James E. Petts


The term “liberalism” has been used to refer to many different and often incompatible political and ethical theories. This is not an attempt to document those different theories: anyone interested in the academic debates on the topic will find the entry on liberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy worth reading. Rather, this is a short description of a particular conception of liberalism, universal liberalism, setting out what it is and why it matters.

The fundamentals of universal liberalism

The basic principle of universal liberalism is that everyone has a right to be free of coerced social conformity that is not demonstrably productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. Coerced social conformity includes, but is not restricted to, control by a state or government. It also includes coercion exercised by private individuals, whether acting alone or in groups, and non-governmental organisations of all kinds.

Universal liberalism is not anarchism. It does not hold that any and all political authority and coercion is illegitimate. Rather, it holds that coercion is justified when – and only when – the harms that coercion of all kinds inevitably cause are outweighed in the particular case by benefits such that the particular coercion in fact produces the greatest good for the greatest number. A paradigm – but not the only – case of justified coercion is to restrain unjustified coercion. Thus, laws prohibiting violence are not merely justified on the basis of avoiding harm resulting from injury: they are justified also on the ground that they restrain illegitimate coercion, even in cases where there is no possibility of injury. Likewise, laws prohibiting the threat, rather than only the actuality, of violence are justified, along with prohibitions on blackmail and deliberate harassment and abuse.

Universal liberalism does not require every decision about everything to be made on a case by case basis and thus exclude the application of more general principles other than itself. It is not necessary, for example, to decide individually whether each specific instance of theft should be subject to punishment. Where the greatest good for the greatest number can be achieved by the adoption of a general rule or principle, universally applied (as, for example, in law), then the application of this rule or principle is justified.

Universal liberalism and reason

Fundamental to universal liberalism is the primacy of reason. This is in part because only reason can meaningfully answer the question of what is in fact productive of the greatest good for the greatest number (and, more fundamentally, what it means for something to be good and why it matters in the first place). Thus, anyone not accepting the primacy of reason is less likely to endorse a principle whose application depends on the constant application of reason than those who do so accept.

However, the primacy of reason is not a consequence of adopting universal liberalism. The primacy of reason is logically prior to liberalism or any other kind of political or ethical principle: it is logically impossible to make justifiable decisions or to persuade (rather than intimidate or deceive) anyone of any political or ethical (or indeed any other sort of) claim without reason. Rather, universal liberalism is a product of adopting a fundamentally rational approach to the domain of ethics; any other approach is itself inherently unethical.

The only further premise necessary to add to the starting point of a purely reason based set of ethical principles to reach the fundamental principle of universal liberalism outlined above is that, all other things being equal, coercion is inherently harmful to those coerced. While it is theoretically possible that somebody might disprove that claim, it is highly doubtful that anyone who knows what it is to be coerced (and that is everyone reading this, for there will be nobody alive and able to read who has not been coerced at least as a child) would seriously and in good faith dispute that premise.

It is from the primacy of reason that the universality in universal liberalism comes. Because reason is inherently universal, so too are the principles derived by applying reason to reality. That does not mean that it is rational to regard every situation as identical: it is not. Rather, it means that it is rational to treat one situation differently from another when and only when the differences between the situations mean that the reason for treating one situation in one way is the same as the reason for treating another situation in a different way: in other words, the different treatment arises because of the consistent application of the same fundamental reasons.

Universal liberalism in practice

The two principal enemies to universal liberalism in practice are power and prejudice, particularly concentrated, coercive power and widespread, shared prejudice.

Power: the state

In relation to government, the principle of universal liberalism requires that state power, which is by its nature a concentration of coercive power, be restrained. Democracy and the principles of the rule of law, freedom above the law and equality before the law, as well as the separation of the powers are all important forms of restraint, although these are by themselves insufficient. It is also necessary, to prevent unjustified, abusive use of the concentrated coercive power of the state, to prevent either the removal or dilution of democracy, the rule of law, the separation of the powers or any other necessary checks and balances by politicians even if they have been democratically elected, and also to prevent what is sometimes called the “tyranny of the majority”.

That a majority of people on election day support an act of coercion or vote for politicians who subsequently decide to engage in an act of state coercion does not mean that such an act is in fact justified, so there is justification in imposing restraints on the power of even democratically elected politicians to prevent abuse of that power, including restraints on their ability to remove or circumvent the restraints. Historically, such restraints on the power of the state have included bills of rights (that in the United States of America being the most well known) and human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. The effectiveness and appropriateness of these particular instances are outwith the scope of this article: the significant thing for present purposes is that there are substantial historical precedents for the restraint of the power of democratically elected governments to prevent abuses of power, and that some such restraints are justified.

Power: freedom of expression

An important consequence of the principle of universal liberalism is the importance of the freedom of expression, particularly the freedom to manifest ideas, to communicate facts and to challenge rigorously others’ ideas and factual claims. This is because it is important, in order for people to be able to make informed judgments about what claims to accept and reject, and thus what instances of coercion may or may not be justified, for people to have complete and accurate information, and freedom to communicate information and manifest and challenge ideas and that the marketplace of ideas that that freedom creates is more likely to yield a world in which people tend to have complete and accurate information and well considered ideas than one in which there is widespread censorship. It is also because censorship (in the sense of restraining the communication of fact or the manifestation and challenging of ideas and factual claims) is an act of coercion that can rarely, if ever, be justified as being productive of the greatest good for the greatest number, precisely because it stifles the marketplace of ideas necessary to maximise the extent to which ideas and claims are thoroughly tested before being accepted.

Importantly, the universal liberal commitment to freedom of expression does not require anyone to accept the naïve factual premise that nobody will ever lie or spread misinformation or that nobody will ever be persuaded or deceived by a bad idea into harming others. Rather, it is founded on the premise that allowing concentrated coercive power to dictate what ideas may be manifested or challenged and what factual claims may be made is one where the inherent danger of the abuse of that power with the intention and effect of entrenching misinformation and bad ideas far outweighs such danger as there may be from bad ideas or misinformation spreading in a state of freedom from censorship, and that the much safer and more effective means of dealing with bad ideas and misinformation is to permit (and, indeed, encourage) rigorous, reasoned scrutiny of all factual claims and ideas. There is no need to pretend that such a strategy will work perfectly in every instance in order to conclude that its net effect is infinitely preferable to the net effect of censorship.

The universal liberal commitment to freedom of expression, however, does not mean that there can never be justified coercion to restrain any act of speech or communication. It is justifiable to prohibit deliberate lies (e.g. fraud), providing that whether any given statement is in fact a deliberate lie is determined on a case by case basis by a rigorous judicial process, free from the possibility of any influence by legislature or executive and preferably involving a jury. It is also justifiable to restrain intimidation, the intentional incitement of crime, and deliberately abusive conduct directed towards particular people, not least because such behaviour is itself a form of unjustified coercion which needs to be restrained in order to protect people’s freedom to manifest and challenge ideas.

Power: economics

Economics is fundamentally about resources, and resources are fundamental to power. It is therefore not surprising that unjustified coercion (i.e., that which is not productive of the greatest good for the greatest number) is common in economic contexts.

In England in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, liberals successfully dismantled a network of royal monopolies, which prohibited a huge range of worthwhile activity except on payment of a fee to the Crown in exchange for a licence to provide that service. The origin of the word “ferry”, for example, now used simply to refer to a short distance boat service, is the ancient royal monopoly on river crossings intended to siphon money from essential economic activity by coercion, a form of rent-seeking. The effect was that essential services were more expensive for everyone in order to enrich the aristocratic elites of the day. Another example from the UK in the 18th and early 19th centuries is that of the “Corn Laws”, which prohibited the importation of corn, a staple food product, at below a certain price in order artificially to inflate the price of UK grown corn, to enrich landowners (who were at the time the only people allowed to vote) at the expense of everyone else.

That is not to say that universal liberalism does not admit of any coercive measures in relation to economic matters: as with all spheres of life, in economics, coercion is justified when and only when the long-term net effect of a specific form of coercion produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Coercion is justified to prevent fraud and theft and to enforce contracts, without which much worthwhile economic activity with widespread benefit would be practically impossible, and is justified to restrain unjustified coercive economic behaviour, such as extortion by people or organisations in the position of a monopoly.

Coercion is also justified to require the contribution by those who have money to spare to fund the necessary mechanisms to uphold democracy and the rule of law (and thereby be effective in the prevention of illegitimate coercion), and also to require those with disposable income to contribute a portion of it to beneficial activities, such as the relief of extreme poverty, when the net effect of the coerced contribution and the activities themselves produces over the long-term the greatest good for the greatest number.

However, there is a particular danger of abuse of power in the case of large numbers of people making compulsory payments to the same body, which can thereby amass truly extreme levels of concentrated economic power as a result and which can use that power corruptly, especially if combined with political power. Such bodies are liable deliberately to spend it on projects which benefit those who have control of the very large sums of money (or those with the power to influence those with such control), rather than those which are in fact productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. This abuse is sometimes colloquially termed “pork barrel politics”, although the phrase is historically sometimes confined to this sort of abuse only when committed by a local, rather than national, government. History demonstrates that democracy itself is insufficient to prevent this abuse. Universal liberalism requires stringent controls to prevent anyone from being in a position to commit such abuses, whether local, national or otherwise.

Prejudice: social norms and diffuse coercion

Although the greatest danger of unjustified coercion arises from the concentration of coercive power, such as in the state, coerced social conformity that is not productive of the greatest good for the greatest number can also arise from diffuse coercion: many small acts of disapproval, ridicule or even intimidation committed by large numbers of people acting independently. Each individual act may be insufficient to coerce anybody, but the cumulative effect of large numbers of people all behaving in this way in response to the same behaviour can in fact be powerfully coercive against that behaviour in all but those who care least about others’ opinions of them and do not depend on those others for income or essential goods or services.

Many things not formally prohibited by law have been significantly suppressed by diffuse coercion of this nature. Historical examples include pre-marital sex, homosexuality, even not involving behaviours which were actually prohibited by law at various places and times in history, and, more recently, transsexuality. The significance of the suppression of the latter by diffuse coercion is demonstrated by the much larger numbers of people now emboldened publicly to manifest transsexuality than was so even a decade ago as a result of a much more widespread acceptance of transsexuality as something that does not warrant disapproval of any sort. Even more sinister than coercion aimed at suppressing particular behaviours, widespread diffuse coercion may be applied to particular categories of people however they behave, as in widespread racism, with the implicit intent of driving people in those categories away entirely. The modern concepts of “micro-aggressions” and “cancel culture” both in substance amount to attempts to describe – and criticise – the unjustified use of diffuse coercion.

As with all other forms of coercion, not all forms of diffuse coercion are unjustified. Diffuse coercion is justified where – and only where – the net effect of the coercion itself combined with its ability to prevent undesirable or mandate desirable behaviours is productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. It follows from that that diffuse coercion aimed at entire categories of people no matter how they behave can never be justified. Examples of justified diffuse coercion include widespread public disapproval of drunk-driving and widespread public disapproval of racism, although the latter has to some extent in recent times been hijacked by extremist activists to promote a sectarian agenda entirely unconnected in all but the most superficial respects to genuine and principled disapproval of anything that can accurately be termed racism; but that must not be allowed to diminish the importance of public disapproval of racism properly so called.

Also as with all other forms of coercion, it is a legitimate use of coercion to restrain illegitimate use of diffuse coercion. Measures such as legislation prohibiting prejudice-based discrimination, the effective prohibition of deliberate harassment and intimidation of all kinds, as well as the use of diffuse coercion to restrain unjustified diffuse coercion (e.g., by withdrawing funding, support and custom from and refusing to co-operate with institutions that deliberately tolerate or participate in unjustified diffuse coercion) are justified to prevent illegitimate uses of diffuse coercion.

Because unjustified diffuse coercion arises principally from prejudice, an important means of minimising the risk of unjustified diffuse coercion in the long-term is to eliminate prejudice wherever it arises. Prejudice is the attitude of pre-judging: in other words, judging what characteristics that a person or thing has generally on the basis of only a few superficial characteristics in circumstances where there is no logically necessary connexion between the two. Racism is an obvious example: concluding that because a person has dark skin, he or she is inherently inferior to somebody with lighter skin, or, that, because somebody has light skin, he or she is inherently racist are paradigm instances of prejudice. In essence, prejudice is irrationality.

Thus, diffuse coercion in the form of widespread public disapproval of prejudice and irrationality of all kinds is necessary and justified in order to minimise the instances of unjustified diffuse coercion. Indeed, there is good reason to suspect that an excessive willingness on the part of those who generally consider themselves to be liberal to tolerate superficially relatively harmless forms of irrationality has significantly contributed to the fragility of liberalism in recent decades, and that this needs to be reversed if liberalism is to have a chance of continuing to achieve the immense benefits for humanity that only it can achieve.

Another important bulwark against prejudice is for people to be in a position to equip themselves with the thinking tools necessary for a rigorous, reason- and reality-based understanding of the world, especially critical thinking skills, and unhesitatingly to reject any idea or claim that is not demonstrably supported by sufficient reason and evidence. This is so not least because only the rigorous application of reason can meaningfully distinguish which acts of coercion are legitimate or not, and therefore which acts of coercion to restrain illegitimate coercion are themselves legitimate. This principle is the fundamental justification for law and justice systems.

Prejudice: individuals and groups

A common application of unjustified coercion, both from concentrated power and of the diffuse kind, is in support of sectarianism. In simple terms, sectarianism is the behaviour of favouring one group of people over another when making decisions, including decisions about whether coercion is justified in any particular instance.

Sectarianism is fundamentally opposed to universal liberalism, in that universal liberalism requires all coercion ultimately to be justified by reference to the greatest good for the greatest number, rather than the greatest good for some arbitrary subset of the greatest number as is the case in sectarianism.

Sectarianism may be cynical in origin (e.g., politicians in a national government trading off an arbitrarily large amount of harm to people who cannot vote them out of office for an arbitrarily small benefit to those who can vote them out of office), based entirely on prejudice, or a complex combination of the two (e.g. people adopting a racist attitude towards immigrants whom they believe will increase the pool of available workers and thereby prevent their own wages from increasing, without taking into account the well-being of the immigrants themselves, even where some individual manifestations of this racism may not stand any chance of benefiting the person manifesting it).

Sectarianism tends to be supported by human cognitive biases that probably evolved to support tribal living, and in many instances is or at least involves a form of prejudice. Universal liberalism requires that nobody be in a position to coerce others on sectarian grounds, and that sectarianism in general and of all kinds (not just specific instances of it) consistently be subject to widespread and strong social disapproval.

Why universal liberalism matters

Universal liberalism matters because it is a principle which, by definition, requires the promotion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Any principle which does not require this is inherently liable to produce net harm compared with a principle that does if applied in practice.

Empirically, the application of universal liberal principles has in fact resulted in enormous gains for humanity. The repeal of the Corn Laws in the UK in 1846 after a sustained campaign by liberal reformers benefited 90% of the population at the expense of the wealthiest 10%. The precipitous decline in both proportion and absolute numbers of people living in extreme poverty in recent decades is in large part a result of global free trade (i.e., the reduction of unjustified coercion preventing trade across national borders). The enormous advances in medical science made possible by the free exchange of ideas has more than doubled world average life expectancy since the start of the 20th century. The increased social tolerance of a wider variety of sexual behaviours and orientations since the mid 20th century has permitted millions to live fulfilling personal lives where otherwise they would have been repressed and unsatisfied. The standards of living and personal autonomy enjoyed by billions of people the world over are as a direct result of the application of universal liberal principles, and the continuation of these standards of living and this autonomy requires these principles to continue to prevail.

Those who seek to coerce others in circumstances where the coercion does not demonstrably promote the greatest good for the greatest number knowingly put at risk the benefits already achieved and purposely obstruct continued progress towards achieving more. To defend universal liberalism is to defend the common interest of all humanity.



Sectarianism is both the most extreme and one of the commonest forms of human evil. It manifests in many forms, including in diverse political movements that outwardly seem as opposed to one another as it is possible to be, from anti-immigration xenophobia to militant Islam, from colonial racism to the so-called identity politics of the “critical social justice” movement, and from regionalism to nationalism to the authoritarian supranationalism of institutions such as the European Union. Wherever it appears, it serves to divide, to oppress, to harm and to destroy.

To understand sectarianism is necessary in order to understand the destructive political divisions and conflicts of the past and present: to condemn and eradicate sectarianism and the extremism that almost universally accompanies it is necessary in order to prevent destructive political divisions and conflicts of the future.

Given the extreme consequences of politicised conflict, in the forms of wars, genocides, famines and mass destitution, addressing sectarianism is literally a matter of life or death, probably for millions, if not billions, of people worldwide over the next century and beyond. Even for those who may be fortunate enough to survive another century of rampant sectarianism, save for a lucky few who, by chance, happen to find themselves on the winning side of every possible political conflict that concerns them, eradicating sectarianism will be essential to their well-being, and it is a task from which no person with the means to contribute in any way, no matter how small, can in good conscience shirk.

The nature of sectarianism

Sectarianism exists wherever people prioritise the interests of a particular arbitrary subset of humanity over the interests of humanity generally.

“Arbitrary” is an important qualification: the interests of humanity generally are best served by allowing people freely to pursue self-interest to a limited extent, but also constraining the pursuit of self-interest to a limited extent. It is not sectarian for a person to pursue the exclusive interests of a particular group of which that person is a member (or even a group of people of which that person is not a member if that person so chooses) where doing so is within the boundary of the legitimate pursuit of self-interest: it is not an act of sectarianism to give a birthday present to one’s child rather than donate the money to a charity, nor to cheer on one’s favoured sports team rather than cheer for the best team to win.

Likewise, it is not sectarian to discount the interests of certain persons when making particular decisions if the interests of humanity as a whole are better served, over the long-term, by doing so, such as discounting the interests of murderers when deciding how murderers should be punished.

However, it is sectarian to pursue the interests of a particular group of people above humanity generally outside the limits of the legitimate pursuit of self-interest, or even to purport to define the limits of the legitimate pursuit of self-interest on the basis of what benefits a particular subset of humanity rather than what benefits humanity as a whole. This includes purporting to take account of the interests of humanity as a whole but weighing the interests of a subset more heavily than the interests of all.

Similarly, because the actions that lie within the legitimate boundaries of self-interest do not include compulsion of others against their will, compelling people to act in the interests of an arbitrary subset of humanity is always sectarian even when voluntarily favouring such a subset in many circumstances is not.

Thus, any political claim whose purported justification is a benefit only to some specific group of people, and which will or may cause harm, however indirectly, to some other people, is inherently sectarian except in so far as there is a genuine basis to conclude that acting on that claim would in fact maximise the benefit to humanity generally and weighed equally in the long-term. Any political claim to the effect that a particular action or inaction’s effects on some group of people is ultimately more important than its effects on all people weighed equally is inherently sectarian, and anyone acting on the basis of such a claim is pursuing a sectarian agenda.

Thus understood, it is not difficult to see how ideologies that appear fundamentally opposed to one another are in reality all examples of fundamentally the same sectarian ideology, differing only in the constitution of which groups are favoured and which disfavoured, and that the only meaningful opposition to a sectarian ideology is to oppose sectarianism generally, not to adopt sectarianism but differ over who should be favoured.

Sectarianism and collectivism

The pursuit of sectarian agendas usually entails invoking collectivist ideologies. Sectarian collectivism ultimately consists in the creation and homogenisation of “in-groups” and “out-groups”, the former of which is to have its interests favoured over the latter. Psychological research has consistently identified a phenomenon known as “in-group bias[1]”, in which people tend to favour members of what they perceive to be groups of which they are also members, i.e. the “in-group”.

Collectivist ideologies enable sectarianism by subjugating the divergent interests, beliefs and behaviours of the people making up any group whose interests its leaders demand be favoured to the interests of others to those claimed for it by the leaders of that group. By treating many distinct individuals, who can be conceived of, and can conceive of themselves, as members of a vast number of differently constituted groups, as predominantly or exclusively members of only one of those groups, the leaders of that group can more effectively prioritise the interests of people in so far as they are members of that group over the interests of humanity generally, even if there are many members of that group whose interests, overall, would be harmed by such measures (for a person’s interests as a member of a group are a subset of a person’s interests generally).

As set out in more detail here, collectivist ideologies are ones which tend to:

  1. treat all members of a group as if they were guilty of wrongdoing perpetrated by only some of them;
  2. ascribe to all members of a group characteristics in truth possessed by only some of them;
  3. ascribe characteristics to a group itself that can in truth only be possessed by individual people (e.g. having a particular attitude or belief or being culpable of something);
  4. conflate the interests of members of a group in their capacity as members of that group with the interests of those members of that group more generally; and
  5. entail members of a group treating themselves as entitled to speak for or represent the interests of the whole group even though not every member (and sometimes, not any other member) of that group has authorised the person to do so on their behalf.

Collectivism tends to – and is usually intended to – concentrate power in the hands of the leaders of that group, who usually claim to represent the interests of others in order to advance their own interests, often by underhanded and harmful means. Thus, collectivism will tend to entrench power in the hands of the already powerful, and further disempower those who already lack power, no matter how much leaders of sectarian movements dishonestly claim to the contrary in order to bolster their own support and thus their own personal power and wealth.

The evil of sectarianism

Evil ultimately consists in one person unjustifiably causing harm to another. The greater the harm to the greater the number of people, the greater the degree of evil. No form of evil other than sectarianism entails whole groups of people, who often accumulate among them enormous amounts of power, simultaneously being determined to harm the interests of the same other people (the “out-group”) in a co-ordinated fashion.

All war and all genocide in history is ultimately and necessarily a product of sectarianism, and that is to say nothing of the economic oppression of nationalist sectarianism and the less obvious but equally real human casualties that this entails.

That sectarianism is, to a large extent, enabled by a known cognitive bias is not capable of amounting to a reason to deny its malevolence: the idea that, because something is natural, it must be either good or inevitable is an example of the appeal to nature fallacy[2] and is thus fundamentally invalid.

As well as entrenching the power of group leaders (with all the abuse and thus harm that entrenched power brings), sectarianism tends to entrench destructive conflict and suppress and pervert human progress towards a happier and more prosperous future. Sectarianism also tends to be self-perpetuating, in that sectarian behaviour tends to encourage sectarian groups to organise themselves in order to oppose that behaviour and makes it easier for cynical sectarian leaders to garner support for measures to arrogate power and wealth to themselves.

Nobody has yet taken the trouble to collect global statistics on the harms of sectarianism (or even specifically on sectarian violence), so the precise scope of the consequences of the problems of sectarianism have yet to be accurately measured, but it is difficult to reach any other conclusion on the currently available evidence than that sectarianism is truly the ultimate in human evil and therefore that its eradication is among the highest of priorities for all humanity.


By contrast to sectarianism, universality, in its ethical dimension, is the principle that the ultimate justification for any decision must be that so deciding is ultimately beneficial to humanity generally, rather than any subset of it. It is, in other words, the precise opposite of sectarianism.

Ethical universality does not require, as naïve interpretations of the works of Jeremy Bentham[3] have suggested, that every decision be taken by calculating in isolation how that decision will affect everybody in the world: the ultimate justification for a decision should not be conflated with the practical method of taking such a decision. Whether taking a particular decision by a particular method (including a decision about how other sorts of decision should be taken) is the right thing to do is itself a question which should be answered by reference to what method of taking that decision will most benefit humanity as a whole. There are whole categories of decisions (e.g., what flavour of ice-cream to choose) where the greatest benefit to humanity generally comes from letting each individual favour her or his own interests or preferences in taking such decisions, and where, therefore, the only consideration that a person practically taking such a decision need to take into account is that person’s own interests or preferences. Similarly, there are large categories of decisions that are properly taken by reference to rules because those rules being in force, and effectively governing conduct, is ultimately to the greater benefit of humanity than there being no such rules and people doing whatever they believe will lead to the best outcome in the individual instances.

What it does require is that each decision be ultimately justifiable by reference to what is beneficial to humanity as a whole. Thus, the decision (for example) to choose vanilla flavoured ice-cream has as its immediate justification that the ice-cream eater in question prefers vanilla flavour, but is ultimately justifiable on the basis that ice-cream flavour choice is one of those matters where humanity generally is better off for letting people make the choice purely in their own interests and the exercise of the choice on the basis of personal preference in any given instance is an implementation of the more abstract decision.

Universality has a dimension beyond the purely ethical, however, which is relevant in this context, too. The epistemic[4] dimension of universality is no more or less than that there is a real world, that there are things about that world that are true, and the things about it that are true are as true for everyone as they are true for anyone – in other words, that truth exists and is universal. The opposite idea – that there is no universal truth – is inherently contradictory, since the claim that there is no universal truth is a statement that, by necessary implication, claims to be universally true (and must so claim in order to have any meaning at all). Thus, non-universality in the epistemic dimension is not only not true, it is so incoherent as to not even be an intelligible statement that could count as something that hypothetically might be true. In reality, denials of epistemic universality (for instance, by claiming that what is true “for” one person is not necessarily true “for” another, that truth is specific to particular groups of people rather than the world in general, or that what truth means about some kinds of things can somehow be different to what truth means about other kinds of things) are not a sincere attempt better to understand or describe the world, but an attempt to obfuscate scrutiny and stifle dissent, in just the same way as a trader who short-changes a customer and then claims that arithmetic is relative is simply being dishonest. This sort of logic denialism is one of the types of abuse discussed more generally in the following section.

In the context of political discourse, universality has an inherent advantage: an idea which ultimately can be justified by reference to the benefit of humanity as a whole is inherently more likely to benefit any given person at whom such an argument is aimed than an idea which cannot be so justified. People may or may not rationally defer their short-term self-interest to what they genuinely believe is the greater good but are very unlikely to subjugate their own self-interest to a political argument which does not credibly claim to be ultimately justifiable by reference to the greater good. Thus, universal ideas are more likely both to benefit and to persuade a wide range of people than sectarian ideas and are therefore inherently more likely to be widely accepted than non-universal ideas, all other things being equal.

Sectarianism and extremism

Those advancing sectarian agendas often well know the inherent disadvantage that such sectarian ideas have in comparison to universal ideas, which is why sectarianism almost inevitably tends to attract extremism.

Extremism, in a political context, consists in attempting to achieve political change by force, fear or fraud. Terrorism is the paradigm example of political extremism (consisting at its crudest of a form of blackmail), but most forms are subtler, and can consist of political intimidation and abuse, suppression of dissent (by prohibition, ostracism, obfuscation, intimidation, or any combination thereof), and the formulation of forms of purported argumentation that serve to deceive or manipulate rather than to persuade.

In general terms, any behaviour that seeks to change a person’s political view, or prevent it from being changed when it otherwise might be, in spite of rather than because of the merits of the political idea in question, is extremism, and is a form of abuse. Ethical deceit of this sort is discussed in more detail in an essay specifically on that topic.

Because sectarian ideas are fundamentally unpersuasive to the members of out-groups (virtually nobody would favour somebody else’s interests over her or his own without believing that doing so is for the benefit of the greater good), the only sectarian ideas that tend to have any success are ones which intimidate, manipulate and/or deceive members of out-groups into either supporting, or at least not opposing, a political agenda which is implacably opposed both to their interests and to the good of humanity generally, or ones which do not need the consent of out-groups at all. One of the commonest examples of the latter category are forms of nationalism, where national governments need not convince voters in foreign jurisdictions of the merits of their policies and can and regularly do trade off an arbitrarily large amount of harm to people who cannot vote them out of office against an arbitrarily small benefit to the people who can.

Thus, a necessary step in addressing sectarianism is not only addressing sectarian ideas themselves, but addressing and ultimately eradicating the abusive methods that cynical sectarians use to advance their agendas in spite of the fact that those agendas are, by their very nature, inherently unpersuasive to a majority of people. These abusive methodologies need to be systematically confounded wherever they arise by a combination of improving awareness of them, promulgating education as to critical thinking skills, and employing forms of argumentation that most efficiently expose the weaknesses of the arguments in favour of sectarian claims, on which topic I have written a short guide here.

The necessary ambition to restrain sectarianism

Addressing sectarianism and extremism is not a straightforward task, given their high prevalence and that of the cognitive bias that helps to enable them; but that it is not an easy task is not a reason to shirk attempts to do so; rather, it is a reason to redouble those attempts to ensure the greatest possible chance of success. Likewise, that success is not certain is not a reason to eschew any attempt to succeed and thus choose certainty of failure; very little that is worthwhile in human history would have been accomplished, from the achievement of universal suffrage to powered human flight, and much more besides, had people not been prepared to embark upon an enterprise whose success was uncertain but whose reward in the event of success was both virtually certain and enormous.

It is universal in human societies that people are expected to suppress their basal desires and instead do what is thought with good reason to be the right thing; to refrain from inflicting violence on those who anger one, to refrain from stealing that which one desires but does not own, to refrain from deceiving others for personal gain and to refrain from making unwanted sexual advances. In all societies, there are people who fail to exercise sufficient self-control and who behave contrary to these norms, and, at least in the more orderly, successful and sustainable societies, such people are rightly condemned and punished, and, by that condemnation and punishment, the greater good for all in minimising violence, theft, fraud and sexual assault is upheld.

These behaviours are all examples of local maximum problems: a particular example of theft, for instance, might enrich the thief (the local maximum), but even the thief is ultimately impoverished by a world where everybody steals with impunity by comparison to one in which theft is strictly prohibited and every thief punished severely, and where, therefore, theft is very uncommon (the global maximum).

Sectarianism is likewise a local maximum problem, at a higher level of abstraction: actions that promote the interests of a subset of humanity of which the promoter is a member[5] will in some sense enrich the promoter (the local maximum), but a world in which the interests of subsets of humanity are promoted above the interests of humanity as a whole with impunity is a much worse, and much more dangerous, world overall, even for this hypothetical promoter, than a world in which no political idea that cannot robustly be demonstrated to benefit humanity generally is taken seriously or put into effect (the global maximum).

The reward for honesty in a world in which some people are dishonest is that it is safe to co-operate in a system that reliably exposes and severely punishes instances of dishonesty, and the existence of such a system is one which ultimately makes the world a better place for humanity generally, including the people who sacrifice the chance of being dishonest and the (local maximum) rewards that such dishonesty might generate in order to perpetuate such a system. Likewise, the reward for universality in a world in which some people are sectarian is that it is safe to co-operate in a system that reliably exposes and severely punishes instances of sectarianism, and therefore reap the enormous benefits of the suppression of sectarianism that such a system would be almost certain to bring.

For the avoidance of doubt, the punishment of sectarianism does not entail or justify empowering states or other governance bodies to repress people’s right freely to express or criticise any political idea, claim or opinion, just as a prohibition on theft does not entail, practically require nor justify a prohibition on people publicly disagreeing with the prohibition on theft. Rather, punishment of sectarianism must consist in people exercising their own right of free expression robustly and unwaveringly to reject and condemn sectarian ideas and those who promote them, wherever and in whatever form that such ideas may be found. It must consist in opposing sectarianism in general rather than opposing one kind of sectarianism by promoting another and rejecting bad arguments even when they are arguments in favour of good ideas. It must consist in upholding the rule of law uncompromisingly against those who seek to undermine it for sectarian ends and disempowering politicians and others from ever being able to undermine the rule of law in any way by any means. It must consist in the reliable detection and severe punishment[6] of all forms of political extremism and abuse, the dissipation of political power so as to minimise the instances in which the interests of large numbers of people can safely be ignored by the powerful, and states or other governance bodies being constrained by robust and strictly enforced constitutional provisions from having the power to act on a sectarian basis or in any way undermining the rule of law (for example, by being constrained from taking certain sorts of action except by a large supermajority at a referendum).

Once the nature of sectarianism and extremism and the global maximum reward for eradicating them be widely understood, there is no reason to believe that they cannot be suppressed to at least the same extent as theft is suppressed in modern societies; their power to do harm would greatly be reduced if they were confined to a clandestine activity of a fringe minority, as militant Islamic terrorism has been so confined in much of the world. In 2005, for example, the number of people killed in the London bombings of that year (52[7]), the year with the highest number of terrorist casualties in the UK in the 21st century, was exactly a quarter of the reduction in the number of road casualty deaths between 2000 and 2005[8] (and road casualty deaths in the UK have been lower than they were in 2005 in every year since[9]). If the level of resources and determination dedicated to eradicating terrorism were employed in the eradication of sectarianism and extremism generally, the world would be a considerably better place for all its inhabitants, including those who currently profit from a sectarian local maximum. The goal of suppressing sectarianism will have been achieved to at least a significant extent when all forms of sectarianism attract the same level of public condemnation and the same sort of consequences for its perpetrators as overt expressions of racism (itself a form of sectarianism) have in many modern societies now.


There are many things now taken for granted in much of the world, from a prohibition on slavery to universal adult suffrage, that would, as little as a generation before they were realised, have seemed a distant and almost unachievable dream, but whose achievement has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in every generation since. But for those with the vision and intellectual courage to understand that fundamental change was not only desirable but possible, and the personal courage to dissent from the entrenched norms of their time to promote that change, the world may never have escaped the shackles of an oppressive past.

There is no reason that such achievement must be confined to history. Sectarianism and its inevitable bedfellow extremism are as much a scourge of the modern world as slavery and oligarchy were of the world of the 19th century, and wreak at least as much, if not more, harm on the modern world’s much enlarged population as the latter scourges did then.

Those who desire a future in which they can be beneficiaries of a world in which the benefit of all humanity is the common measure by which every conflict is resolved, and the vast benefit to all that such universality would bring, must work now to co-operate in creating and maintaining norms and systems that rigorously exclude the cynical self-interest of the local maximum from being a viable means for anyone ever to succeed in politics or in life.

As prominent U. S. abolitionist Wendell Phillips said as long ago as 1852[10],

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

Those words from 1852 are as relevant now as ever they were, and no current nor future generation must be allowed to forget the principle there described, nor be dissuaded nor distracted from the unintermitted agitation and awakeness to principle for which Phillips called. Eternal vigilance may be the price of liberty, but it is a price that is more than worth paying.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-group_favoritism
  2. https://www.logicalfallacies.org/appeal-to-nature.html
  3. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095349257
  4. i.e., that relating to knowledge
  5. Or sometimes even of which the promoter is not a member, but where the promoter intends to acquire great wealth and/or power by purporting to act on behalf of a large number of others.
  6. Legal punishment where appropriate, e.g., where the abuse takes the form of criminal harassment or blackmail; social punishment in the form of exposure, condemnation and ostracism in other cases.
  7. https://www.themilitarytimes.co.uk/uncategorised/how-many-people-are-killed-by-terrorist-attacks-in-the-uk/
  8. https://roadtraffic.dft.gov.uk/custom-downloads/road-accidents/reports/4aca7ebc-e286-4f1e-b7c4-a96b505513f8
  9. https://roadtraffic.dft.gov.uk/custom-downloads/road-accidents/reports/3017ceab-b058-4ad7-a052-43c64367176c
  10. http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/01/eternal-vigilance-is-price-of-liberty.html


As discussed elsewhere, ethical deceit is a common method used to manipulate people into harming themselves to advance the interests of the promoters of the deceitful ideas. One technique of ethical deceit is to claim, falsely, that an idea, concept or principle entails or consists of some other, undesirable, idea, concept or principle, in order to attempt to manipulate people into rejecting the former even though in truth there is no reason to do so.

Individualism is an idea that is frequently victim to being conflated with superficially similar but fundamentally distinct ideas such as selfishness, and it is likely that in many cases this is deliberate – a form of ethical deceit intended to aid in subordinating the interests of a large number of people to the interests of a much smaller number of people.

The clearer the idea that people have about individualism and collectivism and what they really do and do not mean, the better that they will be able to make decisions unclouded by deceit or confusion and accept or reject ideas about how individuals should interact with societies based only on reason.

People, reason and goals

To understand individualism, it is necessary to understand at a fundamental level what it means for something to be a reason.

A reason is a type of cause. It is a special type of cause in that it is a cause in pursuit of a goal. If a person does something because doing that thing will help to achieve that person’s goal, the existence of the goal has caused the action which helps to achieve the goal.

Things that pursue goals are called optimisers (or sometimes “optimising algorithms” in AI research). An optimiser is a singular system or process that optimises for a particular goal: in other words, it tends to do, within any applicable constraints, whatever will best achieve that goal.

The ultimate (as in original) optimiser is evolution by natural selection. That is a process in which individual genes, by a process of inheritance and mutation over multiple generations, optimise for characteristics that tend to cause those genes to survive and multiply. This occurs simply because any self-replicating entity which can pass on instructions as to its characteristics and which instructions are occasionally randomly modified (a mutation) will, by definition, tend to create a greater number of subsequent generations that tend more to survive and multiply than those that do not.

Genes can code for a great variety of things that optimise for survival and reproduction in many ways, but one of the things that genetic evolution has created is a variety of systems that are not themselves genetic evolution but are optimisers. Genes that code for an animal brain that will choose what to do so as to feel good combined with other genes that code for (for example) eating and breeding. Feeling good will tend to produce behaviour that helps to achieve the genes’ goals of survival and replication. In doing so, the genes have optimised for another optimiser: the brain that does whatever it can to feel good. That optimiser has a goal (the feeling of pleasure) that is distinct from the goal of the genes that created it (survival and replication), but its existence better serves the goal of the original optimiser. This sort of sub-optimiser is called a “mesa optimiser” in AI research.

There are two fundamental types of goals: terminal and instrumental goals. Terminal goals are the ultimate goals of the optimiser: the goals the existence of which make the optimiser an optimiser in the first place. The terminal goal of each gene is to survive and replicate as much as possible. The terminal goal of the conscious and cognitive part of animal brains is to maximise their own pleasure or sense of happiness.

Although terminal goals can be complex, they must amount to a single coherent function. AI researchers call this a “utility function”. Thus, whilst it is possible to have multiple differing instrumental goals, and even to have multiple conflicting instrumental goals (albeit not pursue them simultaneously if they conflict), it is not possible to have multiple separate terminal goals. This is because a set of terminal goals that does not reduce to a single, coherent utility function is incomputable and it is therefore fundamentally impossible to optimise for it, so anything that does not have a single coherent terminal goal cannot be an optimiser. A single, coherent utility function can be something that takes into account a variety of different factors, but it must be able to rank any given state of the world as better than, worse than, or no better or worse than any other given state, and that ranking must be transitive: in other words, if A is ranked as preferable to B and B is ranked as preferable to C, then A must also be ranked as preferable to C. Anything that does not do these two things is not an optimiser at all and will not in fact optimise for anything.

Instrumental goals are different. They are goals that help to achieve other goals: they are instrumental to achieving those goals. Ultimately, all instrumental goals are instrumental to a terminal goal, but instrumental goals might also immediately be instrumental to other instrumental goals. For example, an animal that feels pleasure in eating and displeasure in being hungry will have an instrumental goal to eat (and an animal that is self-aware might also realise that not eating will cause it to die and thus to be incapable of experiencing pleasure in the future); but in order to eat, it might have to find a source of food, so finding food would be an instrumental goal to the instrumental goal of eating, which would serve the terminal goal of the animal’s pleasure. There is no theoretical limit to the number of links in the chain from any given instrumental goal to the terminal goal provided that the number be finite.

Instrumental goals can be convergent. A convergent instrumental goal is one that will tend to serve a very large variety of other instrumental goals. Having plentiful money is a good example of a convergent instrumental goal for human minds: many things that a person would find pleasurable are easier to achieve if a person has plentiful money. Having accurate knowledge about the world is another convergent instrumental goal: a person will strongly tend to be better able to serve any other instrumental goal if he or she knows which things are true and which false. Likewise, the ability to think critically – to have what Daniel Dennett calls “thinking tools” better to be able to understand the world and distinguish truth from falsehood – is a convergent instrumental goal; anyone who has the cognitive tools better to be able to understand the world will tend to be more successful at fulfilling a wide range of goals that anyone who does not.

Unlike terminal goals, instrumental goals can be chosen; and, unlike terminal goals, instrumental goals can be good or bad instrumental goals as they better or worse serve the goal to which they are instrumental. If the goal is to drink, for example, an instrumental goal of heading in the direction of a mirage is probably a bad instrumental goal.

Although terminal goals cannot be chosen, they can be understood, and better understanding of an optimiser’s terminal goal is likely to be a good instrumental goal for any optimiser with the cognitive capacity to realise this.

There has been at the date of writing sadly little scientific research into the precise nature of animal, and particularly human, terminal goals. The best estimate – and the only thing that really makes any sense on current understanding – is that the terminal goal of the conscious mind of humans and other animals is to maximise their pleasure. Pleasure in this sense refers not to any specific sensation (for the same sensation can feel desirable at one time and undesirable at another), but rather to any experiential state which tends to cause the agent having that experience to seek to continue to have it more, when compared with non-pleasurable or less pleasurable states, and displeasure the opposite.. Unlike any instrumental goal, pleasure, thus understood, is the only feature of human consciousness that is desirable in and of itself: it does not make sense to think of having an extrinsic reason to want to feel pleasure. One does not desire pleasure only because and only insofar as it serves some other end. Indeed, that some experiences of reality feel more pleasurable than others is the only intelligible explanation for conscious motivation at all.

To many, this explanation seems unsatisfying; but if it feels to humans as if we exist in order to serve a goal greater than our own pleasure, it is because we do: we exist in order to serve the goals of our genes in their replication of themselves. That does not mean, however, that a rational human would subordinate her or his own goals to those of her or his genes, no matter how much that human minds have, of necessity, evolved in order to ensure that they do, at least in most cases.

Thus, for a human, a reason is only intelligible insofar as it ultimately refers to a human terminal goal. If eating cake serves my terminal goal because it is pleasurable, and I have an instrumental goal to eat cake, I have a reason to bake a cake because baking a cake will tend to serve the instrumental goal of eating that cake, which will in turn serve the terminal goal of feeling pleasure.

If anyone who claims that there is a reason to do something but cannot ultimately trace that reason back to a terminal goal, then that person is probably engaging in ethical deceit, and the claim should not be taken seriously and the person making it treated with great suspicion. Tracing the reason to a purported instrumental goal is not enough for it to be able to amount to a genuine reason if there is no sufficient reason to believe that the purported instrumental goal is really instrumental to the terminal goal. This principle is fundamental to reason based ethics.

Goals, individuals and groups

An important consequence of the understanding that the terminal goal for conscious human minds is pleasure is that pleasure or displeasure is only meaningfully a state of individual, specific human minds. A group of people does not experience pleasure and displeasure except as a function of the pleasure and displeasure of the individual members of that group. It is not possible for a group of people to be happy despite each individual member of that group being unhappy: the idea that this might be so does not even make sense. Groups of people thus do not have terminal goals that are distinct from the terminal goals of the individuals who make up those groups.

The consequence of this, in turn, is that all things that are capable of counting as reasons for human minds must ultimately be referable to the goals of specific individuals, i.e., to the pleasure or displeasure of specific individuals. Nothing can be good or bad for people except insofar as it is good or bad for specific individuals.

Likewise, individual conscious human minds are optimisers, but groups, as such, are not: it is not possible for a group to make a decision when no individual member of that group has made a decision. Individual people in a society are not akin to individual cells in a body: individual cells may be created by the ultimate optimiser that is natural selection, but they are not themselves optimisers. Unlike people, individual cells do not have their own goals, and are entirely expendable.

In evolution by natural selection, the optimising unit is the individual gene, as explained by Richard Dawkins in, “The Selfish Gene”. Similarly, in human societies, the optimising unit is the individual mind.

This fundamental idea – that only individual people, and not groups of people, can have terminal goals – is individualism, and every aspect of a true understanding of what individualism is and is not and what it does and does not entail ultimately flows from this.

Collectivism, by contrast, is the opposite idea: that groups of people can be thought of as having terminal goals of their own and that it is the duty of individual members of those groups to serve those group goals above their own. It is often asserted that collectivism is required for co-operation and that individualism is inherently selfish, but both of those claims are fundamentally false as explained below.

Co-operation, non-co-operation and co-operation about co-operation

The fact that a thing can only be a reason for a particular person insofar as it is ultimately likely to increase that person’s pleasure does not mean that people have no reason to co-operate with other people. For any given individual, being part of a society of mutually co-operating people is likely to allow that person to live a much longer, more pleasant life than either living in total isolation or in perpetual conflict with others. For humans, co-operation is a convergent instrumental goal: a very great many different things can be achieved only by many people co-operating among themselves.

An individual co-operating with others often requires that individual to make compromises. If multiple people are involved jointly in a project, that project is likely to have to be designed to serve the divergent needs of all those who work on it, which may well serve less well any individual member of the group working on the project than it would if it were designed solely to meet that person’s goals; but co-operating may enable something that better serves each individual co-operator’s goals more than working alone could achieve, so the compromise is often worth the trade-off for each individual person working on the project. The altruism involved in making compromises and faithfully co-operating with an enterprise in spite of those compromises actually best serves the goal of the individual co-operator compared to the alternatives.

A naïve analysis may suggest that the optimum strategy for a person in cases where co-operation is beneficial is in fact to pretend to co-operate but actually deceive, manipulate or intimidate others into serving one’s own goals in preference to theirs, thus securing the benefits of co-operation without the compromises inherent in it. In reality, people frequently attempt to do this because of the local maximum problem explained below. However, this strategy is unsustainable in two distinct respects. First of all, if it were in fact the optimum strategy for anyone, then it would in fact be the optimum strategy for everyone all the time, otherwise known as the dominant strategy. However, the result of this strategy would be perpetual conflict, not the benefit of genuine co-operation, so it is not in fact optimum. Secondly, the possibility of this being considered an optimum strategy in some cases, even if falsely, means that the truly dominant strategy is to be genuinely co-operative, but reliably to detect and severely to punish instances of deceit, manipulation, intimidation, violence, theft and other cynical behaviour (and co-operate in setting up and maintaining systems that do this rigorously and effectively) so that, instead of the person who engages in that behaviour (“defecting” as it is known in game theory) benefiting from this behaviour, the defector actually suffers an extremely severe detriment, so severe that even a small chance of being apprehended makes defecting too risky to be worthwhile, and also publicly marks the defector as untrustworthy so that others can avoid the risk of trusting such a person, reducing that person’s chances of harming others in the future. This strategy leaves the benefit of co-operation intact whilst minimising the risk of cynical behaviour to the co-operators.

However, co-operation and the compromises that co-operation entails is not the optimum strategy in all cases. Many instrumental goals can be served just as well by individuals acting alone as in co-operation with others, and avoiding the need to co-operate also avoids the compromises inherent in co-operation. There is usually no benefit, for example, to an individual co-operating with others in choosing what flavour ice-cream to order or which of several familiar pieces of music to listen to when alone. The optimum strategy in such cases is for each individual to do whatever most serves her or his own goals without any particular consideration of anyone else’s goals and to allow others to do likewise in similar situations. Even in cases where an individual’s choice might affect others, there are still many cases when the optimum strategy for any individual is for that person to follow her or his own preferences without particular consideration of others and to permit others to do likewise. This is the case where the adverse effect on constraining individual choice on the individual would be much greater than the most adverse effect of that choice on others, as, for example, in an individual’s choice of clothing: some people may find it more pleasant to see others wearing some sorts of clothing rather than others, but the detriment of having one’s own clothing choices constrained by others’ preferences would far exceed the benefit of others’ clothing conforming to one’s own choices.

In cases where co-operation is not the optimum strategy even where there is some scope to co-operate (as in the clothing example), there is a real sense in which the toleration of non-co-operative behaviour is itself a form of co-operation: by not seeking to control others’ clothing choices or similar, one is co-operating in the creation of social conditions which allow a net optimum result, even if some of those conditions themselves are not a form of co-operation. This, latter, sort of co-operation might be termed meta co-operation: in other words, co-operation in deciding what to co-operate on and on what terms to co-operate.

There are likely to be many cases where co-operation of a particular kind would benefit some people and harm others. Some of these cases do not involve conflict: in these cases, those who benefit from the co-operation do not need the co-operation of those who do not benefit from it in order to obtain the benefit, and those who are harmed by the co-operation are only harmed by their own co-operation and not others’, and thus the dominant strategy for everyone in such cases is for those who would benefit from co-operation to co-operate in the particular activity, from those who would not benefit from that co-operation not to co-operate in that activity, and for everyone to co-operate in tolerating free choice among each individual as to whether to co-operate or not. In such cases, free individual choice is the dominant meta co-operation strategy. A good example of this is a membership club, where people pay money to belong to a club that pursues a particular activity that some people enjoy and some people do not. Those who enjoy the activity are likely to benefit from paying their money and lending their time to support the membership club, and those who do not are likely to be harmed by losing their money and getting nothing valuable to them in exchange; but the sensible thing for everyone, whether they enjoy the activity in question or not, is to let people have free choice about to which membership clubs, if any, to belong and to found.

However, a significant subset of cases where co-operation of a particular kind would benefit some and harm others do involve conflict. In these cases, non-co-operation of anyone can prevent the goals of the people in whose interests it is to co-operate being achieved (i.e., harm them), and/or co-operation by those in whose interest it is to co-operate can harm those in whose interests it is not to co-operate. For example, a business cartel is a form of co-operation that harms non-co-operators, and pollution by those who benefit more from the ability to pollute than suffer from the consequences of that pollution is a form of non-co-operation that harms those who would co-operate to abate pollution.

In conflict cases, free choice is not the dominant meta-co-operation strategy that it is in non-conflict cases. For any given individual, there is likely to be a wide range of cases where that person would be harmed by others’ co-operation and also a wide range of cases where that person would be harmed by others’ failure to co-operate. For each individual, the dominant meta co-operation strategy is to co-operate in choosing individual meta co-operation strategies for the individual conflict cases on the basis of a meta meta co-operation strategy (i.e., a strategy about how to co-operate in choosing a strategy about how to co-operate in deciding whether and how to co-operate in individual cases) which maximises the net average benefit to all for any given pattern of meta co-operation or non-co-operation. Such a meta meta co-operation strategy would involve determining whether co-operating in tolerating business cartels or co-operating in not tolerating them would be likely best to fulfil the terminal goals of the most people overall, and then co-operating either in tolerating or proscribing business cartels as the case may be.

Just like as with any individual instance of co-operation, such meta and meta meta co-operation entails compromises for each individual, but, providing that the dominant strategies of such meta co-operations be followed, by so co-operating, each individual’s goals are better served overall by such co-operation than by not engaging in meta and meta meta co-operation.

Selfishness and unethical behaviour

Selfishness is unjustified failure or refusal to co-operate. In other words, selfishness is non-co-operation in circumstances which justify others in co-operating to censure the non-co-operator, whether by criticism alone or whether by coercive punishment, i.e. where the failure to co-operate is of a type which ultimately causes more harm to all than is caused by intolerance of that type of non-co-operation. Properly understood, selfishness is no more or less than unethical behaviour intended for the immediate benefit of the person perpetrating it.

Because co-operation can consist in co-operating to prevent harmful co-operation (e.g. business cartels), a person can be selfish by co-operating in some instances (e.g. in creating and maintaining a particular cartel). Likewise, a person can be selfish in failing to co-operate in tolerance of non-co-operation in cases where imposing co-operation is more harmful overall than tolerating non-co-operation. For example, the members of a group of people who institute and maintain a social or legal rule compelling co-operation from others which gives rise to some immediate, short-term benefit for that group, but which is harmful overall, are all being selfish and therefore unethical.

Just as with acts of unethical behaviour that do not involve any form of co-operation, unethical co-operation is ultimately a local maximum problem. A local maximum is a state in which a person’s position cannot be improved without first making it worse. A paradigm example of a local maximum problem is an addiction: an addict would (normally) ultimately lead a happier and longer life being free of addiction, but cannot get to that state without first enduring a significant period of extreme suffering brought about by withdrawal from whatever it is that the person is addicted to. Similarly, transitioning from benefiting from unethical behaviour to benefiting from the fruits of co-operating to eliminate unethical behaviour and acquiring a reputation of trust that only behaving consistently ethically over a long period of time allows takes time and effort, during which time the individual’s position is worsened. Many (but by no means all) people irrationally fail to overcome local maxima and trap themselves in addiction and/or unethical behaviour, harming themselves and often others in the process.

Ultimately, the dominant strategy for any person who lives in a society is to be rigorously ethical, but stringently punish those who are unethical; an important benefit of behaving ethically is thus that it is safe to co-operate in a system that reliably detects and punishes those who behave unethically severely enough effectively to deter the unethical behaviour, and that a world in which such a system exists, and therefore where the disincentives to cynical behaviour are overwhelming, is ultimately a better one for each of its inhabitants, including those who might derive some immediate benefit from cynical behaviour, than one in which cynical behaviour is tolerated and therefore likely to be commonplace. To overcome others’ failure to remove themselves from the local maximum of unethical behaviour, therefore, it is necessary to maximise the chance of unethical behaviour being much, much worse for those people, even in the short-term, than ethical behaviour by imposing on those people a punishment for their wrongdoing severe enough to be sure of outweighing any gain made by the unethical conduct, taking into account the probability of the person behaving unethically evading detection. This will, if implemented successfully, prevent unethical behaviour from being even a local maximum. To do this safely, it is necessary to develop and maintain reliable systems of telling ethical from unethical behaviour: a justice system is the paradigm example of such a system.

Individualism, co-operation and selfishness

As will be apparent from a true understanding of the nature of individualism, co-operation and selfishness, there is nothing inherently selfish about individualism. Indeed, it does not even make sense to think of individualism as being the kind of thing that can be selfish: only unethical behaviour can be selfish, and individualism is no more or less than an understanding about what kinds of things can have terminal goals and therefore what can count as being ethical or unethical in the first place. It is perfectly possible – and, indeed, commonplace – to identify behaviour as selfish precisely because of its adverse effect on individual people. If individualism were false, then it would be unethical to act on the basis of it: but it is not false, as explained above.

As is also apparent, nothing about co-operation is in any way incompatible with individualism. There is no need to entertain the (false) belief that groups as such can have terminal goals for individuals to co-operate among themselves for the greater good.

Indeed, a proper analysis of co-operation, as set out above, makes clear that there is no basis in reason for any categorical bias in favour of or against co-operation in any kind of case as is often assumed to inherent to the concepts in superficial analyses of and comparisons between individualism and collectivism. It is simply not true that collectivism favours co-operation whilst individualism favours competition as is sometimes claimed; individualism entails co-operation where it is for the greater good, whereas collectivism often entails bitter sectarian conflict between rival groups.

Individualism is fully compatible with a high level of co-operation and even interdependence among people, including co-operation in restraining others’ freedom and imposing punishment. It is not necessary to hold that groups of people can or do have terminal goals of their own, nor that the interests of individuals should always be subordinated to the achievement of those supposed goals in order to hold that there are compelling reasons for a high level of continuing co-operation, including in many cases compulsory co-operation, among large groups of people for the greater good.

What individualism is not compatible with, however, is unthinking deference to the demands of others to co-operate in achieving some supposed group goal. As with anything else, co-operation requires a reason that is ultimately referable to the terminal goal of the individual person making the decision as to whether or not to do it in order for it to be the optimum choice.

Collectivism, ethical deceit and sectarianism

Since, as explained above, collectivism, being the idea that groups in and of themselves can have terminal goals, is fundamentally false, promoting collectivism or acting on the basis of collectivist ideas is harmful. In particular, collectivism harms people by subordinating their genuine interests to the non-existent supposed interests of the collective as such, thus preventing people from achieving their goals as well as they might otherwise achieve them without the compensating advantages that make those sacrifices worthwhile where co-operation is genuinely optimum.

Being harmful, imposing collectivism on others is itself an act of selfishness which it is in everybody’s interests to co-operate to eradicate as effectively and permanently as possible wherever it might arise.

It is inherently implausible to imagine that all or even most instances of collectivist ideas are mistakes made in good faith arising at random, however. They are almost invariably directly linked to sectarian agendas that seek, harmfully, to promote the interests of an arbitrary subset of humanity over the interests of humanity as a whole. As such, they are almost universally a form of ethical deceit, intended dishonestly to advance the immediate interests of those who promote the ideas by deceiving people into believing that acting on basis of collectivist ideas is for the greater good, when the people promoting the ideas are fully aware that it is not and is likely to harm most of the people who do act on those ideas.

How to recognise collectivism

It is one thing to state what collectivism is in the abstract: it is another to recognise it in practice. Those who seek to deceive people into confusing collectivist ideas with genuine reasons to co-operate are able to succeed in their harmful behaviour only insofar as people cannot tell the difference between the two. Thus, it is in everyone’s ultimate interests to learn (and to encourage others to learn) what marks out collectivist ideas and claims from ideas and claims about co-operation that have a genuine basis in reason.

The starting point is that collectivist ideas cannot ultimately be justified by reference to how they benefit individuals. In most cases, they are in fact intended to benefit individuals (in the short-term, at least), but those individuals are the people who perpetrate the dishonesty and are usually a tiny fraction of the people to whom the ideas are intended to appeal, so this benefit is not usually presented as an ultimate justification for the claim, even if it might in fact be the ultimate motivation for it.

Because collectivist ideas are usually promoted in order to benefit a small group of people by concentrating power in their hands, collectivist claims are often marked by claims that, if accepted, will in fact serve to concentrate power. Thus, a claim that a large group of people is “represented” by those seeking power (whether overtly or covertly), in circumstances where not every member of that group has explicitly consented to being represented by those specific individuals, is a collectivist claim. Anyone who, for example, claims to represent the interests of the whole of “the ordinary people”, or a (perceived) social class, or all of the people living in a particular area is making a collectivist claim. The confusion between this concept of representation and democratic government systems in which people are elected to “represent” certain people (in reality, this is delegation, not representation – no politician can in good faith claim to represent the ideas of people who vehemently oppose that politician) is often used dishonestly to suppress scrutiny of these claims.

Another hallmark of collectivist ideas is a claim justified by reference to benefit to a group as such, without any explanation of (1) how it ultimately benefits humanity as a whole; or (2) the differences between individual members of that group and how the claim is justified in light of those differences. Any claim which demands co-operation or conformity and claims some group benefit from doing so but cannot give a coherent, from first principles explanation as to how it most benefits the greatest number individual people compared to competing claims is a collectivist claim.

Collectivism also entails deliberately suppressing the distinction between individual members of groups. Thus, a claim that a person who is a member of a particular group is, by reason of that membership alone (rather than by reason of that person actually having chosen to co-operate in those specific activities), responsible in some way for the actions of other members of that group is a collectivist claim. So, for example, claim that all German people are, by reason alone of being German, responsible for the horrors of the Nazi regime is a fundamentally collectivist claim. This sort of claim is often used purportedly to justify collective punishment – deliberately punishing a whole group of people for the wrongs of only some members of that group, thus wilfully imposing gratuitous harm, sometimes extreme gratuitous harm, on all of the non-wrongdoing members of that group.

Likewise, collectivism entails treating all members of a group as if they had attributes that in reality only some of them possess. For example, treating all people who live in an area in which crime is prevalent as if they were criminals even when there is no reason at all to believe that each individual person who lives in that area is in fact a criminal, is collectivism. In more extreme cases, collectivism can include ascribing to whole groups of people entirely fictitious characteristics, sometimes supported by pseudoscience, as was the case for colonial era racism, where large swathes of the earth’s population, based on the incidence of localised superficial characteristics, were deemed to be inherently inferior by those who wished for an excuse to ignore their interests when colonising the places where they lived for their own immediate gain.

Similarly, a claim that a group itself has a characteristic that only an individual can possess is an inherently collectivist claim. A claim, for example, that a group itself (as opposed to its individual members) has a belief, attitude or a feeling, or can be responsible for something is an inherently collectivist claim. “The British people believe X” is very different to “many people who live in Britain believe X”; the former is collectivist (unless the person making the claim has a genuine basis for believing that literally every last person in the UK has that exact belief); the latter is not.

By contrast, it is also useful to recognise when a claim is not collectivist in nature. A claim is not collectivist merely because it is a claim that a person ought to, or ought to be compelled to, make any given personal sacrifice for the greater good. Whether such a claim is true or not can be analysed by reference to individual benefit and harm as described above. Likewise, a claim that a person might benefit from close co-operation with others or even a degree of mutual interdependence is not inherently collectivist, and nor is the idea that self-reliance is inherently preferable to interdependence entailed by individualism; the truth or falsity of the extent to which it is beneficial to be self-reliant or mutually interdependent can be analysed entirely by reference to individual harms and benefits, and, depending on the circumstances, any degree of self-reliance or mutual interdependence can be fully compatible with individualism.

Empirical claims

It is sometimes said that individualist or collectivist beliefs entail certain empirical claims, for example, that people’s success or otherwise in life is mostly caused by their own choices or by circumstances beyond their control. As will be apparent from the above, there is no necessary connexion between the two. Neither individualism nor collectivism entail any particular claims about what actually causes specific social phenomena, and neither require any such claims to be true or false themselves.

Thus, individualism cannot be shown to be false by showing it to be false that people’s success in life does not principally depend on their own choices nor true by showing that it does, and the same applies to any other given claim about social causation or similar. This is an example of a false claim that one idea (individualism) entails another when in reality it does not that is often used deceitfully to manipulate people into rejecting a true understanding of the world and thereby harming themselves.


It is ultimately in everyone’s interests to have a true understanding of when and in what ways it is optimal to co-operate with other people. False ideas about what individualism and collectivism are and entail interfere with the achievement of that goal, and are often promulgated deliberately in order to harm.

That collectivism is not required for co-operation, that individualism neither entails nor justifies selfishness, that rejecting collectivism does not justify rejecting the necessity in many cases of making individual sacrifices for the greater good, that pursuing the greater good does not entail unthinkingly subordinating individual interests to the supposed interests of a group as such and that groups of people cannot be treated as if they were people in their own right are all things a greater appreciation of which would have the potential to bring immense benefit to humanity.


This article sets out some important general guidance for engaging in public debate on topics in which a significant number of people engage with the topics as sectarian extremists. By “extremist” here, I refer not so much to the nature of the beliefs espoused themselves, but rather to those who use what they know to be unethical or dishonest means of seeking to advance a political agenda[1]. The behaviours from which dishonesty can be inferred in political discourse I describe in another article. Those who espouse sectarian beliefs often behave in this way because, as I explain elsewhere, sectarian ideas are fundamentally unpersuasive to most people because, by their nature, they can appeal only to a subset of people.

Know your audience

Always aim for the right audience. The audience is not those who seek to advance a political agenda by deceit themselves: by definition, they do not have an honest belief in what they are claiming, so cannot be persuaded. The audience is people who want to understand the world as it really is but might be misled by the extremists into believing falsehoods.

The only aim in most situations of engaging directly with extremists is to show them up as dishonest to the real audience, not to persuade them – just as the aim of cross-examining a person suspected of guilt in court is not to extract a confession, but to make it obvious to the jury that the person is lying when he or she denies the crime. Where this is not a realistic outcome, do not engage directly with the extremists (except possibly to find weaknesses in their argument – see below).

Be unremittingly scrupulous

There is truly enormous social power in being untouchable by credible allegations of wrongdoing. It allows one to criticise others’ wrongdoing and call for serious consequences for that wrongdoing with total impunity.

Thus, in all aspects of all discourse, be scrupulous. Never be tempted to make or endorse a bad argument for what you believe is a true position. Subject arguments for propositions that you already believe to double the scrutiny that you apply to arguments for propositions that you initially believe to be unfounded. Do not unthinkingly adopt a position advanced by a person whom you believe to be an ally. Never do anything that amounts to dismissing an argument in spite of, rather than because of, its merits.

Check with the utmost rigour the internal consistency of your own position on everything at the highest level of abstraction[2]. Think carefully about whether any counter-arguments to beliefs that you have adopted have merit. Be prepared to change your view if you are shown to have made a mistake or if new evidence emerges.

Engage with nuance. Be prepared to state – if this be so – that a particular policy, practice or similar has good points and bad points, and be able to explain consistently with principle why the good points are good and why the bad points are bad. Do not refrain from expressing uncertainty about something about which you are genuinely uncertain.

In particular, be totally consistent on sectarianism: reject sectarian ideas because they are sectarian, not because they favour the “wrong” in-group. Reject all sectarian ideas consistently no matter who constitutes the in-group and out-group, and be explicit in so doing.

Take control of framing the discussion

Do not debate on the extremists’ terms. Those who do not engage in discussion in good faith will often seek to frame the issue in a misleading way. Do not adopt this framing when discussing the issue – instead, adopt your own framing that more accurately characterises the issues, and do this consistently.

Use words accurately (if you are on the side of reason, you will have no problem making your argument using the real definitions of words as found in dictionaries) and use a suite of relevant concepts (e.g. sectarianism) that you consider to be helpful to foster a genuine understanding of the issues.

Where referring to an extremist’s conceptualisation or terminology is unavoidable, explicitly distance yourself from accepting it by, for example, referring to it as “so-called” or similar. If there be good reason to contest the extremists’ conceptualisation, leave others in no doubt that it is contested and that there is an alternative way of understanding the issues.

Find the adversary’s weak point

One exception to the guidance not to engage directly with the extremists is to do so in order to discover the weakest point of their arguments. This is more likely to be helpful where the argument is one with which you are relatively unfamiliar.

Keep pressing the adversary civilly but with extreme analytic precision about the exact justification for each element of the argument that you do not agree with until the adversary responds with incoherency or abuse. The last point made immediately before the incoherency or abuse is usually the strongest point – i.e., the one that cannot be answered by reason.

You do not need to do this personally – this works equally well by looking at how others have interacted with these particular extremists in the past.

Focus relentlessly on this issue in future discussions of the topic and emphasise and expand on it to drive home the fundamental weaknesses in the adversary’s purported argument. Frame the whole discussion so as to maximally emphasise this weak point where this can be done without being misleading in any way.

Confound polarisation

Political extremists operate by attempting to give the impression that everyone who does not accept their claims is an extremist of an opposite kind – in other words, that those who do not accept a sectarian stance that favours one particular in-group are necessarily sectarians that favour a different in-group.

Confound this falsehood by explicitly criticising ideas of both (or all) sectarian groupings. For example, when criticising sectarianism generally, find an approximately equal number of examples of far-right as far-left sectarianism to criticise.

Those who consistently criticise only one pole of a sectarianised issue can easily be understood, even by those who are not themselves extremists, to be taking the side of the opposite pole, even if the criticisms themselves are moderate and valid. Such one-sided criticism can then be used by those of the opposite pole in support of their own extremist sectarian agenda even where this is not intended by the critic.

By contrast, anyone who explicitly criticises both poles from the same principled stance instantly confounds any attempt to portray the criticism as support for one of those poles.

Thus, even if it appears at any given time that more danger is posed by one or another pole or that there is more material to criticise from one pole or the other, it is always a mistake to ignore the other. In any event, taking a long-term view, all sectarianism is equally dangerous even if one particular in-group appears to be ascendant at present. Those who seek to take a principled stance against all sectarianism will be far more successful by putting beyond all doubt that this is what they are doing at every possible opportunity.

Solve the real problem

Sectarian extremists often hijack genuine and serious problems such as racism, poverty or crime to promote extremist agendas by claiming that the extremist measures advocated are the only solution to the problem, that the side effects (which are usually the real aim of the extremists) are worth it for the prize of solving the problem, and that no one who disagrees with their solution takes the problem seriously or even wants it to be solved at all.

Criticising the solution without offering an alternative, in cases where the problems are real, makes it hard to distinguish those who accept that the problem is real and needs solving from those who criticise the solutions as a means of trying to suppress any attempt to solve the problem because they do not really believe that it is a problem.

Confound this technique by being careful always to present in such cases a real and genuine solution to the problem. In cases where the proposed extremist solution is likely (or even intended) to be ineffective or make things worse in other ways for the people whom the purported solution is intended to help, as is common, make this explicit, and relate that extremist solution directly to the argument about why the real solution is better as concisely as possible.

Find a persuasive sound-bite

For each argument against an extremist idea, find the most succinct and clear way of summarising it in the most persuasive way. This should be done in a single sentence, e.g., “planning control impoverishes millions by artificially increasing rents and house prices,” or, “so-called ‘alternative medicine’ is a fraud which enriches its practitioners by deceiving patients”. This can take careful thought, but it is more than worth doing.

Always be prepared to argue in detail if the occasion arises, but if you can summarise your ideas succinctly, you can engage with people who would not have the motivation to read or listen to lengthy and detailed arguments.

Starting with the most succinct presentation of your argument also puts the onus on the opponent to make more detailed arguments in response, the flaws in which can then be exposed. Anyone who has the motivation to read or listen to the opponent’s detailed criticisms is likely to have equal motivation to read or listen to equally detailed rebuttals.


To the casual observer of any given public debate, it can be difficult to discern who is engaging in the issues with good faith and who is not and who has an argument that has some basis in reason and who does not. This is often the result intended by those not engaging in good faith, who know that, if it were easy to distinguish, nobody would take their false and deliberately harmful ideas seriously.

The techniques discussed here will, if applied consistently, confound abusive behaviours intended to cause people to accept ideas by deceit, manipulation or intimidation rather than persuasion, and circumvent dishonest attempts to confound real scrutiny. Those who engage in abusive conduct are not invincible: the fact that they have to behave abusively in order to have any chance of promulgating their ideas itself reveals a fundamental weakness in those ideas. Anyone who lies does so because he or she is vulnerable to the truth. Exploit those weaknesses and vulnerabilities relentlessly and consistently and the truth can prevail.

  1. The terrorist who uses violence to advance a political agenda is a paradigm example, but the principle of an extremist as a person who seeks to achieve political change through discreditable means encompasses also those who use dishonesty to achieve political ends.
  2. I.e., at the most abstract level possible, where it applies to the greatest number of different things. For example, if you are arguing for or against, e.g., free trade in goods, check that the reason that you believe in what you are claiming is fully consistent with the reasons that you believe in whatever views that you hold about free trade in capital and labour. Further, check that that reason is consistent with all of your other beliefs and all of the reasons that you hold those beliefs and the reasons that you consider those reasons to count as reasons. Check that it is fully coherent logically and is fully consistent with all facts about anything that you know to be true. If you find a conflict anywhere, it means that you are definitely wrong about at least some of your beliefs and need to consider very carefully what is true.

James Petts is a barrister in London who believes in the pre-eminent importance of reason in all aspects of life.

Reason and ethics

If (and insofar as) ethics is not based entirely on reason, there is no general[1] reason to be ethical. So much is a truism. The reason not to kill somebody out of anger has nothing to do with the fact that people have devised a concept of ethics and decided that killing somebody out of anger should be categorised as unethical according to that concept: it is that a world in which people are free to kill people out of anger is a much worse and more dangerous world than one in which such conduct is not practised and is prohibited. This is true not only for those who would be unlikely to kill out of anger themselves, but also for people who might be inclined to kill others out of anger.

The concept of ethics and the categorisation of anger killing as unethical is a description of the reason not to engage in that behaviour (and to punish severely instances of it in others) that exists quite independently of the intellectual work of categorising it, just as trees existed before anybody came up with the concept of a tree.

By definition, having a reason to make a particular choice means that that choice will tend to serve the ultimate goal of the agent making that choice. In the case of people, that ultimate goal is the state of having pleasant experiences[2]. A statement that a person ought to do something is a statement that a person has a sufficient reason to do that thing. Ethical statements are ultimately statements about what people ought to do, and therefore what people have reason to do. Thus, insofar as an ethical statement does not in fact disclose an already existing sufficient reason for a person to behave as directed by that statement, it is a falsehood and ought to be rejected by any person at whom it is directed.

Ethics and deceit

Human social interaction is complex. Whilst the truth of some ethical statements is quite straightforward to establish (e.g., it is unethical to kill another out of anger; it is not unethical not to bake me a cake every time that I ask for one), the truth of others is much more complex, and in many cases it is not at all obvious what the right thing to do is (what is the right level of personal taxation? To which, if any, charities should people give money? What sort of electoral system ought to be used for choosing governments?).

Dealing with complexity is challenging. History suggests that humans have a tendency to be overconfident in their beliefs and those of others in complex domains even when there is no basis at all for those beliefs. The historical practice of medicine is an example: humourism – the notion that the human body is regulated and constituted principally by the four humours, being blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm, the imbalance of which is the cause of all disease – was widely—and largely uncritically—accepted by medical practitioners without any empirical basis from the time of the ancient Greeks to the mid 19th century. Only in the 20th century did it become commonplace to test medical theories using controlled experiments and rigorous statistical analysis; before that time, it was common to rely on uncontrolled case studies or entirely untested theories. As a result, medical treatment was often positively harmful: in the mid-19th century, for example, far more women who were admitted to hospital for childbirth died of infectious disease than those who gave birth at home.

Reason and evidence based challenges to harmful established ideas often meet with abusive behaviour: the ideas of Ignaz Semmelweis, who first noticed that physicians themselves tended to spread puerperal fever to their patients and advocated hand-washing (after tests that he conducted showed that this reduced infection fatalities by 90%) were dismissed out of hand; he was removed from his post[3], and later suffered a breakdown leading to his eventual confinement to an asylum. In modern times, one might describe Semmelweis as being “cancelled”.

In medicine, there is usually no clear and direct benefit to anyone for believing in false theories; there is no doubt some cost of change in practices and learning which might affect the perceived expertise of established physicians (which may well have been the cause at least in part of the rejection of Semmelweis’s work), and, in modern times, so-called “alternative medicine” is a fraud which relies on dishonestly rejecting scientific scrutiny into its efficacy in order to enrich its practitioners at the expense of its patients, but, for the most part, nearly everybody benefits directly and relatively immediately from true advances in medicine: most people, after all, suffer ill health sometime in their lives, and, overall, physicians can make at least as much, if not more, money treating patients effectively than ineffectively (especially if they can be kept alive for longer). It is thus perhaps not surprising that the balance of incentives has favoured evidence based medicine in the long-term, which has brought immeasurable benefits to all humanity in the last century and a half.

Ethics has not been so fortunate. Like medicine, ethics is highly complex; but, unlike medicine, ethics deals in large part with conflict between people, so there is usually a stronger and more immediate incentive for people to deceive others about what counts as ethical. It is thus not surprising that the practice of ethics (and especially politics) still has a long way to go to catch up with the empirical and theoretical rigour now routine in the practice of medicine.

It is not difficult to understand the incentives that operate on people to suppress reasoned scrutiny of ethical claims. If I make a claim that it is unethical not to bake me a cake whenever I ask for one, it is in my (immediate) interests that other people not have the cognitive tools to subject that claim to scrutiny and reject it for lacking any basis. It would be in my (short-term) interests to perpetuate a whole theory of ethics which is superficially attractive to others, perhaps containing many parts that are true (e.g. the observation that people have an ethical duty to be altruistic to others at least sometimes), with the aim of deceiving people into believing that they must bake me a cake whenever I request it so as to increase my access to cake, and simultaneously to suppress the idea that ethical theories should be subject to any sort of scrutiny at all.

Whilst the example of a single person promulgating an entire ethical theory in order to obtain cake is purposely fanciful, that people tend to promote any superficially attractive ethical idea in order to advance their short-term interests at the expense of others is not; indeed, it is commonplace. Anyone who does this will tend to reject rigorous analytic scrutiny of ethics generally for the same reason that practitioners of “alternative medicine” reject scientific testing of their claims: because they know that their claims are false and cannot withstand scrutiny. Conversely, anyone who genuinely (even if mistakenly) believes her or his ethical claims to be true will welcome rigorous testing of the claims, as such a person would (of necessity) believe that those claims would pass any such test and that the passing of such a test would itself tend to vindicate the claims and thus make more people believe them. Likewise, a person acting in good faith would only want to believe the claim insofar as it is true, so would want to find out if it were in fact false. Similarly, genuine scientists who develop medical advances allow their theories and products to be tested scientifically and accept that sometimes those ideas will be falsified and the products shown to be ineffective by that process.

Ethical deceit is as harmful as it is common. It is always in a person’s interests to know the truth; the more complete and accurate one’s information of the world is, the better one can predict the consequences of one’s decisions. A person engaging in ethical deceit of another is doing something purposely in order to harm that other; if I insist that somebody else bake me a cake whenever I ask her or him to do so, and that person believes that doing so is a moral imperative and does so, that person will have spent resources on baking for somebody else which he or she could have spent on her or himself, and thus be harmed by the loss of those resources. Ethical deceit – like any form of deceit – is an inherently hostile act. Anybody engaging in ethical deceit should be considered a threat and treated accordingly.

Ethical deceit, is, of course, itself unethical. Although an individual act of deceit might benefit the deceiver, overall, for most people, including most people who would receive some immediate benefit from an act of ethical deceit, the world would be a better place if ethical deceit were never practised (and were severely punished whenever anyone attempted to practise it) than if it were practised widely. This may not be true for those who are in positions of immense concentrated power, which is one reason that it is very important to ensure that nobody ever be allowed to be in a position of immense concentrated power.

The practice of ethical deceit may properly be called pseudoethics in precisely the same way and for precisely the same reasons as deceptive purportedly scientific practice is called pseudoscience. Just as pseudoscience seeks to deceive people into believing that it is genuinely science for the personal benefit of those who promote it, so too does pseudoethics deceive people into believing that its claims are genuinely ethical for the personal benefit of its promoters.

Deceit and argument

Generally speaking, an argument is a series of connected statements that, if true, establish a proposition. A person claiming to argue that something is true is, by necessary implication, claiming that there is a sufficient reason to believe it to be true, and that is no less true of ethical statements than any other sort of statement.

If I were to say to somebody, “you should bake me a cake because my Theory of Cake says that anyone should bake me a cake when I ask them to do so and I am asking you to do so now”, I would be claiming that the Theory of Cake describes a sufficient reason that already exists for that person to bake me a cake on request. If that were not the case, the statement would be false. If, in making that statement, I knew that there is no reason to believe the Theory of Cake to be true, that statement would have been made dishonestly, and this amounts to a deliberate deceit. Further, if a person attempts to make another believe something to be true, or act as if it were true, other than by rational persuasion, then, necessarily, the person is engaging in deceit, emotional manipulation or intimidation. There is no other logical possibility as to how, but by reason, a person can cause another to believe something. Deceit, emotional manipulation or intimidation are all inherently abusive and threatening towards those at whom they are directed.

It is in every person’s interests to be able to detect whenever another person is engaging in dishonest forms of argumentation as, by doing so, people will be able to resist being deceived into believing or acting on falsehoods and thereby coming to harm. The more people who can successfully detect dishonest argumentation, the less that dishonest argumentation will be able to be effective, and the less likely that it would be that any person would come to harm as a result of third parties acting on the basis of pseudoethical falsehood.

Forms of dishonest argument – generally

All forms of dishonest argument have one essential thing in common: they aim to cause a person to accept or reject an idea or claim in spite of its merits, rather than because of them. Below, I list a number of specific common forms of dishonest argumentation, but there are likely to be many others not described here and perhaps some that have yet to be invented; but that they are dishonest forms of argumentation can in every case be discerned by analysing whether they demand that the idea or claim in question be rejected or accepted despite, rather than because of, the reason to believe it to be true or false.

There are two good heuristics[4] for telling whether a form of argument is likely to be dishonest: (1) the self-application test; and (2) the heliocentricity test. It does not necessarily follow that a form of argument failing these tests will have been made dishonestly, but dishonesty is the usual reason for an argument failing these tests and it should at the very least give rise to great suspicion of the motives of the person making the argument, and in any event, one should not take any such argument seriously.

Many forms of arguments are only susceptible to one or other of these tests, depending on the nature of the argument in question.

The self-application test

This test applies principally to very abstract arguments, such as arguments about what it means for something to be true or how it is possible to know anything – what philosophers call epistemic arguments.

The test is very simple to apply: does the argument make any sense when applied to itself? For example, if I were to argue, “there is no such thing as truth”, then applying the self-application test, one would ask, “is it true that there is no such thing as truth?”, which already reveals the contradiction. If there is no such thing as truth, then the statement “there is no such thing as truth” could not be true, and there would thus be no reason to accept it or act on it. In other words, in making a statement about anything which, by necessary implication, the maker of the statement is inviting others to accept and act on, the person who is claiming that there is no such thing as truth is implicitly contradicting the content of the statement (and the idea of the possibility of any meaningful communication of anything) itself.

By contrast, the opposite statement does not have this problem. “There is such a thing as truth”, when applied to itself, entails no contradiction and is perfectly understandable.

The heliocentricity test

Heliocentricity is the understanding that the earth orbits the sun. It is here used as an example of an uncontroversially, notoriously and demonstrably true but not intuitively obvious fact about the world. Any other fact that has these properties will equally suffice for these purposes.

This test applies principally to arguments about contingent facts about the world – what philosophers call empirical arguments.

The heliocentricity test involves taking the purported form of argumentation and applying it to the idea that the earth orbits the sun (or the claim that the earth does not orbit the sun, as appropriate in the context). Does that form of argument applied to the available evidence affirm the claim that the earth does orbit the sun and reject the claim that it does not? If the form of argumentation in question would just as readily produce the answer that the earth does not orbit the sun as that it does, it is not a trustworthy form of argumentation and is probably dishonest.

For example, if I were to argue, “nothing is true that is not obvious in plain view”, that argument would not pass the heliocentricity test, since it is not obvious that the earth orbits the sun: one has to deduce it from careful observations and measurements. In other words, if a form of (purported) reasoning used in argument fails the heliocentricity test, applying it to the question of whether the Earth orbits the sun, it would fail to distinguish the truth of the matter (viz. that the Earth does orbit the sun) from a falsehood pertaining to the subject (e.g. that the sun orbits the Earth or that neither sun nor Earth exist), being equally able to be used to support an argument as to falsehood as an argument as to truth, and therefore is of no value in distinguishing truth from falsehood.

Specific forms of dishonest argument

There are now described various forms of dishonest argumentation frequently used by practitioners of pseudoethics to deceive people into harming themselves and others for the personal enrichment of those making the arguments.

Reason denialism

Reason denialism consists in the denial of reason, its universality or its applicability to the argument in question. Reason is, by definition, universal: anything that a person describes that is not universal in the sense of being applicable to everything is simply not reason.

As set out above, an argument, by its very nature, is a claim that there is a reason to do or believe something. In making an argument, a person is, by necessary implication, invoking reason. If the argument is, in fact, devoid of reason, it is a bad argument, and one that should never be made nor accepted. For this reason, reason denialism fails both the self-application and the heliocentricity tests: if there is no such thing as reason, there is no reason to accept any argument, including the one being advanced by the pseudoethicist nor that the earth orbits the sun.

Reason denialism is almost always used defensively: very few people begin an argument by making it clear that it has no basis in reason, for such an argument would be inherently unpersuasive. Instead, reason denialism is almost invariably only invoked when some unanswerable flaw in the reasoning in the argument has been discovered. That is itself telling as to the dishonest mindset of those who engage in this behaviour. It is an attempt to stifle scrutiny of the idea, carried out precisely because the person putting forward the idea knows full well that it is incapable of withstanding scrutiny.

Reason denialism is dishonest in exactly the same way that a shopkeeper who denies the existence of arithmetic after being caught short changing customers is being dishonest. A good way of responding to anyone who engages in reason denialism in an argument is to ask whether the person accepts that nobody rational would ever accept the argument being presented. Any answer other than in the affirmative is an answer explicitly claiming there to be reason to accept the argument, and thus contradicts the reason denialism. Any answer in the affirmative is a frank admission that there is no argument at all.

A variant of reason denialism that deserves particular mention because of its subtlety is criticism of an argument for being too abstract. It fails the self-application test, since that an argument should not be too abstract is itself an argument at almost the highest possible level of abstraction. It is in reality almost always intended to stifle scrutiny of the consistency of the argument presented with other things that the person making the argument believes, or has to accept, to be true, since abstraction is usually the most effective way of checking such consistency. A person might, for example, claim that a person’s stated reason for believing that immigration should be severely restricted contradicts that person’s stated reason for believing that there should (otherwise) be free trade, pointing out that there is no fundamental difference between the freedom of trade in goods, capital and labour. A reason denialist might respond by asserting that such an argument is “too abstract” because the denialist knows that he or she is incapable of justifying all of her or his stated views in a way that are consistent with one another and therefore that her or his position is incapable of withstanding scrutiny.

Another variant of reason denialism is to claim that, because something is an opinion, it is incapable of being true or false. This might be used either by the person claiming to have the opinion in order to suppress scrutiny of the truth of the claim (on which the person almost inevitably encourages others to act), or by a person claiming that somebody else’s claim is merely an opinion and for that (purported) reason alone should not be taken seriously. This is incoherent: an opinion is no more or less than an attitude towards a claim; the claim to which it is an attitude can be true or false in the same sense that any meaningful statement, by definition, can be true or false. Those who use this technique often take advantage of the confusion between personal preference and opinions about things that are, by their very nature, either true for everyone or false for everyone; but even personal preferences are simply a fact: that one person likes Victoria sponge and another does not means that, as a matter of universal truth, different people have different degrees of liking or disliking for Victoria sponge. In reality, the concept of opinion adds nothing to any genuine attempt to understand what is and is not true about the world and what should and should not be done.

Evidence denialism

Evidence denialism consists in denying that an empirical statement (i.e. a statement about a contingent fact in the world, e.g., “it rained yesterday” rather than a statement that is true irrespective of the particular state of the world, e.g. that 1 + 1 = 2) requires evidence for there to be sufficient reason to believe it to be true.

Evidence is, by its very nature, information constituting a reason to believe the empirical claim for which it is evidence to be true. A person who makes a statement about a contingent fact in the world does so in the hope that it will be believed and acted upon. Those who make such a statement knowing that there is no evidence for it make the statement dishonestly, knowing that there is in truth no reason to believe it to be true, in just the same way as a person who says, “your house is infested with mice” is dishonest if he or she makes that statement knowing nothing about the house in question. Denying the need for evidence for a claim amounts to a frank admission of dishonesty just as if, in the previous example, the person had said, “I do not need to have any information about whether your house is infested with mice to state with confidence that your house is infested with mice”. Making an empirical statement dishonestly is simply lying, which is an inherently hostile act.

Similarly, but more subtly, those who claim that weak evidence is a reason for a strong belief are also acting dishonestly. Whilst truth is binary (something cannot be part way between being true or false), certainty is not, and exists in degrees. If, on the basis only of a weather forecast predicting a 10% chance of rain tomorrow, a person says, “it is going to rain tomorrow” without any further qualification, that person is being dishonest.

This fails the heliocentricity test, as, without careful scrutiny of the evidence, one cannot meaningfully distinguish the claim that the earth orbits the sun from the claim that the sun orbits the earth or that there are no orbiting planets or stars at all.

Redefining words

It is not uncommon for people to make an argument by using a statement containing a word which the person making the argument has (purportedly) redefined to mean something other than its established definition. Almost inevitably, the intention is (purportedly) to justify the argument by reference to the word as specially redefined, but for the argument to be understood to mean what it would mean by the word in its established definition, and acted on accordingly. For this reason, the technique is often used with words which have particular emotional or social significance, such as “rape”, for example, by claiming that pornography amounts to “rape” as redefined.

The technique is deceptive in nature: it is intended to suppress the expression or even the comprehension of the distinction between the word in its established meaning and the word in its modified sense in order to stifle criticism of treating both categories as alike. It is thus intended to deceive people into accepting claims in spite of their merits rather than to persuade people into accepting claims because of their merits and is therefore inherently abusive. On any possible view, it cannot pass the heliocentricity test as any arbitrary redefinition of “sun” “earth” or “orbit” might easily make the statement “the earth orbits the sun” false according to the words as thus redefined.

In reality, most established languages have, and the English language certainly has, more than enough words to describe anything that needs to be described without altering the meaning of any of them from that already established. A descriptive phrase consisting of several words can be used where a single word does not exist to describe a particular concept. There is thus no honest reason to make an argument using a special and non-standard definition of any word, and anyone who does so is almost certainly doing it abusively, and doubly so where, as is often the case, the person makes a statement containing a word purportedly redefined without explaining that any special definition is being used at all.[5]

Invoking personal qualities

Unless a statement is inherently about the person making it, the nature of a person making a statement is logically incapable of being relevant to the truth of the statement made. Any attempt to invoke the personal characteristics in an argument about the truth of such a statement is therefore, by its very nature, a demand that a person accept or reject the truth of a statement for a reason inherently unrelated to whether it is in fact true, and is thus dishonest.

It is often used where there is a claim that the person making the statement has some sort of bias in favour of believing it to be true, but, except in cases where the person making the statement is claiming to know that it is true by reason of some unique personal knowledge, which is exceedingly unlikely to be sufficiently empirically rigorous or general for a high confidence conclusion about a general statement about ethics in any event, a motivation for bias is logically incapable of being relevant to whether the statement is true and is thus logically incapable of amounting to a valid reason to reject it.

Either the person making the statement is able to put forward a sufficient reasoned argument and sufficiently robust empirical data to demonstrate that the statement is true or he or she is not. If there be sufficient reason and independently verifiable data to accept the statement as true, then there is sufficient reason for anyone to believe it to be true notwithstanding that the person making the statement has some motive for bias. Likewise, if there be insufficient reason and independently verifiable data to accept a statement as being true, then there is insufficient reason to accept it notwithstanding that the person making the statement has no motive for bias.

There are many instances in which people who have an incentive to be biased nonetheless happen to be correct, and many instances in which they are not. Identifying the bias is incapable by itself of differentiating the two types of cases. Just as in the case of every criminal trial, where the defendant on trial has a strong incentive to claim that he or she is not guilty whether or not that is the case, identifying the bias tells one nothing about whether the underlying claim is true, which can only reliably be deduced by rigorous analysis of the evidence and argument, just as is the case where there is no bias.

Referring to irrelevant personal qualities plainly fails the heliocentricity test, as the characteristics of the person making a statement have no possible relevance to the relationship between astronomical bodies.

Claiming to take offence

Responding to an argument or scrutiny of an argument by claiming to take offence at it, rather than by an analytic response to the substance of the argument or a true answer (rather than mere response) to a relevant question is a common and dishonest means of trying to stifle reasoned scrutiny of a claim.

That a person takes offence at an argument or question is determined entirely by a person’s (actual or claimed) emotional reaction to that argument or question, and has no bearing on the validity of the argument or relevance of the question. It is thus, by its very nature, a means of attempting to dismiss an argument or question in spite of its merits rather than because of them. A person might well deliberately choose to take offence at any idea or question that contradicts or challenges that person’s ideas precisely because it does so, and people frequently in fact behave in this way specifically in order to stifle scrutiny of the claims that they make, which, as discussed above, is inherently abusive behaviour.

Such a reaction plainly fails the heliocentricity test. If taking offence were sufficient grounds to reject the conclusion of an argument, then that the earth orbits the sun could be judged to be false if a person was so inclined as to take, or claim to take, offence at the notion of a heliocentric solar system. This, of course, was the case: in times gone past affirming heliocentricity was, according to the Catholic church, so offensive as to be heretical and was thus rejected.

This dishonest behaviour should not be confused with justified criticism of personally hostile conduct, which itself, as set out below, is a form of abusive behaviour intended dishonestly to stifle scrutiny of opposing ideas by those who well know that their claims are incapable of withstanding that scrutiny because they are false. Indeed, those who dishonestly use this technique purposely rely on this confusion in order to stifle scrutiny of their dishonest behaviour in seeking to stifle scrutiny of the argument itself.

The only intelligible way to distinguish claims to take offence with the intention of stifling discussion and a response to abusive personal hostility is by scrutiny of the behaviour rather than the reaction or feelings of the person affected by the behaviour. The question is always whether the behaviour in question is intended to be personally hostile or whether it is an honest attempt at making a reasoned argument about the substance of the matter under discussion.

Personal abuse

It should go without saying that a person who engages in personally abusive behaviour of any kind in the course of argumentation does so with the intent of imposing her or his will upon others by intimidation rather than by persuasion. There is no other conceivable motivation for such behaviour. Plainly, such abuse fails the heliocentricity test as it can equally be levelled in response to any argument.

In every case, it amounts to a frank admission that the person engaging in such conduct is utterly incapable of justifying the claim that he or she is making, and is making the claim with no belief in its truth in order to harm others for personal gain, just as a person who commits armed robbery is by necessary implication admitting that he or she has no lawful entitlement to the money or other property demanded.

Vague emotive language

Vague emotive language is usually an attempt to manipulate people into believing a falsehood to be true rather than persuading people by reason. The language is emotive because that is what is needed in order to manipulate those not alive to the dishonest nature of the technique; and it is vague because more precise statements would more obviously fail to withstand scrutiny and thus fail to manipulate.

A paradigm example of this behaviour is referring to something as “obscene” as a purported reason for taking some or other action against it. The word “obscene” has no meaning other than the expression of emotive disgust at whatever it is referring to, and thus singularly combines both features of this abusive behaviour. Demanding that action be taken because something “is obscene” amounts to demanding that action be taken because of the personal emotional state of the person making the demand, rather than because taking that action would in fact lead to the optimum result overall, even though claiming that something is a reason for taking action inherently amounts to claiming that doing so would lead to the optimum overall result.

There are also subtler uses of this abusive behaviour, a common example of which is referring to a person, set of people or organisation as “obsessed” with something merely because that person or those people believe it to be important.

It fails the heliocentricity test for exactly the same reason as claiming to take offence fails that test: the emotional state of the person making a claim or to whom a claim is communicated simply has no bearing on the truth of the claim being made (unless the claim itself is inherently about that specific person’s emotional state, but that is not possible if the claim is a general ethical statement).

General evasion

General evasion consists in various miscellaneous behaviours intended to distract a person subjecting a person’s claims to scrutiny, or a person witnessing another subject a person’s claims to scrutiny, from reaching the (true) conclusion that the person making those claims knows that he or she has no sufficient reason to believe them to be true.

It is not possible to enumerate all of the behaviours that might fall within this general technique, but they might include, for example, repeatedly changing the subject when pressed, refusing to answer questions, responding to a question with the identical question that was asked without answering the original question, responding to a question with a statement which does not amount to a genuine attempt to answer the question (a common technique employed by politicians[6]), responding to a request for evidence with a request for evidence for a wholly uncontroversial and unrelated claim rather than actually providing the evidence sought (e.g., in a discussion about whether patents are a good thing, responding to a request for evidence that patents do more good than harm by asking for evidence that a prohibition on murder does more good than harm, without providing any evidence about patents), or suggesting that the matter be discussed at a later time (but then never continuing the discussion).

All of these behaviours are evidence that the person engaging in them has made a claim which he or she knows cannot withstand scrutiny, and wishes to conceal that fact from others so that he or she can continue attempting to cause others to continue to believe those claims to be true and act accordingly. They plainly fail the heliocentricity test, since these behaviours can equally be engaged in no matter what the substance of the argument to which they are a response.

This is distinct from the behaviour of a person acting in good faith who, when faced with a novel argument, is unsure whether to accept it and needs more time to consider the matter thoroughly in order to reach a concluded view. In such circumstances, the person would not be dishonest for not responding substantively to the argument, but such a person would make it clear that he or she is genuinely uncertain about whether the novel argument is valid or whether the premises offered in favour of the conclusion are true and not continue to insist that her or his original claim be accepted.


The field of ethics is neither magical nor mysterious; it is as susceptible to scientific study as anything else that is real, and subjecting it to such study would benefit humanity at least as much as the scientific study of medicine has benefited humanity since medicine became scientific in its practice. Its inherent complexity is not a reason to reject analytic and empirical rigour in its study any more than the inherent complexity of the human body is capable of amounting to a reason to reject analytic and empirical rigour in the study of medicine: indeed, quite the converse, as the more complex that something is, the more difficult that it is to understand it accurately without a rigorous approach.

Those who seek to obfuscate rigorous analytical scrutiny of ethics and ethical claims almost certainly do so dishonestly, in order to deceive, manipulate and/or intimidate people into believing false things about ethics, acting on which beliefs will harm those who have those beliefs to the (short term) benefit of those who promulgate them. The promulgation of such pseudoethics is an inherently hostile behaviour; those who engage in it are a threat and should be treated accordingly, in just the same way as anyone else who lies for personal gain is a threat to the well-being of those to whom they lie or those who might be affected adversely by others who act as if the lie were true. Those with the greatest incentive to practise pseudoethics are those who have, or who seek and believe that they have a realistic chance of obtaining, a great amount of power over others and can thus influence many people to believe the pseudoethical falsehoods for their own gain, and suppress dissent and scrutiny. Thus, those who employ pseudoethics purportedly for the benefit of those who are disempowered are almost certainly lying about their motivations: the disempowered are most harmed by further concentrations of power, and most benefited by the dissipation of power as would result from widespread rejection of pseudoethics in favour of a robustly rigorous approach. Intellectual rigour tends to dissipate power just as suppression of that rigour tends to concentrate it.

It is in everyone’s interests to have the cognitive tools to be able to distinguish between genuine and false ethical claims so as not to be harmed by the promulgation of pseudoethics, nor by the equally harmful idea that ethics does not exist at all and that one should never have regard for the welfare of others when making decisions. Those who wilfully seek to obstruct rigorous analytic and empirical scrutiny of ethics are doubly malevolent: not only are they deliberately seeking to cause immediate harm to others for immediate personal gain, they are also deliberately obstructing the ultimate establishment of an ethical equilibrium which would almost certainly bring as much benefit to humanity as the advances in medicine since the mid-19th century have done.

James Petts is a barrister in London who believes in the pre-eminent importance of reason in all aspects of life.

  1. It is possible that, in specific cases, a person might have a reason to act in accordance with a conception of ethics not based on reason if this will affect others’ behaviour (e.g., to avoid being subject to some punishment), but, in such cases, the categorisation as ethical or unethical is not a sufficient reason to act in accordance with that conception; the desirability of avoiding punishment or similar is the true reason.
  2. Irrespective of the other qualities of those experiences; some people, after all, find pain pleasurable, at least in some circumstances.
  3. Strictly, his term was not renewed
  4. I.e., rules of thumb
  5. For more on the dishonest, propagandist uses of language, as well as tips on clear writing, George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ remains the touchstone.
  6. A famous example is an occasion in May 1997 when BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman interviewed Michael Howard, then the U. K. Home Secretary, and asked 12 separate times whether Mr. Howard “threatened to overrule” a person, to which Mr. Howard repeatedly responded that he had not overruled the person in question, deliberately ignoring the reference in the questions to having threatened to do so.