The work of Josiah van Vliet

What the Measles death can tell us about the need for secular virtues

So we had the first Measles death in 12 years. While I think that anti-vaxxers are vile and wrong headed, I don’t really blame the them. To me they seem like a symptom, not a cause. Getting your kid vaccinated is viscerally unpleasant, death from measles has been entirely theoretical for 12 years. I understand why an animal would accept the risk of an unseen danger to avoid the physical reality of paying money to get your kid stabbed by a stranger.

But we are in important ways more than animals. And our ability to act on the long term impacts of our actions rather than the short term impact is one of those ways. But this ability must be honed, and trained, even in us. This ability, for long term thinking, when properly honed, is a virtue. An ability to tease out which experts are correct and which are obviously full of shit, would be a virtue. But in contemporary American culture the only source of virtue is mystical or supernatural. This is a failure of imagination and understanding I’ve been frustrated with for some time. 

For at least 10,000 years we as a species have had to negotiate the mismatch between our evolved instincts and our constructed environment. Sometimes what is best for us hurts, and sometimes the easy pleasures are deadly. No other animal makes poisons that taste good to itself, but we do. Cultures have come up with many ways to handle these mismatches of near and long term thinking: religions, laws and cultural norms are the most common. But one of the major failings of  religion is how slow it is to change. And in the last hundred or two hundred years the rate of technological and cultural change has increased to the point that religion is stuck with correcting mismatches that no longer exist.

If you consider the ability to act adaptively in the face of an instinct/environment mismatch a virtue then what we need is an institution that encourages and enables virtue in its members. And we had that, to some extent, with organized religion. But now it needs new flexibility, and a scripture based in empirical research, not Revealed Wisdom. We need an organization that can motivate its members to do the right thing, even when the right thing is difficult, or unpleasant, and especially when the right thing just changed because of a technological change.

In a responsible and ethically engaged culture people would be taught how to balance their animal fears against the advice of epidemiologists. And instead of fighting against the religious right and pretending that human beings are fine with just trying to be rational, we should be building institutions that help them understand the world around them. Help them talk to their neighbors about the importance of doing the right thing, when the right thing is empirically the thing that causes the least human suffering.

What are we?

Religions typically tell us that we are shards of the divine here on earth. Shards mixed up and dirtied by all the worldliness of the world. And that we should look up and away toward the divine from which we really came. This story, in what ever form, tells us a story that makes sense out of the unfairnesses in the world, and gives us instructions about which impulse to embrace and which to shun. In Hinduism  an ancient unfairness, the caste system, is explained, so everyone can be told a comforting story about why things are so unfair. In Christianity a patriarchal system of property is reinforced by a story  we are told about a God who really doesn’t like people to have sex and the terrible eternal suffering that awaits those who enjoy it. These stories, and ones like them tell us about our place in the world and help make emotional sense of our lot in life, but there frank impossibility has made them useless to many of us.  And no one has bothered to retell our genesis with an eye towards Both the truth of our creation And the emotional needs of their listeners.

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Why You Need To Support Bernie Sanders

The media is locked into a model of storytelling focused on conflict. And, any two subjects in a conflict worth covering are implied to be equivalent, unless you take time to say otherwise. So when the mass media cover party politics they talk about “left” and “right” as if they were equidistant from the center.

Over the years right leaning think tanks have taken advantage of the media’s calcified notions of ethics in a number of interesting ways. Notably for this piece they have taken to referring to the most left leaning policy in the public discourse as “extreme” no matter what. Over the last several decades, through this method and others, they have pulled the entire political spectrum to the right.¹

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Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you.

Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you they are orderly different. Duty is debt you owe to yourself to fill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to a instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward of self-respect.

There is no reward at all for doing what other people expect of you, and to do so is not merely difficult, but impossible. It is easier to deal with a footpad than is with a leech who wants “just a few minutes of your time, please- this wont take long. Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they will quickly snowball to the point where all these parasites will eat up 100 percent of your time and squawk for more!

So learn to say no – and to be rude when necessary.

Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The terminates will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you.

(This rule does that mean you must not do a favor for friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is expected of you)


-The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

The largest secular holiday in the world

Earth Day  is apparently “the largest secular holiday in the world”. I feel like this is not a well considered thing. When people defend the sacrament of Christmas as important I don’t think anyone has considered things like Earth Day as an alternative.

We could celebrate real things, important things. Build traditions of doing good around a calendar of dates on which to come together as a community in support of the values and actions we consider important.

Anyway, Happy Earth Day.

On Tsarnaev and the death penalty

Tsarnaev is going to die in prison. We’ve known that since he made it out of that boat alive. Whether that death is the result of lethal injection, old age, or a shard of glass is all thats left to decide. The prosecution is still attempting to have the state give itself permission to kill him, while the defense is attempting make sure the state does not give itself that permission. But no one in that court is vying for any result other than  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev living out the rest of his life behind bars.

And keep in mind that the death penalty will not happen soon. It will be after a long process of appeals and red tape that will go on for years¹. It will not be a cathartic vengeful act at high noon at the marathon finish line. It will be (if his fellow inmates don’t preempt the states action) a dreary, long debated act of state killing in something like the year 2030.

The prosecution is currently arguing that his crimes are so severe that the death penalty is appropriate. The defense is arguing that that his older brother held enough influence that it moderates Dzhokhar’s culpability enough to withhold the death penalty. What we are debating is how many decades he will rot before he dies, and who has permission to kill him. There is not massive separation between the possible outcomes. And no one is saying he should ever spend another day outside of prison.

Tsarnaev will live the rest of his life in a cage, the court is just figuring out the details.


¹http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/cp12st.pdf (table 10)

Mark Twain Day!

Today in 1910 Mark Twain died, go treat yourself to some of his wit to celebrate a great American writer.


Worst case Scenario Day

Sometimes the system takes so much damage that it can not deal with the consequences of that damage. In 1906 an earthquake hit San Francisco and over the course of the next several days 3000 people died and over 80% of the city burned. Sometimes it hits the fan and there isn’t much to be done.


Beware Groupthink Day!

Today, in 1961, the US of A invaded a country with an armed military and police force of 234,000 with a force of 1500 people. So next time you have an important decision to make, run it past someone not already on your team.



Today in 1963

…Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” . Many things jumped out at me about this letter, not least of which was the incredible writing. But the thing I wanted to point out was that if you read through his argument you can see that he has, as a minister, a deep well of moral writings to call on to justify his position. He seems to have a massive reservoir of human wisdom at his fingertips, from Socrates to the bible.  It’s not just religious fervour that gives his argument power, but his training in the history of human wisdom. It occurred to me to wonder what the secular equivalent of this training would look like.

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