he’d ever been within 500 feet of any child pornography. He was just afflicted with what a professor of mine called “principle-itis:” pushing abstract principles to the point of complete absurdity.

A final example is from 2019. When anyone says that America is a great country, the standard reply is “Well, it was never great for minority X!” And that’s supposed to settle the argument.

Let’s grant their point: America in the past was not always great for blacks, gays, or for women who lacked some civil rights. Occasionally, it was awful. Undisputed.

On the other hand, you would search in vain for any real human society anywhere, at any time in history, where no group was treated worse than some other group. You would also find very few societies where minority groups were treated as well as they have been in America. And last but not least, America has been pretty good in most ways for the majority of people. On utilitarian grounds — the greatest good for the greatest number — it’s been aces all around.

Compared to an abstract ideal of perfection, America isn’t great. But compared to any other real countries, America is and always has been great. It hasn’t fully lived up to its founding ideals that “all [people] are created equal,” but at least it’s tried. Other countries haven’t.

And that’s one reason people lack common sense. They think only of abstract principles and ideals, not of what’s real or possible. But all are needed:

  • Without ideals, we can’t know what we should do.
  • Without realism, we can’t know how well we’re accomplishing it.
  • Without experience, we can’t know what’s realistic.

When you combine ideals with realism and experience, you get common sense.

It might be uncommon, but it doesn’t have to be. We need a lot more of it.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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One Way to Reduce Fake News

Regardless of their political views, most Americans think that “fake news” is a real problem.

And it is. Often on purpose.

Partisans flood the media with so much disinformation that it’s hard for anyone to know what’s happening. Even the perpetrators themselves get lost in their own web of lies.

News media hacks don’t care if their reporting is true. If it makes money or furthers their political agendas, then that’s all they want. For them, truth isn’t even a secondary concern. It’s a non-issue.

There’s no way to fix the problem completely. But a simple rule could reduce fake news:




None. Ever. The same applies to “news chyrons” at the bottom of the television screen. They can only be statements, never questions.

I don’t care which side you’re on. I don’t care how good you think your intentions are.

I don’t care if your question is “Does Hillary Clinton worship the Devil?” or “Does Donald Trump have sex with Harvey Weinstein?”

If you’ve got good evidence for something, then have the guts to make the headline a statement:


Or if you’re pretty sure but there’s still some doubt:


But don’t think that just because someone talked to a guy who knew a guy whose college roommate’s uncle said that he might have heard something sketchy 30 years ago, you’re entitled to run a headline like:


There will still be fake news, partly because there are so many fake reporters and editors. But banning the use of questions as headlines would eliminate a lot of it.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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How to Get a Healthy Society

In my previous blog post (“What’s Your Choice?”), I said that the main question of morality is not “what’s right or wrong” but “what kind of people we choose to be.”

At first glance, that statement seems absurd, bordering on offensive. Isn’t morality all about what’s right or wrong?

Morality guides our actions in life. If it’s mainly about what we choose, then that suggests we could choose anything.

I choose not to kick puppies because I like puppies. But if I hated puppies, would it be morally okay if I “chose” to kick them? After all, it’s my right to choose.

I’d say it’s morally wrong. But then, I would say that, because I like puppies.1

And in essence, that shows one factor you need for a healthy society. If you can’t prove moral ideas to anyone who disagrees, then you need a society in which most people agree about them.

Sure, you can prove your own moral ideas to your own satisfaction. But everyone can do that. The saint and the serial killer, the patriot and the traitor, the sane person and the lunatic all believe that they’re acting morally.

In practical terms, proof isn’t the issue. A workable society requires wide agreement about the fundamental truths of life. You need a population in which most people “like puppies.” In other words, as British economist Walter Bagehot put it, you need:

“… a LIKE body of men, because of that likeness capable of acting together, and because of that likeness inclined to obey similar rules.”

The likeness doesn’t have to be unanimous, and it doesn’t have to be about every conceivable issue. But it does need large majority agreement about basic ideas. It also needs a majority willing and able to insist that dissident minorities respect those ideas at least in public; a majority that refuses to be manipulated into giving up its society an inch at a time.

Ultimately, it leads to a question that American founder Alexander Hamilton posed in Federalist Paper #1:

“… whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

The answer is that we are capable of doing it, but we also need to get lucky. Whether because of shared history, religion, ethnicity, or other factors, a healthy society needs a population that can agree about:

  • the fundamental issues of life, and
  • ways to cooperate in spite of any remaining disagreements.

Without those things, we’re pushed back to relying on “accident and force.”

And is that where sensible people of any belief system want to be?


  1. British philosopher and two-time Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once said that he couldn’t refute moral relativism, but neither could he believe that the only thing wrong with murder was that he just didn’t like it.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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What’s Your Choice?

Some people might get mad at me for saying this, but I’m against kicking puppies.

I’m also against being mean to children and old people.

I like democracy but I agree with Winston Churchill that “it’s the worst form of government except for all the others.”

I believe that good deeds should be rewarded and evil deeds should be punished.

I believe that everyone deserves a fair chance in life.

I believe that robots are stealing my luggage.

Unfortunately, I can’t prove those beliefs to anyone who disagrees with me. Nor can I prove my definitions of words like “good,” “evil,” and “fair.”

And that’s the main problem, not just of personal conduct, but of social and political life.

The fundamental question of morality is not “what’s right or wrong?”

The fundamental question is: “What kind of people do we choose to be?”

These thoughts are inspired by Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I recommend.

The book shows that violence has declined in Western societies, and it tries to explain how that happened — not only over recent decades, but over the centuries.

His strongest logical argument uses statistics about murder rates and other forms of violence. But his most striking argument describes forms of torture and punishment that until recently were considered normal. They were even inflicted publicly as popular entertainment. Some torments were so horrifying that I had to skip book pages because I couldn’t stand even to read about them any more.

And then Pinker comes to the key point for our current discussion. He speculates about what he would do if he could punish Adolf Hitler for his crimes:

“It would not occur to me to inflict a torture like that on him. I could not avoid wincing in sympathy, would not want to become the kind of person who could indulge in such cruelty …”

In other words, Pinker would not want to become the same kind of person as he was punishing. He looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back, and he didn’t like it.

Many factors influence the kinds of people we choose to be. Culture, history, childhood experiences, and family life are all important. Those affect our moral intuitions about the things that are good, bad, just, and unjust.

Scientific evidence is accumulating that our genes also play a role (see, for example, Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis’s book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society). Our genes influence not only how we look, but how we feel about life and other people. In turn, that feeling influences how we think we should treat people and what kind of society we think is just. That’s one reason why genetically distinct human groups often have different moral and political beliefs.

But in spite of their influence, neither our backgrounds nor our genes can control us completely.

Ultimately, the choice is still ours: What kind of people do we choose to be?

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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